Monday, March 2, 2015

Extracts from an Interview with Antoine de Baecque


“Like said Serge Daney, or actually more like the opposite, cinema didn’t watch over my childhood. I wasn’t a cinephile, like were the other young writers at Cahiers from my generation. The cinema didn’t count for much during my childhood. I discovered it actually a little late when I was in hypokhâgne and khâgne. I was twenty years old. And the cinema that I discovered wasn’t necessarily the popular auteurs. My first shock was Andrei Tarkovsky. This wasn’t part of the Cahiers culture. It was something different. It was only after this that I experienced a catch-up effect. I had to discover all of the films that I missed through my adolescent. Notably when I joined Cahiers, and more precisely when I wrote the two volumes of its history. For that task I had to watch an enormous amount of films, notably all of the American films since the 1950s.

“I wasn’t born into a cinephilia, like are most people at Cahiers. I have a trajectory that is a little particular. My father, didn’t value cinema too highly. He was a man of the theater, which was initially also my culture. He was a playwright. Every week he would take me to see two or three plays. This is why in my adolescent my culture of theater was bigger than that of cinema. It’s paradoxical at Cahiers, where theater is generally disliked. This makes me pretty rare there for liking theater, which I continue to attend, and sometimes write about. I remember conversations with Daney, who would tell me, that theater bored him and he didn’t like how everyone spoke so loudly. The Cahiers cinephile culture was also historically build against the theater. The only strong to link to cinema in my biography was experienced through a director that my father worked with; otherwise he didn’t really work in cinema. But my father was actually the scriptwriter for the director Gérard Blain. I knew him well. My father actually wrote all of the scripts of Gérard Blain’s first films. So Gérard was a major figure in my childhood and adolescence. And it is like that that I first had contact with the cinema. To see my father work with him, to go onto the set, when I was only 12 or 13.

“After this, it was Tarkovsky that was a real shock. So afterwards I started to go see all of the new films by Godard and Truffaut when they came out. So now we are at the beginning of the Eighties. I was born in 1962 so I was 20 in 1982. So it is at this moment when I started to go a lot to the cinema. And really quickly my relationship with the cinema brought me towards criticism. I wrote about what I was watching. The films of Tarkovsky and I also really liked African cinema. I wrote just for myself on Passion, Prénom Carmen and the other films by Godard in this period. It was decisive.

“I think I’m one of the rare people at Cahiers that has a complete scholarly and academic background from the École normale supérieure de Saint-Cloud. I studied literature, and at school I formed a group. We created a theater company and we started a literary magazine. I also created a film magazine, which exists today, and which is called Vertigo. It was really hand-made and artisanal. We are in 1984 and through this magazine we have a more active role in the cinephile culture. We went to both the Cannes and Venice film festival this year. It was still possible in this period to just attend these festivals as a cinephile and to be able to watch films. It’s at Cannes in 1984 where I met the guys at Cahiers like Toubiana and his team that was there. It’s a particular moment at Cahiers because a lot of people that are there are about to leave like Assayas, Tesson and Bergala. They were the pillars at Cahiers since the beginning of the Eighties and they helped return Cahiers towards the center of cinema. They are leaving to make films, or become distributors or producers. Leos Carax was part of this too.


“Daney was no longer at Cahiers. When I arrive it’s 1984 and he’s already at Libération.. I’ve been reading him at Libé, which has always been my newspaper. I’ve always read him with interest, but never knew him personally. I met him a little later. I remember that it was Nicolas Saada, one of the younger critics from my generation who arrived around the same time as I did, in the mid-Eighties, who one day during a projection, it must have been sometime between 1987 and ’87, he pointed Daney out to me, and told me that that was the greatest French film critic. I knew the name, but I wouldn’t have recognized him.

“So the chief editor of Cahiers that I met was Toubiana. It was Toubiana that managed Cahiers, and he was recruiting new critics. So this is how he was to be the first person that I met there. He was from the previous generation, he was older. But Serge was someone that was really attentive to the young. There was always a bit of a pedagogical vocation to him. There was something filial too, of being a mentor and having disciples. So he welcomed all of us who came to Cahiers, even though our paths were really different. There was Thierry Jouse, Nicolas Saada, Frédéric Strauss, Iannis Katsahnias, and Frédéric Sabouraud. This is a kind of the group that arrives at Cahiers at the same time. So Toubiana would have a relationship that is kind of paternal towards us, in the good sense of the term. There is a filiation. We were like his first children. Because before this people would come to visit Cahiers to see Daney actually. It was Daney who was more the paternal figure of the generation before us, like for Assayas and Bergala. So we are his first generation, the children of Toubiana. So there is a strong relationship with him.

