As If

Jonathan Romney

  • A Short History of ‘Cahiers du cinéma’ by Emilie Bickerton
    Verso, 156 pp, £12.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 232 5

In an essay on Avatar in the March issue of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, Slavoj Žižek wrote that, despite its superficial espousal of revolutionary action (by blue-skinned aliens rising up against earthling exploitation), the film was in fact entirely reactionary. In an interview in the following issue of Cahiers, Žižek cheerfully admitted that he had written his piece without actually seeing Avatar. Empiricist Anglophone critics were horrified, no doubt, but Žižek’s article persuasively made its point nonetheless. This reminded me of something that a one-time Cahiers linchpin, Serge Daney, wrote in 1992, recalling a formative influence on his criticism. In the Cahiers of June 1961, Jacques Rivette – yet to attain his eminence as a leading director of the Nouvelle Vague – reviewed Kapò, a film by Gillo Pontecorvo about the concentration camps. Rivette took exception to a tracking shot in the film, showing a woman who had killed herself. For him, the intrusive camera movement was a serious moral trespass: ‘The man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot … deserves only the most profound contempt.’

This passionate application of moral criteria to an aesthetic device struck Daney forcibly: ‘Over the years “the tracking shot in Kapò” would become my portable dogma, the axiom that wasn’t up for discussion, the breaking point of any debate.’ Daney had still not seen Kapò, he noted in 1992 – but, like Žižek on Avatar, he could write as if he had: ‘I haven’t seen Kapò and yet at the same time I have seen it. I’ve seen it because someone showed it to me – with words.’

Daney’s taking of a critical position on the basis of a single image seems to me representative not only of the Cahiers du cinéma project, but of a particular, admirably perverse ethos in French film criticism. It stands not only for the belief in the possibility of showing a film ‘with words’ – vital for promoting cinephile culture in the decades before videotape – but also for the principle of ‘as if’, the imperative to follow ideas to their limits even if they are based only on hypothetical truths. The history of Cahiers, as recounted by Emilie Bickerton, might be imagined as a series of ‘as if’ wagers: if a critical position can be taken through argumentation, its premises might become truths.

The magazine was effectively founded, in 1951, on just such an ‘as if’, with critics writing as if films – not just self-evidently artistic statements, but also seemingly disposable Hollywood genre movies – could be taken as seriously as classical tragedy. And by doing so, these critics proved it was so. They wrote as if Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray et al were as sophisticated and as consistent in their styles, worldviews, personal ‘signatures’ as, say, William Faulkner – and thanks to Cahiers, few cinephiles would today think of disputing that. They were, however, less successful in their wager in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of modern French radicalism, that film criticism should be written ‘as if’ it could transform real-world politics. The moment passed and they retreated, after which Cahiers underwent what Bickerton regards as a long and ignominious decline.

Cahiers, Bickerton proposes, was ‘the last modernist project’. The Cahiers critics set out to show that their two passions – for cinema and for high-minded debate – were natural allies. The presiding influence on the first wave of Cahiers writers was André Bazin, one of its three founders, who in the 1940s had put forward the notion of an ‘ontology of the photographic image’. He was the first to propose that a film-maker’s style – notably, the use of deep focus or the choice of long takes rather than rapid editing – was a matter of ethics as well as aesthetics.

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