For the purposes of our argument what we want to do is look at three phases of authorship, and chiefly with reference to the great French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, which initially expounded auteurist ideas. The first phase would be that surrounding Cahiers in the fifties and what came to be known as the politique des auteurs, where filmmakers would be elevated to the position of auteurs, of artists with singular visions, as opposed to the metteurs-en-scene who, according to devotees of the politique des auteurs, like Franois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, were proficient but not inspired. Part of their argument lay in the belief that there had been a general undermining of certain American directors because they would work within genres; while at the same time the best European directors worked outside generic boundaries: they had to be mavericks. This apparent paradox was resolved partly through the notion that central to what made American cinema great was genre; while what debilitated European films were their attempts to work within generic models also, or to adapt slavishly prestigious material. In Europe genres "have no genuine roots", Rivette believed. In American cinema, he added, there are "self validating genres like the western and the thriller".
For Truffaut often the problem for European filmmakers was that they would adapt respectable material and gain a vicarious reputation on the back of a classic text. This didn't mean great filmmakers couldn't adapt great books (Renoir made Madame Bovary; Bresson The Diary of a Country Priest, and both were highly esteemed directors in Cahiers' eyes), but in such instances their greatness as filmmakers transformed the material, even if they were respectful to it. Andr Bazin admired the style of Bresson's film, but also "the paradoxical effect of the textual fidelity". Generally the same was true of many of the great American (or American based) directors working in genres, Hitchcock with the thriller, Ford with the western, Hawks moving between comedy, war movie, western and thriller, and still managing to stamp their authority on the material.
The biggest problem for European film - and for British cinema especially, it seemed - was that with too few great auteurs, nor major evolving genres, it was a failed cinema. "It limps along", Rivette said, "caught between two stools." This would have partly been why American film was such a fertile area in which to search for auteurs. With both strong genres and at the same time strong voices, critics could see a personal vision within a solid structure. Now of course before auteurism came along many dismissed these very same filmmakers as decent craftsmen but nothing more as they shaped the material according to genre expectations; the Cahiers critics begged to differ. The combination brought out many directors' auteurist credentials.
Howard Hawks became thus not a journeyman moving from project to project and genre to genre, but a man with a vision: "every technique relates to metaphysics", Bazin reckoned. For Rohmer it wasn't what Hawks showed but how he showed it. If we compare ostensibly similar scenes from Hawks' The Big Sleep and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity we can see a little of Hawks' vision. One of the points critics often comment about in Hawks' work is the masculine nature of it, and we notice this in The Big Sleep as Bogart's Philip Marlowe first meets Lauren Bacall's character. He sweeps into the room as the camera follows him in a lateral track. This is the sort of brisk movement of character and camera that will bring to mind the style of His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not and Only Angels Have Wings. It is part of a masculine world into which the characters must fit, and the exchange between Bogart and Bacall plays up the assertiveness. As Bacall tells him he looks a mess, Bogart replies that he isn't very tall either. They wisecrack belligerently with each other and we seem to be in a world where people have to provethemselves.
In the scene from Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray's character is a big man made small: he is shown at the bottom of the stairs with Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatalelooming above him wearing no more than a towel. This seems to be much more a feminine world, evident in the close ups that play on the sexual charge. For example as Stanwyck comes down the stairs, the camera points out the ankle bracelet she is wearing. When she sits in the large chair, she deliberately sits in the corner of it. Her purpose is not to be the equal of MacMurray, but to ensnare him. Often Wilder's male characters are vulnerable, even weak figures - think of The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment - and rarely indicate the significance of a masculine environment. Now we shouldn't exaggerate this difference - both Hawks and Wilder made films with men dressing up as women - Hawks with I was a Male War Bride; Wilder with Some Like it Hot. However the tone and purpose of their work is quite different, with Hawks, Cahiers would say, offering a more concrete vision. "too dry to even be resolutely brutal" Rohmer insisted.
The Cahiers critics were not all of a piece over the auteur theory, and some were more proselytizing than others - Truffaut and Rivette - and some wary and questioning - like Bazin, who was always more of a realist than auteurist. Nevertheless, generally speaking, Cahiers critics believed at least in the potential of the auteur vision, of a subjectivity capable of transforming the material.
But could auteurism remain in place against the onslaughts of contemporary theory in the sixties and seventies, including some we have already discussed, elsewhere, like structuralism and semiotics? If existentialism with its belief in the sovereign right of the self is consistent with auteurism, surely structuralism and semiotics, as well as de-constructionism and gender criticism, undermine it? We should recall that in 1968 Roland Barthes published his article 'The Death of the Author', and a year later Michel Foucault came out with What is an Author? Both articles were written loosely under the aegis of structuralist thinking, where man is less personal agent, than social subject. As Pam Cook proposes in The Cinema Book, "Structuralism, from its beginnings, posed itself against those forms of criticism which regarded the work of art as a closed, self-sufficient system in which the intentions of the author were to be found."
