Authorship in Film
What is an author, and in cinema more than many of the other arts, should this be a question even asked? After all, a book is written usually by one person, a painting painted by one hand, but a film is a collective endeavour, with actors, a cameraman, a screenwriter and often a composer. Then there is the producer who gets the money, the production designer who arranges the set, and the cook who makes the food. We aren't being trivial either. Mike Leigh claims "if anyone thinks that a discussion about catering is extraneous to the issues of filmmaking, I can only point out that an army marches on its belly." (Leigh on Leigh)
It is like a variation of Michel Foucault's claim in 'What is An Author?' when he wonders whether we should include everything a writer writes. A notebook might be included, "but what if, in a notebook filled with aphorisms, we find a reference, a reminder of an appointment, an address, or a laundry bill, should this be included in his works?" Where do we draw the line and decide who is an author and what constitutes authorship? Roland Barthes believes in 'The Death of the Author' "we know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological meaning (the 'message of God') but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, bleed and clash." Whether it is Foucault's claim that everything associated with the writer is potentially an example of authorship, or Barthes' insistence that authorship is a multi-faced notion that goes far beyond an author's claims about their own work, we can see how this becomes ever more complicated when we think of cinema. Leigh's remark makes clear just how many people are involved in making a film work.
Yet when we watch films by certain directors - from Werner Herzog to Jean Luc Godard, from Orson Welles to Alfred Hitchcock, from Alain Resnais to Federico Fellini, from Ingmar Bergman to David Lynch, we see quite singular visions in each instance, and directorial styles distinct from one another. We wouldn't likely confuse a Fellini film with a Hitchcock, a Welles with a Herzog. Filmmakers can work in very different ways and yet still appear to us to possess a distinct directorial approach. Alexandre Astruc didn't see this as central to the birth of cinema, but part of its possibility as a mature form. Writing in 1948 he could say "to come to the point: the cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language." Astruc adds, "By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of camera-stylo (camera-pen)." ('La Camero Stylo')
For the moment we will focus on two directors we think qualify for authorship status even if their approach to authorship happens to be quite contrary. On the one hand, we have Ingmar Bergman, who would write his own script as well as direct the films. He would also allow what would seem his own obsessions to work their way into the material, evident most especially in an autobiographical film like Fanny and Alexander, based on his childhood, or one incorporating his anxiety dreams like Hour of the Wolf. "...It's a very personal picture", he said of the latter, "what I talked about was the demons, the friends who become friendly, and started to destroy that man. I think it had very much to do with my own fear of them - but I will never let them do that." (Ingmar Bergman Interviews) He is a director who would famously dissolve the boundary between fact and fiction amorously and psychologically too. "From the very beginning of Bergman's career in the 1940s to its very end 60 years later, the women in his films have testified to the intense and claustrophobic relationship he cultivated with them" a Geoffrey MacNab article in the Independent proposed. "He wanted to be extraordinarily close to his actors - too close for comfort. 'I didn't want to be one of his puppets,' the actress and film-maker Mai Zetterling (who worked with him in the 1940s) recalled." Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann were amongst his regular actresses with whom he had long-term affairs, having a child with Ullmann.
This is gossip of course, but we cannot pretend it doesn't feed into our perception of the work and how it is analyzed. It seems consistent with Leigh and Foucault's claims, even if Bergman would hardly be of interest to us as a filmmaker if it were simply for the reason that he had very close relationships with his actresses. Yet filmmakers like Bergman do often allow for a conflation between their personality and their work, as we also find with Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, Abel Ferrara and Francois Truffaut. Let us call this the personal auteur. Others like Hitchcock, Scorsese and Tarkovsky possess preoccupations that make their work very personal if not quite so co clearly autobiographical as Allen or Fellini, and thus we might call them preoccupative auteurs. Others still have a vision that is singular without quite being either personal or preoccupying. We might include Antonioni, Resnais and Altman and see them as stylistic auteurs. In other words, their vision is based on what they do with the film material so that the autobiographical is eschewed or abstracted. While Fellini can call his film after making seven films and a short 8 frac12;, and make it about a director struggling to make his next film as the autobiographical becomes unequivocal, Antonioni's most important films would be those where a surrogate replaces the director: in Blow Up it is a photographer; in The Passenger a television newsman. Often he would cast women in the major role: Monica Vitti in L'avventura, The Eclipse and Red Desert, Jeanne Moreau in La notte. When Antonioni did offer the more direct approach, with films about directors making films, in Identification of a Womanand Beyond the Clouds, the films were impressive but oddly less singularly Antonioniesque.
