French Culture plays across the big screen
Film studies professor Tim Palmer has been awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant, securing a key source of funding for his ongoing research and writing on French cinema. Palmer’s fourth book, titled A Liberated Cinema: The Postwar Reconstitution of the Postwar Film State, 1946—1958, harkens back to his earliest work on the topic, an investigation of France’s modern film culture and its network of related institutions.
“I’ve always been fascinated by French cinema,” explains Palmer. “Filmmaking in France has great diversity and is tremendously successful.” France distributes the most films of any region outside North America, including a wide variety of genres and styles ranging from commercial, animated, micro-budget, avant-garde and documentary film—produced by women filmmakers, as well as men. Relatedly, France houses several of the world’s most prestigious film schools.
“The question is, how did all this begin?” Palmer asks. “How did France manage to get such a diverse range of cinema and all these forms of expression?”
And how has film become so integral to French identity? Cultural values, says Palmer.
“France as a country has always prided itself on having a vigorous haven for film artists and artists of all kinds. And this manifests through cinema,” he says. “The relevant authorities want French film not only to be economically robust, but to be seen as a bastion of culture.”
Many trace the origins of French cinema to the 1960s, namely, the French New Wave movement. Yet Palmer’s research reveals that the true genesis began two decades earlier, in the aftermath of World War II, as authorities recognized an opportunity to rebuild French culture by investing in French film.
France’s leading film school, called IDHEC, started in 1944, and the now world-famous Cannes Film Festival started two years later, in 1946. To focus only on the New Wave is to ignore “an entire generation of filmmakers and institutional changes,” says Palmer.
“Why has there been no coverage of this period?” he continues. “Who was making films then? Who saw them? Who funded them? How were they put together? How did French films begin to get this global reputation?”
Through his fourth book, Palmer hopes to uncover the answers.
This summer, with the support of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Palmer will travel to Paris and comb through archives at the French library of cinema, La Cinémathèque Française, including lesson plans and attendance records from the earliest years of France’s film schools and collections from the then-fledgling Cannes Film Festival, such as internal memos surrounding the festival’s founding and its first inaugural screenings.
“This is all unpublished material, “ says Palmer, enthused about the opportunity to consider the documents firsthand. “It gives us such a window into voices from the past, many of which have not been heard—then, or since.”