Monday, June 2, 2014

Steven Spielberg at Cahiers du Cinéma (70s & 80s)

Where North Americans tend to denigrate their popular and low culture, in France, in some circles, there is almost an opposite tradition of appreciating the popular forms of American life (cf. their well-known interest in crime thrillers, Faulkner, Poe or Jerry Lewis). This gesture proposes a different way to look at a familiar subject, is genuine, and is iconoclastic against a rigid academicism. Cahiers has only done two 'best of the decade' group lists and those were in the 90s and 2000s (cf. their lists), and one thing that distinguishes them from other forms of film criticism, however much their editorial team changes, is their constant interest in film as an art and in particular their interest in popular American cinema to illustrate this. On their 90s list the American directors that were included are De Palma, Eastwood, Kubrick, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Burton. On their 2000s list it included Lynch, Van Sant, Cronenberg, Spielberg and Malick. If one looks at the activity of all of these directors since they started filmmaking, being received at Cahiers, and where they are at now... it would look like Steven Spielberg has reached the point of being one of the most important American directors at the magazine. For one to get Cahiers one must get Spielberg. He’s an important director. Here are the early Cahiers reviews of Spielberg’s films as he was making them. – D.D.
Jaws. l’écran du fantasme, Cahiers Critique by Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Daney (Cahiers, March-April 1976, N.265).

Bonitzer’s review is in three parts: Splash, Jaws, and Catch.
“1. Splash. “It shakes you, and grinds and then… eats you!” It’s the shark, the great white, described by Quint at the first apparition of it. We are tempted to also see this as a definition for this type of cinema. This scene illustrates: it shakes you, this is its first degree, the suspense and how it scares you; it grinds you, this is its second degree, the sympathy for its hero in face of danger, the human community who, in a dark cinema, in front of this horizon of water and the tension from the beast within it, who are being united; and then it jumps outs! One more time the law of the Heart, a social paranoid, a familial petit bourgeois that is insidiously bitten, to the rhythm of the great jaws of the shark. We can then apply the phrase of Quint more largely to the entire social system, to the society of the great white (the shark isn’t called this for no reason), to the society, this “fleur carnivore”, which was one the slogans of May ’68.”

“The power of the metaphor: the shark’s jaws opens the film towards multiple interpretations. The social impact of this kind of cinema is like a fishing hook to catch phantasms, deliberately mythic, resolutely epic (in comparison, to European cinema, and even more so to French cinema, which for the majority, appears like a cinema of the bedroom, and especially when it wants to be mysterious a la Melville, Verneuil or Labro).”
In conclusion Bonitzer writes,
“What exactly is it in definitively? Exactly what it is in The Exorcist (where there were three priests) but where Jaws is much more closer to The Birds: it’s the sensory pleasure of sexual attraction that it knows how to conjure, and the great shakes that that panic has on the body.”
Daney in his review brings up the connection between the violence in Jaws and pornography through Jacques Lacan’s concept of jouisansse (Daney and the magazine in this period is still under the spell of psychoanalytic analysis). Like the English critic Robin Wood, Daney’s writing is characterized by a military-vest wearing social criticism. Jaws is compared to other catastrophe films like The Infernal Tower. Of note is how Daney begins his review by describing a production still (an issue for him throughout his career) of Richard Dreyfuss during the making of the film,
“The smile of its star Richard Dreyfuss justifies itself. Jaws is first off the biggest commercial success of the cinema. But paradoxically, in terms of the Parisian box office, in its four week run, has lowered incredibly. 309 158 spectators in its first week (including myself, S.D.), 241 160 in its second, 177 785 in its third, 124 144 in its fourth. This free fall is just another aspect of its program: the vision of the film is nothing but part of its ultimate operation of the process of becoming a brand (publicity, style, t-shirts etc.). It is, in itself, an indifference.”

