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.

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