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Tangents on a French Theme, Part I: The Criterion Collection and the Commodification of the Canon

"Lonesome": Despite appearances, did not premiere at Sundance 1928.
by Alex Paquin

In "After the Fox", Peter Sellers plays Aldo Vanucci, a petty crook hired to smuggle gold ingots through a small Italian village. Vanucci devises a plan according to which he will call himself Federico Fabrizi and pretend to be a director shooting a neorealist film about gold smugglers, in the hope of getting local residents to help him unload the cargo under police protection. He steals film equipment and even hires an aging Hollywood star for verisimilitude, but the ship carrying the ingots is delayed, forcing him to maintain the illusion by shooting scenes he justifies with the most pointlessly profound symbolism: "No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!"

Vanucci and his acolytes are finally arrested, and their hilariously bad film is screened in court as evidence. As the lights are turned back on, a man starts applauding effusively; when the judge inquires as to his identity, he replies:

"Mario Stavoli, the film critic. It's a work of art. A classic! He's a genius! What depth! What meaning! I cried, I cried like a baby. What truth! What honesty! It's the greatest film to come out of Italy in forty years! A primitive genius! A classic! The man has made a classic!"

The film offers several points of interest. Sellers plays yet another ethnic stereotype, Burt Bacharach contributed to the music, and the screenplay was the result of an unlikely collaboration between Neil Simon and a key figure in the neorealist movement, Cesare Zavattini. But even though After the Fox derides the pretension of art films, there is one reason that, in theory, makes it a possible contender for inclusion in the Criterion Collection: it was directed by the master Vittorio De Sica.

The Criterion Collection is well known as a purveyor of "important classic and contemporary films"; it also, goes the old joke, distributes two films by Michael Bay. The presence of the pyrotechnically-minded director on the same list as Renoir, Ozu and Bergman is usually the first argument one hears against Criterion as evidence of a lapse of taste, but his inclusion makes sense when we consider that Criterion worships auteurs, and that Bay is often cited as an auteur by those who promulgate auteurism. As the breed is apparently dying, every last specimen, however degenerate, must be enlisted to validate the theoretical approach. Hence Criterion admits the likes of Michael Bay and Wes Anderson to the pantheon, and auteurism is made relevant again.

The dearth of auteurs is evidently so chronic that Criterion treats Anderson's every next film as another milestone in modern cinema history. "Fantastic news for Wes Anderson fans: the auteur’s next project appears to be lined up—and actors are already lining up for it", gushed a note on Criterion's website in 2010. That "next project", Moonrise Kingdom, has not yet been released under its imprimatur, but the consensus has been expressed by the A.V. Club: "If this is like every other Wes Anderson film ever made, Moonrise Kingdom will inevitably get the full Criterion treatment, with adorable illustrations by Anderson’s brother Eric, a commentary track, and feature after feature detailing the painstaking period minutiae that graces every frame."

To give Criterion its due, it is acknowledged as one of the first home video publishers to popularize letterboxing and extra features, but now it seems dedicated to meeting as many definitions of the word "precious" as possible:

"Since 1984, the Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, has been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. Over the years, as we moved from laserdisc to DVD, Blu-ray disc, and online streaming, we’ve seen a lot of things change, but one thing has remained constant: our commitment to publishing the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience. The foundation of the collection is the work of such masters of cinema as Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Fuller, Lean, Kubrick, Lang, Sturges, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Ozu, Sirk, Buñuel, Powell and Pressburger. Each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen. Every time we start work on a film, we track down the best available film elements in the world, use state-of-the-art telecine equipment and a select few colorists capable of meeting our rigorous standards, then take time during the film-to-video digital transfer to create the most pristine possible image and sound. Whenever possible, we work with directors and cinematographers to ensure that the look of our releases does justice to their intentions. Our supplements enable viewers to appreciate Criterion films in context, through audio commentaries by filmmakers and scholars, restored director’s cuts, deleted scenes, documentaries, shooting scripts, early shorts, and storyboards. To date, more than 150 filmmakers have made our library of Director Approved DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and laserdiscs the most significant archive of contemporary filmmaking available to the home viewer."

