François Truffaut's "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" (1954) was more than just a whimsical, subjective, tentative free shot at films les Jeunes Turcs didn't like or didn't understand or found "boring"... It would be disingenuous to remember this article simply as a battle between the (older generation of) French art films and the Hollywood mainstream genre. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't an endorsement of the "studio system". The films Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer did afterward proves it. They didn't make westerns or film noir, they made art films (not the pre-war type of artfilms, a new type). They broke down the French studio system, they took filmmaking to the street, on location! They invented a new film form that wasn't the Hollywood formula.
La "Tradition de qualité" was the state of the French cinema establishment, the great aesthetic movement of pre-war "Réalisme Poétique" that failed to carry on the same excellence after WW2. Truffaut didn't question the individual talent of Carné, Jeanson and Prevert, he attacked the moral conformism of the "Réalisme Psychologique" trend and the absence of cinematographic mise en scène in these scenarist-films.
The real battle was between the neglected innovators (Bresson, Cocteau...) and the conformist rearguard (Duvivier, Autant-Lara...) who was abusively anointed at film festivals. There was a crisis of the film press between the overestimation of the rearguard and the underestimation of the post-war paradigm (neorealism, Modern cinema, Cinématographe and the oncoming Nouvelle Vague).
Even André Bazin, from the pre-war generation, was part of this rearguard attacked by Truffaut, since they partially disagreed on this topic (yet Bazin had the intelligence to support the paradigm shift pushed by Les Jeunes Turcs, to move on and even to announce the arrival of Neorealism and Modern cinema)
Gavin Smith (Film Comment, Mar-Apr 2010) : " [..] Over the course of the last 30 years, art cinema, or what the French call 'auteur cinema,' has to a great extent been annexed by (or surrendered to) the not-dishonorable commercial imperatives of turning out product in order to put bread on the table, product that, for all its modernity, some regard as a return of the repressed: the dreaded Tradition of Quality, caricatured by Cahiers du cinema back in the day, alive and well in stylish new clothes.
Gavin Smith summons the 1954 heavyweight argument, and carelessly perverts its meaning to fit his own short-sighted agenda (which was boredom for so-called "festival films"). Nobody asked him to compare our context now to their context back then... he digs himself in. His little "revisionist neo-history" was bad enough on its own. Typical of the American ageism complex maybe : gerontophobia of "Auld Europe", NEW-York v. York, "neo-neorealism" v. realism... it always has to be NEO-something because America has no past to relate to (New World, New Orleans, New Mexico, New Deal, New Frontier, New World Order, New American Empire, New American Century...). This urge for random novelty always rushes blindly towards the future. Addiction for never-seen-before stuff is a consumerist behaviour influenced by the "planned obsolescence" doctrine.
Gavin Smith sits there and demands novelty... as if novelty was necessarily a proof of artistic improvement on the previous (declared outdated?) novelties. He's had enough with the current repetitive trends and something different will make him happier.
He doesn't propose to redirect the attention of the festivals and the press towards a greater, overlooked, cinema (like Truffaut did). Because his lone wolves champions (WKW, JZK, Weerasethakul, Martel, Desplechin) aren't exactly ignored or unloved by the establishment (OK maybe Benning is the less publicized). But he pretends today's greatest cinema isn't good enough and that he's decided that now was the time to move on to the apparition of a NEW film form... what is it? we don't know, he doesn't say, but he knows for sure we need one!
Film criticism has yet to analyse and theorize properly these current trends (nothing yet has been published in any form on the neo-labels he came up with) but he still wants to move on already, and forget about an aesthetic just about reaching its full maturity, before it has been embraced and exhausted by film theory...
If you think society is ready for a new aesthetic breakthrough, why don't you get up and bring it yourself (like Truffaut did)? I wonder what the history of film criticism would have been like if Truffaut's manifesto had been : "Festivals really suck nowadays... I'm bored by these guys! Do something about it already, I wanna see some new."
The situation today is totally different. There really is no need to call on the Cahiers jaunes... If you think a Film Comment editorial is barely a stream-of-consciousness diary page for subjective allegations, you shouldn't reference actual film theory. Please leave the punditry to bloggers (who only speak for themselves on a personal soapbox and do not run an "institutional tribune" which is meant to pose as a cultural reference for many).
Does Gavin Smith attack a "bad cinema", an "absence of mise en scène", a reactionary morality, a dubious psychology? Is he comparing Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Dardenne, Costa, Almodovar, Haneke... to the average Duvivier and Autant-Lara? No. If these auteurs are the disappointing middleground of our times... we are not in a bad shape compared to the 50ies! How many more visionary innovators than today were there in the 40-50ies? But then again, he thinks that Desplechin is more of a visionary than Costa, Haneke, von Trier or Noé... so we probably don't give the same meaning to "creative film form".
