page 5
christopher funderburg

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




The closet ideologues.

Federico Fellini's story of a hot-headed prostitute struggling for redemption and Elia Kazan's sprawling satire following the rise and fall of a convict turned pundit frequently appear on lists of not just the best films of 1957, but of all time. The most telling example of the divergence in Truffaut and Godard's personalities can be found in Truffaut's inclusion of these two canonized classics on his list, but their absence amongst Godard's selections. Truffaut, at the end of the day, had tastes that ran more towards the traditional and his attacks on the prevailing critical consensus nevertheless sourced from a more or less classical view of art. His opinions didn't diverge so wildly from the norm that he would ignore universally lauded works like Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Kazan's A Face in the Crowd. Godard, on the other hand, revelled in a poorly though-out iconoclasm and was far more likely to talk up a piece of crap like Hollywood or Bust than to sing along in agreement with the critical chorus on Cabiria. Ironically, of all of the films on either list, I find Cabiria's messy, heavily impvoised style and homage-riddled aesthetic to be most similar to Godard's work. The scenes of the Cabiria and the other prositutes and pimps doing very little but hanging out, listening to music and doing charmingly goofy little dances really does resemble Godard's work far more than anything in the Hollywood genre films that comprise a good chunk of his list. Maybe Fellini by way of Tashlin is the best way to describe Godard's aesthetic, but I think Godard would be just as loathe to admit any fondness for middle-brow art impresarios like Kazan and Fellini as he would be to praise the critically dismissed works of Tashlin. While equally willing to tweak convetion by singling out Hollywood or Bust and Beyond a Reasonabel Doubt, Truffaut is nevertheless comfortable admitting that Cabiria and Face in the Crowd are two of the best films of the year by just about any standard and that ignoring them altogether would be a little silly and too aggressively contrarian.

I'll be writing more extensively about Nights of Cabiria shortly in another article for the Pink Smoke, so I won't discuss the particulars of it too much for now. It's a very Fellini-esque story of an intellectually/morally/emotionally blinkered character who spends most of her time in large groups in cacaphonous settings. It features parties, nightclubs, dancing, music and ostentatious religious pilgrimages. Everybody spits out their lines at top volume sputtering through their dialog at a mile-a-minute supported by flagrant hand-gesturing. As I mentioned, the heroine of the film does an adorable little dance at one point and her performance overall is concieved as a broad homage to Charlie Chaplin. The movie is technically a sequel to The White Sheik with the Cabiria character making a brief appearance in that film. Cabiria is vintage Fellini in that it feels like a satire but without any clear targets (it's a satire... of something) - the main character ends up the butt of a lot of the jokes, but the ending of the film is absolutely devastating... before Fellini segues into a very Fellini-eqsue denouement involving a roving band of singing, dancing, guitar-strumming, moped-riding partiers. A very Italian Catholic yearning for reconciliation between La Dolce Vita and spiritual redemption courses through the film - and very typical of Fellini, the film itself never reconciles those two elemental forces. The extreme Italian-ness of Cabiria very much mirrors the American-ness of A Face in the Crowd, Kazan's story of an all-too self-aware protagonist that cons his way through life with an "aw, shucks" man-of-the-people charm. While something like Beyond  Reasonable Doubt or Bitter Victory could have been from any number of countries (just check their their international cast and filmmakers) it's impossible to imagine Kazan's or Fellini's films originating anywhere but the U.S. and Italy, respectively. Their national identities imbue them with an inherent cultural critique as well, although I'm not sure most folks understand the slant of those critiques - both filmmakers are generally conveniently afforded puzzling readings of their work.

To me personally, the most interesting aspect of their inclusion on Truffaut's list is that both Kazan and Fellini are closet ideologues; or maybe more accurately, willfully misunderstood ideologues. It's a contentious subject, but while Truffaut and Fellini are frequently ascribed some sort of left-wing point of view, that's not particularly true. Truffaut, a former military man and lifelong conservative, had many friends in the Vichy government during WWII and expressed disgust with the student revolutionaries of the late 60's. It's true he had a distaste for America (which in America gets you automatically lumped in with the liberals), but his distaste was rooted in the classical Western European intellectual tradition that sees figures like Mozart, Stravinsky, Raphael and Rembrandt as the height of cultural achievement. And as much as he was a filmmaking radical, the Cahiers critics mission was explicitly rooted in breaking the powerful Unions that controlled the filmmaking industry and undermining the critical power of Positif, the explicitly Left-wing film journal that served as the dominant critical voice of the period. The creation of The 400 Blows and Breathless is easily framed as a populist and democratic act, a blow to stodgy orthodoxy and the power elite (filmmaking in the hands of the people!), but Truffaut and Godard were more concerned with breaking the stranglehold of labor union for which they held contempt and popping the critical competition's bubble. Godard played cagey games with his politics much more than Truffaut (read Godard's infuriatingly stupid interviews about La Chinoise for a taste), but both men frequently have hard-Left politics that simply aren't there placed in their mouth by critics and seen their work. Sure, they both opposed the war in Vietnam... but because they saw it is as more blundering American boorishness. Both men, in fact, supported France's occupation of Indochina. Their objection was to the stupidit and vulgarity of America, not any indentification with Left-wing politics - which they actively sought to undermine in their own country. Their ambiguous involvement with the student protests in the late 60's only adds confusion to the subject (they vocally supported Cinematheque Francias head-honcho Henry Langlois, a pivotal figure in the violent protests, but they certainly didn't respect the Situationists and other key rabble-rousers.)

