Positif cheatsheet: why French film criticism still matters

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First things first, before exploring the Mavericks and Outsiders series currently on at the Film Society I needed to learn a little more about Positif. I was aware of its reputation as a crucial, longstanding French film magazine. I knew the publication to be kissing/fighting cousins with Cahiers du cinema. That I knew more about the latter is simply because Cahiers and Bazin are forced on university students in 101 courses as the lone artifact from that ancient time film viewers talked about “Film” rather than “Film Industry”: these days, I’m hungry for other examples.

I called the film programmer who introduced me to The Honeymoon Killers in 2000, Dylan Skolnick. He pointed out that Positif‘s willingness to engage films out of step with the mainstream politically and aesthetically — championing the surreal and the ineffable alongside genre films overlooked in other “serious” film magazines — meant the magazine can be trusted as a place of discovery for authentic voices in cinema. The editorial policy of similar-aged publications reveals shifts in the fashions of critical sentiment over the years, while a similar analysis of Positif — governed by an evolving editorial committee of past contributors rather than an editor-in-chief — reveals a surprisingly evergreen list of cinema worthy of engagement, argument, and preservation. (I’ve grabbed him watch some of the films in this series with me.)

I am reading Positif 50 Years: Selected Writings from the French Film Journal from the MoMA/Positif series a few years ago. Snips I found interesting below. First, from Michel Ciment, Positif‘s public face and responsible for selecting this series:

“Labels give people a feeling of security. Positif was upsetting to those who liked neat categories, and was distasteful to some because of its extreme freedom. Depending on whom one spoke to, it was either too theoretical or not theoretical enough. And then they were the intellectuals, the hair-splitters, who loved the labyrinths of Last Year at Marienbad and the speculations of Raúl Ruiz or the traps set by Peter Greenaway, but who just as readily defended the horror films produced by Hammer Films or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, unanimously rejected when it was released by the “serious” press, as well as the golden age of Italian comedy neglected on both sides of the Alps! … It is always dangerous to be out of sync with fashion, to explore the contours of future cinema, at the risk of being called elitist or for basking too readily in the pleasures of old films and being labeled retro.” (Michael Ciment, “For Your Pleasure: A Brief Overview of Fifty Years of Positif“)

And finally, from the 1952 Positif issue 1 editorial by Bernard Chardère, who at twenty-two founded the magazine in Lyon with friends:

“WE SAY:
You like the movies: you also know that film is an art. It took fifty years for the professors to admit it; in another half-century students will be writing theses that attempt to reconstruct lost masterpieces. But whose fault was it that they disappeared? It is up to us to do something against the merchants of the mediocre.

WE WANT:
— Discoveries rather than rehashes, even subtle ones. Shedding light on the unknown John Huston is far more useful than trotting out the usual clichés about The Devil’s Envoy (Les Visiteurs du soir) for the nth time.
— Interesting contributions, in particular from those who do not often get opportunity to express themselves: the makers of films that we admire. Doesn’t a single sentence from Jean Renoir have more resonance than a hundred books of exegesis?” (Bernard Chadère, “Why We Are Going to Fight”)

I’ll continue to be exploring selections from Positif parrallel to the series….

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