Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scriptwriting and the French New Wave

I’ve been re-reading Michel Marie’s book, The French New Wave: An Artistic School (1997; translated by Richard Neupert). Marie is professor and department chair of film studies at the Sorbonne and, according to Dudley Andrew, a “legendary cinephile and scholar of French cinema.”

Even though it’s a slim 140-page text, this book is packed with “bloggable” ideas. Let me focus on one: the role that scriptwriting played in the aesthetic of the French New Wave. I’m often drawing from and paraphrasing Marie below.

* * *

In 1948, Alexandre Astruc, in the hugely important essay-manifesto, “The Birth of the Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” declared that a prerequisite for auteur filmmaking was that “the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.” The influence of this essay on the future French New Wave is well known, but was this principle really borne out in practice? As it turns out: not quite.

Some facts. Chabrol’s first film, the loosely autobiographical Le Beau Serge, was one of the few early New Wave films written solely by the director. Soon after, Chabrol began a long scriptwriting collaboration with Paul Gegauff. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is autobiographical as well but he hired a professional TV scriptwriter, Marcel Moussy, to collaborate with him. For the rest of his career, Truffaut worked steadily with a small core of scriptwriters. The first features by Rohmer (The Sign of Leo) and Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us) also had help from other writers, Paul Gegauff and Jean Gruault respectively. In fact, Gruault also collaborated with Godard (Les Carabiniers), Truffaut and Resnais (multiple films each).

Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy were exceptions; they wrote their early films alone. Godard used collaborators and pre-existing material that he adapted for his films, but in fact he’s the one who took the idea of the director-as-scriptwriter furthest. The source material of his films is usually unrecognizably transformed, and even the classical notion of a script doesn’t quite apply to his late 60s films.

Still, it’s interesting to realize that the proportion of original scripts actually declined from 1956 to 1963—the period of ascendancy of the New Wave—while that of literary adaptations rose. Marie writes:

Directors, producers, and writers thus continued to adapt novels, but less and less were they the sort of novels by Emile Zola and Stendhal that had typified 1950s French production. By the early 1960s, those sorts of adaptations were gradually becoming the subject-matter for television projects. There was a shift from the dominant naturalist model offered by René Clement’s Gervaise or Yves Allégret’s movies toward a model more influenced by Balzac, though it was greatly transformed by Rivette, whose Out One, for instance, was inspired by Balzac’s Story of 13 and La Belle Noiseuse by The Unknown Masterpiece. Truffaut and Chabrol also cite Balzac in The 400 Blows and Les Cousins. The naturalist model privileged costume dramas, social class conflicts, and a strong “typage” of characters, bordering on stereotyping. The Balzacian model dealt more with a critical description of contemporary society, underlining the contradictions that determined the conflicts that were as much psychological as social.

* * *

Francis Vanoye proposes two opposing conceptions of the script: the “program-script” that situates story events in a fixed structure, rendering the script ready for filming; and the “plan-of-action” script that is more open to uncertainties, chance and improvisation. The latter is strongly favored, at least in theory, by the New Wave. Here’s Marie:

But, although the program-script dominates “classical” cinema, it is far from absent from some New Wave films, since it governs productions by Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy. The films of Truffaut and Chabrol oscillate from one pole to the other, although the program-script clearly dominates their output.

The plan-of-action script is an ideal that the New Wave often attempts to achieve, but it reigns supreme in the aesthetic approach of Jean Rouch and Jacques Rozier. Rouch’s experiments, even those that seem less convincing in regards to their outcome, never cease to haunt the creative imagination of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer. At the opening of The Human Pyramid, Rouch, seated in the grass, explains to the young students he had gathered together that they will write the “script” at the same time as he directs it. In Punishment, the director “unleashes” a young actress whom he asks to play the role of a high school girl who is shut out of school one morning by her teacher and now heads off to Luxembourg Gardens where she encounters three young men hanging out there. While Godard wrote the dialogue for his characters in All the Boys are Called Patrick in a very personal manner, Rouch, by contrast, let his actors improvise their lines completely.

* * *

Crucial to this discussion is Truffaut’s landmark essay and infamous salvo, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” (1954). In effect, Truffaut charged that “Tradition of Quality” filmmakers and scriptwriters didn’t trust the original literary material enough. They found visual “equivalences” between the original material and the cinematic adaptation, thus either hiding or trying to ‘improve upon’ their literary sources for cinematic purposes. He derisively called their works “scenarists’ films.” A few excerpts from his essay:

In adaptation there exists filmable scenes and unfilmable scenes, and that instead of omitting the latter (as was done not long ago) it is necessary to invent equivalent scenes, that is to say, scenes as the novel’s author would have written them for the cinema. […] What annoys me about this famous process of equivalence is that I’m not at all certain that a novel contains unfilmable scenes, and even less certain that these scenes, decreed unfilmable, would be so for everyone.

