In Hannah Gadsby’s much-discussed comedy special Nanette, she argues that one of the biggest problems with celebrity today is the issue of reputation, and the idea that the (male) artist’s reputation and the myth of their genius is more important than looking at how these men actually acted in their lives. Spoiler alert: a lot of the Western world’s favourite art movements were built on a hefty dose of misogyny. In Gadsby’s performance, she particularly focuses on the (to her defunct) argument that separating the artist from the art is impossible in a world that still glorifies the idea of the individual, misunderstood man, arguing that “Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!”.
A similar dynamic goes on in film, with auteur directors taking up the role of the troubled male genius. Although auteurship in film has been widely debated, there seems to be a consensus that on the whole the director is the most important person working on a film at any given time, as the director is the person who delivers the film all the way from inception to its final form. Sure, a film might often be sold to audiences through its starring actors, but when it comes to who is ascribed the artistic merit for the film, it is more often than not the director who gets the praise, whose creative stamp is seen as inevitably present, no matter how much or how little control they had over the production. This is also why, when referencing films, the director is the person who is named, rather than for instance the first-billed actor or the screenwriter(s).
However, we also know that directors, especially directors within mainstream Hollywood and mainstream arthouse, tend to be more-than-overwhelmingly male. When we think of ‘the’ auteur (as a social stereotype as opposed to ‘an’ individual auteur), our mental image is likely to reflect the type of person who indeed is at the head of the most widely spread cultural productions: straight, white, Western, male. So in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, in eras of #OscarsSoWhite and the push for not only more diversity in front of the camera but behind it as well, have we perhaps reached a point where we should rethink auteurship, or maybe even do away with it altogether? To answer my own rhetorical question: I sure fucking hope so.
The structure of the auteur is undeniably an individualist one: although we all know that there are more people on set than just the director, it is the director’s influence which is deemed to permeate the whole film. However, many auteur directors work with a similar cast and crew for many of their projects, which is often exactly where their distinctive feel comes from. Why are Tim Burton’s films considered to be created in ‘his’ style, when this style is heavily influenced by his staple costume designer, Colleen Atwood? Why do we all know Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill as Tarantino films, and not as Menke films, even though she edited all of his films until the day she died? How many more people are attracted to Todd Haynes’ films because of his frequent collaborations with Julianne Moore? Yet none of these women are known as ‘auteurs’ in the same sense, despite being an integral component of their oeuvre’s ‘look’. Even at LFFF we participate in this culture of the director as authority to some extent, by only choosing films that are directed by women.
Of course, it could be argued that this is exactly the job of the director – to bring the various components together into a coherent whole. However, this is just as much (sometimes even more) a function of the studios, the producers, the executives, as well as the marketing, publishing and distribution sides of filmmaking. Yet, aside from a few niche exceptions, they don’t tend to get thought of in a similar way, because their jobs are deemed to be financial, clinical, not ‘artistic’ in the same sense that a director’s job is understood to be.
It is exactly this undefinable area of the ‘artistic’ that gives auteur directors social and cultural license to behave in ways that we would often (hopefully) find intolerable in any other workspace, in the name of ‘art’. Think for instance about Alfred Hitchcock’s abysmal treatment of Tippi Hedren in several of his films. The creation of a set that is explicitly hostile to his female colleagues is often considered part of his creative vision for the perfect suspense film (in a similar way that Hollywood goes gaga for method acting – ‘you don’t know where the film ends and the actor begins!’) rather than gendered abuse. Or Kubrick’s behaviour towards Shelley Duvall, which left her more or less out of the public eye and made him one of the most celebrated directors ever. Dive into the behind-the-scenes situations of auteur and see for yourself how many male careers were nurtured by hostility to, and sometimes outright abuse of, women. Meanwhile, women get branded as divas for something as simple as wanting to close the gender pay gap. Imagine the uproar if female directors shouted at their (much younger) actors until they cried. It is good that they don’t get the luxury of artistic license, as nobody should have it, but we cannot deny that this is a gendered problem.
