October 12, 2011

A review of

A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma
Emilie Bickerton
160 pages
ISBN: 9781844677603
August 2009

by Bill Krohn


In which the reviewer ponders the role of taste in writing History

Emilie Bickerton, a young cultural journalist who is on the editorial board of England's venerable New Left Review, has written A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma as a follow-up to an article she published in NLR two years ago, "Adieu to Cahiers: Life Cycle of a Film Journal." Her book not only restates the main polemical point of her article (that the Cahiers is dead as a doornail) but reproduces several passages from it virtually intact. (1)

As someone who has been writing for the Cahiers during the thirty-year period that Bickerton judges to have been one of steep decline, I'd better limit myself to quoting her thesis and saying that I don't agree.

"What followed [the departure of Serge Daney in 1980] was a period of protracted death for the review: its once dereglante or troublemaking presence became a mouthpiece for the market, bound within the covers of a standard monthly glossy….There were of course some peaks in the otherwise constant trough: good writers penning interesting articles, a number of fresh, imaginative editors coming on board. But none had any sway over the general direction [established and maintained after Daney's departure by Serge Toubiana] to reposition Cahiers at the centre of the film industry."

Even if I were the right person to do it, there's no point in trying to disprove a negative judgment that is accompanied by that kind of blanket disclaimer, since any counter-examples I might cite could be dismissed as exceptions that test the rule.

Instead of quarrelling with the historian's taste in film criticism, I'll focus on the main question: how good is this Short History of Cahiers du cinéma — meaning not only how accurate and reliable, but how well does it do the job a historian is supposed to do? Taste in film will nonetheless have to figure in the discussion, because we are talking about the history of taste.

The book gets off to a good start and holds up pretty well through the first half, where the author is deftly stitching together secondary sources, many in English. An online critic of the original article (see footnote 1) wrote at the time that it "provides very little insight and information that can't be easily found in all the standard English academic publications on the French New Wave and Cahiers legacy," and while the same could be said of the first half of the book, the historian is on firm ground here with scholars like Richard Abel to rely on.

But that useful summary of the history of French film culture before the advent of the Cahiers is already being undermined by remarks like the following, made parenthetically while chronicling the demise of the Popular Front's cineclub, Ciné-Liberté, as a force in film culture:

"Ciné-Liberté's lifespan was no longer than the popular front. An over-budget La Marseillaise — Renoir's sympathetic but light history of the storming of the Bastille — sounded its death knell in 1938."

There is no accounting for taste, and the historian has every right to consider La Marseillaise "sympathetic" (which is being used here, I’m afraid, with its French meaning: "pleasant and likeable") but "light," although she shouldn't describe it as a film about the storming of the Bastille when that event occurs before the film begins. What seems to me more serious is the fact that "sympathique mais leger" is not a judgment that would ever have appeared in the pages of the Cahiers du cinéma.

Bickerton's passing comment on La Marseillaise would be more at home in the article on the Popular Front written by the Italian communist critic Goffredo Fofi in 1966 and reprinted in the British film magazine Screen in Winter/Spring 1972:

"This updating of the Revolution is a sweetening, a castration. The film is the product of these contradictions [the contradictions of the Popular Front] and of this approach: confused, tired, good-natured, sometimes insipid."

While La Marseillaise has no doubt been dismissed this conclusively elsewhere, that judgment would always have to come down to the visceral conviction, which Bickerton appears to share, that this is not how the history of the French Revolution should be filmed. But no historian who feels that way about La Marseillaise can be expected to understand the role played in the history of the Cahiers by this particular film, from the 50s to the present.

