The cinema has always had its authors, has always had filmmakers whose names were as important as the stars: D. W. Griffith, Eric von Stroheim, Cecil B. De Mille, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and John Ford were all big names long before auteurism came along and proposed that the director was an artist and the most important element to a film. But what ruffled so many feathers was that French critics in the fifties, writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and many of whom would go on to become auteurs in their own right, weren’t only defending the acknowledged masters of film, who often wrote their own scripts and produced their own work, but apparent journeymen who up until the mid-fifties were seen as director for hire. Cahiers said that many of them were artists who made the scripts’ limitations and the producers’ demands work for them. Suddenly directors like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli, Sam Fuller and Otto Preminger were up there with the masters. Style was at least as important as content, so whether the director had originated the project or not wasn’t important. Though a term was thrown at this critical movement, the politique des auteurs, this didn’t mean all the critics were in agreement with each other. Jim Hillier says in his introduction to Cahiers du Cinema: The Fifties that many of the critics were in active disagreement. “Bazin argued strenuously against Rohmer on Hitchcock and Hawks; Rivette and Godard admired Rossellini for reasons considerably different from those of Rohmer” and so on.
Perhaps what we can extract from the idea of authorship, essentially, is not only the director’s freedom, and a directorial freedom the filmmakers would then insist in practising in their own work when they themselves turned into filmmakers, but also a critic’s freedom. If the critic believed the filmmaker was underrated, then the power of persuasion and subjective analysis could be used to sway the reader. When Fereydoun Hoveyda in Les Cahiers defended the auteur theory, he did so by invoking the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who said, “one isn’t a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way.” Why Hoveyda argued could this not be applied to cinema? This allowed the critic in interpreting the film not be hidebound by what the film had to say, but freed the critic up to say anything he liked about the image.
We could say there is a certain paradox in the auteurist position. On the one hand the politique des auteurs creates far more directors with a vision; on the other hand that vision gives the critic free play to project their own thoughts and feelings onto the work to the point of obliterating whatever the filmmaker seemed to be saying.
Perhaps a combination of an English approach to auteurism and the inventive free-form creativity of some of the French critics offers a useful balance for us here as we take a look at the work of Werner Herzog and also Francois Truffaut, one of the very Cahiers critics who first practised auteurist criticism. Now the English approach as practised by the likes of V. F. Perkins, Robin Wood and other critics who worked on the English magazine Movie was auteur led but also influenced by the sort of F. R. Leavis approach to literature: close critical work that would take scenes apart rather than roam freely over the film. When for example Perkins believed in Film as Film “what matters is less the originality or otherwise of Preminger’s theme than the freshness, economy and intelligence of the means by which the theme is presented”, he set out to show how Preminger was a great and economical filmmaker. But can we offer both: moments of close analytic scrutiny and at the same time look at broader themes that might preoccupy the filmmaker? Even Nicholas Ray, championed by Les Cahiers for his mise-en-scene (for his staging of the scene) admitted that “I am interested in the story and the characters. The camera is an instrument, it’s the microscope…” The style in the staging isn’t all that matters.
Truffaut was famous for his impressive mise-en-scene, and his frequent cinematographer Nestor Almendros “believed he was “the master of the “plan-sequence” – of the sequence shot. “He’s always in a medium shot position, that’s his favourite distance…he moves the camera but it’s hardly noticeable because it’s following the action so closely that it’s justified and it’s almost invisible.” Close ups in Truffaut’s work often have a sense of urgency not only because of the way, if we agree with Almendros, that Truffaut usually works in medium shot, but that as a consequence the close up can still function as an exclamation mark. In the scene in Soft Skin where the central character goes to a hotel room with his mistress for the first time, the close-ups brings out what is at stake in this assignation, even if it isn’t until the end of the film that the full significance becomes clear. Once when Truffaut was in discussion with Hitchcock they were talking of imagery, and Truffaut said “what we’re saying is that it isn’t necessary to photograph something violent in order to convey the feeling of violence.” We may say the same of any moment of heightened tension. A filmmaker who often uses the medium shot can then get tension out of a close-up. Truffaut may not have been a thriller filmmaker in the Hitchcockian tradition, but he was interested in amour fou, in a passionate love that could lead to murder as in Soft Skin and The Woman Next Door. He was interested in dramatic suspense, and the close-up could help him achieve it if used judiciously.
