Cinema on Television - Marguerite Duras, Serge Daney
Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, issue 7, 2015, conversation transcribed and translated by Valentín Vía.
The radio programme (or bits of it) is on YouTube.
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Ginger and Fred
He was the first to have understood the quid pro quo between cinema and television. Now that the quid pro quo has turned bad, his latest film has a real sadness.
Ginger and Fred is not Fellini’s latest film but rather the new last film by Fellini. It is different. Apparently, the next one will be nothing less than an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika for 20th Century Fox. If we spoke English, we would not confuse last and latest. But in French (and in Italian) we only have one word at our disposal: dernier (ultimo). And we always pronounce it with a mix of funereal dignity and voyeuristic voracity. Thus, celebrating the latest (or last) Fellini is a ritual we must observe, for the same reasons that any tale starts with “once upon a time.”
For a quarter of a century, this ritual has meant that Fellini’s films are of a different nature, out of the ordinary. The ritual is wearing out though. In the latest “last Fellini films”, there is the nostalgia of the hunger before we gorged ourselves (hunger for pasta, then hunger for images), as we realise we are sated. As if we should still expect everything from Fellini, when we already expect too little from cinema. This is the way cinema is going (and Fellini as a cinema symbol). Flops and ships are sailing on (E la nave va).
Worn out, the ritual is somewhat creaking. The première of Ginger and Fred took place at the French Cinémathèque, but without Fellini. The film was almost released in Paris before Rome where a very private première took place at the Quirinal Palace for the Italian political VIPs (the sound, we are told, was atrocious). At odds with the producer, Grimaldi (something about lots of lire), the three leading actors are snubbing the promotion of the film. Upset with French subtitles, Fellini demands that they be rewritten, delaying the release of the film. There is around Ginger and Fred a lingering odour of unsaid polemics, which is spoiling the ritual.
There are good reasons for this. Whoever wishes to study the current “disruptions in the audiovisual landscape” should focus on the Franco-Italian axis. A few years ago, it was Toscan du Plantier himself who went to see Fellini in Rome, so that Gaumont, even at the risk of ruin, would be proud one day to have allowed the Master to make City of Women. Victory of cinema. Today, it is Berlusconi who comes to Paris asking French television to stop being pretentious and come back to basics. Invasion of television, this giant amoeba. And we then realise that Fellini - not that lost in the labyrinth of his personal visions - is absolutely capable of getting upset and intervening in the debate over Channel 5 (1). We forget that Fellini has always been a contemporary witness and there always was something of a journalist in him. This is why Ginger and Fred is received as the statement of a witness, a prosecution witness. Instead of the usual reactions (from “the old magician got me, once again” to “this time, I didn’t fall for it”), there is the almost scholarly formulation of a question: Fellini and television.
Everybody knows the “once upon a time” of Ginger and Fred. AFP is summing it up very accurately: “It is not just a pamphlet against private television networks, it is a story full of tenderness which recounts the reunion after 30 years of separation of a couple of variety artists (Giuletta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni) as well as a sensitive and melancholic reflection on old age.” In the ‘40s, Ginger and Fred had a tap-dancing act, imitating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Ginger dumped Fred to marry a bourgeois. They are re-united for a gigantic variety show (Ed ecco a voi) where, on the set of a private TV network, they must perform again their act. Ginger still has it, Fred not so much. He is the one who has aged the most. He probably has failed in many ways.
Fellini’s movies are overpopulated thoroughfares where nothing much happens. There to perform again their tap dancing routine, as best they can, Ginger and Fred will do their usual act (despite an electricity blackout, cramps and the desire to flee). Then they will separate, probably forever. Of course, there are between them secrets which would like to be known, tears wanting to flow, masks willing to fall, and anger and resentment which would happily explode. But none of this happens. Fellini is one of the first filmmakers to have not only stopped believing in miracles but also in so-called events. In a world where television simulates events as on an assembly line, his wisdom consists in treating everything as a possibility. It would be futile, naive and even impolite to make this probable world in which we live absolutely real. The gain would be minimal.