No other commercial venture in recent memory has so successfully built its business model on playing cultural tastemaker to a carefully delineated market. Today, despite the high price of its issues, it is very esteemed indeed, with legions of followers, collectors, and even forgeries of its out-of-print editions. It acts as an island of Good Taste in an ocean of dreck.

And it released two films by Michael Bay.

Armageddon and The Rock are not Criterion's only jarring notes -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Chasing Amy also get a long, hard look from purists -- but this being said, I do not really care whether the films in the Criterion Collection actually deserve to be part of it, for this would imply buying into the company's hype. (Still, I would like to see a list of all the films that Criterion would release if licensing were no longer an issue, so that we could judge its canon in its entirety.) Instead, my real concern is about what Criterion does to the films that do make it into the Collection, apart from carefully restoring them.

The problem, in other words, is not the presence of Michael Bay; it is what Criterion does with Michael Bay to justify the presence of Michael Bay. Jeanine Basinger's liner notes for Armageddon, for example, inform us that Bay's film is "never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense." Indeed, Bay provides the film, Criterion provides the pretense:

"Despite what you may have heard, Armageddon is a work of art by a cutting-edge artist who is a master of movement, light, color, and shape—and also of chaos, razzle-dazzle, and explosion.... If he weren’t working in Hollywood, Bay would be the darling bad boy of the intelligentsia."

Therein lies all that is wrong with the Criterion Collection.

Bay, we are told in the same essay, "trusts an audience to figure things out". Armageddon, it claims, "gives audiences a lot to absorb", because it "is not for the faint-hearted, the slow-witted, or the dim-eyed" and "like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation": "Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet." That is, except for Paris, whose destruction is depicted as a trivial occurrence. And the essay for The Rock, from none other than Roger Ebert, said of its stars Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris:

"These are good actors, and they approach the material with the deadly seriousness that a plot this absurd requires. Many movies are not really about their stories at all, but about how they tell their stories, and The Rock is an example. The movie is a triumph of style, tone, and energy—an action picture that rises to the top of the genre because of a literate, witty screenplay and skilled craftsmanship in the direction and special effects."

The key Criterion word, glaringly absent from Ebert's original review and impossible to infer from its content, is literate. Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, but the review, from which the essay was partially recycled, was far more nuanced. (Deadly seriousness coupled with plot absurdity conjures up Leslie Nielsen more than anyone else.) As for Armageddon, it does not really matter that one of its "strengths", according to Basinger, "its minimum of dreadful exposition", might be the direct result of a plot that could never have been taken seriously to begin with, nor that the screenplay establishing all that is important about the main characters "in little more than a minute" could indicate that the characters have no depth. It does not even matter that the Criterion Collection is selling a film despising the overeducated to an overeducated clientele based on arguments from the overeducated. What matters is that it would be a mistake to believe that Criterion elects to publish a film because the film is important. This was necessary at first to establish the publisher's credentials, but now that these credentials are safely established, the process has been reversed: a film must be important because Criterion has elected to publish it.

This ambiguity is a direct result of the cumulative yet contradictory roles of the Criterion collection as canon-builder and commercial venture. As Denise Albanese pointed out in an article on Laurence Olivier's version of Hamlet:

"(T)he discourse of collecting employed by Criterion connotes connoisseurship, the process, as much ideological as educational, of acquiring sufficient cultural capital to recognize why the films that Criterion issues have made the cut. While such capital might be acquired in the way that other competencies are... it seems possible, even likely, that the collection itself occasionally functions as both source of expertise and confirmation of its possession. In effect, Criterion is a canon-building institution within capital whose historical dependency on prior formations doing similar work is not materially crucial to the continuation of that work. "Criterion," a name brand and a term that suggests a discerning standard of value, might be as much to the point as "Collection." One need not have been a film major or a habitué of art houses in order to appreciate what Criterion puts on offer.... The Criterion Collection is sufficient in itself, however much its recourse to "cinema at its finest" risks falling back on mystified criteria of judgment, subtended by a set of market relations to which the growth and continuation of the list are subject".

