Cinema and television: the auteur question (part 1)

by Kate

Cinema and television fight to the death

television set

Picture of mid-century TV set from Kitschy Living blog

The introduction of television into the home decades ago instilled fear in the hearts of movie critics and industry professionals alike. Since then, they argue, cinema has been dying for a long time, slowly singing its swan song over the years. This kind of threat to one of the largest commercial and artistic industries in the U.S. has, not surprisingly, invoked vitriolic criticism of television through the years. Television and cinema – the two visual narrative mediums are similar enough that it seems as though there can only be one. At the very least, one of them must be dominant. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, homo sapiens eliminated the neanderthal. Years from now, will one of these art forms also be extinct? Cinema or television – which one will be left standing?

Once again, critics are portending the end of the film industry. Due to the rapid market takeover of streaming video services, which have drastically changed the ways we consume media, the very cinema-ness of cinema is again endangered. In A.O. Scott’s essay on the subject, he predicts that in the future, the divide between the small and large screen may no longer exist. Already, movies, television and other popular visual media increasingly operate on a continuum. Scott also wonders if the extremity between mediums could simply become even greater. The big screen is still a draw, and directors are exploiting this fact with movies like Avatar and Gravity that aren’t the same when viewed on a television or computer screen.

However, the same changes threatening the film industry are allowing television to blossom. Most critics agree that the small screen is having a moment right now. But how does one describe this golden age? To Richard Brody, it seems to mean that television is becoming more cinematic. With his apparent disdain for the medium, he believes it could only improve by association with film. Brody makes some good points. More or less, he notices the ways that cinema is responding to television. He claims that cinematic auteurs are establishing themselves in opposition to an art form commanded by multitudes of writers and directors. Oddly, by his definition, the televised creations from visionaries like Lena Dunham and Vince Gilligan are actually cinema – not stories for the lowly boob tube.

What’s an auteur, anyway?

Director Alfred Hitchcock Looking Through Camara

Critics in the Cahiers du Cinéma recognized Hitchcock as an auteur, despite working in the Hollywood studio system

Brody and Scott found the principle of cinema on the auteur. To combat the popularity of television, filmmakers are emphasizing a power they believe those working in television don’t have – total control over their projects. The concept of a visionary with a distinguishable mark from film to film is a captivating one, but somewhat flawed. And I get it – by and large, my own movie shelf is catalogued by director. The only problem is the director as auteur model can be reductive and exclusive.

In America, Andrew Sarris popularized the theory, initially put forward by his French colleagues at the Cahiers du Cinéma. In their conception, the title of auteur is assigned to the director, encompassing his or her technical skill, stylistic touch and consistent themes. Moreover, auteur theory examines the director’s entire body of work rather than individual films. The auteur model emerged during a time when critics were trying to redefine cinema as an art form in the eyes of a public who still largely perceived movies as entertainment. Since Art with a capital A had traditionally been the work of one individual, cinema had to follow suit in order to be taken seriously. 

I don’t think many people would argue at this point that visual mediums are just as important in our culture as literature is. Unlike books, however, it generally takes a legion of people to make commercial movie or television show. So maybe it’s time to cast aside the old auteur model and reconfigure it for the 21st century. After all, conceptual artists have long embraced the collective as a valid process for making art.

Sarris does mention that great performances by actors can save a work from the incompetence of a director, but he never indicates that anyone but the director carries the true vision of a film. More recently, I think it’s become obvious that writers, actors and possibly cinematographers can also be auteurs. Any individual who conveys a distinctive and cohesive flavor from project to project may be take on this title. Under the Hollywood star system, certain actors, like Humphrey Bogart, were auteurs as well. Similarly, the writing of Charlie Kaufmann and Aaron Sorkin makes an undeniable impact on any project they’re working on. When all of these visionaries begin collaborating on projects with one another, the process of determining who the film belongs to, stylistically, becomes increasingly difficult.

Then, you have to take into account that great art doesn’t require a single author. This is an idea Sarris addresses, but it is often neglected in contemporary criticism. Historically, there are many examples of masterpieces that could not be reduced to the vision of one person – The Wizard of Oz, for example. You don’t need a singular vision to create a masterful film. And despite what Brody argues, an auteur working in television may still be creating television, not cinema. 

Why the auteur model is losing relevance

I’m going to argue that idea that basing a definition of quality art on the auteur-as-director is essentially patriarchal, at least when it comes to commercial productions. This model just hasn’t ever worked well for women, whose disenfranchisement from the entertainment industry has confined us mostly to roles in front of the camera – at least, in America. The model of highbrow artistic genius is one that excludes women and non-whites and always has. By placing emphasis on just one creator, we are making it more difficult for minorities to gain any kind of status in the commercial filmmaking industry. Yes, I’m aware that the men still outnumber women working in television, and whites outnumber people of color by far. However, I think it offers a better environment for change to take place.

While there’s no denying there are auteurs working in television, the generally collaborative nature of the medium makes it a place where auteurs are both less prevalent and less central to the nature of its criticism. Because television shows are more long-lasting and rely on the thoughts of many rather than just one, a more diverse constellation of ideas can emerge out of them. In television shows penned by teams of writers and shot by multiple directors, more legitimate conversations about gender, race and general unease about the state of the world materialize. This may be why certain genres still function so well on television in a way they don’t in the theater. Auteurs can also work within genres, but the guiding principal of genre is that it’s created by zeitgeist, a collection of ideas and experiences that emerge to create something like noir. This is why it remains a powerful method for exploring certain themes, particularly those related to gender and race.

Go on to part 2: B-Movie Television: the Feminist Frontier