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