Truffaut, Francoise — 400 Blows — Auteur Cinema — New Wave

Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and Auteur Cinema

             It can be said with confidence that Francoise Truffaut is the first theoretician and practitioner of auteur cinema. In an article written in 1954 for “Cahiers du Cinema,” he boldly laid out the guiding principles of this new kind of film and then he put them into practice in “400 Blows.” Granted that the films he made after “400 Blows” never came close in quality and stature to his first masterpiece, nevertheless, he deserves credit for taking films and film-maing into fresh and exciting new directions. Truffaut and his cohorts , Godard, Malle, Chabrol, and Rohmer, who formulated the ideas at the center of the auteur school believed that the director who directs the film is like the author who creates a work of fiction. The director controls and organizes all the elements that constitute a finished film. The overall look and feel of the finished film (mise en scene) expresses the director vision. This concept flew in the face of prevailing opinions that considered the film as an industrial product made by a factory i.e. a studio. Truffaut’s biographers, Baecque and Toubiana assert that “recognizing the man who has revealed himself emotionally on screen is the ultimate consequence of the auteur theory. In this absolute love, there is a quasi-anthropomorphic conception of cinema.” (Truffaut, 100)

Much has been written about “400 Blows” since it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and won Francois Truffaut the Best Director award. The question is: how did this black and white film made by an unknown director win the hearts and minds of an international audience of critics and movie-goers?

            Now, more than half a century later, the radical polemics of the film world of the 60s have faded. The young, iconoclastic film-makers of the “New Wave” who challenged the established order of French cinema with new techniques and unconventional methods have themselves become a part of movie-making history and tradition. But “400 Blows” still retains a surprising freshness and vitality.

            Truffaut’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that he was only 26 when he made it and it was his first full-length, feature film. And the main character in the film, in fact, the one figure who carries the weight of the entire film, was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, a fourteen-year old boy who had never acted before and never been in front of a camera.

            Of course, Truffaut was not entirely unknown to film-buffs in 1959 nor was he new to the world of films and film-making. By the time he made his debut as a director, he had been working as a film critic and making a name for himself with his frank and, at times, almost brutal film reviews. Writing for “Cahiers du Cinema,” then edited by Andre Bazin, his friend and mentor, Truffaut had made as many friends as enemies with his bold attacks on respected script-writers and directors. In his article “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” which came out in the January, 1954 edition of “Cahiers Du Cinema,” Truffaut castigated the established figures of the French film industry who made movies that had come to be known as the “Tradition of Quality” cinema.

These films shared some features that Truffaut had come to dislike. Made by such screen-writers and directors such as Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Claude Autant-Lara, Rene Clement, Jean Delannoys, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, were mostly made on sound stages within the confines of a studio where lighting and sound and other environmental factors could be kept under strict control. Many of these films exploited the literary and dramatic tradition of France, turning to the works of Zola, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Racine, Stendhal and other literary figures for their plots and stories. Naturally, they lacked suspense. French audiences already knew what would happen to Jean Valjean or d’Artagnan. These films also tended to highlight long lugubrious speeches delivered in a theatrical manner. The camera, because it was heavy, did not move much. The camera’s point of view became that of an audience member stuck in his chair witnessing a performance on a stage.

            Truffaut argued that these films lacked the lightness-of-touch, the alacrity, the suspense and the cinematic qualities of Hollywood films. He also felt that they were marked by a certain pseudo-literary artificiality and lacked the leaven of realism. They did not show the lives of real people, the lives of ordinary men and women who walked the streets of post-WWII Paris. Even more importantly, these films did not depict the sorts of lives that Truffaut and his friends were living. Truffaut’s childhood had been spent in the poorer quarters of Paris: Montmartre, Batignolles, Place Clichy. This part of town belonged to the working class where the apartments were tiny and hotels rented rooms by the hour.

            When Truffaut took up the challenge of making his own first full-length feature film, he decided to base it the events of his own childhood. He even filmed it on the streets on which he grew up. Place Gustave Toudouze, Place Clichy, and Place Pigalle are the terrain of his childhood. Many scenes of “400 Blows” were filmed on these locations.

Great art is often born out of great suffering. But an artist needs more than suffering if he is to create great art. He must also have skill, talent, passion and luck to turn his vision into art. He must also have control over the means of production. And, he must have financial support, without which even the finest artistic visions remain unrealized.

