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Essays (book reviews)

Proof Positive

Positif 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal
Eds. Michel Ciment and Laurence Kardish
(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002)
     and

L'amour du cinema: 50 ans de la revue Positif
Ed. Stéphane Goudet
(Paris: Folio, 2002)

       


It is too generous, in a way, to say that the reason why the French film journal Positif is far less known than its oft-rival Cahiers du cinéma is because of the famous critics-turned-filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Actually, I think the real reason is brutally obvious: intellectual laziness, coupled with an all-too-eager willingness to accept, without question, what is served up as culturally fashionable. It’s like those moments in film culture when, to outsiders, Iranian cinema suddenly ‘becomes’ purely Abbas Kiarostami, or Italian cinema is only (these days) Nanni Moretti, or Egyptian cinema only (ditto) Youssef Chahine. We take the pre-digested package in order to save us from having to do any work on our own. So, to many, now and forever, hip French film culture ‘is’ Cahiers, from André Bazin to Jean-Luc Godard to Olivier Assayas.

 

It’s impossible to dodge, in a review of these two books built to celebrate fifty fine years of Positif’s achievement, the issue of the on-again, off-again feud between it and Cahiers – mainly because what we essentially know of the former comes to us (at least in English-speaking film cultures, but it could well be the same in Japan or Spain) from the caricatures offered by the latter. Michel Chion once commented – in a droll review of Michel Ciment’s book on Positif darling John Boorman – that while the magazine that began in Lyon upheld the old-fashioned, safe, classical values of “talent, rhythm, vitality … content, meaning, eloquence”, Cahiers was on the side of romantic things like “creation as rupture, excess, risk, disequilibrium, error, dynamism”. (1) But isn’t he the same guy who ‘defected’ to Positif sometime in the mid ‘90s, and now emulates the best aspects of the magazine’s critical practice in his books on Stanley Kubrick (his Eyes Wide Shut book [London: British Film Institute, 2002] in fact profusely thanking Ciment)? More dug-in is the Cahiers stalwart Jean Douchet who, in his role as the official ‘insider’ historian of the Nouvelle Vague, likes to put it about that – no matter what was cattily said by Positif against François Truffaut’s suspicious sympathies for extreme-right figures in the ‘50s, or Godard’s “bourgeois anarchism” in the ‘60s – it is today clear that Cahiers was always, in its heart, progressive (because ultra-modernist), while Positif has always been conservative, if not reactionary. Positif’s warriors (such as the respected cinema historian Jean-Pierre Jeancolas) have never ceased calling this appallingly distorted caricature of the comparative history of the two magazines into question, whenever and wherever it appears – as it often did when Cahiers celebrated its own fiftieth anniversary in 2001.

 

Positif has, of course, changed a lot in its first five decades, and these two books give us a good sense of certain aspects of that evolution. Or do they? The MoMA collection presents a not-exactly-unchanging but fundamentally stable image of the journal: from first to last page, the essays chosen as representative exude the enthusiasm of discovery backed up with acute, analytical logic and a partisan sense of social context. The French rendition allows us a glimpse of the journal’s excesses, in the best sense of that word: the zany Surrealist passions of the ‘50s, the political bunfights of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the explosions of multi-cultural modernism across the globe in the ‘80s. In both books, the ‘90s and beyond seem to indicate a cooling-down in Positif’s temperature (and temperament) – the work is solid and agreeable, sometimes essential, always serious, but the excess has gone with the winds of time. The magazine’s tenor may yet change again; the story is far from over.

 

Is there any significant difference between Positif 50 Years and the rather more boldly titled L’amour du cinema? The huge discrepancy in their respective number of pages (580 in the latter as opposed to 288 in the former) is misleading; where the French volume (which has a smaller page format) selects fifty-five texts, the American publication selects forty-four, which is not such a large gap. There is much common terrain across both books – beginning with Michel Ciment’s introductory essay, “For your pleasure”/”Pour le plaisir”. And yet their differences in emphasis are very telling.

 

It is worth providing a comparative overview of their respective contents. An important point should be noted at the outset: the two books are not the fruit of the same editorial project, nor of course the same editors; one is not the cut-down version of the other. Yet there is significant overlap – thirteen texts – and one imagines they were conceived around the same time, with collective discussions shaping the respective contents of both. (More than most magazines, Positif is an extremely collective enterprise.) As with the various Cahiers anniversary publications down the decades, one can safely assume that one thrust of the general, editorial strategy is to allow an accompaniment or spur to the programming of retrospective film screenings (as was the case at MoMA).

 

Both books begin with substantially similar statements about what, from the enormous mass of possible choices, has been excluded: interviews (which are routinely of a high standard in Positif), diary-type pieces devoted to ‘the month in film’ (fascinating for anyone seeking a fine-grain insight into the workings of French film culture), international film festival reports, editorials. Inevitably – as in the English-language British Film Institute volumes devoted to Cahiers du cinéma – one loses something of the flavour or tone of the journal in this reduction. French-reading audiences, at least, have the bonus of a complementary volume from the same publisher issued at the same time: the splendid Positif, revue de cinéma: Alain Resnais (Paris: Folio, 2002), which mingles critical texts and in-depth interviews. But any of these three celebrations of Positif offers another reminder, at this level, of the simple but powerful truth noted by Mark Peranson in his interesting review of the MoMA publication: “to get a true portrait of what a magazine is all about, you’ve got to pick up an issue”. (2) Even if (I would add) you cannot read French, an experience of Positif’s layout, its iconographical choices, its evident editorial rigour and seriousness of tone – and, above all, the changes in its design since the ‘50s - is an important supplement to the more refined and mediated, purely ‘literary’ (i.e., solely text-based) information offered in Positif 50 Years.

 

One major editing decision common to both books seems to me, however, to give a distorted picture of the journal: the exclusion of all the retrospective studies of past cinema that Positif treats in its ongoing coverage of re-released films, and in its high quality monthly dossiers. Naturally, this disadvantages those auteurs whose career had essentially ended or was on its last legs in the early years of Positif, but whose legacy became so central, down ensuing decades, to its cultural and intellectual ethos: Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, Raoul Walsh … and where the heck did Hitchcock go?

 

Be that as it may, these books pro-actively opt for a record of the journal that gives an unfolding record of its engagement with what is (or was) present-tense, new and challenging in cinema: the reputations it helped make, the positions it staked, the particular taste-culture it forged. In tune with a curious, contemporary trend back towards auteur studies, both books are firmly anchored around names rather than, say, genres, trends, or critical-theoretical issues. (With the key exception, in both books, of a slice of Jean-Paul Török’s valuable early work on horror cinema.) Goudet’s book has, however, the edge here: he does at least include an appreciation of an actor (Michel Cieutat on Jack Lemmon), a general essay on the musical-ising tendency in recent French cinema (by the talented Claire Vassé) – and even an exasperated review by Éric Derobert of an apparently very ordinary movie (Sur un air d’autoroute [France 2000]) under the guise of a jokey song lyric.

 

So, in these predominantly auteur-driven selections, Positif’s passion for Stanley Kubrick, Francesco Rosi, Martin Scorsese, Claude Sautet, Boorman, Robert Altman and Jane Campion (among others) is writ large: often the names – even though this is not always spelt out in the editorial apparatus of the books – which Cahiers still polemically disparages, abandoned mid-career after a dramatic disillusionment (as in Campion’s case, from ‘director to watch’ in 1991 to the fabricator of dreaded ‘poster-films’ by 1996), or came around to liking only a long time after Positif’s discovery of them (which is the Scorsese story).

 

Take the case of Raúl Ruiz: although Cahiers just beat Positif to the punch of acclaiming this Chilean expatriate in his great, French period of the early 1980s (because of the personal relationship that Pascal Bonitzer and Serge Daney had formed with him by that time), the latter magazine saw fit to remind us then (and again now) that it was Ado Kyrou, way back in 1968, who greeted Los trés tristes tigres (Three sad tigers, Chile 1968) with such enthusiasm at its Locarno Film Festival screening. And despite whatever periodic waves and tides of fashionability and unfashionability beset the Ruiz cult – the sort of fickle currents that tend to underwrite much of the politique of Cahiers - it is Positif which has kept faith with virtually every major film of the director since the ‘80s.

