Movies and Film
It's Art, Stupid!
Perhaps the most important piece of information you'll need to remember about French as opposed to other film traditions is this: From the early silent years, many of France's filmmakers have been quite self-conscious of themselves as artistes and of the status of their work as "high art." Seems simple enough, but this one fact has enormous implications for the history of twentieth-century film.
Antonin Artaud, the great French dramatist and theorist of theater, was also involved in avant-garde film culture in the '20s and '30s, acting in such pictures as Le Juif errant (1926) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), as well as writing the screenplays for L'Etoile de Mer (1926) and Le Coquille et le Clergyman (1927).
The history of American cinema is first and foremost a history of entertainment. Sure, directors like John Ford and Orson Welles should be considered artists (auteurs, to recall the term you'll read more about shortly); conversely, there are long stretches of French film history in which nothing artistically interesting was going on, and the studios were set on squeezing just as much money out of the nation's cinema-goers as even the most cynical American moguls.
But the fact remains that in France, more than in any other country, the culture of the high arts and the culture of film have marched hand in hand since the turn of the last century. No other nation has produced such a massive library of theoretical writings on the aesthetics and philosophy of film, from the earliest treatises of the silent era avant-garde (Artaud, Canudo, and others) to the Cahiers du cinéma writers to contemporary theory of film by intellectuals like Gilles Deleuze.
The phrase The Seventh Art was coined by critic Ricciotto Canudo in the 1910s to connote film's status as a new and powerful rival to painting, music, sculpture, and the other fine arts. Though Italian by birth, Canudo established the "Club of the Friends of the Seventh Art" in Paris in 1920 in order to promote to the French intelligentsia the aesthetic possibilities and philosophical challenge of the emergent medium.
Moreover, from the first decade of the twentieth century, numerous artists from other mediums—painting, drama, sculpture, music—have been involved in the art and culture of French film, establishing the country's motion picture industry as a leader in its wider artistic scene. And there has surely been more self-consciousness in France of film as artistic expression than in any other nation's cinematic tradition: more "mainstreaming of experimentalism," if you will.
After World War II, for example, while the tiny American avant-garde was largely living and filming abroad or "underground" and attracting small art-house audiences, Jean-Luc Godard helped finance Jacques Rivette's Quadrille (1950), an experimental 40-minute picture in which four people sit around a table just staring at each other silently. (Can you imagine an American audience paying to watch something like that at your local multiplex? Didn't think so.)
In short, to acquire a sophisticated appreciation of French film, you must learn to view a Godard the same way you'd take in a Manet at a museum. Look carefully, absorb, contemplate, and appreciate, bearing in mind that what you're viewing is often as carefully crafted a work of art as anything hanging on the walls of the Louvre.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.