I’ve been writing this column off and on for a few years now and I thought I’d shake it up a bit by turning it into a dialogue. My first exposure to film criticism was watching At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert as a kid, and I’d like to capture some of that spirit here. I turned to a friend for whom I have tremendous respect, the novelist and short story writer Aimee Bender. I proposed that we both independently watch a film then have a conversation about it via email. I invited Aimee to choose the film and she picked Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which neither of us had seen. Our conversation follows.
Ryan: I was happy you picked The 400 Blows because I’d only seen Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Fahrenheit 451. It’s one of those movies I’ve always felt I should have seen by now, so thanks for motivating me to see it.
I thought I’d toss out a quick summary of the film for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it. It’s about a boy named Antoine Doinel growing up in France sometime in the mid 20th century. His bombshell mom is having an affair, his dad is constantly exasperated with him, and his teachers hate his guts. Over the course of the film he and his best friend Rene get into a lot of trouble. Things get grim for Antoine. He goes to jail and then to an institution for delinquents. Anything you’d add to that?
I kept thinking of how the sadness of The 400 Blows doesn’t really come from the mere fact of bad stuff happening to Antione. It’s more that his parents and teacher come down on him so severely for mischief that seems so unremarkably normal, if not inspired.
Aimee: So, I picked it also because I recently finished Kafka on the Shore, a book that is, in part, about how art almost sits in waiting for an available listener/viewer/reader to come in and join. And one of the characters went to a movie theatre and saw The 400 Blows and I realized I’d never seen it and wanted to.
About the summary– it also feels intensely to me like a film about solitude. By the end, he is totally alone, mostly in a painful way, but also it’s unclear. Will he find his way? Is he at the end of his road, or not? He’s a resourceful kid. I was struck by how nicely he set the table for his parents– not what I see in most kids without prompting.
And yes– his mischief is not special, not extraordinary. I thought the sadness also came from his awareness of not really being wanted.
Ryan: I read Kafka on the Shore soon after it came out, but I’d forgotten the reference to The 400 Blows. Antoine would fit quite nicely in a Murakami novel, right? I agree with you about the loneliness, but there’s also this great friendship in the film with Rene, his partner in crime. I think the saddest moment for me was when Rene tries to visit Antoine at the delinquents’ home and is turned away. I also got a kick out of how Antoine was obsessed with Balzac, to the point of making a shrine. He’s the kind of kid who seeks a sort of psychic community in art, and the scenes where he goes to the movies with his parents seemed like a reprieve from the general suckiness of his home and school life. Which I suppose is kind of magical to think that this film is itself something that might help someone forget their troubles for awhile.
I’m really curious about this idea of how art can sit in waiting. This idea feels cut from the same cloth as something you wrote years ago in your essay about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (an essay I routinely give to my students, by the way). You talked about Murakami getting to a point where he didn’t know where the story was supposed to go, so he had Toru, his main character, simply sit on a bench and wait for something to happen. I think about this observation a lot as it relates to my own work. Do you feel that The 400 Blows was waiting for you to enter it?
Aimee: Yes, you’re so right about Rene, and that very sad moment. Why is he turned away, do you think? Because he’s a kid? And true, about the movies– apparently Truffaut himself found total refuge in going to the movies, too.
Art sitting in waiting– in Kafka, he was talking really about how a character opened up to art and suddenly liked Beethoven, something which shocked him. And I know for myself I often will find something wonderful that years before I found impenetrable. Like we have to live our way up to certain works of art, and others we will never understand. With 400 Blows— I think since I know it’s a huge milestone in cinema, it did feel like it was waiting there until I (or any other viewer) would open it up. Did you feel that at all?
There’s an amazing scene where Truffaut lifts up above the city and shows just patterns of walking– kids running into a store, and adults almost goosestepping to work. There’s such a quietness to the scope– he never pushed on his dramatic scenes, but I found that sudden distant shot really powerful. It felt like there wasn’t a lot of judgement there– just watching as we go about our spinning circles. What scene or scenes felt particularly memorable to you?
Ryan: I think Rene was turned away because the adults in charge were just assholes, really. They wouldn’t allow Antoine the pleasure of friendship. I think a lot of unjust things happen to us when we’re kids that we don’t realize are unjust until later, and some of us make movies about it. The 400 Blows feels like an act of revenge.
I’ve had that experience too, of a work of art suddenly opening up for me after being inscrutable. This is how it was with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which I’d seen on a lot of Best Albums of All Time lists. Knowing it was widely revered made me keep coming back to it, even though the first few times I listened to it I found it wimpy. Then, during one of the periods when I was out of work, I put it on and was incredibly moved. I’ve always had a knee-jerk reaction to the canonical, especially when it comes to books. Not something I’m particularly proud of, actually. Music and films, less so. I guess because I grew up being wary of English teachers who didn’t seem as invested in books as I was, who had to assign books that avoided controversy. Film was a different story because I had no sense of “cinema” as opposed to “movies” until I was a teenager discovering the “Foreign” section at the video store. But I find it’s harder for me to approach a work of art that comes with the baggage of a big reputation.
