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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on Auteurs in classical Hollywood (10) : the emergence of a “Director's Cinema”


This is the latest in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. This essay expands the range of matters Bruce considers by considering the notion of authorship in classical Hollywood cinema. The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.


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Orson Welles
When we refer to authorship in American cinema, Sam Rohdie for one has reminded us that filmmakers, like Orson Welles and John Cassavetes, “who experimented with new forms of film outside the conventions of Hollywood were not welcome in Hollywood” qualified by the rider “that Hollywood has always supported innovations that its commercial system could make profitable.” Looking at the pantheon of directors below, which I imagine few cinephiles would take serious issue with as representing the apex of the art in classical Hollywood, only six directors out of 14 could be said to have successfully combined a high level of artistry and profitability for anything like a sustained period - Chaplin, Ford, Lang, Hitchcock, Lubitsch and Hawks. Of the three European 'outsiders' - Murnau, Renoir and Ophuls - only Murnau can be said to have made significant impact in Hollywood at the time.

John Ford
Of the eight auteurs surveyed in this series of posts in FA, Ford was the only one recognised with other than an honorary Oscar, four in fact for best director, yet it is Hawks who was the quintessential classical Hollywood filmmaker critically unrecognised for so long as “he confirmed conventions while helping to establish them. His 'genius' and artistry,” Rohdie also reminds us, “ resides in using a traditional system and making it his own.” Preminger and Kazan found a measure of independence within the system. Raoul Walsh, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli worked comfortably in the studios and themselves questioned their critical status as auteurs and, by implication, the concept of the director as the primary author in commercial feature film production. Nicholas Ray seemingly denied scope for his self expressivity by the system that had nurtured him and at odds with it, ultimately self destructively for the greater part of his career, Ray was romanticised as the cause célbère of the la politique des auteurs.

The concept of the film director has its origins in the first full decade of cinema when Richard Abel notes that Georges Méliès insisted that the filmmaker must be the author as the key marker of difference between the cinema and the theatre - “he must be the author (scriptwriter, director, designer and often an actor) - essentially an auteurist position. In the succeeding decades key questions about the nature of creativity in the cinema along with essential questions like is the cinema principally art or commerce, narrative or descriptive, expressive or revelatory, a popular or elite form and not least, is the filmmaker a metteur en scéne (director in the theatre sense) or an auteur (in the literary sense) in his/her own right? Barrett Hodsdon recounts in part 1 of The Elusive Auteur the waning and waxing of this latter critical and theoretical history in relation to the rise and ascendancy and ultimate disintegration of the studio system.

André Bazin
Fast forward to Paris in the early fifties where the editor of the newly founded journal Cahiers du Cinéma, André Bazin, saw the distinction between auteurs and non-auteurs as problematic as there was no theoretical base to the concept. The distinction almost solely depended on the reading of the works themselves. 

The rise of auteurism also marked that of cinephilia or was it the other way around? Dubbed “the auteur theory,” it was not so much a theory as an attitude Andrew Sarris conceded, a critical policy of uncovering a hierarchy of creativity based on directorial thematic and/or stylistic consistency. It amounted to a challenge to the dominant idea of the traditional art cinema that had been promoted after 1945. In demanding an accommodation of non-art films it was a departure, in serious discussion of the cinema, from the canons of taste . The passion, even animosity generated were as Thomas Elsaesser notes, “signs of affective cinephilia.”

Andre Bazin (and Agnes Varda)
 cover of Cahiers du Cinema, 91
All film directors, no matter at what level they are working, are at least responsible for direction of the actors and for the camera setups. One of the most important aspects of auteur analysis involves identifying, within the context of the director's entire output, a pattern of thematic preoccupations and the connections in the mise en scène across works in what has been called  'the filming of bodies in space'.  Adrian Martin describes it as “no longer the space defined by the traditional proscenium arch, but the mobile ever-changing space defined by the camera, its position and movement,” extended by some commentators to include all the creative processes available to the director, post- and pre-production, including digital treatment of the image.

Cover of Movie
Through industrial constraints and the ambiguities of collaboration, the presence of the auteur - la politique des auteurs - is based on the perception of the director's control of the mise en scène, technical proof of authorship logically depending on the director's control of the screenplay. In Hollywood, guild rules generally precluded acknowledgement in the credits of a director's contribution, even when substantial, to the screenplay, design and editing.  Ambiguities around attribution can be allayed by pre-production information concerning the initiation of the project, involvement in the casting of leading roles and the extent of director's engagement in preparation of the screenplay. This then depended on reliable production information or reassurances from directors that they worked uncredited on their screenplays. Although interviews with directors were a central feature of Cahiers, more often than not such information was not readily available, leaving only the evidence of the works themselves. Jim Hillier relates that rather than recreating or reconstructing the films they reviewed (as was the case with Movie critics) the Cahiers critics “tried to construct the conceptual key that would unlock the work, and the oeuvre.”

