Friday, May 11, 2007

The Fallacy of the Director as Author

I am often struck, when reading academic discussions of cinema, especially by those more accustomed to dealing with authors and texts, of something that might be called the fallacy of the director as author. This involves treating the director of a film in the same way that one would treat the author of a text, to talk about them as if they are directly responsible for every single element in the film, every look, every line, every costume, every casting decision, every lighting effect. This is not to deny that the director is, of course, the key person in the film for which s/he is responsible. But a film is at the same time always a group project, in which dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people participate. The existence of "director's cuts" of certain famous films like Bladerunner remind us that sometimes a film does not end up the way the director envisaged.

It is a fallacy that is all the more easy to commit when one is dealing with a film like The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004), where the director in question also financed, co-wrote and co-produced the film. But even here, it is worth remembering that Gibson is not responsible for every last element in the film. Having read almost every academic piece that has been published on The Passion of the Christ over the last three years, I am constantly amazed by how rarely Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote the screenplay, is mentioned. Anyone who attended the AAR/SBL session where Fitzgerald was interviewed will have been struck by just how much he contributed to the screenplay. Indeed, he explained how he had written the initial screenplay, having been drafted in by Gibson, and how Gibson contributed revisions based on that original draft, which then went through successive versions.

Another Jesus film that is relevant is King of Kings (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1961), where the director is arguably less important than producer Samuel Bronston, who made a massive, arguably decisive contribution to this film. Indeed, accordingly Barnes Tatum calls this film "Samuel Bronston's King of Kings".

I suspect that academics used to writing about texts and authors find it much easier to conceptualize a film as if it is a single author work, but this often has a distorting effect on interpretation.

Update (Monday, 19:28): I am grateful for several useful comments. In the light of these, let me attempt to clarify my point. First, of course I am aware of auteur theory and I am not trying to say in this context that there are always and inevitably problems with conceptualizing a given director as auteur, looking for his or her distinctive style, and Gibson may be a good example of a director who has such a distinctive style that he might be treated as auteur. My point in this context, though, does not relate to that but relates rather to a specific fallacy that I think gets repeated in a lot of academic writing about film, especially where that writing is done by those who are more familiar with writing about authors of texts (using text here to mean single-authored written text). It is the fallacy, as I see it, of inadvertently discussing the director of a film as if s/he is the sole author of a single text. It can generate a failure to appreciate the extent to which a film is a collaborative effort, and can thus distort one's interpretation of it, not least by discouraging one to look at distinctive and sometimes major contributions from, for example, a casting director, a co-writer, a consultant, a cinematographer. For one thing, it can discourage one from doing research on individual members of a film crew's contributions, reading interviews and so on, in which key elements in the film might be explained.


Tyler F. Williams said...

Hey Mark,

I'm not sure that this is necessarily a fallacy, especially since auteur theory has a long pedegree in film criticism since Truffaut. While I agree that it can't be applied to every director or every film, there are some where I would think it is appropriate. Think of the films of Kubrick, Woody Allen, Hitchcock, or even the Coen brothers. I would think that Mel Gibson could fit into this category.

Anonymous said...

And yet Passion of the Christ is precisely, imo, a prime example of a film where it's the direction, not the screenplay, that accounted for the anti-Judaism that individuals like myself perceived was present. If you'll go back 3 years into your vault, you'll see that I argued how the scenes with Simon of Cyrene were framed by Gibson to consistently denigrate Jewish observance. If I had simply read the dialogue of Simon's scenes, I probably would've given these an easy pass. The director's decisions made all the difference

Anonymous said...

I think I would tend to agree with Tyler's sentiments in his post. However, it is interesting that at the Academy Awards, the Best Picture's film producers accept the award, which might include the director if she/he is also producer. But of course, there is a separate award for "Best Director."

Matt Page said...

The Auteur Theory is often considered a bit old hat nowadays, with a move away from Truffaut et al. towards more of a recognition of film as a collaborative effort.

I think there's something in this, but the problem, to me, is that both theories try to apply a blanket approach, whereas as "ev" says above, different directors have radically different approaches. Some, such as perhaps Mike Leigh, have a very collaborative approach, at the same time it's hard to imagine someone like DeMille doing anything but get his own way. So I think you have to consider things on a case by case basis.

The other thing is that it really depends what you want to do with talking about the director. If you're trying to blame someone for something, then it is usually fair enough to blame them and/or the producer. In the case of Gibson's film the anti-Semitism may not have originated with him, but as both director and the ultimate financer, it's certainly his fault that those aspects of the film are present in the final product. If there's bad line in the screenplay, whilst you can (and generally should also) blame the screenwriter, the director/ producer (depending on the personnel) are also culpable.

On the other hand if you're trying to credit someone for something it's much more tricky. It may be an actor performs in a certain way, a cinematographer chooses a certain filter etc., off their own bat, but it might be that someone like, say, Hitchcock has been very particular as to how they want them to perform in that scene. So it's trickier in trying to praise than blame, and in both cases the more you know about how that person works, and how that project was conducted, the better.

Matt Page
Bible Films Blog

James F. McGrath said...

I wonder how long it will be before someone suggests we talk about Gospel "directors" rather than either "authors" or "editors". They are working with a story that they are not fully free to interpret as they see fit, and characters that presumably because they have a "life of their own" will not always do precisely what the "director" wants them to. Hmm...