04 avril 2011

French Critics Legacy 1

I was going to congratulate David Bordwell for writing about the state of Foreign Films on his blog (reviewing Tino Balio’s book : Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973), and then he says :
"Today we regard Citizen Kane as a classic, if not the classic. But for several years after its 1941 release it wasn’t considered that great. It missed a place on the Sight and Sound ten-best critics’ polls for 1952; not until 1962 did it earn a spot (though at the top). Its rise in esteem was due to changes in film culture and, some have speculated, the fact that Kane was a regular on TV during the 1960s. Something similar happened with His Girl Friday, another stealth classic."
I wonder what happened between the unpopular release of Citizen Kane in 1941 (dismissed by American critics!), and its canonization in 1962... at a time when Orson Welles was an Hollywood outcast, exiled in Europe, and making Le Procès (1962) in France. Maybe André Bazin's support from 1946 (when American films could be seen in France again after the war) to 1956, while the American didn't care for it, had something to do with it?
  • Citizen Kane, André Bazin, Parisien Libéré April 07, 1946
  • La technique de Citizen Kane, André Bazin, Temps modernes February 1947
  • Je plaide pour Orson Welles, André Bazin, Ecran Français January 20, 1948
  • L'apport d'Orson Welles, André Bazin, Ciné-club May 1948
  • Orson Welles, André Bazin, 1950
  • Dossier secret Orson Welles ou la volonté de puissance, André Bazin, Radio Cinéma Télévision June 17, 1956
Or maybe it was the power of TV broadcast that turned an outcast into a star... Sure. Let's credit popular TV for the reversal of an elitist canon like Sight and Sound's decennial top10. I'm afraid he mixes up the (belated) popularity of a film within general culture, due to TV exposition, with the critical appreciation of a masterpiece by an elite circle of critics (also quite late).
Bordwell dedicated an entire post to Bazin, to unearth his alledged "plagiarism" by misquoting him, but he wouldn't namedrop his name here, to acknowledge his key role in the reappraisal of Orson Welles' reputation in the world... Convenient memory lapse. Unfair.
He cites Film Comment and Film Culture, but not Cahiers du cinéma (translated by Andrew Sarris in 1966-67) which did such a good job at saving Hollywood films' reputation from the neglect of the American press?
What hope is left if even historians are biased and revisionist in America?
The excuse of French critics to wait till 1946 to rediscover Citizen Kane... was WORLD WAR II ! What is the excuse of American critics???

At least, I welcome the often forgotten mention that the unbeatable number 1 masterpiece on all canonical lists : Citizen Kane, didn't always enjoy this unconditional love in America. It's easy to confess, today, that Citizen Kane is your favourite film of all time... but sadly, Orson Welles had rough times with Hollywood, the American audience and the American critics because of it, to begin with. 
"[Tino Balio] is asking a business question: What led the U. S. film industry to accept and eventually embrace films so fundamentally different from the Hollywood product?
Several researchers have pointed to the roles played by influential critics, film festivals, and new periodicals like Film Comment and Film Culture."
The question of canon formation is an interesting investigation. I do think that the golden age of Hollywood consumerism until the 50ies (before the competition with TV), which fortunately coincided with a peak in quality creation (within the studio system), influences greatly the favouritism towards this period in cinema history. They made great films back then, indeed, but they also benefited from other factors which favourably exaggerated their importance, like the fact that a lot more spectators went to the movies at the time, that most influential critics and publications (and later filmmakers) came of age during this period, that art cinema was more popular than today, that cinema culture in general was a lot less controversial and polarized than today... All this results in the fact that in the collective memory, this period combines more positive sentiments than any following periods. And when lists are tabulated, the lowest common denominator is the less controversial masterpiece, ranked on top by the majority of voters. Since critics polled are often over 60 years old, they are most likely influenced by the aura of this Golden Age, during their impressionable years. Later critics are then influenced in turn by the authority of this period established by their elders.

