The Gravedigger of French Cinema

François Truffaut whilst he was in military prison, circa 1951

 
 

After starting his own film club in 1948, François Truffaut met André Bazin, who would have great effect on his professional and personal life. Bazin was a critic and the head of another film society at the time. He became a personal friend of Truffaut’s and helped him out of various financial and criminal situations during his formative years.

Truffaut joined the French Army in 1950, aged 18, but spent the next two years trying to escape. Truffaut was arrested for attempting to desert the army. Bazin used his various political contacts to get Truffaut released and set him up with a job at his newly formed film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Over the next few years, Truffaut became a critic (and later editor) at Cahiers, where he became notorious for his brutal, unforgiving reviews. He was called “The Gravedigger of French Cinema” and was the only French critic not invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. He supported Andre Bazin in the development of one of the most influential theories of cinema itself, the auteur theory.

In the late 1950s, French New Wave critics, especially Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, were among the first to see and promote Alfred Hitchcock‘s films as artistic works. Hitchcock was one of the first directors to whom they applied their auteur theory, which stresses the artistic authority of the director in the film-making process.

As critics for the iconoclastic film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard and Truffaut had shared a similar aesthetic. Their masters were (besides Hitchcock), Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and Fritz Lang, whose films were underestimated at the time and whom they defended with the pugnacity of young prizefighters.

In an article for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1954, Truffaut posited his “auteur theory”: the idea that certain directors, regardless of whether they wrote their films, were the true authors of their work. They reserved their greatest criticism for postwar French cinema, which Truffaut dismissed as “cinéma du papa” for its tendency to churn out tired over-literary adaptations of classic novels and plays.

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From Babel Tower to Metropolis

Movie Poster

 
 

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) features a range of elaborate special effects and set designs, ranging from a huge gothic cathedral to a futuristic cityscape. In an interview,  Lang reported that “the film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924”. He had visited New York for the first time and remarked “I looked into the streets – the glaring lights and the tall buildings – and there I conceived Metropolis.” Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang said that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize”. He added “The sight of Neuyork [sic] alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the center of a film”

The film was written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, and starred Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. A silent film, it was produced by Erich Pommer in the Babelsberg Studios by Universum Film A.G.. It is regarded as a pioneering work of science fiction genre in movies, being among the first feature length movies of the genre.

Filmstudio Babelsberg or The Babelsberg Film Studio located in Potsdam-Babelsberg outside Berlin, Germany, is the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, producing films since 1912. Today it covers an area of about 25,000 square metres (270,000 sq ft) and thus is Europe’s largest film studio. Hundreds of films, including Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel were filmed there. More recent productions include V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006) , The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007) , Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), Cloud Atlas (The Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, 2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014).

 
 

 
 

Made in Germany during the Weimar Period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia, and follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, and Maria, a poor worker, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classes of their city. Metropolis was filmed in 1925, at a cost of approximately five million Reichsmarks, making it the most expensive film ever released up to that point. The motion picture’s futuristic style is influenced by the work of Futurist Italian architect, Antonio Sant’Elia.

The appearance of the city in Metropolis is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other traditions. Ingeborg Hoesterey described the architecture featured in Metropolis as eclectic, writing how its locales represent both “functionalist modernism [and] art deco” whilst also featuring “the scientist’s archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the catacombs [and] the Gothic cathedral”. The film’s use of art deco architecture was highly influential, and has been reported to have contributed to the style’s subsequent popularity in Europe and America.

 
 

The New Tower of Babel, Fredersen’s headquarters in Metropolis

 
 

The Tower of Babel in Maria’s recounting of the fable was modeled after this 1563 painting by Pieter Brueghel

 
 

The film drew heavily on Biblical sources for several of its key set-pieces. During her first talk to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the false-Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon. Also, the name of the Yoshiwara club alludes to the famous red-light district of Tokyo.

The Magic Donkey

 
 

Peau d’Âne (English: Donkey Skin) is a 1970 French musical film directed by Jacques Demy. It is also known by the English titles Once Upon a Time and The Magic Donkey. The film was adapted by Demy from Donkeyskin, a fairy tale by Charles Perrault about a king who wishes to marry his daughter. It stars Catherine Deneuve and Jean Marais, with music by Michel Legrand. Donkey Skin also proved to be Demy’s biggest success in France.