Bazin, of course, loved La Marseillaise, and so did Truffaut, who started Mississippi Mermaid with Renoir's depiction of the reconciliation between the revolutionary troops and the Swiss Guard during the taking of the Tuileries. Two years earlier, when La Marseillaise was re-released on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Michel Delahaye and Jean Narboni, a future editor-in-chief who already had strong political convictions, had interviewed Renoir about it, and Jean-Louis Comolli, Narboni's future co-editor, had written a piece about the film where he claimed that it was better than Rules of the Game. Nine years after Mississippi Mermaid, and after the Maoist period of the Cahiers had ended, Comolli reiterated the magazine's position on La Marseillaise in one of a series of articles by various hands about how to film History. In another of those Pascal Kané favorably compared Renoir's Brechtian use of the scene where Louis XVI discovers tomatoes, which had been cited with pride by the director himself in a 1957 interview with Truffaut and Rivette, to the voyeuristic way Pasolini had filmed the past in his Trilogy of Life. And when Thierry Jousse and Frederic Strauss invited Cahiers critics and a number of filmmakers to write about "Tout Renoir" on the occasion of the big retrospective at the Cinématheque in 1994, New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rozier wrote his own tribute to La Marseillaise, where he skewered as ham-fisted and irrelevant the political positions adopted by critics to view the film in 1938 (referring to a dossier that had been published in La revue du cinéma: Image et Son with the help of Truffaut and Janine Bazin) before evoking some of its sounds and images to show that this film maudit (his description) is in fact "a great Renoir film." In other words, this "lightweight" Renoir has not been a passing fancy for the Cahiers. It is a strand of our DNA.

This raises a methodological question. Should a historian undertake to write the history of a magazine that has been a tastemaker as well as a source of esthetic theories if she doesn't share the magazine's tastes? Doesn't the author at least have a responsibility to declare, so to speak, an esthetic interest, by saying where her own judgments are coming from? Because esthetic assumptions bring other assumptions in their train, as Bickerton well understands — hence the brisk overview of French politics and culture that introduces her history of the magazine.

At times Bickerton's lapses of taste look like something worse: its total absence. Alfred Hitchcock's name is cited frequently in the book, almost always coupled with the name of Howard Hawks, but never to any purpose — the Dioscuri of auteur heaven are just signposts along a route that is being constructed out of something other than appreciation of their films, much less of what has been written about them. One encounters few names from the classical period of Hollywood cinema besides the cliché pairing of Hitchcock and Hawks, and when a different name does come up, the author's comments aren't reassuring. No one writing for the Cahiers would refer contemptuously to "Vincente Minnelli's pap Technicolor biopic of Van Gogh, Lust for Life" — at least after the departure of Bazin, whose reproving opinion (which was more politely stated) Bickerton cites in support of her own. (2)

Leaping ahead to the aftermath of the "Red Years," why is Marguerite Duras absent from this Short History? Although they're hard to see today, her films were once mentioned in the same breath as those of Godard and the Straubs, who formed the Trinity (to extend Bickerton's habitual religious metaphor) that served as the editors' touchstone after emerging from the Maoist phase — like Godard, Duras even edited her own issue of the Cahiers. But at the end of a lukewarm article Bickerton wrote about Duras' war memoirs for The Times Literary Supplement, she reveals that she prefers Simone de Beauvoir.

In the overly internalized world of Duras, she writes, "reality and how that reality is experienced become two distinct things. In Beauvoir’s work, the two remain soldered together …. In La Femme brisée (1967), for example, Monique is alone at her dining table: her husband has left her and her children have married. She stares at her abyss: the non-life she created, where she put everything into existing for others. But there is a sense of a beginning here: 'I’m scared', she says, as an introduction to what she might now begin to initiate."

Let's hope Monique hops in her car and drives like mad to Rock Hudson's farm to tell him that she loves him rather than continuing to stare at that abyss, into which Duras' Vice-Consul vanishes, howling with despair, at the end of the film version of India Song, joining the invisible beggar whose offscreen voice represents (according Pascal Bonitzer) the Durasian notion of an Other that is completely Other: "a class of violence" that includes not only mad Vice-Consuls but the bored bourgeois women in Nathalie Granger. "These couplings can only provoke laughter from serious people," Bonitzer says in his article on India Song, "and in fact they compose a class that's strictly for laughs, the class of lepers, beggars and vice-consuls."

