Movies and Film: Theories of Directing

Theories of Directing

This section covers various theories of directing.

Auteur Theory

Filmophile's Lexicon

Auteur: French term. With the accent on the second syllable, this word is pronounced oh-TUR. This term is generally synonymous with "great director."

Short Cuts

1950s French film critics' favorite examples of auteurs were John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock.

Until 20 or so years ago, the United States had rather little intellectual regard for its own popular culture. As a result, the French in the 1940s and 1950s were the first to notice that there were some pretty terrific American movies out there, directed by people who were supposed to be little more than studio hacks, just cranking out popular and inferior products. Not Siskel and Ebert terrific ("Sparky the wonder dog says two paws up"), but thematically serious works of art deserving the same consideration as Hamlet, War and Peace, the Mona Lisa, and the Sistine Chapel. These themes tend to come up consistently over a large body of work by the same director.

For example, though they are "merely" slapstick comedies, Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" films tend to be about the disparity between rich and poor, and about the harsh repression exercised by American society on its less fortunate members.

In a way, these French critics are responsible for the fact that film is taught at American universities, and is now a discipline in which students can major. (You can thank them later.) Their largest point was that even a very repressive and oppressive (mostly Hollywood) studio assembly-line production system that insisted on movies conforming to genre, budget, audience expectations, profit considerations, and studio style, could not prevent really great directors from expressing a complex "personal vision" that was also often political.

So, though you will often hear auteur used to mean any flavor-of-the-month director, the term does not simply mean someone who makes films that make money. It specifically refers to directors working in a regularized production system who yet manage some thematic seriousness. Luis Buuel is a truly great director. But he remains fairly independent, so he is not truly an auteur.

Though auteurism is the notion most discussed in relation to directors, other ideas about how directors function include the following:

  • Filmmaker as traditional artist.
  • Filmmaker as social conduit.

Filmmaker as Traditional Artist

Like an author or artist, the director is completely responsible for the meaning of a movie. She is the individual who is in the end far outside of anyone else's sphere of influence. She is like the artist or writer in a garret, creating in solitude. The camera, scenery, and even actors are mere tools. Alfred Hitchcock is a good example of this vision, because to him actors were simply cattle or furniture, their positions and movements simply subordinate parts of the scene as a whole. Because the emphasis is on the individual, this kind of theory tends toward the psychological. Again, Hitchcock is a terrific example. Psycho doesn't seem so unusual after the dozens of slasher films released in the past 25 years, but how many people, before 1960, thought about psycho killers?

Filmmaker as Social Conduit

The director is a conduit for social influences. Any film the director makes can't help but say something about the society in which the director lives, no matter what spin he puts on the movie. Genre films can be metaphors or allegories for larger social issues. John Ford films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man (1952) tend to promote traditional and conservative American values like competition, the superiority of the individual, and the inevitability of social Darwinism.

Related to this notion is the idea that the director is a conduit for his or her own unconscious, which reflects the underside of society: its fears, ambivalences, and anxieties. Ideas burble up through our internal censors to make themselves felt on screen. Frank Capra films like It's a Wonderful Life (1946) both affirm American family values and display a real anxiety at the fragility of the society in which those values occur. (The absence of one person—George Bailey—spells doom for that society.)

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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