A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma, by Emilie Bickerton. London: Verso, 2009. Hardcover , $22.95. 156 pp. ISBN 978-1-84467-232-5.
The sober, aptly descriptive title that Emilie Bickerton has given to her history of Cahiers du Cinéma rather belies the passion which she brings to her book. Bickerton has some bracingly strong views on what makes good and bad cinema. The contemporary art-house standards (Kiarostami, Jia, Hou, Haneke, the Dardenne brothers) are all singled out for praise, but she has a particular animus against some of Cahiers‘ own recent French favourites like Téchiné, Assayas, and Desplechin, and she’s implacably opposed to American mainstream cinema in its current form. She even writes off ’70s New Hollywood (for me as for many others a highpoint in American cinema that’s been unequalled ever since) as work “that offered little formal or creative originality, nor any specific world view through the mise en scène.”
If you balk at some of those individual critical judgments, you’re likely to find even more to take issue with when it comes to the central thesis of Bickerton’s book. Cahiers has been through a series of permutations since its inception under André Bazin in 1951, most famously the “yellow” years of the fifties (“yellow” being the consistent colour of the cover) when the future directors of the Nouvelle Vague — Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol — transformed film criticism above all through their promotion of Hollywood studio directors Hitchcock, Hawks, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, and the like; and the austere Maoist years of the seventies. Most recently, there was the rather curious sale last year of Cahiers by its owners, the Le Monde newspaper group (who took over the magazine in 1999), to the British art-book publisher Phaidon. But with her book Emilie Bickerton hasn’t come to praise this latest version of Cahiers du Cinéma; she’s come to bury it.
In essence, A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma is a polemic with a hero (Serge Daney) and a villain (Serge Toubiana). Cahiers, Bickerton tells us, is dead, or, at best, it’s a moribund hollow shell, continuing its existence in name only, “limping on today as just another banal mouthpiece for the spectacle.” And she has a date for when the rot set in: 1981, when the editorial duo of Daney and Toubiana (in place since 1974) dissolved with Daney’s move to a position as full-time film critic at the left-wing daily Libération, leaving Toubiana at the helm. Bickerton has a very particular take on Daney and Toubiana: for her, Daney is the thinker-critic and Toubiana the manager-publisher, Daney a critic committed to exploring the ever-changing nature of the art of the cinema, Toubiana someone more drawn to the cinema as a production industry. (At the very least this short-changes Toubiana, author of a monograph on Amos Gitai, co-author of a major biography of Truffaut, and editor on the Gaumont DVDs of Pialat’s films.)
But for Bickerton, Toubiana is the villain of the piece, responsible for a bland commercialisation of the Cahiers model and a wholehearted acceptance of the market. For anyone who actually read Cahiers in those days (the early eighties were when I, for one, became a regular reader), this seems way off the mark; in spite of what Bickerton might argue, eighties Cahiers was always more astringent in its likes and dislikes and, yes, more intellectual than bland glossies like Première and Studio.
But in reality Bickerton seems neither sympathetic to nor interested in the functions of a monthly film magazine, one that inevitably responds to the crop of current releases, whether Straub or Spielberg, and that tries sifting out the films that are really important. (Cahiers being Cahiers, they’d probably praise Straub and Spielberg, as opposed to long-term rivals Positif, who would just go for Spielberg.) She’s really far more attracted to a more austere, more oppositional publication like Daney’s own Trafic, which relates to a wider political agenda that Bickerton is bringing to her analysis. Bickerton is on the editorial board of the New Left Review and her critique of Toubiana’s Cahiers (he was editor until 2000; he’s now director of the Cinémathèque Française) is really part of a wider critique of the French Left’s abandonment of socialist principles and wholesale acceptance of the capitalist market under Mitterand.
Now if I take issue with the central thesis of A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma, this is still only one thread of the book, which does offer a nice potted history of Cahiers. That history covers both the familiar “yellow” years of Bazin and the Young Turks, and the less familiar (i.e., everything else): the 1963 coup against Rohmer that replaced him with Rivette as editor, the steps in the magazine’s increasing politicisation in the late sixties and early seventies (small pickings for the cinephile but years that produced some of Cahiers‘ most academically influential work: the collective readings of Young Mr. Lincoln and Morocco, Oudart’s writings on suture), and the slow return to Cinema from the mid-seventies. And it does take the story up to the present day in a compact 150 pages, whereas Antoine de Baecque’s official history spent almost 700 pages just to get to 1981.
But there is a downside to the brevity of this history, where too often chronology goes completely awry, not in the details of Cahiers‘ history itself but in the references to films of the day. (There’s also a complete misinterpretation of the meaning of Direct Cinema — Cassavetes as “its greatest US exponent”?) So, La Grande illusion (1938) is included with Les enfants du paradis (1945) and Le corbeau (1943) as important works of the Vichy era/Occupation. In 1966 Fassbinder (first feature: 1969’s Love Is Colder Than Death) is aligned with “emerging” directors like Skolimowski and Jancsó, although with three films each I’d say the latter two had already arrived. Melville is bizarrely associated with Yves Boisset and André Cayatte as a practitioner of the political thriller. André Téchiné (four feature films in the seventies) and Arnaud Desplechin (first feature: 1991’s mid-length La vie des morts) belong, we are told, to the generation of IDHEC graduates that emerged in the eighties. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Annaud (five features in the seventies and eighties) and Claire Denis (1988’s Chocolat was a considerable festival and arthouse hit internationally) apparently emerged in the nineties.
In essence, the problem with the book is that the interests of its author and its audience of cinephile readers are inevitably so divergent. A Short History of Cahiers du Cinéma is a handy little historical primer for those readers, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who won’t be annoyed by all the little errors of chronology or who won’t reject outright the author’s central, questionable thesis. As anyone who actually reads it knows, Cahiers in 2010 is, after all, still very much alive.