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The Return of the Auteur

Do cinemagoers ever stop to think about the art of the auteur, its origins, its meaning, its historical impact on the medium and the ripple effects that have carried through to this day?  Possibly not, it’s not the cinemagoer’s job or duty to dissect and analyse a film, especially not the first time they see it.  Their role is simply to be entertained, made to laugh, cry, fear, have their emotions elicited in whatever direction the film takes them. For the current hefty price of a cinema ticket, the least an audience can expect is to be taken on some form of a journey. 

But does the average filmmaker him or herself ever factor the auteur theory into their own work, their way of thinking, their artistic aspirations.  Is it part of the ultimate goal when considering what they want their overall body of life’s work to be?

Since its inception the Auteur Theory has left a lot to conjecture and criticism and ruffled a few feathers to say the least; screenwriters in particular feeling that without their written work no ‘film’ could actually exist.  It’s an argument and source of friction that continues to this day, recent examples of the prolonged debate for artistic prominence and due credit raging between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga over the film ‘Babel’. 

“The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant.”
                                  US film critic and leading proponent of the theory, Andrew Sarris:

For many, it’s just an archaic term, seldom thought about, or even understood.  For others it’s an irrelevance, not important alongside such things as technical knowhow.  But for some it can be the ultimate aspiration, the mere whisper of it mentioned in connection with their work prized and coveted beyond any other form of recognition.

So what is this seemingly misunderstood and somehow intangible theory, how did it come to life and, on closer inspection, are the parallels between its pioneers and the work they created in its name and the average microbudget filmmaker struggling for his or her own vocation at the current time really that far apart at all?

Wiki Definition:
In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary ‘auteur’ French for author.  


Here the parallels should have the biggest influence of all on those of us struggling to bring our own projects to life. When Truffaut began his campaign in 1959 it was about finding a way for him and others like him to make their films, their way.  It wouldn’t necessarily have been easy, but they did it, and the legacy that followed because of the actions of a few people who believed unequivocally in what they needed to do had an impact on the world’s film industry that resonates today.  It bequeathed a legacy of some of the most artistic and deeply meaningful films ever made.  The impact, even now, is monumental.  There is no reason why we, as an army of likeminded and wilful filmmakers and actors cannot come together to try a similar thing and make our own definable mark. 

“In the UK no one wants to know about anyone being an auteur, it’s a dirty word, it’s a derided word.”
“And yet one of our greatest directors, Alfred Hitchcock, was an auteur.”
“Yes, and our greatest director of all, David Lean, was also an auteur.”
       Paul Hills and Katharine Collins
conversation from  ‘Fires we’re Starting…’


No one can deny that film is the ultimate collaborative endeavour, every cog in the wheel being as essential as the other. 

One universal truth that carries the only real certainty in the film world is that ‘no one knows anything’.  No one is ever right or wrong.  Just as there are a myriad of different films catering to audiences of wildly varying tastes, and just as the smallest, and quirkiest films can become sensational successes and the biggest, highest budgeted monsters with the hugest marketing machines behind them can come spectacularly crashing to the ground – so it goes that applying every principle of the Auteur Theory to your work and mode of thought offers no guarantee that you’ll become a modern day Francois Truffaut or Stanley Kubrick.

However where the Auteur Theory resonates today and is probably more apt is in terms of the visionary filmmaker. 

I became a massive fan of Gerard Johnson’s feature debut ‘Tony, London Serial Killer’ the first time I saw it a few years ago.

In its inky black dark heart it encapsulated all that was delicious and mesmerizing about independent British filmmaking.  A truly original script, even among the overpopulation of films about serial killers, a central character that was so ‘brought to life’ by the writing, the direction and Peter Ferdinando’s fearless performance that it was almost impossible to imagine he wasn’t real. 

Scenes shocking in their brutality and fearfulness, due to the stark reality and inescapabilty in which they were painted – you somehow know exactly what is going to happen prior to it happening – not in a ‘I’ve seen this kind of film a thousand times before’ way – but rather with a prickly sense of inevitable dread.  And something that made ‘Tony’ quintessentially British was the cleverest of black comedy that made certain lines more memorable than those from the highest priced script doctors ‘I could make some beans on toast.’ ‘How much for a cuddle?’

I’ve been yearning for Johnson’s next outing ever since I first saw ‘Tony’ and, like most gems, it was worth the wait.  Last year saw the release of the critically acclaimed and more prominently showcased feature thriller ‘Hyena’.  A soul shredding delve into the murky underbelly of corrupt British drug-squad officers and a torn man who literally comes apart at the seams along with the world he inhabits.  

Certain principles of the Auteur Theory could be applied to Johnson’s work upon viewing of his second feature; a dark subject matter, an atmosphere that crackles with menace, an unsympathetic main character, the use of the same actors, Peter Ferdinando, Neil Maskell and Lorenzo Camporese, a welcomed use of black comedy, violent scenes so shockingly stark and visceral you feel you’re actually experiencing the situations yourself. 

However what is most relevant and inspiring is not that Johnson is aspiring to be considered an auteur.  Instead it is that he holds fast to the courage of his convictions, with ‘Hyena’, along with ‘Tony’, you know you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who has 100 percent certainty over what he is trying to say.  The terrific cast all clearly trust him completely and, because of that trust turn in harrowingly real and unforgettable performances. 

Perhaps nowadays it’s true that very few filmmakers are practicing the Auteur Theory or aspiring to be considered an auteur.  But what it’s terrific to see in Johnson’s work is a filmmaker in complete command of his own artistic vision and remaining the captain of his ship, not detracting from the film he ultimately wants to make for the sake of opinion or commercial pressure or trying to cater to fit a variety of tastes. 

For me, this alone makes Gerard Johnson a ‘visionary filmmaker’ an author of his own work.  And in my book, Auteur Theory aside, this inner courage, belief and certainty in what you want to create whether it appeals to everyone or not is what we as filmmakers should all be aspiring to.

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