Pulp Fact-ion: An Exploration of the Auteur Theory (starring Quentin Tarantino)

Even before I started studying film Quentin Tarantino has always been a personal favourite of mine. His attention to detail, both in his film making techniques and in the narrative landscapes (and entire universe) he has created, are unbelievable. So when given the task of writing about the auteur theory  (and with a universal ban on Hitchcock) Tarantino seemed the logical choice. While the theory itself is fairly ambiguous – and for the most part roughly translated from French – I think I managed to make enough sense out of it to put together something coherent and finish off my first year of studies with a bit of style. With that said I give you Pulp Fact-ion: An Exploration of the Auteur Theory (starring Quentin Tarantino)

The aim of this essay is to analyse the usefulness of the auteur theory as a methodology for studying screen texts. This essay will look to explore and discuss the auteur theory, and the strengths and weaknesses therein, before linking these with direct reference to the body of work of Quentin Tarantino. The theory itself has evolved immensely since it was first discussed in France the early 1950’s and has done much to legitimize film as an academic subject. In order to obtain the relevant information regarding the theory it was necessary to research and examine an extensive array of sources – both English and French. The main outcome of interest is to demonstrate an understanding of how the auteur theory has evolved over the years and how it can be applied when defining a filmmaker the like of Quentin Tarantino.

The foundation of the auteur theory, much like the foundation of modern Hollywood cinema, can be traced back to France during the 1950’s. (Hillier 1985) The writers in French film criticism magazine Cahiers du Cinema developed the concept of a ‘film auteur’ – eventually as a means of linking films together by director – citing a use of recurring film techniques and stylistic manipulations between projects as a reflection of the auteurs own influence over the project (Watson, in Nelmes 2012). However the initial article, published by Jean Truffaut in 1954, that would go on to be the basis of the theory was not intended to create a theory or critical framework at all. (Staples 1967) Truffaut, growing tired of a French film industry that was making films for awards rather than to express artistic creativity, attacked the screen-writers of the time and demanded that something should be done to spur a change.

“I cannot believe in the peaceful co-existence of the Tradition of Quality and a cinema of auteurs.” (Staples 1967)

By 1957 the Cahiers writers had developed Truffaut’s ideas into a very basic outline of the auteur theory that is known today. It is worth noting however that an article published in the April of 1957 by Andre Bazin served to remind audiences that the theory had developed from criticism and had never formally been written down (Staples 1967). Bazin would go on to further discuss the auteur theory at length for the remainder of his life and it was from here that it began to develop into the learning that it has since become.

The concept of the auteur was not brought to the attention of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s due largely in part to the publication of Andrew Sarris’ essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory”. (Sarris 1962) In his writing Sarris expanded on the ideals that had been debated by the Cahiers writers in the previous decade and identified his three premises of the auteur theory as;

  • Technical competence
  • Distinguishable personality of the director
  • Interior meaning

With his auteur theory arguing that the director and their choices were the driving force behind a film, similar to an artist or musician, rather than the film itself. It was this interpretation of filmmaking, and the auteur, that would allow film as a medium to become a seriously recognized subject of study. Similarly to his predecessors from Cahiers Sarris would also state that it was not his intention to create a theory and that his article was written in an experimental manner and “not intended as the last word on the subject.” (Sarris 1968)

“Auteurism shifted attention from the “what” (story, theme) to the ‘how’ (style, technique), showing that style itself had persona, ideological and even metaphysical reverberation… It facilitated film’s entry into literature department and played a major role in the academic legitimisation of cinema studies.” (Stam 2000, p. 92)

Auteurism granted film critics a framework by which they could analyse film in a way that had not been possible previously. Cinema had been shown the artistic and academic legitimacy (Watson, in Nelmes 2012) that other art forms, such as music and visual art, had already been afforded for many years before. Critics were able to look past the story and analyse how it was told; reviewing the mise-en-scene and film techniques used by an auteur as opposed to the traditional review of the narrative of the film itself. By doing this both the artistic merits of the film and its maker were evaluated simultaneously. By adhering to the auteur theory when analysing film a critic could now look across a filmmaker’s body of work for stylistic consistencies, thematic preoccupations and a particular worldview (Watson, in Nelmes 2012), identifying the auteur and distinguishing their personality within their works.

