"WE DO NOT THINK, WE ARE THOUGHT"
IN THE SECOND EDITION, DATED JUNE 1950, of A THIN newspaper-like magazine published in Paris, La Gazette du cinéma, a nineteen-year-old writer made a modest debut. Jean-Luc Godard’s article, simply titled "Joseph Mankiewicz," was a short and breezy overview of that director’s career, though, as in the following reference to the director’s recent film, A Letter to Three Wives, it was devoted less to his films than to Mankiewicz himself: " ‘One can judge a woman’s past by her present,’ Mankiewicz says somewhere: this letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved."
In an eight-paragraph jaunt, the young writer lightly sketched a conception of the cinema that was as intensely personal as it was revolutionary: he suggested that films are one with the world offscreen. Casually, and without any theoretical fuss, he treated films as something more than creations that bore the mark of their makers; he considered them inseparable from the lives of their creators.
Godard’s piece on the front page of the next issue of La Gazette, "For a Political Cinema," is as provocative now as it seemed at the time. In it, he put forth an aesthetic framework that daringly overrode basic ideological distinctions in the name of specifically cinematic values.
One afternoon, at the end of the Gaumont newsreel, we opened our eyes wide with pleasure: young German Communists were marching in a May Day celebration. Suddenly, space was only the lines of lips and bodies, time only the raising of fists in the air...By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.1
Godard compared these young people to St. Sebastian and to the youths in classical Greek sculpture: the state of possession, albeit an intellectual one, that resulted from the thrall of ideology seemed to him to resemble religious devotion and thus to confer on its subject a transcendent serenity. He added that in Soviet films, "the actor infallibly returns to what he originally was, a priest. The Fall of Berlin and The Battle of Stalingrad are coronation masses." Godard treated expressions of Communist and Christian faith as equivalent, and admired the similar power of Nazi propaganda films, which had so recently been pressed upon Parisian moviegoers by German occupiers:
We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time that art is born of constraint.
Godard praised these films not for their political message but for their psychology: they depicted people under the influence, and it hardly mattered whether that influence was political or religious. He took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.
The essay ends with an exhortation: "French filmmakers in search of scripts, how have you unfortunate souls not yet filmed the assessment of taxes, the death of Philippe Henriod [sic], the wonderful life of Danielle Casanova?" Henriot, the Minister of Information in the Vichy government and a frequent and familiar orator on French radio under occupation, was killed in 1944 by Resistance fighters. Casanova, the founder of a Communist youth newspaper in the 1930s, was a Resistance fighter who died at Auschwitz. Godard endorsed as equally cinematically fertile the actions of a collaborator, of a resister, and ordinary parliamentary infighters, and he took the adventures and anecdotes that arose in the course of contemporary and recent history to be the cinema’s natural subject. The passions to which the characters in such films would bear witness were those that belonged to the real world, as verified by the reality from which they derived. The cinematic fictions that the young Godard dreamed of arose from the documentary impulse.
Moreover, his idealistic depiction of the young fanatic was a touching, if oblique, self-portrait. He was leading a life of singular and exalted purpose: his monomaniacal fervor was ignited by movies, and he gave remarkably definitive expression to it in the following issue of La Gazette.
The October 1950 edition featured a brief note by "H.L."—Hans Lucas, "Jean-Luc" in German, a pseudonym that Godard occasionally adopted through 1955—on a documentary film about Alexander Calder’s mobiles. One mercurial sentence sums up with a self-revealing clarity the adolescent Godard’s relation to the cinema: "At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought."2 This observation was less an avowal of passivity than of the will to self-transformation through movies. It indicates Godard’s consuming submission to cinema and the extent to which he experienced it as a personal epiphany, indeed a transfiguration. Godard had reached the essence of the experience at once, and conveyed it in an unabashed confession. In a single aphorism, he broke down the barriers of aesthetic distance and contemplation that separate the cinema, its viewers, and its makers. At the earliest stage of his work, Godard’s existence and that of the cinema were already fused.
These three articles delineate a coherent and comprehensive cinematic philosophy, one which Godard would realize and rework in a wide variety of forms in a filmmaking career that began in 1954 and continues to this day. The ideas that they sketch are the unity of the filmmaker with the film, the inseparability of both from the social world at large, the credence of a devout moviegoer in the reality of the world as presented in the cinema, and the aesthetic fecundity of this fanatical submission. The viewer who was "thought" at the cinema was Godard himself; the filmmaker who was one with his film would be Godard himself; and his films would be the seemingly infinite variations on the theme of his singular faith in the cinema and in its ability to preserve and to reflect both the reality of the filmmaker and of his times through the intersection of personal stories and political history.
