Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Positif on Cahiers in the Eighties

It is worth bringing up the magazine’s rival Positif to have a better understanding of what was unique to Cahiers in this period. They had both been around since the early Fifties and their collective archives provide an impressive film history of the periods since then. In their early years, during the height of the Cold and Algerian War, Positif defended social films while Cahiers isolated cinema to study their auteur and Hollywood studio films of predilection. In the early Sixties, Gérard Gozlan at Positif would criticize the guiding Cahiers maxim of Bazin’s Christian-spirituality and then afterwards Cahiers, while also getting mobilized with the political fervor of the times, would go on to a decade-long hiatus of films as popular entertainment. Even though Positif would evolve, through different editors and publishers over the years, they never had this extreme of an identity crisis.
            Positif never had like Cahiers superstar film-critics, nouvelle vague directors and a decade of political mobilization. But once Toubiana would start to run the magazine as a regularly monthly film magazine in the Eighties it would slowly start to resemble more Positif. As well Positif, which kept a regular activity throughout the Seventies, had an advantage over Cahiers as they had a head start on covering many of the directors that would start to rise to prominence throughout the Eighties. The two magazines would both attend the major film festivals Cannes and Venice; and this French and European art-house cinema would be the centerpiece for both magazines, while still being able to appreciate certain new American auteurs.
The differences between both magazines are subtler in this period. Cahiers had the Journal section, Jean-Paul Fargier and his writing on video-art, special travel issues (U.S.A., China, U.S.R.R.), and significant American contributors like Bill Krohn, Bérénice Reynaud, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Todd McCarthy. Historically Positif always preferred British cinema which they did a better job at representing. Their collaborator from England in this period was Mark le Fanu who would write on the subject. But they also shared different conceptualizations of what was the ‘Classic’ period of cinema and what was its ‘Modern’ period. There was always a side ‘Tradition française’ at Positif and this was illustrated in their taste for Alain Resnais and Bertrand Tavernier while Cahiers was more nouvelle vague and had their own directors.
But their rivalry never descended into the maelstrom of fights and name-calling of their early years. It seems like both magazines had a good amicable working relationship in this period. The rivalry is never explicitly brought up either. Some of the new Cahiers critics – Nicolas Saada, for example – would have even studied cinema in university under like Michel Ciment. Toubiana and Cahiers would even come to the support of Positif  when they had a quarrel at the beginning of the Nineties with its publisher regarding copyrights.
But even though Michel Ciment and Paul-Louis Thirard would say that their rivalry is something of the past to look at Positif a little more closely it would appear that they still held a grudge against their more ‘popular’ counterpart. Positif begins the decade still on some of their old fights with some of the older Cahiers critics like Skorecki and Commolli. They would also ridicule their serious Marxist film theory and that of other magazines like Tel Quel. While Thirard, and others from Positif, would criticize Cahiers for the ignorance of Positif and the books by some of its writers. In Positif instead of addressing Cahiers they preferred to use the space in their magazine to promote smaller, newer film magazines. It appears that the guiding principal at Positif in the Eighties was to just ignore Cahiers. And any time they do bring them up it is usually just in passing and sarcastically in their ‘Encyclopedie Permanente du Cinematographie’ and ‘Autours du cinema’ section; or when Cahiers authors published new books.
The Positif critics in this period are older and more mature and since some of them were somehow connected to the university academy their critiques resembled more to university essays. The Positif critiques, which were all extremely well-written and insightful, would highlight the film’s directors reoccurring themes, motifs and etc. It lacked some of the more poetic and polemical prose of some of the Cahiers critiques of this period. But still the Positif archive of this period is really rich and full of rigorous close readings of the major films and auteurs of this period. Where Positif was more positive, Cahiers always distinguished itself by hating to better to be able to appreciate what it liked. Positif would resent and accuse Cahiers of having, or attempting to, have ties with the film industry and for promoting heavily the films of its own directors. Positif would also accuse Cahiers of a certain snobbism and of being trendy. Positif would reproach Cahiers for saying how they ‘discovered’ all of these filmmakers when in actuality it was Positif, as they like to proclaim, had done it first.