[…] I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema [sic]. Aurenche and Bost [the screenwriters who were a primary target of Truffaut’s attack] are essentially literary men and I reproach them for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve done the maximum for it by embellishing it with subtleties […] When they hand in the scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scène, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures…

* * *

According to Marie, two alternative film adaptations proved to be models for the New Wave: Melville’s The Silence of the Sea (1949), and Astruc’s The Crimson Curtain (1953). Both films remained faithful to the details of the original texts without attempting to supplant them with ‘more cinematic’ equivalents; the author of the latter text, by the way, is Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was adapted by Catherine Breillat for her latest film, The Last Mistress.

In addition to this faithfulness to the text, it was also common New Wave practice to draw generously from and pay homage to it in the film by reproducing the text as voice-over commentary, interior monologue, dialogue or intertitles (e.g. the way Jules and Jim alternates Georges Delerue’s music with large sections of Michel Subor’s voice-over). Marie writes:

The New Wave advanced the notion of a mise-en-scène of the voice. Three decades after the coming of sound, it allowed directors to exploit all the possibilities in the soundtrack, and especially speech. It offered a cinema that was not afraid to speak, helping dismiss the out-of-date myth, imposed by theorists in the 1920s, that located the primacy of the cinema in the image.

* * *

Let me conclude with a quick personal detour. The early French New Wave films were my first exposure to foreign (i.e. non-Indian) ‘art cinema’ and thus formative. I’ve seen many of them multiple times over the years. But reading the Marie book reminds me that there are a number of films of the era (not just New Wave but also preceding it and related to it) that I’ve hunted for years without success. That wish list includes: anything at all by Jacques Rozier, Alexandre Astruc, Roger Leenhardt, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Pierre Kast. And the one film from that period I most want to see is Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1963).

pic: A loose adaptation of a wall-hanging in Alain Robbe-Grillet's "L'Immortelle" (1963)


Blogger Daniel said...

I love this book. With its emphasis on production and the economic contexts behind the New Wave it really helped flesh out and situate these films and filmmakers in broader film history, especially inside the French industry. I too lament the difficulty in finding films by the like of Astruc and Rozier. I saw Adieu Philppine on an absolutely awful VHS in class a year ago and was very disappointed after reading all the references to it in histories and Cahiers criticism of the time, but I think the murky quality of the format may have something to do with that reaction.

October 28, 2007 10:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Daniel, what surprises me is that directors like Rozier and Astruc hardly seem to show up in any New Wave retrospectives. Given their presence in a very important phase of French film history (a period whose films have generally proved quite 'marketable' outside France), I'm also surprised that their stuff has gone missing on video/dvd.

October 28, 2007 10:32 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I've always been especially interested in a passage from "A Certain Tendency" which may contain the first time directors were called "auteurs":

"Well, as for these abject characters, who deliver these abject lines - I know a handful of men in France who would be INCAPABLE of conceiving them, several cineastes whose world view is at least as valuable as that of Aurenche and Bost, Sigurd and Jeanson. I mean Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Becker, Abel Gance, Max Ophuls, Jacques Tati, Roger Leenhardt; these are, nevertheless, French cineastes and it happens - curious coincidence - that they are auteurs who often write their own dialogue and some of them themselves invent the stories they direct."

It would be funny if this were indeed the paragraph that gave the politique des auteurs its name, as the word seems to mean "scriptwriter" in this context.

By the way, I'm pretty sure, as is the IMDb, that Rohmer, not Godard, wrote the script for Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick.

But I don't think the New Wave really reversed itself by using screenwriters. The spirit of Truffaut's admonition above seems clear, and consistent with the tone of other writings: the important thing was that filmmakers should regard the process as a form of artistic expression rather than as a craft with each expert performing an assigned role. I don't recall how strict Astruc was about his writer/director requirement, but I don't think this was a generally held dogma.

Also, it's worth remembering how much Bazin (certainly the biggest critical influence on the New Wave) wrote about adaptation, and how he seeded the idea of a movie that is not so much a new version of an existing text as a new dimension added to that text, a change of perspective that allows the original to retain its integrity. Recent films like Astrée et Céladon and Pas sur la bouche are very much a reflection of Bazin's thought on the subject. The concept of the "program script" doesn't distinguish between Aurenche/Bost's adaptations and Bresson's script of Journal d'un curé de campagne, and as such it may not be the most useful way to examine the preferences of the New Wave.

October 29, 2007 12:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

As always: great and valuable comments, Dan! Thank you.

"I don't recall how strict Astruc was about his writer/director requirement, but I don't think this was a generally held dogma."

I don't think Atsruc was being dogmatic either. He seems to use the word "writing" in a broad manner. I'll quote a few excerpts:

"[Cinema] is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the caméra-stylo. This metaphor has a very precise sense. By it I mean that the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language."

[...] "the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The film-maker/author writes with a camera as a writer writes with his pen. In an art in which a length of film and sound-track is put in motion and proceeds, by means of a certain form and a certain story (there can even be no story at all -- it matters little), to evolve a philosophy of life, how can one possibly distinguish between the man who conceives it and the man who writes it? Could one imagine a Faulkner novel written by someone other than Faulkner? And would Citizen Kane be satisfactory in any other form than that given to it by Orson Welles?" [1948]

I think this is a good opportunity to re-read Truffaut's "A Certain Tendency". I'll do that when I get home from work tonight.

October 29, 2007 8:12 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish - your quotations from Astruc capture the tone that I recall. I think he focuses much more on a freedom of expression that he envisions, and not so much on the particulars of the new arrangement. If he's arguing against something, it's a compartmentalized view of filmmaking, where each department does its job - the same thing that Truffaut was fighting.

October 29, 2007 11:38 AM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Two small entries are accessible (read as: on DVD) out of those bodies of work that you've been searching after... Paparazzi (18 minutes) and Bardot et Godard (8 minutes), both by Rozier, both 1963. They're included on the Criterion release of Contempt, along with the essential André LaBarthe film for Cinéastes de notre temps, titled: The Dinosaur and the Baby: A Dialogue in Eight Parts Between Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard. And a marvelous standalone interview with JLG from a 1963 TV program.

I too lament not having acceptable access to those filmmakers you mention, and would add another, giant one to the list:

Sacha Guitry. "The Filmmaker Every DVD House in the World Is Afraid to Touch."


October 29, 2007 10:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Dan and Craig. I remember loving the Godard-Lang conversation in The Dinosaur and the Baby on the Contempt dvd but for some reason I overlooked the Rozier shorts. Great to know about them. I've seen no Guitry but have always been curious; I wonder about the reasons for his dvd neglect.

October 30, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Acquarello on Trinh T. Minh-ha's Naked Spaces: Living Is Round (1985).
-- Harry Tuttle responds to the previous post here on Michael Snow and single-frame films.
-- Alexis at Concentrated Nonsense: "Notes on a Committed Cinema."

October 30, 2007 11:58 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

René Chateau has actually released a good bit of Guitry film in France recently, no English subs though. They had a joint Marcel L'Herbier and Sacha Guitry program a few years ago at the National Gallery to coincide with the Édouard Vuillard exhibit, and I can see why Guitry is a bit of a harder sell, especially when compared to L'Herbier. There's a certain "flamboyance" (arrogance?) to his style that can be a little off-putting. Of course, L'Herbier hasn't fared much better on DVD either.

October 30, 2007 2:22 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the link Girish.

I haven't seen any Rozier, Astruc, Leenhardt, Doniol-Valcroze or Kast yet. It's hard to see them in Paris too. Though there has been a few (missed) opportunities to see them at the Cinémathèque in recent years.

By the way, Guitry is honored by La Cinémathèque this very month with a full retrospective. Since he plays with words I understand why most of his genius would be lost in translation...

Other neglected children of La Nouvelle Vague are Jean-Daniel Pollet and Luc Moullet, and to a lesser extent, the youngsters Garrel and Eustache. Who deserved as much spotlight (more IMHO) as the winning quartet who monopolized all the attention...

October 30, 2007 6:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Acquarello and Harry. I've not seen anything by Guitry although I remember a "PQ" (poor quality) designated VHS of The Cheat in the catalog for Home Film Festival (formerly of Scranton, PA; anybody remember them?). I must've rented a couple of hundred hard-to-find films from them before the dvd era put them out of business. Too bad: they had quite a lot of titles on tape that may never make it to dvd.

October 31, 2007 9:25 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- An interview about Los Angeles with Thom Andersen in Stop Smiling magazine.
-- Craig on Michael Curtiz's Doctor X (for Halloween).
-- Dan on film schools in America.

October 31, 2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian's monthly column in De Filmkrant--some excerpts:

"In 1965, American artist George Landow (aka Owen Land) made Film in which there appear edge lettering, sprocket holes, dirt particles, etc. It is an early classic of the 'materialist' movement in avant-garde cinema, picking up from Kurt Kren in Austria and anticipating the even harder-line 'structural-materialists' of the UK. Film, in those days and in those counter-cultural circles, was to be stripped of all its illusion, its fiction, its seduction, its sinister power: we were to be returned, by many ingenious means, to the basic 'apparatus' of the screen, the grain of celluloid, the projected light, the spectator in the darkness. Only from that 'zero degree' could an eyes-wide open cinematic practice truly be built. It is common today to mock this avant-garde history for its extreme 'purism' - although, as someone who was a teenager when the UK structural materialist John Dunkley-Smith made his home in Australia in the mid '70s and staged incredible events with film loops, slides and rooms in order to reveal the realities of 'time, space and light', I can vouch that it was as exciting and sensual as it was ascetic and minimal.

"All the same, one thing always puzzled me about many of the avant-gardists of that period: their absolute hostility, or absolute indifference, to any kind of mainstream, narrative film."

And then, referring to Matthew Swiezynski's post at the Art of Memory, "some flares, flickers and circles of confusion from the killing of a chinese bookie," he writes:

"Voila! - The killing of a Chinese bookie is suddenly an avant-garde film; or rather (as the late Thierry Kuntzel would have said) its 'other film' has at last been revealed, hiding within the already very great 'normal' film about imaginary characters in a fictional world. Hasn't cinema always had these two constitutive sides - the concrete and the abstract - and isn't there, thus, a more profound connection between mainstream and avant-garde than our radical parents and grandparents in global film culture wished to recognise?"

October 31, 2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

So, Halloween: did anybody do any dressing up this year?

As an Indian, Halloween has always struck me as a mighty strange holiday (I mean that in a good way). I like how it's theatricalized, prizes creativity, allows for socially sanctioned sublimation. But it will always seem alien and 'other' to me; we don't quite have anything like it in India.

The only time I've done any Halloween costuming was in grad school. Some friends peer-pressured me into dressing up as Joe Strummer (spiked hair; tattoos of "I Heart Mom" and "Kill Kittens" on my arms; "London Calling" T-shirt).

I don't have huge trick-or-treating action in my neighborhood, just a bit. Which reminds me: I need to go buy a few bags of candy to get ready.

October 31, 2007 10:05 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

I'm getting a real tickle visualizing you as Joe Strummer.

Myself, I buy bags of my favorite candies and hide out in the back of my house, darkening all the lights in the front of the house. I detest children at Halloween. Little no-neck monsters.

October 31, 2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Is it coincidence or intentionnal synchronicity that Adrian responds to our discussion on single frames? ;)

October 31, 2007 12:46 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

My daughter wants me to dress up. She is going as a pirate. I think the dog will be a pumkin, not sure yet.

October 31, 2007 1:05 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I went to a party on Saturday as Kevin Federline. Too bad I couldn't meet up with Joe Strummer (though we did have an Amy Winehouse in the building)!

October 31, 2007 1:38 PM  
Blogger jmac said...

Adrian & Girish (A & G!)

Hey! Have I misunderstood your comments on the A.G.? I'm not exactly feeling the love over here . . . I'd like for you to know that once I had avant-garde, I could never go home again. It changed me, and I will never see things the same way again. It's not something I even chose . . .

Also, I can speak for myself as a working woman, with a demanding, intense career in publishing, that I enjoy HBO immensely, but I do not foresee ever writing about a show such as Entourage on my blog. It just hasn't swept my heart away like Ben Russell's, Black & White Trypps Number 3, for example . . . Please do not hold A.G. artists to a different standard than an ordinary person. And I'll make a deal with you. I'll stop resenting film media for not including the A.G. very often! Okay?! I will try to respect that most film critics do not want to write about experimental cinema in NY, and I hope that the film critics respect that I don't want to write about Wes Anderson, even if I rent his video on Netflix! :)


October 31, 2007 1:48 PM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 31, 2007 2:01 PM  
Blogger craig keller. said...

Girish, Home Film Festival (the actual physical storefront) was a regular haunt of mine when I was a teenager. HFF facilitated my first viewings of Gion-bayashi and Le Gai savoir. It was located on Adams Avenue in Scranton; the first-floor of the building is now a performance space called Test Pattern — that, or Test Pattern is a couple doors down, I can't remember. Across the street is The Bog, my home-bar whenever I'm back in town.

Native Scrantonians will also remember (and have to be grateful for) HFF suspending beautifully thresholded 3'x3' images of the faces of Gong Li and the Little Tramp over dour Adams environs, once upon a time.

(On a side-note, HFF was connected with a café called Prufrocks for a time, too — which café perished in the Scranton of the day but would thrive in the Scranton of today — where I used to go to drink Tang and purchase issues of Might. Off to the side were four or five amber-monochrome "data terminals" for pre-WWW Internet browsing — these were affiliated with the "Internet Café" folks who had office-space upstairs, and who gave me my first taste of Mosaic and the World Wide Web, in early 1994. By the next year, I had gone off to school, where high-speed "Ethernet" had become the sudden norm and everything had already gone Netscape-shaped.)


October 31, 2007 2:12 PM  
Blogger jmac said...


I love to hear that people see how the A.G. is related to more recognized genres of film. However, the general consensus out there (hear the podcast with E. Halter & P. Adams Sitney) is that "no one is writing about experimental cinema." We know that's not true. Many of us are writing about experimental cinema! Do you see my dilemma?

This idea that the media should cover A.G. as much as all other kinds of cinema? Great idea! I've been waiting, waiting, and waiting . . . It's not happening fast enough to keep up with the experimental cinema being made. I'd love to tell all the writers that we're doing a great job documenting experimental cinema, but we're not. It's passing us by . . .

October 31, 2007 3:06 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

re: Halloween

On a moment's notice this past weekend, and before getting a haircut on Tuesday, I ended up gathering the necessary costume items in order to go to a party dressed as "Stuntman Mike" from DEATH PROOF (long, faked sideburns; pompadour; silver jacket with patches; and the most important of all: a scar!). Unfortunately, I got to live the scene in the movie where Kurt Russell makes reference to a number of forgotten films and character actors!

October 31, 2007 7:10 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The dilemma is that if AG becomes a major interest it will be "mainstream"... Marginal stuff like art films, AG, the Arts, culture, philosophy... will always be a minoritary concern of the population.
Where could we listen to that podcast, jmac, please?

October 31, 2007 7:41 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...


You know how immunologists write about immunology? I'd like for experimental cinema to be documented in a similar way . . .

You can hear the podcast at

Happy Halloween. :)

October 31, 2007 8:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!

Zach & Aaron -- Hope you took photos!

Maya & Tucker -- I left a big bowl of candy on the front stoop so I wouldn't have to take part in the T&T ritual. Bad, I know.

Harry -- A coincidence about single-frame films, no? I suspect the deadline for the print version of the mag was well before the Michael Snow post.

Craig -- Great to get some dirt on HFF. I used them for many years but knew little about them. I also rented both those Mizoguchi and Godard films from them. A friend and I would work out a plan whereby we'd mail-order 3 each for the weekend and share (to spread the costs). I remember a six-film Bunuel binge weekend (including Death in the Garden).

Jen--I don't see us in disagreement at all! Not to speak for Adrian (he can chime in to clarify if I mischaracterize) but I think he was referring to a specific counter-cultural moment in the 60s and certain currents prevalent at the time (both in film theory and practice). And yes, there is no dearth of writing on Wes Anderson, which is why encountering writing on good experimental cinema is more exciting.

(Which reminds me: there's a long and wonderful essay by Sitney on Nathaniel Dorsky in the brand new Artforum, not online, that's well worth a trek to the local library.)

October 31, 2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

thanks for the link jmac. No, I don't know how immunologists write about immunology... could you explain maybe?

November 01, 2007 7:32 AM  
Blogger jmac said...

Girish, I appreciate your response. I guess I find the essay and the link to the essay again here confusing. From where I'm coming from, I hear so many film critics and bloggers say how much they are into experimental cinema, but then I hear them turn around and say how it's difficult, or pretentious, or humorless, or elite. I'm sorry if I'm projecting that onto your discussion. You know what Leonard Cohen once said? "If you can hear the music, why don't you help me sing?"

Harry, I appreciate your discussion and that you are listening to me. I have an assignment for you! I would like for you to go online and browse the following journals:

Nature (
Immunity (
Cell (

Thanks for this discussion. Conflict is a valid form of communication. :)

November 01, 2007 10:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Jen -- It's clear to me that this essay bothers you. Can you tell me what exactly it is that bothers you about it? Could you point to a specific passage (or passages) and explain?

November 01, 2007 2:12 PM  
Blogger jmac said...

G, this is really sweet of you. I think I kind of elaborated enough about the essay. It's complicated, you know? So we cannot say it all in one discussion. I appreciate that you guys are being so gracious. :) I could be on Frameworks, where everyone has a lot more in common, but I'd rather be here . . .