Bickerton's TLS piece on Duras, which firmly situates its author on the side of serious people, at least declares an esthetic interest: a preference for a certain kind of fiction, which would probably lead to a preference for certain kinds of films. Hence, I assume, Duras' absence from the book. By the same token, the fact that Jerry Lewis is never mentioned in this Short History, which seems refreshing at first glance given the reflexive way his name is always linked with the Cahiers, raises an unnerving question when one starts noticing other discreet omissions and sweeping dismissals: doesn't she like him either? But how can someone write a history, however brief, of the Cahiers du cinéma who doesn't understand the importance of Jerry Lewis — and of La Marseillaise — to that history?

In which the reviewer discerns a resemblance between History and a roast turkey

Here is one more outright slam, which illustrates the havoc wreaked by lapses of taste in this Short History:

"[F]or all the eulogies that have subsequently been devoted to the New Wave, the movement was brief, over by 1965. Its influence was absolutely definitive, but the work itself was insubstantial."

The "insubstantial" work in question includes Breathless, Le petit soldat, A Woman's a Woman, Vivre sa vie, Les carabiniers, Le mepris, Une femme mariée, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou, The Four Hundred Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin, Fahrenheit 451, Paris nous appartient, La religieuse, Le Beau Serge, Les cousins, Les Godelureaux and Le Signe du Lion.

Bickerton's flip assertion covers so many highly regarded films that its audacity rather takes one's breath away, which is presumably the point. Even so, the stunning arbitrariness of the judgment — which the historian makes no attempt to justify, quite unlike the Cahiers critics she admires: Rivette, she says, practiced "a style of criticism always conscious of the spectator he had to convince" — doesn't blot out the added arbitrariness of the assertion that the movement that produced them was "over in 1965." After all, Eric Rohmer had only made one feature by 1965, and his colleagues would continue making films long after that date, but Bickerton neither explains nor justifies her cut-off date, which accidentally reads Rohmer out of the New Wave. That brings us to a second question about how to write history.

Apart from its shock value, the stern judgment on the New Wave serves to introduce an assertion about the magazine: "The ideas developed at Cahiers during its first ten years also faced the challenge of moving on from its first success to grasp a transformed cinematic landscape in the sixties" — presumably starting in 1965, which is also when the magazine got its first new look (in November of 1964, to be precise). Unfortunately, when one begins to understand the historical method behind this book, that articulation of a new cover "look" with a date that otherwise seems to have been picked out of a hat cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. Yet this is the historian's first attempt to articulate the story she's telling into a series of periods. They will always be introduced with an air of crisis, because History (according to an unstated historiographic assumption) can only be articulated as a series of ruptures.

Cutting up History into its constituent pieces is like cutting up a turkey: if you find the natural articulations, the result is delectable; if you miss them, you end up with something that looks like it fell out of Jeff Goldblum's telepod in The Fly, and that is what has happened to the Cahiers in this Short History. The result may appear sturdier than it is because a few other kinds of articulation are thrown in for reinforcement. La politique des couvertures can always be counted on, as can Politics with a big P and the Great Man theory: Bazin dies and is replaced by Rohmer, who is replaced by Rivette, who is replaced by Narboni and Comolli, who are replaced by Daney and Serge Toubiana. Then Daney leaves and History stops, although there have actually been six editors-in-chief (a role Toubiana didn't assume for long) since Daney, if one includes the very short reign of Laurent Roth.

But while Bickerton presumably knows that chronologies of dates and names and changing "looks" are not how one writes this kind of history, the articulations she selects to carve up the years between the late sixties and the present are false ones that simply can't do what they are supposed to do: the death of the auteur and the death of mise-en-scene, which we're told happened simultaneously, followed after the "Red Period" by the return of Hollywood (the Big Sellout) and the triumph of television, or more recently the introduction of digital technology in filmmaking, which the book tends to conflate with the effects of tv, a much older innovation. These ideas can't be used to articulate a history of the Cahiers du cinéma because they are phantoms conjured up by skimpy research. None of them ever happened.

The first point of rupture selected by the historian is the roundtable discussion of American cinema and the politique des auteurs that appeared in November 1965. Setting the agenda, Jean-André Fieschi promises at the outset that confusions surrounding the idea of mise-en-scene will also be cleared up in what follows. What follows, however, to borrow Bickerton's favorite comparison (Cahiers = Catholicism), is like a roundtable of Jesuit theologians debating the death of God. As she grimly notes, the magazine's first attempt to replace "the vague, non-transferable quality of taste" with a more rigorous methodology "brought no immediate breakthroughs."

