Ranting, Terminable and Interminable. A Response to William M. Drew
by Stuart Liebman

Abel Gance's  J'Accuse  (1919)

Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919)

As he admits somewhere in his long rant against my review of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and La Roue published in the Winter 2008 issue of Cineaste, Mr. Drew is the author of the program notes accompanying the new DVD edition of the latter film. Like many an author, especially those mulishly devoted to his or her artistic idol, Mr. Drew evidently would also have liked to review his own work so that his special pleadings concerning the cherished object of his affections would have been celebrated within the rhetorical framework established by his own brilliant analysis. Unhappily, it seems, I wrote a piece incommensurate with Mr. Drew’s own out-sized esteem for Gance. While praising certain features of the venerable French filmmaker’s work, I also raised fair critical questions about several aspects of his early achievements.  Specifically, I objected to some of the stylistic decisions Gance made, and also posed the issue of his standing in the history of cinema. I thereby elicited from Mr. Drew an irate, hectoring reply far longer and less focused than any review that would ever be allowed to appear in a first-rate film magazine today. Luckily for Mr. Drew, the generous indulgence of the “reactionary” editors of Cineaste and the existence of Al Gore’s invention, the internet, will now permit his meandering, repetitive, tiresome, and too often vituperative screed to find a home somewhere in that special zone of the blogosphere—what I call the “smogosphere” (N.B.: alternative spelling, “smugosphere”)—where these sorts of lengthy, eccentric tracts go to await their unfortunate posterity.

 Mr. Drew’s letter rather self-servingly presents himself as a champion of intellectual honesty, a cosmopolitan surveyor of world (first, second or third—your choice!) cultures large and small, a defender of progressive politics against the depredations of those he regards as “reactionary” film critics and historians (as well as magazines like Cineaste), the whistle-blower on a decades-long conspiracy against Gance, and, last but not least, as someone possessing the final word on Gance’s importance in film history. This is all a rhetorical cover for his extraordinary peevishness. Along the way, he attributes to me: 1) attitudes about film history I do not share; 2)  the label of a cultural “reactionary, inevitably reflecting a retrogressive attitude toward life and the working class”—whatever that means; 3) dismissive attitudes toward non-Western and Third World cinemas—all “structurally related,” he says, to my questioning of Gance’s work—about which I breathed not a word in my review; 4) an anti-feminist condescension toward the history of early cinema (which I,  who published translations of some of Germaine Dulac’s important early theoretical texts for English-speaking readers, regard as rather off-base); 5) an ignorance about the role certain Buddhist conceptions of the self play in Japanese culture (about which I must regretfully admit my inadequacy); 6) a strong belief“in the concept of a permanent, unchanging ego, which Buddhist philosophy teaches is highly illusory,” to which charge before the high Buddhist tribunal presided over by Wm. M Drew, I plead “not guilty;” 7)  the elitist perspectives of a Brahmin with a “Gradgrindian” bent; 8) a thorough indoctrination “with either a traditional Judeo-Christian view of the world, or a secular variant of it--what might be called secular fundamentalism,” a claim that just may prove to be founded, I guess; 9) card-carrying membership in a cabal of authors including Paul Rotha, Iris Barry,  Norman King and Francis Ford Coppola who have for decades malevolently tried to prevent the full glory of Gance’s masterworks in their pristine state from ever shining down onto the upturned faces of American audiences; 10) an intention to write a “hit piece.” And so on, and so forth, ridiculously, ad absurdum. As I waded through the widening circles of Drew’s prose, I was rather puzzled by all his megaton blasting and bombardiering, accompanied by gusts of not so inspired invective. Until, that is I alighted on the one real nugget of insight in his diatribe when what he says falsely of me began to ring increasingly true of the dogmatic Mr. Drew. Despite his protestations of devotion to gentle Buddhist concepts of self (and, presumably, of “the other”), his harangue eventually came clear as “the forced self-assurance of a man seemingly trying to convince himself as well as others that his way of viewing reality is the only correct one.”

One might simply write off such a rambling, at times crackpot, response and allow it to self-destruct were it not for its potential to wreak unacceptable intellectual havoc through its near permanent afterlife on the internet. And, of course, it is insulting to read all these foolish comments purporting to pertain to oneself. So, reply I must.

One matter I want to clear up right away is my gratitude to the film companies that produced these two DVDs. Although Mr. Drew fails to take note of my supportive comments in his letter, I did express appreciation for the efforts of the restorers to make the fullest versions of Gance’s original visions available to new audiences. That is why, even though these versions are not, in my opinion, perfect (problems of the color tinting/toning, unexplained missing footage), I praised them as “careful reconstructions of his [Gance’s] long heralded but too rarely seen works.” I also welcomed the bonus features included in the editions, including Robert Israel’s new scores commissioned for both films.

