Theories of Authorship
Rethinking authorship

by Barry Keith Grant

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 14-16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Theories of Authorship: A Reader, ed. John Caughie, London: BFI, 1981. 315 pp.

A recently published volume in the British Film Institute Readers in Film Studies series, Theories of Authorship takes up the evolving history of approaches to authorship in film criticism and theory. It is the best single book on the subject (in both senses) yet to appear. Edited by John Caughie, the anthology manages to perform the difficult task of compiling the potentially vast, unwieldy material concerned with questions of film authorship into a coherent, logical order. It will assist both the uninformed and the knowledgeable reader to understand issues made even more problematic by that tiresome infighting and abstract theorizing which has characterized much film writing. And despite what some might expect from Caughie's membership on the editorial board of Screen, his selections and his introductory comments are balanced, relatively straightforward, and more concerned with explicating the issues at hand than with scoring points off such foils for contemporary British film criticism as, say, Robin Wood.

The book is divided into three sections —"Auteurism," "Auteur-structuralism," and "Fiction of the Author — Author of the Fiction." It thus maps the evolution of criticism from a naive, impressionistic romanticism, in which (most often) the director's world view was inscribed into the film by force of his (rarely her) personality, to a more rigorous, even "scientific" consideration of the film text and its rhetoric of enunciation. In other words, the book traces the path from a critical practice that is unaware of its own assumptions to one in which questions of ideology, both in the text and in critical procedure, are of paramount importance. As Caughie notes, the author moves from "standing behind the text as a source [to become] a term in the process of reading and spectating" (p. 200). Or, in the crucial distinction made by Peter Wollen in his revised 1972 edition of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema auteur criticism can move from viewing Howard Hawks as an authorial source to viewing "Howard Hawks" as one code of many which organizes the discourse of the films which bear his name.

Caughie has introduced each of the three parts of the book and each individual selection by a helpful comment. The first full selection in Part One, "Auteurism," is a solid overview by Edward Buscombe. This is followed by a well-chosen sampling of applied auteur criticism culled from its most influential practitioners, Cahiers du Cinéma in France, Movie in Great Britain, and Andrew Sarris work in the U.S. Most of the criticism included here deals with the work of John Ford. That's a logical choice not only because so much auteurist writing was devoted to him but, more importantly, because of the nature of that writing. Too much Ford criticism has mystified rather than elucidated, a tendency disguised by the proclaiming of Ford as a poet. Among others, Peter Bogdanovich, John Baxter,[1][open notes in new window] Lindsay Anderson, Louis Marcorelles and Andrew Sarris (the last three included in this section of Theories of Authorship) all have referred to Ford as one of the major poets of the screen. Most specifically, Sarris assesed that Ford's style is characterized by a

"double image … expressing as economically as possible the personal and social aspects of his characters. And it is this economy of expression that makes Ford one of the foremost poets of the screen."[2]

This argument, of course, has its roots in James Agee's depiction of D.W. Griffith as a "primitive poet" screening forth our culture's collective consciousness.[3] In Ford's case, however, it seems that what this really means is that Ford's movies do what good genre films always do. They make use of conventions and iconography (narrative and visual elements) to articulate a social concern beyond the specifically individualized characters and places in the fiction. One gets the uncomfortable sense in reading these Ford critics that the claim of great-poet status for him justifies avoiding real analysis or truly grappling with the Ford-text. Andre Bazin once remarked that STAGECOACH "is like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position."[4] After that statement, what else is there to say? A wheel is round, its structure known by its function, and its fearful symmetry yields nothing further when turned for inspection. Inevitable, therefore, is John Baxter's assertion that "on the level of invention at which he [Ford] works, ideology is irrelevant."[5]

Clearly, traditional Ford criticism constitutes an extreme instance of the romantic privileging of the author. To concentrate on Ford thus reveals the limitations and problems of classic auteurism. However, the reader also gets a sense of the best auteurism has to offer in the article on Ford's late films by Robin Wood, a critic consistently capable of combining a concern for humanist values with a particularly sensitive textual reading. One major problem of auteurism was that in its eagerness to locate a personality responsible for shapinq a film, it often failed to consider — indeed, it tended to avoid evaluating by some standard the nature of that personality's expression. A critic here like Wood has not done this, and now, in fact, his earlier writings are attacked as Leavis-ite, that is to say, pantheon of artists who reflect the "noblest" values of our culture.

