"For those passionate about French arts and culture, Melinda Camber Porter's Through Parisian Eyes is like a daylong trip to the candy store." —San Francisco Chronicle "Issues raised in Through Parisian Eyes are intriguing." —Joyce Carol Oates “Noted with pleasure” -New York Times This New Library Edition, 60 images, 300p , 14p index, 8.5x11. Essays from her interviews with prominent Parisian figures in film, theater, arts and cultural including: HISTORY AND RESPONSIBILITY François Truffaut Marcel Ophüls Costa-Gavras THE THEATRICAL ESTABLISHMENT IN RENEWAL Jean Anouilh Jean-Louis Barrault Eugène Ionesco FOREIGN CONNECTIONS Breyten Breytenbach Michael Lonsdale Peter Brook COMMUNICATION AT THE BREAKING POINT Alain Resnais Alain Robbe-Grillet Louis Malle Eric Rohmer Marcel Carné Jean Eustache Bertrand Tavernier DECISIVE WOMEN Margaret Dura Delphine Seyrig Roger Vadim Monique Wittig Françoise Giroud THE INVASION OF THE MODERNIST PHILOSOPHERS Poets of the Hexagon Edmond Jabès Phillipe Adrien Jean-Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Aron FREEDOM FIGHTERS Olivier Todd Yves Montand Bernard-Henri Lévy THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE WRITER Françoise Sagan Jean-Francois Revel André Malraux Régis Debray Melinda Camber Porter’s USA Art of Love Touring Exhibition of her paintings and writings sponsored by French Cultural Services in America summarized historical materials from each venue: New York French Cultural Center French Boston Library Chicago Alliance Francaise Houston Alliance Francaise San Francisco Alliance Francaise Washington DC French Embassy Miami Alliance Francaise New Orleans Alliance Francaise Hartford Alliance Francaise and The West Hartford Art League Sioux Falls, South Dakota Civic Art Center Golden, Colorado Foothills Art Center Casper, Wyoming Nicolaysen Art Museum French lecture by Melinda Camber Porter at La Maison Francaise, New York University “Through Parisian Eyes is a brilliantly compiled collection.” — Boston Sunday Globe
Read an Excerpt
Through Parisian Eyes
Reflections on Contemporary French Arts and Culture
By Melinda Camber Porter, Joseph R. Flicek
Blake PressCopyright © 2017 Melinda Camber Porter Archive
All rights reserved.
Through Parisian Eyes
History and Responsibility
History and Responsibility
For François Truffaut, 1975 was a year of fruition. Since 1966, when he shot Fahrenheit 451 (1966), he succeeded in making one film a year. In 1974, he lay fallow; but, in 1975, he would complete two films. When I met him in his offices on the Champs Élysées, he told me that the first project, The Story of Adèle H. (1975), was already underway.
Truffaut described it as "an unquestionably sad love story ... about Victor Hugo's second daughter, a young girl who is in love with an English lieutenant who does not love her, or even wish to see her. She follows him everywhere. In general there are two people on the screen in a love story, but here I show only the young girl. It's like a piece of music with one instrument." The second film, Small Change (1976), is about childhood and is a mixture of true stories, culled from newspapers or provided by friends, and "fictions" that caught Truffaut's attention.
Truffaut says that he has learned from experience that the public tends not to like those films of his in which the male character is the center of attention, especially when they are his own age. He too prefers working with women and children. An apparent paradox, when Truffaut admits that in all his films he is talking about himself.
"I identify with female characters more easily than with male characters, which does not mean to say that my films are feminist." The identification with children is even more direct. "I am like a child," he says shyly, "and I often behave like a child with people I don't know. I am very slow at comprehending what is happening around me and often incapable of dispelling misunderstandings."
Part of the fascination the cinema exerts over him stems from a wish to recapture happy experiences from his own childhood. On the whole it was an unhappy time, but watching films provided a refuge for him. He says that the shooting of films re-creates the atmosphere of summer holiday camps, one of his few joyful childhood experiences. Whether he refers to these past experiences directly, as in The 400 Blows (1959), or to their transposition into the present, as in Day for Night (1973), Truffaut almost always manages to incorporate in his films the joy and playfulness he feels on the set.
"One makes films because one desires to fit things together, to make people meet each other, and to create situations. It's like a child with a Meccano set, or a child telling himself a story that might perhaps interest others later on. But it's a game. If people believe that they have got a lot of important things to tell the public, they shouldn't make films. They should say them directly."
I asked Truffaut whether he felt that the indirect communication which he prescribes is akin to lying. "Direct truth is not interesting. If one is alone and is talking to many people, as in a film, lying is necessary. In a conversation between two people you can tell the truth. You can also manipulate the person you are talking to; but conversation should be democratic. In a speech or a film you cannot be democratic because you are outnumbered. Manipulation is necessary. In any case, the cinema is a game for the person making it and the people watching it. Implicit in the rules of this game are the notions of lying and manipulation."
But Truffaut reserves these methods for his films. In conversation he is direct and democratic and his childlike spontaneity prevailed. Only at one point did a certain unnaturalness appear, when he said: "I prefer working with English actresses because they are more professional than the French and more feminine than American actresses. They also ask brutal and frank questions, which isn't done in France, and this amuses everyone on the set and makes them drop their masks. I think it might be because the English have a better education."
Truffaut's second project is a further essay in autobiography. "When the people see a child on the screen they have the impression that they are watching the child do something for the first time. There is the impression of spontaneity. There is always a second scenario that is superimposed on the written one. And it is created by the child: the process of discovering life and childhood in general. Because of this one needs few events in a film dealing with children; a script that would be boring with adults is exciting with children.
"When you film an adult you film that particular person. With a child you film that particular child and childhood in general. Children have a wonderful sense of reality and can collaborate enormously, not on the level of ideas, but in the execution and the details. With children one must accept the fact that the script is provisional."
And it was L'Enfant Sauvage that gave him two important insights into his work: that he always makes a film for very personal reasons, and that the constant theme in his work, if he were to hazard a guess, would be the search for identity. "Even in Adèle H., the main character is someone searching for what she is or what she wants to be. Adèle wants another name; she always introduces herself under another name, although she is proud of being Victor Hugo's daughter."
Truffaut's interest in himself matches his sensitivity to his audience. He feels a great sense of responsibility towards the public, especially when dealing with topics such as childhood. He says that his main concern is to respect the needs of the public — their desire for enjoyment — without presenting them with a falsified, misleading picture of life as it is.
"In a film the director gives the audience a promise of pleasure. One keeps one's promise by providing an exultant ending. The laws of the film are closer to those of a concerto rather than a novel. In a concerto there is a final movement that reunites the previous movements. In the last ten minutes of each of my films there is a rising, mounting curve upwards. And yet this promise of pleasure poses moral problems. For the rhythm, the curve of life is the opposite of this. It progresses towards decadence, decrepitude, illness, and extinction. The curve of life is descending and that of the film rising.
"I try to respect both curves in the dramatic progression. One achieves this by the manipulation of elements. For instance the last word in a speech and the last reel in a film are the ones that the audience goes away with, remembers, and is most affected by. If you conclude a depressing speech with the word 'happy,' people will remember that and leave content."
François Truffaut died on the 21st of October 1984 at the age of 55. Those who knew Truffaut mourned the loss of a man whose warmth and imaginative truthfulness extended beyond his films into his life.
"François Truffaut was the man behind the scenes who got The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) out of its unseen role as a martyr of French censorship," said Marcel Ophüls, the director of the The Sorrow and the Pity, a film about the French collaboration with the Nazis. Ophüls has continued to make extraordinary documentaries, like A Sense of Loss (1972), and The Memory of Justice (1976), and a feature film, Banana Peel (1963), with Jeanne Moreau. As we talked in Ophüls's home in Neuilly, it became apparent that François Truffaut had been instrumental in every stage of Ophüls's career. "As soon as he saw the film (I was working in Hamburg at the time, and had to send a letter to the producers to get permission to show it to him), the next morning he called me. And he talked to me about the film for a half an hour. Nothing I've read (and God knows, there's been a lot of prose about it) has ever been as coherent and intelligent and detailed. He had total recall. Practically a photographic memory. He always spoke in concrete terms, never in abstractions.
"And I had the feeling of being totally understood. Having a man at the other end of the phone understanding exactly what I was trying to do. And the message getting across, which rarely happens in show business, since success is usually based on a misunderstanding. In the case of The Sorrow and the Pity, that's certainly true. People think that it's a subtle film which refuses to judge people and therefore that it's very tolerant and very trendy because it refuses to judge. It's not that. It's a Western. It's the baddies versus the goodies."
I told Ophüls about the interviews I did with Truffaut in 1975. I was impressed by his gentle and kind manner. I had been taping the conversation for about an hour when Truffaut asked to hear a moment of the tape. When we played it back, all we found ourselves listening to were indistinct, slurred sounds. Truffaut took me out to the Champs Elysees and pointed to the shop where I could get the machine repaired. He immediately made an appointment for the next day, and tried to console me by saying that our next interview would be even better than the previous one. We had gained some practice. I was touched by his reaction.
Ophüls concurred enthusiastically when I suggested that Truffaut was a generous man.
"Do you want a list of how many times he helped me? Well, he helped the Ophülses and not just me. He is the man I consider to be at the origin of my father Max Ophüls's rehabilitation as a major filmmaker and his posthumous fame. And most of the people who have been writing criticism and film history about my father — they've all gone back to the original statements that François made, very quickly, very spontaneously, and very generously, about his discovery of Max Ophüls's work in the last years of my father's life. Then, they developed a great friendship, and I think my father was one of the people who influenced François a great deal. For François was a self-made man. He was always looking for mentors."
Ophüls pointed out that Truffaut's generosity was not confined to himself and his father. "He helped me make my debut as a film director in France, first by setting up a whole production of sketch films, which became an international project called Love at Twenty (1962). And he did it mostly so that the young Rossellini and I would get a chance to direct sketches. Then, I met Jeanne Moreau through François, and I was able to do my first feature film in the 1960s called Banana Peel. At the time of the New Wave he was a very influential figure, and he used to carry round a black book. When producers asked him, as they always did, who the next young man should be to give a film to, he offered up his secret list of people. And many of the directors who made their name at that time owe their fame and fortune to François."
* * *
Ophüls, a German by birth, who later became a French citizen, is sensitive to the xenophobic character of some French people he has encountered. He appreciated Truffaut's open-minded, international spirit, which defied chauvinism. "He was not a protectionist. He was totally open. And in fact there must have been some hidden complexes in the back of his head about the Anglo-Saxon world for he was desperately trying to learn the English language. And for some strange reason, he never quite succeeded. He said he disliked politics and politicians and didn't want to be involved. But when the chips were down, he always took a risk for something he believed in."
Ophüls defines himself as a "humanist, anti-fascist, Social Democrat," and he feels that his centrist position is rare in Parisian intellectual circles. It is fashionable to be of the extreme Left or extreme Right, and centrists are considered to be ineffectual liberals. Truffaut was one of the few who refused to follow this fashion: "He defined himself politically as a man of the extreme center. And if you know anything about France, you'll know what a wonderful statement that is. It's a statement against all the intellectual terrorists who say that only extreme people resist. It's the Social Democrats, they'll tell you, who sell out, and only Communists and Jews go to concentration camps. It's really very silly to talk of extremism as if it were purity. When he called himself a man of the extreme center he was parodying the New Left and the Nouveaux Philosophes, and other forms of intellectual terrorism, and denouncing the idea that you can only be honest if you're an extremist."
Ophüls may not hold extremist political views, but he is a man with intensely passionate opinions. He vehemently dislikes the Parisian intellectual arena and often backs up his feelings with sound reasons. But he is careful to draw the distinction between the French and the Parisian intellectual.
"Some of the Parisian intellectuals are so self-important. And you don't run across that self-importance in other countries. I mean people like Günter Grass have a pretty firm hold on reality and evaluate their importance in Western Culture realistically. The same thing with English writers. They all know that the action is no longer in Europe anymore. That's not the way in France. They don't seem to realize that they're operating in an empty shell. That the only nice and attractive thing left in Paris is the architecture, which is left over from secret harmonies which are no longer there."
I asked Ophüls why he would live in Paris if he felt this way. "I don't have any roots. But I have ties. I am an outsider, an observer of the thing, and I know the passwords. But I don't use these intellectual passwords because I don't like them. But the French are part of my life. I also have very deep ties to the Anglo-Saxon world and to America. I have traditional ties through my mother and father to Germany. But I hold an American and a French passport. I do have a cosmopolitan approach to French life, and I'm deeply sceptical of the French variety of intellectual nonsense."
Ophüls does, however, feel that the intellectuals' current obsession with the French wartime collaboration deserves respect. The Sorrow and the Pity was the first of many films to deal with this period in French history. Later on, novelists and directors followed suit. I asked Ophüls what he thought of films like Costa Gavras's Section Spéciale (1975), Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1974), and Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein (1976), and of writers like Bernard-Henri Lévy, who deal with this subject matter.
"Well, Lacombe Lucien was rather ludicrous. And Bernard-Henri Lévy, the writer, and I had a disagreement in public over the collaboration. I told him: "I think you're making a mistake by assuming that Jews are rootless because we are condemned by anti-Semitism. And, in your theory of the French collaborationist mentality, you add that you like parking lots but don't like the countryside, and you put in the list of 'anti-Semitic' attitudes everything that is threatening to you personally in French traditions. Now as long as you do that as a young French Jew after Auschwitz, then it's fine. If you make it a personal statement. But you make it a general theory. And you end up looking silly, when you make remarks against the French countryside and collaborationists all at once.
"I basically said to him, 'So maybe you don't like trees. But what has that got to do with anti-Semitism?' But that doesn't mean that I don't agree with him on a lot of things. I do agree with him more than with Régis Debray, with his talk about America being responsible for everything that's bad in the world. As if it were the successor to the Nazi party. Really. I've had it. I found it murderous. The young Lévy is quite harmless in comparison to Debray."
Régis Debray drew an analogy between certain Parisian intellectuals' "collaborative" infatuation with the United States, and the French collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War. He has suggested that American culture is a form of imperialism that will overwhelm French culture. Bernard-Henri Lévy, however, loves America, and uses the wartime collaboration to point to a continuing streak of racism in the French character. Ophüls does not come to any of these conclusions. But he does feel that it is a healthy sign that the past is now open to discussion.
"One thing they are right about is that they have come to recognize the central importance of the collaboration. And it is a symbol of their behavior in crisis. For instance, I think they now know that Sartre had a "Lord Jim" attitude toward life. It took them a long time to realize that Sartre did not resist. And I think Bernard-Henri Lévy and Régis Debray would agree on this point. It's a particularly acute problem in France, the collaboration, because it has some special aspects which you don't find in Denmark or Holland or even Italy. Italy was a fascist country but it did not collaborate in quite the way the French did. And this goes back to the Dreyfus affair, and to L'Action Française. I mean, the French landscape was already prepared for the Munich crisis, including the Right and Left: they were pre-collaborators. They were laying down the foundations for what they did later.
Excerpted from Through Parisian Eyes by Melinda Camber Porter, Joseph R. Flicek. Copyright © 2017 Melinda Camber Porter Archive. Excerpted by permission of Blake Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsFigure Illustrations, viii,
Foreword by John Higgins, xx,
Obituary of Melinda Camber Porter from The Times, 2008, xxii,
Through Parisian Eyes,
History and Responsibility, 1,
The Theatrical Establishment in Renewal, 23,
Foreign Connections, 37,
Communication at the Breaking Point, 57,
Decisive Women, 85,
The Invasion of the Modernist Philosophers, 107,
Freedom Fighters, 129,
The Sovereignty of the Writer Sponsored by French Cultural Services in America, 155,
The Art of Love Sponsored by French Cultural Services in America, 196,
The Art of Love Film, 198,
The Art of Love Tour, 200,
French lecture by Melinda Camber Porter at La Maison Francaise, New York University (1986), 228,
The Melinda Camber Porter Archive,
More Information, 245,
Blake Press Catalog Listing, 262,