Another attempt to get rid of the outmoded notion of directorial authorship is said to have been led by a former editor and filmmaker — one who was, of course, a consummate example of the outmoded notion: Jacques Rivette in L'amour fou, for which Rivette directed the scenes of fiction and André S. Labarthe's documentary crew filmed rehearsals for the play-within-the-play. Bickerton could also have cited Godardian experiments beginning with the "Paris-Levallois" episode of Paris vu par six and ending with the unsuccessful attempt by a post-68 collective to make Vent d'Est, which fell apart, according to the director, when "the anarchists all decided to go to the beach."

But when Rivette, interviewed by the editors about L'Amour fou, spoke of the disappearance of the auteur, the editors told him they thought this was a myth, and indeed, the auteur remained a central concept for the Cahiers du cinéma, along with the editors' high regard for Hollywood auteurs of the classical period, despite Bickerton's claim that "Cahiers still covered the latest releases from ageing auteurs, but without the passion and loyalty that the old politique des auteurs had produced." Anyone who has read Comolli's articles from this period on Man's Favorite Sport and Red Line 7000, or Serge Daney's theoretical magnum opus (still unavailable in English), "Rio Lobo: The One Grows Old," knows that this is wishful thinking. As Daney explained to me in a 1977 interview, the deconstruction of the Cahiers heritage during this period, far from being a patricidal act, "was obviously a last homage, more or less avowed, that we rendered to what we have always loved. We wanted to reread Ford, not Huston, to dissect Bresson and not René Clair, to psychoanalyze Bazin and not Pauline Kael. Criticism is always that: an eternal return to a fundamental pleasure."(3)

According to Bickerton the pesky politique was finally given the boot in Comolli and Narboni's position paper "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism," which set out the new Cahiers line "with scientific precision." (Even Jerry Lewis was enlisted in the cause of science, as a maker of films whose content is "not explicitly political but becomes so through the criticism practiced on it through its form [The Bellboy, Persona]."). But the typology spelled out in that famous manifesto just restated the politique in new terms, which led eventually to the best revision that I know of, Jean-Claude Biette's Trafic essay "Qu'est ce qu'un cinéaste?", where the lazy use of thematic consistency to define an auteur is accepted with a shrug and a new term, "cinéaste" ("filmmaker"), is used to designate the directors previously referred to as "auteurs." A cineaste is a filmmaker who has transformed the tool he inherited to portray the world in a new way (Rossellini), instead of using hand-me-down forms to convey received ideas (De Sica), however consistently he recycles the particular subset of received ideas that make him, in Biette's reduced sense, an "auteur."

The fact that an essay published in the magazine Daney started after leaving the Cahiers restates in a finer tone the formulations in that 1969 manifesto, thereby finally responding to the gripes about the misuse of the politique in that 1966 roundtable, illustrates how what we conveniently refer to as the Cahiers du cinéma is an evolving tradition (and something of a floating crap game) whose continuation depends, first of all, on familiarity with what has been written in the magazine before, and not just with editorials and position papers, which Bickerton relies on — and trusts in — far too much to write her Short History.

In which things that never went away continue to come back

Prominent among Bickerton's bogus articulations is the death of mise-en-scene. She quotes as definitive an editorial by André S. Labarthe, "Death of a Word," calling for "the end of mise en scène as a concept" because (as Rivette put it) too many critics were writing as if "a sublime camera movement" could excuse bad writing and acting. Bickerton detects in this an echo of Bazin's argument in 1953 that "Huston's Red Badge of Courage was far better than either Strangers on a Train or Rope because 'the subject also counts for something.'" But Bazin was wrong (that "vague quality of taste" again) because Hitchcock was one of cinema’s great inventors of forms, as Chabrol and Rohmer say at the conclusion of their Hitchcock book, while as Biette notes wryly in “What Is a Cineaste?”: "With each new film John Huston seems to present a card that reads 'Excused from mise-en-scene.’"

