Andrew Sarris Auteur Theory Explained


Andrew Sarris was a long-time film critic. Often referred to as a founding father of the industry, he brought the idea of providing critical feedback to the public and helped others see the value of such an interpretation. His most influential idea was the auteur theory.

Auteur, which is French for “author,” suggests that directors of modern cinema are equal in artistic genius to other artists in other eras of history. Comparing Steven Spielberg to Michelangelo might seem ridiculous to some, but Sarris suggests that art is found in both mediums when there is a certain ambitiousness to the effort.

Even when there is studio influence on a film that is being made, Sarris suggests through auteur theory that the creative voice of a director is still distinct enough to be detected. Even through editing and processing, there are certain films that people can recognize as being from Ron Howard or Martin Scorsese, even if they don’t know that they were involved with the film.

How Has Auteur Theory Changed the Cinematic Industry?

This theory has led to several important innovations within the cinematic industry. For example, the auteur is the person who holds the original copyright of a piece. In a work-for-hire situation, the auteur might transfer that right to a studio or employer, but the role of “creator” can never be relinquished.

In Europe, auteur theory has influenced the law to the point that a director is treated as an author of the film, even if they were not part of the story development or script-writing process.

That is why a film has a certain voice from a directing standpoint. It is also why film critics focus on the directing and craftsmanship of the film, not just the story or the acting, when offering feedback to the general public.

Why Is the Role of the Director So Influential?

When Sarris wrote his 1962 essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” he suggested what many fans of cinema were already discussing: that the definition of serious cinematic work must include the vision of the director for it to be complete. A scriptwriter can create an amazing story, but it is only words that are at the mercy of the reader’s imagination.

What the director does is use the eye of each camera to create a visual representation of the story that was composed. In a way, the job of the director is to eliminate the imagination of the person enjoying the film.

Like a writer needs to find their own voice, directors must develop their own eye. Not every writer tries to be unique or follow a distinct vision, which is similar to directors that look to mass-produce cinema to create profits for their studio. Many writers and directors follow formulaic patterns to create products for consumption.

There are, however, certain directors that have distinctive works that an audience instantly recognizes. These directors are considered “absolute auteurs.”

Many of the directors who are placed into this category are absolute auteurs from the past, but there are just as many modern directors that are included on this list. Alfred Hitchcock is often thought of as being the greatest director of this type but Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, and David Lean are great examples of the validity of auteur theory as well.

Additional directors who are thought of as having distinctive voices include the following.

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Woody Allen
  • Orson Welles
  • Frank Capra

Can There Be a True Director’s Voice with So Much Collaboration?

Finding a true voice in the world of film can be difficult, especially when looking at the demands of the modern business. Studios and producers are heavily involved in the filmmaking process. CGI, animation, and other special effects are added to numerous films, and those creators have their own voices as well.

Even editors could be credited with a portion of the collaborative voice of a film.

In total, hundreds of people can be working on a film in several different locations simultaneously. Is the storyboard direction and camera work created by the director enough to overcome those additional influences?

Some would argue that this eliminates the auteur aspect of the modern film. Yet at the same time, many people can recognize that they are going to a James Cameron film based on the style and content presentation.

Should a director have an authorial role or credit for films? Andrew Sarris suggested that they should. Although the economics of cinematography have changed over the years, the voice of the director is still present. That is evidence of auteur theory.