November 01, 2007 3:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Well I'm certainly glad you're here...!

November 01, 2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 02, 2007 3:47 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

re: Adrian Martin's article. Terrific piece, but one sentence rubbed me the wrong way. The part about the filmmakers who were closet Woody Allen fans comes off as a wee bit snide, at least when presented without the context of the marginalization of the avant-garde by narrative filmmakers. I've mentioned it before (and now's as good a time as any for me to make a correction to that comment: I think I was mistaken when mentioning Antonioni there because I've practically combed Movie Journal and have not found the evidence I misremembered). This time, however, I have my Mekas at hand and can supply a couple quotes he collected in 1966.

Carlos Saura upon walking out of the Chelsea Girls: "This underground cinema is disastrous and a disgrace."

Pier Paolo Pasolini's comment on Scorpio Rising: "This is an easy way of making films."

Not to mention all the narrative filmmakers who never mention non-narrative filmmaking, as if it doesn't exist.

I'm not endorsing tit-for-tat. When I read quotes like those I become intrigued, not turned off by their speakers. (If all goes well I'll be attending a screening of Mamma Roma tonight at the PFA.) I just wish Martin's piece, as brief as it was, could have found a way to better convey that the barrier between the "two constitutive sides" of cinema was built by parties on both sides of the barrier. As it is, it feels a bit like a trivialization of the avant-garde, uncharacteristic of Martin's usual writing.

re: Halloween. My housemates and I, along with dozens of other volunteers, put together a free haunted house for the neighborhood. The theme was a zombie outbreak. My role was that of Major Canard, the head of an authoritarian military-scientific mobilization effort attempting to control the zombies and reassure the citizenry. Lots of fun! In fact, I'd better get back to cleaning up after our transformation of the house right now...

November 02, 2007 3:51 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Way, way off topic g: Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer has arrived, and it's well worth checking out! Sitting here listening to it, I'm thinking of replacing this office chair with a rocker and lighting up a corncob pipe...yeehaw!

November 02, 2007 4:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian -- I just had to google up Major Canard to verify if he was a movie character I didn't know about!

About the narrative/a-g barrier, let me just say this: hostility and indifference to either side by the other bothers me a bit. Ultimately my allegiance is not as much to any one category of cinema (avant-garde, narrative, etc) as the vast field of potentiality that is cinema, the continent of cinema.

So any one kind of cinema that dismisses another kind wholesale generally bothers me. This does not mean one has to write about any and every kind of cinema. We need write only and simply about what moves us. C'est tout. We are not obliged to write about all of cinema.

But a searching, thoughtful curiosity about various kinds of cinema is something I respect in others. This is simply my taste; everyone is different.

Flickhead -- I heard Levon opened up a popular nightclub in New Orleans years ago but when I visited the city last (post-Katrina), I forgot to check if it was still open.

November 02, 2007 4:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I really resonate with Zach's recent post on avant-garde cinema and I hope he doesn't mind if I lift a couple of chunks from it:

"I would like to think instead that those of us who advocate for a-g cinema, or specific a-g films, are not trying to reproduce a vanguard to which only a happy few may join (i.e., I don't want to be part of a recruitment campaign for an elite). I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone. And the directions to that room, the advocacy for this kind of cinema, should not be openly or tacitly about building a clique, but about relating certain kinds of knowledge and experience even in an a priori limited capacity."

[...] "when I talk of an 'impersonal' involvement with avant-garde or marginal cinema, what I mean is that one shouldn't feel the urge to blow up 'the scene,' to invest one's own energy in advocating the work at the expense of simply enjoying it, learning from it, being fascinated with it, etc. Let it be, and if necessary, let it be small, maybe. It will survive regardless, out there, without "you" or "me" or the people we're trying to "teach" it to."

November 02, 2007 4:46 PM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Dear Jen and Brian - Maybe I have been bit misunderstood in this short piece of mine (doubtless because it is only 550 words). I am absolutely not against avant-garde cinema - I have spent most of my life extolling it, proramming it, teaching it and writing about it enthusiastically - and I certainly did not mean to blame the 'divide' between conventional and a-g cinema on a-g filmmakers: Brian is perfectly right, I certainly could have (in a longer piece) marshaled 500 horrifying stories of conventional mainstream filmmakers (and critics, film bureaucrats, etc) who exhibit phobic horror towards any manifestation of the a-g - something I have often written about as vividly as possible! (eg, my '90s article 'Hold Back the Dawn' abot the baleful state of reception of a-g film in the broader film community). In a way - my mistake - I was sort of taking this particular apartheid for granted in my little piece! I merely wanted to point to an era (mainly the 70s) where a-g filmmakers were slightly 'ghettoising' themselves by not being interested in the deep links or connections between a-g and other forms of film: or seeing how a-g is the veritable centre of cinema. not its periphery - which is what I truly believe, and what I argue for these days. Alongside a whole army of other people, like Nicole Brenez, Cyril Beghin, Zach, Girish ...