“But Toubiana wasn’t really a critic. He didn’t write much, nor was he that impressive as a critic. Daney was impressive as a critic. It isn’t something either that he would describe himself as. The force of Serge is the encounter. That is to say that he’s a great interviewer. He gets people to talk, and he listens to them. So for us, he listened to us, and we talked to him. We could dialogue with Serge. He did a great job at animating the team at Cahiers. He had a lot of ideas. But he wasn’t really someone that was impressive as a critic. My relationship with Toubiana was one of friendship, and of filitation. He guided Cahiers. It’s something that is important to understand Toubiana and Cahiers in this period. It became a small cinephile enterprise, and he was its director, the boss. Toubiana, as I would define him, is more of a creator of a press group. He’s from a certain generation of those who created journals. There was also Serge July who created Libération. So Toubiana in a certain way recreated Cahiers like a press enterprise. And Serge was really attentive in regards to this. He had his ideas about cinema, but what counted for him was less the way we wrote our reviews, than it was how to invest Cahiers into the cinema. To go out to report on filmmaking sets, to look into areas worth exploring. So to fill the Journal des Cahiers, which was his invention. This was at the heart of Cahiers since 1980. The Journal proposed news regarding the profession, but seen through the perspective of Cahiers. It was journalism more than it was criticism. So Toubiana was more of a journalist than a critic, in a certain way. He was also the one who was responsible for the finances of Cahiers. He was able to transform this moribund magazine into a lucrative magazine. It was prosperous. The quantity of issues went from 2 to 3 thousand to nearly 50,000. This was Toubiana. To transform this little gauchiste magazine into a real enterprise of press. He animated the group. He transformed our ideas into articles, into journalism, and into books. It was he who created the Éditions de l'Étoile. He ccreated these cinephile events like the ciné-club and special projections. It’s the professional aspect of the magazine. He was able to reinstall Cahiers within the heart of the cinema profession. This was Toubiana, and it was really his force. Toubiana was more the boss of a press group, an entrepreneur, while Daney was more a critic, and a voyager, who closely analyzed the material of cinema.


“So my first text in Cahiers, I wrote it in the fall of 1984. It’s on an African film by Souleymane Cissé, Baara. I sent my review to Cahiers. I actually frequented its critics and the office, but I never dared show them my writing, to say that I would write on such and such film. I was really impressed by those who were writing there. And then, when Truffaut died, on the 21st of October 1984, everyone was shocked. So I sent my first review to Toubiana, to Cahiers, which was Truffaut’s house. I had to send something to Truffaut’s mailbox. Serge published this review in the December 1984 issue. It’s my first text in Cahiers, this critique of Cissé’s Baara. So after that, I was now part of Cahiers. I wrote my first text and which was published as a Critique, and this felt great.

“I have an anguished memory of this period. Because I could now go to Cahiers and propose things to write, but I was anxious because I felt like an imposter, because my cinematographic culture wasn’t that big. And those who worked with the new critics – it wasn’t Toubiana, who you only saw us at the beginning – in the machine which was Cahiers, those who put together each issue, were Claudine Paquot, with two other young critics, who were actually a bit older than me, and those were Marc Chevrie and Hervé Le Roux. They were really the pillars at Cahiers when I arrived. They were the ones who I saw when I went to the Cahiers office, which was near the Bastille on the Passage de la Boule-Blanche. So I go there and I see them, and I bring them my reviews, I propose them pieces, and I have a lot of anxiety about this. We never know if a piece is going to be accepted. I still remember the sensation from hearing the phone ring when they called. Sometimes it worked well, and other times not. This ringing noise was like a nightmare. We were nervous about this part of the job. Cahiers was like a temple.

“I realized that I had to find a place for myself there. But it was complicated. I wasn’t the most legitimate writer there. I hardly knew American cinema. Horror films made me too scared. So I tried to bring something else, something to carve my own niche.  I started out writing about African films. But also on Tarkovsky. These are two combats that really brought me into the magazine. My first cover film review was for a Critique of another Souleymane Cissé film, Yeelen. It’s a magnificent African film. So this is in 1987. The title of the piece was ‘Cela s’appelle l’aurore’.

“This was what I was bringing to Cahiers. The other big fight for me was Tarkovsky, who wasn’t at all liked at Cahiers. It was a cinema of the imagination, dreams and of spirituality. This wasn’t what Cahiers was interested in. So with Michel Chion, we would change this. So in 1986 we would make a dossier on Tarkovsky. This contributes to my legitimacy at Cahiers. So I grew up there through what I could bring to it, whether it was African cinema or directors that were a little to its margins, like Tarkovsky or Manoel de Oliveira, who would also be someone really important to me. I would make myself a place there by being the specialist on this kind of thing.

“So everything that was central to the magazine, like French or American cinema, I wouldn’t bother to touch because I didn’t know it that well, and there were others who knew it better than I did. The great specialist on American cinema of my generation was Iannis Katsahnias and Nicolas Saada. They wrote on Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and Cronenberg. It was their thing, since they had a knowledge on that culture, which I didn’t have.


