Possessory Credit

By Martin, Adrian | Framework, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Possessory Credit


Martin, Adrian, Framework


From one, commonsense angle, the idea of "Looking for the Auteur" is a little zany-because you don't have to look very far. Catherine Breillat, Stan Brakhage, Miike Takashi, all present and honored here at the 2002 International Film Festival Rotterdam-whether art or commercial or experimental cinema, we know from any two successive works by these people that their films express their concerns and obsessions, their rhythms and visions, in short their very selves. Despite the industrial challenges posed around the world in recent times (by screenwriters in particular), we all still believe those powerful words "a film by . . .," known in industry jargon as the "possessory credit."

The original question of auteurism fifty years ago-which was, basically, whether filmmakers could be considered on the same level as writers, painters, or musicians, able to create their own recognizable, distinct styles or idioms-is, I believe, no longer an important or pressing issue. That particular battle was won a long time ago. Popular culture now teaches us from a very early age that, for instance, Steven Spielberg is an auteur (he knows it too-declaring, in a paid, full-page Variety tribute, "I dream for a living"). So this is the era of the auteur as commodity, as brand name.

Yet, if we are "looking for the auteur," that must be because we have some niggling feeling that the figure or idea of the film author is somehow, today, being obscured. In fact, I will go much further: I think that some of us actually want the politique des auteurs of our time to be an unclear, difficult proposition. Although it may be psychologically traumatic for some directors to have to encounter the thought that they are not the center of the universe, I feel that many of us-as viewers, cinephiles, or critics-are experiencing a curious and paradoxical love-hate relation toward the conventional idea of authorship. The rise of the director as superstar, as media celebrity-the personality who offers pronouncements not only on his or her own work but also history, politics, culture, life-is an increasingly irritating phenomenon, even when the auteur in question is Jean-Luc Godard. To the auteur-as-commodity we are effectively saying: get lost, we can get by without you. But what will take its place, what new, useful way can we think of the author in cinema-since directors will no doubt keep making films in which they invest their deepest selves?

As a reader of film criticism and theory, I see signs of the growing ambivalence toward the auteur everywhere. For example, Tom Gunning presents Fritz Lang (in The Films of Fritz Long: Allegories of Vision and Modernity) as an auteur who forever spins symbolic tales of the destruction of his own identity within the sinister machines of industrial culture. Timothy Corrigan, in his important 1991 book A Cinema without Walls, calls Raul Ruiz . the "fatherless ghost" among auteurs, someone who has no self to begin with, only a patchwork of languages and styles, references, and postures wildly borrowed from all over global culture. And most strikingly there is the ongoing case of Lars von Trier, about whom I have yet to read a single piece which does not agonize over whether he is a real or fake auteur-a trickster who possibly cons us, laughing as he climbs the ladder of auteur success from Cannes to the Oscars.

Ultimately, I suspect that the doubt implicit in "looking for the auteur" is symptomatic of a larger shift or problem in global film culture. To put it simply, when world cinema is in a phase of relative confidence and stability, the auteur is our friend, our crutch, the person who's "nice to come home to." When world cinema is in a flux, when it's changing, when our previous ideas of it are under siege and also in the process of mutating, then the auteur becomes obscured, lost, uncertain, put into question. And I hasten to add that what I'm describing is not a "crisis" in the negative sense-not a disaster that should prompt nostalgia for the good old, heroic days of auteurism-but rather an "emergency" in the most positive sense: literally, a dynamic state from which something new is emerging. …

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