In opening this discussion, it is important to lay out a clear summation of the auteur theory that informs the previous criticism of both THE SEARCHERS and TAXI DRIVER referenced in this work. Leighton Grist writes in the summary statement of his work:
Informed by a broadly poststructuralist position, the thesis recasts authorship as a discourse that exists in a particular, mutually inflecting relation with a text’s other constituting elements. While the analysis of specific films traces the stylistic and thematic consistencies that inform Scorsese’s authorial discourse, the latter’s specific articulations are read in relation to the texts’ institutional, industrial, and historical determination. That the texts studied were made within a variety of filmmaking practices – student production, exploitation cinema, independent filmmaking, major studio finance and distribution – enables consideration of authorship within different contexts of production. Crossing this, the thesis charts the genesis, institutional appropriation, and consequent rejection on New Hollywood Cinema, a phase of filmmaking of which Scorsese’s early work is paradigmatic… The thesis concludes that authorial analysis remains a valid critical practice, but also one which needs to be located in relation to other determining factors.
The first chapter of his work on Scorsese proceeds to outline the basic coordinates of the auteurist discourse within film scholarship. Historically speaking, the auteur theory was a genre of film criticism that argued as a basic tenet that a film’s director was to be considered and analyzed in the same fashion a literary critic would the author of a given text. The underlying flaw in the auteurist view of cinema is that, with the exception of independent pictures produced with and by a single individual, exemplified by a film like Andy Warhol’s EMPIRE, filmmaking is a collaborative effort that can include hundreds or even thousands of individual artists, technicians, and specialists who contribute various elements to the final product that is projected on screen. Today, the auteurist view of cinema is largely utilized to describe the works of certain celebrity filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg. These directors are able to exert an almost total control of how these collaborative efforts are finalized, usually in the form of a final cut stipulation in their contracts that mandates the distributors accept the final product the director delivers irregardless of how executives might react to content.
Grist therefore sets out to recreate the auteurist perspective within a wider poststructuralist spectrum, meaning that the discourse about authorship is one of many narratives about a given text (or here, film) that is both complimented and challenged by a variety of other discourses. In practical terms, he means that placing emphasis on Scorsese as the author of TAXI DRIVER can tell us a good amount of information which can be supplemented by analysis of other talents in the film, be it Paul Schrader as the screenwriter, Robert De Niro as the primary actor, or even Bernard Hermann as the musical soundtrack composer.
Grist is apt to point out that Scorsese is heavily indebted to the auteurist critique and has previously made statements in Pye and Myles describing those works as “like some fresh air”, works that included from the outset a high esteem for John Ford. Grist then goes on to utilize the scholarship of John Caughie “to reconstitute authorship…on a more theoretically sound basis” (Grist 2). He identifies the flaw in auteurist criticism as “an essentialist Romantic celebration of autonomous, all-embracing creativity” (3). Andre Bazin’s efforts within the pages of Cahiers du cinéma in 1957 added to “La Politique des Auteurs” an emphasis on context and “the significance of environment and culture on a filmmaker’s work” (4), which Grist sees as foreshadowing the changes within the theory created by the developments and contributions by structuralism and poststructuralism. But, he writes that French critics have to confront another notion tied to Romanticism, the idea that filmmakers are “unified, freely creative, and even self-determined”. The film critic in this instance places the filmmaker in the same position that the traditional painter was placed in by prior art criticism. However, Grist argues that Freudian criticism teaches that there is no such thing as a “unified” personality, instead it is a collection of “the fissured site of conflicting, often unconscious impulses”. Auteurism brought to film criticism a Romantic orientation, the belief in the individual on the basis of emotion, imaginary freedom, and autonomy, at the exact moment in history when Romanticism was being jettisoned by the academic establishment. Attempts to fuse auteurism with post-structuralism also ended badly. “[A]uteur-structuralism effectively replaced one ahistorical ideal (the Romantic artist) with another (the immutable structure). Moreover, in an ironic reflection of auteurist Romantic excess, for auteur-structuralism anything filmically exterior to the authorial structure tends to be disregarded” (6).
From here, Grist sees the end of Wollen’s 1972 work as the “more profitable way forward” (6): “Instead of a film being regarded as the site of a single, discrete meaning, it is posited as a text constituted by an (ideologically determined) ‘heterogeneity of structures, codes, languages’ (Heath 1973:89) (7).” With great unintended irony for this project, Grist identifies as a key text in this discussion the editorial collective work by Cahiers du cinéma regarding John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.
…Ford’s authorial inscription – a term for the film’s authorial connotations that has been variously re-worked in poststructuralist criticism as the authorial code… [A]ny film text becomes a complex structured by multiple determinants. Authorship, yes, but also genre, budget, narrative structure, studio policy, historical situation, stars, choice of crew, etc. Any of these elements can be separated or analysed in isolation or in combination with any of the others. But while each element is determined by and brings the text into a (frequently displaced and highly mediated) relation with its broader cultural context, it also mutually interacts with and disrupts the text’s other elements to produce an historically specific collocation of structures, representations, and determinants… The author survives not as the total creative force behind a film, nor as the ‘unconscious catalyst’ informing an authorial structure, but as one of a number of active elements that cohere in the creation of meaning… No less than meanings and consistencies, the films’ contextual determinants are ideologically informed. Consequently, the subsequent readings cannot be restricted to their ‘pure’ authorial or cinematic context, but will encompass the texts’ wider historical placement (7-10).
As will be shown later, this final factor will continue to impact the two films studied herein. It is the contention of this author that in fact the very coordinates of both films in relationship with the international and domestic American policies of their era profoundly impacted the stories told in each, something that expands on previous scholarship on THE SEARCHERS.