“When you arrive like I did in 1984, you are really far from writing cover reviews. We arrive by writing short pieces. I remember the first group meeting that I went to. We talked about all of the new films, but that which concerned the new critics were the little films, that nobody else wanted to write about. We were really far from being able to write a cover review. My first memory of a cover review was really important. It was on Yeelen in 1987, and this is three years after I got there.

“At the beginning you participate more in the concrete creation of an issue. And since Cahiers has to talk about a lot of films, then there are also the bad ones. So we wrote little capsule reviews in the Notes sur d’autres film section. And slowly you grow there, and you get to write more lines, and slowly you earn being able to write more about the films that are important to the magazine.

“What I remember the most about the covers, which are important to a magazine, is more what was going on at the end of the Eighties, more so than the beginning. So we discuss what film will get the cover. There is a committee of writers who, at the time, would meet pretty frequently, though it varied. Toubiana really liked these meetings, because he really liked to talk. They took place every 15 days or 3 weeks. There we discussed what would make the cover. First thing that needs to be said was there was no interference, or pressure – or at least we didn’t experience it, maybe Toubiana did – from the distributors of the films. Because sometimes people say that distributors purchase the right to be featured on a cover, but this wasn’t the case at Cahiers in the Eighties. But I would find out that in the Fifties this wasn’t the case. In that period the covers would not reflect the magazine’s editorial choices.

            “So we discuss, and what’s important, is that we pick a good cover. It should be a film that regroups all of us critics, but also the readers. The covers are something that a reader can see himself in a magazine, and which motivates them to buy it. It’s commercially important too. I would find this out ten years later when I become the chief editor of Cahiers. The difference in a cover can affect 50% of your sales. It’s incredible. On this matter, Toubiana was really smart, so he should be the one to discuss this further. So there were no covers in the Eighties that the Cahiers team didn’t decide on. This wouldn’t have been possible. Everyone had to agree.

“Another important thing regarding the covers is the surprise effect. There should be a provocation. I have strong memories, first of my Yeelen cover, and then the one with Tim Burton’s Batman. Because it was a true choice by us critics, of this new generation of critics that I was a part of. Toubiana didn’t really like it. He thought it was too much Hollywood commerce, too many tricks. There was a critic Iannis Katsahnias, who sadly died of AIDS at a too young age, who was really important regarding this, since he was the one who wrote about, and was one of the top explorers of American cinema. He was really important in regards to the Cahiers relationship with American cinema in this period. He was the one who discovered Tim Burton, with Nicolas Saada. They watched Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and they decided that Burton was a really important director.

“So Tim Burton’s first cover at Cahiers on Batman created a real scandal at Cahiers. Because some readers refused the cover. For them, it was the worst of Hollywood, commerce, and special effects. I don’t know if the archive is still at Cahiers, but we got a lot of people who unsubscribed after it. There were insulting letters, people telling us that we betrayed them, that we sold out. It was all this one cover. But the thing is, which is evident today, is that Cahiers was right. The discovery of Tim Burton as an auteur has been proven, and this passage on the cover of Cahiers was part of his initiation. The critic imposed on the reader this prophetic vision. This is the future of American cinema. This young man in his thirties, who made Batman, an important film, is an artist.

Batman made me realize that Burton was important. I’ve seen all of his films, I interviewed him, I got him to talk. I became the specialist on Burton at Cahiers. He’s my first American object at Cahiers, and my first object at the heart of Cahiers, and it’s important for me at Cahier to have Tim Burton. To seize Tim Burton. I actually stole Burton from Katsahnias and Saada. Still, Nicolas, when I see him, who no longer likes Burton, still tells me that I was wrong for picking Burton, who he thinks is no longer interesting. We laugh about it. After the Batman cover, we have him. And for his next film, Edward Scissorhands, everyone agrees that it’s a great film. I was marked at Cahiers by Tim Burton.

“A cover like this which is provocative is something typical at Cahiers. I experienced two moments like this at Cahiers of provocative covers. The other great cover is on Spielberg’s E.T., with a review by Jean Narboni in 1984. This cover also had the same effect. Cahiers said Spielberg was important and its readers disagreed. It was fundamental to reinstall at Cahiers the Hollywood cinema. There are covers like this that are important to the history of Cahiers and its relationship with American cinema. Batman was essential.

“With the Batman cover, Cahiers re-found its historical mission, to impose a love for Hollywood cinema in France. This is the work Truffaut did with Hitchcock. It’s the same kind of provocation. When Chabrol, Truffaut, and Rivette made a special issue on Hitchcock in 1954, it’s the same thing as giving Batman a cover in 1989. It’s the same operation. We’re saying that inside the Hollywood commercial system, that there can be something important. It’s not because he’s commercial that we like him, but because he’s a great artist and director. And this is what we have to love in cinema. In the Eighties there is a return towards this mission, which is practically the founding mission of the magazine, that at the center of American cinema that there are auteurs. And where it is the most explicit is in Hollywood. Cahiers re-finds its historical role at this moment, it renews something that was lost in the Sixties and Seventies.

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