Hitchcocko-Hawksien

Christopher Prendergast

  • Projections 7 edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue
    Faber, 308 pp, £11.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 571 19033 2
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. I: The Fifties. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge, 312 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 15105 8
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. II: The Sixties. New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge, 363 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 15106 6
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. III: 1969-72. The Politics of Representation edited by Nick Browne
    Routledge, 352 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 02987 2

In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) remarks that Las Vegas is about ‘selling people dreams for cash’ and, in a memorable elaboration of this cliché, that ‘it does for us what Lourdes does for hunchbacks and cripples.’ Much the same has been said about the culture of cinema, and how Scorsese’s film stands in relation to its subject is an interesting question. In fact, the marriage between movietown as the factory of illusions and Las Vegas as the palace of dreams is ostentatiously consummated in the credits sequence, as lights and camera-work produce a cascade of glittering special effects that mirrors the dazzle of Vegas itself. But the cascade is also enveloped by flames and this narrative allusion to the car firebomb that nearly finishes off Rothstein can also be read as a kind of hellfire, consuming both the world of Las Vegas and the cinematic image before us. It is accompanied on the soundtrack by an excerpt from the St Matthew Passion.

Is Casino therefore a movie about movies? Michael Wood described it in these pages as an ‘essay’, offering ‘brooding considerations of the big questions’, the biggest being why things always go wrong (‘In the end we fucked it all up,’ is how Rothstein’s sidekick, Nicky Santori, puts it). But it is also an essay about itself or the cinematic genre to which it belongs, in that it replicates and quotes from the repertoire of the thriller, while at the same time resisting the standard requirements of the genre. The plot, for instance, is wilfully slack and slow-paced. There is also a wilful breaking of the sealed world of celluloid naturalism: for narrative purposes, the film deploys a dual retrospective voice-over, Rothstein’s and Santori’s, but, since in the story Santori is killed, we cannot locate where the latter voice is coming from unless, implausibly, from beyond the grave. Wood comments that this sort of thing is reminiscent of ‘a character in a Godard movie’.

And so the French connection emerges. For Scorsese the historian, both in and out of his films, this connection matters. The extent to which it matters is reflected in another marriage – of Scorsese and the 500th edition of Cahiers du cinéma (supplied to us in English translation in the latest issue of Projections). Described as a ‘Scorsese special’, it is not only devoted to, but in part orchestrated by, Scorsese himself. Much of it is about Casino. Some of this is plain silly (for example, the claim, typical of a certain kind of Cahiers over-excitement, that Casino is ‘a great political film’). Scorsese, however, is extraordinarily interesting to read, above all in the long interview which embeds an account of the making of the movie in the social history that produced Vegas as a quintessentially American creation. On the other hand, asked where he got the idea of using the musical score from another film, he replies: ‘from Truffaut’ (he also mentions inclusion in the collage-like soundtrack of the theme music from Godard’s Le Mépris and Vivre sa vie). It would seem that we are travelling full circle, back to the original moment of Cahiers du cinéma and its ardent espousal of the virtues of American film and, from there, through the story of its vicissitudes between the Fifties and the early Seventies which this three-volume anthology seeks, with varying degrees of success, to reflect (a fourth volume on the rest of the Seventies is in preparation).

This is primarily a story for movie-buffs, but such was the prestige acquired over time by Cahiers that it can also be read as a touchstone of all manner of cultural and intellectual changes in France during the period. In the Fifties (the timespan of Volume I), the key players were André Bazin (effectively the journal’s founding father) and François Truffaut. They had a distinctive and controversial agenda: to promote an idea of film as simultaneously a sophisticated, autonomous art-form and the form most suited to a modern democratic culture. The best of American cinema (above all Hitchcock and Hawks) seemed to them to satisfy both criteria, which in turn distinguished it from Cahiers’ two bêtes noires: the mechanical production of mass entertainment (the downside of Hollywood) and the academicism they took to be the besetting sin of French cinema. This position came to be articulated through the two concepts for which early Cahiers was best known: auteur and mise en scène. Despite the accompanying promotional noise, auteur-theory amounted to little more than a transplant of the literary idea of authorship, to the effect that movies should bear the stamp of creative personality. The notion of mise en scène provided more intellectual beef, with its stress on technique and the view that what mattered was the way a subject was treated rather than the subject itself. This, too, was a transfer to film of a commonplace of literary studies, but its elaboration took an actively anti-literary turn. In perhaps the most famous essay of the Fifties, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ (not reprinted in this volume on the ludicrous grounds that it is already available in English), Truffaut attacked the emphasis on screen-writing in ‘academicist’ cinema, arguing instead for the notion of a formal language internal and specific to cinema. Jim Hillier rightly connects this to Artaud’s notion of ‘spécificité théâtrale’, which downgraded the literary text relative to the resources of the medium itself. For people like Truffaut this had the happily opportunist consequence of making the director into a supremo, but it also laid the groundwork for a language of analysis that was to bear fruit later on.

