I found the point raised in Arnhein’s piece, the question of who might be considered the “author” of the film, to be especially timely because of a debate I had at a party a few weeks ago. Talking to a somewhat snooty friend of a friend, I mentioned that I wasn’t thrilled about the latest reboot of The Great Gatsby because I’m not a big fan of Baz Lurhmann, the director. She replied that she just loves all the sweeping shots that he uses. “You know,” she continued, “the cinematography! I mean, I work in media, so I notice that sort of thing.” (She works for a radio station. Psh.)
I swallowed back a deep desire to deliver a textbook definition of the difference between a director and cinematographer, but it did actually get me thinking about how much credit we give to the various people who work on a film. We nearly always attribute a film to the director, first and foremost. You know, “Tim’s Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”, etc. But hundreds of people can work on one film.
Arnhein reflects on the prevalence of that mindset today, that the director is the “sole responsible author of a film,” especially in cases of massive rewrites on the part of the director, in spite of possible objections by the screenwriter. He looks to the differences between theater and film as the reason for the shift from “the playwright is author” to “the director is author” as the popular opinion. I had never considered that the main difference between the theater and film is, as Arnhein puts it, that “the theatrical play is a work of art produced by a writer in one medium, namely, the literary word, and made visible and audible secondarily by means of two other media.” Meanwhile, film is imagined as a visual piece of art rather than a literary one from the start, and does not require a script at all. This point basically completely blew my mind and confirmed for me that we probably have it right, looking at the director as the primary author of a film, because (s)he could create a film without a single character or line of dialogue, while a screenwriter would be incapable of producing anything helpful in that situation. (Obviously a novelist, poet, etc could write a piece without characters or dialogue, but it would not translate to stage or screen.)