"Mise-en-scene" is a more slippery concept than "auteur," as Bickerton demonstrates when she says that in the late sixties the Cahiers writers "discarded the whole notion of mise en scène, much as abstract painters had done away with figuration." First of all, that's an odd analogy for what she describes two sentences later as a re-assertion of the importance of the subject, for if the Cahiers has been, as she says earlier (quoting Peter Wollen), "the last modernist project," it's because of the initial bracketing of questions of content, which subsequently crept back into the politique des auteurs disguised as "thematic consistency."

The idea of mise-en-scene also lived on in many disguises, with or without the word, during the post-structuralist period inaugurated by "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism." The heart of the theories elaborated between 1969 and 1972 is Jean-Pierre Oudart's theory of suture, which Bickerton summarizes in a way that makes it sound like a nerve-shredding amusement park ride, when it is the erotic art that permits the pleasurable unfolding of a film while articulating that seamless hypnotic flow into signifying units. For our purposes a simple way of summing up Oudart would be: "A shot of a cross hanging on a wall doesn't signify Christianity; it signifies someone looking at a cross."

That nuance defines mise-en-scene and the "someone" who is being secreted as the film unfolds, who occupies what Oudart and Daney called, writing about Death in Venice, "The Offspace of the Auteur [emphasis mine]." The various ways in which the onscreen surrogate for the filmmaker is portrayed as "out of it," cut off from economic, sexual and linguistic exchanges with society, were in turn the key to what Oudart called, precisely, modernism (the New Wave and its descendants), based on the model created by Bresson, although the grandfather of the suture tradition is Fritz Lang. As Biette once observed, "Include me out," the Sam Goldwynism Lang uses to refuse a lunch invitation in Contempt, sums up the essence of Lang's style, which is adapted to progressive but not revolutionary aims in modernism.

Oudart's theoretical texts drew on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, but during the "Red Years" Daney gave them a linguistic twist in his distinction between the image as "statement" and "enunciation," which Bickerton summarizes without realizing that she's talking about mise-en-scene. In our interview he called mise-en-scene "writing" (in the Derridean sense), as in "camera-stylo," again making the point that whatever the engagements of the moment, the Cahiers du cinéma is fundamentally conservative, like any tradition.(4)

However you slice it, the concepts of "auteur" and "mise-en-scene" are inextricably entwined in the history of the Cahiers, and any historian who tries to put them asunder by announcing a series of historical breakthroughs that never happened will find herself with a bloody mess on her hands, and be constantly obliged to backpedal, qualify and logic-chop in order to live down resounding generalities uttered only two pages earlier, as Bickerton does throughout this often unreadable book.

One more example of a false articulation: the triumph of television. We have now jumped to the end of the 70s, when Serge Daney was still running the Cahiers but was preparing to move on to Libération. Bickerton guesses that Daney left because

"[he] was increasingly interested in pursuing a new kind of writing and engagement with cinema, namely journalism and the reviewing of films on television. He experimented with this at the Cahiers initially, through the 'Journals des Cahiers…' The 'Journals' allowed a platform for Jean-Claude Biette and Louis Skorecki, both filmmakers as well as critics, to address more closely an issue given little attention in the main magazine: the paradigm shift in the image world accomplished by the triumph of television. Their column was a last gasp of really innovative criticism at Cahiers as they sought a new language to register the relationship between both [sic] media."

Truthfully, in most cases the "Movies on TV" section of the Journal was a transparent excuse to write about old films by the same beloved auteurs who were put under the electron microscope in the deconstructive texts of the early 70s, like the famous "collective text" on Young Mr. Lincoln.

Once a false articulation has been announced, however, it has to lead somewhere -- for example, to Bickerton's footnote describing Biette's "Rewatching Wichita" as an article about "the experience of re-viewing on television Jacques Tourneur's western from 1955." Television is nowhere mentioned in this article, which is Biette's thoughtful reply to the famous Young Mr. Lincoln text. (Not coincidentally, Wichita, which he had almost certainly seen in a movie theatre — it's a 'Scope film —, retells the story Ford told in My Darling Clementine.) In Biette's polemic, Tourneur's cinema, which was and is the ne plus ultra of Cahiers cinephilia, is proposed as a model for subverting the ideological messages of the Hollywood studios by purely esthetic means, as Lincoln was said to have done through the cinematic equivalent of Freudian slips, but the reader of this Short History will never know that. Such is the cost of mistaking an eruption of critical brilliance that rivals Rivette's legendary review of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt for one more dusty signpost on a road whose real destination appears to be England's gray, subsidized Screen International, where tv has long been le plat du jour. (5)

