The Problem with Auteur Theory

Seven SamuraiI recently got the new Criterion Collection version of Seven Samurai. It is a great film—maybe even Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film. It certainly isn’t my favorite, however; Yojimbo is a lot more fun. But it is masterful filmmaking. This latest edition includes a tag-team commentary by five experts: Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen. I am kind of a fan of Prince, and would have been content just to have him for the almost four hour film. But it is very edifying to get all the different input, especially from Joan Mellen. But I want to discuss the commentary from the original release, which is done by Michael Jeck.

At the beginning of the film, the bandits look over the villiage and decide not to attack it until the barley is ripe. They all ride away. Jeck comments, “Now why are they galloping? It was only on the fifteenth viewing that I thought even to ask the question. Of course, because it makes it more exciting. But it took me fifteen viewings because Kurosawa is so subtle and begins in medias res.” Oh my!

This bit sums up the entire commentary. Right off the top, you have to ask: was it really necessary to throw in that Latin phrase? Wouldn’t it have been easier and better to just say that the film starts right in the middle of things? But okay. Film commentaries are generally pretentious endeavors. But it doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest.

What is most troubling in this commentary is that he makes a big deal out our Kurosawa’s decision to have the bandits gallop away. I feel quite certain that he did that because that’s just the way it is always done in movies. Yes, it is exciting. This is why it has been done at least since The Great Train Robbery, back in 1903. It would have been silly if the lead bandit had said, “We will return when the barley is ripe. Now everyone off your horses! They are tired and need to rest!” The reason that Jeck didn’t note why the bandits galloped away until his fifteenth viewing is because it is in no way worthy of note.

And this gets to the heart of what is wrong with Jeck: he accepts the auteur theory. This is the idea that a film is the result of the director’s creative vision. There is much to be said of the theory. In most regards, it is the director who has the final say as to how things are done. But as we learned with our “decider” President George W. Bush, there is a big difference between coming up with your own ideas and just selecting from three that Vice-President Cheney presents to you. This is normally the way that directors work with all of their department heads.

It is true that Kurosawa has a distinctive look to his films. But this is not entirely due to him. It is also thanks to Takashi Matsuyama’s art direction. And the cinematography of Asakazu Nakai. And the amazing costume design in Seven Samurai by Kohei Ezaki. And his many other experts and actors. Certainly, the films have qualities that only Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune would add. Unfortunately, Jeck tells us over and over that this or that was put in the film because Kurosawa wanted it that way. Surely, this is not always true.

There is something to say for Jeck, I suppose. I remember going to see Fargo with a friend and she asked me a telling question afterwards. The film starts with a car driving toward the camera. It dips below the horizon and then back above it because of the changing elevation of the road. She wanted to know if that just happened to be the way the road was or if it was planned that way. I told her it was planned that way. But that is as far as I’m willing to take it. It might have been planned from the start. It might have been the image that the Coen brothers started with. It is also possible it was something improvised by the second unit cameraman. “You know, if we set the camera here, we’ll see the car, then it will disappear, and then we’ll see it again.” The truth is that there are a lot of really creative people who make films, and it is an insult to them to turn directors into gods who come up with every good idea in a film. Just the same, damned little that appears on screen is an accident.

What is most sad about the commentary is that Michael Jeck has a lot of knowledge to offer. He understands Japanese history and so he explains many things that a western viewer would miss. And mostly he is right on about what is important from a film standpoint. But there are only so many times that I can be told that it is windy because Kurosawa wanted it that way rather than it just being windy on the day of shooting.


Of course, you should own this version of Seven Samurai. And Yojimbo. And Sanjuro. (Use the links above to buy it from Amazon and you can donate a few nickles to this site.)

7 thoughts on “The Problem with Auteur Theory

  1. I’ve had the Criterion "Samurai" disc lingering on the bottom of the pile forever; I really should get to it.

    On "auteurs" — Pauline Kael’s book on "Citizen Kane" has a great essay about the film’s genesis from the mind of Herman Manckeiwicz. (His son, Frank, was McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager, and his brother directed "All About Eve.") Orson is a god in my estimation, but he didn’t create "Kane" out of thin air; it was the script, the Mercury actors, Gregg Toland’s photography, and Bernard Herrmann’s score.

    Yes, I wasted too much of my youth studying movies, and I wish I studied something useful like ancient Chinese pottery instead. Too late, now.

  2. @JMF – Kael’s book is mostly an attack on Welles. And in [i]Kane[/i] he worked very hard in editing, making it more than it would normally be. This isn’t to take anything away from the others. It is certainly Welles’ most collaborative film.

    My problem is not that Kurosawa’s films weren’t fundamentally his. It is more this notion that everything in the film is his and everything any critic notices must be a sign of his brilliance. We’ve seen this to a nauseating degree with Hitchcock.

    And let us not forget that there are true auteurs. Russ Meyer and Jon Jost come to mind. Welles does too, but mostly just because of how he worked; I think he was very good at fixing problems afterwards; it isn’t that he had all that clear an idea before. Above all he was an experimentalist.

  3. I really have to watch that DVD of "Samuai."

    Hitchcock’s an interesting case. Many of his films remain more entertaining today than contemporary products, yet he was more a savvy producer than an "auteur." If James Mason and Cary Grant weren’t in "North By Northwest", it’d be a long and dull "Twilight Zone" episode.

    To what degree do we praise movie directors for their films? Even if they mostly just assembled talented collaborators, shouldn’t we be impressed by their choices? Does any of this shit matter?

    By the way, while Kael is harsh on Welles in the Manckeiwicz essay, she positively splooshed over "Othello" and "Chimes."

