Auteur desire

Uploaded 1 March 2001

An anecdote… In the 1980s, the film study program I was teaching in received authorization to make a new hire. One of the candidates we brought in, an expert in film genre theory, was a recent Ph.D. student from one of the major film schools in the US. During the interview period, she was asked, “If you could do a director’s course, what director would you choose?” The candidate took umbrage at the very premise of the question (that it was worthwhile to study directors) and, with 1980s post-structural, Screen-theory confidence and even brashness, proceeded to explain that the Author was an outmoded romantic notion, one that deferred attention from the signifying structures of filmic discourse, and so on. After explaining for about five minutes how auteur study was a retrograde approach, she paused and then said, “But if I had the chance, I’d love to do a course on Hitchcock.”

As this candidate’s simultaneous expression of disdain for auteurism and lingering investment in the auteur suggests, fascination for the director just doesn’t seem to go away. It is the endurance of such fascination that I will explore in the following pages. When I offered an earlier version of this essay in a seminar in France, I entitled my presentation, “Le désir de l’auteur,” playing on a double meaning of the phrase. On the one hand, in auteur theory, there is a drive to outline the desire of the director, his or her (but usually his) recourse to filmmaking as a way to express personal vision. The concern in auteur studies to pinpoint the primary obsessions and thematic preoccupations of this or that creator is thus an attempt to outline the director’s desire. On the other hand, there is also desire for the director – the obsession of the cinephile or the film scholar to understand films as having an originary instance in the person who signs them. Here, it is important to look less at what the director wants than what the analyzing auteurist wants – namely, to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors and to master their corpuses.

It seems in recent years that there is a vibrant resuscitation of auteurist approaches. [1]  Some of this involves a reinvigoration of some of the very aspects of auteurism that often fell under discredit in the structural and poststructural moments of film study. To take just one example, Tom Gunning’s recent massive study of Fritz Lang may exhibit the influence of new theory in a variety of ways – for example, it is quite inspired by Walter Benjamin in its analysis of Lang’s films as allegorical works – but it also adheres to traditional auteurist premises about the dialectics of freedom and constraint in the Hollywood system. For instance, but for their use of certain words from high theory, phrases such as the following from Gunning could have come from the classic auteurism of the French in the 1950s:

[T]he issue of authorship becomes that much more intense in Lang’s Hollywood oeuvre, precisely because it cannot assert itself as directly (…) Lang in Hollywood made films that do not immediately call attention to themselves and whose signs of authorship are often hidden. As an enunciatory force, Lang begins to bore from within. For the most part, beneath an apparent conformity to Hollywood modes and genres and ideology, Lang fashions extremely personal and often experimental works. [2]

Here, we see a clear replay of that belief in conventional auteurism that it is precisely because the pressures of the system so weigh down on the auteur that he/she (but usually he in the canons of such criticism) is forced to creativity as a veritable survival tactic.

A related aspect of auteurism today has to do not simply with the reincarnation of older auteurist methods but their refinement or even transformation. In particular, where classic auteurism relied on intuitions about the ways in which the director works to author a film and posited above all that personal artistic expression emerged in mysterious ways from ineffable deep wells of creativity, new advances in historiography (for example, the potentials that gritty archival work offers) have led, in contrast, to a greater concreteness and detail in the examination of just what the work of the director involves. Gunning, for example, is explicit in his understanding of Lang not as a romantic genius drawing inspiration intuitively from hidden depths of insight but as a veritable pragmatist who directly labors on the materials of the world: “I would maintain that the director as enunciator need not be thought of as a Judaeo-Christian creator ex nihilo, but as an Aristotelian demi-urge who works with pre-existent material, and the nature of that material will always function as one of the causes of the creation.” [3]

Likewise, the historical poetics of David Bordwell focuses attention on the immediate craft of the filmmaker – how he/she works in precise material ways with the tools and materials of his/her trade. For example, to take a typical statement, in describing the experiments in the films of Hong Kong action filmmakers – and putting them on virtually the same plane as canonic directors – Bordwell declares that:

In commercial film, experimentation is usually not anarchic messing about but self-conscious craftsmanship. It is hard to argue that the devious use of point of view in Hitchcock, the stylistic surprises in Yasujiro Ozu, and the flamboyant montage opening What Price Survival? [Hong Kong 1994] come straight from the id. These innovations are the result of patient care. Driven by competition, contrariness, or just the urge not to repeat oneself, the ambitious artisan presses against tradition, testing how far one can go while still playing by the rules of the game. [4]

In passing, I should note that there are antecedents for an auteurism that looks at the director as a crafter of techniques rather than as a purveyor of deep concepts. For example, in the work of the critics at the British journal Movie in the 1960s and 1970s – V. F. Perkins, especially, there was already a strong model of mise-en-scène criticism that eschewed deep interpretation for a careful stylistics. Likewise, the writing on action directors by Manny Farber in the 1950s focussed closely on their visuality – what we might call an auteurism of energetics rather than metaphysics or thematics.