In which the reviewer starts to smell a rat

But the main reason for all these false articulations, I suspect, is that once the historian has declared that the politique des auteurs, say, was made to walk the plank in 1969, any return of the politique in the 80s, the 90s or the first decade of the new millennium can be excoriated as backsliding or worse, which is the business of Chapters 6 and 7 of this Short History. That seems to be the principal purpose of the articulation we might call exorcising Hollywood — entirely mythical as we've just seen — and its inevitable counterpart, the return of Hollywood (the Big Sellout).

Here is where the fact that Bickerton doesn't share the tastes of the magazine she's writing about really pays off. Among the filmmakers for whom she expresses no small disdain are Francis Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Joel and Ethan Coen, Tim Burton (that Batman cover!), Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino (and in France, André Techine, Leos Carax, Arnaud Desplechin), all written about in the Cahiers during the period of decline, defined as a period in which films have been championed that aren't to the historian's taste.

Realizing, perhaps, that the main argument supporting her thesis of decline tends toward the circular, she cites Peter Wollen to the effect that "the movie brats ushered in a kind of 'reactionary modernism'…. Innovative and experimental work was initially visible in early Scorsese and Kubrick, for example, but en masse this generation accepted the terms of the game: earn more with each new film, and tailor the work almost exclusively to the youth market. Over time this has resulted in a repetitive cycle of variations on the same high-tech, speed-and-action, in-your-face thriller, heart-warming tear-jerker or rom-com."

Grateful as we should be to Wollen and Bickerton for that last insight, one again has to wonder if Bickerton (as opposed to Wollen) knows anything at all about the generation of Hollywood filmmakers the mainstream press dubbed "the movie brats." She is certainly shaky on the filmographies of the two she cites, who made, during the period she's writing about, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ ("earn more with each film"?), The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut ("tailor the work almost exclusively to the youth market"?). And for the record, Stanley Kubrick has never been considered one of the "movie brats" — he made his first films in the early 50s.

Ironically, Bickerton's taste may overlap more with the Cahiers during its supposed period of decline than she realizes from her cursory inspection of recent issues. She cites Wang Bing's West of the Tracks as the sort of film the Cahiers should be paying more attention to, but the Cahiers did, in fact, publish an interview with Wang Bing and an article by Emmanuel Burdeau that goes a little deeper than Bickerton's comment that "given its running time, location and the nature of the project, Wang could only have used a digital camera to record the interviews." She also seems to think that this nine-hour documentary belongs on the small screen, which will of course "invigorate critical work" by encouraging criticism to "incorporate a more phenomenological element to [sic] its interpretations and analyses," but I'm told that West of the Tracks has gotten its main exposure, in France at any rate, on the big screen. To which I might add, "So what?"

False articulations are tough to get a knife into, and Bickerton makes a particularly bad job of the Return of Hollywood. The sellout started early on, she says:

"In March 1976, uncertain, essentially symptomatic reviews of Jaws and Pinocchio appeared. Returning to Hollywood brought Cahiers closer to its approach in the yellow years….[But i]n truth, Hollywood made its comeback at the magazine for reasons of accumulation and assimilation: we'll write about what people seem to be watching, rather than address readers with our interventions…."

Actually the sellout had started even earlier than that, when the magazine was still a Maoist publication, with Pascal Kané 's article about Avanti, an autumnal romantic comedy by Billy Wilder, whose Sunset Boulevard had adorned the first issue of the Cahiers in 1951. (The sense of tradition again.) In skimming through the covers of back issues, Bickerton may have been thrown, as I was when I grabbed the new issue off the shelf at Rizzoli's in New York many years earlier, by the laconic announcement (in red ink): "Sur La Chine, sur Avanti."

