Why Hollywood Sucks: Because It's Not France. Plus: Why American Graffiti and Maoism are basically the same thing


This is part three of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.


France is America’s strange cousin, the one with all the great fornication positions named in its honor and whose revolution left the legacy of the ultra-badass guillotine. By contrast, American sexuality is a complete neurotic mess and colonial re-enactors look so much like the Quaker Oats man you get bloated constipation just glancing at them.

Perhaps no finer distinction has been made than that of Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, who explained discussions between Paris and Washington upon the latter’s entry into the First World War: French Premier Clemenceau offered to set up licensed brothels for U.S. soldiers like the ones that serviced his own fighting men. Upon receiving the letter with Clemenceau’s offer, Secretary of War Newton Baker reportedly blurted out, “For God’s sake . . . don’t show this to the President [Wilson] or he’ll stop the war.” (If only we’d been so lucky.)

France exited World War II with a bit of a problem. It was quickly losing control of the remnants of its old colonial empire and its Communist Party was a major element of both the guerilla Partisan movement during the war and elected governments put into office afterwards. This graphic below shows their share of votes in elections since the war.

Graphic by Alankazame, Wikimedia Commons

The quagmires of colonial liberation wars that the French found themselves in were previews of what America would face a few decades later. The Algerian war was a fiasco that demonstrated just how hypocritical the Communists could be while the Vietnam war was, well, the Vietnam war.

The hypocrisy regarding Algeria is best described in a short introduction to a 1956 speech by party leader Jacques Duclos:

On February 9, 1956, the Socialist-led government of Guy Mollet introduced a bill giving the government “special powers” to act in Algeria. It asked for powers “enabling it to take all exceptional measures in view of establishing order, protecting persons and property, and safeguarding the territory.” In order to do this, it allowed for the call-up of reservists, the suspending of the guarantee of civil liberties in Algeria, and divided Algeria into three zones, in the third of which, “the forbidden zone,” populations were put in settlement camps and placed under Army control. The motion passed on March 12 by a vote of 455-76, with the French Communist Party voting for it. 

This sort of thing was not the first instance of Communist double dealing, not by a long shot. But it bears mentioning here that Lenin broke with the traditional Socialist movement and created Communism as a distinct and different type of politics precisely because his Socialist contemporaries were hypocrites about European colonialism.

(Interestingly, Duclos was the very individual who ten years earlier had denounced Earl Browder — grandfather of American-turned-Irish-allegedly-for-tax-purposes oligarch Bill Browder, as Washington Babylon has reported — for moving too far to the political center and engaging in heretical revisionism of Marxism-Leninism. Earl Browder dissolved the CPUSA as a party and created a Communist Political Association that was intended to function as a pressure group/caucus within the two party system, which Moscow found unforgivable. The details are far too complicated to explain here but the contemporary Browder fortune is very much tied to the connections grandpa had with the USSR.)

Around the same time as all of these political developments, French film critics, who sometimes moonlighted as film directors, began to formulate a new prism through which to view produce cinema. In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote a manifesto titled The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo,which was published in the influential Cahiers du cinéma magazine. He wrote:

To come to the point: the cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of camera-stylo [camera-pen]. This metaphor has a very precise sense.

By it I mean that the cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language. This art, although blessed with an enormous potential, is an easy prey to prejudice; it cannot go on for ever ploughing the same field of realism and social fantasy which has been bequeathed to it by the popular novel. It can tackle any subject, any genre. The most philosophical meditations on human production, psychology, metaphysics, ideas, and passions lie well within its province.

I will even go so far as to say that contemporary ideas and philosophies of life are such that only the cinema can do justice to them. Maurice Nadeau wrote in an article in the newspaper Combat: ‘If Descartes lived today, he would write novels.’ With all due respect to Nadeau, a Descartes of today would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on film: for his Discours de la Methods would today be of such a kind that only the cinema could express it satisfactorily.

One of the less-remembered but I would argue equally-important developments to come out of the Second World War was the mass proliferation on the postwar marketplace of cheap surplus cinematic production equipment. During the war the Allies had manufactured extremely well-built portable cameras, sound systems, and lighting kits for use by soldiers in the European and Pacific theaters.

When the war ended, these materials were bought on the cheap by first-time film makers who were able to create independent, experimental films on minuscule budgets. And so a group of critics that congregated around Cahiers — Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette — saw the opportunity as a chance to make the kinds of movies they wanted to see. Here is a selection of the core films that make up this French New Wave:
Now simultaneously there arose in the West the New Left, a multinational social movement that defined itself as critical of the Soviet Union and Stalinism but still opposed to sexism, racism, and imperialism. In America, for a variety of reasons, this project had a vibrant grassroots aspect, materializing around groups like the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

But in France, because the Communist Party played an active role in politics, things were notably different. Louis Althusser and other philosophers like him formulated a new kind of analysis of both capitalism and really existing socialism that would eventually be placed under the heading of Maoism — though what relations these thinkers had to Mao Tse Tung’s Chinese Cultural Revolution, a period that wrought chaos across the People’s Republic, is extremely complicated. For our present purposes, Maoism in the West was essentially a nostalgia movement, equivalent in emotional thrust to Happy Days or American Graffiti, that tried to recapture the glory of the Communist movement’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s.

The writings of Leon Trotsky were being rediscovered and thinkers like Daniel Guérin began to promote anarchism as an alternative vision of political organization. All this came to a head in May 1968 when students took to the streets.

In a 2008 retrospective column, Peter Steinfels wrote:

For two astonishing weeks in May, an entire nation had been caught up in a frenzy of self-examination. Committees were formed to restructure secondary schooling, the university, the film industry, the theater, the news media… What the talking heads were talking about were ideas spawned by a crazy array of leftist groups: revisionist socialists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, surrealists and Marxists. They were anticommunist as much as anti-capitalist. Some appeared anti-industrial, anti-institutional, even anti-rational.

Three positive objectives and one great fear dominated their views. The objectives were self-management by workers, a decentralization of economic and political power and participatory democracy at the grass roots. The great fear was that contemporary capitalism was capable of absorbing any and all critical ideas or movements and bending them to its own advantage. Hence, the need for provocative shock tactics. “Be realistic: Demand the impossible!” was one of the May movement’s slogans.

These developments were the stuff of amazing films that would inspire American cinema in the late-60s through the early 80s. Here is a great short video primer on these amazing French masterpieces.

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