Tuesday, 9 June 2009

On feminist theories of women's film authorship

I just 'self-archived' a pre-publication version of an article of mine finally published as '‘Secret Agents: Feminist Theories of Women’s Film Authorship’, Feminist Theory Vol. 2, No. 1, April 2001, pp. 113-130.

Below, I've pasted the introductory section of the article which contains a useful summary of early mainstream academic conceptualizations of film authorship. (To follow up on the bibliographical references given in the author-date format, click HERE and scroll down)

Authorial Directions
Virtually all feminist critics who argue in defence of female authorship as a useful and necessary category assume the political necessity for doing so. (Mayne, 1990: 97).

It’s already clear that the old categories and ways of thinking will not work well enough for us. (Rich, 1998: 83)

Unlike many other words referring to the activities of particular kinds of cultural producers (‘writer’, ‘painter’, ‘dramatist’), the term ‘author’ raises intrinsic questions about authority and about whether the individual is the source or the effect of that authority. Despite the deconstruction of traditional understandings of the ‘author-as-subject’, the ‘author-as-source-of-meaning’, and of individualist ideologies in general, especially during the latter part of the twentieth century (Barthes, 1968; Foucault, 1969), these kinds of questions concerning authorial authority, as well as the institution of authorship, have remained fairly central ones for feminists in theorizing and teaching about women’s activities in the field of cultural production, because of their connections with broader feminist debates about different kinds of subjectivity and agency under patriarchy (Miller, 1986; Watts, 1992). In this paper, I will present an overview of feminist theoretical debate, from the early 1970s to the present, on the subject of women’s film authorship. Given that my tour will be, of necessity, highly selective, I have opted to concentrate here on feminist theorizations of women’s agency in film authorship. While in early contributions to feminist film theory, this concept was frequently implied but did not always dare to speak its name openly, for reasons I shall go on to explore, more recent theoretical studies almost invariably reveal explicit explorations of agency and agent-hood. I will attempt to analyse these developments primarily by revisiting key overviews of this field, ones which not only recapitulated on the issues around film authorship but also attempted to move the debate on in new ways, an objective I share.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the benefits for feminist theory of asking authorial questions of women’s interventions into filmmaking have never seemed as self-evident as they have with literary authorship; nor have they proved quite as resistant to post-structural critique. By contrast with most literary and artistic endeavours, film production is, of course, usually understood to be collective, collaborative, even ‘industrial’, especially in its dominant commercial modes. By no means has it been taken for granted, then, that ‘authorship’ can or should be attributed to an analogous, solitary ‘artist-figure’ in the film production process (cf. Gaut, 1997). The routine ascription of ‘authoritative’ creative agency in filmmaking may actually vary between, or be shared among a number of potential ‘actors’ in the filmmaking process (for instance, the scriptwriter, the producer, the studio, or any star performers). Nonetheless, the idea or ‘function’ of the author (Foucault, 1969) has emerged and persisted as a discursive category in film culture largely in the person of the film director who, in conventional narrative cinema, normally ‘puts the script on film by co-ordinating the various aspects of the film medium’ (Bordwell and Thompson, 1993:13).

It is important to note that the birth of this idea of the director as film author, or auteur, has been traced back by most cultural historians to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and to the debates which took place in French, British and US film magazines about the relative artistic value of cinema, compared with the much longer-established arts. As John Caughie writes:

Within its distinguishable currents [...] auteurism shares certain basic assumptions: notably, that a film, though produced collectively, is most likely to be valuable when it is essentially the product of its director [...]; that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be an expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) of his films. (Caughie, 1981: 9)

This kind of voluntarist and Romantic understanding of the agency of film authorship as encapsulating the possibilities for expression of an (especially male) artist’s ‘personality’ was immediately co-opted by film commerce, for the purposes of which the name of the author came in the post-war period, outside and inside Hollywood, to ‘function as a “brand name”, a means of labelling and selling a film and of orienting expectations and channelling meaning and pleasure in the absence of generic boundaries and categories’ (Neale, 1981: 36). Yet, while commercial and socio-historical aspects of the emergence of the author-function in film have usually been set aside by film theorists, the formal or textual assumptions of early auteurism have continued to provide an important critical focus. From the 1950s onwards, academic and non-academic film studies often concentrated on expertly teasing out the putative traces of authorial subjectivity in film texts. In this way, an implied or imagined ‘textual’ author/director (Caughie, 1981, following Booth, 1961), gradually began to be foregrounded, often unconsciously or inadvertently, on the basis of ‘a textual indeterminacy which [took] shape in the reading [or critical] process’ (Stoddart, 1995: 47).

Although film critics have continued to use directors’ known biographies to produce authoritative interpretations or to detect consistent ‘signatures’ across a body of work, many post-1970s film theorists have been ‘at pains to distinguish cinema’s enunciating agency from the figure of the director or scriptwriter’ (Silverman, 1988: 11), as they took up the challenges set by anti-humanist critiques of the concept of authorial intentionality (following Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946). Structuralist film theorists ‘recast’ for their own purposes (Bordwell, 1985: 23) Benveniste’s (1971) linguistic theories of ‘enunciation’, thus evacuating cultural agency of individual human origins; it was the system which ‘spoke’, and not the author (Barthes, 1968; Metz, 1981). From the late 1970s onwards, post-structuralist film theory largely moved away from questions of directorial authorship to pay greater attention to other aspects of cinematic enunciation. In particular, it set about investigating ‘the way [the film text] says “you”’ (Casetti, 1998: 15), by focusing on the productivity of spectating, or film ‘reading’, an agency which provides the ‘one place where [textual] multiplicity is focused’ but, once again, usually to be examined ‘without history, biography, psychology’ (Barthes, 1968: 148).

The reason why I have felt it important to sketch out the development of mainstream academic conceptualizations of film authorship up to the 1980s is that these have been highly formative of key aspects of the feminist theoretical work which I shall now move on to examine in detail (for example, their routine conflation of, and sometimes confusion between ‘real’ and ‘implied’ directorial and spectatorial agencies in the processes of meaning production, as well as the preference for explorations of various kinds of authorial and spectatorial avatars in the film text). Until quite recently, as I shall attempt to show, feminists’ reluctance to move beyond the film text in their explorations of women’s authorial agency left many of them ill-equipped to answer convincingly at least one simple question: what exactly were the feminist objectives of studying women’s cinema within the conceptual frameworks they inherited?

[Article continues HERE.]

© Catherine Grant 2001

No comments: