The Grandeur of Primitives
by Jean Renoir
I often admire recent films but it's an admiration within reason. I rarely lose it and I remain sensible. I think: "My God, what a beautiful photographic effect…;" "That actor's performance is great…," "This dialogue is perfect…," "Great direction…," etc., and I bore myself to death.
Every art that isn't purely individual goes through this. They are only great—really great—in their primitive state… Low-warp tapestry is fascinating; Beauvais' and Gobelins' are, of course, amazing, but good for official receptions. Ceramics from Urbino are adorable and, with just one of those little, awkward vases on your table, you enrich your life. Look at what the art of ceramics became with Sèvres and Meissen. I can watch a film by Méliès, a Griffith, an early Tourneur or a Max Linder ten times in a row. I can only endure a screening of our latest masterpieces once.
For as long as they've existed, men have confused art with the imitation of reality. In primitive periods, either the limitations of the technical means or certain religious rules created by well-advised prophets prevent artists from following this bad tendency. In our time, that of so-called progress, no more limitations, no more rules; and we are witnessing a kind of debauchery. Individual artists—painters, writers, sculptures, musicians—can still pull through. Nothing prevents them from taking in nature as they understand it and rendering it for us in the most unexpected forms. But to make a film, tons of people are put together, and even if one of them vaguely has the idea that one of the characteristics of art is to be artificial, even if this person manages to communicate this point of view to his co-workers, the odious voice of reason quickly makes itself heard. By "reason," I mean the need to make a commercial work and to not shock audiences who are supposedly connoisseurs of that famous "reality." They are, anyway, and how could they not be after twenty-five years of the idiotic perfection of photographic reproduction? Out of this come today's ideals. An actor becomes a star because he looks like lots of people we see in the street. This way, it is believed, people will be happy to see themselves on screen, with just a few, minor improvements: better fitting costumes, smoother skin, and no hairs in their nose. From time to time, a film director looks innovative by keeping the nose hair or by showing a young beginner with rotten teeth. For my part, if I'm shown, in a movie, the same people I can meet at a cafe, I don't see why I wouldn't go to the cafe instead of the movie. It's more comfortable and I can drink there.
Those who came before us were really lucky: orthochromatic film that didn't allow for any nuance and forced the most timid cameramen to accept violent contrasts; no sound, which forced the least imaginative actors and the must pedestrian directors to use involuntarily simplified means of expression.
Happy were the Etruscan potters who, for decorating their vases, only knew two colors.
Happy was Queen Matilda who, for Bayeux's masterpiece, ignored the perfected craft of high-warp tapestry and aniline dye.
Happy were the filmmakers who still believed themselves to be carnies. But the golden age is over. And we must either become "true auteurs" in the classical sense of the word, with all the responsibilities it entails, or let the already wavering flame of our marvelous magic lantern die.
Originally published in Ciné-Club, no. 7, May 1948
Re-published in Jean Renoir: écrits 1926-1971