Cahiers du Cinéma, the world’s best-known film magazine, is, according to Emilie Bickerton in her admirable history, “limping on today as another banal mouthpiece of the spectacle”. It will be 60 next year, provided it survives its latest change in ownership from Le Monde to the British publishing house Phaidon. It was founded in 1951 by a trio of writers, chief among them France’s most respected critic and theorist, the 33-year-old André Bazin, a liberal Catholic of wide and generous sympathies. He attracted a group of young men of passionate views frequently expressed in extreme, sometimes mystical terms. They attacked respectable literary cinema (“la qualité française”) and the tastes of an older generation (“le cinéma du papa”) and exalted the director as individual creator (“la politique des auteurs”), most especially old Hollywood masters like Hawks, Hitchcock, Preminger and Walsh. These young Turks, little interested in politics, were moral aesthetes who saw movies as a religion and criticism as theology.
Several of the best-known Cahiers critics – notably Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette – became the core directors of the French new wave, and their stylistically iconoclastic pictures (whose leading characters were often seen poring over copies of Cahiers) found a world audience in the early 1960s. They and their concept of the auteur had a permanent influence on world cinema, if a somewhat less revolutionary one than seemed likely at the time. Interestingly, as Bickerton points out, Cahiers itself didn’t itself embrace the new wave with any particular enthusiasm.
The years of auteur criticism and filmmaking from the early 50s to 1968 were the magazine’s glory years under Bazin (who died in 1958), his successor Rohmer and then Rivette, who set about extending its somewhat limited interests by covering the burgeoning developing nations cinema. But as a result of les événements of 1968 (which included the struggle between the De Gaulle government and the cinéastes for the soul of the Cinémathèque Française, where Truffaut and co had sat at the feet of its co-creator, Henri Langlois), it became politicised. This led to a preoccupation with theory (neo-Marxism, neo-Freudianism, structuralism) and then to a wholehearted commitment to Maoism. Bickerton, a member of the editorial board of New Left Review, rather approves of the first part of this phase, which has a strong influence on academics abroad. (Her NLR colleague Peter Wollen practised auteurist criticism under a pseudonym before turning to semiotics, publishing a seminal book on this critical progress in 1969 called Signs and Meanings in the Cinema.) But she is repelled both by the surrender to Maoism in the 1970s and the way Cahiers embraced a crass consumerist policy to win back middle-of-the-road readers after a drastic slump in circulation.
Bickerton has done a valuable and highly informative job in locating the historical roots of Cahiers in the cinematic cultural debate that French intellectuals engaged in from the first world war onwards, and an equally useful one in relating the magazine’s decline to the distressing politics of post-1968 France. I have a few criticisms. Her indexer has done a poor job – Cahiers‘ chief rival, Positif (for long a much superior journal), figures prominently in the text but goes unmentioned in the index. More significantly, it’s a pity she couldn’t find a few pages for the British magazine Movie, whose editors went on to become prominent critics, teachers and filmmakers, and the US critic Andrew Sarris, who coined the term “auteur theory”, edited the short-lived Cahiers du cinéma in English and wrote The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, a taxonomic masterwork. Together they introduced auteurism to the English-speaking world. She might also have compared the Cahiers critics-filmmakers with their British contemporaries, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, who wrote for Sight & Sound and created the Free Cinema movement and that brief, invigorating storm in a kitchen sink, Britain’s own new wave.
Source: The Guardian