My Gleanings

Monday, August 11, 2008

Truffaut's first beef

François Truffaut review of the film Sudden Fear in the March 1953 issue of Cahiers du Cinema marked his first appearance in that revue. For the June 1953 of Cahiers, Truffaut wrote a short piece on errors in books dealing with film. Specifically, he dealt with an error in Jean Queval's monograph Marcel Carné. The quarrel that Truffaut proceeded to become embroiled in with Quéval would be the first brouhaha of his career as a critic. It is interesting that in his original piece Truffaut never names Quéval as the culprit. Also, much as A Certain Tendency would use an idea of Andre Bazin's as its springboard ("After Robert Bresson, Aurenche and Bost are the Viollet-le-Duc of French cinema."), here Truffaut also uses a Bazin quote ("Do we need to burn books on film?") as a springboard. The difference being that in this case, Bazin was writing under the pseudonym, Florent Kirsch.
The following is Truffaut's short piece and Quéval's letter to Cahiers along with Truffaut's answer to that letter.

Truffaut's short piece which was printed in Books on Cinema in June 1953 issue of Cahiers du Cinema (page 61, my translation)

The complaints are daily, concerning the difficulty of making good use of books specializing in cinema.
Rarely is the question addressed from the point of view -- essential it seems to me -- of the value of these works and of their critical or historical authority.
I open a book dedicated to Marcel Carné. I note that the author has been guided alone by the consideration of undermining the prestige of this director; now, as it happens, I bought this book to move forward in the knowledge of a filmmaker I admire. Let's admit that the intent of this book was to make me become aware of the immoderacy of my admiration for Marcel Carné. But, why is it written in this same book, "The negative of Nogent, Eldorado of dimanche has burned and there no longer exist any copies of this film." It happens that I frequent the Cinémathéque française and that every year, I see Nogent, Eldorado of dimanche there.(1) How then, if I thinking also of a rather thick and quite recent book where I read, "After Faust, Murnau filmed Tartuffe". Although Faust is from 1925 and Tartuffe from 1925, how not to respond in the affirmative to the question raised in the past by Florent Kirsch, "Do we need to burn books on film?"

(1) A copy of Nogent, Eldorado of dimanche is the property of the Club des Cinéastes Amateurs. Meanwhile, this film has been shown many times at the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, at Cinéum and at the Cinémathéque. It is true that the critics rarely attend these places.

Quéval's letter (Cahiers du Cinema, August September 1953, page 64 my translation)

Dear Bazin, Dear Doniol
François Truffaut takes issue with a lot of people in your latest issue with the friendly arrogance of callow youth. My advice for him is a peaceful holiday in the fresh country air. But I am responding to him only in order that a fiction will be not become accredited. A great man, in my stead, will be the victim of a venomous iconoclast.
1) It is naive to think that I would dedicate a book to an important director so as to depreciate him. In reality, my first move was to request several interviews with him. It was not I who took to initiative to discontinue them. What followed from this rupture, others, in my position, would have made public, as a matter of self-defense. I have done nothing like this because I did not wish that the failings of the man tarnish the just and high repute of the artist. But, when François Truffaut attributes me with the intention of doing harm, the roles become reversed. 50 articles bear witness that, to the contrary, I endeavor to be unbiased, without letting myself win the wager through bad temper. Later on, a few months ago, Marcel Carné announced his intention to withdraw from film. I was, at that time, the only one in the press, make no mistake about it, to beg him not to do it.
2) François Truffaut bestows on himself an award for diligence in cinema. I will concede it to him. As for me, I generally believe what I am told. I was told, "There are no existing copies of Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche and the negative has been destroyed". I wrote, "There are no existing copies of Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche and the negative has been destroyed". My source was Marcel Carné.
Yours, Jean Quéval

Truffaut's reply (Cahiers du Cinema, August September 1953, page 64 my translation)