However, this assessment does justly characterize Sarris' practice and that of Cahiers critics, who could at times be nothing less than mystical. Sarris had described the distinguishing quality of the auteur as "an élan of the soul," something which he himself feared to be a mystical description but which nevertheless he could only point out rather than explain when it appeared.[6] The Cahiers critics at least had a cause informing their aesthetic — the changing of economic conditions in the French film industry which would allow greater opportunity for new and aspiring directors (e.g., themselves). But Sarris, with his unfortunate proclivity toward ranking directors, seemed to foster the very cult of personality about which Bazin had warned. Yet while auteur criticism may have been neo-romantic and politically more conservative than the approach of someone like Jean-Paul Sartre, it ultimately resulted in encouraging a more serious examination of the movies and of "entertainment." Caughie is both acutely aware of classical auteurism's limitations and mindful of its valuable legacy:

"… the extent to which subsequent authorship theories, and subsequent theories of the production of ideologies in film, were at least inflected, if not initiated, by these contradictions. Equally, the tendency to reject auteurisrm because it is 'hopelessly romantic' lends itself to an over-reaction in which the author appears as 'nothing but' an effect of the text, failing to elaborate what the text does … and the way he is used in the cinephile's pleasure." (p. 15)

It is auteurism, after all, which was responsible for shifting critical concern from overt theme to mise-en-scene. And it was none other than Sarris who suggested that an auteur may be discovered by locating "the tension between a director's personality and his material"[7]. Such an attitude led to the subsequent ideological deconstruction of classic Hollywood films, an approach which has constituted much of recent significant film criticism. This shift in emphasis becomes evident in the selections included in the second part of Theories of Authorship: "Auteur-structuralism."

This section begins with short extracts from Claude Lévi-Strauss' Structural Anthropology and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's Visconti before plunging into the deeper considerations of Brian Henderson, Jean-Pierre Oudart and others. The Nowell-Smith extract, although brief (a mere three paragraphs), is acceptable because it manages despite its brevity to make its point in the context of evolving notions of authorship. Caughie notes in his introductory comment that it marked the first time that an explicit reference to structuralism was made in English-language film criticism. As well, Nowell-Smith concisely sets out major point of debate in the structuralist controversy, its reductive tendency, since it has proven to be more comfortable with an analysis of narrative and theme rather than — even at the expense of — visual style.

However, while the presence of the Lévi-Strauss extract is supposed to provide a methodological anchor here, it actually works in the opposite way, undermining auteur-structuralism's credibility since, as extracted, it seems merely arbitrary procedurally. Lévi-Strauss breaks down the essential narrative into columns containing bundles of relations, which may be seen to exist in sets of oppositions. Yet in the example he provides, the Oedipal myth, the question immediately arises whether or not Lévi-Strauss offers the only possible arrangement of oppositions? Or the best? And what would "best" mean? The extract provided by Caughie fails to provide answers for such fundamental questions.

The problems of the structural approach to cinema are illustrated in another text, useful here for comparison —Will Wright's Sixguns and Society. This is in many ways an insightful and groundbreaking work. Wright's book provides a structural analysis of the Western's generic evolution, which he suggests corresponds to cultural changes. Yet he maps out the genre's evolution almost wholly in terms of narrative. He identifies four plot variations — classical, vengeance, transitional and professional — which appeared in that order. His analysis details these plots, and as a result he neglects the genre's visual aspects. Thus, in his discussion of STAGECOACH (to remain, like Caughie, with Ford) Wright cannot "position" the gambler and fallen Southern aristocrat Hatfield:

"He is the kind of complicated and ambiguous character who almost never appears in the Western myth … This kind of character makes the oppositions lose much of their simple meaning and thus much of their force."[8]

