That is probably what Godard would say; judging by the philosophy of his film Vivre Sa Vie (1962), “After all, things are just what they are. A face is a face. Plates are plates. Men are men. And life is life.” Therefore, Godard, himself considered an “auteur,” would probably say that an auteur is an auteur, plain and simple – but what does that mean? How does one determine what kind of filmmaker is an “auteur”?
In 1968, Andrew Sarris famously relegated Billy Wilder to the “Less Than Meets the Eye” section of his book The American Cinema, a study of directors whose singular vision placed them in the hallowed category belonging to proponents of the auteur theory. Although Sarris changed his mind about Wilder thirty years later, the question remains: what makes a director an auteur? Why can’t Wilder be an auteur when his unique stamp is evident in films he made in every genre? From Double Indemnity to Stalag 17 to Sabrina to Witness for the Prosecution to The Apartment (pictured), there is a particular Billy Wilder style and it works pretty much every time.
Besides Wilder, I would choose Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Bergman, Tim Burton, Chaplin, Clouzot, Corman, De Palma, Fellini, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kalatozov, Keaton, Kurosawa, Lang, Lean, Lubitsch, David Lynch, Malick (kind of), Minnelli, Miyazaki (if we count animation), Errol Morris (if we count documentaries), Murnau, Ophüls, Ozu, Polanski, Powell and Pressburger, Scorsese, Spielberg, Sirk, Soderbergh, Preston Sturges (pictured: The Lady Eve), Tati, Welles and Wong Kar Wai as but a few candidates for the title of “auteur.”
Some directors are not my cup of tea, like Dreyer, Renoir (pictured: The Rules of the Game) and Tarkovsky. Rules is probably the best Renoir film that I’ve seen, but even so, I’m not a fan. I have tried to connect to other films of his – Boudu Saved from Drowning, La Bête Humaine and French Cancan – but I simply cannot. Renoir is supposedly a great humanist, but that does not come across for me. For Dreyer, Love One Another and Vampyr were just really boring. It takes a special kind of film for me not to have any idea what’s happening in the plot. And with regard to Tarkovsky, the only film of his that I have seen is The Mirror, but it holds an extra-special place in my heart as the worst movie I have ever seen. Ever.
I have to see some more Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Coen brothers, Demy, De Sica, Fassbinder (pictured: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), Ford, Ivory, Kubrick, Melville, Mizoguchi, Resnais, Rohmer, Ken Russell, Truffaut, Varda and Visconti before I decide about them. Some directors are hit-and-miss. I’m still not sure how much I actually like Godard as a filmmaker, even though Vivre Sa Vie had its moments and Breathless is flat-out great.
My biggest takeaway is that I obviously need to see more films directed by women because I now realize that I did not mention a single woman amongst the many names listed above. I am fairly certain that the only female filmmakers by whom I have seen more than one film are Lois Weber, Elaine May, Penny Marshall, Gillian Armstrong, Amy Heckerling (pictured: Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Lone Scherfig and Sofia Coppola. Coppola is probably the only one who is considered an auteur (or auteuse, I suppose), but I don’t care for her style. Maybe one day, when the ratio of male filmmakers to female filmmakers is closer to being equal, I’ll have many more women on my list.