Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): What Do Critics Dream About?

Monday, April 27, 2009

What Do Critics Dream About?


by Francois Truffaut (from the introduction to The Films of My Life, published 1975):

One day in 1942, I was so anxious to see Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir, which at last had arrived at my neighborhood theater, the Pigalle, that I decided to skip school. I liked it a lot. But that same evening, my aunt, who was studying violin at the Conservatory, came by to take me to a movie; she had picked Les Visiteurs du Soir. Since I didn't dare admit that I had already seen it, I had to go and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. That was the first time I realized how fascinating it can be to probe deeper and deeper into a work one admires, that the exercise can go so far as to create the illusion of reliving the creation.




A year later, Clouzot's Le Corbeau turned up; it fascinated me even more. I must have seen it five or six times between the time of its release (May 1943) and the Liberation, when it was prohibited. Later, when it was once again allowed to be show, I used to go to see it several times a year. Eventually I knew the dialogue by heart. The talk was very adult compared to the films I had seen, with about a hundred words whose meaning I only gradually figured out. Since the plot of Le Corbeau revolved around an epidemic of anonymous letters denouncing abortion, adultery, and various other forms of corruption, the film seemed to me to be a fairly accurate picture of what I had seen around me during the war and the postwar period - collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling, cynicism.

I saw my first two hundred films on the sly, playing hooky and slipping into the movie house without paying - through the emergency exit or the washroom window - or by taking advantage of my parents' going out for an evening (I had to be in bed, pretending to be asleep, when they came home). I paid for these great pleasures with stomachaches, cramps, nervous headaches and guilty feelings, which only heightened the emotions evoked by the films.

I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films. I sat closer and closer to the screen so I could shut out the theater. I passed up period films, war movies and Westerns because they were more difficult to identify with. That left mysteries and love stories. Unlike most moviegoers my own age, I didn't identify with the heroes, but with the underdog and, in general, with any character who was in the wrong. That's why Alfred Hitchcock's movies, devoted to fear, won me over from the start; and after Hitchcock, Jean Renoir whose work is directed toward understanding... "The terrible thing is that everyone has his own reasons" (La Regle du Jeu). The door was wide open, and I was ready for Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Orson Welles, Marcel Pagnol, Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, of course, and all the others who, without being immoral, "doubt the morality of others" (Hiroshima, mon amour).



I am often asked at what point in my love affair with films I began to want to be a director or a critic. Truthfully, I don't know. All I know is that I wanted to get closer and closer to films.

The first step involved seeing lost of movies; secondly, I began to note the name of the director as I left the theater. In the third stage I saw the same films over and over and began making choices as to what I would have done, if I had been the director. At that period of my life, movies acted on me like a drug. The film club I founded in 1947 was called - somewhat pretentiously but revealingly - the Movie-mania Club. Sometimes I saw the same film four or five times within a month and could still not recount the story line correctly because, at one moment or another, the swelling of the music, a chase through the night, the actress' tears, would intoxicate me, make me lose track of what was going on, carry me away from the rest of the movie.

In August 1951, ill and a prisoner of the Service des Detenus in a military hospital (they handcuffed us even when we went to the shower or to pee), I flew into a rage when, lying in my bed, I read in a newspaper that Orson Welles had been forced to withdraw his Othello from the Venice competition because, at the insistence of his backers, he wasn't allowed to risk losing to the British superproduction of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.

A lovely time of life - when one cares more about the fate of those we admire than about one's own. More than two decades later, I still love movies but no film can occupy my mind more than the one I'm writing, preparing, shooting, editing. I've lost the film lover's generosity, so arrogant and overwhelming that at times it can fill one with embarrassment and confusion.

I have not been able to find my first article, published in 1950 in the Bulletin of the Film Club of the Latin Quarter. I remember it was about La Regle du Jeu. The original version of this film - including fourteen scenes we had never seen - had just been discovered and shown. In my article I carefully enumerated the differences between the two versions, which was probably what led Andre Bazin to suggest that I help my research a book on Renoir that he was planning.

By encouraging me from 1953 on to write, Bazin did me a great favor. Having to analyze and describe one's pleasure may not automatically change an amateur into a professional, but it does lead one back to the concrete...to that ill-defined area where the critic works. The accompanying risk is that one may lose one's enthusiasm; fortunately, that didn't happen to me. In a piece of Citizen Kane I was at pains to explain how the same film might be viewed differently by a movie lover, a journalist, a filmmaker. This was as true of Renoir's work as it was of the big American movies.