In addition to the emphasis on directorial work as material activity, a new industrial history of film looks not so much at the director’s “art” but at his success (or not) at dealing with the business of filmmaking, with the forces of authority that govern the political economy of film production. Here, we can cite Jon Lewis’s volume on Coppola, Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood. [5]  While Lewis does from time to time offer artistic judgments like those of classic auteurism, the bulk of his study is not aesthetically oriented, preferring instead to offer a careful and patient delineation of the economic structures within which Coppola tries to work (hence, the importance of the subtitle which ties an individual person to a larger system).

At the same time, many cases of the new auteurism work to displace classic auteurism’s emphasis on an uncovering of the creative figure’s solitary voice as a Truth that battles for expression. First, there has been attention to the ways “auteurs” are often constructed, called into being, by institutional forces and discourses and according to precise institutional needs. That is, instead of the director being opposed to the system, he is now seen as a function – a marketable commodity, for example – generated by that system. Central here has been the concern to study the construction of a “biographical legend” (a term Bordwell uses in his study of Ozu’s stylistics), the building up of a useable image of the director. [6] Thus, for instance, Tim Corrigan and others have looked at the emphasis on the auteur as a potential form of marketing: for example, with the art-film market, the director’s name is useful for its investment in high-art aesthetic ideologies of personal vision. [7] And this marketing is not only imposed on the director by external forces in the business but can come from his own savvy self-promotional tactics.

For example, to cite again his recent book on Fritz Lang, Gunning makes use of biography of the director to examine how Lang in his American career quite consciously tried to market himself as prestigious saleable commodity:

Besides producing ‘Fritz Lang’ films, this office [of Diana Productions, Lang’s production company] was dedicated to manufacturing Fritz Lang as a signature, not only putting him before the public eye but defining who he was for the public as a film-maker. Thus, Lang and his office (and Universal’s publicity office) tried to come up with a catch-phrase that could identify Lang for audiences and critics. (…) But Lang seemed uncertain how to do this. (…) ‘Realism’ (a term he was always attached to) was one aspect of his films he wanted stressed. Another was targeting an adult audience, with culture and intellect. [8]

Additionally, there has been a move to look for authorial voice in regions other than that of the traditional Hollywood directors. In some cases, this means attending to other sources of creativity than the director. There has been, for instance, a growing body of work on the producer as a sort of auteur: where director auteurism often saw the producer as the impediment to artistry, he is now imagined to be a source of creative achievement. [9]  In the revealing title of Tom Schatz’s The Genius of the System, there has even been an anthropomorphization of the studio system itself as if the anonymous rules of that system themselves constitute a creative force and vision. [10]  Auteurs are now everywhere, not just in the stratum of directors.

A related gesture has to do with an extension of auteur principles to types of directors that classical auteurism, in its fascination above all with the Hollywood studio system, ignored. This new application of auteur principles frequently has a political edge to it and manifests a concern to uncover voices that, to quote a famous title of feminist historiography, have been “hidden from history.” Thus, we see a concern with female authorship (Annette Kuhn’s anthology on Ida Lupino) [11]  and even with specifically lesbian expression (Judith Mayne’s study of Dorothy Arzner) [12] ; with racially inflected identities (for example, the flurry of recent work on Oscar Micheaux); with queer identity; and so on. Even as it appears to follow traditional notions of individual creativity, such revamped auteurism can deconstruct some of those notions from within insofar as many of the original auteurist myths of strong creativity have an intimate connection to norms of masculine heterosexuality.

