Bright Lights Film Journal

They Lost It at the Movies: Film Culture in the Age of Positif and Cineaste

“I can’t believe that you let those people put pictures on your skin.” — C. W.’s father to C. W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde

The appearance late in 2002 of collections of writing from the film journals Cineaste and Positif prompts two main responses. On the one hand, pessimism because the public conversation around film is seldom as good as this anymore. On the other, relief that this conversation is still being had anywhere. Although quite different from one another, Cineaste and Positif are both products of an era that saw a thorough overhaul of film aesthetics and appreciation in Europe and America.

The brainchild of a band of young French film enthusiasts based away from the Parisian film scene in Lyon, Positif first appeared in 1952. In France film has always been considered as integral to the culture as art, literature, music, gastronomy or political debate. The rivalry that existed between Positif and that Parisian bastion of French cinephilia Cahiers du cinèma during the ’50s and ’60s was more than merely a different editorial approach. It was part of something much more fundamental to the status quo. If to some Cahiers grew to represent a staid, even literary approach to film comment, Positif had a more libertarian bent. Positif was active in debates over the Algerian war and censorship in the ’50s and ’60s, while film aesthetics were seen as crucial to the political events of May 1968.

Founded in 1951 and taking its inspiration from the writings of Andrè Bazin, Cahiers looked up to the realist Renoir and championed the Italian Neo-realists. Auteurism originated at Cahiers around 1954, and increasingly the work of establishment directors like Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock was revered in its pages. Opposed to what it saw as the conservative ‘Right Bank’ positions adopted at Cahiers, Positif had a less doctrinaire approach to film and its influences. Featuring the work of Communists and fellow travellers, drawing writers from the visual arts and from the south as opposed to metropolitan Paris, Positif seemed to champion everything that Cahiers would not. In the ’50s its heroes included Jean Vigo, seeing his strange and slender corpus as the saviour of French cinema in the ’30s. That arch interrogator of convention Luis Buñuel appealed to Positif‘s respect for the surrealists. The magazine has always looked beyond France. Kurosawa was seen as the harbinger of a postwar Japanese efflorescence. Andrzej Wajda registered the tremors of anti-Stalinist revolt in Eastern Europe. Look through this collection, and essays mark the discovery of Antonioni, Aldrich, Kieslowski, Kiarostami, Kusturica. Moving to an office on the Parisian Left Bank around 1954, Positif‘s celebration of ’50s American cinema centred on films that attacked the stifling conformity of the Eisenhower years. Minnelli and Donen’s musicals contained something of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, a mode to which Positif readily responded, as it did to Jerry Lewis: Man of the Year (Robert Benayoun, March 1963). Reflecting Positif‘s interest in the plastic arts and in comics, the magazine also found room for Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Former cartoonist Frank Tashlin and former photojournalist Stanley Kubrick were seen to embody a fresh sensibility during these years.

By the mid-60s, Auteurism seemed to have engulfed Anglo-Saxon film writing, contributing its maverick spirit to the shifts then taking place in British and American cinema and society. But Positif‘s auteurism was more generous than the exported Cahiers brand. Its writers noted the contributions of screenwriters, set designers, cinematographers and musicians, anticipating such early-70s correctives as Talking Pictures by Richard Corliss and Hollywood Cameramen by Charles Higham. If Positif was criticized for not buying unquestioningly into the New Wave mythos, and looking too readily beyond French borders, it was inspired by that experimental Left Bank New Wave of Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Georges Franju.

Apparently constant cinematic innovation coupled with growing dissatisfaction with the postwar status quo made the ’60s “film generation” in France and America realize that cinema and social commitment were intimately related. Whilst Cahiers continued its love affair with Godardian polemics and Maoist dogma, Positif remained unconvinced. If Cahiers writers seemed too ready to savage the American military-industrial complex, Positif looked to “New Hollywood” sensibilities in the work of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Terrence Malick, Scorsese, Schatzberg, Pollack for coherent and inspiring American dissent.

