Friday, May 23, 2014

Archaeology of French Film Criticism Leading up to 1951

I'm posting this grad paper on the history of French film criticism, which I wrote for a Foucault-Archaeology grad seminar, to coincide with some recent French videos and podcasts that were put online: 'Le cinéma français : une affaire d'État', Dominique Païni sur Henri Langlois, and Antoine de Baecque's Petite archéologie de la critique du cinéma (I, II, III, IV, V). - D.D. 
The Pioneers of French Film Criticism
What are the group of statements and positivies that contributed to a film culture in France that led to the formation of the film magazines Cahiers du Cinema in 1951 and Positif in 1952? Michel Foucault describes a positivity as the historical and formal a priori that are comprised of a group of statements which are in themselves acts of formulation (speech acts) that have an enunciative function in an associative domain. What concepts are being discussed in this particular realm and what are its successions?
Foucault, in discussing what should be asked from an archeological analysis, highlights,

which strata should be isolated from others? What types of series should be established? What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each of them? What system of relations (hierarchy, dominance, stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them? What series of series may be established? And in what large-scale chronological table may distinct series of events be determined?[1]

Without going into pre-cinematic apparatuses (e.g chronophotography, the zoetrope etc.), the apparatus known as cinema started in France in 1895 with the Lumière brothers who projected their footage of workers leaving their factory. In the United States around this same time, to cite some examples, there was Eadweard Muybridge who took photographs of Leland Stanford’s running horse in close succession, thus creating the impression of motion, and Thomas Edison, who would eventually build his own studio The Black Maria, made films to be shown in Nickelodeons.
It was the Pathé Brothers who would greatly contribute to the industrializing of French film production and distribution, nationally and internationally, before World War I. The war stopped production during this period, and consequently Hollywood would then expand internationally, reducing the presence of French films. But it is in this period, shortly before and after WWI, that, according to Tom Gunning, in France, there was “the first widespread and coherent cinema movement, both in writing and filmmaking, the first attempt to articulate the nature of cinema and offer a theory of cinema’s unique aesthetic.”[2]
This was encouraged by how the city of Paris was the international capital of modern art and it was branching out towards this new medium. This burgeoning French film culture was nurtured by a new breed of intellectuals who founded film journals, created alternate forms of film exhibition in both cine-clubs and specialized theaters, and fostered close contact with filmmakers, painters and poets. The avant-garde movements, like Surrealism, would greatly impact experimentation with this new medium (e.g. Un Chien Andalou), which too would offer alternative viewing experiences and responses as well as an artistic traditions to contextualize it.
Some important early writers include Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, along with Alexandre Arnoux, Yhcam and Jean Prevost. Jean George Auriol would create Revue du Cinema, which would later become the model for Cahiers. There were also directors who would write about their films, cinema, and its possibilities. These directors include Georges Méliès, Louis Feuillade, Abel Gance, and Jean Cocteau. The director Roger Leenhardt, who would later become a big influence on the younger Cahiers writers also started out writing criticism. Henri Langlois in 1935 would create the Cinematheque Francaise, one of the first of its kind, but it was then called the Cercle du Cinema. Jean Painlevé and Georges Sadoul presided over the Federation Francaise des Cine-Clubs.
To focus solely on one of these writers, to better illustrate their work and impact, Epstein provides a rich case study. Tom Gunning writes about Epstein,

It is not simply that Epstein’s proclamations of the boundless novelty of cinema seem as inspired today as they did in the twenties; he saw cinema as more than a form of entertainment, a mass medium, or even a new art form. For Epstein, cinema offered a mechanical brain, a machine eye – a portal into a new world transformed by technology: a way for human perception to penetrate into the very life of matter. Epstein’s conviction that cinema would open onto new domains of knowledge of the world by going beyond the limits of human consciousness represents more than just the quaint forgotten utopia prediction of a new medium from its first decade.[3]

As illustrated by the following Epstein quote, from Bonjour Cinéma, which was one of the first French film magazines, as far back as 1921 there was already a trend for more poetic and impressionistic writing. This short verse is beautifully able to articulate cinema’s position within a bourgeoning luxurious social activity (e.g. Epstein emphasis on being “well-shaved”) as well as its enrapturing capabilities (e.g. “I am taking you”). As well Epstein clearly identifies cinema with a specific Parisian theater.