But each of these principles came with a price tag. Godard’s submission to the cinema risked alienation from life. Films conceived as the expression of fanatical devotion to the cinema risked becoming a closed circuit of self-satisfied self-reference to the exclusion of reality. The identification of the film and the filmmaker risked the creation of a cult of personality that would detract attention from the filmmaker’s work. And the avidly omnivorous, ideologically indeterminate recording of political currents ran the risk of detachment and ambiguity. Over time, Godard would recognize all of these risks and, in his work and his life, would attempt to confront and to overcome them.
THE STORY OF Jean-Luc Godard’s work is one of a conversion to the secular religion of art and, specifically, to the art of cinema. For this art form, for this sort of passion, the holy city was, and remains, Paris.
The movies started in France, with the work of the Lumière brothers,3 and the special relationship of Paris to the movies is in large part due to that city’s central role in French civilization. For France, Paris is three things in one: it is the country’s New York, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood—the cultural, political, and cinematic capital. The three domains are much more strongly interconnected in France than in the United States, and activity in any one of the three fields is quickly reflected in the other two. As a result, in France the movie business has also been, all along, both a strain of high art and a sensitive political barometer.
French filmmakers participated in, and often emerged from, literary circles, and Parisian artists took a serious interest in the movies almost from their inception. It was the French critic Ricciotto Canudo who called the cinema the "sixth art" in a 1911 essay (and the "seventh art" in 1919). Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith were French cultural heroes as early as 1916, and artists of all sorts, especially the surrealists, took the cinema very seriously. Jean Cocteau made a film in 1930; Salvador Dali collaborated with Luis Buñuel on Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or; the film director Sacha Guitry was first a famous playwright; the greatest French prewar filmmaker, Jean Renoir, who made his first film in 1925, was the son of Auguste Renoir, the artist. Unlike American writers, for whom working on movies usually meant going to Hollywood and setting literature aside, such French writers as Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Jean Giraudoux, and Jacques Prévert were active in the cinema without having to distance themselves, geographically or practically, from the literary scene.
Postwar Paris was teeming with movies, especially American movies. Having been deprived of Hollywood productions under the German occupation, moviegoers were hungry to see those that had been made during World War II as well as the latest ones, and they flooded the screens. These films too were taken seriously, and nowhere more so than in a magazine called La Revue du cinéma, which was published by France’s most prestigious literary publisher, Gallimard. When the fifteen-year-old Jean-Luc Godard came to Paris in 1946 to attend the prestigious Lycée Buffon, he entered a lively and burgeoning cinematic scene, one that was energized both by the quantity of films available and by the quality of thought in circulation regarding the "seventh art." It was enriched by contact with the literary, artistic, and intellectual elite that embraced it, and was riven by political controversies that mirrored the political divisions of postwar France—some of which were aroused by the cinema itself.
GODARD WAS BORN ON DECEMBER 3, 1930, in the elegant seventh arrondissement of Paris. His father, Paul Godard, a doctor, moved the family to Switzerland four years later. His mother, Odile, née Monod, was the daughter of one of the most prominent bankers in France, Julien Monod, a founder of the Banque Paribas. Monod was also an extremely literate man, a close friend of the writer Paul Valéry and, after Valéry’s death in 1945, his literary executor.
Family documents include a letter that Valéry wrote to Odile Monod in April 1928, on the occasion of her engagement to Paul Godard. She was eighteen years old at the time; her fiancé was twenty-seven. Her parents opposed the marriage; Paul Godard, though Protestant like the Monods, was not of their social station. Nonetheless, the couple married in 1928. They settled temporarily in Paris, and their first child, Rachel, was born on January 1, 1930. (Valéry’s letter to the newborn, dated January 6, 1930, is published in the collection Lettres à quelques-uns.) Godard also has two younger siblings, a brother, Claude, born in 1933, and a sister, Véronique, born in 1937.
The most comprehensive research on the subject of Godard’s family and youth has been done by Colin MacCabe, who was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Godard’s authorized biographer; the results of his research were published in 2003, in his Portrait of the Artist at Seventy.4 Paul Godard worked at a private medical clinic, La Lignière, near Gland, on the shore of Lake Geneva, between Geneva and Lausanne, and ultimately opened a clinic of his own, near Lausanne. Broken plaster in a wall there was said in family lore to have been made by young Jean-Luc’s head during a transport of rage. To see a photograph of the wall is to fear for any child whose head might have done it.5 His mother wrote of the toddler Godard’s furious temper, calling him a grand éclabousseur (a great spatterer).6
The family was prosperous and cultured. Reading aloud from literature was a common form of domestic entertainment and ritual. Godard’s grandfather, Julien Monod, enforced humanistic rules, including the requirement that youngsters recite literature at the dinner table. Each year, on his maternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary, young Jean-Luc was expected to recite Valéry’s poem "Le Cimetière marin" (The Seaside Cemetery).7 (Moreover, Godard recalled receiving Latin lessons from Valéry.) 8 Religion was part of the family’s cultural heritage as well, and Godard recalled attending Protestant "temple" regularly though without doctrinaire devotion: he considered it a casual habit ("I went, the same way I played soccer or did gymnastics") 9 and, with his grandfather Monod, debated the minister’s sermons.
