Cahiers du Cinéma and Evaluative Criticism


— Chad R. Newsom

I want to investigate a question that stems from two generally accepted facts: (1) The first generation of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma (1951 to roughly 1959) created the most important, influential body of evaluative film criticism in our discipline’s history. (2) Evaluative film criticism does not currently hold a legitimate place within contemporary Film Studies.  What, then, happened to evaluative criticism, criticism that makes value judgments about a film’s aesthetic achievement its primary goal?  I begin with a brief overview of Cahiers’s influence on film criticism and on Film Studies.  Next, I use a close reading of a film review by Francois Truffaut to explore the problems associated with evaluative criticism and to question why Film Studies abandoned this practice; and finally, I suggest how evaluative criticism can overcome its beleaguered reputation as being “merely” subjective, a matter of personal opinion and preference.  Evaluative criticism should play a vital role in Film Studies, and this complaint about subjectivity holds it back and prohibits its academic legitimacy.

One cannot overestimate the influence of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma on film criticism, the discipline of Film Studies, or the larger field of cultural criticism.  Many recognize its most influential critics because they later achieved fame as French New Wave filmmakers: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette.  Cahiers popularized two concepts: auteurism, an idea that links a film’s value to its director, and mise-en-scène, an elusive term that describes how a director formally makes a personal imprint onto a film.  Thomas Elsaesser connects these two terms: “Given the fact that in Hollywood the director often had no more than token control over choice of subject, the cast, [and] the quality of the dialogue, all the weight of creativity, all the evidence of personal expression and statement had to be found in the mise-en-scène, the visual orchestration of the story, the rhythm of the action, the plasticity and dynamism of the image …”1  Through mise-en-scène, an auteur could elevate B-grade content into a personal film.  Today, it’s easy to forget that conceiving of a film’s value in terms of its director is not a natural, but a historical, phenomenon.  Recall Robin Wood’s anecdote about sneaking off to see movies after F.R. Leavis’s lectures in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  His favorites included Red River, Monkey Business, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but it took nearly ten years before Wood realized Howard Hawks directed all of these films.2 The Cahiers critics did not invent the idea of personal authorship, but they popularized it, and auteurism soon spread to Anglo-American criticism via Movie in England and Andrew Sarris in America.  One can easily see how auteurism helped usher film study into academic institutions: the filmmaker-as-auteur aligned film study with disciplines already dedicated to the study of individual artists, such as novelists, poets, and painters.

Before the 1960s, film had been studied largely for its sociological or economic importance; now, one could study it as an art, made by an individual artist (the auteur) and possessing its own medium-specific formal property: mise-en-scène.  By the 1950s, it was no longer controversial to call movies art—but only certain movies.  It was clear to many that directors like Sergei Eisenstein or F.W. Murnau did not make run-of-the-mill fare—but Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks?  As an object of study, the classical Hollywood cinema did not yet possess legitimacy.  As David Bordwell writes, Cahiers du Cinéma changed this scenario:  “[Cahiers] promoted the idea that cinema could sustain writing of intellectual depth.  Not least, it encouraged the idea that films, like novels and plays, harbor layers of meaning, and the sensitive and trained critic should be prepared to reveal them.  If this enterprise was encouraged by the artistic ambitions of a film by Bergman or Resnais, it was most revelatory when exercised on the masters of the American cinema.  Cahiers’s willingness to turn its exegetical lens to the most overlooked products of the Hollywood industry marked a significant point in cultural criticism generally.”3  Because Cahiers critics evaluated films largely in terms of formal qualities, the distinction between high and low subject matter did not inhibit them; if personal style matters most, one can mention Sergei Eisenstein, William Shakespeare, and George Cukor in the same sentence without shame.