“I have been to the Belle Hélène theatre
I was well-shaved –
Cinema – I am taking you” – Jean Epstein, Bonjour Cinéma (1921)[4]

Richard Abel in French Film Theory and Criticism provides his own archeology of the developments in French film criticism of this period. Abel breaks up the period from 1907 to1929 into the following categories: 1907-1914, Before the Canon, 1915-1919, Photogénie and Company, 1920-1924: Cinégraphie and the Search for Specificity, 1925-1929: The Great Debates.[5] The decisive turning point that the film writing of this period is leading up to is cinema’s technological development of the use of sound recording and its accompanying changes in film production and distribution. This transition to sound would be the center of debates from 1929 to 1934 and then there will be an emphasis on the culture and politics during the Popular Front Era from 1934-39.[6]
Abel’s rigorous Foucaultian methodology provides a general framework for research on this period. Able writes,

From 1907 to 1914, we encounter something akin to what Foucault has called the initial threshold of a discursive practice. Two assumptions are relevant here. First, out of a network or weave of accepted discursive practices and established institutions, as he might put it, a series of conflicts or struggles erupts – to clear a space for a thing distinct but not yet autonomous. Here that network includes, without being exhaustive, several sciences and technologies, the socioeconomic institutions of an emergent monopolistic capitalism, the journalistic practices of disseminating information and advertising, the cultural institutions of popular spectacles, the practice and criticism of the established arts, as well as then-current philosophies of aesthetics and related theories of perception and cognition. Second, just as no one text on the cinema in this period can be said adequately to mark a point of origin for French film theory and criticism, so too are nearly all texts constituted as combinatoire, by more or less synthesized bits and pieces of other discourses.[7]

Following this bourgeoning period, WWI greatly interrupted the practice and discourse on cinema. Afterward the war the discussion of cinema in regards to aesthetic, moral, philosophical and ideological positions will become intensified, especially around the debates over cinema as either being a mass entertainment or a new art form. Abel writes about the various positions people engaged with cinema as,

According to how they take up and answer a number of crucial questions – concerning the raw material of cinema, the possible forms of films and their methods of realization, and the value or function of cinema – these half-dozen positions establish a range of both actual and potential, narrative and non-narrative film practices.[8]

The majority of the earliest specialized film journals, in its invention and pioneering period, were closely associated with the major French film companies of the time. Of the many of them the “most important” of these, according to Abel, was Ciné-Journal by Georges Dureau as it worked as an intermediary, between production, distribution, exhibitors and an audience. Many of the other magazines to emerge in this period include Filma, Le Courrier cinematographique, Cinema-Revue, Le Cinema, L’Echo du Cinema and Le Film. By 1913, the specialized film journals had become numerous enough to form their own professional organization, the Association professionnelle de la press cinematographique, and Cinema-Revue was distributing one of the earliest annuals devoted exclusively to the cinema. There were also books and manuals on film, mostly practical books directed to workmen (e.g. “How to work a projector” etc.). A second, larger arena encompassed the daily newspapers in Paris, whose interest in the cinema, whether as popular spectacle or as a new art form, quickly picked up on what the specialized film journals were doing. This public forum is to be exclusively Parisian. Abel describes this writing, “These essays, as well as others, suggest that a number of discourse modes, each associated with a set of established institutions and practices, were competing for dominance within the early French writings on the cinema and that the cinema-as-art discourse was only marginally significant, at least at this point.”[9]
The movie theater was a new social space that was breaking traditional class boundaries. As Miriam Hansen has argued, in regards to early cinema spectatorship in relation to public life, “one of the reasons why this question may have proved so troubling was that the cinema constituted a new social space that threatened to blur or even undermine the conventional boundaries between public and private, upper classes and lower classes, adults and children, even male and female.”[10] The medium was also multi-faceted in its use and it could be applied to different sectors like the educational, pedagogical, religious, industrial, business, and governmental ones. There were also questions of power and politics that were called into question by this apparatus especially in terms of the ideologies of films and potential propaganda effects. Censorship was also another important topic. The movie theaters were in close partnership with the distributors, the cine-clubs had their own political affiliations, and communist rallies also screened political and agitprop films. There was a need for a space for film to be received on its own terms. This brings us to the start of Cahiers and Positif.

