The Strengths and Limitations of an Auteurist Approach to Cinema 

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An auteurist approach to cinema is one that allows directors a sense of creative freedom, control and expression along with many other positive strengths. First described by Alexandre Astruc in 1948 with his essay introducing the camera-stylo, the theory recognises and gives importance to identifying solely the director’s own personal vision in the film through cinematic techniques such as using the camera to ‘write’ the same way a ‘writer writes with his pen’ (Astruc 1948: 22). This in some regard, further superiors the director’s position. Later expanded on by the Cahier du Cinema theorists, the idea gained some criticism and began debates. Bazin in particular, heavily criticised it however, Truffaut felt the opposite. Despite these controversies and the limitations around the theory, the authorial approach to cinema still holds value and strength today and can be seen through more contemporary directors such as Anusha Rizvi. Although having their limitations, both Hitchcock and Rizvi are directors who’s approaches to cinema definitely echo the ones of an auteur, making their films Rear Window (1954) and Peepli Live (2010) an ideal way of highlighting both the strengths and limitations of auteur theory.

Hitchcock’s classic auteurist approach to cinema is one that is admired by the Cahier du Cinema critics especially by Truffaut who praises Rear Window ‘to the skies’ (Truffaut 1985: 11). Hitchcock, initially in his career, was bound by technical limitations such as black and white filming, lack of sound and other technicalities that do not trouble filmmakers today. This early period in some sense, almost provoked directors such as him to initiate new techniques while working around these restrictions. There is a possibility that these constraints provoked Hitchcock to develop his signature style, ultimately aiding him once he transitioned into Hollywood, where he was gifted a newfound creative freedom in a thriving economy. While discussing Rear Window, Truffaut develops this by expressing the technical challenges Hitchcock faced in the film, such as filming through one man’s viewpoint ‘embodied in a single, large set’ to which Hitchcock replies ‘it was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film’ (Truffaut 1985: 214). Hitchcock’s auteurist approach with the inclusion of Rear Window’s pure cinematics is a direct reflection of Astruc’s camera-stylo, best exemplified in the scene displaying the newlywed couple moving into the neighbourhood. Shots of the newlywed couple and Jeff’s reaction go back and forth creating meaning through cinematography, editing and essentially utilising the Kuleshov effect. This effect is not only used with the protagonist Jeff but also with detective Doyle while staring at the dancing Miss Torso. The shots go between Miss Torso and Doyle who begins to smirk at the dancer and through Hitchcock ‘writing with his camera’ we are able to further understand Doyle’s intentions (Astruc 1948: 22). To elaborate more on Hitchcock’s auteurship, his cinematic innovations go beyond Rear Window and are also found in his later works such as Psycho (1960). One should note that the film was purposely made black and white despite having colour technology from technicolor, suggesting that this was a creative choice of Hitchcock’s to get his authorial vision for the film across. Returning back to Rear Window, his strong voice can also be seen while he describes to Truffaut how unhappy he was with the music in the film. It did not do what he wanted and in this regard we again hear his strong voice as an auteur as the music did not meet his vision.

Astruc also highlights the importance of cinema as a medium for self-expression, ‘capable of expressing any kind of reality’ (Astruc 1948: 21). One should consider that, to some degree Rear Window, specifically the character of Jeff could be as a true reflection of Hitchcock as both men spend their time watching life through cameras while using imagery to display ideas to us (Fawell 2001: 135).

The strengths of auteur theory are definitely recognisable when it comes to Hitchcock. His signature style consisting of blonde women, a narrative underlined with romance and themes of voyeurism featured not only in Rear Window but also Vertigo (1958) all contribute in helping us recognise his films and allowing him that creative freedom needed. However, Hitchcock takes his auteurism beyond this and extends it into regularly making cameos in his own films. This solidifies his strength as an auteur as in some sense he is always present, almost asserting his control over the film.