Truffaut had the good fortune to be able to marshal all these elements, when he began making “400 Blows.” He had the tools he needed. Panavision had launched a small, lightweight, fairly portable 35 mm camera that in the hands of the capable cameraman, Henri Decae, produced magical results. Decae used an Anamorphic lense (Dyaliscope) that could compress the scene when it was shot and then dilate the image through a reverse Anamorphic lense when it was projected onto a screen. These developments enabled him to film even extreme close-ups without running the risk of distorting the image.

The availability of a smaller, lighter motion picture camera permitted Truffaut to move outside sound stages and studios and shoot right on the busy streets and back alleys of Paris. Nor were cumbersome cranes and stabilizing platforms and tracks as necessary as they had been. The camera could be mounted on a tripod or placed on the roof of a car for tracking shots, or poked out of a third floor window. It could be re-positioned quickly for shots from different angles. This portability and mobility allowed the director to use the camera in a more intimate manner, investing a new emotional quality to the film. Under Truffaut’s direction, the camera becomes very involved, very intrusive, very intimate. The camera is no longer a passive observer. It participates, comments and influences. It becomes the director’s instrument the way the pen is the writer’s instrument. It can capture the director’s vision. The director becomes the “author” of the film.

By this time, a new highly-sensitive film stock had also become available. When coupled with the new camera, it aided and abetted Truffaut’s craftsmanship. The film stock could now capture sharp images in very low light without adding granularity. Filming night scenes out-of-doors suddenly became easier. Interior scenes still had to be lit, but the lights were small and portable, very different from the huge, hot, lamps that were needed on sound stages.

The effect of some of these innovations is visible in the films of other “New Wave” directors as well, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol in particular. Notice the night scenes in Godard’s “Breathless” (1961) captured by his cameraman, Raoul Coutard. In one scene the lights of Champs Elysees come on during the shot. But the camera and the film are both able to adjust to the available light without any loss of visual information. Henri Decae’s skill with black and white film becomes evident in Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows,” (1958) where the night scenes shot in ambient street light have a haunting and memorable beauty and the interior scenes display such range of silken grays the color film becomes irrelevant. In Claude Chabrol’s “The Cousins,” (1959), the tortuous turns of Decae’s camera inside a small apartment contribute to the atmosphere of claustrophobia that the director wishes to capture.

Freed of the necessity of filming in a studio also freed Truffaut of the necessity of building expensive sets. He was able to produce his film much more cheaply. When sets became necessary he often filmed in apartments of friends or relatives. This tactic made his films even more rooted in the environment he wanted to capture. There is never a hint of anything phony or flimsy about his mise en scene.

With “400 Blows,” Truffaut advanced the craft of film-making and showed the path to new cinematic strategies for story-telling.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Baecque, Antoine de and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut. New York: Knopf, 1999.

 

 

 

 

 

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How Bad is “Blue Jasmine?”

I was very disappointed by “Blue Jasmine.” But, when I turned to the reviews and comments, I found (much to my surprise) that most of them were quite positive. This flung me into an even deeper pit of despair. How could it be, I thought, that so many perceptive writers and film critics had not been able to see the very obvious faults of the film, the direction, the script and the cinematography? It was either that, or they were reluctant to criticize the work of director who had a good reputation and a respected name.

Let me begin with the script. The fact that the story is based on (or stolen) from Tennesse Williams’ brilliant “A Street Car Named Desire” is distressing enough. The parallels are obvious and embarrassing. One longs for the originality of “Annie Hall.” But to make matters worse, the dialogue in “Blue Jasmine” is banal, flat and maddeningly repetitive. Instead of presenting fully-formed characters, the script presents cartoons or caricatures — one-dimensional stick-figures that can be described by brief tag-lines. There is the working-class, illiterate with a good heart, the rich-but-corrupt, husband of Jasmine and finally, Jasmine herself, far fallen from her upscale lifestyle that had featured Hermes bags and Dior gowns.

How many times do we have to hear that Jasmine wants to learn some skill so she can get a good job? How many times do we have to hear that Ginger’s uneducated boy-friend is a “loser?” How many times do we have to hear that Jasmine’s rich, crook of an ex-husband was an insatiate womanizer? For some reason, the script-writer forgets that he has already provided us the same bit of information and keeps clothing it in different words and presenting it again and again.

One waited in vain for the famous Woody wit to come in and save the day. But it never arrived. Instead all we got were screaming matches every ten minutes or right when Hollywood script-writing protocols decree that a “whammy” is needed to wake up the audience.

