Reading, culture, and auteurs

Uploaded 1 March 2001

Why did it become fashionable to say we are “reading” a film?

One reads a score; one hears music. One may read a score while hearing, but these are distinguishable activities. There is no way to read a movie; one sees and hears it. Reading and seeing/hearing are almost contraries. “Le roman est un récit qui s’organise en monde, le film un monde qui s’organise en récit,” declared Jean Mitry. (“The novel is a narrative that constructs a world; film is a world that constructs a narrative.”) [1] Ingestion of cinema and music is aesthetic, with a fugitive character that, in contrast, is never a problem in reading. It is not possible to read a film.

“Reading” films became fashionable thirty years ago, nonetheless, when semiotics declared that everything is a sign signifying something it itself is not. Everything, thus defined, acquired eluctability. In compensation semiology turned to genres, conventions and ideologies, to systems of signs, to “language.”

To this tendency one of the founders of historicism, Benedetto Croce, said no a century ago. True language or “poetry,” he said (meaning Art in general), has no signs. A sign is a sign because it stands for something other than itself; but poetry stands only for itself. Signs are found in prose-the impoverished pseudo language of convention, the language of science.

Conventions have nothing to do with art, directly. Art is authentic, original, individual. Conventions are collective-what everyone already knows. Thus studying genres means paying attention to the prose of a work, not its poetry. When we spot similarities between westerns, we are considering the prose aspect of cinema, not its poetry; indeed, we risk distracting ourselves from art. For prose is poetry’s antithesis. What is stunningly original to an art student may be a worn cliché to a culture-studies student. One deals with the individual, the other with the general. The former is an artistic activity, the latter scientific.

Artistically, we do not learn to “appreciate” a pietà by Michelangelo by asking ourselves how it differs scientifically from other pietàs. We need to experience Michelangelo’s pietà as though it is the only object of its kind. Like experiencing a person. Do I experience my wife Phoebe because she is Phoebe? or because of the ways she is or isn’t like all the other human beings in the world? The former is her poetry; the latter is her prose. The former is her art; the latter is her science. I can experience Phoebe or I can theorize her. So too with a movie.

We need both, surely. But what use is science without art? Theory without experience? A theory of Phoebe without Phoebe? Alas, academic film study today, too often arrogated by sociologists with scant emotional commitment to art, self-destructs in theoretical, linguistical and psychoanalytical detours because it lacks realities other than itself. Like semiology, which could never find the sems, it lacks knowledge of what data to collect and classify, or even of what might constitute data, because the data is poetry, not prose-unique, not common. Culture studies necessarily treats movies (and persons) as propaganda, a choice which annihilates the experience needed to ground science. Life is reduced to Narcissus’ reflection.

Yet in life, we do know persons: family, friends, strangers met by chance-even though we cannot theorize them! Indeed, we take it for granted that experience surpasses science. We recognize, even if we cannot explain it scientifically, that I-thou relationships are different than I-it relationships, and that our relationships with artworks fall oddly between the two.

I have no need of cinema to capture reality. There is more reality outside my window than in all the films ever made. What art provides is a sensibility toward reality. What is called Realism in cinema is not reality captured but the felt presence of the moviemaker, the dialectic between the subjective and the objective. A stone in a river has as much reality as the Parthenon in Athens. But what astonished me when I saw the Parthenon, what no picture of it had led me to expect, was the direct experience I felt of what is was like to be an Athenian in Pericles’s day. Was I experiencing a genus-Greek art of this period? Or was I experiencing a person-Callicrates or Ictinus, the architects?

Obviously, no such things as Greek art or culture ever existed other than as theory, unless as sensibilities in individual persons (“authors”). Neither ideology nor culture can be transmitted save by individuals. Some of us experience such sensibilities in a book, painting, building, opera or movie; some of us do not. It is a matter of choice: to experience poetry or prose.

There are many objections to this “auteurism” and all of them are valid, insofar as they start out defining “auteurism” in terms of the objection. But one ought not to climb up on an academic chair and proclaim to the paying masses that auteurs, anymore than persons, do not exist because we cannot account for them scientifically or because some professor has never turned on to them. If you can walk into a museum and recognize a Van Gogh before reading the plaque, you are an auteurist. Yet auteurism embarrasses academe, because it is a question of experience, not of theory, not of anything that can be put into a textbook-except in its manifestations. Auteurism is a formidable approach for comprehending style, technique and expression.

Even those who admit that some movies have an “author” disagree about what the term means. Rightly so. Auteurs are as diverse as humans, and the tools appropriate for analysing Ford are not those for Rossellini. A theory valid for all auteurs is as useless as one for all cinema – whose definition changes with every good movie, if it is art, if it is human. Should not a theory be derived from a delimited set of experiences (so that, for example, from analysing Ford we arrive at a theory of Fordian cinema), rather than imposed a priori by an academy? André Bazin announced that editing is invisible in Hollywood cinema and ever since people have assumed that they are not supposed to pay attention to it, and so do not. If one starts out from theoretical positions, all hope at arriving at a viable experience of auteur in the context of Hollywood cinema 1930-60 is hopeless, like setting out to meet music determined to ignore rhythm. For it is the distinction of an auteur that no suture is required between the regarded and the regarder, anymore than between my fingers and my arm. Van Gogh’s painting of the mail man is Van Gogh’s looking, his angle, his sensibility; some call it “distance.”

But there are as many definitions of auteurism as there are auteurs. “People are incorrect to compare a director to an author. If he’s a creator, he’s more like an architect,” said John Ford. A movie has as many auteurs as those who left their mark: actors, photographers, designers, producers, writers. The utility for regarding a director as auteur is the richness of experience that may result.


[1] Jean Mitry, Esthétique et pyschologie du cinéma, Vol II (Paris: Editions Universitaire, 1965), 354.

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

Tag Gallagher has published definitive studies of John Ford (University of California Press, 1986) and Rossellini (ReviewedIssue 9 of Screening the Past). His "Hollywood Directors, 1932-55," which includes articles on Vidor, Hawks, Walsh, Tourneur and forty other moviemakers, appeared in Trafic 14-17 (1996). Major monographs include Renoir (Film Comment, January 1996; Cinémathèque, Fall 1996); Sirk (Film Comment, November 1998; Cinémathèque, Spring 1998); Ulmer (Cinémathèque, Spring 1999); McCarey (Jean-François Rauger, ed, Leo McCarey: Le burlesque des sentiments. Cinématheque française, 1998); Vidor (Nosferatu, November 1999); Francis Ford (Film Comment, November 1976); Abel Ferrara (Rotterdam Festival catalog, 1991). A piece critiquing genre studies appears in Film Genre Reader (ed. Barry Grant. University of Texas Press, 1986); one on Ford's treatment of Indians in Film Comment (September 1993) and in Jim Kitses & Gregg Rickman, eds., The Western Reader (New York: Limelight, 1998); and one on the family in American film in Mosaic (1983).View all posts by Tag Gallagher →