Praise for these companies’ archival enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit, however, did not entail—should not have entailed!—my uniform praise for Gance’s artistic decisions. My questions about some of what seemed typical of Gance’s early artistic strategies in evidence in the two films under review were, of course, the principal focus of my comments. Aspects of his decisions strained credulity; indeed, they seemed at times in such ludicrous bad taste as to lead me to question his stature as a figure in film history. Many passages seemed “Romantic” (an adjective often loosely applied to Gance’s work) in a not so flattering sense: they were not adequately thought through, out of control, without any explicable expressive purpose. These poor artistic decisions warranted interrogation to put Gance’s achievement into sharper focus. Raising such critical questions is, I would suggest, a reviewer’s principal job. Needless to say, making such observations and criticisms is not, as Mr. Drew erroneously and illogically suggests, to espouse a “conservative view of aesthetics discouraging any radical departure from the norm and any indulgence in the emotions seen as a threat to the continued rule of reason.” This is sheer bunkum. If Mr. Drew doubts my commitment to films that radically depart from conventional norms, he need only peruse some of my writings endorsing films by Makaveyev, Paul Sharits, Valie Export, Eisenstein, Brakhage, Vigo or many others that I have published over the last fifteen years, often in the pages of precisely this allegedly reactionary magazine, Cineaste.

No, when I questioned the curiously sentimental characters that Gance’s imagination conjured into life; when I noted what I regard as the mechanical way he developed them; when I criticized through examples the vagrant tendencies of Gance’s often ponderous narrative constructions or the bombastic or cliché qualities of his image-making, my comments were intended to provoke critical discussion about this undoubtedly important historical figure’s work. As should be clear to any who suffered through the reading of Drew’s harangue, he does not really respond to any of my questions or comments. Rather, he blusters, or changes the subject, or indulges in what for him must be a cathartic ritual of name-calling (“Liebman” as elitist Brahmin, enemy of the working class, and so on and on). For example, I raised an issue: Why are Gance’s characters often ungainly assemblages of inconsistent, un-worked through attributes? Well, I would think that a responsible answer would involve showing how my observation was incorrect, that there was some design or plan subtending the jumble that I had failed to note. That is not Drew’s response. Instead, he raises all sorts of red herrings about a non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian notion of a permanent ego that, he claims, is implicit in La Roue (and the source of Japanese regard for the film). He heaps scorn on anyone who would doubt the wisdom of portraying the son of a locomotive driver as a violin maker who establishes his workshop in the midst of a busy switching yard for massive trains, however unlikely such a site would be, given the delicacy of the violin-making enterprise. (All the contemporary reports from the production site note the incredible din in which Gance’s team had to work.) Rather than responding, however, Drew then preposterously charges me with “a rigid adherence to immutable class structures, a virtual caste system on his [i.e., Liebman’s] part, one which devalues the working class as inferior to the intellectual or "Brahmin" caste to which Liebman claims membership.”

When his argument falters, Drew often resorts to vague dogmatic claims. F.W. Pabst admired La Roue; Kurosawa was deeply moved by La Roue; Truffaut was one of Gance’s greatest champions. These are interesting facts that prove nothing, without citing the whys and wherefores of their admiration. And if these lofty individuals do not persuade us, Drew informs us, without offering a further shred of evidence, that “the Japanese public” appreciated Gance because of an alleged similarity between their conceptions of the mutability of the ego with his. These are not adequate responses to my initial question at all. Indeed, I do not think Drew adequately addressed any of the questions I raised in my review. Pace Mr. Drew, raising such questions is, I repeat, one of a reviewer’s key purposes.

But my criticisms, of course, in no way precluded my noting other praiseworthy aspects of this artist’s work. Indeed, if Drew had read what I wrote more carefully, he would have discovered comments appropriately attributing to Gance a number of innovative techniques (shot lighting, rapid editing, superimposition) which, however, I must also note, he did not always use intelligently. (Had I also been reviewing Napoleon or some of Gance’s sound films, I would have dutifully listed some of his other admirable experiments with camera movement and sound montage.)

Nor is Drew above a kind of intellectual sleight of hand. He says that by quoting Louis Delluc on the failings of J’Accuse, I ignored Delluc’s praise of La Dixième Symphonie. This is true, but I was not reviewing that earlier film. Moreover, I would have thought he would have understood that given Delluc’s early praise of Gance’s work, the carefully articulated disappointment with J’Accuse by the most influential French critic of the time should count for more, not less.  

