Stuart Liebman's Reactionary Attack on Abel Gance: A Response
by William M. Drew
There are some critiques of art, whether positive or negative, that provide an illumination, an insight into the creator and his time. Even if one does not agree with the critic's evaluation, the experience of reading it all but compels the individual to examine more fully his own perspectives in order to understand more deeply why he has appreciated or rejected the art to which he has been exposed. Such critiques indeed have a valid role to play in the continual battles that emerge from the history of different ideas and aesthetics.
Stuart Liebman's recent piece on Abel Gance, reviewing the 2008 DVD releases of "J'Accuse" and "La Roue" for "Cineaste," is, however, far from being an example of intelligent criticism. It is rather little more than a petulant rant founded on highly inaccurate perceptions and imparting to the reader misleading, incomplete information. Ironically, considering "Cineaste"'s reputation as a politically progressive publication on cinema, Liebman's article, replete with Gradgrindian logic, is culturally reactionary, inevitably reflecting a retrogressive attitude toward life and the working class.
In a piece shot through with intellectual dishonesty, one must first begin by questioning Liebman's attempt to present himself as a brave maverick fighting against a film establishment that, unaccountably to him, persists in worshipping Gance. Linking the French director with another pet aversion of his, D. W. Griffith, he writes that in spite of what he sneeringly terms the "sheer visual and dramatic kitsch these two cineastes concocted," in "most film histories they retain their exalted status." Assuming as I am that Liebman, an American writing in an English-language publication, is intending to address primarily an American readership, this is to stand cinematic historiography on its head. In the case of Griffith, whatever honors he once enjoyed in his native land have been systematically undermined over the last two decades. Indeed, thanks to the more or less manufactured outrage over one half of one film and a multitude of detractors using that to attack his entire vast "oeuvre," Griffith in all likelihood currently has far less respect than any other significant artist in American history. Far from granting him some sort of "exalted status" as Liebman imagines, most film historians in the US today almost grudgingly acknowledge his technically innovative contributions, an admission enveloped with a cloud of explanations and reservations about the overall quality of his work that invariably harp on his supposedly racist mindset. The notorious incident in 1999 in which Griffith was publicly repudiated by his own profession when the Director's Guild of America stripped his name from their Lifetime Achievement Award was only the most visible indicator of the shocking decline of his reputation.
The fortunes of Gance in the United States, though no less disconcerting, have been of a markedly different nature. Griffith at least managed to present his works to the American public in the form in which he wanted them seen. And after his retirement from filmmaking, the Museum of Modern Art began reviving and making available much of his work for succeeding generations, a practice which has been continued by Killiam Shows, Blackhawk Films, and Kino International. Hardly any of Gance's films, however, even when shown in the US, reached the screen here as he had intended them to be seen. Commercial interests slashed the silent "J'Accuse" in half for US distribution; a "New York Times" reviewer who had seen the full version at a preview wrote on January 1, 1922, that Gance's film, which he called "terrific," "was so emasculated before it reached the public screen . . . that it must be counted as lost." The mutilation of "Napoleon" by MGM, which released it in a 72-minute version minus all the film's celebrated pyrotechnics, is, I believe, such a familiar tale as to require no further elaboration here. "La Roue" never reached the US at all in those years; its mutilation occurred in Britain where it was slashed to 8 reels which managed to eliminate the powerful, sublime finale of Sisif's death, thus implying a conventional happy-ever-after ending for the hero and Norma in their mountain chalet. In the sound era, Gance fared no better with US distributors. Although the original versions of such classics as "Beethoven" and the new "J'Accuse" were not of extraordinary length, running a little over two hours, they were nevertheless severely cut for showing to American audiences in the late '30s.
Gance was singularly lacking in support from the film history establishment that began to emerge in the US during the '30s with the founding of the Museum of Modern Art. His silent masterpieces were pointedly omitted by Iris Barry from the collection she established at MOMA to showcase world film history in a series of programs. Doubtless because of his highly unusual techniques and approach, Gance could not fit into the tidy narrative of cinematic development that Barry was trying to build up. Kirk Bond, the brilliant, pioneering American cineaste whose op/ed piece published in the 1934 "New York Times, " "Lament for the Cinema Dead," was a virtual manifesto for film preservation, was one of the few in the US calling attention to Gance's silent masterpieces in those years, writing in "The New York Times" in 1939 regarding "the tragedy of the utter neglect of a once-famous film <the silent "J'Accuse"> and the virtual neglect of its gifted creator." He pointed out that Gance, "one of the great French directors of the old days . . . had perhaps as great a sense of the medium as any one from Griffith to Eisenstein."
