Golden memories

Influential mag Positif celebrates 50th anni

Its circulation is minimal, its setup is unorthodox, but French film magazine Positif is a global powerhouse.

“There are only two film magazines of worldwide influence and that’s Cahiers and Positif,” says eminent French critic Michel Ciment, who has been a member of Positif’s editorial collective for 40 years.

“If a film by an Iranian or Taiwanese director is on the cover of either, that director’s work will inevitably take on greater importance in an international context.”

The French film magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Tributes are planned across Europe and the U.S. The Telluride festival will show three films in Positif’s honor. In November, the museum of Modern Art will host a 50-film program accompanied by an illustrated English-language collection of articles overseen by Ciment. A paperback French anthology called “L’Amour du cinema” from France’s most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard, hit bookshops on May 14.

The chapter devoted to the 1960s includes Robert Benayoun’s June 1962 nose-thumbing essay “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which debunks the auteur theory, as well as his March 1963 salute to “Jerry Lewis, Man of the Year.” A young filmmaker-to-be named Bertrand Tavernier wrote about Joseph Losey in the summer of 1960.

Also freshly published is a 508-page collection of Positif articles about Alain Resnais, whose ultra-rare “Je t’aime, Je t’aime” has a privileged slot in the Palais on Saturday.

“Given his humor, his political bent and his constant cinematic renewal, Resnais’ work coincides perfectly with the spirit of the magazine,” says Ciment. “The festival halted on May 17, 1968 and the film would have been shown on May 18, so on the exact date, 34 years later, we’re showing it.”

Founded in May 1952 by Bernard Chardere, who still contributes, Positif later moved to Paris and hasn’t had an editor since 1959 — all decisions are made by committee. Another idiosyncrasy: writers are not paid.

“Cahiers posted a 750,000 euro loss last year; Positif continues to break even,” says Ciment. The magazine has 4,000 subscribers — 1,500 of whom are outside France — and a total circulation of 8,000-9,000 copies.

Cahiers du Cinema, which is a year older, is arguably the better known of the two mags. But for their entire joint history, the two mags have sustained a relationship of warm mutual respect — if you can characterize the Montagues and the Capulets as having warm mutual respect.

Although each publication has fierce partisan enthusiasms, Positif, which was founded in Lyon, steers clear of didactic Paris-centric intellectual trends and impenetrable jargon. Notes Ciment: “We have lots of directors in common — even if we spoke about them 10 years earlier than they did.”

A sample barb: “We note with emotion that as of July 1979 our colleagues at Cahiers du Cinema have discovered the existence of Francis Coppola, to whom they’ve devoted zero mention during his 15 years as a filmmaker,” reads the ironic intro to a Positif article on “Apocalypse Now” in issue 222.

Positif had first hailed Coppola’s “You’re a Big Boy Now” in issue 86 and put “The Rain People” on the cover of issue 119 in September 1970.

Positif has championed American cinema through the decades even when it was politically unfashionable to do so and has always boasted a healthy sense of humor grounded in the

publication’s Surrealist roots.

As titles and subjects go, it’s hard to beat a November 1983 essay that probably caught Steven Spielberg unawares: “Anal Eroticism in ‘E.T.’ ”

“France is a nation of cinema lovers and French intellectual life has included cinema for over 70 years,” Ciment points out. “French presidents and prime ministers are conversant with the work of Wim Wenders and Pedro Almodovar; I doubt that Mr. Bush can say the same.”