In last Sunday's New York Times, Terrence Rafferty wrote about the fight between writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu over their new film Babel, which opens today. Rafferty quoted Arriaga as saying, "When they say it's an auteur film, I say auteurs film. I have always been against the 'film by' credit on a movie. It's a collaborative process and it deserves several authors." Rafferty went on to write that Arriaga's "relatively uncombative tone may … disguise a rather more aggressive agenda."
While Rafferty neatly laid out the nature of the conflict between Arriaga and González Iñárritu, he assumed readers had a context for the debate. But what does it mean to be an auteur, and why does being considered one matter so much to filmmakers?
The word auteur can be confusing because it can be used to refer to any type of artist's unique style—a painter can be an auteur, as can a musician. But there's a difference between the word auteur and auteur theory, which relates specifically to film and is part of a cinematic debate that has raged for the better part of 50 years. The word itself is derived from the French for author, and the first definition of auteur in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary is "a film director whose practice accords with the auteur theory" (the second definition is "an artist [as a musician or writer] whose style and practice are distinctive"). M-W defines auteur theory as "a view of filmmaking in which the director is considered the primary creative force in a motion picture."
The term auteur first entered the cinematic lexicon in French New Wave director François Truffaut's 1954 essay "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," which appeared in the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut argued that the tools available to the director were roughly synonymous with an author's pen. The way the director used them articulated his or her vision. Reduced to its essence, an auteur, then, would have a distinctive vision or style, one that was recognizable in all of his or her films. And (most important in the context of the debate between Arriaga and González Iñárritu), the screenwriter, to Truffaut, was significantly less important than the director.
It took an American film critic, Andrew Sarris (who today reviews movies for the New York Observer), to popularize the term in the United States. In a 1962 essay titled "Notes on the Auteur Theory," Sarris expanded on Truffaut's ideas, saying that in order for a director to be an auteur, he or she had to possess a certain degree of technical competence, a personal style, and what Sarris termed "interior meaning," or subtext. With these thoughts, Sarris laid the groundwork for what would become one of the defining debates of film studies over the next few decades. For many of those years, Sarris' perspective was seen as the antithesis of film critic Pauline Kael's. In a 1965 essay, "Circles and Squares," Kael took auteurist film critics to task for what she saw as their blind loyalty to auteur directors whose films entered a sort of canon immediately, simply because they had been made by a particular director. In an especially damning comparison, she equated critical loyalty to an auteur director, no matter what the quality of his or her films, to loving a clothing label. Later, some critics argued that auteur theory amounted to little more than fetishization of a director whose work was valued more than the work of everyone else who worked on a film. That's why saying "A Martin Scorsese Film" on a movie poster can be so galling to, say, a screenwriter—especially a screenwriter like Arriago, who has been heralded for the indelible imprint he leaves on his work.
But the debate is more than an academic concern, or even one of popular recognition. Money and awards are accorded to "film by" credits, and with these credits come power and the freedom to pursue the projects directors want. Entrance into the auteur canon, for a director, can mean the difference between having to make the movie the studio wants you to make and the movie you want to make.
It's clear that González Iñárritu, director of highly stylized films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and now Babel, is making a play for auteur status. (A wide variety of directors have achieved such renown, from Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen to Luis Buñuel, Wong Kar-Wai, and Jean-Luc Godard.) Arriaga's response is, "Wait one second—I've written all three of those movies. You can't have all the credit." On the surface, this seems a reasonable request, but it gets to the essence of who, in fact, makes a film. Unlike a book written by one author, a film is worked on by a team of many people. Is only González Iñárritu's vision being communicated in these three films? Or is Arriaga's as well? Auteur theory holds that it doesn't matter that many people contribute to the film. Ultimately, the director is in charge, and it's his vision and style—his mise-en-scène, which refers to everything he puts in front of the camera, including lighting, props, sets, costumes, and, of course, actors. Perhaps most recently, this view has been challenged by David Kipen's book The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, which re-imagines film history as if the careers of writers, not directors, were tracked.
When Rafferty writes that the movies made by Arriaga and González Iñárritu "reflect an unusual degree of equality between the literary and the visual," he concurs with Arriaga's assertion that Babel is not a film made by one auteur—González Iñárritu—but rather, by two.