Thematic criticism and auteurism

One of the most prototypical instances of thematic criticism is auteurism, the attribution of a single source of a film's intentionality, value, and meaning to the director. It was, as the name suggests, initially formulated in Paris, around the influential journal Cahiers du cinéma. Subsequently, auteurism was taken up by Movie magazine in London (see Chapter 3) and by Andrew Sarris in New York, who for a brief period edited Cahiers du cinéma in English and in 1968 published The American Cinema: Directors and Directions (Sarris 1996), the auteurists' bible in the English-speaking world.

What made auteurism a radical doctrine (a 'politics') during the 1950s in France and the early 1960s in Britain and the United States was that it took the commercial mainstream cinema (and thus a vital aspect of popular culture) seriously. Auteur critics challenged the traditional division between the arts into high and low media, but the real provocation lay in actively maintaining the criteria and classifications of traditional aesthetics: the belief in the artist as a controlling creative identity behind a work, the idea of the consistency of themes, and the notion of the coherence of an entire body of work over a lifetime of artistic production. Setting themselves off against film appreciation as much as against film reviewing in the daily press, the auteur critics elevated the genre films and studio products directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, and others to the status of art, and claimed for these directors (auteurs) the rank of major artists. Commenting on François Truffaut's influence in developing the polemical understanding of the film director as auteur, Andrew Sarris notes: 'Truffaut's greatest heresy [in the eyes of traditional film critics] was not in his ennobling direction as a form of creation, but in his ascribing authorship to Hollywood directors hitherto tagged with the deadly epithets of commercialism. This was Truffaut's major contribution to the anti-Establishment ferment in England and America' (Sarris 1996: 28).

More specifically, the auteur critics elevated a select group of Hollywood directors to the status of classical artists - that is, artists who work within institutions (in this instance, Hollywood studios), but who expressed themselves through adhering to conventions. This is in contrast to the type of director Truffaut and other critics at Cahiers du cinéma wanted to become -and, of course, did become in the 1960s: namely, Romantic artists, who work outside institutions, and whose expressive style requires the breaking of conventions.

As we saw above, one of the favoured methods of establishing the credentials of a director to be considered an auteur (and not merely a metteur-en-scène or a studio contract director) is to demonstrate a set of consistent themes or preoccupations, across a diversity of genres (e.g. similar or complementary motifs in Hawks's comedies, his Westerns and his action-adventures; the underlying unity of Minnelli's musicals and melodramas) or across films made for different studios (Hitchcock for Selznick and Universal; Preminger at first for Twentieth Century Fox and then as his own independent producer). A thematic analysis of a director's work thus always implies the presence of countervailing forces - most commonly those of producer and studio, occasionally that of genre - against which an auteur-director was deemed to have succeeded in imposing his signature and thereby remain true to himself and articulate his 'vision of the world'.

If we now apply the auteur argument to Polanski's Chinatown, we note that both the issues of thematic coherence and authorial identity are complicated by the fact that Polanski - born in Paris in 1933 - began his career in Poland in the 1960s where the (economic, ideological) constraints for a film-maker were quite different from those obtaining in a commercial, mainstream film industry. He subsequently made films in Britain before moving to Hollywood, which he left in 1976 for France, where he has been making most of his films since. In his career, therefore, the countervailing forces assumed to be operating in the Hollywood system, as well as the auteur's (stylistic, thematic) means by which to assert himself against them, are bound to be different from those assumed to have negatively or dialectically shaped the career of a Sam Fuller or Nicholas Ray. On the other hand, by the time he came to make Chinatown, Polanski had established a reputation as a highly distinctive director, with an offbeat approach even to conventional subjects as well as a strong existentialist undertow that closely affiliated him with various 'gothic', 'expressionist', 'film noir', or 'horror' genres in cinema history, all of which he often subverted by a strain of black humour and absurdist comedy. The strongest countervailing force in his case would be the change of language (from Polish to English to French) and the different conditions of production in the four countries in which he has directed. This makes his situation resemble that of 'independent' auteurs from a slightly older generation, like Orson Welles or Joseph Losey, who also moved in and out of several film industries.

But Polanski is also comparable to Hollywood directors of an apparently quite different generation, namely the expatriate or émigré directors of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, or Robert Siodmak. They, too, had either left their native country and its film industry to rebuild a career in Hollywood or been forced by political events to seek refuge in the United States. Adjusting more or less voluntarily and felicitously to the Hollywood production system, they were indeed contending with interfering producers (from the auteurist point of view) and a rigid studio system (from the European perspective). They also had to make certain genre conventions their own, by subverting or transforming them (Hitchcock transforming the woman's picture and the thriller; the directors from Germany giving the Weimar 'social picture' of the 1920s a new, more sombre inflection, as in the neo-expressionist 'film noir' of the 1940s).

The trajectory of Polanski, however, does not finally fit into this mould either. On the one hand, one could claim that he was a political refugee from communist Poland, when the post-Stalinist thaw of the 1960s became once more the socialist permafrost of Poland's General Jaruselsky in the 1970s. On the other hand, Polanski's career move to Hollywood follows another pattern, that of the successful European director lured to Hollywood by an offer he could not refuse: in this he is more like Louis Malle, Jan Troll, Alan Parker, Philip Noyce, Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, or Wolfgang Petersen - all of them directors whose talent Hollywood succeeded in 'buying in' from abroad. Polanski did become a refugee, in reverse direction, from Hollywood to Paris. He did not flee the US for political reasons, but jumped bail when facing a criminal conviction for statutory rape.

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