I think it's a wonderful film. I would do. I'm the director

They started off as critics, judging the work of others. But then they started making movies themselves.
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The Independent Culture
In 1961, Bertrand Tavernier began his film career as a lowly fourth assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville. He had written on the director and contributed an admiring interview to the magazine Cinema 60; then, on the strength of these, he had approached Melville and managed to get himself hired on Leon Morin, Priest.

Sad to relate, his hero proved a real pill to work for. "He was impossible," Tavernier says now. "He created an atmosphere of paranoia on the set. After the rushes every day we had to watch a film, most of the time the same film: Odds Against Tomorrow, by Robert Wise. I think I saw it 22 times. Sometimes the cameraman could get away, saying he had to check something, but the little people had to go, unless we could prove to Melville we had something specific to do. I was terrified. And I was a bad assistant. Very, very, very bad." Soon Tavernier had left the shoot to become a film publicist.

A few years later Mark Shivas, who had been for some time the assistant editor of Movie, a respected and influential British film magazine, answered an advertisement for assistant film editors at the BBC. He was surprised, and none too pleased, to find himself "abused" at his job interview, where it was observed that he was "the kind of person who writes about Antonioni" (a remark not meant as a compliment) and therefore would be much too grand to lug cans of film about. "Being a critic was too dilettante an occupation - that was their feeling," Shivas recalls today. He didn't get the job.

Happily, neither was deterred: after a long struggle, Tavernier finally made his first feature, The Watchmaker of Saint Paul, in 1972, and it was impressive enough to launch him as a film director, while Shivas has the last laugh on his anonymous interviewer at the BBC: he is now Head of Films there. But both stories illustrate how difficult it is to segue from writing about movies to making them - the perils of a poacher turning gamekeeper (or perhaps that should be the other way round).

There have been times, and places, where the move was easy. In the early Fifties, Claude Chabrol fell in with a crowd of other film-mad young men - Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette - and, with them, began writing for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema. "It was a rather wonderful time," he recalls, "because this way of becoming a film- maker didn't exist before. Before, people became third assistant directors, second ADs, first ADs. Then, when they were 40, they were finally allowed to direct a little cop movie."

In part thanks to family money, Chabrol had a smoother time of it than Tavernier: in 1958 he made Le Beau Serge, hailed as the first film of the Nouvelle Vague. There was safety in numbers, too, because the rest of the gang soon followed: the school of critics became a wave of directors, even if many thought their films had so little in common that it was effectively only a marketing device. "We were great friends and have stayed friends, although we rarely see each other these days. When someone needs help he knows he can call on us. It's a kind of secret society."

It may be that in France there is less suspicion between critics and practitioners; that, at any rate, is Tavernier's view. "France was one of the countries where intellectuals took the cinema seriously right from the beginning. In England or in America it was not exactly the same. Film was seen more as a business, and people who wanted to be directors were not inclined to write about movies because they wouldn't want to be considered by the studios as intellectual eggheads."

Directors disagree on whether it is useful to have begun as a critic - or a gross liability. Tavernier is all in favour: "I wanted to make films since the age of 14 and journalism was a way of getting to know directors. I learnt about life and politics by meeting with Joseph Losey and others from the Blacklist. And part of my own film Round Midnight came from the relationship I had with the drunk John Ford at the time."

But these professional contacts carry strings. This week's Variety, in a short report on the number of American journalists who are currently turning to screenwriting, notes disapprovingly the potential conflict of interest. An astonishing number of writers seem quite contentedly to double as critics in the literary world. But most film-makers reckon that it's not for them.

Before Paul Schrader became a director, he was a distinguished critic whose integrity was never in question - he was fired from a trendy magazine because he insisted on panning Easy Rider, sacrilege at the time to LA's radical chic. "A good part of me still sees films as a critic and still wishes I could write about them, particularly now that I understand how and why certain decisions are made," he says. "It's not possible, of course, because the film-making community is rather small and all the members have large egos and long memories, and nothing you write about them is ever good enough. In a matter of months you can destroy any chance of working."

Shivas says his Damascene conversion came in 1973 when, having already produced several projects for the BBC, he visited the set of The Three Musketeers to cover it for the New York Times, took against Christopher Lee and realised to his discomfiture that if he wrote badly of the actor he would never be able to work with him again.

