From the 1950s onwards, academic and non-academic film studies often concentrated on expertly teasing out the putative traces of authorial subjectivity in film texts.In this way, an implied or imagined ‘textual’ author/director (Caughie, 1981, following Booth, 1961), gradually began to be foregrounded, often unconsciously or inadvertently, on the basis of ‘a textual indeterminacy which [took] shape in the reading [or critical] process’ (Stoddart, 1995: 47).By no means has it been taken for granted, then, that ‘authorship’ can or should be attributed to an analogous, solitary ‘artist-figure’ in the film production process (cf. The routine ascription of ‘authoritative’ creative agency in filmmaking may actually vary between, or be shared among a number of potential ‘actors’ in the filmmaking process (for instance, the scriptwriter, the producer, the studio, or any star performers).
Although film critics have continued to use directors’ known biographies to produce authoritative interpretations or to detect consistent ‘signatures’ across a body of work, many post-1970s film theorists have been ‘at pains to distinguish cinema’s enunciating agency from the figure of the director or scriptwriter’ (Silverman, 1988: 11), as they took up the challenges set by anti-humanist critiques of the concept of authorial intentionality (following Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946).
Structuralist film theorists ‘recast’ for their own purposes (Bordwell, 1985: 23) Benveniste’s (1971) linguistic theories of ‘enunciation’, thus evacuating cultural agency of individual human origins; it was the system which ‘spoke’, and not the author (Barthes, 1968; Metz, 1981).
Nonetheless, her ‘rupture thesis’ (Bergstrom, 1988: 81) was enabled by another original aspect of her approach, one which lent her work at least the potential to deal close up with the specificity of the medium of film.
Instead of dismissing the concept of auteurism, as other feminist theorists had, on the grounds of its sexist cult of the male personality, Johnston warmly embraced it (or at least a particular version of it ) for its interpretative potential: Further elaborations of the auteur theory […] have stressed the use of the theory to delineate the unconscious structure of the film.
While in early contributions to feminist film theory, this concept was frequently implied but did not always dare to speak its name openly, for reasons I shall go on to explore, more recent theoretical studies almost invariably reveal explicit explorations of agency and agent-hood.
I will attempt to analyse these developments primarily by revisiting key overviews of this field, ones which not only recapitulated on the issues around film authorship but also attempted to move the debate on in new ways, an objective I share.
As Peter Wollen says, ‘the structure is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of artist, expressing himself or his vision in film, but it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded in the film, usually to the surprise of the individual concerned’.
In this way, Wollen disengages both from the notion of creativity which dominates the notion of ‘art’ and from the idea of intentionality.
(Johnston, 1973: 27, citing Wollen, 1972) What Johnston cannot explain, as Helen Stoddart asks of Wollen’s original conceptualization of the director as ‘a neutral agent (rather than agency), through which wider social meanings are simply refracted’, is why should it be that the director ‘remains the chosen [unconscious] catalyst figure’, rather than the other component parts of any film’s production (Stoddart, 1995: 47)?
Furthermore, Wollen’s phrase ‘the force of the author’s preoccupations’, to which Johnston returns on a number of occasions, is an interesting one for a feminist to deploy when it refers only to preoccupations generated by ‘psychoanalytic history’.