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Two Ways of Looking:
The Cahiers/Positif Dialectic

David Davidson


Michel Ciment, in one of his bloc-notes for Positif magazine, writes about one of his early encounters with the staff of Cahiers du cinéma:


  I remember, when I was a young cinephile, I was 20 years old, and I read Positif and Cahiers. One day, in March or April of 1958, I went to the Champs-Élysées to buy some back issues of Cahiers. At his desk, François Truffaut received me, and I talked to him about one of his collaborators, Jean-Luc Godard, who mostly wrote around the films that he was reviewing, like for example his Bitter Victory critique where he talks about everything except for the Nicholas Ray film. Truffaut retorts: ‘You’re wrong. He’s the most original of all of us’. (1)  



1. Michel Ciment, ‘Bloc-notes’, Positif, no. 300 (February 1986), p. 109.

This is just one example of a clash between the two magazines and their approach to film reviewing: l’art d’aimer against rigorous, formal analysis. But to better understand their fundamental differences, we need to return to their origins. What foundational ideas are they are based on? What do they privilege and what do they overlook? Do either of them have an Achilles’ heel? The occasion for this retrospection is the unexpected appearance, in the current critical juncture, of Gérard Gozlan’s remarkable book L’anti-Bazin, first written as a series of Positif articles in the early 1960s.




André Bazin was among the founders of Cahiers and a spiritual father to the Nouvelle Vague. When he died of leukemia in 1958, it marked a significant rupture at the magazine, which has a history of upheavals. As the present Cahiers editor Stéphane Delorme remarks: ‘Ontological realism is the sole touchstone of Bazin’s thought and Cahiers’ thought; without that, everything collapses’. (2)


In ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Bazin brings psychoanalysis to his account of the visual arts, producing the concept of the ‘mummy complex’, which consists of the dual impulse of the material preservation of the body alongside that of surmounting death. For Bazin, the mummy complex is at the origins of painting and sculpture. The religious origins of the statuaries were meant to preserve the essence of the person through the creation of their appearance. For Bazin, painting was torn between the aesthetic and the psychological, while the objective nature of photography was to capture reality – ‘embalm time’ – that was then freed by cinema which, as a temporal medium, allowed for duration. Bazin mentions the Surrealists and their use of photography to create visual teratologies. Every image should be experienced as an object and every object as an image. Photography was thus a privileged technology for Surrealist practice, because it produces an image that shares in the existence of nature: a photograph is a really existing hallucination.


2. Stéphane Delorme, ‘Esprit Bazin’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 697 (February 2014),




According to Chevrier, the ‘hallucinatory imagination’ for Bazin was a surrealist protest against Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception. The references in Bazin to Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud conjure a certain poetic understanding of the arts that is detached from pure, surface realities. As Chevrier writes: ‘Just as mystic visions come from appearances, the hallucination privileges psychic reality over the physical world’. (3) For Chevrier, there are similarities between Bazin’s conceptualisation of the cinema and Jean Epstein’s, who also spoke about cinema as a language, and therefore as a medium that animates and gives life to its objects. When Bazin wrote ‘Then again, film is a language’, he was equally reacting against André Malraux who, in his article ‘Esquisse d'une psychologie du cinéma’, concludes: ‘But otherwise, cinema is an industry’. In relation to the debates going on in theatre, Bazin was more aligned with Antonin Artaud’s cathartic participation than with Bertolt Brecht’s distancing alienation.



3. Jean-François Chevrier, L’hallucination artistique de William Blake à Sigmar Polke (Paris: Éditions L’Arachnéen, 2012), p. 579.

In ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, Bazin, building upon Georges Sadoul’s Histoire générale du cinéma (whose first volume appeared in 1946), examines the invention of cinema – its economic and technological developments in relation to the artistic ambitions of its inventors. For Bazin, historical causality needs to be reversed: technical discoveries should be seen as ‘propitious accidents essentially secondary to the initial conceptions of cinema’s inventors’. (4) For Bazin, ‘Cinema is an idealist phenomenon: men’s idea of it existed fully equipped in their brains, as in Plato’s higher world, and the tenacious resistance of matter to the idea is more striking than technology’s prompting of the inventor’s imagination’. (5) The total cinema of the essay’s title is capable of ‘giving the complete illusion of life’, which is ‘the dominant myth of every nineteenth-century technology for reproducing reality, from photography to the phonograph: a complete realism, the recreation of the world in its own image – an image upon which the irreversibility of time and the artist’s interpretation do not weigh’. (6)


In his biography of Bazin, Dudley Andrew contextualises the myth of total cinema within the intellectual debates of the period. He suggests of the humanism of Sartre and Malraux




4. André Bazin (trans. T. Barnard), What is Cinema? (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), p. 13.

5. Ibid.


6. Ibid., p. 17.

  [It] is closed to the earth and rejoices in an art where man leaves nature behind. But Bazin is far more aligned with the evolutionary cosmology of [Pierre] Teilhard [de Chardin], which sees man only in the context of a mysterious and ever-changing world. Through photography man can escape the vanities of art and can seek his history and his destiny by encountering appearances on their own terms. (7)  


7. Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 70.

Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, who is currently editing an anthology of the complete writings of Bazin, recently published Le Sommeil paradoxale (2014). He differentiates between two realisms in Bazin: theoretical, ontological realism; and the realism of the films’ content (cf. Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna photographs, Albert Lamorisse’s Crin-Blanc [1953], Robert Flaherty’s documentaries). This second realism is a less concrete concept, because it relies on the particularities of specific examples; it is frequently mistaken for the former which, however, it undermines.


Delorme distinguishes between naturalism, realism and formalism in Bazin’s thought. According to Delorme, realism presents itself as an anti-formalism (since formalism looks only at itself) and against naturalism (a poverty of realism that lacks imagination). Delorme also highlights how, for Bazin, realism has more to do with events then action, and that there is a privilege towards ‘facts’, which are the image’s visual details. This horizontal approach is in the spirit of equality, whose key image for Bazin, according to Delorme, is the father and son reuniting and holding hands at the end of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948).




Since Bernard Chardère started Positif in Lyon in 1952, its publications have always proposed an implicit critique of Cahiers, whether in brief jabs or lengthy critiques. The young writers at Cahiers denigrated traditional French cinema in favor of Hollywood films and the more youthful French cinema. Positif responded by championing, on the contrary, this older tradition, on literary and philosophical grounds. (Some, like Bertrand Tavernier, say that the difference between the two was gastronomical: Rivette ate chocolate bars, while Chardère was known for his exquisite culinary taste.) If Truffaut could rewrite film history with his attacks on Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost in his seminal ‘A Certain Tendency of French Cinema’ then, at Positif, it is these directors that were championed (see, for instance, Gilles Jacob’s review of Claude Autant-Lara’s L'Auberge rouge [1951]). Positif’s defense underlined some of its fundamental qualities: a taste for mainstream, literary French cinema; a sincere appreciation of serious film criticism; a counterpoint to impressionistic and cult-of-personality criticism; and a curious form of ironic contrarianism.


In short, Positif offered an alternative way to look at films. Thierry Frémaux comments in ‘L'aventure cinéphilique de Positif (1952-1989)’:


  There are three periods in this bicephalous history of French criticism, in terms of healthy debates and also, more bitterly, settling scores: 1952-1958 on the subject of cinephilia, 1958-1968 on the conception of cinema (via the films of the Nouvelle Vague), 1968-1978 on the conception of society – and also because it had become a habit. (8)   8. Thierry Frémaux, ‘L'aventure cinéphilique de Positif (1952-1989)’, Vingtième siècle, revue d’histoire, Issue 23 (1989), p. 27.

Positif’s layout accentuated its more open, conceptual attitude. Chardère quotes Flaubert as a guiding principle:


  What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, held together by the internal force of its style, just as the earth is suspended in air without external support; a book that had almost no subject or, at least, a book in which the subject was almost invisible, if that were possible. (9)   9. English translation by Carol Cosman as quoted in Jean-Paul Sartre, Gustave Flaubert: The Family Idiot, 1821-1857 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 501

It is this combination of invisibility and omnipresence, clarity and passion, that is at the heart of Positif. Even today, old Cahiers jaune critics like André S. Labarthe (Cinéastes de notre temps) or later contributors like Antoine de Baecque speak of how Positif has always been less dogmatic and more cinephilic than Cahiers.


In its first 15 years, Positif was creating an alternative canon that would mould their growth for the next 60 years. This is the period when foundational texts were written. A good example would be Robert Benayoun’sVous vous croyez à Hollywood?’ (issue 57, December 1963, initiating a two-year series of articles) where, in a creative writing form, he describes a trip to Hollywood in which he interviewed Tex Avery and Jerry Lewis, among others. At Positif, instead of fetishising the cult of personality – la politique des auteurs, superstar contributors – the writing team was more synchronous, and their view of cinema broader (film genres, national cinemas). An important early polemic for Positif that highlights some of its distinguishing features from Cahiers is Gérard Gozlan’s 1962 two-part essay (issues 45 and 46, May and June 1962), ‘Les délices de l’ambiguïté (Éloge d’André Bazin)’.


Gozlan’s essay has recently become available as L’anti-Bazin (2013), a reworked, book-length version published by L’Édition Le Bord de l'eau; the author (after a long, post-Positif career in film and television production at various levels) is now almost 80. It carries a new preface by Chardère: ‘With this study, in a form of a pamphlet, cinephiles will be surprised to discover a polemical thought, an example of Positif’s pugnacity’. Gozlan’s lengthy response to Bazin expresses the fundamental problems Positif had with him in particular, and Cahiers in general. Gozlan provides a close reading of Bazin’s writing from the contemporaneously published Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (Les Éditions du Cerf, first published between 1958 and 1962). Gozlan tries to get behind the general hero-worship that Bazin’s unfortunate early death brought out in his many sympathisers.


Gozlan’s first example is Bazin’s writing on Luis Buñuel, which he uses to highlight the limits of Bazin’s Catholic humanism in understanding this director’s anti-clericalism. There is a rupture between the writing and the film that Bazin is describing. Instead of emphasising the harsh social realities on view in Las Hurdes (1933) and Los Olvidados (1950), Bazin resorts to describing them in terms of ‘transcendence’ and ‘metaphysics’. Gozlan argues that, for Bazin, concepts like class, profit, exploitation, property and money do not come up. If there is a description of the awfulness of the world, then it is lacking a Marxist impetus to action in the name of social change.


Gozlan knows the philosophical tradition. He interrogates Bazin’s understanding of phenomenology and existential philosophy as defined by Merleau-Ponty and Sartre; he asserts that phenomenological realism and Christian existentialism are fundamentally incompatible, contradictory in relation to each another – and that Bazin loosely uses these terms simultaneously to suit whatever point he is trying to prove. Gozlan then differentiates between Christian and atheistic existentialism – Bazin being an example of the latter – and their limits when it comes to understanding Marxism and seriously engaging with the world.


It is surprising how precise Gozlan’s criticisms of Bazin are. In today’s academic climate, critiques of Bazin are commonplace; but Gozlan’s discussion, coming from the Positif context, seem fresher today for the precision of its close reading, in opposition to pedantic theoreticians relying on twice-told clichés. And Gozlan’s critique does not stop there. Some examples: Bazin’s emphasis on metaphors and myths as a form of interpretation does not pay enough attention to a film’s content and its depiction of social realities. Bazin’s use of the word ‘ambiguity’ is vague compared to say terms like ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’. Gozlan argues for the importance of editing over that of the long take. He criticizes Bazin’s rushed, brief journalistic pieces in Esprit, highlighting some of the wrong conclusions he drew from mistranslations. And so on. In short, this is the difference between content and form: Gozlan at Positif looks at images and Bazin at Cahiers sees through them.




