In 1963, Pauline Kael accused Andrew Sarris and the other auteur theorists of never telling us “by what divining rods they have discovered the élan of a [Vincente] Minnelli or a Nicholas Ray or a Leo McCarey” (1). Kael said of the auteurists: “They’re not critics; they’re inside dopesters. There must be another circle that Sarris forgot to get to – the one where the secrets are kept.” (2) Deb Verhoeven’s approach to the authorship of Jane Campion in this new Routledge Film Guidebook reveals not only another circle, but a whole circulation of texts, discourses, debates and interactions that would most likely interest Kael and frustrate Sarris (3).
In 2003, Angela Martin wrote
authorship is the main aspect of film theory that directly affects women filmmakers; however, for historical reasons, it actually contributes to the omission of women’s films from circulation and from film theory. […] Unless we talk about women’s films in a different way, we will not be able to address that omission. (4)
Verhoeven’s study of Campion addresses the question of how contemporary film directors are fashioned – and fashion themselves – as auteurs. Rather than conduct an examination or close textual reading of Campion’s works, this original and engaging book gathers together various approaches and avenues to the filmmaker and thereby creates an overview of the whole Campion “package”.
This book emerges at an interesting time in Campion’s career. In 2003, during the publicity for In the Cut, Campion announced that she was going to take a four-year break from filmmaking, only loosely explaining or suggesting reasons for this self-imposed exile (perhaps “to do nothing” [p. 8], or to spend more time with her daughter). Her latest feature Bright Star, financed by the Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC), concerns the 19th-century romance between English poets Fanny Brawne and John Keats, and was selected for official competition at Cannes 2009. Campion was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or with The Piano in 1993, and the roles played by the festival and the AFFC in Campion’s career form two of the angles from which Verhoeven approaches the creation of Campion’s auteur status.
Starting from the probably unarguable premise that Campion is the most successful woman working in the contemporary film industry, Verhoeven highlights a press photograph of Campion at Cannes in 2007, a lone woman in a sea of suits, as drawing attention to the way in which the director has become emblematic of the female auteur in contemporary filmmaking: “a figure to be celebrated and criticized for what she has come to represent as much as for what she does” (pp. 2-3). This exemplary career attributes symbolic status to various aspects of Campion’s persona, from film school genius, to women’s filmmaker, to national filmmaker – a symbolic value that Verhoeven finds striking, but from which she takes a step back. So, whilst describing the fervent expectation around Campion from the outset, and the fact that she was hailed as an auteur with a distinctive visual style and thematic concerns from her very early short films, Verhoeven goes behind the media lore and discusses Campion’s discontent at film school. Verhoeven also explores Campion’s sometimes uneasy relationship with feminism, undercutting her auteur status in the process by revealing the disappointments and failures of the films subsequent to The Piano, including real resistance to and criticism of The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and Holy Smoke (1999), and the perception that Campion was not living up to her promise and success (5).
Verhoeven thus suggests that being an auteur is no longer entirely reliant on the production, consumption and appraisal of films, but rather on an intricate set of industrial processes that impinge on a filmmaker’s career; processes in which the film is only one component. So, rather than a text-based account of an auteur, we must now look at a looser framework for analysis:
how the contemporary film industry addresses the auteur as an integral part of its operations, as a crucial component of the ways in which films are financed, in which key personnel (crew, stars) are recruited to particular projects and in which films are marketed to audiences. (p. 15)
In this way, Verhoeven is differentiating her book from Kathleen McHugh’s and Dana Polan’s mainly text-based analyses of Campion’s filmmaking career and from Sue Gillett’s exploration of the philosophical and thematic concerns of Campion’s films (6). Verhoeven suggests that what she is considering is a move towards a theory of post-auteurism: a reconsideration of authorship which shifts the emphasis from the single image of an individual author to a composite picture of collaborative relationships and industrial contexts, in turn proposing a whole new series of questions. While not proposing the death of the auteur, Verhoeven is always aware of the “authorising” of a film director, taking a multi-faceted approach to all the people engaged in authorising Campion: the media, industry, academic scholarship and Campion herself in the domain of personal reflection and self-promotion. Her approach is therefore intertextual whilst acknowledging that these areas cannot be strictly delineated. Through an assessment of Campion’s “auteur-ness”, Verhoeven offers an original and thought-provoking model for understanding the construtedness of the contemporary auteur. As is Verhoeven’s stated intent, she takes a step back from an essentialising auteurist approach in order to set the very term in context and to get behind the curtain of – or to blow wide open – the “other circle” that Kael suspected held all the secrets.