 

Among the best essays included in both books are Jean-Louis Thirard’s ‘hoax’ article on the imaginary auteur Maurice Burnan – which, although written in 1955, still works as a parody of certain, widespread affectations in highbrow film reviewing; Bertrand (who becomes Bernard on the contents page of Positif 50 Years) Tavernier on Joseph Losey’s Time Without Pity (UK 1956); Robert Benayoun’s rapturous ode to “Jerry Lewis: Man of the Year”; novelist Emmanuel Carrère on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (USSR 1979), and Goudet’s typically thoughtful and astute piece on Kiarostami. Also shared, but not quite surviving the translation into English, is Gérard Legrand’s review of Welles’ F for Fake (US 1974) – this author is by any reckoning a pillar of Positif’s history, but his style has an erudite and highly literary inwardness that presents a formidable challenge to even the finest translator (and, generally, one must commend the valiant efforts of Kenneth Larose and his team).

 

Goudet and Ciment/Kardish often elect alternative accounts of the same director – but, no matter the choice, the Positif position rings loud and clear. For example, Terrence Malick: Ciment includes his own study of Days of heaven (US 1978), one of his best pieces, while Goudet opts for Christian Viviani’s 1999 overview (“L’harmonie de la disharmonie”) of themes and motifs uniting the director’s three films. The books sometimes spotlight a director in one decade or another: Peter Greenaway appears in the ‘80s section of Positif 50 Years (Alain Masson on Drowning by numbers [UK 1987]), and in the ‘90s section of L’amour du cinema (art critic Guy Scarpetta on The Pillow Book [1996]).

 

As with directors – Wim Wenders, Robert Aldrich, Agnès Varda, Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Maurice Pialat, Kryzsztof Kieslowski and Tim Burton figure among the touchstones highlighted in both selections – so, too, certain highly honoured writers in Positif history are well canvassed in these books: from the heroic period of the ‘50s, arch-surrealist Kyrou and founder Bernard Chardère (here MoMA has the better pick, with his editorial from the first issue); those who arrived in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, like Masson and Petr Král; and newer high-calibre contributors such as Noël Herpe and Vincent Amiel. Positif 50 Years, sadly, does not manage to include the important historian of women’s cinema, Françoise Audé, or soundtrack specialist François Thomas.

 

But perhaps there is one retrospective tribute which is keener for those of us set to discover it in English: the two texts by Roger Tailleur, on Robert Aldrich, and Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (France 1962). For me the undoubted highlight of the MoMA collection, these essays fairly jump off the page with their crackling energy and remarkable insight. They sent me immediately to the posthumous anthology of Tailleur’s two decades of movie journalism edited by Ciment and Seguin, Viv(r)e le cinéma (Arles: Institut Lumière/Actes Sud, 1997) – meaning both ‘long live cinema!’ and ‘to live the cinema’ – which I have quickly come to regard as a more extraordinary and important object in the history of film criticism than even Manny Farber’s Negative Space. That’s high praise indeed, but Tailleur – criminally unknown within English-language film cultures – deserves it.

 

It is not at this level of choice – of directors, films or critics - that the difference between the books becomes evident. Rather, it is in the treatment of Positif’s political provocations and polemics. L’amour du cinéma gives us some pulse-quickening highlights of Positif at its most abrasive, and not only in its fighting relation to Cahiers: Marcel Oms’ brilliant 1958 attack on Roberto Rossellini in his flip-flop from Fascism to Christianity; Benayoun taking aim at the Nouvelle Vague in 1962; and Ciment and Louis Seguin’s acidic attack on the trendy post-1968 leftism of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (a position which Seguin, in his post-Positif path, would recant). One should also turn, in this regard, to the Resnais volume for a lively, round-table discussion (titled “Quoi de neuf?” or “What’s new?”) on Hiroshima, mon amour (France 1959) that gamely tries to rescue the magazine’s beloved rive gauche (left bank) compatriot from the encroaching, high-bourgeois obfuscations of Marguerite Duras or the nouveau roman (‘new novel’).

 

One of the reasons that explains the difference between the two central Positif anthologies – beyond the personal sensibilities we may be tempted to attribute to Goudet as a lively and scholarly cinephile who joined the magazine in 1993, as distinct from Ciment’s status as its slightly forbidding éminence grise (grey eminence) - is the target audiences they respectively assume. Curating his texts for a local audience, Goudet can assume a fair amount of background knowledge, as well as easy access to other books by major Positif writers. The MoMA selection is more cautious, gearing itself to films and filmmakers that are known – or, one could add, still known, still in some kind of currency and circulation – within American film culture. So – and I personally think this is a pity – Miklós Jancsó, Satyajit Ray, Laetitia Masson and Ruy Guerra all disappear. (Theo Angelopoulos, Tsai Ming-liang and Takeshi Kitano also get shuffled out, but in their cases one gets the sense that others – like Hou Hsiao-hsien or Kiarostami – stand in for them. And Positif 50 Years does manage to include Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Roman Polanski and Marcel Ophuls where L’amour du cinéma does not.) But there is also a blunting of the journal’s intellectual edge: texts as rigorous as Barthélemy Amengual’s “D’un réalisme ‘épique’” (“On an ‘Epic’ Realism”), or as historically crucial as Michèle Firk’s programmatic 1960 reflection “Cinéma et politique” (“Cinema and Politics”), have no equivalent in the MoMA collection.

 

And perhaps there is also, in this, a reluctance to let us English-readers in on the juicier details of Positif’s colourful history: it’s easier by far to sweepingly sketch a fifty-year canon of great directors than to explain to a foreign (and sometimes frankly indifferent) audience the intricate divisions between factions of the French Left in the ‘50s, or the evolution of Surrealism as a cultural movement beyond the arty, glory days to which it is too often reduced. Goudet’s book is generally better at providing snapshots of such historic context than the clipped Ciment/Kardish presentation; even the introductory section is heartier in French, with Goudet’s engaged explication of the editorial process in place of Kardish’s more bureaucratic gloss, and an added meditation from 1992 by Masson on “Une critique sans classicisme” (“Criticism Without Classicism”).

 

There are a few sloppy details which betray a haste in the production of Positif 50 Years. It could have been more helpful, for example, in guiding us to those few pieces from the journal already translated and available in English, such as in Peter Graham’s invaluable anthology The New Wave (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968 [updated and expanded in 2009]), the various Edinburgh Film Festival publications of the ‘70s, and Ian Cameron’s collection Second Wave (London: Studio Vista, 1970), not to mention Australia’s sterling contribution in Continuum and Screening the Past. Or to the infrequent work of some Positif writers in English: Jean-Loup Bourget in the 1970s journal Monogram, various contributors to Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s two-volume American Directors (New York: McGraw Hill, 1983), and Michael Henry Wilson in Film Comment today. Some less direct but no less valuable signposts to the Positif sensibility – and its fragmentary influence on English-language criticism - could equally have been indicated: in the work of Raymond Durgnat (who once described himself as “close to Positif, especially in its 1960-‘67 period”), the surrealist expert Paul Hammond, and Thomas Elsaesser (evident, for instance, in his writing on Losey).

 

Positif, after all, not only drew writers and critics from many centres – long before such cosmopolitanism became de rigueur – but also scattered its progeny into pedagogical and institutional film culture posts around the world. As Goudet remarks in his introduction, “no anthology can replace a history of Positif comparable to that which Antoine de Baecque devoted to Cahiers du cinéma” – and that takes us right back to the annoying injustice with which this review began.

 

NOTES

 

1. Michel Chion, “Un coup d’epée dans l’eau”, Le journal 57 in Cahiers du cinéma 378 (December 1985), XIII (my translation).

 

2. Mark Peranson, “Positif 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal”, Cineaste Vol XXVII No 2 (2003), 56.

 

© Adrian Martin April 2003


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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