I said I would start discussions on famous movie essay, and I’m able to follow through on that, thanks to Matt, who willingly breaks down the points in Truffault’s essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” I’m going to post Matt’s breakdown, and pose some questions. I really had a hard time with the essay, partly because I was unfamiliar with Truffault’s targets—Aurenche and Bost; the films he references and some of the terms used in the piece.
Here’s Matt’s breakdown:
“At the beginning of the sound period, French cinema was an honest marked-down copy of American cinema.”
Next came “poetic realism”
Followed by “psychological realism”—“the success or failure of these filmmakers was a function of the screenplays that they chose”
“scenarists . . . are at root-source of psychological realism, the core of the Tradition of Quality”
“Aurenche and Bost have transformed adaptation by shattering the idea that had been had of it, and that, for the earlier bias for the letter of the text, they have, one could say, substituted a respect for the spirit of the text . . . The process called equivalence is the touchstone of adaptation as Bost and Aurenche practice it. This process assumes that there are in the novel being adapted scenes that are filmable and scenes that are not filmable and that instead of eliminating the latter (as was done not too long ago), scenes should be invented that the writer of the novel might have written for a film version. ‘To invent without betraying.’ ”
Psychological realism [is] not real, not psychological
“directors are and should want to be responsible for the scenarios and the dialogue that they delineate.”
“I know a handful of . . . filmmakers whose vision of the world is at least as worthy as that of Aurenche and Bost, or Jacques Sigurd and Henri Jeanson. I am speaking here of Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jéan Cocteau, Jacques Becker, Abel Gance, Max Ophuls, Jacques Tati and Roger Leenhardt. This is a group of French filmmakers and we find – curious coincidence – that they are authors who often write their own dialogue and sometimes invent the stories that they put up on the screen.”
“I do not believe in the peaceful co-existence of the Tradition of Quality and the cinema of auteurs.”
“You will have to understand that these are the audacities of men of cinema and not of scenarists, of metteurs-en-scene and not of mere scribblers.”
“The dominant trait of psychological realism is an anti-bourgeois disposition . . . f the public likes to slum under the guise of literature, it also likes doing it under the guise of social issues. We perceive that perhaps the working class prefers simple little foreign films because these show people such as they ought to be and not such as Aurenche and Bost believe they are.”
“on that day, we will be in the “Tradition of Quality” up to our necks and French cinema, looking to surpass itself with “psychological realism”, with “harshness”, with “strictness”, with “double meaning” will no longer be anything other than a vast burial ground where one could exit the Billancourt studio to enter quite directly the cemetery which seems to have been placed along side it quite expressly in order to pass straightaway from producer to gravedigger.”
I’d like to request definitions for the following terms:
“Tradition of Quality”
FWIW, here’s the gist of what I get from the piece. Truffault attacks Aurenche and Bost (two screenwriters) for the way they adapt literature into movies. First, they pretend to be faithful to the spirit of the texts, but they’re really not. Second, they lack the cinematic talent to adapt the film. (Maybe Truffault explicates the difference between literature and cinema here, but I didn’t get this; I was pretty lost, though.) Later Truffault seems to say that they’re bourgeoisie pretending not to be, which is another reason for Truffault’s scorn.
In attacking Aurenche and Bost, does the piece say anything about films in general?
Scenarists = Screenwriters
“Tradition of Quality” = Those classical French based on “respectable” literary texts.
Poetic Realism = Those classical French films of the 30s that tended to be moody and dark, also “poetic” with a somewhat gritty and realist streak. A forerunner of Classic Film Noir.
Psychological Realism = Not quite sure. Probably something related to poetic realism.
Truffaut wasn’t so much attacking those two screenwriters specifically as he was the entire French film industry, the “cinema du papa”. Those two were just the symbols. I think for him it was mostly about form, not politics or economics. It was also about making way for a new young generation of cineastes.
Psychological Realism: The sense that characters in fictional narratives have realistic ‘interiority’ or complex emotional and intellectual depth, including perhaps subconscious urges and fears they are not aware of. On an outward level, this realism typically involves reacting to external characters and situations in a manner consistent with the expectations of readers (verisimilitude). On an internal level, it may involve the revelation of characters’ thoughts and internal meditations about themselves and others.
“does the piece say anything about films in general?”
Well, the specifics of the piece are a polemic against what Truffaut saw as the dominant trend (screenwriter-centric) in French cinema at the time, and it’s also an argument for a particular type of (director-centric) cinema—Renoir, Bresson, Cocteau, Gance, Ophuls, Tati, etc., so it’s the beginning of “la politique des Auteurs”— the beginnings of auteur theory as we know it. When he says “I do not believe in the peaceful co-existence of the Tradition of Quality and the cinema of auteur,” clearly, them’s fightnin’ words.