But there is also less of an evolution at Positif than at Cahiers which really changes and grows through its different periods. Where Cahiers seems to grow there is an impression of Positif still being ‘stuck’ or ‘cemented’ in its views from the Fifties, regardless that they are writing about new films.
The two important pieces for Positif in this period are both by Michel Ciment (its current chief editor): there is one on the tasks of film criticism and the other one is a polemic on Godard’s Soigne ta droite (N.324). Ciment, even this early on in being at Positif (he started in the Sixties) is starting to cement himself as a major figure at Positif. His then wife Janine would be there too in this period – helping with translations – and is described as an important collaborator.
 Godard would be the major opposition between both magazines in this period. Where Godard at Cahiers is a major guiding reference then at Positif they couldn’t care less about him. His films were generally not even reviewed in this period. This is why Ciment’s critique especially stands out.
In Ciment’s critique Je vous salue Godard he calls Godard out for some of his more obnoxious and untrue public statements. Ciment wrote, “On the media scene Jean-Luc Godard incarnates the modern buffoon but there’s no longer a king.” Ciment highlights Godard’s media interviews and how he makes fun of everyone and is never contradicted. Ciment finds it sad that at Cannes the reception is less on Godard’s films than his press conferences. For Ciment, Godard “incarnates a period where creation is only a pretext for a chatter of the social, political and the aesthetics.” Ciment especially disagrees with Godard (and he has been repeating this ever since) that cinema and storytelling is dead. Ciment does not see a personal evolution in Godard’s films as he would see in Bergman in his contemporaneously new book The Magic Lantern. Ciment wrote, “By never being put into question, Godard has trapped himself in a vicious circle and has refused to change since he’s convinced that there’s nothing to change.” It is a significant essay for Positif although unfortunately it is stylistically rough and has a lot of typos.
But the Positif fight seems to be less with Cahiers than with film criticism in the popular press whether that is Le Monde, Variety and Nouvel Obs. Their aim is to try to improve film criticism in the general French film journalism sphere. This is two-fold: there is a pedantic criticism towards lazy writing and misinformation but there’s also a self-righteous ‘we’re right, and they’re wrong’ attitude about it. Positif never really had critics who became directors but instead they had a lot of authors and cultural industry employees that would emerge.
Ciment’s essay on film criticism is from the dossier France: Des Deniers Critiques aux Premier Films and the title of his piece is De la critique dans touts ses etats a l’etat de la critique (March 1987, N.313) which he dedicates to his wife Jeannine, who would have just passed away (‘En souvenir de Jeannine et de son exigence’).
In it he argues with a popular press article by Michel Boujut (producer of Cinema Cinema) who complains that film critics lacks the ability to appreciate films. The emphasis is on the profession of critics/journalist. Ciment argues that film criticism matters and that the importance of criticism is an old debate that goes all of the way back to Balzac and Aristotle. Ciment reaffirms, “Criticism must not worry about the public… The critic must be able to address what he felt and explain this through his tools - knowledge and words.” Ciment even uses a Cahiers turn of phrase, “Le travelling n’est plus une affaire de morale mais de tickets vendus.
Ciment is against this rush to be relevant. In this period Positif would have a lot of important dossiers on the history of cinema. Positif would publish dossiers on Frank Capra (to coincide with a major new Cinémathèque Française retrospective) and early silent films like those of the Lumière brothers (Positif’s founder Bernard Chardère would also establish the Lumière Institute in Lyon).
Leos Carax is also a site of contestation regarding a modern French cinema and how to ‘publicitize’ films by making them ‘events’.