While this newfound appreciation for the auteur was of great benefit to the world of cinema it did come at a price. The theory itself, while legitimizing film as an academic medium, was fundamentally flawed in the sense that it was entirely up to the mind of the critic to decide what did and did not fit its framework. What one critic may have deemed to be work of an auteur another may have seen as a metteur-en-scene and as a result the theory has been constantly challenged throughout its history. Ironically the majority of criticisms of the auteur theory have come either from critics themselves or from those involved with the film industry. This suggests that the theory itself is practical, however, it does not always suit the agendas of those who oppose it and is therefore contested.

Another point of contention in the auteur theory, further to the above, is the overall recognition and distinction between directors. While writing for Cahiers Bazin coined the term ‘metteurs-en-scene’ (literally translated as ‘scene setter’) which was used as an allusion the directors who were competent in their filmmaking skills and abilities but did so without a discernable individual style. In a transposition of the beginnings of auteur theory it would be Truffaut expanding on Bazin’s writing when he used the term in his essay ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ (Sarris 1962). Unlike Bazin who was using the term descriptively Truffaut would give the metteur-en-scene a derogatory connotation, implying that these directors were inferior, juxtaposing the term against that of the great auteurs. In more modern times, thanks largely in part to Sarris, there is less distinction between the auteur and the metteur-en-scene. Nor is there a prescribed course by which a director must evolve as one or the other. Sarris describes his auteur theory as a “pattern theory in constant flux” (Sarris 1962) declaring that, regardless of the ever-changing definitions, a genuine director can be identified by the patterns that are established after they have produced a number of films and left behind a body of work. It is this definition that allows a filmmaker to operate as an auteur, a metteur-en-scene, or a combination of both at different points throughout their career without being defined by it.

It is for these reasons that the auteur theory is always going to be widely open to interpretation and at the discretion of the critic as to whether or not they deem a filmmaker to be an auteur. Due to this lack of concrete definition filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, who will become the subject of discussion form this point forward, can frequently become the subject of debate as to their merits as a true auteur. While it cannot be disputed that Tarantino has shown all the hallmarks of an auteur, with his use of recurring film techniques and stylistic manipulations, his attention to detail in the mise-en-scene of his films cannot be denied either. Regardless of the critical interpretation of the auteur theory there is no doubt that Tarantino can be called a genuine director with a body of work spanning from Reservoir Dogs (1992) to The Hateful Eight (2016). As noted previously Sarris was of the belief that the genuine director could be identified by the patterns established over such body of work and it is by this admission that a discussion can commence.

Looking at the areas of the auteur theory that have already been raised in this essay it can be argued that Tarantino fits the mould under Sarris’ three premises (Sarris 1962). From a technical standpoint his abilities are more than competent and, as mentioned previously, his recurring use of particular techniques – such as Dutch angles and overtly stylistic violence – are prevalent throughout his body of work. This first premise is, arguably, the least impactful when it comes to discussing the auteur theory as for any director to be successful they must be competent. Tarantino’s body of work starts to come to life when considered for the second and third premises. Unlike the traditional director who works for the studio Tarantino has made his career by expressing himself and marching to the beat of his own drum. Through this desire to create a film from the ground up, using ideas that he may have been holding onto for years (Sordea 2009), his personality is easily distinguishable in his titles. Further to this he has often discussed at length the ‘universe’ in which his films take place (Smith 2016), which demonstrates the effort, and detail he puts in to the creative process – showing the interior meaning that he assigns to each project. While all of the thematic criteria are met in considering Tarantino as an auteur to deny his ability as a metteur-en-scene would be an insult to his ability in creating a mise-en-scene. Many critics believe that Tarantino makes some of the best scenes in modern western cinema (Aalbers 2010). This is a prime example of Sarris’ “pattern theory in constant flux” whereby Tarantino is able to operate with the abilities of a metteur-en-scene while still being considered an auteur.

Another great hallmark of the auteur that is shown by Tarantino is his assimilation into the mainstream education system. The auteur theory was responsible for legitimizing film as an academic medium and it is not uncommon now for Tarantino to be used as an example, often next to the other great auteurs like Hitchcock, when cinema is being studied. Be it the contributions his films have made to modern cinema, or the techniques within them, his personal style and world view is accurately captured and as a result will continue to be relevant for future generations as they continue to study film. This perfectly encapsulates what it is to be an auteur. While interpretations may change, and critical opinions differ, the history books will always remember those auteurs that are written in the history books. For want of a better term, given the great auteurs of the past, Tarantino is somewhat of a ‘modern’ auteur. His individual style hovers between that of a classic auteur and a metteur-en-scene, but remains relevant none the less.

Taking this all into consideration it cannot be stressed enough how important the auteur theory has been to modern cinema and how, from humble beginnings in the magazine pages of 1950’s France, the film industry could be forever changed by an article that was never intended to spark the change that it did. As a point of contention critics will never agree with one another but thanks to Truffaut, Bazin and Sarris they will forever have a guideline by which they can disagree on the auteurs of the past and those that come in the future. Regardless of these opinions there can be no denying that Tarantino has showed throughout his career that he is deserving of the title of an auteur.



Aalbers, J 2010, Tarantino is a ‘metteur-en-scene’ – the Inglorious Basterds review, WordPress, viewed February 7th 2016,


Hillier, J 1985, Cahiers Du Cinéma, the 1950s: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave, Harvard University Press

Nelmes, J 2012, Introduction to film studies, 5th edition, Routledge, London

Sarris, A 1962, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’ in L. Braudy & M. Cohen (Eds.), Film theory and criticism: Introductory readings, New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarris, A 1968, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, Perseus Books Group

Smith, J 2016, ‘They all inhabit one universe’: Quentin Tarantino FINALLY confirms all of the characters from his films are connected, Daily Mail, viewed February 7th 2016,

< http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3404845/They-inhabit-one-universe-Quentin-Tarantino-FINALLY-confirms-characters-films-connected.html&gt;

Sordeau, H 2009, Quentin Tarantino talks Inglourious Basterds – RT Interview, RottenTomatoes, viewed February 7th 2016,

< http://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/quentin-tarantino-talks-inglourious-basterds-rt-interview/>

Stam, R 2000, Film theory: An introduction, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Staples, D 1967, The Auteur Theory Reexamined, Cinema Journal vol. 6 (1966-67), pp. 1-7, University of Texas Press


From the Archive: Black is the new Black: An exploration of the neo-noir genre

For years Black is the new Black was a term that I threw around in online circles, being the proprietor of both blackisthenewblack.com and .net over the years, as well as my seldom used YouTube channel BlackIsTheNewBlackTV – all of which have been defined by the unique dancing moustache GIF I dreamt up in MS Paint late one night. Somewhere along the way (deep into my first year of study) I was able to find a new meaning for the term; using it as a title for a film genre analysis. So without further ado I present – Black is the new Black: An Exploration of the neo-noir genre.

The aim of this piece is to analyse and discuss the progression of the neo-noir genre as it has evolved over the years. This will be achieved by; analysing the conventions of the neo-noir genre, identifying key periods in the genres history, discussing the recognition the genre receives within the inter textual relay and exploring how the genre has evolved since its beginnings. This analysis will be supported by various readings, both academic and non-academic, and will seek to provide insight of the genre as a whole.

