Humorist and movie critic Joe Queenan once stood outside a theater after a screening of Jurassic Park and asked each exiting viewer if they knew who directed the film they’d just seen. Only five out of the ten who talked to him, he reported, could name Steven Spielberg. (Not just one but two of those who couldn’t said, inexplicably, that the Michael Crichton adaptation had been directed by Stephen King.)
Queenan pulled this stunt as an informal test of “auteur theory,” which holds that the director, despite the inherently collaborative nature of the medium, is ultimately the “author” of a motion picture. But what does it say about auteur theory that half of his sample of viewers couldn’t come up with the name of quite possibly the most famous filmmaker alive? Does the identity of a film’s director matter as much as those of us who subscribe to auteur theory believe it does?
As for the case for the auteur, if you’ve got fifteen hours or so to spare, you can watch it made in depth by the Directors Series. These multi-part video essays by writer-director Cameron Beyl examine what makes an auteur an auteur not just one filmography, but one film at a time.
Beyl launched the series with the ideal selection of Stanley Kubrick, an almost Platonic ideal of the modern auteur, whose career-long jumping from subject to subject and even genre to genre reveals all the more clearly the elements of his bold cinematic signature.
Then came series-within-the-series on directors from the generation after Kubrick: David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Christopher Nolan. Though all alive and vey much still active, they’ve all forged the kind of strong styles that inspire worshipful retrospectives at cinematheques the world over. Even the kind of moviegoer who thinks Stephen King directed Jurassic Park surely senses, on some level, the common sensibility shared by films as outwardly different as Fight Club and Gone Girl, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Raising Arizona and Fargo, Memento and Interstellar.
In the Directors Series, Beyl reveals the techniques these filmmakers use to make their body of work a unified cinematic project, and so rise to the status of true auteurs. Try to replicate Queenan’s experiment today, and you may well find that many, if not most, of the viewers who’ve just seen one of their movies won’t know the director’s name. That, of course, doesn’t mean that they didn’t enjoy or appreciate the director’s art — but it also doesn’t mean that, equipped with the kind of insight provided by the Directors Series, you won’t enjoy and appreciate it even more.
The first video from each series appears on the page above.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.