I’m grateful to the Newport International Film Festival for making me a last-minute addition to their otherwise highly distinguished feature film jury panel. I needed to get out of town, and this was my idea of jury duty: five days of watching an array of ambitious and provocative films amid Newport, R.I.’s stately mansions, clambakes, chowder cookoffs, and-let’s not forget-the oldest Jewish synagogue in America.
The Newport festival, in its inaugural year, was thoughtfully planned and impressively organized by its founders, Christine Schomer (a Rhode Island native), Nancy Donahoe and Maude Chilton. There were a number of memorable premiere screenings, including one film-Craig Richardson’s utterly original Anima -which I lobbied for and succeeded in persuading my fellow jurors to name Best American Feature at the festival. In addition, there was an Irish gangster film, I Went Down , which transcended its genre in an unexpected way, and a documentary called The Cruise that I suspect will become a crowd-pleasing hit and make its loquacious double-decker-bus tour guide subject Timothy (Speed) Levitch-a great New York character-some kind of star.
But it was a film in the festival’s revival program that gave me the most food for thought. A film I hesitate to admit I’d never seen before because to admit one hasn’t see The 400 Blows will seem to some-certainly to certain cinéastes -as a shameful, even shocking confession of a vast gap, a black hole in one’s education and experience. Shameful and shocking because The 400 Blows is, in many respects, the founding document of an entire culture, the whole espresso-sipping, Cahiers du Cinéma -quoting, Gauloise-smoking, black-framed-glasses-and-black-leather-jacket-wearing, auteur -theory-accepting, mise-en-scène -scoping, revival-house-haunting sensibility. A sensibility often, if not always, formed by an early enraptured viewing of The 400 Blows , the cult Bible, the veritable Book of Mormon of the entire cinéaste subculture. For a certain type of self-consciously serious cinephile, it’s a film that has changed lives, created careers, marriages and personalities.
As you’re probably aware, it’s the very first feature by François Truffaut, the autobiographical story of a rebellious schoolboy who can’t stay out of trouble with his mean schoolteachers and quarreling parents, who runs away from school, from home and, finally, from the reform school he’s sent to for running away from everything else. Just to mention The 400 Blows is to conjure up to the entire lost world of revival houses, of espresso esthetes in black turtlenecks watching black-and-white films with bad subtitles and making sweeping black-and-white moralizing judgments about cinema history as if it were the most-the only-important thing in the world. It’s a fate I’d been spared, a road not taken, not by conscious choice but more by accident or laziness, a haphazard predisposition not to want to become a type , or at least that type.
It certainly wasn’t because I had anything against Truffaut. In fact, for many years after I first saw it in college, I was the world’s biggest fan of Stolen Kisses , the Truffaut feature that followed the child hero of The 400 Blows into adulthood. I loved Stolen Kisses ; for years, any time I felt like I might be falling in love, I had to see Stolen Kisses with the woman in question; it probably ruined my life in subtle ways I’m only now discovering. So I don’t really know why I never got around to seeing The 400 Blows , perhaps because it looked a bit grim in its severe black and white, perhaps because I didn’t want to be reminded of my own unhappy, rebellious childhood troubles with authority, who knows.
And then, after a while, it showed less frequently at revival houses, and revival houses themselves virtually disappeared with the advent of tape rentals, and I never felt like renting it because I didn’t want to see such an important and influential film for the first time on a TV screen. But there it was on the Newport Film Festival revival program, scheduled to play full screen at a great old movie house, the restored Jane Pickens theater.
Still, I was reluctant. I had a heavy schedule of 10 features in competition I had to see for my jury duty. But then, I was reluctant as well because-what if I really, really liked it? I’d have to reconsider the whole course of my life and wonder regretfully whether everything would have been different if I’d seen it in my youth. I’d evolved a kind of Truffaut-preference personality theory akin to my Jane Austen-novel-preference personality theory: that there were 400 Blows people and Stolen Kisses people. I’d always had no doubt I was a Stolen Kisses person and, from knowing 400 Blows types, never wanted to be one, but what if it turned out I was a 400 Blows person who’d been mistakenly living a Stolen Kisses life? It might be just as bad as if I was a Persuasion person (which I am) living a Mansfield Park life.
And so I probably wouldn’t have made time for it if it hadn’t been for a story Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films told at the festival’s opening-night ceremonies. He was there to introduce the American premiere of a Miramax film, The Mighty (which features Sharon Stone and Gena Rowlands, among others). But he digressed to talk about The 400 Blows . When he was a teenager, he and about 15 friends went to see it, misled, he said with a smile, “by a misinterpretation of the title.” By the end of the film, he said, out of 15 that went, only two, he and his brother Bob, were left. They’d loved it, he said, their entire future career as independent-sensibility movie moguls grew out of that enthralled initial vision of The 400 Blows .
It reinforced my feeling that the film was the founding document of a culture, that I somehow had to see it, if only as cultural studies homework, regardless of the threat for life-changing regret it represented. But-I regret to say-it absolutely left me cold. From its opening sequence with its clichéd travel agency tour-of-Paris montage-ooh, that’s the Eiffel Tower!-backed by tinkly ooh-la-la accordion music, to the final freeze frame, it left me wondering: What was that all about? Sure, the rebellious kid, Antoine Doinel, has a wistful charm as he struggles with mean schoolmasters and troubled parents, but so what? Is it a revelation that adult authority is often mean and hypocritical? That some children are sensitive and rebellious and innocent by contrast? I just didn’t see anything unique or illuminating about this reprise of Rousseauvian child worship.
I found myself asking some of the serious cinéastes at the festival what they thought was so special about The 400 Blows . Some of them cited Truffaut’s “lyrical camera movement,” some of them cited the final freeze frame of the kid running away (supposedly the first time a freeze frame had been used, certainly to end a picture), so maybe it left me cold because what were once innovations had become overly familiar. Others cited its importance as autobiographical recollection-how Truffaut himself was a rebellious kid who obsessively played films for friends until he was taken up by André Bazin, the Cahiers du Cinéma savant. But again, so what? Autobiographical value doesn’t equal esthetic value, does it? I’d found myself fighting boredom, trying not to doze off watching it.
What’s the deal, why the reverence for this dull film? In the days that followed, I picked up on what might be the real clue to its continuing popularity, what I’ve come to think of as “the Jean-Luc smile.” Almost invariably, when I’d mention I’d seen The 400 Blows to one of the women working at the festival, they’d break into a lovely radiant smile, a smile I theorized had something to do with The 400 Blows perhaps, but maybe as much to do with the memory of the French boyfriend who’d taken them to see it in Paris. You know the way the two women in the General Foods International Coffee canned-cappuccino-mix commercials reminisce about “Jean-Luc,” that waiter in Paris they’d shared in some unspecified way? All those Jean-Lucs clearly had studied Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel character, calculatedly reproduced that wistful boyish charm. Jean-Luc was Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows .
That was the benign aspect of The 400 Blows influence-who could begrudge those Jean-Luc smiles? But I’ve come to believe there was a malign aspect as well: The entire cult of the child in cinéaste sensibility can probably be traced back to The 400 Blows . The Rousseauvian worship of childhood innocence pervades film like no other medium. Sooner or later, many great filmmakers, and many bad ones, make an homage to their hazy memories of childhood innocence and adult corruption. Not that I don’t believe adults are corrupt, I certainly do, but I think children are corrupt and cruel as well.
You could see the exaltation of childhood innocence in a number of the films at the Newport festival. The Miramax offering Harvey Weinstein was presenting, The Mighty , gave us a precious prodigy of a kid suffering from an obscure fatal disease who hooks up with a kind of dumb-but-noble outsider kid who carries him around on his shoulders and protects him, My Bodyguard -style. It got to me on a sentimental level, and there are terrific performances by Ms. Stone and Ms. Rowlands, but it was just the first of a number of remarkably similar celebrations of children in the festival’s offering.
There was Children of Heaven , an Iranian film (also distributed by Miramax) about two charming tykes who scheme to share one pair of wearable shoes between them. There was Gadjo Dilo , a film about a French musicologist who moves in with gypsies in Romania, which treats the colorful Roma people as if they were noble-savage children. There was Dead Broke , a stagy noirish drama in which the fact that a child turns out to be the murderer becomes merely an affirmation of her essential innocence. At a certain point I felt a longing to rent Child’s Play for its refreshing-by-contrast vision of the demonic “Chuckie,” the child-doll as serial killer. And perhaps one reason I campaigned so hard for Anima in our jury deliberations is that Craig Richardson’s powerful feature offers a vision of two really old people in love, and traces the sadness haunting them to the heartless cruelty of two 10-year-old kids.
As for The 400 Blows , maybe I just saw it too late to appreciate it, maybe it became the adopted inner child of the cinephile because cinephiles saw it first at a time when they were saying a regretful farewell to their own childhood. But it just didn’t happen for me. I was so disillusioned it made me wonder if I could have been wrong all along about that other archetypal, sensibility-shaping Truffaut experience, Stolen Kisses . As soon as I got back from the Newport festival, I raced out to rent it, put it on, and sighed with pleasure and relief. It’s still as sly and brilliant and funny and urgent and touching as I remembered. It’s about obsession and Time as well as love and secrets and staircases. Leave The 400 Blows to the cinéastes and the Jean-Lucs. My heart is still lost to-stolen by- Stolen Kisses .