If you were born before 1945, were brought up in a city, had a good education and were a moviegoer, there is a good chance that a certain Swiss cineaste shook you up. You probably started seeing films in the 1950s when the movie theatres were swamped with stories and ideas from the America of Eisenhower. You may have noticed that some of these apparently conformist films were inclined to hysteria, aesthetic excess and rage, and that they were directed by Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and Sam Fuller.
The Swiss man saw these films too. He wrote about them in highbrow magazines in Paris, his adopted home. He wrote about them as Baudelaire did of the Boulevards, in the idiom of Huysmans or Walter Pater.
And then this Swiss man took up a camera and, either because of an extraordinary intellectual confidence developed in his cinephile magazine world, or because he was instinctively disruptive, or because it was crystal clear to him that a certain tendency in film language had died, he synthesised the little shocks that avant-garde cinema had been delivering into a film called A bout de souffle (1960). It made waves. It was his only box office success.
He went on to direct more than 60 films including Le m?pris (1963) with Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang; Bande a part, (1964) after which Quentin Tarantino named his production company; the overrated sci-fi film Alphaville (1965); Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle (1966), which Scorsese pays tribute to in Taxi Driver; La Chinoise (1967) with nouvelle vague icons Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre L?aud; Je vous salue Marie (1983), which had Catholics in uproar; a mad King Lear (1987) featuring Norman Mailer, and with Woody Allen as the fool; and finally Eloge de l’amour which played at Cannes this year and takes pot shots at the director’s bête noire, Steven Spielberg.
Forty-one years after the release of A bout de souffle, a season of his films are showing at the anachronistically entitled National Film Theatre. It is a whopper: 205 film and tape screenings in London, a selection repeated in other arts cinemas, and a four-day symposium at the Tate Modern, with 50 academic speakers. The only notable absences will be the man himself and Eloge de l’amour.
I was born in 1965, not 1945, at the end of the baby boom and on the cusp of generation X. We weren’t around when the Swiss director turned the movie world upside down, so this season is aimed at us. How brave of the organisers. Don’t they know that our cinemagoing started around 1980, a movie time as conservative as the 1950s? We queued for Porky’s, Jaws, Grease and Top Gun. Don’t they know that gen-Xers are always looking back and questioning what the fuss was about? We do this because we have a sense of being in the slipstream of great things, because we’ve been told the parade’s gone by, and we’re not sure it was all that good in the first place.
As if to provoke our proud amnesia, the organisers of the retrospective have called their season “Forever.” Who do they think they are? Don’t they know that we don’t believe in forever? It’s as if they are trying to establish as an absolute truth that this man’s work is timeless. Ho ho ho, how we laugh. How we mock the longing in their title for a time when movies were audacious.
And yet, I have a confession. Over the years, I’ve gone out of my way to see almost everything in the season. I’ve smuggled into my BBC2 film programme extracts from A bout de souffle, Une femme mari?e and Bande a part. La Chinoise and Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle (her being the woman and the city) are amongst my favourite films. I never go to the Cannes press conferences, but this year I went to his.
I’m as reluctant as my peers to accept unchallenged the evaluations of those who went before. The writers who will attend the symposium (in spirit or in fact)-Serge Daney, Raymond Bellour, Laura Mulvey, Thomas Elsaesser, Peter Wollen-are the people who interpreted cinema for me when I only partially spoke its language. They told me that this director was in a class of his own. Looking for myself, I’ve accepted their judgement. François Truffaut said that anyone who rejects Nicholas Ray’s film Johnny Guitar “should never go to the movies again. Such people will never recognise poetic intuition, a good film, or even cinema itself.” Insert Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle instead of Johnny Guitar, and the same is true.
Until the mid-1950s a shot in cinema was, in general, a piece of action-someone entering a room, firing a gun, falling from a horse, doing a dance. For the Swiss director, a shot was something more. He didn’t cut when the action was complete because that subordinated the shot to the action. You can let the person walk through the door and then hold and not cut. The issue becomes time rather than action. A shot becomes a new thing, closer to a thought than a gesture. Avant garde artists and film makers of the 1920s prefigured the cinema revolution of 1959/60. But one director merits particular credit for vitalising the movie image. His name is Jean-Luc Godard.