His cheap shot from the hip doesn't have any of the solid theoretical argument Truffaut constructed to defy this "tradition". He even admits Film Comment champions this type of art cinema! A look at their decade poll attests it.
Critics aren't even satisfied by the millenium "best of", they want something off the chart, something that doesn't exist on the decade-poll radar, a hypothetical upgrade based on a nostalgic scale coming from a bygone golden age...
So if this is how little respect you pay to the trends that brought the best films (which is a blatant misunderstanding of our epoch and its best artists), you need to be a little more critical of the industry that is not even critically acclaimed in your polls! What scares me is how critics cope with the one-dimensionality of the mainstream fare by day and give a condescending attitude to the challenging artfilm scene by night...
He simply opposes these loosely delineated trends for the simple fact of being TRENDS, for repeating themselves, for being inspired by the same forms and subjects. He seems to be outraged by the fact that an aesthetic style might last more than 10 years... or that a conjunctural film movement might solidify for good into a referential genre that new filmmakers will want to channel ever after. Just like Film Noir "copied" German Expressionism, or the Taiwanese New Wave "copied" La Nouvelle Vague... This is how aesthetics cross-pollinate and propagate in art history! And it is inappropriate to criticize a natural, expected, necessary evolution of film language.
If Griffith's cuts became a "dominant fashion", it's because an individual style turned into a universal device for film grammar! If deep-focus and plan sequence are still used long after Orson Welles, it's not to steal and repeat his timely style mindlessly for a lack of imagination! If sound cinema and colour cinema currently pervade the art-film sector, it does not make this technique "narrow and predictable in its range of expression"!
I believe Gavin Smith has trouble differentiating between what is a standard technique (reused after its inventors because it improved film practice as a whole for everyone), a common language (developed and acquired for the posterity of cinema), and what is an ephemeral gimmick (which sole value is originality and loses power when duplicated). Clearly, he confuses historiography with taxonomy.
What he suggests art films repeat endlessly are narrative modes, general aesthetics rather than a timely style that could only be attributed to a particular epoch or a particular auteur. We are not witnessing a uniformity of stylistic signatures, but the lasting consolidation and widespread adoption of new narrative modalities throughout the world, which will most likely continue to prosper in film language for a while...
Film critics are out of breath when the discrepancy isn't REALLY obvious (like between lone wolves which are unmatched thus easy to spot, and followers who seem to adopt a remarkable pattern). They crawl on the surface of films, only noting an apparent "uniformity", in search for what the old paradigm used to consider "originality"... They need to look deeper and see the finer particularities of each auteur within a common aesthetic, just like we can tell the difference between Carné and Feyder, between Duvivier and Autant-Lara, between Hitchcock and Hawks, between Walsh and Ford, between Desplechin and Pascale Ferran, between Costa and Green... even though they might (or might not) share the same general stylistic format. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, but after being studied they stand out strikingly in the eyes of the connaisseur.
Films selected at festivals in the past decades aren't an insult to cinema, they aren't inferior cinema (like Réalisme psychologique was for good reasons according to Truffaut), they aren't unimaginative or predictable (as per Gavin Smith's dubious allegations) in fact, they are the best world cinema has to offer (especially at major international film festivals, like Rotterdam).
Rejecting whatever is current in art cinema doesn't make you de facto more progressive... What Gavin Smith misses is that the only true paradigm shift at stake here is in the conformism of the film criticism establishment. Just like the actual pertinent point made by Truffaut in his article was an ontological clash between poor theatrical reviewing and legit cinematographic theory.
I would like Film Comment to be visionary and risk-taker, instead of putting the blame on a film form they misunderstand and worshipping an imaginary novelty! Look around you. Compare what is selected at festivals with what the commercial circuit is showing on the big screen to the American public! Think hard, and find out something more pertinent to tell your readers next time... Once you've tackled and SOLVED the dysfunctional distribution system, you may have the leisure to focus on a more trivial pleonasm, such as the alleged uniformity of a uniform trend, the conventionality of conventions or the traditionalism of tradition.
That's what separates the crucial think-pieces of film criticism that leave a mark in history and the lame hollow conversational editorials only there to fill space (at the detriment of festivals and auteurs!) until something intelligent comes up...
and you know the moral of the "boy who cried wolf" fable, don't you?