Bertrand Tavernier, the distinguished French film director, was lying flat on his back in his Paris apartment, blind in one eye and temporarily unable to see out of the other -- a fitting symbol, some might say, for the state of contemporary French cinema. That week, the last of October 1999, close to half a million Parisians had gone to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but a mere 20,0001 or so had gone to see La Maladie de Sachs, Cest Quoi la Vie? and Voyages -- three films that Tavernier touted as proof that the French were making some of the best movies in the world. I dont know which country has produced films that are so free -- because thats the first quality, to have a film thats free, that has freedom of expression, freedom of ideas, of style, of narration -- as have been produced recently in France, he said passionately. The problem was, not many people were going to see them.
Tavernier, the 58-year-old director of such acclaimed films as A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But, L.627 and Capitaine Conan, had more serious things to worry about, however. He had just undergone surgery for a collapsed retina in his one good eye, and did not know if he would ever see out of it again. (His sight has since improved.) A vast, shambling man, with white hair and a sizable belly (hes reputed to be one of cinemas greatest cooks), he seemed in remarkably good spirits under the circumstances.
How much can you see? I asked him.
I can see the room, he replied, stretched out on the bed, but as if there were 10 filters. I can see the body, the way you are dressed, the color, but I dont have any focus.
And your other eye is blind?
Its very bad, like blind. Im not even like Andre De Toth -- he had one good eye. Hes quite a superb character. Hes the one who called me after Round Midnight came out and said, You know, Bertrand, you made me cry with your film, and its difficult to cry with only one eye!
Tavernier laughed uproariously at the memory. His belly bobbed up and down. I adore that! I think its a hilarious comment! Then he went on to compare his predicament with two films about blindness by another American friend of his, the late Delmer Daves. I adore some of his films, especially his Westerns, Tavernier said, and he made two films, one of which is for me a masterpiece called Pride of the Marines, in which John Garfield becomes blind after a fight. And the other film about blindness was that wonderful Western called The Hanging Tree, in which Maria Schell is temporarily blind. So Im becoming a kind of Davesian character.
It was typical of Tavernier to find an American movie reference for his situation -- he is, after all, the co-author of two weighty tomes on American cinema, neither of which, to his immense regret, has ever been translated into English. Unfortunately, even for this great fan, love of American culture has become inextricably entwined with a kind of loathing and dread for what he calls the globalization of ignorance, which has the kids in New York, Montreal, Glasgow, Milano, Amsterdam and Madrid eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, listening a to the same music and seeing exactly the same film, which can be Austin Powers or Armageddon.
Isnt globalization just a polite way of saying American? I asked.
But its one kind of American image, Tavernier replied. Its not Kundun, its not Robert Altman, Woody Allen, John Sayles. Its a certain kind of America, which is becoming for us a big danger.
Lacking a crystal ball, or a direct line into what the brains of the 15-year-olds gorging themselves on The Matrix would be thinking in 20 years, it was hard for an American visitor to Paris to decide whether Taverniers fears were exaggerated or not. Could what The New York Times called Americas global movie offensive bury the French film industry, as it had already buried others in Europe? I didnt know. All I could say for sure, and did say to every director I met, was how much Id enjoyed watching French movies, over the last few years, in faraway Los Angeles -- the place where that offensive was assembled, marketed and beamed to every corner of the planet. If the average American movie was a musclebound global entertainment package on free-market steroids, then the average French movie, it seemed to me, was a government-sponsored cultural artifact with dark circles under its eyes. Watching one, I felt as if I was temporarily escaping not only the world outside the cinema, but contemporary cinema itself. Short on violence, sentimentality and wall-to-wall soundtrack music, the typical French film was forced to be a little longer on honesty, intelligence and political awareness.
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