Where the Cahiers position of the Fifties departed radically from Artaud was in its strong allegiance, for which Bazin was principally responsible, to an aesthetic of realism and a cinema of narrative (of which the Americans were considered the exemplars). The impulse behind these theoretical commitments was impeccable (to release film from the formulaic), but intellectually, as many of the contributions to this volume show, it was all a bit thin. There were exceptions, notably perhaps the piece by Amédée Ayfre on the Italian neo-realists which, going by way of phenomenology, raised the relevant discourse to a properly philosophical level. The basic positions were, however, aesthetically conservative and, moreover, were often linked with a politically conservative outlook: auteurisme was formulated by Bazin as a ‘politique des auteurs’, the politics/policy in question directed essentially at avoiding the conflicts of history (Cahiers, unlike its left-wing rival, Positif, was conspicuously silenton the Algerian war) and at creating a feel-good factor in a troubled world; Truffaut in particular was very strong on ‘optimism’.

The most important aspect of Cahiers in the Fifties was the link between film criticism and film-making. These are the years in which the film-makers, crucially Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette, were active on the journal, and to a large extent Cahiers could be seen as a preparation for and subsequent rationalisation of the productions of the Nouvelle Vague. That alignment made for interesting developments. Truffaut’s Les 400 coups generated much debate, but was generally, and rightly, read as confirmation of the realist aesthetic. The appearance of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, however, forced a major change in the terms of the discussion. Godard, Rivette and even Rohmer (one of the staunchly conservative set) discerned – and praised – a decisive break with traditional narrative and ‘sequence-shot’ naturalism, with Rivette and Godard resurrecting talk of Eisenstein and montage (on which Bazin had never been keen, accusing it of being manipulative and antidemocratic, as distinct from ‘deep focus’ and ‘sequence-shot’ which were said to be more responsive to the freedom of the spectator).

If ‘Cahiers’ was a launch-pad for the directors of the Nouvelle Vague, their success in turn conferred even greater prestige on the journal. This is the situation in the Sixties, covered by Volume n, during which Cahiers became something of a cultural institution. In many respects, this is the least interesting volume, lacking the freshness of the first and the fierce theoretical energy of the third; it straddles a ‘middle’ period defined, for the most part, by the continuation and consolidation of the positions outlined in the Fifties. Hillier doesn’t take this view, but his selections confirm it. There were of course shifts of emphasis, varying and even conflicting interests, but the broad thrust of collective intellectual and critical policy remained more or less constant, as the interrelated preoccupations with authorship, mise en scène and American cinema (the ‘hitchcocko-hawksien’ line). There were, however, important exceptions to this slightly lazy consensus, pointers which would issue finally in the complete overthrow of the earlier Cahiers commitments. Thus, Doniol-Valcroze got to review Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle, advancing a radically anti-realist argument in its favour: the point here, however, is that Doniol-Valcroze, who had acted in the film, was the only member of the Cahiers group willing to review it, which is perhaps why the review is not in the anthology; a decision that suggests a narrow and confused view of its declared aim to be ‘representative’.

Another important pointer came as early as 1960, with the special issue devoted to Brecht and, in particular, the essay ‘Towards a Brechtian Criticism of Cinema’ by Bernard Dort, the great French Brechtian of the journal, Théâtre populaire. Dort’s Brecht was not political Brecht (this was one of the grounds for the continuing hostility of Positif), but formalist Brecht, with his anti-Aristotelian attack on the presuppositions and practices of narrative coherence and closure. The essay proved immensely influential, partly in terms of a move away from the love-affair with American cinema (an exception was made for the work of Cassavetes) and in terms of the influence of Cahiers on film-making itself (above all in Godard’s productions, from Vivre sa vie to La Chinoise). It also provides the context for a fascinating glimpse of Roland Barthes (at the time Dorr’s co-editor on Théâtre populaire) plugging the semiotic machine into film studies in his 1963 interview, ‘Towards a Semiotics of Cinema’.

Here the talk is all of langue and parole, denotation and connotation, syntagm and paradigm, metaphor and metonymy. On the other hand, if Barthes waxes semiological, he does so only hesitantly, insisting that film is not a semiotic system in the standard technical sense, principally because its signs are analogical (based on iconic relations of resemblance rather than on the arbitrary relation of signifier and signified that defines linguistic signification) and its structures so deeply implicated in narrative flow that they can only with difficulty be ‘cut up’ in the manner of linguistic units. Nevertheless, against these allegedly in-built resistances to semiotic analysis, Barthes envisages an extension to film analysis of semiology, understood broadly as a formal science of the intelligible, linked – and here his Brechtian allegiances are much to the fore – to the political character of our constructions of the intelligible world. In this connection, his interviewer retrieves Barthes’s earlier distinction between a progressive cinema of ‘lucidity’ (which questions, in the play of its forms, given versions of the intelligible) and a reactionary cinema of ‘magic’ (which, through its formal conservatism, seduces its audience into acceptance of the given).