We can debate, then, the extent to which director study now is essentially the same practice as in the classic days or, rather, is a transformation of original premises. For example, the Bordwellian emphasis on craft that I mentioned above still encourages one to look at directors and to valorize ones who do their work well, but it does so outside of mythologies of creativity as a mysterious force that wells up from some sort of primal artistic vision. Creativity now comes from concrete (and therefore, analyzable) patient application of rules, tools, and conventions – what Bordwell treats as filmmaking as “problem-solving” – rather than ineffable genius. And the very concern with craft as applied technique leads away from classic auteurist concerns with theme (the content of a personal vision) to the study of poetics or stylistics, the material engagement with filmic form on the part of the director.

No doubt there is an extent to which many of the works of auteurism from the 1960s or 1970s on simply continue the older tradition uncritically: one can cite any number of studies that proceed as if structuralism, Marxist theory of ideology, post-structuralism, postmodernism, and so on, never existed. But it is also necessary to note how much of the new auteurism is being undertaken by scholars and writers who are aware of the theoretical critique of authorship, voice and identity and have taken that critique to heart. In other words, as much as theory modified auteurism (even to the degree of making it an embarrassment for some scholars), it is also the case that auteurism today has the potential to modify theoretical precepts, obliged as they may become to be aware of new ways of understanding desire and identity in the contemporary moment.

We might note that desire itself has become an ever more important part of today’s cultural study. For instance, if the cold analytical stance of semiotics seemed to eschew attention to desire (except perhaps in the work of Roland Barthes where dry science was itself imagined to be a source of euphoria), it is now the case that desire and related topics such as feeling, emotion and bodily sensation have gained a place on the critical agenda. How social subjects are invested in the practices that surround them (including cultural practices) is an issue that encourages a psychoanalysis as much as a socio-analysis.

But to put it more strongly, we might note that, in fact, critical theory over the last few decades has made the case that psychoanalysis is a form of socio-analysis. That is, the study of the formation of the individual and his/her desire is also inevitably the study of structures that are assumed to contribute to this formation. When, for instance, Raymond Williams treats societal meanings as “structures of feeling,” both nouns are important: cultural study has to attend to individual feelings – to personal desires – but it has to see the ways in which these are given shape by objective historical processes. The rewriting of traditional auteurism within the new industrial history that sets out to pinpoint concretely just what the individual director did (and didn’t do) within the studio system is thus in keeping with a theorisation that simultaneously studies persons and social processes.

After a structuralist moment which disavowed agency, there has been a new concern to examine when and how agency might be possible. For example, there has been a resurgence of interest in Sartrean versions of materialism where individuals are treated as what Sartre terms “universal singulars” – singular in that each person lives his/her life in existentially irreducible ways, universal in that each individual life is finally a way of living collective history, of making that history one’s own. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Sartre’s massive authorial study of Gustave Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille (The Family Idiot), is a fully materialist work, arguing simultaneously and necessarily that Flaubert’s life was irreducibly his own even as it stands as only one of the ways writers made it through the Nineteenth Century. [13]  In Sartre’s hands, biography becomes a study of permutation: there is a general structure to history but there are fully singular ways that individuals live that structure. And, as The Critique of Dialectical Reason [14] , the more abstractly philosophical work that Sartre claims establishes the framework for The Family Idiot’s approach to biography, bears out, central to Sartre’s existential Marxism is the supposition that a coalition politics has to give attention to individuals.

For Sartre, a coalition politics needs to examine the desires that move social subjects toward or way from politics, to the ways in which they assume agency and share it – if it is to understand how and why – and most important, whether – political change occurs. Sartre has been criticized for “romanticism” – as has auteurism – but we might want to argue in this respect that romanticism can have its place in politics. Politics itself is in large part about desire – what do we want? why do we often invest in social practices contrary to our real needs – and a romantic theory can help us understand how people operate when they interact with social systems. It’s revealing that in the moment after structuralism and its critique of agency, there is the possibility for a new reception of a political biography by cultural studies pioneer E. P. Thompson with a quite apt subtitle: William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. In Thompson’s argument, Morris’s move to an explicit socialist politics can happen only because he starts his artistic career in romantic discontent matched by vague utopian desires for something better. [15]

But even with all these new ways in which auteur study has been reinvigorated, it is still necessary to interrogate the very need to look at film production in terms of individuals. No matter how sophisticated auteurism becomes under the influence of new approaches from theory and history, it is still about persons and their fates and destinies. Perhaps we can get at this issue by asking why auteurism attracts critical desire. Why, even in so many modified forms, is there this desire, why has it endured in the face of ostensibly theoretically trenchant critiques of individuality?

We need to recognize, for instance, the extent to which even in the new auteurism there is a frequent temptation to fall back into older models in which emotional appreciation rather than dry analysis predominates. So often there’s a moment in auteur analyses where one can witness the auteurist slide from social theorisation to enthusiastic admiration. Yes, we admit that directors take up their place in larger structures of meaning-production, but still, in the long run, we want to imagine that auteurs are of interest independent of all that context – of interest as captivating, creative visionaries in their own right.

Look, as a typical example of this slide, at a recent director study by Susan Hayward of Luc Besson. The volume is part of a series on French directors that certainly promises to move in new directions by situating the directors in context: as the series editors’ foreword announces,

[t]he auteur perspective on film (…) will be interrogated in certain volumes of the series, and throughout the director will be treated as one highly significant element in a complex process of film production and reception which includes socioeconomic and political determinants, the work of a large and highly skilled team of artists and technicians, the mechanisms of production and distribution, and the complex and multiply determined responses of spectators. [16]

And Hayward certainly presents her study as in line with this approach:

This romantic aesthetic [of auteurism] is quite narcissistic . . . Although Besson scripts and produces his films as well as directs them, he does not see himself as an auteur but as a metteur-en-scène – that is, as part of the production practice. Besson works with a fairly constant crew of technicians and group of actors and readily acknowledges their role in the production of meanings in his films.(10)

(Note, however, how the language here implies that the decision as to whether he is an auteur or not is left up to Besson himself.)

It is important to see that already from the start, intimations of the motifs and strategies of an older auteurism insinuate their way into Hayward’s study. First, there is the sense that auteurs work in reaction or opposition to resistance on the part of those in cultural power: “Besson’s work (…) has been acclaimed by the popular journals [but] excoriated by the more serious ones.” (1) Second, there is the supposition that the director works by intuition and in ignorance of his place in film’s history: “Besson makes his position quite clear: he has never sought to be a cinephile, he has never set foot in the Cinémathèque.” (9) Most of all, even as the director is examined in relation to a larger context of industry and society, there is the lingering need to imagine that the director is an irreducible fount of personal vision and that he/she works by finding (however intuitively) visual equivalents for that vision. Take, for instance, Hayward’s discussion of Besson’s use of CinemaScope. More than a defining stylistic trait, shooting in Scope is assumed by Hayward to allow Besson to find an objective correlative for personal thematic preoccupations. On the one hand, for Hayward, the way in which Scope composition focuses on the space around characters as much as on the characters themselves fits a Bessonian concern with constraint and even imprisonment for his protagonists: “[I]n a full or general shot, the setting can seem to overpower or crush the characters.” (17) On the other hand, the fact that there is space around characters also means that Bessonian composition thematizes freedom, the possibility for characters to move beyond the immediate givens of their fixedness in situations: “But his use of scope also widens the frame, broadens the picture and so it hints at the possibility of escape, of finding a way out.” (17)

It is worth pointing out that these two interpretations of the meaning of Scope framing are contradictory to one another. Here, we have an example of that non-falsifiability that Bordwell in Making Meaning has so trenchantly pinpointed as endemic to an interpretative approach in the arts: nothing, except the will of the auteurist to see things this way, guarantees the reading of scope thematically and nothing eventually enables one to decide if it’s really freedom or constraint that should be taken to be the meaning of the stylistic marker. [17]

I have just referred to the “will of the auteurist” and I would like to posit that an analysis of the operations of this will might help us in understanding the fascination for auteurism. What does the auteurist want? In large part, I would suggest, the auteurist wants to create meaning by an imposition of will.

To clarify this, we might note the extent to which auteurism proceeds by means of collection. Think, for instance, of the effect Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema: Directors and Directions had on a whole generation of cinephiles. Sarris’s hierarchies of value but also the sheer massiveness of his lists became a clarion call for viewers to turn passive reception into active investigation. No doubt, there are many copies of The American Cinema like mine with its pencil lines crossing out the films viewed, offering thereby a veritable score card of viewing accomplishments and future screening goals. In passing, I would note the curious sense of empowerment a number of us felt when we realized that the titles that Sarris had not italicized as being of special interest were in some cases films that he simply had not seen and could not therefore “collect.” For auteurists, caught up in a feverish agon to see more films, accumulate more listings, this sense of incompletion in an established and reputed compendium seemed to open up possibility, to imply that there was still new collecting to be done. There is frequently competition among collectors, a will to accumulate more examples and to master them better than others have.

I think we can add to the understanding of the dynamics of such activity by referring to the thoughts on collection set out by Susan Stewart in her On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. For Stewart, collection is not a neutral activity in which the collector sets out to mime the disposition of objects in their original context. That is, collecting is not about letting the objects speak their “Truth.” Rather, it has to do with an imposition of new truths, those operative for the collector in his own present context. In Stewart’s words,

The collection does not displace attention to the past; rather, the past is at the service of the collection . . . The collection seeks a form of self-enclosure which is possible because of its ahistoricism. The collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality. In the collection, time is not something to be restored to an origin; rather, all time is made simultaneous or synchronous with the collection’s world. [18]

For Stewart, there is competition not only between different collectors (out-Sarrising Sarris), but also between the collector and the world of objects he collects. Whatever those objects might have meant in their original context matters less than the new meaning that can be created for them in the act of collection. As Stewart puts it, “Once the object is completely severed from its origin, it is possible to generate a new series, to start again within a context that is framed by the selectivity of the collector. (…) [T]he point of the collection is forgetting.” [19]

In other words, as an activity of creative collection, auteurism involves more than just a neutral making up of lists. The creativity of auteurism bases itself in strategies that construct its objects in value-laden ways. First, as the pivotal role played by Sarris suggests, auteurism is a process of isolation (some directors are auteurs, some aren’t) and of valorization (some auteurs are higher in the constellation of quality than others). Second, there is an activity of meaning-making: not merely are certain directors declared to be auteurs but specific significations are assigned to them (the thematics of this or that auteur). Again, Hayward’s discussion of Luc Besson’s use of CinemaScope exemplifies this practice. After having differentiated Besson from other directors by noting his mass popularity (unlike art-cinema directors whose individuality seems to go hand-in-hand with specialty audiences) and his disinterest in cinema history (unlike many French directors whose films reflexively comment on other works) which gives him a supposedly refreshing innocence in cinematic approach, Hayward then proceeds to fill out Besson’s distinction with a positive thematic content (the interplay of freedom and necessity, seen to arise even in the way shots are composed).

Such attribution of meanings slides into a third aspect of auteurism. Specifically, auteurism frequently bases its differentiations among directors on a notion of complexity of meaning. Hence, in Peter Wollen’s breakthrough “structuralist” re-writing of auteurism in his vastly influential Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, both John Ford and Howard Hawks are distinguished as auteurs, but clearly Wollen’s preference goes to the former for the manner in which the original binary oppositions of the Western ostensibly are modified, and thereby supposedly are enriched, as Ford’s career develops. [20]

But, in what might at first seem a paradox, complexification is accompanied by an activity of purification. That is, each auteur must be seen to possess a vision and a thematics irreducible to, and unshareable with, others (whether they be the other workers on the film to be treated as what Wollen refers to as a “noise” beneath which the director’s voice must be distinguished – or other directors who are to be situated elsewhere in the meaning-making constellation of auteurs). [21]

We might take Gilles Deleuze’s famous two-volume typology of the signs of cinema in terms of the “great auteurs” as an extreme manifestation of this philosophy of purity. As he puts it in a frequently cited declaration, “The great auteurs of the cinema may be compared, in our view, not merely with painters, architects and musicians, but also with thinkers. They think with movement-images and time-images instead of concepts.” [22] Not for nothing does Deleuze announce that his study is not a “history” for what he is presenting is a classification in which each director is associated in irreducible purity with a specific sign and in which any succession between directors is taken to result from a logic of signs themselves rather than from the pressures of material history. (Undoubtedly, I am simplifying aspects of Deleuze’s approach. For example, he does acknowledge the role of history in moving cinema in the postwar period from a confident rendition of movement to a questioning and questioned experimentation with temporality. And in the transition from image-movement to image-time, as commentators point out, Deleuze’s model appears to allow for impurity through the case of certain directors – Hitchcock, in particular – who mix modes and deal creatively with both time and movement. Nonetheless, it still seems to me to be the case that Deleuze’s taxonomy is finally a logic, and not a history: there are a limited array of inviolate elements (each director and the sign-function – or, in rare cases, functions – he is associated with) and then a placing of those elements into a table (a tableau) where the fact that the organization is historical is only incidental.)

