Monday, June 10, 2013

Henri Langlois on Howard Hawks

A great resource for Howard Hawks is the book Howard Hawks: American Artist which is edited by Jim Hillier and Peter Wollen. One of its major strengths is its translation of some French film reviews, most notably from Cahiers du Cinéma, including: Jean-George Auriol on A Girl in Every Port, André Bazin on Air Force and the Hitchcocko-Hawksians, Henri Langlois on The Modernity of Howard Hawks (which I transcribed below), and Jean Douchet on Hatari!.

Though this is a good selection, it doesn't go far enough! There are too few important classic French reviews that are translated. And where is Positif? Though there are some good websites that try to make up for this unfortunate situation (cf. Serge Daney in English), there is still an overall lack of good translations available. Because of this, it is difficult for readers to fully understand the multi-faceted perspectives of French criticism.

In the following essay The Modernity of Howard Hawks, Henri Langlois, who was one of the co-founders of the Cinémathèque française, discusses the difference between French and English cinephilia and, as an early film preservationist, describes eloquently Hawks' early and rare silent films. The placement of this review at the front of its issue of Cahiers du Cinéma (N.139), which has a still from Hatari! on its cover and then following a lengthy annotated filmography, shows the respect and influence Langlois had on the Cahiers critics. For more of Langlois' writing there is also the rare French book Trois cents ans de cinéma. - D.D.
The Modernity of Howard Hawks 
It seems that A Girl in Every Port was the revelation of the Hawks season at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
For New York audiences of 1962, Louise Brooks suddenly acquire that 'Face of the Century' aura she had had, many years ago, for spectators at the Cinema des Ursulines.
Because for Paris A Girl in Every Port is not a recent event, but one which occured in the 1928 season.
It was the Paris of the Montparnassians and Picasso, of the surrealists and the Seventh Art, of Diaghilev, of the 'Sporees de Paris,' of the 'Six,' of Gertrude Stein, of Brancusi's masterpieces.
That is why Blaise Cendrars confided a few years ago that he thought A Girl in Every Port definitely marked the first appearance of contemporary cinema.
To the Paris of 1928, which was rejecting expressionism, A Girl in Every Port was a film conceived in the present, achieving an identity of its own by repudiating the past.
 To look at the film is to see yourself, to see the future which leads through Scarface to the cinema of our time.

The modern man - that's Hawks, completely.
When you look back over his oeuvre today what is striking is the degree to which the cinema of Hawks was ahead of its time.
To be more precise - since there is generally a time lag between the main currents of contemporary art and the cinematic art - what is striking is the degree to which Hawks's art is up-to-date, and even in the vanguard of artistic movements.
The art he created is that of an America which has now been exposed and which did exist, but whose evolution was then still in progress.
Thus, five years before the appearance of the first modern construction in the streets of New York, on 53rd Street - fifteen years before the appearance of the first modern skyscrapers which have transformed Manhattan - Hawks, like Gropius, conceived his films as one might conceive a type-writer, a motor, or a bridge.
That is why, Today, when America has discovered Hawks, his old films like The Crowd Roads have such an impact when shown on televison.
In these forgotten Warners films, the people of New York and America, much to their surprise, recognize themselves: the depiction of the American scene now seems very accurate.
It is this which has causer people to write that Hawks is the most American of filmmakers.
He is certainly American, not more so than Griffith or Vidor, but his work is rooted in contemporary America in its spirit as well as in its surface appearance. It is now clear that Hawks's is the only oeuvre the American public can totally identify itself with, in terms of both simple admiration and criticism:
It has no relation to my work... I didn't care to do it but was forced under contract... It was made right after Murnau's Sunrise, which introduced German camera trick-work to Hollywood... They liked it; I didn't... I've always been rather mechanically minded so I tried a whole lot of Mechanical things, and then gave them up completely - most of the time my camera stays on eye level now... I just use the simplest camera in the world.
So many excuses for three or four shots made as a concession to Fox in Paid to Love, which anticipates Lubitsch.
It must have meant a lot to him.
Thus, at the time when Paris was rejecting expressionism, at the very moment when Babelsber was conquering the United States and Hollywood, Hawks too rejected it and for the same reasons, because it was in conflict with the demand of the new age.
Curiously, A Girl in Every Port, so novel for people at the time seems much less so today than Fig Trees, in which Hawks's art operates in complete freedom.
But Fig Trees was at that time too new a film for contemporary audiences not to be blinded by it.
With the coming of the sound film, the problem arose of cinematic construction in terms of speech, of the editing of dialogue in terms of movement.
A new dramaturgy was about to be born: it had to be discovered, explored, established.
Hawks applied himself directly to the task, without trying to evade the difficulties.
He immediately arrived at the heart of the problem: dramatic film construction in terms of the roles played by dialogue and sound.
From The Dawn Patrol to Ceiling Zero, Hawks was totally preoccupied with this construction. As a result, he became the Le Corbusier of the sound film, in the way he handles lines and volume.
His works, then, are stripped bare almost to the point of abstraction - but it is as if they are made of concrete.
The essential. The truth of the dialogue, the truth of the situations, the truth of the subjects, of the milieux, of the characters: a dramaturgy derived from an agglomeration of facts, words, noises, movements, situations, as a motor is assembled. There is nothing superfluous, no stopping, no meandering, no fleshing out. What is most impressive is Hawks's progressive mastery, culminating in Ceiling Zero, a totally accomplished film, and one which is diametrically opposed to filmed theater, except for those who no longer see its originality and its extraordinary achievement because they have learned too much from it and thus find it too familiar.
The dialogue: what one says, what one is, what ones does. Hawks puts great emphasis on dialogue and intonation: on meaning of the dialogue, the construction of the dialogue, the delivery of the dialogue.
No, it isn't done with cutting. It's done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation... All you want to do is to hear the essential things... And, of course, if I have a scene today that I don't think is very interestng the quicker I can play it the better off I am.
As in every man's work, there is one exception to his general rule:
Twentieth Century, lit up by the radiance of Carole Lombard's femininity, and that is enough. Thanks to it everything is balanced, everything comes alive, through cutting which makes the dialogue into cinema.
The period characterized by Scarface is coming to an end.
In 1937 there is a short pause.
The explosion of Bringing Up Baby.
And, suddenly, in 1939, that night at the Marivaux when they showed Only Angels ave Wings, a charm was reborn, that trance-like spell which had seemed lost since the advent of sound.
Out of cinema, mastered anew, magic was reborn. And with it, Hawks rediscovered that total freedom which let him dispense with all heaviness of touch. Already there was a hint of things to come: the play of colors and light in the brilliant facets of Red River and The Big Sky.
From The Dawn Patrol to Only Angels Have Wings: the circle is closed.
Another stylistic exercise, as if for the pleasure of a private gamble: His Girl Friday.
And now the great masterpieces.
Hawks is himself again, as before, as he was at his debut in the silent period.
The same arabesque, and this art of giving brith, from a void, to miraculous life.
The 'concrete' period has been transcended. The logical force of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep is hidden beneath the sheen of an art as dense and translucent as the extraordinary vegetable-like growth of the new New York.
The constructivist, almost abstract art of Hawks becomes colorful.
Pared down further - and because it is in color - Rio Bravo is a construction of psychological impulses.
All of Hawks's intelligence is confirmed and exercised in Land of the Pharoahs, the only epic film which has style, rigor, and plastic beauty, qualities whose meaning we had long since forgotten.

Henri Langlois

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