Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bernard Chardère's first Positif Editorial

The only store in Toronto that sells Positif is La Maison de la Presse Internationale in Yorkville. The magazine ships one month behind, unlike Cahiers, whose new issues arrive the month they are published. The Canadian university periodicals of Positif go back to the early 80s, while Cahiers' entire catalog is easily accessible. In New York City, no stores sell Positif, while you can find Cahiers at St. Mark's Bookshop. And the only place in North America to celebrate Positif's 60th anniversary was the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2012 at the Film Society Lincoln Center.

These points illustrate the lack of visibility Positif has in North America.

Present-day English-language film criticism grew out of journalism, alt-weeklies, leftist politics, academia, art criticism, and now with the internet, bloggers (cf. American Movie Critics). To speak in generalizations, the two major streams of American film criticism are infotainment, and on the other hand, serious criticism, which focuses on foreign and independent films. One group unconditionally praises everything while in the other, skepticism towards the mainstream embitters and creates resentment. These two groups hardly ever meet. The fissure between these two polarities is, for example, the reason why one of the master filmmakers of our time, Steven Spielberg, has still not received the critical appreciation that he deserves in the United States, unlike in France (Cf. Berthomieu on Spielberg).

The gate-keepers of what passes as "good" film criticism have at stake the moral superiority of their evaluations that would be undermined if the oppositional reviews published by Positif were better known. In this setting the marginalization of Positif becomes an urgent concern as it hides its aesthetic and editorial position.

It does not even seem like Positif is on anyone's radars. It rarely appears discussed on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter (except for its rare contributors that are on it) and Michel Ciment even speaks about how Positif's dossiers are created in opposition to the internet. There are also some well-researched blogs dedicated to Positif like Nightswimming or the periodical index Calindex.

On the other hand, Cahiers which has more visibility, is unfairly being lacerated, accused all over again of fetishizing mainstream Hollywood, without any attempt to understand its many subtleties. The common finger-wagging refrain being that: can you believe that Cahiers likes so and so? Or can you believe that Cahiers doesn't like so and so? For an example see Tony Rayns attack on Stéphane Delorme in the June issue of Sight & Sound.

All the while Positif proposes a counter-balance to Cahiers as it offers a more comprehensive, authoritative and generous overview of contemporary releases as well as the history of cinema.

In Positif 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal, which was published by the Museum of Modern Art to celebrate its 50th anniversary, there are many original English translations of Positif film reviews. The book is divided by decades: there are six reviews from the '50s, seven reviews from the '60s, fifteen reviews from the '70s, four from the '80s, and twelve from the '90s. In the book's introduction, the magazine is described as,
Positif has consistently championed independently spirited, idiosyncratic, and original cinema from America, France, and around the world. It has maintained that cinema is an art like other plastic and performing disciplines, and it situates filmmakers not only within the history and culture of cinema but also within the general development of modernism. In the last decade, Positif was among the first to detect the emergence of a new generation of Asian filmmakers.”
The founder of Cahiers, André Bazin, became a martyr figure, and his ontological approach to cinema, What Is Cinema?, has become a standard academic text. All the while Positif's founder, Bernard Chardère, has almost been totally ignored, even though he has been immensely prolific. A major difference between Bazin (Cahiers) and Chardère (Positif) is their geographic and religious views: Chardere's Lyonais Jansenism proposes an open humanism while Bazin's Parisien Catholicism is more dogmatic. Chardère, in a video for Positif's 40th anniversary, says "We will say positive things about the films. Talk about its good qualities. It's humanity," and "We have to save the images, these old films. It's not easy, were a minority."

The eighty-three year old Bernard Chardère seems to be getting more attention now. He is a writer and editor of more than a dozen film books, a filmmakers in his own right, the founder of the Institut Lumière in Lyon, and is the subject of a new book - Carole Aurouet's Bernard Chardère, 60 ans de cinéma.

The following is the first editorial of Positif (May ’52) by it’s founder Chardère, Why We Are Going to Fight from Positif 50 Years. Ciment writes of it, “Bernard Chardère, a literature student, founded Positif in Lyon at the age of twenty-two with the help of a number of friends. In his editorial in the first issue, he provides the broad outlines that the journal intends to cover over the coming years of film history in the making.”
Why We Are Going to Fight by Bernard Chardère (Positif No.1, May 1952)

You’re Going To Say:
Not another film magazine (and yet another preface!) when so many others have fallen by the wayside … Doesn’t it matter that the market you are breaking into has no more readers?
Decentralization is very nice when you’re talking about it from Paris, but in a city where sponsors can’t even support an undefeated soccer team…
What affiliations, what skills, what money? You are doomed to being ephemeral, so we won’t buy you.

We Say:
You like the movies: you also know that film is an art. It took fifty years for the professors to admit it; in another half-century students will be writing theses that attempt to reconstruct lost masterpieces. But whose fault was it that they disappeared? It is up to us to do something against the merchants of the mediocre.
            That is the role of a film magazine: apart from what it has of interest to each individual reader, it acts as a witness for us all, we the masses. To be sure, it is a minority mass, but “the minority is always right.” What Henrik Ibsen meant to say was, “We’ll always be right.”
            The “battle” is a specific one: the magazine needs to last. A film magazine becomes more important as time goes by. You may not have seen a particular film, and you may not have purchased the issue of Positif that discusses it, but you will see the film one day…. Then a friend who happens to have a copy of our magazine borrowed from someone else will lend it in turn to you. We wish to remind you, however, that if you read this copy, borrowed from someone else, to get the information you need, we will be unable to survive. We hate to remind you of this so early on, but without your subscriptions we can do nothing.

We Don’t Want:
-       To be a news magazine. Although our main office is in Lyon and no film news come from anywhere but the first-run theaters in Paris, our team has enough people with access to the latest professional screenings who are able to keep up with the most-current projects. But Positif will not in any way attempt to be a film daily; we will have as much to say about Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game as his The River (let alone The Golden Coach, which is based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement). Not only that, but as a general rule, you need to screen a film more than once before you can talk about it. And although film-festival summaries are indispensable, and we have nothing against them, we would prefer to do something else.

-       Be a retrospective magazine. We will not focus tenderly and exclusively on the silent era. When the cinema was silent, we were barely learning to speak, and when The Jazz Singer came out, most of us knew nothing about the movies. We like the masterpieces of 1920. But we also believe masterpieces are still being produced today and that it is important to say so, if only to make sure that there will be some tomorrow. We want to reach a broad public rather than a few circles of initiates (or people who believe they are). It is an ambitious dream, but the fact that Diary of a Country Priest was such a widespread success indicates that we ought not to despair over the taste of the “masses.”

-       A “youth magazine.” While it is true that members of our team might be described as young, we refuse to focus on scandal, to wallow in anarchy, or to parade the flotsam and jetsam of a difficult puberty. Likewise, we will mistrust peremptory judgments, capital punishments, and mere summaries, just as we will be cautious about enthusiastic infatuations for the three random sublime minutes in an otherwise idiotic film; in other words, we will attempt to avoid all of the false audacity that does such a poor job of covering up inexperience and ignorance, to which we willingly admit.

We Want:
-       Discoveries rather than rehashes, even subtle ones. Shedding light on the unknown John Huston is far more useful than trotting out the usual clichés about The Devil’s Envoy for the nth time.
-       Interesting contributions, in particular from those who do not often get an opportunity to express themselves: the makers of films that we admire. Doesn’t a single sentence from Jean Renoir have more resonance than a hundred books of exegesis?
-       An improved layout: it will be what you make of it. It is your subscriptions and your friend’s subscriptions that will make it possible to increase the number of pages, the number of photographs, and the quality of the paper.
-       Last, we would not want to be unworthy of film criticism. Here we salute our elders: Cahiers du Cinéma, on a solid footing in the wake of the sadly missed Jean-Georges Auriol, Sight and Sound, Bianco e Nero … However (more modestly perhaps), it is from Raccords that we would like to pick up the torch. Like Gavin Lambert’s Sequence in England, the magazine published by our friend Gilles Jacob recently disappeared. And yet “no one died,” and you will find a few names here soon … It is only natural that there is a link between us and Jacob’s magazine. Rather than starting from scratch after a fade-out, Positif will hit the screen as a fade-in.

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