Thanks for defining the terms, guys.
Can you discuss some of the specific points that Truffault attacked—if they’re different from the one’s I listed? Truffault’s problem seems upset by the way French films have adapted literary texts—and his criticisms don’t seem to involve the inadequacy of writers to use the film medium. Instead, he seems upset that they’re not faitful to the spirit of the text, they lack talent (although I don’t recall him fleshing out what he means by this) and that they’re poseurs (e.g., bourgeoisie that create fascile portraits of the working class life)
I guess I didn’ t have a clear idea of the differences between a “screenwriter approach” versus an “auteur one” (besides the points I mentioned—which weren’t that interesting to me).
If you don’t understand TRUFFAUT ‘s essay because you haven’t seen the films it criticizes, then go watch some of those films. They’re available.
Scenarist, tradition of quality / cinema of quality, poetic realism, and psychological realism are all defined in Wikipedia.
I don’t remember the article in enough detail to go point by point. It has been years since I read it and I didn’t get a chance to on the occasion of the thread. I’ll try again soon. Yes, I do remember him being upset that the writers weren’t true to the spirit of the text. But again, I think reading between the lines is necessary. That’s not what he was really upset about. He was agitating for new subjects, new forms, new directors. The tradition of quality was a MacGuffin.
Actually not all of the films he mentions in the piece are easily see-able . . . but it’s certainly not necessary to see them all in order to grasp the basic argument of the piece.
cinema of quality—“psychological realism”:
product of the bourgeois, made for the bourgeoi but expressing anti-bourgeois view . . . " “harshness” . . .. “strictness” . . . “double meaning”
“If the public likes to slum under the guise of literature, it also likes doing it under the guise of social issues.”
So, ^ that kind of film, prevented audience from appreciating this v kind of film.
“I remained convinced that the unduly prolonged existence of “psychological realism” is the cause of the public’s incomprehension when confronted by works as new in concept as “Le Carrosse d’or“ [Renoir], “Casque d’or“ [Jacques Becker], and, indeed “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” [Bresson] and “Orphée“ [Cocteau].”
I’d honestly love to, but with my rate of movie watching (once a week if I’m lucky) and a long to-see list, the odds aren’t good, man.
He was agitating for new subjects, new forms, new directors. The tradition of quality was a MacGuffin.
Well, if you can reveal any specifics about this (maybe at a later time), that would be great.
I’m unclear why those descriptors are anti-bourgeois.
If the public likes to slum under the guise of literature, it also likes doing it under the guise of social issues.”
“Slum under the guise of literature” is an awkward phrase to me (probably translation?), and I’m not sure what he means there. Does this mean the audience likes to explore the lower classes or seedy topics under the pretense that the endeavor is literary? (I’m not even sure what that means.) ?
I also don’t see an inherent problem with psychological realism. Good art can be psychological realistic, can’t it? I would assume Truffault would agree. If people take a more dogmatic approach—insisting that psychological realism is a necessary quality of a great film—then that’s problematic, but the problem stems from people, not the concept or mode of filmmaking.
“Does this mean the audience likes to explore the lower classes or seedy topics under the pretense that the endeavor is literary?”
Or feel superior to bourgeois society (even though audiences were themselves bourgeois) under the guises of “literature” and “social issues”
“I’m unclear why those descriptors are anti-bourgeois.”
Because the harshness, strictness, etc. is directed at the middle class and middle class values.
“I also don’t see an inherent problem with psychological realism”
Sure, but remember his argument is that the particular psychological realism practiced in the Cinema of Quality is “not real, not psychological”, but rather a quasi-literary style, the dominance of which inhibits the appreciation of the auteurist films he’s interested in.
Ah, so if the “slums under the guise of literature” means the film gives the veneer of the literary (read: sophisticated—>anti-bourgeois), which allows them to feel superior. Or the film suuperficially deals with social issues in a way, allowing viewers to more deep and more more—hiding the fact that they are bourgeois themselves?
Ah, so these words describe the film’s attitude towards the middle class. (And I assume that the bourgeois viewers eat the films up, once again, allowing them separate themselves from the class they belong to.)
I’d like to understand what Truffault means by “quasi-literary” style. Does he mean the films aren’t really literary in a substantive or high-quality way? Or does he mean to contrast literary with cinematic—i.e., the problem is that the films are too wordy—not capitalizing on mise-en-scene, editing, etc.?
