[Access article in PDF]
"The Film That We Wanted to Live"
Re-releasing Modernist Movies
The Devil is a Woman (1935), directed by Josef von Sternberg, MCA Universal Home Video, 1997; Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), directed by Luis Buñuel, Rialto Pictures Re-release, Fall 2000; The Scarlet Empress (1934), directed by Josef von Sternberg, The Criterion Collection DVD, Spring 2001; Sullivan's Travels (1942), written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Criterion Collection DVD, Summer 2001; That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), directed by Luis Buñuel, Rialto Pictures Re-release, Summer 2001; The Blue Angel (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg, Kino International Re-release, Summer 2001; Band of Outsiders (1964), written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Rialto Pictures Re-release, Summer 2001.
The pictures were dated, they flickered. And Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly.
It made us sad. This wasn't the film we'd dreamed of, this wasn't the total film
that each of us had carried within himself . . . the film that we wanted
to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live.
--Paul's soliloquy in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin (1966)
During the first half of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1942), when the famed comedy director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) tries to go into the world to discover "real life," he keeps running in circles, always coming back to Hollywood. Midway through the movie, when the director finally breaks free from his Hollywood constraints, the "real life" which he encounters has a curious quality: the "real life" which Sturges dreams up for his surrogate is every bit as artificial as a Busby Berkeley musical number, perhaps more artificial, because it's so cinematically referential. The small town is straight out of the MGM Andy Hardy movies; the hobo sequences on the trains are right out of a Warner's Depression drama; the shanty-town and shelter scenes could have been taken from a low-budget Columbia 1930s melodrama; as for the chain gang sequences . . . well, it's nice to know that Preston Sturges remembered I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Because of the stilted qualities of these scenes, Sullivan's Travels seems more unreal in its "reality" than in its depiction of Hollywood (where Sturges is on surer ground, and he allows himself the freedom to indulge in satirical irony). This problem of [End Page 1] relevance has been present in the commercial cinema almost since its inception. It's a problem that becomes acute when the filmmakers reach maturity, because, if they've had a successful career in the movies, the movies become their primary frame of reference. And so many directors begin to quote themselves, repeating situations and characters and ideas (as John Ford did in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Howard Hawks did in Rio Bravo,El Dorado, and Rio Lobo, or Alfred Hitchcock did in North by Northwest and Marnie).
The Nouvelle Vague brought this quality of cinematic self-consciousness to the fore, with the intense love of the movies which prompted the young artists to work in the medium becoming a central fact in their subjects, stories, and styles. The early movies of the Nouvelle Vague were littered with such cinematic quotations: think of the usage of clips from Fritz Lang's Metropolis in Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient (1958-60), the movie-within-the-movie in Agnes Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), and the sequence from Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa Vie (1962). In the movies of the Nouvelle Vague, people go to the movies, watch movies, use movie posters as decor, discuss movies, and quote from the movies. But Paris being Paris, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this movie mania, this cinephilia, was mixed with references to the high culture of painting (Picasso is used in François Truffaut's Jules...