A Case Study on Film Authorship: Exploring the Theoretical and Practical Sides in Film Production

By David Tregde
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 1/4 |


Film authorship has been a topic of debate in film theory since the Cahiers du Cinema critics first birthed auteur theory. Andrew Sarris used this theory to categorize directors based on their level of artistic authorship, solidifying the idea that a director is the sole author of a film. In The Schreiber Theory, David Kipen argues that a writer is responsible for creating the world of the movie and should be considered the author of a film. However, collaborative theories, such as those proposed by Paul Sellors, provide a more practical framework for studying film authorship. Rarely are any film authorship theories compared with specific examples. To compare theory to practice, this research took a two-fold approach. First, theory is explored through primary and secondary sources to give a background and understanding of the main arguments in authorship. Second, this research documents the production of two feature films (Blade Runner & The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) as case studies through analysis of in-depth documentaries. By examining these productions, this study observes theory in practice rather than studying the finished products.

I. The Problem of Authorship

“Authorship does matter,” says Janet Staiger, because it addresses the issue of acknowledging credit behind a motion picture (Gerstner and Staiger 27). When addressing the responsible parties for a film, it is important to know why such analysis is needed. Whether it be an issue of credit when it comes to major awards or discovering the reason why a production failed, it can be paramount to know who is responsible for the creation of a film. Film authorship theories fall into one of three categories: auteur, writer, or collaborative. Classic auteur theory has commanded much of film scholar debate since the 1960s. Although outcries against auteur theory have been published since 1963 (Gerstner and Staiger 9), writer and collaborative theories have not been given the same serious thought (Kipen 17). While critics and scholars can debate for eternity on topics of authorship, the real issue is what filmmakers actually practice during production (Tomasulo 114). An examination of film authorship should cover the evolution of authorship theory from the 1960s to the present.

Feature films are never made by a single person. From the writer to the director to the studio executives, many ideas and hours of hard work go into collaborating on a film production. It is important to know that one theory of authorship will not answer the question for all films. However, opening the discussion and studying films and filmmakers will make the reality of theory more visible (Tomasulo 114). In addition, instructing future filmmakers in the processes of established craftsman and artists in the industry can “confirm the value of theoretical inquiry” through the practice of theoretical concepts (Tomasulo 116). Studying the work of filmmakers is one way to improve the production value of a film. In this sense, the study and application of film theory will also inform and improve a production.

Due to the nature of the filmmaking process, film often aligns with a more collaborative form of authorship than other artistic media. While some films are recognized for their directing or writing style, their true authorship lies in the intentionality of the collective that produced the final product. The art department’s contribution is arguably no less important than the camera department’s in bringing the story to the big screen. Even the director’s and producer’s power on set may be debatable considering the impact of actor input, assistant director’s duties, and technicians’ crafting. Therefore, the following paper will examine major authorship theories, building towards a collaborative theory of authorship.

II. Auteur Theory

At its heart, auteur theory promotes the director as the author of a motion picture (Gerstner and Staiger 8). Behind every movie lies a director with a vision. The director gives the motion picture “any distinctive quality it may have” (Grant 31). Many motion pictures are extensively guided by a director from script to completion and are considered the work of that director. Concept artist Syd Mead said, “The director is God in film” (Dangerous Days). For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s films are recognizable not only for their story and stylistic elements but also for his standardized production method (Carringer 374). Hitchcock is “universally acknowledged as the world’s foremost technician” and his form “does not merely embellish content, but actually creates it” (Truffaut 17). It is this combination of high technical skill and artistry that makes an auteur. Hitchcock was known for creating detailed storyboards for each of his shots and both experimenting with and implementing filmmaking and storytelling conventions.

