Possessory Credit


From one, commonsense angle, the idea of “Looking for the Auteur” [the title of the International Film Festival Rotterdam panel where this paper was first presented] is a little zany – because you don’t have to look very far. Catherine Breillat, Stan Brakhage, Miike Takashi, all present and honoured here at this event – whether art or commercial or experimental cinema, we know from any two successive works by these people that their films express their concerns and obsessions, their rhythms and visions, in short their very selves.

So, despite the challenges to the notion posed around the world in recent times (from screenwriters, in particular), we all still believe those powerful words a film by …, known in industry jargon as the possessory credit.

The original question of auteurism in the 1950s – which was, basically, whether filmmakers could be considered on the same level as writers, painters or musicians, able to create their own recognisable, distinct styles or idioms – is, I believe, no longer an important or pressing issue. That particular battle was won long ago. Popular culture now teaches us from a very early age that, for instance, Steven Spielberg is an auteur (he knows it, too – declaring, in a paid, full page Variety tribute, “I dream for a living”). Now we are in the era of the auteur as commodity, as brand name.

Yet, if we are indeed looking (again) for the auteur, that must be because we have some niggling feeling that the figure or idea of the film author is somehow, today, being obscured.

In fact, I will go much further, to assert something that may at first blush seem counterintuitive: I think that some of us actually want the politique des auteurs of our time to be an unclear, difficult proposition – even murkier and more complicated than it has already become. Although it will surely be psychologically traumatic for some directors to have to encounter the thought that they are not the centre of the known universe, I feel that many of us – as viewers, cinephiles, critics – are experiencing a curious and paradoxical love-hate relation towards the conventional idea of authorship.

Why should this be the case? The rise of the director as superstar, as media celebrity – the personality who offers pronouncements not only on their own work but also history, politics, culture, life – is an increasingly irritating phenomenon, even (especially?) when the auteur in question is on the level of Jean-Luc Godard. To the auteur-as-commodity we are effectively saying: get lost, we can get by without you. But what will take its place, what new, useful way can we think of the author in cinema – since directors will no doubt keep making films in which they invest their deepest selves?

As a reader of film criticism and theory, I see signs of the growing ambivalence toward the auteur-idea everywhere. For example, Tom Gunning presents Fritz Lang (in his 2000 book The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity) as an auteur who forever spins symbolic tales of the destruction of his own identity within the sinister machines of the culture industry. Timothy Corrigan, in his important 1991 book A Cinema Without Walls, calls Raúl Ruiz the “fatherless ghost” among auteurs, someone who has no self to begin with – only a patchwork of languages and styles, references and postures wildly borrowed from all over global culture.

Most strikingly, there is the ongoing case of Lars von Trier, about whom I have yet to read a single piece which does not agonise over whether he is a real or fake auteur – a trickster who possibly cons us, laughing as he climbs the ladder of auteur success from Cannes to the Oscars.

Ultimately, I suspect that the doubt implicit in looking for the auteur is symptomatic of a larger shift or problem in global film culture. To put it simply, when World Cinema is in a phase of relative confidence and stability, the auteur is our friend, our crutch, the person who’s nice to come home to. When world cinema is in a flux, when it’s changing, when our previous ideas of it are under siege and in the process of mutating, then the auteur becomes obscured, lost, uncertain, put into question.

And I hasten to add that what I’m describing is not a crisis in the negative sense – not a disaster that should prompt nostalgia for the good old, heroic days of auteurism – but rather an emergency in the most positive way: literally, a dynamic state from which something new is emerging.

Let me offer a few examples from cinema history. The first is a great film, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). There is a wonderful scene in which Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) behaves, for all intents and purposes, as the auteur of the film-within-the-film, coaxing performances from actors, shaping the rhythm and meaning of a scene. And yet he is not the director, only an out-of-work actor fooled by the real auteur, Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), into supervising the dubbing of his ailing project.

So, it’s a double displacement: Jack is not the official director, and he’s not on the set with a camera engaged in that quasi-mystical activity known as mise en scène, either. Rather, he works (in a very modern and prophetic twist) solely on post-synchronisation, aiming to create his boss calls “the Kruger sound”.

Why such a tortuous scenario of production? We need to remember the time (early ‘60s) and the place (Cinecittà): Two Weeks in Another Town both reflects and diagnoses the vast changeover occurring in that period from the once stable Hollywood studio system to a new and uncertain playing field of international co-production. In this shifting situation, all auteurs are open to (conceptual) redefinition and (literal) redeployment.

My second example is a classic anthology of film criticism, Richard Roud’s mammoth, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, prepared all through the ‘70s and finally published in 1980 (its contributors include such luminaries as Noël Burch and Molly Haskell). In his introduction, Roud casually states three rather remarkable things – at least now, so many years later, they seem remarkable.

First, he asserts that “the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Russia and Japan” are the “seven countries [that] have produced, shall we say, 95 per cent of the world’s cinematic masterpieces”. Second, he claims that “the United States, Britain and France” are the “three countries” where the “best and most influential writing is being produced today”, because “the study of film is necessarily restricted to the metropolises of the world, New York, London and Paris”.

And third, after canvassing some objections to the classical auteur theory, Roud nonetheless concludes: “The director must be considered the filmmaker, and even if this is unacceptable, I think it makes sense to act as if it were so”.

I am not wishing to take an easy shot at Roud here, because many of us would have written those words at that exact time. But his text offers an amazing example of what happens when a period of confidence in film culture (the culture in which we speak, program and teach cinema) becomes over-confident and atrophied, and thus ripe for the waves of change.

That change begins the moment we begin to collectively doubt those three deeply embedded planks of our presumed cinematic knowledge: the ideas that we know from where (for example, from which countries) the best films are going to come; that we have a critical language which will fully account for their action and significance; and that we can count on the auteur to be the centre, the driving force of what is new, vital or challenging in current cinema.

I will risk an axiom. Auteurism is only useful as a critical tool as long as it generates good, exciting results – helping us to make new discoveries. Historically, it has indeed done this, in many times and places. But in times of emergency and change, auteurism can just as easily become a rearguard, conservative action. Auteurist criticism then turns into a form of easy, rote learning, regurgitated to keep the situation safely same as it ever was.

This is, sadly, exactly what is happening today. Take the case of Lynch’s profoundly exciting and radical Mulholland Drive (2001). Any student of film, amateur or professional, beginner or veteran, can enumerate the ways in which it echoes elements from previous Lynch works like Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-2017) or Lost Highway (1997). We can all trace the signature of Lynch and cohere his corpus, situating Mulholland Drive in his artistic evolution – the standard methodological moves of auteurism.

But: so what? These are such obvious insights they end up constituting a veritable blockage in critical discourse. They can’t release any new ideas, any constructive energy. I would rather hear about how the transformations in body and identity in Mulholland Drive relate to similar but different operations in Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum (2002) or Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001); or how the psychic tangle of sexuality, fantasy, violence, projection and denial in Lynch can help reciprocally illuminate these cultural complexes in Miike Takashi’s horror-thrillers or Abel Ferrara’s psychodramas.

But even that would not be going far enough. We need to make connections between movies in a way that doesn’t always depend on the presence of a legitimising name. We have to rediscover non-auteur movies! There are plenty of them around.

Change in cinema culture doesn’t happen just in writings and theories; the real displacements of the auteur can be seen on screen, especially in the most recent and interesting experimental, multi-media films, videos and installations.

Look, for instance, at the rise of specific forms of autobiography: self-portraiture, the diary film, and so on. On the one hand, we have sober self-portraits like de Manoel de Oliveira’s magisterial Porto of my Childhood (2001) or Naomi Kawase’s beautiful Embracing (1993), in which the auteur removes his or her literal, physical presence as far as possible and speaks in a fleeting, fragmentary way, through scattered places and traces – constituting multiple fictions or versions of identity.

On the other hand, the new digital technologies are allowing an extreme kind of self-regard, a confessional form that seemingly goes right under the dirty fingernails of the filmmaking–subject in order to finally dissolve the monolith of singular identity, as in Stephen Dwoskin’s masterpiece Intoxicated By My Illness (2002). We are far removed, in both these new forms, from either simple, apolitical narcissism or cute, intellectual exhibitionism. The auteur is mutating – but auteurism, for the moment, lags behind.

Auteurism in cinema has always been about an intimate, often secret complicity – we in the audience feel ourselves privileged if we hear the silent voice, or receive the gesture, of the auteur, as if we have received a special gift. This is what Raymond Bellour once called the indirect aim of the auteur – and it depends precisely on this figure being, on some level, concealed before he or she can be revealed. The indirect aim is a useful way of thinking about all those directors – from the olden, golden days of the world’s studio systems to the experimental art of today – who are looking for inventive ways to get lost.

Today, in a culture where directors are forced to talk too much, reveal too much, always make their aims explicit and direct, I take heart from the example of one of my favourite auteurs, Terrence Malick: he has scarcely made a single public statement about his work since circa 1974.

Modern auteurs, in disappearing back into the film-text like that, in focusing not on themselves in any narrow sense but rather on the cinema itself as a site of transformation, can renew our charged, subterranean relations with this most hyper-visible of cultural forms.

© Adrian Martin March 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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