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Film Authorship

Local Solutions       


Reading through a recent work on Gilles Deleuze’s cinema books, one notices how few references there are to films, as the Paola Marrati book works its way through Deleuze’s ideas without the author soiling her hands with too many specific examples. Yet at least the book is an overview: a slim volume explicating Deleuze’s ideas on film. To claim that it references too few films in its summarising of Deleuze’s thinking she might insist that her book is not remotely hermeneutic but explanatory: she wants to do no more than explain the philosopher’s key concepts, to offer all the narrative thrust of Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 without the many ‘characters’ – ie filmmakers – that populate the work. Paul Sellors’ Film Authorship may suffer from a glaring error the author himself believes is no sort of fault at all: like Marrati’s it is a book happier grasping ideas than it is in locating examples. Yet many of Sellors’ comments indicate that he wants a much more empirical approach to authorship than we have been offered hitherto in earlier authorial criticism. As he searches out the contradictions, the assumptions, the summary dismissals and the obliteration of authorship as an idea in film studies, so what he seems to want are two things: methodological robustness and empirical research. “…most of our established means for understanding film authorship do not provide robust methodologies for analysing the practical importance of authorship for film production, criticism and history.”

Yet Sellors doesn’t at all practice what he preaches: he preaches what he refuses to practise, with the book almost completely lacking in the sort of work he promotes. Not only are there relatively few references to films, there is very little production material on the films he does analyse, and even the comments on one of those key examples, Bill Douglas and his Trilogy, seem to undermine Douglas as a director without offering a fresh perspective on the film. When Sellors says of My Ain Folk “the film was rescued largely by Lindsay Anderson’s recommendation that Douglas take a holiday, allowing [editor Peter West] to finish editing the film”, this seems closer to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls than methodological precision. It doesn’t seem too far removed from the off-hand remark in Biskind’s book where editor Bud Smith says the writer and director of Personal Best, Robert Towne, “spent less time in the cutting room than with his dog.” Production research is all very well, but as Biskind’s book so clearly demonstrates, it can be a great way for people to settle scores and ends up telling us very little about the aesthetics of film. Indeed, when Sellors mentions that in the Trilogy “many scenes could be interchanged without detriment, but not the order of the shots”, this could be usefully explored if production information happened to be available. Who decided in which order to put these shots? If one credits it to Douglas when it was very much West, then it is false attribution, and one can understand that credit should be given where credit is due. But this needs to be known; here it is merely implied in Sellors’ comment about the shot order, and later in Sellors’ remarks on Andrew Noble’s research, and then through Peter West’s comments, that on My Ain Folk “Douglas’s personal involvement in the film, so crucial for the scripting and shooting, was poisonous in the editing room.”

Yet as Noble says in an article on Douglas called ‘Bill Douglas’s Trilogy’ in From Limelight to Satellite, “The timing and pitch of the Trilogy is nigh perfect, bearing witness to the intensity of Douglas and his editors for it is only when editing that, as Orson Welles says, “the director has the power of a true artist.” Was Douglas then a true artist if his presence in the editing room was so poisonous? The sort of methodological work Sellors insists upon, requires a combination of aesthetic understanding and scrupulous and intense research if the work remains paramount and everyone is given a fair hearing. Sellors’s account of Douglas’s work seems simultaneously too sketchy on aesthetic analysis and too reliant on a couple of comments that do Douglas few favours to pass for the sort of rigour Sellors demands. Is this partly because much of the book is given over to the sort of abstract arguments and summarising accounts of authorship theories, and Sellors’ countering of them? The starting point of the book is basically to counter two contrary and prevailing ideas about authorship. One is that critics create over-intentionality on the part of the director; second that there are many who move in the other direction and say that intention is a fallacy and that the author is dead: that it is through other means that one understand a work, not through the author. Sellors believes the former gives too much credit to the director; the latter not enough to various people (including the director) who is involved in film production. He reckons there should be a balance between these two extremes that accepts a film is intended, but that the intentions are not always the director’s, and a close look at production history would show who is responsible for what.

