Monday, April 28, 2014

Found Document: Robin Wood on Final Cut

Michael Cimino's body of work offers a unique perspective onto the American cinema landscape of the 1980s. After the commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter his following film Heaven's Gate, which had a troubled production and ended up being released in a compromised form, would be a commercial failure and fracture his career, which would only go on for four more films before he would retire. This event that happened at the beginning of the 80s would shadow the following decade and would be an opportunity for public film critics to re-define their use value and their aesthetic criteria. There is a clear distinction between two major English critics of this period, Robin Wood and Pauline Kael, where the former championed Heaven's Gate for its political complexity and social critique and the later critiqued for its wooden performances and unlikeable characters. 

The following is Robin Wood's original CineAction! review of Steven Bach's book Final Cut (which has been re-published since then) on the making of Heaven's Gate, which makes a good comparison piece to Pauline Kael's New Yorker review of it (which could be found online here) that was re-printed in her book Hooked. But these aren't the only two positions on Heaven's Gate since the French film critics also wrote a lot about it for its limited release in France. One can even hear a lively argument about Heaven's Gate between Kael and Jean-Luc Godard (here) from around this period

The French reviews stand a part from the English ones for several reasons. As Bach hints in Final Cut, the American industry magazines such as Variety, that are more interested in the film's commercial potential than its artistic merits, strongly influence the film discourse in the media. It's so powerful up to the point that it infiltrates the prominent film journalism in the country so like the New York Times. Even de Palma acknowledges this when he discusses the necessity of commercial success over artistic merits for a director to continue his filmmaking career. It is then in opposition to this commercial discourse and its negative effects on promotion and emphasis on box office results, along with a stronger conviction in film as an art-form and with a longer intellectual heritage of art and film criticism, that should be the context to view the subsequent reception of Cimino in France. Of particular note-worthy importance are the reviews in Cahiers and those by Iannis Katsahnias, in Positif and those by Laurent Vachaud, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret and his new book Michael Cimino: Les voix perdues de l'Amérique.

Wood, who was in the minority to champion Heaven's Gate in North America (the film only had a brief one-week run in Toronto), offers a similar argument for Cimino as the aforementioned French film critics. For more by Wood on Cimino see his lengthy analysis in the chapter on Cimino in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond. - D.D.
Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate
By Steven Bach, Morrow, 1985
A book review by Robin Wood. (CineAction!, Summer/Fall 1986)

First, let it be said that, whatever your attitude to Heaven’s Gate, and whether or not you have seen it, Steven Bach’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Hollywood cinema and its conditions of production. From this viewpoint, it offers a fascinating extended gloss on points made forcefully and succinctly by Arthur Penn in the interview in CineAction! N.5: a unifying thread of the book is the takeover of Hollywood by conglomerates and businessmen who see movies solely as commodities and assess each project strictly in terms of its market value – which can be assessed only by reference to the project’s degree of resemblance to previously lucrative commodities. Bach looks back nostalgically to the time when United Artists was formed by a group of united artists – Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford. What is most touching about the book is its sense of someone trying to preserve a tradition of ‘quality’ and, above all, decency in an age that has rendered such ambitious obsolete. Bach’s supreme consciously held value would appear to be fairness: the book attempts to be fair to everyone, even to Cimino, meticulously documenting and verifying everything that can be documented and verified, trying to understand points of view. While no one is exempted from criticism, Bach builds portraits (the ‘rounded characterizations’ of the popular novelist) of many of his colleagues that convey generosity, affection and respect.

The attempt at fairness is, in Cimino’s case, only partially successful. It is not only that Bach’s animus against Cimino continually threatens to, and occasionally does, erupt: the problem is fundamental. Like Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, Cimino cannot be permitted to express a point of view or the entire moral structure of the book would collapse. Also like Dracula, he is absent from its surface for most of its length, a terrible, unpredictable, ultimately incomprehensible hidden force. Unless Bach is lying (and nothing suggests to me that he is), it is clear that Cimino (again like Dracula) behaved very badly in a number of ways during the making of the film, and there can be no doubt that he exasperated and antagonized a lot of not unreasonable people. Yet the sense that the book cannot really understand him remains inescapable, and one suspects, beyond that, that it cannot afford to understand him: it’s own point of view would be too seriously threatened.

Because he appears to be utterly unaware of them, Bach exposes his own deficiencies and limitations with perfect candor. The image he presents of himself and the precise nature of his commitment to the cinema is two-fold: he is, as any successful Hollywood executive of course must be, a shrewd and intelligent businessman; he is also interested in film as ‘art.’ He is clearly dedicated to reconciling these concerns – or, to put it another way, to suppressing any sense that there might be a serious conflict between them. The businessman side can be unproblematically proud that United Artists produced the James Bond movies; the problem arises with Bach’s notion of what constitutes a ‘great’ film. To be ‘great,’ it seems, a film must be both ‘artistic’ (i.e. displaying a certain set of signifiers that the bourgeois audience can identify as such) and commercially successful; Bach’s notions of the artistic never transcend the most conventional canons of bourgeois ‘taste.’ The directors he most admires (with perfect logic) – they are held up as exemplary model figures, in implicit contrasts to Cimino – are David Lead and Woody Allen: they not only make art and money simultaneously, they also behave well, they are ‘gentlemen.’ Allen can, I suppose, be defended as a distinctive minor talent; Lean never transcends an earnest, ponderous and assiduously ‘tasteful’ academicism. Personally, if I had to choose between Heaven’s Gate and their combined oeuvres I would choose Heaven’s Gate.

One of Bach’s strongest and most often reiterated complaints about Cimino is that he refused to communicate with anyone (including, of course, Bach himself); it is possible, however, that he felt that there was no one with whom he could seriously communicate. One wonders whether he was pleased by Bach’s initial enthusiastic response on viewing the first set of ‘dailies’: ‘It looks like David Lean decided to make a western.’ That it was impossible for Bach and his associates to get through to him (at least until the stage of deterioration where communication could only take the form of threats and counter-threats) does not necessarily prove that he couldn’t have been reached. Indeed, Bach’s very virtues – reasonableness, common sense, business acumen – combined with their corollary, a very limited aesthetic imagination, may well have hindered the communication they were devoted to trying to serve. It is not a question, of course, simply irresponsibly indulging Cimino’s excesses, but of understanding the drives that gave rise to them. There is no doubt that Cimino became increasingly isolated and that his own actions and attitudes consistently intensified the isolation; one would like to learn – and Bach can offer few hints – why Cimino felt driven to behave as he did. Perhaps one day we shall be given his own account of the making of Heaven’s Gate.

‘Megalomania’ seems too simple – and too simply hostile – an explanation. The line that separates megalomania from artistic obsession can be narrow to the point of invisibility. Bach himself testifies (giving them perhaps less emphasis than they deserve) to a number of positive factions that complicate the popular image of Cimino-as-monster. The actual work of filming was thoroughly professional, controlled, discipline; Cimino secured the unreserved dedication of his actors (I think this is sufficiently evident from their performances on screen, but it is good to have the impression corroborated); he gave himself to the project totally and tirelessly, often working 18 hours a day. Bach writes, generously: “One thing is certain: I believe there to have been not on day or one moment in the turbulent history of Heaven’s Gate in which Michael Cimino intended anything other than to create ‘a masterpiece’, a work of lasting art. His certainty that he was doing so conditioned that history and much of the behavior of those around him. He did not set out to destroy or damage a company but believed he would enrich it, economically and aesthetically.”

