On Sunday, I was driving to San Pedro to see a friend; and I stopped at Michael R. Weinstein’s Collectible Books at Alpine Village. Sitting in the film section was a two-volume set of film criticism by André Bazin, the founder of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951. I had owned hardbound copies of the set when I was a graduate student in the film department at UCLA. In fact, the two volumes of Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (What Is Cinema?) had been translated into English by my favorite professor in the department, Hugh Gray.
Without any particular knowledge of the United States, Bazin was a marvelously intuitive critic who understood American film genres such as the Western almost as well as he did the French theatrical antecedents of his own country’s cinema. Re-reading his essays “The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence” and “The Evolution of the Western,” I was taken back to my days as a film freak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a devotee of Cahiers du Cinéma and of the politique des auteurs it espoused. And from there came my knowledge of and love for the American film, by way of France.
My classes with Hugh Gray were among the best I took at UCLA. The film department at UCLA had on its faculty both angels and demons, and Hugh was numbered among the angels.
Hugh had been an ordained Dominican priest earlier in life, but then left the order and got married. In Hollywood, he was the go-to man for films set in ancient Greece or Rome because of his wide knowledge of the subject. That wide knowledge, combined with his friendliness to his students, made him a superb professor.
I plan to re-read the Bazin essays in the months to come, thinking of the good times I had studying film at UCLA.