Or consider Drew’s wrongheaded conception of Louis Feuillade’s role in the emergence of French cinema after World War I. That Feuillade made Les Vampires in 1915 which made money abroad for the French industry is hardly an example sufficient to counter the main thrust of my argument about the parlous state of the French film industry after World War I. Does Drew seriously believe that the war did not sharply curtail French film production? Was not the lion’s share of post-war capital directed toward shoring up shaky French state finances and rebuilding vital infrastructure rather than to more risky investments in damaged or antiquated film studios? Is this not why one reads so many laments in the French industry and critical journals of the period about limited French production? Did not imported American films dominate French movie screens from the end of the war on? Was there not wide discussion of the need for new directions? Did not Gance emerge as the most auspicious and daring filmmaker among those like commercially-minded producer-directors Diamant-Berger and Fescourt, or among the nascent “first avant garde” of Delluc, Dulac, Epstein and L’Herbier who regarded Feuillade as old hat (though the Surrealists, at best marginal figures in the film industry of the late teens and early twenties, did elevate Les Vampires and other Feuillade serials into their cinematic pantheon). Perhaps Mr. Drew should read some of the more authoritative works on French film history—the aging but still informative volumes by Sadoul and Mitry in France, or Richard Abel, David Bordwell and Alan Williams, among others, in English—rather than the long outdated histories by Rotha and Arthur Knight he repeatedly—and preposterously—refers to as “standard works.” The fifty-two year old The Liveliest Art , a standard text? C’mon, Mr. Drew! For whom, indeed, is “accuracy of observation … not one of his strong points”?

Nor is logical consistency one of Mr. Drew’s strong points. He complains I charged that Gance was not a consistent political thinker when I pointed to the wide conceptual gap between his somewhat ambiguous espousal of pacifism in J’Accuse and his 1927 paean to the complex figure, French Emperor Napoleon, who marched his troops across Europe in an aggressive nationalist campaign. To be sure, no contemporary film artist (certainly not Eisenstein; Drew and I agree on this) was consistently on the right side of many of the major political issues of their day. Opportunism was too often a motivating force. (Eisenstein, alas, can be counted as an example, and Renoir, too, among many others; again, Drew and I agree on this.) And Gance was undoubtedly courageous enough to help Jewish friends during the shameful Vichy years, even at some risk to himself given his own partially Jewish origins.

But, bluster aside, the charge of tu quoque hardly rehabilitates Gance’s political judgment. And Drew’s unsteady grasp of the issues, when used as an intellectual trampoline, leads to large leaps of logic and, as usual, invective rather than argument: “In truth, though, Liebman's passage questioning Gance's political commitments is only included as part of his broader effort to denigrate the director's artistic vision.  And it is precisely here that the reactionary implications of Liebman's line of attack become all the apparent, implying as it does a rigid adherence to immutable class structures, a virtual caste system on his part, one which devalues the working class...” Any readers of my review will quickly see that my comments about Gance’s political consistency have no implications for immutable class structures or caste systems or the working class. This is just Mr. Drew blowing smoke.

His views about Gance’s condescending construction of “the working class” are, in any case, simply off the mark. Mr. Drew starts off reasonably by amplifying and echoing what I said about Gance in my review. “In ‘La Roue,’” he writes, “Gance sought to create a tragedy of the modern age, presenting the protagonist, a figure from the working class, with the same heroic grandeur as that granted in earlier times to kings and other aristocrats.” This is true to a certain extent, though the ambition was hardly new. Such a project dates back at least to Courbet’s paintings of stone breakers and other proto-proletarian types in the mid-nineteenth century. Interested readers, including Mr. Drew, may also wish to look at the textual locus classicus in which such ennobling ambitions were perhaps best articulated, Emile Zola’s “Naturalism in the Theater,” a piece Gance certainly would have known.

Ever needing to adopt the pose of a stern and just moralist, however, Drew then lashes out irrationally. “Gance's cultural crime, as seen by Liebman, appears to be that he dared to suggest a mere lowly mechanic could become a skilled inventor and that a mechanic's son, growing up in such a proletarian environment, could possibly aspire to, nay, even create art and beauty in this milieu… It would seem that the role of proletarians in Liebman-speak is purely to go through life toiling mindlessly to make everything as conducive as possible for the aristocracy and the privileged members of the bourgeoisie to remain the creative, productive members of society.” I neither see, nor saw anything resembling a “crime” in Gance’s portrayal of Sisif, merely a surprising failing. The combination of Sisif’s attributes—admired locomotive driver, drunken lout, jealous father with incestuous thoughts, brilliant mechanical engineer and saintly pathetic old man—was at best awkward. Perhaps Gance might yet have pulled off a successful character but for the needless attribution to Sisif of engineering genius, which is no more than a clumsy and unlikely device to link Sisif and de Hersan. And, though Drew fails to note this, once the linkage is made, the ennobling feature is unceremoniously jettisoned without any further comment. Do we not deserve an answer to the question of why this should happen? How, moreover, does Mr. Drew square the effete, strangely bloodless character of Elie with an ambition to ennoble the working class within the realistic milieu Gance obviously strove so hard to produce? Does not Elie’s presence undermine any authenticity derived from the location shooting Gance admirably insisted on? Is Elie not rather simply a vehicle to smuggle Gance’s sentimental, blowsy notion of an artist into the film? (Note the striking similarities to the similar construction of the poet Jean in J’Accuse.) Inserting him as a character does not elevate the working class in the slightest, and pointing this out hardly constitutes an insult to workers. Would Zola, who did imagine many highly melodramatic characters, ever have imagined a character so obviously out of place, so out of tune, so to speak, as Elie? I do not think so.