“The smile of Dreyfuss has other reasons. It’s a smile for a behind-the-scenes photograph. Its function is to be distributed to film magazines, which is a derisory support, because the magazines would prefer a photograph of a scene from the film, or even better, a photogram of the film itself. Its function is to say, with a smile, that the underwater cage that he’s in (special effects, décor) put in place in the film is real, that the cage is a real one. The photo during the film’s making, it’s the way for Hollywood to give a way to see, not the process of the making of the film, but the reality of the troubles of production, and through this, and these troubles is the last word from this imperial metropolis in terms of images and sounds.”
Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Cahiers Critique by Jean-Claude Biette (Cahiers, April 1978, N.287).

A mixed review of the film, Biette compares it to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and emphasizes its use of the cinema screen in relation to the televisions that are included within the film (“Beyond the class fights, wars, and massacres that each tele-spectator incessantly sees images of, it is finally possible to see, with total fidelity to its presentation and realization of the big screen, that the terrestrial humanity has a purpose and that its History, however delirious it may appear, has a sense.”), and he notes the subtlety of Francois Truffaut’s acting in the film.

1941. Notes sur d’autre films review by Serge Daney, (Cahiers, May 1980, N.311).

The highlight of Daney’s review,
“The best Spielberg film? … From its original concept, 1941 has an ambitious tentative, of being a burlesque super-production that, in its own failure (the film isn’t that funny), is more interesting than any other Spielberg film. For one reason because the burlesque, better than terror (Jaws) or science-fiction (Close Encounters), allows Spielberg’s misanthropy to be free (without saying anything about his misogyny) … And for other reasons because the burlesque allows Spielberg to reflect on cinema, and his own cinema.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark. A dossier Lucas/Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark with three texts: George Lucas, un cineaste conceptual by Olivier Assayas, an interview with Lucas by Mitch Tuchman and Anne Thompson (originally published in Film Comment), and La grace perdue des aventuriers by Olivier Assayas (Cahiers, October 1981, N.328).

Olivier Assayas begins his essay on Lucas as a conceptual filmmaker,
“There is a Cioran aphorism that I can’t seem to find its original trace that said something like: “one must be worried about what one wants to become because we will become just that.” It would be hard to find a better application of this than in the trajectory that has brought George Lucas from the editing table to his present situation as the chief of a powerful counter-point to Hollywood.”
Assayas discusses Lucas. His most conventional film, American Graffiti; his coldest film, THX 1138; and that, “Since his beginnings, Lucas has never wanted to do like other people.” Assayas discusses Lucas in relation to the other cinephile-directors of his generation and that he is distinguished from them by not revering classical Hollywood or the false radicalization of the times.

Lucas is seen as a constant experimenter. Assayas highlights the radicalness of American Zoetrope with Coppola and Lucasfilm, and their conviction of creating an alternative system. And with his renewing, changing entirely the industry. This is in contrast to other directors of his generation like Friedkin, de Palma, Scorsese, Schaffner and Spielberg.
“His quintessential disdain for content in favor for formal and structural preoccupations used to be typically associated with the underground filmmakers that Lucas voluntarily cites as influences. Therefore the giant machine that he is today trying to create is in this respect comparable to the micro-systems of the avant-garde in that it is destined not for the production of works but towards the delimitation of an autonomous place of survival.”
Assayas concludes,
“George Lucas is foremost a conceptual artist. He learnt quickly that in the system that he has created there was only enough place for one filmmaker: himself, an auteur whose dispositive prioritized his own oeuvre. A creator of machine, a creator of objects. The others can deal with films.”
In the interview between Lucas and Tuchman and Thomson (which is translated by Assayas) they discuss Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas’s role as a producer, relationship with Coppola, work on Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, ideas on experimental films, work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, what he likes, realities of filmmaking, and watching rushes on cassettes.
Assayas was an important voice in this post-Maoist period and whose reviews and ideas reflect an important transition at Cahiers (cf. his de Palma review as well). The Positif review by Robert Benayoun is also incredible, where he, in a good Surrealist tradition, describes the film in terms of the pleasure it invokes, how the French intellectuals are better at appreciating this than Americans ones, and its relation to the silent films serials.