It also explains why Auteur Theory is so important to Criterion: the worship of the auteur is an ideal vessel for the commodification of film. A Vice article once asked, "should Criterion really canonize every constipated misstep Jarmusch makes just because, well, he's Jim Jarmusch?" The answer to this comes from one of the founders of auteur theory, critic and filmmaker François Truffaut, who famously said that Jean Renoir's worst film would always be more interesting than the anti-auteur Jean Delannoy's best; a refreshing assertion in its day, it now reads like a terminally consumerist treatment of the director as a brand, even as the theory now in vogue proclaims the death of the author. Criterion carries this out regularly; the essay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is less about the merits of the film than a love letter to David Fincher that name-drops John Ford and Orson Welles. Speaking of Welles, I wonder which version of Touch of Evil Criterion, with its emphasis on what the director intended, would release: the original theatrical cut, the longer version discovered in the seventies, or the version "restored" from the director's memo. The last option might genuinely be as close as possible to the film Welles intended to make, but to have chosen it would have been nothing less than to deny the role of the studio system in the filmmaking process; it might have been a triumph of art, but it would also have been a negation of history.

With the prevalent importance of who made a film, even what a particular film is about fades into irrelevance. If the auteurist-approved Robert Bresson had, as originally planned, filmed La Princesse de Clèves, a period film based on the famous novel of the same name, it might have made the Criterion list; but since it was the hopelessly static Delannoy who ended up making it, predictably not in the style of Monsieur Truffaut but in that of Madame Tussaud, you can bet it will never be an "important classic". I would for my part add it to a list of important bad films, a notion I will return to later, as an example of Truffaut's dreaded "Tradition of Quality" enduring at the height of the French New Wave; but this is just pure fancy on my part, as nobody buys important bad films, or even obscure good films, by forgotten directors like Delannoy in the American hipster indie crowd, not even to gain an insight, by holding up a point of comparison, into the "important classic" films from that time, whichever they are.

There is nothing new to this; in 1952, while Auteur Theory was being articulated in France, Dwight Macdonald was, across the ocean, scathingly dissecting the age's most distinctive instance of commercial packaging of high culture, the Great Books of the Western World:

"Another drawback is the fetish for Great Writers and complete texts, which results in a lot of the same thing by a few hands instead of a more representative collection. Minor works by major writers are consistently preferred to major works by minor writers.... Even if in every case the one right author had been elected to the Great Writers' Club, which is not the situation, this principle of selection would give a distorted view of our culture, since it omits so much of the context in which each great writer existed."

Is it not quite similar to the Criterion Collection, with its fetish for "masters", uncut works, and a context which Albanese described as "subsumed to an all-governing purpose: presenting the film 'as its maker intended it to be seen'"? As for what was included, in the case of the Great Books, Macdonald observed that "the Board seems to have shifted about between three criteria that must have conflicted as often as they coincided: which books were most influential in the past, which are now, which ought to be now". Compare this to the Criterion's bizarre blend of the unavoidable classics (Renoir, etc.) and oddball choices. Further confirming the treatment of the auteur as a brand, Criterion introduced in 2007 a so-called budget line, Eclipse, which released lesser (or lesser-known) films by Bergman, Ozu, Kurosawa and so on, the more famous works of second-tier directors and, more recently, thematic arrangements. Eclipse has been called "a way to bury films that that should have been given full on releases", but it allows Criterion to set up a hierarchy within its own incomplete canon that, once again, blends artistic worth with commercial potential.

As Macdonald would later write on in "Masscult and Midcult", "we have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped PRIME QUALITY by the proper authorities, but we lack the kind of sophisticated audience that supported the achievements of the classic avant-garde, an audience that can appreciate and discriminate on its own." Criterion is a strange hybrid that does indeed offer us prime quality, validated by scholars, before turning around to offer us the likes of Wes Anderson and David Fincher as (I hope not) the avant-garde of our age.