But does it mean that Bergman or Kurosawa were overrated? Seriously? Can we say today (even by acknowledging the exceptional conjuncture) that a Bergman masterpiece or a Kurosawa masterpiece doesn't live up to the hype? This is ridiculous. I would rather re-evaluate, in hindsight, the cult of personality around the persona (which overcompensates the actual "superiority" of their films) of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Renoir, Wyler, Hawks, Wilder, Donen, Curtiz, Lean, Laughton, Capra, Nicolas Ray... (I know how terribly subversive it is to dare claim such thing!) before thinking of revising the canonical merits of Bergman's (Cries and Whispers, The Virgin Spring, Winter Light, Persona, Shame, Scenes from a Marriage, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna) and Kurosawa's (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Stray Dog, Throne of Blood, High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro) best films (within the 1946-73 timeframe). TV broadcast and distribution in the USA have nothing to do with the worldwide recognition of their talent!

Personally I believe that the 60ies gave us more masterpieces (Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman, Cassavetes, Satyajit Ray, Pollet, Kubrick...) than the preceding decades of Sound Cinema, and the more recent masterpieces made by Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Lynch, Kiarostami and Tarr should be rated higher comparatively to the conservative taste of the Golden Age classics (40-50ies). The aesthetic challenges and discoveries made since then are of higher magnitude than what the 40ies was in comparison to the achievements of the Silent era. The degree of risks and improvements are superior today, for the few masters, while the aesthetic qualities of commercial cinema today is inferior to what it was in the Hollywood of Hitchcock, Ford, Lang or Welles.

The question Bordwell conveniently forgets to ask is : What happened to the distribution of Foreign Films in the USA after 1973??? (see a graph of Foreign Film admissions in the USA between 1985 and 2008 here)

Last week, Quattro Volte (like Alamar last autumn) opened in the USA on 1 single screen (NYC)!!! despite raving reviews. This is a shame for the American distribution system and shame on American intellectuals (or art lovers) for not caring about it.
Apparently it doesn't justify a particular attention from the Press that a new (foreign) film is given such a bad chance to meet an audience in this competitive market... it doesn't move the American critics, it doesn't trigger an outrage, a revolution... They no longer fulfill their function of watchdogs in Film Culture. What really offends them is that a 3D movie was retrofitted in postproduction rather than shot in 3D! What are we gonna do with these guys, seriously??? 

In 50 years, someone will write a book on The Foreign Film Demise on American Screens : 1973-2061, and the indifferent press will be remembered. Do you realize that?


    11 commentaires:

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    "When Movies Mattered presents a wide-ranging and illuminating selection of Kehr’s criticism from the Reader—most of which is reprinted here for the first time—including insightful discussions of film history and his controversial Top Ten lists. Long heralded by his peers for both his deep knowledge and incisive style, Kehr developed his approach to writing about film from the auteur criticism popular in the ’70s."

    Dave Kehr, When movies matteed: reviews from a transformative decade, 2011

    Pacze Moj a dit…

    Great posts recently, Harry.

    About Citizen Kane:

    It's funny that what is such an important and classic American film was essentially pulled up to that status by smaller French magazines that then became influential. I remember reading, for instance, that Georges Sadoul didn't like it at all.

    Seems there's something triumphant in a nation's "rediscovering" a lost art or artist, but something painful about admitting that that rediscovery was at least helped (though, in this case, it was more than helped) by foreigners.

    PS: Do you think that in addition to the qualities of the film itself, the young French critics liked Kane so much because it was made by such a young filmmaker (almost the idea: proof that we can do it, too)?

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    Sadoul represented the pre-war paradigm that Bazin opposed. (see here)

    It doesn't matter what motivated their choice, as long as they picked the right champion.
    There are a lot of critics who picked wrong movies for selfish reasons and History doesn't remember about them...

    Pacze Moj a dit…

    I'm just curious, so I asked -- thought you might know (even if you think it doesn't matter).

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    it matters if you want to write the biography of the Young Turks...
    But I care about what is left in criticism history, from their choices. You may interpret it as subjective or selfish (many people who try to discredit auteurism do), but at the end of the day, they picked the right auteurs and for aesthetically justified reasons (for the large majority of their choices).