When the neo-noir genre emerged it was still very heavily rooted in the classic Hollywood film noir period of the 1940’s and 50’s. Originally defined by stories about cynical detectives and crooked private investigators with questionable motives, the genre was typified by its dense urban settings and use of low-key chiaroscuro lighting (Schwartz 2005). The typical mise-en-scene of a noir film featured abandoned warehouses; back alleyways shrouded in smoke or fog, and shady office buildings. Another commonly seen convention was the use of unbalanced shots, more commonly referred to as ‘Dutch Angles’, which were designed to give the audience a better understanding of what the character was experiencing or thinking (Schwartz 2005).

One of the most iconic characteristics from noir films, which has carried on into the neo-noir genre and beyond, is the use of overlays and frames within frames to create shadows and obscure the subject of the film. This technique is used to maximize the effect of the chiaroscuro lighting and to subconsciously create doubt in the mind of the audience as to the true motives of the character or characters depicted (Miller 2014). An example of this can be seen in the venetian blind effect (Figure I), a commonly used effect of the noir and neo-noir genres, taken from Chinatown (Polanski 1974) one of the most influential films of the neo-noir genre (Schwartz 2005).


Figure I: Venetian blind lighting effect from Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)

As the genre developed its own identity, and the narratives moved beyond the classic detective stories of the great depression, the preconceived notion of what made a noir film changed. Martin (1999) explains that the genre aimed to capture the notion of the American dream gone wrong, depicting characters that felt that they were losing control of what is happening around them, and falling into a society which was unravelling. This can be seen in Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976); the story of a discharged US Marine turned taxi driver with questionable beliefs and extremely violent tendencies. This film is a perfect example of how neo-noir films can be not only stylistically fragmented, but also thematically (Martin 1999), with complex stories, characters and film techniques used to convey an often deep seated emotional and political awareness. While the setting of Taxi Driver still conformed to the traditional urban noir of its predecessors the narrative was much more politically aware than most. While this had been seen in earlier neo-noir titles, such as The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer 1962), through films like Scorsese’s it would go on to become one of the defining themes of the neo-noir genre throughout the cold war period (1962 – 1979) and beyond.

As the cold war ended, and the 1980’s gave the world the personal computer and the synthesiser, the technological revolution was gathering speed. With it the popularity of the science fiction genre was at its peak – aided largely by the releases of Star Wars (Lucas 1977) and Alien (Scott 1979). This popularity would see one of the first, and arguably the most significant, crossovers of the neo-noir genre Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Set in a dystopian future the narrative itself was far from the back alley detective stories of classic noir however the film techniques used were still very much apparent. This can be seen in the low-key long shot of the shadowy urban setting (Figure II) and another take on the venetian blind effect (Figure III).


Figure II: Shadowy street scape, Blade Runner (1982)


Figure III: Venetian blind effect, Blade Runner (1982)

Receiving almost entirely positive reviews and often cited as the best science fiction film of all time (Jha 2004) the success of Blade Runner, coupled with its new take on the neo-noir genre, opened the door for the genre to a whole new audience. While this had a positive flow on effect for future releases it can also be attributed as one of the main reasons that there is now such an ambiguous definition of the genre.

By the beginning of the 90’s the term neo-noir had almost become a tag for films that could not be pigeonholed into any other genre. The rise of the Coen Brothers and their neo-noir inspired dark comedy films – Millers Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) – saw the common themes of isolation and cynicism moved out of the darkness of the back alley detectives office and into more contemporary settings. The Coen Brothers replaced the isolation of the dead of night with the isolation of winter snow and deep woods. (Miller 2014) This new take on the genre featured heavily in Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) and subsequent follow up Pulp Fiction (1994). In the spirit of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver the characters in both these films were overtly violent and had their own values and beliefs that they lived by which, since highlighted in Taxi Driver, had become a prominent feature of the neo-noir genre. In similar fashion to the Coen Brothers Tarantino’s films were at times bright and vibrant, with isolation and despair created with clever filming techniques and complex narratives, juxtaposed with dark characters (Figure IV) fitting of the genre.


