The Eye/I of the Auteur
The Eye/I of the Auteur
Abstract and Keywords
A brief conclusion that goes back over the major points of the study’s discussions and thinks about the implications of digital filmmaking. In the end, the imagined relationship between the spectator and the director is brought to the fore as the most significant moment in self-projection.
Persona ’s NARRATIVE, to the extent the film has a comprehensible story, deals with the difficulty of assembling and upholding a coherent personhood, or, to return to neurophilosophical terminology, a coherent self-model. Two women are placed in a kind of (metaphorical) isolation chamber in which one speaks and the other does not, in which the pressure on their relationship builds until it seems that one of them loses her anchor to her self-model, loses the ability to distinguish herself from the other. The confusion she experiences recalls the confusion of the subject in the rubber hand experiment who confuses his or her hand with the false imitation. The assemblage of the fragmentary images and sequences of Persona’s cryptic opening is rhymed with the stressed subject’s frantic struggle to reassemble her confused and fragmented selfhood, which finds expression in the film once again in image: the monstrous image of the conjoined faces of the two women. In the end the film returns to the dark projector space that opened the film. All of this—the fragments at the beginning, the women’s relationship, the breakdown of selfhood and meaning—are part of a projection, which on the surface seems to be purely mechanical and disembodied, but is presented to the viewer implicitly as organized through the artistic vision of Bergman, whose name is on the credits: En film av Ingmar Bergman (A Film by Ingmar Bergman). In this way, the shards of image and language and split selves are reassembled under the sign of the auteur, and the frightening thoughts and feelings brought into play through the exposure of the self-model’s fragility can find a resolution—albeit a not particularly reassuring resolution—through the auteur’s autograph.
The art-film auteur, like the self, is a fictional assemblage, a cast of characters, a viewership, and a sometimes massive apparatus, both technological and economic, subsumed under an individual’s name. And yet at the same time, the author is a living person, or a person who once lived. The politique des auteurs championed by the writers of the Cahiers du cinéma was intended to rewrite film history and film aesthetics, but as it turns out, the construct has performed a broader and more essential task; authorship in art cinema has allowed for new ways to consider and represent the evolving nature of selfhood, and to assert the existence of a self. Drawing on the evidentiary power of analog photography (representations of something that has been there, as Barthes puts it), auteurist film makes claims about the relationship between representation and life, and, in particular, the relationship between a film and the person who envisioned it.
Self-projection, as I have traced it in the chapters of this study, involves the assertion of a presence: the presence of the director, the auteur, who is identified as the source of the vision on the screen. Through autobiographical references, through the presence of the director as actor, through references to the act of direction, through the creation (p.177) of actor/avatars who are linked intimately to the “real person” of the auteur, and through representations of the cinematic apparatus that indicate the presence of a creator, the auteur makes his or her presence as a living person and agent known. But I have also indicated the ways in which this continuous assertion of presence or control betrays the dissolution or reconfiguration of selfhood. The auteur depends upon the apparatus and the actor to participate in the projection of his or her personal vision; the representation of the cinematic apparatus connotes both presence (of a hidden creator) and absence (the creator is invisible). If the auteur brings the dead to life by setting still images in motion, brings the self to life in order to achieve contact with the imagined viewer, it is all accomplished through illusion. At the end of Persona, the last bit of film clatters through the projector, and darkness falls.
The end of the reel of film can stand for much more than the end of a single film or a single showing. For we have entered a new era of interface between self-representation and visual narrative: the postcinematic age.1 With the development of digital technology, the strong link between real persons, their bodies, and screen presence has been at the least called into question, and this would seem to indicate the death of the auteur. For instance, in an article on the digital video-game “star” Lara Croft, Mary Flanagan writes, “A review of [digital stars] will help us understand how and why the cinematic star as a culturally produced body has evolved into a digital star system in which signifiers, identities, and bodies themselves are called into question” (78). Flanagan wants to emphasize the participation of the spectator in video-gaming: “More than the indulgence of looking in at these stars within filmic worlds, we now embrace the very real pleasure of controlling these desired bodies…. The subject, object, audience, director, viewer, participant, creator, and user tangle and double over; these roles blur into a new phenomenon that refuses to take on a shape.”2
But to counter the idea of an absolute divide between the cinematic and the postcinematic, one might first raise the objection that the “control” one imagines as video-game player is more than a little circumscribed and illusory. And second, my reader will note that although it is more difficult to make the argument of spectator control in the case of film, I have indeed proposed that auteurist film already blurs the roles of subject and object, audience, director and viewer. The spectator-empowerment formed through digital technology that creates the bond between spectator and screened figure is a kind of reversal of the (p.178) authorial empowerment that occurs through the auteur-machine, but in both cases there is a gesture toward entering into and identifying with the figures on the screen. In both cases there is a sense of a self “out there” as well as “in here,” anchored in the body. In both cases there is an extension of the body’s power to see, to move, and to feel. Postcinematic (that is, digital) auteurist film in essence merely asks implicitly that the spectator bracket the nonanalog nature of digital visual representation. We are not supposed to be aware that the images on the screen are not shadows or reflections of bodies, but rather a complex code of zeroes and ones, so that it is not necessarily the case that there was ever anything there. In watching postcinematic, digital auteurist films, we are asked to continue believing in the necessity for a physical presence behind the represented bodies, the necessity for the auteur.
In this study, for instance, we can think of Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, which depends on digital effects for the melodramatic moments when his figures seem to walk into a text (the film’s story) and when a boy’s face, projected in close-up, splits in two along a line of blood that drips down his forehead. Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All revels in the gimmick of Automovision, an eccentric deployment of digital camerawork. But in neither of these two cases, I would argue, does the interjection of postcinematic technology take away from the auteurist presence. On the contrary, The Boss of It All makes light of the idea that a digital camera could “take over.” The auteur is still firmly in place at film’s end: von Trier’s voice has the last word on the soundtrack.
