Monday, April 26, 2010

Should the Tradition of Quality Be Rehabilitated?

It's been years since American film buffs backlashed against Andrew Sarris's quarantine of a number of celebrated English-language filmmakers in the"Less Than Meets the Eye" category in his book The American Cinema. Now I sense a growing rebellion in the blogosphere against the Cahiers critics' earlier but similar dismissal of the French "Tradition of Quality." That Sarris and Truffaut both publicly retracted many of their excommunications in later years (as alluded to in my last blog entry) gives ammunition to the rehabilitation movement.

(For those playing without a scorecard: the phrase "Tradition of Quality" originally referred to the post-World War II "psychological realism" associated with the screenwriters Aurenche & Bost and directors like Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, René Clément, Yves Allégret, and Marcel Pagliero. Popularly, it is often used today to refer to all prestige French filmmaking that the Cahiers critics did not uphold, including prewar filmmakers like Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, and Jacques Feyder who had little in common with the Aurenche & Bost crowd.)

I am basically an antirehabilitationist, and would even like to roll back the rehabilitation of the "Less Than Meets the Eye" directors. But I want to step carefully around the issue, to avoid slipping into conformism or reaction. In fact, I am required to step carefully, because I have a few revisionist causes of my own. Even I would like to reclaim two directors from "Less Than Meets the Eye": Lewis Milestone (who I don't think ever fit there) and Elia Kazan (who had a "Less Than Meets the Eye" half of his personality, definitely). On the French side, I'd defend Jean Grémillon and Henri-Georges Clouzot, at least, among the filmmakers who were not in favor at Cahiers.

So I really have only one small point to make about canon revision, which is that revision means taking a side, not correcting an injustice. Auteurism is, more than anything, a historically established set of preferences. The Cahiers critics, and Sarris after them, set out to trash an existing canon and raise another in its place. The various auteurist movements have had good luck imposing their old canons on the cinephile culture at large, but that's all they imposed. They certainly were unable to promulgate the philosophical and aesthetic and political assumptions that underlay those canons - if for no other reason than that those assumptions were quickly lost or customized as auteurism went large. So auteurism has made no substantial change in the movie-watching world, except that most filmgoers now take Sirk and Fuller seriously instead of dismissing them. There is no reason to believe that undiscovered Sirks and Fullers, past or present, would fare as well, unless they landed in a category that we've already learned how to deal with.

Auteurist choices were controversial: most people didn't agree with them then, and everyone shouldn't be expected to agree with them now. In his 1968 essay "Toward a Theory of Film History," Sarris observed the unbridgeable gap that had opened up in the 50s and 60s between different camps of film lovers: "Again, these propositions cannot be seriously debated. One kind of critic refuses to cope with a world in which a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be superior to The Bridge on the River Kwai. The other kind of critic refuses to believe that a movie called Baby Face Nelson could possibly be less interesting than The Bridge on the River Kwai." The mere fact that Baby Face Nelson is now an easier sell cannot have eliminated all those old differences in what filmgoers choose to value in films.

Of course it's a good thing for every filmmaker to be reevaluated. But when I decide that Milestone or Clouzot is a good director, I shouldn't necessarily assume that the old-time auteurist canon makers got it wrong. I should at least assess the possibility that I have aesthetic preferences that are different than those of the canon makers. And, if I decide that lots of filmmakers in "Less Than Meets the Eye" and the Tradition of Quality are good, then I should really assess that possibility.


steevee said...

Where exactly do you see this rehabiliation of the Tradition of Quality taking place?

What do you think of the inheritors of the T of Q? I know you like Merchant-Ivory, whose films and influence bug me far more than the French films that infuriated Truffaut.

Dan Sallitt said...

Steve: I'll take the fifth on your first question - I don't want people to feel as if I'm on their butt about this.

In the strict sense, I'm not sure that there are inheritors of the Tradition of Quality: it was of its time and culture. If you want to name some inheritors, I'll tell you what I think. I do think Ivory is a good director, and sort of a pure director: he works within existing forms, he doesn't establish a strong conceptual approach or do anything to chase away the target audience, he just regulates tone and emphasis, and allows himself an intelligent edit or ellipsis from time to time.

Ryan said...

An informative post, Dan. A few comments and some questions:

(1) While never an auteurist fave, Clouzot appears to have a resurgence in rep generally. He's getting the Welles treatment with that aborted L'ENFER recon/doc. And LA VERITE has screened a few times in LA recently.

(2) What about Bernard and Guitry? I ask because both filmmakers have gotten the Criterion stamp of approval (both now have Eclipse box sets), and Criterion may very well be the most influential canonizer around. I know nothing about these two filmmakers' reps with auteurists or anything really about them. What's the deal?

(3) Claude Sautet strikes me as possibly a ToQ type. Was he Cahiers-approved?

(4) What's your take on the (deeply unfashionable) Pagnol?

Dan Sallitt said...

Ryan: Guitry was, I believe, a favorite of the Cahiers writers from the beginning. He didn't gain traction in English-speaking countries immediately (Sarris opined that Guitry's verbal pyrotechnics, like Preston Sturges's, weren't easy to appreciate across a language barrier), but I have the sense that he's now generally acknowledged as an important guy. I like him a lot.

Bernard, on the other hand, is a bit of a UFO: I don't remember anyone at all talking about him until quite recently. If there was a Cahiers line on him, I don't know what it was. I'm still a Bernard virgin.

Sautet didn't get attention until 1960, after the Cahiers writers were busy making movies; and his output was sparse until the 70s. Truffaut wrote an admiring career piece on him at the time of Vincent, François, Paul et les autres (1974), but Truffaut was in a rather gentler mood by then. On the basis of the 60s films, Sarris lumped Sautet together with Melville in the category of Americanophile French filmmakers.

