Archives For authorship

the article opens with Kierkegaard:

I call these sketches Shadowgraphs, partly by the designation to remind you at once that they derive from the darker side of life, partly because like other shadowgraphs they are not directly visible. When I take a shadowgraph in my hand, it makes no impression on me, and gives me no clear conception of it. Only when I hold it up opposite the wall, and now look not directly at it, but at that which appears on the wall, am I able to see it. So also with the picture which does not become perceptible until I see through the external. This external is perhaps quite unobtrusive but not until I look through it, do I discover that inner picture which I desire to show you, an inner picture too delicately drawn to be outwardly visible, woven as it is of the tenderest moods of the soul. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

When we practice the auteur theory – which is to say simply that we summarise and critique an individual film based on its stylistic value as compared to other films of the same auteur – we look for the language of the author – are we really ‘rationalising leaden clinkers into golden nuggets’? My opinion: NO. The language of film is hidden beneath or better yet, encoded in, a films apparent ‘entertainment’ or ‘dramatic’ value. An auteur who is praised must have work worthy of praising – a masterpiece here and there. For William Friedkin we might cite The Exorcist, The French Connection or Kiler Joe. For Michael Mann you cannot go past Heat. Both of these auteur’s have films which were critically rejected during their time at the box office.

Take Miami Vice by Michael Mann for instance. The reaction to this film by and large by the critics was negative. To quote David and Margaret from At The Movies:

The real problem is that this is a nothing plot, we’ve seen it many times before, Mann’s inclusion of a couple of extended sex scenes that are not really so sexy is just a diversion.

Colin Farrell is developing into a deeply uninteresting actor, not that Mann’s screenplay gives any of the actors much opportunity for subtlety or depth.

There’s a lot of jargon. And the end result is that the plot, such as it is, verges on the incomprehensible.

Viewing Miami Vice however in reference to other texts – a more postmodern view – the film can be read as a masterpiece of style. Genre conventions are another viewpoint through which to analyse this film. Though Margaret describes this film as ‘unsexy’ I would have to disagree and assert that this is a romantic film first and foremost in which some action takes place. The final battle that draws us through to the end of the third act is predicated on vengeance for one lover and the rescue of another; duel couplings, just as in the romantic musical genre. Looking at this film through the filter of a Goddard-infused reading one can see the level of pop/fashion/media culture being coded into this film. It is plot-lite precisely to foreground fashion, fast cars, epic Caribbean skyscapes and rock music. The themes are universal: daring, vengeance, love, forbidden love, and eventually existential choices to not live happily ever after on part of Sonny (Colin Farrell).

This does not constitute a ‘see-it-or-you-don’t’ shortcut to scholarship, as Sarris’ critics would determine, but a reasonable A-iconoclastic look at what is described as the language of film; that is film form, convention and style and how these elements might relate to each other and imbue a sense of a human personality talking to us from the screen. We might ask this disembodied, coded voice ‘what do you see in relationships between people?’ or ‘how does one deal with injustice amongst the many?’, or ‘is there a place for honour and trust in contemporary society?’ This is not a shortcut to thinking but a love for film and style as it lights up the screen at 24 frames (I would hope). For structuralism and linguistics and the death of the author – these avenues of scholarship are fine, but taken in isolation can suck the life out of the most exciting form of human expression – that form that comes to us from innovation in technology, from the division of labor and the pursuit of an individual and collective landscape of dreams and desires.

Sarris hits on two interesting, dovetailing points: He says of the French critics that some had succumbed to a European-orientated (rationalist) pragmatism where intention was more nearly equal to talent in critical relevance (sounds familiar – the contemporary Australian film industry). He goes on to summarise that Truffaut had seen the writing on the wall: he and his colleagues had ‘discovered auteurs’ whilst their successors have ‘invented’ them.

This is an interesting lens through which to view the shift from the studio system to the more politically active, independent film making of the post-classical, 1970’s-on period. In the classical era the movies assumed that audiences were autonomous in their own right – that they did not need to be enlightened. Take one of John Ford’s westerns which assumes a level of respect and sentimentality for the formation of civilisation in the wilderness of the American frontier. Or perhaps a Lubitsch comedy in which it was famed that Lubitsch had an unspoken understanding with his audience and innuendo and the unseen canoodling behind closed doors was poetry. The auteur was found in the expression of style within the confines of a rigid, but practical, narrative form. The post-classical era sees auteur’s inventing themselves and what reigns here is not the value of the aesthetic expression as it erupts from a set of conventions and structures but political message and activist agenda – intention more nearly equal to talent. This immediately starts to evolve an ‘in-group’ as with any politically orientated movement – their successors had invented them.

Ultimately Bazin reasons for us with his charisma and gusto:

“How can one review an Anthony Mann western if it were not an expression of the genre’s conventions?”