So did Cahiers ever respond to Gozlan? Never directly. However, in this period, their editorial position was evolving with the cultural politicisation of the times. Rohmer, and with him the ‘école Schérer’ that represented the last bastion of Bazinism, would be kicked out of the magazine in July of 1964 (issue 145), having been one of the chief editors since March 1957. This led to his sojourn in teaching and then directing, and his replacement at Cahiers by Jacques Rivette, who championed a more politically modernist cinema (see, for instance, the reception of Godard’s Les carabiniers in 1963). For Rivette, the goal of the magazine was to ‘become again an instrument of combat’. The 1960s generation could build upon the classic cinephilia of the 1950s by writing about John Ford, Howard Hawks and Jerry Lewis while they were still active directors – but also evolve their aesthetic and political criteria to adapt to the more engaged theories of the period. Some of the best writers of this period include Louis Marcorelles, Claude Beylie, Fereydoun Hoveyda, Luc Moullet, Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni.


To focus on Comolli: one of his first important essays (after his dialectical review of Hawks’ Sergeant York in issue 135, September 1962) is his 1963 piece ‘Vivre le film’. In this text, he questions the role of film criticism, its duty and philosophical heritage: ‘I believe, and I propose, that any reflective approach to art must today be content to simply seek the basis of variations in art forms, their evolution and results’. (10) Comolli elaborates, building upon Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, on how the personal evolution of spirit and taste brings us to richer forms that are more complex and challenging.




10. Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘Vivre le film’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 141 (March 1963), p. 15.

  By renewing today this adventure of man’s spirit that seeks to comprehend, express and reconcile all of the universe’s forces, the cinema allows art (like previously, with painting and modern sculpture) to refind its magical and religious sources, returning to its origins in order to enrich itself. (11)  


11. Ibid., p. 18.

This phenomenological approach to cinema emphasises artworks as creations, a way for an individual to know himself or herself and humanity, and the world s/he lives in.


Comolli and Narboni (who together composed the two-part Cahiers editorial ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ in 1969) are crucially important in the later 1960s; they pick up the editorial mantle after Rivette departs. This is the period of the Langlois affair and the May ’68 student protest. Comolli and Narboni change the direction of Cahiers more towards political and theoretical texts. They adopt a more aggressive Marxist-Maoist position, utilising cinema as a tool on the cultural front against a capitalist industry of profit. As Sylvia Harvey argues in May ’68 and Film Culture, the impact of May greatly contributed to the development of Marxist film criticism in France. (12) The emphasis at Cahiers and Cinéthique is on a materialist understanding of culture and cultural production, based on theories of ideology. At this time, there is a reevaluation of foundational principles at Cahiers. For example, lengthy analyses of the French avant-garde of the 1920s and Eisenstein appear – figures whom the earlier Cahiers jaune critics had reacted against. New developments such as cinéma vérité are analysed in terms of realism (building on Bazin’s terminology). And American cinema still plays a key role, but with different directors: Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes and Robert Kramer.


The history of Cahiers is full of contradictions and stabilities. It has always had at its centre cinephilia, politics and theory – sometimes oriented, in concert, in a specific direction. So when, in the late 1970s, the magazine starts becoming more accountable to current cinema under the new editorship of Serge Toubiana and Serge Daney, it is forced – after its decade-long hiatus in relation to much American cinema – to start again from scratch with those New Hollywood directors who were already a few features into their careers. In an era of growing mass marketing and homogenisation of films, it needed to find a new register in order to discuss cinema.

  12. Sylvia Harvey, May ’68 and Film Culture (London: British Film Institute, 1980).




from Issue 5: Shows


© David Davdison and LOLA, June 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.