But there is a sense that Sellors often appears more interested in questioning the reasoning behind other people’s thinking than furthering his own, as Barthes, Foucault, Bordwell and numerous others are attacked for faulty logic, false interpretation or overly simplistic argumentation. “There are (at least) two basic problems with Barthes’ argument” he says, before taking Foucault to task for misinterpreting a point made by John Searle. Bordwell, meanwhile, “is ultimately too reductive”. One doesn’t believe Sellors is undermining other thinkers for the purposes of aggrandizing his own better reasoning faculties, but because no strong argument comes out of the book it is rather like the problem we have with the take on Douglas: there seems finally to be no higher gain out of questioning how involved Douglas was in the editing suite; and the flaws and failings in the works of important thinkers (in the case of Barthes and Foucault) and a major formalist critic (in Bordwell’s) do not lead to fresh insights by Sellors. If the book had more specifically taken apart statements made, and showed how they were not useful for his own attempt at methodologically rigorous, empirical research we would have had what we might call local problems analysed, and local solutions found. What do we mean by local problems analysed and found, and what sort of authorship does Sellors seem to be promoting to resolve these problems? We can perhaps return to Bordwell, a writer one suspects Sellors is much more in sympathy with than the Foucaults and Barthes. Bordwell is nothing if not a concrete film analyst, announcing in one of his blogs that he often watches films on an editing machine: that as a consequence it can take most of the day to watch a standard length film.

This isn’t to promote such critical dawdling, but it would seem to be the sort of piecemeal analysis that loosely cognitivist thinkers like Sellors admires; certainly over the airy abstractions the continentals brilliantly go in for. In an introductory essay in Post-Theory, Bordwell talks of the importance of middle-level research, where work is “problem – rather than doctrine – driven”, and where one can build “theories not of subjectivity, ideology, or culture in general but rather of particular phenomena.” If we return to our example of Bill Douglas, and talking into account this middle-level research, wouldn’t it be useful to find out what other films Peter West edited and why the Trilogy looks aesthetically coherent though West only edited one of the three films? Does the editing seem somehow different in this middle film than in the other two? Sellors could have offered middle-level research of the type of authorship he admires, through giving examples of his own attempts at author studies that would be a lot more rigorous than the type he dismisses. When he says “the Cahiers du cinema approach to auteur criticism does not constitute a theory. At its core there is no rigorous analysis of language, film language, authors, artists, art or cinematic art to justify this critical approach,” we might ask, does Sellors’ own; and didn’t Cahiers du cinema at least interview many of the directors they so admired, and ask them why they made the choices they made, and if they weren’t made in the usual sense then Cahiers would often ask about that too? “What matters are the ideas, not the images”, Roberto Rossellini said in a Cahiers interview with Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. “You only have to have very clear ideas and you find the image that most directly expresses them.” Francois Truffaut was so interested in Hitchcock’s films that he interviewed the director at book length in the mid-sixties in Hitchcock. In a series of comments on North by Northwest, Vertigo and The Birds, Hitchcock talks of the importance of locale, and though a great director of artifice, nevertheless also liked authenticity of detail. “When we were preparing to shoot Vertigo, in which James Stewart plays an educated detective who’s retired from the police force, I sent a photographer to San Francisco. His assignment was to dig up some retired detectives, preferably college graduates, and to take pictures of their apartments.” It is anecdotal detail, but it can help us understand better the film we are viewing; perhaps look more closely at Hitchcock’s apartment shots not only for their suspenseful possibilities; but their character specificity. What is surely important here though is that we look harder at Hitchcock’s films; not wonder about the name of the photographer and how much credit he ought to get for Vertigo as we dilute Hitchcock’s authorship.

Not that this is exactly what Sellors is claiming; he acknowledges that there are those who strongly impact on a film’s intent and others who do not. “The simple answer is those that adopt and are able to realise the relevant collective intention.” He believes that “on a film set it is unlikely that the caterers will have an intentional attitude to the film itself. They are simply commissioned to perform a task,” and so presumably the photographer is as irrelevant as the caterers. However, this seems to be a local problem looking for a local solution. If the photographer was hired for the rest of Hitchcock’s films, and these films had a greater sense of realism than those before Vertigo, maybe we would want to give the photographer a certain amount of credit: it would help explain why some of Hitchcock’s films were more attentive to the detail than hitherto. This though is an example of local problems and local solutions, and Cahiers critics seemed, more successfully than Sellors here, to comment on film language and cinematic art to justify their critical approach. When Sellors points out in The Bill Douglas Trilogy that “while these are autobiographical films, they are more than mere illustrations of Douglas’s life,” few would disagree, including Douglas and Cahiers du cinema. Douglas says as much in the Noble piece, believing that he needed to compress the images to avoid the possibility of self-indulgence. “I have pared down to reach for the essentials. The autobiographical factor is the main component, but it is a hard film made up of elementary contrasts.” “The originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses”, Fereydoun Hoveyda insisted in Cahiers, “but in the technique he employs”.

Now if we find in doing background research on Bill Douglas that for some reason or another on My Ain Folk he seemed to have been going against the aesthetic established in My Childhood, and was doing so because he wanted a more naturalistic approach than in his first film, and that his editor persuaded him otherwise, then we arrive at an interesting paradox entirely consistent with the Cahiers position. The editor persuades the director that the film is more of a Bill Douglas work if Douglas doesn’t impose a vision on the film that is detrimental to its broader aesthetic significance. If one finds that is so, one can credit the editor for his insistence, but his insistence still serves Douglas as filmmaker – as he tries to support the original vision he sees in the first film. Yet to know this is so still doesn’t mean we can’t talk of a Bill Douglas aesthetic; an aesthetic so much in place that an editor counters the filmmaker in defending it. If we accept that Cahiers wanted to defend the aesthetics of the director more than the egos of the filmmakers, then they would surely agree that an editor who brings out the director’s vision even against the director’s own apparent interests, is finally serving the auteur: the strongly manifested vision that needs to be maintained.

But this means a close look at the work as well as the production history: hence local problems. When we talk of local problems and local solutions, what we mean is that the critic or theorist doesn’t ask the sort of questions that become needlessly abstracted logical problems showing that theorists have flaws in their arguments, but that they find a pragmatic methodology for working with the problems in front of their eyes. Sometimes it is very useful to have information on the background of a film; sometimes not; and there is no reason, as Sellors believes, that a piece of auteur criticism will inevitably be stronger for having this background information. “In order to understand the authorship of any film and the significance of any author, we require a clear definition of the concept ‘author’, and research that combines empirical investigations into production histories with critical analyses of film texts.” Much of Bazin’s criticism, Deleuze’s, Raymond Durgnat’s, Gilberto Perez’s and any number of other perceptive writers’ work goes the way of the bathwater in Sellors’ broad claim. “Antonioni’s stunning montage”, as Perez insists of the last ten minutes of the Eclipse, would presumably be automatically and critically invalid because Perez makes no mention of Antonioni’s editor, and because Perez would be unlikely to know exactly how much time the director spent in the editing suite working on the footage. The editor happened to be Eraldo da Roma, who worked on all Antonioni’s films between L’avventura and The Red Desert, with Antonioni officially involved in his own editing thereafter.