In his review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The lost grace of the adventurer, Assayas describes the influence of TV’s seriality on these Lucas-Spielberg films, and how this is re-stabilizing cinema, which for a long time has been unstable. If cinema is an industry than it needed entrepreneur’s to believe in it. Raiders is contrasted to Franklin Schaffner’s Sphinx (with Raiders being the better of the two).
“George Lucas founded in one part his success on this rather simple idea, which is that the cinema-going public, which has been educated by television and comic books, wanted to find on the big screen the habits of their reading patterns. Where the cinema continues to persist to draw its inspiration from a Romanesque form, which was the dominant form for the previous generation – who were still reading – Lucas, not without being demagogic, captures a fundamental attachment of the adolescent spectator for a structure of episodes and of familial characters that constitutes the connection between one film and another.”
“In short, if the screenplay of this exotic adventure is presently dead in its contemporary form, its cadaver still needs to be torn apart. Raiders of the Lost Ark does not refer to these adventures as they are, neither to the dreams of a generation who saw the explorer or archeologist as a modern hero, but instead more to the references and accessories of its cinematographic tradition, which it exhaustively exploits.”

On the film’s final shot Assayas writes,
“The last shot of the film shows the ark of the film’s title put enclosed in a wooden box and that is transported on a Fenwick, and the camera pulls back and we discover a bunch of identical cases archived ad infinitum in a giant hangar. Its difficult not to say that this is a great metaphor for the cinema of adventure as Lucas and Spielberg sees it: a studio a little dusty where one must just enter and open up a few cases that have been closed for too long to give life again to these emotions that have been forgotten.”
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. The cover and featured dossier, Spielberg, E.T. and Comics: The E.T. Summer by Bill Krohn, and Peut-on etre et avoir E.T. by Jean Narboni (Cahiers, December 1982, N.342).

Krohn, the new American correspondent in this period, discusses E.T. in relation to its American reception and distribution. The piece is part journalistic - it reads more like Variety than Cahiers - and its more observation than criticism. Krohn cites the reception of the film by the general press, and contextualizes the difference in reception by the Americans from the French. Krohn sees how E.T. is already a more personal film for Spielberg than was Raiders. He emphasizes the Disney (Fantasia) and Chuck Jones (Duck Dodgers) influence on Spielberg and E.T., and there are striking illustrations to back up his points. Krohn also brings up for the first time Spielberg’s earlier films, Sugarland Express and Duel, which were never reviewed in Cahiers.

