Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Reflections on the death of Bertrand Tavernier

   I’m waiting.
   For the end of the pandemic? Of course. For a society in which every police officer tries to diffuse tension without reaching for a weapon? That, too. 
    Along these lines, I admit that my wishes for the movies have diminished. During more than 40 years of reviewing, hope — that most essential of critical elixirs — has dimmed.
    Of course, good and even great movies still find their way to viewers. Talented, dedicated people continue to reinvigorate the movies. But those of us who once believed in the primacy and unparalleled intimacy of this form of artistry and storytelling, who applauded the rise of the great national cinemas, and who continually discovered directors whose work we couldn’t wait to see and digest, well ... times just ain’t what they used to be.
    The reasons for all of this have been made clear elsewhere and I needn’t elaborate them here, but I can’t help but think that missing the excitement movies once generated isn’t simply a matter of old-fart nostalgia for the idealized enthusiasms of youth. 
     About that youth: The movies had always been a preoccupation for many of us, but in the late 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s, they seemed to be talking in a new way, telling us that the way we saw the world wasn't entirely crazy. We felt that something almost magical had happened; suddenly, the movies belonged to us -- or at least we thought they did.
    We also felt as if we were helping to create "cinema culture" -- by appreciating it, thinking about it, reading about it, arguing about it, and  creating a language of common references. And, yes, that culture included lots of junk, although we thought we better than to conflate enjoyable junk with the best the movies had to offer.
    In short, we went to the movies -- at least once a week and sometimes more if we could play hooky from whatever jobs we happened to have by weaseling an extra hour for lunch.
    In a time defined by deracination and fragmentation of nearly everything, it has become almost impossible even to find a suitable definition for the word “culture.” 
    Talking about “cinema culture,” for example, might be more a wish than a reality. 
    Somewhere in your work life, you’ve probably encountered discussions of “corporate culture.” Yes, we know what it means, but — at the same time — the notion that business values and workplace standards can be thought of as “culture,” tends to push the word into the world of money, success, group behavior and ambition.
    All of this brings me to the recent death last month of Bertrand Tavernier, 79, the French director and irreplaceable champion of film history, not only saddened me but left me feeling that the ranks of those who care about and protect film culture have suffered an irreparable loss. 
   It will be more difficult now to hope.
   One of my treasured experiences was listening to Tavernier talk about the films of the pioneering Lumiere brothers. Tavernier persuasively argued that the Lumiere films (the 1896 on-coming train that supposedly shocked viewers out of their seats, for example) were not simply the result of pointing a camera and shooting “ordinary” life. They were, Tavernier argued,  considered constructions of the screen’s earliest film narratives.
   Tavernier began as a film critic. He had an enviably empathic yet sharp view of the cinema. I’ll never know as much as he did. I say this less as an admission of the considerable limits of my knowledge than as a tribute to his. 
   Many years ago, I saw Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country (1984) at the Telluride Film Festival. Like many of Tavernier’s films, it was neither shockingly adventurous nor norm shattering. Tavernier told a story about an artist gathering with his family on a picturesque Sunday while also assaying family relationships on the eve of World War I. 
   No, it wasn’t a groundbreaking movie, but it was so beautifully realized that when it concluded, I turned to the person next to me, hoping to find a moment of shared affirmation. She was an older woman who had, as I remember, been married to a cinematographer. 
   We exchanged a look of acknowledgement: We had shared something neither of us ever would forget, deep satisfaction and regard for a movie. 
    Nothing further needed to be said. The moment was perfect. Words might have destroyed its exquisite delicacy. I never saw that woman again.
     I interviewed him twice, heard him speak on several occasions, and admired his work and his mind, but I can't say I knew Tavernier. I did know that he loved and lived movies.
     There are all kinds of movie love. I’m sure you know people who insist on telling you how much they love movies. They do, of course. Taking them to task for not loving the way you do is bit like criticizing a friend's choice of a spouse, a display of blatantly poor taste.
     But for me, Tavernier serves as a model of real movie love, a love that finds its expression by situating itself in the evolving chain of visual storytelling, a love that made Tavernier the kind of filmmaker about whom one often could say his work was "beautifully realized."
      Tavernier had many accomplishments. I wish I had been able to tell him that among them -- and by no means among the most significant -- was teaching me something about what it means to find satisfaction in a movie and how to appreciate the rare and beautiful moment in which it occurs.

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