Through an investigation of what constitutes Campion’s “signature self”, Verhoeven arrives at a notion of directorial selfhood that is multivalent. So, rather than engage with finding “the true self of the celebrity auteur” (p. 117), this is an exploration of the surrounding characters and positionalities. Campion may have a reputation as an uncompromising artist – someone who gets things done – but Verhoeven develops this into an element of post-auteurism, so the post-auteur is not so much something you “are” as something you can “do” (p. 43). Verhoeven never forgets the importance of finances, noting how (for some) the progressive increases in Campion’s budgets spoiled her standing as an auteur. But again Verhoeven takes this further, going into detail about the financial support Campion received from the Australian Film Commission in the late 1980s and the support for women arising out of the Women’s Film Fund and the Women’s Film Unit; all of this facilitating Campion’s crossover from art cinema to the mainstream effected by The Piano. Although her reputation for tenacity may sit well with the idea of an auteur’s contrariness, Verhoeven reminds us of the industrial reality: there was no studio system for Campion to oppose and it seems that she has actually worked well within the financial systems available to her, so these tales are more accurately of “personal prickliness” (p. 45), shored up by the discourse around her as being the lone woman in a male-dominated industry. Thus her femininity is up for debate, too. For Verhoeven, Campion’s gender is characterised as a matter of positionality rather than performance. Verhoeven says that Campion proposes femininity as a heuristic category – “a means by which we might investigate the variability and contingency of conventional understandings of sexual difference” (p. 49). Verhoeven thus identifies the way in which the media foregrounds Campion’s gender, counterpointing this with Campion’s references to her “real self” — intimating that the personal and the professional exist in an unpredictable relationship, on occasion in conflict, but that they may be reciprocal or intangibly related. There emerges an idea of her “self” – if not her success – as unbroken and continuous. This self, however, is not an essentialist notion but rather a series of ambivalent, multiple and partial identifications, engaged in a constant process of “becoming-author” – “each film a new opportunity to think through or enact her agency” (pp. 60-61). In this respect, filmmaking – and breaking from it – is proposed as a form of self-renewal.
These discussions of Campion’s identity reveal the disparate nature of the filmmaker who is considered a modern auteur. They may be the figure who functions to connect various media – “the glue that unites disparate textual occasions into one long event of authorship” (p. 68). But Campion also invites divisive responses from audiences, as Fincina Hopgood describes, “inspiring passion and hatred” (7). So enduring status is no longer measured by the specific qualities of the auteur’s films per se but the intensity and diversity of interpretation they produce. Campion’s films are a complex combination of attraction and deliberate discomfort, which she realises create divisive reactions:
And I think that they’re strong and that people, if they don’t like them, they don’t just not like them, they really hate them! And if they love them, they’re really passionate about them. (8)
As a New Zealander, schooled and financed in Australia, Campion tends to be discussed as Australasian in order to reconcile the competing nationalist appreciations of her. This diverse and competing set of attachments and allegiances leads Verhoeven to think about the auteur in ethical terms – similar to the approach of Lisa Downing in her consideration of eclectic French director Patrice Leconte (9). For Downing, the diversity of Leconte’s directorial positionalities reflects his awareness of the ethical problem of committing to any one cause, movement, moment or position (10). Verhoeven, however, comes to consider Campion from the point of view of ethics as a result of her discovery that the spaces of the auteur are fundamentally social, rather than solitary,
constantly engaged in negotiating issues of reciprocity, affinity, collaboration, belongingness and identity rather than simply seeing her as personally driven by the prospect of position, profit or political gain. (p. 91)
This illustrates further the direction in which Verhoeven has taken her post-auteurist project – de-centring the debates into satellites of significant discourses and influences.
Part of this multiplicity is the issue of failure, which Verhoeven tackles refreshingly head-on. There is an illuminating account of the allegations and litigation surrounding the source of the story for The Piano and the question as to whether it was based on The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander (11). Fitting with Verhoeven’s portrait of Campion’s approach to her work, she cites Campion’s assertion of the creativity involved in the project, and the extent of this creativity as reflected in multiple authorship. There is therefore a questioning of Campion’s originality, also explored in her involvement in the process of the adaptation of novels and the creation of novelisations.
There is a detailed examination of the marketing and promotion of The Piano by Miramax and the debates around the studio’s role in the success of the film, in particular the Oscar win. Verhoeven identifies how the auteur can be seen as both a cohering or mediating factor in the marketing of the film within a proliferating range of related products and promotional materials and as a hypertext, linked in – but also linking off – to alternative avenues and narratives of consumption.
