Writing for Film Quarterly in 1963, Pauline Kael rips apart Sarris’s premises of auteur theory in her essay Circles and Squares: the Joys and Sarris.
On the subject of a director needing to be competent, Kael argues that it’s pointless distinction to make. If a film is works, who cares if the director meets some standard of proficiency. How are we really to judge?
On the second premise of an auteur’s signature style being unmistakable in his work, Kael asks the question, “Why?” - why is a consistent signature style across films important at all? Why not judge a film on it’s own merit.
When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality” when he makes a stinker, we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch...
To Kael Ignoring a film’s quality based on the authorship indicates that you are incapable of judging either - A film is a film, does it make it better if you have to watch all the other works by a particular director to get the style?
Finally on the last premise, Kael argues that the auteur theory glorifies trash. A piece of art is a medium of expression, why does it need some additional hidden meanings. There’s subtext of course, but what really is to gain from further obscure meanings?
Their ideal auteur is a director who directs any script handed to him and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots
Instead Kael argues that we judge the artist by the movie, not the movie by the artist.
This spat between two film critics sparked off a culture war- with two seemingly ideologically opposed camps: The Paulettes and the Sarristes
But in reality, conflict is best used to sell papers. Outside a jab back and a snarky line here and there, there was not a lot of gunfire exchanged. Sarris himself said in 2009:
We were so gloriously contentious, everyone bitching at everyone, We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much. Urgency seemed unavoidable.
Implications of the Auteur Theory
Perhaps Sarris’ greatest mistake was to call Truffaut’s politique du auteur a theory. The idea that there is a central figure in a film’s production whose creative vision is translated on the screen is a easily accessible way to talk about film as works of individuals especially after the end of the old Hollywood studio system.
But authorship in a such a collaborative medium can be tough to discern.
Consider Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton wrote the original poem, came up with much of the concepts and design, but he only spent 8-10 days total on set during it’s laborious 3 year production because he was busy with Batman and Ed Wood. The directorial duties fell on his friend Henry Selick who directed the film in the style of Burton. It may have the signatures look of Tim Burton, but Selick was at the helm.
And Nightmare shares a lot of similarity with Selick’s later films like James & The Giant Peach and Coraline.
It gets even more complicated with franchises. George Lucas is closely associated with Star Wars and he did direct the first film: A New Hope.
But directorial duties fell on Irvin Kurshner for The Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand who directed Return of the Jedi. Many fans disappointed at the prequels point to Lucas’ over involvement - that the original trilogy had more balanced input from his collaborators.
The fact is, filmmaking is complex: In his later years Andrew Sarris said:
Auteurism is and always has been more a tendency than a theory, more a mystique than a methodology, more an editorial policy than an aesthetic procedure. The cinema is a deep, dark mystery that we auteurists are attempting to solve, and, what is infinitely more difficult, to report our findings in readable prose. The cinema is a labyrinth with a treacherous relation to reality.
Though proponents of the auteur theory weren’t the first to recognize the director’s importance to cinematic arts, Truffaut and others placed it first and foremost above the plot and dialogue - shaping in many ways the way we talk about films and history. Acting, Cinematography, Editing - all are ultimately in service to the director’s vision.
But some influences shine above others and an auteur doesn’t have to be the director - it can be the writer, an actor, a producer, even the special effects artist. If you study modern cinema, you will be hard pressed not to find at least one individual or even a group of people whose vision and persistence were key to birthing a wonderful piece of motion picture history. Why can’t that person be you? Go out there and make something great.