The two key aspects of authorship in commercial cinema depend on the established or perceived extent to which the director is exerting agency, i.e., power over the narrative, allied with intentionality. In the absence of extra cinematic information of the kind indicated above, the fall back position for the auteurist critic is primarily dependent on the critic's perception in the films of the felt presence of the director. To be more specific the auteur critic is committed to establishing a coherent identity for the director in seeking common stylistic and thematic strategies within a body of  work. It is more like what David Bordwell terms ” an excavation process.” Ironically it is a commitment to the unearthing of strategies that are designed to be invisible in classical narrative in which all means were seamlessly and invisibly subordinated to the end of illusionistic story telling. It might be said that it made the critic who does the excavation the real auteur in film studies.

Andrew Sarris
I contend that this categorising below is not just cinephilic game playing but is a systematic critical short hand for identifying and mapping a path of creativity in the studio system. The new generation French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, a number of them at Cahiers with filmmaking aspirations, and in New York, Andrew Sarris, both a practising and aspiring film critic, all had their reasons. The former seconded the directness and dynamism of American cinema as 'the art of action' in a polemic to 'reactivate' the postwar French film industry which they saw as being in a sclerotic state. For Sarris it was what he saw as the need for an updated history of American cinema, the critical establishment having focussed for too long “on the forest at the expense of the trees.” In both cases the director was foregrounded as the most important single creative force in shaping film narrative. That the concept of the auteur has survived subsequent demotion in film studies from creator to a function within textual processes on the one hand, and appropriation to facilitate the industry's circulation of a film as a commodity on the other, makes it more than a matter of historical record to return to origins as has been done in The Elusive Auteur.

From a lofty vantage point, the “forest critic” by implication was taken to task by Sarris for tending to pay regard to only the tallest of the individual trees. He, like the arborist, knew that the real measure of overall health of the forest lay beneath the canopy. Below the pantheon of directors accredited with “a personal vision of the world” was the second line of auteurs (on “the far side of paradise”) who fell short only because their vision is more fragmented and/or disrupted for career or other reasons. On the third level were grouped directors termed “likeable but elusive” who, in the main, were what I designate as the third line of auteurs unsung because of difficult styles or unfashionable genres which resulted in their virtues being less apparent but potentially redeemed “by their seriousness and grace.” I've included in the second and third third lines as auteurs directors who were then regarded as accomplished stylists but without an overarching theme – so-called metteurs en scène . I will return to the auteur/metteur en scène distinction and crucially, that between auteurism and other director centred criticism in part 11. While still based on his rankings of individual directors, the listing below is a provisional restructuring of Sarris's systematic uncovering of a then relatively undiscovered Hollywood arranged in a critical hierarchy which, while not without flaws, provoked and excited us at its first airing in Film Culture in 1963. For those whom he anticipated would dispute the rankings Sarris claimed in defence that “the auteur theory itself (remains) a pattern theory in constant flux...(not) a constellation of directors in fixed orbit.”

The pantheon of auteurs (alphabetical): Chaplin. Flaherty, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Keaton, Fritz Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Renoir, von Sternberg, Welles.


F W Murnau

The second line: Aldrich, Borzage, Capra, Cukor, De Mille, Edwards, Fuller, Kazan, Kubrick, Jerry Lewis, Losey, Mackendrick, Anthony Mann, J L Mankiewicz, McCarey, Minnelli, Peckinpah, Penn, Preminger, Ray, Siegel, Sirk, Stevens, Preston Sturges, Tashlin, Tourneur, Ulmer, King Vidor, von Stroheim, Walsh, Wilder.
Alexander Mackendrick directing Tony Curtis,
Sweet Smell of Success

The third line  (directors in my view the most arguably promotable to the 'second line' are in italics): Budd Boetticher, John Brahm, Richard Brooks, Rowland Brown, Tod Browning, Roger Corman, André de Toth, John Farrow, Richard Fleischer, Jules Dassin, Delmer Daves, Stanley Donen, Allan Dwan, Phil Karlson, Gregory La Cava, Mitchell Leisen, Paul Leni, Joseph H Lewis, Mervyn LeRoy, Sidney Lumet, Richard Quine, Gerd Oswald, Robert Rossen, Franklin Schaffner, Robert Siodmak, John Stahl, Charles Walters, Don Weis, James Whale

Budd Boetticher
The third line merges into superior craftsmen a category reinstated by Barrett Hodsdon. Directors placed in this category would, I suggest, include amongst  others: Jack Arnold, Laslo Benedek, Curtis Bernhardt, John Berry, David Butler, Victor Fleming, Hugo Fregonese, Jack Conway, John Cromwell. Michael Curtiz, Roy Del Ruth, William Dieterle, Gordon Douglas, Edward Dmytryk, Tay Garnett, Edmund Goulding, Henry Hathaway, Stuart Heisler, George Roy Hill, Norman Jewison, Burt Kennedy, Irvin Kershner, Rowland V Lee, Joshua Logan, George Marshall, Rudolph Maté, Robert Mulligan, Jean Negulesco, Joseph Newman, Robert Parrish, Mark Robson, Stuart Rosenberg, John Sturges, George Sidney,Vincent Sherman, Andrew Stone, Burt Topper, Frank Tuttle, W S Van Dyke, Charles Vidor. Robert Wise, Sam Wood
William Dieterle
The great proportion of working directors in the studio system, numbering many hundreds, were what might be termed journeymen (craftsmen) described by Barrett Hodsdon as “the cement of the studio system” merging at the base of the system with the jobbing directors or artisans, Barrett terms them “hacks,” for whom direction amounted to little more than a job of work.

There were major directors who for differing reasons their oeuvres are difficult to categorise - reputations based on  recognised  accomplishment but marred by a lack of thematic consistency and, at times, as in the case of Huston and Wellman, evident lack of personal engagement: Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, William Wellman, John Huston, Rouben Mamoulian and Fred Zinnemann. There were also a small number of would-be auteurs like Albert Lewin and Richard Lester, not marked by conclusive failure, scattered through the hierarchy together with 'one shot' directors such as Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter), Jack Webb (Pete Kelly's Blues), Irving Lerner (Murder By Contract) and Alexander Singer (Cold Wind in August). Alexander Mackendrick, an undoubted auteur in the context of British cinema, directed Sweet Smell of Success perhaps the greatest 'one shot' film to come out of classical Hollywood. Abe Polonsky directed and scripted Force of Evil before having his career all but terminated by the black list. There is the seemingly unique case of Edward L Cahn who directed nearly 70 features from 1932-63, his first feature, for its time a notably innovative western, Law and Order, stands as a one shot for him as though he used up any original ideas he had as a director it seems on his first film, but who can verify this for sure? One could go on with interesting “exceptions to the rule” in a system marked by 'the compulsion to repeat' yet with the door left open for the maverick producer, scriptwriter or director.
Edward L Cahn
Ten of the eleven directors (plus three additions) in the main from the silent cinema and/or the first decade of sound as listed by Sarris - Clarence Brown, James Cruze, Harry d'Arrast, Paul Fejos, Sidney Franklin, William K Howard, Rex Ingram, George Hill, Henry King, Malcolm St Clair, Victor Seastrom, Maurice Tourneur, Roland West -  more or less remain“subjects for further research.”


William K Howard
Nearly all systems have their limitations. To name a few of many examples, most cinephiles would have problems ranking Stanley Kramer, Daniel and Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson, Martin Ritt, Cornel Wilde and Frank Perry as auteurs, metteurs en scène or superior craftsmen, but neither do they sit comfortably as journeymen or artisanal directors. They can be largely ignored or a place found for failed aspiration of the overly ambitious or simply the failure to match form with content, in other words a graveyard for failed auteurs. When thematic consistency and style is not sustained amidst quantity, some allowance can be made on their epitaph for what might be seen as exceptions in their oeuvres such as Bachelor PartyHud and The Swimmer. Sarris did provide places for his naming of the seriously overrated in “Less Than Meets the Eye” and for the lesser sin of “Strained Seriousness

Sarris made his statement on the minimal presence of women directors not only in Hollywood but in world cinema c1968 in his note on Ida Lupino in “Oddities, One Shots and Newcomers.” He concluded that her seven independently produced low budget features,1949-65, “express much of the feeling but little of the skill which she has projected so admirably as an actress.” Sarris noted only that Dorothy Arzner, who directed 16 features from 1927-43,put the matter (of women directing) to the test.” That he left assessment of her to his wife Molly Haskell (author of From Reverence to Rape) suggests that, for him, Arzner failed the test at least as auteur. From Hollywood's first decade Lois Weber would seem to have been a genuine experimentalist with film form. As for a black presence in Hollywood, only in so-called “race films” made independently between 1910-50 by Afro-American filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux for Afro-American audiences, did black identity resonate to unequally contest the anonymity or too often patronising caricatures of blacks in Hollywood films.


Ida Lupino
Main sources: Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur 2017; Jim Hillier Ed. Cahiers du Cinema The 1950s 1985; Thomas Elsaesser The Persistence of Hollywood 2012; Sam Rohdie Film Modernism 2015; Andrew Sarris “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” Film Culture 27 1962/3, The American Cinema 1968; John Caughie “The Director Comes of Age” The Movie 90 1981; Adrian Martin “Mise-en-scène” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory 2014; V F Perkins “Film Authorship: the Premature Burial” CineAction 21/22 1990; Richard Abel French Film Theory and Criticism an anthology Vol 1


Dorothy Arzner

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