It is certainly the case that Campion’s films are attractive to academics and Verhoeven draws this fascination into the mix by citing academics, critics, festival aficionados, fans, publicists, and cultural bureaucrats as “knowing audiences” (p. 147). In analysing what lies at the heart of the attraction of Campion’s films for these audiences, Verhoeven looks at specific qualities of Campion’s texts: their use of “arresting images; their ambiguous use of sound; their ideological complexity; their hermeneutic uncertainties, and their generic hybridity” (p. 177). But she also examines the mediating role of the filmmaker, as a colleague and competitor in diverse contemporary knowledge practices. It is intriguing to ponder the fascination that Campion’s films pose for certain academics. Vivian Sobchack explores her “sensual and sense-making experience” of The Piano (12). Polan writes about the affectiveness of Campion’s filmmaking (evocatively describing the palette of The Piano as the muddy blues and greens of the bottom of a fish tank) and talks about Campion’s “cinema of soft focus, of visual blurs” which “takes the edges off a hard, harsh world and substitutes a dreamy haziness in which longing can take flight” (13). Unusually, Verhoeven considers the role of universities in the film industry, and notes the conferral of an academic title on Campion as lending her further credibility as a filmmaker. But the fascinating step that Verhoeven takes is to extend this analysis to the role that discussion of the auteur plays in the formation of the academic self, as well as bringing out the fan in film academics. By addressing this sensual realm, Verhoeven engages with the fascinating area of affective cinema and what Laura Marks describes as the “uncool, nose against the glass enthusiasm” of film academia (14). In this way, Verhoeven affects a shift in thinking about the “post-auteurist”, and how Campion “enables us to orient and conduct ourselves in a world indelibly marked by media images and practices of mediation” (p. 178).
Citing the “prescient, premature public reception” of Bright Star (p. 178), Verhoeven reminds us that Campion’s visions are always already mediated. Finally, Verhoeven produces a mediated Campion text herself – the interview – in which Campion reveals the effect that Gillian Armstrong’s work and existence had on her at a young age. In this way, the effects and perceptions of the filmmaker become convincingly real, and the importance of auteur study is re-invigorated.
Verhoeven reports Campion’s own take on auteurism as being a cohesive voice. The achievement of this book, however, is to illustrate just how multi-faceted and mediated this voice is. Rather than occupying the “weightless, celestial space of solitary achievement” (15), Campion’s relationships and collaborations are afforded weight and significance. But more than demonstrating the collaborative nature of Campion’s – and indeed the modern auteur’s – filmmaking processes, this book also explores the various discourses and mediations that add to the package of “being Jane Campion”. This constructs a horizon of understanding of the creation, function and perpetuation of the contemporary auteur, requiring us to be – as Kael predicted – pluralistic, flexible, relative and eclectic in our judgments (16).
Presenting Campion as a public figure with a social and artistic conscience, Verhoeven effectively adopts Richard Dyer’s model of a structured polysemy in order to demonstrate how Campion is both a star-maker and a star herself (17). Verhoeven’s book thus begins to answer Angela Martin’s call to talk about films in a different way, which enables the multivalent industrial, cultural and ethical positionalities of contemporary auteurs to circulate upon an egalitarian playing field of authorship studies.
Jane Campion, by Deb Verhoeven, Routledge, London and New York, 2009.
- Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares”, Film Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, 1963, pp. 12-16, reproduced in Kael’s I Lost it At the Movies: Film Writings 1954-65, Marion Boyars Publishing, London, pp. 292-319, p. 307.
- Kael, p. 307.
- Editor’s note: Deb Verhoeven is currently President of the Senses of Cinema committee.
- Angela Martin, “Refocusing Authorship in Women’s Filmmaking”, in Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis and Valerie Raoul(eds), Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2003, pp. 29-37, reproduced in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Maldon, Oxford, Victoria, 2008, pp. 127-34, p. 127.
- It is interesting to note that Campion does not feature in Geetha Ramanathan’s recent study of feminist filmmakers, Feminist Auteurs: Reading Women’s Films, Wallflower, London and New York, 2006.
- Kathleen McHugh, Jane Campion, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2007; Dana Polan, Jane Campion,British Film Institute, London, 2001; Sue Gillett, Views from Beyond the Mirror: The Films of Jane Campion, ATOM,Melbourne, 2004.
- Fincina Hopgood, “Inspiring Passion and Hatred: Jane Campion’s In the Cut”, Metro, no. 139, 2003, pp. 28-32.
- Hopgood, p. 31. Hopgood quotes Campion’s interview with Margaret Pomeranz, The Movie Show, SBS, 12 November 2003.
- Lisa Downing, Patrice Leconte, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2004.
- Downing, p. 132.
- Jane Mander, The Story of a New Zealand River, Robert Hale, London, 1938 (reprinted 1985).
- Vivian Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew: the Cinesthetic Subject, Or Vision in the Flesh”, Senses of Cinema, no. 5, 2000.
- Polan, pp. 27 and 29.
- Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multi-Sensory Media, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2002, p. xv.
- Verhoeven describes the poster for the 2007 Cannes film festival, featuring actors and directors leaping in the air: “With their feet clear of the ground, the poster collectively suspends auteurs and actors alike against a blank background. Poised momentarily at the point before their descent back to earth and devoid of context or support, they occupy the weightless, celestial space of solitary achievement.” (p. 119, emphasis added)
- Kael, p. 308.
- Richard Dyer, Stars, British Film Institute, London, 1979, p. 3.