• Laura Mayne

Film Authorship: Sky Gods with Beards

In a seminar on film authorship many (too many) years ago, a fellow student turned to me and said, in a tone that was almost reverent: "The director is God." At the time I didn't respond, partly because the sheer magnitude of chauvinistic assumption this comment implied had left me temporarily speechless, and partly because I was new to Film Studies and I lacked the ability to articulate why I found this idea so unsettling. If I had the ability to travel back in time and respond to this student from my current intellectual vantage point, I might talk about film as a collaborative process, and I might talk about the above-the-line creativity we value versus the below-the-line creativity we ignore. Certainly, I would talk about the disciplinary turn in Film Studies that imbued scholars with the (almost moral) responsibility to challenge the Romantic view of individual authorship as the most sublime form of creativity. I would encourage him to undergo the rite of passage that all film students must experience at some point in their studies, and begin the messy work of unravelling the gnarly, inherited corpus of dogmatic ideologies that have supported this view of authorship for so long.

Today, I am woman enough to admit that I might be wrong. I am not willing to consider the idea that ‘the director is God’, but leaving this student and his unexamined sexism to one side for a moment, I’m at least willing to consider the word ‘auteur’ alongside the word ‘God’ and to meditate on the differences and similarities between these words and the multifaceted meanings they connote.

Many atheists read 'God' as a finite concept that stymies critical thought and closes down rational inquiry. Through 'God', the mysteries of the universe can be revealed and understood: we didn't just come into being through some random, beautiful assemblage of particles that happened to be situated in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Through 'God' the universe can be explained, and in the most mundane way possible. One man was responsible for the whole thing (and in our collective imaginations, that man is probably sporting a beard. A splendid, bushy beard.).

For a non-atheist, 'God' might have many meanings. 'God' may be polytheistic, theistic or deistic, but they/it are always polysemic. There might be many facets of one God. God might exist in the imagination as an anthropomorphised being, or perhaps as a more humanistic God who resides in all things and is agendered, ahuman and infinite. For an atheist, 'God' jettisons the need for the Grand Unified Theory of everything that Einstein (who favoured a moustache over a beard) was developing prior to his death, and that some physicists are still working determinedly toward. For atheists, 'God' is often anti-empirical, anti-complexity, anti-rational, and anti-science.

In Film Studies, the decades-long trend toward de-centring the auteur in the canon of scholarship has been immensely valuable for the spiritual and ethical journey of the discipline. But we should think about how we often read the concept of 'auteur' in a way that is similar to how atheists read the concept of 'God'. We may think of 'auteurism' as an approach that threatens to unify the discipline under some grand delusion that obscures cinema as a complex industrial product. Auterism smacks of something simplistic that explains cinema without the need for the decades-long work of the pragmatic empiricist. Our instinct is to resist such explanations for the obvious reason that, well, they are really dumb. We also read an auteurist approach that deifies the creative labour of one individual as harmfully chauvinistic, because it is an unfortunate consequence of systemic inequality that the auteur under discussion is usually a man (presence or lack of beard may vary).

But it is possible that 'auteur' is also polysemic, and it is possible that we have done enough, through our collective inter-disciplinary efforts, to move toward a more secular Film Studies. Today, auteur approaches exist as one sub-disciplinary method among many, and perhaps we miss a trick by laughing at the auteurists and poking fun at their sky-god delusion. While a director's name may call to mind an image of one individual, often a man and less often a woman, a director's name can also function as a metonym that is symbolic of the many particles which coalesced to form one collaborative vision with a distinctive aesthetic identity. When non-atheists say 'God' and atheists hear 'man with beard', perhaps the atheists are the ones who are seeking to avoid sustained critical engagement. And when an auteurist says 'the director intended...' and we say 'Christ, not this again', perhaps we are, too.

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