Notes on a Revolution
Jacques Rivette
translated by Liz Heron

There are two American cinemas: Hollywood, and Hollywood. But there are no doubt two Hollywoods, the Hollywood of sums and the Hollywood of individuals. Among the second (we can leave the first to the economists) we can at once dismiss the cynics, those who are old in spirit, disillusioned, and without principles. They may as well be nameless -- they are the names that appear on each week's billboards, so assiduously publicized by those big companies to whom they have sold their souls. Their cinema is no more American than the one known to you is French.

It was still the rule until recently to talk about American cinema in terms of genres; but where does this approach lead, when we see the majority of young film-makers passing with equal facility from one genre to another, without paying much attention to their particular rules and conventions, and dealing with strangely analogous themes of their own choosing? It is still better simply to trust the credits to know where you are.

After Griffith's existential assault, the first age of the American cinema belonged to its actors; this was followed by the age of the producers. To claim that the age of the auteurs (1) is here at last is, I am well aware, to invite smiles of skepticism. I am not putting forward any scholarly theories just four names. They belong to film-makers -- Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich -- whom critics had either simply not heard of or, if they had, had given hardly any serious attention to. Why four? I would like to add others (for example Edgar Ulmer, Joseph Losey, Richard Fleischer, Samuel Fuller, and even others who are as yet 10 more than the promise of things to come: Josh Logan, Gerd Oswald, Dan Taradash), but at the moment these four are the indisputable front-rankers.

It is always ridiculous to assemble arbitrarily under the same label creators with different concerns. But at least there is one undeniable feature they have in common: youth (for directors, that is around forty), because they possess its virtues.

Violence is their first virtue; not that facile brutality that made Dmytryk or Benedek successful, but a virile anger that comes from the heart, and is to be found less in the script and the plotting than in the cadences of the narrative and in the very technique of the mise en scene. Violence is never an end, but the most effective of the means of access, and those punches, weapons, dynamite explosions have no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach -- in brief, to open up the shortest roads. And the frequent recourse to a discontinuous, abrupt technique which refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity is a form of the 'superior clumsiness' which Cocteau talks about, born of the need for an immediacy of expression that can yield up, and allow the viewer to share in, the original emotions of the auteur.

Violence is still a weapon, and a double-edged one -- making physical contact with an audience insensitive to anything new, imposing oneself as an individual, insubordinate if not rebellious. Above all else, for all of them it's a question of more or less unequivocally refusing the dictatorship of the producers and trying to create a work that is personal. They are all liberal film-makers, some openly left-wing. The repudiation of the traditional rhetoric of the script and mise en scene, that flabby and anonymous formula imposed by the company executives since the first talkies as a symbol of submission, has first and foremost the value of a manifesto.

In short, violence is the external sign of rupture. Here the truth is inescapable: they are all the sons of Orson Welles, who was the first to dare to reassert clearly an egocentric concept of the director. (2) We are hardly beginning to assess the extent of the repercussions of that Wellesian coup d'etat, which cracked to its very foundations the whole edifice of Hollywood production and which by its example had already engendered a first generation of revolutionaries -- Mankiewicz. Dassin, Preminger.

Violence cannot continue to exist alone without self-annihilation; the other pole of creativity for these directors is reflection. Violence has no other purpose, once the ruins of conventions are reduced to dust, than to establish a state of grace, a void, in the midst of which the heroes, completely unfettered by any arbitrary constraints, are free to pursue a process of self-interrogation, and to delve deep into their destiny. That is what generates those long pauses, those turns that are at the centre of Ray's films, as they are in the films of Mann, Aldrich and Brooks. Violence is thus justified by meditation, each so subtly linked to the other that it would be impossible to separate them without annihilating the very soul of the film. This dialectic of themes reappears in terms of the mise en scene as the dialectic of efficacity and contemplation.

Like every revolution this one brings together men who are more linked by what they are fighting against than by their profound ambitions. It is justification enough for their struggle that all four are motivated by the same desire to produce work that is modern. Even though it is with different emphases, all four at the same time draw the most striking picture of the contemporary world; they touch us by their immediacy, the physical feeling of the accuracy of what they have drawn.

Of them all, Nicholas Ray is without doubt the greatest and the most secret; without doubt the most spontaneously poetic. All his films are traversed by the same obsession with twilight, with the solitude of living creatures, the difficulty of human relationships (and that is not the only thing he has in common with Rossellini). Unadapted to a hostile world disturbed by the resurgence of primordial violence, his characters are all more or less marked with the stamp of a new mal de siecle which it would be difficult for us to disown.

Richard Brooks, on the contrary, recalls his reporter's background. He lives at the level of the everyday civilized world. All his heroes wage the, same battle to save other men from cowardice and fear, to make of them -- in spite of themselves if necessary -- real men. In the same way Anthony Mann, within the traditional context of the Western, revives the eulogy of will and endeavour that made early American cinema so great. Both are worthy descendants of Hawks, without his serenity. Modern bitterness and disenchantment crack the classical cement.

Robert Aldrich achieves harmony through a precise dissonance, the lucid and lyrical description of a world in decay, aseptic, steely, closed in; the chronicle of the final convulsions of what remains human in man in the midst of a purely artificial universe from which nature -- once celebrated in Apache -- has been almost systematically eliminated (only the purifying presence of water remains), and of which the artificial worlds of the theatre or the degenerate thriller offer the most suffocating image -- an account of moral suffocation, whose only way out must be some fabulous destruction. In opposition to the traditional morality of action, exemplified in Ray, Brooks and Mann, Aldrich offers a negative morality, not contradicting it but proving it by the absurd. The real subject of The Big Knife, as of Kiss Me Deadly, is precisely the destruction of morality, and its consequences.

And so, what is the meaning of this revolution? To pass beyond the long period of submission to the manufactured product and openly renew links with the tradition of 1915, Griffith and Triangle, (3) whose vitality moreover still secretly nourished the work of the old Hollywood directors -- Walsh, Vidor, Dwan, and of course Hawks; a return to lyricism, powerful feelings, melodrama (the audiences in the smart halls sneer at Ray's films as they did at Allan Dwan's); the rediscovery of a certain breadth of gesture, an externalizing of the roughest and most spontaneous emotions; in short, the rediscovery of naivete.

Such, without doubt, is the future of the cinema, in the sense that naivete, synonymous with perspicacity, is set in opposition to the wiles and tricks of the professional scriptwriters. Ray, Brooks, Mann and Aldrich are, in different ways, all naifs: Ray in the childlike clarity of his look, the provocative humility of his narratives; Brooks and Mann in the anachronistic honesty of their mise en scene; Aldrich, finally, in the candour of the acting and the unsophisticated use of effects.

For years the cinema has been dying from intelligence and subtlety. Now Rossellini is breaking down the door; but you can also breathe in that gust of fresh air reaching us from across the ocean.

  1. Rivette's "The age of metteurs en scene" [Available on Order of the Exile here]

  2. The quotation by Orson Welles with which Francois Truffaut prefaces his book, Films in My Life: 'I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it.'

  3. Triangle was the film corporation formed in 1915 to produce the work of the three major film-makers of the time, D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett; the corporation was dissolved in 1918 after Griffith and Sennett left and Triangle was suffering from the losses incurred by Intolerance.

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 54 (Christmas 1955); p. 17-21. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Liz Heron.