Well, quasi-literary is my term, not his, but he’s saying, in effect, that a literary style isn’t appropriate to film, and that they are “watering down” the literary works that they are adapting:
“You will say to me, “We’ll agree that Aurenche and Bost are not faithful, but, do you then deny their talent?” Talent, indeed, is not a function of fidelity, but I can imagine a worthy adaptation only if written by a man of cinema. Aurenche and Bost are basically men of literature and I criticize them here for holding film in contempt by underestimating it. They behave toward the scenario like someone who thinks that they are reforming a delinquent by finding him work. They always believe themselves to be “doing the maximum” by paring its subtlety, that science of nuance that makes short shrift of modern novels. Meanwhile, there is not the least traverse interpretation of our art in thinking we grace it by using literary jargon. (Don’t they speak of Sartre and Camus in the work of Pagliero, and of phenomenology in the work of Allegret?)
In truth, Aurenche and Bost water down the works that they adapt as the evidence shows, either in the direction of betrayal or in the direction of timidity.”
So, basically it’s partly that he thinks that Aurenche and Bost saw film as inferior to literature, and partly that, yes, because they’re so intent of literature-izing their screenplays, the films to some extent uncinematic.
…they’re so intent of literature-izing their screenplays, the films to some extent uncinematic.
Not to be a pain, but can you go into what “literature-izing” their screenplays mean. Well, I guess it means they treat films more like literature—not realizing what cinema can do and not taking full advantage of this. Am I missing anything else? (I just wish these points were made vivid for me—as I think this is an interesting issue. Seeing how one is approaching films from a literary standpoint while undervestimating cinema would be interesting.)
“Well, I guess it means they treat films more like literature—not realizing what cinema can do and not taking full advantage of this.”
Essentially, yeah. Because (according to Truffaut) they felt film inferior to literature, they water down the literary content of the novels without understanding how some of the “unfilmable” aspects of these novels might be translated in the language of cinema, so important aspects of the source novel are “betrayed” (corrupted?) or simply dropped altogether.
Well, if Truffault is correct (too bad I haven’t seen the films), I can understand why he’s upset.
“too bad I haven’t seen the films”
Yeah, it would be nice to have seen all the films, of course. Then again, to form an opinion about their quality as adaptations, we’d also have to have read the novels the films were adapting.
Oh, by the way, if you want to see a couple of the films he cites negatively in the essay, Carne’s Port of Shadows is actually quite good and available from Criterion, so you may be able to find it at the library.
Then again, to form an opinion about their quality as adaptations, we’d also have to have read the novels the films were adapting.
True. (And there’s no way I’d be able to do that.)
Thanks. I’ve only see Children of Paradise (which I really like) and I’ve been meaning to see more of Carne’s films. (What does Truffault think of CoP? While I loved the film, a part of me felt that it wasn’t very interesting cinematically. The dialogue, characters and story were great, but from a visual standpoint, I didn’t think it was very exceptional—but that was based on a quick impression.)
According to his diaries Truffaut saw CoP nine times, and there’s more than a little of that film in Truffaut’s The Last Metro, so I have to conclude that he thought highly of it, or at least of aspects of it, though he later described Carné as “a confused soul” and “an obstinate cineaste”.
I think the only resonant or salient notion in A Certain Tendency… is that the process of making meaning in the Tradition of Quality films stopped after the screenplay was finished. That is, the directors of these films merely illustrated the screenplays. In contrast, the films of Renoir, etc. convey meaning through the features of the film medium.
What I just learned in the last few months is the politic dimension of this essay and auteurism in general. In the film journal Jumpcut, in 1974, John Hess argued the following:
“La politique des auteurs was, in fact, a justification, couched in aesthetic terms, of a culturally conservative, politically reactionary attempt to remove film from the realm of social and political concern, in which the progressive forces of the Resistance had placed all the arts in the years immediately after the war”
(You can read the article here: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC01folder/auturism1.html)
Truffaut’s criticism of the political aspect of the Tradition of Quality films reflects John Hess’s argument.
“A Certain Tendency” is an essay with historical importance that can’t be overstated (that Truffaut was 19 when he wrote it never fails to blow my mind), but as an essay, I don’t find it all that fascinating.
You can basically cut through the argument and say that basically the problem is that the French “tradition of quality” has no filmic sense and has no guts. The American cinema does, so that’s what we should emulate (I might be conflating it with, well, any of the early Cahiers writings by Rohmer, Truffaut, or Godard).
It’s interesting to me to see a revisionist opinion of the New Wave as cineastes who were conservative and right wing, at least at the early stage. I don’t get that sense but maybe I’m not looking closely enough.
….a part of me felt that it wasn’t very interesting cinematically. The dialogue, characters and story were great, but from a visual standpoint,
One of the crazes of still photography during the 90’s was building models and then photographing them.This morphed into Tilt Shift Photography or ‘diorama illusion’ where real life was made to look fake.