Post-WWII French Film Criticism
As many French film critics have discussed, from Jean Douchet to Antoine de Baecque to Serge Daney, this post-WWII period was a unique social phenomenon in world history. Daney in particular would emphasize the routine experiences of this time as a social phenomenon, which would later end with the rise of the television and its accompanying alienation. Who were these individuals going from cinema to cinema? What is the name for this kind of person? What exactly is this scopohilia, which Freud building upon the Greeks described as “the love of looking”? What causes it and what are its effects?
There was a new culture being born. Douchet talks about how the early young Cahiers writers, like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol; would escape the oppressing realities of the Occupation by watching films as a form of protest. After the war, these cinephiles would join groups and identify with certain directors, writers, and programmers. There was an increase in screenings around Paris in this period and the same group of people would spend their time going from one screening to the other where they discovered the history of cinema. The social routine of going to see films led to passionate post-screening discussions. There were friendly discussions and more polemical debates that were happening during this period. Within the context of France’s rich intellectual history there were different camps that the audience fell under and this impacted their responses.
The Cahiers discourse was building upon the intellectual debates of the period that included engaging with the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux who were important philosophers of the time. There were many of Sartre’s ideas that were appropriated like that of existential philosophy and a firm insistence on taking a position and remaining loyal to it, and of the ontology of the arts (c.f. Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image). These would remain formative influences for the writers at Cahiers.[11]
One of the unique traits that characterized the early Cahiers writers was their polemical spirit and combative appreciation of American Hollywood films. This energy was inseparable from a generational gap with older cinephiles that fetishized silent cinema or more socially engaged works that disregarded film form. There were arguments over Hollywood and its ideology and production, especially amongst the communist, but also by the nationalist and French technicians, especially after Léon Blum in 1946 signed a political-economic accord to allow the infiltration of American films into the French market, solely leaving its own production to a thirty percent share of the market.
There is also a social history unrolling. In a later series at Positif entitled “le cinéma et nous” many first generation Positif critics wrote about, among other things, their experiences from their youth during this Post-WWII era. The series was initiated in a convivial spirit to get some of the magazines writer’s to answer two questions: What is the value for you of seeing a good movie? What exactly do you expect to take in from seeking out films? One of its goals was to elaborate on what animated the individual writers and to better articulate the spirit of the magazine.
Robert Benayoun writes, “What do I expect from cinema? Not that this answer is exhaustive, but I want it to enlighten, for it to bring forth something new in myself. It's vital that its imagery be both stimulant and exalting.” Emmanuel Carrère writes, “I don’t know any better words to describe the cinema then those by Cocteau, who was amazed by its power to show, “death at work.” Paul-Louis Thirard writes, “The cinema brought forward my first political conscience. For many years, I saw no contradiction between my taste for engaged, militant films, [...] where eroticism and revolution were on the same plane.” Françoise Audé describes her youth at ciné-clubs, “Seeing a film at a film-club, was for me, the occasion of a nocturnal outing and an encounter with people. It was also now indistinguishable of a prolonged discussion where I started to feel the political tensions between the attendants. The cinema then is thus associated in my emotional memory to the euphoria of the Liberation – everything is possible – and to the idea of liberty and to the idea of engagement.” And Michel Sineux writes, “Like for many people of my generation, I had the chance to discover cinema in its temples – caves unlike anything you’ve ever seen, between a rococo theater and a musical (Le Parisiana!) – and not in these multiplex, that are all over the place today and that are reducing the experience to a collective televisual spectacle.”[12]
The seeds of cinematic modernism were also being sown in this period. András Bálint Kovács in Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980 elaborates on the genealogy of forms that contributed to cinema’s modernist evolution. There was a clear contrast between classic films and modernist ones. De Beacque describes how Rear Window and Monika are modern in terms of employing a surrogate viewer character into the films themselves that interrogates the role of the spectator.[13] The cinema has evolved over the century, experiencing the terrors of the Holocaust, and the films were now ready to bear witness. There was an original naivety that had been lost. There were also new film festivals taking place where films from all over the world were being discovered along with new film movements from these cinematically unexplored territories. This was the moment when film was becoming an art form, more so than before, and criticism would be its mediator.[14]
In this period, there was a shift in criticism from a focus on art criticism, on say a painting, with great texts by Denis Diderot and Charles Baudelaire, or literary criticism, by Stéphane Mallarmé and Roland Barthes, towards the cinematic apparatus, the Seventh art form, which was viewed as synthesizing all of the previous ones. After the six previous art forms, as Hegel describes them in Lectures on Aesthetics, which includes architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, music, and poetry; then came cinema and it required a new form of analysis.[15] As Godard writes about the original Cahiers project, “We have won by getting people to admit the principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon or Chateaubriand. The auteurs of films, because of us, have definitively entered the History of art.”[16]
So then there was a new set of questions that needed to be asked: how to talk and write about the cinema? What kind of writing is it? How should it look like? What problem faced the film writer? There is then also its slow introduction into universities. What departments have more validity and authority over the emergence of cinema studies? Is film criticism just rehashing its plot? A description of its images? These questions needed to be thought about and answered. What was needed was a poetic of a critique that was able to bring a passion to the analysis of visual detail, with a taste for enumeration. [17]
Though it wasn’t until the cinematographic magazine that cinema found its greatest ally and cinema writing found its most suitable outlet. There would be house writers arguing for certain directors and aesthetics. Its monthly output created a sense of urgency. Its legacy would become a trace of cinema’s history. This is compared to ephemeral pieces of journalism that would be read and then discarded, and books that take longer to publish and reflect solely one individual’s perspective.