Bond, however, was very much out of step with the dominant attitude toward the filmmaker in the US at that time. For decades, Gance, when mentioned at all in English-language histories of film, was either referred to in passing or denigrated by chroniclers expounding the traditional account in cinema annals, from Paul Rotha's "The Film Till Now" in 1930 to Arthur Knight's "The Liveliest Art" in 1957, using a mode of attack very similar to that now being employed by Stuart Liebman. Thus, in no sense of the word could Gance be said to have enjoyed a long "exalted status" in the leading US film circles. By the start of the 1960s, he was all but forgotten here and it was not until a 1967 New York Film Festival tribute and the publication of Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By" in 1968, with its lengthy chapter on the director, that there was the start of a slow but steady rise in his US reputation. Even so, negotiations for making his films available in the US dragged out over many years and it was not until 1981--with a touch of sad irony, the last year of Gance's life--that "Napoleon" in a much longer version than the MGM cut finally reached a mass audience in the US following its premiere at Radio City Music Hall.
Although the triumphant "Napoleon" release seemed to promise a belated Gance revival, it ended up doing much more for the cause of fresh presentations of silents in general than in bringing full recognition to its director. While reviewers in major dailies like Vincent Canby in "The New York Times" and Charles Champlin in "The Los Angeles Times" were rhapsodic in their appreciation of Gance and his film, there was a sharp reaction in a number of the journals, whether it was Pauline Kael, formerly a Gance supporter, rounding on him in "The New Yorker" as she had earlier done with Orson Welles in the belief that he was now "establishment," or Stanley Kauffmann in "The New Republic" taking the tack that yes, Gance had been unfairly neglected but his new admirers were starting to exaggerate his contributions. Worst of all, however, were the politically motivated attacks, starting with the right-wing magazine, "Commentary," which tried to brand "Napoleon" as an ultra-nationalist piece of propaganda in an effort to discredit as hypocrites its presumably liberal admirers among the New York intellectuals, such as Leonard Bernstein. "Cineaste" then published an article by Peter Pappas who continued the dirty work of Richard Grenier in "Commentary" by labeling "Napoleon" as a "fascist" film. That Pappas was merely using the word "fascist" in the abusive, meaningless sense as defined by George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" in which "fascism" no longer meant anything other than "something not desirable" is, I think, self-evident. Nevertheless, the damage was done and the long night of Gance's journey back to virtual obscurity had soon begun. To be sure, there were no pickets showing up to protest showings of Gance's films, nor were there cinema guilds removing his name from awards given in his honor. The piece by Pappas in "Cineaste," followed a few years later by a similarly loaded political hatchet job by Norman King published by the British Film Institute, were in the nature of preemptive strikes before the director ever had the chance to obtain the recognition then accorded Griffith.
Thanks in no small measure to these and other calculated smears, the Gance renaissance that nearly everyone had expected to flow from the "Napoleon" revival never emerged. A few of his outstanding sound films were released on VHS, it is true. But there was no full Gance retrospective in the US--not even in his centenary year in 1989--nor did more of his silent work, beyond his shorts, "La Folie du Docteur Tube" and "Au Secours!," become available to the American public. In the late '80s, Bambi Ballard, an Englishwoman then resident in France, mounted an impressive revival there of Gance's 1918 classic, "La Dixieme Symphonie," complete with a new orchestral score, but this restored version never played in the US. Now and then, US archives hosted screenings of "La Roue" and the silent "J'Accuse" for limited audiences, but they never attained wider circulation. Meanwhile, while Francis Ford Coppola has kept the abridged version of "Napoleon" that he released in the early '80s more or less continually available to the public, he has also used his interest in the film to suppress for public viewing in the US the most complete version restored by Kevin Brownlow and projected at the correct speed.