When World War II started, nine-year-old Jean-Luc Godard was in Brittany on vacation with relatives, and it was only with some difficulty that he could return to Switzerland. Godard spent most of the war in Switzerland, though he and members of his family habitually crossed Lake Geneva in a small boat to make clandestine visits to their grandfather’s estate on the French side of the lake.
During the war, Godard’s parents worked with the Red Cross and, Godard came to believe, had knowledge of the concentration camps established by Nazi Germany. MacCabe emphasizes the pro-English sympathies of Paul Godard (who had studied in London and, during the war, sheltered an English prisoner of war), yet Godard often spoke instead of his father’s pro-German sympathies, and, following his family’s lead, he was rooting for the Germans. He followed the course of the war on a map, with pins representing the movement of the opposing armies as reported in newspapers; he cheered on the advances of the German army and lamented its reversals, and later recalled, "When Rommel lost at El Alamein, I was deeply affected, a little as if my favorite soccer team had lost a game."
Godard’s maternal grandparents were supporters of Vichy. Godard later described his maternal grandfather as "anti-Jew" and an "anti-Semite," and remembered hearing Julien Monod refer to his doctor as a youpin (kike).10 At home, the family listened to Vichy-run radio, where Jean-Luc grew accustomed to the rhetoric of pro-German politicians and commentators and remembered, decades later, the rapt attention when speeches by Philippe Henriot were broadcast. The days of Henriot’s assassination (in 1944) and of the execution of Robert Brasillach, the right-wing critic and novelist and anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi propagandist (in 1945), were days of mourning in the Godard house.11
Godard recalled spending about a year and a half, from the ages of twelve and thirteen, in wartime Vichy, where his maternal grandfather "knew some people." Godard recalled that he always had an "affinity" for Julien Monod, whose sympathies were clearly suggested by the reading that he shared with his grandson Jean-Luc, as Godard later recalled: "I read Les Décombres, by Lucien Rebatet, because my grandfather was ultra-literary ...At night, we read aloud. We read Rebatet’s novel."12 Rebatet, who was convicted of collaboration in 1946 and spent six years in prison, was a vehement anti-Semite and actively endorsed France’s pro-Nazi regime. Les Décombres (The Ruins), his lengthy screed about the decline of France—in his view, due largely to French Jewry and reversible by collaboration with Germany—was said to be "for the little Parisian collaborationist world, the great politico-literary event of 1942." 13
The young Godard was an eager reader; his preferred fare was the children’s adventure novel, such as Le Voyage d’Edgar, by Edouard Peisson, whose work was popular at the time. His mother was an avid reader of French classics; on his fourteenth birthday, she presented him with a copy of André Gide’s Les Nourritures terrestres; his exalted experience with it converted him from his boyish taste for adventure writing to the literary novel. He was particularly fond of Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), and the novels of Georges Bernanos, Jacques Chardonne, Marcel Jouhandeau, Julien Green, and André Malraux. From his father, Godard acquired a taste for German romanticism, and as an adolescent, read works by Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil.14
Godard was not a frequent moviegoer in childhood (except during his stay in Vichy, where, he remembered, he often attended popular movies of the day)15 nor was he particularly attracted to the medium, except as casual entertainment. He attributed his introduction to the cinema as an art form to reading—first from André Malraux’s essay, "Outline of a Psychology of Cinema," which was originally published in Verve magazine in 1940, a copy of which his mother had saved and which he found by chance; and then La Revue du cinéma, which (after its first run of publication from 1928 to 1931) was relaunched in 1946, and which Godard read avidly despite being unable to see most of the films it discussed.16
In 1946, Godard went to study at the Lycée Buffon in Paris, where he intended to prepare for specialized mathematics exams to enter engineering school. Instead, he began to watch an endless number of movies, and several of his relatives recalled that he had already begun to write screenplays. His mother was able to arrange an introduction for young Godard to one of the editors of La Revue du cinéma, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, who was the son of one of her childhood friends, though at the time nothing practical came of it.
