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Film Studies

This guide is an introduction to the resources for Film Studies at Dartmouth. If you are interested in Television, see the separate research guide for Television.

A short definition for auteur theory

AUTHORSHIP (AUTEUR THEORY, la politique des auteurs)

An approach to film analysis and criticism that focuses on the ways in which the personal influence, individual sensibility, and artistic vision of a film’s director might be identified in their work (see also direction). Before the 1950s, serious film criticism tended to focus on questions of ontology and aesthetics (see medium specificity), with little attention to the craft of filmmaking. With a few notable exceptions—D.W. Griffith, G.W. Pabst, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Roberto Rossellini—few directors were known by name. From the late 1940s, however, a group of cineastes influenced by the writing of André Astruc and André Bazin began looking at cinema through the literary prism of authorship. The film studies journal Cahiers du cinéma, founded in 1951, provided a forum for articulating what became known as the politique des auteurs, a phrase coined by François Truffaut in a 1954 article, ‘A certain tendency of the French cinema’, and roughly translatable as the auteur policy, but commonly rendered in English as the auteur theory. This approach celebrated the film director as an auteur—an artist whose personality or personal creative vision could be read, thematically and stylistically, across their body of work. The identification of a particular film style that could be associated with a director and traced from film to film was considered the ultimate authorial signature. The auteur policy drew a distinction between workmanlike directors—metteurs en scène—who produced well-crafted films and true auteurs who were able to create art: Michael Curtiz was placed in the first category, for example, and Nicholas Ray in the second. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Cinémathèque Française offered the Cahiers critics the opportunity to view a wide range of films, including many by US directors (Hollywood films had been restricted in France during the German occupation in World War II, and arrived after the war in a glut) (see film studies journal; France, film in). These exceptional viewing conditions enabled a director’s films to be viewed side-by-side in a manner impossible for film critics elsewhere. Particular praise was reserved for US directors who, despite conditions of production that militated against it, produced distinctive and personal works: hence the high valuation of Alfred Hitchcock. This celebration of artistry at the heart of the studio system stood in sharp contrast to the critical and pessimistic view of Hollywood proposed by the Frankfurt School (see critical theory). Authorship approaches have proved influential and durable: the auteur theory directly influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague; and indeed a number of them actually promulgated the movement in the pages of Cahiers. In Britain, Lindsay Anderson, writing in the journal Sequence, translated and discussed some of these writings, and this influenced both the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave. In 1962, the film critic Andrew Sarris popularized the idea of film authorship in the US: he created a nine-part schema to rank a large number of directors, thus beginning a formative debate about the films that might constitute a canon of great work. The impact of the auteur theory can hardly be overestimated. The initial debate and its wide influence shaped film criticism, film culture, and the development of film studies and film theory in a range of cultural contexts.   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Authorship. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 28 Aug. 2023

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