Concomitant with the unavailability of films was the dearth of published writings by and about Gance compared with the vast literature on Eisenstein, for example. Liebman asks 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. I can, however, state that, except for one short scene that survives in a print unavailable to the restorationists for the DVD edition, this new version of "La Roue" contains everything in the film now known to exist and is by far the longest presentation of the production seen by the public since 1923. Given Liebman's apparently short attention span as indicated in his article, however, I doubt that he would be any more won over by the addition of the presumably lost footage.
Iin any case, it is only now in 2008, 27 years after the "Napoleon" revival and Gance's death, that the silent "J'Accuse" and "La Roue" have at long last become available to the US public, a truly landmark event in film study and appreciation. And while, contrary to Liebman's contemptuous hope that enough people seeing these films will share his extremely negative view of Gance, most of the DVD reviews have been quite positive. But then, it is glaringly apparent from Liebman's hit piece that accuracy of observation is not one of his strong points.
For in addition to ignoring the sad history of mutilation and unavailability that marked the course of Gance's work in the US for most of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st, Liebman resorts to similar distortions to trivialize the very real legacy that the director had left behind in terms of enthralling audiences and inspiring filmmakers elsewhere in the world to launch their own experiments with film. With respect to France itself, Liebman, in effect, argues that Gance was acclaimed by French postwar critics and audiences mainly due to the overwhelming desire of the nation to regain its former cinematic supremacy shattered by the guns of August 1914. Only the "clear-eyed" Louis Delluc (whose earlier ardent praise of "La Dixieme Symphonie" Liebman conveniently overlooks) refused to join in the general French celebration. But then Liebman also manages to bypass the fact that Louis Feuillade's masterpiece, "Les Vampires," which had immense world-wide success, was produced during the very war he maintains had so devastated French cinema that it was looking for almost anyone who would claim to lift the industry out of its supposedly depressed state. Alleging that Gance's rise in esteem in France was due to a virtual state of desperation in the country makes as much sense as it would to attribute Fritz Lang's contemporaneous acclaim in Germany to similar causes. Liebman's strategy of distorting the true nature of Gance's reputation is also apparent in his avoiding any reference to G. W. Pabst's admiration for "La Roue" and the fact that Gance was the idol of, and a major influence on, the filmmakers of the "Nouvelle Vague," among them Francois Truffaut who was one of Gance's greatest champions.
Perhaps even more glaring is Liebman's total failure to so much as mention the immense impact Gance had on Japanese cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and beyond, leading Akira Kurosawa to later declare that "The first film that really impressed me was 'La Roue.'" While it is entirely possible that Liebman is lacking in any particular knowledge of Japanese film history, I suspect it is primarily yet another deliberate move on his part to avoid considering the implications of a Western artist, for whom he expresses so much scorn, having a major creative impact on a very different culture. Examining such a relationship might lead to unwelcome suggestions that the values of his own cultural interpretation which he tries to use to dismiss Gance as an unfortunate aberration in the history of Western cinema do not have universal applicability, after all. And if there is one thing that comes across as consistent in Liebman's piece, it is 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. Indeed, one key to Gance's immense influence and popularity with the Japanese public is the similarity of his vision in "La Roue" to aspects of Buddhist thought which remains at the heart of Japanese culture to this day. Measured by the piece he has written on Gance, for Liebman to acknowledge the possible validity of points of view other than his own (and that of his particular reading of Western culture) might shatter the protective cloak of his rhetoric.
