Revision Essays In Feminist Film Criticism

Unlike many other words referring to the activities of particular kinds of cultural producers (‘writer’, ‘painter’, ‘dramatist’), the term ‘author’ raises intrinsic questions about authority and about whether the individual is the source or the effect of that authority.Despite the deconstruction of traditional understandings of the ‘author-as-subject’, the ‘author-as-source-of-meaning’, and of individualist ideologies in general, especially during the latter part of the twentieth century (Barthes, 1968; Foucault, 1969), these kinds of questions concerning authorial authority, as well as the institution of authorship, have remained fairly central ones for feminists in theorizing and teaching about women’s activities in the field of cultural production, because of their connections with broader feminist debates about different kinds of subjectivity and agency under patriarchy (Miller, 1986; Watts, 1992).(Caughie, 1981: 9) This kind of voluntarist and Romantic understanding of the agency of film authorship as encapsulating the possibilities for expression of an (especially male) artist’s ‘personality’ was immediately co-opted by film commerce, for the purposes of which the name of the author came in the post-war period, outside and inside Hollywood, to ‘function as a “brand name”, a means of labelling and selling a film and of orienting expectations and channelling meaning and pleasure in the absence of generic boundaries and categories’ (Neale, 1981: 36).

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These notes explore ideas and strategies developed in women’s films.

(Johnston, 1973)testify, feminist theorizations of film authorship did at least begin with radical political concerns about women’s limited presence in (or routine absence from) the male dominated cultural sphere.

Johnston wanted future feminist filmmaking to learn from these examples of entertainment films, ‘in which the feminine “voice”, by formal means, breaks through (ruptures) the patriarchal discourse’, as Janet Bergstrom noted (1988: 81).

Descriptions of what a ‘feminine “voice”’ in cinema was, as well as how and from where it was articulated remained only very fuzzily traced in Johnston’s polemic.

[…] What Peter Wollen refers to as the ‘force of the author’s preoccupations’, […] is generated by the psychoanalytic history of the author.

This organised network of obsessions is outside the scope of the author’s choice.

It is important to note that the birth of this idea of the director as film author, or auteur, has been traced back by most cultural historians to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and to the debates which took place in French, British and US film magazines about the relative artistic value of cinema, compared with the much longer-established arts.

As John Caughie writes: Within its distinguishable currents […] auteurism shares certain basic assumptions: notably, that a film, though produced collectively, is most likely to be valuable when it is essentially the product of its director […]; that in the presence of a director who is genuinely an artist (an auteur) a film is more than likely to be an expression of his individual personality; and that this personality can be traced in a thematic and/or stylistic consistency over all (or almost all) of his films.

In the 1970s, Johnston’s own pioneering contribution to this newly emerging field, and especially her important, and highly influential essay ‘Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema’, included in the pamphlet (1973: 24-31), was prominent among early work born of a feminist activism, and of a perceived need to ‘advise’ a contemporaneous generation of feminist filmmakers on questions of praxis, or ‘ideas and strategies’.

What was new about Johnston’s work, other than its rejection of so-called ‘sociological’ models of feminist film criticism in favour of ones derived from structuralist film theory, was its primary focus on Hollywood cinema, rather than on the avant-garde, or art-cinema practice of women filmmakers which had more usually garnered the attention of feminists interested in ‘counter-cinema’.


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