Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Eric Rohmer

News came yesterday morning that Eric Rohmer had died at the age of 89. This is, of course, sad news indeed for his friends, family and colleagues, but it is also sad for us, the people who only know him through his work, his audience. Rohmer was one of the most important members of the Cahiers du cinéma, the film magazine where he, along with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette revolutionized the way we all look at film. In the 60s, he joined them in making films which again changed cinema forever. Of that group, Chabrol, Godard and Rivette are still making films, along with their Left Bank fellow travelers Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda.

Shamefully, I've yet to see any of his movies, but I have read some of his criticism, and he seemed to have been the most level-headed and mature of the Cahiers group (he was also the oldest and most experienced). Never as angrily polemical or romantically swoony as Truffaut nor as hyperbolically ALLCAPS as Godard nor as radical as Rivette, he seemed to be the voice of reason among the group, and served as the magazine's editor through its most fruitful years. Along with Chabrol, he wrote the first serious study of Alfred Hitchcock's career. It was one of the first auteurist studies of a director's work, the politique des auteurs being developed at the Cahiers as a way of organizing and recognizing the artistic hand at work behind even the most genric of popular entertainment (ie, American studio films). It is still fundamental to the way we think about film: as a work by an author (usually the director). When you go to Scarecrow Video and see films grouped by director, that is Rohmer's influence in practice.

The legacy of the French New Wave, as these directors were later labelled, is felt everyday here at Metro Classics. They all learned about film at the theatre, in front of the screens (and sometimes on the hallway walls) at Henri Langlois's Cinémathèque Française. The Cinémathèque is the fundamental model for what we try to do here. Langois would program his shows around themes (genre, director, various other more esoteric connections) and the mix of movies came from all areas of film: silents, contemporary films, French films and films from around the world (especially American films). They weren't picky about status or popularity: just because a film was successful was no reason to think it wasn't good for the Cahiers crowd. It is because of their influence that Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks were raised from the level of crowd-pleasers to great artists. Likewise, just because something was obscure or cheap was no obstacle to its being great: they similarly elevated directors like Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and Nicholas Ray.

The point is that for the New Wave, all films were always relevant as sources of ideas, inspiration and entertainment. That is what repertory cinema is all about. We're fortunate, at this time in Seattle, to be blessed with a plethora of outlets for classic and contemporary film. The Northwest Film Forum, the Grand Illusion, the SIFF Cinema, the Seattle Art Museum, Midnights at the Egyptian Theatre and, 30 Wednesday nights a year, the Metro Cinemas and others provide an extraordinary array of options guaranteeing that the Seattlite filmgoer is never a slave to the latest in mass-market multiplex fashion. For us, history is not a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, rather the past isn't dead - it isn't even past.

So, a tip of the Metro Classics cap to Eric Rohmer. His influence lives on in the films he made, the criticism he wrote and the ways of thinking about cinema he helped create and popularize. My boxset of his Six Moral Tales (My Night at Maud's, Claire's Knee, Love in the Afternoon, etc) should be arriving in the mail any time now. And then I will watch a film by Eric Rohmer.

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