For many Cahiers critics, this emphasis on filmmaking style—form above content—carries over into their writing style as well.  Just as an auteur can elevate a poor script into a personal statement, a critic can transform a mediocre film through the way he writes about it.  Imagine opening a film journal, such as this one, and reading something like the following passage in a film review:

When they ask Marilyn [Monroe], “What do you put on when you go to bed, Miss Monroe?” and she answers, “Just my   alarm for nine o’clock,” I agree.  To heck with these pajamas worn by girls whose purity I don’t believe in, which just annoy me.  But I get very angry about the publicity on the absence of underwear, not about the publicity, but the absence of underwear. … Beneath those skimpy skirts, those bosoms heaving with joy, there is said to be nothing, no underwear.  But what is this Sunday eroticism that is ignorant of the subtle play by which the trained eye learns the appropriate angles to reveal the fabric, the color of the bra, and thereby the life itself of that bosom?4

More than likely, one would doubt this journal’s seriousness, yet this passage comes from Francois Truffaut’s review of Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) in Cahiers du Cinéma; it leaves us wondering how that way of writing about movies could ever prove so influential.  This review confirms many a skeptic’s primary complaint about evaluation: it involves nothing more than subjective opinion or personal preference—like one’s taste for vanilla over chocolate or savory over sweet.  This is, I grant, a single review, found among scores of levelheaded, more “serious” pieces of criticism.  One would never, for example, find André Bazin, one of Cahiers’s editors and its principal influence, writing in this way.  But reviews like this onemade Cahiers famous, and Truffaut’s style here gives us a glimpse of Cahiers criticism’s key aspects.  Without a doubt, one finds a variety of writing styles within Cahiers, and lumping these critics together erases these distinctions.  But when Cahiers inaugurated a new, more objective, “scientific” method of criticism in the late 1960s, they specifically wanted to leave behind the kind of writing done here by Truffaut.  And who could blame them?  The post-’68 emphasis on ideology provides a useful corrective to writing that we can praise for its youthful spirit, but must often deride for its adolescent mentality.  In their 1968 essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni write, “There can be no room in our critical practice either for speculation (commentary, interpretation, de-coding even) or for specious raving (of the film-columnist variety). … The tradition of frivolous and evanescent writing on the cinema is as tenacious as it is prolific.”5  By 1968, Cahiers moved in a more political direction, leaving behind the kind of “specious raving” where a critic rhapsodizes about an actress’s undergarments.  Cahiers’s editors exchanged aesthetic evaluation for political evaluation; whereas the earlier generation of critics evaluated a film’s formal qualities (mise-en-scène, editing, performance, etc.), the newer critics took the relationship between a film and the dominant ideology as their concern (does the filmmaker show up the cinema’s depiction of reality or does the filmmaker allow the dominant ideology to flow freely?).6  And nowhere does the dominant ideology flow more freely than in Truffaut’s review.

Despite its failure as good criticism, Truffaut’s review of Niagara provides an excellent opportunity to explore both the benefits and limits of the Cahiers approach.  While the review does contain an evaluation, it does more than merely evaluate; and that “something else” gives Cahiers du Cinéma its influence and evaluative criticism its bad reputation.  I want to examine three particular qualities present in this review: its polemical edge, its surrealistic flair, and finally, its evaluation.


Truffaut opens with some lines written by the French poet Paul Verlaine:

High heels were fighting with high skirts

So that depending on the site and the wind

Sometimes ankles shone, too often

Intercepted—and we liked this fool’s game.7

This quote functions as an establishing shot for the review, and it lends prestige to the writing that follows it.  Truffaut and other critics commonly make references to established great artists and works.  Sometimes, these references do indeed relate to the film under discussion (as this one does to Truffaut’s discussion of Monroe’s undergarments), but frequently, these references function only to add clout to a less-than-reputable film.  For example, Rivette makes references to Raymond Roussel and Charles Péguy when explicating Hawks’s comedies.8  Although these references often involved literature and poetry, they came from the film canon as well—Griffith, Eisenstein, Murnau, etc.  As Godard famously wrote in his review of Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir).  Henceforth there is cinema.  And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”9  Cahiers critics authoritatively used what Randall Jarrell called “Clinching References.”10  Although Jarrell writes about literary criticism, his idea equally applies to film criticism: “The plagues of Egypt couldn’t equal all the references to Freud and Jung and Marx and myths and existentialism and neo-Calvinism and Aristotle and St. Thomas that you’ll sometimes see in one commonplace article. (‘If he knows all these things how can he be wrong about a little thing like a poem?’ the reader may well feel.)”11 Likewise, if a critic demonstrates knowledge of Western art’s classic works, should we not trust his judgment on a Hollywood genre picture?

