What is the author? Faucalt explains that the name of the man, does not equate to the name of the author.

“To say that X’s real name is actually Jacques Durand instead of Pierre Dupont is not the same as saying that Stendhal’s name was Henri Beyle.” [1]

A distinction must be made between the man Henri Beyle, and his pen name Stendhal, with which his body of work is associated. We may know nothing of the man himself, and need not to for it to make a difference to our understanding or appreciation of his work. However we can construct an image of the “author”, a set of ideals and stylistics which are synonymous with, and indeed, defined by his writings.

“To say that Pierre Dupont does not exist is not at all the same as saying that Homer did not exist” [1]

Whether Homer was in fact one man, or one hundred different men bears no significance on the perception of his work. We understand each of his epics to belong under the same umbrella of work and attribute them all to the ‘idea’ of the author Homer.

It must be said then, that authorship is a social construct, derived from the perception and reflection of a piece of work in relation to other works. These ‘ideas’ have an authority and truth (at least true to themselves) which the spectator may use as a crutch with which to evaluate a piece of work. As Facault observes, Christians would traditionally try to “prove the value of a text by its author’s saintliness.” In the same way today a piece of writing may be accepted or rejected solely based on the reputation of the scientist/philosopher/politician who wrote it.

So it appears that authorship has an effect on our perception of a piece of work even before we have experienced it. Authorship creates an expectation of a piece of work, based on the author’s previous work. This expectation may be based around content, theme, style, effectiveness or even quality. The work will be judged and compared against the pre-existing “idea” of the author. It may be true to the idea and will be heralded, or it may not stand up to expectations and be rejected and deemed as the ‘exception’, or it may in fact totally change what the ‘idea’ of the author is.

“Authorship has therefore recently added the promise of certain spectatorial pleasures, the cachet of cultural respectability, or cult status to the labels which traditionally typified classical Hollywood’s promotion of its films – genre and star” [2]

With cinema, Stephen Croft notes, authorship has been used to sell a film to an audience -whether the authorship belongs to the director, writer or production company – more effectively than perhaps a leading role, or genre would. Not only will the name of the autuer carry a reassuring mark of quality to the film (or perhaps not!) but a guarantee of a familiarity, unique presence and personal stamp within the film itself. Many of us will have a favourite director and we will have developed a concept of what constitutes a Hitchcock film or a Speilberg film based on what we perceive to be the uniqueness or voice of their films. For example, a Tarantino film is often instantly visually recognisable due to its ultraviolent scenes, and use of the “trunk POV shot”.

A selection of films by the director David Lynch – Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Mullholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)  – were analysed to further examine examples of authorship in cinema. In all four films, we are presented with very strong imagery, very early on and often, initially making little sense.

In Blue Velvet we are presented with an idyllic suburban town, contrasted with close ups of insects in the ground, and a decaying human ear. (This later acts a metaphor for the seedy underground world happening amidst the picture-perfect town). Wild at Heart opens with a shockingly strong act of violence. Mullholland Drive opens with images of dancers, and a projection of Naomi Watt’s character bowing to a seemingly absent audience (which may be perceived to introduce the film’s themes of ambition, fantasy and the toils of Hollywood life). Inland Empire opens with disturbing images of human-like rabbits and a woman crying.

The juxtaposition between lighthearted, and dark, sinister scenes or images (at least in the first three mentioned films) draws the attention of the viewer to a particular scene or image and is often quite shocking. Lynch expertly plays with the audience’s senses whilst guiding us through a sea of ambiguous scenes and red herrings. It appears that he prefers the audience to be disorientated and constantly ‘one-step-behind’ and this, in turn, is what we have grown to expect.

While Barthes argues against the role of the author of a text [3], it is hard to ignore the influence the name of the director, writer or production company has on our expectation and evaluation of cinema (or the promoters who use it to sell to us!)

[1]   Michel Faucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Faucault Reader  (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 101-120.

[2]   Stephen Crofts, ‘Authorship and Hollywood’ in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds.) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (Oxford University Press, 1998) pp. 310-326.

[3]   Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Barthes’ Image, Music, Text, (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-148.


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