But in the past few years I've grown increasingly disenchanted with the Cahiers New Wavers and that's not something I'm entirely happy about. There are few films as instantly enchanting as Band of Outsiders or Jules and Jim. Like many cinephiles, these films and their iconoclastic directors were my doorway into the great world of movies. How many dedicated movie buffs had Breathless or The 400 Blows as their first cinematic love? Like so many others, I diligently followed the map these filmmakers laid out for understanding and appreciating movies of all stripes: serious art films, obscure b-movies, controversial documentaries, Hollywood classics, international cinema, silent comedies without the Cahiers critics, who knows where I would've ended up or what I would've seen. But Richard Brody's recent biography of Godard, Everything is Cinema, provided many nails for a coffin that I had been building over the years. My relationship with Godard, once my favorite among favorites, had slowly curdled as I wrestled with the true perspective and meaning behind his films.
Brody's book addressed head-on a lot of the lingering questions I had about the Swiss crank not just his private life, but his creative process and how his mind worked in general. Getting a fuller picture of Godard's politics and personality made it easy to drop any pretense of interest in disentangling the jumble of vague politics, antagonistic formalism and pervasive sourness that is the hallmark of his post-60's work: it's already tough to care about those erratic later films and Brody's portrait of Godard gave me more than enough reason not to.
But this clearer picture of Godard also somewhat reduced the value of his earlier works to the sum of their surface pleasures. If I can reject those acrid later films because of their discombobulated ideas and politics, then by extension I reject those deeper elements in his early films as well. To be fair, the surface pleasures of Pierrot le Fou, Alphaville, even Les Carbiniers are plenty, but the fact of the matter is that Godard wants to be a philosophical heavyweight and he's not - surface pleasures driven by muddled, petulant, self-aggrandizing philosophical concerns: it's enough to make me "not a Godard fan."
Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" have the exact opposite problem: their ugly, reactionary politics are clear as day. Imbued with a Catholic clarity in regards to matters of sex, fidelity and morality, the closer one looks at Rohmer's work, the harder it is to ignore their rigid, unpleasant dogma. I still think they're great movies and it would be foolish to dismiss them entirely because of Rohmer's own moral constellation fortunately, they're good enough works of art to frequently transcend their author's intended moral lessons. I don't have to feel pity towards Maud or see the Collectioneuse as some kind of a dangerous contaminating force just because Rohmer clearly feels that way. But the tension between my feelings and the film's moral point of view will always be there.
Rivette, the most politically and intellectually likable of the Cahiers filmmakers, continues to be the most intolerable filmmaker in the group, one who has absolutely no sense of the difference between "challenging" and "tedious." He's lacking exactly the ability to seize control of an audience that is preternatural in Godard: Godard is an effortless improviser who can fly off into mesmerizing riffs, Rivette has a tin ear and thuds out a dull drone. Chabrol continues to be the most, for lack of a better word, "normal" of the group, churning out crafty pseudo-thrillers about moral and psychological rot he's a solid but generally unspectacular filmmaker. I almost always enjoy his films, but I'd be reluctant to say that any more than a handful of his dozens of works are truly special. The jury remains perpetually out on Truffaut, my feelings on his work swinging wildly (and almost randomly) from extreme affection to complete distaste.
The majority of my desire to understand and appreciate Nicholas Ray has to do with salvaging my relationship with this group of filmmakers that I used to adore. Maybe if most of their films no longer ranked among my favorites, at least some of their influential film criticism would still ring true. There's no satisfaction to be had in a growing disillusionment that threatens to tarnish even my memories of personally meaningful favorites Band of Outsiders and The Soft Skin, so it would be nice to say that even if films like The Last Metro, Paris Belongs to Us, The Marquise of O. and Tout va Bien make me actively queasy, at least I can still agree with their filmmakers on the great work of others. So, "Le cinema, c'est Nicholas Ray" lets see if at this point we even can agree on what cinema is.
The auteur theory was the New Wave's most important contribution to film theory and, as a supposedly distinctive voice working solidly within the studio confines, Ray would fit their definition of "auteur" as well or better than any other filmmaker. The general idea is that, despite working on assignment in a variety of genres (war pictures, teen melodramas, courtroom thrillers, adventure films), Ray's idiosyncratic style was on display in whatever film he touched. Although they seem to have a hard time defining that idiosyncrasy, to the Cahiers critics, in the words of Godard, "After seeing Rebel without a Cause or Johnny Guitar,* one cannot feel that here is something that exists only in cinema, which would be nothing in a novel, the stage or anywhere else, but which becomes fantastically beautiful on the screen." The sentiment is that for all of the surface indicators pointing to his films being average studio product, Ray somehow transcended his basic materials and made them into something essentially cinematic, something gorgeous and singular that I should be seeking out. (And having Truffaut's permission to go to the movies again would be nice, too.)
To continue disliking Ray with only the flimsiest of pretexts seems lazy: he continues to be a favorite of cinephiles the world over; even aside from the Cahiers critics, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders are avowed fans and art-cinema impresario (and the lovable hero of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures) Bingham Ray even went so far as to name his son Nick. I like movies and if there are movies out there that people like, I want to like them too, dammit! Plus, I've really only scratched the barest surface of his filmography, so there's plenty of room for discovery here. Like most auteurs, the full force of his personality can probably be better felt in the larger context of his work and, frankly, I don't have much of a sense of context right now. Film Forum's four-week retrospective of the director's work affords me a perfect opportunity to see if I've really been missing out on anything as I familiarize myself with the films the way they were meant to be seen: on the big screen. I hope to get to 6 or 7 films in the series total - with FF's weeklong run of a new 35mm print, we'll start with a brawlin' Bogart...
In a Lonely Place
(continued on page 3 of "Second Chances: Nicholas Ray")
* So much of my resistance to Ray comes from the fact that I've seen his two essential films and have been completely underwhelmed. If those two can't do the trick, what chance does Bitter Victory have? I know Godard ranked it as the best film of 1957 and that the great Jonathan Rosenbaum loves it, but but well, I guess that's what this Second Chance is all about.
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