It would be interesting to know how much influence da Roma had over Antonioni’s work in this period, but that hardly invalidates criticism that doesn’t acknowledge it. It would also be useful to know more about the editing of Cecile Decugis and Claudine Bouche and other female editors who worked with Godard and Truffaut in the early sixties. While critics have noted no nouvelle vague films were directed by women; many of them were edited by them and a book of interviews would have been extremely useful. So much depends though on the local problem and the local solution. From a certain point of view, the films of Antonioni, Godard and Truffaut are authorial works; from another they are collaborative pieces, but there needn’t be a mutual incompatibility between seeing them as directorial masterpieces, and seeing them also as industrial productions involving secondary artists capable of making creative decisions. If we have had so much good auteur criticism thus far despite lacking the sort of rigorous methodology Sellors insists upon, then surely the problem resides elsewhere: not so much in undermining the auteur, and dismissing auteur criticism, but in expanding notions of authorship. We hardly need an elaborate theory to assume that the tea boy need never be interviewed for contributing to The Eclipse, A bout de souffle and Jules et Jim, but few will argue that composers like Georges Delerue, cameramen like Giuseppe de Santis, Henri Decae and Raoul Coutard, and scriptwriters including Antonio Guerra and Jean Gruault are not of importance in the films of Antonioni, Godard and Tuffaut. One may have no interest in seeing Antonioni undermined as an auteur, but still have a great interest in wondering how much involvement da Roma, de Santis and Guerra had in the films they made with the director.

Sellors’ work however seems to be caught in a loosely analytic philosophical obsession with non-contradiction, and the sort of theorising Karl Popper so admired when talking of problematic theories in an interview in Modern British Philosophy. “…we would continue to use the old refuted theory until a better theory was found; but we should use it with the knowledge that there was something wrong with it. There would be an open problem, and we should know in advance the minimum conditions which a new theory would have to meet in order to be regarded as an interesting solution to this open problem.” There are a couple of things here that could be addressed though. One is that a problematic might contain contradictions and may not be universalizing, but is still extremely useful if we think in terms of local problems and local solutions. There is a place for the sort of auteurism Sellors’ demands if we want to locate specific and fair attribution to the members of cast and crew, but if we want to practise the sort of auteur criticism that determines to differentiate between Douglas’s work and Terence Davies’s, and to see how they are indebted to Robert Bresson, then this is the sort of phenomenological analysis that could be cluttered up by too much concern for crediting individual editors and cameramen and so on. If we wanted to ask what makes two superficially similar filmmakers like Douglas and Davies very different, and show how they have been influenced by a filmmaker who allows for these similarities to become apparent, before one sets to work on those differences, a lot of production detail would be utterly unnecessary. One need only concentrate on the form. We don’t need a methodologically coherent system for this; we need a mode of analysis that works pragmatically. When Popper asks for a better theory whilst accepting the limited usefulness of the one we possess, in film we can talk of a pluralism of ideas, some of them better in certain circumstances than others.

If all Sellors was looking to offer was a new theory of authorship that would work in ways that other notions of authorship haven’t, and took its place alongside these other possibilities of thinking through questions of the auteur, then so be it. But he is caught it seems in the teleology of the better idea: of a notion that his is more logical and universally applicable than any that has come before it. It is as if he is the prince pursuing the princess of reason. He must vanquish all her suitors before showing that he is the most worthy of her love and devotion: “Throughout this chapter I have focused on three principal concerns”, he says. “First, even the most personal and poetic filmmaking does not justify the excesses of a Romantic conception of authorship. Films are public objects that communicate meaning. They are open to interpretation, critical judgement and evaluation within broader debates.” Sellors then adds “whether engaged with political debates, aesthetics or institutions, films are necessarily inflected by external frameworks”, before more debatably insisting, “filmmakers, like all authors, work through institutions.”

Yet sometimes the best auteur analysis comes from ignoring certain frameworks all the better to focus on others. While a lovely anecdote Andrew Noble offers in his piece on Douglas illustrates the contingent dimension to Douglas’s casting of the lead Steve Archibald, another piece might want to comment on how Douglas uses his actors rather like Bresson uses his models, and concentrate on the dogmatic dimension that has no need to reference the biographical circumstances. What we are saying, in contradiction to Sellors, is that there is no reason why we need better theories than we already have to practise authorship, unless there is a certain notion of authorship that Sellors wants to practise that no theory already covers. To insist that one cannot talk of a filmmaker’s work without reference to numerous other people involved in the production is to insist on every critic wading through often useless material to make a point that has nothing to do with the production background. While it is perfectly understandable someone can write on Apocalypse Now without reference to Walter Murch, it seems remiss if one were talking specifically of the sound and crediting it all to Francis Ford Coppola. Ditto to talk of David Lynch’s sound design without reference to Alan Splet. One can hold to the significance of even quite conventional notions of authorship without denying the importance of contributors.

This is one of the two chief problems Sellors seems to have with prior ideas on authorship. “Conventional notions of the auteur mythologise filmmaking by attributing authorship solely to a director via critical preferences and presumptions about directorial control.” This is loosely an attack on Cahiers du cinema type criticism. The second is that “people make films for reasons”. This is Sellors refuting the claims of anti-intentionalist critics we alluded to earlier, including Wimsatt and Beardsley, who talked about the “intentional fallacy” and also Barthes’ death of the author for the birth of the reader who can read hermeneutically the text with much more freedom. But in relation to the first point would a modern sometime Cahiers critic like Michel Chion need Sellors’ ideas to acknowledge on a number of occasions Splet’s contribution to Lynch’s films in his defiantly titled: David Lynch? Obviously not; as he does acknowledge Splet’s contribution. In relation to the second point, certainly there are usually intentions behind films, but that doesn’t mean that we ought to read them through clear intentionality. Sometimes it is useful; sometimes it isn’t. A film can be intentionally fascinating, but it can just as easily be symptomatically so. One doesn’t doubt that in Notting Hill the filmmakers intended the viewer to be emotionally manipulated by one’s wondering whether Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts will get together by the end of the film, but they were maybe not so concerned with how their film would fit into a Blairite sense of metropolitan false democracy: the film probably didn’t want us to ask too many questions about Grant’s character’s financial position as the owner of a failing bookshop, but owner also of a very nice Notting Hill flat. Yet for a sociologically-minded critic that non-intentionality becomes the main point. Equally, from the filmmakers’ point of view the flatmate is comic relief; from a critic’s he can be a piece of social condescension towards the Welsh that needs to be taken apart.

If the critic goes too much with the intentionality of the film, then often one of the things that Sellors earlier promotes – the external frameworks that the film cannot avoid working within – gets lost. Sometimes one reads against the grain to bring out the social framework to the detriment of diegetic intention; sometimes diegetic intention is what one wants to explore. Sellors’ book is sub-titled Auteurs and Other Myths, and presumably he would be happy if he believed he had logically taken apart the theories behind authorship. However one would be very surprised if the book makes much of an impact on author studies, while there are works by Geoff King and Stephen Prince, Alain Bergala and indeed Chion, that interestingly relate form to interpretation. They are critics who are interested in very different ways in theorising on the formal practicalities of filmmaking: of escaping the conventional authorship that Sellors is also so suspicious of. Stephen Prince has talked of substitutional poetics to describe violence in classic Hollywood cinema; Geoff King explores the idea of impact aesthetics in modern American film. Bergala talks of the difference between composition and attack – the lay out of the scene and where one chooses to shoot it from. Chion frequently coins terms to define how sound is utilised and how it affects us: using phrases like active and passive off-screen sound to describe how filmmakers will create in the viewer curiosity and expectation based on what is out of frame in the former instance, and sounds that give us a sense of ambience but to which we need not narratively attend in the latter instance.

In each case the critic is creating an interpretive apparatus that can work within authorship, or deny it altogether. They are creating a conceptual reservoir one can use as the critic chooses. If finally Sellors’ book is without much interest it isn’t because it is too weak an attack on authorship; more that it offers too few conceptual possibilities in countering it. It fails finally to offer up a vision of its own.


©Tony McKibbin