Equally, an auteurist approach to cinema can also be seen through Rizvi’s direction. Focusing specifically on the opening sequence of Peepli Live, Rizvi uses cinematography, music and mise-en-scene to allow viewers to not only indicate Natha and Budhia’s standard of living but also demonstrate India’s rural and urban divide which Rizvi claims in an interview is one of primary themes throughout the film, above farmer suicides (Headlines Today video interview 2010). One of the most notable aspects of the opening sequence is the choice of music. Des Mera’s lyrics and the imagery presented on screen often interchangeably reflect each other through lines such as ‘No food, No water’ heard over a close-up of the underprivileged brothers. Furthermore, as the song continues, a wide-angle shot of the brothers in front of a what seems to be a political poster is exhibited to the lyrics ‘Find an excuse to keep on living’, possibly foreshadowing the narrative. Similar to Hitchcock, all these elements combined undoubtably echo Astruc’s camera-stylo approach as Rizvi in essence uses purely cinematic devices like music and camera in conjunction with each other to convey the film’s meaning. She essentially ‘writes with [her] camera’ (Astruc 1948: 22). Her authorial approach almost allows us to further understand the meaning behind the film, beyond dialogue. Another interesting point to consider is Rizvi’s background in journalism, specifically as a reporter. In some sense, one could say that the character of Nandita and the heavy influence of the media in Peepli Live is a mirrored reflection of Rizvi’s personal experience thus giving the film an almost autobiographical feel and ‘a means of expression’ (Astruc 1948: 17).

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Continuing to approach auteur theory through Astruc, film as an art form presented directors with creative freedom. Rizvi is no exception to this. Her auteurist strengths can be seen as she opposed Aamir Khan’s interest to play Natha after his financial contribution to the film and instead chose Omkar Das Manikpuri ‘despite the corporate echelons’ apprehensions about ramifications of this choice on the marketability of the film’ as Manikpuri does not fit into Bollywood’s male standard (Devasundaram 2016: 210-211). Rizvi expands on her reasoning by claiming that ‘a star [Aamir Khan] could disturb a film like this’ (Headlines Today video interview 2010). In this sense, Rizvi utilises her creative freedom, taking control by maintaining her ‘artistic [and] directorial vision’ and defending her ‘film’s strong indie ethos’ (Devasundaram 2016: 210-211).

Rizvi’s auteurship persists in Peepli Live and extends almost into feminism through strong female characters in the film, but more specifically through Natha’s mother Amma and wife Dhaniya. It should be noted that both these women are not only a significant part of Natha’s life but also pose as a massive influence on his actions and decisions. They are essentially the only women in his life. This is instantly recognised in the scene where we first meet Natha’s mother and wife. Dhaniya immediately asserts her dominance over Natha as she sternly imposes a question about the bank. She is powerful from the minute we meet her. As the scene goes on and information of their land being auctioned is revealed, both women express their strong opinions through cursing repeatedly, with Dhaniya going as far as to beating the brothers with a shoe and forcing them out of her house. Both Natha’s mother and his wife especially are very outspoken despite being from a rural village, in a country in which women can often be oppressed. Amma, even mentions that she regrets bringing Dhaniya into the household suggesting not only the possibility of an arranged marriage between Natha and Dhaniya but also addressing how strongly outspoken she is. In some sense, Rizvi’s writing of these strong female characters can almost be seen as giving the women in her film the equal voice that women filmmakers are still trying to achieve not only in a male dominated industry but also in the community of primarily male auteurs. Initially presented by author Carrie Tarr, this idea suggests that ‘female-authored films may be more open to representations of women reworked to feminist or women identified ends (Martin 2008: 128). However, it can be further expanded through Rizvi and that her own voice is expressed through the women in her film which then ultimately returns to Astruc’s idea of self-expression. Rizvi’s auteurism is strongly felt in Peepli Live as there is almost a part of her in the film allowing us to clearly see her vision.

Peepli Live can essentially be regarded as the film that triggered a new genre of Indian Indies beyond Bollywood through Rizvi’s use of non-commercial actors and authentic locations. Her film effectively made a massive political impact and marked a stamp on the, at the time, relatively early Indian new wave therefore, in that regard, she can be seen as a contemporary auteur. Astruc also touches on how only cinema can justify ‘contemporary ideas and philosophies’ which Rizvi evidently utilises with her political message in the film, unlike Hitchcock who could be classified as a more commercial director (Astruc 1948: 19). However, one must take into consideration that Peepli Live is Rizvi’s only film which then defies the very soul of auteur theory, involving the inclusion of the director’s signature style and therefore Rizvi cannot be classed as an auteur and neither a strong enough authorial power. Peepli Live is not a recognisable Rizvi film, the same way Hitchcock’s Rear Window might be.