Dear Bazin, Dear Doniol
Jean Quéval, Normand critic, bestows on himself a prize for being unbiased which I would never dream of contesting, but, instead, it is true of criticizing him for. In the accusation which I leveled -- with coarseness of "callow youth" -- the notion that it is useless to write a book about a director -- and without doubt, more in general, one about an auteur --whom one does not admire enough to be deliberately biased. That Marcel Carné does not know that copies of Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche are extant is of scarce importance, his metier not being to view his films for those who have to explain them to others. Still historians know criticism of witnesses distinguishes the intrinsic from the extrinsic. I will hold though that the error would be, in itself, of little importance had Jean Quéval avoided it by looking to find the first film of his auteur. It is true that having seen (I think) Le Jour se lève did not prevent him from having Jules Berry go out into the street to die (page 39). The fault is harmless, but one like that of a lover so "unbiased" as to brag about his mistress's beauty spot while being mistaken on her breasts.
Must I add that if Jean Quéval has been the only one in the press a few weeks before the filming of Thérèse Raquin began to beg Marcel Carné not to abandon film, maybe, proves, above all, in the end, that he is also the only one to believe what they tell him?
Yours, François Truffaut

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Eric Rohmer on Jacques Prévert

This is a translation of a review of Jean Quéval's Jacques Prévert written Eric Rohmer that was published in Cahiers du Cinema for December 1956.

Only half of this book concerns us. We'll leave aside the poet of Paroles and consider the filmmaker only. Fimmaker, indeed, Jean Quéval thinks so and, as him, we think that that term is not at all far-fetched. "Prévert possesses more reality than other directors and scriptwriters. A single detail, which Roger Leenhardt points out to us, would say it. 'No one other than he himself ever wrote the dialogue for his scenarios. . .Just try to draw up a list of the films of a screenwriter, its incoherence will make you laugh.' As for Prévert, he stands up to the producers, sets the terms for himself, he is for real." He was the most stellar personality of the 30s and 40s. Les Amants de Vérone and Lumière d'été have more resemblance to each other than either of these films have with the respective work of [André] Cayatte or [Jean] Grémillon. "This is no mise-en-scene," adds Jean Quéval, "except if there is a metteur-en-scene". Metteurs-en-scene, that which we had the greatest lack of during the reign of Prévert, if we make an exception for [René] Clair -- already rather winded -- and Jean Renoir. "The case of Jean Renoir is enlightening. The only film he directed from a Prévert script, "Le Crime de Monsieur Lange", is commonly regarded (but Nana, Boudu sauvé des eaux, La Chienne, and La Règle de jeu etc. have reputations as secure) with all its weaknesses and its admirable moments as one of his best. Taking off from this, Jacques Brunius wrote 'The combination Renoir-Prévert -- presuming that the impact of both these tumultuous personalities would permit combination -- should have been able to furnish French cinema some beneficial salvos.' " But Quéval reminds us that it transpires there is an adaptation of Partie de campagne written by Prévert. "This is admirable", Renoir would say "But I haven't anything left to do." Yes, such was this the most suitable metteur-en-scene to put Prévert on film; not [Jean] Grémillon, as is affirmed here. Grémillon "the unfortunate genius of French cinema" (but, it has to be said,that he owes his misfortune to himself), nor his brother Pierre either. The author sketches out a defense of L’Affaire est dans le sac, Adieu Léonard and Voyage surprise which does not easily convince us. Let's pass over the first film whose schoolboy awkwardness merits sympathy. The latter two would have yielded something taken in hand by a [Vicente] Minnelli, but we did not have, we do not have, in France, any Minnelli. And neither gentility nor the best intentions in the world (but were they so good?) have ever taken the place of talent. Let's pass over Marc Allegret's L’Hôtel du libre échange, Pierre Billon's Le Soleil a toujours raison and other poverty-row Prévert, let's pass over Les Amants de Vérone possibly the most grandiose of all his films, but not the best. There remains [Marcel] Carné and I ask myself if this "superb painter" was not the best collaborator which our scenarist could have dreamed of. Poet, poet of cinema, indeed, but "man of the word" as Roger Leenhardt says, he needed only, all accounting done, a good illustrator. One can be claimed, as Barthélemy Amengual does, that Prévert is "in the images" of his films, quite, as much, as in the dialogue. But it still it is necessary to prove it - which can scarcely be done here - if only be done by citing the script of Les Amants de Vérone in which a silent scene is described. Of course, Pierre is a "visual", but three-quarters of novelists and playwrights are that, also. We think on the contrary that it accommodates itself to any kind of cinematic style. As long as it does not make up the better part of the "mise-en-scene", such, for example, as the silent masters, as Renoir or as the Americans of today conceive it. And Carné, in this instance, has possibly a style of framing and of imagery rather than of direction of "performance", this word being taken in its greatest sense. A quip of Prévert's is not without confirming this opinion for us, "The auteur of a film? It is the performer." The text of is dialogue takes on much more weight when spoken by prominent interpreters: he is one of those who have understood best that it is necessary to write for them while thinking of them. Gabin is never better as Gabin than in Le Quai des brumes or Le Jour se lève. While Renoir, whether one likes it or not, makes him depart from his myth.

