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Self-Projection: The Director's Image in Art Cinema

by Linda Haverty Rugg
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2014
248 pp., illus. 28 b&w. Trade, $75 ; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9123-4; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9124-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

From a narratological point of view, autobiography seems to be the easiest genre to identify and to study. Following Philippe Lejeune's famous and still valid definition, a text is autobiographical if the reader accepts a special 'contract' offered by the author, who states (claims, promises, or implies) that biographical author, narrator (the 'narrating I') and character (the 'narrated I') are one and the same, from the very beginning till the very end of the book or text. In spite of several updates and thorough ongoing discussions on this definition, mainly around the notion of autofiction or semi-autobiography, the basic insights of Philippe Lejeune still hold, at least in the field of writing. The expansion of this theory to other, more specifically visual fields raises however a different set of problems, of which Linda Haverty Rugg, author of a book on autobiography and photography (Picturing Ourselves, Chicago UP, 1997), is an excellent specialist. In this new book, she tackles an even more complex domain, that of autobiography in film, a phenomenon that cannot be limited to the mere subfield of the autobiographical documentary, (more) easily compatible with Lejeune's framework.

Rugg's approach is characterized by a robust theoretical reflection on the problem under scrutiny. On the one hand, she argues very convincingly that the notion of the author's self deserves to be enlarged, in order to include a certain number of elements that may not be directly autobiographical in the sense of Lejeune, but that nevertheless contribute to the shaping of the director's image and hence self through a cinematographic representation. On the other hand, she proposes no less cleverly to question as well the classic idea of self and selfhood as something to be represented (by the author) and eventually recognized (by the reader or viewer), but as a process that is being shaped via a dialogue between maker and receiver. The concept of self-projection, which involves both the director and the spectator, help her solve this twofold problem. First, self-projection makes us see that the author's person is not always-already there and then reflected in film but that it is the result of a set of precise events and interventions that hint at the progressive construction of a self. Second, self-projection is something that can only happen if there is a spectator who is willing and capable of taking the cues and allow for the emergence of such a self during, but also after and before the viewing (for the viewing can start before the actual projection of the film, for instance when the spectator prepares himself or herself by reading an interview, and in quite some cases it continues after the viewing itself). Finally, the notion of self-projection has also strong dialogical overtones, for it is not only the maker but also the viewer who participate in the process and thus mutually construct their 'own' self: the film addresses a spectator who addresses a director, and vice versa.

Rugg's vision of self-projection is described along four different axes: 1) the physical presence of the director on screen (as an actor), 2) the references through the act of direction, 3) the use of actors, often linked to the "real person" of the director, as avatars, 4) the direct or indirect allusions to the technical apparatus, which ultimately refer to the presence of a creator. Each of these axes is illustrated with the help of a set of well-chosen films, some utterly famous, others rather marginal in the oeuvre of their makers, which the author close-reads in innovative and challenging ways. Yet Rugg's merit is not only to make her point as clear and convincing as possible, it is also to discuss with great honesty the possible limits of corpus and approach. The films that are analyzed in this book do all belong to a very specific type of films, that of art cinema or, more precisely of auteurist cinema, i.e. a type of film-making that appeared in the slipstream of the French 'politique des auteurs', a post-World War II movement (with a peak in the early sixties) that states that real, authentic films were the expression of its director, and not the anonymous vehicles dominated by either a studio style or a movie star performance. Auteurist movies are not solipsistic, however, for all directors working in this spirit present their work as a dialogue with the spectator, who participates in the fundamentally autobiographical stance of the work: auteurist cinema does not only give birth to the director, who invents a new persona via a movie, it also creates the self of the spectator, to whom the film is addressed like a love-letter (to follow the metaphor used by François Truffaut, one of the major representatives of art cinema). This approach of cinema, whose intellectual and ideological impact continues to be very strong until today, is far from being universal. In practice, it is often limited to male directors, and Rugg discusses very frankly the gender dimensions of auteurism. It is linked to a certain period of film history,  a period characterized by a strong tension between commercial and art cinema, but also a period highlighted by a certain technology and a certain apparatus closely related to the idea of creation, magic, and invention. Rugg pays a lot of attention to these limits, which she discusses always in a very open and stimulating way, which tend to show the usefulness of her concepts and categories for other films than those that dominate her corpus (Bergman, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Allen, Herzog, Almodóvar, to quote the most frequently studied directors). Digital film-viewing, for instance, does no longer rely upon the notion of 'projection': movies are no longer materially projected on the screen by a beam of light, and the idea of 'self-projection' should therefore be elaborated in a perspective that is as much haptic as optic, and that gives a different interpretation of the bodily, and of course also gendered involvement of author and spectator. As the example of Alfred Hitchcock, a typical example of a director who is both a real auteur and a studio employee, it will be fascinating to transfer Rugg's vision of self-projection in art cinema to the field of commercial moviemaking. One can already guess that strange discoveries will be ahead.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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