…fiction has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself… David Shields

Shields has written a book that proposes a methodology/ideology/philosophy whereby the author is entirely surrendered to a lack of context and an absolute state of the confessional. This is interesting as it correlates to ideas about the current networked and digital on-line environment and arguments around copyright and intellectual property. Shields iterates: “Who owns the words?”. Not a far cry from Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault musing on: “what matter who’s speaking?” The work suggests a lack of authorship being central to contemporary expression, and further that fiction is mundane and boring in an environment where everyman has a voice in the confessional. This argument and point of view is a direct line to the realisation of fragmented texts and fragmented expressions of reality. I would argue however that fragmentation and modern media has nothing to do with the supposed loss of fiction. On the other hand, fragmentation is a new form of fiction. A new imagined reality emerges out of the cut up and dispersed ocean of different expressions.

Personally I find the contention that fiction gives us no sense of self a little dry and clinical. It would seem that confession and reality based art is the aesthetic of the video up-load to the internet, but I would argue that that we add our own fictions to everything. A video of a leaf, rustling on a tree in the wind can mean so many different emotions and subtleties of human experience that reality-based becomes ecstatically-based art.

Documentary cinema was present at the very conception of the moving image and so its place in the history of film thought and philosophy is integral. It has always been asked of documentary; “to what extent is there truth or meaning in the documented image?” And every answer manages to build a persuasive and relevant discussion and outcome. This does not equate to a culture that has lost sense of identity through fiction. On the other hand, fiction being the place where ideals are dreamed up and heroes invented and destroyed, has evolved into a new playing field where there is a convergence with the precise recording of people and places. Werner Herzog’s Lessons In Darkness (1992) is as much a critical documentation of the 1st Iraq war as it is a commentary and thought about the origins of mans struggle with himself and the nature and trajectory of civilization. A fiction invented by Herzog.

The Sunday Book review makes a comparison of the current state of literature, art, broadcast TV and radio to a time of an idealistic state of fiction. Whilst the culture of literature may be undergoing some kind of crisis, it seems important to point out that it is unpractical to make such comparisons because since the advent and introduction of the internet into culture there is simply much more space for stuff. Yes there is a definite rise and tidal wave of reality based TV, but there is also the rise and tidal wave of HBO drama productions and DVD boxsets. Hands up how many people watch the entire series of The Sopranos via its weekly broadcast slot? I can confess that I went straight for the box-set and sat there for 3 or 4 episode long sessions. There is no shortage of work for A and B list Hollywood actors who now make their way to the booming industry of episodic American drama’s and comedies. So, I conclude that one new aesthetic hasn’t pushed aside another, but rather that the pool just got a whole lot bigger.

Notes from What Is An Author in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice; selected essays and interviews ; Cornell University Press Ithaca, New York, 1977

Essentially Foucault is studying the concept of the Author in terms of, “the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it.” (p115) It is interesting to apply all these ideas and theories to the idea of the documentary filmmaker as author. In this way, this reading applies to Labsome, Transient Spaces and Comm Rev.

Questions raised by Foucault:

How was the author individualised in our culture?

What status have we given the author? (authenticity, attribution)

What systems of valorisation has he been included in?

When was the moment that stories of the hero gave way to an authors biography?

What conditions fostered the formulation of the fundamental critical category of ‘the man and his work’?

One approach to this Foucault reading is to constantly ask yourself, in what contexts is Foucault refering to the practice of language and writing (and that particular relationship)?

“the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of “expression”; it only refers to itself, yet it is not restricted to the confines interiority. On the contrary, we recognise it in its exterior deployment.” (p116)

Foucault sees writing as an organic and evolving practice which, “unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.” (p116) In this way, writing is not a fixed or rigid technical device into which a subject is inserted. Instead it serves to create an opening where the “writing subject” endlessly disappears. (what is meant by writing subject exactly?)

Foucault sees the ancient text as a vehicle to immortality for the hero. In pre-modern times, narrative redeemed the acceptance of death. Kafka is a good example of the reversal of this narrative ideology. Contemporary writing murders its author. There are two sides established to the argument around the recognition and presence of the author (what these are is hard to decipher!)

The first context is that of criticism which addresses the work in terms of its ‘architectonic’ and structural form, and specifically leaves out the ties between author and work, and in particular the author and his thoughts through the work. The question of the boundaries of the work is prominent here. The second context is the notion of ecriture, a French word referring to the act of writing as an entity in itself, in its primordial and metaphysical form (signs represent the present, in its absence). The notion of ecriture somehow links the idea of the author to a more theological and religiously inflected notion. The work as “a kind of enigmatic supplement of the author beyond his own death.” (p120)

In summary Foucault poses the difference between questions that are and are not concerned with the author. This is to illustrate that through the absence of the author new modes of discourse will be heard.

No longer the tiresome repetitions:

“Who is the real author?”
“Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?”
“What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?”

New questions will be heard:

“What are the modes of existence of this discourse?”
“Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?”
“What placements are determined for possible subjects?”
“Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?”

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:

“What matter who’s speaking?” (p138)