When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
François Truffaut left his formal schooling at the age of 14 and pursued his own education with the cinema as an alternative classroom. His goal was to watch three movies a day and read three books a week. He did this mostly by sneaking into one of the 200 theatres in his Parisian neighborhood that had popped up after the Second World War. He spent time at a juvenal detention center for stealing a typewriter before landing a job as a film critic.
Truffaut developed a reputation for the passionate way he advocated for or condemned a film under his review, gaining the nickname “the grave-digger of French Cinema”. His most famous is A Certain Tendency In French Cinema in which he criticized the prevailing trend of psychological realism as being neither psychological nor realistic. In other he promoted many American directors who had been dismissed as mere entertainers.
His first feature length movie, Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows), ushered in the French New Wave. Armed with an auteur theory and a lighter camera, New Wave films became idiosyncratic and free to shoot on location. They had in-jokes for the cinematically educated. Many experimented with unconventional styles of production. Truffaut was at the center of this movement, and arguably his work outlasted it.
Three categories serve to organize Truffaut’s films. There are the films of childhood and adolescence like The 400 Blows (1959) The Wild Child (1970) and Small Change (1976) . Then there are the loosely-adhering genre pictures that were most influenced by Hollywood, like Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Shoot The Piano Player (1960) The Soft Skin (1964) and The Bride Wore Black (1968).
Lastly there are the historical films like Jules et Jim (1962) The Green Room (1978) and The Last Metro (1980). Films that don’t fit these categories are often dramas centered around love triangles, but this is hardly comprehensive of the director’s prodigious output.
Truffaut’s directorial career lasted 29 years—from 16mm experiments culminating in the 35mm short Les Mistons (1957) until his death in 1983. He directed 21 feature films and 3 shorts. Martin Scorsese describes the oeuvre thusly: “Truffaut’s passion for cinema, the desire that it stirred in him, animates every movie he ever made, every scene, every shot.
He spent a very long time in the editing room with each of his pictures, and you can see it up there on the screen: each cut from one image to the next has a sense of surprise, each frame looks like it’s been lovingly scrutinized.”
1. La Règle du Jeu (1939) Dir. Jean Renoir
On the eve of World War 2, Jean Renoir made a humanistic satire of contemporary French society. Nearly everyone is in love or having an affair with a person other than their marriage partner, servants as well as aristocrats.
Typical of a comedy of manner, the characters converge on a grand country estate for some high class diversions like cards, dancing, a bird shoot, amateur theatrics, and the unveiling of a massive mechanical orchestra. Renoir plays the friend and go-between in the affairs, and he speaks the line that has become the movie’s thesis: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
When the picture was re-released after the war, Truffaut saw it 12 times over a few weeks. In an article he wrote in April of 1950, he said with no intention of hyperbole that The Rules of the Game “can be considered the greatest film in the history of cinema.”
When he later avowed that there is a way to see films that will teach you more about directing a film than working as an assistant director, he was certainly thinking about Renoir’s masterpiece.
“I think Renoir is the only filmmaker who’s practically infallible, who has never made a mistake on film. And I think if he never made mistakes, it’s because he always found solutions based on simplicity—human solutions. He’s one film director who never pretended. He never tried to have a style, and if you know his work—which is very comprehensive, since he dealt with all sorts of subjects—when you get stuck, especially as a young filmmaker, you can think of how Renoir would have handled the situation, and you generally find a solution.”
The thematic influences that clearly pass from Renoir to Truffaut includes the tolerance for human weakness. Neither director is terribly interested in heroes as such. Nor are they invested in ennobling the suffering of characters in a tragedy or ridiculing them in comedy. With a sobering dash of realism, characters are illuminated in all their complexity. And that is what they honor in the depiction.
For Truffaut, Renoir set the precedent of building plots around characters, rather than characters around plots. In both director’s work we see story structure that resists formula, like the love triangle in Jules et Jim that offers no final settlement of relations.
Renoir taught Truffaut the visual dynamics of everyday life with the staging of conversations in The Rules of the Game. There is a depth of action, like a traditional theatre stage, where rooms are traversed as dialog is exchanged.
Even in the climactic action, the characters do not zoom from one side of the camera frame to the other and out, as would be the case in a more traditional film farce like the Marx Brothers films. There is a naturalness to the way space is employed and it was enhanced by Truffaut’s own poetic sensibility when on-location shooting became more feasible.
This is one pole of the cinematic tradition that Truffaut incorporated into his own work. On the other end is.
2. Rear Window (1954) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
James Stewart is a daring photojournalist temporarily incapacitated by a leg injury. To pass the time while he recuperates he observes the neighborhood life of his Greenwich Village apartment complex through his rear window. Among the daily dramas he sees unfold, there is a chance that he has become the sole witness to a murder—and the murderer may know.
Truffaut once described the artfulness of Hitchcock’s direction as “[he] films scenes of love like scenes of murder, and scenes of murder like scenes of love.” His thrillers were among the deluge of American productions that came to France after the German Occupation, and Truffaut was enamored with the style. Later, in 1962, Truffaut paid homage to the British-born director by conducting a series of interviews with him, going through ever film in his oeuvre. The resulting book changed the way society valued the Master of Suspense.
Martin Scorsese once said, “More than any of his peers, Truffaut stood for a continuity of film history. His book on Hitchcock, for instance, is indispensable to anyone interested in movies. It’s also very unusual: here was one of the world’s most established and celebrated filmmakers taking the time to do a very lengthy series of interviews with a much older director in the twilight of his career. It’s an extraordinary act of homage, almost unthinkable today.”
