Old film mags never die, they just get relaunched and fade away

The cream of the cinema periodicals are suffering: 'Cahiers du Cinéma' is 'up-dating', 'Film Comment' has ousted its veteran editor, and as for 'Movieline'...
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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

Film magazines are one of the big problems in our household. "Are you really going to go on keeping them?" my wife asks. There is the spark of auto-da-fé in her eye. She nods in the extensive direction of shelves bowed beneath the gravure paper, the surface of which has nearly rubbed away from use. My Sight and Sounds, for instance. They go back to the late 1950s, and there's a treasured item - the issue for autumn 1955 - where the tattered cover is separate from the body of the magazine. But I can't let that cover go: it's Françoise Arnoul and Jean Gabin dancing together in a still I've never seen elsewhere from Renoir's French Cancan. As for the inside, it has "More Light" by Josef von Sternberg himself, a memoir that would appear later in his book, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and there's the second of two essays on Fritz Lang in America by Gavin Lambert.

It's absurd, with all the pressures on space we have, and it was sillier, decades ago, to ship the collection back and forth across the Atlantic when I wasn't sure where I was going to be. I daresay they're all on microfiche and the web now, but I love the silky things themselves, and the memories they bring back. "But what about the videotapes," my wife interrupts, "most of which are absolutely unfit for the children to see. Or me!"

Well, I winced a few days ago when I read in Variety (bulky, but essential) that Cahiers du Cinéma was being revamped with "a snazzier design". The circulation, it seems, was down to 25,000 and that has inspired the ownership - ultimately Le Monde - to employ a more up-to-date "look" and to have more stories on box office, strike measures, deal-making, and so on. All this was being done as part of an effort to help the magazine "break even". I winced not at that vulgarity being imposed on Cahiers' dense texts, but that my collection of it stopped back in the 1980s. I can only read stuff I don't understand for 20 years or so.

Except that, even schoolboy French could make enough of the yellow-covered days of Cahiers in the late 1950s and early 1960s to know it picked the right pictures to rant about and was a treasury of ravishing stills. If you wanted a quick education in movie sensibility then, you had only to compare the stills in Cahiers with those in Sight and Sound. How could that be? For film stills, famously, came from the companies that made and distributed the movies. How could there be two quite different styles at work? Today, when the stills put out with movies have never been more drab and heartless, to look at Cahiers is like a journey into the French dark. There is no sadder proof that people are not looking in the old way.

But Cahiers was read, too, and it is more than ever remarkable that future directors who wrote there - Truffaut, Godard, Rivette - were such fine critics, or writers on film. No moment in film culture is more moving than their graduation from reviewing to directing, because it demonstrates the necessity of passion and the possibility of films made by learned people. If Cahiers needs to be more "accessible", I'm not sure how thrilled I am by the new kids.

I still pile up magazines, but I see more trouble. Sight and Sound is a monthly now, and it incorporates the Monthly Film Bulletin, which was the best magazine of the 1970s in England. But Sight and Sound uses a type-size that challenges me, and it doesn't often have an essential, outrageous, mind-changing article. I suspect the editor would lament that they don't arrive on his desk. A lot of film writing now seems to have tenure on its mind.

In America, Film Comment has undergone a change. Richard Jameson, the creator of Movietone News (a collector's item), was fired after 10 years to be replaced by Gavin Smith, an Englishman. I'm not sure why. Jameson maintained the editorial attitude of his predecessor, Richard Corliss, of getting good writers to explore enthusiasms. For years that kept Film Comment lively and unpredictable. Now it appears to be under orders to serve the theatre at Lincoln Center. But that is too local. Film Comment may not be long for this world. Its circulation like that of Sight and Sound and Cahiers, is around 27,000. Are they the same people, I wonder?

In Los Angeles, for several years, under the editorship of Virginia Campbell, Movieline was funny, inside, scurrilous and quite convinced that the movie business was a place for scoundrels and frauds. The wonder was that vision had taken so long to be realized. Movieline could move from the trashy to the expert in a single sentence, and it got under the plastic skin of the business. Now, things have changed. Movieline has discovered the young, their clothes and their advertisers. It has gone stale in a year.

Do we get the magazines we deserve? Likely so. In which case, what meritorious readers you are, Sindies all, to have critics as well-named as Adair and Quirke, the one a superb writer and a true European, the other just the smart, euphoric upstart we all need. But we all of us need you, too, readers who are certain you could do a better job than the writers.

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