Why Cahiers?

Jean-Luc Godard, Week End, 1967.
  • Emilie Bickerton. A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma. Verso. March 2010.
  • Peter Graham (ed.) and Ginette Vincendeau (intro.). The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks. Palgrave Macmillan. March 2009.

In April 1922, D.W. Griffith traveled to London to promote Orphans of the Storm, his epic of the French Revolution. To a skeptical Times interviewer he described the literary origin of his signature contribution to film technique: the “‘break’ in the narrative, a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group.” As Sergei Eisenstein observed on discovering the exchange, “Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action”—cross-cutting—“and he was led to the idea of parallel action by—Dickens!” Motion Picture Studio, to which the young Alfred Hitchcock was a contributor, thought Griffith’s visit had made plain “for the first time the all-importance of the director to the films for which he is responsible.” Soon after, the Manchester Guardian’s Caroline Lejeune, later part of Hitchcock’s circle, noted the cults that had gathered around certain directors on the basis of a few films “built on the same lines.” Once canonized, she wrote, “every little gleam of beauty is magnified a hundredfold,” and their work, “even in embryo, will be enwrapped in a legend of quality which it would take a very serious blunder to destroy.”

Three decades before it was given a name, Lejeune had identified the politique des auteurs by which the young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma made their magazine’s reputation, beginning in 1953 when Jacques Rivette proclaimed “The Genius of Howard Hawks” on the release of his screwball-throwback, Monkey Business. A few months later, Rivette’s colleague Eric Rohmer, according to Emilie Bickerton in her Short History, “elevated Hitchcock to the pantheon of great directors, and named I Confess,” his thirty-eighth feature, “a modern masterpiece.” That the politique’s exponents, the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” so-called by André Bazin, one of Cahiers’s founders and editors, were regarded as loose cannons and iconoclasts is something like conventional wisdom now. “The proposition that the movies, and especially those westerns, noirs, and melodramas from Hollywood, could be art was preposterous in the mid-20th century,” says Bickerton. But mentored by Bazin and by the maverick archivist Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque Française, the original auteurists—Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, as well as Rivette and Rohmer—saw what others missed and brought about a revolution in taste. Then, famously, they became auteurs themselves.

This, as Bickerton says in her first sentence, is “a familiar tale,” endlessly repeated in movie journalism over the last half-century, “yet it has never been told” at book-length and in English. Her history divides into halves, the first surveying the twin summits of Cahiers’s first three decades—after the auteurists’ canonization of Old Hollywood in the ’50s, the “red years” of the ’70s; the second treating everything since as an unmitigated disaster, with the magazine, in thrall to the false idols of New Hollywood, becoming a “mouthpiece for the market.” The impact of early Cahiers on global film culture is undeniable. As the New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote recently, reflecting on a Sight and Sound poll of film books in which Truffaut, Bazin, and the politique’s principal American exponent Andrew Sarris all took top five spots, the nouvelle vague “is still the cinema’s center of gravity.” But at the heart of this phenomenon is a myth of Cahiers’s priority that is impossible to sustain, and Bickerton’s book only amplifies it. In her account, not only did its writers establish the reputations of directors like Hitchcock and Hawks, but they “laid the foundation for taking film seriously” more generally. “At Cahiers, for the first time, cinema was reflected upon and writers nourished a discussion around it, creating a culture that could receive it.”

On the old question when the movies came to be “taken seriously,” one first has to ask “by whom?” When Bickerton says that Cahiers’s admiration for Hollywood “confused critics and audiences internationally, who dismissed many of these cultural products as bubblegum or trash,” she evidently has a special audience in mind, silently to be distinguished from the picture-going millions. But even at this implied social level, the years between Griffith’s visit and World War II saw established in Paris, London, and New York the elements of what we still recognize as “film culture” today, among them Langlois’s Cinémathèque, founded in 1936. If the little magazines, specialist cinemas, and film libraries set up in the ’30s were mostly devoted to the avant-garde, the documentary, and the commercial art film, genre movies were not altogether excluded. Hitchcock had his first retrospective season at the Hampstead Everyman, north London, in 1934; five years later he was hosted by MoMA. If Rohmer’s claims for the lackluster I Confess were “controversial,” it was largely because most critics preferred his peppy British thrillers—though the novelist Julian Maclaren-Ross was speaking up for American Hitchcock half a decade before Cahiers existed.

Nor is this an isolated example. Even casual readers will be aware of names like James Agee and Manny Farber, who in “Underground Movies,” his well-known 1957 essay on the “true masters of the American action film”, recalled a time twenty years before when “a smart audience waited around each week for the next Hawks, Preston Sturges, or Ford film—shoe-stringers that were far to the side of the expensive Hollywood film.”

Bickerton’s desire to present Cahiers as at once film culture’s prime mover and “the final modernist project”—drawing on a shaky grasp of history in which Griffith, for one, appears as a member of “the original avant-garde”—leads her to sanitize and, as it were, modernize the magazine’s record. This shows up particularly in her treatment of the magazine’s most famous single essay, François Truffaut’s “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français,” the publication of which in January 1954 “marked the birth of the real spirit of Cahiers.” A highly specific attack on a cycle of “scriptwriters’ films” whose obscurity today is testament to the power of the Cahiers legend, it is commonly held to have prepared the ground for the nouvelle vague, calling time on the so-called “Tradition of Quality”—and, to adapt an anonymous writer’s old construction, to have spelt out the all-importance of the auteur to the films for which he is responsible. This was scarcely an original theme in 1954—witness the debate over Thorold Dickinson’s concept of the “filmwright” in Sight and Sound a few years earlier—but beyond that, the essay is actually a plea, not for cinematic “specificity” or “realism” as Bickerton says, but for more faithful literary adaptations. Truffaut, the fearless young Turk, condemns one scenarist’s “non-conformism, his ‘advanced’ ideas and his fierce anti-clericalism,” another’s “very marked predilection for profanation and blasphemy,” and fulminates against “anti-militaristic elements” in general. Meanwhile, by misrepresenting Cahiers’ antecedents—insofar as she allows that it had any—Bickerton obscures where the magazine’s real novelty lay.

When Cahiers arrived on the scene in 1951, many serious critics, Dickinson among them, believed that the essence of film art was montage, pioneered by Griffith (via Dickens) and refined by Eisenstein, and that its cutting edge had been blunted, or diverted to the documentary margins, by the introduction of sound. (Hitchcock owed much of his reputation to 1929’s Blackmail, considered the first film to use recorded sound creatively.) Against this loose consensus, Bazin—whom Bickerton says “rejected any organized form of religion,” though he was a devout Catholic—proposed an alternative tradition that bridged the silent and sound eras, based on the notion of “self-effacement before reality” instead of cutting-room manipulation. Editing, he said in his 1958 essay “The Evolution of Film Language,” included (like Truffaut’s) in Peter Graham’s critical anthology The French New Wave, led the viewer by the nose, whereas “composition in depth,” a technique Bazin associated with Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and the Italian neo-realists, “means that the spectators’ relationship with the image is nearer to that which they have with reality.” In 1954, writing in Cahiers, he declared the “fin du montage.”

The new edition of Graham’s collection, published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the nouvelle vague’s Cannes breakout, carries on its cover a still from Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless (as does Bickerton’s), itself currently enjoying its full-dress Golden Jubilee parade through the art-house circuit. The 1968 original, which depicts a sniper opening fire on a wedding, better communicates its editor’s intent—in his own modest description, “to give a fairer and more representative picture of the currents of French film criticism than the one to be obtained from the pages of Cahiers.” Short pieces by Godard and Claude Chabrol are included simply to show up their weaknesses, and Godard’s is justly dismissed as “blustering, halting, pretentious and full of paradoxes.” Nor is Bazin, a more considerable critic, exempt. After printing his essay, Graham includes a lengthy refutation. Gérard Gozlan’s ironically-titled “The Delights of Ambiguity—In Praise of André Bazin,” first published in 1962, tore into Bazin’s theory as a liberal-democratic delusion with a conservative core. The composition of an individual shot is just as “manipulative”—or, put another way, expressive—as its arrangement in a sequence; but conversely, viewers do not check their minds in at the cloakroom, “ready to re-learn everything from scratch, in that ideal and sacred place, the cinema. […] Bazin’s whole reasoning presupposes that the nature of editing, by tampering with reality, renders the spectator’s behaviour completely passive.”

Gozlan’s essays first appeared in Positif, the magazine which it is customarily considered good form to call Cahiers’s left-wing, left-bank contemporary before moving on to more pressing matters. Bickerton stays on the topic long enough to insinuate that Positif’s fellow-traveling politics during the ’50s led it to eschew Hollywood, ignore questions of aesthetics, and fall into certain other, related content-oriented “pitfalls,” whereas its rival Cahiers’s priority was, she says, “to elevate film and criticism to the level of indisputable art,” setting up a simplistic form-versus-content opposition that recurs throughout the book. “Seeing film,” Bickerton continues, “meant addressing first and foremost the mise-en-scène as a distinctive tableau put in place by the director, which in turn presented a coherent and unique worldview. No ideological reading or political sympathy was necessary prior to this, and imposing it would inevitably produce a biased ‘reading’ of the film that failed to look at its visual composition.” Given that this mise-en-scène expressed the auteur’s “coherent and unique” worldview, it is hard to see how Cahiers’s contributors could have kept politics out of the frame. But as “The Delights of Ambiguity” makes clear, they didn’t.

Passing from Bazin to his star writers, Gozlan establishes in chapter-and-verse form the full extent of Cahiers’s Cold War quietism, clericalism, and anti-feminism—and uniting all these, its windily-metaphysical house style. Within his piling-up of citations we find that “Hawks is praised by Godard because Rio Bravo simply expresses ‘the finest of morals: that a man should earn his daily bread and not care about the rest,’” and that Rivette extolled “an ‘art of modulation, whereby everything finally harmonises with this search for a central point where appearances and what is called nature (or shame or death) are reconciled with mankind.’” “Faced with such self-confidence,” Gozlan deadpanned, “we begin to doubt the non-existence of God.”

Graham’s collection, which also includes “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” Robert Benayoun’s self-explanatorily-titled take on the Cahiers wing of the nouvelle vague, plays up Positif’s antagonistic side out of polemical expediency, but the charge that the magazine ignored Hollywood won’t stick. As Michel Ciment, later part of its editorial collective, has it, Positif “supported those films on the other side of the Atlantic that went against the silent majority, or at least did not exalt the values of the Eisenhower era.” Its 1954 “Cinéma Américain” issue simply denied that Hawks’s films “merit more than a polite interest.” The magazine had a few pet American directors—Robert Aldrich, director of Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was one—but tended to recognize that Hollywood filmmaking was, after all, a collaborative, genre-based business. In 1955 two of its contributors, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, published Panorama du Film Noir Américain, the book that, if it didn’t invent the term, helped usher it into circulation.

Given all this, given that it wasn’t the only game in town—why Cahiers? Raymond Durgnat, author of the first book in English on the nouvelle vague, raised the question as early as the early ’60s, as the magazine became a rallying point for the rising generation of British and American critics, later calling the choice “a major cultural disaster for the English-speaking left,” which he saw as hoodwinked by the notion “that because Cahiers in the ’50s was written by young, clever, and irreverent people, they must therefore have been progressive.” In the decades since, four volumes of translations have been culled from Cahiers’s first three decades, with separate collections of criticisms by at least four of its contributors. For a while during the ’60s an English-language edition was brought out. Positif, by comparison, remains practically unknown in Anglophone film culture. One clear reason is provided by Bickerton: the fame of the Cahiers critics as filmmakers after 1959 and the release of Truffaut’s debut Les Quatre Cents Coups. The editors of Movie, a British magazine founded in 1962, inspired by developments across the Channel, wrote that “our aim is not to carve out careers for ourselves as critics, but to make films.” One of the original New York auteurists, Eugene Archer, who discovered Cahiers while on a Fulbright scholarship in Paris in 1957, introducing its enthusiasms to his friend Andrew Sarris, tried to follow his heroes into film production and was burned in the attempt to get Truffaut to film Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. Peter Bogdanovich, another who caught the bug from Archer, was more fortunate in his career.

But there was more to it than this. Sarris and Archer’s cohort raised Cahiers as its battle flag not against—as in Bickerton’s caricature—deep-set opposition to Hollywood filmmaking in general, but against something rather more specific: liberal prestige pictures like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958), grouped together by Bogdanovich as “The Dore Schary–Stanley Kramer Syndrome.” As Sarris said after the hubbub had died down, “auteurism can be understood only in terms of its own historical coordinates, namely [New York Times reviewer Bosley] Crowther and [Siegfried] Kracauer as the Power and the Glory of social significance in film criticism and scholarship.” Even in the midst of her wounding attack on auteurism, “Circles and Squares,” published in Film Quarterly in 1963, Pauline Kael conceded that her targets were “sensible enough to deflate our overblown message movies”; but the auteurists’ rejection of “social significance” could easily shade into a rejection of social questions altogether, a tendency upheld by Bickerton, as we have seen, in her attempt to separate the neutral appreciation of “visual composition” from the unwelcome imposition of “political sympathy.” Within this set of cultural-historical coordinates, Positif was unlikely to get a hearing.

In Britain the adoption of the Cahiers line was an instance of what Stefan Collini calls the “absence thesis”—crudely, the widely-held view that whereas the French had a “real” intelligentsia (real critics, real auteurs), Britain had no such thing. The first issue of Movie declared that “British cinema is as dead as before. Perhaps it was never alive,” an outlook Cahiers generally confirmed. One of the most influential British interpreters of the politique des auteurs during the ’60s was a predecessor of Bickerton’s at the New Left Review, the typical stance of which Isaac Deutscher called at the time “national nihilism.” Just as the NLR’s young editor Perry Anderson was concerned to break with British left-wing traditions in political discourse, in the process mapping for Anglophone readers the constellation of “Western Marxism,” so his colleague Peter Wollen—the screenwriter on Archer’s ill-fated Wild Palms project—found little in the native tradition worth preserving. But whereas the so-called “Nairn–Anderson” theses on the passivity of the British working class were hotly contested, notably with the historian E. P. Thompson, Cahiers’s seductive myth of priority ensured that its perspective went too little questioned, and the challenges posed by Positif were sidestepped. A possible local explanation is that while endorsing Buñuelian surrealism and Marxian critical realism, Positif had also demonstrated clear Anglophile leanings, mounting in 1960 (for example) a defence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a film notoriously dismissed by bien-pensant reviewers everywhere, Cahiers included. In doing so the magazine upset what Durgnat, who became Powell’s first major critical champion in English, characterized as “an inverted chauvinism which becomes Parisotropic.”

The irony, as Bickerton says, is that Cahiers’s international fame coincided with a double decline, brought about at the magazine by the death of Bazin and its critics’ collective career change, and in the wider world by the perceived crisis of the studio system—a mood evoked by Godard’s Contempt (1963). The turn of the ’60s saw a calamitous spell under the conservative Rohmer which terminated in a palace coup led by Rivette, who seems essentially to have tried to make the magazine more like Positif. Or, in Bickerton’s unlovely rendering, “What critics were now expected to grasp were the external elements: the act of contextualizing a work was paramount; the sense of what environment a film had come out of, its connection with the world, and its expression of this.”

From the late ’60s the magazine executed what Serge Daney, a recent recruit, called the “savage application,” proceeding to “a more specifically Maoist view of culture.” Bickerton’s own take on “the mass upsurge of the Cultural Revolution in China” seems more gauche than gauchiste, and her treatment of this epoch, albeit a bit less celebratory than earlier chapters, discloses that the organizing principle of the book’s first half is that Cahiers can do no wrong. Whereas the Cahiers of the ’50s, stridently disengaged from contemporary questions like the Algerian War, is praised for its refusal to allow politics to get in the way of the screen, in the ’70s the magazine’s most extreme bouts of sectarianism—like the “mock trial” meted out to Bernard Eisenschitz, or the ceding of editorial control to the mysterious revolutionary Philippe Pakradouni—barely raise an authorial eyebrow. What remains constant is the disparagement of its more consistent contemporaries: here one would like to see Graham’s project extended beyond 1968 and have Positif critiques like Benayoun’s “Les Enfants du Paradigme” translated. Moreover, in trying to summarize what is an admittedly difficult body of work, highly influential within academic film theory, Bickerton does not excel, as when she describes a development in which “the critic rose to the fore, legitimating the aesthetic investigations he would carry out around various concepts that were for critics thinking the film, not for engaging in more collective discussions by sharing an experience of watching with other viewers or the director.” There are too many sentences like that.

Under the editorship of Daney and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers in the late ’70s, following a series of agonizing reappraisals, let go the levers of the Althusserian orrery to avow instead the tentative, the fragmentary, the vagabond. Soon the magazine, aiming to retrieve its five-figure circulation, patched things up with the commercial cinema—and this, for Bickerton is where the line must be drawn. After Daney’s departure from the co-editor’s chair in 1981, Cahiers can’t win. The jeremiad that follows, straining hard to persuade the reader that the Cahiers of the last three decades is just another magazine, is transparently rigged: Daney was in fact “invited to contribute on many occasions as gestures to serious cinephilia were deftly made.” Cake is had and deftly eaten in what amounts to yet another retread of the “death of cinema” thesis containing only glancing references to the contents of Cahiers itself. Staffed by “Maoist turncoats” prone to “treating as serious artists Hollywood’s Movie Brats,” it apparently caters to “the busy, fleetingly curious, Friday-night film-goer,” who is rapt by “a repetitive cycle of variations on the same high-tech, speed-and-action in-your-face thriller, heart-warming tear-jerker or rom-com.” This is simply untrue, and Bickerton ends up sounding—without a jot of self-awareness—exactly like those straw-man critics she claims the first wave of Cahiers washed away.

Go through the last year of Cahiers and you will find extended reviews of Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s installation Primitive; essays on Raymond Bellour, the vogue for ‘Egyptian’-style cinema architecture in the ’20s, and the golden age of US cable TV; long interviews with Elia Suleiman, Peter Whitehead, and Bickerton’s Verso stablemate Slavoj Zizek; dossiers (a particular strength) on Monte Hellman, the history of Turkish cinema, and one on Fellini that includes among other things interviews with Dante Ferretti, Dario Argento, Catherine Breillat, and Guy Maddin. It gave over about fifty pages to mark the death of Eric Rohmer; and, maintaining the politique of Rohmer’s heyday, perhaps, it also put Seth Rogen on the cover. Bickerton’s judgement on the Cahiers of today—“so much to choose from, so little at stake”—is a nice bit of phrasemaking, but whatever else it may be, Cahiers is not “a standard monthly glossy”, nor “mind-numbing”, nor “dead.” I cannot say whether it has undergone “a complete shift from conceiving of film as art to film as culture” because I don’t know what that means, but if it is not utterly unique in the realm of serious film magazines, as Bickerton thinks it used to be, comparable ventures are not exactly thick on the ground.

Even if one agrees with Bickerton that the American cinema is done for, no longer able to produce films of the caliber of Monkey Business and I Confess, she flounders in the attempt to name contemporary auteurs worth checking for elsewhere. Though modern Cannes is castigated as a “glamorized cattle market” whose prizewinners are “assured a secure future as the art-house hit of the year,” as if this were anything new, Bickerton’s tipsters’ list is limited to festival heroes like Abbas Kiarostami—whose Ten (2002) was voted tenth best film of the 2000s by Cahiers, as its fleetingly curious readers will know—and the two-time Palme d’Or-winning Dardenne brothers. She salutes Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as major directors of “the periphery” but doesn’t think to mention the instrumental role played by Cahiers in the ’80s—by Olivier Assayas in particular—in bringing Taiwanese cinema into the Euro-American ambit. If there are indeed “new film-makers to explore, new works to tackle” that are being ignored by Cahiers now, Bickerton might have named a few from the last decade. A lot of the grousing seems to be in the service of someone else’s nostalgia. “You like the movies: you also know that film is an art. It took fifty years for the professors to admit it”—so declared Positif’s first editorial in 1952. The professors, broadly understood, seem to be having second thoughts; but no one should have to take movies seriously out of obligation.

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