This didn't mean however that John Ford, Howard Hawks etc were no longer auteurs, they instead became, if you like, scare quote auteurs: 'John Ford', 'Howard Hawks'. They became less embodied individuals with a vision; more a cluster of signs around a proper name. Peter Wollen, in his book Signs and Meanings in Cinema, offers analysis not too dissimilar to that of Cahiers, saying that Hawks is interested in a man's world where women have to fit in, where marriage is usually irrelevant and the adventure is the thing, but applied structuralist/semiotic terms, and proposed how the films fit with underlying general structures. For example Wollen uses terms like "stylemes" and "semantemes", and the "plerematic stratum", to explain how images resembled words and sentences, and contained an underlying meaning. The sort of observations Cahiers du Cinema were making instinctively in the fifties were also made by Wollen, but with a theoretical apparatus underpinning them: Wollen's would appear much more theoretically, structurally and semiotically, bolstered. Certainly some Cahiers critics, like Bazin especially, were grounded in phenomenology and existentialism, but not in a remotely a priori rigorous way.
Ironically, though, in the late sixties and the early seventies Cahiers itself became structurally inclined, and politically oriented. An individualist magazine flaunting both its own writers' freedoms and the maverick nature of the directors it liked, it went through a strict structuralist and Maoist phase. Auteur work was still being done, but within the remit of hardcore, almost scientific analysis. Lengthy pieces were devoted to the semiotic, structuralist and ideological aspects of films, including Young Mr Lincoln and Morocco.
In the early to mid-eighties, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze published a two volume examination of cinema, Cinema 1 - The Movement Image, and Cinema 2: The Time Image. Absorbing much of film history's theory, and well-grounded in the major filmmakers, Deleuze's books proposed that filmmakers work chiefly with two types of images: movement images that are consistent with our own sensory-motor activity, and also consistent with the Hollywood mode and most other mainstream media, and the time images which reveal the collapse of that schema, where the director works with lectosigns, chronosigns and opsigns amongst others. Now a lecto signs is a sign that needs to be read - interpreted - not just seen; a chrono sign shows the way time sits in the shot, and an op-sign is an optical image where the character does not react to what he sees. All these break with the movement image.
This helps explain the work of filmmakers who seemed to so deviate from our expectations that they called into question what we expect from cinematic narrative. Deleuze, more insightfully than any other writer, helped create terms that could explain this shift. For example Antonioni's work is full of chrono-signs: there seems to be some weight of past that so often sits in the characters, and this would appear to stop them expanding into action, leading to op signs: to optical images that the characters will observe but will not react to. The viewer would read many Antonioni's images as lectosigns, because we cannot take them for granted, cannot instantly say what purpose they are serving. Examples would include the propeller in Blow Up, the house exploding at the end of Zabriskie Point, the grey fruit in The Red Desert, the witnessing of a fight in La notte. Deleuze's sign system, pragmatic and specific to each filmmaker, help us to comprehend numerous Modernist filmmakers including Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Godard and Resnais, as well as making sense of the popular elements of many classic auteurs like Chaplin and Hitchcock.
Absolutely central to Deleuze's thesis though is that cinema is not merely or even chiefly a medium in which to tell stories; it is a place that can generate thought. When we wonder why so many people write about cinema, Deleuze says "it seems to me to be because cinema contains a lot of ideas." The most important aspect is not telling stories, though most films do, nor to generate great thoughts out of these stories, but to practice thinking. Thus Deleuze claims filmmakers themselves are like great thinkers. "....it is not sufficient to compare the great directors of the cinema with painters, architects or even musicians. They must also be compared to thinkers." Central to this is not the way they conform to certain pre-existent modes that bring out aspects of our collective, accumulative unconscious, as in structuralism, but how a filmmaker's originality arrives at a fresh sign language that they create because they need it for expressing a singular vision. As he says "a work is a new syntax", "a classification of signs that exceeds linguistics in every respect".
Whether the filmmaker is commercial or independent, avant-garde or genre driven, the question is how does he or she express their singularity. Deleuze does not want to underpin his particular brand of authorship with a rigorous scientific method. It is more that each filmmaker has their own problematic, and to make sense of their work we might find useful observations from psychoanalysis, from philosophy, from painting, from literature. The point and purpose is to find the most significant point of entry to understand the problematic the filmmaker happens to be working with. An approach too concerned with method would leave the artists of secondary importance to rigorous application of theoretical construction. Some critics may have problems with Deleuze's critical framework - loosely from Bergson and C. S. Peirce - but no writer on film has been so fertile and perceptive in comprehending what filmmakers are 'getting at'. Understandably, Cahiers has over the last twenty plus years been hugely influenced by his work.
© Tony McKibbin