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christopher funderburg

françois truffaut & jean-luc godard's
TOP 10 FILMS OF 1957




"Live action cartoons" and rehabilitating the reputation of mindless entertainment.

Rivaling the auteur theory in terms of importance, the other lasting legacy of the Cahiers critics was the championing of popular entertainment as High Art. Certainly, critical trends had been moving in that direction at least since Modernism radically expanded the defintion of art in the early part of the century, but the Cahiers critics decisively ended the argument as to whether trashy, "low art" movies could be taken as seriously as the high-minded stuff. Besides that, the Cahiers critics are the source of the always charming chestnut that French people love Jerry Lewis. The two Frank Tashlin films on the lists here are a Jayne Mansfield satire and a Martin & Lewis road comedy, respectively. That Hollywood or Bust is extremely shitty and Jerry Lewis is at his most Jerry Lewis-y ("flaaven") unfortunately, confirms the hoary trope that the French love for Lewis is equal parts inexplicable and pretentious. It's hard not see the endless, painfully unfunny scenes of Lewis hamming it up with his Great Dane "Mr. Bascomb" and not want to deride loving that crap as the sign of a cultural defect. Nevertheless, the inclusion on a "Best of" list of two comedies generally dismissed as fluff by audiences and critics alike is the clearest signal that the Godard and Truffaut were committed to a wholesale reorganization of what constitutes art - furthermore, they succeeded. No one would think twice about including kids' films or broad comedies or otherwise Hollywood entertainments in the discussion of the best films of any given year. Hollywood or Bust might not ultimately deserve to be there, but no one now would think it's unacceptable to include it in the conversation.

Again, the unclear parameters for the pool of eligible films from which they are drawing makes it tough to second guess their choices, but it's frankly astonishing that Hollywood or Bust shows up on both of their lists, especially considering that in same timeframe Tashlin released not only the obviously superior Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (as acknowledged by Tashlin superfan Godard on his list) but also the best of all his films, The Girl Can't Help It! Maybe they just don't like Jayne Mansfield. Which wouldn't be unreasonable. She's a shrill and unlikable prefabricated non-star, but that's all used to the films' advantage, especially in the Marilyn Monroe-spoofing Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Incidentally, her starring in Rock Hunter blows my theory for the exclusion of The Girl Can't Help It! right to shit.) Tony Randall stars as an ad executive (the titular Rockwell P. Hunter) forced into a phoney relationship with a model (the titular Mansfield) after their work together has enormous success - Randall realizes that being attached to the in-demand model of his new "kissable lips" lipstick ad will further his career... so what if he already has a fiancée that he really loves? The film takes jabs at not only the shallowness of the advertising world (trust me, it was original at the time), but also certain Hollywood starlets' proclivities for using their personal life to grab headlines. From Godard's view, the film also no doubt embodied the big, plastic, shameless excesses of an America obsessed with shallow surface beauty and silly new products, an America gleefully led by the nose through a world of advertising half-truths, gossipy tabloid sensationalism and bombshell blondes seemingly constructed in some Hollywood fantasy factory.

Hollywood or Bust, on the other hand, is hard to see as anything beyond a very unambitious comedically mismatched duo road movie. If Hope and Crobsy couldn't have been directly subbed in for Martin and Lewis, then Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy undoubtedly could have. It was the last of the Martin and Lewis comedies and, at that point, the former chums apparently hated each other so much that they didn't say one word to each during the production when the cameras weren't rolling. It's vaguely post-modern in the way that all of Tashlin's films are vaguely post-modern: Martin and Lewis, improbably forced (by circumstances too hilarious to be described here in brief) to share a car won in a lottery,  set out for Hollywood to meet "actress Anita" ...played by actress Anita Ekberg - if you can believe it! On their long journey and then once on the Hollywood backlot, they get into various Great Dane-centric antics with winking gags about Hollywood and the film business aboundin'. As I said, it's vaguely post-modern, but in the way that Chuck Jones' seminal Duck Amuck is post-modern - a torrent of self-referential gags that constantly break the wall between the audience and the world of the film. Not coincidentally, Tashlin got his start working alongside Chuck Jones at Warner Brother's termite terrace. Tashlin's films are often referred to as "live-action cartoons," but that description is more a reference to his candy-colored sets and constant salvos of gag after gag than any sort of recreation of the tone or feel of a cartoon world - nobody gets a safe dropped on them in Hollywood or Bust. Although I wish they would have.

As far as traces of Tashlin's influence showing itself in either Godard or Truffaut's work, I think it's fairly easy to see some in Godard: the production design of his color films like A Woman is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou recall the work of Tashlin, albeit with a more stripped-down sensibility. Also, Godard's proclivity for incessant punning, rapid-fire wordplay and goofy gags (like the automatic stripper-outfitter door-frame and the pancake flipping in A Woman is a Woman) could've been lifted directly from a Tashlin film. And it probably goes without saying that Godard's constant attempts to break the fourth wall and comment on the artificiality of the cinematic reality are inspired by both of the films on his list - as a matter of fact, as frequently as his tactics are referred to as "Brechtian" they would actually be more accurately described as "Tashlin-esque." And it's probably a stretch, but Tashlin's films are covered wall-to-wall with semi-ironic pop music selections, a pretty "Godardian" maneuver. With the more serious-minded and elegiac tone running throughout Truffaut's work, the madcap shenanigans of Tashlin are less apparent of an influence, but I think Tashlin's animator's approach to live action can be felt in Truffaut's love of technical tricks like the aperture pin-holing of The Wild Child and the charming asides like the cigar-trick in Jules and Jim. Undoubtedly, the "throw everything on screen and see what sticks" mindset that makes the early work of Godard and Truffaut so thrilling can be linked to Tashlin's own approach to filmmaking. But for what it's worth, the delightfully curmudgeonly Tashlin had no esteem for the men who cemented his reputation, describing their writing about his films as "all this philosophical double talk." Incidentally, is probably the clearest description of Godard's writing as you will ever find.




Forgotten Guitry, failed advocacy.

The inclusion of two films by French director Sacha Guitry on the lists constitutes a fascinating case of failed advocacy. Almost without exception, Truffaut, Godard et al. succeeded in securing critical respect for every director for which they went to bat. Guitry is the glaring exception on these lists and Godard and Truffaut were certainly aware of their failing - Truffaut frequently lamented the definitive resistance to Guitry being labeled an autuer. Guitry made Assassins et Voluers and Les Trois font la Paire shortly before his death in 1957 and, due to his grave illness, purportedly did not even really direct Les Trois font la Paire. At the time of his death, Guitry was a popular success, a witty Oscar Wilde type famous for his extravagant personal life and quip-laden scripts. He had five wives over the course of his life and was infamous for remarks like the one he made to wife Lana Marconi just before his death: "Others were only my wives but you will be my widow." Since none of his films are available in the U.S. (although, the Criterion Collection's excellent Eclipse label will be releasing a Guitry box-set soon - but unfortunately neither these films will be included), I mainly have to go off hearsay about the man. There are almost no English language reviews of his work readily available - one from the Baltimore Sun in 1994 speculates on his popularity amongst filmmakers like Godard and Orson Welles before stating "Surely it's not The Story of a Cheat (1936) that accounts for Guitry's influence. This little film's dollop of brittle wit is stretched awfully thin." And Story of a Cheat is "rightfully considered to be Guitry's masterpiece" in Truffaut's estimation.

The main thing I know about Guitry is that he was one of Truffaut's favorites: "Sacha Guitry! Every time that I feel jaded, ready to yield to discouragement, ready to hand myself over to melancholy, rancor or bitterness, when the disagreeable shadow of surrender comes to darken the work that is in progress, then, it is enough for me to scan Willy Rizzo's photograph of Sacha Guitry and to regain my wings, find again good spirit, tenacity and all the courage in the world." Just looking at a photo of the man staved off suicide for Truffaut. Aside from that, it's mainly Guitry's quips that have made it over to America - a bunch of pseudo-sophisticated, smirking war-of-the-sexes one-liners like "When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her" and "An ideal wife is one who remains faithful to you but tries to be just as charming as if she weren't." Which we can all agree are very stunning things for a man who divorced four times to have said. Still, Truffaut once made the case that he was a comparable filmmaker to Renoir, that they both had made films with "a clearer view of life as it is: a comedy with a hundred different acts, of which the screen is well suited to offer the most exact reflections." Truffaut's writings on Guitry are not unlike a lot of what he wrote in that he took a contrarian point of view to the standing consensus and argued his points eloquently to the precipe of intellectual excess - with many cases he's arguing too passionately on behalf of films that probably weren't intended to withstand such praise, but he's only doing so because resistance to seeing Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock as artists of the first order was so stiff.

It's fascinating because he employed the same tactics to stump for Guitry as he did with the aforementioned auteurs, only with Guitry it failed to take hold. Until I see the films, it will be mysterious why Godard and Truffaut's appraisal of Tashlin became canon while Guitry has been lost to history (in the U.S., at least.) I do know that politics played a large part, as it did with everything with the Nouvelle Vague. Strangely, Godard and Truffaut are often seen as Leftist figures in the U.S. but there's no evidence (especially early in their careers) that this was the case - the opposite is true as a matter of fact. So much of their critical/filmmaking mission was based around breaking the film industry's unions, usurping the top film publication (the Left-leaning Positif) and silencing the middle-brow, uniformly Leftist voices entrenched in the film industry - getting cinema out of the hand of the infamous "tradition of quality" filmmakers and those filmmakers critical admirers. But their championing of Guitry seems to have finally run them into a wall in the Leftist-dominated post-war France that they couldn't crash through: the flamboyant and aristocratic Guitry played games about his Royalist sympathies and made countless enemies at the liberal end of the political spectrum. An unrepentant entertainer with an eye on the business end of the form, he made no bones about loving money, women and the high-life and felt no pangs of conscience towards to poor or disadvantaged. A thread of this battle can be picked up in Truffaut's crafty depiction of Guitry as "the ideal figure of the free man, above convention, indifferent to the judgment of contemptuous intellectuals and the condemnations of political conscience." With that comment, it's plain as day who Truffaut has in his sights to undermine and his repositioning of Guitry as an apolitical figure is clever way of circumventing Guitry's unpopular politics. Who knows if any of this shows up in Guitry's work, which appears to be a lot of apolitical sex comedy - or if his conservative politics pepper the films.

As for how Guitry might have influenced either director's work, Godard and Truffaut's early films are certainly (at least in part) clever, talky bedroom comedies - films like Breathless, Jules and Jim and A Woman is a Woman all sound like plausible echoes of Guitry's voice. Pauline Kael said Shoot the Piano Player  is "Filled with good and bad jokes, bits from Sacha Guitry films, clowns and thugs, tough kids, songs and fantasy and snow scenes, and homage to the American B gangster pictures of the 40s and 50s." I'll have to take her word for it, but since Shoot the Piano Player is very similar in tone and style to both Truffaut's own work from that era as well as Godard's Band of Outsiders or Breathless, it's not a stretch to imagine that the other films by these guys also stole a bit or two from Guitry. I think of all the filmmakers on either list, Guitry is the one that seems the most like Truffaut or Godard: a sophisticated French intellectual applying a natural wittiness to the relationships of beautiful young men and women. Using a strange tone that it's hard to tell if it is meant to be critical or supportive, Truffaut described Assassins et Voluers in this way: "It possesses not the slightest indication of professional conscience: a boat scene supposed to be taking place in the open sea has obviously been shot on the sand; a hotel elevator does not ascend any more than the boat floats; the same setting is made to do for several locations..." It actually sounds like he's describing a very typically Godardian film that glaringly emphasizes the artificiality of the settings and mockingly plays games with the falsities and deceptions of a film production - think of the scene in Pierrot le Fou where the car clearly isn't moving, but colored moving lights are reflected in the windshield to give the impression of motion. Still, it's amazing that the Cahiers critics could be so fully committed to a filmmaker - they admit Assassins et Voluers and Les Trois font la Paire are lesser works for Guitry and still put them on their Top 10 lists! - and have it made so little difference. Guitry remains the glaring exception to the revolutionary, history-altering force of their careers.


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