Applying both Lévi-Strauss' structural analysis and Vladimir Propp's narrative functions, Wriqht must "explain" Hatfield as an aberration of the typically simple (!) Western structure rather than look at the film itself to see how Hatfield's presence functions. If Wright's structural analysis accommodated more of the genre's iconography, he would perhaps observe that Hatfield functions, at least on one level, to provide a contrast to the Ringo Kid. When Hatfield refuses to let Dallas drink from his silver cup, for example, he provides a forceful iconographic contrast to Ringo's democratic willingness to "grok" water with Dallas from his canteen. Similarly the film contrasts Hatfield's code of saving one bullet for Mrs. Mallory, so that she does not meet a "fate worse than death" with the Apaches, to Ringo's code of saving three bullets for the Plumber Brothers.

What Ford, or, if you prefer, the Ford-text emphasize here is that the ideal society, metaphorically the West, the heavenly state of Lordsburg, is defined in part by positive action rather than by the acceptance of defeat. The cavalry does show up in the nick of time, remember. Southerners, combining Eastern notions of class and culture with Western notions of survival and action, tinged with cynicism and defeatism (having lost the Civil War), do indeed have a place in the Western. Consider, for instance, Rod Steiger's O'Meara in Fuller's RUN OF THE ARROW (1957), Richard Harris' Tyreen in Peckinpah's MAJOR DUNDEE (1964), or Walter Pigeon's Quantrill in Raoul Walsh's DARK COMMAND (1940, the year after STAGECOACH and pairing again John Wayne and Claire Trevor). Hatfield's remark upon first seeing Mrs. Mallory — that she is like "an angel in a jungle" — stands true to the structural oppositions of the genre, but not to Ford's (at least in 1939) optimistic vision of that jungle's redemptive potential. Hence in terms of the film's ideological project, Hatfield is a central character who must be eliminated. Unfortunately, Wright's imposition of a structure upon the film text reduces both its structural and thematic qualities.

It may seem odd that I have resorted to Sixguns and Society, a work not anthologized in Theories of Authorship, to suggest the problems of auteur-structuralism. I've done so because this section of Caughie's book concerns itself more with attacks and defenses of the method than with its application. Moreover, there seems little difference between auteurism and auteur-structuralism. Nowell-Smith's stated desire to uncover behind "the superficial contrasts of subject and treatment a structural hard core of basic and often recondite motifs" (p. 137) is essentially the procedure of auteurism, similar to Sarris' notion of tension.

Auteur critics have tended to prefer directors who have undergone changes in their vision at the same time that they have remained consistent in their interests. Hence, one of the reasons that Ford is considered a great artist is because his later westerns, particularly THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), reveal a disillusionment with the values he had previously located in the U.S. West, and because he came to view native Americans as victims rather than as victimizers. No matter that Ford's change in attitude may have been simply an accommodation to the evolving demands of genre (see, for example, Delmar Daves' 1950 film BROKEN ARROW); nor is it a question of ideological preference. Ford is a better director than, say, Howard Hawks, because, as Peter Wollen puts it, it is the

"richness of the shifting relations between antinomies in Ford's work that makes him a great artist …" (p. 142).

In his career Hawks was tiresomely consistent, and it is largely the mirror relation between the comedies and the adventure films[9] which salvages him from the most superficial auteurist appraisal. The auteur-structuralists' preference for a schema of oppositions with "simple meaning" and clearly shifting antinomies becomes akin to auteurism's simple-minded tendency to read value into any film by an already established auteur.

