Six decades ago, it asserted a whole new vision of film history and provided some of the oxygen — as well as the personnel — for what may still be the most vital and influential cinematic avant garde. In the 1950s and '60s, Cahiers du Cinéma was reframing the past and future simultaneously.
But what has this French monthly film mag — incubator of the New Wave, spearheaded by its writers Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer, and instigator of the auteur theory — done for us lately? For many Americans, even the type who read Cineaste or Film Comment, the magazine co-founded by André Bazin in 1951 might as well be a chapter in a film-appreciation class.
Cahiers, though, has continued to publish — mirroring, over the decades, various Gallic passions, from Maoism to a distanced fascination with commercialism. And a little more than a year after its acquisition by London-based arts publisher Phaidon Press (previous owner Le Monde had not had much success keeping the brand alive), Cahiers has released 10 thin, handsome volumes, each dedicated to the life and work of a major director.
These “Masters of Cinema” texts are each around 100 pages, run $9.95 apiece and span the cinematic historical period from Alfred Hitchcock (born 1899) to Tim Burton (born 1958). They are smart, accessible, well illustrated and generally (though not entirely) well written. In spots — such as Stéphane Delorme's take on Francis Ford Coppola's run from The Godfather to The Conversation to The Godfather II to Apocalypse Now — even these fairly sober film-by-film walk-throughs of so many groundbreaking movies should make a cineaste swoon.
Best sellers in France and the wedge of a push to produce new work and translations, the books also represent the Cahiers brand's first real move into the future.
The Cahiers of legend is probably best known for two innovations. First was the controversial auteur theory, which argued that the correspondences within a director's work were not incidental but an artistic signature. Today, auteurism is hardly a consensus (Cahiers skeptics, especially among the Brits, have suggested the magazine's pantheon was geared heavily toward explicitly visual filmmakers only because its critics were too lazy to read subtitles), but the idea that the director is somehow the author of a film has seeped deeply into film culture.
No less radically, the auteurs for whom Cahiers advocated often were Hollywood journeymen, and/or the makers of gangster and noir films. Championing commercial American directors, like Howard Hawks meant downgrading older, serious French filmmakers who represented what critics deemed an ossified cinéma de qualité. This high-low inversion helped anticipate some of the later mixing that took place more widely in the '60s, from pop art to “serious” rock music.
The very structure of this series — focused on 10 directors, most of whom make a very distinct kind of film, from Almodóvar's camped-out inquiries into sex, gender and excess, to Woody Allen's talky, neurotic navel-gazing — is an auteurist project. A series of multilingual bar fights (or, more likely, endless Internet rants) could be expended on directors thought to be unjustly overlooked. Besides Almodóvar, no director from outside the English-speaking world has been included, and besides Hitchcock, no director from the original slate of Cahiers obsessions. Where's Soderbergh? Mike Leigh? Lars Von Trier? Given that Cahiers is French, after all, where are Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas? Is it fair to ignore the explosion of Asian film, whether the sumptuous cinema of Zhang Yimou, the lyricism of Wong Kar-Wai or the minimalism of Hou Hsiao-Hsien?
Probably not, but those who did make the cut are all formidable in their own right. And 10 new books come out next year, with Bergman, Chaplin, Fellini, Welles and Wilder due in the spring.
One thing that might surprise American readers who associate Cahiers with a technical or theory-driven approach to cinema is how straightforward and downright readable these volumes are. Some, of course, are better than others. The Hitchcock volume, by Cahiers' L.A. correspondent Bill Krohn, is lively in a way his more technically minded Kubrick book rarely is. The writing in Thomas Sotinel's Almodóvar volume sparkles in a way that Florence Colombani's Woody Allen book doesn't. But overall, despite a few rough spots in translation, the series is consistent and strong.
An element that sets these books apart from other similar volumes is the use of short essays and excerpts as sidebars. In one, Walter Murch talks about editing Apocalypse Now. Francois Truffaut recounts his visit to the set of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind in another; yet another considers the influence of Cecil B. DeMille on Hitchcock. A sidebar on the Godfather cast reminds us how thin the résumés were for most of the film's actors previously.
The best sidebars give some historical context. The Eastwood volume, for instance, reprints the notorious dismissive review of Dirty Harry by Pauline Kael. Her piece, which helped set the agenda on Eastwood when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1972, attributes the movie's success to its simpleminded viciousness: “Fascist medievalism,” she writes, has a fairy-tale appeal.”
All these directors are, by now, critically heralded, so it can be surprising to to be reminded of the mixed reception that greeted now-canonical films such as Raging Bull (too violent, thought some) and Manhattan, which drew a Joan Didion diss in the New York Review of Books and complaints from some of the film's own actors. “I went to see Manhattan,” Meryl Streep said, “and I felt like I wasn't even in it.”
The vintage reviews and essays will make scribes pine for the days when a piece of print could change the world. Kael's takedown of Eastwood, for instance, is set up by that book's author as an “unfair and inaccurate” attack that exerted a shaping effect on Eastwood's career. It's hard to deny that these sorts of aesthetic arguments raged more fully — with real consequences — in days past.
These days, Cahiers is moving into a period of expansion: Editorial director Valérie Buffet told the Weekly its editors plan to commission books “dedicated to all aspects of cinema, from introductions to contemporary directors and essays on specific genres to film theory and comprehensive studies on iconic figures and periods.” It's an ambitious slate at a time when many worry about the death of print. We're also in an era when French — once the culture world's lingua franca — seems increasingly marginal.
There's a farewell to the old Cahiers vision near the end of the Almodóvar volume, where Sotinel dubs the man from La Mancha, alongside Nanni Moretti and Jim Jarmusch, the last auteurs. They have no heirs, he writes, since directors of the next generation “do not attain (nor do they claim to do so) the status of major artists.”
All of this puts Cahiers in a funny position, almost the opposite of its youthful, giant-slaying, Hollywood-championing past. By asserting the importance of artistically serious directors, and by working in the medium of print, Cahiers now seems dedicated to conserving rather than radically challenging our notions of film and culture. It's not breaking open but shoring up.