In the realm of overt politics, while Liebman, unlike Peter Pappas and Norman King, mercifully does not devote a great deal of time to analyzing what he imagines Gance's politics to have been, he does manage one nasty little dig which perhaps merits a response. After citing the seeming disparity in theme between "Napoleon" and "J'Accuse," he then goes on to say that "Gance was never much of a consistent political thinker, as his later misguided efforts to work during the Vichy regime of World War II France demonstrate." (Liebman either does not know or chooses not to mention that Gance spent much of his presence there secretly helping Jewish friends to flee the Germans.) The question one should ask is: what great filmmaker of Gance's generation WAS a consistent political thinker? How did Sergei Eisenstein, who projected the moving images of international brotherhood in "October" in the scenes during which German and Russian soldiers fraternize at the front, a decade later wind up directing with equal power and artistry a paean to uber-nationalism like "Alexander Nevsky" in which the mystic Rus nation unite under a blonde, Nordic sovereign to oppose evil alien invaders, both the dehumanized Teutonic Knights and, in an implied future conflict, the Asian "yellow hordes" shown at the beginning of the film? And in terms of a director's actions, Jean Renoir made the poignant "La Grande Illusion" partly as a protest against fascism; yet three years later, he went to Italy at the express invitation of Mussolini himself to lecture and work on a film produced in cooperation with the Fascist government, a project from which he was relieved only due to the outbreak of war between Italy and France. 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 as inferior to the intellectual or "Brahmin" caste to which Liebman claims membership. Liebman's elitism is apparent not only in his analysis of Gance's characters but also in his preoccupation with the director's origins, as though his lack of the privileges in youth that were available to a Renoir, for example, disqualified him from pursuing comparable artistic aspirations.
In "La Roue," 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. Seeking to attain the utmost in authenticity in his depiction of working class life, Gance not only shot most of the film on actual locations but also showed sequences to railway workers during the course of production, making alterations in the film in accord with their suggestions. Gance's heroic view of the working class, a class from which he had himself sprung, appeared in other films, including his memorable 1939 version of Gustave Charpentier's proletariat opera, "Louise." Liebman's apparent hostility to Gance's celebration of the working class is evident in his derisive description of "La Roue"'s "strange characters" including a railway mechanic who is a brilliant inventor and his son, an artist, who, he scornfully writes, "makes violins, of all things, in his workshop in Sisif's home, improbably situated right beside the railroad tracks amidst the din of speeding express trains." Liebman is further outraged by the violin-making son, Elie, longing to "develop a varnish that will make his instruments sound like a Stradivarius," a desire he derides as "far-fetched." In other words, 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. Surely every sane person knows that only the well-to-do and well-born--or at least those privileged to be Ph.Ds in universities--are capable of creativity. 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.
In his dismay at the manner in which Gance chose to present his characters in other than the more traditional depictions of good vs. evil, Liebman also reveals his fundamental conservatism, his inability or unwillingness to conceive of anything beyond conventional logic. He writes that in "La Roue," "We are asked to believe that Sisif is not only a coolheaded engine driver and drunken lout but also a brilliant inventor. . . .The malevolent De Hersan becomes an unloved but caring and generous husband to the now melancholy Norma." Liebman is equally disturbed by the transformations of the major characters in "J'Accuse." It would seem that Liebman believes strongly in the concept of a permanent, unchanging ego, which Buddhist philosophy teaches is highly illusory. Far from having the kind of fixed entity that those mired in the delusion of the senses perceive, the individual is seen in Buddhism as a mass of ever-changing, ever-contradictory aspects defying simple categorization. Gance's rejection of a conventional moralistic presentation of a conflict waged between absolutely evil and absolutely good characters is very much in keeping with this Buddhist perception of the individual. His recognition that existence is shot through with contradictions and paradoxes is also consonant with Taoist thought. Those like Liebman, however, who have been thoroughly indoctrinated with either a traditional Judeo-Christian view of the world, or a secular variant of it--what might be called secular fundamentalism--seem to have a hard time appreciating concepts that are thoroughly alien to their more rigid code and, in Liebman's case, also appears intertwined with a belief in class differentiation.
Yet it is not only the philosophy of the East that rejects the kind of thinking embodied by Liebman in his article. Some of the finest creative minds in the history of Western culture have indicted the shallowness, indeed harmfulness of attitudes he expresses in his analysis of the films. For while he attempts to base his condemnation of Gance's powerfully imaginative method on the grounds of a commitment to realism and logic, Liebman reveals himself as nothing less than a real-life counterpart of a famous character in Dickens: "Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir--peremptorily Thomas--Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to." When Liebman repeatedly ridicules the narrative of "La Roue" as "ludicrous," "far-fetched," and "the curious peripeties of his main characters," he writes as though he is making "a new principle, a great discovery," in which "What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact." In Liebman's way of thinking, as with Gradgrind's, "you are not to see anywhere, what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don't have in fact." Perhaps Liebman's next step should be to recommend the establishment of a board of fact, "composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact."