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    Actually, Welles was more Bazin's thing. The Young Turks were into Hitchcock, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Hawks (sometimes against Bazin's preference) who were older than them.
    So this "youth favouritism" is a urban legend.

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    "Mister Franco, do you think you're a Renaissance man? Or, is modern America so intellectually bankrupt that any person pursuing any cultural enrichment of any kind makes them seem 'intellectual'?"
    Stephen Colbert, quoting James Franco, asking James Franco (5 April 2011)

    Pacze Moj a dit…

    I think I've come across attempts at this type of discrediting, but I don't think I understand how it works.

    Is the argument: If I can prove that Important Filmmaker A was championed by Critic B for Reason C, and reason C is a stupid reason, then it follows that Important Filmmaker A is not important?

    If it is, that makes about as much sense to me as saying: if I can prove that you bought gold thinking it was sand, then your gold isn't gold.

    Though that parallel only works if some filmmakers are gold and others sand. In a world of equal filmmakers, it would be the reasons that were most important, since they'd be the only criterion to consider. The best-reasoned defenses of films would "make" the best films. On one hand, that might make the critic redundant; on the other, it might make him important.

    Do you think auteurism is intrinsic (an auteur is an auteur) or something that critics create (a director is a director until a critic knights him an auteur)?

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    You know the story about Cahiers and auteurs, don't you? You didn't learn it from me. So when I say THAT subjective motivation doesn't matter to film theory today, you very well know that there were other serious reasons for picking these directors and not any random director.

    There are subjective reasons why Hitchcock made misogynist and fetishist films, maybe you can analyse his subconscious childhood and find out, but THIS won't explain why they are masterpieces.
    Just like analysing the subjective/subconscious reasons why Truffaut or Godard picked Hitchcock or Welles over a bad director, are less important in the long term, than the objective ones.

    If ALL critics were ALWAYS right, all their choices would equate to masterpieces. We know it's not the case. Because calling yourself a critic, doesn't make you infallible. All critics are subjective, most of them have zero objective standards. And history only remembers objective standards.

    The reason we still talk about the directors Cahiers selected in the 50ies, is because the objective reasons why they were critically acclaimed turned out to hold the distance of time. We can still notice today the mise en scène talent they had back then. And that is because these directing characteristics are the same aesthetic benchmark we use today (unlike the outdated standards used for the generation of La Tradition de Qualité, which falls short today like it did when Truffaut said it).

    Either you believe in absolute aesthetic standards that allow us to judge artworks from different cultures as well as artwork from 2000 years ago, or you don't believe in the History of Arts.

    These are the standards that validate or invalidate what such or such critic claimed at any point in time.

    Yes an artist is an artist. But only history tells.
    You don't ask the runners who won the race, each runner will say they did. They don't race to lose. You ask an independent judge watching the finish line.
    If you ask artists, they all think they are the best artist in the world.

    Yes the critic is redundant. He's only there to witness an accomplishment after the fact. They don't have magic powers to create auteurs out of thin air.
    If everyone on Earth had a sufficient film culture, critics would be useless indeed, because artists don't need anyone special to be recognized. Only artists themselves are irreplaceable.

    Basically critics are only there to substitute the lack of film culture in the general population. Or the lack of auteurist theory back in Truffaut's time.

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    No suspense? David Bordwell (11 April 2011) on Le Quattro Volte

    So cute. Though, the point of my post was the poor distribution (only 1 -non-commercial- screen!) for this film. What American critics should talk about is the anti-foreign quotas for the big screen! Reviewing foreign films (that the American audience cannot watch), one by one, is not ENOUGH.

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    One month later, Bordwell remembers that Bazin wrote about Welles! Thank you, Sir. I was starting to believe that it was a urban legend that was only taught in France to flatter our chauvinist ego...

    "We can point to earlier instances—Eisenstein’s shot-by-shot discussions of his own work, Bazin’s sensitive scanning of Renoir, Welles, and Wyler [..] (e.g., Raymond Bellour on Hitchcock)"
    Academics vs. Critics
    David Bordwell (Film Comment, May 2011)