- The Auteur as Fool: Bakhtin, Barthes, and the Screen Performances of Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard
any association between auteurs and fools in the cinema immediately brings to mind the clown-like figures played by Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen, all of whom incarnate similar characters across a vast array of films and in addition direct all or many of the pictures in which they perform. Common to these “fools” is their recurring features and a certain foreignness that posits them as outsiders. In the words of Bakhtin, who theorized about the fool in literature, this figure is endowed with the “right to be ‘other,’” “the right not to understand, the right to confuse” (159, 163), thus becoming the mask that the author wears in order to freely question the world, to denaturalize it. This, after all, is the nature of all comedy.
But the fool’s inherent marginality goes beyond this figure’s subversive attitude, as I argue in this article. The fool’s “misplacement” or inappropriateness can be traced back to its origins in the performing arts—to the intermittent quality of the fool’s presence in some traditions in popular theater (its role limited to providing comic relief or commentary on the main action) or as the bridge between different numbers in the circus or in variety shows.1 As thus, the fool often has been perceived as a temporary visitor, as an outsider to the diegesis, existing between the “show” and the audience. Bakhtin’s study of the fool in the novel goes even further, claiming that this figure’s theatrical genesis (it originates in the public square) positions it as an intruder to the literary genre, thereby bridging also different media (as discussed later). Similarly, I argue that when read through the figure of the fool, the types of authorial self-inscription I analyze in cinematic works constitute the directors as external to the diegesis, crossing, in addition, the boundaries of genre and even the frame. I contrast the ways in which the fools played by Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard turn the author’s image into the textual manifestation of the problematic connection between their real existence and their screen personas. My goal is to explore how these directors achieve this effect with performances informed by both the fool and, in the works of the American filmmaker, the stand-up comedian. These two figures are somewhat external to the worlds they inhabit and comment on, refusing to fully merge with it. I look into the impact of this refusal on the film-author mixture, questioning whether it produces the chemical precipitation or dissolution of the author component.
The fool’s subversive nature carries a self-reflexive element that, though pertaining to all clown-like characters played by famous directors, varies in degree, obtaining different perceptions of narrative closure and the connections between the filmic and the extra-filmic. But it is particularly in the works by Allen that the fool’s foreignness has repercussion in the question of film authorship that I want to discuss. [End Page 21] The director promotes a self-reflexive meditation that dialogues with the challenges to the auteur brought about with the structuralist turn in film studies. In fact, I argue that the effects produced by Allen’s screen performances make him comparable not so much with the usual suspects of slapstick and screwball comedy, but with none other than Godard, whose career parallels the theoretical underpinnings of film studies, from auteurism to its total dismissal, culminating with the film collectives of the late 1960s, and also the influence of semiotics, Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. Here, however, the terms of comparison with Allen lie with Godard’s appearances in some films of the 1980s—notably as the buffoonish characters of Uncle Jean/Monsieur Godard in First Name: Carmen (1983), the Prince/the Idiot in Soigne ta droite (1987), and Professor Pluggy/Monsieur Godard in King Lear (1987). I argue that these fools embody the director’s understanding of his identity as an author.2
Whereas Godard’s screen presence changes in quality and degree (from cameos to voiceover narration and...