So the auteur, unlike the medium that produced and was produced by the auteur, is not dead. The proliferation of DVDs and the home cinematic culture they promote has also to a significant degree underscored the importance of the auteur, by including such features as “director’s cut” and “director’s commentary,” and short films of the auteur at work. Clearly these DVD features are elaborations of the “making-of ” films I discussed earlier in this study; the difference is that the “making-of ” feature, along with auteurist or critical commentary, accompany the feature in the same package. As Barbara Klinger and others have noted, the proliferation of DVD home-viewing culture has led to a new wave of cinephilia, and thus a new wave of interest in the auteur.3 The Criterion series, which enshrines art films in DVD format, underscores the primary importance of the director by organizing its library by auteur and boxing sets of the works of particularly (p.179) prominent directors. Based on analog originals, these editions nevertheless employ digital technologies in ways that allow for “remastering” both image and sound, a loaded term that has economic as well as aesthetic and ontological implications. The “master” is supposedly the original analog version of a recording, but it seems that an argument is made that the “mastering” (or overcoming) of the master occurs in the digitization process, which could in this sense be perceived as one of the many threats to an auteur’s ultimate control (or mastery) of the text.
Scholars who deal with the idea of the auteur in the digital age often turn toward discussions of the economic significance of auteurism, and identify the auteur as a commodity (Corrigan, Grant). And this, too, would suggest an undermining of the auteur’s mastery of his or her work, since the ultimate control then rests in the hands (or pockets) of the distributor. But while I find these economic arguments convincing on one level, the idea of the auteur as commodity does not really challenge the idea of auteur as person. It only extends the idea of personhood into the sphere of economy, in which all of us ultimately reside. And the currency of the auteur is in part dependent on the idea of the currency of personhood. As we move into the postcinematic, digital age, one of the developments in spectatorship has the potential to create a more intimate link between auteur and viewer: the personal or home theater. Rather than sitting in a theater among strangers, the viewer of a DVD or streaming video sits in his or her own domestic space or in front of his or her own computer or personal viewing device. With controls at hand, the personal viewer can start or stop action, speed it up or slow it down, at will. In addition to the commentary available on many DVDs, the viewer can, in conversation with the other spectators in this private space, add his or her own commentary to the action in a way that would not be acceptable in most public theaters. When one considers the interpretive difficulties inherent in a film like Persona, for instance, it is easy to see that the experience of viewing the film in a theater space makes demands on the viewer’s perception and understanding that can be alleviated through the power to stop the film, go back, see a sequence again, ask questions of one’s fellow viewers, consult the Internet or extra DVD features, and so on.
One might imagine that this domestic form of film spectatorship offers yet another example of the auteur’s loss of control and presence in the postcinematic age. And certainly it is true that the viewer’s increased power has the potential to interrupt narrative flow and focus (p.180) attention in ways that would be difficult for an auteur to anticipate, particularly an auteur like Tarkovsky, who worked exclusively in the pre-DVD era. But another odd effect takes place: a more interlocutory and intimate relationship can begin to take shape between auteur and spectator, something that represents an intensification of what auteurism seems to propose in the first place. To illustrate this I will return to D. A. Miller’s article “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures.”4 The point is that for Miller, Hitchcock’s “hidden pictures” are hidden only from those viewers who do not know Hitchcock as Miller does. The joy taken by a viewer like Miller in recognizing the “secrets” scattered throughout the film by the auteur accentuates a relationship of common knowledge between the special viewer and the auteur. But Miller takes this a step further. Sitting at home, one-on-one with the film, he experiences the film as speaking to him very particularly. The film’s soundtrack plays “Baby Face,” a song Miller knows, so he sings along, providing some of the missing words. And it happens as he sings that the action on the screen matches the missing words he has supplied: a boatman gives someone a shove with his oar. Miller is thunderstruck: “I fell into my discovery by accident, but like all accidents this one had no sooner befallen me than it acquired the fatedness of a thing waiting to happen. The coincidence of word and image—the whole concatenation of associations—all seemed far too exact not to have been designed by Hitchcock, planted there like a land mine to lie inert and invisible until either it self-destructed with the last surviving copy of Strangers on a Train or someone should trip over it and explode it into visibility—someone who bore the name Miller, knew the lyrics to ‘Baby Face,’ had fallen into a daze, or enjoyed some other nonce qualification” (124). Miller goes on to label his variant of film viewing as “Too Close Reading,” but he attributes the impetus for his “too close reading” to Hitchcock’s films. And so here the auteur enters the comfort of the viewer’s own home and demands the cooperation of the viewer in constructing the film text. In a kind of daze, Miller supplies the missing words to the song, which are then enacted on the screen, as if there were a causeand-effect relationship. In this instance, the spectator who “knows” the auteur feels invited to a dance, in which they will be partnered, for the auteur must know him as well, know that there is someone out there who will know the words to “Baby Face.”
The self-projection of the auteur depends on the viewer’s belief in the auteur’s presence, but also, then, on the viewer’s willingness to (p.181) project him or herself into the action on the screen. The viewer’s knowledge of the auteur, whether through the auteur’s works or the great cinematic paratext, is a prerequisite for auteurist self-projection. “Without you, no I,” as Bergman writes. Which begs the question of what a “you” or an “I” might be. Perhaps the belief in the auteur persists so doggedly from one technology to the next because the belief in the self depends upon it. But auteurist cinema also helps us explore the changing face of selfhood, the ways in which selfhood is constructed and contingent and mediated and collaborative, not coextensive merely with a single body, or even with a single lifetime. (p.182)