Prévert had enough substance to need only which were not always easy to find. When he has them in hand (actors or directors) there remains the inconvenience of assimilating the shooting of the film to a simple performance comparable to that of a musical score. This becomes, we think today, a sorry idea of cinema. Not having had the opportunity to put his hands in the clay, he overloads his script with ideas which a "complete" filmmaker would prefer to express by mise-en-scene alone. Man of letters, by necessity and by metier, one of the rare scenarists who had the right to speak his word. He spoke it, but in his language - in words. These words. in order to claim all of their spice need to surge from behind the screen. but they weigh so heavily on the contours of the film that the people behind the camera use them as an excuse for the greatest laziness. "Alone among metteurs-en-scene of some importance, Clair and Cocteau, and four relative new-comers, Becker, Bresson, Clément and Tati. have escaped this imperious influence." Of course, for they, themselves, have something to say. All this, perhaps, returns to Prévert's credit, as to his reproach. That celebrated Prevertian "tone", we never cease detecting it in Aurenche, Bost, Spaak, Sigurd and a lot of others, and this spuriousness makes finally something foul out of the original. Prévert who is making a comeback with Jean Delannoy's Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] is still not at the point when the patina of time dulls the ridicule for the outmoded things of yesterday or of the day before yesterday. The celebrated Dejeuner du matin (you must excuse me for trespassing onto literary terrain) leaves us for the moment as cold as the ornamented slip worn by Michèle Morgan in Le Quai des brumes. The novel and the American cinema have taught us another style of cinematic dialogue, more concise and closer to the natural than his. And also surrealism which he extends and adapts to the taste of a great number is burning out in its final flames, if it has not already been reduced to ashes. Thus, Jean Quéval's book arrives at a critical moment, I mean the most problematic for an appeal, most of all in eyes of our generation who smile of Prévert all the more in order to crush his forgers. Its reading has at the least had the happy after-effect of sending me back to an article by Roger Leenhardt published long ago (May 1945) in the review Fontaine "The Esthetics of Jacques Prévert".This study whose pertinence time has not altered, exhausts in a few pages the crux of the question. It is certain, as Leenhardt says, that film dialogue must be close to spoken language but at the same time possess the "luster" of written language. Prévert combines both these conditions thoroughly since 'the luster of his film dialogue is made up of a thousand "pearls" of human nattering. The words of the author are of the common places. Yes, on this point, Prévert's contribution is incontestable, although he can still be reproached for being a little to set in his system, a literary system which he also practices in his poems. Another point, his penchant for "typing" his characters. From whence, it arises that stylization in Prévert's work seems like a dangerous paradox, if not a shortcoming. It is that is expressed by film, and his success on the screen should not mask from us how much his aesthetic is in opposition to the normal aesthetic of film, Art of persistence, we have said, Persistence permits expressing the progressive modification of a character, its volume, so different from the flat tints of Prévert's characters, fixed, once and for all, like poetic symbols. . . . Poet more than psychologist, creator of atmosphere and characters rather than inventor of subjects, he was completely in his area of expertise in adaptation. The framework was for him only a utility: It was exactly useful for him. Freed of commanded subjects, he seems vexed by the liberty. His characters no longer strut about under solid wire but twist as they please while often losing their consistency and their equilibrium. As proof, the intolerable psychological and social implausibility of 'Lumière d'été'. Filmed the following year, Les Portes de la nuit, confirmed in an enlightening fashion this opinion.

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