Family connections afforded him a view of the most rarefied strata of artistic achievement and cultural sophistication that Paris had to offer. Through his grandfather’s associations, Godard was lodged in Paris with the writer Jean Schlumberger, a friend of André Gide, who was a frequent visitor. The sixteen-year-old Godard also accompanied the two older men to a celebrated recitation by Antonin Artaud at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier on January 13, 1947.17
However, Godard failed his baccalaureate exam in 1948, and returned to Switzerland, where he studied at a high school in Lausanne and lived with his parents, whose marriage was breaking up. He was already interested in the movies, and frequented a café in Geneva, the Parador, with a group of bookish adolescents that included Roland Tolmatchoff, also a film fanatic, who later recalled: "I was encyclopedic, I could tell you who the set designer of a little American film from the ’30s was, so we gravitated to each other because of the cinema."18 (Another member of the circle was an extreme-rightist philosopher, Jean Parvulesco.)19
Meanwhile, Godard’s older sister, Rachel, who was a talented artist (and ultimately became an art teacher), introduced him to modern art, and he tried his hand at painting, in an abstract style that was reminiscent of early Abstract Expressionism or the works of Nicolas de Staël. (His mother arranged for his canvases to be put on display at his father’s mountain clinic.)
Godard went to a boarding school in Thonon, near Grenoble, to cram for the retest, which he passed. Returning to Paris in 1949, he enrolled in "propédeutique," the first year of studies at the Sorbonne, though Tolmatchoff recalled that Godard, who was already fanatical about movies, went with the intention of finding his way into the cinema. In Paris, Godard took courses in ethnology (in which he was awarded a "certificate") and in "filmology" (a sociological and linguistic approach to films, championed by the critic Henri Agel), but soon abandoned his studies (later explaining that he preferred "[Juliette] Gréco to Greek").20 His family was ready to pay for him to study art, but he decided against it; he applied for admission to the most prominent Paris film school, IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques), but was rejected.21
He watched movies instead, and frequented the most important place to see them in postwar Paris, a museum-like facility called the Cinémathèque.
THE CINÉMATHÈQUE had been founded by Henri Langlois and Georges Franju in 1936. Langlois, born in 1914 in Ottoman Smyrna, was already a film buff at age four. Moving to Paris with his family in 1922, he haunted its numerous movie theaters, and when he was seventeen years old—in the early days of talking pictures, when old prints of silent films were being discarded as obsolete—he started to collect these relics and declared that he was founding a museum for their preservation and projection. (After the war, Franju became an important director, beginning with his 1949 documentary Le Sang des bêtes [Blood of the Beasts].)
Langlois’s taste was remarkably wide-ranging and prescient. Though, in the 1930s, there were other film curators, including at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who sought to preserve silent films, Langlois rapidly went further. In 1939, Langlois—already an acknowledged expert—astonished MOMA’s film staff by declaring that a new film which he had just seen at a nearby theater, the popular Only Angels Have Wings, was sure to be recognized eventually as an enduring work of art and should be acquired for the museum’s collection at once. Like so many other Hollywood studio films of the sound era, this film, directed by Howard Hawks, has indeed come to be acknowledged as an artistic classic—and this recognition is due largely to Langlois’s advocacy.
The process, however, was gradual, and was delayed by World War II, when Langlois saved prints, such as those belonging to Jewish producers, from confiscation and destruction (with the covert help of a German officer in Paris, Frank Hensel, who was also a film buff ), and also held clandestine screenings of films which were forbidden by the German occupiers.
After the Liberation, Langlois’s public screenings quickly became a focal point for film enthusiasts and artistic luminaries, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Braque, and André Breton. At his screening room on the avenue de Messine, they rediscovered films that had been rendered invisible by the war’s restrictions, along with classics, familiar and hidden, old and new, from world cinema. In order to show the films while circumventing France’s regulations concerning taxation and censorship (then, as now, films released in France were submitted to a review board for a "visa de contrôle"), Langlois—who also collected diverse forms of movie memorabilia, from classic posters to famous costumes—declared his collection the Musée du cinéma (Museum of Cinema), which offered its screenings to museum visitors for a trivial surcharge added to its admission fee.
As a collector, Langlois was an omnivore; as a curator, he was a critic of genius; as a film lover, he was a visionary. He was not at all modest about his intentions: he wanted his Cinémathèque to be "a sort of center where people come as they are and then leave different."22 He offered his habitués a history of cinema based less on chronology than on thematic connections between films. For instance, from October 12 to 30, 1950, the Cinémathèque offered a series of rare silent classics, including Feuillade’s Vendémiaire (1917), D. W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1922), and The Overcoat (1926), by Kozintsev and Trauberg, along with two postwar films by Dovzhenko, science documentaries by Jean Painlevé, unreleased films by Joris Ivens, a wartime film by Leni Riefenstahl, an American independent film called The Quiet One, by Sidney Meyers, about a troubled child and the school that rescues him, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
The creation of a new cinema was an inseparable part of Langlois’s self-appointed mission, and, not content with the passive viewing of his literary habitués, he also saw to their cinematic efforts, providing Raymond Queneau, Jean Genet, and others with film stock for their own films (the one that has survived is Genet’s Un Chant d’amour [A Song of Love], from 1950). Yet his screenings were Langlois’s most important contribution to the creation of a future cinema. They offered young people a comprehensive overview of the cinema to date and oriented that history in terms of his own refined aesthetic taste; and Godard was one of the assiduous young habitués of the Cinémathèque whose enthusiasms Langlois cultivated.
