“You don’t make a movie, the movie makes you.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Cahiers du Cinéma
…because how many other artsy film journals have launched a movement? While Cahiers du Cinéma may be best known for employing the critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave, the journal’s contributions to film theory elevated the status of cinema. In particular, co-founder André Bazin’s writings on mise-en-scène provided the basis for auteur theory by treating cinema as a unique form of expression. Sure, the intensive type of scene analysis associated with Cahiers du Cinéma may strike some as pretentious and overly interpretive, but on the other hand, it’s also why the writers respected Hitchcock before almost anyone else took him seriously.
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While directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov developed some of the first (and still extremely valuable) theories of film, Cahiers du Cinéma was one of the few critical journals to do the same. Not only did the journal’s writers study and think about film non-stop, but they also considered a new framework to approach the topic. In particular, the journal promoted auteur theory, or the notion that great directors should be regarded as authors of their work, as well as the idea that film itself was a different kind of expressive language. This alone probably would have earned Cahiers du Cinéma its place in film history. But in the same way that Eisenstein and Vertov used their own films to support their theories, the younger members of the Cahiers in the late 1950’s tested their own ideas by making the films that kick started the French New Wave. So yes, film theory may seem boring, pretentious and the basis for film school classes that most people sleep through. Still, it’s impossible to imagine the success of the French New Wave without the theoretical and critical work of Cahiers du Cinéma.
There are a number of important individuals associated with Cahiers du Cinéma: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Éric Rohmer to name just a few who went on to great filmmaking careers. However, co-founder André Bazin was probably the journal’s most influential voice during the journal’s heyday, if not one of the most important film critics, scholars and theorists in the history of cinema. Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a survey film course, you’ve come across his name and some of his writings. Bazin turned his lengthy essays about mise-en-scène (i.e. all the visual elements of a shot) into the theoretical foundation of auteur theory. After all, what was the point of planting all this information into a shot or scene if a director did not have a personal point of view invested in the film? Bazin also believed that one of film’s greatest strengths as a medium was its ability to capture reality. Of course, whether this should be an objective reality or subjective vision of the director is a point of conflict among future readers of his work (and even within the French New Wave itself). So while reading Bazin today may feel more like a homework assignment – in fact, it usually is – it’s useful to understand that the reason he wrote so damn much was because of his passion for cinema. There are very few critics who can stake this kind of claim. And if his work in Cahiers du Cinéma and film theory isn’t enough, Bazin in his lifetime also basically acted as a surrogate father figure for François Truffaut, nurturing the young talent out of a troubled youth.
Cahiers du Cinéma will probably be best remembered for its publications of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, as well as its association with the French New Wave movement. Yet the journal continues to exist, having undergone several reinventions and incarnations that included embracing Godard’s vision of Maoist ideology towards the end of the radical 1960’s and 1970’s. So it’s safe to say the journal hasn’t always gotten everything right. More recently, Cahiers is probably most notable for its ten best films of the decade list (yes, top ten lists existed before the internet even); however, the films included have often felt as though they were selected to cause controversy and generate conversation than a lasting impact in the annals of cinema. However, the journal also owes much of its reputation on how much it got right, especially in those earlier years. While especially at first Cahiers du Cinéma appeared to position itself as anti-Hollywood, it was really just anti-formulaic filmmaking. One Hollywood director the journal did show a lot of reverence for was Alfred Hitchcock. While Hitchcock was certainly a well-regarded director for his commercial success in the genre of suspense, the critics at Cahiers argued that he was in fact an auteur with a distinct style and creative vision that he applied to his works. History has pretty much judged this correctly – there are a lot of perfectly capable thrillers from Hollywood’s Golden Age that may have been considered on par at the time, but now simply appear lacking next to Hitchcock’s filmography. To this end, Cahiers generally viewed genre filmmaking more favorably than some of the more literary minded critics of the day, another strong early position that demonstrates how, for all the pretentiousness behind something like auteur theory, they kind of knew what they were doing.
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