Figure IV: Laidback psychopath Vic Vega, Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Tarantino coupled his brilliantly written characters with method actors who could not only give brilliant performances but were also known to audiences within the genre. Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction starred Harvey Keitel (Taxi Driver) and Steve Buscemi (Millers Crossing, Barton Fink). One of the most common recurring neo-noir conventions used by Tarantino was the use of Dutch Angles (Figure V and VI) and while the Tarantino films that followed would go on to be more artistic and stray from the neo-noir genre there would still elements of his neo-noir roots.


Figure V: Tarantino’s trunk shot, Reservoir Dogs (1992)


Figure VI: An homage to himself, Tarantino’s trunk shot, Pulp Fiction (1994)

With the new millennium came new writers and directors looking to make their mark on the neo-noir genre. At the same time the Hollywood blockbuster had turned its attention to the comic book genre and both Marvel and DC studios were looking to capitalise on the growing market. Bryan Singer (X-Men) and Christopher Nolan (Batman) would go on to produce two of the most successful franchises in modern cinema. While Singer’s X-Men films contained only traces of his neo-noir past (The Usual Suspects 1995) it was Christopher Nolan who would go on to create what many had thought was not possible; a comic book noir fusion in the form of Batman Begins (Ebert 2005). The neo-noir genre was not unknown to Nolan who in 2000 produced Memento, which was met with much critical acclaim (Berardinelli 2001), and it was his desire to tell this kind of dark story that lead him to Warner Brothers in an effort to revive the Batman franchise. The neo-noir elements used by Nolan in Batman Begins (2005) were extremely well utilised, with his depiction of Batman befriending the shadows and using the night not only a salute to the classic noir film of old (Figure VII) but also a much more accurate adaptation of the comic books.


Figure VII: Batman emerges from the mist, Batman Begins (2005)

Similar to Nolan’s work the comic book/neo-noir fusion was also prevalent in Sin City (Miller, Rodriguez and Tarantino 2005), which again paid homage to the classic Hollywood noir period, while simultaneously staying true to its violent neo-noir roots. A traditional noir feature that appeared in this film was the heavy use of character narration – a feature that Nolan himself had also used in the aforementioned Memento (2000). While similar in convention the use of narration varied heavily between the two. While Miller’s Sin City was narrated in a traditional manner, aiding the production as a story telling tool, the narration in Nolan’s Memento gave a very biased account as it was coming directly from the main character. This narration was made even more questionable as the character in question was suffering from amnesia throughout the film.

Throughout this progression there has been constant dialogue within the film community surrounding the validity of neo-noir as a genre. While it can be debated to what extent a film conforms to the conventions of neo-noir it cannot be said that the genre does not exist as a whole. The purpose of defining a genre, however loosely it may be, is to give the audience a preconceived idea of what they will be consuming (Nelmes 2012). While this is a widely recognised theory it does not eliminate individuals from making their own judgement and voicing an opinion within the mediasphere. This discussion is furthered by what (Langford 2006) describes as a, “… postmodern preoccupation with generic hybridity (which) relies on a historically unsupported notion of classical genres as far more rigid and secure…” To put this into perspective the classic noir genre was not recognised until sometime after it was popularised (Naremore 2008). This example shows that while the neo-noir genre has been in existence since at least the 1960’s it may be some time before the discussion is finalised – if at all.

Given this ongoing debate regarding the neo-noir genre it is also not uncommon for the term to be applied to films for showing even the slightest use of its conventions. It is not uncommon for directors, both those who have and have not previously been associated with the genre, to have the label applied to their films within the inter-textual relay – though mostly the label is reserved for directors who have previously been associated with the genre. An example of this can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 release The Departed. While by no means a neo-noir film the use of its conventions (Figure VIII), as well as the appearance of Jack Nicholson (Chinatown 1974), and Scorsese’s noir history it is not uncommon to see the two mentioned together.