This practice of Clinching References showcases just one of Cahiers’s polemical tactics, for they often combined connoisseurship with direct effrontery.  If you do not like either Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray, Truffaut advises, “Stop going to the cinema, don’t watch any more films, for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a view-finder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema.”12  If you can watch Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1953) and not immediately recognize it as a brilliant film, Jacques Rivette has no patience for you: “Some people refuse to admit [Hawks’s genius], however; they refuse to be satisfied by [self-evident] proof.  There can’t be any other reason why they don’t recognize it.”13  Or take a look at Godard’s top ten lists, where names like Joshua Logan and Richard Quine intermingle with Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and Robert Bresson.14  Cahiers overturned established values, erased distinctions between high and low art—often making reference to the former to elevate the latter—and spoke about masters of cinema and literature in the same breath as Hollywood studio directors.

What, though, is the value of polemic?  Here, Truffaut’s review itself takes a polemical form; it skirts readers’ expectations of a traditional review and reduces the evaluation to a curt footnote at the end.  Instead, something else takes priority over an explicit evaluation: Truffaut’s experience.  Truffaut acknowledges that the reader expects one thing (a film review), but he then delivers a piece of writing that contains no insight into the film and too much insight into his personal fetishes.  I must mention again, however, that Truffaut’s review offers an extreme example; for the most part, Cahiers critics used polemic not only to make their work stand out, but also to loosen the shackles of staid criticism, to express passionately their cinephilia, and to champion unappreciated films about which they cared deeply.  They wrote about the cinema as if something were truly at stake, and today’s evaluative critics could surely use Cahiers’s exuberance to enliven their own contemporary brand of lifelessness, a mixture of cynicism and snark.

We can acknowledge these qualities without giving Truffaut a pass; we cannot simply say, “What spirit!” when that spirit is put to questionable use.  Thus, I treat Truffaut’s review as a telling historical document to make a larger argument about evaluative criticism—and not as a good piece of criticism.  Good criticism directs readers back to the work itself, leaving them with a greater understanding or appreciation, and critics can certainly employ polemic for such a purpose; as Morris Dickstein writes, “Make-or-break evaluation gives evidence that the stakes are high, that the critic is engaged, the subject really matters.  A critic needs an analytic mind but also something of a polemical style.”15  For Dickstein, constructive polemic must provide the reader with a “shock of recognition” or “open up a new path of understanding,” and not “merely serve as a vehicle for our political and moral prejudices.”16  Furthermore, while good criticism can be polemical, impressionistic, etc., it must value aesthetic success over one’s personal experience.  Randall Jarrell admonishes the critic to remember a humble truth: “Remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery …. At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.”17


In his insightful essay on Godard’s “madly enthusiastic review” of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958), James Naremore traces the multiple discourses present in Godard’s review and, often, in Cahiers criticism more generally: modernist, romantic, auteurist, and surrealist.18  Like Godard’s review, Truffaut’s piece on Niagara contains traces of surrealism as well; but unlike Truffaut’s review, Godard positively evaluates Sirk’s film, which leads him to adopt a particular writing method: “a calculated mime of the ‘delirium’ he finds in Sirk’s film.”19  Truffaut takes a different approach here: because he finds the film, as a whole, lacking, he hones in on a fragment instead.  Though Godard draws on surrealism, the review itself remains close to Sirk’s film and its formal details, and he makes references both to other Sirk films and cinema history—all without neglecting his own personal experience and excitement about the film.  Truffaut draws on surrealism in a different way, neglecting the film and focusing almost solely on his subjective impressions.

