Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Éric Rohmer on The Big Sky

The 29th issue of Cahiers du Cinéma: Revue du Cinéma et du Télécinéma has a film still from The Robe by Henry Koster on its cover, which was the first Cinemascope film to be released (a still from Rudolph Maté’s The Mississippi Gambler is featured on its inner cover).

The issue is, for one reason at least, valuable for Maurice Schérer’s article Les maîtres de l’aventure on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky (which I translated below). Even though the article is not included in the bibliography of C.G. Crisp’s book on Rohmer, it is a respected article and is cited by Hillier and Wollen in their respective Cahiers and Hawks books. And as it turns out, it can also be found in the rare English collection of Rohmer’s writing, The Taste for Beauty (more about it in a future post).

Regarding this period for Cahiers, Kent Jones, in the book Olivier Assayas, writes,
"The avant-garde was a group of critics taking their first collective step toward becoming filmmakers. They were not heralding the new but something pre-existing yet hitherto unacknowledged in commercial cinema, and in the process they re-directed the attentions and priorities of film viewing through the language of discovery and revelation. The collective action of the Cahiers du cinéma critics (and of those who followed them at other publications) was fairly wondrous in and of itself, an endless lifting of the veil of surface beauty to reveal what they took to be another deeper and truer beauty. There was a great deal of excellent criticism (most of it written by Jean-Luc Godard), but it's the lovely tautologies and proclamations that are often invoked nowadays. Cinema was Bresson, Renoir, Hawks, Hitchcock, Nick Ray, and Rossellini; and cinema was not Autant-Lara, Delannoy, Decoin, Pontecorvo, Kubrick, or Wyler." 
Crisp in his excellent book, Eric Rohmer: Realist and Moralist (’88), analyzes in depth the connections between Rohmer’s writing and his filmmaking. "In fact Rohmer’s central position in recent French cinema is due not so much to the films for which he is now so well known as to his participation in the critical reformulation of film theory in the post-war years, in collaboration with André Bazin,” writes Crisp. “An early and regular contributor to Cahiers du cinéma, Eric Rohmer helped to define the thrust of that journal’s initial critical position as a champion of film realism. The whole of the New Wave came to prominence under that banner, and looked upon Cahiers du cinéma as its house journal.” 

Crisp elaborates,
“It is not only the crucial ten-year age gap that separates Rohmer from Godard and Truffaut, and places him alongside Bazin; it is a totally different temperament and a totally different world-view. And precisely because Rohmer in his early articles made no attempt to conceal the metaphysical foundations of his critical and theoretical position, it is instructive to analyze his support for realism during those early years, and to recognize thereby the implications which also underlie Bazin’s theorizing.”
Crisp writes (a little unfairly) about Rohmer’s prose,
“His early critical articles suggest at least one reason why he never pursued the literary career he long considered: they show as an atrocious literary stylist whose natural expression is turgid, affected and obscure. He launches without warning into formless and tortuous theorizing, only rarely and tangentially mentioning the films under review.”
And Crisp writes about Rohmer’s departure from the magazine,
“After Bazin’s death he continued on as co-editor until June 1963, when the job of editing the magazine was taken over by an editorial committee in which Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and ten further members were included. Three new chief editors were named, however, among them Doniol-Valcroze and Rivette, so the ultimate effect of the 1963 re-shuffle was to edge out Rohmer and leave less conservative men in charge.”
The Masters of Adventure

I'm not crazy about westerns. The genre has its conventions and requirements, like any other, but with them they offer less liberties. There needs to be prairies, livestock, harsh environments, wooden homes, mandolin music, pursuits, these good guys with their eternal bravery, hints of Irish humor, weariness of the old world, and people travelling with all of their possessions. This is what resounds, but which combined, in some westerns, achieves something more than just that. However, the greatest masters (Ford, Wyler) were able to assert in them their mastery without sacrificing anything. I have to, speaking on the behalf of Cahiers, openly reconcile with Fritz Lang and his Rancho Notorious, which we did not pay homage to on paper. I agree that this movie taught us nothing of the author, except that it belied a pseudo-decadence. But perhaps as a critic that holds a different opinion, and is more sensitive to innovation, I should not hold any strict laws and be more equitable.

I therefore take this opportunity to denounce a curious prejudice, as to what motivates a filmmaker to create: to consider ones talent, this exercise, is what is evaluated so highly by the Cahiers writers. What master filmmaker has not been yelled at for their decadence? From Gance to Renoir, from Clair to Ford, from Lang to Hitchcock... For my part, I rather give credit to the man than to the work and only with an extreme slowness do I listen when it is argued otherwise. In short, I’m on the side of the older generation, not because we are the same age, but because I agree that it is strange that quality can go from being so high and then fall so low; if it is true that it was even so high to begin with. Regarding the role of chance, king of this art, as we are told, is just really another sophism. I do not think that I’m important enough to not allow a few filmmakers of this genius – and even though it wasn’t planned – what they achieve is a creation of what they’ve wanted to make, exactly how they imagined it.

