Essai d'Ouverture

As of today, my critical activity stretches over fifty-three years, with a gap between 1969 and 1982 that can be easily explained: Cahiers du cinema had suddenly converted to the cult of Marx. Oh, Karl was a nice guy with a bunch of good ideas, but I confess having trouble working in his sole dominion.

My first texts were pinched from Rivette and Truffaut: I devoured their prose on my way to high school on Wednesday mornings (the day the Arts weekly hit the stands) at the risk of getting run over. I learnt their writing by heart. This groupie mentality, coupled with an inferiority complex, didn’t sit well with me. That’s why I revolted. I frequently reproached Truffaut for some of his texts, something which irritated him. I don’t know if he understood the painful ambiguity of my status as a conformist. Today I regret having upbraided him at a time when not everything was going easy for him.

At the same time, I multiplied my oaths of loyalty to Truffaut. He had replaced the old guard and he thought that I and Straub were going to overtake him, just like Barbara Bates was to overtake Anne Baxter who replaced Bette Davis in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. And when chatting with Straub at the entrance of a theatre, I had to hide whenever I saw Truffaut coming, who suspected me of colluding with Straub…

My other favourite critic was Georges Sadoul; I wanted to become the Sadoul of Hitchcocko-Hawsians, a daring paradox if we think that Truffaut was diametrically opposed to Sadoul… I admired the clarity of his writing, his encyclopaedic mind, his kindness, even if the content of his texts often seemed odious to me. His adherence to communism, for which he was criticized, particularly expressed his wish to belong to one family or the other (there was the Surrealist family before this). In fact, he used to snore at the CP meetings.

I too felt the need for a family. Things were a little turbulent during my adolescence. There were families that I chose myself later, that at Cahiers, the Société des réalisateurs de films, les Films d’ici etc. It was the same situation with the others, such as Godard, who came to Cahiers because it was for him an oasis of civilization, a point of reference, essential for the morale, in face of adversity or stupidity.

Why was I accepted so easily at Cahiers at the age of eighteen?

Because, the perfect bookworm that I was, I was the most well-informed cinephile in Paris.

And then it was always nice to have fans at a time when the straight-shooters of Cahiers were broke and, moreover, highly contested.

Everyone at Cahiers sensed my passion for cinema, which appeared worthy of respect.

And I was the Naïf, the innocent one, the “blue-eyed boy of Cahiers” in Rohmer’s words, the fan incapable of dirty tricks (frequent in the milieu). I was even surprised the day Lydie Doniol-Valcroze handed me my first cheque. I would’ve paid to be able to write in the “yellow magazine”.

Most of all, I made people laugh because I spoke, because I wrote. When I used to bring my papers to Rohmer, I looked forward to the moment he would blush, the moment when tears of laughter would trickle down his right cheek. If you knew Rohmer, you’d know it wasn’t easy to get to this point. For me, it was the kicker. Also, when Daney admitted to me later that the first text he rushed to whenever he opened Cahiers was mine.  

I must confess that, on the 5th of November 1955, I almost fainted when I opened Truffaut’s letter where he told me that my article on Ulmer was accepted at Cahiers. At that second, my whole life was planned out, with several pitfalls to be avoided. The hardest part was done. Now that I had my foot on the stirrup, the passage to filmmaking was like dropping a letter at the post office: I’d written the first long and serious text on Godard, so Jean-Luc, that marvellous Pygmalion of French cinema, advised his producer (who was on his knees since the success of À bout de souffle) to produce my film.

In the beginning, my texts were a little too reverential towards Rivette and Truffaut. It was ridiculous to suck up to them: it was obvious that I took their side in all matters, no matter they wrote. There were also pointless gibes in my articles against overrated directors.

But soon I tried to be more poised and, especially, to be always comprehensible. The great fad at Cahiers then was to write unreadable texts. Demonsablon was a champion of this literature. There was a snobbism of hermeticism. If the reader didn’t understand a text printed on the fine, glazed paper of the magazine, it meant that the editor was superior to him. Even Bazin gave in at times to the sirens of obscurity.

My ingenuousness brought a breath of fresh air.

Godard pointed out to me that my strong point was the art of the catchphrase, the art of finding the right title, more than of getting lost in long sentences like Faulkner, my literary god at the time. And I tried to follow this advice.

My first texts were disorderly, strings of readymade sentences already read somewhere else, sweeping, gratuitous stylistic effects, pretty pirouettes and aggressive positions to get myself noticed (the very first articles by Truffaut, from the year 1953, and Godard were of the same kind), to the point that, in the beginning of 1957, Rohmer made me completely rewrite my text on Eisenstein. He explained to me that every sentence must have an internal coherence and that each one must be organically linked to the next. The ABCs, you’d think. But no professor told me that in the high school or the university. They were too square, always dedicated to teaching stupid rules (no “I”, introduction-thesis-antithesis-synthesis). In a word, it was Rohmer who taught me to write. And it was very kind of him to not have rejected my text outright.

Bazin, too, had blocked some of my writings at Cahiers or at the Éditions du Cerf. I’m grateful to him for that today for I would’ve found myself guilty of having produced many stupidities. Bazin considered me an irresponsible, mad, young dog of nineteen. That’s why I was so moved later when he complimented me for my review of Les Tricheurs.

I have thus chosen in this collection texts defended or praised by Rohmer (A Quiet American), by Godard (Men in War and the Tarzieff) etc. Rivette told me later that my text on Les Honneurs de la guerre, the first Jean Dewever film, had made him like the film. I’d never have thought of receiving such a tribute from a man from whom I’d stolen so much.

My texts try to resume Truffaut’s principle: start from the particular (the picturesque if possible) – a detail from the film – to veer into the General. Never the opposite, as in the worst kind of criticism which stopped at the General (especially in the years 58-69).

The golden rule: every good film engenders a specific critical approach.

To make the reader laugh, to interest him, was my first concern. I’d set down the list of possible word plays before writing a text. To help inspire me, Rohmer had offered me a copy of the latest Vermot almanac.

I tried to be simple (didn’t always succeed), to narrate the story of a film in a few lines, which still remains an excellent exercise.

Before writing on an important film, I’d read the original novel end to end or skim through it – something which few did. Even Bazin, who was a serious guy, had produced five pages in Cahiers on The Red Badge of Courage without having read the book, which was as famous in the USA as Le Grand Meaulnes is in France.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but I always made sure I made a negative remark when I wrote a lot of good things about a film. I also practiced the opposite. It gives the reader the (misleading) impression that the critic is objective.

Similarly, I’d gather technical information – number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc. – which made subjective positions sound objective.

I’d manage to insert a shock sentence which could help advertise the film, thereby glorifying the film and myself. My greatest shortcoming when it came to a good film by a great director was to attribute everything that was good to my cherished auteur and everything that was bad to his collaborators. The truth is not so simple.

My first years as a critic (1959-1960) were the ones that brought me the most attention from readers, perhaps because people were then interested in criticism that was less tepid, less ecumenical and laudatory than today, perhaps also because I wrote in a flagship magazine which had all the good articles.

Texts today are more dispersed, and they get lost.

Nevertheless, my writings from that time are less pertinent than the ones I’ve written in the past few years, which are more level-headed, generally without controversy and very precise owing to my practical knowledge of filmmaking and, thanks to time, my deeper knowledge of the history of cinema: I must’ve seen eight thousand films in sixty-five years.

This manifestly positive evolution of the quality of my writing is at loggerheads with my career as a filmmaker. I don’t think my later films are any more successful than the earlier ones. My most appreciated productions belong to the midperiod of my career (from 1977, year of Genèse d’un repas, to Essai d’ouverture in 1988).

Here I want to note the similarity between criticism and documentary filmmaking: in both, one studies something which already exists, a projected film or a city, a place or a social fact.

The difference, at least for me: to be a film critic is to say good things about a film; to be a filmmaker is to say bad things about the society, about the absurdity of the world, about a city, about everything… the filmmaker criticizes, and the critic praises.

Today, as a critic, I have the advantage over other reviewers of not being dependent on current events. From 1957 to 1960, I lived on commissions as a critic and so I was subjected to weekly releases by my editors-in-chief. In 2009, I’m a freelancer and can allow myself to write on unknown filmmakers from the present or the past.

These are the days of video criticism. There’s not much difference in there for me who, in 1960, was practically doing video criticism before it even existed, with my chronometer and the light pen that Sadoul had found for me in Moscow and I used to see films twice consecutively in the theatre. But, with video, it’s nevertheless easier and it avoids silly mistakes. The essential thing, today as yesterday, is not to flit from one thing to another, but study one or two points of the film more attentively. I’ve written seven pages on James Stewart’s acting during one and a half minutes of film.

Almost all these texts were written very quickly.

This speed (which I find again during the drafting of the scripts of my films: two mornings for a short film, three to twenty-four days for a feature film) gives me the pleasure of observing the faces of my astonished sponsors when I hand them over my copy. One of them asked me for twelve pages on Bergman. It was complete three hours later, and Rivette even found it good.

This promptness is also a (completely relative) form of humility. You shouldn’t think that the Culture revolves around you.

It’s a question of personal discipline, of habit. You must be able to take the plunge, to abandon yourself. To me, it’s a question of honesty before the reader. I give him what I feel without calculation or detour.

You are deemed guiltier when you commit a crime with premeditation.

It should be the same for an article (or a script).

I think this practice stems from an opposition to my father. He used to write several letters (to Mitterrand, to Hitler and tutti quanti) which he’d start all over when he made a mistake. It’d take him all day, a little like the hero of El. And I love doing the opposite. Many of my acts were accomplished against the father (even though, the diplomat that I am, I wasn’t on bad terms with him). My first girlfriend was Jewish while he was very anti-Semitic. And I specialized in eulogizing Jewish filmmakers (Lang, Preminger, Lubitsch, Ulmer, Gance, Truffaut, Fuller, DeMille). I made a corpse of my dad in my Billy the Kid.

I say I’m fast, but I’m boasting. My texts with writing quotations (on DeMille, Deleuze or Ellroy) took a lot of time. Moreover, what I write is the result of sixty years of cinematic experiments.  

Whenever it’s possible, I let these texts sleep in a drawer. I let them simmer for thirteen days in order to look at them with new eyes.  

It could be longer. The first version of my text on Bresson is fifteen years old. Re-reading after a long time, you correct everything very fast and with much fairness.

My articles sometimes contain a dense analysis, far too dense. They must always be aerated by humour. They fail otherwise.

What use writing on Renoir or Rossellini?

Besides, Truffaut would never have allowed me to do it: it was his private hunting ground. So, I prefer being THE FIRST. The first to extol a great filmmaker forgotten or unknown at the time: Baldi, Bava, Bernard-Deschamps, Compton, Cottafavi, Dewever, Ferroukhi, Fuller, Godard, Guiraudie, Hers, Itami, Jansco, Kumashiro, Oshima, Rudolph, Skolimowski, Ulmer, Valentin, Zurlini.

I’ve corrected certain articles (very little). For example, when I made a remark based on an wrong colour grading, or when I invoked an event from the era unknown to today’s reader, or when a piece of information turned out to be false, or when my editor in chief had changed the title, made typographical mistakes or didn’t notice that a line was skipped.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]