Ultimately, Liebman's view of Gance has been informed by the interpretation of the director put forth by writers, such as Paul Rotha and Arthur Knight, in works that attempted to present world film history in a manner that is now hopelessly outdated. Whether or not Liebman accepts this earlier conception of cinema history in its totality, it clearly informs his sensibility judging by his remarks on Griffith as well as Gance. This approach to film history, which also colored Lewis Jacob's chronicle of the US cinema, "The Rise of the American Film," and formed the basis for Iris Barry's archival activities at the Museum of Modern Art for which she wrote the accompanying program notes, guided the understanding of cinematic development in the United States for decades. The conception of film history that was first developed in the 1930s by Rotha, Barry and Jacobs and was later restated by Knight in the 1950s seemed to many so compelling in its choices, so readily explainable as a comprehensive account of the development of cinema art that its basic assumptions remained unchallenged in the US for many years. The views of those like Kirk Bond with very different perspectives were marginalized and largely excluded from the dominant discourse.
This standard view of film history was resolutely linear in structure, with film evolving from primitivism to the technical refinements of Griffith and other pioneers in the 1910s, culminating in the silent period with the mature triumphs of the German and Soviet cinemas and, in the early sound era, with the achievements of Renoir and other "poetic realists" of the French cinema. These latter films were said to have anticipated the Italian neo-realist works of the immediate postwar era, the last movement in cinema to become canonical in standard film history circles before the successive shocks produced by the consequences of the rise of television, the Western discovery of postwar Japanese cinema, and finally, the emergence of the "Nouvelle Vague" in France and the explosion of the "film generation" in the 1960s. Combined with the many challenges to the ruling establishment that arose in the '60s, many of the assumptions that governed traditional film history came under fire. Nevertheless, as Liebman's shrill denunciations of Gance only too clearly reveal, the hold of what might be called the "neo-classical" approach to cinema history remains strong with a number of cineastes to this day.
Those who had developed this approach to cinema history in the '30s, in attempting to gain academic acceptance for the new medium, confronted what they saw as the competing values of mass taste and aesthetic purism at a time when the Hollywood studio system was at its height. In general, as is well known, they enshrined the European art film as the highest form of cinema while tending to dismiss Hollywood films as primarily commercial in nature, undeniably slick and entertaining but lacking the perceived intellectual brilliance of European cinema. With respect to American directors, Griffith's work in the 1910s was mainly respected for its technical wizardry; it was repeatedly acknowledged in the standard narrative that his experiments had paved the way for the achievements of subsequent filmmakers who adopted and elaborated his techniques, ultimately surpassing Griffith in the process with their more advanced ideas of cinema. But while Griffith was lauded for his purely formal ability, a mechanical skill at devising camera tricks, these critics claimed, much as Liebman is still doing, that the inherent limitations of a vision rooted in old-fashioned Victorian attitudes was incapable of sustaining itself with continuing vigor in the postwar era. It was alleged that once more sophisticated directors of European background began developing the art to far greater effect, an increasingly obsolescent Griffith, unable to say anything new or interesting, began a steep artistic decline in the '20s. The Hollywood that emerged under Griffith's influence was seen as sharply divided between two opposing trends epitomized by two directors: the dominant, more influential strain of commercialized entertainment represented by Cecil B. DeMille, continually dismissed as a mere showman producing empty spectacles laced with pompous morality, and the sophisticated, uncompromisingly realistic rebellion reflective of a more European sensibility led by Erich von Stroheim who was inevitably destroyed by the Hollywood system.
Much of this stereotypical presentation would begin to be challenged when the "film generation" came of age in the late '60s and the '70s. Reversing the traditional Lewis Jacobs line on Griffith's alleged decline, a number of the new historians, reexamining the director's later films, discovered in them a sophisticated artist still exploring the art with compelling themes. I recall seeing in a widely read journal of the early '70s an article differentiating between the old-fashioned film critic and those with a newer, more advanced perspective on film history; whereas the old "fogies" spoke of "Griffith's decline," the new, cutting-edge historians wrote about "Griffith's growth" in his later films. Similarly, the new historians of the late '60s and the '70s began to reevaluate DeMille, recognizing, as James Leahy and William D. Routt wrote in 1970, that he was a filmmaker of artistic importance, "a capable and daring director possessed of one of the American cinema's most acute senses of rhythm and drama." Analysts started noticing that DeMille had also demonstrated uncompromising realism in a number of films, such as "The Whispering Chorus." And far from diminishing respect for von Stroheim's creations, this more sophisticated approach to film history, by placing less emphasis on his alleged victimization, only increased admiration for the individuality of his own achievement. No longer seen as merely some kind of Manichean counterpoint to DeMille and Hollywood, it was now much easier to appreciate von Stroheim on his own terms as an artist evolving within a highly creative milieu. Indeed, in their reexamination of American cinema in general, the new historians began to eradicate the old bifurcated presentation in which Europe had been the center of all that was artistic in film and Hollywood in its heyday was principally engaged in turning out merely slick, superficial productions. Unfortunately, as Liebman has just demonstrated, there remain a number of academics to this day who never came to terms with the writings and fresh examinations of the new historians of the "film generation," remaining mired in the stereotypical thinking of the Rotha-Jacobs-Knight school of historiography.
But while the traditional Anglo-American cinematic historiographers lauded the European art film as far superior aesthetically to the Hollywood product, this preference had done nothing to advance the reputation of Gance whose values and approaches to narrative were linked by these analysts to those of Griffith and DeMille rather than the more esteemed Continental zeitgeist of the German and Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s. Although believing in a mystical type of socialism, Gance was not part of a trendy political movement like the Soviet experiment that attracted a number of politically active cineastes to the films produced by the Russian Revolution. Many of Gance's most daring visual experiments were either, as in the case of rapid montage, adopted by others who then received credit for the innovation, or, as with the hand-held camera and the wide screen, were so far ahead of their time as to make the director appear to be a virtual madman incapable of normal cinematic expression. In any case, the basically conservative nature of traditional film history could apparently find no way of accommodating as radically individual a filmmaker as Gance. Once again, it would be up to the film generation of the '60s and the '70s, influenced by the "Nouvelle Vague," to begin the work of recognizing Gance's supreme artistry. But unhappily, as is all too evident in Liebman's article, this fresh evaluation continues to encounter truculent opposition from those wedded to the old school of film history.
While the origins of the traditional approach to film history doubtless stemmed from what was in many respects a sincere and well-meant effort by its architects in the 1930s to bring greater recognition to film as an art form, laying the groundwork for documentation and preservation, its choices--or more properly, its omissions--clearly reflected the intellectual limitations of these pioneer cineastes. Their attitude toward highly independent artists like Griffith, Gance, and DeMille was indicative of a basic distrust of the unfettered imagination in favor of an approach elevating adherence to particular trends and schools over individual artistic autonomy. Perhaps inevitably, with their obsession for reducing the complex history of film into neat, explainable patterns, the formative cineastes also disregarded those chapters of early film history which departed radically from the prevailing historical narratives of gender and culture. The same regard for upholding convention that banished Gance's radical conception of film form from what was considered to be the mainstream of cinema history also erased the contributions of women and non-Western, Third World cultures to early film. In vain does one peruse a standard historical text like Arthur Knight's "The Liveliest Art" for even a single mention of such outstanding pioneer women directors as Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Nell Shipman, Musidora, and Marie-Louise Iribe, or the early serial queens, including Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Helen Holmes, who projected a new, heroic femininity at a time when women were beginning their quest to attain equality in what had hitherto been a highly male-dominated society.
