September 7, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “Pre-Cinema”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "Pre-Cinema" program, which screens September 9, 10, and 11 in MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).

The intricacies of the auteur theory can be pretty convoluted and burdensome to anyone who just wants to see a good movie, but permit me to elucidate just a little. The Cahiers du cinema folks (André Bazin, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others) were ostensibly reacting to the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which since World War II and even before had been churning out craftsmanlike but impersonal films. In the service of these attacks, Hollywood was invoked as a model system in which “auteurs” like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh could produce films that were not only commercially viable but also expressed the distinctive personality of the director. Little attention was paid to the impersonal craftsman responsible for most Hollywood films, but the theory attained legitimacy by focusing on a broad view of certain directors’ careers where discernible patterns, themes, and visual style could be cited, much as one would with a writer or painter. Andrew Sarris (to whom this series is dedicated) Anglicized and popularized the theory in the pages of The Village Voice. Despite fierce opposition that survives in some circles to this day, the auteur theory has become the prevailing approach to film criticism.

I am not sure what prompted the Naval Photographic Center to undertake Origins of the Motion Picture in the lull between Korea and Vietnam. This little film (based on Martin Quigley Jr.’s book Magic Shadows), however, is surprisingly informative in sketching eight centuries of invention into a mere twenty-one minutes. Museum regulars will recall several illustrated lectures in recent years by David Francis of the Magic Lantern Society. For serious scholars, the MoMA Library holds the Merritt Crawford papers on microfilm. Merritt Crawford was an early twentieth-century scholar who corresponded with many of the key nineteenth-century innovators.

Eadweard Muybridge is the key crossover figure between photography and film. He survived for nearly a decade into the era of cinema. So, although he technically never made a motion picture, he was well aware of what his experiments had facilitated. There is much literature available, but I particularly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.