As Charles Eckert notes in his essay, "The English Cine-Structuralists":

"There is so much oversimplification, obtuseness, and downright unfairness running through the whole debate that one must resist the temptation to leap in." (p. 156)

Reviewing Theories of Authorship, however, I found myself necessarily failing to heed Eckert's warning. It is likely that my comments on these matters will add little of great importance to the arguments concerning structuralism's application to film (which, indeed, is far from over — witness Kevin Brownlow's recent and nearly hysterical attack on the English cine-structuralists.[10]

Yet my lack of caution actually suggests one of the main virtues of Caughie's anthology. It so clearly lays out the advances and conflicts which have taken place in theories of film authorship that the reader, rather than being convinced or confused, is likely to be integrated into the debate by learning so precisely what the issues are. That is to say, the book positions the reader within a dialectic, a dialectic which informs the entire collection, Part Two most intensely. And this, indeed, is the emphasis of the third and concluding part of the book, which is nicely led into by Oudart and Henderson. Both stress that meaning can be produced by absences in the text as well as presences, that reading is therefore an active endeavor, and that the text must be questioned for its ideological assumptions.

Part Three deals with examining the cinematic text as enunciation, as discourse rather than as history (that is, an ideologically determined narrative, or myth in Roland Barthes' sense, as opposed to a factual account).[11] It deals with elucidating the shifting position of the spectating subject within this discourse. As Caughie notes, the changing relation between enunciating and spectating subjects needs a theory which

"is in no way co-extensive with a theory of authorship; but, at the same time, such a theory cannot do without an understanding of the way in which the author-figure functions in the shifting relation." (p. 201)

Roland Barthes articulates the implications of such a project in an extract from his Image/Music/Text which begins the section:

"Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is 'explained' — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered …" (p. 212)

Caughie here carefully chooses essays which cogently argue for the decentering of the privileged position of the author in a variety of contexts, including New Wave, feminist, avant-garde and classical Hollywood (Ford again) filmmaking practices. While Part Two contains essays which for the most part reveal the faults of auteur-structuralism, Part Three indicates the benefits gained from dethroning the author. Theoretical problems are here minimized even though they do exist. For instance, Nick Browne's essay, presenting a detailed analysis of the dinner sequence in STAGECOACH, attempts to establish a formal textual rhetoric in which the enunciation is that of the author but masked as that of a character. Browne's argument, predicated upon previous essays, especially by Oudart and Daniel Dayan on point of view and the idea of suture,[12] reaches this conclusion:

"In this sequence the locus is a centre structurally associated with Lucy, the figure of authority who is privileged by Ford's moral and social code to serve formally … to articulate and integrate the sequence of views that constitute the discourse." (p. 259)

It seems to me, however, that these essays have a fundamentally inaccurate major premise — that shots must be motivated by an identifiable character, even if an 'absent one,' who authorizes the look from off-screen. The argument's problem is revealed in Browne's conclusion, for it is clearly not Lucy Mallory who in STAGECOACH is "privileged" by Ford's vision. It is she, not Dallas, who must change in the course of the metaphorical journey to Lordsburg and who must accept the other woman's more practical views.

More acceptable, I think, is Bruce Kawin's notion of "mindscreen," in which, borrowing from Christian Metz, a film can establish itself "'as a linguistic object.' Mindscreen is "a sort of 'potential linguistic focus' situated somewhere behind the film."[13] By applying the idea of mindscreen to a number and variety of films, Kawin shows that film indeed can speak in the first person, a rhetoric which Kawin at once manages to keep distinct from the subjective camera (as in Browne's explication of the STAGECOACH sequence) and to discuss free of the sometimes irritating discourse of cine-semiologists/ Marxists/ Freudians.

Metz himself invokes a beautiful metaphor to characterize the relation of viewer to film text:

"I am at the cinema, attending a film show. Attending. Like a midwife who attends at a birth, and thereby also helps the woman, I am present to the film in two (inseparable) ways: witness and helper; I watch, and I aid. In watching the film I help it to be born, I help it to live, since it is in me that it will live and it was made for that: to be seen …" (p. 227)

If the critical aim which informs this final section of Theories of Authorship is, as Caughie says, to clarify "the shifting relation between enunciating subject and spectating subject" (p. 201), then more attention needs to be paid to the activity of the viewer while viewing. Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"[14] (absent here but invoked in Sandy Flitterman's essay, which also acknowledges Raymond Bellour's analysis of Hitchcock's MARNIE) offered a significant step forward in this regard. Similarly, viewer's activity is traced in Edward Braniqan's more recent formulation of the "reading hypothesis" theory,[15] wherein the viewer is actively engaged in revising notions of shot organization in order to construct a coherent rhetoric. For the viewer engaged in such activity, Branigan points out,