November 02, 2007 5:32 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I'd like to point out that filmmakers with a strong personal taste and ego, would dissmiss pretty much everything that is far from what they do, or even people too close to their own style, by fear of competition. Not just AG stuff. It's a general phenomenon of protectionism and territorialism among artists.
Not to be taken too seriously.

The opinion of artists is not the same as critics', or the audience's.

It's more problematic when it comes from critics who are supposed to take a look at the big picture, to contextualize within the wide spectrum of cinema.
This takes us back to Matthew Clayfield's "Missionaries and Sceptics".

November 02, 2007 8:58 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hey Adrian! See, this is what happens when you're good! Thanks for your gracious response. Although, I'm still having difficulty with the term "ghettoizing themselves." :)

Okay, I want for you to think of me as a small cat trying to get you to play . . .

What if those avant-garde artists from the 1970s did see the deep connection between experimental cinema and all of cinema?

November 02, 2007 9:23 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Adrian, let me echo Jen in my appreciation of your gracious response.

I'm not sure that taking the apartheid for granted was a "mistake"; I recognize that any piece of writing must make assumptions about the potential reader in order to be succinct and fluid. I called the impression I got from your piece "uncharacteristic" but perhaps it would be better described as a particular thread of inquiry that should be contextualized within your greater body of work. A habit I've picked up from so much reading of blogs and discussion fora is to treat every individual post or comment I read in these contexts as a part of a larger stream of an individual's writing; the blog format encourages this, I think. My reaction to your piece proves that I haven't yet fully applied this approach to pieces published in a more apparently stand-alone context. Even with a writer like yourself whose work I'm relatively familiar with (mostly through Movie Mutations, Cineaste and Rouge; I've not read Hold Back the Dawn yet. How can I track it down?)

Certainly in my own blog scribblings I have very often consciously relied on a certain shorthand with my readers, hoping that any misunderstandings will be worked out in the comments section. I'm so grateful that girish has, in addition to sharing his writings on topics like the subject of this post, offered his site as a forum to discuss the pieces he links to...

Like you, girish, I don't pledge allegiance to any particular strands of filmmaking. Sometimes I wish I could curtail my omnivorous tendencies (especially if it could help be become a more disciplined watcher and writer) but I don't know if it'll ever happen. But I agree with Harry that there's great value in filmmakers who tread down a particular path, even if it means they have to wear blinders as they go. Some of the greatest trailblazers are the ones who see only the jungle before them and their own machete! I see the quotes I dug up yesterday as fascinating, not damning.

btw, these word verfications can be pretty weird sometimes. I'm now being asked to type "oxsperm".

November 03, 2007 4:07 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I can't figure out something Adrian Martin said : "a-g is the veritable centre of cinema. not its periphery". What do you mean by that?
It's counter-intuitive, and I don't even see how it could shine a more positive light on "Avant-Garde", which is supposed to be the forefront, like Brian says, poking in the darkness, doing things that have never been done before. So being in the center is rather restrictive, instead of being "cutting edge" revolutionary. And AG is not unified enough to be a "center", or even a focal point of departure for the rest of cinema... I don't know, I have a hard time trying to visualize this reversed scheme.

November 04, 2007 6:04 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Harry, I know this will provoke a dozen brilliant logical deductions and refutations from you, but here goes: why I say that avant-garde film is the centre of cinema and not its periphery, is in an aesthetic (not political or contestatory) sense: it is like the distinction between abstract and figurative art, a-g cinema represents the primal work on movement, image, sound, rhythm, colour, etc, before the 'secondary elaborations' of narrative, diegesis, and so on, can begin. It is like Fred Camper always insists: when most people say 'film' they usually mean 'sync-sound feature-length narrative film', not film in a holistic sense.