I loved that walking sequence, too. But the one scene that stuck out for me was where Rene messes with the clock to trick his father into leaving so Antoine won’t be found. There’s a shot with a cat in the background, and it’s obviously an edit because suddenly the cat has changed position. I love little things like that. And I’d venture to say Truffaut did too, as he makes this point in Jules and Jim when Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine is delighted to point out flaws when she goes to the cinema.
I’ve read that Truffaut denied this film was autobiographical, particularly when it came to the parents. That sort of denial never feels entirely legit to me, though I think I understand where it comes from, out of a resistance to treating art as an algebra problem. Would you agree that it’s possible for art to be emotionally autobiographical without being factually so?
Aimee: Ah! That’s funny about the cat and Jules and Jim.
I absolutely think art can be emotionally autobiographical– I think it actually has to be in order to work. And factual is sort of beside the point. My sister once quoted her friend Elizabeth MacCracken as saying just that– that ‘write what you know’ means ‘write what you know emotionally’ which seems spot on to me.
I’ve wondered about Pet Sounds— don’t think I’ve really heard it yet (have listened but poorly) but that’s motivating. I did feel it with books, too– I think it takes awhile to figure out that the classics are classics because usually they, too, are lively in a somewhat subversive way. I mean, Moby Dick? I figured I’d hate Gatsby and Ulysses and only in grad school did I really look at those books and feel amazed at how playful they were, how much joy there was on a sentence level. Even if I didn’t understand most of Ulysses, I was stunned at how much fun he was having.
I also love how when Antoine meets the psychologist, he’s suddenly a chatterbox. It’s really sad, actually, because everyone has been saying how inscrutable and difficult-to-read he is, and then as soon as someone just asks, someone he doesn’t think is a hypocrite, he opens right up. And he is in fact highly observant and insightful. I found that scene really powerful.
Which books did you knee-jerk react against, canon-wise?
Ryan: I think the best thing I’ve heard about the idea of emotional autobiographicality (Is that a word? It is now) was from John Irving. One time one of his kids was asked whether John Irving was Garp. The boy thought a moment and said something like “My dad’s not Garp, but my dad’s fears are Garp’s fears.”
Pet Sounds really is worth sitting down with, though you might have to just smile politely through “Sloop John B,” which still sounds dippy to me. As for canonical books, I remember being assigned to read Huckleberry Finn in eighth grade, and being prepared to hate it because that was pretty much my attitude about every sucky book we got assigned. This was a period when my reading habits were bouncing between straight-up genre pulp like military potboilers and curious forays into The Inferno and Catcher in the Rye. And I remember getting into a conversation with a friend of mine about Huck Finn and almost accidentally, against my will, getting really excited about it. What I guess rankled me about English class in general was the way these books were slammed onto your desk with sort of a “try to figure out the three distinct reasons why this is brilliant, pipsqueak” attitude. I don’t believe in classics that get an automatic free pass, I believe they have to earn their status one reader at a time. I guess I’m arguing against pedestals here. By the time I got to grad school I had adopted an attitude of all-inclusiveness, that I would throw myself at the mercy of any book assigned to me. That meant Gatsby, Lolita, The Brothers Karamazov, Pere Goriot (go Balzac!) all opened up for me. But damn if Hardy’s Jude the Obscure didn’t make me want to shoot myself.
I love that scene where Antoine explains himself, too. He’s being so honest, and it was easy to imagine myself, if I were in his situation, behaving the same. It’s so refreshing to see a character completely put all his cards on the table and demand that we see him as he is. And you know, of course, that there are other Antoine Doinel films. I’m curious to see what he’s like when he’s older.
Aimee: Hadn’t heard that Garp quote before, but that fits with MacCracken’s exactly.
I know what you mean about the English class difficulty– hard on teachers to move past that, but Flannery O’Connor critiques it really well in her Mystery and Manners book, in an essay on the teaching of literature. She also hates the ‘hunting’ attitude, the theme-searching, which makes it more of a treasure hunt than an exploration and understanding.
Never tried Hardy– but I don’t think I’d like it much either! But maybe I’m just having the same old prejudice here– hard to tell.
I am curious about the older Antoine, too, but I also like the ambiguity of the end, where we really don’t know if he’ll be okay or not. I was so struck in that explaining scene, at how at ease he looked. He wasn’t a kid who took any time at all to open up. He was happily forthright, moving his hand over the table, expounding. Up until that scene, I think he’d been largely silent, unavailable to the viewer, too.
There was another moment that was so visually striking (there are tons) but when he’s listening to his parents complain about him, and we see the whites of his eyes vividly and clearly in the dark, as he is lying in his bed– these blinking bright dots of white on the screen. Maybe it links up to the psychologist scene to me, as another moment of registered awareness. But it’s done so quietly, without any overexplaining on Truffaut’s part.
It’s fun to discuss! Thanks for the opportunity to finally see it and talk about it.