Where I differ from Macdonald is that whereas he was criticizing from above, I am doing so from below. His main preoccupation was the corruption of high culture by the middlebrow; mine, in the present case, is the hijacking of films for the exclusive enjoyment of a certain category of people whom William Deresiewicz (also criticizing from above, to the extent of proclaiming that there is no avant-garde at work today) recently called the "upper middle brow". In his words, the upper middle brow is:

"post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies)"

I think he makes a few errors in his list, predictable from someone who thinks he is above it all: The New Yorker is regular middlebrow pretending to be highbrow; Stewart and Colbert are lowbrow pretending to be middlebrow, but the rest (with the exception of Girls, which I cannot judge) is sound. I would add that the upper middle brow has read Macdonald (and Greenberg, Adorno, Sontag, etc. -- and, yes, Bourdieu), knows everything about kitsch, rejects it, then cannot stop congratulating itself for having rejected it. It is smug, sanctimonious, self-indulgent. It is, and can afford to be, Tasteful; and the Criterion Collection is, in its view, the epitome of taste.

Criterion's issues, meant to serve as the film equivalent of the coffee-table book one leaves on display for less tasteful visitors to admire, are packaged with covers that range from reproductions of properly stylish original posters to indie pastiches. The cover for Sullivan's Travels is an example of the former, and even retains the original misleading tagline "Veronica Lake's on the take", even though Lake's character was mostly useless to the plot and never on the take of anything; in comparison, the cover for Lonesome would have you believe that this was a major success at the 1928 Sundance Film Festival. In the case of the latter film, what I could glean from the all-silent version with Italian intertitles that I saw (as opposed to the part-talking Criterion release) is that while its director, Pál Fejös, had a knack for multiple-exposure montages, this was a good, efficient and, most important of all, mainstream film, not the masterpiece Criterion heralds in the "three reasons" promotional video; but "mainstream" is a dirty word in the Criterion universe. Indeed, the Criterion modus operandi involves scrubbing away all traces of past popular enjoyment of the titles in its catalogue and giving them an intellectual buff meant to attract the better people; it worked for Shakespeare, after all.

If I could ask one question, and just one, to Criterion, it would be whether it believes there is space in its collection for an important bad film. I do not mean an important bad film that Criterion tries to dress up as an important good film, like Armageddon, and I definitely do not mean "The Lesser Films of Jean Renoir"; I mean an important bad film directly offered as an "important bad film", something that anyone seriously interested in film ought to see for reasons other than its intrinsic quality or the name of its director.

To differentiate between a film's importance and a film's worth might indicate that one or maybe both categories must be objectively measurable. I will not go that far; instead, I will stipulate that while both categories are subjective, they must exist independently. For instance, a 1933 review in The Nation called Gabriel Over the White House "the most important bad film of the year" because its "all-too-evident purpose is to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country". Thirty years later, John Simon's review of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch offered that it was "an important bad film, avoidable by people who want genuine art, but recommended to all those interested in the faltering steps by which the American cinema might titubate into maturity". The first was concerned with the film's politics, the other with aesthetics, but the notion of the "important bad film" benefits from this wide interpretation. (There is also a reference to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up as a "Bad Important Film", but the different order of adjectives alters the meaning.)

A good example of a list based almost exclusively on importance is the US Library of Congress's National Film Registry, "a collection of culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films", where footage of President Kennedy's assassination is included alongside experimental silents, newsreels, war propaganda, cartoons and Hollywood superproductions. At no time does the Registry pretend that the entirety of its content is good, and the only requirement for eligibility, apart from American provenance, is that a film be at least ten years old. It certainly has its foibles -- for instance, it includes too much Hollywood product that is still so popular that preservation is not even an issue -- but it is a fairly accurate representation of American film history.