Poor Cate Blanchette. The cameraman has done her grievous disservice. Photographed mercilessly in poor light, with terrible make-up, Cate lurches from scene to scene mumbling the same words over and over again. (“I want to go to college. I want to learn computer skills. I want to become an interior designer.”) Her dark roots showing and all the other signs of aging horrifically emphasized, she is crucified by the camera against cluttered back-drops, in meaningless long shots and badly-lit close-ups. I have seen her in other films in which her fresh, unusual beauty is riveting. In “Blue Jasmine” she has simply been done wrong!

The plot is simple enough: Jasmine is married to a wealthy New York businessman (played by a stone-faced Alec Baldwin) who is sent to prison for financial irregularities. (Shades of Bernie Madoff who literally “made off” with millions of dollars!) Jasmine arrives at her sister, Ginger’s apartment in San Francisco, broken-hearted and broke, only to see that Ginger is living a rather lower-class life. Ginger works as a cashier in a grocery store. Jasmine’s problems are further compounded by the fact that she has no skills, talents or training that could enable her to earn a living. But even this simple plot is presented in halting, staccato scenes that move with irritating slowness at times or jump forward at unrealistic speeds. The segment in which Jasmine meets Dwight is an example of how Woody Allen pushes the plot-line forward hurriedly. As soon as he meets Jasmine, Dwight does a quick data dump on his background and Jasmine is instantly smitten. Another such scene takes place towards the end of the film when Jasmine and Dwight are outside a jewelry store. Dwight is about to buy Jasmine an engagement ring. But he throws her over unceremoniously upon learning that she has lied about her background. All this happens with bewildering speed. A more perceptive director-cameraman team would have handled this part of the film in a slower, more nuanced, more sensitive way.

Now a few words about the music in “Blue Jasmine.” Woody Allen uses New Orleans Jazz to give the film a feeling of the Deep South – “Street Car Named Desire” country. But the whole effect is incongruous because the movie is set in San Francisco. Ultimately, the movie cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be an evocation of New Orleans, or San Francisco or New York. To put it bluntly, the sound-track is decidedly ineffectual and inappropriate. It merely manages to confuse the viewer. It makes no positive contributions. Nor does it help in creating atmosphere, mood, or ambience. To clarify, my objection is not that Jazz is used in a movie set in San Francisco, but that Jazz is used ineffectually. To see Jazz used well, I can direct viewers to Louis Malle’s first full-length feature film “Elevator to the Gallows” in which Miles Davis’ trumpet solos capture and express Jeanne Moreau’s melancholic mood with heart-breaking effectiveness.

Of all the films of Woody Allen that I have seen, this one was the most disappointing. I would rank “Annie Hall” as his most inspired effort. “Midnight in Paris” passed muster and was mildly entertaining, at least for those of us who know who know something about Gertrude Stein and Paris in the 20s. Woody Allen has given us many wonderful films. I hope he will give us more. But “Blue Jasmine” is a film that he should disown and we should forget.

I did find an intelligent analysis of “Blue Jasmine” on a website by Paul Joseph Gulino. (http://www.scriptmag.com/features/storytelling-strategies-blue-jasmine-blues)

I think it summarizes the problems of the film very succinctly. Gulino points out that Woody Allen’s script fails to establish a cause-and-effect pattern, and this fault undermines the credibility of the narrative. The story’s characters, says Gulino, “seem driven by impulses, and the story lurches around, with lines of action beginning and then petering out. The cause-and-effect sequencing is thus unsturdy even without the flashback interruptions.” Gulino further asserts that the screenplay resorts to the use of two coincidences, a tactic that further erodes the viewer’s faith in the story’s credibility. Gulino writes: “The story is helped along by two coincidences (which also tend to undermine cause-and-effect sequencing) — a chance sighting by Ginger of Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) kissing a woman, and a chance encounter Jasmine with Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, which both unravels her hopes for a new marriage, and seems to lend the impression that San Francisco is a very small town.”

Relying on the use of coincidences in a screenplay is a very dangerous move. Coincidences are the weak points of a story and show-up the fact that the story is poorly-constructed. Of course, writers have to use them at times, but they must be used sparingly and with great skill and care to maintain the story’s plausibility. The story writer can ask the audience to “suspend disbelief “ but no one has the right to ask the audience to suspend sanity.

Because of the lack of plausibility, “Blue Jasmine” resembles a badly-formed magic act. We can plainly see the magician hiding the rabbit in the top-hat and then taking it out. The trick fails to impress or please. Allen’s screenplay, says Gulino is a: “classic ‘shaggy dog’ story — a story that meanders and ultimately comes to nothing — but what seems to lend it some ballast are the flashbacks to Jasmine’s former life. However, these are simply a dramatization of moments that could easily be delivered through traditional exposition. They amount to: a woman lived the high life in the Hamptons with her rich husband Hal, who she later learned was cheating serially on her, and who was also making money fraudulently. She turns him in, and finds herself ruined financially as he goes down.”

