The Death of the Author: Contemporary Cinema Edition

Navigate changes in the industry

Reading time
4 min
Published on

December 22, 2023

Blauw Films

Death of the Author

Roland Barthes, a prominent French literary theorist, challenged the conventional notion of authorship and the significance attributed to it in his essay, "Death of the Author."

Barthes asserted that once an artist releases their work into the world, it undergoes a transformation, distancing itself from the creator's intentions. He contended that the interpretation and meaning of a piece of art lie in the hands of its audience rather than being confined to the author's original intent.

film still from the movie Shanghai Express (1932), Directed by Josef von Sternberg. It shows a young woman doing her makup. In the three reflections, two show a fake face.

In rejecting the traditional emphasis on the author as the ultimate authority on the meaning of their work, Barthes argued that the author's persona should not overshadow the autonomy of the work itself. He expressed dissatisfaction with the prevailing tendency to seek the explanation of a work in the life and experiences of its creator. According to Barthes, the work's importance is not tethered to the personal context of the author but takes on a life of its own once it is released into the public sphere. The author becomes, in Barthes' words, a mere transparent allegory of the fiction, and the work speaks for itself.

Barthes went further to proclaim that the birth of the reader necessitates the death of the author. By this, he meant that the reader should be free to interpret and derive meaning from a work without being restricted by the author's intentions. The author's demise, in this sense, liberates the work from a singular authoritative interpretation and allows it to be a dynamic entity subject to diverse readings and perspectives.

However, this perspective is not universally accepted, and various artists, like the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, have expressed contrary views. Tarkovsky believed in the importance of cultivating a distinctive style and language in one's work, emphasising the survival of an artist in cinema through finding a unique creative voice. In contrast to Barthes' call for the death of the author, Tarkovsky's stance underscores the significance of individual artistic expression and the cultivation of a personal, identifiable style.

And what now?

In the contemporary landscape, the dynamics of authorship in art have evolved, particularly in the film industry. With the rise of large corporations and streaming services dominating the production and distribution of movies, the traditional notion of the auteur, or the singular artistic vision of a director, may seem diluted. The focus shifts from individual directors to the overarching identity of the industry or the platform.

archival black and white photograph of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in 1970. A fim theatre with every seat having its own cubicle for privacy.

In this era of mass production and standardised content, it becomes challenging to discern the authorship of a film amidst the myriad of movies that often conform to industry trends. Directors may find themselves overshadowed by the larger forces at play in the entertainment industry. The emphasis on marketability and formulaic approaches to filmmaking can sometimes obscure the individual voices within the vast sea of cinematic output.

Despite these challenges, the call to maintain uniqueness and let art speak through the artist remains pertinent. Even in a landscape dominated by corporations and streaming giants, artists are urged to preserve their authenticity and individuality.

The advice to detach from previous works and allow the audience to interpret the art in their ways echoes Barthes' call for the death of the author,
encouraging a focus on the work itself rather than the personal history of its creator.


In conclusion, Barthes' theory of the death of the author challenges traditional notions of authorship, advocating for the autonomy of the work and emphasising the role of the audience in interpretation. While some artists, like Tarkovsky, may emphasise the importance of individual style, the contemporary context of mass production and corporate influence in the arts poses new challenges to the concept of the author.

Nonetheless, the enduring advice to maintain uniqueness and let the art speak through the artist serves as a reminder of the ongoing tension between individual expression and external influences in the ever-evolving landscape of creative production.

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