We already know that Criterion would gladly include Wes Anderson's every next film, so adherence to the ten-year rule is not to be expected. What matters for the purpose of this discussion is that its definition of importance is one that has shed nearly every consideration but the aesthetic; the historical has been reduced to a specific approach to film history, and the cultural has been recast, especially for foreign films, as a representation of the tastes of the elite. Criterion acts as the auteurists did, rejecting the political for the aesthetic, the socially conscious for the slick -- unless, naturally, it sets about finding aesthetic reasons to include films that are important for reasons that are not aesthetic (or, as I like to call it, the "The Male Gaze in the Oeuvre of Abraham Zapruder" approach). Would Criterion dare to call the aesthetically important Birth of a Nation a bad film if it ever released it? Political correctness might force its hand, because not respecting it might reduce sales, but I would be expecting the liner notes to be entirely devoted to the artistry of D.W. Griffith.

If Salt of the Earth, another important bad film, ever makes the Criterion list, for instance, I can predict that the liner notes will take great pains to establish its director, Herbert Biberman, as one of the unheralded masters of American neorealism; after all those aesthetic credentials, who even needs to mention the blacklist or the film's ban in the United States? And Michael Bay, for that matter, did make one important bad film; it was not Armageddon (I would even argue that Deep Impact was the better asteroid film of 1998) but Pearl Harbor, a perfect study, in the months preceding September 11, of American mythologization of history. That it was directed by Bay plays a part in declaring it important, but it is the subject matter and its context that raise it above his other films, and I would say that its being bad makes it even more important. There is no point in pretending it to be good, except to sell copies with a slanted C on top.

Walking away from this pretension with disgust would be unfair to the films, but supporting them becomes, for me, impossible. Yet I do not want to be doing this, because it is exactly what those who like Criterion want. In some cases, especially the Hollywood films, it is possible to bypass this, as the Criterion version will exist alongside a cheaper mainstream release; but for at least part of the foreign films, Criterion offers the only version widely available in North America. And while its selection is eclectic domestically, it remains stiflingly art-house abroad, betraying at once its American origin.

France, for example, is, predictably, mostly represented by now-established auteurs, with only two exceptions before 1970. The first is René Clément, whose Forbidden Games, Gervaise and, most recently, Purple Noon have been published by Criterion. Peter Matthews' essay for the now out-of-print Forbidden Games explained why the film had been neglected in recent times:

"The vagaries of Clément’s subsequent career may have dampened enthusiasm in hindsight. Drifting from a sex comedy filmed in England (Lovers, Happy Lovers, 1954) to a plush costume drama (Gervaise, 1956) to a tense homoerotic thriller (Purple Noon, 1960), he could seem an effete jack-of-all-trades, without the creative passion or stylistic coherence of a genuine auteur. But the coup de grâce had in fact been delivered long before, by one François Truffaut. In his blistering 1954 polemic “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” the future director of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim attacked not Clément, but his writers, the spectacularly successful team of Aurenche and Bost. He essentially accused them of having stultified French film by bogging it down in “quality” literary adaptations as genteel and polished as they were lifelessly uncinematic. It required a season or two for Truffaut’s venom to take effect, yet by the liberated nouvelle vague era, Aurenche and Bost had become watchwords for the clammy, moribund cinéma de papa. However unjustly, Forbidden Games was tarred with the same sweeping brush."

In other words, the reason is not because the film is bad, but because the director subsequently compromised his brand. Still, the continued presence of Clément in the Collection, with Gervaise, adapted from Zola (now also out of print but once exclusively available in the Esssential Art House boxed set), and Purple Noon, may indicate that he has finally made it into the pantheon; besides, these are the kinds of pictures that Criterion likes to release; not so much Christian-Jaque's Fanfan la Tulipe, a romantic swashbuckler starring Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida, which was added to the Collection in 2008. Kenneth Turan's essay for the latter points out:

"Fanfan la Tulipe was precisely the kind of film New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut rebelled against, first as critics and then as filmmakers themselves. They mocked and derided what French cinema had become both during and after World War II, calling it “cinéma de qualité” and, even worse, “cinéma à papa.” What could be more easily dismissed, after all, than the movies your father enjoyed?...

