The suspicious author

Image: Andrés Sandoval / Jornal de Resenhas


Commentary on the book “The author in the cinema”, by Jean-Claude Bernardet

The authorial issue in film production has particularities that make it unique in the field of arts. With The author in the cinema, Jean-Claude Bernardet convincingly sits at one of the crossroads of contemporary thought, exploring its significance for the cinematic horizon. One feels in the author (and the word is not a pun here) a proximity to cinema reflection that gratifies the reading and gives the essay a dynamic interaction with the approached universe.

The issue of authorship is related to a burning theme in philosophy and contemporary aesthetics, which acquires increased strength from the 60s onwards: the status of subjectivity. Due to the historical dimension that the theme “authorship” has for film production, bridges and relationships are often established without proper mastery of the horizons of cinematographic bibliography. This is absolutely not the case with Bernardet's book, which effectively breathes cinema and feels, in the writing itself, the coexistence of decades that he dedicated to this field.

Within the good academic tradition, in a text in which its origin is evidently present (which is absolutely not a handicap), Jean-Claude conducts an exhaustive research on the authorial issue as it appears in the discourse of critics and directors, Brazilians and French, in the 1950s/1960s. The French part, although not entirely new, stands out for its precise outline of a dense period of cinematographic production, in which it was not very easy to get around. The 1950s and 1960s in France are delicate to approach due to a complete ideological and aesthetic shift that took place in the space of a few years.

The relationship between the framework that the so-called “young Turks” (Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Godard, Chabrol) find at the beginning of their career as film commentators and the horizon in which they start and later develop their cinematographic production is quite complex. In the analysis of this conjuncture, many times the standardizing speech of the ruptures proper to the modern dimension of art joins the lack of knowledge of the particular horizon of cinematography, leading to the establishment of several inaccuracies about the period.

Bernardet quickly escapes this trap. The picture he traces of the emergence of the authorial question in France and the beginnings of the critical and cinematographic activity of the first “new wave" it's needed. What gives density to the exhibition is the correct perception of the relative isolation of this group in relation to the modern avant-garde traditions that were so strong in the so-called impressionist cinema of the 20s (Epstein, Dulac, Delluc, Gance), and its unique connection with a humanism a little mushy, loaded with Christianity. This link is inconceivable to our eyes excessively addicted to the analyzes of modernity in literature and the visual arts, but which appears as indispensable for the correct understanding of “new wave”, a movement that opens space for the various “new cinemas” of the 60s and for a real adaptation of cinematography to the postulates of an art in tune with the aesthetic sensibility of the XNUMXth century.

It is from the confluence between Christian ethics and Hollywood's industrial cinema that mature cinematographic modernity is born. The work of surrealism and the traditional vanguards appears in the post-war period in exalted articles in the magazine L'Âge du Cinéma, and later in the magazine Positive, but that is not where the broth that will sediment cinematographic modernity emerges. The critics to Cahiers du Cinema abhorred surrealism, and Bazin wrote a rather iconic article about the spirit of the avant-gardes.

In the midst of the emergence of the “nouvelle vague”, within the critical production of the first Notebooks, there are strange elements for modern art such as the conviction in realistic representation, a presence based on Christian ethics and a dazzled dialogue with a very traditional narrative form between the 20s and 50s. Although I would like to think that this is a personal analysis, not present as such in the book reviewed, it is extremely stimulating to find in the work of Jean-Claude Bernardet a non (...) and delicate perception of this moment and of implications for the reflection on the cinematographic auto. Once again, we feel the importance of thinking about the cinematographic horizon from within, and not from a superficial vision guided by dense knowledge of other areas.

The biggest contribution of The author in the cinema it is in the interesting cut carried out in the authorial discourse of the 1950s and 1960s, having the double dimension of revealing the presence of this discussion between us and situating its limits and inaccuracies. If in the first part of the book, based on the collected material, we could wish for more ambitious flights around the authorial issue in French criticism, the survey of the discussion on the subject in Brazil shows us unpublished material.

Even better-known texts (such as Glauber's discourse on the subject) acquire another consistency when placed in the context that, as a central trait, was at the core of their origin. The layout of the exhibition is interesting, allowing us to come into contact with large sections of the originals. Here lies, however, one of the main problems of the book: the lack of precise bibliographical references that make it possible to locate citations. In a book whose basic structure is quotations (a structure which in itself, I insist again, is quite dynamic), the absence of references is a cardinal sin.

Absence that becomes more serious in view of the academic background of the author. We have an excellent work of bibliographic survey that inexplicably is not used or exposed as such. Effectively, there is no bibliographic reference standard for the sources used. The abundant excerpts cited are vaguely located (in that article, in that book), without precise coordinates, which makes an eventual conference, or a research work that wants to use the survey as original material, very difficult.

This interesting survey of sources on the question of the author in cinema is permeated by a personal vision that, although subterranean, is always present, emerging as evidence in the last part of the book, entitled “The Decline of the Author”. In this subterranean thread that articulates the exposition of the concept of authorship in cinema, there is a vision that is clearly influenced by a discourse that has already been labeled “anti-humanist”, and in which we find the diffuse mark of the “classic” team of the 60s : Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard etc.