Figure VIII: Jack Nicholson has a back alley meeting, The Departed (2006)

The neo-noir genre has developed over the years from a simple extension of the classical noir period to a self-sustained genre in its own right. While the classification of what makes a film neo-noir may not be concrete there is no denying that the genre exists and it is simply a matter of concluding whether a film is neo-noir or simply borrowing aspects from neo-noir. The conventions used are unique, and while they may have been drawn from other aspects of film, they are now definitive of the genre. From the early works of Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, through to the contemporary works of Christopher Nolan, the genre has progressed a great deal thanks in part to its ability to co-exist with other genres with political motivation and awareness also at the forefront. As long as there is a need for alternative means of storytelling this adaptability and awareness will see that the neo-noir genre will remain a part of the Hollywood film industry for many more years to come.



Martin, R 1999, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: The legacy of film noir in contemporary American cinema, Scarecrow Press, Maryland

Schwartz, R 2005, Neo-noir: The New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral, Scarecrow Press, Maryland

Nelmes, J 2012, Introduction to film studies, 5th edition, Routledge, London

Langford, B 2006, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh

Naremore, J 2008, More Than Night: Film noir in its contexts, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles

Berardinelli, J 2001, Memento, ReelViews.net, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://www.reelviews.net/reelviews/memento&gt;

Jha, A 2004, Scientists vote Blade Runner best sci-fi film of all time, The Guardian, viewed January 10th 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/aug/26/sciencenews.sciencefictionspecial>

Ebert, R 2005, Batman Begins, Rogerebert.com, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/batman-begins-2005>

Miller, DG 2014, The Elements of Neo-noir, Geekcentricity, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://geekcentricity.com/the-elements-of-neo-noir/>


The Manchurian Candidate 1962, film, United Artists, United States, Directed by John Frankenheimer

Chinatown 1974, film, Paramount Pictures, United States, Directed by Roman Polanski

Taxi Driver 1976, film, Columbia Pictures, United States, Directed by Martin Scorsese

Star Wars 1977, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by George Lucas

Alien 1979, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Ridley Scott

Blade Runner 1982, film, Warner Brothers, United States, Directed by Ridley Scott

Millers Crossing 1990, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Barton Fink 1991, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Reservoir Dogs 1992, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Pulp Fiction 1994, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Quentin Tarantino

The Usual Suspects 1995, Spelling Films International, United States, Directed by Bryan Singer

Memento 2000, Newmarket, United States, Directed by Christopher Nolan

Batman Begins 2005, Warner Brothers Pictures, United States, Directed by Christopher Nolan

Sin City 2005, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino

The Departed 2006, Warner Brothers, United States, Directed by Martin Scorsese


Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, n.d., image, movpins.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://www.movpins.com/big/MV5BMjEzMTQ1NzA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTI2MDUyNw/still-of-jack-nicholson-in-chinatown-(1974)-large-picture.jpg&gt;

Roy Arrives (Bladerunner Screenshot), n.d., image, wordpress.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://filmgrab.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/34-roy-arrives1.png>

Bladerunner Screenshot, n.d., image, alfamovie.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://www.alfamovie.com/wp-content/uploads/v_p_images/1982/06/64_58_screenshot.jpg&gt;

Vic Vega with milkshake, n.d., image, wordpress.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://screensense.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/reservoirdogs.jpg>

Reservoir Dogs Screenshot, n.d., image, blogspot.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-rqjBCqs8xR0/T3dOIKFXRFI/AAAAAAAABD4/cI08_bNoMeU/s1600/Reservoir+dogs.png&gt;

Pulp Fiction Screenshot, n.d., image, pinimg.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/73/98/83/73988360fe7605aabc2c1090b4445942.jpg>

Batman in the shadows, n.d., image, bluray.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://images3.static-bluray.com/reviews/471_1.jpg>

The Departed Screenshot, n.d., image, moviecomix.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://moviecomix.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Departed-2006-Dual-Audio-Hindi-Eng-1080p-BluRay-2.4GB-moviecomix.com3_.png&gt;