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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)

Michel Ciment and 50 Positif years

In our interview with Michel Ciment, editor of Positif, we discuss the role of film magazines, the state of cinema and, inevitably for a publication so old, the importance of the past. Positif was founded in Lyon, by a group of students led by Bernard Chardère who was only 22 at the time. The publication of its first issue in 1952 followed the Cahiers du Cinéma by only a year. Soon after, Chardère went to Algeria for the war and the magazine moved to its current location in Paris. "In 1952 - says Ciment – cinema was not yet recognised as an art form in many circles and was still striving to achieve the cultural status of music, theatre or painting. It was not yet an academic career of study. So, the magazine was trying to address this and was mostly cultural, dealing with all the classical directors of the time, Bresson, Tati, Dreyer, Ford, Preston-Sturgess." However, when the publication moved to Paris another two groups of people joined the magazine. Some were members of the Surrealist movement, which was not as active as before the war but still alive and kicking. "They were interested in photography, cinema, primitive art, etc. all sorts of things that normative culture did not include yet. The surrealists were interested in imagination, eroticism, humour, horror films, cartoons and at the same time they sought a very politically committed cinema. Also some very politically active critics joined in. They were close to the Trotskyist movement and to minorities within the Communist party. They brought a very polemical tone to the magazine. Basically we had a kind of cocktail, with the three groups living together." It comes then as no surprise that Buñuel was their reference, but many other directors where appreciated by the composite editorial board of Positif: Jean Vigo, John Huston – because he was a rebel in America, he was not making conventional American films – Orson Welles, Joseph von Sternberg, the early Antonioni and Bergman and the early films of Wajda. "Wajda was supported because he was a personal voice from a Communist country against the regime. The Cahiers, on the other hand, were very right wing at the time, Truffaut and Rohmer were very conservative politically and were more interested in style, not particularly interested in the content of films." The first ten years of Positif pass in this way, after that the magazine continues in a peculiar way: "Generally film magazines are composed of editorial boards which disappear and are replaced by a new group of people. The old members move on to something else, like the Cahiers people, many of whom became film directors. In Positif there has never been such a thing, it is probably the only publication that has survived for fifty years following an editorial red thread, with some continuity. Because the new writers never completely replaced the old ones, we always had new and old blood working side by side. The young writers bring new views and the old have their experience and know the magazine’s history. So Positif has always been neither static nor revolutionary." "Another original aspect of Positif – explains Ciment – is the functioning of the magazine. There is no Editor inchief, no one person decides the covers or the approach to the films. Every week we meet for three hours on Sunday afternoon. We decide which film will get the cover, which films will have an interview with the director, a long review or a short one, the dossier of the month – because a quarter of the magazine has a special monograph – and then we vote. Also nobody is paid. Everyone is working for free. Positif has a publisher who pays the bills, prints the magazine, handles the subscriptions and distributes the magazine. If we paid every article at the minumum rate we have calculated it would cost 100,000 euros (£ 66,000) a year and as the magazine is breaking even now, we would have to close it down. But the upside of this is that because we are not paid we don’t have to sell more and compromise. If we were to pay the writers, we would have to sell more and have Nicole Kidman on the cover and most American films reviewed inside, instead of, say, Finnish or Argentinian films. So, we are more free to do what we want, in fact we are totally free. We decide exactly what we want. For example in the latest issue there is a 26 page dossier on Allan Dwan, a director totally forgotten, who started making films in 1919 and died 20 years ago. If we were ruled by business we would never do that. Positif is also the legal owner of its title. This means that filmwaves 33 if we are not satisfied with the publisher we may change it. Cahiers used to be free but they spent too much and did not sell enough, they went bankrupt – they owed about 1 million euros – and were acquired by Le Monde, the French daily. They paid up the debts on the assumption that the editorial policy changed in order to sell more on account of so many expenses. This meant that in the last few years they have tried to become a more commercial magazine. I think they are losing some of their old readers and I am not sure whether they bring new ones in." But, isn’t it frustrating to sell little when the content is so rich and interesting? "Positif sells about 7-8000 copies with a readership of 30,000. Half of the readers are abroad. The magazine is read by many people who care about cinema, including festival directors, historians, students, critics, film directors, actors, etc., in other words, opinion makers. They read Positif and pay attention, so it’s a strong underground influence. It is clear that if a magazine devotes a lot of pages to unknown directors or to theoretical issues you cannnot expect to reach a big readership. In the history of ideas, magazines such as Positif have never sold more than 5-6000 copies. Magazines of ideas cannot sell more, because mankind is not curious, except for a minority." For Positif the history of cinema is of paramount importance. Ciment complained that we live in a period of amnesia, where