Mr. Drew does now provide an answer, though a lame one, to a technical question he did not manage to answer in his program notes. “Liebman asks,” he writes in his letter, “why there is no explanation in the accompanying booklet for the DVD concerning the missing reels of ‘La Roue.’  As the author of the essay in question, ‘Abel Gance’s ‘Tragedy of Modern Times:’ ‘La Roue,’” I made every effort I could when writing the article for the booklet to obtain information about any subplots or characters that might have been deleted from the film's first cut released in December of 1922.  No answer was forthcoming; the current status of Gance research does not apparently allow for such detailed information, given how much studies of the director have been discouraged by those still bent on relegating him to a minor role in film history.” In other words, despite all his research, Drew cannot answer my question. But rather than simply leaving the topic open for future scholars to pursue, he then curiously injects a paranoid note by blaming other unnamed writers for his inadequacy.

Despite his earnest—and I would add, often informative—indictment ofAmerican and English archivists, scholars and historians who resisted Gance’s genius over many decades, Gance’s standing in film history as an innovator and visionary is now—pace Mr. Drew—quite secure, even if lively and legitimate debate about just how impressive an artist he was still goes on. Anyone who has observed the evolution of film history writing over the last fifty years—since, that is, the publication of Knight’s The Liveliest Art (which Drew laughably regards as a “standard work”), should have realized that many thoughtful overviews of Gance’s career in English as well as French now exist. Interested readers can now easily consult Kevin Browlow’s pioneering chapter on Gance in The Parade’s Gone By (1968); Steven Philip Kramer and James Michael Welsh’s Abel Gance (1978); Roger Icart’s Abel Gance ou le Promethée foudroyée (1983); Brownlow’s Napoleon (1983), and the short collective work Abel Gance published by the Cinémathèque Française in 2000, among many other more specialized studies and reviews. (It is true that Norman King in 1984 did not agree with these unanimously positive assessments, but Drew simply dismisses King’s strongly presented, if not entirely fair, alternative readings of Gance’s work as a “political hatchet job,” and he therefore feels no need to consider his arguments at greater length.) Their collective advocacy has been crucial in establishing a legitimate position of respectability for Gance after what were certainly long years of relative critical neglect. Gance has also garnered increasingly respectful assessments in most of the English-language film textbooks in use today. (Standard French film histories by Sadoul and Mitry’s have long given Gance a proud place in their accounts.) In any case, Mr. Drew’s characterizations of film historical writing as linear and insensitive to the emergence of vital national cinemas outside Western countries seem either uninformed and/or simply hopelessly out of date.

Finally, since the momentous—indeed, triumphal—screening of Napoleon at Radio City Music Hall (which I attended) and other showings in equally prestigious European venues, some of Gance’s films have even come back into limited circulation, both in theaters, on VHS and now on DVD. Yes, public exhibitions are not common, in part because of the availability of prints, or programmers’ limited confidence in their popularity. Perhaps this or that film did not get a screening in the US for reasons that one might have hoped could have been overcome. Some of the films released for home video viewing are not complete or based on the best prints. OK. But there is more reason than ever to believe that Gance is back on the film historical and cultural map, albeit not on the exalted plane on which Drew would place him. Drew misinterprets me, in any case, when I concluded my review by noting that in my opinion, J’Accuse and La Roue had caused “the high pedestal on which Gance heroically stands [in the pantheon of early film directors] to wobble more than one would have hoped.” Let me be clear: I did not volunteer to review J’Accuse and La Roue hoping that they would cause Gance’s reputation to wobble; certainly, I did not take on the assignment with the aim of writing a “hit piece.” Rather, I was hoping that, after seeing the films in not so great 35 mm prints at the Cinémathèque Française many years ago, having the opportunity to see and more closely analyze them again in their more complete versions would confirm or even enhance his high stature. Unfortunately, they did not. 

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2