In the contemporary arts in general, but in the modern American cinema especially, the Cimino of Heaven’s Gate is an archaic figure, the archetype of the Romantic artist, the person with a vision so intense and compelling that its realization overrides all considerations of reasonableness and economics; a vision that became increasingly vast as shooting progressed, accounting for the fact that the two versions of the film still have something of an unfinished quality, the air of a ‘work in progress’ that is one of the film’s most fascinating (though not exactly ‘commercial’) characteristics. There are many reasons, both aesthetic and political, why Heaven’s Gate could not have been a commercial success in the context of Reaganite America and the cinema it deserves. Whether it need have been so complete a financial disaster is another matter. (One also wants to ask why that disaster has been publicized and flaunted to the point where it has become almost proverbial, while the closely comparable disaster of John Huston’s Annie was allowed to slip by almost uncommented.) Had there been people in charge who were capable f sharing Cimino’s vision and committing themselves to it, the initial (anti-)critical response might have been braved and something salvaged: certainly not forty million dollars, but presumably a few million would have been better than nothing. No box office failure has ever been transformed into a success by being cut. Personally, I have always felt that the so-called ‘complete’ Heaven’s Gate was not too long but too short. One of Bach’s most tantalizing revelations is that he and a few other privileged (and ungrateful people saw Cimino’s original cut – all five hours and 25 minutes of it. One would like to know what happened to all the footage, and whether there is any hope that the film might one day be restored, as has happened with A Star is Born and New York, New York. I am aware that in the present critical climate the suggestion will provoke raised eyebrows if not derisive laughter, but let us wait a few years and then see. What is particularly sad is that, after the disastrous premiere, Cimino’s own confidence collapsed and he himself (according to Bach) proposed that the film be withdrawn and cut further: he too was defeated by the response of the fashionable ‘Invitation Only’ audience and a handful of powerfully influential journalist-reviewers. I think time will prove that Cimino did indeed create ‘a work of lasting art.’ There are signs already that rehabilitation is unobtrusively preparing itself, ad not only in Europe. The reviews of my recent book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan have been predominantly hostile, but not one so far has challenged by detailed championship of Heaven’s Gate and one – the most unfavorable of all – singled it out as one of the book’s only redeeming features. There is also the phenomenon of the great popularity of Final Cut itself, which has already gone into paperback: Bach’s book is being read by thousands of people who presumably have not had a chance to see the film and, while it is true that everyone loves a good scandal, this seems also to testify to a very widespread curiosity. It is to Bach’s credit that his book will whet that curiosity rather than negate it.

Adrian Lyne: Film Stills


Descant Magazine: Comic Issue (Handlerbar, April 29th)

"Descant is releasing its Spring 2014 issue, Cartooning Degree Zero. This issue explores the medium of comics, from its sense of play with text and image and the literary possibilities these games entail, to the great Canadian artists responsible for the popularity of visual storytelling today.The issue will be released amid a kaleidoscope of food, drink and readings at The Handlebar (159 Augusta Avenue) in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 at 7pm. Featured readers include essayist Rachel Richey, poet Andy Verboom, and comics artists Shannon Gerard, Maurice Vellekoop, Gillian Goerz, Chris Kuzma and Mark Connery. Feel free to RSVP on Facebook"

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dans les pas du Petit Timonier and Projection privée: Yasujiro Ozu

Fuir la clarté, chercher l’obscurité,” Adrien Gombeaud begins his travelogue-biography Dans les pas du Petit Timonier (Éditions du Seuil) on the historical leader of the People's Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping. But as it turns this mythical Xiaoping quote turned out to not even be by him. This unveiling of myths will be the general approach of the book as it attempts to go beyond mere surface realities and instead to find the truths about Xiaoping and his influence on China in its obscurities. This is just like how one person he meets on his trip says, “Everything that you will see in this country isn’t the reality, it’s actually a surface that hides the reality.”

Gombeaud, who is a regular contributor to Positif, is a specialist on Asian culture and has already written books on the Tiananmen Square protests, a dictionary on Asian cinema as well as a book on Marilyn Monroe. In this newest book Dans les pas du Petit Timonier, Gombeaud traces both Xiaoping’s original childhood journey to his eventual political position along with his final trip in life to the south of the country. Xiaoping who was the designated le Petit Timonier (the Grand Timonier was his predecessor Mao Zedong) is described as, “representing at once the ultimate incarnation of the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution and the father of reformation that would bring the triumph of the country into the global market.”

Xiaoping was born in 1920 in the small village of Sichaun (the “celestial country”), which would later be integrated within Guang’an. This would be the first stop in Gombeaud’s trip and through it he would describe in intimate details the places that he visits and the people that he meets. Just like the great Asian filmmakers Jia Zhang-ke or Hou Hsiao-hsien, Gombeaud’s description of contemporary China, Xiaoping and his legacy, and the country’s complex history stand out through its poetic approach.

In other news it’s a pleasure to discover Gombeaud on this week’s episode of Projection Privée, which is one of the great French film podcasts along with Pendant les Travaux and Hors Champ, who along with Michel Ciment, Diane Arnaud, Mathieu Capel, and Mathias Lavin discuss Yasujiro Ozu who is now receiving a major retrospective and DVD releases in France. For more on Gombeaud you can also read a great recent review by him in Positif (N.637) of Spike Jonze’s Her where in a trademark Positif tradition of cinephilia and of cultivated references he discusses it in relation to to Shame, 2001, Joaquin Phoenix’s acting career, the painter Cy Twombly, and the cultural critic Roland Barthes.

Two Vintage Documentaries


Positif: A History of Amateurism

"Positif between amateurism and professionalism : a review battling with its identity. Created in 1952 by young cinema lover students, Positif straightaway presented as an amateur review in al senses : the writers were unpaid, avid film-goers, but also in a way amateurish, as they claimed a subjective and non-theoretic approach of criticism. But if the context of the 50’s, when cinema was a widespread passion, authorized such a review, which was quite a fanzine, to live, and even develop, the staff quickly realized they had to adapt to the transformations of the field. Indeed, in the 70’s and 80’s, it evolved to an increased professionalism, in order to compensate for the collapse of the audience. But how could a review that founded its identity on amateurism, manage to follow such an evolution without losing its stances? Positif found itself in a very uncomfortable situation, partially adapting its practices – to more professionalism – while holding, in the discourses, its positions on a coherence with its original identity, that is the commitments that permitted its recognition in the field. The analysis tries to bring out the mechanisms that particularly hampered Positif, while the rest of the field transformed without any major problem."

Follow the link to read Anne-Laure Brion's great French essay Positif entre amateurisme et professionnalisme : une revue aux prises avec son identité.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hot Docs 2014: Actress, Joy Of Man's Desiring, Sacro GRA

Robert Greene's Actress will screen on Wednesday April 30th at 6:30PM and Thursday May 1st at 3:30PM at the Lightbox, and Saturday May 3rd at 7PM at the Hart House.

Denis Côté's Joy Of Man's Desiring will screen on Saturday April 26th at 9:45PM and Saturday May 3rd at 7:30PM at the Lightbox, and Sunday April 27th at 7:30PM at the Scotiabank Theatre.

 Gianfranco Rosi's Sacro GRA will screen on Friday April 25th at 3PM and Friday May 2nd at 9PM at the Lightbox, and Sunday April 27th at 9PM at the Scotiabank Theatre.

Jean-Luc Godard interviewing Fritz Lang

"It's All About Mercy"

"Aki Kaurismäki has maintained an impressively steadfast devotion to the working class and society's misfits throughout his long and productive filmmaking career. Just as Yasujiro Ozu, a beloved hero of his, returned again and again to the terrain of Japanese family life and extracted from it a rich spectrum of characters and experiences, the Finnish producer, editor, writer, and director has firmly established the plight of the poor as his chief topic, remaining remarkably consistent in style and subject matter while simultaneously managing to produce works of great depth and variety. Kaurismäki's films map out the trials and tribulations of scraping a living within the harsh climate of capitalist society, following meek outcasts and sympathetic losers as they do what they can to survive and be happy."
Make sure to check out the current issue of Cineaction (N.92) to read Marc Saint-Cyr's great article in full, "Aki Kaurismaki and the Art of Getting By".

Monday, April 21, 2014

Best of the 70s: Star Wars

Among the eight Cahiers film critics to contribute to its Les films marquants de la décennie (1970-1980) from its February 1980 issue (N.308), Pascal Bonitzer’s list is one of the more unique and interesting ones. Among Biette, Daney, Kané, Le Péron, Narboni, Skorecki and Toubiana; Bonitzer from the position of championing challenging art-films is still able to appreciate mainstream Hollywood films and with this gesture seems to anticipate the changes going on in American cinema and one of the editorial directions the magazine will move towards in the Eighties.

