Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Encountering Truffaut

[With so much in the air about Truffaut, I thought I might revisit an interview conducted by the late Charles Thomas Samuels for his invaluable book, Encountering Directors in 1970. Samuels was attacked, in some reviews of his book, for having the effrontery to argue with his subjects. I admire Samuels' book precisely for his refusal to close his critical eye in deference to their sensibilities. Although the following interview once again has resemblances to the one reprinted by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, I would rather not pursue them. It's too bad that Brody didn't print Samuels' interview instead.]

Francois Truffaut
by Charles Thomas Samuels
Encountering Directors
Paris, September 1 and 3, 1970

The image presented when Francois Truffaut played the principle role in The Wild Child--that of a short, compactly built, but expressionless and ordinary-looking young man in his late thirties--leaves out his most striking features: a smile no less charming than his most charming films and the continuous glint of risible interest in his eyes. Truffaut's quick lucidity made him the ideal interview subject. Even when he had to interrupt an answer to await translation (he speaks no English), he never lost the thread. Nor did he ever hesitate or appear to find any question unexpected.

The interview took place in two sessions at Les Films du Carrosse, the production company he founded and runs. In his private office and throughout a small suite in the same building where Bed and Board was filmed, the atmosphere is literally one of "quiet elegance." The firm is clearly busy, but the employees seem to be running a doctors' consortium rather than a movie company.

During the period when I met Truffaut, he was attending to every detail of the press premiere of Bed and Board, prior to attending the Lincoln Center opening of The Wild Child. He invited me to the screening, where he greeted each guest personally. When, on the next day, I arrived for the interview, Truffaut was equally hospitable to me and particularly to my friend, Mme. Francoise Longhurst, who acted as translator.

During the conversation, growing rapport made translation progressively dispensable. Eventually, we began to respond to each other directly, joking away an occasional contretemps in our mutual involvement in the give-and-take.

SAMUELS: You began your career as a critic. What effect has this had on you as a director?

TRUFFAUT: It is difficult to say, because one looks at films differently when one is a director or a critic. For example, though I have always loved Citizen Kane, I loved it in different ways at different stages of my career. When I saw it as a critic, I particularly admired the way the story is told: the fact that one is rarely permitted to see the person who interviews all the characters, the fact that chronology is not respected, things like that. As a director I cared more about technique: All the scenes are shot in a single take and do not use reverse cutting; in most scenes you hear the soundtrack before you see the corresponding image--that reflects Orson Welles' radio training--etc. Behaving like the ordinary spectator, one uses a film as if it were a drug; he is dazed by the motion and doesn't try to analyze. A critic, on the other hand (particularly one who works for a weekly, as I did), is forced to write summaries of films in fifteen lines. That forces one to apprehend the structure of a film and to rationalize his liking for it.

S: Are there any critics you particularly admire or, as a director, have found particularly useful?

T: No filmmaker likes critics, no matter how nice they are to him. Always he feels that they didn't say enough about him, or that they didn't say nice things in an interesting way, or that they said too many of their nice things about other directors. Since I was a critic, I am perhaps less hostile to critics than other directors are. Nevertheless, I never consider the critic more than a single element in the reception of my films. The attitude of the public, publicity material, post-premiere ads: all these things are as important as critics.

S: There are two traditions in film. One, ultimately derived from silent film, emphasizes editing and camera movement. The other--which Andre Bazin seems to have preferred (and which he exemplified with a film like William Wyler's The Little Foxes)--is more theatrical, depends on staging. Now your closeness to Bazin is well known. However, I think that you are not only less theatrical than the directors he professed to admire but that, indeed, your camera work and editing are more varied than that of any director of equal stature. If this is so, did Bazin have the influence on you which he is widely assumed to have had?

T: I don't agree with the distinction you've made. Furthermore, Bazin overestimated The Little Foxes, which was just photographed theater--though it gave him a pretext for some interesting observations on the cinema. I would rather see a distinction made between filmmakers who attempt to keep the camera invisible--as John Ford did--and those who make it evident to the spectator.

S: All right. But your camera was once extremely visible and now is becoming less so. Why?

T: Because it became more visible in everyone else. No, I have a better reason: I have become more interested in my characters, in their situations, and in what they say.

S: As a critic, you attacked vigorously the films made by French directors during the period before the so-called New Wave. What made them so hateful to you?

T: I attacked them because they didn't have either a personal vision of life or of cinema.

S: But some of them created great films. Isn't that admirable? Or do you deny the greatness of a film like Carne's Children of Paradise or Clement's Forbidden Games?

T: I first became interested in films during the war, and therefore the first films I saw were native. I liked Children of Paradise, all the Carne-Prevert films--I even liked The Night Visitors, though I don't anymore. I liked the films of Becker, Clouzot's The Raven, and, of course, above all, the films of Renoir. Then there was the shock of the American films after the liberation. I saw them when I was thirteen or fourteen and in random order, without knowing which were made during and which after the war. I found them all richer than French films--except the best of ours, like Children of Paradise and the films of Renoir.

S: I share your enthusiasm for six or seven Renoir films, but I've always been surprised at the extent of your admiration for him because though Renoir certainly made several first-rate films, it seems to me that some of his are even faultier than Carne's. They are even more theatrical--I think of a film like Chotard and Company. And then there is that awful sentimentality toward the French peasants, as in Toni.

T: No, I adore Toni; it is a very important film for me.

S: Why?

T: Because a filmmaker always thinks that his films aren't close enough to real life, and Toni shows how to attain that closeness. It is like a news item; its atmosphere is so real; there is a sort of madness in its events that one does not find in a novel or short story but only in something from real life. Because, you know, even when you start with something from real life, it gets theatrical when translated into a scenario, and then the reality is gone.

S: Precisely. Reality is what I find gone in Toni. Let me give you an example: In order to seduce Toni, the heroine pretends to have been bitten by a bee and asks him to suck the stinger out. Naturally, while doing so, his passion rises. That seems to me a theatrical cliche--perhaps not in all its details, but in its essentials.

T: It is a cliche of love, not a cliche of drama. Perhaps you would find this banal if you merely read the script. But the way it's done, the way the actors play it, makes it real.

S: You agree that the scene is banal in conception, but you think it's redeemed by the acting. That raises an interesting parallel to your own films. For example, in Mississippi Mermaid, when Deneuve and Belmondo leave a movie theater where they have just seen Johnny Guitar, they agree that the reality of the performances transformed that horse opera into a story of real people. Wasn't that your intention in Mississippi Mermaid and many other films: to take a banal idea and cause the actors to give it real life?

T: Yes. Yes. Certainly.

S: Do you think Deneuve and Belmondo did save the story?

T: Yes. Whatever is wrong with that film is my fault and not the fault of my stars.

S: Like many American critics, I'm surprised by your admiration for Howard Hawks and John Ford. Would you explain why you like them?

T: Originally, I didn't like Ford--because of his material: for example, the comic secondary characters, the brutality, the male-female relationships typified by the man's slapping the woman on the backside. But eventually I came to understand that he had achieved an absolute uniformity of technical expertise. And his technique is the more admirable for being unobtrusive: His camera is invisible; his staging is perfect; he maintains a smoothness of surface in which no one scene is allowed to become more important than any other. Such mastery is possible only after one has made an enormous number of films. Questions of quality aside, John Ford is the Simenon of directors. Hawks, on the other hand, is the greatest cinematic intelligence among American directors. He isn't a cinema addict, nor is he anguished or obsessed. Rather, he loves life in all its manifestations, and because of this harmony with life in general, he was able to make the two or three greatest examples of every genre of film (except perhaps comedy, in which you have Lubitsch etc.). To be specific: Hawks made the three best Westerns (Red River, The Big Sky, and Rio Bravo), the two best aviation films (Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force), and the three best thrillers (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Scarface).

S: M. Truffaut, Hawks' very versatility might be called an indication that he lacks a single vision of life or of cinema. Yet it is precisely that lack which you condemn in your French predecessors.

T: But Hawks does have a vision of life and cinema! For example, he is the first American director to show women as equal to men (think of his handling of Lauren Bacall vis-a-vis Hunphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep). He always knows what he is doing. When he decided to make Scarface, realizing the danger of a film about sordid mobsters, he instructed his scriptwriter, Ben Hecht, to join him in constantly thinking about the history of the Borgias so as to give the film some tragic stature. It is to this that we owe the nearly incestuous love between George Raft and his sister in the film.

S: With the exception of Jules and Jim you usually adapt trash novels to the screen. Why?

T: I have often been asked to direct great novels, like Camus' L'Etranger, Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit, and Du cote de chez Swann. In each case my admiration for the book prevented me from making it into a film. Jules and Jim was an exception because it was so little known, and I wanted to increase its popularity by calling to it the attention of a large audience. However, despite what you say, I have never used a trash novel or a book I did not admire. Writers like David Goodis (author of Down There, the basis for Shoot the Piano Player) and William Irish (source for The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid) have special value, and they have no counterparts in France. Here detective story writers are rotten, whereas in America writers as great as Hemingway work in that field. But because so many books appear each year in the States, these detective story writers are usually ignored. Ironically, this liberates them. Made humble by their neglect, they are free to experiment because they think no one is paying attention anyway. Not expecting to be analyzed, they put into their books anything they choose.

S: I hadn't thought of that. Therefore, they reflect life as a muddle--incomprehensible variety. You see life that way, too, don't you?

T: Yes. But let me tell you something. After seeing Shoot the Piano Player and liking it, Henry Miller was asked to write an introduction for a new edition of Down There and therefore had to read the book. He then phoned me to say that he suddenly realized that whereas my film was good, the book was even better. So you see, I don't film trash.

S: In an interview you gave Louis Marcorelles, you said that people shouldn't distinguish art films from the more commercial product, that the only true distinction was between good films and bad. Is that a correct quotation?

T: Yes.

S: But don't some directors force one to make the distinction that you deplore? In France, one thinks of Bresson, who is a great artist but whose films fail at the box office.

T: Commercial success is a result, never an intention. For example, Orson Welles never succeeded either, only one out of every two films Bunuel makes earns much money, etc.

S: Well, then...

T: Well, in America I still think that you simplify this issue. You say that Hollywood films are commercial and New York films are artistic. That is wrong.
S: No doubt! There is a fascinating tension in your films. In most of them, the hero yearns for and searches after security while your technique keeps showing us that nothing in the world is safe or permanent. Am I right?

T: Exactly. In fact, I said much the same thing in Le Figaro apropos my latest film, Bed and Board.

S: Leave Bed and Board out of it for a moment. It also seems to me that your technique hasn't been so redolent of insecurity lately.

T: Perhaps. But then for me life lately hasn't been so cruel!

S: Another constant in your films has been the subject of love. I'm not asking you to be a philosopher, but are you aware of some settled notion about love that recurs in your thinking or feeling about it and that you reflect in your work?

T: I have no ideas on this subject, only sensations, nothing more than I put in my films.

S: Whenever you treat erotic passion, you keep it distant, never allowing us to see it closely. Why?

T: I don't know.

S: Music is terribly important in your films. How do you choose a composer? After you've chosen him, how much control do you exercise over his work?

T: Actually, I am moving away from music in my films, like other directors (consider Bunuel and Bergman), who no longer use it at all. Still, it's not always possible to do without music completely, and I don't always like what I have. I like the music in The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player but am not crazy about the music in Jules and Jim. The music in The Soft Skin and Fahrenheit 451 is excellent, less so in The Bride Wore Black. Stolen Kisses has a wonderful score, as does The Wild Child. But the score of Mississippi Mermaid isn't very good, and that in Bed and Board is simply awful.

S: Now that you have made this rundown, can you generalize about the qualities that appeal to you in movie music?

T: It's very difficult to say. I like music to flow as uninterruptedly as the images. No, it's too difficult to express. Well, I suppose I can say that music shouldn't stop a film, which is what happens when the score is non melodic. For example, if you use jazz or pop music, the effect is anti narrative.

S: You've said that you never completely plan a film in advance and therefore improvise a good deal. What do you rely on to discipline your improvisations?

T: The dialogue and the actors. I try to create units of emotion. That's why, for example, I filmed each scene of Bed and Board in a single take.

S: Don't you also try to play each unit of emotion off against the next one?

T: Exactly. Yes, that's absolutely true. For example, one of my favorite moments in Bed and Board is when Antoine enters the apartment after a visit to his Japanese girlfriend and the camera cuts from his astonished face to his wife, who is dressed and seated in traditional Japanese style. The audience laughs. But when the camera closes in on her face, we see her tears, and this shocks the spectator. It is precisely this kind of emotional contrast that I love.

S: The acting in your films is usually extremely natural, but the situations in which the people find themselves are very formulaic. Is this a deliberate goal?

T: Yes...how shall I answer this? One proceeds always by contrasts. If the situation is extraordinary, then one must force the actors to be naturalistic, and vice versa. But this is something one cannot reflect upon; it is completely instinctive.

S: The 400 Blows is often compared to Zero for Conduct. Do you think this film or its director, Jean Vigo, influenced you?

T: Jean Vigo went further than anyone--even than Renoir--in achieving real, crude, natural images. For that reason, we French directors speak of a secret that Vigo possessed and that we long to fathom. In my opinion, the one who has fathomed it most completely is Godard, and Breathless is the closest in spirit to Vigo of any recent French film. The only reason Vigo was invoked so often apropos of The 400 Blows is that there are so few French films dealing with children that whenever one appears people are immediately reminded of Zero for Conduct. I was equally influenced, as a matter of fact, by the films of Rossellini and above all by Germany: Year Zero, which I greatly admire.

S: The 400 Blows is very episodic. Were any of the episodes introduced during shooting?

T: No. We followed the script without deviation.

S: Why did you include in The 400 Blows that little "guest" scene between Jean-Claude Brialy and Jeanne Moreau?

T: Brialy was a good friend of mine and offered to pass through the film, bringing Moreau with him. Since I knew and admired her work as a stage actress, I was very happy to agree.

S: This sort of thing occurs very often in your films. For example, one of your colleagues from your film company appears both in Mississippi Mermaid (where he plays Belmondo's business partner) and in Bed and Board. In the latter film Helen Scott, who was your interpreter with Hitchcock, makes a brief appearance. And I could go on. Why do you do this?

T: Why not?

S: Very funny! How about giving me a more serious answer. You realize that you've been greatly criticized for this. Critics have said you're playing a childish game, rubbing the noses of your viewers in their ignorance of your life, private tastes, etc. Do you just say merde is this criticism, or do you have some defense of this practice?

T: It's ridiculous to criticize this. The public isn't aware that I am putting my friends into my films. Only the few people who are aware question what I am doing. Moreover, I would never do it if I thought it might harm my story in any way. On the contrary, while writing I sometimes think, "This character is just like X. Why not have X play the role?"

S: But it isn't only putting your friends into your films; it's all the references to other films--like having Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid recuperate at a clinic named Heurtebise, which alludes to Cocteau's Orpheus.

T: What difference does it make to the public if the clinic is called Heurtebise or Smee. It doesn't detract for anyone ignorant of the allusion, and it adds for someone who recognizes it. But those who know how I operate and perceive ten allusions in one of my films are so terrified that they've missed ten others that out of their own vanity they condemn this whole game--which, by the way, is not unique to me.

S: In The 400 Blows how do you want us to react to the scene in which Antoine whirls in the centrifuge? That scene has inspired sharply contrasting interpretations.

T: I didn't think of the reaction the public was going to have. I simply wanted to show a child in a situation that was new to him and because I wanted to avoid cliches--say, showing him on a roller coaster--I chose the centrifuge.

S: In The 400 Blows, during that marvelous interview with Antoine and the psychologist, why don't you show the psychologist?

T: The scene had to be improvised. I began by filming a 16mm version in which I asked Leaud (who plays Antoine) questions, and he replied spontaneously. When we reached this scene in the actual shooting, I decided that what we were getting was inferior to my 16mm trial, which had been so fresh. To regain that freshness, I adopted a peculiar method of working. I told everyone to leave the set except Leaud and the cameraman. Then I read out the scripted psychologist's questions, asking Leaud to answer on the spot with whatever came into his mind. During postsynchronization, I had my questions read over by the actress who played the psychologist. However, since I wanted a woman with a very soft voice, who by this time was very pregnant and therefore reluctant to be filmed, I had only her voice but not her person, so you hear and don't see her.

S: Is this why the scene is full of interior dissolves?

T: Exactly. Since when I originally filmed the scene, I had banished the script girl and clapper boy from the set, I had no one to mark the precise moments of cutting and thus had to use the relatively imprecise dissolve to mark all connections between the pieces of Leaud's response that I decided to retain.

S: The 400 Blows ends with the famous freeze shot of Antoine, but that freeze is frequently anticipated in the film. For example, there are freezes of Antoine when the mother comes to school and learns that Antoine had said she was dead, when Antoine is being photographed by the police, when he is looking after his retreating friend in the reformatory sequence, etc. Was this motif intentional? If so, it indicates that, as it were, Antoine's end was fated.

T: I had no such plan. Moreover, a freeze like the one at the police station is simply the result of showing a still photograph. And the final freeze was an accident. I told Leaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on it: hence the freeze.

S: The opening scene in Shoot the Piano Player tells us that the film will shift back and forth between lighter and darker emotions. Isn't it also an introduction to your theme?

T: I don't know. No, it comes from Goodis. When I make a film by a writer, I like to read all his books. That scene you refer to occurs in another Goodis novel. I just thought it belonged there.

S: Why?

T: It's lifelike and striking. It establishes the film's tone.

S: As I said. But in it the two characters discuss the definition of love, which points to your subject. Without that scene the audience could feel they were seeing a mere gangster story.

T: I suppose so. You know when I film a gangster story, I feel safe: I know that the images will create the plot so that the dialogue can concentrate on love. On the other hand, when I take a story that is about love, I have to force it into a detective story mold. This is what I pushed to an extreme in The Bride Wore Black. We know that the heroine has to kill five men, so there is no plot suspense. Instead, I create suspense about character by not having the heroine ever discuss her motivess. She goes to each place, says nothing, and the man courts her.

S: I'm happy to hear you say that. I never thought this film was properly understood. I always thought it was about the meaning of love.

T: It is a film that illustrates five different ways of comporting oneself with a woman.

S: All of them bad, which is why she becomes a sort of avenging angel striking men down in behalf of her sex.

T: Exactly.

S: That is why each murder reflects the victim. For example, victim number one has no capacity for fidelity. On the day of his wedding, he is capable of being drawn to a balcony, where he has no business being, because he wants to flirt with Moreau, who is standing there. This allows her to push him off. The third victim, whose wife is away, wants to be closeted with her so they can make love, but he first has to get rid of his son. Therefore, she can persuade him to play hide-and-seek and, during the game, can wall him in a closet.

T: Yes but all those details are in the novel. Only the characterization originates with me.

S: In that first murder, when we have a shot of her scarf floating down, did you mean thereby to block our disapproval of her, since the shot is so lyrical and makes the audience feel pleasant?

T: No. It was completely accidental. I had thought the scarf would fall very quickly. By chance that day the air current caused it to fall very slowly and in gentle movements. I liked that, and so I followed it all the way to the ground.

S: Did you mean the character played by Charles Denner to be a latent homosexual?

T: I don't know.

S: In Shoot the Piano Player when Charlie and Lena are walking together for the first time and he is trying to decide whether to make a pass, you have his conscience speak in a voice different from his own. Why?

T: Because Charles Aznavour's voice is too authoritative to be appropriate at that moment.

S: Another odd effect: When the owner of the bar informs on Charlie, you show him in three oval frames, panning across them. Why?

T: I don't think that worked. Maybe it could have been taken out.

S: I don't understand the editing in the love scene between Lena and Charlie. The pattern of cuts and dissolves is obscure.

T: I wanted to give the impression of passing time and, again, because Aznavour's voice is too authoritative, I didn't want him to speak in the scene. So I took bits of Lena speaking and used the transitions you mentioned to unite them.

S: Yes, but there are elisions in the time sequence, which is also, unless I'm mistaken, sometimes scrambled.

T: Now I remember. I wanted to give the impression that they sleep, get up, talk, go back to sleep, get up, etc. etc. That's why it seems as you say.

S: If you had to give an acount of the meaning of this film, what would you say?

T: I made Shoot the Piano Player completely without reflection. When people first saw it, they said, "Why did you make a film about such a disgusting lowlife?" but I never posed this question to myself. You see, I love Down There very much. I am always drawn by the fairy tale aura of the American detective novel---as I also was in The Bride Wore Black. Both films are like Cocteau flms, mixing elements that are typically American and typically French and thus achieving an effect that is timeless, without country...

S: Not of this world.

T: Exactly. Well put. Not of this world. That's what I want. When Godard saw Shoot the Piano Player, he said this is the first film laid in a country of imagination. I don't think one should say at the beginning of a film, "This takes place in a purely imaginary world," because then the audience will certainly feel let down since they will expect too much. But the audience should be made to feel gradually, while watching the film, that they are in no certain place.

S: In Jules and Jim, what do you think of Catherine?

T: She is totally fabulous. If you met such a woman in real life, you would see in her only faults--which the film ignores.

S: Not at all. In fact, many critics--at least in America--asserted that Catherine was a witch, a neurotic, a man-eater.

T: You know what a French psychiatrist said: "Jules and Jim is about two children in love with their mother."

S: As far as you're concerned, why does Catherine kill Jim?

T: Because it happens in the last pages of the novel. Even the casket in the flames comes from the book. Everything I show is from the novel. I can't say why she killed him because the book doesn't say. It isn't a psychological novel. It is simply a love story that started and finished. If there is one difference between film and book, it is that the film is more puritanical. You see I was under thirty when I made it, whereas the novel's author was a man of seventy-three.

S: Why did you put in the book-burning sequence?

T: Because Jim is German, and that is the Reichstag fire. So far as I was concerned, that marks the end of an epoch--an epoch of artists and dilettantes. Moreover, it prepares us for the burning of Jim and Catherine which ends the film.

S: Yes. This historical diminsion is very important in the film. Isn't that why each successive scene includes a Picasso from a later period? Isn't that the way you mark time?

T: Yes.

S: This film is full of photographs, this story is full of stories. Why?

T: Jules and Jim was an autobiographical novel, written fifty years after the events reported in it. What I admired about the book was not only the story, but the temporal distance, which I had somehow to render on film. Thus I rarely shot the characters in close-up, and when I did, I tried to give full-length views. I wanted the film to look like an album of old photographs.

S: You so often answer my questions about your intentions by saying you do what you do to be faithful to the novel you are adapting. What about Fahrenheit 451, which is very untrue to the spirit of its source? Ray Bradbury's novel is an allegory about the McCarthy era, highly political in its theme. Were you aware of this? In any case, why doesn't the political dimension appear in your film?

T: It is not the sort of thing that interests me. I usually make films from books I admire, as I've told you. Fahrenheit 451 was different. One day I was having a conversation with a friend about science fiction, which I told him I didn't like because it is too far from reality, too arbitrary in its events, incapable of rousing any emotions in me. In rebuttal, my friend told me of the plot of Bradbury's book, describing a society in which books were forbidden, in which firemen did not put out fires but set them in order to burn books, in which men who wanted to read were forced to commit the text to memory. When I heard all this, I instantly decided to make the film, but I had not actually read the novel.

S: Do you have a special feeling for books?

T: No. I love them and films equally, but how I love them! When I first saw Citizen Kane, I was certain that never in my life had I loved a person the way I loved that film. My feeling is expressed in that scene in The 400 Blows where Antoine lights a candle before the picture of Balzac.

S: You say that politics didn't interest you as a theme for Fahrenheit 451. But though the reference is different from Bradbury's, your film does have a slight suggestion of political allegory. The firemen wear quasi-Nazi uniforms, Oskar Werner has a thick German accent, and anyone who comes to the film after seeing Jules and Jim sees in the earlier film's newsreel sequence about the Reichstag fire a sort of model for Fahrenheit 451.

T: Originally, Fahrenheit 451 was to have been made in France with Jean-Paul Belmondo. I couldn't find financing here and so had to shoot the film in England with Oskar Werner, who had not been my first choice for the starring role. I did want an actor of his type--one more poetic than psychological--but I did not want an actor with a German accent. During the shooting I kept telling him to play Montag gently; he decided to play the man as a Nazi.

S: Beginning with Fahrenheit, the infuence of Hitchcock seems to make itself felt. Is that why you made a studio film and used back projection in the Hitchcock manner?

T: That has nothing to do with Hitchcock. We were in England, yet I wanted to show the French countryside. Consequently, I had to shoot in a studio and project the French countryside on a screen behind the action.

S: I have the impression that this film began to bore you while you were making it. The first fifteen minutes are utterly successful: tense and moving. Later you dissipate the tension by little jokes that seem to subvert the film's seriousness. For example, when Cyril Cusack (the chief) leads the firemen in a book search in a park, he finds a minuscule book in a baby's pram and wags a finger at the child. Later, when Montag has begun to read and is rejected by the firepole (which men go up rather than down), Cusack turns to him and says, "What's this, Montag, something wrong between you and the pole?" At the end of the film, when we meet the book people who have "become" books, a set of twins appears, one named Pride, the other Prejudice. And so on.

T: Ha-ha. You know it is oppressive for me to make a film on a "big subject." I found this film lacking in humor and so put in those jokes you mention. But perhaps some of them are wrong. You see, if I had done the film in French, I would have had complete control of the language; in English, I never quite knew if a line was right. Making Fahrenheit is what taught me that dialogue was more important in a film than I had realized. It is, in fact, the most important thing. With images, if they are good, one attains seventy percent of possible satisfaction; with good dialogue, one attains perhaps ninety percent. The most personal of attributes is one's fingerprint; dialogue is the fingerprint of a film. In Fahrenheit 451 I was blocked by my imperfect control over the dialogue, and therefore, I was frustrated. Since then, you will note, all my films have a lot of dialogue in them.

S: Since you like dialogue so much, why don't you write plays?

T: I am bothered by the theater. The performance is not the same every night. Besides, I hate to talk to several people at once.

S: I can't find any significance in The Soft Skin. It seems almost a documentary.
T: But a documentary powerfully dramatized!

S: I wonder about that and about numerous implausibilities. Why should so lovely a girl be attracted by the middle-aged hero, Lachenay?

T: But that is very normal. In life one never stops wondering what someone sees in someone else.

S: All right. I accept the fact that she falls in love with him, but can I believe that she spends all those hours sitting in a restaurant listening to him lecture about Balzac?

T: Even an unappealing man becomes appealing when he discusses his work. That's why I made him discuss Balzac not in a scholarly way but as if he were describing a football match. His profound involvement in his subject moves her.
S: Do you think Francoise Dorleac listens in that way?

T: She needn't show her interest. She is a girl of the twentieth century impressed by a man of the nineteenth.

S: The film is full of uneventful shots of objects. Were you trying to establish a certain style with this mute realism?

T: That didn't give a style to the film; it is its style

S: Stolen Kisses seems more improvisational than your other films.

T: It was.

S: How did the improvisations take place? Were you or Leaud their guiding spirit?

T: The improvisations were forced on both of us because of the desperate state I was in when the film was made. Nothing worked. I had already written The Wild Child and Mississippi Mermaid, yet I was shackled to a rotten project. I got into it because I had wanted to make another film with Leaud but couldn't find any material. We began with a vacuum that had to be filled. We said, "Let him have a sweetheart, let him have an affair with a married woman, let him work for a detective agency, etc."

S: What did you rely on to hold it all together?

T: Leaud. There are actors who are interesting even if they merely stand in front of a door; Leaud is one of them.

S: One of the best scenes in Stolen Kisses occurs when the homosexual comes to the detective in search of his missing boyfriend. One hand, which is gloved, caresses the other, suggesting subtly but brilliantly the nature of the man.

T: The gesture was improvised. We hit on it naturally because everything about that character needed to be bizarre.

S: It's particularly interesting because the homosexual's love is both more powerful and more moving than the normal affairs of Antoine.

T: But this is a true story which a friend learned while interviewing a detective. The dentist in the film is also taken from real life. Everything in that film is true.
S: One of the film's most striking scenes shows Antoine looking into the mirror and chanting the names of the two women in his life. How did you hit on this idea?

T: I needed to show that Antoine was torn between them, but there was no other character in the film whom he could talk to. Therefore, I had him talk to himself.

S: It is very charming. But, you know, many people hold that sort of charm against you. They say you calculate such effects simply to please, with one eye cocked at the audience.

T: But the scene isn't charming. It is long and makes people uneasy. In Germany, they cut it.

S: But what about the general point?

T: The role of Antoine is so close both to me and to Jean-Pierre Leaud that we never think of other people. For example, Antoine never quarrels with anyone in the films because I am the same way. If a quarrel begins, I simply leave.

S: Is that why you don't correct misinterpretations of your work?

T: In The 400 Blows I thought I had presented the parents and Antoine very naturally. The parents were guilty of showing so little love, but, after all, Antoine was very difficult. Then, to my surprise, I found that audiences thought the film slanted in the child's favor. But one learns to live with misunderstanding. Once the film is finished, that's all I care about.

S: Did you ever feel that way as a critic?

T: I never understood the meaning of a film. I am very concrete. I only understand what is on the screen. In my whole life, I have never understood a single symbol.

S: I would like to talk about Mississippi Mermaid for a while. Andrew Sarris pointed out that the film was cut in New York.

T: Though the film wasn't very expensive, United Artists considered it a major project, and because of the stars, they had high hopes for its success. But the film was a big flop in Paris. The critics didn't like it, nor did the public--perhaps because Deneuve and Belmondo didn't appear in their usual sort of roles. Owing to the Paris reception, United Artists asked me to let them cut about eight minutes out of the film when it opened in New York. I could have refused, but in this business I hate to see people losing money on my account. I should have held out, though, because when the film opened in Japan, it proved a smash: my greatest success and the greatest success either Deneuve or Belmondo had ever experienced.

S: Are you now able to control the cuts producers wish to make?

T: One never has that power. Frequently, one simply doesn't know what has been done. For example, I only learned about the cuts in Stolen Kisses because a journalist who had seen the film in an art house supported by the government complained that it was shocking to see cuts in films presented under such auspices. The journalist's article forced the cinema distributor to replace the scenes. But, of course, that doesn't always happen, much less get reported.

S: Many people in the States thought the stars implausible in their roles.

T: Implausibility is not a crime in all films. Mississippi Mermaid is a fairy tale for adults.

S: Don't you rather over emphasize that fact--so much so that your serious ideas get compromised? For example, why did you superimpose that colored map of Reunion every time Belmondo took a trip there? I felt the need for more authenticity and fewer tricks to prepare the audience for your final statement about love.

T: It's possible.

S: It seemed to me that footage from Fahrenheit 451 gets reused when Belmondo has his dream at the clinic.

T: It seems that way to me, too. Actually, the scene was shot with a monorail in Fahrenheit, whereas in Mermaid a road of trees were used. It is, you are quite right, the same effect with different means, but I think it works better in Fahrenheit.

S: Why did you include that shot in which Belmondo climbs Deneuve's balcony? It seems to me only an opportunity for Belmondo to show off his athleticism.

T: Not at all. I did it for myself. First, I set the scene in that square because it is named after Jacques Audiberti, a French writer for whom I have the deepest admiration and whom I always think of when making my films. I wanted it to be very hard for Belmondo to get into Deneuve's room, but also unusual. So I couldn't have him wait for the concierge to leave or somehow steal the key. When I got to the square, I noticed this house with many balconies. First, I had a sign hung, turning it into a hotel (the sign says "Hotel Monorail" because Monorail is the title of one of Audiberti's novels). Then I thought that I would shoot the whole scene of Deneuve leaving the hotel and entering the cabaret and then of Belmondo going to the hotel and climbing from one balcony to the other in one single movement of the camera. That was a fascinating shot. He climbs so I could take it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Here and Now

On CNN I caught the preview of Hereafter, the new Clint Eastwood film, and I had to endure the comments of one of the network's movie reviewers, who couldn't help calling the film "depressing." My immediate reaction was to wonder if the young man was perhaps too emotionally fragile to be a film critic - people who are routinely subjected to affronts to their sensibilities.

Hereafter is about a psychic (Matt Damon) and three people who have been confronted with death. I commented on this phenomenon a few months ago in a post called
Talking to the Dead. The CNN reviewer found it necessary to remind me that this is not what people go to the movies for - having to deal with depressing subjects - since, he argued (lamely) their own lives are depressing enough already.

I don't expect Eastwood's film will be anything but another of his nice tries (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus). His work has certainly been notably sanguinary. Once, in Pale Rider, he even played Death. So, I suppose, at the age of 80 he is qualified to tackle the subject more directly.

Death is an undeniably disagreeable subject. Even people who profess to believe in some kind of "hereafter" aren't attracted by the idea. But the wholesale avoidance of "depressing" subjects in movies and books falls under the general rubric of escapism, which is still something of a dirty word for a serious artist (almost as dirty as the word "serious" to the average consumer). For those who demand that art should only flatter and reassure us, there is a whole range of experience that is effectively off limits to the writer or filmmaker.

However instinctive the avoidance of pain may be, it is occasionally instructive to address weighty issues with the gravity they deserve. The real problem arises when a work of art challenges us to look at our own lives as fearlessly as it does the lives of its fictional heroes. Even a painting or sculpture can present us with such a challenge. When Rilke saw a Greek sculpture of the torso of Apollo, it moved him so deeply that he composed a poem devoted to its beauty, and ended it with the exhortation "Du mußt dein Leben ändern."

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.

(H. Landman, trans.)

Rilke was pointing out, as it forever needs pointing out, that after the encounter with great art, we cannot simply return to our old lives. We have been changed, and it remains for us to change our lives.

If the lives of all those filmgoers mentioned by that CNN critic are depressing enough without their wishing to be further depressed by a serious consideration of a serious subject, a great artist (not dear old Clint) would have told them to change their lives. How many of them would be listening?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Measure for Measure

People have been extolling the advantages of the metric system for decades without convincing anyone that a meter is better than a yard merely because it is divisible by ten. Now that all the attempts to convince the American public that it is more handy or more "rational" than our old-fashioned units of measure have failed, I am left questioning why it was ever attempted in the first place.

The reasoning behind the adoption of the metric system was fairly straightforward, if not well enough argued: why have a system of measurement that is based on antiquated and outmoded standards (for example, a mile is made up of 5,280 feet) when there is another system in which every unit is more easily calculable by the number ten? Scientists have been using the metric system exclusively for this reason, so why shouldn't everyone else use it?

The problem with switching to a different system is more than just familiarity with the old one. Regardless of the fact that it would take years for everyone to accustom themselves to a new system, there is no convincing reason to switch. Having lived for several years in Asia, in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, countries which use the metric system for everything, I am no closer today to being comfortable with it than when I first arrived. When I or someone close to me is feeling ill and I want to take their temperature, I still have trouble accepting 37 degrees as a "normal" temperature, equivalent to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Nor is the prevailing heat in the Philippines any more bearable because it is measured as 36 degrees rather than 95. Nor do any of my vital statistics make sense to me, like my height (178 centimeters) or my weight (85 kilos).

When I was in the Army, I would participate in what were called road marches, which were nothing but long hikes in troop boots with overloaded ruck sacks that destroyed my feet. In Korea there was the infamous "Manchu Mile" road march, which was actually 25 kilometers, or 15 1/2 miles. It was one of the few occasions when the metric system was an agreeable alternative.

When I started driving in Okinawa, on the left side of the road and the steering wheel on the right side of the car, I noticed that the speed limit of 40 kmph seemed a little slow. When I figured out that it was 25 mph, I realized that speeding was the only way I was ever going to get anywhere.

Another problem to consider is the eventual loss of our understanding of the old system used in our literature. Will we have to convert Shylock's pound of flesh into .45 kilo? And how prosaic it would sound if Robert Frost had had "kilometers to go" before he slept!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Digging for the Truth

After contacting Gary Morris, co-editor with Bert Cardullo of the book Action!: Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran, about the suspect interview with François Truffaut included in their book, and reprinted by Richard Brody on The New Yorker last August, he communicated his own misgivings to Brody, who has since unearthed more interviews with Truffaut on Youtube that contain further material that reappears, without credit, in Cardullo's interview. Clearly, if some of the interview is borrowed from other sources, it is enough reason to suspect that the whole thing was borrowed.

I had intended to write in my post François & Bert Part I that it remained for a researcher more intrepid than I to discover if the rest of the Cardullo interview was lifted from other sources. I have been in the Philippines since late 2007, without access to a dedicated PC (I use internet cafes exclusively), so I had neither the time nor the pera to conduct the research myself. Thanks to Gary Morris and Richard Brody, someone else in this business is on top of this serious issue. I shall, of course, keep this blog posted for further developments.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

François & Bert Part II

The following is a transcript of an interview with François Truffaut first aired in 1965. Conducted in French, the interview, along with an earlier interview I transcribed in its entirety in my last post, is included in the bonus features of the Criterion DVD of The 400 Blows. I have omitted statements from the interview made by Claude de Givray, Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Albert Rémy. Most of Truffaut's statements also appear, often verbatim, in "Truffaut's Last Interview" purportedly conducted by Bert Cardullo five months before Truffaut's death in 1984.

Cinéastes de notre temps

December 2, 1965
"François Truffaut ou l'esprit critique"
Produced by Janine Bazin, André Sylvain Labarthe
Directed by Jean-Pierre Chartier

"François Truffaut is 33. He's spent half his time since the age of ten watching and judging movies. He became a film critic at 20 and directed his first film at 25. Now a director, he is still an avid and critical spectator, even of his own films."

TRUFFAUT (standing on the balcony of his Montmartre apartment): I'd love to have the same apartment in Place Clichy. Unfortunately my place is here, but my consolation is that from here I can see Sacré Cœur and Montmartre.

INTERVIEWER: Is is because it holds personal childhood memories that you came back to it in at least two of your films, The 400 Blows and Love at Twenty?

TRUFFAUT: Yes, probably. It's easier to orient myself and to shoot in familiar streets. And because when you're writing, you think of people and places you know. so I think you come back to these people and places you know.

The first films I really admired were French films since I started going to the movies during the war. Films like The Raven and The Devil's Envoys. These are movies I soon wanted to see several times. At first it was by accident, because I would see them on the sly, and then my parents would sometimes say, "Let's go to the movies," so I'd see it again, because I couldn't say I'd already seen it. But it made me want to see films again, so that three years later, after the liberation, I'd seen the Raven maybe eight or ten times. I knew the dialogue by heart. but after I met my friends with whom I ended up working at Cahiers, like Jacques Rivette and others, I turned away from french film. Rivette thought it absurd that I'd seen Children of Paradise 14 times and knew The Raven by heart. He didn't care about that stuff. He only cared about the mise-en-scène. Probably under the influence of Rivette and others at Cahiers, I set all that aside for awhile, but it's coming back now.

I would try to make people want to see certain films. I was really trying to turn them away from other films. Now I prefer nuances. I'm much less dogmatic.

My mistakes in Les Mistons made me realize that in The 400 Blows I should stick close to childhood, and above all to a documentary style. Use as little fiction as possible. In the beginning of the New Wave, people opposed to the young filmmakers' new films said, "All in all, it's not very different from what was done before." I think that the plan - I don't know if there was actually a plan - but as far as I'm concerned, it never occurred to me, if I were to make films, to revolutionize cinema or express myself differently than previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was fine. It just lacked sincerity. I'd do the same thing, but better. There's a famous quote by Malraux, "A masterpiece isn't better rubbish." But I thought that good films were just bad films made better. In other words, I don't see much difference between a film like Good-bye Again and my latest film, The Soft Skin. It's the same thing, same film, except that in The Soft Skin the actors suit the roles they play. We made things ring true, or a least we tried to. But in the other, nothing rang true because it wasn't the right film for Ingrid Bergman or Anthony Perkins or Yves Montand. So it was based on a lie right from the start. The idea isn't to create some new and different cinema, but to make the existing one more true. That's what I had in mind. There isn't a huge difference between Chiens perdus sans collier and The 400 Blows. They're the same, or at least very close. I just wanted to make mine because I didn't like the other. That's all.

In my first film, The 400 Blows, Vigo's influence is obvious. But an influence that went unnoticed was Germany Year Zero. It was the only film where a child was depicted documentary-style and was portrayed more seriously than the adults around him. It was the first time that children were portrayed as the center of gravity, and it's the atmosphere around them that's frivolous. It reinforced a trait already in Renoir, the desire to stay very close to life and to use a documentary style. Rossellini says you shouldn't write scripts, that only swine write scripts. That the conflict in a film simply emerges from the facts. A character from a given country at a given time confronted with another character from a different country - it's the natural conflict between them. You start from that. There's no need to invent anything.

When we started The 400 Blows, I started making script sheets. School: various gags at school. Home: various gags at home. Street: some gags in the street. I think everyone works that way, at least for a lot of films. You do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, of course, was often based on memories. I realized you can really exercise your memory in this regard. I had found a class photo in the classic pose, with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could only remember the names of two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning, I remembered their names, their parents' jobs and where they lived. It was around that time that I met Moussy and started to ask him if he'd like to work with me on it. I played hooky quite a bit, so all these problems with notes, signatures, fake excuses, signed report cards, I knew them by heart, of course.

INTERVIEWER: Including hiding school bags behind doors?


INTERVIEWER: To go to the movies?

TRUFFAUT: Yes, because two or three of the theaters in Paris opened at 10 a.m. The clientele was made up almost exclusively of school children. You couldn't go with your school bag, it would look suspicious. There were two theaters facing each other, the Cinéac-Italiens and the New York. Each morning around 9:45, there'd be 50 or 70 children waiting. The first theater to open would get all the business, because we were anxious to hide. We felt awfully exposed out in the middle of all that.

If I needed a specific intonation, I'd say, "This is what you say, but you also think this in your head." For example, in The 400 Blows, there's the scene where the child goes to school without a note after a three-day absence, and he decides to say his mother died. We don't know he's decided to say that, only that he'll say something huge. He could use a number of ways to say his mother had died. He could be shifty or sad or whatever. I decided he should give the impression he doesn't want to say it. That he doesn't dare say it but that the teacher pushed him to say it. The teacher says, "Where's your note?" and the child says, "It's my mother, sir." The teacher says, "Your mother? What about her?" It's only because he teacher badgers him that he suddenly decides to fight back and say, "She's dead!" I told him to think in his head, "She's dead! What do you say to that?" He doesn't say it, but he thinks it, and that gives him the exact look and tone of voice I wanted, even the upturned head. That's a lie you can only use once.

I only think about specific filmmakers when I'm faced with a specific problem, and more during editing than filming. If I filmed the father coming to the classroom and slapping his son, after the son returned to school and said his mother was dead, then I'd have problems editing because I wanted fast action and I could only get that with a lot of cutting. The rest of the film was just capturing situations. I knew I'd have to create the drama, and I thought of Hitchcock. Otherwise I had no point of reference. I had no idea how to edit the scene. I knew how things seem so intense in Hitchcock's work. I knew I had to show the headmaster, then there's a noise at the door, the headmaster goes to the door, the boy's senses it's about him, then you see the mother. For example, I told Claire Maurier that when she got to the window, instead of scanning the classroom for her son, as might be natural since she's never been there before, I had her look right at the boy's desk. I knew that would create the dramatic effect, and not the reality of looking for her son. They were really in school, these kids. They're all doing something different, something realistic. It's fantastic. Without being told, they have an extraordinary sense of what's real.

The boy can't face going home because he told such a huge lie and it made trouble at school. This was a huge thing for me. I'm very realistic, and it went against my grain. I managed it be remembering Renoir and a specific scene in La bête humaine, where Jean Gabin, after killing Simone Simon, comes back to the locomotive the next morning and very simply says to Carette - and it was this simplicity that made it all work - "I'll never see her again. I killed her."

The idea was to do a scene [in Love at Twenty] that progressed as the music did. A musical fugue. Here's the Salle Pleyel full of young people. Of course, in a scene like this, you don't know when the audience will notice what you want it to notice. In this case, the young girl. I think it's about here. Yes, there it is. To achieve a certain intensity, the camera moves in closer. I don't know how long this scene is, but its rather long. What I look for is the counterpoint between the music and the action. This is connected to a memory of mine, because my ant used to be a violinist and I'd seen her play in a concert. This scene could come off as a bit suggestive, but it works because of Jean-Pierre's innocence and the characters' youth. So it's not suggestive at all. But film it with different actors and it becomes very suggestive. That interests me, and I did it again in The Soft Skin. I stretched moments that I find too short in other films. Moments when people meet. A director's struggle with timing is a very personal thing that goes on all his life. I find it heartening in a way that Hitchcock, after 52 films, still struggles with timing. I find that incredible. And I think it's really an important aspect of film.

[Just to give readers some idea of how many people don't look at their own products, a link to the Cardullo interview on The New Yorker website can be found on Criterion's page for their DVD of The 400 Blows.]

Sunday, October 10, 2010

François & Bert Part I

[As a follow up to my previous post, "A Hard Act to Follow," the following is a transcript of an interview (the subtitles, that is) that was part of the Cinépanorama television program aired (in France) on 20 February 1960. The words in boldface appear, almost verbatim, in another interview that professor and film critic Bert Cardullo claims he conducted with François Truffaut in 1984, five months before his death. Richard Brody reprinted that interview last August in The New Yorker and an observant reader named C. Keller called attention to the coincidence of the interviews, along with another longer interview from 1965 that I will include in my next post.]


A mechanical toy elephant blowing bubbles sits on a desk between François Truffaut and France Roche.

Voice of Jean Bescont: "This cute animal is not just for decoration. We put it there to set the mood for the young director of The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, who is just back from the U.S., and you'll see that France Roche wanted to minimize the culture shock."

France Roche (speaking in English): François Truffaut, what do you think of Brigitte Bardot?

François Truffaut: (responding in French): Brigitte Bardot is special in that she wasn't made a star by the producers, but rather by the public, which is very rare. Usually it's the producer who makes a star, but here it was the public that wanted to make this starlet into a real star. I only wish she appeared in better films.

FR (in English): And what do you think of Charles de Gaulle? [the rest of the interview is conducted in French]

FT: Oh, well!

FR: Those were the questions the American press asked most frequently during your recent trip to America. Did they ask other questions?

FT: Of course they asked me about the New Wave because they're very interested by this phenomenon, which reached there several months later than in France. But there's now a street in New York where they show only French films. On that street, you can see The Lovers, The Cousins and The 400 Blows.

FR: Are they interested as press or as film lovers?

FT: They're really enthusiastic. They even know about French films that haven't been released in Paris yet. They're very curious about everything made in France and the new cinema, above all.

FR: As an ex-journalist, did you want to ask them questions?

FT: Sure, I asked them about American cinema, to which we owe so much and which they don't know very well. Especially early American cinema, which they hardly know and even scorn.

FR: What filmmakers did you talk about?

FT: I talked about Sidney Lumet, Robert Mulligan, Frank Tashlin, Arthur Penn, types of movies we've seen little of in Paris, but that we liked a lot and which they've barely seen.

FR: Why did you like them?

FT: Because they're a total renewal of American cinema, a little like some films in France made by young directors. They're extremely alive, like very early, primitive American film, and at the same time quite intellectual. They manage to unite the best of both.

FR: Why do they scorn these filmmakers?

FT: Basically because they don't know them very well, and because they aren't successful. Success is everything in America.

FR: Your film, on the other hand, was very successful, since it won the New York Film Critics prize.

FT: Yes, it enjoyed a certain ambiguous success, since it's a French product. When it was released in New York four months ago, the theaters were empty until the reviews came out. Since the reviews were flattering, the theaters filled up. I think business was starting to slow down right when the American critics decided to name it best foreign film.

FR: And then the people came back?

FT: The people came back, and when I arrived in New York, I think it was starting to slow down again. But we gave interviews and made the papers and all that, and I believe it started up again. It's been showing for four months, but it could slow down again.

FR: If ticket sales slow down, you pack your bags?

FT: No, we'll have to come up with something different.

FR: As a former critic, if you had to talk about The 400 Blows, would you have spoken about it in the terms your colleagues have?

FT: Probably not. I honestly think I'd like it, because I like the ideas in it - they're good ideas - but I wouldn't have gone as far as most of the critics did. I couldn't have called it a masterpiece or a great work of art, because I can see too clearly what's experimental or clumsy in it.

FR: Is it awkward, for a writer-director, to have been a critic? When you start a scene, does the critic in you tap you on the shoulder and say "I don't think so!"

FT: It is indeed rather awkward, because I've seen nearly 3,000 films. I always tend to think, "But that was done in such and such a film. This or that is no good." Plus, I'm very skeptical of story lines, so that no script can escape analysis. I turn it around in my head and I often want to drop the film at the last minute.

FR: So how do you ever manage to make a film?

FT: Because the advantage of cinema over novels, for example, is that you can't just drop it. The machine's in gear, contracts are signed. I like actors a lot, at least some, or those I choose. There are promises to be kept. It's a motivation to keep your work. But once you're in it, once you start shooting, those types of problems fall away, those doubts of a general nature. Then there are just daily problems, strictly technical, that you can solve amid the noise and the laughter, and it's quite exhilarating. Then, when the film is over, the doubts come back.

FR: Was The 400 Blows received in the same way in every country?

FT: No. It sold in almost every country, but it flopped in Italy, fore example, perhaps because it is similar to Italian films, and they always flop in Italy.

FR: Good thing Italian films make up for it abroad.

FT: Yes, that's true. But it didn't go over very well in Germany either.

FR: In what country did it work?

FT: It worked in Japan and Holland. It will be released in England soon. Russia bought it, but Spain doesn't want it, for example, despite the Catholic prize we won in Cannes.

FR: Why?

FT: They wanted to cut out so much that it would end up being a short, so they aren't interested.

FR: What did they want to cut? And why?

FT: Cuts on moral grounds, which I admit I don't quite understand. I think it's the situations: adultery, a child seeing his mother with another man, or escaping from reform school, things like that.

FR: You can't escape from reform school?

FT: Not in Spain.

FR: Your film met with some reaction from French censors, didn't it?

FT: It was shown to the censors during the Cannes Festival but before the jury made its decision, so it was rated for 16 years and over. Two days later, we were awarded best director and the Catholic prize, and the 16+ rating was rescinded.

FR: Were the censors afraid they'd look like idiots?

FT: I think that's it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Hard Act to Follow

[The following piece, published in the April-June 2007 issue of Senses of Cinema, was the last thing I published prior to leaving the U.S. It raised an issue that, as far as I could tell, went unnoticed. Cardullo is now teaching in Izmir, Turkey. He has not contributed to The Hudson Review, where he was a featured contributor, since this was published. He has, however, published books on film. The reason why I decided to write the review is simply that I wanted to know why Cardullo, who is obviously capable of original and excellent work, wrote it in the first place and how it could've been published (since 1997) without anyone noticing the - to me anyway - obvious problem of authorship. Interestingly, someone identifying themselves as "C.Keller," wrote a comment on "Truffaut's Last Interview," posted by Richard Brody on the New Yorker website on August 16, 2010: "I would invite all readers of this piece, put forward by Cardullo as a last interview with François Truffaut conducted in May 1984, to compare numerous passages, sentence for sentence and word for word, with footage featuring Truffaut speaking in two of the supplements that most recently appeared on the Criterion disc of 'The 400 Blows' — specifically, the extracts from "Cinépanorama" and "Cinéastes de notre temps," which, before being made available (and English-subtitled) for an anglophone audience via the Criterion release, were originally broadcast in France in 1960 and 1965 respectively. —c. keller.
Posted 9/6/2010, 12:08:48pm by evillights." A thorough analysis of Cardullo's writings may be more necessary than I thought in 2007.]

A Hard Act to Follow:
In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art by Bert Cardullo

I write about the cinema because I believe that it is the true Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art) and therefore has greater expressive capacity than any other art; because I agree with the pronouncement that, as the one technology that can be absolutely humanist in its outcome, which can embody all the technological impulses, cravings, and interests of our age in the employ, not of machinery, but of the human spirit, film was the art form of the twentieth century and continues to be in the twenty-first; and because I think that criticism of film, still the least appreciated of the arts, matters.
– Bert Cardullo, “First Principles”

“Following Dwight Macdonald is a dirty trick”, Wilfrid Sheed wrote on assuming the duties of film critic for Esquire in 1967 (1). Macdonald, full-time radical scion and part-time film enthusiast, had abruptly abandoned the post for a column on politics. Sheed would later refer obliquely to Macdonald’s defection by claiming that a particularly useless film under review was “enough to drive one to politics”.

No less dirty was Bert Cardullo’s task as successor to Vernon Young at The Hudson Review in 1987. It was Young who had introduced the late Frederick Morgan, founder of the Review, to the novel idea that there was room in a highbrow literary magazine for serious ruminations on an upstart medium, and he certainly proved it for 30 years. It is to his credit that Cardullo made the transition almost painless. However, as we shall see, it was to be a particularly long shadow that Young cast over Cardullo.

As Cardullo points out in his introduction to this collection of his writings, In Search of Cinema, Robert Warshow was “the first American critic to write film chronicles, or quarterly considerations of new movies, as opposed to daily, weekly, or even monthly reviews” (p. 3). Contrary to the opposable thumbs – those interchangeable mass consumption reviewers whose opinions are as tasteless and insubstantial as fast food – Cardullo is in the privileged position to thresh the wheat from the chaff before committing a single word to paper. The result is more timeless than timely: rather than encapsulating the intermittent highs and the interminable lows of week-to-week filmgoing, Cardullo devotes his spacious column exclusively to films of lasting value, and not just throughout the period represented by this collection (1994-2003). In “Part Three: Form, Genre, Oeuvre, and Other Arts”, there are astute reflections on classic films such as Mario Monicelli’s I Campagni (The Strikers aka The Organizer, 1963), David Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), and Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928).

But the films of lasting merit that were produced during the period encompassed by this collection are given additional resonance in Cardullo’s splendid chronicles: Ta’m e guilass (Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami, 1997), The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999), Ni neibian jidian (What Time is it There?, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001), Eu Tu Eles (Me You Them, Andrucha Waddington, 2000), La Stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti, 2001), Sous le sable (Under the Sand, François Ozon, 2000), Kadosh (Amos Gitai, 1999), Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1999), and Wo de fu qin mu qin (The Road Home, Zhang Yimou, 1999). Cardullo is also reliable for shedding welcome light on otherwise overlooked films like Hans Petter Moland’s Aberdeen (2000), as well as numerous films by the Iranians Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi.

