Film authorship, or auteurism, is a way in which film can be categorised according to the stylistic and narrative elements of the director. Auteur theory usually attributes the creation of a films artistic style solely to the director. Film authorship can be explored as a commercial, textual, or critical category as explained below in relation to the films of director David Lynch. The concept of the director as “auteur” was brought about in an article by French film critic Alexandre Astruc featured in the magazine “Cahiers du Cinema” in 1948.
The article introduces the idea of the director as the primary “author” of a particular film as identified through a consistency of visual and thematic style in relation to said directors previous work (Pearson 1997). Since its introduction auteur theory has been constantly criticised for its simplification of the film making process and assumption that directors have majority control over the production of a film.
According to Todd, an auteur picture is generally seen as a film that goes against classic conventions to display the stylistic ideas of the director (51), this dissociation from traditional genre and narrative conventions is prominently displayed throughout David Lynch’s body of work. Auteurism as a commercial category can be viewed as a sort of recognisable ‘brand name’ that becomes attached to the director and therefor changes the way in which films are viewed and marketed for public consumption (Corrigan 102).
The idea’s around commercial auteurism are often viewed in a negative light, as if the artistic or textual side of auteur filmmaking is dead and the commercial has taken over, or as Corrigan says “auteurs have become increasingly situated along an extra textual path in which their commercial status as auteurs is their chief function as auteurs” (105). Some directors play into this view, such as Quintin Tarantino, who is known to display frequent acts of un-ashamed self-promotion in the name of his films (Todd 32).
On the other hand, directors like David Lynch try to avoid this publicity and still end up having a public persona thrust upon them through advertising campaigns and promotional interviews. In order to put the thoughts around commercial auteurism into the perspective of a popular film director, Corrigan uses this quote from Francis Coppola, the director of the Godfather films: The auteur theory is fine, but to exercise it you have to qualify, and the only way you can qualify is by having earned the right to have control, by having turned out a series of really incredibly good films.
Some men have it and some men don’t. I don’t feel that one or two beautiful films entitle anyone to that much control. A lot of very promising directors have been destroyed by it. (Corrigan 110) The word ‘earned in the above quote highlights Coppola’s view that to become an auteur one needs to invest a large amount of time and money into the films they create, thus altering the meaning of commercial auteurism slighting to make the auteur a director constructed as a financial agency in the production of the film, not merely made as a product for financial gain through advertising and brand recognition (Corrigan 110).
David Wallace, an American novelist, believes that Lynch is one of these auteurs who has earned the right to have control over their films, for an article in Premiere magazine (1996) he says “Whether you believe he’s a good auteur or a bad one, his career makes it clear that he is indeed… an auteur, willing to make the sorts of sacrifices for creative control that real auteurs have to make. ” ( Wallace 1996).
Auteurism as a textual category can be defined as the reading of certain textual film elements as signifiers of the work of a particular director (Crofts 87). An example of Lynch’s trademark textual element would be use of dreams as gateways to other worlds, as evident in Lost Highway (USA 1997) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (USA 1993). Corrigan believes that textual auteurism is the traditional state of film authorship and that critical and commercial categories expanded from this base, and in a way have lead auteurism away from its textual centre (105).
The main criticism of auteurism as a textual category is that textual elements such as camera angles and plot devices cannot solely be attributed to one director, and the question raised by Crofts, why is thematic constancy seen as an indicator of a good film or a good auteur? In response to this criticism Crofts introduces the idea of authorstructuralism, this removes the title of author from the director and instead makes the author a “collection of stylistic and thematic motifs put in place by the director” (88-89). Textual auteurism can be explored in relation to the stylistic and thematic aspects of David Lynch’s work.
Stylistically Lynch’s most prominent feature would be his surrealism, this is thought to be because of his early years studying surrealist art in Boston (Le Blanc and Odell 7). He achieves this effect through his extravagant and easily recognisable mise-en-scene that often includes wide open spaces, deep colours, and almost monster movie effects in the case of Eraserhead. Lynch can be categorised textually through his consistent use of close up shots, particularly of eyes and mouths and use of jarring, loud sounds. Lynch can also be recognised through his motifs, particularly in Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
In the case of Lost Highway, it was a musical leitmotif that accompanied the ‘mystery man’ character to bring a sense of evil and ill intensions to the audience. Whereas Twin Peaks focused more on the visual motif of Agent Coopers dreams, during the film the audience would be thrown into a scene that seemed out of place, with dead characters alive and seemingly random snippets of dialogue, however the visual clues such as the read curtains and formal attire helped the audience to recognise that the scene was taking place in Coopers dreams, not the ‘real world.
These elements float through Lynch’s whole body of work and leave a mark of textual auteurism. Thematically Lynch is even more recognisable. His plots are often criticised for being so far from linear they are unreadable, particularly in the case of Lost Highway where the audience was bounced through time and space so quickly that it became hard to follow the story at all. Another thematic consistency of Lynch is, as previously stated, his use of the dream realm as an impactor and sometimes indicator of ‘real life’ events.
A less acknowledged but equally prominent theme in Lynch’s work is his use of split characters, particularly women. Split characters can be seen in Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive (USA 2002), and Island Empire (USA 2007). These elements when combined with the stylistic approach make it clear that Lynch has the characterises of a textual auteur. Finally, auteurism can be viewed from the critical category, this category focuses on the displaying of the work of an auteur and how films are grouped to be viewed as a kind of single chapter within the oeuvre of the director.
Critical category auteurism can be most prominently seen within film journalism and criticism, film festivals that often display multiple films by the same director together, and even academic film studies that focus on the body of work of a particular director (Bordwell 211). This categorising of films based on directors leads to a change in the way audiences view the films, they become more than just stand alone narratives but one part of a longer narrative stretched through a series of films by the auteur (Corrigan 102).
It is believed that this approach to film marketing was cultivated in Hollywood as a way to more accurately group films in relation to the textual pleasures as opposed to the traditional categories of genre and star, thus meaning audiences were more likely to enjoy a film made by a director of they previously enjoyed the work of (Crofts 85). The critical categorising of auteurs was quickly adopted by film critics and remains the most popular form of categorising within film studies as it allows the complex world of the Hollywood industry to be condensed and placed ithin the mind of a single person, the director auteur (Crofts 85). This can be prominently seen in the case of David Lynch and how critics respond to his films. Film critics and authors Le Blanc and Odell bluntly say “his films are so packed with motifs, recurrent characters, images, compositions and techniques that you could view his entire output as one large jigsaw puzzle of ideas” (8).
More subtly in a review of Lynch’s 2002 re-release of the 1980 film Eraserhead, amateur critic Mike D’Angelo says “Such masterful surrealism didn’t spring from nowhere… ” (2014) and then goes on to list previous short films by David Lynch. This linking of his previous work with newer films clearly shows how critics have used critical category auteur theory to understand and read into Lynch’s films.
The same DVD release of Eraserhead also shows an example of the grouping of films based on auteur, with the main film buyers will also receive five other short films by Lynch, which will then in turn pass on the idea that the works of an auteur are linked in a narrative way. Although every category of auteur theory has its criticism, by combining all elements of commercial, critical, and textual auteurism, it can be seen that auteur theory is a meaningful way of viewing and analysing film.
In the commercial sense an auteur must weigh up the financial pros and cons of a film and allow oneself to become a ‘brand name’ in order to succeed financially. Textually an auteur must create their own stylistic and thematic motifs in order to become recognisable as the author of multiple films. In the critical realm an auteur struggles with the idea of a relationship to the audience and how their ‘brand’ imagine translates into the meaning of the text.