When French New Wave critic Francois Truffaut published the auteur theory in the Cahiers du Cinema in 1954, it took the world of film criticism by storm (Grant 55). The origins of auteurism can be traced to the article Truffaut wrote, titled “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (Caughie 23). In this article, Truffaut explains where he believes American filmmakers have succeeded and where the French have not. The French critics for the Cahiers were concerned with not only elevating film itself as an art but also naming American filmmakers as artists. At the time, auteurism was a uniquely American trait from the French critics’ perspective. The French critics became particularly interested in American filmmakers because of their focus on visual narrative and strong heroes (Hess 52). Two strong film genres coming from the U.S. at the time were film noir and westerns, both of which display independent and masculine heroes. It was the way American directors rose above and beyond the genres that fascinated their European counterparts (Hillier 32). What fascinated the French critics was when an American director took a genre movie with a basic story and created compelling characters with an interesting story that amounted to more artistically than its parts would lead a viewer to believe. The critics often discusses this in reference to noirs and westerns where the protagonist became more than the independent macho personality so cliché in both genres.

According to Truffaut, an auteur transforms the film into something personal, “an expression of his own personality” (Caughie 23). Jacques Rivette made a similar argument, saying that an auteur, rather than being at the mercy of a good or bad script, can take the material and turn it into his work (Hillier 38). The original French version of auteur theory was the idea of making a film distinct to the director by infusing ideas of his own into the characters and story beyond what the script required. Jean-Luc Godard, in his article “Sufficient Evidence,” shows that despite the “conventional scenario” of a film, an auteur will probe stereotypes and archetypes to turn them into “living beings” (Hillier 48). This is why the French critics were so obsessed with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock because of his tendency to add personal expression throughout his filmography (Truffaut 314). In fact, idolizing of Hitchcock led Truffaut to conduct an extensive, in-depth interview with the filmmaker and allowed him to publish it as Hitchcock. Truffaut holds that a filmmaker, like any artist, fundamentally tries to show his audience how to understand themselves through artistic expression (Truffaut 20). Rather than a theory of authorship, Truffaut’s auteur theory argued that a director is an artist rather than a technician (Hess 50). His interviews with Hitchcock revealed the director to be a deeply emotional man who “feels with particular intensity the sensations he communicates to his audience” (Truffaut 15). This would make Hitchcock more than a craftsman or technician and elevate him as an artist. Alexandre Astruc wrote a later article addressing the “camera-stylo” as he termed it, which compares the director’s camera to an author’s pen (Caughie 24). This comparison led to the idea that a director is the sole authorship force behind a film. In addition, the interpretation of Truffaut’s and Rivette’s articles spawned the idea that only auteurs or cineastes (one who has a passionate interest in cinema) were capable of making a film truly their own. Other directors were unable to disguise the fact that authorship lay elsewhere. For example, directors are heavily influenced by the writer of the script or the studio that financed the project (Caughie 24). The French critics would not consider these directors auteurs.

In conjunction with the destabilization of the studio system and a greater emphasis on directors rather than studios, auteur theory came to command major attention in film theory for the better part of the last several decades as well as dominate critical and public notions of film authorship (Grant 111). Due to improved international relations after World War II, the French were introduced to a whole body of American cinema at one time, and they quickly embraced the American individualism portrayed in films by Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and John Ford (Hess 51). American film critic Andrew Sarris whole-heartedly adopted auteur theory and wrote extensively on the topic, interpreting it for the American world of film theory and pushing auteurism to the narrow, director-focused theory for which it became known (Caughie 9). Charles Eckert argues that works by Sarris and Peter Wollen would have been a “mere eddy” in auteur criticism if other critics and theorists had not clung so whole-heartedly to their assertions (Grant 103). The Cahiers had to devote a lot of time and space “dissociating from the excesses committed in its name” (Caughie 23).

Critics in film theory seek to give credit to the creator of the emotional and psychological impact of a film (Macgowan 308). Auteur theory gives critics a way to associate film authorship to a single entity. The moments, scenes, and sequences that impact the audience are the work of the director because he is responsible for working with the talent, cinematographer, and editor to tell a story that he sees in his head. Allowing the director to see his own version of a scene could let him create a more artistically personal film, which the French critics relished. The auteur critics also emphasized performers’ performances over acting ability, noting the director’s likeness to a psychological therapist who was able to tease out the performances like confessions in group therapy (Hess 52). He is the conductor that approves the artistry of all the separate pieces involved in the production (Grant 191).

