Cahiers du cinema
In a cramped office at 146, avenue des Champs-Elysee, a group of French cinephiles published the first, yellow volume of Cahiers du cinema. The year was 1951 and the works of filmmakers like Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock were showing all over Paris. When the war ended, the influx of American films began in Europe, thus introducing a completely new crop of films and filmmakers to the conversations taking place in film societies. Whereas before in film societies and journals in France the writers and critics passed decisive value judgments on the films thy viewed and of those who made them, the new Cahiers critics “denounced ‘the malevolent neutralism that would tolerate a mediocre cinema, a prudential criticism and a stupefied public’” (Bickerton 1). Rather than basing their writings on comparisons to theatre and literature, or class and political associations like their predecessors, the new group of critics embraced less respected film genres and filmmakers, and treated their films as works of art in their own right.
The decade or two before the initial publication of Cahiers, most of Western Europe, including France, fell under Nazi occupation. Paris had been divided into two zones in June of 1940: the German occupied northern zone and the southern, unoccupied zone, in which the Vichy government set up shop. A month later in July of 1940, Marshal Pétain gained full power and authority over the newly instated Vichy government, and, along with his Prime Minister Pierre Laval, aimed to bring France back to the ideals of “Work, Family, and Country” through their Révolution nationale initiative. During this time, the French cinema came under German control, producing films under German propaganda guidelines and preventing the importation of films from abroad. If the films did not contain any propagandistic tendencies, then they were to placate any ideas of resistance. As the country became divided and film became a political medium, so did the discussions and writings about film. In fact, one of the earlier film journals, L’Ecran Français, had as members of its editorial board Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and André Malraux among others, all of whom became associated with their politics as well as their writings. Upon its liberation and even during the Occupation, Paris saw a rise in film journals and societies working to not only comment on film, but also to preserve it and to view films in a new light.
Writing on the works recently imported from the United States, the original editorial team, comprised of André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut, sang the praises of such “low-brow” films as Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), as well as westerns and films noir. These genres have since become classics, but only at the hands of the Cahiers contributors. Before their criticism by the Cahiers critics, many of the works of Alfred Hitchcock were looked over, not given half of the respect that they have garnered over the years. The critics of Cahiers gave credit to previously unseen and undervalued films, thus establishing them as part of the established canon. That the members of the editorial team came from such diverse backgrounds and assorted tastes and that a majority of its main contributors were filmmakers in their own rights gave the journal a different perspective on the trends, topics, and troubles of film and filmmaking.
Leading the young “Turks” were Eric Rohmer and André Bazin, whose name is still closely associated with French film theory. These men, though very different in their approaches to criticism, both began their careers as teachers, and were both Catholic. Unlike many of the others involved with Cahiers, Bazin did not become a filmmaker; rather, he became an integral and influential film theorist. Bazin drew inspiration from the writings of Roger Leenhardt, for whom “cinema was an ‘always partial view of something significant that tries to appear through it,’” and André Malraux, who believed that “art should be understood as the developing expression of the human spirit, in response to the changing forms of the human condition” (Bickerton 16-17). After having been involved in the resistance movement and taking a distinct stance in regards to his spirituality, Bazin became a social film critic, aspiring “to make the audience look first at the film, and then at its function, but in such a way that engaged with the shared memory of the film” (Bickerton 20). For Bazin, films were not only an artistic medium, but also a means of learning about life itself. Of the two men at the head of the editorial team, André Bazin had the most profound effect on the young Turks.
The burgeoning theorists and future foundations of the nouvelle vague movement in French cinema, the “young Turks” were Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer. At a time when nationalism in both politics and cinema was on the rise, these Turks gained access to the Hollywood films they would go on to canonize, those of Hawks, Ray, and Hitchcock. Filmmakers such as these were auteurs, meaning that they articulated their particular worldviews using the medium itself, utilizing the mise-en-scene as a visual theme for their stories. The title of auteur was not only bestowed upon highly acclaimed European directors, but also on often-dismissed directors such as the ones listed above. This caused a great stir in the community of critics; however, given the nature of the Turks, it should come as no surprise that they managed to shake things up. In what has become one of the most famous of the Cahiers writings “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” Truffaut wrote in favor of the auteur by attacking established cinema as the antithesis of realism. Regardless of these attacks against the norms of cinema, the Turks wrote strongly in favor of directors with a distinct voice, regardless of their country of origin. Their lack of nationalism and politics in their writing distinguished them from their contemporaries, and allowed the future filmmakers to draw inspiration from a number of sources to create their own films, many of which would become classics and part of the established canon.
While the glory days of Cahiers du cinema were short, the journal has not only spawned some of the greatest film critics and filmmakers to this day, but it has also remained in circulation for over fifty years. Though power and focus shifted upon the departure of the Turks to start their filmmaking careers, Cahiers has always been regarded as a vital part of film history and theory. With its impeccable pedigree and its focus on the director as author of his films, it is easy to see how the journal was the breeding ground for one of the most influential film movements in the history of cinema, and one of the most commonly used theories in film criticism. In fact, the Cahiers works on certain auteur directors is still studied in film courses around the world, and will be part of the accepted academic canon for years to come.