Notes on Short Film

Lengthy diatribe on brief cinematic experience.

Posts Tagged ‘post-war cinema

Auteur Spotlight: Jean-Luc Godard

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Jean-Luc Godard, champion of the French New Wave and peer to Truffaut

 Jean-Luc Godard emerged with post-war cinema and the French New Wave, right when Truffaut was defining what we now recognize as auteur films. Godard had weighty political and social influences that cropped up in all of his works, as subtle flavors in earlier shorts and later as major plotpoints. He began, as most auteurs have, by making short films. His very first short work was Une Femme Coquette (1955), in which he was credited as Hans Lucas. He began with this pseudonym when he was writing for several film periodicals as a critic, along with his friend, Francois Truffaut. He dropped the false name soon after.

Godard’s filmography is extensive, and his name is universally recognized among cinephiles. Though he was born in December of 1930, he continues to make films today, at the ripe old age of 80. What defines Godard’s style as an auteur? That would be quite a long discussion, but an article from the New York Times movie website sums it up nicely:

Crafted with a rough-and-tumble, home-movie-like quality, it dodged all accepted notions of narrative and visual storytelling, adopting a freeform hipness unlike anything before it and sparking a revolution in low-budget, on-the-fly independent filmmaking. Seemingly overnight, Godard was revered as the most important cinematic talent of his generation. Quickly, however, Godard’s refusal to be pigeonholed became apparent, and despite a few works of lesser quality, his work over the course of the upcoming decade was a remarkable period of innovation, experimentation, and sustained genius.

The author is speaking specifically of A Bout de Souffle, one of his later features, but I think its applicable to much of his work. The same style and themes are present in a short of his that I analyzed earlier in the semester, De l-origine du XXIe siecle (2000). Undoubtedly, Godard has made a lasting impression on the film industry by simply attempting to subvert it in every way.

Below is an interview with Godard where he discusses his themes and his goals as a director, describing specifically a film he released in 1972. Enjoy!

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Critique and Development of Auteur Theory

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Astruc, Bazin, Truffaut, and Sarris.

The overarching theme of Francois Truffaut’s article was that film should be analyzed as its own artform, with its own set of techniques, themes, and discoveries. Filmmaking before the French New Wave (again, I refer back to post-war cinema and the anti-Hollywood, independent film movement) was defined by adaptations of classic literature and other stories that were already familiar to the popular culture machine. Indeed, we still see films made of these same beloved stories today. I’m thinking specifically of Grimm’s fairytales, classic stories originating from books like Robin Hood and Tarzan, and costume dramas based on historical legend such as Arabian Nights or King Arthur. Truffaut was writing from the perspective of the avante-garde, the surreal, and the simply unique: every movement that was just beginning to blossom in film that stemmed from the art world and not from literature.

Truffaut wanted film to push the audience’s boundaries rather than cater to their norms.

Harry Tuttle wrote a fabulous article that supplies a historical context for Truffaut’s thoughts as well as analyzes them for their value. He says:

 “The accomplishments pre-war French cinema was praised for (‘talented adaptation’ and the ‘faithfulness to the spirit of the novel’) are seriously questioned here to highlight the absence of filmic expression which must differentiate Cinema from Literature.”

The whole basis of auteur film is that filmmakers took what Truffaut wrote (and produced in his body of work) and created their own form of filmic expression. It is their consistency of expression and exploration of film as a medium that defines great filmmakers as “auteurs.”

 Polish scholar Andrew Sarris wrote a much-studied article in reaction to Truffaut’s work on the auteur theory titled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” He defined the three essential aspects of auteur work: technique, personal style, and interior meaning. To clarify:

 “[The] three premises to ‘auteur’ theory: the technical competence of the director, the director’s distinguishable personality and interior meaning. He says that three concentric circles can represent the three premises, of which the outer one represents technique, the middle one – individual style and the inner one – interior meaning. The director’s interrelated roles can be designated as the roles of the technician, stylist (metteur en scene) and the ‘auteur’ respectively.” (Sarris)

 As I continue to highlight the work of great auteurs, it will become clearer how specific techniques and personal styles of filmmakers enhance their films. For instance, think of David Lynch and his feature films like Eraserhead or his 1990 television series Twin Peaks. If we refer back to some of his short films, from the late 1960s into the 1970s, it is obvious how his personal style informs every project he has had a hand in. But more on the Lynchness of David Lynch later.

Andrew Sarris continues his analysis by making some bold statements on how the work of auteurs has affected the film industry. He hypothesizes that auteur theory makes it impossible to think of a bad director making a good film or a good director making a bad film. And in a statement that I feel makes a perfect summary of auteur film:

 “The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.” (Sarris)

 Therefore, I want to explore the work of a few distinct, celebrated auteurs and discuss how their work is indicative of how they think and feel.