Children of Paradise is an incredible piece of cinematic work re mise-en-scène.
It’s interesting to me to see a revisionist opinion of the New Wave as cineastes who were conservative and right wing…
Generally, reactionary = conservative. Reactionary suggests returning to something though – not sure here what that is, unless it is politics of auteurism i.e. quality in the form of canonization.
“You can basically cut through the argument and say that basically the problem is that the French “tradition of quality” has no filmic sense and has no guts. The American cinema does, so that’s what we should emulate (I might be conflating it with, well, any of the early Cahiers writings by Rohmer, Truffaut, or Godard).”
Yeah, that’s the emotional core of it, even though that’s not really fully articulated yet in the piece.
“Reactionary suggests returning to something though – not sure here what that is, unless it is politics of auteurism i.e. quality in the form of canonization.”
Yeah, the only sense in which I can see it being conservative is that, to a certain degree it’s emphasizing aesthetics over political and social concerns in regard evaluating the films he’s discussing. But at the same time, it’s hard to read “we perceive that perhaps the working class prefers simple little foreign films because these show people such as they ought to be and not such as Aurenche and Bost believe they are” as anything other than a political statement, so it’s not as if Truffaut was advocating the abdication of political concerns altogether so much as he was attacking a particular kind of (bourgeois) socio-political discourse. And certainly, if one looks at the fruit from the seeds that this essay planted, it can’t be said to have led to art that was conservative or politically disengaged.
No that’s NOT the emotional core of it.
“A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” is a radical right-wing catholic screed in which Truffaut targets scriptwriter like Aurench and Bost for their alleged “blasphemy.” The ’desecration of the host" is a big deal with Catholics as any Catholid either committed or “lapsed” (like me) will be sure to tell you.
Truffaut’s piece is entirely political in natuer — a fact that has been rigorously overlooked by virtually every American film critic and scholar.
David is correct. I remember reading that in the Truffaut biography by De Baecque and Toubiana:
‘“An unabashed right-wing assault on the mainstream French “cinema of quality,” its principle targets were a well-known screenwriting team of the period, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, whom Truffaut accuses of writing “frankly anti-clerical films” filled with “profanation and blasphemy.” Truffaut sounds off against filmmakers who “desire to be superior to their characters” by manipulating the dialogue and plot to make pessimistic socio-political statements “instead of letting us see [the characters] for ourselves, with our own eyes.” In part, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” seems calculated to explode like a Molotov cocktail aimed at the French filmmaking establishment, and to garner as much attention as possible for its young author. But there’s clearly an ideological element to the essay. In fact, André Bazin refused to print an earlier version that was even more strident in tone. De Baecque and Toubiana stress in their biography that Truffaut’s style as a film critic was often mean-spirited and politically malicious:
Truffaut himself enjoyed being provocatively right-wing. His moralistic intransigence in attacking the leading lights of French cinema sometimes induced him to take extreme, dubious, contrarian positions, as when he went so far as to praise American censorship in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers… His determination to be a redresser of wrongs, while identifying with minority intellectual groups that were decried, and sometimes even banned, occasionally led him to pure political provocation (2).
If it was attention Truffaut wanted, he certainly received plenty of it with the belligerent tone of “A Certain Tendency” and much of his film criticism that came after. In addition to writing for Cahiers, he also published regularly in the right-wing cultural weekly, Arts-Lettres-Spectacles. It was during this time that the leftist French journal Positif branded Truffaut as a “fascist” and “intellectual vigilante” whose “political choices go hand in hand with a distinct taste for authority and the police” (3). "’
@ Matt …to a certain degree it’s emphasizing aesthetics over political and social concerns…
So conservative would be not socially progressive – art for art’s sake.
Hmmm…..I’ve identified mumblecore as conservative for not being artistically progressive.
If we’re defining politics as anything to do with power dynamics, then it will be impossible to separate the two (art and politics), imo.
Sure the rhetoric was Catholic and polemical (even after having been tempered by Bazin), but the aesthetics come from the Cinémathèque, not from the Church.
ToddJ said, but as an essay, I don’t find it all that fascinating.
That’s my sense of the essay, too.
I want to rewatch Children of Paradise and when I do, I’ll keep your comments in mind.
David said, A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” is a radical right-wing catholic screed in which Truffaut targets scriptwriter like Aurench and Bost for their alleged “blasphemy.” The ’desecration of the host" is a big deal with Catholics as any Catholid either committed or “lapsed” (like me) will be sure to tell you.
So when Truffault spoke of “blasphemy,” he meant in a religious sense? I thought he was being metaphorical—i.e., blaspehmy agains the text; the novel being a sacred object.
(minor detail) – his name is spelled Truffaut.