One particular characteristic ties Truffaut’s writing closely to surrealism: the emphasis on fetish and the film fragment, which is evident from the opening lines of the review:

The essential thing is not Niagara, nor [Henry] Hathaway, nor yet the scenario, nor even the admirable Technicolor, as one might suspect.  Let’s not play for nothing this most useful of games.  Once we have blamed the producer for his role in the scenario, admitted that the mise-en-scène is short on ideas, but “knock-knock”—that is, each blow meets its mark, but the blows are predictable; invention plays no part in it—let’s approach “her,” from the front or from the back, or even better in profile.20

Truffaut subverts what one would normally expect from an evaluation in the very first line: he does not care to address the film, the director, the script, or the color—precisely the subjects an evaluation generally covers.  Curiously, Truffaut does not begin straightaway with Monroe, but does include a quick evaluation: the producer’s ineffective intervention and the efficient, uninventive mise-en-scène.  As Truffaut will later say in a footnote, readers of this review may readily conclude he knows nothing about film criticism.  So from the beginning, he lets the reader know that he could do a traditional review and that he possesses the requisite knowledge to discuss a concept like mise-en-scène, but he has chosen not to do so.  Later, Truffaut will again make the reader conscious of his cinematic knowledge when he includes the evaluative footnote.  He gives the kind of glib, cursory evaluation common to film reviews so that he can move on to what he really wants to talk about: Marilyn Monroe.

In his introduction to a volume of surrealist film criticism, Paul Hammond writes about surrealist criticism’s general traits: “Instead of criticizing a film from a soi-distant objective position, the Surrealist viewer deconstructed it according to his or her [subjective understanding]. A way to do this was to purloin images or sequences whose poetic charge, when liberated from the narrative that held them prisoner, was intensified.”21  For Truffaut, Monroe carries that “poetic charge,” but this charge has nothing to do with her performance and its relation to the film’s aesthetic success.  Instead, Truffaut speaks of Monroe as a collection of parts: breasts, knees, red lips, undergarments, and fabric textures.  He first describes her in the following way: “A prisoner in a too-narrow skirt, one knee escapes and moves forward, provocatively; lips that one feels are reddened but a moment ago, half open as if to promise heaven, already called to witness by the shoulder-shrug of two breasts.”22  Truffaut sees Monroe as imprisoned not only by her clothing, but by the film’s plot and Hollywood’s censorship; through his review, Truffaut hopes to liberate her from these confines and use his pleasure in her image to embark on what he refers to as a dangerous “association of ideas,” which reveals nothing new about the film, but instead about Truffaut’s own “sexual voraciousness.”23  Later, Hammond continues, “The awesome satisfaction we might get from the fragment, against which the film as a whole may pale, is by definition fetishistic. … Fetishism, the o’erweening predilection for a part of the body or article of dress, to the exclusion of the whole sexual object, is the very mechanism that binds us to the film fragment.”24  Truffaut has not only fragmented Monroe, but also the film itself.  And this particular fragment he has selected to examine—Monroe’s undergarments—bears zero relation to the film’s aesthetic success.  As Hammond notes, the whole film pales in comparison to the electric fragment, a point that highlights what Parker Tyler called Hollywood’s “strange mathematics: the whole is equal to less than the sum of all its parts.”25

Within this fetishistic method, however, lies an implicit evaluation: if the film itself were good, he would talk about the film as a film; because he finds it lacking, he focuses on a fragment.  There is no necessary relation between a film’s lack of success and a surrealistic writing method; but such a method does indeed furnish material for the critic to write about when a film lacks aesthetic quality.26  In writing about his own surrealistic approach, Parker Tyler explicitly makes this point in the first chapter of The Hollywood Hallucination (1944):  “It is [Hollywood’s] monumentally practiced delusion of grandeur with which I am concerned in this book, which I certainly have not undertaken merely to analyze the failure of its industry to create the unity of a work of art.  From one viewpoint, the energy of Hollywood must be called super-artistic.  At the same time, its power to present the real—the illusion of the real—is so great that effects flow from it which engulf the beholder (and I confess I am one such) in a maze of symbolic emotions. … Like a watchful comet, art in Hollywood awaits its chance to shine, shedding perennially a dialectical kind of light, illuminating as much by its bad taste and illogicality—indeed, illuminating more by these than by its isolated triumphs.”27  We can translate Tyler’s words into an argument: Hollywood produces very few artistically great films.  So if you want to write extensively about Hollywood, you must move beyond the evaluation of its aesthetic qualities and focus on its super-artistic qualities: namely, its ability to create overwhelming experiences for spectators.  Its artistic triumphs—ones that possess “the unity of a work of art”—are isolated incidences, so the evaluative critic has little to write positively about. But Hollywood possesses an endless ability to provoke emotional experiences—through moments and fragments—and what the critic can write about is limited only by his or her creativity: hence, a film review that ruminates on Marilyn Monroe’s underwear.

