By now anyone who has made even a glancing acquaintance with academic film criticism has heard of the "auteur theory"--that lit-critical bane of serious screenwriters everywhere. The auteur theory--which the Village Voice's Andrew Sarris imported to this country from the famous French film journal Cahiers du Cinema--held that films, like books, have authors. And: The author of a film is the director.
Happily for American film, though unhappily for our largely unsung screenwriter, the auteur theory played a major role in putting American movies on the map, critically speaking. Until the '50s, movies occupied the same cultural rank assigned to television today: They were the vast wasteland. But once the French began elevating directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Nicholas Ray to auteur status, people began to see movies differently. People began to see film .
Cahiers du Cinema accomplished all this in the 1950s, through the writings of critic/aspirant film makers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette. Here, with the publication of editor Jim Hillier's second volume of translated essays from the Cahiers, spanning the years 1960-1968, we find the influential journal in a state of flux. The auteur battle having been won, and most of its combatants having departed to create the New Wave, the journal's writers now oscillate between a continued celebration of the American cinema and a growing disenchantment--a move away from auteurs and toward politics. Toward May, 1968.
As European intellectuals became increasingly anti-American (Vietnam, the growth of American transnationals, the Cold War--all soured our relationship with Europe), the Cahiers critics began to champion the New Cinema, a cinema that directly challenged the smooth and seamless storytelling conventions of Hollywood.
Hillier's valuable collection of translations shows us this turning of the tide. And while his book is primarily an important contribution to film scholarship, it is for the most part accessible to the educated fan as well. Meanwhile, devotees of television can only hope the small screen will one day find a champion as eloquent and fierce as the Cahiers.