Because of the popularity of auteur theory and proof that directors are able to make money through control and personal expression, studios began to give their directors more control over their films after the 1950s (Grant 186). Because of this industry-wide shift, auteur theory began to evolve with the industry. Instead of an auteur’s status being defined by “overcoming barriers to personal expression,” a director’s auteurism became defined by the nature of that expression: the director’s auteur thumbprint (Grant 187).

One should consider the director in discourse concerning his work in order to find the truth behind critics’ assumptions of his decisions and actions (Grant 30). The traditional “low tech” method for auteur analysis involves examining a director’s work “until patterns begin to emerge” (Kipen 51). The Hollywood auteur filmmaker “existed once discovered by the rigorous critic” (Gerstner and Staiger 9). Auteur analysis relies heavily on the subjective observations of the critic through extensive viewing of the filmmaker’s work. Sarris held that auteur theory served two purposes: to classify films and to give them value as works of art (Caughie 27). Observing whether or not a film was created by an auteur could determine whether the film fit into high or low art categories, in Sarris’s opinion.

However, even from its beginning, the auteur theory faced opposition. More recently, theorists have delved into the cultural context in which the French New Wave critics birthed the auteur theory in order to explain the original idea as well as revise it for contemporary critique (Naremore 14). Specifically, after World War II, Europe was flooded with American films, so the French were exposed to a cornucopia of American filmmaking. The French critics’ fascination with American films has been attributed to their lack of exposure during the years of the war.

Even the critics themselves tried to separate themselves from the more radical adherents to the theory. André Bazin, a critic with the Cahiers du Cinema, wrote, “The evolution of Western art towards personalization should definitely be considered a step forward, but only so long as…[it] doesn’t claim to define culture” (Caughie 26). Bazin hoped to correct for the outbreak in director-centrism that sprung out of the Cahiers love for American directors. Rather than pushing to extremes in the way Andrew Sarris did, the Cahiers critics chose to instead attribute directorial genius to other factors including industry environment and historical contexts (Caughie 27). As mentioned previously, Sarris argued that auteur films gave them more value within society than other films. Bazin argues the theory should not be used in this way because it perverts the entire idea the creators had in mind. However, Sarris’s notion became more popular in the public eye when used on popular and well-known directors, such as the ones analyzed previously.

Critic and theorist Pauline Kael wrote that Sarris’s breakdown of the auteur theory in “Notes on Auteur Theory” (1962) relies on “incongruous premises and incorrect assumptions” (Grant 54). Kael considered Sarris to “lack rigor” and be “undisciplined” (Gerstner and Staiger 9). Some theorists hold Sarris in a similar position to the French New Wave critics with their star-struck criticism and Sarris’s unwavering dedication to the Hollywood director. Many critics agree that auteur theory is fraught with logical problems (Kipen 63). For example, auteurism unnaturally elevates the director’s place within production and judges films based on their director rather than as an individual artistic work (Gerstner and Staiger 39). Even the original writers of auteurism did not intend it as theory of cinema; this was an interpretation perpetrated by Sarris (Grant 76).

In fact, Thomas Schatz claims auteurism “would not be worth bothering with if it hadn’t…effectively [stalled] film history and criticism in a prolonged state of adolescent romanticism” (Braudy and Cohen 524). Graham Petrie says auteurism evades “all the sordid and tedious details of power conflicts and financial interests that are an integral part of any major movie project” (Grant 110). On a movie set, the director’s word is art, but the producer’s word is law. The producer keeps a film on budget and on time, if he’s doing his job. The director works for the producer unless they are the same person. Therefore the producer curbs the director’s vision— his authorship. It is “naïve and often arrogant” to assume the director is the only author that matters in the filmmaking process (Grant 112).

Eckert complains there is “so much oversimplification, obtuseness, and downright unfairness running through the whole debate” (Grant 103). Historically, critics have attempted to design formulas and methods with which to recognize auteurs separately from others. However, these methods “dumb down” the art into a matter of numbers and tally marks that destroy the purpose of analysis: to better appreciate the artistry present. Eckert holds that while coding as part of a “careful, logical system” can assist the critic in his research, there are too many variables to simply lay conclusions down as immutable law (Grant 105).

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