Seeing it squashed under weighty titles like "For a Revolutionary Cultural Front" and "The Palestinian Resistance and Cinema," I at first assumed that “Avanti” was an Italian militant group the Cahiers had thrown in their lot with, but it turned out to be the Wilder film, in which a middle-aged man and woman from different classes come to an Italian hotel to bury their respective parents, who passed away there in the middle of an adulterous fling, and end up reliving their story. Kané treats Avanti sternly but respectfully as a film in which "the insistence of the referent…cleaves the discourse of the auteur [emphasis mine]," whereas La Chine, Antonioni's documentary about the slumbering giant, is flatly dismissed by Jacques Aumont as a cinematic running-dog lackey of imperialism.

Having missed the real Return of Hollywood, which makes Hollywood's absence from the magazine so fleeting that you could blink and not know it ever happened, Bickerton zeroes in on those articles on Jaws and Pinocchio, missing the point in a couple of ways. First, while Daney's reading of Jaws is symptomatic, it is hardly uncertain: he forthrightly describes Spielberg's mise-en-scene as "proto-fascist." He later replaced that with "reactionary" when the article was reprinted in La rampe, a change that Bickerton would consider a dead giveaway if she knew about it, and not mere common sense. Later, more sensibly still, he would just call it “popular."

Second, and most important, Narboni's reading of The Adventures of Pinocchio doesn't have to be “essentially symptomatic” because the film in question wasn't even made in Hollywood. Released theatrically in France in 1975, The Adventures of Pinocchio is a cutdown of the successful 1972 Italian miniseries by leftwing director Luigi Comencini, who rediscovers in it the true meaning of a satirical fable that was extracted from peasant culture by Carlo Collodi, an anti-monarchist with anarchist leanings, only to be subsequently co-opted by the bourgeoisie (for example in the 1940 Disney version). So Narboni's conclusion is not tentative either. Pinocchio's task in the Comencini version of the tale, he says, is "to continue the struggle and refuse to sell his labor (force de travail). Not … to sell it at the best price. Pinocchio's struggle is not a syndical one."

Taking down the famous Cahiers du cinéma was the purpose of Bickerton's original article, and since that presumed notch on her gun got her a book deal, she hasn't risked diluting its shock value with lots of further research. Hence the frighteningly short list of people who were interviewed for the book, where she frequently just pastes in a passage from the article and embellishes it. A good example would be the last barb directed at Jean-Pierre Oudart, of all people. In Bickerton's original article, after noting that the magazine had stooped to covering Apocalypse Now in 1979, she wrote: "After Coppola, Oudart welcomed Kubrick's Shining in 1980 as 'a work of great culture, and a culture that is not dead.' (6) In the book Bickerton rewrites that sentence as: "After beatifying Coppola in the eighties, Oudart ushered Kubrick's Shining into the canon, calling it" etc.

Here the historian, hastily seizing the chance to deploy another anti-Papist zinger, misreads her own earlier sentence, while again raising the question of just how much of the material she's writing about she has actually read: anyone who knows the first thing about Oudart, the fiercest Bolshevik writing for the magazine during the "Red Period" and its aftermath, would know that he never wrote a line about Francis Coppola and that if he ever did, it would not have been to "beatify" him. The two versions of this sentence are a kind of Tiny Hadron Collider where we can observe how false articulations are created when rhetoric collides at high speed with sense. Suddenly Coppola idolater Oudart is ushering The Shining into the canon…but didn't he already do that for Kubrick in his long polemic about A Clockwork Orange, where he declared Kubrick and Robert Kramer to be better filmmakers than Godard? (7)

Bickerton ends with a list of constructive suggestions about how the Cahiers might yet be saved — for example, by publishing Frederick Jameson, consecrating filmmakers as auteurs only after they have spent a lifetime earning the title the way Sam Fuller did (although Sam really didn't have to wait all that long — Manny Farber, for example, instantly recognized him as an auteur in the 50s), blowing off that damned cinephile Deleuze, or "engaging in more collective discussions by sharing an experience of watching with other viewers or the director." Actually, that idea has been tried. The last roundtable dedicated to a single film in the Cahiers was the one on Man of Iron, which I thought was a pretty good roundtable, but when Godard edited the 300th issue of the Cahiers he reproduced a photo of the Comintern and pasted chunks of verbiage from the Man of Iron roundtable over the heads of Lenin and his commissars like word balloons in a comic strip. That was the end of that.

The point of the joke was, ironically, the one Oudart was making when he opposed A Clockwork Orange to Godard's pedagogical enterprises during the 70s: that it's helpful, especially in making a political film, if the spectator doesn't need a Ph.D. in semiology to "read" it, and that the time had come anyway to discard the whole idea of "reading" a film — which the Cahiers had been promoting during its "Red Period" — by scraping away the Derrido-Marxo-Lacanian scholastic verbiage and getting back to seeing the images. This position, announced by Godard when he returned to commercial filmmaking with Sauve qui peut (la vie), led to the rare beauty of films like Passion and Hail Mary, as well as inaugurating a new period in the Cahiers' reflection on cinema. But that's another story, which doesn’t begin to be told in this high-minded but dilettantish book.


1. The article is available online for £3 at http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2645, and blogmeister Girish Shambu summarized it at http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2007/02/cahiers-du-cinema.html for those who didn't want to spend the money. Shambu described the article as "terrific," but the string of comments on his post by people who appear to be familiar with the magazine in its most recent incarnation were less complimentary.

2. My own unraveling of the "French Minnelli" genome has been reprinted in Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, ed. Joel McElhaney.

Interview conducted and translated by Bill Krohn http://home.earthlink.net/~steevee/Daney_1977.html

4. "The cinema that interests us is haunted by writing. Writing implies spacing, a void between two words, two letters, a void which permits the tracing of meaning.…So, when the Cahiers were politicized, they took their examples more and more from the Soviet cinema of the twenties, but again it was to distinguish between Eisenstein (who 'wrote') and Pudovkin (who 'didn't write'), and this was the same as the distinction between Hitchcock and Huston. Today it may well be that with people like Godard and Straub we have reached the extreme limit of writing." - ibid.

5. This is a very parochial book. Consider Bickerton's footnote to her claim that the Cahiers writers, in yielding to market forces by writing about Hollywood's "movie brat" generation, covered their shame with "commentary in the cultural studies mold." She continues in the footnote: "This model was derived from the discipline first developed in 1961 at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Britain, founded by Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall." There is a tidy sum sitting in a Swiss bank account for anyone who can convincingly show that the Cahiers du cinéma ever heard of the Birmingham Centre or even of Raymond Williams, one of its leading thinkers, an excellent Marxist critic who would no doubt have been shocked to hear that his work was being put to such uses by the likes of Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.

6. Oudart continues: "a film that says to me today: it's good to cultivate the piece of America that many films have deposited in us and to use it to discover new ideas about cinema, and about the media." The rest of his writing for the Cahiers would carry out that program without ever returning to the subject of Hollywood cinema.

7. I know a thing or two about false articulations, having been turned into one myself. "Much editorial energy in the last years of the seventies was spent playing catch-up, with America top of the list. The 'Letter from Hollywood' written by man-on-the-ground Bill Krohn was instituted from 1978, establishing for the first time in Cahiers' history a permanent connection with the US and its industry's cinema." Actually Herman Weinberg's successor, Axel Madsen, was in Hollywood for many years before me, and while Bickerton would have no way of knowing it, the decision to move from New York to Hollywood after Daney hired me was mine and mine alone. Needless to say, by the end of "my" paragraph, things are heading south faster than a fleeing embezzler with the Feds in hot pursuit.

October 11, 2011

another effort, americans

The United States is a very young country, in swaddling clothes.
I even have a diaper, I'll show it to you, that's the country -
I have a real diaper in the corner there.
Every time I look at it reminds me when I'm writing anything:
make sure you're writing about a baby.


They say "More more more,"
The reply is: "There is no more".

(means end of story.)

--Samuel Fuller (1983, The South Bank Show)

October 7, 2011

percentage of survival (4)

"I am very much in favor of the Chicago plan, under the condition that errand boys who can't run errands will also be employed."

-- Kafka [Prague, July 13, 1920], marginal note in a letter to Milena Jesenská