#334. The 400 Blows (1959)

This is my third time watching The 400 Blows since college. Something brings me back to it every couple years. And while all of these viewings, spaced out over a thousand or so days, have resonated with my feeling of youth, of having lots of new agitated feelings that I don’t quite know how to express, I went into it this time after watching the memoirist Mary Karr talk about how she loves it for being, basically, the portrait of the artist (in this case that artist is the director, Francois Truffaut) as a young man. She says she’s interested in any portrait of any artist.

            And I think I am, too.

            Because you see how, while growing into their community, there’s some kind of chafing. The status quo doesn’t accommodate them, they’re stifled by it, and we see the steam blowing quicker and whiter and louder out of their emotional kettle until they eventually find their outlet. And if you’re an artist, or a craftsman of any kind, you can probably relate to that portrait.

            It’s a little embarrassing to go on in this vein because it feels self-aggrandizing or, at best, just self-focused when a person says of themselves that they are “an artist,” especially if nobody else is saying that about you and your work, but so much has been said about The 400 Blows that I feel there’s no worthwhile way of discussing it except personally and what I want to focus on, in that case, is the fact that I am getting slightly cozier with the idea of calling myself an artist, or at least a “content creator” (a label that attracts more venom from Boomers than I can understand), and I think that a large part of this blooming self-awareness, this confidence, has to do with the coronavirus quarantine, and the unprecedented amount of time I’m able to spend by myself, doing creative work and exploring the arts.

            I’m loving it, this whole period of isolation and productivity. I’m looking at these movies more closely than ever, looking at how they converse with each other and amount to broader statements about the culture, the world, the artists that crated them.

            It’s making me think about cycles, phases, development.

            And right now, a few months removed from my 29th birthday, I’m thinking about how much I love what I’m doing right now and how might I hate the simple reality of having—of needing—not just one part-time job that doesn’t interest me, but two. The fact that I have to spend 50 hours a week on these jobs in order to barely make a living. I’m writhing and fitful againt these layers of wet institutional clothes and to see Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) dealing with something similar here, shackled to a certain code of behavior first at home and then at one school and then another, I feel like the movie is speaking directly to me all over again but also directly to my situation.

            With earlier viewings I was a little confounded by the final shot of The 400 Blows, in which the young protagonist breaks out of his reform school and runs and runs, aimlessly, just keeps going and going with a blend of fear and liberation—and eventually he carries himself to the beach, to the ocean. There’s no place left to run.

            He starts padding around aimlessly, he looks disoriented like he’d expected there would always be more space to run. And now he’s confronting the first truly unbudgable barrier of his life.

            He keeps padding about, can’t let himself stop moving, and then he looks to the camera. Freeze frame. Roll credits.

            This, I think, is the moment meant to signify not just the transition into adulthood, but the birth of the artist. Only when there’s finally no place to go is the troubled person forced to look inward, and to create.

            What rings with me personally about this ending now is that I think I’m hitting that barrier right now, in quarantine. I’ve always speculated about how I could muster the discipline to work at my craft fulltime, seven or ten hours a day, if only I were given the chance—but I don’t think I believed I would ever really have that chance.

            Now I’ve got it. and it turns out I can write full-time.

            So there’s something I’m trying to work out here about where to go next. Do I surrender one of these jobs? Do I reduce my hours and my expenses so that I can just sit here and focus? Maybe some new strand of more emboldened work will come out of me now that I’m taking myself and my work more seriously.

            But. Focusing on the movie: I was surprised, when reading about the heist film Bob le Flambeur, to learn that it’s widely considered the debut piece of French new Wave Cinema.

            I’d always that that 400 Blows was the first.

            And I think that impression was forged mostly by the fact that, whoever the New Wave’s paternal father may be, its godfather is Francois Truffaut, and I think that he achieves that status here because it’s a piece of New Wave cinema that takes seriously the daily life of young working-class French people, it dabbles in philosophy and focuses on story and character and movement more than plot, but it’s also fucking beautiful, visually, and its pacing suggests that it’s made by someone who loves cinema, who doesn’t look down on genre.

One of the terms Richard Brody uses in his biography of another New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard, is Hitchcocko-Hawksian, meaning the school of young filmmakers who grew up on the very technical and artisanal genre storytelling of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. They were able to enjoy the genre, but they mostly considered it a vehicle for style.

400 Blows isn’t a genre piece at all, but it’s paced like one, with dramatic setpiece after dramatic setpiece, a somewhat suspenseful arc of marital tension between the boy’s parents. We under stand our young hero, played by Jean Pierre Leaud, to be the center of the narrative. This is a story about a boy. He is the embodiment of the plot. A work in progress. Thus, while we get scattered images with no discernible consequence, like when he sees his mother kissing another man on the street, we can register the episode as something that maybe doesn’t advance the story, but it’s a trauma, and it advances his development toward adulthood. Toward artist.

            One of the things that I think characterizes New Wave cinema is the versatility of its camerawork, which I think I smostly hand-held, but the camera here is both dynamic and steady. The shots (particularly of architecture) are wistful and dignified and reflect, symbolically, a respect for form—which accounts for one of the most salient distinctions between the work of Truffaut and his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard—about whom, brace yourself, there’s much to be said in weeks to come.

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