Mauvias Sang, where there is an undisputable talent, becomes one of the best films of film history, which we’ve seen since Noir et Blanc by Blaire Devers, which came out… only two weeks ago. New cinematographic film events take place at such an accelerated rates. So the film by Carax, which Cahiers, dedicated numerous long texts in two successive issues, and that is compared here and there to Murnau, Joyce, Vigo, Picasso, Welles and Schonberg would then be in a few months in most of the lists of the ten best films of the year in a lot of the publications, especially by its collaborators in Cahiers and their other outlets.”

Ciment criticizes Telerama for being too lenient (“four new masterpieces every week, they say” and he worries about the temptation of journals to become less serious magazines to increase their sales and reach a larger public. What Ciment is arguing for is the necessity to find alliances to be able to put on exciting screenings and to publish serious film criticism in France. This is what is necessary.

Toubiana's Eighties Editorship: French Cinema and Cannes

From the time he became the chief editor of Cahiers in 1981 until his departure in 1992 Toubiana wrote and published an estimated 230 articles which includes editorials, critiques, interviews and journal. What stands out from his critiques is how they are able to canonize films and directors into the Cahiers canon just by the fact that he was writing about them. The films that Toubiana wrote major critiques for stand out as ‘Événements’ as the film would usually be featured on the cover and the director would be interviewed. They would also later be cross-referenced as important films for that year. These critiques stand out both due to the strength and interest of Toubiana’s writing but also due to the fact that he was the patron of Cahiers. As a journalist-critic Toubiana usually cites interviews within his critiques and there is a loose quality to them. He cites dialogue from memory and acknowledges that it might not be exactly correct. It’s a writing that’s not always precise. There is also a lot of gastronomical references in his critiques which is a trait that recalls the earlier writing of Claude Chabrol. The critiques provide examples of what were considered are the most important French and international films of the year. There were two important areas of interest for Toubiana’s editorship of Cahiers in the Eighties – these are French cinema and the Cannes Film Festival. 
Of the first area of interest, French cinema, Toubiana wrote “It is French cinema that is our conjecture.” The French film industry was the terrain that Cahiers could most efficiently engage with and could help shape. The Eighties marked the return of French cinema at Cahiers. The important directors to spark this return are the older nouvelle vague directors with Godard and Truffaut at the forefront and then Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol. Even though Truffaut died early on in the decade he would still retain an immense importance for Toubiana. There was a special Truffaut memorial issue.  His life and films would be honored, in the culture at larger and at Cahiers, with the re-release of Les Deux Anglaises as well as by the publication of Truffaut-related books like Hitchcock/Truffaut and his Correspondences.
This encounter with Truffaut also sparked a return towards an industrial French cinema. Among Toubiana’s best critiques are the ones where he brings a new generation of French directors into Cahiers pantheon. Toubiana published major texts, whether critiques or interviews, on the following French directors: Alain Corneau, Claude Miller, André Téchiné, Robert Guédiguian, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Raymond Depardon, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Maurice Pialat, Bertrand Blier, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Claude Berri, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Michel Deville, Pascal Thomas, Jacques Demy, Tonie Marshall, Georges Rouquier, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Marguerite Duras, Leos Carax, Éric Rohmer, Patrice Chéreau, Jean-Claude Brisseau and Paul Vecchiali.
The second important area of interest for Toubiana and Cahiers in this period was the Cannes film festival. It was according to Toubiana “the grand window into world cinema” and through it the magazine could encounter and analyze emerging directors and the trends of contemporary cinema. By its coverage of the Cannes Festival, the biggest media event on film, Cahiers could evaluate the state of world cinema while at the same time improving Cahiers’ own visibility. 
Toubiana started to cover the Cannes film festival in 1981 and he continued to do so throughout his tenure. In 1992 was even invited to the festival as a jury member and this experience disillusioned him with regards to it. Toubiana also covered the Venice film festival but which he saw as second-rate due the lesser quality of the films.  Italy film didn’t benefit as much from government subsidies for culture which France had and which Cannes benefitted from. 
The festival coverage stands out for being critical rather than sensationalist publicity for the festival. The mediocrity of many of the films was mentioned and a there was frustration about the festival’s disregard for smaller but more difficult films. The directors favored by Cahiers were put in opposition to negatively viewed academic directors showing at the festival. The criticism by Cahiers of some of the film festival practices made its relationship with the festivals a little tendentious at times. This strong and dissident coverage towards the festival was rare within the often self-congratulating cultural sphere.
Toubiana’s first Cannes coverage, Un film-surprise dans un festival sans, was critical of the festival. “It was a sad celebration,” wrote Toubiana. “What bothers us the most this year are the films. There is a nearly total absence of cinema, of the strong moments of cinema.” Toubiana complained how the role of criticism was weakening in the face of the film’s publicity and promotional machines. This demanded in response an increased intensity in film criticism. 
Toubiana criticized a ‘dumb’ Mel Brooks film which received a popular reception and instead highlighted Skolimowski’s Haut-les-main which he discusses alongside Godard’s Ici et ailleurs. Toubiana wrote, “It’s their secret. They are manifesto and testament films about cinema. They pose Bazinian questions par excellence: What is this cloth which drapes over all of the images? What motivates the movement of characters? What is a cinematic image?”
Serge Daney had encouraged this dissidence. In a Journal contribution from 1987 Daney brings up how the 40th anniversary of Cannes was over-saturated with media. Daney sees the discourse of this over-mediatized festival as full of clichés that ends up not doing it justice. This is a failure. The dissidence of Cahiers is in opposition to the popular press and the polite notes of many professional journalists reviewing the festival. Daney argued that Cannes needs more criticism and less promotion,

It will not be enough as long as the television media will only present a soft positive perspective on everything that unfolds on the Cannes stages.  What is important is doubt, criticism and a negation. These taboos and criticism are actually what makes a film festival. There needs to be dirt, debates, polemics, proclamations and swoons because without these the festival would only be a simulacrum and nothing but noise. The festival only works through its negative moments – through a process that denies it. This is necessary for it to finally becoming itself. Through this negation there can finally be an event at the festival.

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Cahiers and Truffaut : A Reconciliation

In the early Eighties at Cahiers French cinema became a renewed area of interest and this was celebrated in their two special 30th anniversary issues (May and June 1981). Through these issues Cahiers were able to strengthen their ties with the French film industry and its producers, directors and actors. Even though articles on Godard had already been a standard feature since Daney’s early editorship now finally the rest of the nouvelle vague directors would become a renewed area of interest for the magazine.
In 1980 Daney and Toubiana met Truffaut in an effort of reconciliation as he had been actively neglected from the magazine. They discussed the new philosophy of the magazine and requested help with financing that Truffaut would help to arrange. After their meeting Truffaut would say that he now had an ‘open neutrality’ towards Cahiers. As a result of this meeting, a lengthy interview with Truffaut would follow and would be published throughout two issues in 1980. It builds upon the two previous interviews with Truffaut. (This makes Truffaut the less interviewed nouvelle vague director. The other interviews include with Jean Collet, Michel Delahaye, Jean-André Fieschi from December 1962 and with Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni from 1967).
 The Événement film that sparked the encounters with Truffaut was Le Dernier Métro. The film was publicized on the magazine’s cover and a positive review, Une nuit au theatre by Yann Lardeau, was printed along with the interview. Truffaut, who represents French popular cinema, received an equal amount of attention as Godard.
The first part of the Truffaut interview by Daney, Narboni and Toubiana appeared in the September 1980 issue. The Événement was prefaced by Toubiana, Truffaut ou le juste milieu comme experience limite. The last interview the magazine had done with Truffaut was in 1967 (which was entitled, Le juste milieu) for Fahrenheit 451, and since then Truffaut made 13 more films.
Toubiana wrote,

There was thirteen years of silence or non-dialogue (there were some critiques of his films, but no interviews) between us and Truffaut because of our attachment to theory and our political chores. What we were looking for in the Seventies were what you could call limit experiences – far from the ‘juste milieu’ which preoccupied Truffaut.