THE POSTWAR PARIS in which Godard came of intellectual age was dominated by the influence of one thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). During the war, Sartre had written a philosophical treatise, L’Etre et le néant (Being and Nothingness), published in 1943, in which he displayed his newfound absorption in the work of Martin Heidegger. There, Sartre sought to define human existence in terms of history—though not, as Heidegger did, abstractly, but in terms of the specifics of social life and the practicalities of political action. Though this massive tome brought Sartre a quiet renown in academic circles, his wartime experience as a playwright, a screenwriter, a journalist, and an organizer of a resistance group led him to consider how he, as a writer, could play a role in the history of his times.
Sartre later described his impression of the opportunity that the Liberation offered: "At that moment, as a way of adapting to what was taking place, I conceived the idea of a total public, something that no previous writer could ever have had. The writer could have a total public if he said to the total public what the total public itself thought, albeit not so well."23 Immediately after the war, Sartre sought to achieve this identification of himself with a public that went far beyond élite literary circles: in order to become the defining thinker of his era, Sartre knew that he would need to become famous—and he understood that, as a result of the politicization of life during wartime, his postwar fame would continue to depend upon politics.
Starting in 1945, Sartre flooded Paris with his work. He cofounded with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty a monthly intellectual journal, Les Temps modernes—a reference to Modern Times, by Charlie Chaplin, who exemplified the artist who was simultaneously profound, original, emblematic of his times, a left-wing social critic, and undeniably, irresistibly popular. Sartre inaugurated the first issue with his "Présentation" (Introduction), in which he asserted the intrinsically political aspect of his own work, and of writing as such, in the ideal of "engaged literature":
The writer is situated in his era: each word has reverberations. Each silence too. I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression that followed the Commune because they did not write a line to prevent it. Some will say that it wasn’t their business. But was the trial of Calas Voltaire’s business? Was the conviction of Dreyfus Zola’s business? Was the administration of the Congo Gide’s business? Each of these authors, at a particular circumstance in their lives, determined their responsibility as writers. The occupation taught us ours. Since we act upon our times by our very existence, we decide that this action shall be willed.
On October 29, 1945, Sartre gave a lecture sponsored by Club Maintenant (The Now Club) titled "Existentialism Is a Humanism." The event had been widely advertised; the hall was filled to capacity with a clamorous, at times rowdy, crowd; the speech was a raucous, much-reported success, and the printed text became an instant bestseller. As if overnight, in a success that almost a decade of philosophical and literary effort had prepared, Sartre became a celebrity and then an icon.
In the four years that followed, Sartre published fourteen books— novels, literary criticism, political commentary, plays, philosophical treatises, essay collections, transcribed colloquia—and generated a vast number of articles, interviews, radio broadcasts, journalistic reports, and public appearances. A public figure, indeed a world-renowned figure, as famous in the United States as at home, Sartre soon became something more: he became a brand name, exactly as planned.
In "Existentialism Is a Humanism," Sartre explained that his philosophy, which had been accused by Communists of subjectivism and by Christians of pessimism, was in fact "optimistic" and "a doctrine of action"—of political action which was favorable to the left. The conception of existentialism as humanism was, at the time, far from obvious: the bilious literary misanthropy of Sartre’s prewar novels was familiar, as was the Nazi affiliation of Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who inspired Sartre’s conjunction of philosophy and history. (Heidegger had briefly served as the rector of the University of Freiburg in 1934 and had publicly praised Hitler and the Third Reich.) But Sartre, during the war, had cast his lot with the left, and now was, in effect, reprocessing Heidegger’s ideas in order to claim them for the left— and, at the same time, offering a new generation of leftists an avant-garde philosophy that seemed more exciting than another gloss on Marx.
As Sartre acknowledged, his sense of collective political enterprise, distilled in the notion of "engagement"—with political action as the defining trait of self-definition, and political inaction as a sin of omission—was a vestige of France’s moral crises of World War II. His theory, a kind of metaphysical prolongation of the war and its occupation and resistance, was a rejection of modern liberal democracy (and its baseline ballot-box form of political participation), which had failed to recognize the German menace and to protect France from it. Sartre intended the "engagement" of a writer to signify the obligation to take sides, to convert writing into action—specifically, into a form of political action as defined by the one particular type of political commitment that was implied by Sartre’s philosophy—on the far left.