Here is his list and write-up:

Pascal Bonitzer

(in no order)
Man of Marble, Perceval le Gallois, Le Diable probablement, Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King, The Passenger, Moses und Aron, New York New York, India Song, Conversation Piece, Star Wars, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting.

            One will notice how there are actually eleven films in this list. It is to underline the restricting quality of this list. A visceral and quasi-inevitable politique des auteurs dominates it, and at the same time a futile worry for a distributive justice: I could have easily included Perceval and La Marquise d'O..., Le Diable and Lancelot du Lac etc., but one had to choose one film per auteur, to not exclude the others, or to transform this list of ten best films into a list of the ten best auteurs. On the other hand, I need to confess to my guilt, of not having seen, for diverse reasons but always bad ones, some films that I believe would be the summit: like American Graffiti (and for this reason I’m including Star Wars), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, L’Innocent (same thing here so that is why I included New York, New York – which could  easily have been replaced by Mean Streets – and Conversation Piece). Finally, there are some films that I’m even surprised not to include on this list, like Amacord, Monsieur Klein, The Other, La Maman et la putain, In the Realm of the Senses, Ici et ailleurs, Ill-Fated Love, Tristana, Nathalie Granger, Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, but that’s just the case.

Serge Le Péron on Star Wars (Cahiers N.283)

It's the year 1977 that is the real turning point in Cahiers' history where they shifted positions from a dogmatic Maoist one to a return to a more classic cinephilia that includes writing about more commercial American films. Antoine de Baecque in his history of the magazine points to Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana's editorial Les Cahiers aujourd'hui from March 1974 as the turning point and then consequently after to their writing on the Italian playwright Dario Fo and his theater collective La Commune. But it is in 1977 onwards where they return to writing about American films which had always been looked at as a potential ideal in film-art, whether to contrast with the flatness of a literary tradition in French cinema or in awestruck of the genius of its system. The historical debates of the post-war period regarding form and content that achieved such heated social and intellectual dimensions (cf. Bazin and Sadoul on Citizen Kane) were being renewed in the burgeoning era of the summer blockbuster. The following review by Serge Le Péron of Star Wars (which is coincidentally one of the first serious mentions of Steven Spielberg and his Jaws) illustrates this mixture of renewed attention, fascination and ambivalence.

Serge Toubiana further emphasizes this dichotomy of ambivalence and appreciation towards the Hollywood machine in his review of John Guillermin's remake of King Kong (where coincidentally Jaws is also brought up) in the January-February 1977 issue (N.273). In the review Toubiana discusses Baudrillard and issues around reproductions,
"The measure, in a way, of the growth in productivity of American capitalism, of the heightening that has tended to characterize the Hollywood imagination. Everything is bigger and more expensive, beginning with the beast itself - which also has to appear more often. Because of what it costs to make, and especially because it is a copy, the film carries within the conditions of its production the sign, the trace of capitalism's self-destructive urge: the imaginary is the product not of the finished work but of the conditions that attach to it; in other words, the neurosis and megalomania of Hollywood... Let us say that the first King Kong was immediately invested with a symbolic, primary reading, directly linked to the social conditions in which it was produced. The second version - or the third, if you take into account the famous advertisement for La Samaritaine which was important, crucially important, since it made King Kong a commercial commodity - is made in circumstances where the producers' only motive is to challenge the success of other disaster movies, like Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno and, of course, Jaws... Perhaps it is because Jessica Lange is a star such as Hollywood doesn't make any more; perhaps also because the monster does not exist, it's just an imaginative construction of the Hollywood machine. The monster is not really a monster at all but a pretend monster. This means that King Kong is completely different from Jaws, a film based on a paranoiac construction. Nothing about the Other is aggressive or dangerous. On the contrary. It's only because Capital is always and for ever seeking to reproduce itself (a double metaphor pointing to disaster movies once again) that the Other is forced to intervene in the human world. In Guillermin's version, the adventurers go looking for oil, a primary resource, only to find the ape, the primate: a pure permutation of signs on the basis of the same: black gold/black beast."

Star Wars (Cahiers, December 1977, N.283) w/ Critique by Serge Le Péron, L'Amérique sans peur et sans reproche. (Translated by Chris Darke in Cahiers du Cinéma 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle)

In pursuing the implications of the exceptional success of Star Wars and its huge appeal to filmgoers of all kinds, one ought not to lay too much stress on the film's status as 'science fiction'. For a long time science fiction has been the generic repository of fear, madness, disaster, paranoia, of the speed-freaks and depressives. All are absent from Star Wars, in the genre's finest authors (Dick, Ballard), the future is only secondarily the place of adventure and escape, distraction and entertainment; the genre's best films (2001 for example, but also Lucas's very interesting THX 1138) do not particularly offer themselves as 'modern fairy tales'. It's pointless to labour this.

Star Wars would rather be 'a romantic, confident, a positive vision', atemporal, universal and of course unanimist - but a new kind of unanimism, one no longer concerned with some or other strategy of tension, no longer that of a necessary common front against an enemy with and/or without (disaster films like Jaws), but one which derives from a freely felt consensus, being dictated neither by the law of necessity, nor by a pronounced imperative or any kind of reason, without shock, jolts, fear or surprise but with pleasure and confidence. The encounter with science fiction in Star Wars, the fact that the action takes place in a science-fiction universe, doubtless permits such confidence to be retrieved and projected towards the future, a future offering immediate ideological benefit. But above all, the reference to science fiction has the immense advantage of allowing the creation of a fluid fictional space, without apparent anchorage, one that enfolds and solicits: something like the pacific and pacifying American Mother who gathers to her bosom, with all the soft technological refinements that are hers, all that the bellicose uncle (a certain Unde Sam), because of the brutalities of his war machinery, had excluded. Young people, the hippies, counter-cultural figures were basically rejecting this childish make-believe. Now we are witnessing the full-scale return to the territorial waters of former years, to a floating mass with fluid contours, without frontiers; it's no longer 'to hell with frontiers'. Everyone is invited to play as before with what Welles called 'the biggest electric train set in the world' - the cinema, Hollywood - as a family (like on television), under the calm, honest eye of a mother ever-vigilant over morality (the moral). The America of President Carter? But in such a film it is also capital that talks.

Lucas comes from the ranks of those we used, some time ago, to call nostalgics, pessimists, depressives, and we now know that they were right to be so. lt is also men like him who find themselves now entrusted with gigantic projects (like Star Wars) in the general fight against depression, and they certainly do this with the same eagerness with which they struggled against repression in the previous decade. There has been a sea-change (if not a change of base) in America. This is a period less of rebellion against the symbols of repression, more of a determined recharging of flat batteries - through the artificial injection of a lost imagination. The question is: what imagination? It is no easy matter to rediscover it. For a film-maker like Lucas, barely thirty years old and finding himself of the post-Westerns generation, the solution resides in a return to childhood; more precisely, in a return to the conditions of his childhood and the cinema of easy-going adventure movies in which he was cradled. Because of the lack of the 'positive' in the available contemporary imagination (above all in science fiction), the solution is seen to lie in a synthesis of old forms. The problem, therefore, is technical; it is enough to return to the terms and themes of this cinema (those in fact brought out by film studies) and make them more sophisticated, dress them up in special effects, present them as signs to be recognized, decoded. 'Heroes as independent as they are enterprising, irredeemably evil bad guys', 'the triumph of good over evil', etc.

From this point it is a matter of making the screenplay scientifically conform to this programme, following the computer logic which translates its question-signs into response-signs. Equally, story, characters, actors don't in themselves have great importance: they are there simply to attest to the intentions of the screenplay, they are the supports of these intentions. This is what gives the film its coldness (not an aggressively dry coldness; the film is more cool than cold) and the feeling that everything is already played out in advance (in contrast to the adventure films already referred to) and that the events are only detours in a standardized plot. You very quickly get the impression of a con- stant interchangeability (as with those standard parts of a machine which can be replaced by an identical part), and it is soon impossible to see Princess Leia Organa as anything other than 'the impeccably brave heroine' of the advance publicity, or to nod knowingly when the cliches of the Western crop up in the scene in the city of Mos Eisley, or to do more then see Peter Cushing as the sign of absolute evil because of his numerous shady dealings with Dracula and Frankenstein. A reading without risks that rapidly becomes monotonous (one could also see the wheels turning in Jaws, but there were nevertheless a few moments when the film carried the audience with it, a few troubling passages).

And the whole thing (the vast apparatus of Production-Direction-Distribution), whilst functioning admirably (in the packed cinemas at the end of the film we applaud the heroes when they enter the royal hall on the planet Yavin, at the same time as the enthusiastic crowd on the screen), leaves the lover of fiction hungry for more; but logically so, for the fiction of Star Wars functions like nothing so much as a user-friendly computer in perfect working order.

One way or another, fiction requires passion; there is no great fiction without great passion and no great film without there being a great love story behind it. This is what differentiates the cinema from other media such as the comic strip, which gets by very well without it, or television, which serves here as the model of cinema (and perhaps is the key to its success). Like Inspector Kojak in the American television series, the heroes of Star Wars are not impassioned types; they act intuitively and are utterly disengaged. The passions that they come up against are fleeting and comprehensive, and without consequence. Rivals co-exist, calmly: an unthinkable state of affairs in the old adventure films where the rule was, in the Gresham's Law of Hollywood fiction, that the hero chased the other man. In the fiction of Star Wars one finds the binary system which is the working practice of capitalism today: two heroes, virtually equivalent (and in the princess's heart, as strictly equivalent as the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the heart of New York), and incredibly, deliberately desexualized.

The fictional system of Star Wars echoes the intense participation and great lethargy, deep involvement and great indifference that belong to the consumption of television. Where it all happens or in what historical period is immaterial; as is whether the young protagonists love one another or not (and whether the princess loves either of them); sex has no importance, nor does violence; nor even the dedicated totalitarianism of the 'Empire' (its nature, and what is implied by that); nor the death of Ben Kenobi (the old patriarch played by Alec Guinness). Everything is and is intended to be deliberately abstract, presenting itself as principle, postulate and conventional indicator and never the motor, dynamic force or launching pad of fiction.

Star Wars therefore breaks with the cinematic mania that in recent years has pushed films beyond any previously conceivable limits, towards extreme violence, hard pornography, disaster movies; the mania for bringing everything into the open in order to provoke a strong emotional response and a bellicose unanimism. In Star Wars a heterogeneity is admissible, all alterities and differences can be present, functioning in perfect narrative harmony, provided that all this takes place in the absence of sex. So the problem is resolved at its very root, if one can put it like that: no more sex, violence, passion, or even fiction, only cohabitation, intrigue, aloofness (such is the fate of these aloof heroes). Finish with sex and you finish with the risks of conflict, violent emotions, the force of fiction. No matter, the 'force' is elsewhere, as the film's poster ('May the Force be with you') puts it.

It is the quiet force of capital that has produced the film with remarkable economy; one precisely matched in the shooting and the special effects, in line with the film's ambition and budget. It is a knowing film that renews the Hollywood spirit of wanting films to be in some way edifying; here, in what replaces fiction, is the film's whole concept.

This approach is one that has nothing in common with Kubrick in Barry Lyndon where, for the battle scenes, he used long lenses to film thousands of extras as if he had only thirty, in story terms a pointless expense. Such is the twilight (noted by Oudart) of the Hollywood machine, clouded over by a crazy imagination which gives way to this calm and starry sky where technique triumphs over imagination; like all the rest, fed through the synthesizer. The Story of the film's production would constitute a real science-fiction subject that would make one shudder.

Serge Le Péron

Found Document : George Lucas Interview from 1981

When Cahiers did its Événement in their October 1981 issue (N.328) on Raiders of the Lost Ark for its release they could not interview either Steven Spielberg or its producer George Lucas. So instead they reprinted a translation of Lucas’s Film Comment interview (edited and without its introduction) to allow for the director-producer to speak for himself about his artistic ambitions as well as for a better understanding of the changing commercial and production realities in America. In the issue of FC there was also an article Spielberg’s Express by Veronica Geng. I recomment you check out the issue (hopefully at a library that carries it) to find the interview. It is an important historical document of Cahiers’ old Spielberg-Lucas love. Note Lucas’s emphasis on how with Coppola they were trying to re-invent American cinema in the Eighties through engaging with new technologies and by creating an alternative base of operation away from Hollywood. For more recent information on Industrial Light & Magic make sure to check out Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation. – D.D.
I recommend looking up George Lucas interviewed by Mitch Tuchman and Anne Thompson in Film Comment (July-August 1981, Volume 17 N. 4) if you want to read it.

cléo launch

Cléo launches its new issue this Thursday, April 24th at Trinity Square Video.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cahiers du Cinema's Special Director Issues (+ JLG's)

Every 100 issues Cahiers celebrates by getting an important film-related figure to edit that particular issue or make an hors-séries. It's usually an important director for the magazine. The person who is chosen is supposed to reflect the current editorial and aesthetic sensibility. For N.100 it was Jean Cocteau, for N.200 it was Henri Langlois (who was only its focus), for N.300 it was Jean-Luc Godard, for N.400 it was Wim Wenders, for N.500 it was Martin Scorsese, and for N.600 it was Takeshi Kitano.

With issue N.700 coming up in May 2014 the question that people are trying to figure out is who will be featured? Under Cahiers' current chief editor Stéphane Delorme they have been so good at championing its major directors through Événements and interviews that one wonders who they will highlight and what else could be said about them? Based on their recent emphasis, if I were to guess who will be picked it could potentially be Xavier Dolan, the Safdie brothers, Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Abel Ferrara, Francis Ford Coppola, David Cronenberg, Philippe Garrel, Leos Carax, Alain Guiraudie, Yann Gonzalez, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Gus van Sant, or Clint Eastwood. But regardless whoever they choose or whatever they do, the magazine has been of such high quality recently in terms of youthfulness, inspiration, combativeness and poetry that you just know it will be good!

In the meantime here is Jean-Luc Godard's special N.300 issue from May 1979.

Ford & Hitchcock Interviews 1965

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blog Recommendation: Zoom Arrière

I can't recommend Zoom Arrière enough... What Ed and his crew is doing is great. It's probably one of the best and innovative film blogs around!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pascal Kané on Brian de Palma (Cahiers, N.277)

This review Note sur le cinéma de Brian de Palma by Pascal Kané is the introduction of de Palma at Cahiers (June 1977). Antoine de Baecque describes its emphasis in terms of genre and presentation of abnormal bodies, “From then one, the youthful American cinema will be understood in terms of working within genres: perverting signs, devouring references, mutating society, it is, fundamentally, a cinema of monsters, a monstrous cinema.” This interest in horror would renew Cahiers’ relationship to American cinema, as de Baecque writes, “Cahiers needed to look at the monsters of American cinema. This necessitated an apprenticeship, and, especially, a total renewing of the cinephilic erudition and critical judgments. Kané is important in this respect and is so Bill Krohn, Cahiers’ new Hollywood correspondent, who wrote at length about Roger Corman early on (Jan. ’79) and would direct the magazine more fully towards the new Horror cinema of this period (Carpenter, Romero, Dante, Cronenberg), which he would compare in terms of renewal and creativity to the French New Wave. Even though Horror cinema would be important at Cahiers it wasn't its only emerging intervention towards American cinema. The magazine also, and perhaps more strongly, featured the New Hollywood directors (Spielberg, Coppola, Cimino, Eastwood) who they would write about at length in their special Made in U.S.A. issues.

Kané’s essay is interesting and brings up many good points in regards to de Palma's early horror films but it's not necessarily important in terms of making de Palma an important Cahiers filmmaker (one of the reasons I'm not translating it; here is the Google translation). It wasn't until Douchet décortique De Palma (N.326) where the previous generation Cahiers critic Jean Douchet confronted his younger peers on why they didn't like de Palma more, when even Godard was a fan. Since then de Palma's reception at Cahiers has been incredibly rapturous in the reviewing of his films, in terms of their engagement with American society and the sophistication of their images, throughout the Eighties, Nineties and the Two-thousands. – D.D.
Note sur le cinéma de Brian de Palma
Entre le revenant indésirable de Phantom of the paradise, les siamoises secrètes de Sisters et la jeune sorcière de Carrie, il y a un évident point commun. Qu’ils tiennet leur différence d’un accident, d’une malformation ou d’une éducation particulière, les héros de de Palma sont des exclus, isolés par la répulsion qu’ils suscitent tôt ou tard autour d’eux, et qui tient à une sorte d’horreur physique, de dégoût définitive et incontrôlable. Bref, pour leur entourage, se sont des montres.

Voilà certes qui n’est pas neuf dans l’histoire ancienne ou récente d’Hollywood: on assisterait même, on le sait, à un retour en force de la teratologie et du démoniaque; monstres métaphoriques, annonciateurs de disgraces futures, prix à payer pour se racheter (c’est au rachat qu’on verra qu’il y a eu faute). Monstres à brûler, détruire, exorciser, toujours du côté d’un Autre don’t on ne veut rien savoir, sinon qu’ils est ce qui entame l’identiter pleine du groupe. Ces monstres sont doc des symptomes, et leur figurabilité trouve ses ressources dans la seule dimension de l’Imaginaire.

Or, c’est de tout autre chose qu’il s’agit ici. Les monstres de de Palma ne sont pas métaphoriques, ils ne renvoient à aucune menace, à aucun Destin, sinon une fatalité purement individuelle. Personnages explicables, divisés, leur monstruosité n’est dûe en général qu’au hazard. Monstruosité arbitraire, non symptomatique et donc non demonstrative, qui n’exhibe aucune difformité apparent (le phantom est masque, les siamoises « incognito », etc.).  Cette monstruosité-là ne se joue pas dans la dimension de l’Imaginaire (qui est toujours la dimension de la segregation et de l’exclusion), même si ce sont précisément ces themes que le cinéma de de Plama, en ce qu’il a de plus intéressant, se propose d’aborder.

C’est évidemment à Browning que l’on pense, avec le-quel de Palma entretient certainement le plus de rapports (alors que la reference à Hitchcock est plutôt superficielle), puisque là aussi, la representation de la monstruosité déjoue le réflexe humaniste « ce sont des hommes, après tout  », avec ce qu’il implique d’apparente uniformisation. C’est dabbord qu’il ne s’agit pas d’une infra-humanité mais d’individus, au contraire, supérieurs (compositeur surdoué, surpouvoir de Carrie…), aux sentiments d’une extreme profondeur, et qui se refusent à admettre la semi-inclusion apitoyée don’t ils font l’objet. Et c’est justement au moment où l’on pourrait convener sans trop de gene de leurs tares, puisqu’en conviennent dans les films certain personnages qui cherchent à les excuser (prof de gymnastique faisant ressortir la folie mystique de la mere de Carrie, journaliste gauchiste à bonnes intentions, milieu compatissant du veuf d’Obsession…) qu’ils font la preuve, tout à la fois de leur refus et de leur altérité.

Echappant donc doublement au moment où ils semblaient assimilables: refus d’être confondus avec la moyenne des Américains, réduits à la norme, et refus d’être récupérés par le groupe don’t ils vont alors se séparer radicalement par un acte don’t la violence ou l’asocialité laissera pantois les bonnes intentions humanisantes. Ainsi, l’affirmation de la monstruosité chez de Palma apparait comme un désir d’échapper à la norme, qui, souterrainment, produit cette monstruosité (c’est la famille qui est monstrueuse dans Obsession, le climat universitaire dans Carrie…).

Cette abjection de la norme prend, dans tous les films, le même aspect, celui d’une segregation sexuelle imposée aux personnages. Le sexe, instance suprême de normalization, est ce qui decide de l’inclusion ou de l’exclusion hors du groupe. Et c’est la mise hors-sexe des monstres qui va déclencher le drame: ce qui se produit selon un double movement très systématique: 1) désir de la norme chez les monstres, qui est toujours celui d’être reconnu sexuellement par un partenaire normé, 2) I’mpossibilité d’arriver à cette reconnaissance, soit que le partenaire se dérobe (Phantoms) ou disparaisse (Obsession), soit que le milieu y résiste (Carrie), soit, plus profondément qu’une partie d’eux-mêmes s’y refuse (Sisters). Ce qui est en jeu dans cette interrogation de ce qui sous-tend l’idée meme de norme, c’est le role que joue la function imaginaire: la reconnaissance du corps de l’autre dans sa fondamentale identité à soi. C’est à partir de cette identité que se construit le désir normé, en refoulant donc la réalité biologique (règles montrées de Carrie, malformation de la siamoise, brulûre du phantom) qui est tellement insupportable dans ces films: corps inévitables et d’autant plus inquiétants que leur étrangeé n’est pas visible. Il y a chez de Palma une fascination du corps, du corps physiologique don’t il veut découvrir, bien au-delà de la nudité, tous les secrets (à l’opposé donc de la découverte de la castration maternelle). C’est l’intérieur meme du corps que voudrait découvrir le cinéma de de Palma, ce qu’il y a sous la peau. D’où cette omniprésence du sang dans ses films (ce sang qui recouvre le corps de Carrie, créant l’illusion d’une chair à vif, comme est à vif la chair du phantom brûlé) et don’t le sang menstrual – frappé d’interdit au cinéma – est certainment la forme la plus intrigante.

La monstruosité n’est un cas particulier dans le cinéma de de Palma que dans la mesure où tout corps semble pour lui un cas particulier, où son intérêt ne va pas vers ce qui est commun, mais vers ce qui diffère d’un corps à un autre. Il est d’ailleurs caractéristique qu’une société comme la société américaine qui ne cesse de se referrer à l’individu comme pierre de touché de tout son système de valeurs, ne supporte au fond le sujet que s’il est interchangeable, et est saisie d’un veritable movement d’horreur devant out ce qui lui apparaît comme non-conforme à son modèle. Le sujet ne peut être qu’un représentant abstrait d’une majorité (c’est le sujet de la statistique).

Il y a dans le cinéma de de Palma une analyse du racism inevitable secrete par toute société qui fonctionne à la norme. Mais il ya aussi une critique de l’anti-racisme humaniste, celui qui refoule l’idée de difference. Car ce qui pousse de Palma à aller plus loin, c’est justement une passion pour la difference: c’est en cela qu’il écarte de la journaiste gauchiste de Sisters (l’un des personnages les plus fouillés de son cinéma) qui, elle, s’arrête là, à la denunciation du racism de la police, et ne veut pas s’avancer plus, sur ce chemin d’une difference qui n’est plus prise en charge par du discours, par de la doxa (example: « le droit à la différence »).

D’où que les films de de Palma montrent toujours deux types d’amour pour les monstres: au-delà d’une solicitude humaniste, bien-pensante, celle de la profeseur de Carrie, de la journaliste gauchiste, etc. qui vise toujours à rabattre l’individu sur la norme, existent des passions violentes, impossibles, mortelles (la mere de Carrie, le chirurgien de Sisters). Amours véritables et fous, destinés à l’échec en ce qu’ils ne visent qu’à preserver leur objet du pire: le retour à la norme, à la reconnaissance, à l’indifférence.

Pascal Kané

Le cinéphile et le village

Recommended Screening: Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail (April 16th at Camera)

MDFF and The Seventh Art are launching a new screening series starting with the Toronto premiere of Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail on Wednesday, April 16th at 8pm at Camera (1026 Queen Street West).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Cinephiliacs !

There are so many interesting film books being published but only so few places for thoughtful reviews of them. To cite some examples: Cineaste is probably the best place for book reviews as in each issue there are reviews of five or six of the more specialized titles, sometimes in different languages, by notable critics whose stance is usually critical, which is great against that of mild summaries and appreciations. Though they appear less frequent the reviews in Cinema Scope and those by Jim Hoberman and Will Sloan are good too.

This lack of writing on film books is one of the reasons why Peter Labuza's The Cinephiliacs is so great. In it you can hear New York cinephiles talk at length about their cinephilia and film criticism. Labuza is a good host as in his amicable, fast-speaking and encyclopedic manner he brings a wealth of knowledge and research to each interview. The podcast have been around since 2012 and there has been thirty-five of them so far.

Some of the highlights include:
- Mark Harris on his new book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.
 - Kent Jones on his career as a film critic, at the World Cinema Project, and at the New York Film Festival.
- Noah Isenberg on his new book Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins.
- A special Andrew Sarris roundtable.
- James Hansen on NYFF's Views from the Avant-Garde.
- Jordan Cronk on Los Angeles cinema. 
- A.O. Scott on being a film critic at the New York Times.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on his work at Roger Ebert's At the Movies..
Dan Sallitt on his cinephile life and The Unspeakable Act.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Early Cahiers and Hitchcock: Rohmer on Vertigo

In Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe’s new biography on Eric Rohmer there is a fascinating section about his time at Cahiers. Rohmer was to replace Joseph-Marie Lo Duca (who never played a significant role) as the chief editor in March of 1957. In describing this period, De Baecque and Herpe highlight Rohmer’s Bazinian heritage, his important early texts, the Cahiers office that he ran like a salon, his friendship with Jean Douchet, and his eventual split with the magazine by way of his conflict with Rivette and the New Wave aesthetic direction of the magazine.

Rohmer describes his editorial position in his review of John Huston’s Moby Dick,
“From its beginning, Cahiers has followed the principle of critiquing “beauties.” The critique of a film is ordinarily assigned to the one among us who finds the most arguments in its favor. There is no question of our abandoning this method which, believe us, is the most equitable.
Some of our readers, however, have written to us saying that a disdainful silence is sometimes too generous and that certain “losers,” especially those favored by the public, merit a more severe punishment than a two-line execution on the monthly list of films, or several black dots from the Conseil des dix. That is why we have readopted the system of notes dedicated to works that seem of minor importance to us and that find only detractors or lukewarm advocates among our editorial staff. As for the rest, they have nothing to teach us, except as a part of French or foreign cinematic production that concerns only the industry, as Malraux would say.”
De Baecque and Herpe would describe the magazine under Rohmer as,
“The composition of a Cahiers issue under Rohmer had an unchangeable format. To start each issue there would be two or three main articles, the testimony or souvenirs from a filmmaker, or a lengthy interview with an auteur. Then there would be the Petit journal du cinema which includes information about film series, annotated photographs, and professional news. Then there is the Cahiers Critiques that reunite five or six lengthy reviews and the Notes sur d’autres films on the other films, which represents the current realities of film-going. On the last page there is the Conseil des dix which is table that gathers the rankings of ten Cahiers critics, in order of preference, ranked by a black-dot of hatred to four-stars which is a masterpiece. This is the fixed ritual of each issue. With Rohmer there was published a diversity of texts: from the communist George Sadoul writing on Dziga Vertov to the sardonic prose of the young MacMahon cinephiles – this “nursery fascism,” according to the expression of Louis Marcorelles.”
The following is Rohmer’s review of Vertigo (from The Taste for Beauty). Hitchcock was one of the important pillars at the magazine in the fifties and onwards. This critical appreciation of one of the most commercial Hollywood directors would prove to be an important achievement for Cahiers and its influence would be great. To cite the influence of this early classical cinephilia:

Rohmer and Chabrol’s book Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four films was translated into English, and it would be an influence on Raymond Durgnat’s Hitchcock scholarship. Chabrol’s films were also very Hitchcockian in terms of being psychological crime-police thrillers. Truffaut published his famous interview book Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock that would be re-titled Hitchcock/Truffaut, which acknowledged Truffaut’s own growing importance. In its updated introduction Truffaut discusses the New Wave infiltration of Hollywood as Hitchcock would cast Claude Jade (Baisers volés) in Topaz. This Cahiers relationship to Hollywood started with cine-clubs that invited American directors to France and then Cahiers would send some of its critics to the States for interviews (c.f. Cahiers' interview with Hawks). The visibility of this connection would culminate when Spielberg would cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Coppola’s Zoetrope would produce a film by Godard. The influence of Hitchcock’s films and his discussion of technique could also be seen in this period in the films of De Palma and Friedkin or more recently with Abrams and Vallée. One of Robin Wood’s earliest published reviews was in Cahiers on Psycho and he would then go on to publish Hitchcock’s Films, which he would revise several times. Andrew Sarris would rank Hitchcock in his auteurist pantheon and the influence of Sarris' evaluation can be seen on some of his heirs like Dave Kehr (When Movies Mattered). Bill Krohn would find new ways to discuss Hitchcock by deconstructing the myths surrounding his statements by revealing the realities behind his production notes in Hitchcock at Work. Even Deleuze discusses the Cahiers-Hitchcock relationship in the section The crisis of the action-image in The Movement-Image though in more negative terms (“There is, however, no need to make Hitchcock a Platonic and Catholic metaphysician, as do Rohmer and Chabrol, or a psychologist of the depths, as does Douchet.”). Another detractor includes Positif who in their early special on American cinema (N.11), in a text signed by the editorial staff, included him in their essay Quelque réalisateurs trop admirés along with Lang, Ray, Hawks and others; and instead championed America’s less well-known, more social and militant films. – D.D
L' hélice et l'idée by Eric Rohmer (Cahiers March ’59, N.93)

Itself, by itself, solely ONE everlastingly, and single. – Plato

We would have gladly pardoned Alfred Hitchcock for following the autere The Wrong Man with a lighter work, more of a crowd pleaser. Such was perhaps his intention when he decided to bring the novel by Boileau and Narcejac, D’entre les morts, to the screen. Now, the esoteric nature of Vertigo, so they say, repelled Americans. French critics, on the contrary, seem to be giving it a warm welcome. Our colleagues have now given Hitchcock the place we [at Cahiers] have always reserved for him. As a result, we are now deprived of the pleasurable task of defending him.

There is therefore no reason to measure his genius according to someone else’s standards. Hitchcock is sufficiently renowned to merit comparison with no one other than himself. I used as a preface to this critique a sentence by Plato, which Edgar Poe used at the beginning of “Morella” and whose argument, in certain respects, resembles that of Vertigo. I did this not because I mean to put our filmmaker on equal footing with Plato, nor even with Poe, but simply to propose a key that, in my opinion, is capable of opening more doors than others can. Too bad if it seems somewhat pretentious. We are not trying to make Hitchcock into a metaphysician. The commentator alone is responsible for the metaphysics, but he believes it to be both suitable and useful.

Vertigo seems to be third panel of a triptych, the first two being Read Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. These three films are architectural films, first, because of the abundance of architectural motifs, in the proper meaning of the word, which we find in all three. In this case, the first half hour is even a kind of documentary on the urban setting of San Francisco. The backdrop is furnished by a number of turn-of-the-century homes, on which the camera lens likes to rest, just as it rested before in To Catch a Thief on the Cote d’Azur. Their immediate, pragmatic reason for existence is to create an impression of disorientation in time. They symbolize the past toward which the detective turns, at the same time as does the supposed madwoman.

In the course of the film, we find an older architecture, that of an eighteenth-century Spanish monastery, which is linked, this time very directly, by the tower above it, to the major theme of the story, vertigo. And her we are one step further in the analogy with the two films mentioned. In each one, the heroes are victims of a paralysis relative to movement in a certain milieu. The reporter in Rear Window is in a situation of forced immobility, the milieu being space. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the doctor and his wife, in conforming with the title, knew too much about the future but, at the same time, too little: Their paralysis is ignorance, and the field is no longer that of space, but of time. In this film, the detective, once again acted by James Stewart )who in his corset, reminds us of the photographer in Rear Window), is also a victim of paralysis, that of vertigo. The milieu in this instance is constructed by time, but not that of premonition, oriented toward the future. Rather, it is directed toward the past: reminiscence.

Like the two others, Vertigo is film of pure “suspense,” that is, it is a constructed film. The motive for the action is no longer the march of passions or some tragic moral (as in (Under Capricorn, I Confess, or The Wrong Man), but a process that is abstract, mechanical, artificial, and external, at least in appearance. In these three films, man is not the driving element. It is not fate, either, in the meaning that the Greeks gave it, but, rather, the very shapes that the formal entities space and time acquire. We can, of course, quibble indefinitely about whether or not Hitchcock’s films contain “suspense.” In the general sense of the word – the ability to keep the audience breathless – we will always agree that they do, especially in this film, even though the detective’s key (which closes the novel) is revealed to us s half hour before the end. We already knew that Hitchcock’s secret passageways did not open onto the secrets of police machinations, clever as they may be. We wanted to more and more, as we learned more of the truth. The important thing is always that the solution to the enigma not burst the whole of the intrigue, which up until the last minute was busy expanding, like a soap bubble (a criticism we could have made, for example, about To Catch a Thief). Here, the suspense has a double effect: It not only sensitizes us to the future, but it also makes us reappraise the past. For the past in this case is not a mass of unknowns, which an author has the divine right to keep in reserve and which, when exposed, will untangle all the knots. When it reappears, the past tightens these knots even more. As the smoke of the story clears, a new figure appears whom we did not know as such but who was always present: the Madeleine believed to be real, yet whom we never really knew, who was, in any case, a real phantom, because she existed only in the mind of the detective, because she was only an idea.

Just like Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo is a kind of parable of knowledge. In the first, the photographer turned his back on the true sun (meaning life) and saw only the shadows on the wall of the cavern (the courtyard). In the second, the doctor, who had too much faith in the police’s deduction, also missed his mark, although feminine intuition succeeded. Here, the detective, fascinated from the start by the past (represented by the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, with whom the phony Madeleine pretends to identify) is continually sent from one set of appearances to the next: in love not with a woman but with the idea of a woman. But at the time, just as in the two other parts of the trilogy, outside this intellectual meaning (I mean relative to knowledge) we can distinguish another one, a moral one this time. Here once again, Stewart is not only wretched and deceived but also guilty, “falsely guilty” as Hitchcock says, that is falsely innocent. A tribunal accuses him of being guilty, by his blunder, for the woman’s death. But although he did not in any way cause Madeleine’s death, this time, because of his perspicacity and his recaptured dexterity, he will certainly be responsible for Judy’s death, whom he falsely accused of complicity.

In using the term parable, I do not mean to accuse Vertigo or dry-ness or unreality. I no way is it a tale. At most, one discerns here and there, as in all of Hitchcock’s films, small distortions of verisimilitude – one might say the disdain for certain “justifications” – that in the past often disturbed some people. If Vertigo is bathed in a fairytale atmosphere, the fogginess and blurriness are in the mind of the hero, not of the director, and do not affect the ordinary realism of the tone. On the contrary, we should admire the artistry with which the filmmaker creates this fantastical impression by the most indirect and discreet means, and especially how much, in a subject close to that of Les Diaboliques, he is reluctant to play on our nerves. The impression of strangeness is produced not by hyperbole, but by attenuation: Thus, the first part is almost entirely filmed in wide shots. The distracting satirical episode (the relationship between the detective and the designer) is treated with a no less subtle humor and prevents our feet from ever leaving the ground. These casual asides are not simply meant as a balancing act: They help us better understand the character, by making his madness more familiar, changing it from a state of madness to a certain deviation of the mind, a mind whose nature may be to turn in circles. The passage in which Stewart becomes Pygmalion is admirable, to the point that we almost lose the thread of the story itself. All of Hitchcock’s depth is in his form, that is, in the “rendering.” Like Ingrid Bergman’s gaze in Under Capricorn, this removal of makeup – which is in fact an application – can be seen and not told.

Finally, in this silent, glossy film, which is actually a love story, more than the burning kiss between the detective and the woman he tries in vain to bring back from the dead, Stewart’s breathless final speech introduces a dimension that until then is curiously absent: passion. It is not a rhetorical sermon in the least, but a digression to discourse, as is Berman’s monologue in Under Capricorn. So what if this outburst comes late, as this film is characterized by an alternating current: Future and past incessantly switch positions. In the light of this vibrant act of accusation, the entire film takes on a new color: What was sleeping awakens, and what was living simultaneously dies and the hero, conquering his vertigo, but for nothing, once again finds only emptiness at his feet.

Of course, comparisons other than the ones I suggested can be made with the two films starring James Stewart. Allow me one more comparison, this time with Strangers on a Train. We know how much this film owed, not just in severity, but in lyricism, to the obsessive presence of a double geometrical motif, that of the straight line and the circle. In this case, the figure – Saul Bass draws it for us in the credits – is that of the spiral, or more specifically, the helix. The straight line and the circle are married by the intermediary of a third dimension: depth. Strictly speaking, we find only two spirals materially figured in all the film, that of the lock of hair at the nape of Madeleine’s neck, a copy of the one worn by Carlotta Valdes that, one must not forget, arouses the detective’s desire, and that of the stairway that leads up the tower. For the rest, the helix is suggested, by its revolving cylinder, which is represented by Stewart’s field of vision while following Novak’s car, by the arch of the trees over the road, by the trunks of sequoias, or by the corridor mentioned by Madeleine and that Scottie finds in his dream (a dream, I admit, whose flashy designs clash with the somber grace of the real landscapes), and many other motifs that can be detected only after several viewings. The shape of the thousand-year-old sequoia and the traveling shot that pivots (in fact the subject is pivoting) around the kiss still belong to the same family of ideas. It is a vast family that counts many relatives by marriage. Geometry is one thing, art is another. It is not a question of finding a spiral in each of the film’s shots, like the men’s heads proposed as a guessing game in sketches of leaves, or even like the crosses in Scarface (a bet magnificently kept, but a bet nonetheless). These mathematics must leave a door open to freedom. Poetry and geometry, far from crushing each other, travel together. We travel in space in the same way we travel in time, as our thoughts and the characters’ thoughts also travel. They are only probing, or more exactly, spiraling into the past. Everything forms a circle, but the loop never closes, the revolution carries us ever deeper into reminiscence. Shadows follow shadows, illusions follow illusions, not like the walls that slide away or mirrors that reflect to infinity, but by a kind of movement more worrisome still because it is without a gap or break and possesses both the softness of a circle and the knife edge of a straight line. Ideas and forms follow the same road, and it is because the form is pure, beautiful, rigorous, astonishingly rich, and free that we can say that Hitchcock’s films, with Vertigo at their head, are about – aside from the object’s that captive us – ideas, in the noble, platonic sense of the word.

Early Cahiers and Hitchcock: Godard on Strangers on a Train

As Edouard Sivière’s Tumblr account Les Cahiers Positifs beautifully illustrates: The early years of Cahiers was a fascinating period for film criticism, which was very literary and built upon the beau langage du dix-huitième, but whose heterogeneity, aside from broad interests like Italian neo-realism or the role of women in cinema, took a while to unify into a singular editorial position. Antoine de Baecque describes the magazine in these years as an outlet for the variety and eclecticism of post-war Parisian cinephilia.

The transition for Cahiers to refine their editorial line came with Hitchcock. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze would label this group of Hitchcocko-Hawksiens the ‘école Schérer’ and it would consist of Rohmer, Godard, Rivette, Chabrol and Truffaut. The first apparition of this turn came with Godard’s review Suprématie du sujet of Strangers on a Train (which I transcribed below from Godard on Godard), which he reviewed under his pseudonym Hans Lucas (German for Jean-Luc). It’s an important early text just like how later would be Truffaut’s Une certaine tendance du cinéma français (Jan ’54, N.31).

André Bazin’s interest in American cinema lied more towards Welles and Wyler and he participated in important public debates on the importance of Hollywood films to gain it respectability. This shift towards Hitchcock and Hawks, under the influence of Alexandre Astruc, would bring an emphasis on mise en scene and the film’s formal elements, as well as canonize two of the magazine’s most important filmmakers. Rohmer would create continuity between both generations with his essay De trois films et d'une certaine école (Aug-Sept ’53, N.26) by writing about Renoir, Rossellini (two of Bazin’s favorites) and Hitchcock, and highlighting their religious beliefs and formal mastery.

Godard is in interesting case. He was never too close with Bazin and was introduced into the magazine by Rohmer and Rivette, who he would follow in judgments. Godard would write two important Hitchcock Critiques (the other one is on The Wrong Man). His writing was challenging and iconoclastic. For example, he was one of Cahiers’ early champions of John Ford who was not liked in this period (see: Leenhardt’s A Bas Ford, Vive Wyler). And finally, Godard's writing would identify an emerging cinematic modernism which he would later bring to his own filmmaking starting with À bout de souffle. – D.D.
The supremacy of the subject by Jean-Luc Godard (Cahiers March ’52, N.10)

Hitchcock’s most recent film will doubles arouse controversy. Some critics will say it is unworthy of the director of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Shadow of a Doubt, others will find it mildly amusing and praise its qualities until they take on an air of false modesty. But those who have for Alfred Hitchcock, for Blackmail as much as Notorious, a vast and constant admiration, those who find in this director all the talent necessary for good cinema, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Outrageously decried by some while the rest ignore him – what is it about Hitchcock that merits attention?
            Here is the subject of Strangers on a Train: a young tennis champion, already well known, in love with a Senator’s daughter and wanting a divorce meets a stranger on a train who offers to get ride of his wife – she refuses to divorce him – on condition that the tennis champion does away with his hated father. As soon as the tennis-player leaves the train he forgets his strange companion. But the latter, believing himself pledge, strangles the more than flighty wife and insists that the tennis-player fulfill his side of the bargain he believes was made in the train. Now free, but terrified by the stranger’s audacity, the tennis-player eventually manages to convince the police of his innocence and marries the girl he loves.
            This subject owes so little to anecdote or the picturesque, but is instead imbued with such lofty ambition, that probably only the cinema could handle it with so much dignity. I know no other recent film, in fact, which better conveys the condition of modern man, who must escape his fate without the help of the gods. Probably, too, the cinema is particularly suited to recording the drama, to make the best not so much of the myth of the death of God (with which the contemporary novel, alas, is by no means backward in taking liberties, as witness Graham Greene) as the baleful quality it suggests.
            However, it was necessary that in the sign – in other words, that which indicates something in whose place it appears; in this case, a conflict of wills – the mise en scene should respect the arabesque which underlines its effect, and like Dreyer or Gance, should use it with delicate virtuosity; for it cannot shock through mere empty exaggeration. The significant and the signified are here set so high (if the idea is involved in the form, it becomes more incisive, but is also imprisoned like water in ice) that in the exploits of this criminal, Hitchcock’s art cannot but show us the promethean image of his murderous little hand, his terror in face of the unbearable brilliance of the fire it steals.
            (Let me make myself plain: it is not in terms of liberty and destiny that cinematographic mise en scene is measured, but in the ability of genius to batten on objects with constant invention, to take nature as a model, to be infallibly driven to embellish things which are insufficient – for instance, to give a late afternoon that Sunday air of lassitude and well-being. Its goal is not to express but to represent. In order that the great effort at representation engulfed in the Baroque should continue, it was necessary to achieve an inseparability of camera, director and cameraman in relation to the scene represented; and so the problem was not – contrary to Andre Malraux – in the way one shot succeeded another, but in the movement of the actor within the frame.)
            Look at these stretches of heath, these neglected homes, or the somber poetry of modern cities, those boats on a fairground lake, those immense avenues, and tell me if your heart does not tighten, if such severity does not frighten you. You are watching a spectacle completely subjected to the contingencies of the world; you are face to face with death. Yes, invention holds sway only over language, and mise en scene forces us to imagine an object in its signification; but these clever and violent effects are so only to transmit the drama to the spectator at its highest level – I refer, of course, to the strangling in the wood and the struggle on the merry-go-round, scenes which contain so many astonishing realities, such depth in their fantastic frenzy, that I fancy I breathe in them a gentle odor of profanation. The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea. Should one reproach this renowned filmmaker for flirting with appearances? Certainly the camera defies reality, but does not evade it; if it enters the present, it is to give it the style it lacks.
            ‘It is useless to pretend that human creatures find their contentment in repose. What they require is action, and they will create it if is not offered by life.’ Could not these words by Charlotte Bronte equally well have been written by Kleist or Goethe? Today the most German of transatlantic directors offers us the most vivid, brilliant paraphrase of Faust – combining, I mean, lucidity and violence. Since The Lodger, Hitchcock’s art has been profoundly Germanic, and those who accuse him of reveling in false and pointless bombast, those mean spiritis who are foolish enough to applaud the contemptible – whether in the work of Bunuel or Malaparte – should consider Hitchcock’s constant preoccupation with constructing his themes: he makes persuasion, a very Dostoievskian notion, the secret mainspring of the drama. From German expressionism, Hitchcock consciously retains a certain stylization of attitude, emotions being the result of a persistent purpose rather than of impetuous passion: it is through his actions that the actor finally becomes simply the instrument of action, and that only this action is natural; space is the impulse of a desire, and time its effort towards accomplishment.
            I wager that the pen of Laclos could not have bettered a look of hatred from Ingrid Bergman, the Australian of Under Capricorn, lips flushing with disgust, less with self-shame than from a desire to make others share her degradation; or a shot from Suspicion where Joan Fontaine, hair wild, face drawn, feeling that she might be happier and that it would be better to lose her husband than witness his inconstancies, resents feeling consideration and even love for him, resents feeling his arms hold her gently, offering him her mouth, exposing herself to danger without the secret desire to do so, wondering if she is loved enough. She prefers to grieve, to weep tears, to languish under offences, to consent to them, make an effort to yield her heart, be upset because she does so, weave an incalculable number of difficulties in the certainty of illuminating her doubts instead of living drearily with them.
            One cannot call the director of The Paradine Case and Rebecca a descendant of the Victorian novel. This is why I would also not compare him to Griffith – even though I find in both directors the same admirable ease in the use of figures of speech or technical processes; in other words they make the best use of the means available to their art form – but instead class him with Lang and Murnau.*
            Like them, he knows that the cinema is an art of contrast, whether it describes life in society or in the heart. Murnau’s Faust also revealed this incessant change in which the actor transcends his powers, taxes his senses, falls prey to a torrent of emotions in which extravagance yields to calm, jealousy becomes aversion, ambition becomes failure, and pleasure, remorse. If Shadow of a Doubt is in my opinion Hitchcock’s least good film, as M was the least good of Lang’s, it is because a cleverly constructed script is not enough to support the mise en scene. These films lack precisely what Foreign Correspondent and Man Hunt are criticized for. Is so rare a gift really to be questioned? I believe the answer lies in the innate sense of comedy possessed by the great filmmakers. Think of the interlude between Yvette Guilbert and Jannings in Faust, or on more familiar ground, of the comedies of Howard Hawks. The point is simply that all the freshness and invention of American films springs from the fact that they make the subject the motive for the mise en scene. The French cinema, on the other hand, still lives off some vague idea of satire; absorbed in a passion for the pretty and the picturesque, in a perusal of Tristan and Isolde, it neglects truth and accuracy and runs the risk, in a word, of ending nowhere.
            Certain critics, having seen Strangers on a Train, still withhold their admiration from Hitchcock, the better to lavish it on The River. Since they are the same persons who criticized Renoir so loud and long for remaining in Hollywood, and since they demonstrate so lively a taste for parody, I would ask them: do not these strangers on a train represent them in the exercise of their trade?

* Might not the astonishing success of German directors in Hollywood be explained – for the benefit of our sociological critics – by the strongly international character which enabled the quest for universality in these mystics to expand freely?