            Gulino’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety.

            To sum up, “Blue Jasmine” fails because it never sets out to be sincere or logical. Because the story lacks a plausible plot, Allen has to fall back on redundant verbiage and exaggerated acting to move the film forward. In the end, it fails to impress or please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review — Well Met in Cyprus – Kirkus Reviews (6/11/14)

BOOK REVIEW (6/11/14): “This deceptive novel begins as an idyllic romance, then gears down and races to a gripping conclusion. With a title that alludes to Othello and Desdemona, Qazi’s (Berlin Danse Macabre, 2013, etc.) novel tells the story of Robert, an American professor whose best years (and two marriages) are behind him, and Anara, a Kazakh woman half his age. They fall in love, and soon after, Robert gets yet another one-year teaching job, this time at a university in Kyrenia, a Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus. Anara comes to join him, and they make a home, almost a bower, in Karmi, a village halfway up the mountain overlooking Kyrenia. This is the idyllic part: Readers are introduced to secondary characters, among them Cardiff, the alcoholic but wise British colleague; Yulie, a young Greek woman who has strong hidden feelings for Robert; Erkan Bey, who is more than just a plumber; and other well-rounded background characters.

 But then there are the shady characters, principally Vitaly, a porcine, oily Russian casino owner. The plot turns on a simple fact: Anara’s visa is only for 60 days. Vitaly hires Anara to work in his casino and promises that the visa issue will no longer be a problem. All of a sudden, Vitaly has tricked Anara into working—for just one night, or so he says—at his other casino in the Greek sector. The rest of the book, where Qazi ramps up the story, concerns Robert’s desperate attempt to get Anara back. The story is told from Robert’s point of view, so readers get to know this man who just might have a second chance at life.The other characters are well-drawn, too, and Cyprus—beautiful, laid-back, exotic—is a character in its own right. The narrative makes no major missteps, though in places, the prose, if not purple, may be a bit mauve. Qazi, an experienced writer, is very good at his craft, and the pacing is really a wonder. Readers might find themselves putting off the last three chapters to savor them as a special treat. A gripping, well-written story worth diving into.” – Kirkus Reviews.

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“Picnic” (1955) Director: Joshua Logan. Screenplay: Daniel Taradash – Comments

Comments on “Picnic” (1955). Director Joshua Logan. Based on a play by William Inge.

“Picnic,” released in 1955, was directed by Joshua Logan and was based on a play written by William Inge that premiered on Broadway in 1953. Logan had also directed the Broadway production and the play had met with critical and popular success. It was performed 477 times and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Play of the season. I mention these facts to stress the point that by the time Joshua Logan undertook to turn the play into a film, the characters, the dialogue and the structure had been refined, honed and perfected. He knows what he wants. He knows what the audience wants. He knows what to show and he knows where the key moments are.  He also knows what to leave out. He doesn’t film the play. He created a film from material he knew intimately, but material that had been transformed into a well-crafted screenplay by Daniel Taradash.

The stage play only used one set: the yard between two nondescript houses.  In the movie, Josh Logan uses several small towns in Kansas and several outdoor locations. Logan makes cleaver use of the towering grain silos, the grandeur of the rich boy’s house, the waterfall, the thundering freight trains to accentuate the drama and the danger. The result is stunning.  I always thought “Picnic” was a great movie, but having compared the film with the play, I can clearly see why. “Picnic” is one of the finest films to come out Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century.

            The action focuses on the activities of a group of ordinary men and women in a small mid-Western town in the early 50s. We follow them through a twenty-four hour period on Labor Day when the town’s folk gather at an outdoor picnic to rest from their labors and enjoy some hours of innocent fun and games. Logan uses the camera in a documentary style. His “Seeing Eye” notices everything from bawling babies to under-rehearsed Barber Shop quartets with kindly irony.

Subtly and slowly, the audience becomes the Seeing Eye. Imperceptibly, we enter the film and become involved with the lives of the characters. The indoor scenes are bathed in an even gentle light. There are shadows here, but they are soft. This is an ideal world where passions are held under firm restraint and animal urges don’t exist. This a world peopled mostly by women: young girls, widows, spinsters, old maids.

           The outdoor scenes are seen in natural light to emphasize the fact that the setting is real. Logan uses visual references with an imaginative cleverness. Consider the scene in which Hal Carter (played by William Holden) burns the trash of old Miss Potts. The heat coming off his naked torso is a match for the heat generated by the trash fire. No wonder when Madge, the beautiful daughter of the neighbor lady sees him, she melts. Another scene worth remembering is the scene in which Hal Carter kisses Madge near the waterfall and we see a freight train approaching in the background and hear its ominous rumble. Words are no longer necessary. All we hear is the heart-beat of the two lovers and the roar of the train. We see the danger inherent in this kiss and also the undeniable passion. And as if to further emphasize the danger, we also see a pulsing red light that keeps on morsing its warning all through the scene.

            Kim Novak plays the role of the beautiful 19-year old Madge as a vision of youth and beauty and innocence. On the threshold of life, she is discovering her body and her soul. Logan’s camera worships Miss Novak and captures her face in a lyrical light. The shot of her face as she dances lit by the magical glow of Japanese lanterns is one that no man with a beating heart can ever forget.

            Hal Carter, is the son of an alcoholic father and self-centered mother. He got into college on an athletic scholarship but failed to get a degree because of a poor scholastic record. Since then, he has drifted from one poorly-paid and futureless job to another. William Holden was 37 when he played the part of Hal Carter, a bit too old for the character as Inge had conceived him. But in choosing William Holden for the role, Logan’s instincts were correct. Logan wanted to show a man who has weathered a few storms in his life. Hal is all too aware himself that age is catching up with him. Logan uses a clever tactic. In the early scenes of the film, he shows us a vigorous and youthful Hal Carter, with a flat belly and rippling muscles. But in the later scenes he want us to see Hal Carter as a man approaching middle-age. He shows us the seams and wrinkles in Holden’s forehead. When Hal Carter speaks of his fears and hopes on the top of the grain silo, Logan makes a point of showing the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and the worry lines on his forehead. This is what makes the character of Hal Carter so believable, so endearingly vulnerable and so real. Is there a man alive who hasn’t seen Hal Carter in himself?

            Rosalind Russell’s plays the part of Rosemary Sidney, the spinster school-marm terrified of growing old alone, with convincing and chilling intensity. When she delivers her devastating verbal assault on Hal Carter and denounces him as a fake and a bum-in-the-making, she is not far off the mark. Hal does not contradict her. Clearly, he himself is very aware that she is touching on the truth.

“Picnic” is essentially a meditation on the essential nature of love. Is love a lie invented to serve of societal needs and conventions? Or is it an elemental, transcendental force?

Madge’s mother gives no importance to love. She wants Madge use her beauty as bait to “catch” and marry the richest boy in town for very practical and down to earth reasons. You are pretty (she tells her daughter) and you have the chance to marry a man who can take you out of this shack of house and into a mansion. Use your beauty while you have it to hook a rich husband who will give you a comfortable, prosperous life; if you miss this chance, you will be condemned to a lifetime of impoverished spinsterhood.

But Madge rejects the idea of a loveless marriage, a marriage based purely on economic considerations. She opts to follow the dictates of her heart even though she knows that her relationship with a rootless, jobless, drifter with a dodgy past and an uncertain future could end badly. She chooses to take the risk. Because what she feels for Hal is something bigger, deeper, and more profound than conventional emotions.

I saw “Picnic” the first time in Pakistan in the late Fifties when I was twelve or thirteen years old and it permanently altered the landscape of my brain.  It was an unbelievably moving experience and for several days after having seen the movie, I had trouble returning to the world of Lahore and schoolwork and ordinary reality.

Now, as I write these comments, more than half a century later, our tastes, values, concerns have changed and the world of a small Kansas town and its people seems remote and insignificant.  Millennials might even jeer and mock their prudery. But if we are unable to see parallels between the lives of these characters and our own human frailties, the loss is ours.

The message of the movie is eternal. The film tries to delve deep beneath the surface of social conventions to give us a glimpse of very primal and dangerous dynamics of male-female relationships. The dance that Madge and Hal dance is the dance of life itself. It has nothing to do with middle-class mores or a picnic in a small mid-Western town, or rich boy competing with poor boy over a beautiful girl. The dance represents the raw, natural, magnetic energy of the Life Force seeking to express and fulfill its manifest destiny and plant its flag on the battlements of despair, decay and death.

 

 

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“The Jeweled Web” a new collection of Short Stories by Javaid Qazi

http://www.amazon.it/The-Jeweled-Web-Delusions-ebook/dp/B00B4LCC5A

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My Novel — Javaid Qazi

Well Met in Cyprus

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“The King of Patio World” e-book short story by Javaid Qazi

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