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Updating the Debate – The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema by Barrett Hodsdon

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Barrett Hodsdon is an unfamiliar name to me, chiefly because I do not reside in Australia. However, like Victor Perkins, he seems to have written few works but when he has they are characterized by rigorous observations, well-thought-out arguments, and distinguished research. He has been involved with Australian film societies since the 1960s and, though not as well-known as Ken Mogg and the two Adrians (Danks and Martin), appears to be one of those rare solid researchers exploring sources throughout the years and waiting for the appropriate moment to publish. The Elusive Auteur (McFarland, 2017) is one of the most rewarding books I’ve read this year. Exploring a well-known topic, Hodsdon wishes to interrogate the distinctive qualitative and divergent aspects of authorship by updating the concept and relating it to both production issues and its current brand marketability where anything goes. It is not surprising that he concludes this book with justified skepticism of our brave new internet world that has had detrimental effects on evaluation and perception:

The profusion of media screens has occurred at different levels of dissemination from theatre to living room, thence to bedroom and kitchen, and finally to handbag and pocket. New media are being splintered and torn asunder by a myriad of devices encouraging specialist and narrow taste cultures with participants communicating between themselves or simply satiating themselves alone. Internet hits are not automatically a sign of new cultural communities but perhaps a new age of vacuous dipping, ransacking and sniping. (304)

ElusiveThis is not a work of a curmudgeon yearning for times lost but more a writer fully aware of the role a director can have and the different ways it may be articulated, whether in the classical era or today. He affirms that there is still a role for the formerly defined auteur today but within a very different cultural landscape that may be countermanded or succumbed to. The nearest equivalent to this book is Tom Gunning’s D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: the Early Years at Biograph (1993). Written at a time when enough evidence surfaced to show that Griffith was not the originator of many techniques assigned to him, the question emerged as to what role the director actually had. Gunning answered this question superbly. In our current era influenced by the death of the author and postmodernist obscurantism questioning the role of agency, Hodsdon supplies evidence for the relevance of certain directors, past and present, who may be termed auteurs in significantly different ways by relating them to the historical and industrial production circumstances influencing their films. Despite reservations over the dominance of the so-called “genius of the system” and The Classical Hollywood Cinema research by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, and many others, it cannot be denied that they offered a challenge to the Lone (Ranger) Auteur concept of the original thesis. To his credit Hodsdon takes up this challenge and shows how knowledge of these relevant production issues do not eliminate but contribute to our knowledge of the complex operations performed by any director in certain circumstances. (I’ve often stated that reading David Bordwell’s work can make us better critical “makers of meaning”, something he would probably regard as heretical, but there is much to be learned from his expertise.)

Divided into six parts, this 327-page study appears to be a labor of love that must have taken many decades since footnotes mention encounters with figures such as Andrew Sarris in Australia several decades ago. Part I covers Critical Origins while the following section explores different auteur concepts and problems involved in definitions. Part III covers the director in the classical Hollywood system, the value of a Neoformalist designation, and a list of 15 various director triumphs and accommodations all meticulously explored. For example, no matter how many counter claims could be made for the late Hitchcock, his disastrous association with Universal Studios resulted in some very problematic films. Though Hodsdon does not mention this, Larry Cohen has actually came up with the same comments in several interviews. Part IV deals with the dubious aspects of Cinephilia that Hodsdon divides into two main categories and interrogates with some very good arguments. Part V examines The Changing Face of Hollywood with an examination of certain names matching the classical Hollywood exploration. Here Hodsdon shows himself very astute in his mode of evaluation, recognizing differences while at the same time offering some cogent observations. George Lucas may be “a total auteur as a cultural impresario, but also a non-auteur in terms of purist artistic intricacy and inflection” (237). Although Lucas and Spielberg have more private personae than Cecil B. DeMille (an idol of young Spielberg) seeking to protect their particular personalities from too excessive and revealing displays, “the cultural currency of their names and what they are attached to has risen ever upwards in a climate of the high velocity circulation of commodities” (237). This is a cautionary warning to those critics who attempt to compare them to classical directors and arbitrarily shut down any opposing arguments. Eastwood is a modern example of “the elusive auteur” in terms of his different types of films but neither does he “seek a privileged auteur aura” preferring instead “collaborations within a closely knit circle of Malpaso colleagues” (247). While recognizing Tarantino’s appeal to a certain type of audience, Hodsdon delivers an appropriately damning comment on the significance of this figure:

Tarantino is lost in his own constructed world of restrictive cultural simulacrums, without an awareness of strategic critique. His flippancy and absurdist play suggest an oxymoron of smug nihilism. As a post-modern conduit, intent on reworking and re-presenting his filmic dispositions, it is difficult to equate his work with any conventional notion of personal vision.” (259)

The Hateful Eight (2015). Tarantino: "auteur, yes, but what of?"

