This is really just a ramble (and a ramble that, five years distant from getting my BA in Film, I’m not sure I’m really qualified for) but it seems to me that the last decade or so of cinema and television have produced a pretty major challenge to the auteur theory of cinema. For those not in the know, the basic theory (popularized by French and some American critics in the 50s and 60s) crudely summarized is that movies can have authorship in the same ways that literature and painting and music do, and that it is sensible and productive to analyze bodies of film united by authorship the same way it does with bodies of work in those other media; and that the locus of authorship is in the director of the film (as opposed to the writer, editor, cinematographer, or producer, assuming these are all distinct individuals). Today, this theory has seeped into the bones of movie culture; in film criticism, the proper citation form for a film is “(Director, Year),” and even though most casual moviegoers don’t know the director of the films they watch the way the know the writers of the books they read or (at least sometimes) the writers of the songs they listen to, they are still familiar with the names of famous directors – Spielberg, Scorsese – and have a sense that these people are the makers of the movies.

One of the implicit buttresses to this paradigm was that television was somehow a lesser form than cinema – that while even films produced by Hollywood studios were saturated with authorship by people like Alfred Hitchcock, that television was truly a mass-produced industrial product. And at one point this may have even been true! But over the last decade, television, especially serial dramas and comedies on channels like HBO, Showtime, and AMC, have become not merely centers of high-quality and clearly-authored content but the locus, and when critical eyes of the future look back at the era beginning with The Sopranos in 1999 they will talk first of the great television of the era and only second of the great movies of the era. This is not to say that there weren’t great movies made in the last 15 years – there were, and lots of them, I could make a list – but that one of the defining movements of the era was that the cream of television equaled and in many cases surpassed the cream of cinema for perhaps the first time.

Which leads us to the question of authorship. Now, the thing is, the challenging thing about looking at the television of recent years is not determining who deserves primary authorship – that question is the easy one. There is a list of names – David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, David Benioff and DB Weiss, Larry David, Jenji Kohan, Lena Dunham, Terence Winter, David Milch, Alan Ball – that, intuitively, it is hard to argue with; but note that this is a fairly direct challenge to the traditional notion of directorial authorship since none of these people are directors; or at the very least, the vast majority of the episodes of the shows they authored were not directed by them. In fact, many were not even written by them; yet we would be loathe to say that David Simon was not the primary author of The Wire even though he never directed an episode and only received teleplay credit for 21 of the show’s 60 episodes. But if we say that the creator/executive producer/showrunner is the author of these shows, how do we not say they are the author of films as well? There is no way to claim that anyone but Darren Aronofsky is the author of Black Swan, but he didn’t produce it. Do we just decide on a case-by-case basis? Does television have different rules?

John Caldwell broached this ground in a fascinating essay, “Industrial Auteur Theory,” but largely I simply see much of this go assumed or unstated without assumptions about authorship in television versus cinema being openly acknowledged and addressed. Food for thought on Friday.

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