Jen and Brian: thanks for your kind remarks. Jen, I think I know what you are suggesting, and Brian backs you up, in a sense, in his reflections: perhaps it is for critics (and the like) to make the connections, build the bridges, 'see the whole picture' of the relation between a-g and mainstream film; filmmakers themselves are usually concentrated on getting their work done, and that's usually hard and demanding enough. Perhaps the burden of contetxualising, etc, shouldn't be laid on them. Nonetheless, some did take the task on: Brakhage, for example, who wrote about and lectured on (among many others) Fritz Lang, Terrence Malick ... But (to go back to my original FILMKRANT article) I do feel,, from personal experience, a difference from the ;70s when people like Gidal 'slagged off' all narrative-mainstream-art film, to say the '90s, when Canadian Mike Hoolboom told me that Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS was the best (and most) avant-garde film of the year! This was a shift from 'purism' to 'impurism'. But perhaps you're right, Jen, and we should leave talk of 'ghettos' out of this discussion!

November 04, 2007 8:24 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hey again, Adrian, I may never get this chance again, so I am making the most of it! :)

Let me give you a few examples of what I'm trying to address:

1). When I feel baffled that a particular experimental film (or hey, the entire contemporary field!)is overlooked, I like to do this exercise:

The passion I feel for the French symbolist poets such as Rimbaud, Apollinaire, & Mallarme is irrefutably real. However, I have a lethargic, avoidant attitude to any kind of 16th & 17th & 18th century English poetry, and yeah, I guess that includes William Shakespeare! That boring, boring English poetry! Yet, I continue on to realize that people devote their entire lives to Shakespeare and John Milton, and that whole departments in the oldest universities have sprung up around these writers. Would we ever expect a scholar of Apollinaire to be concretely addressing William Shakepeare? And vice versa? Shouldn't they kind of already be aware of each other?

2). Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, thought that the Earth was the center of the universe! A little 8 year old girl growing up in Ohio right now could know more than this goliath genius. It is empowering and humbling at the same time.

These are the exercises I do to question the nature of my own subjectivity. I am hearing that you and several of the other bloggers in this discussion feel an urgency about contextualizing experimental cinema in relation to all cinema. Well, I don't feel that! I feel an urgency about relating experimental cinema to scientific discovery and poetic document to Marcel Proust and to Galileo for example, and to the truth of nature. I'm not saying that any of you are wrong, and my way is right, but I am saying that all of us are writing from a specific filter . . .

FYI, we really need some sort of publication, where the diversity and range and styles of these ideas and perscpectives can be expressed. I think that we should get to know each other better . . .

November 04, 2007 11:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Fun reading, y'all...thank you.

A bear of a weekend. I'm up to my eyeballs in college committee work, and am off to go begin my class preps for the week now (the extra hour today came in handy). I had sort of a fun idea for a post but it'll have to keep till mid-week...

November 04, 2007 7:44 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Well, if you're going to make me feel self-conscious about talking back too much, I'd rather not start the conversation...
I didn't even disagree with your point. I do think AG is the root of cinema, that it develops core issues. And the rest of cinema only applies conservative recipes. (There is more than single-frame fims in AG!) Even Tarr doesn't invent anything, he just stretches the rules.
My question was just about the allegory of the center-periphery you wanted to revert...

November 05, 2007 7:04 AM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Harry, don't feel self-conscious, it was just a friendly jest (my Australian sense of humour, you know ... ) And after all, you are a gifted 'logicien' - if that's a word in French!

However, to keep the conversation going: the problem with all centre-periphery models (my 'reversed' one included) is philosophical and political: even when we saying that the periphery is just as important, rich, etc, as the centre, the very way we pose the relation makes the centre ... well, 'central'! For example, this is how the theories of Bordwell and many others work when they pose a 'Classical Hollywood Narrative' as the global norm, and then propose 'alternatives' to that norm (avant-garde, Third Cinema, Asian Cinema, etc) - this gesture, however well-intentioned (or defensibile in industrial terms, in terms of market reach and dominance) ends up referring every cinematic phenomenon to the mainstream norm. Which is a big problem, leaving a-g (for example) with only a contestatory/opposiotonal role - a role it certainly sometimes fills, but not always (was Brakhage 'contesting the classical narrative norm' in his handpainted films? I don't think so.) So, really I finally wouldn't say that a-g is the centre and something else the periphery, even if it's tempting! We need a different kind of system-metaphor to map the different kinds of cinema. Harry, over to you, you are good with these diagram-maps ...

November 06, 2007 6:06 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Just a small voice raised to say that much as I enjoy the French New Wave, I never read Truffaut's essay without thinking, "But Aurenche and Bost wrote some excellent screenplays."

November 06, 2007 8:07 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

If I was allowed to argue, I would suggest that AG and "norm" don't go well together anyway. ;)

November 07, 2007 11:52 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

The center is everywhere . . .

November 10, 2007 10:39 AM  

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