The Hateful Eight (2015). “Tarantino – auteur, yes, but what of?”

For better or worse, Tarantino is an auteur within a very different world from the past, but Hodsdon does not refrain from that lost tradition of evaluation that he applies to certain of the director’s films as if repeating Andre Bazin’s question to his young Cahiers critics in his own way, “Auteur, yes, but what of?” Django Unchained (2012) “shows the tension of combining his movie geek base with a brutal chapter of American history and allowing himself to indulge in unnecessary flippancy – a negating tactic which blows up its own historical reference” while the aptly titled The Hateful Eight (2015) “continues his easy desire to unmask racial prejudice (a progressive marker) in an isolated and pastiche style western, which falls into the same narrative trap of empty indulgence” (260). Hodsdon also pertinently recognizes that the Panavision 70mm format touted in publicity and DVD extras “is nothing more than an empty sales gimmick, since apart from the film’s framing of snow vistas it essentially takes place in a dark interior cabin, which provides some flexibility for wide-shot framing, with a semi-theatrical resort to spatial arrangement” (260). Since Hodsdon has previously written on mise-en-scene and examines its relevance to authorship, past and present, his comments are well taken.

The final part explores auteur displacement in the digital age, more often than not caused by the dominance of CGI and increasing corporate control. The mise-en-scene aspect of the old Classical cinema is now definitely overdue to the process of image seduction and targeted mass global audiences believed to be hostile to previous forms of visual sophistication:

The new high powered rhetoric of narrative image-making has denuded scenic space of the mise-en-scene refinements attributed to the great auteurs of classical cinema. This rhetoric has valorized spectacle excess, image saturation, and the literal thrusting of event and action at the spectator, all in the quest of a new high intensity iconography…Images seem to be racing themselves with instant screen time at a premium. (267)

This is a far cry from the opening group rapport scene of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) “where naturalistic performance is inflected, without any self-conscious or stylistic bravura, via densely textured behavior, with sparing use of the close-up. This is not a case of the marginal unseen seen. Rather it is an instance of seemingly understated and spontaneous bits of business that are central to the matching of the spectator’s aesthetic experience and its significance (which unobtrusively feed into the core thematic meanings of the film)” (185).

Much more could be quoted from this very rich study but limitations of space do not permit this and I can only recommend any interested reader looking for that now rare species of critical intelligence applied to cinema to acquire a copy and study its implications in depth. This book is a work of astute and careful scholarship. It is very rare to find a writer aware of Laura Mulvey’s later revisions to her 1975 Visual Pleasure thesis (see p. 88, p.310, n.15) as well as the difficulties surrounding its original monolithic presentation (see p. 88, para. 2,3).

Some typos exist which need correction. On p. 154, para. 3, the Welles uncompleted project Voice in the Wind should be changed to The Other Side of the Wind while “Jane Murfun” (86, 325) needs the correction “Jane Murfin.”

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).

7 Comments for “Updating the Debate – The Elusive Auteur: The Question of Film Authorship Throughout the Age of Cinema by Barrett Hodsdon”

  1. Thank you for this review, Tony. This book sounds like an indispensable new study of a complicated subject, which I’m going to have to secure a copy of.

  2. Matt sent it to me un-requested when I already had a pile of reading. But when reluctantly beginning the book, I became fascinated by the dept of research and ability to see different facets of an area which supposedly has become obsolete today.Yet, after all, are not the “death of the author” groupies fairly mediocre and un-creative people?

  3. Christopher Sharrett

    Tony, This seems like a necessary book, and, as you suggest, an antidote to the death-of-author poststructuralist crowd. Auteurism has been so savaged by people who see themselves as radicals but who in fact feed the order of things. I recall Robin’s remark: “Of course we are products of ideology, but we’re not products in the way that a can of beans is a product.”

  4. Chris, Good quote. It is all the more shameful that the new Criterion edition of REBECCA has dropped Robin’s 22 page liner notes in favor of David Thomson’s 6 page survey. “Keep watching the skies.” I know of at least two people who had to drop director studies books due to job market hostility. So much for “academic freedom”!

  5. I’m always ready to roll the dice if it could result in a Tony Williams piece.

  6. Thanks for this terrific review Tony. Barrett is indeed a key and highly influential figure in Australian film culture & this is an important book (& is indeed something he has been working on a for a long time – over 50 years in some ways). We’re actually hosting a launch for the book in late October & I will alert Barrett to your excellent and engaged review.

  7. Thank you, Adrian. Contrary to my initial expectations due to doing too many reviews as necessary therapy to deal with my “cultural heart of darkness”, I was pleasantly surprised and learned quite a lot from it. Yes, sometimes things are well worth waiting for and the diligent painstaking research here is really amazing.

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