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An uncompromised vision (FW34)

Cahiers du cinema and the rise of the auteur.A history of film magazines (part 2)
Cahiers du cinema and the rise of the auteur. A history of film magazines (part 2). By Richard Armstrong
Of all the critical perspectives to emerge during the last fifty years, none has had such an impact on the way we think and talk about movies as Auteurism. Embodying the assumption that the director is the creative agency behind the filmmaking process, auteurism now informs the marketing, reception and study of film. Director’s names regularly appear on movie posters, we ascribe a film’s effects to the director, and university film departments devise options around directors. It is to the critics at the Paris magazine Cahiers du cinma in the 1950s that we owe one of the guiding principles of postwar film culture.
The idea that a film is the expression of a director’s creative will is nothing new. A number of prewar discourses embodying this idea played into the rise of postwar auteurism. The term ‘auteur’ (’author’) was current in French film literature during the silent era. In Germany the term ‘autorenfilm’ (’author’s film’) was in currency from around 1913. Commentary around the autorenfilm was intended to be polemical, a plea for the screenwriter as the creative agency behind a film. In France the case for authorship spoke on behalf of the director. By the 1920s, debate raged over this issue, resonating with a wider distinction between a ‘high’ classical, and a ‘low’ popular conception of art. Since the 1900s, this film-critical distinction was expressed in terms of the prestigious ‘Film d’Art’ literary adaptation versus genre cinema. The question of authorship was seen as central to the cinema’s claim to cultural legitimacy.
In an article published in the magazine L’Ecran Francais (’The French Screen’), filmmaker and critic Alexandre Astruc saw the birth of a new avant-garde in French cinema. Entitled ‘La Camero Stylo’ (’The Camera-as-Pen’), this 1948 piece proposed that there was no difference between the director of a film and the author of a book. “The filmmaker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen… How can one possibly distinguish between the man who conceives the work and the man who writes it?… would Citizen Kane be satisfactory in any other form that that given it by Orson Welles?” The idea that the man who directed and the man who authored the film should be the same man would animate a major polemic against the French film industry.
In part one of this survey we saw how the late-40s and early-50s marked a turning point in world film culture. As Sequence started up in Oxford in 1947, the critic and theorist Andr Bazin was founding La Revue du cinma in Paris. In April 1951 it merged with La Gazette du cinma and Cahiers du cinma (’Cinema Notebooks’) was born. Along with Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly, Cahiers has become one of the most influential and respected film journals in the world. Its guiding editorial principle, the ‘politique des auteurs’ (’policy of authors’) effected an international change in postwar film culture. In their writings and in the films they would make, its contributors Franois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer transformed French cinema in a way that change cinema itself.
As in Britain and America, French society and politics in the 1950s had entered a period of retrenchment. The years of reconstruction following the Second World War made for a climate of economic prudence and cultural moderation. The radicalism and collective spirit of the 1930s was abandoned. Fear of Communism and the spread of independence movements in the French colonies fed the air of conservatism. Astruc was a left wing writer contributing to a Communist-backed journal. Yet his endorsement of creative individualism chimed with the individualistic tenor in French public life. Such a spirit was also consonant with the dominant theme in Cahiers auteurism.
French criticism also responded to other currents in French society. Banned under the German occupation of the war years, American films now returned to French cinemas with an emotional and intellectual force. The first run cinemas were packed. The Cinmathque Franaise, the national film archive, entered a golden era as its cinephile curator Henri Langlois ploughed back through Hollywood history in extensive retrospectives. The cin-club (film society) movement in which Bazin played a key role flourished. Out of this era emerged a conception of the director as a figure of dissent which would influence every young critic and filmmaker from Godard in the 1960s to Tarantino in the 1990s. As the French critic Raymond Bellour has written: “French cinephilia was from the beginning American. ‘How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian? It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory.”