Back in the 1950s, the French director Francois Truffaut labeled some directors auteurs and others metteurs-en-scène. Auteurs create a distinctive vision of the world—their own—and produce films with instantly recognizable and idiosyncratic style. They return over and over to their peculiar fixations and seem to create connections between films as well as within them.
Metteurs-en-scène—perhaps best translated in this context as “the rest”—might be capable, but they do a job, follow convention, and recycle acceptable, digestible, and familiar cinematic techniques.
And in this distinction lies a larger vision of art that celebrates the artist over the art… a vision that, today, seems increasingly quaint.
Critics applying Truffaut’s thinking today might label Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Kathryn Bigelow auteurs. Though we might like some specific films from other largely nameless directors, they are the metteurs-en-scène.
As a way of watching movies, Truffaut’s viewpoint is useful. He urges viewers to look for the strange obsessions directors indulge and the resourceful ways they use cameras to convey their particular takes on a reality we ostensibly share. For Truffaut, membership in one group or the other is fluid—a metteur-en-scène could become an auteur and vice versa. Ambition is most important. A successful director needs individual innovation, an overpowering anxiety of influence, and dissatisfaction with ancient and recent history. He or she has to want to stand out, to make a mark.
Like many theories about art, however, this perspective suggests prickly values—innovation is good, synthesis bad. Eccentricity is artistic, universal appeal is not. Meanwhile, a few critics decide which few directors are worthwhile. Others may seem enjoyable but, in the end, are really only serviceable. We appreciate their efforts but they can’t be deemed artists.
Therein lies the problem.
Pauline Kael and other reviewers objected to the auteur theory in part because film is collaborative—auteurs don’t work alone and owe much to actors, writers, directors of photography, and editors. Kael’s response, however, implies a more prominent issue—whether viewers appreciate movies or the person (or people) who made them. From a more democratic shuffling iPod perspective—one that celebrates songs over bands or poems over poets, or paintings over oeuvres—auteur theory seems especially elitist. Declaring auteurs suggests some artists are artists and some are not. It is not okay to simply like something.
The backlash to that sort of elitism seems especially strong now.
The question of who is worthy is complicated. Most of the directors called auteurs are, to the general public, outsiders. They may be admired—may be even academy award winning—but their fare isn’t always appealing or bankable. Cinema is increasingly divided into “entertainments” everyone sees and art films viewed as DVDs or electronic files. Like the highbrow books on the NYTimes best seller list, they may not be watched all the way through.
And, in the computer age, many have begun to question whether art requires an auteur at all.
Electronic sharing erodes the whole concept of authorship. Torrenters think less about makers. They don’t see artists as owning their works or even deserving the economic benefits deriving from them. They regard the stranglehold of access as a sort of extortion and see sources as largely anonymous, a contribution to a pool called “Television,” “Music” or “Cinema” that no one should truly own or control. And their tastes are eclectic—they vote with their terabytes.
While a division has always existed between artist and art—and, by extension, between high brow and low brow art—the distinction seems headed in a new direction. The ease of accessing art through our computers makes a new aesthetic possible. What’s seen or heard or visited or clicked on is valuable, the people who made it, less so. The person who created the work of art is the beneficiary of public attention… which is not quite the same thing as being deserving of adoration.
Which is also why “auteur theory” seems the product of another age. Reverence for artists hasn’t disappeared—it will never disappear—but viewers and listeners and art appreciators seem to come closer and closer to sports fans. They aren’t the hero worshippers Truffaut anticipated.
Watching from wherever he is watching, he might be surprised where we’ve traveled and wonder where an electronic aesthetic of popularity may take us.