A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris andKael – Part IPart One: ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In1962′ – Andrew SarrisAndrew Sarris, influenced and inspired bythe politique du auteur, produced his “notes”not as a manifesto but rather a clarification ofthe auteur issue. In 1950s-60s America,auteurism was not well-received byscreenwriters and the many other people who collaborated in filmproduction. However, Sarris felt that several articles constructed “straw-men”or clichéd versions of auteurism. In reaction to this Sarris decided to producehis article on the auteur theory. In this article I will explore Sarris‟s ‘NotesOn The Auteur Theory In 1962′ however in my next article (part two) Iwill explore Pauline Kael‟s criticism of Sarris‟s defence and definition of theauteur theory. In the next article I will also conclude and explore thestrengths and weaknesses of both articles.IAn outcome, or implication, of the “Auteur Theory”, according to Sarris, isthe belief that „the weakest Ford is superior to the strongest King‟.(1) Theworst John Ford film is held to be „invariably superior‟ to the best, or mostenjoyable, Henry King film.(2) Sarris wryly notes then that „by auteur rules,the Fords will come up aces as invariably as the Kings will come up deuces.Presumably, we can all go home as soon as the directorial signature is flashedon the screen‟.(3) There are no good or bad films, just good or bad directors.This „inflexible attitude‟, as Sarris notes, seems counter to commonsensical
notions of a films‟ worth. After noting these consequences of the auteurtheory Sarris notes however that he intends to praise the auteurtheory.(4) Beyond these problems for the auteur theory Sarris argues that apositive aspect of the auteur theory is that is is a „critical device for recordingthe history of the American cinema‟.(5) Sarris goes on to explain:the auteur theory is the only help for extending the appreciation of personalqualities in the cinema. By grouping and evaluating films according todirectors, the critic can rescue individual achievements from an unjustifiableanonymity.(6)Directors‟ minor films, due to the focus the auteur theory puts on exploring adirectors‟ total catalogue, are evaluated and analysed beyond their popularityand apparent, or immediately evident, importance or interest. Films are re-analysed and re-criticised continuously in relation to a director‟s canon. ToSarris this is an important element of the auteur theory and one that replicatesthe way critics‟ treat literary figures such as Shakespeare and artists such asVan Gogh. Another reason why Sarris embraced the auteur theory is that it isan account of film which does not, and in some ways rewards, directors in aconstrictive environment such as the Hollywood studio system. Sarrisexplains that in the auteur theory „there is no justification for penalizingHollywood directors for the sake of collective mythology‟.(7) The pressuresof Hollywood and its funding system should not be used to penalize anddisqualify Hollywood directors from the “pantheon” of directors orauteruism. A Hollywood director may not be allowed to choose their subjectmatter – they may hate making gangster films – or the leading star, but theydo, according to Sarris, author the film the same way a non-Hollywooddirector does. [For this example we must assume unfairly that all non-Hollywood director are given total freedom over their subject matter].
The auteur theory has, according to Sarris, three central premises. Sarrisexplains „the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence ofa director as a criterion of value‟.(8 ) The ability of a director to organise orimplement their “vision” requires technical competence. To Sarris to be anauthor of a film technical understanding is required. Knowing whichtechnique, method, suits one‟s aims best is the basic level of competence thatSarris asserts is required to be evaluated as a director. Sarris argues that „if adirector has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, heis automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors‟.(9) This position issummed up by Sarris when he states „A badly directed or an undirected filmhas no importance in an [evaluative system]„.(10) Technical ability is,according to Sarris, the ability to organise a film with some degree of clarityand coherence.(11)Sarris explains „the second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishablepersonality of the director as a criterion of value‟.(12) Sarris continues that„over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurringcharacteristics of style‟ which the auteur theorist asserts „serve[s] as hissignature‟.(13) The similar shooting style of John Ford‟s domestic screens,and the death valley vistas, could be cited as a signature of Ford‟s direction.Sarris argues that:An expert production crew could probably cover up for a cimpanzee in thedirector‟s chair. How do you tell the genuine director from thequasichimpanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established.(14)The continued utilization of the same concepts/techniques – worked through,altered, re-analysed, mocked, readjusted – is of critical importance to the
auteur critic because it facilitates the ability to analyse over a period ofseveral films the growth and development of a director‟s technicalcompetence and the emergence, and continued influence, of a director‟sworld-view.The third premise of Sarris‟s auteur theory is more obtuse and a bit moredifficult to define. Sarris explains that:The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interiormeaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning isextrapolated from the tension between a director‟s personality and hismaterial.(15)The third and ultimate premise, indicating that it is according to Sarris themost important essential criterion of the auteur theory, relates to the meaningor outcome produced from the tension, or difficulty, a director encountersand overcomes in the production of film. Sarris seems to acquire a rathermystical note here arguing that an important criterion of judgement is“internal” in a visual medium but he explains his position better when henotes that internal meaning springs from the „intangible difference betweenone personality and another‟.(16) The third premise of the auteur theory isthat the internal meaning, to Sarris that certain something about an individualthat is produced in everything they do, is produced by the director‟s attemptto create a whole from significantly desperate and opposing meanings andinfluences. Internal meaning is the combination of contradictions; thedirector‟s word-view combined, meshed with the film‟s subject matter andall the other contributing factors of the film. A meaning and outcomeultimately derived from the director.Alfred Hitchcock is seem as a prime example of an auteur and Sarris wouldagree because Hitchcock satisfies all three of the auteur theory criteria.
Hitchcock was a competent technician and his films contain similartechniques played with time and time again – sometimes hitting other timesmissing. And all of Hitchock‟s films retain an aspect of his distinguishablepersonality. Sarris would assert that Hitchcock is an auteur because thecontinued utilization of certain film techniques, film form, which are in-linewith, and rely on, Hitchcock‟s personal/internal interpretation of thepsychology of cinema viewers. Hitchcock authors his films. The three“circles” of Sarris‟s auteur theory are technical ability, personality andinternal meaning. http://ardfilmjournal.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/a-couple-of-squared-circles-sarris-and-kael-%E2%80%93-part-one-notes-on-the- auteur-theory-in-1962-%E2%80%93-andrew-sarris/ “a couple of squared circles”