Regarding the genius of Hawks I refer to the excellent article by Jacques Rivette, which he wrote for us a few months ago. I see nothing to add to this study, if I had too, since it was exhaustive. I value, just like Rivette, the filmmaker Hawks, as the most important American filmmaker, except for Griffith, and much superior to Ford for my taste, who is more generally estimated. The latter bores me while the former delights me. This might be a futile criterion, lets say. And how can we confirm this? I remember Alain citing Treasure Island by Stevenson as one of his favorite books: he didn’t care for anything, which is true, other than eagerly being seduced by the story, he used to say, about being a reader. But if you’ve read Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae you would know that the author of that story, who charmed us, offers such a rich understanding of man, and this is what makes him a major novelist. "The purpose of art is to show," said Conrad, in the preface of The Nigger of the Narcissus. This is a vague sentence, like the style of its author, which I would like to like more than I do. Because what exactly does this suggest? If the only concern of the novelist was, through language, to describe the exterior world precisely, than I much prefer a bad film because of this potential boredom of description, and to get taken in by the whirlwind of action instead of the stiltedness of pretty prose. This isn’t cinema, it is one of its least merits, which we are severe about, because it marks the incapabilities of communication, which is more attuned to people’s nerves than to the surface qualities of its style, the verb and the adjectives, intent, movement and sensations, states, and morals.

This is how I disappointingly view Stevenson. I owe to the cinema my taste for the classics because of how it treats adventures. Nowhere else have I better seen the secret roots of desire, which emphasizes the instant when a choice is affirmed and the act begins. The arrival of the act is best managed if it is the only event, the waiting and anxiety is more than tragic as it weights the scene, these decisions menace the liberty of scene. Maybe even more than life itself. To read Stevenson’s stunning Reflux: to see how the characters are in a constant state of peril, either they are affirmed or are cleared, how the obscure is resolved, by actions. To show a part of man that for a long time has remained unknown, because I believe that man is a free being and can be renewed. I don’t like the few moments of artifice, ellipses or shadows. But what is necessary is to show the hero at the precise moment where we expect him, with his instinct, judging.

This brings us to Howard Hawks. Apart from a few scenes with harsh lighting, sometimes unbearable, with him, everything is prepared. An important point, rhetoric in exposition, too dry for a brutal resolution. There is a strong anticipation for something to happen, this is evident, and what is really surprising, is how it’s not expected, and this action which one would assume would be difficult, is actually done with an ease. Just like how Hitchcock plays with the fear, the kind of fear that is associated with danger, haunting the audience with suspicions, in a similar vein Howard Hawks’ gaze, how does he transform his subjects? Through an analytic examination and their geometric material. In this physical world where folkloric American heroes live, no missteps are allowed, and for the filmmaker: no bravura, fog or metaphor. I do not know of any filmmaker that is more indifferent to cinematic plastic form, with his banal editing, but on the other hand, more sensible to the gestures of characters, and pacing.

This is a sportive, efficient, beautiful style, and its poetry is additional, but which is also in the foreground, indiscernible from what it magnifies. Hawks is without a doubt more personal, stunning, and elegant with his burlesque charge, more so than the excessive grinning of the heroic-comic tones of the skillful Dudley Nichols' script, it is more traditional, and consistent to the spirit of Ford than to the flamboyant Red River. But what luxury of details is under its uniformity, and what restraint of exploiting the cheap horror of an amputation, a burnt face, or a fight between a man and a woman, and what mathematical beauty goes into the conflicts, these returns or when the equilibrium capsizes, the system inverses, but never cancels itself out!

I think that Hawks deserves a particular rank. Other very good directors, like Renoir, Stroheim or Vigo, have virtues that shine through their contradictions: a disdain for traditional forms, a rude intransigence; while for others, still, there is a tendency towards abstraction, all of which the auteur of Scarface doesn't bother with. Should we hold a grudge against him? I agree that he should not be elevated to the highest rank, because this title deserves to be earned by risk and ambition. But can you blame a cineaste for only being a cineaste? Hawks isn't about pushing the limits of his art form, but instead to always stay within its parameters, and to achieve this through a classical perfection, regardless of the popular form, wether it is the western, a thriller or a musical comedy. There are two ways to love the cinema that I disagree with. Some people are curiously attached to the ways in which they can be pampered, whether it is a pretentious drama, a shoddy opera, or a didactic poem that flatters their good taste; the others - are they less worse? - don't bother themselves with distinctions and just go see everything, sensible, so they say. With respect to the cinema, unless it is a masterpiece, it works best when it is more common than pretentious. But the cinema is already too old. And was it ever any different? Who would venture today to speak about the ingenuity of a Griffith or Chaplin? I do not believe in involuntary poetry, in the cinema and much less elsewhere. I think that the best westerns are those that are signed by a major director. I say this because I love the cinema, because I believe it is the product, not of chance, but of art and the genius of man, because I think that you can't love deeply any movie, if you do not love deeply those of Howard Hawks.

Maurice Schérer

No comments: