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date: 25 February 2020


A Dictionary of Film Studies

Annette Kuhn,

Guy Westwell

authorship (auteur theory, la politique des auteurs) 

An approach to film analysis and criticism that focuses on the ways in which the personal influence, individual sensibility, and artistic vision of a film's director might be identified in their work. Before the 1950s serious film criticism tended to focus on questions of ontology and aesthetics (see medium specificity), with little attention to the craft of filmmaking. With a few notable exceptions—D.W. Griffith, G.W. Pabst, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Roberto Rossellini—few directors were known by name. From the late 1940s, however, a group of cineastes influenced by the writing of André Astruc and André Bazin began looking at cinema through the literary prism of authorship. The journal Cahiers du cinéma, founded in 1951, provided a forum for articulating what became known as the politique des auteurs, a phrase coined by François Truffaut in a 1954 article, ‘A certain tendency of the French cinema’, and roughly translatable as the auteur policy, but commonly rendered in English as the auteur theory. This celebrated the film director as an auteur—an artist whose personality or personal creative vision could be read, thematically and stylistically, across their body of work. The identification of a particular film style that could be associated with a director and traced from film to film was considered the ultimate authorial signature. The auteur policy drew a distinction between workmanlike directors—metteurs en scène—who produced well-crafted films and true auteurs who were able to create art: Michael Curtiz was placed in the first category, for example, and Nicholas Ray in the second. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Cinémathèque Française offered the Cahiers critics the opportunity to view a wide range of films, including many by US directors (Hollywood films had been restricted in France during the German occupation in World War II, and arrived after the war in a glut) (see film journal; france, film in). These exceptional viewing conditions enabled a director's films to be viewed side-by-side in a manner impossible for film critics elsewhere. Particular praise was reserved for US directors who, despite conditions of production that militated against it, produced distinctive and personal works: hence the high valuation of Alfred Hitchcock. This celebration of what artistry at the heart of the studio system stood in sharp contrast to the critical and pessimistic view of Hollywood proposed by the Frankfurt School (see critical theory). Authorship approaches have proved influential and durable: the auteur policy directly influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague; and indeed a number of them actually promulgated the movement in the pages of Cahiers. In Britain Lindsay Anderson, writing in the journal Sequence, translated and discussed some of these writings, and this influenced both the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave. In 1962, the film critic Andrew Sarris popularized the idea of film authorship in the US: he created a nine-part schema to rank a large number of directors, thus beginning a formative debate about the films that might constitute a canon of great work. The impact of the auteur policy can hardly be overestimated. The initial debate and its take-up shaped film criticism, film culture, and the development of film studies and …film theory in a range of cultural contexts.

The authorship approach was not without its critics, however. In France, its celebration of formal inventiveness and universal themes was deemed a reactionary attempt to depoliticize film, abstracting it from its social and cultural context. And as the discipline of film studies took shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s, genre criticism eschewed this emphasis on the director, preferring instead to examine the recurrence of specific themes, styles, and iconographies across a range of similar films within a particular cultural context (see genre; sociology and film). In the 1970s, attempts were made to dovetail the relatively impressionistic approach adopted by the Cahiers critics with the more rigorous methods of structuralism: auteur-structuralism no longer considered the director as the intentional creator of meaning: instead the director was deemed nothing more than a name given to a body of work identified by a common signature. Peter Wollen argued that the real-life figures Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks, or Alfred Hitchcock should not be methodologically confused with ‘Fuller’ or ‘Hawks’ or ‘Hitchcock—the recurrent structures appearing in the films of these directors and given their name only after the fact. This qualification limited claims of authorial intentionality and allowed for unconscious, unintended meanings in film texts to be identified and decoded (see ideological criticism; psychoanalytic film theory).

The rise of poststructuralism in film studies brought further objections: a sceptical attitude towards anchored, stable meaning informed the announcement of the ‘death of the author’. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes claimed that meaning in cultural texts arose from the complex interplay of culture, history, and language in a process where reading or viewing was as generative of meaning as writing or directing, and called for attention to be paid to an idealized reader/viewer, a hypothetical figure abstracted from analysis of the film text (see spectatorship). Poststructuralist approaches treated the author as just one discourse within a text, working in complex interrelation with other discourses. In this approach, associated with the work of Michel Foucault, attention is paid to specific authorial signatures, and the authority or otherwise they establish; and also to the wider historical, social, and cultural contexts in which these practices circulate. Although relatively conventional auteur studies are still regularly published, most work on authorship within film studies today tends to be qualified with regard to the structuralist or poststructuralist position. Work on the political economy of film also seeks to indicate how the director operates within a tightly constrained and carefully demarcated environment and as a kind of brand identity central to a film's marketing and distribution. See also copyright; direction; director's cut.

Further Reading:

Astruc, André ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Pen', Ecran Français, 144 (1948)’ in Peter John Graham (ed.), The New Wave: Critical Landmarks (1968).Find this resource:

Bazin, André ‘De La Politique Des Auteurs’, Cahiers Du Cinéma, 70 (1957)', in Peter John Graham (ed.), The New Wave: Critical Landmarks (1968).Find this resource:

Caughie, John Theories of Authorship: A Reader (1981).Find this resource:

Gerstner, David A. and Staiger, Janet, Authorship and Film (2003).Find this resource:

Sarris, Andrew The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968 (1968).Find this resource:

Wexman, Virginia Wright Film and Authorship (2002).Find this resource:

Wollen, Peter Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969).Find this resource: