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In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if he were the primary "auteur" (the French word for "author"). In spite of and sometimes even because of the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur's creative voice is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process.
In law the film is treated as a work of art and the auteur, as the creator of the film, is the original copyright holder. Under EU law, the film director is considered the author or one of the authors of a film, largely as a result of the influence of auteur theory.
Auteur theory has influenced film criticism since 1954, when it was advocated by film director and critic François Truffaut. It was originally associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for the French film review periodical Cahiers du Cinéma. Auteur theory was developed a few years later in the United States through the writings of The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris used auteur theory as a way to further the analysis of what he defines as serious work through the study of respected directors and their films.
Auteur theory draws on the work of a group of cinema enthusiasts who wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and argued that films should reflect a director's personal vision. They championed filmmakers such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Nicholas Ray, Erich von Stroheim, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Jean Renoir as absolute "auteurs" of their films. Although André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers, provided a forum for auteurism to flourish, he explained his concern about its excesses in his article "On the Auteur Theory" (Cahiers du Cinéma #70, 1957). Another element of auteur theory comes from Alexandre Astruc's notion of the caméra-stylo or "camera-pen", which encourages directors to wield cameras as writers use pens and to guard against the hindrances of traditional storytelling.
Truffaut and the members of the Cahiers recognized that movie-making was an industrial process. However, they proposed an ideal to strive for, encouraging the director to use the commercial apparatus as a writer uses a pen, and, through the mise en scène, imprint his or her vision on the work (minimizing the role of the screenwriter). Recognizing the difficulty of reaching this ideal, they valued the work of directors who came close.
The definition of an auteur has been debated since the 1940s. André Bazin and Roger Leenhardt presented the theory that it is the director that brings the film to life and uses the film to express their thoughts and feelings about the subject matter as well as a worldview as an auteur. An auteur can use lighting, camerawork, staging and editing to add to their vision.
In his 1954 essay "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" ("A certain tendency in French cinema"), François Truffaut coined the phrase "la politique des Auteurs", asserting that the worst of Jean Renoir's movies would always be more interesting than the best of the movies of Jean Delannoy. "Politique" might very well be translated as "policy" or "program"; it involves a conscious decision to value and look at films in a certain way. One might see it as the policy of treating any director that uses a personal style or a unique worldview as an Auteur. Truffaut criticized the Cinema of Quality as "Scenarists' films", which are works that lack originality and rely on literary classics. According to Truffaut, this means that the director is only a metteur en scene, a "stager". This tradition suggests that the screenwriter hands the script to the director and the director simply adds the performers and pictures. Truffaut said: "[t]here are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors".
Starting in the 1960s, some film critics began criticising auteur theory's focus on the authorial role of the director. Pauline Kael and Sarris feuded in the pages of The New Yorker and various film magazines. One reason for the backlash is the collaborative aspect of shooting a film, and in the theory's privileging of the role of the director (whose name, at times, has become more important than the movie itself). In Kael's 1971 essay on Citizen Kane, a classic film for the auteur model, she points out how the film made extensive use of the distinctive talents of co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Notable screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman, Nicholas Kazan, Robert Riskin, William Goldman and Guillermo Arriaga have publicly balked at the idea that directors are more authorial than screenwriters, while film historian Aljean Harmetz, referring to the creative input of producers and studio executives in classical Hollywood, argues that the auteur theory "collapses against the reality of the studio system".
The auteur theory was also challenged by the influence of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism. The New Critics argued that critics made an "intentional fallacy" when they tried to interpret works of art by speculating about what the author meant, based on the author's personality or life experiences. New Critics argued that information or speculation about an author's intention was secondary to the words on the page as the basis of the experience of reading literature.
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