BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 21, 2010
Two in the Wave
Looking for Eric
No movement in any nation’s film history has had a greater effect, at home and abroad, than the French New Wave. Beginning in the late 1950s and cresting through the 1960s, it not only brought forth new and invaluable talents: it altered in some degree the expectations of audiences. Much has naturally been written about the New Wave. Now here is a French documentary, brisk and fertile, called Two in the Wave.
Of all the directors in the wave, and the film deals with some of them, the principals here are François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The documentary’s director was Emmanuel Laurent; the screenwriter was Antoine de Baecque, who has worked on biographies of the two and who supplies the resonant voice-over. The chronology of the film is not strict: de Baecque tells us the story as if we were sitting with him while he remembered things—sometimes a matter he had omitted earlier—and Laurent provides the visual counterpoint, bits of old and new interviews, pertinent clips from films being discussed, visits to studios, and so forth. One problematic novelty: Laurent includes an unidentified present-day young woman who wanders through once in a while, glancing at journals and visiting sites. Laurent says she is there because he wanted to create a link between youth then and youth now. Instead she intervenes.
Anyway, the film spills over with youth, and with older people of the day—producers, advisers—who were invigorated by the young talents around them. We meet Truffaut and Godard when they were feisty young critics on the vigorous journal Cahiers du Cinéma, lovingly fostered by the most eminent of French critics, André Bazin. Truffaut had attracted attention in 1954 when he published an article in Cahiers that promoted the auteur theory. This theory, much mooted since then, holds that the prime criterion in judging a film is the quality of its direction; that a film is not an illustrated screenplay, and the screenplay itself may be tacky in a finely directed picture. Everything else in a film is secondary to its cinematic worth. (The auteur theory, before it waned in importance, was a salutary jolt for film criticism.) In general Truffaut and Godard attacked the cinéma de papa, the staid orthodox school that, in their view, was arthritic, not intrinsically filmic, and was particularly exemplified by the French entries in the annual Cannes Film Festival.
Truffaut and Godard plunged along in their different ways, with spotty financial success but with huge influence. (This documentary makes it seem as if for years they lived on cigarettes.) In 1964 I visited eight European countries, courtesy of the Ford Foundation, to speak with film people, and I always asked directors which other directors had influenced them. In the majority of cases, only five years after the Cannes prize, Truffaut and Godard were the names most frequently mentioned. Truffaut had shown that the lyric leap, in language and in motion, bursting from the character on screen or the director himself, could give film fresh beauties. Godard battled the very fixity of film, the fact that it is in the can. He kept trying, sometimes through showing the film itself being made, to show that what we were watching was a construct, produced by the world around it, yet—and therefore—particularly illuminating of it. Many of the film-makers I met on this trip, in Eastern and Western Europe, spoke as if these young Frenchmen had liberated them.
A third person who emerged prominently from the Truffaut-Godard outburst was a fourteen-year-old boy named Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut had cast him in the leading role of The 400 Blows, in which he triumphed. (Laurent includes a reticent interview of the boy, untouched as yet by fame, in which he tells how he enjoyed testing for the role.) Godard later used him in several films, but Truffaut candidly says in interviews that through the years he used Léaud as an autobiographical vicar for himself in films like Stolen Kisses. For Léaud, Truffaut created the character Antoine Doinel in their first picture, and Antoine grew up along with Léaud.
Truffaut moved on to widening reception; Godard became more of a particularized choice, aesthetically and politically. What was insufficiently noted at the time was that, originally at least, both these men who were ultra-European idols to many were heavily influenced by American film. Flippantly yet seriously, Godard dedicated his first film to Monogram Pictures, a Hollywood manufacturer of pop, and Humphrey Bogart is an icon to the protagonist, helping to transform a wanton murderer into a winning adventurer. Truffaut sometimes said that he would have liked to have been a Hollywood studio director in the Golden Age, to be handed a script every couple of months, to be responsible only for directing. One of the few times that he acted was in an American film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I had the chance to meet them both at different times. In 1963, Godard came to New York for the first Film Festival there and appeared on a TV program that I then conducted, along with some of the other Festival directors. I had been warned that he was difficult. In proof he was a pussycat, although he didn’t talk much. Before he left, he insisted on giving me his phone number in Paris. Though I never actually used it, I felt complimented. I had dinner once with Truffaut in Brooklyn at the home of Ray Bradbury’s literary agent. Truffaut was then much interested in Fahrenheit 451, of which I had been the editor in my book-publishing days, and as I had become the film critic for this magazine, my presence seemed apt to the agent. I can’t remember much of the talk about Bradbury, but I’ll never forget the tender look on Truffaut’s face when I mentioned the name André Bazin.
So this new documentary helps to transmute the New Wave from a contemporary explosion into a historical event. Inevitably, not all of the debutants around 1960 lasted or mattered, but the best work of Rohmer and Chabrol and Varda and de Broca is here to stay, along with that of Godard and Truffaut. Most signally, as this documentary makes pleasingly clear, the New Wave enlarged possibilities for an instrument of both immediacy and reach.
Ken Loach, whobegan to make films in 1967, has wrought an honorable career as a champion of the English working class. He is not the only director in the field, but he is certainly an admirable one. The viewer of a Loach film can be pretty sure that at some point he or she will be in a dowdy pub in the midlands, knocking back a pint of bitter and joining in some local songs. Regional dialects are sometimes a bit difficult in Loach, as Manchester is in his new work, but it is worth the strain. Loach never treats his workers as proles but as contradictions of T.S. Eliot’s dictum that deep concerns are the privilege of princes.
Looking for Eric is a good instance. Eric Bishop is a Manchester postal clerk in his fifties, and the film is about his search for himself. He is in such a tangled family mess that it must be based on fact—no one could invent it. He is twice divorced and has two teenage stepsons living with him, one white and one black, both the children of the same earlier wife by unknown fathers. Eric also has a grown daughter by his other former wife, and the daughter has a baby. He himself, in the midst of familial whirland health worries, is trying—as he might say—to sort himself out.
One day when he is in a pub with his mates, one of them asks which famous person each of them would choose, if he could, as his personal guru. Some of the responses are Mandela, Gandhi, and Frank Sinatra. Eric’s is Eric Catona, a former popular star of football (which we call soccer). In fact, in Eric’s home he has a life-size photo of Catona on the wall and a lot of action photos. One day, after taking a few puffs of a joint in his room, he turns around and there is Catona. Himself.
It surprises us, too, because Loach is very much a verist. Still, there is no smoke-and-mirrors magic about it: Catona is just suddenly there, graying, friendly, stalwart. He frequently reappears thereafter, with hints about Eric’s problems. The situation is all the more engaging because neither of the Erics ever treats their meetings as mystical. This is, I think, a first for Loach. He has long been keen on football, we know from past pictures, but this is a new venture into the fantastic, made all the funnier because Loach treats it as matter-of-fact.
The trouble with Paul Laverty’s screenplay is that he, presumably with Loach and others, felt that all this should lead to something dramatic. One of Eric’s stepsons gets involved with grim gangsters, and the film ends with a large community action of courage straight out of a 1930s Hollywood problem picture. But until then, Steve Evets’s travails as the postal Eric and the warm stature of Catona make us feel like their cronies.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.