The Films in My Life
by Francois Truffaut
(Simon & Schuster, $12.50)
In 1954, Francois Truffaut was 22 and a critic on Cahiers du Cinema. He was asked to review a new film by George Cukor because he liked Cukor's work. "But," he said in his review, "the trouble is that Cukor isn't the kind of director you write about: he's someone to talk about with friends on the street or sitting in a cafe." No cute epitome will sum up so complex a man as Truffaut: still that line sets the tonality--the cafe-conversation tonality--of much of his collected critcism.
Truffaut is a busy representative of a farily solid European tradition: the film critic who becomes a director. Some other examples are Clair, Antonioni, Godard, Rohmer, and Chabrol. (The only US exmaples I think of are Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader.) However, very few of them--preeminently Truffaut--have continued to write occasional criticism after they began to make films.
It was a good idea to collect his criticsm. The book is a warm and juicy complement to his films and to his appearances in his own films and in on other man's. (Spielberg: Close Encounters.) When Leo Braudy reviewed the French edition of this book in the (London) Times Literary Supplement (Nov. 21, 1975), he noted that Truffaut had omitted his influential polemical writings about the auteur theory and the interviews that he had participated in with some famous directors. Still what is here--about one sixth of Truffaut's critical writings, says Braudy--creates a personal chronicle of a fascinating period in film history: France, from the Occupation through the Liberation and the excitements of the 15 years thereafter. It is also autobiography, overtly and implicitly.
It is also--highly idiosyncratically, sometimes doctrinally, and often charmingly--pertinent criticism. Every piece carries the year of publication, or of writing if previously unpublished, but the pieces are grouped by subject so that we can esee him changing--I presume to say growing.
There's no point in catching up his contradictions. If he didn't contradict himself a few times in material written over 20 years, he would be moribund. (Similarly if he didn't repeat himself a few times, he would be a leaf in the wind.) Besides he is often conscious of his changes. In 1958 he says:
I know more about [Fritz] Lang, what he is and how
he thinks, after seeing While the City Sleeps, a film
he made to order, than I know about Rene Clement after
watching Gervaise, in which, although it is a
successful and high-quality film, the designer, the writers,
and the star are as important as the director.
That is simon-pure auteurism--simple-simon pure, I'd say--from one of the founders of the school. But in 1975, in the nuggety introduction to this book, he writes that the auteur theory "was started by Cahiers du Cinema and is forgotten in France, but still discussed in American periodicals."
In his earliest years he is mad for Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, Frank Tashlin, Nicholas Ray. A decade later he writes a fascinating article about working for three years as assistant to Roberto Rossellini, during which time no film was made but much was learned by the assistant: "His severity, his seriousness, his thoughtfulness freed me from some of the complacent enthusiasm I'd felt for American movies." Truffaut doesn't specify which ones he changed his mind about, but it would have been hard for him to turn around without bumping into some of the directors mentioned just above. On the other hand, that "complacent enthusiasm," very much the result of youthful gorging on American films after the Liberation, wasn't dampened enough to diminish his regard for the best achievements of Hollywood, including the work of European emigres like Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, and Lubitsch.
Particularly interesting are the director's comments on some important directors. Truffaut says in 1968: "Like all artists of stylization, Lubitsch, whether consciously or not, was drawn to the great writers of children's stories," and then gives examples from Lubitsch films. This may be vulnerable as a generalization, but it does perceive the almost innocent, childlike glee behind much of Lubitsch's slyness.
In 1974 he writes:
John Ford might be awarded (the same goes for Howard Hawks)
the prize for "invisible direction." The camera work of these two
great storytellers is never apparent to the eye. There are very
few movements, only enough to follow a character, and the
majority of shots are fixed and always taken at the same distance.
Try to remeber a big close-up in Ford or Hawks. I can't.
"One would gather," Truffaut says in 1971, "that Bueuel finds mankind imbecilic but life diverting." And as long ago as 1957 he was drawing attention to the films of those two men of the theater, Marcel Pagnol and Sacha Guitry.
Hasn't anyone noticed that Italian neorealism ... is a direct descendant
... of the filmed theater pieces of Marcel Pagnole ... Seeing [Guitry's
films] again today and holding them up against the false masterpieces
of the same period is an instructive lesson. Guitry was a true filmmaker.
And, over and over, Truffaut reverts, in discussing directors he admires, to the resident power of the human face in film. In a beautiful two-part review (1956) of Bresson's great work A Man Escaped, he writes: "He exerts all his effort to filming the face, or more accurately, the seriousness of the human countenance." In 1973 Truffaut writes of Ingmar Bergman: "Bergman's lesson is three-fold: freedom in dialogue, a radical cleaning of the image, and the absolute priority of the human face."
Predictably--predictable to me, anyway--there are many opinions in the book with which I wildly disagree, particularly in the earlier reviews. I'll cite only two, neither of them connected with Truffaut's auteurism. In 1967 he froths with joy about Claude Berri's The Two of Us, a crock of confiture which I suppose appealed to him because it was about a child during the Occupation. Still! ... And in 1963, although he praises Fellini's 8 1/2, he drastically underpraises it, with only mild perception of the richness in this masterpiece.
There are some inaccuracies that US editors should have caught. "The American [film] critic is usually a gradute of a journalism school ..." I daresay there are some such graduates, but I don't know of one. And, surprisingly, he makes mistakes, as late as 1967, about Citizen Kane, a film he venerates. It is not "the only first film by a man who was already famous." What about, to name two, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Max Reinhardt) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)? Kane meets Susan Alexander for the first time when he's on his way to see his family's things in the warehouse, not after he "had gone" there, a difference of some relevance to the scene. And Bernstein's story about remembering the girl on the ferry boat did not occur on Hudson Bay.
Truffaut's collection is worth reading, worth having. The collection by his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard called Godard on Godard (Viking, 1972), is intellectually more agile and diversified. (It's mistitled: it's about a great deal more than Godard's own work.) But Truffaut's book is more engaging. He is the artistic-spiritual child of Jean Renoir and Andre Bazin. If his book hasn't the Olympian benignity of the former's writings or the radical penetration of the latter at his best, it has the button-holding quality of both. Truffaut keeps leaning across that cafe table to make his points, and, agree or not, there's a pleasant sense of intimacy in being with him.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann