Auteur Theory and Authorship


For many writers on film for whom auteurism had been in many ways liberating, these post-structural theoretical debates were a step too far. One of the main results has been that, having been central to debates about the nature and function of film criticism and film studies for twenty-five years or more, since the 1980s questions about authorship in film have not generated the same frenzied critical debate they did between the 1950s and the 1970s. To a large extent, this is because—the problems of high theory aside—auteurism has been widely recognized as one of the most useful critical approaches available, and writers on film, while happy to modify what might have been initially naïve ideas about authorship in film, have refused to give up the concept. This is not to say that critical and theoretical writing has reverted to the simpler and hence more problematic positions of the 1950s and 1960s: the critiques of those positions have been taken on board and have been adapted and modified. More recently, Robert Stam argues that "auteur studies now tend to see a director's work not as the expression of individual genius but rather as the site of encounter of a biography, an intertext, an institutional context, and a historical moment." (Stam & Miller, 2000, p. 6).

The radical changes in film studies brought about by auteurism's insistence on exact attention to just what was occurring in the film brought in its train a number of very important later developments in film criticism and film theory. Indeed, as well as, from the mid-1960s, a steady flow of sophisticated and influential auteur studies—notably Robin Wood's monographs on Hitchcock and Hawks—the discipline of film studies itself can be seen to have emerged out of these first debates in English about authorship in cinema and the further debates and questions they raised.

Bazin's objections to some of the ways the politique des auteurs was practiced by his Cahiers colleagues arose in part from his insistence on the contexts in which Hollywood films were made. These objections were recognized, if not paid much attention to, by early Movie writers and Sarris's writing. One of these contexts—of more interest to Bazin than to most of his Cahiers colleagues—was genre. Hollywood cinema was, in many ways, primarily a generic cinema; Bazin himself was particularly interested in the western. Whatever might be said about the authorial signatures of Hawks, Ford, or Mann, the fact remained that they made—among other genre types—westerns. How did the long-established but constantly evolving conventions of the genre interact with authorial personality? What did the genre provide for the auteur , and what different authorial emphases or inflections might the auteur bring to the genre—or, put more simply, how were westerns by Hawks, Ford, and Mann both different and the same? Building on the previous critical theoretical work on genre, which was very sparse, these were the questions posed by Jim Kitses's book Horizons West (1970), a study of the western genre and of the work of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, and Peckinpah within it. Colin McArthur's Underworld U.S.A. (1972) aimed to do something very similar for the gangster-crime genre. These were important stages in the growth of genre study, soon able to break away from any dependence on auteurs for its justification. Debates about authorship also raised the question, as discussed above, of whether anyone might stake a greater claim to authorship than the director. This question also had some fruitful results: although no one was very convinced by Pauline Kael's attempt in The Citizen Kane Book (1974) to argue that the writer Herman Mankiewicz (1897–1953) was the real author of Citizen Kane , Richard Corliss's Talking Pictures (1975) was a useful reminder of the often crucial role of screenwriters in the Hollywood system and in the work of individual directors.

For Bazin, genre was part of the "genius of the system," but the system was also a mode of production. Sarris could assert that the studio system imposed potentially beneficial constraints on its directors and Movie could recognize that a film like Casablanca (1942) represented a coming together of various talents and conventions, but there was relatively little thought about or research into the intricacies of how films actually got made within the studio system—and after. Given the new interest in the possibilities for authorship within that system, this then became an area for urgent further research, stimulating a remarkable amount of work on the way the industry functioned, and functions. Major books like Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (1988) and David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2005) are testimony to both the new research field that opened up and the more "holistic" perspectives on Hollywood production.

As mentioned, debates about authorship also served to focus attention on the ways in which directors made choices in the process of direction in relation to meaning-making. This suggested that the specificity of the medium—what made film different from other media—resided in mise-en-scène . Sarris argued that the art of cinema was "not so much what as how " (Sarris, 1968, p. 31), and this Movie -Sarris emphasis began a process of focusing on questions about the specificity of cinema—or at least the specificity of narrative, illusionist cinema. V. F. Perkins's book Film as Film (1972), which is strongly authorial in its assumptions, looks at the ways in which meaning is constructed in such cinema, in a chapter titled "'How' Is 'What.'"

One thing this focus on direction, or mise-en-scène , did not really do was pay much attention to the various conventions and "rules" about shooting and editing. However much an auteur might "invent" (as Hoveyda put it) via the mise-en-scène , this invention also took place in the context of a long and developing history of textual conventions. This was an area that had interested Bazin since the 1940s (as in, for example, his essay on "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema") and which was no doubt part of the "genius of the system," but the auteur debates, as they focused on mise-en-scène , also foregrounded the need for a systematic examination of the various conventional constituents of the "classical" style of film narration. Not quite coincidentally, Jean-Luc Godard's nouvelle vague films of the 1960s were also engaging in a systematic deconstruction of these narrative and continuity conventions. Later critical and theoretical work like David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema , (1985) and Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) grew out of these imperatives.

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