Cahiers du Cinema and Positif
Jim Hillier on this period at Cahiers writes, “It is still a pretty widespread, though rather vague, idea that film criticism and theory as we know it today – and even film-making too – owe almost everything to French film criticism in the period since 1945, and particularly to the achievements of the journal Cahiers du Cinema, founded in 1951.”[18] As the archeology of this period illustrate, there were many important contributions leading up to the creation of these two magazines. The aesthetic positions at Cahiers and Positif were also already formed before their first issues. The magazines would provide a permanent home for their debates. They would evolve over time. Especially Cahiers as it was riddled with many internal contradictions that led to changing chief editors, writers and publishers. Positif has always been more consistent.
The debates in this period centered more over certain films. Some of the most stimulating writing arose within these debates. To illustrate this with one example there is the famous debates over the reception of Citizen Kane between Bazin and Sartre. De Baecque writes about it as being “the first great critical debate of the postwar period.” De Baecque in his essay Bazin in Combat writes,   

First, Sartre attacks Citizen Kane, for fairly bad reasons and with fairly bad arguments. Since it is an American film, the Communist Party falls in behind him in the nascent cold war atmosphere. It is is Bazin who retaliates, in issue 16 of Temps Modernes, early 1947. Fully cognizant of the stakes at hand, he adamantly establishes the artistic and cinematic nature of Citizen Kane by comparing the film to many major benchmarks of artistic thought, whereas Sartre had denigrated the film as a substitute for a novel, an ersatz of outdated literature. Bazin deploys two strategies. First, he cites prestigious literary references, like Joyce and Dos Passos, to situate Welles’ film prominently within the history of American literary forms, forms that Sartre appreciated so much himself. Thus Bazin skillfully steps into his opponent’s terrain the better to counter him. Second, he demonstrates the film’s style to be more than mere free play; neither formalist nor aesthetic; it corresponds to the auteur’s cinematic, even philosophical project.[19]

The two magazine’s founders can help distinguish the differences between the magazines. The spiritual father of Cahiers Bazin became a martyr figure and his most famous texts were published together in What Is Cinema?, which would become a standard academic text. All the while Positif's founder, Bernard Chardère, has almost been totally ignored, even though he has been immensely prolific. The notoriety of the former suggests the popularity of grand all-encompassing statements compared to the latter whose more modest aim was that of spectatorship and the pleasure of analysis. Another major difference between Bazin and Chardère are their geographic and religious views: Chardère's Lyonais Jansenism proposes an open humanism while Bazin's Parisien Catholicism is more dogmatic. Chardère discussing his approach writes, "We will say positive things about the films. Talk about its good qualities. It's humanity […] We have to save the images, these old films. It's not easy, were a minority."[20]
The layout organization of both magazines is also important. At Cahiers there was a rough and cramp mise en page that was more similar to alternative newspapers. While at Positif since they had fewer essays there was a more open concept and it looked closer to a literary journal with a strong emphasis on creative graphic design. Both magazines were interested in writing about contemporary films, to survey director’s entire body of work, and review the growing field of film literature.
Michel Ciment, the current head of Positif, writes about the origins of the magazine in his essay For Your Pleasure: A Brief Overview of Fifty Years of Positif,