Part of Krohn’s review is transcribed in Clelia Cohen’s nice Masters of Cinema book on Spielberg (which I’m citing below),
“Perhaps the best way to get at what is new about the film is to look at the tradition it grows out of. Where does Spielberg come from? From animated cartoons – he has never made a secret of it in his interviews… the names he most frequently mentions are Walt Disney (‘The first film I remember seeing was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’) and Chuck Jones, a maverick Disney animator who became the undisputed master of animated slapstick at Warner Bros., where he directed Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in some of their best films, and created Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Jones, whom Spielberg invited to act as ‘technical consultant’ on 1941, seems to be the primary influence… E.T. is a Chuck Jones character living out a Disney scenario – orphaned, adopted, dead and resurrected, rescued at the end – without ever losing his anarchic comic energy, or the touch of mystery that all Jones’s ‘special’ creations share. (The children in the film are also the kind of children – hip and foul-mouthed – that Jones, but certainly not Disney, might have imagined watching his work. (Morphologically, E.T. is distantly related to the Martin character in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, who consists of a bowling ball with huge expressive eyes, a spindly body and an oversized pair of tennis shoes, but his nearest ancestor is probably the Magic Frog in Jones’s masterpiece, One Froggy Evening (1956). In that cartoon, a construction worker who unearths a frog from the cornerstone of a condemned building is startled when the creature breaks into a high-stepping rendition of ‘Hello, My Honey’ in a voice like Al Jolson’s. Sure that his fortune is made, the man rushes to a theatrical agent with his find, but the frog refuses to sing for anyone but him. By the end of the film his greed and the frog’s obstinate refusal to perform have reduced him to penury and landed him in the madhouse. The ending of E.T. is more optimistic. Elliott’s first response when he finds his Magic Frog is selfish – ‘I’m going to keep him,’ he says fervently – but E.T., on the point of death, is able to teach him the necessity of sooner or later letting go … Spielberg’s hands, Jones’s dark fable has become edifying, sentimental; it has been re-Disneyfied, and this does not necessarily imply a criticism. Spielberg’s strategy is the strategy of a whole generation, who have created a cinema haunted by modernism (Jones, for example, or Welles) and aspiring to classicism (Disney or, for example, Ford): their Masters’ Masters, to put it very schematically.”
While Narboni, a Seventies Cahiers writer, discusses E.T. more in terms of its marketing and distribution in France (this is probably how its current editor Stéphane Delorme must have saw it, which he remembers nostalgically) and he argues for the necessity of a film criticism that can look beyond this promotion and omnipresence. The title of the piece, Can one be and have E.T.? comes from a question Narboni asks himself, “Childhood, can one both experience and have it?”, which will also be referenced when Cahiers would get more into Spielberg in the 2000s in particular by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin. Narboni calls E.T. a mature film and he describes it in philosophical terms with references to Nietsche and Lyotard.
“I would say without any doubt that E.T. is an intelligent film, inventive, emotive and sly, and the best Spielberg film in my opinion, as it fulfills every checkmark of the cinematographic machine, and its much superior, for example, to not go too far back, to the falsely lucid Raiders of the Lost Ark and even to Poletergeist, whose splendid original idea, exploited by Tobe Hooper with the intelligence and delicacy of a chainsaw, gets worse with each minute of the film.”
Narboni concludes,
“In one way, the story of Spielberg’s film resembles a poem: fantasies and the fears of solitary children, many years later, are remembered by the filmmaker who he would later become, manipulated, poeticized, illuminated by a blue night – all of this makes this golden dream, E.T., a beautiful film."
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Cahiers Critique, Photocopie, by Charles Tesson (Cahiers November 1984, N.365).
Tesson's review is short enough and is pretty negative. It is as well the first reference in Cahiers between Spielberg and Indiana Jones to Tintin, which Spielberg would later make into a film. Tesson is also critical of what he sees as the film’s “Yankee imperialism” and is disgusted by its dinner sequence.
“For the first time in Spielberg’s career, there is a following up to the original, a reprisal, a regression... The conception that governs this new film is summed up in its entirety by this: to offer a re-duplication of an original (Raiders) which was already a copy. The problem is that Indiana Jones has no ambition to be demystified... Temple of Doom is to Raiders what an ice-cube is to a diamond... But what ever happened to Tintin? Of Tintin's spirit, of his taste to travel and of exotic adventures, Spielberg only held on to, without even worrying about it, his worst qualities: an afflicting colonialism."
The Color Purple. Cahiers Critique, Notre père, le ciel, by Iannis Katsahnias (Cahiers October 1986, N.388).

