Home > Theory/Essays > Strengths and Weaknesses of the Auteur-Structuralist Theory of Film Authorship. With Application to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Auteur-Structuralist Theory of Film Authorship. With Application to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.

A massive proliferation in film theory, and the way people think about film in general, occurred after the momentous event when the Cahiers Du Cinema critics developed politique des auteurs. It was Francois Truffaut, a young radical French critic taken under the wing of Andre Bazin, the extremely influential magazine editor, that first coined the term and championed American directors such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as being true artists among the seemingly commercial capitalist Hollywood studio system. The Politique, later thought of as a theory by American film theorist Andrew Sarris in an article in Film Culture1, was incredibly polemic as it put the director above any other role in film. So much so that they were prepared to factor out every complex issue surrounding genre and inherited narrative that Hollywood is considered so great because of. The theory was far too extreme and completely overshadowed these complexities which is why English critics retorted with an updated modified version of the auteur theory, aptly named auteur-structuralism. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith of Movie Magazine looked to Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist who studied primitive myths in ancient human cultures and subsequently a central figure in structuralism, a theory that explores the deep inherited narratives that are hidden among layers and layers of film codes and conventions but at the same time ignores, or rather rejects the notion of the individual voice of a director. Nowell-Smith saw something in this so with his fellow Movie Magazine writers, Peter Wollen to name another key figure, developed this into a much more balanced account of authorship rather than the classical, much romanticised notion of authorship that originated in Paris around 1954. The modified theory factored in Hollywoods use of genre languages and inherited narrative structures, and of course interfering studio powers, arguing that detecting a directors use of these genre codes and conventions and use of themes and structures, either consciously or subconsciously, gives a far deeper analysis of authorship. Mise-en-scene and the personal signature was still acknowledged as being an integral part to discovering authors inside the Hollywood studio system but they focused their attentions on the more revealing underbelly of the films subconscious where they would look for a sign of the individual directors style.

Hollywood is a cinema that is based upon codes and conventions, a set of standardised techniques under given genres to tell stories. Taking this preconception we can assume that ‘the personal’ (as many french critics strived for) is fairly well hidden, and in many cases it is. Producers and the studio system downplayed the role of the director opting for a cinema of stars, almost becoming brand names to sell to the populace. This is where the the original strain of auteurism came from. It was so powerful that the directors that worked within these tight studio systems were lifted above and beyond the studios themselves. It would no longer be ‘a film starring John Wayne’ it would be ‘a John Ford film’, or in better terms the film was seen as a personal expression of the so called auteur (excuse the example but it gives a sense of how powerful this new way of thinking was). But as was touched upon in the introduction, this was extremely narrow, any hint of genre or even other controlling powers over the production was ignored. Wollen explains “Auteur theory cannot simply be applied indiscriminately.. It does no more than provide one way of decoding a film, by specifying what its mechanics are at one level”2. Then what other levels can be decoded to display a further understanding of authorship other than simply mise-en-scene and micro-analysis. Wollen argues that Hollywood is unlike any European art cinema in that art films have always been about the personal expression of the individual. The writer, director, producer and such roles would often be the same person thus creating a truly personal cinema. He saw auteurism, not as a substitute to allow this traditional conception of art into Hollywood, but as “network of different statements, crossing and contradicting each other, elaborated into the final ‘coherent’ version”3. He saw that filmmaking, at least in Hollywood, was a collaborative medium and didn’t deny the other influences on the product other than those of the directors. These ‘structures’, as he called them, was key to exposing the film’s ‘unconscious’. Once these structures were picked out and analysed it gave a much more personal account of the subconscious of the director, which the auteur-structuralists saw as an extension of the films subconscious and vice versa. “The structure is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of artist.. but because it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious unintended meaning can be decoded in the film”4. The various tensions during the production is what they were interested in, it is through this that the director can produce some of his best work. The pressures and issues put on them from the studio or producers can spark infinite amounts of creativity within the mind of a great director. It is when the director has complete control over his work that the process becomes stale, they have no restrictions causing a great sense of overindulgence which runs the risk of alienating the audience, just look at Donovan’s Reef (John Ford, 1963). Described by associated writer of Movie Robin Wood, “I find it much harder to discuss Donovan’s Reef […] this is because I find both films so weak that I can’t imagine what serious case could be argued in their defence”5.

