Great filmmakers have often been, and arguably so, divided into two categories: the auteur (“author”) and the metteur en scene (“scene-setter”). To be classified as an "auteur", film critic Andrew Sarris argues, a director must accomplish three things: technical competence in technique, a personal visual style, and an interior meaning running through the various film “texts” made by him/her. I believe all such auteurs, through the body of their works, become genres by themselves. Fellini, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, and lately David Lynch, are not just filmmakers. They are authors, who write on celluloid with their distinctive styles; their movies collectively form ‘genres’, rich and influential, and inimitable. A greater achievement, perhaps, has been made by Alfred Hitchcock. He obviously qualifies as an auteur (going by Sarris’ criteria), but goes beyond by operating within the confines of the ‘suspense’ genre, and often setting rules for it. He relies on telling a story powerfully, without dwelling into intricate and esoteric artistry, profound philosophy, or surrealistic puzzles. And despite numerous well-made suspense films by other filmmakers, no one has been able to match the legendary stature and the popularity of the Master of the genre.
The second category is of the matteur en scene. They do have an aesthetic style detectable in their works, but they do not qualify as authors. I have tried to understand the basis of this classification. Perhaps this term is used for directors whose filmography lacks a thematic, philosophical, or artistic consistency, but they achieve great success by operating within the genre-system and often creating memorable works. So a John Ford film can be a great Western or a great Drama, but the words ‘John Ford’ do not refer to any particular ‘genre’. He might be a great director, but his work lacks an authorial signature. If my understanding is correct, despite a great body of work Steven Spielberg remains a ‘matteur en scene’, but Jim Jarmusch is an ‘auteur’.
This discussion is a reaction to two movies I watched recently – ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ by Ingmar Bergman, and ‘I Live in Fear’ by Akira Kurosawa, two of the greatest auteurs, trying to do something they often don’t. The usually philosophical and dark Bergman presents a romantic comedy, and the creator of epic historical and Samurai stories, Kurosawa, narrates a modern, urban tale of a family torn by its patriarch’s phobia of the nuclear weapons. The former was very good, though its impact on me might not be as that of Bergman’s other works. But the latter was ordinary, suggesting yet again that perhaps Kurosawa can not match the effortless brilliance of his compatriots Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu when it comes to telling extremely personal, sensitive stories involving families and women. Even ‘Ikiru’, which is perhaps Kurosawa’s best attempt at telling a personal and modern story, changes its course and becomes, albeit an excellent, social commentary on modern life and urban corruption.
These two movies make me think further – perhaps the ‘auteurs’ are at their best when they operate within the genres they have created for themselves. And this perhaps is the biggest argument against them. A Billy Wilder might not be an author, but has made some great comedies (‘The Apartment’, ‘Some Like it Hot’), and stays in supreme form while making a Noir like ‘Double Indemnity’. Perhaps not being much of an artist, but a master craftsman enables him to do great work in whatever genre he attempts. As I discover more great makers and movies, this discussion will continue. Watching a comedy by Hitchcock would be a great case study!
P.S. The views expressed in this article are ‘controversy-genic’. However, it must be insisted that the attempt here is not to compare and criticize the great filmmakers mentioned above, but to try to understand the mechanism behind their greatness.