Fellini seems to be generally viewed as harmlessly apolitical at worst and flamboyantly progressive insofar as that a love of parties, wine and pulchritudinous women can be staked out as liberal territory. However, Fellini got his a start as a screenwriter for his good buddy Roberto Rossellini. It's not a matter of debate that Rossellini's film career sprang for his friendship with Vittorio Mussolini (Fascist dictator Benito's son), the chief of the leading Italian film journal. It's not clear whether Rossellini was a member of the Fascist Party (there is strong but inconclusive evidence that he was), but he undeniably directed three propoganda features in support of the Fascist government during WWII - his first screen credit was even as a writer for a film produced by Vittorio Mussolini.* Fellini served as Rossellini screenwriter on several post-War features, most notably Open City and The Flowers of St. Francis, that had an explicit, self-serving agenda to encourage Italians to forget about recent history and focus on shared, traditional Italian values, most prominently Catholic values. Fellini, a member of Mussolini's Avanguardista (essentially Benito Mussolini's version of the Hitler Youth), had every reason to want to forget the recent past and overlook any questionable behavior or affiliations in which average Italians such as himself might've been engaged. Open City is particularly eyebrow-raising in that it pointedly portrays the Catholic Church as full of hardened freedom fighters crucial to the resistance... and the villains of the piece are conveniently Nazis (boo! I hate Nazis!) That the Nazis are all either fey metrosexuals or leering lesbians only adds to the fun! And realism! Were any of the Italian characters in the film Fascists or sympathizers? Perhaps members of the Avanguardista? What do you care, poindexter - people are starving and getting shot in the street! The underlying drive of Open City is that Italians should concentrate on unifying, on bringing the country together, on forgetting the past, on the Catholic values that made the nation great. Besides, the Nazis were the evil ones anyway, not us Italians. Fellini wrote the script and his talent for melodrama ensured it was an international hit, but you'd never know it has dubious politics by the critical analyses of it that pervade the discussion of it to this day (the only controversy around the film seems to be whether it, the defining Italian Neo-Realist film, actually meets the defintion of Neo-Realism.) Night of Cabiria has a similarly sly political point of view and Fellini's enthusiasm in kow-towing to Catholic censorship of the film (he happily removed a scene that didn't portray the church benevolently enough) basically proves that he's still willing to advance the post-War agenda of the Catholic Church and Italian political establishment in his own work. It's a lot to get into in brief, but I think the conservative (classically, culturally conservative) nature of Cabiria undoubtedly appealed to Truffaut.

The same can almost certainly be said for Elia Kazan's anti-populist A Face in the Crowd. Kazan is, of course, a much debated figure for his role in selling out his former friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee; but he's a funny sort of much debated figure: the pro-Kazan factions seem to take the position that he's essentially apolitical (like Fellini) or political only in the sense of responding to the tragedy and injustice of his situation as a man caught between loyalty to his friends and trying to do the right thing. I've always admired A Face in the Crowd for its dynamite lead performance by Andy Griffith and its pre-emptive skewering of cracker-barrell philosophers from Ronald Reagan to Glenn Beck: it really hammers folks of the "now, I'm just a humble country boy who don't know much about the ways of the world, my momma always told me better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than open my mouth and remove all doubt... but I am certain what the economic policy of Cameroon should be and any suggestions to the contrary are treason!" variety. However, there's no denying that the film has a mean, ugly "regular people are suckers" message. Griffith plays a convict who gets interviewed by a radio journalist while in prison; his homespun moral banalities and outsized charm are a massive hit with listeners and before you know he's fashioned an empire built on facile, clever answers and a style with no substance that panders relentless to the common folk. It's great movie with a great script and great direction and a greater than great central performanc marred by a "whoops... somebody left the camera on!" climax where Griffith doesn't know his true condescneding feelings are being broadcast to his audience. It's an awful cliché now and I can't imagine it was ever satisfying.** Anyway, the message seems to be that folks are effortlessly cowed and deceived by shallow shams and democracy is a dumb idea because people are such easy cons. The film is not very apolitical, is what I'm saying. And it's equally hard to see it as reflecting Kazan's personal narrative unless he's a paranoid, petty, self-pitying misantrophe who thinks public opinion was only against him because people are feeble-minded dupes. By all accounts, Crowd screenwriter/producer Budd Schulberg was exactly such an insufferable, condescending blowhard, so maybe it was a group effort in getting that message across.

The vitrolic anti-Americanism (there's no other way to describe it) spewed by A Face in the Crowd seems up Truffaut's alley, but even more so Godard's. I'm not surprised it's not on Godard's list, though - I imagine he felt repulsed by the middle-brow sensibility of the film: from Griffith's towering performance to the Citizen Kane-aping directing, it's clearly a bit of blatant Oscar-bait. That's just not Godard's stees. Maybe if Griffith had a Great Dane named "Mr. Bascomb" it could've snuck onto his list. But, anyhoo, the four filmmakers are ideologically aligned in a strange way - if only because their political views are so open to debate and their films have been claimed as propoganda by so many warring factions. The Last Metro, one of the few films by either Godard or Truffaut to cover WWII-era France, is similarly politically ambiguous to the extent that it chooses a politically-charged setting and then only comments on it implicitly. An unkind critic might suggest that Truffaut is trying to muddy the waters to his advantage and present a film that can be interpreted any number of ways in various political contexts in order to distance himself from unpopular or regretful youthful attitudes... but I'm really not sure. It's a strange film for what it isn't more than what it is. The same can be said for Cabiria, which leans forcefully on Catholic themes, but in such a way that a viewer could walk out without entertaining the notion that they've been subject to a bit of Catholic indoctrination (especially considering the American re-release in 2001 touted a version of the film restored from Catholic censorship!) With Kazan, the politics are equally cagey - is it outrageous to suggest that the man was intent on puncturing the myth of the democracy, the myth of America and the common man? All four filmmakers definitely stirred up a lot of mud in the pond and all four had a lot to lose by having their views pinned down and gained entrance to the canon perhaps because they weren't.

* Incidentally, one of the propoganda films directed by Rossellini, A Pilot Returns, was written by Michaelangelo Antonioni, another Italian Art Cinema big-wig generally viewed as being more or less apolitical.

** Although, I do enjoy Kevin McCarthy in UHF stating his preference for a "festering bowl of dog snot" over his audience.



The Films I think don't belong anywhere near a "Best of..." list:
Hollywood or Bust. (Frank Tashlin)

Sait-on Jamais... (Roger Vadim)
Bigger Than Life. (Nicholas Ray)
A King in New York. (Charlie Chaplin)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. (Fritz Lang)
Saint Joan. (Otto Preminger)

My Favorites from 1956/1957:
7 Men from Now. (Budd Boetticher.)
All the Memories of the World. (Alain Resnais.)
Aparajito. (Satyjit Ray.)
Bitter Victory. (Nicholas Ray.)
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. (Luis Buñuel.)
Curse of the Demon. (Jacques Tourner.)
A Face in the Crowd. (Elia Kazan.)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Don Siegel.)
Kanal. (Andrej Wajda.)
Men in War. (Anthony Mann)
Sawdust and Tinsel. (Ingmar Bergman)
The Red Balloon. (Albert Lamorisse.)
The Tall T. (Budd Boetticher.)
Throne of Blood. (Akira Kurosawa.)
What's Opera, Doc?. (Chuck Jones.)

Once again, it's hard not to note just how much their philosophy of cinema has organized any critical approach to the medium - I certainly don't think anything of it to include cartoon shorts or westerns or horror films or childrens' movies on my list of favorites. If anything, my list is almost pointedly devoid of the "serious" middle-brow films that Godard and Truffaut explicitly sought to undermine. The extent to which many cinephiles such as myself have internalized their tastes is maybe a little shocking: to think that something as purely personal as our taste is not entirely our own would be disturbing to a lot of folks.  I prefer to think of it as one of the rare instance of critics doing their job and expanding the imagination and palate of their audience, bringing worthy films in front of dismissive minds and winning those minds over with the force of passion and intelligence. Maybe one of the reasons I like the idea of this series so much is that it's easy to tear films down and so difficult to build them up: for even the all-time greats like Godard and Truffaut, it was a hopeless task to bring people around on some of the films about which they felt most passionate - like Sacha Guitry's work. Slagging and dismissing a film is easy; adding to an audience's enjoyment, understanding and appreciation of a film frequently seems hopeless. Even if I was divided overall on their selections, I appreciated the attempt to convince folks of the value of even Hollywood or Bust or A King in New York - I'm equally happy to have Sawdust and Tinsel brough to my attention. Considering their enthusiasm for cinema as well as their success at changing how we view movies and securing the reputations of some of my personal favorite filmmakers (like Fritz Lang and Luis Buñuel), all that allows me to find again good spirit, tenacity and all the courage in the world.

- christopher funderburg
july 14, 2010

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