I take my understanding of such process of purification from cultural theorist James Clifford who in a discussion of collection in anthropology inspired in large part by Susan Stewart notes how traditionally this field’s rummaging for objects in “primitive” cultures concentrated on those items felt to be free of contamination from other cultures, even when it might have been apparent that many cultures frequently are based on exchange, trade, and infiltration between cultures. As Clifford puts it,

Artifacts and customs are saved out of time. Anthropological culture collectors have typically gathered what seems ‘traditional’ – what by definition is opposed to modernity. From a complex historical reality (which includes current ethnographic encounters) they select what gives form, structure, and continuity to a world. What is hybrid or ‘historical’ in an emergent sense has been less commonly collected and presented as a system of authenticity. [23]

In auteurism, the wish for that which, to use Clifford’s terms, “is opposed to modernity,” manifests itself in a desire to see the auteur as creatively ignorant of the cultural history of his art. Auteurs must be non-intellectuals, visionaries who operate in freedom and purity to give their inviolate world philosophy an arena of expression but doing so in an intuitive, unreflected manner. In this respect, it might not be too extreme to suggest that in the auteur theory, the real auteurs turn out to be the auteurists rather than the directors they study. Faced with the vast anonymity and ordinariness of the mass of films that have ever been made – and in contrast to the anonymous, ordinary manner in which many people see films (the LA Times reports that many average spectators go to the multiplex not having a specific film title in mind and choose once they confront the array of offerings) – the auteurist quests to have his personal vision of cinema emerge from obscurity. He struggles to impose his vision on a system of indifference (which can include, as we have seen, the indifference of the directors themselves).

In this respect, we might note the extent to which auteurism frequently depends on the assumption that cultural workers don’t always understand the meanings of their own creations. An infamous example of this is Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford (US 1971), where Ford notoriously refuses to understand even that his films can have meaning, can be more than just the entertaining result of a job. Intriguingly, the question that most ticks Ford off – isn’t there an evolution in his image of the Indian? – doesn’t seem particularly academic or intellectualizing or even difficult, and Ford’s harshness seems only the more to confirm that artists don’t always have the best insights into their work. The widespread infusion of the notion that the Intentional Fallacy is a bad approach in the understanding of art – “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for juding the success of a work of literary art,” in Beardsley and Wimsatt’s famous phrase [24]  – no doubt had as its salutary effect to focus attention more on textual poetics themselves. But it also has had the effect of empowering the critic or commentator to create meanings that may in fact be as fanciful an interpretation of the text as was intentionalism.

In passing, though, we might note the possibility that not all cases of auteurism involve the passivity of the director and the activity of the auteurist. The director still can impose on the auteurist’s construction of him. Given that auteurism involves a future-oriented quest to see ever more films and to find ways to classify and master them, there is always the risk for the auteurist of the discovery of a work that refuses to fit the model, that refuses to conform to the world-view auteurists has constructed for the director. Like the possibility of counter-transference that some philosophers of history have suggested allows the past to speak back to the historian in the present, even the deceased director can have some tricks up his sleeve. [25]  A newly discovered film or a restored “director’s cut” can come along to confound the auteurist’s model. What happens, for instance, to our long-standing image of Robert Aldrich when we discover that he in fact disliked the famously cynical ending of Kiss Me Deadly [US 1955] – which film historiography has bequeathed as one of the key moments in postwar apocalyptic imagining – and preferred having Mike Hammer and Velma escape ill-fated destiny? Of course, the resourceful auteurist can always modify his system in ways that account for – or discount – the seeming exception to the rule.

Earlier, I quoted Susan Stewart on collecting as a kind of forgetting, and much of the anti-intentionalism of auteurism sets out to forget the director’s thoughts. In a sense, to go back to our guiding question of what the auteurist desires, he desires in larger part that directors themselves don’t desire, that they do nothing but create with pure and full unconsciousness of their creative process, that they create works that auteur-collectors can interpret to their own ends. This is what Stewart describes as the collector’s “replacement of the narrative of production [in auteurism’s case, the production of the films themselves by their directors] by the narrative of the collection, the replacement of the narrative of history with the narrative of the individual subject – that is, the collector himself.” [26]

Note that Stewart isn’t suggesting a converse and corrective replacing of the individual subject of the collector by some individual subject responsible for the original production. What the collector’s subjectivity has replaced is the sweep of history itself and its modes of production, not some realm of lone creative individuals. The alternative to anti-intentionalism doesn’t have to be a return to intentionalism. For instance, the new industrial history of film that I discussed at the beginning of this essay can deal with the work of the director, but it does so outside of a quest for directorial intentionality.