Furthermore, it could be said that the director is just an artist creating art, going beyond society and to some extent this is implied by Astruc in his description of the camera-stylo suggesting that it extends language and ultimately society. This is highly disagreeable. Andre Bazin suggests that one must take into consideration that a person’s artwork is often based on their opinions and thoughts which in reality derives from their surroundings, experiences and the society they’re in; ‘the individual transcends society, but society is also and above all within him’ (Bazin 1957: 22). He continues to highlight that we need take into account that ‘the anonymous works that have come down to us as the products not of an artist but of an art, not of a man but of a society’ (Bazin 1957: 22). Opinions and thoughts must have initial influences and in Rizvi’s case, her political statement in Peepli Live could have had its beginnings through her commercial background in TV journalism, her observation of the ‘larger alienation of the rural set up within India’ and her need for societal change in India (Headlines Today video interview 2010). Author Angela Martin also states, ‘the later feminist call for the personal to be political rather than ego-centric’ and Peepli Live undeniably aligns further disagreeing with the auteurist approach in that regard (Martin 2008: 129).

Although Rizvi’s auteurist strengths can be seen through her persistence while challenging AKP to uphold her authorial vision, one should especially take note of the collaborators who assisted her in the creation of Peepli Live. With his camera-style originating in the documentary film Sunset Bollywood (2005), the film’s cinematographer Shanker Raman’s documentary-style of filming translates well in Peepli Live, emphasising the realism of the issues presented. Ashvin Devasundaram mentions how his style can specifically be observed in the scene when Nandita’s crew enter Natha’s hut and find him asleep through ‘wide-angle and establishing shots accompany[ing] handheld camera and close up shots’ again intensifying the realism of the situation and indicating that not only is this issue happening in the film but also in reality (Devasundaram 2016: 211). Lindsay Anderson expands on the topic discussing how auteur theory’s exclusivity makes it ‘impossible to know who precisely is responsible for the excellence of any particular film’ and this is certainly not defiant in Peepli Live (Anderson 1948: 194). Aside from the cinematographer, set designers specifically controlling mise-en-scene, musicians creating and performing significant works in the film such as Des Mera as well as other members of the crew all played a role in not only exhibiting Peepli Live’s message across to the audience but also inputting their own varied techniques into the film, making it the piece of art that it is.

It’s important to note that this auteurist approach to cinema often creates limitations and fails to recognise the works of other collaborators. This is especially true for Hitchcock. Similarly to Rizvi, Hitchcock too had a cinematographer (Robert Burks) that collaborated with him not only in Rear Window but also in his other works like To Catch a Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958). Francois Truffaut praises the cinematic style in the scene in which we see the dog’s death, stating that ‘by simply taking the camera outside of Stewart’s apartment, the whole scene becomes entirely objective’ (Truffaut 1985: 214). This ultimately displays the film from a new perspective and allows the narrative to shift from the first part of the film described by Hitchcock as ‘an immobilized man looking out’, on to the second and third part which have the purpose of presenting ‘what he sees’ and ‘how he reacts’ (Truffaut 1985: 214-217). However, one must take into consideration the influence of Robert Burks’ skill that went into the construction of that particular scene which Truffaut so highly acclaims. Anderson develops this argument by stating the ‘three men whose work must be appraised’ are ‘the trinity of the film: the scriptwriter, cameraman and director’ (Anderson 1948: 198). These are certainly the people we must consider when discussing Rear Window. Truffaut claims that the film is Hitchcock’s ‘very best screenplay’ yet Rear Window’s screenplay is written by John Michael Hayes but is truly derived from Cornell Woolrich’s story It Had To Be Murder (Truffaut 1985: 222). Therefore in this regard, we cannot see Hitchcock through an auteurist approach, as multiple people have contributed to the creation of the film. In some sense, Hitchcock’s auteurship can almost be described as a type of stardom that blinds the contributions of other collaborators. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Kuleshov effect returns back to Bazin’s point and the argument of society influencing the artist and in this case, Hitchcock was highly influenced by Kuleshov’s experiment to essentially create a film based around it.

Despite these debates around the importance of collaborators, one could oppose this argument by stating that ultimately it is the director who chooses his collaborators and is therefore superior in that sense. He or she chooses the people they work with, the people they believe that will help them get their authorial vision across and the director will then proceed to guide the screenwriter, cameraman and other collaborators to how they want their film’s message and vision to come across.

Overall, although an auteurist approach to cinema has its limitations, it still allowed directors such as Hitchcock and Rizvi to use film as a way to exhibit their creative visions and as a means of self-expression which is at the centre of auteur theory as described by Astruc. In some cases, such as Hitchcock’s, it gave him the opportunity to utilise his signature style to allow us to further understand his message and to not only recognise and remember his films but also his name. Through cinematic techniques such as the camera-stylo and other auteurist approaches, both Hitchcock and Rizvi were able to display their authorial vision in their films. Auteur theory is something that still holds value today and will continue to do so purely due to its strengths.

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