Auteur (French for author) theory came out of the austere traditions of the French New Wave film movement. Because of the conditions facing French film makers in the late fifties, especially the war-depleted economy and new democratizing film technology—affordable, mobile equipment—it can serve as a useful metaphor for an artist striving for autonomy and control in today’s fraught markets. Like the iconic film directors of that period, today’s Auteur likewise contemplates the daunting practical problems of financing, production, and team building.
Bringing so many disparate forces together to illuminate a singular vision requires a nearly maniacal obedience to it: an Auteur must first submit wholly to their own vision, and remain true to it while exercising a remarkable flexibility in matters of methods and means. Those who wait for ideal conditions will never begin.
A certain balance is required to operate from this dual modality. A director without this balance will err to one extreme or the other: if they cannot maintain strict fidelity to a sound inner vision they will lose control of the film and dilute its power, and if they are unable to act opportunistically and spontaneously they will have a powerless, lifeless film, even if it is technically flawless.
The power of the Auteur’s directing intelligence derives from the purity, honesty and intensity of a unifying theme, which introduces a necessary system of logic and structure. Operating like this, between these two vital tensions, allows something essential to come through. An Auteur then must strive for discipline, mastery and economy, while shirking none of the difficult questions presented by material conditions.
It’s the economy, stupid
Samuel Johnson famously said, ‘none but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money.’ Many artists believe that there is something improper about questions of finance, but artists too delicate to face this essential problem will find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history, whether through appropriation or oblivion. The true Auteur is a realist as well as a visionary (still those same two tensions) who understands the marketplace well enough to play in it and eventually succeed. Financial solvency is one of the final markers of success in our world, and an artist who wishes to attain to the level of Auteur will not be shy about facing money questions head on.
Gustavus Vassa and the Interesting Narrative
The eighteenth century, much like our own, was a time dominated by multinational corporations, rigorous international trade and commerce—including the international slave trade, which largely fueled this expansion. Today human beings are trafficked in bits of data, and likewise sold in a vigorous international trade.
Born mid-18th century, Olaudah Equiano was sold as a slave from his native Africa and eventually bought by Michael Henry Pascal, an officer of the British Navy. A true Renaissance man, Gustavus Vassai—as Equiano later called himself—bettered every man he ever met. Vassa, despite facing astonishing obstacles, attained his freedom, British citizenship, and the complete control and ownership of his own intellectual property. He even left a sizable estate to his daughters.
A remarkable man by any measure, Vassa was a pragmatist and an effective businessman who navigated a corrupt and at times criminal milieu with honor, dignity, and persistence. He used his astonishing mind to understand and master all he came across, and his intelligence was indispensable to those around him.
Though Pascal’s fortunes were measurably improved by Vassa’s interventions, the British officer betrayed his promise to free Vassa and resold him into slavery in the West Indies. But Vassa never lost sight of his vision, a vision of freedom, and whether being cheated by traders in the West Indies, or harmed by those he helped, he never lost sight of who he was.
Vassa’s decision to attain his freedom by purchase rather than escape was probably for him a no brainer, given his business savvy. At least one edition of his narrative today is prefaced by a commentator who concludes that in this choice Vassa “implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of slavery.” In reality, Vassa was a leading abolitionist and a practical man who did not wait for ideal conditions to arise, but took life as it came, as anyone who hopes to act in the world must. He was an outspoken and respected opponent of slavery who was not afraid to investigate all the contradictions of his dual identity. Late in life, Vassa came to fully understand that he would never be accepted into European culture, though he admired some tenants of their civilization. And indeed, as in every other aspect of his life, Vassa controlled and directed his identity, and refused to have limitations dictated to him by others.
Vassa’s remarkable journey can be followed through his Interesting Narrative, which he self-published, first in Britain and then in America, for a list of elite subscribers. As interesting as his narrative is, the other story is the remarkable control and ownership Vassa exercised over his intellectual property. He handled all of his own public relations and represented himself fully in the market. His story is a wonderful example to us today of overcoming all obstacles. It is an inspiration to anyone with a passion for freedom, autonomy and actualization.
A businessman, author, and public figure, Vassa was able to rise above the circumstances and conditions of his time to create a life and a name for himself. He was able to command himself and then the world.
If you don’t have a plan, you’re part of somebody else’s. Are you an Auteur—or an avatar?
i The name “Gustavus Vassa, the African” is a telling choice. It was actually the third slave name given to him, after Michael and Jacob, but one that resonated. Though Pascal gave Equiano this name, presumably as an ironic commentary on his regal bearing, the young man transformed it into something greater. Like the monomythic heroes, Vassa refused the name at first but came to embody it. The name is a reference to Gustav Eriksson, the 15th century aristocrat who had been captured and sold to the king of Denmark. Denmark ruled Sweden until Eriksson led a rebellion that drove out the Danes and made him King Gustav Vasa the First. By the 18th century, the Swedish king had become the hero of many wild adventure and legends that Pascal, and perhaps Vassa, would likely have heard.