Closely related to this "benign neglect" of women's achievements in silent cinema was a highly colonialist attitude toward early film production in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Just as Knight had managed to dismiss Gance's films as "grandiose, ponderous" works which "seem distressingly empty and sentimental today," so he relegated the entire existing film production of such major nations as India and China to the basement of cinema history, declaring: "Their techniques are crude by western standards; their construction, their pace, their overemphatic acting are all alien to our tastes." He maintained that these film industries were "too derivative or too inept to claim serious attention," citing as an example that "the few serious films from Egypt that have been shown in Europe or the United States literally rocked their audiences with laughter." Without even mentioning a brilliant experimenter like Teinosuke Kinugasa, Knight wrote dismissively of Japanese filmmaking in the 1920s: "With their particular gift for cheap imitation, the Japanese were soon turning out between seven and eight hundred films a year--mostly pseudo-French romances or American-style crime and action pictures." While it is beyond the scope of my present response to Mr. Liebman's own misconception of film history as evidenced in his perspectives on Gance and Griffith to elucidate this point in greater detail here, suffice it to say that later informed, scholarly examinations of early cinema in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America would reveal many outstanding works of film art which compare favorably to the outstanding achievements of the American, European and Soviet cinemas. But the glib dismissals of the standard historians, using much the same generalized arguments by which they sought to denigrate Gance, for a long time prevented recognition in the West of the silent and early sound film masterpieces created in these "exotic" countries in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. Just as the long-standing effort by the standard film historians to omit the extraordinary early achievements of women in Western silent cinema succeeded in perpetuating a patriarchal conception of the past, so these same historians' systematic elimination of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America from the approved chronicle of filmic development furthered the continuance of the colonialist attitude toward other cultures so apparent in the wording employed by Arthur Knight to justify ignoring their histories.
Whether or not Mr. Liebman attempts to separate his heated objections to Gance from the kind of mindset that also repudiated the pioneering contributions of women and non-Western, Third World peoples to early film, in reality, they are all structurally related. It is inevitable that any Gradgrindian project of controlling culture will insist, as part of its effort to regulate the human imagination, on the existence of hierarchies. In the orthodox interpretation of film history upon which Liebman draws in an effort to attack Gance, there was always, as with other orthodoxies, the establishment of an order in which individuals as well as genders and entire cultures were assigned their proper places. To breach this structure by restoring a hitherto neglected film artist who had been excluded from consideration by the guardians of orthodoxy is to invite the scorn or anger of those who insist upon maintaining the existing arrangement. Indeed, there are many instances besides Gance I could cite in which the same type of rhetoric employed by Liebman has been used in an attempt to reject the efforts of those seeking to bring renewed appreciation to outstanding early cinema artists neglected by the film history establishment.
The history of human thought over the centuries is marked by a continuity that is as startling in its way as the many changes over time. Liebman's attacks on "J'Accuse" and "La Roue" read very much like Voltaire's denunciation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in the 18th century. For all of his many exemplary contributions in other fields, Voltaire in his assumed role of theatre critic was bent on championing the existing approach to dramaturgy he felt was threatened by any acclaim for Shakespeare's seemingly reckless imagination defying the proper rules of composition. To Voltaire, "Hamlet" was:
"a vulgar and barbarous drama which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France or Italy. Hamlet becomes crazy in the second act, and his mistress becomes crazy in the third; the prince slays the father of his mistress under the pretence of killing a rat, and the heroine throws herself into the river; a grave is dug on the stage, and the gravediggers talk quodlibets worthy of themselves, while holding skulls in their hands; Hamlet responds to their nasty vulgarities in sillinesses no less disgusting. In the meanwhile another of the actors conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his stepfather carouse on the stage; songs are sung at table; there is quarreling, fighting, killing--one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. But amidst all these vulgar irregularities, which to this day make the English drama so absurd and so barbarous, there are to be found in 'Hamlet,' by a 'bizarrerie' still greater, some sublime passages, worthy of the greatest genius. It seems as though nature had mingled in the brain of Shakespeare the greatest conceivable strength and grandeur with whatsoever witless vulgarity can devise that is lowest and most detestable."
With his incessant ridicule of what he views as the illogical and melodramatic plots of "J'Accuse" and "La Roue," his objections to what he calls interjections of "slapstick shticks" in "La Roue" (like those gravediggers in "Hamlet" with their "nasty vulgarities," skulls in hand), and his acknowledgement that "J'Accuse" "does contain genuinely lyrical passages in which the vivacity of Gance's eye and his feel for organizing visual leitmotifs momentarily allows the film to escape the plot's leaden fetters" (those "sublime passages" amidst all the "vulgar irregularities"), Liebman's review of Gance's films is absolutely uncanny in the manner in which it echoes Voltaire's attitude toward Shakespeare. And indeed, Liebman's object is clearly identical--to uphold 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.
