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Issue 02, Volume 01


by Blair McClendon

Adolf Loos, the modernist architect and theorist, once suggested that if a button were all he had left of a civilization whose historical record had otherwise been erased, he would still be able to deduce how they lived, worshipped, and created art. Although the assumption that cultures exist monolithically has been repeatedly repudiated since then, the idea continues to express itself in the way we talk about film. Given the art world’s penchant for the notion of the genius’ subjectivity, it is rather surprising that a term as all-encompassing as ‘national cinema’ should be used so liberally. The problems are not simply economic ones, for, even with the advent of multinational corporations, a quick scan of any major newspaper will make it strikingly clear that the idea of the nation and nationalism are still very real. The complications arise from the imprecise manner with which we use the phrase, such that a nominally descriptive term has in fact become prescriptive.

What do we mean, then, when we say “French Cinema”? The most immediate definition is film produced in France or by the French. Before delving into questions of identity, this explanation is already problematized by the increasing frequency of international co-productions. Furthermore, phrases such as “French Cinema” are not merely used to refer to movies made in France. Rather, as film historian Thomas Elsaesser has noted, they lay claim to a certain filmic type and reference a supposedly common cultural mode of production. French Cinema calls to mind such names as Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claire Denis. These filmmakers, whose thematic and stylistic concerns are easily differentiated, have been subsumed under a generalized film type based less upon any shared affinities and more upon their perceived estrangement form the world’s dominant mode of popular cinematic production – one defined by its entertainment value. French cinema, as it is known outside of France, has thus become synonymous with art-house faire.

If French cinema is defined solely by its art-house auteurs, there is no room for wildly popular filmmakers like Gérard Oury. While not often mentioned in the same breath as Varda or Truffaut, Oury helmed some of the most commercially successful films in French history. La Grande Vadrouille, an odd-couple take on the German occupation of France and an international hit, is excluded from a prescriptive definition of French Cinema. The film eschews the narrative ambiguity and philosophical ruminations that have become hallmarks of art cinema. Indeed, it looks much more like the American A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum than it does the French Masculin, Féminin, both of which were released the same year as Vadrouille. National categories are alluring largely because they allow one to glean some sense of coherence from a group as vast as “French filmmakers.” Yet, this coherence is established by way of exclusion. Gérard Oury and Alain Resnais cannot both be French Cinema, because the gulf between their works would cause the label to disintegrate before our eyes.

The construction of a national cinema then mimics the construction of a nation. Based on a common mythology a heterogeneous population is given a homogenous title. It is as often defined by what it is not as by what it is. Despite its many factions, the nation as construed by its central myths becomes the unifying Self and foreigners of any creed are designated as the Other. The move need not be explicitly negative; it can be as simple as designating a certain place the land of “the free and the home of the brave” or “liberty, equality and fraternity.” That other nations cannot lay claim to the same ideals is left implicit and the exclusionary move appears all the more innocuous.

The cinematic myth relies on Elsaesser’s formulation that there is a filmic type that springs forth from the character of a national culture. Much of the literature on this subject, taking its cue from Getino and Solanas’ essay “Towards a Third Cinema”, establishes a synonymity between filmic Otherness and race, class or foreignness. At a textual level, history bears out the penchant for xenophobic stereotypes across a wide variety of media. However, in the process of manufacturing such a broad notion as national cinema, the first exclusionary act tends to be aimed at popular forms of culture. The term French Cinema, asserts its stature by calling upon names such as those mentioned above, regardless of the individual filmmaker’s relationship to popular culture. In doing so, it circumscribes its national cinema within a tradition of artistic production in order to link it to a larger claim to a cultural history. Jean Renoir is not just hailed as one of France’s greatest directors, but also the son of a preeminent painter. In much the same way as the national myth, the cinematic one need not name those who it disqualifies for inclusion. By fixing the borders of its cinematic tradition within the realm of high art, France implicitly devalues filmmakers like Gérard Oury. Thus, the national cinema is determined not by the conglomerated facts of cinematic output in a particular region, but rather by those films that fall within its predefined sphere.

That the term is aspirational in its assignation of a mythologized character to a cinematic subset, would not be so problematic were it not also normative. By conflating the ideal of a nation’s cinematic output with its actual cinematic output, one engages in an act of delegitimizing that is even more iniquitous than the construction of a canon. Rather than openly acknowledge certain figures as greater and more worthy of praise than others and thereby invite the inevitable debate, the others are simply removed from the discussion. The idea of a national cinema is thereby necessarily a prescriptive one. In establishing a nation, the political consequences of such actions bear themselves out in the notion of citizenship. Similarly in the cinematic realm, citizenship is simply not open to everyone who might otherwise consider themselves participants in the requisite national and filmic projects. If national cinema were a conclusion rather than a hypothesis, there would be less danger in its use. As it stands, it is only a manufactured ideal parading as a fact.


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