It is strange that the postmodern tendency in critical thought has not been applied in the most obvious way to cinema -- as a way of invalidating the auteur theory. Cinema is, after all, the modernist art form par excellence; and to a certain extent it is the burden of postmodern critique to undo the totalizing artistic concerns of modernism. As De Mul, paraphrasing Lyotard, writes of postmodernism:
We could agree with Lyotard…that postmodernism was implicit in modernism from its inception…. [O]ne could regard postmodernism as a critical reflection upon the starting points of modern existence that was made possible by modernism itself: post-modernism forms, in a manner of speaking, the guilty conscience of modernism, following, like a shadow, the modern aspiration toward an all-embracing meaning. (De Mul, 19)
De Mul's insight here is amply borne out in cinema: almost any film could be understood to employ seemingly postmodern techniques of allusion, pastiche, or meta-narrative. What does not change is the critical tendency, which emerged from earlier film criticism and has been epitomized mainly by Andrew Sarris, to regard films as having a single artistic authorship, which permits the critic to indulge the "modern aspiration toward an all-embracing meaning" intended by the auteur. I would like to offer a postmodern critique of the idea of the auteur by examining two films which have virtually nothing in common, save fertile ground for critics who still cling tight to the auteur theory -- these are Woody Allen's 1994 comedy Bullets Over Broadway and David Mamet's 2004 military thriller Spartan. I hope to demonstrate that, although these two filmmakers share a similar career trajectory, the notion that any film can be shown to have a stable artistic meaning intended by a single artist is problematized, if not wholly invalidated, by a postmodern critical approach.
Auteur theory, with its emphasis on a totalizing artistic consciousness on the part of a film's director, would seem to be modernism plain and simple: the same modernist-inflected critical approach that insists that (e.g.) "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot is a fully-realized creation of a single aesthetic vision, rather than a congeries of quotations and allusions forced into coherence by an amenable reader, is the critical approach that permits us to refer to any film, which necessarily requires the participation of hundreds of individuals in terms of performance, production, and technological assistance, as being the artistic "creation" of a single person (usually a man, to indicate one problem with auteur theory that might offer fertile ground for feminist critique). To a certain degree, the critic is falling into the trap of identification: Hollywood-style screenplays focus on a single protagonist, and the critic of a film would like to identify the auteur as the protagonist of whatever critical narrative is to be constructed around the film. Bullets Over Broadway and Spartan are alike in terms of their obsessive focus around a single protagonist: in the first, it is John Cusack's playwright, forced to sully his artistic vision by casting a gangster's moll in one of the leading roles to gain financing, and in the second, it is Val Kilmer's Special Forces sergeant, drawn into a "War on Terror"-style clandestine military operation involving the president's daughter. In both films, the protagonist's dilemma is presented as an ethical one, despite the fact that Allen's film is obviously a light comedy and Mamet's a macho military thriller. The critic seems positively invited, then, to understand each protagonist, then, as a stand-in for the auteur. But should we?
In the case of Bullets Over Broadway, it seems unavoidable: John Cusack joins a long string of actors (Kenneth Branagh, Larry David, Owen Wilson) in Allen's later films who seems to be playing the "Woody Allen part." And as a film about the realization of a script with actors and direction and a fickle audience, Bullets Over Broadway would seem in some way to be about the vicissitudes of the creation of drama. It is, however, a knowing pastiche of prior films, owing most to the Judy Holliday vehicle Born Yesterday, which itself recasts Shaw's Pygmalion as a story about a gangster's girlfriend with acting aspirations. Robin Wood has critiqued Allen's status as auteur on precisely such a basis, noting that a double-standard seems to apply on the part of critics who wish to insist…