Being an “Auteur” Doesn’t Give One Absolution

The term “auteur theory” has been used more often recently, mostly in reference to certain directors who’ve been accused of abuse or sexual misconduct, with little to no lasting repercussions. To better understand what this theory has to do with the lack of action against these people, it’s essential to first understand its importance within the film world.

The term “auteur theory” was coined by French New Wave creators in the 1940s to distinguish between their films and large studio-produced works. The concept itself, though, has been around much longer. Auteur theory, as defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is a “theory of filmmaking in which the director is viewed as the major creative force in a motion picture.” Essentially what this means is that the director (or so-called author) of the film is the one who gives it its uniqueness or reconcilability through their choice of stylization and/or theme. Simply put, an auteur’s film is one that you can recognize the style of right away, even if you are just flipping through TV channels.

There are a few problems with this theory though. To start, directors are not the only ones with major creative input into a film. Screenwriters, producers, and the main cast also have considerable influence. There are also large contributions from editors and those in the art department such as art directors and production designers. Therefore, this theory dismisses the importance and impact of these roles. Secondly, and more seriously, bestowing a director with the title of an auteur gives them a certain power. These directors are touted as true craftsmen with unparalleled skill, and are often the ones whose films are pulled apart and analyzed by students and cinephiles alike. It’s this title, or the strive for this title, that allows these directors to get away with abhorrent, and even potentially deadly, behaviours in the name of “art.”

Source: Gage Skidmore

A popular auteur, Quentin Tarantino, has been in the news for this very issue. Actress Uma Thurman came forward recently, retelling what happened to her at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and Tarantino. During the filming of Kill Bill, it was Tarantino who demanded she drive a dangerous car for a shot despite her repeatedly telling him she didn’t feel safe doing so. Instead, Tarantino lied to get her to agree, even having the gall to say “Hit 40 miles per hour or your hair won’t blow the right way and I’ll make you do it again.” Unsurprisingly, the car crashed during filming, injuring Thurman badly enough she was unable to walk away from the accident and needed to be taken to the hospital. She still deals with the effects of the crash to this day. After the accident, Thurman wanted to see the video but was denied until she had her lawyer ask for it. Miramax (the company that produced the movie, and that Weinstein was head of) agreed, but on the condition that she sign a document saying they weren’t responsible for “…any consequences of [her] future pain and suffering.” It took 15 years and mounting pressure to get Tarantino to give up the footage of the crash, which she has now posted online. You can view the video here or in the original article.

It doesn’t end there though. Thurman revealed that during the filming of Kill Bill, Tarantino was the one who spat in her face for a scene and was also the one who choked her during another. It’s not rare for directors to insert themselves into their movies. James Cameron famously was the one that drew a nude Kate Winslet in Titanic. There’s also Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man movies, who played the side character, Happy Hogan. Where it becomes a problem though, is when the director decides to do something that heightens the power imbalance between them and their actor. Tarantino (and Cameron) put themselves in a position that could easily let them take advantage of someone they’re supposed to be responsible for. If you don’t see a problem with that, let me restate why there is one. Though the film industry is unlike any other, a director is essentially a boss. If you’re an actor, and another actor spits on you while you’re performing, it’s fine, assuming you were aware it was going to happen, because you’re on an equal playing field. It’s easier to approach them and talk about what you weren’t okay with than it is with a boss, no matter how big a star you are. So, with that in mind, imagine if your own boss put you in a situation where they could or were actively humiliating or hurting you (even if it wasn’t meant seriously). The difference in status inherently gives them more power over you. It’s unacceptable for a boss to do that, and is against several laws, depending on what occurred. So why is it different for directors?

Source: Raffi Asdourian

Another auteur abusing his title is Woody Allen. The judge who presided over the custody case between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in 1993 condemned Allen, stating that his “behaviour toward [their daughter] Dylan was grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her.” During the same custody battle, Dylan’s claims were backed up by three other credible witnesses, and it doesn’t end there. In 1997, four years after the court case, Allen married his once-stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Disturbingly, he readily admits that their relationship worked because “I was paternal. She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me...” Yet, despite this (easily accessible) information, Allen is able to make movie after movie and still works with some of the biggest stars today. Since 1993, he’s directed 29 different projects, and he even has vocal supporters, such as Kate Winslet and Blake Lively. Back in 2016, he got an $80 million dollar five-picture deal with Amazon, who are just now (as of January 2018) considering ending their contract with Allen due to immense backlash. Though it’s great that Amazon wants to end dealings with Allen now, it’s a little too late. All of this information was available for anyone, especially a giant company like Amazon. What’s probably even more surprising (or, maybe, more of a huge let down), is the number of actors who’ve worked with Allen despite this information being out there. Allen’s soon-to-be-released movie stars Jude Law, Selena Gomez, Timothée Chalamet, and Elle Fanning, to name a few, all people who should’ve known better, and in some cases, did.

Source: Sky News

The last auteur I’ll mention (despite unfortunately, having many many to choose from) is Roman Polanski. In 1977, Polanski, 43 at the time, drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl named Samantha Geimer. Polanski soon thereafter fled the US to avoid further prison time, ending up in France, where he still is today, evading extradition. While the victim has publicly stated she forgives him and wants the charges dropped, it doesn’t negate what he did. But you’d never know about it since Polanski since directed 17 projects since, some even with notable stars like Ewan McGregor, Adrien Brody, and Eva Green. But, when you have people like Tarantino saying that what happened to Geimer wasn’t rape because it didn’t fit his ‘definition’ of it and because she was “down with it,” it’s no surprise. Unfortunately, many stars still support him, such as Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Penelope Cruz, Harrison Ford, as well as fellow auteurs Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, and Woody Allen who have all publicly shown their support for him. Sadly, the names listed here are just a small fraction of those in the film industry that back him. But, despite the fact that he did this to himself, according to Polanski, he’s suffered enough: “As far as what I did: It's over. I pleaded guilty. I went to jail. I came back to the United States to do it, people forget about that, or don't even know. I then was locked up here [in Zurich] after this festival. So in the sum, I did about four or five times more than what was promised to me.” More recently, Polanski has been accused of sexual assault by ten other women, all of whom were teenagers or younger, at the time of their (alleged) assaults.

There’s no excuse for allowing these auteurs to still be in the industry, especially to the degree that they are. They are still winning prestigious awards, making well-financed films, and being supported by their peers. There’s a clear problem here, yet the film industry seems to want to continue to laud these abusers, just because they belong in the mythical auteur category. Being an auteur does not mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for the deplorable things they’ve done. No art is worth supporting an abuser, no matter how much of a ‘genius’ one thinks the artist is or how great their work is. This is why it’s vital we, as the audience, don’t separate the art from the artist. By not already doing this, these people have been allowed to continue hurting others, even breaking the law. It’s time we stop supporting them. Knowing the truth and not caring makes us complicit in this systemic abuse. Our love of an artwork or its artist is not more important than the victims, and what they’ve been through. It’s not more important than potential future victims of these “auteurs.”