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Film "Authorship"

Do Films Have Authors?

We can produce poetry and fiction using technologies so old and common that they no longer strike us as "technologies" at all: a paper napkin and a pen will do the trick in a pinch. We can even compose poetry or fiction mentally and recite it without any external technology. Virtually everyone would accept that the text of a recited poem exists, though it has no material form. In contrast, one cannot recite a film; a film requires a technological mediation between its creators and its audience. While relatively inexpensive filmmaking technologies have emerged recently, most films still require contributions from a large number of people to reach an audience, including a producer, a director, a screenwriter, actors, studio representatives, distributors, theater owners, and so forth. Faced with such a wide range of contributions, critics have developed the convention of treating the director as the "author" of a film. That convention creates a lot of convenient shortcuts (I use it to list films alongside books on course syllabi, for example), but it also erases the many limits of a director's artistic control, from the interpretations of actors to the reactions of test audiences to early versions of a film. The relative invisibility in critical and popular discourse of screenwriters--whose practice is more like that of a poet, perhaps, than is a director's--is one of the enduring oddities of contemporary culture.

Auteur Theory

In the 1950s and 60s, the film critic Andrew Sarris became the leading American proponent of what is now called auteur theory. "Auteur" is French for "author"; Sarris argued that film at its best constitutes the kind of inspired personal expression from a director that we expect to find in a major author. Therefore, said Sarris, we can treat great directors who develop a signature style as auteurs, and we can speak of film history as a history of auteurs. Sarris's arguments created controversy from the start because they understated the contributions of everyone but the director to film art. Since the very notion of single authorship has undergone a thorough reconsideration since Sarris wrote, contemporary academics are even less likely to accept his theory without reservation. Nonetheless, Sarris made a large contribution to the field of film studies by arguing for a way to think of film art as analogous to the other arts, and references to auteur theory still surface frequently in film studies.

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