Books

'French Cinema' Is a Tangled, Rumpled Jumble of a History

French Cinema is a popular history that makes its own eccentric claims on what that history should be.


French Cinema

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Length: 464 pages
Author: Charles Drazin
Price: $22.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-06
Amazon

For better and worse, Charles Drazin’s French Cinema is a tangled, rumpled jumble of a history: an analysis of industry economics (at its best), a celebration of French artistry over Hollywood industry (at its most questionable), a revisionist appreciation of pre-World War II French films (a worthwhile, if lopsided endeavor given the purported scope of the book), and the launching pad for a hundred ideas by the author, some of which have little to do with French cinema.

In the preface, writing about the career of the director Éric Rohmer, Drazin peaked my interested when he writes “But what seemed much more interesting to me was the attitude that had got Rohmer to this point [the success of Ma nuit chez Maud, after so many years of struggle, as well as the cultural network that was able to support him when the commercial film industry would not. It is this different operating system – which throws into such sharp relief our Hollywood-dominated, English-language cinema – that I would like to explore in this book.” Analyzing the development of the film industry in France and how the artistic and financial aspects of it intertwined is surely the most interesting aspect of the book. But the line about throwing Hollywood into sharp relief is a distraction and a distraction in too much of what follows.

He begins by describing the concurrent invention of the film camera by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. Drazin compares Edison’s first films, short clips of vaudeville performers in his New Jersey studio, to a “gimmick” and “crude novelties” while the Lumières’ films approach is compared to the Impressionist painters, “necessarily informed by continuity with France’s past, culture, and traditions” in documenting scenes of outdoor life. Never mind that in explaining the basics of the inventions – that Edison’s camera was heavy and cumbersome and the Lumière’s lightweight and portable – Drazin has already rationally explained how they came to radically different visual approaches. (And both were susceptible to the novelty aspect of the new medium.)

Such exasperating commentary becomes all too common as Drazin tries to shoehorn material to fit the clichéd notion of a cultured France versus a crude money mad USA.

At times Drazin shows a disturbing inability to see the world outside these terms. He writes of the French film executive Charles Pathé, “So powerful is our notion of the primacy of culture in France that Pathé’s single-minded devotion to statistics, figures and the laws of profit and loss come as something of a surprise.” Is the idea that a Frenchman may be interested in business rather than art really a “surprise”?

When Hollywood comes to the fore, the book suffers immensely, and is laughable when not infuriatingly incapable of recognizing subtlety. It reaches a nadir during a lengthy screed against the “two-dimensional” Casablanca, which Drazin accuses of being an inferior rip-off of the superior French film Pépé Le Moko even though Drazin admits he has no evidence that any of Casablanca’s creative principals ever saw Pépé, only a Hollywood remake of it. In another low point Drazin writes that “in practice, there was not much difference” between a Vichy regime propaganda film and a standard piece of Hollywood entertainment.

Yet when Drazin roots his material within France and embraces the attempts by French directors and producers to create movies with widespread appeal, and the attempts of other directors to buck the styles of Hollywood with more individualistic forms, Drazin’s analysis is skillful and enlightening.

He charts France’s little-known global domination of the film industry during the initial silent era (covered in more detail in Richard Abel’s The Red Rooster Scare). He describes how an early Cecil B. DeMille film “The Cheat” was used by French directors to codify a basic film language, rather than D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was the touchstone in the US. He champions oft-neglected directors of the '30s like Julien Duvivier and Sacha Guitry, who attempted to make movies that were both artistically and financially successful. He details the odd history of Continental Films during World War II, when a briefly successful and viable French film industry was allowed to flourish under a sympathetic Nazi administrator.

Drazin drops most of his anti-Hollywood fervor entirely around the time the New Wave picks up. Here the relations between Hollywood and France becomes so hopelessly tangled that his focus stays on the French film industry and the competing directors and ideas of what filmmaking should be, ranging from the Hollywood-auteur-besotted and fiercely iconoclastic Jean-Luc Godard to the shameless exploitation of Roger Vadim’s sex romps.

French Cinema is a popular history that makes its own eccentric claims on what that history should be. Many well-known directors are barely mentioned and Drazin often completely neglects to mention the names of “canonical” works of some artists. There is nothing wrong with this -- mostly I found it a refreshing gloss on an oft-covered subject -- but this is not anything like a definitive chronicle of French film history. While extolling the benefits of an individual voice is part of the point of the book, at times his writing and choice of subject matter can go on bizarre tangents, as when he jumps from analyzing Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante in the '30s to a consideration of the British director Lindsey Anderson’s work 30 years later.

But for the most part, the French films that Drazin selects for more in-depth of analysis are given illuminating attention. Though the coverage of modern French film history is decidedly brief, his discussion of the works of Luc Besson, Jacques Audiard, and Olivier Assayas to cover it is satisfyingly sufficient.

He writes of Assayas’s Irma Vep that it “was an exercise in affectionate self-loathing that was itself an example of France’s navel-gazing cinema. Yet the very spontaneity with which it was made, springing out of enthusiasm and a clever idea rather than careful commercial calculation, paradoxically demonstrated France’s capacity for regeneration.” Here he reaches a sort of balance in addressing contradictions of art and commerce that will never be resolved.

5

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image