There is no Brad or Angelina, no George Clooney or Madonna to draw the star flockers to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. While Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, Robert De Niro and Kristen Stewart will keep the cellphone cineastes busy, this year’s TIFF is, even more than usual, about shining a light on the medium’s real prime movers: the filmmakers.
After a long summer of Hollywood big-movie pummelling, there’s an embarrassment of auteur riches at this year’s festival: movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell, Brian De Palma, Deepa Mehta, Takeshi Kitano, the late Raul Ruiz and many others.
As Hollywood studios cut back their rosters and double down on the global blockbuster, the gap between the mainstream films at the multiplex and the kinds of movies we see at festivals becomes more glaring.
There’s a history lesson here. Fifty years ago saw the publication of a founding document among cinephiles: Notes on the Auteur Theory by American critic Andrew Sarris. The essay was inspired by ideas Sarris had picked up years earlier in Paris, hanging around young critics and future filmmakers such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
These “children of the Cinémathèque,” who gorged on American movies after the war, developed a focus on the director’s artistic freedom of expression – on the director as author, or auteur, of the film.
Sarris’s essay and his subsequent book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, were catalytic events. His death in June at 83 was followed by an outpouring of tributes from critics and academics, many of whom had found their life’s calling by way of Sarris’s writing, inspired by his breezy ability to provide a lens through which to view movie history’s vast output.
Few today would argue with Sarris’s premise: Great movies rarely exist without great directors (the Michael Curtiz-helmed Casablanca, Sarris pointed out, was a major exception). Filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford, though working within the studio system, were important artists.
In other ways, though, Sarris’s “theory” was less a critical method than a movie connoisseur’s ambitious filing system. He saw all other directors as being in orbit around an Olympian pantheon of auteurs: filmmakers who demonstrated not only technical talent but distinctive artistic personalities, evident in themes and stylistic motifs that could be deciphered from analyzing their body of work.
At the start, Sarris grandly declared that the “task of validating the auteur theory is an enormous one, and the end will never be in sight.” He would later scale auteurism down to “a collection of facts, a reminder of movies to be resurrected, of genres to be redeemed, of directors to be rediscovered.”
Today, auteur is more a catch-all word to describe any director you admire who shows creative style and repeating themes. Godard, quoted in journalist-filmmaker Laurent Tirard’s 2002 book, Moviemakers’ Master Class, dismisses the term: “But the whole idea became perverted; it was transformed into a cult of the author instead of a cult of the author’s work. So everybody became an author, and today even the set decorators want to be recognized as the ‘authors’ of the nails they put into the walls.”
Sarris’s emphasis on establishing a canon of great film authors also found itself running counter to prevailing trends in academic criticism. According to film academic Robert Stam’s book Film Theory: An Introduction (2000), “Auteur studies now tend to see a director’s work not as the expression of individual genius but rather as the site of encounter of a biography, an intertext, an institutional context, and a historical moment.”
There’s one area, though, where auteur cinema continues to reign: the international film festival. There, the director as star is as much a commercial necessity as a convention. Without the marquee onscreen stars or comic-book or literary franchises that the major studios lean on, art cinema relies on the director’s brand to bring out cinephiles and generate buzz. An art-house film shows at a festival, or on a tour of world festivals, as a way of test-marketing it, generating publicity and landing distribution deals for various territories, all of which eventually translates into money at the box office.
The market is all about building a habit of connoisseurship, while reaching a global niche audience. The directors who sell their wares at festivals – from Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami to Brazil’s Walter Salles – now work outside their own countries and native languages. Once made, their latest films may cross paths at festivals in France, Canada, Brazil and South Korea. Festivalgoers vicariously travel the globe as auteur tourists.
As brands go, the auteur trademark has a long-standing credibility. This year’s TIFF, for example, brings us new works from directors such as Bertolucci and Costa-Gavras who came of age during the sixties, a decade drunk on politics and cinema. If you want to find an artist-filmmaker who has worked from the silent era to the digital one, there’s 103-year-old Manoel de Oliveira of Portugal.
The TIFF superbuffs who buy up 50-ticket packages replicate the gluttonous young French cinephiles of the postwar era. And, in the hundreds of thousands of images they see, they’ll be looking to locate and celebrate the artist behind the screen.