Katsahnias, one of the great Cahiers writers of the 80s (cf. his de Palma reviews, whose reviews make an interesting comparison point to those of Spielberg) makes an interesting case for The Color Purple. Katsahnias focuses on the film’s emotional charge, its nostalgia, its cartoon-like qualities, and Spielberg's use of wordplay. Katsahnias compares the start of The Color Purple to that of E.T. and how the close relationship between the sisters are deeply rooted in childhood. Katsahnias is already citing Narboni's previous article on Spielberg (cross-referencing in Cahiers’ post-80s would become a staple). Other references that Katsahnias bring up in relation to the film include Ingmar Bergman, Marvin Gaye, Andrei Tarkovsky (The Sacrifice), King Vidor (Hallelujah), Blues Brothers, and Prince.
“More then ever, Spielberg is loyal to himself. Like always, Spielberg has always practiced an adult cinema along with the seriousness of a child. Because the films of Spielberg are first off nostalgic and nostalgia only aims towards subjects after they have reached a certain age. Who can say, for example, that Marcel Proust's childhood memories (yes, I know, the comparison is uneven) constitute a book for children?”
It is also worth noting that Thierry Cazals would review in the Notes sur d’autres film section, Amazing Stories, which Spielberg contributed to.
Empire of the Sun. Notre Mere, L’Amerique, Cahiers Critique by Joël Magny (Cahiers, March ’88, N.405).
Magny, who recently published a great interview book with Jean Douchet L'Homme cinéma, describes Empire of the Sun as one of Spielberg's "adult films", along with The Color Purple. It is the story of a British family in Japan who experience WWII first hand, as seen from the perspective of their child, Jim Graham. The film’s interest lies in its contradiction between its childhood universe (e.g. its story and screenplay) and its transition from childhood to adulthood. Spielberg is re-doing the post-war Romanesque and melodrama. By substituting the main character to that of a child, Spielberg is able to emphasize the hermeneutics of the world, its heroism and naivety. The rupture of the Second World War is symbolically represented by a child being separated from his parents, which is the inverse of Sugarland Express. Magny emphasizes Spielberg's reoccurring tropes, use of light, moral forces, and the airplanes (Spielberg’s own father was a pilot in WWII). Magny, though, is very critical of the conclusion of Empire of the Sun,
“The cinema of Spielberg is closing in on itself. Childishness takes its rights all over again. There is a superficial aesthetic, full of sappy hearts, like America itself, re-isolates itself, closing the parentheses of war: just like the Force (God or the Bomb) is on their side, the little Americans can continue to suck their maternal milk and their Spielbergian chocolate.”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Le Cinema de papa, Cahiers Critique by Nicolas Saada (Cahiers, October ’89, N.424).
Saada highlights how this film is the most ambitious, sympathetic, and moving one of the trilogy - it's conclusion (before the unnecessary fourth contribution) -, as it humanizes the character with the father relations. It is more adult than the others, as it builds on Lucas's Empire Strikes Back. There is a new melancholy in the film since the franchises started, they’ve grown. Saada highlights the light tone of the film, but how it lacks a visual imagination and the special effects of Lucas’ ILM. This disappoints Saada.
Saada provides an interesting reading of the Sean Connery character,
“When Indie addresses his father and asks him: “Where were you? Why did you never take care of me?” It's also Spielberg who is addressing Sean Connery, the first James Bond, (the series that Indiana Jones was giving a retro homage to): “Where were you, during the ten years of Spielberg's career, the elders of Hollywood?” Spielberg has for a while been treated like a clever child, “strong in themes”, he gets into subjects and makes people cry. At the time though, Spielberg consciously picked up the mantle of the old Hollywood cinema of the Forties, the one of Michael Curtiz and the first Walt Disney films, only to be railed against by the majority of American film critics, that only saw him as a small-time filmmaker.”
In conclusion, Saada writes,
“With this last film, Spielberg and Lucas rejoins their fathers: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade then marks the end of a period, that of a brilliant childhood of the two wonder-boys of the American box-office.”
Saada also has a piece La couleur de l’argent (N.434) on the state of American cinema, which addresses a changing taste in American cinema at the magazine, where Spielberg comes up (and is compared again to Michel Curtiz) and is said that he stands out due to the general mediocrity of most of Hollywood’s output. In the article Saada also praises McTiernan’s Die Hard, which he sees as a contraband, where a director subverts the genre-projects assigned to him. And Saada speaks of the changing filmmaking realities in the U.S. since Cahiers did their Made in U.S.A. special issue at the beginning of the decade. Saada speaks of the decline of the Lucas-Spielberg duo, and the influence of the work of their screenplay writer Lawrence Kasdan on them. Instead Saada champions as an alternative Carpenter-Landis-Dante. The text concludes the decade, a summing up of sorts, which prophesizes the rise of the super-productions and new young directors taking over. 
Always. Notes sur d’autres film by Iannis Katsahnias (Cahiers, March 1989, N.429).

Katsahnias asks why would Spielberg want to remake Victor Flemming’s A Guy Named Joe? Today even though there are many fans of Always (cf. Delorme, Berthomieu) it is still generally overlooked by most Spielberg fans or seen as corny. Katsahnias highlights that the difficulty of heroes in American cinema is that there are so many parodies of them. Katsahnias’s review of Always is pretty negative. 

The conclusion is especially painful,
“In this reversion in his own filmography, Spielberg appropriates a subject to publicly acknowledge his incapacity to be a part of this world of adults. It is sad and pathetic to see his powerlessness.”
Up next Spielberg will re-invent himself in the Nineties with the impressive double-bill of the devastating Schindler's List and the awesome Jurassic Park. More on this later…

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