That protean, motley preoccupation sometimes called film theory has shown many faces over the years. But before today’s engagements with the medium’s correspondence with digital technologies and television; and before yesterday’s praise of formal analysis over the deployment of elevated theory; and even before this elevated (Marxian, Freudian, Saussurean) film theory itself — there was auteur theory. And although its stature has no doubt diminished, it uncompromisingly changed the way we think about film. Its impact can still be felt today.
Auteur theory originated as an Anglophone import of the French les politiques des auteurs, which denoted a policy (politique) of laboriously evaluating and ranking directors for their films, much the way people thought of composers in relation to their symphonies or poets in relation to their poems — that is, as their author and originator (auteur is French for “author,” though not necessarily of a novel). This practice began with the French critics of the Cahiers du cinema journal in the 1940s and ’50s, who developed hierarchized pantheons of auteurs that constituted the brunt of their now classical reflections on film.
Since then, the theory of the auteur has been critically elaborated in different directions and in distinct contexts — most famously by François Truffaut in France and Andrew Sarris in the United States. It has served partially as a rhetorical device to facilitate a closer study of the personal style and idiosyncratic authorship of certain directors, and partially as a polemical weapon to argue for the inclusion of film in the domain of art history, rather than in some subordinate category of technological vaudeville. In a recent reclamation of the concept of the auteur, Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, defined its most rudimentary basis as such: “that movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences.”
Continuing their tradition of inspired programming (see: the forthcoming Porn Noir), Anthology Film Archives presents a series called Auteurs Gone Wild, opening today. The program contributes, playfully but still critically, to contemporary reflections on the legacy of the auteur as a film historical touchstone.
Curated by David Phelps, Auteurs Gone Wild includes nine films (all showing on 35mm) directed by several de facto auteurs — including Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and Ernst Lubitsch — each of whom maintained a punctilious and sometimes even tyrannical control of the production of their films. Phelps has selected the works that most belie this superlative control (hence “gone wild”) and thus violate the stylistic consistency expected of the nearly monolithic authorship promised by the title “auteur.” Yet these films aren’t stinkers, one-offs, or oddballs so much as they are fascinating inlets into the more personal, deranged, or denuded strata of production of artists whose celebrated styles have been hypostatized by their canonization.
Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), the most aberrant film showing in the series (and so arguably fulfilling Phelps’s criteria best), was appropriately also one of the most maligned upon its release (except for in France, of course). The work, publicized as a horror-thriller, is in reality an uncanny gothic drama set in 19th-century Australia, adapted from the Helen Simpson novel of the same name. The film follows a love triangle between Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), his wife, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and an interlocutor, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who knew Henrietta very well in childhood, before all three left Ireland. The dramatic movement between the players is plagued with debilitating inertia because so much of its forcefulness derives from memories of incidents that happened years before the action we see. The film thrives on this tension between anteriority and presence, between memory and contingency, whereby the virtual existence of what has long been absent haunts and determines the course of the characters’ relationships. In its way, Capricorn is a saturnine kind of ghost story — only it wasn’t seen like this in 1949.
So many incidents around the film spelled failure: during production Bergman began her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, which would ultimately lead to her nearly decade-long exile from Hollywood; Hitchcock’s producers repossessed the film upon box-office flop, pulling it from circulation prematurely; and Cotton, the lead, frequently and openly referred to the film as “Under Corny Crap” or “Under Crapricorn.”
Cotten’s contempt for the film is palpable in his performance, which auspiciously animates his character with a role-appropriate listlessness. His dread contrasts with the film’s eerily sumptuous color palette, dominated by velvety royal blues, ivory whites, greens and turquoises matched by fiery backdrops of lurid sunsets, flooding the mansion where the majority of the film takes place with voluptuous artificial light. Hitchcock’s camera movement through this dilapidated structure is uncharacteristically unhinged: it goes up and down, forward and back, as well as horizontally — sometimes moving unsteadily to the arrhythmic plodding of human footsteps, further intensifying the delirious spell that holds sway over the characters in the film, and over us as we watch them.
Auteurs Gone Wild is designed almost expressly for the avowed cinephiles who want to see some of the greats at their weirdest. Still, the series “has something for everyone” — Lang’s dapper, conspiracy-laden romance collaboration with Kurt Weill (Brecht’s now-and-then lyricist); one of Lubitsch’s most earnest, solemn statements about the human condition; and George Cukor’s strangely heartbreaking story about a paternalistic scumbag and his entitled son; it also offers an intimate peek at the idiosyncrasies of beloved auteurs who became famous, paradoxically, for precisely that: their idiosyncrasies.
Auteurs Gone Wild continues at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) through March 30.