Auteur theory was first cooked up by Alexandre Alstruc, who called upon filmmakers to use the camera as a pen. Alstruc believed that it was the film director, and not the screenwriter, who was the true author of the film as they were the ones who placed their imprint on every frame of the film. Since then the meaning of the auteur has been a subject of hot academic contention but it is agreed that it is a term most associated with the Nouvelle Vague, particularly Andre Bazin and Francois Truffaut who explored the concept in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.
The general thrust of their argument is that to be an auteur is to put a distinctive signature on one’s work and use cinema as a way to explain their personalised world view. Their heroes were filmmakers who achieved this, such as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. The films produced by the Nouvelle Vague group were very different not only to the quality filmmakers of the day they revolted against, but also in comparison to each other. Given the emphasis on the individuality of the director, auteurism could be criticised as a form of artistic narcissism. This is arguably true given the work of one of the most successful auteurs (now in his fiftieth year in the film industry) Woody Allen. But Allen is the exception rather than the rule.
For the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, cinema had an important political purpose. The young radicals of the movement wanted to use film as a political medium and their ideals were largely bound in the frenetic cultural atmosphere encapsulated in the events of May 1968. France was scene to a burst cultural energy, with a multitude of causes jostling dynamically for attention. The least threatening of these have now been incorporated into the cultural zeitgeist so much so that in Toward a Third Cinema, Cuban filmmakers, Solan and Getino wrote that they could barely differentiate between the politics of the various New Waves and the mainstream films produced by Hollywood. The revolutionary potential of May 1968 and the films that channelled it have now been dissipated. Our political reality is now defined by a pretence that ideology no longer exists at all. This is the material that today’s auteurs have to work with.
An auteur by anyone’s definition of the word is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a contemporary filmmaker of almost unparalleled artistic talent. Jeunet’s signature is the triumph of charm over dystopia, cultural cleansing by means of whimsy. In his earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet creates dysfunctional, violent worlds but undercuts the anxiety with the easily deflated villains, eccentrically benign supporting characters and cutesy framing devices the serve to undermine any horror. The same themes can also be seen less overtly in his later film, A Very Long Engagement. These films are set in either a fantasy universe, or a historical period where tension and violence is automatically displaced. When Jeunet locates his films in the present day, no tension or violence can be tolerated. In Amelie, Paris is whitewashed – literally. There is no racial difference, no crime, no true villains. Politics is absent. It is also Jeunet’s most aggressively quirky film. In Amelie, cutesy-pie kitsch has triumphed so decisively that the tensions of 21st century France don’t even exist.
A similar signature can be seen in the work of a profoundly different auteur, Quentin Tarantino. Like the Coen Brothers, he works within the postmodern tradition with fusion of genres but he goes further, not only working in an American context but also with the cinema of the Far East. Tarantino, like Jeunet, serves to undercut the social tension but he does not do so by erasure but with glib superficiality. For Tarantino there is no topic so serious and dark that it cannot be put through his personalised mince-maker of frivolous pop culture. Gangsters, Nazis, rape, murder, slavery – there are no limits. It’s all good fun, it’s all visually exciting and it all works best with an eclectic, thumping soundtrack.
Charles Krafft, a Seattle based artist who for many years thrilled the liberal intelligentsia of the city with his playful, kitschy art that made use of Nazi imagery. Liberal art lovers in Seattle filled their homes with Krafft’s gaudy totalitarian paintings, perfume bottles with swastika stoppers and teapots shaped like Hitler’s head. Until it transpired that Krafft was a vehement holocaust denier and white supremacist. His intention was not playful but totally sincere. Krafft’s fans were horrified and cleared their homes of his work. This is not to imply that Tarantino is a white supremacist, but he plays to the impulses that caused these irony loving art-buyers to lap up the work of an actual Nazi. To play with the terrifying ideas and reduce them to comic tackiness is to neutralise their potency and their fearful influence. Speaking about the veneration of totalitarian influences in contemporary art, the group VPERED wrote; “Market utopianism makes no distinction between left and right, brown and red, fascism and communism, it sees irony lurking round every corner to make everything nice and normal again.” Tarantino is the cinematic master of this.
To put Tarantino in the same category as Godard is liable to snarl up snobbish sentiments from film critics. But really, there is little to separate them. Both have a distinctively unique visual style and their cinema is a vent for their own political worldview and the cultural zeitgeist that informs them. When critics bemoan the loss of the auteur tradition, they are actually nostalgic for the age of political energy that made the films of the Nouvelle Vague possible. The role of the auteur today is not to form a narrative that leads to an emancipatory political breakthrough, on a micro or macro level, but to place a unique footprint on a cultural landscape that resists ideological landmarks.