Seems to me that Sautet's claim to being a personal filmmaker is best supported by the series of communal dramas he did in the early 70s, mostly co-written with Jean-Loup Dabadie: Les choses de la vie (1970); César et Rosalie (1972); Vincent, François, Paul et les autres; and Mado (1976). The films are just a hair away from seeming formulaic, but they share a moody telephoto visual scheme and an interesting mix of social idyll and sentimental melancholy (the latter underlined by Philippe Sarde's memorable soundtracks). There are some films where I feel that Sautet slipped too easily into dramatic convention and seemed run-of-the-mill, but I do like this early 70s period, especially César et Rosalie and Mado.

I have warm feelings about Pagnol that perhaps stop short of wild-eyed enthusiasm. The film he directed in his Fanny trilogy, César (1936), felt slow and heavy after Alexander Korda's more nimble Marius (1931), but it eventually won me over with its emotional directness. And I was also fond of Pagnol's 1933 Jofroi. The Cahiers people generally said nice things about Pagnol, seems to me. He isn't exactly fashionable now, but I'd say he's not so much disliked as fallen out of the spotlight.

Jake said...

Of course the Cahiers rankings and those in The American Cinema aren't identical. Mankiewicz for instance was much more important to Godard and others than to Sarris, who demoted him to Less Than Meets The Eye.

I don't really see the distinction between taking a side and correcting an injustice. People rushing to defend their favorite filmmakers are always going to feel themselves to be on the side of the Good.

Put another way, the questions raised by the title of your post are: does it matter? And if so, why?

Dan Sallitt said...

Howdy, Jake. Asking the tough questions, eh? Nice to hear from you.

My first, impulsive response was that I wish more film writers would acknowledge the belief system that they are working out of, that they would depict their process of valuation. But your question could still be leveled: does it really make a difference if taste is explicit or implicit?

What it really comes down to, I guess, is the importance of critical affiliations and alliances. Is there value in an us-vs.-them map of the film criticism world? Especially as whatever lines one wishes to draw are going to be vague and situational, with the differences on one's own side of the fence often seeming as great as the differences that created the divide.

If one can draw lines successfully, if one can find a camp that actually has some tiny amount of ideological coherence, then there are obvious benefits: not only guidance and recommendations to explore the cinema more effectively, but also the opportunity to pose questions on a level that isn't basic, to stand on the shoulders of other critics and build on existing critical thought without re-inventing the wheel every time out.

And, because my interest in the cinema is primarily valuative - because I want to inquire into what makes films good or bad, useful or not - I can't uncouple serious film philosophy from frivolous lists that reckon up taste.

Obviously any two filmgoers will have important disagreements about many things. But, past a certain point of disagreement, dialogue simply breaks down. It would be pleasant (and I use the phrase advisedly, because I'm not sure that it's possible) to find lines of demarcation, within which small assumptions about film value can be made.

It's quite possible that auteurism is just a persuasive illusion. Maybe the convergence of people's tastes at a particular point in history had nothing to do with shared aesthetic philosophy, and was entirely a social phenomenon. My experience on the a_film_by group supported this pessimistic conclusion: as soon as auteurists started talking about the ideas behind our likes and dislikes, we seemed to have nothing in common.

Inside my own head, though, the auteurist paradigm continues to operate. A lot of my current explorations are of contemporary world cinema, where auteurism would seem to have no utility; and yet I still feel as if I am bringing to bear the same belief system that I would use to distinguish between Boetticher and Selander, feeling my way past the same surfaces to find the same kinds of expression. To test these preferences against other people's experiences, we would need to repair the philosophical links that connect us to the auteurist tradition, if only to learn where we diverge.

And then maybe I'm just feeling an obsessive-compulsive need to neaten up the house! The auteurist canon is now in the public domain, and is being mingled democratically with other canons that seem to me to grow out of the very traditions that Bazin, Truffaut, Sarris, etc. set themselves up in opposition to. Sometimes I try to open myself up to a filmmaker, or an entire film movement, and find that I can't do it without changing my deeply ingrained approach to cinema. Sarris once quoted Paul Valéry: "Taste is made up of a thousand distastes."

Jonah said...

"The mere fact that Baby Face Nelson is now an easier sell cannot have eliminated all those old differences in what filmgoers choose to value in films."

I guess your post is addressed to other auteurists, but it's worth mentioning that in the public at large, the old canon hasn't necessarily been displaced. In France, many of the tradition-of-quality films (in both the specific historical and broader ahistorical senses of that term) remain quite popular, as do their stars, such as Gérard Philipe. And in the USA and UK, I imagine RIVER KWAI remains a better seller than BABY FACE NELSON.

This isn't to say that we should still fight the good fight, or something. I would have little stake in it, as I don't assume auteurism as a credo. Some of the "quality" films, like JEUX INTERDITS, hold up quite well (much better, I think, than a run-of-the-mill nouvelle vague title like ADIEU PHILIPPINE), while others, like Autant-Lara's ROUGE ET LE NOIR, are almost unwatchable.

Dan Sallitt said...

Jonah - René Clément had some talent, definitely, more than I've detected in Autant-Lara. I'd personally take Philippine over Jeux interdits, but not over Clément's La bataille du rail - though Rozier's Du côté d'Orouët aces them all.

Anyway, the above is just play: I really don't want to freeze the canon or inhibit the reevaluation of directors. What I'd really like is for film writers to acknowledge that these issues can't be separated from issues of taste, and that a movement like auteurism is a loose massing of film buffs along lines of taste. Critics have an unfortunate habit of assuming that all intelligent and sensitive viewers should come to similar conclusions about value.