In response to: The Alexandre Astruc essay “The Birth of a New Avant-garde: La Caméra-Stylo” from the article originally printed in “L’Écran française” as “Du Stylo à la caméra et de la caméra au stylo”
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
This 1948 essay by French film critic and film director Alexandre Astruc entitled “The Birth of a New Avant-garde: La Caméra-Stylo” reminded me of the wonders in the evolution of art and technology. It is natural to see progress sprouting in various places, growing from different facets of the medium. As films of the present establish the foundation of cinema’s bright future as said in this reading, Astruc pointed out the conventional films dominating the theaters, describing the tired, rehashed stories of the so-called everyday films, alongside the revolutionary works from the likes of Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Robert Bresson and the avant-garde movement. All these developments coincided with the progress of the film language, as expressed in over the first four decades of cinema.
Initially, cinema was used as “successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era.” Fast forward to the present time, the film language continues to evolve, bringing about debates on what cinema really means. Just a couple of months ago, Steven Spielberg lobbied against the film “Roma” for being a Netflix product that should not be allowed to win the Academy Award Best Picture. Just a few weeks ago, Martin Scorsese expressed how superhero movies are not cinema but mere theme park attractions. His statement was more recently backed up by Francis Ford Coppola. Such bold statements from the living legends of American cinema truly spark a lot of discourse. I wonder how films will be 50 years from now. I wonder which films would later on establish the foundation of cinema’s bright future and which films from the past will either be ignored or revered by the critics of the future.
This reading provided a good articulation of the term language as an artist’s means of expression, no matter how abstract, and a means to translate obsessions in a process similar to an essay or novel using the audio-visual medium. This led to Astruc’s term “camera-stylo” (camera-pen) where the film will eventually set itself free from “the tyranny of the visual, the image for its own sake,” to become “as flexible and subtle as written language.”
Astruc made a bit of an attack against a good number of films from his era, even raising the field of realism and social fantasy in the film content of the time, which came from their attachment to the popular novel. I think, in terms of natural development, it is quite expected the way theater also had great influence in film content in its early years. Presently, the diversity of cinematic storytelling clearly shows how far film language has come in terms of development. I agree with Astruc’s point about the progress of the film language where even the most profound philosophical meditations and masterfully crafted meta stories are now made available in motion-picture projects around the world. Going back to his attack against the films from his era, I wonder how he would react to the present mainstream offerings, especially if he would compare it to what he had during his time. Interestingly, every generation seems to have something to say against people’s current situation in comparison with the past, which would generally be described as more culturally and/or artistically proficient.
Astruc successfully predicted how film consumption will naturally develop with the aid of technological advancements, as seen with the rise of TV and home video access to movies. From what I understood, he hinted on cinema being not limited to just narrative films – even TV commercials, video tutorials, theatrical recordings, TV shows, and online videos are considered cinema. In fact, pretty much any kind of audio-visual content should be considered cinema. This, of course, is a thought-provoking perspective, especially for someone from the 1940s. However, for someone living in the 2010s, I am also entitled to my own definition of cinema. I may not entirely agree with Scorsese’s general issue with superhero films and I may not consider tutorial videos and theatrical recordings as cinema from the onset, but I do understand where all these audio-visual offerings are coming from. As far as I am concerned, an audio-visual work is considered cinema if it tells a story, whether it uses conventions in doing so or it explores non-narrative forms of storytelling. I may not necessarily like a film’s mode of storytelling, but as long as it has a filmmaker’s vision, its intent is clear, and it values the art of moving images, then that is cinema for me.
When Astruc raised the fundamental problem of the cinema on how to express thought or idea, I think he was referring to the more abstract thought processes the way the human mind works – and I agree that the different elements of the film contribute to how an idea gets translated into a form of communication, often times through its own means of storytelling. During his time, the development of film language meant focusing more on the literal interpretations of emotions and story details. Producing works of such profundity and meaning, as well as works full of psychological and metaphysical overtones, needed further development of the film language, which required more time to mature. Now, one can use the film medium with a wider range of creative and technical opportunities. I think Astruc would be delighted if he’s still alive today. Indeed, “cinema today is capable of expressing any kind of reality” – anything under the sun and beyond. Some would say sky is the limit, others would even travel through time and explore the farthest galaxies in the multiverse through the simplest and the most complicated modes of audio-visual storytelling.
Later in the reading, Astruc brought up interesting terms like “pure cinema” and “filmed theatre.” He also raised the issue of authorship in film. It is quite clear that theater anchors more on the writer than the director, but film considers the director its author and copyright owner. He said, “the distinction between author and director loses all meaning,” then he continued with the words “Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The film-maker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.” Clearly, these statements would require a much longer discussion. He also described “avant-garde” and how it “savours of the surrealist and so-called abstract films of the 1920s.” Like him, I think that instead of creating an exclusive and elitist domain within a specific category of films, cinematic products should avoid limiting themselves through such. Instead, as film language further evolves, motion-picture works should broaden, expand, and reach more people with varying tastes and preferences. Moreover, he brought forth the terms “school” and “movement” – but instead of using these terms, he preferred the term “tendency: a new awareness, a desire to transform the cinema and hasten the advent of an exciting future.” He also suggested how cinema’s direction should always be to develop given its technologically driven nature. For me, films from many years and decades back will never be “old.” Every film is a moment in time, reflecting an instant that is clearly made in the past, but always gets played in the context of a present time. Films from various eras have an audience generation after generation. As long as they are archived well, a George Melies film will be as much a cultural artifact as a James Cameron film at any given time.
Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” L’Écran française, Paris, 1948.