Friday, 13 November 2020

Discarding a term

At work the other day I read a new book, Postfeminist Whiteness - Problematising Melancholic Burden in Contemporary Hollywood by Kendra Marston, and it reminded me of a common but odd phenomenon within film studies. The last chapter was about Sofia Coppola, and the chapter began with an overview of the history of the "auteur" for a couple of pages, mentioning all the usual suspects from Truffaut and Barthes to Sarris and Kael. How come people still feel the need to do this? Everybody in the field knows this story. If Marston felt a need to call Coppola an auteur she could just do it, there is no need to explain the term, provide its history, and mention the criticism that has been made against it. No other term of this kind is treated in this way. (Imagine if each use of the term "genre" was accompanied with a long review of what has been said for and against it, beginning with Aristotle.)

Another peculiar thing about the term is that many books/articles about this or that director often begins with the writer dismissing the concept of the auteur, and enthusiastically claiming that "we know from the writings of Roland Barthes that the idea of an author should be buried" or something similar, yet the rest of the book/article is the conventional kind of auteur study that you would think, given what they wrote in the introduction, they do not believe is valid or relevant.

I think the reason for this is that they are scared of being seen as old-fashioned, with "romantic ideas of authorship," so they want to pretend that they are not like that, that they are wise and knowledgeable. But it is untenable, as all efforts to eat your cake and have it are. If you do not believe in authorships and oeuvres, you should not write a book or article about the style, themes and concerns about a certain filmmaker, discussing their career as a whole. But if you want to do that, you need to accept the fact that this is what you do, and not hedge your writings by showing you have heard of Barthes and Foucault. (That a short, provocative text for a conceptual multimedia art magazine (Aspen), which is what Barthes's "The Death of the Author" initially was, and which he would quickly move away from in different ways, still seems to be regarded as containing some essential truths about art and writers, which we must always refer to, is quite absurd.)

It is all so pointless though. It is not romantic and starry-eyed to believe that human beings have personal agency and ideas, thoughts and visions, and that, when they make an artwork, these ideas, thoughts and visions can be expressed in that artwork. That is just common sense, and all this hedging and throat clearing is tiresome and annoying, a sign of insecurities. None of it would be needed if the word auteur was just dropped. This is what I mean by the title of this post, "Discarding a term".

It is also common that you will read sentences like "Federico Fellini was an auteur in the true sense of the word, he wrote and directed his own films and had complete control over them." But this is not the true sense of the word auteur. Many directors, such as John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock (to name just five), do not write all of their scripts, yet are usually considered auteurs in the 1950s sense, which logically should be regarded as the "true sense". And it is almost impossible for any individual to have "complete control" over a film. Sufficient control is enough. Another issue is that people today often claim that auteur films are the opposite of genre films, even though the French critics of the 1950s, as well as Andrew Sarris, emphasised that many of those they considered auteurs worked within traditional genres.

These are examples of the fact that few know exactly what the term means, even though they know its conventional history. And this is another reason why we are better off giving up on using it. I do not think it serves a purpose.

For the first, say, 60 years of filmmaking the word auteur was not in use, yet the common view of films and filmmaking was not that different from what it is now. Films were advertised with their stars, and/or directors, and/or studios, critics wrote about the styles and themes of directors, and in general it was the director who was considered the most prominent person in the filmmaking process (with plenty of variations and nuances, just like today). It is a mistake to think that the views of directors changed in the 1950s. In this regard, the conventional history is a distortion.

When I began writing my PhD thesis ten years ago I wrestled with this. How should I approach Hasse Ekman? Should I do the historical overview of views on authorship? Should I call him an auteur? I did not think calling him an auteur was particularly meaningful as most directors can be called that, and since Ekman often directed, wrote, produced, and also played the lead, it was self-evident that he too would be. I tried to give it some more nuance by distinguishing between "internal" and "external" auteurs, with internals being filmmakers, like him, whose presence are embodied in their films because they are being autobiographical or because they appear in them. Other directors with no such presence would be external auteurs. But this was already a fuzzy distinction when I came up with it, and not one I have pursued. I did do a historical overview, but not the conventional one, as in Postfeminist Whiteness, but one that showed how the director traditionally, or at least since the 1910s, has usually been regarded in much the same way as today.

Given how the term, whenever I come across it, is either unnecessary or presented in an ahistorical way, I have become more and more alienated from it. It has been a long time since I referred to a director as an auteur. There is no need. Calling a director a director is enough, regardless of whether they write their scripts or not. Critics and others were doing fine in earlier decades without using the term auteur, and so would we today. But if you do feel compelled to call somebody an auteur, just do it, and do not spend pages of contextualisation and disclaimers.



For an earlier piece by me about auteurs and academia, you can read this:

This article about Andrew Sarris is also related:

Although I singled out Postfeminist Whiteness, this has nothing to do with this particular book, it was just a new example among hundreds of others. I think it is quite possible that it was not Marston but an overzealous supervisor or editor who demanded that historical overview.

1 comment:

  1. Auteurism has taken on a much different meaning in popular discourse, where it feels like any real engagement with its academic uses or the writers who popularized it in the '50s and '60s has been stripped away. Take a book like Stephen Bach's FINAL CUT and the initial discourse about the self-indulgence of the HEAVEN'S GATE shoot that it represents, which blames auteurism for making it easier for directors to engage in abusive behavior on the set and waste studio money. Scorsese's defense of "personal cinema" in his NY Times op-ed last year was widely misunderstood by people who think auteurism means a belief that a director is responsible for an individual for everyone worthwhile in their films, and weirdly, the corporate model of the MCU was championed on social media by supposed progressives as though as it were a worker's collective.