Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Francois Truffaut & Auteur Theory

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Francois Truffaut

 Definition

The word auteur is simply the French word for “author.” The essential idea behind auteur theory is that a filmmaker exercises an authorship over his work, and this authorship is present in every film he (or she) makes. The theory was born with the French New Wave cinema, from 1958-1962, with a group of French filmmakers headed by Francois Truffaut. I’ve previously analyzed two of his short films, Antoine et Collete (1962) and Les Mistons (1957). The French New Wave was one of many film movements that sprung up around the world in protest to Hollywood’s monopoly of popular film in the post-World War II years. You can read more about post-war cinema and the anti-Hollywood sentiment on Eric Elie’s blog.

At a mere twenty-one years old, Truffaut wrote the defining article for auteur film, titled “Une Certaine Tendance of Cinema Francaise” (“A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”), first published in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema in January 1954. Since then, a horde of scholars and critiques have added their thoughts to the tenets of auteur film, and a even greater horde of filmmakers have added their mastery to the history of the art. Here I hope to highlight a few of those scholars and many more of those excellent filmmakers.

Truffaut’s “Certain Tendency”

 When he originally wrote the article, Truffaut was writing in protest of the filmmakers who were receiving critical acclaim at the time for their well-crafted, however voiceless, literature adaptations. He termed this group of screenwriters and filmmakers who translated the ideas of previous writers the French “Tradition of Quality,” complimenting them for their adept filmmaking as he also criticized them for having no personal vision to deepen their films. Truffaut says in the article:

“The war and the post-war years have transformed our cinema. It has evolved through internal pressure and in the place of “poetic realism” – which can be said to have died out, closing behind itself The Gates of Night (The Portes de la Nuit) – “psychological realism” represented by Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, René Clément, Yves Allgret and Marcel Pagliero, was substituted.”

 

He was advocating for filmmakers including their own experience in their films, their own “psychological realism,” rather than the work of literary masters. Film, as its own artform, deserved storylines and themes that were crafted specifically for visual storytelling. Truffaut condemned the tradition of the screenwriter having the greatest control of the story a film told; he thought the director should have more creative power. He saw the creative process as so emotional and personal for a filmmaker, he should feel himself as if he were on display. He goes on to write:

“The artist cannot always dominate his work. He is sometimes its God, other times its creature. One knows the modern play whose main character, in peak form when the curtain rises, finds himself fully amputated as the play ends, as a successive loss of each of his limbs has marked the changing of acts.”

 

As with many artists, Truffaut was advocating for total mastery of the filmic art. Just as a painter cannot help adding his own personality to his work through his paintbrush, Truffaut saw a filmmaker as having no choice but to displaAs with many artists, Truffaut was advocating for total mastery of the filmic art. Just as a painter cannot help adding his own personality to his work through his paintbrush, Truffaut saw a filmmaker as having no other choice but to display his deepest emotions onscreen for the judgment of an audience. Thus, he condemned the soulless process of literature adaptation not for its lack of technical skill but for a lack of psychological truthfulness. One last quote from Francois:

“I do not believe in the peaceful co-existence of the Tradition of Quality and the cinema of auteurs. At base, Yves Allegret and Jean Delannoy are but caricatures of Henri-Georges Clouzot or Robert Bresson. It’s not the desire to cause a scandal that leads me to deprecate a cinema so praised elsewhere. I remained convinced that the unduly prolonged existence of ‘psychological realism’ is the cause of the public’s incomprehension when confronted by works as new in concept as…”

 

… and he goes on to list several underappreciated films by his friends and colleagues that he feels defines his outline of an auteur. His analysis of good filmmaking seems a bit self-serving, but it is his ideas and films we remember and study today, while those of the “Tradition of Quality” he comdemns have fallen to the background of film history.

References

My Gleanings: “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” (translated)

 Truffaut’s manifesto: La Politique des Auteurs by Harry Tuttle

Next up, I will outline some of the critique and further development of auteur theory.

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3 Responses

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  1. Depending on your definition of the tradition of quality, you could argue that it still exists today. Art is not exact or it would be called science. Many of today’s filmmakers are turning it into a science where following exact conventions every single time is done to give audiences not greatness, but familiarity. Rules are made to be both followed AND broken. New directions in art are usually criticized at first but time can redeem them and it would seem that time weeds out the over-hyped junk because those who actually watch older movies tend to have better taste. I feel like the Academy Awards largely still follow the “Tradition of Quality” that Truffaut is against. Great art is a mix of the personal and the universal.

    It’s great to see articles about the French New Wave and serious film theory on the web. Most movie writing on the web is mundane and lowbrow in my opinion.

    vpmilburn

    July 14, 2011 at 10:30 am

  2. This is a good summation of auteur theory!

    You could now argue that Hollywood is no longer ruled by a tradition of quality (ie, the big budget moral films of France’s heydey), but a tradition of “currency” (ie. anything that well sell tickets) and art is so far down the list of priorities that even the Academy cares less about it these days.

    Here’s a good artlcle about Truffaut films and his fight against cinema du qualite.

    Amber

    May 20, 2012 at 11:33 am

    • Somehow commercialism has brought us many great movies in the past, but not so much today. I think the medium has gotten too comfortable with itself, too complacent and audiences like indulgent familiarity. Fresh movies CAN make money, but it’s safer to be derivative and predictable. Ultimately movies have always been commercial. It’s just that now the precision of the commercialism has hurt art. That and the so-called legitimate voices of art criticism (the Academy, the Critics, etc.) are so often in the tank for commercialism.

      vpmilburn

      June 7, 2012 at 11:20 am


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