Cahiers du Cinema, 1950s – Book Review

If you have ever mentioned that you like a particular director’s film, you have most certainly absorbed some of the ideas set forth in France’s Cahiers du Cinéma founded in 1951, notably that of the auteur theory. The rough translation of this journal’s name means “Cinema Exercise (or Note) Books” according to Jim Hillier, the editor of selections from this journal published as Cahiers du Cinéma, 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (Harvard University Press, 1985).

Many of the articles published in this collection had never been translated prior to this publication and shed light on:

•The nuance of opinion surrounding the auteur theory of film creation
•Mise en scène or direction technique
•Cultural explanations of American genres such as the thriller, Western
and gangster films
•The modern example for French cinema set by Italian Neo-Realism
•Polemics, including André Bazin’s refutation of the auteur theory…sort of
•Reactions of how new technology represented by CinemaScope would affect
the artistry of films and audience response to the new technology
•The French New Wave films

What made the criticism of Les Cahiers so influential is that many of its contributors went on to become equally influential directors. François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette formulated their style in articles they wrote for Les Cahiers before, during, and after directing films.

Hillier’s introduction to the journal articles attributing film criticism and filmmaking as we know it today to be a product of Les Cahiers may rankle film critics in other countries, but the fact remains that the French directed the discussion while many other critics offered their opinions on the topics raised by Les Cahiers.

The selections in Les Cahiers, 1950 show how the French were able to elicit the ire of other critics while leading the discussion on film. For example, the auteur theory attributed to Les Cahiers was discussed by several contributors to the journal in a transcription of a conversation among André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Pierre Kast, Roger Leenhardt, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. The conversation is entitled “Six Charactrs in search of auteurs.”

Jacques Rivette opens with a sentence sure to pique French tempers: “I think that French cinema at the moment is unwittingly another version of British cinema.” (p.4) Pierre Kast follows by saying “…the state of French cinema is one of total mediocrity.” (p.5). Readers may have been enraged, but they probably paid attention to what they were reading.

The auteurs being sought were directors who worked as artists like conductors or painters. The auteur theory is at work every time you see a review centered around the work of a film’s director.

One of the major tools that a director uses according to many of Les Cahiers contributors is the mise en scène – a theatre term meaning “placement on the stage.” In films, mise en scène for directors conveys this idea for what appears in a frame. However, not all contributors agreed with this concept, but the nuance of opinion is what makes Les Cahiers such a pleasurable read.

If you want an introduction to film theory and how it became the way it is, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave will plunge you into the thick of the battle from the very first page of the introduction.

Film books with an emphasis on foreign cinema will be the topic on Culture with Ruth Paget this week on Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 5 pm (New York Time) on Asnycnow Radio 3.  Tune in to the show on  .  Podcasts  of the program will be available on iTunes and at blogtalkradio.

This review was  originally posted on Ruth Paget’s blog Belle Vie Reviews and More .