Examining a Contemporary Feature Film Essay

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French New Wave/Auteur Theory and Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino: An Auteur

French New Wave cinema is a cinematic movement of the 1950s and 1960s established by French filmmakers and film critics who founded the Cahiers du Cinema that felt cinema had become too commercialized, formulaic, and unoriginal. This critical contention eventually led to the development of the auteur theory. Throughout various essays and critiques, Cahiers du Cinema critics sought to revolutionize cinema and analyze the function of writer in relationship to director. Cahiers du Cinema critics further argued that directors should be the driving vehicle behind a film and not writers. The criterion for an auteur, as defined by film critics in France and the United States, is still evident to this day. Through his unique writing and directing style, and through the use of mise-en-scene in his most recent film Inglourious Basterds,[footnoteRef:1] Quentin Tarantino has demonstrated he is a contemporary auteur and despite initial claims, the auteur theory is not limited by time and place. [1: Inglourious Basterds, DVD, directed by Quentin Tarantino (United States: Universal Pictures, 2009).]

In "Politiques des Auteurs," Francois Truffaut, one of the founding members of the Cahiers du Cinema and one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave movement, commented on the commerciality and restrictions imposed by Hollywood on cinema and filmmakers. "Politiques des Auteurs" was "an anti-screen-writers article against traditional and commercial French writers for film."[footnoteRef:2] Truffaut complained "that films of this type were writers films, and the film was truly completed when the writer finished writing it; that the director was only a craftsman who went out to get it on film."[footnoteRef:3] Truffaut thus began the argument that despite the limitations imposed by the traditional Hollywood and French cinema system, a director should still be able to imbue a film with his personal style regardless of who wrote the script. American film critic Andre Sarris further commented, "Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material."[footnoteRef:4] In "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," Truffaut stated "the metteurs-en-scene [or directors] are and wish to be responsible for the scenarios and dialogues they illustrate."[footnoteRef:5] [2: Donald E. Staples, "The Auteur Theory Reexamined," Cinema Journal, Vol. 6 (1966-1967), (Society for Cinema and Media Studies, University of Texas Press), 1.] [3: Ibid, 2.] [4: Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 562.] [5: Francois Truffaut, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," Cahiers du Cinema, No. 31 (January 1954).]

The limitations imposed on the director by studios and writers thus create an opportunity and the necessity for directors to break away from the subservient role of catering to the demands of others. In order for the director to truly make a statement on cinema, he or she must assume control of what is written and directed. Alexandre Astruc argues,

This of course implies that the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The film-maker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen. In an art in which a length of film and sound-track is put in motion and proceeds, by means of a certain form and a certain story (there can be no story at all -- it matters little), to evolve a philosophy of life, how can one possibly distinguish between the man who conceives the work and the man who writes it? Could one imagine a Faulkner novel written by someone other than Faulkner? And would Citizen Kane be satisfactory in any other form than that given to it by Orson Welles?[footnoteRef:6] [6: Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Camera-Stylo," L'Ecran Francais, No. 144, (March 30, 1948), transl. In "The New Wave: Critical Landmarks," by Peter Graham (Secker & Waurburg, 1968). 22.]

It is through this restructuring of the writer/director relationship that the French New Wave movement and the auteur theory arose.

In order for a director to be considered an auteur, one must be able to critically review his or her work as a whole and not individually; "The auteur theory emphasizes the body of a director's work [over] isolated pieces."[footnoteRef:7] While Truffaut claimed the auteur theory was "merely a polemical weapon for a given time and given place," three basic claims of the theory, and subsequently the French New Wave movement are applicable to this day.[footnoteRef:8] [7: Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," 563.] [8: Ibid, 561.]

The first fundamental claim made by French New Wave critics, and expounded upon by American critic Andrew Sarris is the auteur theory does not claim to be able to predict the quality of a film based on the film's director and his or her past body of work. "Directors, even auteurs, do not always run true to form, and the critic can never assume that a bad director will always make a bad film."[footnoteRef:9] Fortunately, box office results and a loyal fan base, in addition to a unique directing and writing style, have demonstrated that Quentin Tarantino is a talented and gifted writer and director. While Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs only has grossed $2.8 million to date, his second feature film grossed $107 million, and his most recent venture, Inglourious Basterds, has grossed $120 million, which not only shows his films continuously draw in larger audiences, but that during his cinematic directing career, he has found a tried and true method of directing and screenwriting.[footnoteRef:10] [9: Ibid.] [10: "Quentin Tarantino," Box Office Mojo, accessed 29 November 2012, http://boxofficemojo.com/people/chart/?view=Writer&id=tarantino.htm]

The second claim of the auteur theory "is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value."[footnoteRef:11] That is to say, a director's style becomes a factor in determining the value of his or her films. "Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature."[footnoteRef:12] It is through mise-en-scene, narrative and narrative framing, and editing that Tarantino has been able to create and develop a personal style that is visible in most, if not all, the films he has written and directed to date. Among Tarantino's signature trademarks are a strong female lead; non-linear narrative framing; signature shots including close-ups, long shots, and high-angled shots; using codenames or aliases; anachronistic music; references to popular culture; the proverbial Mexican standoff; and the continued expansion of the Tarantino universe.[footnoteRef:13] [11: Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," 562.] [12: Ibid.] [13: "Creator: Quentin Tarantino," TV Tropes, accessed 28 November 2012, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/QuentinTarantino?from=Main.QuentinTarantino.]

In "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," Sarris contends, "The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art."[footnoteRef:14] "The cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel."[footnoteRef:15] As such, the role of directors, in addition to the film's writers should be taken into consideration, as the film created will be a direct result of the director's interpretation of a story and the film will provide him with a vehicle for personal expression. In the case of cinema, one needs to look at the different factors that allow film to be considered a work of art, from mise-en-scene to editing to writing. These three claims regarding the auteur theory are shown to be at play in Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds. [14: Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," 562.] [15: Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Camera-Stylo," L'Ecran Francais, No. 144, (March 30, 1948), transl. In "The New Wave: Critical Landmarks," by Peter Graham (Secker & Waurburg, 1968).]

Inglourious Basterds is an updated spaghetti western set against the backdrop of Nazi occupied France. The film follows the intertwining tales of the Basterds, a clandestine group of American soldiers on a personal mission to kill as many Nazis as possible; Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman who has escaped internment and/or extermination and is out for revenge; and SS Colonel Hans Landa, who is coincidentally tracking the Basterds and who exterminated Shosanna's at the beginning of the film.[footnoteRef:16] [16: Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino.]

Throughout his career, Tarantino has created and employed a series of trademarks, which enable audiences to distinguish his films from those of other directors; other trademarks include being involved in almost every aspect of film production including acting, music supervision, production, and editing. One of the most obvious mise-en-scene trademarks is the use of non-linear narrative framing. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses chapters to introduce and establish major…[continue]

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