There is a more general and insidious danger: that dogmas acquired as a critic might end up forcing a film-maker into an artistic straitjacket. Shivas has abandoned some once-cherished beliefs: in the early Sixties he was "very keen on the politique des auteurs" - the idea that the director is the main creative mover behind a film - but, since becoming a producer, sees things in a slightly different light. Another cornerstone of Movie doctrine when he was an editor there was that British cinema was awful. That, too, Shivas now prefers to deny. "We really panned Jack Clayton's Room at the Top [1959], but in 1992 I was only too delighted to make a film with him, Memento Mori."

For Schrader, the entire purpose of film- writing has changed, and not for the better. "When I was drawn into criticism, it was part of a whole political movement and critics had a function: we were a wing of the counter- culture. We were out there to carry the banner of Godard and bring the message. Well, that's gone now. There are no banners to carry and there is no message screaming from the screens. A large part of what used to be called criticism is now a wing of the marketing divisions of the studios."

But, in any case, he feels that, as a director, his stern intellectual background (his critical writings include a book on the Holy in the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer) is best left behind him. "I compare it to the difference between a medical examiner who conducts an autopsy and a pregnant woman preparing to give birth. One cuts the object open and says, `Why did it live or die?' The other just nurtures and hopes for the best."

Tavernier, a voracious film buff, takes the opposite view. "What was good about writing articles is that I was forced to be analytical; I find that useful when I'm writing a screenplay." And he uses another metaphor, the one you expect from a Frenchman (and one that also reveals the differences between the two directors). "People say there's a danger that seeing so many films will handicap you. But admiring, having dinner with, speaking to many beautiful girls does not discourage you from making love."

n Bertrand Tavernier's new film, `The Bait', opens tomorrow and is reviewed overleaf. Claude Chabrol's `The Ceremony' has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival

Today they make them. Then they just wrote about them...

BERTRAND TAVERNIER on Joseph Losey's `Time Without Pity':

"It seems there are some jokers who claim that it is English; but what relationship could there be between this film, so ragged and so heart- rending, and the stagnant pond formed by Sir Arthur Rank's productions? In truth, Time Without Pity pitilessly demystifies the British cinema, this pseudo-gentleman's cinema where politeness only covers a vacuum, where good manners only conceal platitudes, where everything exudes the keenest complacency. Here, we are in the presence of a bad-mannered film, a film which does not behave as it should... For the first time, in an English film, we have a social satire; we leave Leicester Square and the House of Lords for a poor England of sad streets, of sordid music-halls, of wretched flats."

MARK SHIVAS on Howard Hawks's `Gentlemen Prefer Blondes':

"From the basis of reality, Hawks travels as far as he can in the direction of absurdity and grossness... Each action is emphasised - Monroe swings her hips outrageously, [Charles] Coburn gobbles like a turkey, Tommy Noonan almost swoons when kissed, Jane Russell snarls like a tigress - just as each colour is exaggerated. The film has no surface of reality, but its base lies in reality, each character or action expressing some basic need or trait. As opposed to the surface realism world of cinema, where so much time is spent on supposedly convincing details with too little attention given to underlying theme for the story's own good, the world of Howard Hawks's comedies has the surface of absurdity and fantasy, but emphasises only the essential truths."

PAUL SCHRADER on Robert Bresson's `Pickpocket':

"A custom of medieval architecture holds that the final portion of a structure should be left untouched, perhaps a cupola or fillip of design, as a testament to man's humility and his faith in God's power to complete the building. The work of Robert Bresson strikes us as just that final touch of architecture, so pure it could have scarcely been made by man, and yet so consummate it caps and sacrifices the whole human effort.

Ascetic, proud, saintly, the films of Bresson rank among the finest expressions of the human spirit. [He] attempts and achieves the highest function of art; he elevates the spirit, not only of his characters and viewers, but somehow of the system which has entrapped us all."

CLAUDE CHABROL on Alfred Hitchcock's `Rebecca':

"There is no doubt that with Rebecca we are in the presence of the least confident of Hitchcock's great works: there are things to take and things to leave in it... But, precisely because of this, Rebecca is an inexhaustible source of interest for all lovers of pure cinema: it is fascinating to note the efforts of a creator to place his art and his art alone in the service of what he has to say.

Thus did Henry James, with whom Hitchcock has more than a little in common, seek, through the imperfections of The American or The Bostonians, the absolute harmony of form and content which he finally achieved with the great novels of his late period. Thus did The Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It lead eventually to The Tempest."

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