Because the New Wave critics personalized their attacks—“There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors,” Truffaut famously wrote—it was inevitable that someone of Christian-Jaque’s stature would become one of their primary targets. The New Wave ­succeeded so well that Christian-Jaque’s name is absent from many film encyclopedias, and you’d be hard-pressed to find film buffs who know as much about his work, or that of fellow New Wave target Claude Autant-Lara (Devil in the Flesh, The Red and the Black), as they do about Eric Rohmer or Jacques Rivette.

This is telling in what it does not say. There is not a word about Truffaut and company's broadsides aimed at not only Clément but Carné, Clouzot, Julien Duvivier or René Clair, whose names, far from absent from encyclopedias, are in fact found in Criterion's list of "important classic and contemporary films" -- all co-opted and retrofitted, as they were, for admission into an auteurism in search of a pedigree. But to prop them all, and their films, up as yet more representatives of the "Tradition of Quality" -- suggesting they might be bad -- would clearly have been unacceptable; far easier, and, on the surface, nobler, is it to pretend saving from oblivion the name of a director one is not already expected to respect.

The inclusion of Fanfan la Tulipe is, on the surface, nettlesome, as it might undermine my theory. After all, it indicates that there was a working- or middle-class audience for whom what mattered was what the film was about, not who made it. But if its genre is what matters, why was Fanfan la Tulipe selected instead of, for example, Philippe de Broca's Cartouche, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, which is similar in tone but with a tragic ending, or a dozen similar swashbuckler films from the fifties and sixties? If it was added to serve as a representative of the Tradition of Quality, Christian-Jaque's other film from 1952, Adorables créatures, was, from a critical perspective, far more important, as its review by the little-known Michel Dorsday, in the same Cahiers du Cinéma that would make auteur theory famous, took the opportunity to excoriate the French tradition of quality a year before Truffaut would do the same in "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema". Dorsday, under the ominous title "Cinema is dead", wrote:

"French cinema is dead, dead under the quality, the impeccable, the perfect -- perfect like those large American department stores in which everything is clean, beautiful, in order, without a smudge. The inevitable vaudeville and dramas for the back country excepted, only good films, fabricated, polished, displayed with elegance, are now made in France. And therein lies the disaster....

We gently get to a cinema which would no longer be feared by anyone, which would be well-behaved and very pretty, and drowned in laughter, for laughter was the great argument.... We have reached a state of imposture. The little worlds of
Don Camillo and of Fanfan la Tulipe charm the crowds and generate long lines at the box office. The victory appears certain: the imposture has reached those whom one would have thought the least corrupted: the eminent critics. Fanfan, coarse and heavy, despite the genius of Philipe, was applauded (there were even the most sensible and usually steady who declared it a true masterpiece)."

It was Dorsday, and not Truffaut, who first denounced the triumvirate of Quality comprised of Christian-Jaque, Autant-Lara and Delannoy; yet if we take Turan's word for it, Christian-Jaque was so successful that accusations made against his films could not have mattered to him: "Not that the director, who died in 1994 at age eighty-nine, after a career of seventy-some features, likely cared very much about any of this: he was too confident and successful to be bothered." While I could find no response from Christian-Jaque, the other two directors were very much bothered indeed by that criticism. Autant-Lara called Truffaut "that young thug of journalism"; Delannoy thought that what the young critic had once written was "so low that I have never encountered anything like it in my twenty years in the profession". And they too lived long enough -- even longer than Christian-Jaque -- to witness their obliteration from the annals of film. Autant-Lara retired from filmmaking in the seventies, re-emerged in 1989 with a brief foray into politics during which he thoroughly disgraced himself by denying the Holocaust, and died at the age of 98 in 2000. Delannoy continued making films, increasingly on religious subjects, until the mid-nineties, and died at the age of 100 in 2008. As for Aurenche and Bost, they survived the New Wave and continued to make pictures, predictably with Delannoy and Autant-Lara, but also with the young Bertrand Tavernier, whose only "important classic and contemporary film", Coup de Torchon, now out of print, was co-written by Aurenche (by that time, Bost was dead).

