Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Critical Condition

Nathan Heller


Cahiers du cinéma—the magazine that launched the New Wave, made heroes of Hitchcock and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and grew into a sort of beau ideal for movie criticism—rose from the belief that mainstream moviemaking was a modern art. This wasn’t an especially new idea. The magazine’s founding editors, including André Bazin and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, were critics known already for their Hollywood affinities; Cahiers took its example from the journals they had written for. An avid cinephile who saw the first issue in 1951 would have been caught off guard less by its viewpoints (which squared nicely with those of an avid cinephile) than by its name—cahiers being an odd, recherché reference to assignment books used in French classrooms. “That’s a schoolchild’s belonging,” balked the publisher when he first heard it, “not a title for a magazine.”

From the beginning, though, Cahiers was not simply a magazine. It was a work in progress, and its restive, searching path helps account for its uncommon influence. Emilie Bickerton’s A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma describes that path adroitly but obliquely, giving an intellectual history of what was basically a cultural project. Her book is an elegy to a time when Cahiers seemed to reinvent film culture at every turn.

The reinvention started early. Cahiers began as an outgrowth of French movie culture in the postwar years, when theaters were flooded with foreign cinema, and critics like Bazin and Eric Rohmer ran screenings and colloquies catering to film fanatics. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette all got their starts in these groups before joining the magazine. When people talk about the journal’s “yellow years” (each issue had a yellow cover until 1964), they mean the efflorescence of this first decade: a rush of creativity that culminated in the moment Truffaut freeze-framed Jean-Pierre Léaud on the beach in 1959.

This innovation pushed the boundaries of criticism, too. Cahiers is often associated today with auteur theory—the idea that a masterful director uses the camera and the cutting room with the distinctive style of an author, building an oeuvre, not a disparate smattering of films. But in fact, this way of thinking about filmmakers predates the magazine. What Cahiers really did was change the way film writing regarded the audienceand, more prescriptively, the way the audience should regard itself. Before Cahiers, French cinematic showpieces were born, not made. This “cinéma de qualité” consisted of big-budget efforts, often based on literature and drawn with moralistic chiaroscuro. Truffaut’s 1954 article “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”—what cofounder Jacques Doniol-Valcroze referred to as “the real spirit of Cahiers”—attacked these scripts for their condescension and soggy realism. But the piece was also, less directly, a blow against blithely “satisfied” moviegoers. For Cahiers’s early writers, popular movies were an art form, with the populism and the art being two sides of one coin. They praised directors (like Howard Hawks) who used contemporary life as their donnée and those (like Hitchcock) who took the mass-audience screen as their canvas. From moviegoers, they demanded absolute aesthetic vigilance.

It proved a propitious project: The start of the New Wave in the late ’50s brought Cahiers into the limelight. In 1960, it was selling twelve thousand copies a month to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Even as this success carved out the magazine’s reputation, though, it robbed Cahiers of its afflatus. In 1963, a cabal of impatient writers ousted the culturally conservative Rohmer, then editor, hoping to restore the journal to “the front line of battle.”

But where exactly was that line? The editors’ answer was mercurial, and it hewed uncannily to French intellectual life over the next two decades. The mid-’60s found the journal in a structuralist mood, praising directors for subverting the “myths” of modern culture. From there, it went on to adapt the Marxist thought of Louis Althusser to film and, in the early ’70s, sharpened its polemic into a kind of desultory Maoism. By 1973, most of the early editors had left, and the journal was “almost unrecognizable, transformed into an austere, thick booklet with no photographs and making scant reference to film, instead mapping out the urgent strategies to be undertaken on the ‘cultural front,’” Bickerton writes. In 1974, Cahiers eased off Marx and moved on to Foucault. Its readership was by then less than three thousand.

Meanwhile, the goals of Cahiers’s early mission were forgotten. Contributors during the ’60s and ’70s were mostly career critics concerned with theory, not enthusiasts hoping to reinvent the nation’s cinema. Trying to recover from a crise de foi in the late ’70s, the journal boomeranged back to the mainstream. Bickerton thinks this shift was Cahiers’s death knell—and that the demise continues to this day. “The [new] rhythm of Cahiers was the market,” she writes, “its heartbeat was distributors.”

If you believe Cahiers has lost its way—and evidence suggests it has—the question that follows is how, exactly. Bickerton doesn’t offer a particularly lucid answer. Her attack on today’s incarnation of the magazine blurs into a general interdiction against writing about Hollywood—a critique that, given Cahiers’s early years of doing just that, doesn’t nail the problem. What’s missing besides passion, she proposes, is a “conscious struggle against the existing state of things.” The journal, meanwhile, has gone “from conceiving of film as art to film as culture.” These are baffling complaints. If Cahiers taught us anything, it was that art exists in culture—and that critical invention comes in response, not just resistance, to the reins of the creative market.

Nathan Heller is on the staff of Slate.

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