Authorship Studies and Gus Van Sant

By Staiger, Janet | Film Criticism, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Authorship Studies and Gus Van Sant


Staiger, Janet, Film Criticism


Theorizing authorship seems back on the agenda. Within the past five years, two journal issues and three new collections of essays have been devoted to the matter (Iris, Screening the Past, Braddock and Hock, Gerstner and Staiger, Wexman). David Gerstner and I point to three reasons for this return: authorship remains an enabling tool for discussing sources of features in a film; individuals do act in manners we label as authoring; and agency has special political significance for minorities. (1) Indeed, in an often quoted passage, Nancy Hartstock laments in 1987: "Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?" (163). Hartstock goes on to suggest that this is not a coincidence, but it also is not a conspiracy. Indeed, ten years earlier, Pam Cook makes the same point about the significance of self-expression to feminism and avant-garde filmmakers (272). So even as people are misreading Roland Barthes's 1968 essay "The Death of the Author" to mean that producers of texts do not count, when his point is to give power to the reader but not to write off authoring acts, feminists and other groups face the task of understanding agency in a poststructural era.

This task has occupied scholars for at least thirty years now. Some headway has occurred in the past ten years through applying the work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and others to authorship as a mode of self-fashioning. (2) By conceptualizing authoring as a technique of the self, as a citational practice, an individual person "authors" by duplicating recipes and exercises of authorship within a cultural and institutional context that understands such acts as agency and repetition of such acts as signs of individuality. Moreover, acts that differ from dominant expressions may become favored performatives of authorship for minorities because they distinguish the speakers' expression from other dominant authoring expressions. While avoiding essentialism of identity or fixing an individual into only one sort of authoring subject is crucial, still this approach to authorship has great potential to acknowledge the social, cultural, and discursive restraints on the individual subject while granting limited agency through speech acts which do have effects of producing statements our culture recognizes as authorship. Thus, this approach to authorship has potential political efficacy for minorities struggling for expression as subjects.

In this essay, I wish to focus on what scholars have stated is evidence of authorship by minorities and then to consider the authoring practices of Gus Van Sant in relation to those perceived authorship tactics. As I shall argue, Van Sant is a useful case to consider because he is publicly ambivalent as to what his status is as an individual author. While openly out as a homosexual, Van Sant has made contradictory statements about the degree to which his homosexuality matters in his authoring. Additionally, while any minority may use certain tactics to express minority identity/ies, no reason exists why a minority would necessarily employ every tactic that scholars have associated with minority authors. The value, however, of the schematic that I shall set out is to summarize the tactics hypothesized for minority authorship before considering to what degree, and where, Van Sant opts to use such recipes for his authorship. Such an adherence to or deviance from possible tactics tells us something about an individual's favored authoring practices, becoming one more marker of agency in expression.

Tactics of Minority Authorship

   If you are going somewhere, remember to leave your intentions
   On the card: remember the Marne, remember your Alma Mater.

   --Parker Tyler

In reviewing scholarly assessments of minority authorship, I have found six tactics researchers have argued to be evidence of minority authorship (obviously, others may exist). …

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