Sunday, May 6, 2012

Deja Vu: More Musings on the Theory of Authorship

This excerpt from Jason Mittell's Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling on authorship in television (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/complextelevision/authorship/) reminds me a number of problems I associate with contemporary film and television criticism. Specifically I find much of the discussion of auteurism in much contemporary film and television scholarship grounded in straw man arguments. After reading Mittell's chapter I don't see any reason to change my tune.

Auteurism was a polemical strategy, a policy applied to a very few directors such as European art directors like Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard, all of whom are, in my opinion, auteurs, and, much more controversially, to a handful of Hollywood studio directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks. Even more controversial was the extension of auteur theory by some auteurist polemicists to a handful of Hollywood directors few people other than cinephiles had ever even heard of or knew, directors like Edgar Ulmer, Anthony Mann, and Jacques Tourneur.

Today a lot of critics of auteurism like to use the collaboration argument against them. Auteurists, however, by and large, have never denied that there was or is collaboration in film. Auteurists simply argued that in a few cases, even in Hollywood, there were auteurs like Hawks and Hitchcock. This was, of course, the argument Andrew Sarris made when he constructed a pantheon of auteurists in his seminal book The American Cinema and the articles that preceded it.

Mittell tries to deal with the problem of auteurism by delineating several different types of authorship that have made their way into intellectual, academic, and popular discourse. The first is authorship by origination, the notion that a single creative writer wrote every word of his creation. Mittell argues that this conception of authorship is a simplification. This conception of authorship has been at the heart of notions of literary authorship for some time. However, virtually every literary work, fiction or non-fiction, is, as Mittell notes, edited. Many of the works of D.H. Lawrence and many of the fictional works of "George Orwell" were edited by their respective publishers for a variety of reasons including ones related to the need for censorship.

Even if we accept the notion of authorship by origination it is not always easy to determine authorial intent. Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov reworked his "Master and Margarita" so many times over the space of some twenty years and once destroyed a copy of the finished manuscript making it impossible, as result, to determine final authorial intent since no final authoritative manuscript exits. There are several valid variants of the text one can, and a number of scholars have, chosen from in order to create or manufacture their text of Master and Margarita.

Mittell goes on to delineate two other types of authorship, authorship by responsibility where a director or writer is held responsible for the final product despite it being a collaborative enterprise, and authorship by management, where the producer of the film or television programme is given credit for the final film or television product. Here the auteur is rather like a business manager or musical conductor.

What is missing in Mittell's analysis, and this is an important and critical absence, is a reflexive analysis of the sociology of auteurist and anti-auteurist knowledges. Auteurism became a dominant or hegemonic filmic discourse in the 1960s thanks largely to an assault by Cahiers du Cinema and Movie on the notion that films, read Hollywood films, were the anonymous product of a capitalism meant to manipulate the masses, a perspective that had both liberal and Marxist variants. Just as auteurism was a reaction against the films as opiate of the masses and films as dumbing the masses perspectives the Cahiers/Screen smorgasbord of marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism that arose in the late 1960s and 1970s thanks, at least in part, to the rise and growth of countercultures in the West, was a reaction to polemical and apologetic "romantic" auteurism, the stereotype and caricature anti-auteurist film criticism constructed of auteurism.

Rather ironically it is Michel Foucault, one of the most noted of anti-romantic anti-auteurist polemicists who can help us understand how intellectual and academic culture "works" and how the way that it works muddies rather than clarifies theoretical waters. Foucault essentially argues that the discursive world is full of pendulum swings from one binary discursive formation to another (academia swings like a pendulum do, theories are binaries two by two). And this pendulum swing between binary discursive formations has been how Film and TV criticism has generally "worked" since the 1950s. In the 1970s auterism became proverbial baby thrown out with the discursive/ideological bathwater by those associated with a transformed Cahiers and those associated with Screen. As such a more nuanced and more materialist (economics, politics, culture, demographic, geographical) conception of authorship was ostracised from academic film and television theory. This ostracisation has, in my opinion, been unfortunate if what we are really want to do is understand the process of how authorship works. For me Mittell's attempts to delineate a more collaborative conception of authorship in film and TV doesn't really get us beyond the polemics and apologetics that have muddied the film and television auteurist waters for the last fifty years.

Beyond the issue of auteurism here there are, in my opinion, a number of other problems associated with some of the generalisations Mittell makes. One of my problems is Mittell's parochialism. Mittell notes that in American television there are only rare instances, Ally McBeal, for instance, where the creator of the TV programme has written or co-written each and every episode of the show. And he is, by and large, correct. However, Mittell might have to rework this generalisation if he broadened out his television view. In British TV, for instance, an author or authors often write each and every episode of a television series and a television show. Each and every episode of Outnumbered, though that show does allow the kids to "improvise" within limits, has been written by its creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. Even shows not written by a single author but by several authors in the UK, Sherlock, for instance, there is clearly a meeting of the two or three authorial minds who, up to this point, have written each and every episode of the show.

Nor am I clear what Mittell means by "commercial television". Is the BBC purely a public television network or is it a public network that has commercial aspects to it given the importance of viewer numbers even for the Beeb and the Beeb's commercially oriented ventures in places like the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand?

Suggested Readings
For those of you interested in debates over film authorship check out this article on the tensions between one director, Gillian Armstrong, and one producer, Margaret Fink, over the authorship of the 1979 adaptation of Myles Franklin's My Brilliant Career
Christine Sams and Gary Maddox, "Brilliant Spat: Filmmakers Brawl Over Australian Classic", Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2007,

For those of you interested in the director as auteur and types of director-auteurs check out the interview between actor Stellen Skarsgård and Xan Brooks, Elliot Smith, and Henry Barnes of the Guardian, 28 June 2012. In this interview Skarsgard talks about two famous directors he has worked with, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Danish director Lars von Trier. Skarsgard tells Brooks et.al. that all directors are to some extent control freaks since they want to control everything in their filmic universes. The auteur as absolute monarch? The great Swedish auteur was, claims Skarsgård, very much a control freak in that he wanted to control every aspect of the films (and sometimes even every aspect of the lives of those who worked for him in film and theatre) he made. Von Trier, says Skarsgård, likewise wanted to control every aspect including every gesture and every movement of the head in his first five films but then loosened up with Between the Waves and Dogme 95 and began to urge his actors to "make mistakes" bringing, in the process, life to his subsequent films.

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