This modified approach to the auteur theory could be seen as ignoring or possibly discarding the ingenuity of some directors famed by the Cahiers critics, and of Sarris’ “pantheon”6, and just focussing on the structures below the films surface. But in comparison to the ‘romantic’ view of the artist which the classical auteur theory championed, that the author is key in putting meaning into text, seems plain ignorant. The structuralist stand acknowledges that there are incredibly talented and individualistic directors working within Hollywood but the amount of influence that is placed upon them from other areas of production is too great for their work to be considered a personal vision. To combine the two theories for just an instant is to say that these auteurs should be judged upon how much control they have over the other governing forces. David Fincher for example, his first feature film, Alien3(David Fincher, 1992). He was bought in very late to the production, the script had been constantly changing and hadn’t even been finished by the time they started shooting, there was disputes over almost every level of production, so according to the classical theory of authorship Fincher wouldn’t have been considered to rise to the level of the acclaimed auteur as did many before him. Yet the film displays early thematic similarities to the films that followed under ‘Fincher’ as a structure; very bleak, existential and generally displaying the darker aspects of human experience. Using this example, it’s quite clear that the politique des auteurs was missing a very key element which is what the updated version tried to factor in.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith more or less sums up the structuralist view point with this brief statement, “the defining characteristics of an authors work are not those that are most readily available”7 before moving onto, “The purpose of criticism becomes to uncover [...] (a) hard core of basic and often recondite motifs”8. Charles Eckert’s study on Nowell-Smith reveals an opening for criticism, he notes that a director, like any other human being, can go through a noticeable psychological change. It’s hard to see past this comment as, generally speaking, there is around a 2-3 year gap between most directors output. Personal troubles and other life influences can be at play in the directors psyche and according to auteur-structuralism, possibly at an extremely deep level (or similarly a very shallow one) in the films subconscious be apparent. A decision made one day could be, on another day, completely the opposite altering the films meaning or aesthetic, even if it is so simple as directing an actor around a room. If we take this thought further and spread a directors subconscious mind over, in some cases, a 40 year career then there will no doubt be a change in theme and structure whether it be a radical change or a subtle change.