Jacques Demy, fascinated by Charles Perrault’s fairy tale since childhood, was working on a script for the film as early as 1962. The involvement of Catherine Deneuve was instrumental in securing financing for the production. Numerous elements in the film refer to Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 fairy tale film Beauty and the Beast: the casting of Jean Marais, the use of live actors to portray human statues in the castles, and the use of simple special effects such as slow motion and reverse motion.

 
 

Illustrations by Gustave Doré. This French literary fairytale was first published in 1695 in a small volume and republished in 1697 in Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé. Andrew Lang included it, somewhat euphemized, in The Grey Fairy Book.

 
 

A king had a beautiful wife and a rich castle, including a marvelous donkey whose droppings were gold. One day his wife died, after making him promise not to marry except to a woman whose beauty and attributes equaled hers. The king grieved, but was, in time, persuaded to seek another wife. It became clear that the only woman who would fit the promise was his own daughter.

She went to her fairy godmother who advised her to make impossible demands as a condition of her consent: a dress the color of the sky, a dress the color of the moon, a dress as bright as the sun, and finally, the hide of his marvelous donkey. Such was the king’s desire to marry her that he granted all of them. The fairy godmother gave her a marvelous chest to contain all she owned and told her that the donkeyskin would make an excellent disguise.

The princess fled and eventually found a royal farm where they let her work in the kitchen, despite her ugliness in the donkeyskin. On feast days, she would dress herself in the fine gowns her father had given her, and one such day, the prince came by her room and peeped through the keyhole. He fell in love at once, fell ill with his longing, and declared that nothing would cure him but a cake baked by Donkeyskin, and nothing they could say of what a dirty creature she was dissuaded him.

When Donkeyskin baked the cake, a ring of hers fell in it. The prince found it and declared that he would marry only the woman whose finger it fit. Every other woman having failed, he insisted that Donkeyskin try, and it fit. When she had dressed herself in her fine gowns, his parents were reconciled with the match. Donkeyskin later found that her father had remarried to a beautiful widow and everyone lived happily ever after.

 
 

For more information, see the album Donkey Skin (Costume Designs and Sketches) on The Genealogy of Style‘s Facebook Page:

A Life in the Theatre

‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.’

William Shakespeare

As You Like It

 
 

 
 

Music wakes us. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken. Look and listen. See the flowers, how they ray their redness, whiteness, silverness and blue.

 
 

 
 

We act different parts; but are the same.

 
 

 
 

Books are the mirrors of the soul

 
 

 
 

She liked to leave a theatre knowing exactly what was meant…

 
 

 
 

They never pulled the curtains till it was too dark to see, nor shut the windows till it was too cold. Why shut out the day before it was over? The flowers were still bright; the birds chirped. You could see more in the evening often when nothing interrupted, when there was no fish to order, no telephone to answer. Mrs. Swithin stopped by the great picture of Venice–school of Canaletto. Possibly in the hood of the gondola there was a little figure–a woman, veiled; or a man?

 
 

Kate Moss photographed by Bruce Weber and styled by Joe McKenna. Vogue Italia. October 1996.

 
 

Then the curtain rose. They spoke.

Virginia Woolf

“Between the Acts”

Art, Stars and Stripes

Childe Hassam, The Fourth of July 

 
 

Henri Cartier Bresson, Independence Day on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1947
 
 

Robert Mapplethorpe, American Flag, 1977

 
 

Helmut Lang 1998 ad campaign

 
 

Jasper Johns

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Litography by Robert Rauschenberg

 
 

Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Steve Schapiro

 
 

Pictures by Robert Frank

 
 

Still from Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969)

 
 

Photo by Gordon Parks

 
 

Poster designed by Seymour Chwast

 
 

Photo credit: Art Kane

 
 

Liu Bolin

 
 

America’s Declaration of Independence from Britain on the 4th July, 1776, resulted in the birth of a new national flag in 1777. The first Flag Act, passed by the Continental Congress, resolved that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen alternate red and white stripes and thirteen white stars on a blue field, in order to represent America’s thirteen states and the country’s democratic Government. The colours red, white, and blue, though clearly derived from British sources, are open to interpretation. George Washington declared: “We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing liberty.” A book published in 1777 by the House of Representatives stated that “the star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun.” Although the first Flag Act specifies no particular symbolism to the flag, white is a colour believed to signify purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valour; and blue, vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The first stirring of the flag’s power was documented at the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. In a poem that would later become the American national anthem, about the banner that survived British bombardment, the poet Francis Scott Key wrote: “…broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight… Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave… and the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave.”