The point, then, wouldn’t be to no longer do auteurism, but to imagine ways to do it differently. Perhaps auteurism needs more of that self-reflexivity that James Clifford calls for in the activity of anthropological collection:

The categories of the beautiful, the cultural, and the authentic have changed and are changing. Thus it is important to resist the tendency of collections to be self-sufficient, to suppress their own historical, economic, and political processes of production. (…) More historical self-consciousness in the display and viewing of non-Western objects can at least jostle and set in motion the ways in which anthropologists, artists, and their publics collect themselves and the world [27]

We could, for instance, imagine auteurism as itself a historical activity – arising in particular social and cultural situations as a way of responding to them. For example, in an excellent study of auteurism, Jim Naremore employs Raymond Williams’s notion of a “cultural formation” – in Naremore’s words, “a loose confederation of intellectuals and critics (…) who had roughly similar objectives, and who developed a body of polemical writings to justify their position” – to analyze as fully historical the postwar emergence of French auteurism. As Naremore puts it,

Auteurism fits the profile of a modern cultural formation almost perfectly. It originated in Paris during the 1950s, at a moment when France was becoming increasingly Americanized, and in many respects it imitated what Peter Burger and other writers have called the “historical” avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s. Like the old avant-garde, it possessed an intellectual or ‘left bank’ aura; it made iconoclastic or shocking value judgments; it was articulated in specialized magazines (the most famous of which was Cahiers du cinéma); it embraced certain elements of pop culture and used them as a weapon to attack bourgeois values; it published manifestos . . . ; and it served as a kind of banner to help publicize the early work of its own adherents. [28]

In conclusion, there are many ways in which auteurism might be revitalized for our future (and we would then need self-reflexively to investigate why we might want to do so). There is no need to study the film director but there is also no need not to study the film director. Indeed, to look at what happens to individuals as they attempt to negotiate the space of society is one way to enrich social theory and, in this respect, we can push for a study of the work of directors that is fully and finally historical in the richest sense of that term.


[1] For a useful survey of the new directions in auteurism, see Toby Miller and Noel King, “Auteurism in the 1990s”, The Cinema Book, 2nd Edition, eds. Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), 311-14.
[2] Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: British Film Institute, 2000), 204, 206.
[3] Gunning, 416.
[4] Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 262-63.
[5] Jon Lewis, Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).
[6] [6] David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
[7] Tim Corrigan, A Cinema Without walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).
[8] Gunning, 343.
[9] For a symptomatic example of the new authorial study of the producer, see George Custen, Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
[10] Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996).
[11] Annette Kuhn, ed., Queen of the B’s: Ida Lupino Behind the Camera (Wiltshire, England: Flick Books, 1995)
[12] Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).
[13] [13] See Polan, “A vertigo of displacement: the Sartrean spectacle of L’Idiot de la famille”, Dalhousie Review, 64, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 354-75.
[14] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Critique of Dialectical Reason. (London, New York, Verso: 1991).
[15] E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977 [original publication: 1955]).
[16] Foreword to Susan Hayward, Luc Besson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998). Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[17] See Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
[18] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 151.
[19] Stewart, 152.
[20] Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972 [1969]).
[21] Dudley Andrew also explicitly analyzes the “purity” of auteurism in his “The unauthorized auteur today” in Stam and Miller, eds., Film Theory: An Anthology (New York & London: Blackwell, 2000).
[22] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), xiv.
[23] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 231.
[24] William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The intentional fallacy,” in Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Louisville, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 3
[25] An amusing discussion of the revenge of the past is Martin Jay’s “The ungrateful dead,” Salmagundi, 123 (Summer 1999): 22-31. Jay recounts how years after interviewing various members of the Frankfurt School for his famous book on the School, he discovered nasty comments on him in journals and private letters by those members. A more general discussion of history as composed of transference and counter-transference (the past speaking back to the historian in the present) occurs in Dominick La Capra, “History and psychoanalysis,” Soundings in Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).
[26] Stewart, 156.
[27] Clifford, 229.
[28] Jim Naremore, “Authorship,” in Bob Stam and Toby Miller, eds., A Companion to Film Theory (New York & London: Blackwell, 1999), 10.

About the Author

Dana Polan

About the Author

Dana Polan

Dana Polan is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of eight books in film and media, including The Sopranos (Duke University Press, 2009), and The French Chef (Duke University Press, 2011).View all posts by Dana Polan →