Cinéastes de notre temps for Our Times: A Conversation with Richard Peña

Jean Vigo (1964)

Cinéastes de notre temps has long been the holy grail of cinephile TV series. Co-created in 1964 by filmmaker and Cahiers du cinéma critic André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin, widow of Cahiers cofounder and critic André Bazin, the program celebrated golden-age and cutting-edge moviemakers in episodes that were striking films in their own right, made by independent-minded artists. They edited together fresh interviews with auteurs, shrewd selections from their work, and revelatory visits to their homes, offices, or movie locations with a wit and sensitivity that made other director profiles in the media seem trivial. The idea was to create the TV equivalent of the interviews in journals like Cahiers and Positif, which helped elevate the critical standing of Hollywood masters like Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray and restore the flagging reputations of European directors like Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini.

But this TV show transcended imitation. Each program evoked, in different ways, the textures of the films that it put under a microscope. Along with the usual explications of style and theme, Cinéastes de notre temps delivered rousing statements of creative purpose and uncanny expressions of personality from moviemakers as different as John Cassavetes and Jean-Pierre Melville. And by assigning youthful New Wavers like Jacques Rivette and Jacques Rozier to examine creative forefathers like Renoir and Jean Vigo, Labarthe and Bazin forged new links in cinema history.

The show ran for fifty-three episodes over eight years on the French public-TV channel ORTF and was then revived seventeen years later on ARTE, the French-German cultural channel, under the title Cinéma, de notre temps. In the course of thirty-nine additional episodes, its subjects became more contemporary and its form even more freewheeling. Chantal Akerman, for example, did not sit for a profile but instead created a self-portrait.

In 2012, the program achieved unprecedented recognition in America when Richard Peña, in his twenty-fifth and final year as program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, collaborated with Véronique Godard to showcase a selection of thirty-four entries at the New York Film Festival’s fiftieth-anniversary edition.

This week on the Criterion Channel, Rozier’s Jean Vigo joins Labarthe’s John Cassavetes as part of a continuing showcase of these groundbreaking films. We called on Peña to help us put the series’s achievements in context.

What first excited you about the series?

I obviously can’t say this authoritatively, but I’d never heard of any other TV show before it that actually was a serious cinephilic experience. It wasn’t gossip or stock biography. It was analysis.

Labarthe’s original idea was for it to be an encounter between filmmakers. That wasn’t always possible for various reasons. But he was always proud when he could get Fritz Lang talking to Godard, or hire Jacques Rivette to do a three-part film about Renoir.

Jean Renoir, the Boss: The Rule and the Exception (1967)
The Cinéastes episodes often use styles and motifs of the filmmaker being profiled to frame the discussion of his or her work. For Ophuls, I don’t know if they created a circus or exploited an existing one . . .

It was as if they did their own Lola Montès set! And there’s the Shirley Clarke one, where you’re thrust into the New York underground with Yoko Ono and all these other people. These films were not meant to be dry documents or the simple talking-head interviews that we get from a lot of different services. Did you see the Jerry Lewis one?

Unfortunately, no.

It’s basically Jerry Lewis going to the Oxford Union to have a debate about cinema. And it’s amazing. It’s very different from the other ones. On the one hand, he wants to show himself as a clown; on the other, he wants to show himself as a really smart guy.

You say that’s different from the other episodes, but I find it hard to predict how any of them are going to look or move. It depends on the talents involved.

I spoke to Labarthe about this. He was pleased, of course, that the series had taken on extraordinary documentary value. But he saw himself as making and also producing films. And there was the sense at that time in France that the key to making a film was the auteur’s vision. There were things that he and Janine always expected to have in the series—a certain number of clips, for example—but I think they let the directors go the direction they wanted to go.

Part of the series’s impetus is reclaiming directors who were forgotten or took a battering near the end of their careers.

It wasn’t a Cahiers du cinéma TV series, but this was as close to a project emanating from the cosmology of Cahiers as imaginable. Labarthe, as you know, was in Godard’s Vivre sa vie; he was very close to that whole crew. In the 1950s, who else was even thinking of doing a long interview with Howard Hawks? Directors like Hawks were thought to be, at best, good entertainers, so the idea that these French critics were seriously interrogating them about their work—we forget how original that was. The series arrived at a moment when there was, to use a loaded term, a popularization of cinephilia. In the fifties it remained an elite or outré pastime. But enter the sixties, and the success of Godard and Truffaut and all the others “normalizes” cinephilia. It offers an opening for Cinéastes—you no longer have to be a budding filmmaker or a guy who’s spent half his life at the Cinématheque to be really interested in this stuff.

In this country, in 1964, we had David Wolper’s primetime TV series, Hollywood and the Stars, which was smothered in glamour and nostalgia.

I think the cinephilia of Cinéastes has its own version of nostalgia. But it was a real cinephile program—analogous to the literary programs we still see on French television today, where you have real intellectuals talking to writers as artists and often challenging them.

Where did Labarthe round up his directors? Some are quite obscure, like the Belgian filmmaker and writer François Weyergans, who made the Bresson documentary.

You have to remember Janine Bazin was very involved. Of course she had the name, the prestige, perhaps the more personal contacts and the energy. Her name was a guarantor of purity and seriousness, since by then André Bazin was the canonized critic of France.

I think between the two of them they made the decisions. Weyergans at the time was probably seen as a next-generation New Wave director. Some of these people never made it; Labarthe himself never transferred over into fiction filmmaking. But they were very promising. Think of the nouvelle vague Cahiers “mafia” as the center of concentric circles spinning out and including all these up-and-comers and fellow travelers. The ones who didn’t take the next step were still competent filmmakers who could do a straightforward documentary, or even a documentary with some personal style or vision.

Janine was intimately involved with people from Cahiers, and they were thinking about what they could transfer from Cahiers to ORTF, which was a new French public television agency, and this educational programming they were doing.

When we think of television in Europe, it was generally ten years behind the U.S. Even as late as 1970, television had only 60 percent penetration in France. Except for ITV Granada in Britain, television throughout Europe at that time was completely government-run. There were two rules. First, TV wasn’t supposed to compete with cinema, though occasionally it would finance movies, like Rossellini’s The Rise of Louis XIV. Second, it was supposed to be educational in some way. So for covering the cinema, the idea was to have a visualization of the in-depth interviews to be found not only in Cahiers du cinema but also in Positif and Cinétique and other cinephile magazines.

Bresson: Without a Trace (1965)
How often would the series do memorial pieces, like the ones on Ophuls and Jean Vigo?

For Labarthe it was always important to have the artist talk about the work. To have a posthumous piece you had to be pretty special. The Vigo film was a labor of love, because he was an icon for a lot of those people, and Ophuls was a little bit of the same thing.

The Vigo episode knocked me out as a piece of film journalism. It rounded up so many people who were still on their feet.

Well, it was made only thirty years after L’Atalante. Then again, L’Atalante had been unavailable for a long time. Vigo had slipped through the cracks. He was somebody who people more tipped their hats to than really knew.

Jacques Rozier, who directed the Vigo, did a very artful job . . .

Absolutely! With Adieu Philippine (1962), Rozier became a key New Wave filmmaker, and even later he made a couple of very, very good films. He’s one of those French filmmakers like Claude Sautet, who is considered quite important in France but never really crossed the pond.

The film does tell Vigo’s story in rough chronology, covering his roots in the volatile years surrounding World War I; the anarchism and probable murder of his militant writer father; his own exile in a provincial boarding school, which the documentary intercuts with present-day footage and clips from Zéro de conduite (1933); then the making and mangling of L’Atalante (1934) and Vigo’s premature death. But, more important, it seems to share Vigo’s love of freedom and his communal moviemaking spirit.

The nouvelle vague filmmakers were looking for antecedents, and there were no clearer antecedents to the French New Wave than the work of Jean Vigo. It’s thirty years later, and they’re looking at him not only as a great artist but as their forebear, in a way that even Jean Renoir wasn’t. Renoir was very much a product of the French studio system of that era. But Vigo creating a film on a barge going down the Seine and making it up as he went along—that’s a very New Wave kind of idea! Vigo was not only an artist they liked but one who provided them with the most direct connection to a certain sense of French film history.

L’Atalante had been a failure. It had been taken back by Gaumont and re-edited, and it took a while to get it back as close as possible to Vigo’s original conception. That was another reason for championing him. One of our greatest experts on Vigo is a wonderful Brazilian writer, Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, who published a biography of Vigo in the late fifties that was a sensation because nobody had done that caliber of work on him in France. It helped bring Vigo back to everybody’s consciousness. I was talking to him one time, and he said, using somewhat Latin American terms, “Jean Vigo was the underdeveloped French cinema.” He was obviously thinking of Brazil or Argentina, all those cinemas that seemed to have a marginal nature. Vigo was marginal French cinema. It explained a lot to me about why Paulo Emílio was so attracted to him!

L’Atalante would not be satisfactorily restored until 2001. But the influence of Zéro de conduitespanned the globe—from France to Brazil to Great Britain, where it had a huge impact on Lindsay Anderson’s If….

By the time If…. comes out, in 1968, we’re in a period when notions like rebellion and revolution are very much the coin of the realm. And here you have this film from the thirties that almost seems like a blueprint for that—also done during a time of oppression and opposition. So Zéro de conduite stood out as a precursor.

Cinéastes de notre temps ended in 1972, after an eight-year run, then was revived as Cinéma, de notre temps in 1988. What happened?

The series either ran out of steam or ran out of great old films and directors to reconsider; it just stopped. When it was revived, it was more on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Often the projects were already being made when they got attached to the series. Olivier Assayas was doing Hou Hsiao-hsien when he and Labarthe worked out that a version of it would be shown on Cinéma, de notre temps.

That great wave of cinephilia from the sixties and seventies got less intense, so a lot of the older shows were forgotten. People didn’t have access to them, so they became more and more legendary. When we see that they interviewed Busby Berkeley . . . How many interviews were done with him? Very, very few. That show is historic because they actually got Busby Berkeley to talk in an interesting way about his work!

So when people began to do serious research about old movies, they became aware that this series was a treasure chest waiting for someone to open it.

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