 Also, as we transition into looking specifically at auteurs of short film, I would like to leave off with a comment on the beauty of short film from director Guillermo Del Toro, behind the popular movies Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth:

 “I think that a short film is a perfect nugget of a film. A seed. The perfect pitch that a producer can promote and push for people to ‘get a glimpse’ of the film that lies there.”

 

References

Truffaut’s manifesto: La Politique des Auteurs by Harry Tuttle

“Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” by Andrew Sarris

Additional Sources (not referenced, but helpful!)

Auteur Theory in Film Criticism from the BBC

Short Film, ‘An art form in themselves,’ by Suchandrika Chakrabarti

Francois Truffaut & Auteur Theory

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Francois Truffaut

 Definition

The word auteur is simply the French word for “author.” The essential idea behind auteur theory is that a filmmaker exercises an authorship over his work, and this authorship is present in every film he (or she) makes. The theory was born with the French New Wave cinema, from 1958-1962, with a group of French filmmakers headed by Francois Truffaut. I’ve previously analyzed two of his short films, Antoine et Collete (1962) and Les Mistons (1957). The French New Wave was one of many film movements that sprung up around the world in protest to Hollywood’s monopoly of popular film in the post-World War II years. You can read more about post-war cinema and the anti-Hollywood sentiment on Eric Elie’s blog.

At a mere twenty-one years old, Truffaut wrote the defining article for auteur film, titled “Une Certaine Tendance of Cinema Francaise” (“A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”), first published in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema in January 1954. Since then, a horde of scholars and critiques have added their thoughts to the tenets of auteur film, and a even greater horde of filmmakers have added their mastery to the history of the art. Here I hope to highlight a few of those scholars and many more of those excellent filmmakers.

Truffaut’s “Certain Tendency”

 When he originally wrote the article, Truffaut was writing in protest of the filmmakers who were receiving critical acclaim at the time for their well-crafted, however voiceless, literature adaptations. He termed this group of screenwriters and filmmakers who translated the ideas of previous writers the French “Tradition of Quality,” complimenting them for their adept filmmaking as he also criticized them for having no personal vision to deepen their films. Truffaut says in the article:

“The war and the post-war years have transformed our cinema. It has evolved through internal pressure and in the place of “poetic realism” – which can be said to have died out, closing behind itself The Gates of Night (The Portes de la Nuit) – “psychological realism” represented by Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, René Clément, Yves Allgret and Marcel Pagliero, was substituted.”

 

He was advocating for filmmakers including their own experience in their films, their own “psychological realism,” rather than the work of literary masters. Film, as its own artform, deserved storylines and themes that were crafted specifically for visual storytelling. Truffaut condemned the tradition of the screenwriter having the greatest control of the story a film told; he thought the director should have more creative power. He saw the creative process as so emotional and personal for a filmmaker, he should feel himself as if he were on display. He goes on to write:

“The artist cannot always dominate his work. He is sometimes its God, other times its creature. One knows the modern play whose main character, in peak form when the curtain rises, finds himself fully amputated as the play ends, as a successive loss of each of his limbs has marked the changing of acts.”

 

As with many artists, Truffaut was advocating for total mastery of the filmic art. Just as a painter cannot help adding his own personality to his work through his paintbrush, Truffaut saw a filmmaker as having no choice but to displaAs with many artists, Truffaut was advocating for total mastery of the filmic art. Just as a painter cannot help adding his own personality to his work through his paintbrush, Truffaut saw a filmmaker as having no other choice but to display his deepest emotions onscreen for the judgment of an audience. Thus, he condemned the soulless process of literature adaptation not for its lack of technical skill but for a lack of psychological truthfulness. One last quote from Francois:

“I do not believe in the peaceful co-existence of the Tradition of Quality and the cinema of auteurs. At base, Yves Allegret and Jean Delannoy are but caricatures of Henri-Georges Clouzot or Robert Bresson. It’s not the desire to cause a scandal that leads me to deprecate a cinema so praised elsewhere. I remained convinced that the unduly prolonged existence of ‘psychological realism’ is the cause of the public’s incomprehension when confronted by works as new in concept as…”

 

… and he goes on to list several underappreciated films by his friends and colleagues that he feels defines his outline of an auteur. His analysis of good filmmaking seems a bit self-serving, but it is his ideas and films we remember and study today, while those of the “Tradition of Quality” he comdemns have fallen to the background of film history.

