Justine on Truffaut on Truffaut

Over the past week I’ve been listening to Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock with great pleasure. At this point, I have only a few episodes left and when I finish I will get back with my thoughts and reactions. I do heartily recommend picking up the book, or if you’re lazy like me get a copy of the actual interview. Well worth your time.

In the meantime, I watched a program today, Truffaut on Truffaut. A 50 minute show that essentially is an interview with the director about his films. While I am quite an enthusiastic fan of his, I frankly have not seen many of Truffaut’s films. I’m more familiar with him as a critic and an ‘ambassador’ for cinema than as a filmmaker. The program itself is interesting, if not rushed and poorly made. Truffaut is very self reflective, almost to a fault. There is a very apparent insecurity in his conversations, and he’s very quick to dismiss or to tear apart his work. At one point he even reflects after being shown a seen (paraphrased) “If I had seen it in someone else’s film, I might have liked it”. However, there are clear moments when he gets lost in his memories or his own creative ideas that I’m reminded of what I find so exciting about his writing. If anything, few individuals are able to so clearly translate their love for film as well as Truffaut, and it’s probably one of the reasons why I admire him so much.

Being such a short program for a somewhat expansive career resulted in many shortcuts and a lack of very real insight into his creative process or thoughts on his work. Considering Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock devoted between 15-30 minutes per film, 50 minutes for 26 films is almost criminal. I was supremely disappointed that many of his films, including one of my favourite, La Nuit Americaine wasn’t even mentioned in passing. I am unfortunately so ready to compare this documentary/interview to that of the Hitchcock one, and again I also have to note that his interviewers lack the passion, creative and knowledge to conduct a truly interesting interview, and too often the questions seem to fall on the level of slightly above average American talk show host.

Still, Truffaut’s own instinct and passion make for moments of brilliance. His discussion on Les Deux anglaises et le continent as a sort of rebuttal to Jules et Jim was fascinating. He discusses the power of cinema, and how with this film he tried to push beyond sentimentality and nostalgia into the “physical”. It reveals many interesting questions about the confines of the medium, or frankly any storytelling medium whereas just as important as where something begins, how it’s framed, how it’s acted is at what point it ends. We can end the scene in the grips of passion, or linger a moment to reveal the “physical” brutality that brings the film a little closer to life.

Bringing it back to Hitchcock, even in this program his influence can be felt in Truffaut’s attitudes (despite not making a single reference to La Mariée était en noir), and his ideas about film. He talks about how there is a fine line between exploiting a situation and truly engaging the audience, that if a scene is done right the audience is not repulsed but feels they are somehow an accomplice to the crimes itself. This seems almost to be directly lifted from what can be said, and was said about Rear Window. In Truffaut’s mind, a great director has to have the audience in mind almost at all times. Hitchcock’s superb ability to engage his audience was something that Truffaut clearly admired, and some of his great reproaches of his work often concerned moments when Hitchcock seemed to become more self-pleasing than audience pleasing, notably in the case of Vertigo. I don’t think that’s to say he doesn’t believe films can be made for yourself or in a way pushing your audience away, but does feel that cinema while very isolatory is also communal, and perhaps a bit far from the point, it is a commercial art form. I also found it fascinating that Truffaut is so at ease working with children, even saying that he’d much rather see the adult world through the innocent eyes of a child than to confront it head on, while Hitchcock’s films are so childless… the only film of his, almost ironically, that features children was his personal favourite Shadow of a Doubt. Of course though, they were little more than monsters onscreen, and being as candid as he is, Hitchcock confessed they were monsters on the set as well.

Truffaut also takes a few moments to reflect on the differences between European and American film, again something brought up during the Hitchcock interviews. Truffaut notes that American cinema is goal oriented, while for a reason he himself doesn’t know European cinema… is not. European critics can admire and accept American films for what they are, but for whatever reason cannot abide it in European films. This raises for me at least, very interesting questions about the different artistic landscapes and POV in terms of criticism and appreciation. The critics for Les Cahiers du Cinema were probably the most influential advocates for the appreciation and preservation of cinema as an art form of the 20th century. They changed our understanding of the medium, and now many of their theories and reflections are accepted and used as des textes fondamentales… so to speak. Not only this, but their writing was read and accepted by the French public. During an aside in the Hitchcock interviews, Truffaut mentions that the critics from France and the United States are on such different wavelengths that neither could survive or be accepted in the other’s world. Even before them, I think the first original film theorist was arguably Sergei Eisenstein and his theories on montage. I wonder if this comes from the two branches of early filmmaking, Edison vs. the Lumieres. The first worked to find the best way to exploit the medium for profit, while the second indulged more in a technical curiosity. While I do think the critical battleground has evened out as a result of the American New Wave in the 1970s, and globalization I think generally there is still some divide, and historically a lot of interest on the subject. Back to Truffaut and goal oriented cinema, he mentions that his trick for overcoming the difficulty in finding structure was to use obsession. In his films he or his characters would be pre-occupied –obsessed by something, really anything and he’d use this as the focus to which he’d work every scene.

I also found interesting some of the reasoning behind making each film, each seemed an adventure or an experiment. How does it feel to direct when you are acting? Can you make an entire film about a face? How to sum up an entire life in one film? I can’t say why, but I really like this idea.

As a final note, what are your favourite Truffaut films? For me it’s quite easily Jules et Jim, one of my all time favourite films, it captures so beautifully youth, vitality and cruelty.

6 responses to “Justine on Truffaut on Truffaut

  1. Hello Justine. I do not like Truffaut films, so I cannot say much from that standpoint.

    But you bring up some thoughts about theory, and I would like to encourage you to explore the subject more. You should see more early cinema and read more early film theory. There was a huge theoretical movement in the 1920s that was the shape for film (and all art, really) until Hitler. The Cahiers folk tend to overshadow these young pioneers. For instance, most people assume “auteur” started with Truffaut, but people like Delluc and Clair were using “auteur” to define the “film artist” as early as 1924 (and I believe I’ve seen an instance of auteur as early as 1922). Eisenstein was preceded by some of his mentors, like Kuleshov.

    I think the first true Film Theory book was written in 1916 by Hugo Munsterberg called “Photoplay.” I have not read the book, but he was a psychologist and the book is supposed to be a psychology of cinema–apparently, although he was at first embarrassed to be seen in a cinema, he became obsessed with it and ended up going nearly every day. I think he said that narrative is the true art of cinema.

    Anyway, just some thoughts…

  2. A beautiful response my friend,and considering as of late I’ve become interested in theory it’s a great overview.

    I like the story about Hugo Munsterberg, it’s unfortunate that so many stories (especially of early cinema)figures like Hugo, or actors, etc.were embarassed to be associated with film. I think we even see some of that today, as it’s quite easily relegated as a secondary art.

  3. It’s an interesting point that Europe sees American “junk” as art and vice versa. The artist traveling to another country to find respect is nothing new, but fascinating in cinema, where time and distance collapse – you should definitely explore this more, time permitting!

  4. I don’t even know how I could potentially explore it… it’s really an undertaking. The best I can imagine at this moment is going from a critical standpoint, and really evaluating the great divide over certain films in terms of reception. Any other suggestions would be welcome though!

  5. I was obsessed with Truffaut growing up. I’ve seen all of his work multiple times, and I’ve always enjoyed retrospectives of his work, when you get to see all the films together and note all the visual motifs he repeats from film to film. My favorite films by him are: The Antoine Doinel films, particularly The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses, Shoot the Piano Player, Two English Girls, The Wild Child, Day for Night, and The Last Metro. I had an opportunity to interview him when I was living in Paris years ago, but I was too shy. And when I did finally stand next to him at the New York Film Festival years ago, I was too tongue-tied to say anything really intelligent to him, except to say how much I loved his work.

  6. Sorry for the long delay!

    A very sweet story, and the recommendations are enticing! I should be seeing Shoot the Piano Player soon. I can’t say I’d necessarily react differently in that situation, because I probably wouldn’t… shyness always gets the better of me. Still you did have a chance to meet him, and that must have been a wonderful opportunity.

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