What made Positif distinctive in the 1950s, which were heavily influenced by the Left. Particularly in the cultural area through the domination of the Communist party and its fellow travelers, was its ability to merge a love of cinema in all its forms (particularly Hollywood movies) far from Stalinist puritanism, and at the same time, become actively involved in political battles. Anyone who did not live through the period would find it difficult to imagine how deep and intense were the political differences elicited by the colonial wars, the still-powerful influence of the Church and its moral order, and the role played by censorship. Although one might criticize the magazine for having missed out on important filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Alfred Hitchcock, the editors at the time could well reply as Jean-Paul Sartre might in another context, but with better reasons than he had: “We were wrong, but we were right to be wrong.” For defenses of Rossellini and Hitchcock were to be found elsewhere, in the name of “grace” or other religious values, with an emphasis on “miracles” or “confessions.” At the time, it appeared to be more important to defend other values.[21]

Another one of Positif’s unique quality is its closeness with the Surrealist movement. Many of its original writers were part of André Breton’s group of friends and their unique approach to film analysis emphasized the fantastic as they opened up the images of the screen towards their own creativity as spectators. Even though the Positif writers are less known today because they did not become famous filmmakers, there were still some that did go on to make films like Benayoun, Chardère, Kyrou and others would also go on to make documentaries. There were also many of their writers that were also novelist and poets like Carrère, Vitoux, Rambaud, Kral.
Chardère was twenty when he created Positif and its other writers included Roger Tailleur, Guy Jacob, Paul Lauis Thirard, Ado Kyrou, Marcel Oms, Raymond Borde, along with other guest writers. From Positif’s first review of Claude Autant-Lara’s L’Auberge Rouge, a film lumped into Truffaut’s attack on the tradition of quality since it was written by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, in their first issue, they were already reacting to the intellectual bullying of the Parisian magazine. And since then its more modest and humble history, which is still going strong, could be seen as being a response to Cahiers’ more eccentric interpretations.

In conclusion, the post-WWII period in France reflected a wide net of ideas regarding politics, morality, social space and aesthetics. The cinema and the debates around it played a significant role that led to the birth of a new film culture, which was not at all singular but varied, and the creation of Cahiers and Positif are solely one artifact reflecting these tensions and their longevity is a testament to the project’s original value. There were many small and large histories that intersected at this time, which included engaging with the major films and filmmakers, celebrity thinkers, and major events. Whether one camp is right or wrong, what is impressive about this project is to consider it within the emergence of a conscious cinephilia that was at the time an essential characteristic of France in the Fifties. This phenomenon was an important part of the post-WWII intellectual life.

[1] Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 2002.
[2] Gunning, Tom. “Preface.” In Keller, Sarah and Jason N. Paul, ed. Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.
[3] Gunning. Ibid.
[4] Keller, Sarah and Jason N. Paul.
[5] Abel, Richard, ed. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology – 1907-1939 – Volume I: 1907-1929. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
[6] Abel, Richard, ed. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology – 1907-1939 – Volume II: 1929-1939. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
[7] Abel.
[8] Abel.
[9] Abel.
[10] Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
[11] De Baecque, Antoine. Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Histoire d’une revue – Tome I: À l’assaut du cinema. Paris: Editions Cahiers du cinéma, 1991.
[12] Goudet, Stéphane, ed. L’amour du cinéma: 50 ans de la revue Positif. Saint-Amand: Editions Gallimard, 2002.

[13] De Baecque, Antoine. La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2003.
[14] Kovács, András Bálint. Kovács, András Bálint. Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
[15] Kovács, András Bálint. Ibid.
[16] De Baecque.
[17] Goudet.
[18] Hillier, Jim, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma – The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985
[19] Andrew, Dudley and Hervé Joubert-Laurencin ed. Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory & Its Afterlife. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
[20] Goudet.
[21] Ciment, Michel and Laurence Kardish, ed. Positif 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002.

No comments: