Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Director as Artist: Rivette, Sarris and the Auteur Theory

My final film essay on auteur theory. Enjoy!

“The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’ genius,” Jacques Rivette begins his 1953 essay “The Genius of Howard Hawks”: “you only have to watch Monkey Business (1953) to know that it is a brilliant film” (Rivette 126). This startlingly categorical statement, made by one of Cahiers du Cinema’s chief critics, was among the first articulations of auteur theory – the idea that a director is the film’s primary author, moreso than its producers, actors, or screenwriters. Rivette’s idea quickly took root amongst fellow French critics, and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice introduced it to America in the early ‘60s, positing “the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value” (Sarris 452). As a result, the role of director took on a whole new degree of importance; filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles became celebrities in their own right, with film critics and academics treating them as great artists, rather than mere craftsmen. To this day, movies are sold as a Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film, showing that auteur theory maintain a strong hold on cinematic discourse.

But returning to Rivette: Why is such a seemingly minor film as Monkey Business, a comedy involving a chimpanzee mixing a youth formula that causes Cary Grant and Ginger Rodgers to regress to childhood, worthy of masterpiece status? Simply due to its director? Certainly it is a well-made and entertaining film, with competent performances and direction, and provides its share of laughter. However, nothing inherent in the film marks it as a masterpiece, nor does it show clear signs of genius. However, Rivette’s article should not be dismissed: his piece shows both the limitations of the auteur theory, but also its importance – showing that a director is indeed an integral part of a film, through thematic and stylistic recurrences, and that a popular director like Hawks can attain such an important status as easily as a Kubrick or Bergman.

Certainly, Howard Hawks seems a strange choice for Rivette’s standard for auteurism at a glance. While a director like Kubrick or Hitchcock can easily be found to have a specific, recurring directorial style, Hawks was a consummate studio director who made a wide variety of films, from screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) to war films (Sergeant York) to Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo) to films noir (The Big Sleep) to science fiction (The Thing), all safely within the confines of the Hollywood studio system with modest-to-large budgets and name stars (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, etc.). Why Hawks, and not a similarly diverse director like Robert Wise (Curse of the Cat People, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles), Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, The Nun’s Story, The Day of the Jackal) or Michael Curtiz (The Sea Hawk, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) – all directors routinely dismissed even if their individual films are praised?

Rivette’s article risks damning by faint praise in arguing throughout that Hawks “epitomizes the highest qualities of American cinema” and that “the rule is continuity… the smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body” (Rivette 128-129). In other words, Hawks’ films deserve praise for incorporating the most basic of film techniques: straightforward, linear editing, unpretentious direction and black-and-white characters. Hawks’ films clearly lack the stylistic flair of a Hitchcock or Welles, whose films are instantly recognizable through technical means (camera movements, mise-en-scene) and recurring themes, ideas and plot devices. One might indeed say that Rivette is arguing that Hawks deserves praise for being a hack.

And yet, both Rivette and Sarris offer Hawks as one of a pantheon of master directors (“auteurs”), placing him above most of his peers in both artistic ability and importance, further complicating the argument. Is Hawks worthy of recognition for thriving within the studio system, or is Rivette attempting to argue he is great for transcending it? If one were arguing the latter, then why does the article spend so much time in praise of Hawks’ use of the cinematically mundane, his “use (of) bizarre narrative twists, once he has established they are possible” (Rivette 128), as proof of his genius?

One need not agree with Sarris’s limitation of auteurs as “weighted toward seniority and established reputations” (Sarris 453) and thus exclude the newer directors from consideration. But Rivette and Sarris’s inclusion of Hawks is important for arguing, that not only experimental or “art house” directors like Bergman or Antonioni deserve attention, but that positive and worthwhile qualities exist in the most popular and well-known directors as well – including the ability to connect a director’s films with one another, as the product of the same creative mind.

The most interesting part of Rivette’s essay is his analysis of Hawks’ alleged obsession with the disruption of modern society by “the inhuman, or the crudest avatar of humanity” (Rivette 127). This is arguably auteur theory’s strong point: the ability to identify themes, style and other works which carry over amongst a director’s films. His analysis of Hawks’ oeuvre certainly makes a convincing case for this, whether the primitive comes in the form of a leopard, a chimpanzee, an outlaw or a criminal. Rivette also points out the largely masculine world which Hawks creates, full of individualistic heroes and equally tough women who accompany them on their quests. Through auteur theory, we can see Monkey Business as not just a silly comedy with Cary Grant and a chimp, but as part of a larger body of work, where the conflicts of anarchy and society are an overarching theme, rather than an incidental aspects.

That a popular director like Hawks can be a genius, and that his films contain themes and worthwhile messages, is certainly valid; as, to an extent, is the contention that the director is the most important author of a film. Auteurists point to common, recurring themes, motifs, visuals, and ideas amongst a director’s works, and Rivette’s argument is that while Hawks’ themes and motifs are less obvious than others’, they are certainly present: “What other man of genius… could be more passionately concerned with the consequences of men’s actions, or with these actions’ relationship to each other?” (Rivette 129). In identifying Hawks’ themes, Rivette shows that not only the obvious style of a Welles or Kubrick marks a director’s talent, but their technical competence and ability to convey a message. One may not agree with their specific criteria for an auteur, but the broader idea is certainly worthwhile.

However, the auteur theory inevitably has its limitations. Besides those already discussed, applying it indescriminately to film analysis and discussion may cause too much emphasis on the director’s importance, as Andre Bazin warns: “Cinema is an art both popular and industrial” (Bazin 251), factors which unquestionably affect the films. The studio system in which Hawks worked undoubtedly played a major role in his films’ development, and their screenwriters and stars should certainly be considered part of the cinematic equation. What would His Girl Friday be without Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, or Red River without John Wayne and Montgomery Clift? By claiming the director is the primary artist, one risks oversimplifying and downplaying the contributions of others just as important in a film’s development. Bazin also worries about a resultant cult of personality, in which a critic’s favorites “appear as almost infallible directors who could never make a bad film” (Bazin 248). Rivette’s praise of Monkey Business as a masterpiece through being a Howard Hawks film exemplifies this idea (as does Francois Truffaut’s defense of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, even his weakest films like Under Capricorn and Topaz), and Rivette’s remark that “Those who refuse to admit this…refused to be satisfied by proof” (Rivette 126) seems a self-serving tautology; in this case, Rivette’s personal taste amounts to “proof”.

Ultimately, all films are a collaborative art, and the director is often sublimated in importance by his producers, stars, or screenwriters. Thus, the auteur theory is much more difficult to apply in some cases than others, and we can sympathize with Bazin’s argument that in many cases “the work transcends the director” (Bazin 249). However, Rivette’s essay is still important. He shows that even a seemingly unremarkable director like Howard Hawks plays an important role in film making, and that his films are distinct through his recurring symbols, themes, ideas and visuals. Whatever auteur theory’s shortcomings, its impact on the way films are viewed and analyzed is invaluable, for showing that movies are not merely entertainment, but art; that films are not merely individual entities, but part of a larger whole; and for giving the director his due as an artist.

Works Cited

Bazin, Andre. “On the politique des auteurs.” Cahiers du cinéma, the 1950s : neo-realism, Hollywood, new wave / edited by Jim Hillier. Harvard UP, 1985. 248-59

Rivette, Jacques. “The Genius of Howard Hawks”. Cahiers du cinema, the 1950s: neo-realism, Hollywood, new wave / edited by Jim Hillier. Harvard UP, 1985. 126-31

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”. Film Theory and Criticism: Seventh Edition / edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford UP, 2009. 451-4

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