Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Authorship in Collaborative Art

The folks over at Incertus have been having an interesting discussion regarding authorship in respect to Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. In this specific instance, authorship has a clear hierarchy in that the stories are credited to Carver but were apparently heavily modified by Lish.

It has spurred on something that's been bouncing around in my head for a while so instead of putting off my musings I thought I'd just expand the discussion here.

I have only ever worked in collaborative art forms.

As a musician I worked with bands. Sax players have a rich tradition of being a lone backdrop to a romantic evenings epilogue, and I did that for one winter, but most of my work was done as part of a band.

As a playwright my work was just a blueprint until taken up by a director, casted by actors, and designed by stage crew.

In film I always work with crew people. Often I won't even meet a lot of the people involved in the final creation of what I do. Even in works where I do most of the work, like my college documentary I still had to enlist a small group of people to get it complete.

In all of these things I have had authorship (though as a PA, close to none).

The lines I would play in jazz would be mine, no one would play them like me (as every player plays their own way). But even as a 'lead' on the band there was a recognizable difference in my own playing depending on who I was playing with. A drummer made all the difference in the world. The amazing piano and guitar players I played with in high school made me sound better than I actually was, a false confidence that was a rude awaking when playing with players who weren't able to open the changes up to follow where I wandered.

In big bands my creativity was under the final direction from the leader. But my playing was still my own and the band would not sound exactly the same with any member replaced.

In theater every play I wrote (and write) has a definite vision in my head. I can hear the voices of each character in my head and can answer as to what they are thinking and going through at any given moment in a scene. To me, it's the funnest part of writing a play for me. When a play is really 'happening' I feel like I'm just transcribing a conversation I overheard.

But consistently those expectations have been shattered when actors, directors, and set designers get a hold of it. Actors find new ways of delivering the lines, bringing life into characters that I didn't know was there. The director invariably finds some aspect of the play that fascinates her (my best directors far and away have been women) that maybe I thought was less present, and set designers have worked some interesting miracles with notoriously minimal set requirements.

Even more to the point it is inaccurate to say "I" wrote any plays. Every play has been written with Sous Rature who has put a stamp of depth to all of our works.

If asked we will both sheepishly admit (and here I am speaking a bit for him, but I think I'm right) that our most popular works had more than a little to do with who put them on. We have an immense respect and admiration for the actors that appeared in a number of our plays and tend to think any further success would necessarily involve them to the point that we often try to decide who they would play in each new work we create.

Film simply cannot be done without a small army of people, from lighting, set design, cinematographer, sound recording and design, and editing.

Stanley Kubrick believed that film needed one author in the same way that there is one composer, one writer for a novel or a poem. Film auteurship is based on the director being the film's 'author.' Producers in the Hollywood machine have often taken that credit as well. A book that came out about a year or so ago (which I can't find at the moment) argues for screenwriters being a films author.

To establish a theory of auteurship in film it became necessary for the director or producer to have a recognizable artistry in their films, something Kubrick did manage. There is no mistaking a Kubrick film.

But there is also no mistaking an Arthur C. Clarke story. Is 2001:A Space Odyssey a Stanley Kubrick work or a Arthur C. Clarke work. Kubrick did adaptations throughout his career, but in this time he collaborated on the work that he adapted.

Or for a muddier question, look at the working relationship between Spike Jonze and Charles Kaufman. Kaufman's work has been done by other directors but is still unmistakably Kaufman's. And yet there is a particular stamp to Kaufman when directed by Jonze. So who is the author, Jonze, or Kaufman?

How much of Jean-Pierre Jeunet is Jeunet and how much is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie and A Very Long Engagement), whose visual style is evident in Across the Universe, even though credit is given in reviews has gone to Julie Taymor. That isn't entirely undeserved, elaborate set design has been part of her work. On the set the decisions were hers, as they were Kubricks, or Jonzes.

But like with the bands, these works would not have been the same with different people. Each one of them brought their authorship to the work. Without the screenplay there would be no story, without the cinematographer no one would see it, and so on.

Autuer theory came about largely because it was felt that it was necessary for films to have authors in order for them to gain legitimacy as an art form. Through school I embraced this, perhaps because I had planned (and still do) becoming a writer-director and that theory lionized my dream role.

But as of late I've been thinking that we missed a fabulous opportunity to question the idea of the single author. I have been arguing for a while (though not here) that art isn't in the conception but in the execution. It's not that anyone can think of a soup can as art but that someone did. Shakespeare borrowed liberally from other sources for his plays, but it's how he told them that makes him still studied today. If that is the case then authorship is shared by the artists who realize it.

Sorry for the rambling...I don't have this fully worked out yet. I may come back to this subject from time to time.


  1. Walrus certainly raises some interesting points here--there's also the question of how much Samuel Beckett contributed to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The collaboration between Walrus and me bears little resemblance to the stuff that we generate independently (W has a great ear for natural speech patterns and comes at things in a way that is basically perpendicular to my own in a way that makes perfect sense as soon as I hear it, but never would have occurred to me; I think that what I bring is a kind of crystallization, or underlying order, to things). In other instances, offhanded comments made by people in workshop groups in writing classes have often taken things in new directions, and I've even found that things show up that were never intentional. I used to imagine that a great work of art sat perfected in the mind of the artist, who then painstakingly transported that work into the real world. Now, it seems more like those seventies game shows where people go into the whirling money booth and try and grab what they can. You can't really look to much at the denominations, or even what each bit is, and you're bound to look silly regardless of your process. It's all bricolage (to throw in a more pedigreed analogy), and influence isn't avoidable, or even just a taint to be minimized, but is probably really the substance of creative work.

  2. Anonymous1:25 PM

    hmmmm I am a bit suprised your gf let you post on here SR, I thought Walrus was the lone ranger keeping the machine running. Keep up the good work Walrus, to SR that is a one four niner and I'm out.