With a wry sense of humor, the terrifying occurrences in a Hitchcock thriller are given an ironic twist that saves it from flat melodrama. When Truffaut employs similar counterpoints in his darker films like The Bride Who Wore Black or Mississippi Mermaid, or his most successful thriller Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours), the result is more subtle. Hitchcock rounded out the perverse world of his thrillers with humor; but Truffaut never really believed in the perversity of the world.
Even Confidentially Yours, with its borrowing of such classic Hitchcock elements as icy blondes and a corpse with a knife in the back, is more of a comic noir than a straight film noir. The man-woman dynamic is inversed, such that the man is passively trapped in a basement while the woman does most of the mystery-solving.
3. Germania Anno Zero (1948) Dir. Roberto Rossellini
In his 1963 article about Roberto Rossellini, Truffaut answers the question of influence with candor. “Was I influenced by Rossellini? By all means. His severity, his seriousness, his thoughtfulness freed me from some of the complacent enthusiasm I’d felt for American movies. Rossellini detests clever titles, especially with scenes preceding them, flashbacks, and everything in general that’s included simply for decoration, everything that does not serve the film’s intention or the character development. In some of my films I’ve tried to follow a single character simply and honestly in an almost documentary manner, and I owe this method to Rossellini. Aside from [Jean] Vigo, Rossellini is the only filmmaker who has filmed adolescence without sentimentality, and The 400 Blows owes a great deal to his Germania Anno Zero.”
Germany Year Zero is an unflinching tale of the postwar era, centered around 12-year-old Edmund whose family and five other families eek out an existence in a ruined tenement. Edmund’s older brother is a Nazi in hiding from the police and his sister is a streetwalker. Edmund gets caught up in the black market to provide for his family and befriends a former schoolteacher who shows him how to adapt to this harsh new world.
Truffaut claimed that the character of Edmund was the first instance in cinema that a child provides the “center of gravity” in the movie. And like his own depictions of childhood, it is the adult world that appears frivolous in contrast to the sincerity and simplicity of the child actor.
Rossellini reinforced a quality of realism in cinema that Truffaut found in Renoir. And he insisted to Truffaut that the story of a film should not arise out of invention, but rather the facts. A simple conflict between characters of detailed bias naturally builds a story around it, without decoration.
Truffaut was Rossellini’s assistant for three years. They never shot a movie together but Truffaut maintained that he learned a great deal from Rossellini, “the Godfather of the French New Wave”. Artificiality in cinema were their common enemy.
4. Citizen Kane (1941) Dir. Orson Welles
Truffaut claimed to know Citizen Kane by heart; and if he saw it close to as many times as his beloved Renoir, then it’s not an outrageous claim to make. The sympathetic yet destructive Charles Kane on his quest for love fits nicely into the humanistic and character-centered cinema that was Truffaut’s education and partisanship.
What distinguished Citizen Kane from the other highlights of this tradition is the way Orson Welles uses music to tell the story. “When I see Kane today, I’m aware that I know it by heart, but in the way you know a recording rather than a movie. I’m not always as certain what image comes next as I am about what sound will burst forth, or the very timbre of the next voice that I’m going to hear, or the musical link to the next scene. (Before Kane, nobody in Hollywood knew how to set music properly in movies.) Kane was the first, in fact the only, great film that uses radio techniques.”
The fragmentary nature of the narrative reveals that a great film, an epic film, can be made modestly through the artful application of editing, acting, and story. Kane is a monstrous creation, a free agent in pursuit of the will to power with only himself as a worthy rival. Welles’ training in Shakespeare is translated brilliantly into a modern tragedy
Reflecting on the impact of Citizen Kane, Truffaut describes his generation of film lovers having “a taste for escaping one’s own milieu, a thirst for novelty, romanticism, and also obviously a spirit of contrariness, but mostly a love of vitality… Citizen Kane, which was never dubbed, sobered us up from our Hollywood binge and made us more demanding film lovers.”
5. Zero de Conduite (1933) Dir. Jean Vigo
A cine-club retrospective exposed Truffaut to all of Jean Vigo’s work at once. Both Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante are among his most beloved movies but Zero for Conduct makes the list for showing the way and the desire for Truffaut to make The 400 Blows.
“In a way, Zero de Conduite seems to represent something rarer than L’Atalante because masterpieces devoted to childhood, in literature and in film, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They knock us out on two grounds: besides the aesthetic response, there is the autobiographical, the personal response. All films about children are period films because they send us back to short pants, school days and the blackboard, summer vacations, our beginnings.”
This story of a group of schoolboys rebelling against the order of their boarding school closes the gap between the audience and the filmmakers in a way that seems revolutionary even today. For Truffaut, this amounts to an honesty on the part of Jean Vigo to eschew the independence of the film’s aesthetic coherency for the interrelation between it’s characters, maker, and the identification of audience members.
In later maturity, Truffaut played with the antagonism between teachers and students in Small Change—another school-film set in Thiers. The naturalism that Vigo is first to render in juvenal characters is extended to the teachers, who are endowed with an affection towards their young pupils that reveals the depth of their feeling.
Truffaut is not the first nor the last filmmaker to successfully render the days of youth and education in meaningful light. What he passes on to the later generation of filmmakers is a sense of integrity in representing the emotional world of children without sentimentality nor exploitation. The first glimmer of this tradition began with Jean Vigo, of whom Truffaut estimated, “What was Vigo’s secret? Probably he lived more intensely than most of us.”