What Truffaut had denounced in "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" was "an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois" draped in a psychological realism that was neither psychological nor real -- hardly a description that could fit the frivolous Fanfan la Tulipe. "We will review only the movies that show a minimum of ambition", Truffaut once wrote, and if Fanfan la Tulipe was not incompetent, nor was it especially ambitious. Then why was it chosen by the Criterion Collection above anything else, for example Autant-Lara's La Traversée de Paris (a.k.a. Four Bags Full), which was grudgingly regarded as one of the four best films of 1956 by Truffaut himself?

"It only takes a glance at Fanfan la Tulipe to understand completely that crowd-pleasing does not have to be a dirty word, that these deft diversions can be richly enjoyed for just what they are", Turan writes. So I was reading too much into this choice, it seems, and Criterion offers it just so that we can enjoy it for what it is: a fun film that did not try to revolutionize art. But let's stay with Turan, who immediately follows this up with:

"In fact, one of the film’s strongest supporters was the rigorously intellectual Marxist critic Georges Sadoul, who wrote of seeing the film at a screening in Paris: “I arrived late and was lucky to find a free seat in the dark. From first scene to last, I kept laughing out loud. When the lights came up, someone said to me, ‘Oh, it’s you! I thought you were part of a claque the producer hired to help sell the movie!’” (That someone, as it turned out, was director René Clair!)"

I should have seen it coming; how could I have expected anything else? It's a Criterion release, so even if it sounds just like one of those "popular" movies with which the masses entertained themselves while stuffing their mouths with popcorn (Turan: "If this all sounds like a 1950s version of Pirates of the Caribbean, that comparison has something to it."), the film has to be better than that, and it's okay to like it because a Rigorously Intellectual Critic laughed out loud -- and an important director was there, too! The difference is that when Sadoul "kept laughing out loud", I have no doubt he was doing it honestly, not because it was the cool or tasteful thing to do.

Too much taste, not enough honesty -- so is it always with Criterion. Michael Bay is a bad boy of the intelligentsia who directs literate screenplays, and Christian-Jaque makes the Marxists laugh. It is cinephilia at its most arrogant, yet it cannot avoid being superficial, especially in its treatment of foreign-language films. Fanfan la Tulipe is the tip of an iceberg that includes the French commercial cinema, the Tradition of Quality, small serious films, and everything else, all of which is not to be found in the Criterion Collection. Marcel Pagnol, Abel Gance, Delannoy, Autant-Lara, and the Allégret brothers, among others, are omitted; Sacha Guitry, Raymond Bernard and Jean Grémillon are sidetracked into its Eclipse brand; and nothing represents the famous comedians of the period: Fernandel, Bourvil, Louis de Funès, Raimu, to name but a few.

The consequence of this can be found in Empire Magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema", where two-thirds of the films are whatever was famous enough to get a wide release in the last 30 years, with the remaining third made up of the usual important classics. The consequence can be found in every cinephile's list of best films in which every title mentioned is proper and expected -- Tokyo Story, The Seventh Seal, The Rules of the Game, and so on. That nobody will ever risk nominating something else makes one wonder whether these are the only foreign films they have ever seen, which they may well be if the more obscure foreign films are not available in translation, if available at all.

However, Criterion's goal never was to accurately represent the width and breadth of a foreign culture, only the part that can be sold as significant to people who, when not busily being tasteful, do not like to have their time wasted. People who want their culture exalted, superior, universal, which invariably means a universality limited to that of which Americans can make sense, or to what serves their purpose. People who want to nonchalantly direct their guests' attention to their shelves full of important classic and contemporary films, to tell them: culture is being consumed here. Out is the quiet pleasure of discovering a little film that profoundly affects you, such as what happened when I saw Henri Verneuil's Des gens sans importance, a fifties echo of poetic realism, or of coming across an obscure film that deserves to be rediscovered. In, always in, is the snobbery based on the notion that an important foreign film is one that's famous, that a famous foreign film is one that's important, and that what can't be bragged about can safely be ignored.

Part Two: "The Artist" as assimilationist manifesto.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3476
originally posted: 12/04/12 06:45:54
last updated: 12/21/12 19:40:41
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