This makes clear that while the autobiographical can make a work Allenesque, Bergmanesque and so on, this might not be what is most important about it, what reveals most about the sensibility of the director. If we offer the three categories above - the autobiographical, the preoccupative and the stylistic - and admit that of course there is overlap between the three categories, it is for the purposes of resolving several questions that we started with. Barthes reckons the art work is multi-dimensional, a polyphony of influences gathered together under a name we call the author. Foucault wonders where the the author's work begins and ends. Mike Leigh muses over just how far we should go in acknowledging influences on the work being made. If the caterers are so important, who isn't? The more autobiographical the film, the more the apparently trivial can become relevant as Foucault notes with the laundry lists; the more collaborative the medium happens to be, the more ostensibly unimportant work, like the catering, becomes of value. Barthes suggests in some ways than the author is no more than a useful construct.
Our three categories help us negotiate authorship within the context of such understandable onslaughts; that the degree to which they are relevant will depend on the nature of the authorship. People will watch Allen's Manhattan through the prism of Allen's autobiography partly because he invokes the possibility, and this is often what we see in Bergman's work too. When he admits that Hour of the Wolf is a very personal film, when he insists that Fanny and Alexander is based on his childhood, and when we know that the actresses he casts are also the lovers in his life, that idea of what isn't pertinent to the material becomes harder to discern.
In contrast, Alain Resnais would make films that were not based on his own existence, nor especially his preoccupations, and this was never more evident than in his chosen approach: he would on each film work with a screenwriter who was seen as a creative visionary in his or her own right. Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima mon amour), Alain Robbe-Grillet (Last Year at Marienbad), Jean Cayrol (Muriel) and David Mercer (Providence) were all established novelists or playwrights, and each writer's themes find their way into the material. Duras's fascination with past relationships, Robbe-Grillet's with sado-masochism, Cayrol's with war atrocities, Mercer's with questions of madness, are all held together by the director's interest in the fragmentary nature of the real. Resnais' films are rarely narratively straightforward, as though he is looking for the most thorough approach to his subject. Though his work often possesses a political dimension (Hiroshima, Algiers, inter-war corruption in France, Francoist fascism), the event is secondary to the multiple perspectives, temporally available. As Gilles Deleuze would say: "the first novelty in Resnais is the disappearance of the centre or fixed point." (Cinema 2: the Time Image) We don't have the political dimension directly but obliquely, as we can say of Resnais' films it isn't what they say that is most important but how they say it, yet out of this fascination with form comes a new approach to content. We can understand for example that the personal really is the political and vice versa as the nature of trauma isn't significant on the one hand (the nuclear bomb dropping on Hiroshima) and insignificant (a woman's affair with a German soldier), but of equal magnitude from a certain point of view. Resnais makes us understand the nature of trauma from the broadest and narrowest of perspectives. This is just to say that what makes Resnais an auteur is his style more than his personality, his approach rather than his preoccupations.
While few would deny Resnais auteur status, he is less clearly one than Ingmar Bergman, whose personality and preoccupations, as we have suggested, are what makes him for many an unequivocal auteur. Often working with the same cameraman (Sven Nykvist) and the same cast in films like Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson, as well as Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand), writing his own scripts, he would work through personal subject matter with various preoccupations evident, and also a distinctive style: he is often synonymous with the close up, capable of revealing astonishing intimacy. As Bergman said, "...I am always interested in faces. I just want you to sit down and look at the human face. But if there is too much going on in the background, if the face moves too much, if you can't see the eyes, if the lighting is too artistic, the face is lost." (Ingmar Bergman Interviews)
The more ostensible control over the material the more we may believe the director is an auteur. We might claim their notebooks and even their laundry lists may be of importance; and the less control the more we might wish to credit others involved in the production - even the caterers, perhaps. Yet our point in looking at different approaches to authorship - personal, preoccupational and stylistic - is to say that what matters most is the vision that resides in the material, not the production history base that insists one director is more of an auteur than another. Bergman could be as personal as he wishes, but it will be for the way that approach manifests itself in film form which is what matters. In this sense whether it is Bergman offering a new approach to the close-up, or Resnais offering new approaches to time and perspective in film, both resolve some of the problems we have addressed.
© Tony McKibbin