Cardullo also offers a refreshing change from the politically driven criticism of J. Hoberman, Godfrey Cheshire, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, to name only the most brazen. It was only occasionally that Vernon Young let his politics slip, and they were decidedly reactionary: “Socialism is where Europe goes when it dies” (2). Cardullo does let fly with a riposte of his own in “Wooden Allen, or Artificial Exteriors”, an essay I will return to shortly. Astonishingly, he managed to fit it all into one sentence:

Unlike a host of American movies in which the citizenry’s blindest self-satisfactions with the status quo are upheld, or in which the most immoral and fantastic projections of callow romanticism, spurious religiosity, or miserable sentimentality are indulged, these films [Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), and Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)] insist on writing down contemporary American society as they see it: a society alarmingly animated by powerful minority factions that are debased and selfish when they are not downright criminal; that is grotesquely peopled by a fringe of parasites surrendered to listless perversions or violent exploitations, or alternatively populated by a growing number of decent yet subsocial creatures who lead unexamined if not unworthy lives; that is forever encumbered by a floating majority, pitifully bewildered, vulgarized, and juvenile, which is sadomasochistic at its core, hence wanting in all resolution, guidance, and dignity except perhaps in time of war. (pp. 254-255)

This might come across as hyperbole, were it not for the sentence that immediately follows it: “If this is not the whole truth about the American experience, it is that part of the truth most commonly suppressed for public consumption.”

If Cardullo’s politics sound more than a little complementary to Young’s, this should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the essay that contains the passage above. Along with this collection, Cardullo has assembled textbook editions of his own writings (3), as well as The Film Criticism of Vernon Young (4), the definitive collection of all of Young’s far-flung writings on film not included in the single volume published in his lifetime, On Film. Although Cardullo was the logical choice for the job, I remain at a loss as to how or why he found it necessary to borrow freely (and this is putting it gently) from an essay that Young originally published in the January 1979 issue of Commentary, and which Cardullo included in The Film Criticism of Vernon Young on pages 270-279. “Autumn Interiors” was Young’s comparison of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978) and Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978), to the ultimate detriment of both:

If, without knowing anything whatever about the work of either director, one had seen Woody Allen’s Interiors and Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata in the order of their respective debuts in New York City, one might have easily concluded that the Swedish film-maker had attempted to imitate the American: the same photographic and cutting style, the same concentration on a handful of overwrought characters, and the very same subject – namely, maternal domination. (p. 270)

Young was out to satirise Bergman’s “monastic style” as much as Allen’s apparent admiration for it: “That Allen should have been trapped by so obvious an error as to believe that you can depict tragedy by imitating the surface of it from someone else’s version is really amazing.” (p. 277)

No less amazing is that Young’s very words appear in two of Cardullo’s essays included in In Search of Cinema: “Wooden Allen, or Artificial Exteriors” and “Latter-Day Bergman”. And they appear uncredited. Cardullo had published a different version of these essays combined in the Antioch Review in 2000. It was then titled, “Autumn Interiors, or The Ladies Eve: Woody Allen’s Bergman Complex”. Proportionately, only about one-third of either essay consists of material composed by Cardullo. The rest is Young’s essay, carefully rearranged to make up two separate but – needless to say – complementary essays. The obvious care with which Cardullo does this is, of course, in direct proportion to the astonishment it engenders. That some apparent pains were taken to match not only the points of Young’s argument but its very qualities as written English is disturbing. That it has managed to go undiscovered is perhaps indicative of the offhandedness with which so many such books are customarily greeted.

Short of providing a facsimile of all three essays, here is one paragraph from Young’s original (from the collection edited by Cardullo), followed by Cardullo’s essay as it appears in In Search of Cinema:

Allen tries harder – perhaps too hard – to keep his settings from becoming as cluttered as his language, staging crucial scenes at the dining table, in the bedroom, in an empty church, at a beach house, as a means of exiling the everyday world. Self-consciously he employs a camera at rest, passively framing close-ups or middle-distance shots of a static group, except for moments when he is recalling other Bergman strategies: conspicuously, when he tracks two conversing sisters along the beach in a sententious dolly-shot which evokes Persona. (p. 276)

Allen tries hard – perhaps too hard – to keep his settings from becoming as cluttered or static as his language, staging crucial scenes at the dining table and in the bedroom, then in an empty church and at a beach house in an attempt to exile the everyday domestic world. Self-consciously he employs a camera at rest, passively framing close-ups of faces or middle-distance shots of a stationary group, except for moments when he is recalling other Bergman strategies. The most conspicuous of these is the tracking shot of two sisters conversing as they walk along the beach, which sententiously evokes the world of Persona. (p. 258)

In simple bean-counting terms, of the total 107 words in Cardullo’s paragraph, 78 of them are Young’s. And even if Cardullo’s versions are sufficiently leavened with interstices of original prose, it is not nearly enough to disguise the source material to anyone familiar with it (5). But bear in mind that, with only minor differences, these particular essays of Cardullo’s have been in print since 1997 and recast here for publication in 2004, apparently without ever attracting suspicion.

If I admit to taking no personal pride in being the first to point all this out, it is because of the proprietary interest that I take in what I regard is a great American film critic. Cardullo’s immense knowledge of literature, theatre and film has made him an invaluable teacher, literary and stagecraft interlocutor, and – most precious of all – an identifying and celebrating champion of the art of film. As he wrote in his foreword to The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, “He [Young] was one of the great critics of his generation, in any medium, and the writing contained herein proves it” (6). I would write the same of Cardullo and this book, but in my own words.

In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art, by Bert Cardullo, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2004.

1.Wilfrid Sheed, The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1971.
2.Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays On a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, New York, 1972, p. 404.
3.Published as Bert Cardullo, Practical Film Criticism – An Enlightened Approach to Moviegoing Volume One and Volume Two, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York 1999.
4.The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, edited with a foreword by Bert Cardullo, University Press of America, Lanham MD, 1990.
5.See also my “Vernon Young: Unpopular Critic of a Popular Art”, Senses of Cinema, issue 11, December 2000-January 2001.
6.Cardullo, foreword to The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, p. xiv.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Long Goodbye

It would be easy to come away from an Ozu film like Tokyo Story with the impression that he was being pessimistic about life. What Ozu seems to be saying is that people are the way they are - selfish, thoughtless, uncaring - because life in the modern world makes them that way. Only the exceptional children don't grow up to disappoint their parents.

There is a certain amount of resignation in Ozu's sympathetic characters to this, but not, I think, in Ozu himself. The simple fact that he devoted the last dozen years of his long career to depicting the breakup of families, the desertion of parents by their children, shows how Ozu was certainly not resigned to it at all. His films are a powerful protest against change, against the seemingly inevitable disintegration of tradition and custom.

When Alan Booth traveled through provincial Japan in the 1980s, he admitted that he was trying to see as much of the authentic and original aspects of the country as he could before they would disappear forever. Tragically, it was Booth that disappeared, in 1993 from colon cancer. He called his last book Looking for the Lost.

Because of his obstinate loyalty to the Japanese family, some critics* have attacked Ozu as a reactionary defender of Japanese traditional values in their most benign form - the same values that made Japan follow its emperor into World War II. Ozu loved a Japan that barely survived the war and the American occupation. It is the same world that Mikio Naruse explored far more critically, especially its impact on the lives of women. In Ozu, good women know their place and only presume to transcend it at the risk of losing our sympathy.

Some critics are finally wondering if Ozu's loving portraits of fathers finding themselves alone in the final shot after their beloved daughters have gone away are reflections of a gay sensibility. He worked within self-imposed limitations that allowed him enough space to say everything he wanted to say about his time. His films are deceptively still and contemplative. They are, in fact, passionate eulogies of a passing worldview. His favorite characters, exemplars of a lost age, immortalize a way of life that is perhaps better off lost, but vital - even beautiful - enough to give us all pause at its passing.

*Joan Mellen is one.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Superman is Dead

I recently had a chance to see the Merchant/Ivory film The Remains of the Day again, and was pleased to see, among other things in that excellent film, Christopher Reeve. I can't have been alone upon seeing the Bryan Singer remake Superman Returns (yet another of those films that provoke in fans the invariable - and only - response, "Cool!") having the overpowering feeling that it should never have been made. Not only was Christopher Reeve the perfect Superman, he demonstrated with his courage and determination to live after the riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down that he was greater than any conceivable Superman. He both embodied the comic book character and proved what a silly and childish thing it is. Near the end of his life, Reeve was able to breathe on his own and even move his fingers. The Man of Steel, with all his powers, would've peed his little red shorts if he were confronted with such strength.