people’s attention span is more and more reduced. But what are the consequences? "It may sound retrograde to do a dossier on Camerini or Dovchenko, but I think it is in fact polemical. We want to assert the importance of culture and of the past. It’s a provocation to have a quarter of the magazine devoted to dead people, particularly in a period like ours when the industry is always selling the new, forgetting the old. But the old is not static, the new makes us look at the old in a different way. An old director, or painter, is not seen today as he was seen in his own time. The present enlightens the past as much as the past makes us understand the present. If you don’t know anything you may think that a lot of things are new when they are actually old. In order to appreciate what is substantially new you need a culture. We try therefore to have a dialectic between the past and the present. That’s an imperative for a film magazine like Positif and others. They support an audience which is capable of taking risks and discovering things." It’s no coincidence that Ciment likes a filmmaker such as Kiarostami, who has an extensive cultural knowledge in many art forms. "He is very much like Visconti, Renoir or Eisenstein, Welles, Bergman. All these directors had a very multilayered background. Cinema is a very complex art and the more you know about everything the more you will create better works of art. Great new directors come from societies where culture is still very important, which is very different from the kind of culture that America is exporting everywhere, the culture, I would say, of the paper handkerchief, that you use and throw away. You sell and then you forget. I think in film schools, directors should be educated not only with films but with books, paintings, music and theatre. And for the film critic it should be the same. The better you are equipped with psychoanalysis, economics, aesthetics, politics, all kinds of things, the better his your criticism will be.’ And what is Ciment’s advice to new filmmakers? "You need talent, of course, if you don’t have it, remember what they say in Citizen Kane: ‘When you can’t sing you can’t sing!’ Talent is essential but it’s not enough. Two other things count. First, the strength of the personality, a central core that makes you follow your heart, because you will only survive if you have your vision and you do not abandon it. The second imperative is to be curious and embrace as much as you can. The synthesis of this knowledge will expand your talent and make you productive. So, talent, integrity and intellectual curiosity. Some talented people destroy themselves because they lack the other two qualities." So, when we come to discuss what a great film is for him, Ciment keeps very much to this approach based on culture, talent, vision and integrity: ‘Personally, I tend to like films with a broad canvas, films that can tell a story with psychological depth and sociological context. A film like The Servant, for example, by Losey. An extraordinary study in the economic and social class system of 1960s England. And it’s also a psychological study of homosexuality and has a metaphysical layer too. Barry Lyndon the same, a film not just about 1800 England but also about a father and son relationship, marriage, religion, and so on. I like Mike Leigh’s films because they have the depth of human relationships and a social context giving a more textured picture of England. I like Cassavetes because it gives you fantastic gut emotions but with him I sometimes miss the sheer plastic quality of cinema. If I had to choose between Welles and Cassavetes I would choose Welles because he engages with all the possible aspects of filmmaking, while Cassavetes deals mainly with the actor." I often thought of Cassavetes’ films as likely candidates for a Dogma certificate. Does that mean that Dogma has invented the wheel? "Dogma is a publicity stunt – seems to agree Ciment – it is something which could have come from the French, because we love to first have a theoretical position and then make films, we have done this all the time. But the manifesto [Dogma] has no value in itself, what is the sense of not having artificial light or only diegetic sound? It’s grotesque. It could be useful for the filmmaker, but you would make good films only if you have the right ingredients. It’s like the Actor Studiòs Method. It can be useful for the average actor, but the great actor doesn’t need it, because they can find the method by themselves." Ciment believes that cinema is not as rich today as it used to be. "I think the collapse of those Communist countries with a lot of state-funded productions, like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Russia, brought with it the disappearance of an original cinema. Now there is not such an interesting cinema as there was before in these countries. Now America dominates in both rich countries and in the poor ones, where they cannot produce any more films." To a degree, this applies to British cinema, too. Although we clearly have a high degree of technical expertise, new directors with all the right ingredients in their heads are few and far between. "Britain had its period of great creativity in the 1960s with Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, but also Joseph Losey and Roman Polanski, Richard Leister and so on. And then there were the followers like Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. It is true that in the last twenty years there are very few British directors of great talent, people who are showing the way. There are some good films like Morvern Callar, a film that is well crafted, imaginative and poetic. It detaches itself from a peculiarity of British cinema which is perhaps choked by realism, and the inheritance of a strong documentary tradition. Ramsey’s work is not just a reflection of the world but also has a point of view of the world. I don’t share the view of a lot of French that the two words ‘British Cinemà are incompatible… I think it’s a stupid comment. Some countries are now simply more interesting than others." Interview by Marco Zee-Jotti