The 400 Blows: More voodoo, please.

I just caught the last hour of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) on TCM, and as the film pedaled along toward its beautiful conclusion I found it filling me with oddly unbearable nostalgia.  And as I sat here just now, thinking where to go next after the first sentence, it dawned on me why.  I had a dream about college last night.  Pouring rain, so dense I couldn’t quite see the buildings across the lawn.  I stood under the eaves of a low brick dorm, thinking that I was going to have to learn to navigate through the rain.  I’ve had plenty of college dreams in the seven years since graduating – often involving the terrible panic of showing up for final exams for a lit class I skipped all semester (did I do that?  I can’t be sure) – and the geography of the place, in my dreams, always feels the same, if not always looking the same: stony, fluctuating between cramped and widespread, buildings plunked in the middle of misty fields, indistinct in their architecture but tunnely and familiar.

In a healthy way, I think, I walked away from college with a sense of how little in life I’d undertaken.  A sense of my anxieties and potential limits, maybe.  Not condemning, but part of my fiber.  I’m unlikely to be a world-changer, with my easily frustrated, antagonizable nerves.  I don’t want to defeat anyone, but I might want to be better than some.  A better man, a better filmmaker.  In high school I tried everything – track, clubs, orchestra, honor societies, choral groups – but in college I pared away what interested me less and focused almost exclusively on what I loved most.  For four years I watched everything I thought I should: Scorsese, Coppola, Lynch, Malick, Altman, Allen, Welles, Lumet, Kubrick, Stone, Mann, Cimino, Nichols, Polanski, Bertolucci, Truffaut, Resnais, Renoir, Kurosawa, Ozu, Imamura, Yimou, Angelopoulos, Herzog, Morris, McElwee.  Afterward, free of academic integrity, I caught up with the others: Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni, Kiarostami, Bergman, Haneke, Kieslowski, Wenders, von Trier, Leigh, Peckinpah, Greenaway, Lanzmann, Soderbergh, Anderson, van Sant, the Coens, the Dardennes, Leone, Kar-Wai, Tarr.  The lists look mighty cursory.

I never loved Godard, Mizoguchi, de Palma, Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Chaplin.  And I have yet to get my hands on Satyajit Ray, Parajanov, or Fassbinder.  I adore The Leopard (1963) but have never seen another Visconti film, and my exposure to de Sica is still limited to The Bicycle Thief (1948) and his suave performance in Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de…(1953).  But I felt an overwhelming warmth watching The 400 Blows this morning.  It’s a film dropped on me early in college, an example of, ahem, cinematography in Film Form & Film Sense (Middlebury’s all-purpose Movies 101).  It’s impossible to separate my experience of the film now from Leger Grindon’s effervescent lectures or recollections of my own essay (the man-made wall receding in the background on the beach, as Antoine jogs toward the surf, symbolizes his futile attempt to free himself from the restrictions of the adult world).  The film is so clear in its meaning, so carefully modulated by Truffaut with so much dry-eyed affection for his little protagonist, that there is something brittle and magnificent about the thing to begin with.  Films are simply not made this way anymore – or, possibly, I’m just cynical of films that are.  Because, and far more to the point, I can only have one 400 Blows: the first of hundreds I began to watch with conscious thought to what I could actively take from it, rather than what it could give to me in my passive, guzzling repose.

Maybe that’s more passive, to drink what’s offered rather than to scarf with lust.  A great film doesn’t give you everything you want (or think you need).  It leaves room for you to invest yourself – in pieces, never all at once.  It’s hard to escape the fact that you’re looking at nothing but pictures, not real life, so even if you choose to take, whatever you walk away with is entirely up to you.  But if you can take a whole film in, completely and on your own terms, it can become your own, a brick in your facade, a shingle on your roof.  A shoe on your foot or an umbrella in the rain.  The goddamn things perform some inscrutable psychic voodoo that I can no more reject than deny, so I’m happy to just need them.

And for another reason, now.  At 1500 feet into my next film – the first of seven shoot days, one scene done of thirteen – the prospect of failure looms over the four cans of unseen footage and the work that still lies ahead.  The lab could damage the negative, or the sound guy could give me a boom shadow.  I could misframe a shot, misdirect an actor, skew the rhythm or obscure the meaning.  Or worse: the script might not translate into motion picture.  Pretension could take the place of sound expression.  The ability to recognize a good film does not produce the ability to make one, and so the necessary concerns of feeding, clothing, and maintaining myself against the quotidian dreamscape of missed college classes pales beside the horrible, debilitating specter of personal inadequacy.

But Truffaut didn’t capture perfection in The 400 Blows.  It’s a jittery film, graceful in design but riddled with human error: shaky shots, hairs on the negative, the shadow of camera and crew, awkward performance beats, obvious dramatic structure, unsubtle music cues.  None of which kills anything at all.  Truffaut’s fingerprints are everywhere.  Good to remember.

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