#177: RECALLING/READING TRUFFAUT. In the Netflix series “Pretend It’s A City,” Fran Lebowitz says, “Musicians are loved by people…because they give them the ability to express their emotions and their memories...Motown music, which was very popular when I was a teenager, whenever I hear it I instantly become happier….Now, do I think, like, Motown is the greatest music ever made? You know, I don’t. But if you asked me, the second you hear this, do you feel happier, I do.”
But for me, for the experience of catching a second wind of adolescence and youth, it would probably be movies; or, to choose my words, cinema. In college and just after, friends and I would be as likely to be up at Cinestudio in Hartford as in concert halls or at clubs. Cinestudio showed second-run American films, and we glutted on Altman and Scorsese and the great adventurous period in the seventies of American film-making, but they also showed silent films and world classics: one night a program of Chaplin shorts and a Buster Keaton, the next Jean Renoir or Satyajit Ray. A friend of mine and I once saw nine films in a four-day weekend. Movies were to see and to talk about, their sociable aspect not yet dented by the pandemic or the online streaming services.
A whiff of this came to me recently when I picked up a collection of the letters of Francois Truffaut. Born in the thirties in Pigalle. a Paris neighborhood best known for selling musical instruments and sex, he was drifting towards delinquency when he was noticed and mentored by Andre Bazin, the great French film critic; Truffaut’s early films—Les Quatre Cent Coups (The Four Hundred Blows in English, which is an idiotically literal translation of a French slang for getting into trouble or raising hell), Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player), Jules et Jim—showed not only great feeling and invention, but seemed to offer an escape from the arthritic and convention-bound studio system of film-making—an analogy for the way of living we were all seeking in the aftermath of the counterculture. Truffaut’s early works came out when foreign films were beginning to be widely seen in the States; it became a joke that every artistically-inclined American kid born in the fifties wanted to live the Bohemian lifestyle of the characters in Jules et Jim. “Le Tourbillon,” the song sung by Jeanne Moreau in the movie, was every college student’s personal theme song.
We romanticized Truffaut wildly, whereas the letters remind us he had quite an obstreperous side. One letter to a young friend begins, “First things first: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and finally, you treat me like dirt.” In the later feud with the famously irascible Jean-Luc Godard, he gives as good as he gets: “The time has come to tell you, at length, that in my opinion you’ve been acting like a shit,” followed by six pages of closely-documented personal incineration. God spare us artistic feuds. The letters, which are gracefully translated and helpfully annotated, are the correspondence of a man in a constant pummel of work (after the early letters of a difficult adolescence and a disastrous time in the military), juggling a constant effort to get films made, promote his friends’ work, fend off the importunate, remind people of promises and decisions, and talk incessantly about his one obsession, film. The letters are awash in the names of actors, cameramen, technicians and above all directors, both idolized (Renoir, Hitchcock, his New Wave associates) and abhorred (I shall not name names). The most amiable, detailed and pacific of the letters were those for Helen Scott, who assisted from America in some of Truffaut’s work and who was his translator on the book about Hitchcock. With Scott, Truffaut seemed to exhale just a bit and relax—though poised as he always was to be shooting off onto something else at hand. In a letter to Charles Aznavour, who starred in Tirez sur le Pianiste, this simple summation: “One thing we share, I believe, is the fact that we live for our work. And that’s why our paths so seldom cross.”
He worked with good people: Henri Decae, Raoul Coutard and Nestor Almendros as cameramen, Georges Delerue doing the scores, and a revolving troupe of actors: Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Pierre Leaud (who played Truffaut’s autobiographical stand-in, Antoine Doinel), Aznavour, Bernadette Lafont, all those actors who criss-crossed into the varied films of the New Wave, and on to Natalie Baye and Depardieu and Fanny Ardant. The later films were a mixed lot; Truffaut caught flack, after the corrosive reviews he wrote early on for Cahiers du Cinema, as he himself became more commercial and studio-bound. Among the later films are L’Enfant Sauvage, Truffaut’s version of the history of Victor de l’Aveyron and Doctor Itard; L’Histoire d’Adele H., about Victor Hugo’s daughter, which introduced Isabelle Adjani; and lighter films like La Nuit Americaine, about filmmaking, and L’Argent de Poche, about a group of small-city children, most of these viewed eagerly by my friends and me from the balcony seats at Cinestudio. Even these later films were made by a man who never stopped comprehending the comedies and melancholies of his characters. Do I think them the greatest films ever made? I don’t. But if you ask me, the second I think of them, do I feel happier? I do.