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Auteurship and Genre as Explored Through Refn’s the Neon Demon

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Basic film analysis revolves around one goal: finding the meaning hidden within (or blatantly on the surface of) a film. Throughout its relatively short history, film analysis continues to blossom into an array of theoretical discussions and topics aimed at the discovery of meaning. Two such topics, auteurship and genre, exist as (initially) large, unwieldy subjects discussed and refined in order to more easily pick up what a film lays out for its viewers.

Auteurship, most simply, relates to the author of a work. As Barthes muses, an “explanation of a work is always sought in the man… who produced it” (Barthes 143). Then comes into question, naturally, the true author. The writer, who puts words into the film? Or, agreed upon more unanimously, the burden of authorship and auteurship lands upon the director. A director, as opposed to a screenwriter, can “express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through [its] literary content” (Sarris 452). This “tension between a director’s personality and his material” births the idea of “interior meaning”--meaning associated and created by the director’s engagement with the construction of the work, implying a dialogue created and sustained by the director’s own views and opinions (Sarris 453). However, on the opposing side, there does exist an argument that “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text,” granting doubt as to whether or not a film should be examined as relating to and portraying universal truths instead of confined to the idea of existing as a diary entry of or personalized conversation with a particular filmmaker (Barthes 147). Either way, the “auteur theory emphasizes the body of a director’s work rather than isolated masterpieces” in the way that consistencies and personalities must be uncovered and examined as a whole in order to dissect a film with regards to that particular personality and view (Sarris 454). So, in this way, the auteur lives not only within a specific piece but as a whole entity outside the works themselves--he or she, not as a person in society but as an auteur in filmic spaces, becomes both a signature within film, creating consistencies of representation, and an influencing source on cinema, effectively personalizing and creating meaning otherwise nonexistent.

According to Gledhill, “genre was introduced… as an alternative to auteurism more appropriate to a mass entertainment industry,” meaning that the confines and organizational method brought forward by genres aimed to imply meaning to the general public, most of which, being not in the profession of film criticism, would for the most part overlook the concept of auteurism (Gledhill 222). By providing general “rules” or confines for film, the public is better able to interact with the industry, informing filmmakers as to what kinds of topics and themes they as a whole enjoy and which they do not through their continued spectatorship of certain constructed genres. Genre, most basically, exists as a combination of film genre and genre film (Sarris 565). The former relates to the overall genre--general concepts like the Western or melodrama--and the basic cultural concepts they delve into, while the latter explores the individual characteristics within a film that represent the larger concept of a particular genre. Altman expands on genre in a similar way, splitting the idea into semantics and syntax--the first relating to the “building blocks” of genre and the second referring to the structure in which those blocks are arranged (Altman 556). Both of these arguments serve to outline the idea that certain characteristics are continuously used to reflect cultural issues pervading society, and that by grouping similar films together and forming genres around them, viewers can then come to, one: expect consistencies of subjects and style within genres and, two: communicate whether or not they enjoy those topics by their attendance to certain genre films. In order to tackle an array of cultural issues, film genre divides into that of determinate and indeterminate spaces (Schatz 570). Through a determinate space, a setting contingent on values being in sustained conflict by bringing new views to contest with those already present, a film can explore and comment on the cultural context and issues of a society, group, or place. By using indeterminate space, in which the “civilized setting” holds no real views of its own, a film can then focus on the internal issues of or those immediately concerning individual characters, shying away from generalizing societal issues and instead creating a commentary on the individual within society.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 The Neon Demon is an arguably complex work, and when looked at next to his other films, it fits within his established auteurist approach. One of Refn’s most notable “trademarks” is his distinctive choice to put visuals ahead of dialogue--that is to say that The Neon Demon, as well as his other works, shies away from excessive wordage. In his own words, Refn declares that silence “forces us to perceive on a much deeper level because we can no longer just be told things… it forces the audience to engage more, because they're not being told what to think” (2013). This simple idea, this focus on engagement and unique perception, is indeed what influences most of his decisions regarding his filmmaking. Through superb uses of music, often created for the film (and often by Cliff Martinez), long takes in which the audience can continuously find new meanings, stunning visuals meant to evoke emotion (and also directly influenced by Refn’s color-blindness), and shots of characters being “swallowed” by their surroundings, among others, Refn allows for the audience to draw meaning from his film, to catch a feeling and an atmosphere rather than to make immediate, obvious connections. His films are, at their very essence, a practice of engagement and entrancement. In The Neon Demon, these elements come together to create a captivating world filled with the essence of danger and darkness, connecting the ideas of beauty and uneasiness into one film. These similarities and the uniqueness of his films serve to substantiate the auteur theory--Refn, by being the auteur, both as the director and the writer, delivers himself to the audience consistently. The viewer, when walking into one of his films, already knows what to expect--an ephemeral, thought-provoking, heavily visual film punctuated by moments of extreme, and subtly arousing, violence. This idea of violence directly traces to his idea of art, as he believes that “art is an act of violence... about penetration, about speaking to our subconscious and our moods” (2013). And while the director is the auteur, Refn’s dialogue also remains consistent throughout his

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