References

My Gleanings: “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” (translated)

 Truffaut’s manifesto: La Politique des Auteurs by Harry Tuttle

Next up, I will outline some of the critique and further development of auteur theory.

Daybreak Express (1953)

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This next example of cinema verite from the Cinema 16 American collection is directed by D.A. Pennebaker. While it includes the same aspects of cinema verite that O Dreamland exemplified, this film highlights a pleasant visual quality in truth rather than a depravity. In summary, the five-minute film is made up of images shot on a New York train at sunrise. It is set to a composition by Duke Ellington. The music starts slow, and because a day starts slowly, the images are slow and lingering. As the trains start to run and the New York City streets become more fast-paced, so do the music and the shooting. The colors Pennebaker captures also reflect the idea of daybreak, with cool blues alighting to warm yellows and intense oranges. Some of the visual effects made me wonder if Pennebaker accomplished this whole film on one handheld camera. The backlit silhouettes were particularly beautiful and, I’d imagine, challenging to shoot. I also thought the kaleidascope and wide-angle effects toward the end of the film must have been ground-breaking in 1953. All in all, one of my favorites so far, and a project so much more finessed than a “music video.” Find more information at PHFilms.com.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm

O Dreamland (1953)

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This short film is an example of the post-war cinema verite movement. A type of documentary filmmaking, cinema verite attempted to capture the truth of everyday life. It freed the content in films; there were no actors, no drama, and no studio to shoot in. These filmmakers hoped to make a point about human existence by selectively showing it happening. This film is set in the Dreamland Amusement Park in England, and the director is out to prove what a twisted and deprave place it is. The noises of the carnival coupled with the images of leering clown faces and unhappy, pleasure-seeking people intentionally makes the audience uncomfortable. A short summary on the film points out the comment the director makes by highlighting the “Torture Through the Ages” exhibit. We as a people are obviously sick if we’ll go to the carnival to see how we’ve tortured others throughout history. You can find more reviews and plenty of unsettling images from the film here.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

March 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Les Mistons (1957)

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This film is interesting for the narrative distance the audience has from all of the characters. We feel for the “brats” as they express immature love for a woman, we feel for the woman as she loses her first love, but we feel all this sympathy in a way so removed that we do not experience any of the usual immersive qualities of a film. It is almost as if we are watching an animal documentary: “See how the native Frenchwoman falls in love in her natural habitat…” An article on Senses of Cinema makes the point that this story was one with deep personal connections for Truffaut, making the distanced narrative all the more curious. The article also discusses many of the film tricks used to play up the story’s innocence sensuality:

Truffaut used every possible device to make the film as sensuous as possible; it is a catalogue of trick effects, from reverse motion (in the scene in which the young boys play cops and robbers) to slow motion (the lover’s final kiss on the balcony; the shot of one of the young boys kissing the seat of Bernadette’s bicycle in innocently sexual adoration).

FilmsdeFrance.com also discusses how this film is a shining example of the French new wave cinema movement.

Les Mistons heralded a much needed return to the age of the free-thinking independent film directors of the past, when film-making had been an art, not just a shallow commercial exercise.

So though I may not appreciate a film where the audience’s sympathies for the characters are only perfunctory, the film still has a timeliness and artfulness that is important to consider.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

February 28, 2011 at 11:41 am

The Red Balloon (1956)

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Just as Bill Mason personified a block of wood in Paddle to the Sea (1966), so did Albert Lamorisse in Le Ballon rouge. The audience experiences the childhood fantasy of a boy befriending a red balloon, an obvious visual contrast to the grey, collapsing, post-war streets of Monmartre. Blogger Douglas Messerli has this to say of the film’s idealistic meaning:

[T]he young hero and his beloved balloon are not simply involved in a relationship of admirer and admired but soon come to represent an alternative to the high-spirited street boys, who repeatedly attempt to shoot down and destroy the dancing globe on a string. Lamorisse’s red balloon is thus quickly transformed from a bouncing toy into a magical image of freedom and potentiality, and his simple tale rises to the level of fable and myth. Traveling the city with his new-found friend, the balloon’s adventures seem as limitless as the boy’s love and trust.

I definitely think this film evokes innocence and freedom where the post-war landscape evokes a jaded need for destruction, played out in the other children on the street. I can also see the metaphor for Christ at the end, when the red balloon dies and its “spirit” is reborn in thousands of other balloons, there to rescue the boy and preserve his innocence. Whether its message is anti-war or pro-religion, The Red Balloon features such beautiful cinematography and such a perfect example of color theory in film, that the visual effects alone could be the message. This film is one of my favorites so far this semester.

Written by Alisa Hathaway

February 28, 2011 at 11:07 am

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