As mentioned before, genre is the key to reading Hollywood. Not only is there tensions between studio and director but there is also a genre system to contend with. Although this isn’t exactly a weakness of the cinema, it is a strength. It is because with genre comes narrative, and it is in these great inherited narrative structures that all human experience can be collected and unleashed in a cinematic storytelling mode. This is what makes Hollywood such a great cinema because it is the only cinema in the world that is based so totally upon the use genre codes and conventions. Levi-Strauss was fascinated by inherited narratives, being an anthropologist, and it was he that theorised that a large bulk of cultural meaning comes from this use of narrative. It was no wonder why the writers of Movie looked to him for a source of inspiration for their modified version of authorship. Although there was a tendency to disregard the author entirely and regard the myth and narratives told as merely a retelling of the original, “We define the myth as consisting of all its versions.. A myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such”9. Here we see that Levi-Strauss has already forgotten about the author and is just focussing on the myth and the retelling of it. It is backed up by Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist considered to be part of the post-structuralist movement, he argues “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”10. He refers to the ‘author’ as a ‘scriptor’ later on in his work The Death of the Author, in other words, he disregards the author of a text and implies that they are only the tool in which a myth or narrative is told. Brian Henderson is paraphrased by John Caughie in saying that “structuralism [...] is reductive. It reduces the play of the text to it’s underlying structure, giving the critic no way of accounting for anything other than the structure which gives the text its value”11. This is an acceptable argument even to the most unmovable structuralist, there is a sense of downplaying the director, or at least the ‘man’ behind the camera. During a discussion published in an issue of Movie V.F. Perkins explains “It would be very dangerous to take your ‘man behind the camera’ line literally, because it is Cukor the artist rather than Cukor the man”12. Here he has removed the humanity and is left with just another ‘structure’ to be unravelled and probed. This reduction of the author is a major weakness of the modified theory but nevertheless they did open up the complexities of genre. It can be argued that if each genre, be it a western or thriller etc., is a language then the directors use of that language is a portrayal of a personal style or signature. The way a director uses the codes and conventions of each genre gives a very unique and particular reading of America, for example the great Westerns. The western usually uses narratives referring back to the origin myth, the origin of American and what it means to be an American. John Ford, arguably the fore father of the western, is known for his celebration of American ideology or at least the founding ideals that American experience is based on. Just with this simple set of western genre conventions, cinema, as a storytelling medium, holds the power of all of American experience and possibly all of western human experience. In Jungian terms, it’s in these narratives, the clever use of codes and conventions, or as Jung puts it, ‘archetypes’ that can unlock many deep levels of a persons psyche. Very basic, inherited stories are passed down through generations of retelling and inheritance that, on a subconscious level, can appeal to the very fabric of our psychological make up because it is through narrative that the human race can make sense of life. The building up of a new culture, the on going battle between civilisation and the wilderness, you can tell so much of a culture through the use of its narratives. The way America makes sense of its own identity is through its stories, and this is the same with all human civilisations. Greek, Roman, Christian narratives can be seen in Hollywood’s genre system as well as many other ancient myths, obviously different genres will lend themselves to different myths and stories.

“Now for a concrete example of the method we propose. We shall use the Oedipus myth, which is well known to everyone.”13. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), on the surface is about a unnamed man who has trouble sleeping, so unknowingly to him, and to the audience, creates an identity separate of his own and together they start up a club where similar thinking men can exhume macho male violence. Although deep under the surface is a plethora of hidden structures. As hinted upon with the use of Levi-Strauss’s writings on the Oedipus myth, Fight Club takes a twist on the Greek tragedy. To tell the tale in short, Oedipus is sent away by his father Laius, the ruler of Thebes, to be killed after it is prophesied that his son will kill him. Spared, Oedipus is raised up not knowing any of what happened. He travels back to Thebes in later life and encounters Laius and kills him, without knowledge of his true identity. He then marries the widower Jocasta, his biological mother. After finally finding out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus pokes his eyes out with dress pins. Throughout Fight Club there are many similarities to events in the myth. As Chris Landis writes “As with the story of Oedipus, Fight Club starts with a prophecy. The film starts with its final scene, promising a future that is sure to come”14. But it is only when we see the scene in which Jack (Edward Norton), the name assumed by our protagonist, and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are treating their wounds do we see that the narrative adopts a very mythic nature.

Jack: I don’t know my dad. I mean, I know him, but.. he left when I was like six years old.15

We can view this as a precursor to where the film is going to take us. Like Oedipus, Jack has been abandoned by his father in which later him and the other ‘Space Monkeys’ see Durden as being a new father figure. The character of Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) is of course, in this structure, the reincarnation of Jocasta. When introduced, Jack is instantly fixated by her, he disillusions himself into hating her but she is always there for him no matter how badly he treats her, the unconditional love of a mother. We can assume subconsciously he wants to have sex with her, after dreaming about the interaction, but he cannot physically do it because equally deep down he thinks of her as a mother. Taking this assumption we can say that Jack invents Tyler as a new father figure to cope with his sexual feelings towards Marla. It is through this dynamic that we can see what’s really happening. Through Marla’s motherly attitude towards Jack he is confused by his subconscious link to her being his mother and therefore cannot have sex with her, but Tyler can. Therefore completing the family that he did not have whilst growing up. This would explain his disgust when he is faced with the knowledge of their sexual relationship and his dismay when they are never in the same room together.

