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Auteurism and Genre Studies

The following remarks deal with film. But they are applicable to art works created in any medium.

I follow the auteur theory of film, which stresses the personal styles and contributions of individual artists. How does this creativity relate to genre?

Like many auteurists, I was raised on skepticism about studying film genres, such as Westerns or crime films as a whole. After all, many auteurists have argued, genres are constructed out of conventions. And what do conventions have to do with art? Nothing! So thinking about genres is inherently trivial, and only brings out unimportant conventions in movies. Or so I once thought. But now, I believe the above paragraph is nonsense based on misconceptions.

I have been an auteurist since 1971. In 1998 I read Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, a collection of articles about film noir. Many of the pieces in it study the noir genre as a whole, and try to define its characteristics. I was impressed, and suddenly realized that genre studies could be both true and highly valuable.

Not that I have stopped being an auteurist. On the contrary, I am more firmly convinced of the auteur theory than ever. Instead, I am now of the opinion that one can be both an auteurist and a student of genres.

The key idea is this. While some conventions are important for defining genres, other characteristics of genres are quite different. These defining characteristics are about encouraging individual creativity in certain directions.

For example, a characteristic of film noir is: "Directors are encouraged to do something creative with mirror shots." Another defining characteristic of film noir: "Directors are encouraged to do something creative with steep overhead camera angles." How the individual director does this is entirely up to the director. The genre encourages and suggests a certain approach. The director builds on that suggestion, using all of his personal creativity, to make something unique and wonderful.

For example, Anthony Mann used a series of steep overhead angles in the staircase finale of Desperate (1947). Robert Siodmak used an overhead angle at the start of the armored car sequence in Criss Cross (1949). The two sequences are very different. Mann is interested in the compositions he can create with overhead patterns of stairs; Siodmak with combining overhear shots with camera movement. Their overhead shots are not at all the same. Both are highly imaginative. Both clearly took great personal creativity on the part of their directors. They are the exact opposite of hack work: they are the sort of personal visual creativity celebrated by the auteur theory. But it is also clear that the genre of film noir encouraged both artists to experiment with overhead angles, and to do something spectacular with them in their movies.

Similarly, film noir encourages directors to make elaborate mirror shots. This almost certainly encouraged Mann to use a mirror for the famous murder scene in T-Men (1947), and Siodmak to include all the complex "mirror on the staircase" shots in The Spiral Staircase (1946). Once again, the two films show personal artistry, and their mirror shots are very different.

By contrast, Westerns, comedies and musicals of the late 1940's are far less likely to include complex mirror shots, or steep overhead angles.

Knowing about the characteristics of genres helps us understand a film. When we watch The Spiral Staircase, we can understand both what the genre of film noir encouraged Siodmak to attempt, and what is the result of his personal artistry. There is more of the latter than of the former, yet both are real.

Another example. The 1950's Hollywood Western genre includes such characteristics as: "Directors are encouraged to do something creative with landscape," and "Costume designers are encouraged to do something creative with brightly colored cowboy clothes." The specific landscapes in the films of such directors as John Ford, Anthony Mann and André de Toth are highly different and individual. Each shows their director's strong personal visual style. But it is also true that the genre itself encouraged these directors to do something spectacular with landscape.

Such an approach to studying genre is not reductive. It does not attempt to ignore personal creativity, or reduce a film to a collection of genre ideals. Instead, it helps highlight ways in which genres sponsored personal creativity.

The above approach also does not try to define genres as rigid laws, which directors must obey. Ford included landscapes in his Westerns, a genre which encouraged them. But he also invented great landscapes for his comedy The Quiet Man (1952), a genre which has little inherent interest in landscape.

One also suspects that in many cases, the author came first, rather than the genre. Ford probably had a deep personal interest in landscape, and was attracted to Westerns in part because The Western genre encouraged landscape photography. Mann and Siodmak might have jumped on the film noir bandwagon, because they wanted to create the baroque images that noir's encouragement of mirror shots, extreme angles, high contrast photography, etc licensed.

In other cases, the genre clearly stimulated personal creativity. Make no mistake about it, the creativity is still personal. If a director had never envisioned a fancy mirror shot before he made a film noir, the actual shot that emerged in films often showed great personal inventiveness. The genre encouraged a direction of work. It did not create the actual shot. One more point. The existence of genre studies does NOT in any way logically support the idea that "The culture makes the film, not the director." The above argument suggests that genres license and encourage creativity in certain directions. Personal creativity of artists still makes the artwork.

Auteurism and Other Schools of Criticism

Many critical schools have been unfortunately reluctant to endorse the auteur theory, despite all of the evidence that supports it. But the converse is also true. Auteurists have not always given recognition to critical schools that have achieved genuine insight into film. Genre studies should head the list.

Genre studies include many different sub-approaches and critics, some better than others. But it is clear that many genre scholars are people of deep, reverent love of film as art. Auteurists should be taking up common cause with them.