This clipping, if it does not harm the horizontal exposition of the previous chapters, impoverishes, sometimes in a reductive way, the criticism that was intended to be authorial. Wanting to identify and superimpose the concept of author with that of work unit (and the Rohmer/Chabrol/Hitchcock case is then repeatedly explored as a paradigm) is to be unfair to the concept being criticized. It is evidently not on the stylistic unit, in addition to being thought of in a reductive way, that the most productive work that uses the notion of author will focus.

Likewise, demonstrating the abundance and indeterminacy of a concept like “style” in a traditionally loose environment like that of film criticism may not mean much. What, then, about concepts such as realism, representation, structure, meaning, etc.? Starting from this principle we would leave little standing. The notion of style, as a personal trait of using narrative resources in their filmic form, is a strong concept and already thematized in a much more complex way than the text allows.

Here, as elsewhere, there is a double movement that sometimes compromises the analysis: the illustration of the fragile use of a particular analytical construction, linked to the authorial tradition in a given historical period, is superimposed on a broad and generalizing critique. The critical focus then always acquires more battery than the movement of historical exposition of the authorial production, which, in contrast, appears weakened. It must be admitted that the tradition that guided the authorial dimension in cinema produced a more consistent reflection than that exposed in the book. If not more, for the inauguration of a critical taste, a cinematographic taste, which finally composed the scale on which we see cinema in this century (Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Rosselini, Bresson, Lang, etc.). Authorial criticism gave us the measure and the horizon line. A line that may be another one a hundred years from now, but which we still cannot see beyond it today, as we are immersed in this line.

The problem with the bibliography that thematizes the issue of subjectivity in the 60s, seeking to dilute and decenter it, is that it does not offer concrete tools for the work of film analysis, beyond the exaltation of the ineffable and the elegy of singularities. This ideology, when approached to the particularities of film production, provides a particular field for the affirmation of a discourse that is more diffuse in other arts. The denial of the authorial and stylistic dimension of a Proust, a Dostoevsky, a Cézanne, a Thomas Mann may seem inappropriate or at least demand a little more attention from the one dedicated to the analysis that is addressed to cinematographic directors.

And yet, the authorial dimension is extremely fruitful for analyzing the work of directors such as Godard, Fellini, Lang, Welles, Buñuel, Bergman, etc. In this field, the most interesting essays are precisely those that perceptively address the structural recurrences of these works, often relating them to the director's personal life. In other words, when the mechanical transposition of deconstructivist systems of the notion of authorial subject is avoided.

In order to have a broader view of the authorial problem, Jean-Claude's book lacks the complex North American bibliographic horizon that works on the subject (among others: Peter Wollen, Brian Handerson, John Hess, Stephen Heath, Edward Buscombe, Pauline Kael , Andre Sarris, in addition to the anthology edited by John Caughie). The discussion on the question of the author in cinema moved in the 1970s from France to the United States, where this concept was elaborated from a point of view that distanced itself from the more radical rupture with the theme, which took place in the French context.

Although the focus of the research is specifically “France, Brazil, in the 50s and 60s”, in order to draw a more precise picture of the subject, a dialogue with the American production of the following decade is indispensable. At that time, there was effectively a displacement of the issue to the United States, a displacement that the French, sometimes excessively sensitive to the fault of working with an “outdated” theme, did not follow.

Moreover, the “author” Jean-Claude Bernardet illustrates with his own critical production the pertinence of the notion of authorship. Perhaps this closeness gave rise to his distrust of the concept as a methodological tool. Although we are not talking about a cinematographic work, in this book one feels his particular style of writing and the sewing of Brazil – of cinema and Brazilian criticism – that makes up his horizon. Horizon in which we can glimpse, without effort, constants and thematic evolutions already outlined in Brazil in movie time. Elements that acquire a more precise dimension when biographical data are added: it is a vision of society and Brazilian cinema marked by the experience of Brazil of an author (a human subject) who had this experience from the departure with a horizon which is the European/French horizon where he spent his childhood.

If this personal dimension is essential to understanding the critic's work (who even has a book on the very personal father complex in Brazilian cinema), why deny it to the universe of cinematography? Is it possible to admit it in other artistic fields and deny it in cinema due to the peculiarities that involve its production? It is so evident in the structure of the works of the great “authors”, of the great cinematographic personalities, that I really don't see how to question it at its root.

Which should not mean the acceptance of hasty units and inconsistent stylistic definitions, much less their centralization in the individual figure of the director. Creative responsibility and authorship are things that should not be mixed. The discourse that affirms the notion of the author as something “déjà vu” and outdated is extremely pernicious for art and, in particular, for the study of cinematographic work. Like a good part of the heritage that comes to us from 30 years ago, in the eagerness to radicalize the libertarian discourse, it ends up denying us the possibility of affirming that same freedom in the face of artistic creation as otherness, diluting the personal dimension of the spectator and that of the artist as intention and will of the subject leaning over the matter.

*Fernão Pessoa Ramos, sociologist, is a professor at the Institute of Arts at UNICAMP. Author, among other books, of But after all… what exactly is a documentary? (Senac-SP).

Originally published in the magazine Images, No. 5, in 1995 (Unicamp).



Jean-Claude Bernardet. The Author in Cinema – The Politics of Authors: France, Brazil in the 50s and 60s. 2nd. Edition. Sao Paulo, Sesc, 2018.



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