But no matter how fervently its supporters have insisted on its maintenance, every effort to establish a temple of reason controlling the limits of the imagination has ended up falling to the very human need to expand beyond such narrow constraints. The neo-classical view of art upheld by Voltaire in his review of "Hamlet" would, decades later, during a time of revolutionary ferment, be overthrown by the romantic rebellion led by Victor Hugo. Denouncing "dogmatism in the arts," Hugo in his famous "Preface to 'Cromwell'" pleaded for "the freedom of art against the despotism of systems, codes and rules." To all those critics who would overlook the beauties of a great work of art because of an obsession with its apparent defects, Hugo had this to say:
"Who ever saw a medal without its reverse? a talent that had not some shadow with its brilliancy, some smoke with its flame? Such a blemish can be only the inseparable consequence of such beauty. This rough stroke of the brush, which offends my eye at close range, completes the effect and gives relief to the whole picture. Efface one and you efface the other. Originality is made up of such things. Genius is necessarily uneven. There are no high mountains without deep ravines. Fill up the valley with the mountain and you will have nothing but a steppe, a plateau, the plain of Les Sablons instead of the Alps, swallows and not eagles. . . .
"Our infirmity often takes fright at the inspired bold flights of genius, for lack of power to swoop down upon objects with such vast intellegence. And then, once again, there are 'defects' which take root only in masterpieces; it is given only to certain geniuses to have certain defects. Shakespeare is blamed for his abuse of metaphysics, of wit, of redundant scenes, of obscenities, for his employment of the mythological nonsense in vogue in his time, for exaggeration, obscurity, bad taste, bombast, asperities of style. The oak, that giant tree which we were comparing to Shakespeare just now, and which has more than one point of resemblance to him, the oak has an unusual shape, gnarled branches, dark leaves, and hard, rough bark; but it is the oak.
"And it is because of these qualities that it is the oak. If you would have a smooth trunk, straight branches, satiny leaves, apply to the pale birch, the hollow elder, the weeping willow; but leave the mighty oak in peace. Do not stone that which gives you shade."
To paraphrase Hugo, there is today a cinematic old regime as there is a political old regime. While Stuart Liebman ends his fierce objection to Gance by expressing the hope that the director's supposed "high pedestal" will now "wobble" once more people see these films, this is proving to be only a forlorn expectation on his part. For much like polemicist William F. Buckley, Jr.'s famous self-definition of a conservative, Liebman is now the man "standing athwart history yelling, 'Stop!'" But there can be no stopping. Liebman's vision of an ordered, neat little hierarchy of film history is yielding more and more to a new, truly diverse interpretation, a richer, far more expansive paradigm that recognizes cinema as the creation of a wide variety of individual temperaments, genders, races, cultures, classes that employed innumerable means of expression. The flood of "new" old images that are finally just beginning to emerge from their decades-long imprisonment in archival vaults are sweeping away the preconceptions that dominated, almost without challenge, film historical studies from the 1930s to the 1960s, and, despite the initial great work of the "film generation," had continued to mold a number of later recruits to the cause of cinematic orthodoxy. Those who now insist on either ignoring or excoriating the revolution in the exploration of cinema's past in favor of the approved old standards will meet with the inevitable fate of earlier guardians of aesthetic orthodoxy--they will become totally irrelevant to the future study and appreciation of film. Indeed, I believe the 21st century will become the age of Abel Gance, the inspirer of earlier artistic revolutions in film with wider implications in the world as he himself indicated when, in his private jottings, he hailed the May 1968 rebellion of French youth as perhaps "the greatest event since the French Revolution." To close with Gance's own vision of a new, diverse art expressing the universal longings of humanity, written at the height of his career in the 1920s:
"In truth, the Time of the Image has come!
"All legends, all mythologies and all myths, all the founders of religion and all religions themselves, all the great figures of history, all the reflecting objectives of the imaginations of peoples for thousands of years, all, everything, awaiting their luminous resurrection, the heroes jostling themselves at our doors in order to enter. . . .
"Yes, an Art is born, supple, precise, violent, laughing, powerful. It is everywhere, in all, on all. All things race to it, faster than words arranging themselves under the pen after a thought has called to them. It is so great that one may not have seen it in its entirety. . . .
"The Time of the Image has come!"
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2