It is not difficult to see why, when criticism’s politicized era began in the late 1960s and film study entered universities, academic critics discarded aesthetic evaluation (historically, their occupation) right alongside “specious raving,” both deemed illegitimate for serious film writing.  Surely, one can no longer write in this way if one desires a politically engaged, academically rigorous criticism.  Evaluation consistently intermingled with polemic and rampant impressionism, so when Film Studies became a discipline, academic critics abandoned it—and the serious work it involved—to journalistic film reviewers.


We now turn to the evaluative footnote at the end of Truffaut’s review and examine the problems it presents:

Some colleagues—completely competent ones—assure me that I know nothing about film criticism and that I am cheating the reader out of the “review” that he has a right to expect.  Therefore I will call attention to a completely new use of Technicolor, the weakness of the scenario, the technical competence of Hathaway, the use of numerous transparencies, but not too many, and the acting, most notably of Jeanne Peters, the shorts she wears under her skirt at the end of the film—let’s stop here.28

This peculiar footnote leads to the complaint that evaluative criticism offers nothing more than subjective opinion.  Yet we must distinguish, as Noel Carroll does, between two notions of the word “subjective.”  First, there is the sense of subjective as originating in the subject.  For example, Carroll writes, “We locate pain in the person who has been stabbed and not in the knife.”29  Carroll contrasts this definition of “subjective” with the “modern understanding of subjective as meaning individual or idiosyncratic.  This is the view that everyone likes what they like—from pretzels to Picassos—and there’s an end to it.”30  When people criticize evaluation as personal opinion and preference, they refer to this latter, modern sense of subjectivity.

We cannot prove aesthetic evaluations in the way that we can prove that 2 +2 =4, and we cannot classify them as objective (which would be undesirable, anyway, as I will discuss).31  But when we make evaluative judgments, we do aim for some level of objectivity, at least in terms of communicability: we put forth an evaluation that others can test against a film’s details.  I can make a claim about a film that originates in my subjective experience, but through criticism, I make that claim public for discussion or debate in order to achieve a more accurate evaluation.  So when Truffaut says Niagara has value because of its “completely new use of Technicolor,” one could theoretically question him about this statement and ask for clarification based on the film’s details.  He could, had he wished, shown us what he meant.  In this way, a judgment that originates in subjective experience becomes slightly more objective by being articulated and demonstrated through proof from the film.  We could do the same with “the weakness of the scenario” and “the technical competence of Hathaway.”  Theoretically, one could use specific details from the film to make a case for either of these claims. (That Truffaut does not do so weakens his evaluation).

We can see the difference between a more objective evaluative claim and subjective impressionism more clearly when we compare the first part of the footnote with the very last point Truffaut makes: “the acting, most notably of Jeanne Peters, the shorts she wears under her skirt at the end of the film.”32  When he calls the scenario weak, we can at least have a discussion, although we may never arrive at an objective consensus.  Recall, for example, the form F.R. Leavis says that evaluative judgments take: “‘This is so, isn’t it?’, the question is a request for corroboration; but it is prepared for an answer in the form ‘Yes, but—’, the ‘but’ standing for qualifications, reservations, additions, corrections.”33  But when Truffaut evaluates Jeanne Peters’s performance in terms of the shorts worn under her skirt, we cannot formulate his statement in these terms, for he offers nothing to debate or discuss; you cannot really argue with someone who writes in this way.

When Truffaut rhapsodizes, he does not make any truth claim that requires our assent; rather, he writes of what Immanuel Kant would call judgments of the agreeable (as opposed to judgments of the beautiful).  Kant writes, “As regards the agreeable everyone concedes that his judgment, which he bases on a private feeling, and in which he declares that an object pleases him, is restricted merely to himself personally.”34  Kant then continues, “To quarrel over such points with the idea of condemning another’s judgment [of the agreeable] as incorrect when it differs from our own … would be folly.”35  Kant contrasts judgments of the agreeable to judgments of the beautiful, which make a claim for the assent of others.  “But if it merely pleases him,” Kant writes, “he must not call it beautiful.  Many things may for him possess charm and agreeableness—no one cares about that.”36  When he writes of Monroe or Peters, Truffaut speaks of his pleasurable experience, and it would be, as Kant writes, folly to disagree or argue.  Although an evaluative judgment cannot be proven objectively right or wrong, it must make a claim for others’ assent.  As V.F. Perkins writes, sound criticism must strive for this level of objectivity:  “Criticism is a public activity, concerned only with what can be communicated.  I may feel a picture to be coherent but unless I can explain the nature of its coherence my feeling carries no greater critical weight than my response to the colour of the hero’s tie.  Though we may enjoy swapping preferences and prejudices among friends, a critical judgment is of value only when it can itself be criticized and tested against others’ experiences and perceptions.”37