Jack: I’m six years old again, passing messages between my parents.16

Its in the final scenes of Fight Club do we see the climax to this Oedipal structure, although it does sway slightly from the original. After finding out that he himself is Tyler and he is having sex with Marla, his mother, he is considerably acceptant of this and tries to protect her by sending her away. It’s here that the irony of the original myth is portrayed. Oedipus runs from his adopted family after finding out of the prophecy in order to avoid it, but where he runs to is in fact Thebes and the prophecy is realised. In a sense Jack runs from Marla back to Tyler who he then vanquishes in a suicide attempt that he miraculously survives. Marla is then sent back to him by the rest of Tyler’s cronies, who ironically run the bus that Jack tries to send her away in, again leaving the prophecy fulfilled. We leave the film with images of Jack holding Marla’s hand whilst watching the collapse of capitalist America.

Despite also being a conscious play on the story of The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886), scientist develops a potion which he then drinks creating an alter ego that runs around town creating anarchy, similar to the plot of Tyler Durden, it is hard to detect if it is a structure imparted by David Fincher or in fact novelist Chuck Palahniuk who the original story is accredited to. It would be argued that the primary meaning in the text comes from Palahniuk, but the bleak and existentialist themes in Fight Club are certainly apparent in the rest of Fincher’s work, as I mentioned before with his debut film, Alien3. It is true that the structuralist approach to film analysis does naturally downplay the director, favouring the idea that the author is just a vessel in which the story is told. But in comparison to the polemical auteur theory it provides no doubt a much better balance between the director and the many other influencing forces that is being put into the product. Be it from studio influence, script writers or the origin of the story itself. Auteur-structuralism seeks out the hidden meanings in the deep recesses of the films subconscious, which is arguably linked with the directors subconscious. It is the searching for these underlying tensions in the work that provide a far deeper analysis of authorship than just the mise-en-scene that the French critics and Sarris argued so relentlessly for. Although saying that, the personal style displayed through editing, camera and most importantly mise-en-scene is still very relevant, after all it is this that the audience can readily take, on a very superficial level, as the directors individual style. As said by Fereydoun Hoveyda “The politique des auteur has had its day: it was only a stage on the way to new criticism”17.

1Sarris, Andrew Notes on the Auteur theory in 1962 in Film Culture, no. 27 (Winter 1962-3)

2Wollen, Peter Signs and meaning in the cinema, 3rd edition (Secker & Walburg 1972) p.168

3Ibid., p.167

4Ibid., p.167

5Wood, Robin Shall we gather at the river?; the late films of John Ford in Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.97

6Sarris, Andrew American Cinema; Directors and Direction, 1929-1968 (E. P. Dutton, 1968)

7Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey Luchino Visconti (Doubleday, 1968) p.10

8Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey Luchino Visconti (Doubleday, 1968) p.10

9Levi-Strauss, Claude The Structural Study of Myth (extract) in Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.135

10Barthes, Roland The Death of the Author in Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.213

11Caughie, John Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.127

12Ian Cameron, Jim Hillier, VF Perkins, Michael Walker, Robin Wood The Return of Movie; a Discussion in Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.58

13Levi-Strauss, Claude The Structural Study of Myth (extract) in Theories of Authorship: A reader ed. John Caughie (Routledge, 1981) pg.131

14Landis, Chris Tyler Durden is a M*therf#cker in You Do Not Talk About Fight Club ed. Read Mercer Schuchardt (Ben Bella, 2008) pg.152

15Fight Club Dir. David Fincher (20th Century Fox, 1999)

16Fight Club Dir. David Fincher (20th Century Fox, 1999)

17Hoveyda, Fereydoun Autocritique in Cahiers du Cinema no.126 (Dec 1961). p.45

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