Against this backdrop, Cineaste began appearing in 1967, catching alike the moment at which the Hollywood majors seemed to hand power over to the directors, and French and American critics argued over what a director’s cinema could be. The Variety International Film Guide has described Cineaste as “a trenchant, eternally zestful magazine…Radical in mind, catholic in spirit.” Dedicated to the art and politics of the cinema, like Positif there is eclecticism both in the choice of topics and in the scope of the writing. There have been articles on The Battle of Algiers (1965), anarchism on screen, Vietnamese cinema, radical U.S. documentary, blacklisted screenwriters, Italian westerns and Polish cinema. Cineaste has always shown a commitment to films made by women and people of colour.

Robert Aldrich directing Gaby Rogers
in Kiss Me Deadly

Reading these collections back-to-back is invigorating and inspiring. The research and probity of the Cineaste interviews must have made for some exciting encounters. The density and rigour of the Positif reviews fairly leaps off the page. Especially exciting is Roger Tailleur’s Positif piece on Robert Aldrich‘s ’50s films. It is always interesting to go back and see films as they were first seen. Orchestrating camera, mood, theme, acting, Tailleur really gets into the tapestry of works like Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). Robert Pingaud’s July 1960 piece on Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) dwells in Bergsonian intuitions about memory and forgetting using prose of Hegelian exactitude. That Pingaud could draw upon the traditions of Continental rationalism and its replies to discuss a movie illustrates how exploratory film writing became as editors and writers realized how much there was to write about. Louis Seguin reminded me of an elusive oddness I had experienced the last time I saw Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). Like an Escher drawing, the film’s exploration of a woman’s subjectivity simultaneously appears to add up. Then doesn’t. “Seeking rational justifications for his tale would remove all of Buñuel’s impact. His debts to Andrè Breton and Freud are sufficiently large and conscious enough for us not to want to do him the disservice of reducing his imagination to ‘a parenthesis, like the night’, to quote from Breton’s “Manifeste du surrèalisme.” The explosion of reality that he foments and puts on the screen is testimony to admirable physical health, or aesthetics, if one prefers, and mental health as well.”

“Cushing, with his impassive icy
beauty and sovereign elegance.”

With generosity typical of Positif, elsewhere Seguin draws upon a Snoopy cartoon to analogize the dreamy illogicality of Belle de Jour. The magazine’s idea of a healthy cinema seems dark alongside its more literal Right Bank sister. Catching the vivacity of the ’60s cinematic project, the stills in this book — Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima, mon amour, a street scene from Cleo de 5 á 7 (1962) — embody a photographic genius for which you’ll seek in vain in most film magazines nowadays. A further sign of its subversive notion of health is Positif‘s interest in horror. There is a good essay on the British Hammer tradition by Jean-Paul Török: “Cushing, with his impassive icy beauty and sovereign elegance.” Chronicling as they did the dark and sexual undertow of staid British society in the ’50s, Hammer’s determinedly unofficial fleapit cinema seems to have been right up Positif‘s street. As far away from Hammer as it is possible to seem, discussing Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Michel Pèrez stressed the paradox of a Gothic story set amid the consumer accoutrements of modern Manhattan. Pèrez dwells on that unconventional older couple, played by Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, who live in the younger couple’s building, a subversion if ever there was one of the staple geriatric “helpers” of Hollywood romantic comedy. It is precisely this sense of the offbeat — “the travelling sideshow, the freak” — that appealed to Positif. Pèrez’ piece assured Rosemary’s Baby a welcome reception in the era of psychedelia and camp.

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde

What strikes you as you read the Cineaste collection is its sense of historical integrity. Here are interviews with Fred Zinnemann, Jack Lemmon, Arthur Penn, Francesco Rosi, Oliver Stone, Atom Egoyan, Susan Sarandon and John Sayles, each career seeming to lead into the next. Although these meetings took place during the ’80s and ’90s, the ’60s haunt this book. In a searching career interview with Penn, Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton keep drawing out the immediate political resonance of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Mickey One (1964), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Alice’s Restaurant (1969), the sort of films which also found favour at Positif. Penn seemed to capture a specifically American protest sensibility with roots deep in the past. By this light, the “New Hollywood” counterculture contributed to a real sense of an American national cinema. If the role of American critical opinion in the late-60s was to invite readers to appreciate film and to rationalize the celebration of the American auteur, the better the commentary the more it acknowledged the rise of this political cinema. Arguably, the late-60s seem such an exciting time today because this era not only saw films and politics talking to one another as they seldom have since, but because Europe and America came together again over the issue of cinema. Enjoining first Truffaut, then Godard to direct their Bonnie and Clyde script, David Newman and Robert Benton witnessed one of the last instances of rapprochement between Hollywood and France before the blockbuster dumbed the audience down and distributor press pap infected the critical field. In the early-80s Positif was prominent in the French debate over American cultural imperialism, a running sore in Franco-American relations since the ’20s.