  4. @JMF – The next time you watch [i]North by Northwest[/i], take special note of the scene where the airplane crashes into the oil tanker. Even by the expectations of the time, that special effect is [i]terrible[/i]. I like Hitchcock’s films by and large. But I do not think he’s an important director.

    I think one can use directors as shorthand for all the people who work on a film. This is especially true because most directors who are distinctive use much the same crew. The more distinctive directors write their own films. (Martin Scorsese is an exception about writing, but he very much uses the same people.) And many also edit their own stuff (e.g. Kurosawa). So I am willing to give them all the props in the world. But I think they know as much as anyone how much they depend upon others.

    Kael liked those films?! I did not know that. I always thought that Kael generally hated Welles. That’s good to know. I am very fond of both those films. I really like how Welles approached Shakespeare. (Even Macbeth, which is usually panned.) I think he was way ahead of his time. I wish I had been able to see some of his stage work.

  5. Hey Frank,

    Kudos for labeling the über-groovy Russ Meyer as an ‘auteur’, he’s often neglected. Honestly, he does fit the bill nicely (I agree, as you know, that Welles was one too. I even think a good subjective essay could be written about-hear me out-Meyer and Welles and the, superficial, similarities between them. Both were experimental without entering Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage territory, both used extreme camera angles a lot, had distinctive rhythms to their editing and used extensive overdubbing). . .

    I have some problems with ‘auteur theory’ (perhaps less than you and even less if the director is working a number of ‘jobs’ on set) I think it actually depends on the director being discussed really? Like, I disagree and say I think Hitchcock was an auteur. I don’t think his work was, many times actually, as interesting finally as people sometimes claim them to be? But, he planned every shot in advance, the subjects of his work were very similar and he demanded absolute control over a set; which seems to indicate an auteur-scene happening there.

    I don’t have much problem when critics go into depth and detail when discussing underlying & overarching ‘themes’ and minutia while interpreting a film. 1) because I look at their commentary as a potentially interesting viewpoint, which may or may not be valid. 2) I sort of enjoy the analysis itself. Almost as an art form in it’s own right. If it’s an interesting point being made, or a fascinating theory to ponder during further viewings, I can dig it whether it’s (actually) right or not. In the end we mostly don’t know ‘why’ filmmakers/directors did (or didn’t) do something in their work-so I’m troubled little by the analysis. All that being said, pretentiousness can be highly annoying and many critics are guilty, that I agree.

    Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. I recently viewed The King of Comedy and thought I’d run this by you, as I recall it’s a favored Scorsese film of yours. Why does Scorsese have the actor (who played Maury of "Maury’s Wigs" in Goodfellas) sitting behind Rupert in the restaurant scene miming DeNiro’s physical actions when Rupert’s showing his autograph collection to the gal he’s with? Have you ever noticed that? He’s never totally in focus, he’s in the background, it took me until this most recent view to notice him, but it’s pretty obvious once you do. He even moves himself to be "in frame"! It would seem there had to be some reason Scorsese let that play out? I have no idea myself-but I’d find it interesting to hear people with knowledge of the Scorsese realm discuss why he may have done that, ya dig?

  6. @Karl – I’m always interested in your opinions, especially about film. On the Scorsese question: I didn’t notice and I don’t know. It is certainly the case that directors do create filmatic puns. Kurosawa did this kind of thing a lot–using an actor to make some meta point or reference another film.

    I agree with you about commentaries. They are their own art form, or at least can be. In general, I’ve really soured on director commentaries. The people who I would think would do really interesting commentaries (e.g. Scorsese) don’t do them. Too often there is too much, "A funny thing happened on the set this day!" Writers tend to do a better job. Julian Fellowes commentary for [i]Gosford Park[/i] is a classic, but Robert Altman’s is kind of a dud.

    My favorite are academics. As much as I complained about Jeck, I learned a great deal from him. [i]Seven Samurai[/i] has so much in it that a western viewer just won’t get without some help. So I really think they enhance the experience.

    I’ll have to go back and check out [i]King of Comedy[/i]. I’ll let you know if I have any brilliant insights, but I wouldn’t count on it.

  7. Frank,

    Well thanks man, what a cool thing to say. Naturally, I’m continually fascinated, not only by your opinion, but the breadth of your knowledge, sincerely. Especially in the politics scene-I am clueless there and I shamefully admit that my attention wanes when I watch or listen to politics (My brain can’t seem to operate in that environ?). Honestly, I do find your writings of political happenings: hipper and far more entertaining than most venues. But then I guess that’s not saying much after what I just said. . .but, keep on, keepin’ on!

    I agree on ‘director’s commentaries’ of film; they are most often the worst to speak on their films. And as you said, I think a lot can be gained from a really well thought out and fascinating commentary by even a half way decent film scholar. I don’t know why directors tend to speak mostly of gossip and banal stories from ‘on the set’? There must be exceptions to this, but I honestly can’t think of one right now.

    I’d like to hear Julian Fellowes’ commentary for Gosford Park. A film by a good director, which I think had more to do with the writor; as Downton Abbey seems to indicate? I think I heard only one Altman commentary? McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I believe? I seem to recall it being, for the most part, reminiscences. I used to listen to commentary for ‘filmmaking advice’, and sometimes a director commentary can be good for that? The one that stands out to me right now, in that respect, was by Paul Thomas Anderson for, I think, Boogie Nights?

    Yes, please do let me know what your thought may be on the scene in King of Comedy. I sincerely respect your opinion in that department as well. I’ve been thinking about the thing ever since, and the closest I can figure is that he (the "Maury" character) was used by Scorsese the way one might use a mime-to show that Rupert’s an absurd character, even to a nameless, faceless customer just griefly over-hearing his boasts. . .but I’m not sold on that, so I still don’t know. But I’m curious to know what you think.

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