In order to posit a prolonged resistance, the engaged thinker would also need to define it in opposition to a surrogate prolonged occupation. And the new occupation that Sartre perceived, and challenged, was American.
THE INFLUX OF AMERICAN American films quickly became a contested issue in postwar France. The "deserted and famished Paris" that Sartre described on August 20, 1945,24 turned its eyes beseechingly to the last best hope for economic relief, the United States. Charles de Gaulle, France’s postwar leader, sent former prime minister Léon Blum to negotiate a package of debt relief and other direct and indirect economic aid with James Byrnes, the U.S. secretary of state.25 The so-called Blum-Byrnes Accords, announced on May 28, 1946 (after the resignation of de Gaulle as president on January 20, 1946), assured France of various forms of financial assistance from the United States. A sidebar agreement, announced two days later, concerned the cinema: it required each French movie house to show four weeks of French films per quarter. Though the measure seemed designed to protect the French film industry, its practical effect—as Byrnes and Blum knew—was that for nine out of every thirteen weeks, each screen would show American movies.26
The French film industry, and its unions, which were largely affiliated with the Communist Party, protested vehemently that the accord would result in a drastic decrease in local film production. At an emergency meeting of industry notables, the actor Louis Jouvet warned, "The alteration in our public’s taste would be irremediable and mortal. Raised on wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, our stomachs will have to become accustomed to Coca-Cola."27 A headline in the Communist daily L’Humanité trumpeted, "The Franco-American Accords Condemn the French Cinema to Death."28 According to L’Humanité’s (unsigned) report on the emergency meeting, "Evoking the struggle of the Resistance, the well-known artist André Luguet energetically called for unity against the Blum-Byrnes accords." 29
Communist opposition to the presence in France of American movies soon intensified, for reasons having little to do with the cinema. When de Gaulle resigned as head of the postwar government in January 1946, he precipitated the founding of the Fourth Republic, by referendum, on October 13, 1946. 30 The new parliamentary system produced chronically unstable governments: in its twelve years of existence, it yielded twenty-two heads of state, only two of whom stayed in power for a year, and two of whom lasted as few as two days. Until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Communist Party was the leading vote-getter in France, receiving between 26 and 28 percent of the vote.
Yet, in the spring of 1947, under American pressure, the French government dismissed its Communist ministers (and was rewarded with the Marshall Plan). From that point on, the Communists resisted American films even more ferociously, as seen in L’Humanité:
THE CAMPAIGN OF LIES AND OF DEMORALIZATION BY AMERICAN IMPERIALISM
As for American films, the invasion of which was facilitated by the accords signed by Blum in Washington at the sacrifice of the French film industry, they strive toward the same goal: depraving our children by the glorification of gangsterism or erotic images, propagating the spirit of submission to the great benefit of religiosity.31
Like many other movie enthusiasts in Paris, however, Jean George Auriol—founder and editor of La Revue du cinéma, the ambitious and sophisticated movie magazine that he had put out from 1928 to 1931 and that he brought back to life in 1946 under the aegis of France’s most renowned literary publisher, Gallimard—thought otherwise:
As for me, I’ve seen hundreds of American films, and everyone knows more or less what they represent in comparison to a French work: something lively, active, palpitating, diverting, often tonic, sometimes extravagant. A product that is exciting, like champagne, coffee, or tea, in short, one of the rare gifts that our civilization can still offer us.32
Of the American films that had been embargoed during the war, none aroused more eager anticipation in Paris than Orson Welles’s first feature, Citizen Kane. But when it was finally shown in Paris in 1946, Sartre took it upon himself to take the Wunderkind’s reputation down a notch. Writing in L’Ecran français (The French Screen) in 1946, Sartre praised Welles’s damning portrait of the plutocrat as an act of "anti-fascism," but he blamed the director for abandoning the "realist naiveté" of prewar Hollywood, asking, "Doesn’t this film move us away from the cinema in general?" Though he recognized Welles’s innovations in cinematic composition ("découpage") and technique, he nonetheless condemned them, declaring that Welles’s characters were "presented in an intellective order" and thus were "dead": "The technical discoveries of the film are not designed to render life." Sartre saw in the popular American cinema a model for an authentically popular socialist realism for left-wing artists to adopt, and blamed Welles for not advancing it: "Since he isn’t rooted in the masses and since he doesn’t share their concerns, he will make an abstract, intellectual, conceptual film." Sartre’s criticism was summed up in his finger-wagging warning: "For us, Citizen Kane is not an example to follow."33 At least, not for French filmmakers who would come up to Sartre’s standards for "engaged" artists.