The oft-repeated phrase ‘separating the art from the artist’ is commonly applied to artists who have done something that as an audience we disagree with, but that we might decide to (temporarily) ignore in order to enjoy their art, especially when their actions aren’t visible in their art. However, I would argue that this is impossible when it comes to auteur cinema (if indeed it is possible in any form of art). When we celebrate the auteur-film, we are celebrating the director alongside it, because it is commonly accepted that it is their vision and their artistry that makes the film have that particular style. It is impossible to separate the art from the artist, if they are already sold as one product. Nobody watches a random film about a neurotic New York writer who falls in love with inappropriately young women, we watch a … Even finishing this sentence seems too obvious, and yet people still tell me that I should give Woody Allen a chance, as if his disgusting ‘private’ life doesn’t bleed into his public artwork.
Of course, auteurship is not the cause of abuse in Hollywood. There are many people who take up positions of power without abusing this status, and there are many people working in the film industry who do not have an auteur status, and who still behave in a despicable manner. However, the way auteurs are viewed by mainstream press is still a symptom of our culture’s excuses for men’s actions, so long as those actions can be shrouded in mysterious, creative masculinity. When we tell the world that there is something extraordinary, something ungraspably, intrinsically artistic about these men, something that elevates them from a normal human being to an artist, we create a space where they cannot be held to account for their actions.
So how do we go about changing this culture? First of all, film journalism would do well to emphasize the communal aspect of filmmaking and de-mystify the role of the director, by showing that many parts of the film production process have a dedicated artist devoted to it. While it could be argued that there is no market for focusing on other people involved in the production, such as screenwriters, costume designers, composers, cinematographers and casting directors, that this is too niche, only interesting to those already interested, I would argue that it is only niche exactly because it is under-discussed.
And yes, I do know that these people are not invisible by any stretch of the imagination, especially within circles of people who are already interested in film, but ask a random person to make a list of all the editors she know versus all of the directors, and I am willing to bet quite a large amount of money that one list is longer than the other. If these jobs were de-mystified, if the general public knew what the day-to-day tasks of a colourist were, their craft could be discussed, praised and criticized in a more in-depth way, taking the sole attention away from the auteur director.
Second of all, we need to de-mystify not just the role of the director as the sole artistic genius, but also their behaviour. In the West, through influences that may not be directly derived from but are definitely caught up with Christian and capitalist epistemology, we love the idea of looking towards a singular authority figure as someone who instructs, whose decisions are final, who is not to be negotiated with. For obvious reasons, this creates a massive power imbalance, especially considering the approval of the authority figure as necessary in the social, cultural and financial sphere – do what they say or risk being a social outcast. Do what they says or risk unemployment. Do what they say, or risk the reputation of the woman who ruined the artist.
At LFFF, we’re making a start on investigating feminist set/filmmaking practices in our Feminist Filmmaking Panel, on 19 August, in the Rio Cinema in Dalston. As filmmakers, as film journalists, as audience members, as people who are involved in the film industry, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to shape this industry, and we need to discuss how we can shape it into something that chooses women’s welfare over an abstract idea of ‘artistry’. To borrow from Gadsby once again, art that is created through the subjugation of women isn’t the be-all and end-all of art, it isn’t the ‘human experience’, it is men ‘painting flesh vases for their dick flowers’.
In a world where straight white men overwhelmingly occupy this position of power, it is tragic but not unsurprising that they might use this position to amplify the power that society has already given them, resulting in sexist and racist behaviour on-set as well as in their films – indeed, we must ask ourselves if straight white men are not attracted to the individual glory of auteurism exactly because this position is in line with how the world divides power anyway. If we see this easy abuse of power for what it is – lazily reinstating normative values through workplace violence – rather than an act of leaving artistic fingerprints on a film, the auteur stops being a singular force of genius, and is turned into the pathetic opportunist that he is.
Whenever I discuss the #MeToo movement with people, I get an inevitable chorus of ‘well, but if you’re going to discard every artist who has ever behaved badly, you’re not left with an awful lot’. My response is that that shows exactly how our ideas around consumption of art and culture are built on patriarchal foundations. Yes, an awful lot of men in Hollywood are despicable, and yes it is almost impossible to avoid their work. Does that mean that we should just treat (sexual) harassment as an inevitable component of artistry? Does that mean that we can excuse these men, because well, we need something to consume? Absolutely not.
This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.
Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.