- Film and Authorship
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In film studies the concept of the author has experienced various degrees of acceptance, ranging from full incorporation to vehement repudiation. As a result, whether lauding or denying thepresence of the film author, questions of authorship are inextricably woven into the fabric of film studies. Now that the topic is viewed more affably than it has been in the past, it is truly apropos that Film and Authorship, an anthology of essays working with the idea of authorship in film, has been assembled by editor Virginia Wright Wexman. Acting as both a recapitulation and revaluation of topic, this collection works as an introduction to the debates while focusing on the assertion of the viability of the author as a framework within which to better understand film.
Wexman's introduction sets the stage rather nicely by offering an overview of the topic without getting mired in minutiae. Examining such a seminal strand of film theory could be rather intimidating, but Wexman gives the reader a succinct grounding in the history of approaches to authorship in film. Appropriately, she begins with an excavation of the construction of authorial prominence, which is rooted in "the Romantic notion of the creative genius nurtured by an inner spark of inspiration" (9). Building off Helen Kritch Chinoy's claim that, in the nineteenth century, theater directors gained status as authors, Wexman suggests that this forged a template for film directors to be viewed likewise. However, the director has not been the only position of authority to emerge in film. The collective quality of filmmaking is acknowledged, as well as the focus of poststructurally minded filmmaking, which foregrounds cultural contributions to the filmic text over any concept of individual authorship.
Citing the 1981 British Film Institute anthology Theories of Authorship as a milestone in authorship studies embracing both structural and poststructural approaches to the topic, Wexman asserts that she sees her collection as pulling together the finest examples of post-1981 scholarship, and, aside from the opening piece by Andrew Sarris, first published in 1977, she is largely correct. The fourteen essays contained within the collection are divided into three sections: theoretical statements, historical and institutional contexts, and case studies. These section titles are apt descriptions of the pieces contained within them, and this review will look at two pieces from each of the sections to consider their value.
Colin MacCabe's "The Revenge of the Author" operates as a self-inflicted mediation between his appreciation of the Barthesian opposition to the concept of the author and his competing aversion to the deconstruction of authorship arising from his personal experiences with filmmaking. Struggling with Barthes's view of sociality as author, MacCabe concedes that filmmaking is far too collective a process to claim any single author as a film's total creative force. Recognizing that any text is essentially [End Page 101] cultural putty for audiences to decode as they wish, he laments the inability to capture all of the varied readings and responses produced. In lieu of a totalized understanding, he suggests that "any future audience can be approached only through the first audience for the film—the cast and crew who produced it."
Threading this concept of the cast and crew as the origin of meaning through the needle of Walter Benjamin's work, MacCabe suggests that there exists no true totalized meaning, and thus no totalized author, for any text. Benjamin attempted to foreground his own subjective perspective of history in his writing by employing techniques of montage and in doing this made it clear that there can exist no complete understanding of any social phenomena, only an understanding of the here-and-now interpretations. MacCabe uses this to force the point that the best approximation to a text's origination of meaning is through examination of the initial audience of cast and crew but that it is still only one approach to understanding and should not be taken as the final assessment of a film.
Through its dialogue with Barthes...