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Critical Mass

Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave

2018
Author:

Steven Ungar

Critical Mass

Thirty-five years of nonfiction films offer a unique lens on twentieth-century French social issues

The first sustained study to trace the origins of social documentary filmmaking in late 1920s France, Critical Mass provides close readings of individual films and addresses transnational practices as well as state- and industry-wide reforms between 1935 and 1960. It is an indispensable complement to studies of French nonfiction film, from Georges Lacombe’s La Zone to Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai.

Brimming with as many fruitful insights as remarkable discoveries, Critical Mass amounts to a Declaration of Social Purpose for early French documentary film. Steven Ungar yokes the daring-do of the avant-garde to the political goals of the left over the course of some forty years of filmmaking. It is a triumph of critical analysis.

Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition

Critical Mass is the first sustained study to trace the origins of social documentary filmmaking in France back to the late 1920s. Steven Ungar argues that socially engaged nonfiction cinema produced in France between 1945 and 1963 can be seen as a delayed response to what filmmaker Jean Vigo referred to in 1930 as a social cinema whose documented point of view would open the eyes of spectators to provocative subjects of the moment.

Ungar identifies Vigo’s manifesto, his 1930 short À propos de Nice, and late silent-era films by Georges Lacombe, Boris Kaufman, André Sauvage, and Marcel Carné as antecedents of postwar documentaries by Eli Lotar, René Vautier, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Jean Rouch, associated with critiques of colonialism and modernization in Fourth and early Fifth Republic France.

Close readings of individual films alternate with transitions to address transnational practices as well as state- and industry-wide reforms between 1935 and 1960. Critical Mass is an indispensable complement to studies of nonfiction film in France, from Georges Lacombe’s La Zone (1928) to Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963).

Critical Mass

Steven Ungar is professor of cinema, French, and comparative literature at the University of Iowa. He is author of Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire; Scandal and Aftereffect: Blanchot and France since 1930 (Minnesota, 1995); Cléo de 5 à 7; and coauthor of Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture.

Critical Mass

Brimming with as many fruitful insights as remarkable discoveries, Critical Mass amounts to a Declaration of Social Purpose for early French documentary film. Steven Ungar yokes the daring-do of the avant-garde to the political goals of the left over the course of some forty years of filmmaking. It is a triumph of critical analysis.

Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition

A powerhouse crowning the career of a distinguished scholar of twentieth-century studies, Critical Mass will be an enduring point of reference for the history of both documentary cinema in France and of the genre tout court. Wide-ranging, meticulously researched, and incisive, Steven Ungar’s readings recover the contexts that shape documentary style, form, and process. Had André Breton read Critical Mass, he would have concluded, rightly, that cinema will be documentary or it will not be.

Tom Conley, Harvard University

Critical Mass

Introduction: Establishing Shots
1. A First Wave: Documentary Paris in the Shadow of the Talkies
2. Moving In, Moving Out
Études sur Paris
Transition I: 1929–1930
3. “All the World’s Misery”
A Propos de Nice to Aubervilliers
Transition II: Popular Front—Vichy—Postwar
4. Colonial Cinema and Its Discontents
René Vautier, Afrique 50
Alain Resnais/Chris Marker, Les Statues meurent aussi
Jean Rouch, Moi, un Noir
Transition III: The Group of Thirty
5. Two Takes on Postwar Paris: Scenes in a Library and Paris Springtime Zero
Alain Resnais, Toute la mémoire du monde
Chris Marker, Le Joli Mai
Afterthoughts: A Radical Lyricism
Acknowledgments
Appendix A. Declaration of the Group of Thirty
Appendix B. Quality Subsidy Study: Short-Subject Advantages
Notes
Filmography
Index