So far, I’ve outlined just a few of the ways that the auteur concept has come to dominate most conceptions of Hollywood filmmaking, whether historical, academic, popular, or otherwise. In doing so, I’ve described the “internal paradoxes and contradictions” of what I call the auteur paradigm, arguing that adherence to the paradigm amounts to “a massive disservice to our understanding not only of how filmmaking works, but also of the actual development and progression of film history.”
What I’d like to do in this entry is describe a counter-approach, a concept some scholars have taken to calling “multiple-authorship.” I don’t want to go into too much detail, or even build a sustained argument; rather I’ll just lay out what the term means to me and why I think it’s a vital new way to approach Hollywood filmmaking and Hollywood history. Having said that, I will provide a list of sources at the end of this entry that readers can turn to for more in-depth discussions of the concept.
Before getting to multiple-authorship, it’s worth saying a word or two about “collaboration.” Everybody knows that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor. This is especially true of the long-form narrative films that are Hollywood’s bread and butter (and which, to be honest, constitute the major output of most national film industries).* Even on the most minimal of potential productions, such films require directors and performers. Generally, however, productions also include writers, cinematographers, production designers, sound designers, editors, composers, special effects supervisors, and producers, plus all of the people who work together in each of those departments. Industry towns like Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Hong Kong team with filmmaking professionals who can fill each of these roles on a film set.
Nobody denies this. So to say that film is a collaborative art form is nothing new.
But while the auteur paradigm recognizes the collaborative nature of filmmaking, it insists on inscribing sole creative authority in the director. Simply put, according to auteurists, because the director “decides” what goes in and what gets cut, the director is responsible for the entirety of the film as a work of art – this is true even when the director “decides” to shoot everything in the script; or when the director “decides” to accept the cinematographer’s decisions about cameras, lighting set ups, or framing; or when a director “decides” to include an actor’s performance.
To recognize multiple-authorship is to take a different approach. While it still accepts that a director has a vital and distinct role to play in the making of a film (although that role might vary from one production to the next), it also posits that other members of the production might not only contribute to the making of a film, but be responsible for part of its artistry. The fingerprints of the filmmaking collective can be detected on the film, so therefore a number of them are responsible for it – a number of them are its artists.
Furthermore, certain crew members develop filmmaking approaches and styles of their own that are so recognizable that they can be detected across a body of work, regardless of which directors that person has worked with. Thus, as with the Cahiers du Cinema iteration of auteurism, their personal stamp can be detected on the films they helped make.
Let’s take a quick example. The cinematographer Gordon Willis rose to prominence in the 1970s as the “Prince of Darkness,” a filmmaker with an uncanny ability to devise, light, and shoot scenes in low, often natural light. His approach made massive contributions to the films he worked on. He had a whole other set of tools as well, from highly choreographed long takes, to the contrasting of his dark scenes with shots of crystalline brightness (compare the parking garage sequences and office sequences in All the President’s Men). He deployed these and other tools in such a way, that it is fairly easy to recognize his style on films directed by Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Pakula, or Woody Allen.
Take a look at these four shots. They all use low lighting that comes from source lights – lights that can be seen on screen, or detected just off screen. More importantly, the lighting provides key story and character elements.
In The Landlord, the red lighting conveys an intimacy between Elgar (Beau Bridges) and Fanny (Diana Sands). At the same time, the two bright lights that the characters have turned on mid-scene dampen that intimacy – they are about to have an illicit love affair, about which each is nervous. And Elgar’s positioning mid-frame, outlined by the sterile light of a bathroom mirror centralizes him within the sequence, echoing both his role as the film’s protagonist and his own egocentric approach to the African-American tenants living in his brownstone.
In Klute, the dim candlelight, also lit mid-sequence, works to convey just how isolated and alone Bree (Jane Fonda) feels in life.
In the famous opening scene of The Godfather (which also includes one of Willis’s most effective slow zooms), there is a wonderful interplay of darkness and light as the gulf between Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and undertaker Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) is revealed. The shadows underpin the dark dealings related to Bonasera’s request for justice for his daughter, and while Bonasera and Corleone seem to share the same light, there is actually a small swath of darkness separating them.
Manhattan returns in dramatic fashion to the lighting and framing of the above scene from The Landlord. Again, three lights create individual realms within the frame, with the sharp central light once more emanating from a bathroom. As with The Landlord, there’s a tension between the two characters’ intimacy and their separation. Willis is at the height of his powers here, and the use of black-and-white Panavision widescreen only intensifies the impact of the shot on the film’s narrative.
Much more could be said about each of these shots, the scenes from which they come, or the many other impacts that Willis’s work had on the films he shot (for more thoughts on Willis as an author, see this piece I wrote on his death in 2014). The points I’m trying to make here, though, are two: first, that Willis as a cinematographer has a recognizable style that can be detected across his body of films, regardless of which director he is working with. This is a key component of authorship. Remember, for both the original proponents of auteurism in Paris as well as the adherents who picked up, developed, and refined the paradigm, a recognizable style across a body of work was a key – if not the key – mark of distinction between an auteur and a metteur-en-scène.
Second, Willis’s work is more than just window dressing with pretty pictures. It provides vital narrative and character information, thus enhancing the films’ narrative and their themes, and, therefore, their potential meanings.
This, then, is the point of multiple-authorship: a recognition that a film is not only, as a product, a result of collaboration, but is, as a work of art, a result of several artists, working in conjunction to create something that none of them could have achieved alone. Quite simply, The Godfather as we know it would not exist without Gordon Willis. Nor without production designer Dean Tavoularis,** producer Robert Evans, composer Nino Rota, the cast, and a host of other creative talent. Insisting that the director is the sole author – as film scholars and critics tend to do – marginalizes the artistry and ingenuity of hundreds of artists throughout film history and today.
One of the difficulties of this approach is that it can be tremendously challenging to discern exactly who made particular decisions on a set or how much latitude any given crewmember was given to execute his or her vision. This is where empirical research comes in. With the rapid growth of film archives, it is becoming a good deal easier than it has been in the past to get a fuller sense of just how those decisions were made. And a combination of archival and other empirical research performed in conjunction with close formal analysis can provide researchers with a sound base for understanding who decided what on any given film production.
It’s important to recognize that the recipe for multiple-authorship varies from one film production to the next, even when overlapping groups of individuals are involved in different films. Some directors take a hands-off approach to certain departments, while paying strict attention to detail in others. Others maintain a firm hand of control across all departments, while still others are willing to let nearly all their crew make their own decisions (Philip Cowan’s consideration of the many possible iterations of the director-cinematographer relationship is incredibly helpful, see below).
a crewmember who proposes a technique that adds to the film’s meaning will have participated in the cooperative activity of developing the film’s meaning
On the other hand, Paisley Livingston recognizes that collaboration plays a vital role in the production of a film, and that crew members other than the director do contribute to a film’s artistry. However, he argues, “the word ‘author’ is aptly applied to a person who has played the role of the dominant coordinating collaborator in the creation of the work,” which is inevitably the director (Bergman 77). As a result, while Livingston writes convincingly about performance and cinematography, his instinct is to argue that after collaboration is complete, the role of the author is reinscribed in the director alone (he also has some fascinating things to say about the context of “coercion and control” that pervades a movie set and that context’s influence on questions of authorship).
It’s probably clear by now that my approach is more aligned with Sellors. I’ve been told on numerous occasions – by senior colleagues, by conference attendees – that this is approach is naïve – “that’s all well and good,” somebody once told me, “and it makes sense. But still . . . Hitchcock is an auteur. Kubrick is an auteur. You get that, right?” I’ve also been told that this approach will “kill film studies” – literally. The argument was that students can only learn to understand and appreciate the filmmaking process if they have singular figures to which they can ascribe their learning. Seriously.
the word ‘author’ is aptly applied to a person who has played the role of the dominant coordinating collaborator in the creation of the work
And, in the case of my current project on women in 1970s Hollywood, it provides a context for understanding and evaluating the massive artistic and technical contributions that women made to New Hollywood, the ways that they shaped the filmmaking strategies of one of cinema’s most exciting time periods, the ways that they authored an era.
*There is certainly a tradition of single filmmakers performing every role in the making of their films, but this tradition falls far outside the history of long-form narrative filmmaking that I’m talking about here.
**There is fascinating work to be done on the relationship between cinematographers and production designers in film production and authorship.
These are only a few of the recent texts on multiple-authorship, but some that I’ve found incredibly informative. For context, I’ve tried to include a few texts that grapple with the issue, but come down more on the side of collaborative auteurism than I do. The two Carringer texts are fascinating in that in Citizen Kane, he comes across as a proponent of multiple-authorship much in the style of Sellors or myself. Whereas, in the “Collaboration” essay (on Hitchcock) from a few years later, he seems to have moved closer to a conception akin to Paisley’s, and even to mock multiple-authorship. The McConkey interview is a fascinating discussion with a practicioner – in this case a Steadicam operator – and his insight into the process of filming a famous auteurist scene with multiple actual authors. Finally, I include my own book because Chapter 5 includes an extended analysis of Being There by means of multiple-authorship.
Bacharach, Sondra and Deborah Tollefsen. “‘We’ Did It: From Mere Contributors to Coauthors.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68 no. 1 (2010): 23-32.
Baron, Cynthia and Sharon Marie Carnicke. Reframing Screen Performance. AnnArbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Carringer, Robert L. The Making of Citizen Kane. Revised Edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.
Carringer, Robert L. “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship.” PMLA 16 no. 2 (2001): 370-379.
Cowan, Philip. “Underexposed: The Neglected Art of the Cinematographer,” Journal of Media Practice 13 no. 1 (2012): 75-96.
Hunter, Aaron. Authoring Hal Ashby: The Myth of the New Hollywood Auteur. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Livingston, Paisley. “Cinematic Authorship.” In Film Theory and Philosophy, edited by Richard Allen and Murray Smith, 132-148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Livingston, Paisley. Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
Lovell, Alan and Gianluca Sergi. Making Films in Contemporary Hollywood. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005.
McConkey, Larry. “Steadicam Operator Larry McConkey on Filming the Goodfellas Copacabana Tracking Shot and the Early Days of Steadicam.” By Matt Mulcahey. Filmmaker, April 23, 2015.
Sellors, C. Paul. “Collective Authorship in Film.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 no. 3 (2007): 263-271.
Sellors, C. Paul. Film Authorship: Auteurs and Other Myths. London: Wallflower, 2010.
Stillinger, Jack. Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius . New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Uidhir, Christy Mag. “Minimal Authorship (of sorts).” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 154 no. 3 (2011): 373-387.