"The camera is not a profilmic object which is shifted from place to place, but a construct of the spectator, a hypothesis about space … The camera is simply a label applied by the readçr to certain plastic transformations of space."[16]

Branigan's thesis seems, for one thing, more like the way in which we actually experience films, and a more refined version of John Dewey's now-neglected yet important distinction between the product of art (art object) and work of art (that interaction which takes place between a person and an art product).[17]

My remarks here should not be reduced to a position of mere liberal humanism. Nor do I wish to imply that textual deconstruction — "disentangling," in Barthes' phrase — is anything less than of central importance to the film critic. However, the complicated nature of the film viewing experience must be taken into account. Even Jean-Luc Godard marveled at the fact that he could attempt in his films simultaneously to demystify Hollywood cinema and in his viewing applaud John Wayne's charismatic stride across the screen. Thus it would not be inappropriate to conclude here by observing that Theories of Authorship, too, has, in Lévi-Strauss' words, a deep structure. Even though Caughie organizes his selections in a generally chronological fashion, the chronology nevertheless emerges as discourse more than as history.

Part One introduces a conflict (Do auteurs exist?). Part Two describes the intensification of that conflict and a rising action (How do we best examine an auteur's oeuvre?) And Part Three seems to resolve the conflict (the appearance of cine-semiology/ marxism/ psychoanalysis). Indeed, the book's "narrative" resembles Freytag's Pyramid, and describes the essential narrative trajectory, in which equilibrium (the pre-auteurist state of critical naiveté) is disturbed, conflicts occur, and balance is restored with narrative closure. Caughie rightly faults the early auteurists for promulgating what he refers to as an "Eureka syndrome" in which the critical task was merely to discover what was already there by finding the "key." Yet it strikes me that Theories of Authorship, despite Caughie's generally balanced commentary, to some extent is informed by the same attitude. It would be unfortunate if this book, which does involve the reader in most important questions facing contemporary film criticism, should do so only in a pre-determined, "connect-the-dots" fashion, as Charles Barr said of Eisenstein.[18] This remains my only objection to a volume which is undoubtedly one of the most significant anthologies of film criticism to appear in recent years.


1. Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), Chap. 2; John Baxter, The Cinema of John Ford (New York: Barnes, 1971), Chap. 1.

2. Andrew Sarris, The John Ford Movie Mystery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 85.

3. James Agee, Agee on Films, I (1958; reprinted Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 315.

4. André Bazin, "The Evolution of the Western," in What is Cinema? Vol. II, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 149.

5. Baxter, op. cit., p. 9.

6. Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," Film Culture, No. 27 (Winter, 1962/63), p. 7.

7. Ibid.

8. Will Wright, Sixguns and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 71.

9. See Robin Wood, Howard Hawks (New York: Doubleday, 1968).

10. Kevin Brownlow, "Cinematic Theology," Cineaste, 10, No. 4 (Fall, 1980), pp. 20-21.

11. See Barthes' Mythologies, trans. Annette Layers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).

12. See, respectively, "Dossier on Suture," Screen, 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1977/78), pp. 23-96; and Daniel Dayan, "The Tutor-code of Classical Cinema," Film Quarterly, 28, No. 1 (Fall, 1974), pp. 22-31.

13. Bruce Kawin, Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard,
and First-Person Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 13.

14. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, 16, No. 3 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 6-18.

15. Edward Branigan, "The Spectator and Film Space — Two Theories," Screen, 22, No. 1 (1981), pp. 55-78.

16. Ibid., p. 61.

17. See John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn, 1958), and my article "Prolegomena to a Contextualist Genre Criticism," Paunch, Nos. 53-54 (January, 1980), pp. 137-147.

18. Charles Barr, "Cinemascope: Before and After," in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford, 1974), pp. 131-32.