The most significant response to Sartre came from a young critic, André Bazin, whose essay, "The Technique of Citizen Kane," Sartre himself published in Les Temps modernes in 1947.34 Bazin praised the film for what he considered its singular artistic richness, and argued that Welles achieved this richness mainly by his use of the deep-focus technique. Bazin claimed that Welles, through this device, reinvented his art form "as Malraux, Hemingway, Dos Passos reinvented their own to their own ends." Indeed, his defense of the film depends mainly on his interpretation of Welles’s reliance on this figure of style, which he described as "an endorsement of integral realism, a way of making reality homogeneous, of treating it as indivisible." Thus Bazin argued, in exact contradiction to Sartre, that Welles’s methods were better suited to render life than any preceding ones, and that it was Welles’s ability to do so which comprised his, and the film’s, greatness.
Bazin, born in 1917, had planned a career as a teacher of literature but was kept from the classroom by his stuttering. Instead, he became an unofficial but enormously influential teacher of the cinema. A left-wing Catholic, he organized wartime film screenings and discussions for Work and Culture, a workers’ education group that was affiliated with a labor union but was nonetheless officially tolerated by the German occupiers. Bazin’s screenings and his extraordinary post-screening discussions attracted crowds, and served as a model for the film clubs that sprang up throughout France after the Liberation. Meanwhile, during the war and the German occupation— under which, as a result of German policy, French filmmaking flourished— Bazin had begun to write film criticism,35 and after the war he published substantial and influential articles in La Revue du cinéma and Les Temps modernes.
Bazin’s theoretical writings, which were launched in 1945 with the essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," revolved around his conception of the relation of image to reality—as he conceived it. He argued that, in photography, "an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind." He claimed that photography "affects us like a phenomenon in nature"—and defined the cinema as "objectivity in time."36
Before Bazin, leading film theorists (most crucially, Sergei Eisenstein) had argued that the essence of cinema was the editing of film, the sequential ordering of different images in order to generate mental effects in the viewer. Bazin, however, asserted that film editing techniques serve mainly to falsify reality by breaking up space and time. Instead, he advocated the use of long, continuous shots in order to preserve spatial and temporal continuity; thus he extolled Citizen Kane’s deep-focus technique, which permitted many planes of action to be seen clearly in a single frame and allowed them to unfold in a single uncut shot. Bazin evinced an extraordinary faith in the authenticity of the photographic and cinematic image, as well as an extraordinary humility before its power.
It is hard to imagine, however, that a critic who advocated the film-maker’s nonintervention and the effacement of the filmmaker’s personality in favor of the "automatic" working of the camera could be much of an inspiration to fiery young aspiring artists. Indeed, another young critic, who, unlike Bazin, dreamed of making films, took up the charge of arousing a more inspiring and active view of the cinema—and this young critic’s work got the teenage Godard’s attention and aroused his interest.
MAURICE SCHÉRER, born in 1920, was a high school teacher, a novelist, and a film enthusiast who, in a trio of articles (one in La Revue du cinéma in 1948 and two in Les Temps modernes in 1948 and 1949), attempted to formulate an ambitious and comprehensive theoretical definition of the cinema that differed radically from Bazin’s. In the first article, "Cinema, the Art of Space," Schérer rejected Bazin’s emphasis on the representation of three-dimensional space within an image. Instead, Schérer argued that objects within that space, especially the "objects" known as actors, generated increased "meaning" from the way that a director placed them in space by means of film editing: "Movements and gestures whose meaning seemed contingent are in a sense—by their insertion into a certain spatial universe— grounded in necessity."37
In the second article, "For a Talking Cinema," Schérer called attention to a film’s dialogue as one of the crucial elements that actors bring to life in the film’s "spatial universe."38 In the third, "We No Longer Love the Cinema," Schérer prophesied a new generation of film artists that his principles would spawn:
We begin to envy the task that awaits the future filmmaker who..., in orienting our attention, as in the earliest days of the silent film but doubtless more subtly, toward the acting of the actor, will construct the basis of his new language out of the rich conjunction of their [sic] words, their expressions, their gestures and their movements.39
What was at stake was not merely theoretical or academic: Schérer was attempting to express his own experience of the cinema, his own ambitions, and his own tastes. He loved many films which are recognized to be classics but that Bazin, with his particularly literal concept of realism, dismissed. In his writings, Schérer explained the aesthetic virtues of a range of films neglected by Bazin, including those of Buster Keaton, many German "expressionist" films (especially F. W. Murnau’s), and such recent American productions as the films of Preston Sturges, Jean Renoir (who had been active in Hollywood during and after the war), and, especially, Alfred Hitchcock (who, Bazin wrote in 1950, had "taken us in").