Was I a good critic? I don't know. But one thing I am sure of is that I was always on the side of those who were hissed and against those who were hissing; and that my enjoyment often began where to of others left off: Renoir's changes of tone, Orson Welles's excesses, Pagnol's or Guitry's carelessness, Bresson's nakedness. I think there was no trace of snobbery in my tastes. I always agreed with Audiberti: "The most obscure poem is addressed to everybody." Whether or not they were called commercial, I knew that all movies were commodities to be bought and sold. I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen's Singin' in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer's Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable. When Hitchcock made Psycho - the story of a sometime thief stabbed to death in her shower by the owner of a motel who had stuffed his mother's corpse - almost all the critics agreed that its subject was trivial. The same year, under Kurosawa's influence, Ingmar Bergman shot exactly the same theme (The Virgin Spring) but he set it in fourteenth-century Sweden. Everybody went into ecstasy and Bergman won an Oscar for best foreign film. Far be it from me to begrudge him his prize; I want only to emphasize that it was exactly the same subject (in fact, it was more or less conscious transposition of Charles Perrault's famous story "Little Red Riding Hood"). The truth is that in these two films, Bergman and Hitchcock each expressed part of his own violence with skill and freed himself of it.

Let me also cite the example of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, which is still discussed as if it were a tragedy about unemployment in postwar Italy, although the problem of unemployment is not really addressed in this beautiful film. It shows us simply - like an Arabic tale, as Cocteau observed - a man who absolutely must find his bicycle, exactly as the woman of the world in The Earrings of Madame de... must again find her earrings. I reject the idea that The Virgin Spring and Bicycle Thief are noble and serious, while Psycho and Madame de... are "entertainments." All four films are noble and serious, and all four are entertainment.

When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La Regle du Jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly. Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.

17 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Let me also cite the example of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, which is still discussed as if it were a tragedy about unemployment is not really addressed in this beautiful film. It shows us simply - like an Arabic tale, as Cocteau observed - a man who absolutely must find his bicycle, exactly as the woman of the world in The Earrings of Madame de... must again find her earrings. I reject the idea that The Virgin Spring and Bicycle Thief are noble and serious, while Psycho and Madame de... are "entertainments." All four films are noble and serious, and all four are entertainment.

LOL Movie Man!!!! That is a fantastic paragraphy, and Truffaut is dead with every point as far as I'm concerned.

"I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films."

a la Buster Keaton!.....I'm hardly surprised that he saw his first two hundred movies on the sly, or that LE CORBEAU was a film that consumed him (even to the point of memorizing the dialogue). I also love both the Clouzot AND the Carne, but these were obviously vital to Truffaut's cinematic maturation.

Yes, indeed. His famed love for Hitchcock, as per what he says here clearly emanates from the fact that he favored love stories and mysteries above all other genres. Then there was renoir and that listing of all the other greats.

But Movie Man, although I have read several volumes on Truffaut in my life, and am familiar with what he says here, I dare say he makes valid points he says something that implies that art and entertainment merge, as as a result of this admission he can't be called a sbob (he says) He uses the ORDET and SINGIN IN THE RAIN comparison, but he definitely states his position most persuasively here:

"When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La Regle du Jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly."

I think Pauline Kael feels the same way and has posed similar arguments.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, Sam, I posted this not only because it's great writing but because it summarizes perfectly my own attitude towards movies. Although I am curiously cool towards Truffaut's cinema, I am complete accord with his cinephalia. Though I've grown over the years in understanding and appreciation, I still maintain a stubborn belief that the criteria for greatness lies within a romantic rapture - we can go back and analyze what provoked this reaction, but without it we're indulging in guesswork. This doesn't mean that I always "get" a great movie - sometimes its appeal passes me by, but I maintain that to be great, a film must at least have the potential (albeit perhaps untapped) to move us in that way.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Movie Man. I did connect you with Truffaut's views here, and I dare say I can pretty much concur with your philosophy.

As far as being cool to Truffaut's cinema (as opposed to his film criticism and passion for the work of others) I can agree to a point.

He did craft three masterworks (LES QUATRE CENTS COUP, JULES AND JIM, TWO ENGLISH GIRLS) and one other now (in my view) pushes close (SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER), even if some of his other works were little more than mild diversions-THE WILD CHILD, L'ARGENT DE POCHE, THE LAST METRO, the overrated DAY FOR NIGHT, etc.

LES QUATRE, of course was one of three seminal New Wave films (as you well know) and it's final freeze frame is one of cinema's best-remembered moments. But any director who can contribute THREE masterpieces to cinema in his career, is someone to be regarded highly. He's not in the category of Bresson, Renoir, Gance, Max Ophuls, Tati, nor the maddening Godard, but by any barometer of measurement he's solidly in the "second tier" with the likes of Malle, Chabrol, Feyder, Carne, Becker, Clouzot and others.

He has made his mark most persuasively in this regard.

MovieMan0283 said...

I think it's more of a personal idiosyncrasy than anything else - I just don't connect with his movies, even the best of them, the way I do with Godard's. And I'm speaking of the "masterpieces" - 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, depending on my mood, can either charm me or leave me relatively unimpressed (the former less so than the latter). Go figure.

I enjoy Day for Night a great deal; it is a filmmaker's film certainly, one that grows and diminishes in stature the closer one is to one's own filmmaking experience, however small-scale.

MovieMan0283 said...

Also funny that he specifically name-checks (and praises) Clouzot and Carne here, given that he savaged them elsewhere as participants in the "cinema du papa"...

Sam Juliano said...

Movie Man, on an intellectual plane, Godard of course is way beyond Truffaut, whose best work was more humanist and not remotely experimental or philosophically-complex. But just as Truffaut himself contends in this very piece when he make that comparison of what is art and what is entertainment:

"I reject the idea that The Virgin Spring and Bicycle Thief are noble and serious, while Psycho and Madame de... are "entertainments." All four films are noble and serious, and all four are entertainment.....

I believe it is applicable to his own cinema, which was noted for its intense lyricism. I don't blame you for your justified love for Godard, though, and you can never exhaust discussion there.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, that about face with Clouzot and Carne is ironic, but with Truffaut I'm hardly surprised. LOL!

MovieMan0283 said...

But oddly enough, it's on an emotional level that I've always connected to Godard and felt a bit distanced from Truffaut. I know, I know that makes no sense - but I find my favorite Godard films - Masculin Feminin, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, La Chinoise - to be lyrical as well as white-hot and intellectual and I guess it's the combination that gets me.

Of course, I've had viewings of Jules et Jim (and more so of 400 Blows) where I've been swept up in the work, and it's possible that re-watching Truffaut's work in the run-up to my "150" will make me re-consider and even include one or two on that rundown.

manwithoutastar said...

Wow, what a great article. Really fascinating, thanks for publishing this! He had a cinema club in 1947, coo..

Sam Juliano said...

Well Movie Man, if Godard hits you emotionally as well as intellectually, well then the case is closed. My favorite Godard films are CONTEMPT, WEEKEND, 2 OR 3 THINGS and BREATHLESS, but I'll admit that's arather conventional list, of films that are widely accepted as his masterworks. You and Ed Howard have opened up a whole new world of exhaustive treatment of this always-challenging director. When he does reach you emotionally then he's in a class by himself, but he doesn't always reach me, and that's why for me he isn't on a level with Bresson. But that's another issue.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ironically, the films you mention are not my favorites of his, in fact - except for Week End which I haven't seen in years but which I remember loving - they leave me colder than my favorite films of his. Breathless I didn't like when I first saw it and it took several viewings to fully appreciate it - ironically, by realizing that it works best as a breeze, stripped of all the pretentious accolades it's earned over years (along with a persistant and misleading focus on those jump cuts). 2 or 3 Things just didn't do much of anything for me when I saw it on the big screen (ironically, I also had a more rapturous response to La Chinoise on DVD than in a theater) and Contempt is a film I admire without ever quite getting into.

In general, I prefer mid-60s Godard to early 60s Godard. It seems like he was still feeling his oats, figuring out his own idiosyncratic style (which I think surprised him as much as it surprised his viewers) and that from about '64 on, his work is more kinetic, more romantic, more tragic, and more direct in its effects.

I think A Married Woman is the only pre-'68 Godard that I have not seen. Pierrot le Fou lost me about a half-hour in, but I'm very eager to re-watch, especially since Criterion came out with their gorgeous-looking edition.

Sam Juliano said...

PIERROT LE FOU lost me as well, Movie Man. For me LA CHINOISE (whic I watched two months ago) is dated, and I am convinced that CONTEMPT is not only his greatest work, but one of the greatest films of cinema. I have some catch-up do with the mid 60's stuff; I know Allan isn't particularly enamored of it, but then again he is not a huge GODARD fan. But your opinion here is most well reasoned and informed.

MovieMan0283 said...

The time capsule quality is one of many things I love about La Chinoise. I did notice its "datedness" a bit more seeing it in a theater, where it didn't come off quite as well as on DVD (it seemed the audience was taking it a bit more/too seriously - funny how the audience can influence your viewing of a movie).

In general, particularly when the 60s is the decade in question, I actually enjoy a movie's "dated" qualities. (For example, when I first saw Blow-Up I thought it was dated. Now I still think it may be, but I'm so enamored by Swinging London, the Yardbirds, etc. that this actually helps the movie...)

Sam Juliano said...

Yep, excellent point there about BLOW-UP, and 60's cinema in general, especially as the decade abounded with those time-capsule, socially-conscious films, which on first view did not appear to transcend their era. Also, I've argued with Allan in the past, the whole concept of "dated" needs to be re-examined, as the very essence of a number of works relies on their sense of time, place and inherent style, which are vital to its interpretation/themes.

I mean, I saw IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD this past Wednesday night at a local movie palace with the family and friends as part of a ten-week movie series of American classics, and that's about as dated a film as you'll ever see in every sense, but a great deal of its basic, cornball humor managed to transcend its social milieu. With Godard of course the oncerns are infinitely more complex, so the issus of time and setting (and style) are far more negligible.

Sam Juliano said...

In any case I think it's fair to say that another viewing of LA CHINOISE is very much in order.

Satyam said...

Truffaut was one of the finest critic and seriously it shows.

MovieMan0283 said...

Satyam, I have been reading the rest of the book since I posted this. The takes on different directors and films (mostly of the 50s) are interesting but I have to say the introduction has been my favorite part. It's just such a great evocation of cinephilia.