The role La politique des auteurs (auteur theory) played, and still plays, in film culture was at the forefront of this year’s Cinema Rediscovered. First proposed by the French film critics who founded the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, it views a film’s author to be its director.
One of the strands at this year’s festival was based around the mainstream adoption of this theory by Hollywood, 1971: The Year Hollywood went Independent. Fitting, then, that film critic and historian, Pamela Hutchinson, in her Philip French Memorial Lecture suggested a subtle resistance to the legacy of auteur theory may be to use women’s names as headliners where performance power outweighs direction, that we might call it “Jane Fonda’s Klute”, for example.
Later in the festival, auteur theory was once again the elephant in the room when discussing issues of diversity. In a talk hosted by feminist film collective, Invisible Women, Hutchinson was joined by film critics Simran Hans and Helen O'Hara, who agreed that one way critics can rally against the erasure of women from film history is in deconstructing auteur theory and widening the lens of “author”.
While some women filmmakers are widely and popularly revered - Kathryn Bigelow, who was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director in 2008 for The Hurt Locker, and Jane Campion, who was one of only seven women to ever be nominated for the award (The Piano, 1993) - a new wave of young, talented female filmmakers are now receiving attention. Greta Gerwig (Ladybird, 2017), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman, 2020), and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, 2020) have all been nominated for Oscars in recent years, and have even had their names immortalized on some oh-so-trendy tops. But is this what progress looks like? The same issue of marginality is present, even if some women are now receiving attention.
It seems auteur theory isn’t going anywhere: it’s marketable (looking back at those trendy tops), it’s reductive, and it helps consumers cut through the surge in ‘content’ filling streaming platforms. Given the origins of auteur theory it should come as no surprise that it’s a rather useful tool in film exhibition. An auteur focused approach gives rise to easily packaged and communicated retrospectives, which in turn can assist in enabling film restorations and preservation. No matter how much we might ridicule the logic behind such a theory, as Pauline Kael did in her 1963 essay Circles and Squares, auteur theory is now baked into the economics of the film industry so thoroughly, that to move away from it would require nothing short of a complete overhaul of the industry as it stands.
Shy of this, there are still ways that film critics can help promote diversity and inclusion from within. In amplifying the achievements of marginalised, unsung film workers, and by changing the criteria behind who we call an auteur. Positive change within the industry can start from these little acts of resistance. It can start, as Pamela Hutchinson suggests, by referring to Jane Fonda’s ‘Klute ’.
Rewriting Film History (With The Women in It) took place online as part of Cinema Rediscovered 2021. The event was curated and hosted by archive activists Invisible Women with guest contributors including Helen O’Hara, author of Women Vs Hollywood: The Fall & Rise of Women in Film and film journalist (Empire), Pamela Hutchinson, author, film historian and critic (Guardian, Sight & Sound, BBC, Criterion, Empire) and writer, broadcaster and film critic for The Observer Simran Hans (Dazed, Sight & Sound, Guardian, New Statesman).
Jake Abatan is a freelance film writer based in Brighton. He holds a BA (Hons) in English and Film Studies and earned his MA in Film Studies from the University of Sussex in 2020, writing his dissertation on James Dean and CGI star re-animation. He currently serves as Deputy Film Editor for The Indiependent, a volunteer lead arts and culture site with a strong focus on fostering writers at the start of their career. His main interests include animation, auteur studies, and genre film.