Although most of Truffaut’s review does not furnish evaluative claims with which a reader can either agree or disagree, Truffaut does manage to make us care about his experience through stylish writing; perhaps, then, this particular review works more as creative, not evaluative, criticism.  The review combines two modes—one associative and impressionistic, the other slightly more objective—and makes the review an unsettling mixture for anyone who desires a more disinterested evaluation.

I can see two ways to deal with this problem.  First, we could take a hardline stance and say that Truffaut and other Cahiers critics did not actually write criticism if we adopt the historical definition of criticism as reasoned evaluation.38  We tend to use “criticism” as a catch-all term; but even if we compare auteurist critics alone—Cahiers in France, Movie in England, Andrew Sarris in America—their writing methods are radically distinct.  In fact, only Movie, with its close readings, fits snugly with the historical definition of criticism.  But it seems both undesirable and heretical to draw such lines and say that Cahiers was a magazine of film reviews, interviews, and journalism—but not proper film criticism.

Second, and more productively, we can use this problem to think about the values we care most about in criticism.  For we can see a paradox operating: on the one hand, many dismiss criticism as merely subjective; it belongs in journalism, blogs, or opinion-pieces, but not in academia.  But if we go to the opposite extreme—scientific objectivity—what results?  Imagine a world where one could prove that a film is good in the way one can prove 2 + 2 = 4.  To do so, we would have to appeal to fixed standards of cinematic quality. We could then create a syllogism and measure each film according to those standards in order to prove its success.39 Suppose, for example, that all good works have three fixed properties: A, B, and Z.  The syllogism would run like the following one:

All good films have properties A, B, and Z.

A certain film has/does not have properties A, B, and Z.

Therefore, that film is good/bad.

But this presents two major problems: one for artists, the other for critics.  For artists, such a syllogism would discount originality, for one would only have to create a film that contained those elements for it to achieve success.  For critics, the syllogism would allow one to judge a work without having to experience it first-hand.  One could simply ask a friend, “Does the film contains A, B, and Z?”  If so, one could judge it without ever watching it.40  In fact, we would no longer need criticism—just a tally sheet of plusses and minuses.41  But art does not work this way, and we need to look no further than classical Hollywood cinema—perhaps art’s best attempt at standardizing quality—for proof of this impossibility.  For no amount of standardization—in terms of style, genres, etc.—prevents immense variance.  Two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen can always combine to create water; a director, a star, and a studio cannot always combine to make a great film.  And for this reason, we need criticism: because quality varies.  We cannot appeal to objective standards to make value judgments, and we cannot make second-hand judgments in advance (or in lieu) of actually experiencing the work.  Instead, those judgments necessarily begin with our subjective experience of the work of art.  Thus, we make just as big a mistake when we demand that criticism obtain a complete objectivity before we allow it academic legitimacy as we do when we call it “merely” subjective.

What really matters is what we do with those subjective experiences.  On the one hand, do we leave them unarticulated, or do we only expound on the agreeable aspects of what we view (Monroe’s undergarments, “the colour of the hero’s tie,” etc.)?  Or on the other hand, do we want to make evaluative claims, based on a film’s details, and put our judgments in circulation to be confirmed, amended, or rejected by others?  An evaluative judgment, as both Leavis and Perkins remark, invites such collaboration.  As we see with a single review by Truffaut, Cahiers criticism frequently does both, combining the agreeable (personal, idiosyncratic) and the evaluative in an unsettling, yet often exhilarating, form of writing.  This combination accounts for its influence.

Helen Vendler insightfully distinguishes between two types of critics: the scientist and the rhapsode.42  The “scientists of literature,” as she calls them, make observations and “can have a common language of debate; more rhapsodic critics, who use the text chiefly as a base from which to depart, cannot, and do not want to, have such a common language.  Both kinds of critics are non-trivial: the first kind are the scientists of literature, the second the rhapsodes of literature; the first invite discursive reply, the second repel it by their style, but invite it by their energy.”43  At their best, Cahiers critics achieved a balance of science and rhapsody—exploring in detail the nuances of a director’s mise-en-scène while bursting with cinephilic excitement.  If we take away the former, we forsake reasoned evaluation and approach the extremity of Truffaut’s review or Michel Mourlet’s famous line, “Charlton Heston is an axiom.”44  But take away all rhapsody, and only a run-of-the-mill film review remains.  Achieving a balance between the subjective and the objective, the personal and the impartial, the rhapsode and the scientist, presents a constant challenge to the evaluative critic.  As Randall Jarrell writes, the critic has a difficult task: On the one hand, “[The critic] can never forget that all he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses—and yet he must regard that self as no more than the instrument through which the work of art is seen.”45  Yet while the critic must “get rid of all that he can see as merely self—prejudices and disabilities and predilections,” he must do so “without ever losing the personal truth of judgment that his criticism springs from.”46  While each critic must face this challenge of articulating a deeply subjective experience into a communicable form, this problem is not a debilitating one: it is precisely the work criticism does, the realm in which it exists.

Posted on May 28, 2012



1  Thomas Elsaesser, “Two Decades in Another Country: Hollywood and the Cinephiles,” in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, 233-250 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univesity Press, 2005), 244.

2  Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited: Revised Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), xi.

3  David Bordwell, Making Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 47.

4  Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 6.

5  Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 686-693 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 692.

6 Ibid., 689, 691.

7 Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut, 5.

8 Jacques Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks,” in Cahiers du Cinéma, the 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier, 126-131 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 129.

9  Jean-Luc Godard, “Bitter Victory,” in Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne, 64-66 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), 64.

10 Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age, 70-95 (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972), 86-87.

11 Ibid., 86-87.

12 Francois Truffaut, “A Wonderful Certainty,” in Cahiers du Cinema, the 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier, 107-110 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 108.

13  Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks,” 126.

14  Jean-Luc Godard, “The Ten Best Films of 1956,” in Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne, 66 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), 66.

15  Morris Dickstein, “The Work of a Critic,” The Chronicle Review, March 2, 2012: B14.

16  Dickstein, “The Work of a Critic,” B14.

17  Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism,” 94.

18   James Naremore, “Authorship and the Cultural Politics of Film Criticism,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1990): 17.

19 Ibid., 16.

20  Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut, 5-6.

21  Paul Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadow, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000), 7.

22 Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut, 6.

23 Ibid., 6-7.

24 Hammond, The Shadow and Its Shadow, 29.

25 Parker Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), 15.

26 Greg Taylor, Artists in the Audience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 155.

27  Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination, 20-21.

28  Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut, 7.

29  Noel Carroll, On Criticism (New York: Routledge, 2009), 33.

30  Carroll, On Criticism, 34.

31  Clement Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 1999), 10.

32  Dixon, The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut, 7.

33  F.R. Leavis, “‘English,’ Unrest and Continuity,” in Nor Shall My Sword, 101-134 (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1972), 110.

34  Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 43.

35 Ibid., 43-44.

36 Ibid., 44.

37 V.F. Perkins, Film as Film (London: Da Capo Press, 1993), 189-190.

38 Carroll, On Criticism, 7-8.

39  Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics, 12.

40 Ibid., 14.

41 Ibid., 15.

42  Helen Vendler, “The Function of Criticism,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 36, no. 2 (1982): 22.

43 Ibid., 22.

44 Richard Roud, “The French Line,” Sight and Sound 29, no. 4 (1960): 171.

45  Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism,” 90.

46 Ibid., 90.

Chad Newsom received his PhD in English/Film Studies from the University of Florida (2012) and his MA in Cinema Studies from the Savannah College of Art and Design (2008).  His interests include film criticism, close reading, and aesthetics.