Monday, 18 November 2013

Reading Bazin (#4)

For some reason many film historians have settled on Francois Truffaut's 1954 article "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema" as the birthplace of the idea that the director is (or should be) considered the author and artist behind a film. But as I have written earlier, that idea is much older than Truffaut's article and has been around since at least the 1910s. If the focus is on criticism in post-war France there is also an earlier and better article to start with than Truffaut's piece; a report that André Bazin wrote  in 1946 from the film festival in Cannes, which was published in Le courrier du l'etudiant October 30 - November 13, 1946. This, the fourth post in the series "Reading Bazin", is about that report. The translation is by Stanley Hochmann, and published in the collection French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance - The Birth of a Critical Esthetic (1981). Links to previous instalments in "Reading Bazin" are at the bottom of the post.

Bazin begins by expressing his disappointment with the festival because he felt there were more good films to be seen at the cinemas in Paris than at the festival, especially films from the US. The Westerner (William Wyler 1940), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), The Little Foxes (William Wyler 1941), How Green Was My Valley (John Ford 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder 1944) and The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang 1944) are the films he mentions that are shown in Paris. The only American film in Cannes Bazin feels is equal to those is The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder 1945). It is worth pointing out that it was exactly this wave of extraordinary American films coming to France all at once, when the Second World War was over, that had such an immense influence on the next generation of French filmmakers and film critics, such as Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol. It was also these films that led some French critics to use the term film noir to describe these, for them, new films. (Film noir meant something slightly different then than now).

There were good films from other parts of the world though and Bazin mentions some French, Italian, Russian and British films such as La bataille du rail (René Clément 1946), Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945) and Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945). But on the whole he claims it was a "barren year" because there was no "Wyler, nor Capra, nor John Ford, nor Preston Sturges, nor Carné, nor Renoir, nor Eisenstein." But the beauty of Cannes for Bazin is not so much the quality of the films but the diversity of them. The festival is almost the only chance to see so many films from so many countries at once, and be able to compare them. He notes that the theme of many films that year is resistance, and that the foreign films "are all dramas, practically documentaries". He thinks the foreign films are braver, more honest in their depiction of violence and torture, than the French films, and he wonders if the scenes of war and destruction, and images from the concentrations camps, "would have been possible in literature without falling into turgidity and sadism. And yet how much stronger the cinematic image is. But cinema is the art of reality." An idea that is central in much of Bazin's writings. He then differentiates the European films' depiction of death with the American films, and finds the Americans wanting. With the exception of The Lost Weekend Bazin finds them less urgent, less real. "The world in which the characters struggle is separated from us by a glass that their blood does not penetrate." And he blames this on "the disastrous influence of the Hays-Johnson office" which "prevents a subject from ever being treated in depth and in all its consequences." He also blames a kind of self-censorship on behalf of too many filmmakers, for commercial reasons. But there is one thing about Hollywood cinema that almost makes up of for this. It is that Hollywood cinema "seems to have finally achieved the degree of perfection which frees the artist from technical concerns." This has given the director the ability to think "in cinema with a variety and precision of syntax and vocabulary that are equal to that of writing. As a result we see a multiplication of the names of directors whose presence in the credits signifies something."

In Bazin's view, if previously there were five or six American filmmakers of distinction, now there are at least 20 that are important and whose styles are "certainly as different as those of a half dozen novels by strong personalities". Of those filmmakers he mentions Welles, Sturges, Wilder, Hitchcock, Preminger, Ford, Capra, Wyler and "even a Robert Siodmak or a George Stevens, who seemed to be devoted to mass production." Bazin also says that "we are forced to the conclusion that cinema is in the sociological and esthetic situation of producing for the screen the equivalent of books" and that Hollywood "is able to furnish the exact cinematic equivalent of a paragraph by Faulkner, by Hemingway, by Caldwell."

Then he ends by again complaining about the Hays code and the censorship which keeps the American films from being as bold and frank as its literature, saying that only Welles, Wyler, Sturges and Clifford Odets* are able to combine style and theme to reach cinema's full potential.

Many of the key themes in Bazin's writing appear in this article. Thoughts about cinema and death, cinema's relationship with reality, the importance of style (he writes that it is "wrong to believe that it is the scenario that distinguishes escapist cinema from realist cinema", instead he thinks it is the style of the film that matter), and the centrality of the director. And the filmmakers that will continue to be his favourites are highlighted here such as Renoir, Welles, Wyler and Sturges. Bazin's argument that the director can be regarded as a writer, with a style that is uniquely his, and that enables the filmmaker to rise above the material is exactly what the critics at Cahiers du cinéma later in the 1950s, and then Andrew Sarris in the US, would argue. So it is a rich and interesting text and could be regarded as a valuable contribution to an understanding of how Bazin and the future French film critics thought about cinema. It would not be out of place on a list of mandatory readings for film students.

Reading Bazin (#1) is here.
Reading Bazin (#2) is here.
Reading Bazin (#3) is here.

*Odets had actually directed only one film, None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and would direct one more in 1959, The Story on Page One. But Odets was primarily a writer.

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