This strikes a new note, one echoed by Jacques Aumont’s 1967/8 review of Makavejev’s Switchboard Operator, in which he argues for a view of modern cinema dedicated to ‘casting off the shackles of Representation’. The capital R tells us that we are on the cusp of a different era, as do the various references to Freud, Sade, écriture, and the nouveau roman. These are the terms of entry into the critical-theoretical mood of the early Seventies and take us to the last of the three volumes published so far. The historical crossroads is of course 1968, the time of the Langlois affair (his dismissal by André Malraux from the post of director of the Cinémathèque, which some have argued was the true beginning of ‘les événements’), the growing influence of Tel Quel, the politics of Maoism and a massive theoretical investment in a conception of cinema as (permanent) cultural revolution. Broadly speaking, it is the move from the ‘politique des auteurs’ to the politics of representation.

The notion of ‘specificity’ was now entirely severed from the earlier doctrine of the aesthetic and formal autonomy of film and harnessed to a far more active, militant and politicised principle of interrogation. Film and the analysis of film were to be ‘terrorist’, geared to the destruction of the naturalised forms of mainstream cinema culture – including, supremely, Hollywood. Rivette refers to Godard’s Made in the USA as a film which ‘leaves the impression of an earlier film, rejected, contested, defaced, torn to shreds ... by an operation that is literally “terrorist” ’. Cinema thus became inseparable from ideology – a tendency reflected in Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s quasi-manifesto ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criucism’, and inspired in large measure by the work of Althusser. The overarching concept, which was to become the trademark of Cahiers thinking in the early Seventies, was suture, designating the seamless flow of representation that it was the duty of analysis and critique to demystify in order that it might be ‘read’ as distinct from merely consumed (Jean-Pierre Oudart’s ‘Cinema and Suture’ was the benchmark piece, although negotiating its impossibly dense prose is likely to leave the brain de-sutured in ways horrible to contemplate). Against the bad faith of suture, the model of montage was recovered and foregrounded, notably by Narboni, Rivette and Sylvie Pierre. Oudart’s Althusserianism also entailed a comprehensive rejection of earlier auteurisme as a fiction whose purpose is to ensure the success of suture. The distance between the Fifties and the Seventies is encapsulated here. Auteur, once the rallying-cry for a romantic conception of film as personal expression, is now dissolved into the impersonal mesh of ideology, one of the cogs in the great celluloid illusion.

The material collected in Volume III records the moment when film theory (as distinct from film criticism) becomes a recognised intellectual practice, feeding back into other disciplines (in particular, literary studies and, later, certain kinds of art history), while spawning comparable forms of cinema studies elsewhere in Europe and the USA (in Britain, the new orientations of Screen, the most important avant-garde journal of the Seventies). It is also the moment when Cahiers is more or less taken over by the theoreticians. There were great gains in this take-over, but also losses, mainly the virtual disappearance from its pages of the directors. Godard, the most provocative of them all, had already checked out in Volume II, stating in a 1967 interview: ‘The thing is, I once had lots of ideas about cinema, now I have none at all. I stopped knowing what cinema was as soon as I made my second film.’

It would be easy at this point to lament the golden age of the director-critic, and to surrender to the anti-theoretical backlash of our own times, with its renewed and strident demand for a cinema of story, psychology, the passions. That would be a grimly reactionary travesty of the old Cahiers, which no insistence on the failed utopias (or terrorist regimes) of Theory could justify. A flashback to Barthes’s intervention, however, puts a different, and curious, spin on the matter. Barthes’s unease with the idea of a film semiotics was in part conceptual, but also existential, to do with an affective attachment to ‘story’ and ‘psychology’. His closing observations in the 1963 interview might, as we think of fastforwarding to the theory-culture of the Seventies, stop us dead in our tracks:

The most immediate criterion of modernity, for a work, is not to be ‘psychological’ in the traditional sense of the term. But at the same time, no one really knows how to get rid of this business of psychology, this business of emotional ties between human beings ... The great movements of ideological emancipation ... did not pay much heed to the private individual, and that was no doubt as it had to be. But we know very well that the private individual is still in a mess, there is something still not quite right: for as long as people go on having rows, there will be no shortage of questions to ask ... In other words, and to sum up our expectations: what we would now like to see would be films that tell a story, films of ‘psychological’ interest.

‘Terrorists’ would probably see this as regressive humanism, but, after all Barthes’s references to Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss et al, it is both refreshing and touching to encounter his mundane talk of people having rows and being in a mess and the corresponding view of the meaning and value of cinema and response to that. The best moments in Casino, after all, are the rows between Ace and Ginger.