Auteur Theory and Authorship


Cinema poses its own problems. Commercial filmmaking, which accounts for most of the films—European and world as well as American—shown in cinemas and reviewed in print, as well as most of the material made for television, is justifiably seen as a collaborative activity, involving the skills and talents of many different film workers. At the same time, that mode of film production is hierarchical as well as collaborative: not all the collaborators count in the same way. In the sense that many commercial film productions will include a "dominant personality" influencing the shape and look of a film more than others, the idea of the film auteur or author is not necessarily very controversial. Although claims have been made for the importance of producers, screen-writers, and stars, either in general or in relation to particular films, the director—usually with the final say over the detailed realization of scenes (and hence over the way they will look and sound on screen) and often with crucial say over editing and other postproduction processes, and even over scripting—has usually been credited with having the dominant role in most cases. This dominance seems implied by the nature and place of the director's credit on the film itself, though dominance may not equate with authorship.

Although the numbers and processes involved can vary greatly within commercial film production, filmmaking can also be organized in quite different ways. In experimental or avant garde filmmaking, for example, the term "filmmaker" is often preferred to "director," simply because the filmmaker does often make the film rather than play the particular role of director in a complex collaborative hierarchy. Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow, for example, generally shot, edited—and sometimes distributed—their films. In such cases questions about authorship must be very different from those for commercial production—and perhaps should figure in the same way they might in the fine arts. Some radical filmmaking groups, such as the Dziga Vertov Group of the late 1960s and early 1970s, have purposefully rejected the hierarchical nature of most commercial production and claimed collective authorship.

Despite the controversial nature of claims about film authorship in the 1950s, authorship or something approximating to it had been very widely accepted for many years. No one seriously disputed that the films of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) were "authored" by him, or that it was justified to use the possessive form "D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation " for that 1915 film, or at the very least that Griffith was the "dominant personality" influencing the film's final form. This was even more the case with non-US films, like those by the German directors Fritz Lang (1890–1976), F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), and G. W. Pabst (1885–1967); Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953), Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1894–1956), and Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) (despite the supposedly more cooperative and egalitarian Soviet approach to art production); and films by, for example, Abel Gance (1889–1981), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), Victor Sjöström (1879–1960), and Carl Dreyer (1889–1968).

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