But Truffaut may also be seen as an important medium shot filmmaker due to his sensibility. Critics have noted one of the key themes in Truffaut’s work is that love is unfairly distributed, and as critic Danny Peary says in Guide for the Film Fanatic, of Stolen Kisses: “Everywhere one looks in this film, there is a love triangle in which the rejected person is the one who has the most love to offer…” Peary notes the irony in this, and central to such irony is the way in which Truffaut is a privileged, wise filmmaker determined to show the different perspectives available. Truffaut may be fascinated by mad love, but his style brings out a cool, lyrical detachment to counter it. Think of the scene in Jules et Jim, where Jules asks Catherine to marry him and she replies that she’s slept with many men and he’s slept with very few women “Averaging out we might make a happy couple” she reckons. Jules tells Jim that Catherine has practically agreed to marry him, and Truffaut offers a fast pan from the two men cycling to Catherine cycling on ahead of them. The shot manages to suggest passion and indifference simultaneously. Dramatic moments in Truffaut often come from the intensity of a character’s feelings rather than through any conventional notion of action. The visual form is often self-conscious and stylistically aloof: passionate and yet not entirely involved.
Truffaut once said that his films always turned out sadder than he intended, and though frequently they conclude on somebody’s death it is the shot choice that can lead to our feeling of troubled melancholy. We can see this in the famous freeze-frame that ends 400 Blows, or at the end of Shoot the Pianist with the camera capturing the pianist of the title in one half of the frame and showing a wall in the other half of the frame to give the impression of split screen, and at the same time indicating the character’s isolation as he is once again alone. Form here serves content; content form.
If Truffaut frequently gave the impression of a master: a man hugely versed in cinema, a well known critic who then debuted with a film that helped change the shape of French filmmaking, 400 Blows, and who was as much a maestro of the plan sequence as any American filmmaker before him, what about Werner Herzog? Critic Pauline Kael amusingly said in When the Lights Go Down, “his technique owes little to previous commercial films; it doesn’t owe very much to previous films of any sort.” This is Kael’s admonishment, but we might be inclined to see it as Herzog’s singularity. He doesn’t only frequently deal with the subject of madness and eccentricity –Even Dwarfs Started Small; Aguirre, Wrath of God, Stroszek, Fitzcarraldo, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – he also films as if from a position of madness and eccentricity. Herzog doesn’t so much establish a shot, as gaze at an object and landscape until it yields a metaphysical dimension, as it loses its social quality and arrives at what the philosopher Martin Heidegger once called the thingness of the thing, as we can perhaps see in the early stages of Heart of Glass and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. How to clear away all the preconceptions of what we are shown so that we see a landscape afresh, or a face like never before?
Though critics like Kael insisted in the mid-seventies that Herzog was a film poet but “a didactic film poet, and what he has to say is extremely fashionable right now”, we may recall Hoveyda’s comment about the order in which one says things, not what one is saying. It is the form in which Herzog couches his questions that is so interesting. At the beginning of Aguirre, Wrath of God, the Andes and the Amazon aren’t the backdrop to a story of adventure. They swallow up the adventurers so that the space utilised is as important as the story Herzog tells. Filming on location, Herzog captures the harsh impossibility of a terrain that will not give way to human ambition. Isn’t it inevitable madness ensues?
This is also true of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a return to the Amazon, and the story of a man who tries to pull a boat over a mountain so that he can set up an opera house in the jungle. Herzog decided that he and his crew had to pull a real boat over a real mountain, as Herzog undeniably implicated himself in the very madness that his character was caught in. As Herzog said on taking the boat over the mountain, “there was no precedent in technical history, and no book of instructions we could refer to.” Herzog is original in many senses of the word; as though he has less to say than a need to visualize his own perspective on the world. Today we will look at the way in which filmmakers, and especially Truffaut and Herzog, possess an auteurist vision.