Francesco Rosi blended history and drama in films based around key political figures such as Salvatore Giuliano (1961) and The Mattei Affair (1972). “After my first few films, in fact, I stopped putting the words ‘The End’ at the conclusion because I think films should not end but should continue to grow inside us. Ideally, they should grow inside us over the years, the same way that our historical memory grows inside of us — and films are our most vital historical documentation.” Rosi could have been a critic writing for either Cineaste or Positif. In films like Matewan (1987), Lone Star (1995), and Limbo (1999), John Sayles has mined the preoccupation with history and subjectivity that filmmakers like Rosi, Penn and Costa Gavras began in the ’60s. Few mainstream American directors seem to teach us anything about America as a geographical and historical space anymore in the way that Penn and Hopper did in Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider (1969). In Sayles’ work the interface between the environment and the individual is very real and true. When he talked to Joan M. West and Dennis West in 1996 about the sanctity of father-son bonds on either side of the Tex-Mex border, he points to a long patriarchal legacy that straddles American cinema like it straddles American experience.

In 1959 Ernest Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, wrote that “the cinema is no longer merely a contrivance for the commercial debauching of the masses; it is now the subject of solemn aesthetic and social analysis.” Reading these collections is an energizing, almost moving experience alongside the glut of what passes for film literature these days. The debates around the aesthetics and historical significance of film in Europe and America in the ’60s were really debates about how we were going to represent history to ourselves now and in the foreseeable future. In an era that was defining itself to itself as TV commercial, atrocity photograph, video feed, the perception that the world is a movie contained an insolence that was entirely in keeping with the countercultural bent of the times. But thirty-odd years and several TV wars later, this perception is taken for granted. Students took to the streets of Paris and the terraces of Berkeley and Kent State as much out of deference to what they’d seen in film classes as out of a conviction that the status quo of which the images spoke needed rethinking. They cared about the moving image because they had been brought up in its light. They cared about changing the world because they knew that Hollywood and the TV news were all part of the same conspiracy. When Pauline Kael dueled with Andrew Sarris over imported theories and native instincts, they spoke to a generation that believed that film belonged to them.

My pessimism grows when I realize that the same shifts and impulses that gave me the first “New Hollywood”, gave me the second “New Hollywood”. If the groundbreaking auteurism of the French, the rise of American cinephilia, and Sarrisite auteurism’s excavation of the American canon had given us Bonnie and Clyde, it also gave us My Best Friend’s Wedding exactly thirty years later, upon which press pack I feel proud to be drafting this article. As veteran Positif editor Michel Ciment writes in a brief overview of the magazine’s first half-century, writers like Tailleur and Benayoun, Truffaut and Godard could not have cared less about how much The Left-Handed Gun or Touch of Evil (1957) took at the box office. Now the precious opening weekend gross has become a holy mantra. In a world in which the “glossy” interview and the chat show soundbite has co-opted the popular discussion of film, the Net has become a forum for serious writing and comment. But it is still nice to see an experiment like Positif out on a newsstand on a sunny street still fraught with the implications of history. Early in 2003, a new initiative — Film International — emerged in hard copy form out of the website Editor Michael Tapper’s brief seems promising: “we want to explain cinema culture and industry of the past as well as the present in a wider aesthetic, economic, social and political context.” So there is still hope for the serious conversation around film. As Britain and America fight another “TV war” in Iraq, Iranian film critics are imprisoned for possessing foreign films, and politicians everywhere declare war against protesters, we should try and have that conversation every day.