‘Positif Celebrates American Cinema’


The Other French Film Magazine screens its favorite American indies in “Mavericks and Outsiders: Positif Celebrates American Cinema,” organized by Positif editor, Michel Ciment, master of the polemic for four-plus decades.

Most of Positif‘s arguments have been directed at rival Cahiers du cinéma—it’s difficult to mention one journal without the other. Cahiers‘ Young Turks united behind ringleader André Bazin’s definition of realism, which was very much tied to his Catholic faith—this incipient Right Bank conservatism in the men-who-would-be-nouvelle-vague, scourging the existentialist languor of the contemporary French cinema, is often lost in translation. Positif, founded by Bernard Chardère in Lyon, accordingly moved into a Left Bank office circa ’54, forming an eclectic canon to shelter whomever Cahiers didn’t want—or couldn’t process. Positif stepped up for the formally ambitious square pegs—like Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson’s David Holzman’s Diary, a hoax-documentary questioning the vérité of cinema vérité—or films engagée, like Paul Schrader’s union-busting Blue Collar, both playing here.

The combatants have tangled up, swapping positions and personnel throughout the years, as when Cahiers came down with ’68 Mao fever, or when its co-founder Joseph-Marie Lo Duca went turncoat. But their voices have remained the defining duet of French critical debate: “You say Buñuel/And I say Rossellini/Let’s call the whole thing off . . .” (Further reading: MOMA’s 2002 publication of Positif‘s greatest hits.)

If celebrating American cinema, Ciment’s selections don’t do much to overtly celebrate its birthplace—or to deliver the impression that the Republic is, for some residents, a moderately pleasant clime in which to live. (Next week, Film Forum opens its program of Depression-era movies—where do the good times go?)

Unmoored lives—lives polluted by their scenery—figure heavily in places uncharted by Fodor’s. Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2004) trails a schizophrenic man through the guts of the Port Authority Bus Terminal as he hunts for the daughter he lost (if he ever had her). Leonard Kastle’s Honeymoon Killers (1970) imagines the Beck-Fernandez murders, anchored by the sour creampuff-complexioned visage of Dame Shirley Stoler. And then there’s Wanda (1971), the sole directorial outing of Barbara Loden—an Ernie Kovacs cutie, Mrs. Elia Kazan, and maybe the greatest one-shot director of all (she died too young, of breast cancer, in 1980). Loden plays the title role, a daytime-buzzed, disaffected, disconnected blur of a woman (motto: “I’m no good”), who slouches off marriage and motherhood to drift through black coalfields, Spanish-language movie theaters, and the roadside religious grottoes of northeast Pennsylvania. That the mayor of Scranton later gave Loden a key to his city for filming it as Nowhere, USA, is almost as incredible as the film.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2009

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