Toubiana then argued that what Truffaut was doing at the juste milieu was a limit experience of the center of French society and film production. The extreme qualifier is that Truffaut was making the films that he wanted to make and he had the independence to make them through his own production company. It’s a paradoxical and contradictory proposition. Truffaut is not trying to distinguish himself from the other professionals in the French film industry but he’s not part of the Qualité française which he in the past denounced. Toubiana’s perspective offers a different way to look at Truffaut’s more conventional works. Cahiers was in perpetual evolution and it constantly tried to gaze beneath the surface of things.
In the interview Truffaut was very frank and modest. On his work as a director he said, “Finally, what makes me the happiest about cinema is that it gives me the best job possible.” “I don’t see an incompatibility between the terms auteur and professional.” “I work better with director-producers that work hard - Rohmer, Mocky, Berri – than with those that complain like spoiled children that deserve everything.” On Godard, who he thought was ‘compulsively jealous,’ Truffaut undermined his more high-minded statements by showing the simple, uncaring arguments behind them:

When Rivette received one of the largest advances on receipts - 200 million for four films - Godard went after him in Pariscope. ‘The pleasure of Rivette is the same as Verneuil but it’s not mine. Rivette has no longer any humanity.’ And then it was Rohmer’s turn when everyone admired La Marquise d’O, Godard criticized it. When Resnais won six or seven Césars for Providence, Jean-Luc, as you can expect, turned against him saying ‘Resnais hasn’t made any good films since Hiroshima.’

On his distancing himself from Cahiers, Truffaut said “I’ve stepped back from Cahiers since the day where I made my first film. I had the sense of changing camps [from critic to filmmaker].”
The interview with Truffaut signaled a major shift at Cahiers from Daney’s often enigmatic editorial stances to Toubiana’s more populist ones. Godard would not necessarily be dropped but he would no longer be as fetishized. Truffaut and other popular French directors would start to get equal coverage. Cahiers and Toubiana, drawing from Bazin, Truffaut, Hitchcock, and Chaplin, would show how strong personal art works could be created within the popular film industry.

The Cahiers 30th Anniversay Party

Monday, April 20, 2015

RIP Manoel

“It was clear to Daney that a critic that couldn’t tell the difference between a long-take for de Oliveira (the opera scene in Francisca) and the long-take for Angelopoulous (who shows everything right away to then not have to do any more work) isn’t good enough to write at Cahiers.” – Charles Tesson
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Buzzard at the Royal (April 22nd @ 9PM)

A Must-Have: Wild Blu-ray

Ouf! Putting together a trekking-pack and then off to hike the PCT! It’s not going to be easy for poor Reese but she’ll do it and it’ll be memorable. With the release of Wild on Blu-ray you can now join her either for a casual stroll or to closely examine each step. It’s well worth it since there’s a lot that’s tucked away in Wild. The location of the opening scene where Reese loses her boot took the crew a whole morning to get to as they had to take two chair lifts and then walk twenty minutes to get there! The fox, which is her spiritual guide for the journey, has more appearances than you might think. The scene where Reese is getting a martini the bartender is actually played by Vallée’s son Alex. Who knew that with the visual effects technician Marc Côté that a lot of the landscapes scenes were digitally altered? And the scene at the end when Reese gets to the Bridge of the Gods it’s actually Cheryl Strayed’s husband and son that wave to her. These are just a few examples of how Vallée meticulously crafts his films and makes them personal. He’s the exception to the rule and clearly illustrates how Hollywood can still produce great works of art. This Blu-ray of Wild is one of the best new DVDs of the year just for Vallée’s audio commentary. It’s good to hear him talk about his craft and to hear how he’s settling into Hollywood. The many making-of featurettes, deleted scenes with commentary, and an impressive gallery section also contribute to making this a must-have for all Valléeians.