Authorship in film theory and in practice

Just as there are a number of different genres within film, there are just as many, if not more, different schools of thought on how film ought to be studied. Some focus on how the films themselves operate, while others are more grounded in the personal journey of the filmmaker over the course of his or her career. However, these alternate theories do more than represent different theories, they engage with the medium differently. As a result, not only does the study of film form focus more on how different genres operate, but this focus on the genre as a whole provides a stark contrast to authorship’s exploration of how an individual operates within the entirety of the filmic system. As such, different focuses are generally used to approach different problems. This begs the question, how would these different schools of thought reconcile with one another when addressing the same film? An even bigger question is, would they even be able to do so?
Rather than addressing this in theoretical terms, it is easier to highlight the different approaches of film form and authorship when considering a specific example, for instance Guy Ritchie’s 2008 film, RockNRolla. Film form, primarily using Bordwell’s essay Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, examines the similarities and differences, as well as how these conventions of narrative drive a film. Someone who subscribes to the idea of film form would take the opportunity to explore the genre that RockNRolla inhabits, most notably the gangster film. They would study how other films treat these similar character archetypes. For instance, Tom Wilkinson’s character Lenny would be seen as the problem of the piece and the threat he poses to Gerard Butler’s protagonist, One Two. It’s also worth noting that the romance between One Two and Thandie Newton’s Stella falls in place in Bordwell’s piece which states that a heterosexual romance is typically a secondary plot in classical Hollywood. Furthermore, a subscriber to the school of film form would also note how this film departs from traditions within the genre. One prime example is the addition of a gay character in the form of Tom Hardy’s Handsome Bob. Although the character is notably secondary, he plays a pivotal role in the film’s conclusion and serves yet another, almost exclusively film form-related, purpose. The gangster genre is littered with displays of machismo and hypermasculinity, which establishes a somewhat unspoken convention of the genre. In openly including a gay character, Ritchie breaks the genre. What is within the realm of the conventional genre is just as crucial as what is not, although few, if any, film form theorists have explicitly made this connection.
However, film form is not exclusively tied to genre. In fact, Esienstein explores the significance of the relationship between images in his work. Considering that film is a visual medium, the image is unquestionably authoritative, but it’s also at the mercy of the author. Although Eisenstein focuses primarily on montage, his theories on film form and the significance of the image helps to establish a dialogue between the images and the meaning of the film. More specifically, Eisenstien proposes that meaning is derived from the clash of the images. While he seems rather absolute in his writing on it, his focus of film form is more technical than anything else. He concerns himself quite literally with one images relationship to the next. This idea is somewhat less relevant to more contemporary understandings of montage and the purpose of film, thus there are no examples of Eisenstein’s understanding of montage that come to mind in contemporary cinema at this time. Nevertheless, it has an important place and also explores film form in a more technical manner. However, Eisenstien’s stressed importance on the technical features of film form distinguishes itself from Bordwell’s analysis of more narrative features. Thompson finds a way to integrate the two in her discussion of cinematic excess. She discusses how technique and purpose are combined in her article. This is a solid addition to Eisenstein’s understanding which is admittedly similar, but much more dense. Thompson references movies that readers these days may not understand, but with the influx of “excessive” movies, such as Grindhouse, her theories are much more relatable.
In the end, all of these pieces work to a present a more thoroughly realized understanding of film form that, although confusing when reading Eisenstein, strengthens the overall argument of these combined pieces. Eisenstein’s density and awkward writing style hinders his main points, but when discussed is made slightly more accessible. Between the three pieces, Bordwell is not only the more understandable, but also seems to be more applicable in reference to modern cinema. This is not meant to discount Eisenstein’s message, but it serves more as a historical and contextual reading which provides for a fuller understanding of film form when paired with Kristin Thompson.
However, the benefits and the shortcomings of these pieces on film form cover a broad range of topics. What makes authorship much more accessible is that most of these texts converge on a unified front. Most studies of authorship factor in both the technical and the thematic, with a personal privileging of the thematic. Utilizing the aforementioned example of RockNRolla, a student of authorship would look at it as a piece of a bigger picture. This idea of authorship concerns itself with recurring themes, ideas, and techniques so they would examine how, or if, it fits into Guy Ritchie’s filmography. For instance, RockNRolla is certainly a continuation of Ricthie’s preferred genre, the gangster film. It uses his routine storytelling devices and his same highly stylized editing. As such, it is recognizably a product of Ritchie’s work, which is a determinant in Sarris’s definition of auteur. Some critics worry that this confines the author stylistically and thematically, but it’s useful to look at authorship as an examination of the growing process. For instance, Ritchie has never particularly associated himself with queer theory before. It’s arguable that it’s always been an element of his work, such as the glorification of the male form in Snatch with all of the shirtless scenes of bare-knuckle boxing. It’s such a strong hypermasculinization that it borders on the homoerotic. Whether this is intentional or not is disputable, but it becomes irreversible almost 10 years after Snatch with the inclusion of an openly gay character in RockNRolla. There are certainly auteurs that do recycle and regurgitate the same material, but the study of authorship, at least on a personal level, is more centered on the evolution of a given person, in this case, director Guy Ritchie.
However, it should be acknowledged that authorship can be considered in very different ways. Some of these readings dealt with authorship as a recognizable visual style, while others deal with it more thematically. Then again, there are an equal amount of theorists, most notably Stam, that dismiss authorship as the study of one given author. Stam proposes that there are a variety of influences that aren’t credited that work towards developing an author’s “style.”
Authorship, as a whole, is an interesting concept because despite being a rather basic definition, there are a number of intricacies that distinguish theorists who study the phenomenon of the auteur. Although the general idea surrounding them remains the same, a number of film theorists place emphasis on different elements that alters the seemingly simple understanding of the theory. It’s true that the concept of authorship is painfully dismissive of outside influences, but it also does encourage a more personal engagement between the creator of the text and the text itself. Its main fault is that it does not seem to be applicable to all members of the film industry. As Wollen points out, it hinges on the idea that the author in question has a body of work to examine. Needless to say, authorship is not without its problems, however the recognition of an author’s personal contribution and/or investment in film is an idea worth recognizing.
In understanding how film form and authorship function with or against each other, it’s crucial to understand that both schools of thought are somewhat flawed. This is not to dismiss their contributions, but to recognize that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe in just one or the other. Film form’s concern with genre as well as technique helps to flesh out how each play a role in the audience’s understanding. On the other hand, authorship is an accessible concept which seems more applicable today. It’s true that in adhering to a strict definition, it does not account for all factors, such as other’s involvement in an author’s vision, but it’s effort to contextualize a film as a piece of a puzzle is an important understanding. In the end, both serve a critical function in film theory, but are tailored for entirely different purposes. They examine films from different lens, which often produces different answers, but helps to establish a more rounded understanding of film theory in all its complexity.


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