In practice, Schérer regularly put his enthusiasms on display at the CinéClub du Quartier Latin (CCQL), founded in 1947–48 by one of his students, Frédéric Froeschel. Schérer was the club’s animating spirit and intellectual leader, and in practical terms, the moderator of its vigorous public debates after screenings. Having read Maurice Schérer’s essays, Jean-Luc Godard began to frequent the CCQL.
Schérer, whose family was unaware of his practical activity in the field of cinema, adopted a pseudonym on the masthead of the CCQL’s journal, La Gazette du cinéma. Indeed, Schérer’s writings, with their emphasis on the speech and gestures of actors, foretold the films that he would make under that pseudonym—Eric Rohmer. Because of his important subsequent career as a filmmaker, the pseudonym ultimately usurped his given name.
AT THE CCQL and the Cinémathèque, Godard met another young regular at the screenings, François Truffaut. Born in 1932, Truffaut had dropped out of school at age fourteen, in 1946, in order to devote his time to watching films. In 1948, he attempted to found his own ciné-club, the Cercle Cinémane (The Cinemanic Circle), with little money and disastrous results. He proved unable to draw many cinéphiles to his Sunday-morning screenings, because of competition at the same hour from the screenings of Bazin’s Work and Culture ciné-club (which Godard, a member, frequented).40 The teenage Truffaut had the audacity to ask Bazin, a central figure in French film culture, to change his screening times. Though Bazin turned Truffaut down, he found the young enthusiast sympathetic and invited him to visit again.
This encounter would soon prove fortuitous for Truffaut. To keep his club afloat, Truffaut borrowed money from his father’s colleague, then stole and sold a typewriter from his father’s office—an incident later refashioned in his first feature film, The 400 Blows—to pay off his debt. Truffaut’s father forced him to confess to his misdeeds in writing, and then conveyed the young man, and the confession, to the nearest police station.
From January to March 1949, Truffaut was confined in a juvenile detention center; a psychologist’s consultation with André Bazin proved decisive in his release. Bazin vouched for Truffaut and, upon his release, hired him at Work and Culture as his personal secretary. Meanwhile, Truffaut kept up his moviegoing habits. At the Objectif 49 film festival held in Biarritz in July–August 1949, a kind of counter-Cannes begun by Bazin, Jean Cocteau, and others, Truffaut encountered Rohmer and, upon his return to Paris, began to attend the CCQL screenings and to partake vociferously in the post-screening discussions. His most vigorous debate partner, and soon his friend, was a young man three years his elder, Jacques Rivette.
Soon after arriving in Paris in late 1949 at age twenty-one, with years of ciné-club experience from his native Rouen behind him and his 16mm film, Aux Quatre Coins (To the Four Corners) in hand, Rivette found his way to the CCQL to hear Rohmer, whose writings he knew and admired. Soon, Rivette too became a regular in the post-film debates and quiz-competitions, at which, according to Rohmer, he was "unbeatable."41
As Rivette later recalled, the eighty seats of the Cinémathèque’s small screening room, on the avenue de Messine (a quiet neighborhood in the eighth arrondissement), "were full only for L’Age d’or, The Blue Angel, or Potemkin, but were practically empty for the films of Griffith, Stiller, and Murnau."42 Truffaut said that only "five or six" people showed up for a screening of the 1932 Kühle Wampe (by Bertolt Brecht and Slatan Dudow). When Langlois’s screening room was full, the young men watched the films lying flat on their backs on the floor in front of the first row.43
Like Rivette and Truffaut, Godard virtually lived at the movies, though usually did not participate in the public discussions. He met Rivette in the front row of the Cinémathèque, where they sat, side by side, night after night, for several months, until Godard broke the shy silence by declaring (with the formal vous), "It seems to me that I recognize you."44 The Cinémathèque, the CCQL, Work and Culture, and other film clubs and movie theaters were Godard’s constant haunts, and Truffaut and Rivette became his constant companions there. It was standard practice for them to see three or four films per day, or to spend the entire day in a single theater. For instance, when Godard and Rivette went to see Orson Welles’s Macbeth (which opened in Paris in June 1950), they entered the theater at 2 pm and stayed for repeated showings, until Godard left at 10 pm; Rivette, who was more enthusiastic about the film, stayed put until midnight.45 Because films at the Cinémathèque often finished very late, after the métro’s service ended for the night—according to Truffaut, Langlois was simply indifferent to such practicalities—the young enthusiasts, who could not afford a taxi, walked together through the night, talking about what they had seen.
Excerpted from Everything is Cinema by Richard Brody
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Brody
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.