No two people who call themselves auteurists will agree on what the term implies. I persist in regarding auteurism as an aesthetic taste, or rather a collection of aesthetic tastes that are somehow related to the concept of film direction. Historically speaking, one can make a strong case that the Cahiers critics, Sarris, and other prime exponents of auteurism advocated real canon change by demoting acclaimed filmmakers and promoting relatively unsung ones. Apart from this evaluative goal, it's difficult to point to tenets of theory that truly belong to the historical auteurist movements.
Nowadays auteurism sometimes seems too obvious to bother proclaiming, and sometimes seems too vague to be worth proclaiming. And yet film direction remains a controversial concept, if one looks at it from the right angle.
If I am about to try to restore some controversy to the idea of film direction, it's not because I want to establish a pure and objective standard for auteurism. I've pretty much given up on that goal: there's no trademark, anyone who wants the word can have it.
Case 1: Gone with the Wind
Depending on your accounting method, Gone with the Wind is either the most popular film ever made, or one of the most popular. As is well known, producer David O. Selznick included the work of five directors, plus a lot of second-unit footage, in the released product. A fair number of theatergoers seemed not to mind.
A few years ago, I posted to the a_film_by group a brief account of my attempt to decipher this bizarre experimental film. (The thread that follows my post contains the usual heated debate about who the "auteur" of the movie is. I am not interested in this issue: I don't believe that a film has a single "auteur.")
Here we have a nontrivial test of the importance of film direction. Possibly as a result of my cinematic indoctrination, Gone with the Wind seems to me positively incoherent. Not that I think it's a bad film: there are some strong sections, and the project in general has an interesting slant. But it feels like different movies from scene to scene. If I were watching a rough cut in Selznick's screening room, I would have said, "David, for God's sake, you can't release this thing! It's all over the place." And yet, for many viewers (and certainly not just unsophisticated ones), Gone with the Wind gives a high level of satisfaction and does not seem incoherent. In this case, monitoring the tone of the direction induces a response that diverges dramatically from the norm.
So I hypothesize that Gone with the Wind creates a significant divide between viewers whose appreciation is closely bound to film direction, and viewers who are at least capable of falling back to a different mode of appreciation.
Case 2: Television Series
Most of the critical acclaim for serial television goes to the series creator, who is often one of the chief writers as well. My impression is that directors are generally engaged on a short-term basis in TV, sometimes for single episodes, sometimes intermittently throughout a season or series.
I don't even have cable, and am not up to speed on TV developments. But, when I do watch TV, I don't seem to be able to suppress my interest in direction, even though the director of a TV series is just a poor thing.
I still think that "Beavis and Butt-Head" is the greatest sustained artistic achievement that I have encountered in the television medium, but, more recently, I've had some very good experiences with "The Sopranos." I first spotted series creator David Chase back in 1986, when he wrote (from a story by Clark Howard) and directed an unusually controlled and expressive episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" titled "Enough Rope for Two." Chase kept a low directorial profile until the excellent pilot episode of "The Sopranos," then didn't direct again until the series' final episode, the enigmatic "Made in America." Whether or not directing is a high priority for Chase, "Made in America" left no doubt that he had become one of the most accomplished filmmakers in America, with a light editing touch, a wild surreal humor conveyed through the slightest exaggerations and dislocations, and a melancholy sense of time slipping away through storytelling holes.
I've seen only two other episodes of "The Sopranos," both written or co-written but not directed by Chase. I thought they were both interesting, but didn't feel as if I was in the same universe as that of the Chase-directed episodes.
Of course, one can't expect that a hired director, presented with an existing story line and characters and presumably unable to influence script and editing, be able to compete with a series creator directing his or her own creation. The criterion I'm interested in here is not quality or freedom, but coherence. Because of my tastes, I can't imagine making general claims about a series: swapping directors creates discontinuities too great for me to regard the series as a unity. And yet a great many sophisticated viewers praise or deride TV series on a larger scale, as if the contributions of the series creators were able to keep series from flying apart as the directors are shuffled. Is this another criterion for separating the stubborn partisan of directorial style from the more aesthetically flexible viewer?