The excited crowds, cramming into the vast pedestrian zones that Fellini’s false closed spaces have become, are composed of improbable beings: a little more than extras, a little less than characters. It is this uncertainty, rather than their appearance, which makes them monstrous. Who would Ginger and Fred be if, by convention, they were not the heroes of the film? What more do they have than the admiral, the prisoner, the Mafioso, the son and the mother of the ghost, the dwarfs, the intellectual, the sailor, the look-alikes, the flying priest or the chief exec of the TV network? Nothing. It only requires the spectator to believe (naively) or to hope (for a moment only) that something is going to happen to Ginger and Fred. Our expectations are raised, before being gently reminded that we are unreasonable.
So we arrive at the heart of the subject. The essential Fellinian subject is: the spectacle becomes universal and never ceases to grow. It grows well beyond the old divisions between stage and backstage, actors and audience (we can see how in The Clowns – this too little known movie – the divisions were themselves becoming spectacular). The heart of this subject, in 1986, is television, of which Ginger and Fred gives a damning and absolutely documentary account (“Let’s say that I have tried to reproduce it but with no intentions of parody. It’s not possible to go beyond what television already is.”) You can immediately see the objection: If television represents the triumph of the spectacle, why is Fellini after it, since he wants to know nothing of what is below or beyond the spectacle? Why so much hate, those vociferous words and the offended virtue? And besides, as we used to say, from which place does he speak?
It would be easy to answer if – as the opponents of “Italian-style” private television networks wished – Fellini played cinema against television, the magic of the large screen against the small domestic window of the television set, the purgatory of passions against the laxative image. This is not how television is shown in Ginger and Fred, which, by the way, is not a movie about cinema either. It would be the same if Fellini, elitist for once, opposed high and low culture, dignity and vulgarity, elevation and inanity. But this is forgetting that Fellini, an amateur of comic books and women with big breasts, is in complete solidarity with the Italian mass culture. And even if he reminisced with nostalgia the quality of the old varietà against its current caricature on television, the latter is the direct continuation of the former.
So let’s avoid (before it’s too late) the easy paradoxes of Fellini being both judge and party, a sprinkler sprinkled, already caught in what he is pretending to condemn - as if it was not the peculiarity of any satire! To understand why Ginger and Fred moves us when Berlusconi is depressing us, it is not unhelpful to call upon history (of cinema). Like all the important post-war filmmakers, Fellini has had a filmmaker’s intuition of the media which at some point would shake up cinema: television. Not the whole of television, but its mass culture side, made of games and attractions, halfway between the old carnival culture and its mass petit-bourgeois gentrification. From La Dolce Vita, it is perfectly possible to see in Fellini’s work something of an ironic, perhaps cynical, anticipation of what television programming will be. His work is already like a TV network, “Fellini Uno”.
There are countless examples. Fellini refuses more and more linear scenarios to prefer a free – sometimes loose – succession of moments which are all bravura pieces. But this refined art of complicity and interruption, alternating strong and weak moments, pretend seriousness and forced joy, isn’t this already the concern of the program director? Fellini’s camera always arrives too late, when the action has started and the bodies are already in motion. But isn’t this the television treatment of the spectator, caught between a beginning which is always missed and a denouement of no importance, destined to accompany with one’s gaze the filmed rags of the world, quickly forgotten or offered to an indecipherable mix of indifference and compassion? Rome in Ginger and Fred, unlike in Fellini Roma, is filmed like a totally abstract space where nothing separates the near from the far anymore, where everything is neighbourhood and where nothing communicates. But isn’t this the de-urbanised space, the universal suburb created by television? And isn’t Fellini’s wisdom (the waltz of the puppets is less disappointing than laying bare one character) the polite, a tad sorry, form of what television and advertising have transformed into a categorical imperative: nothing exists which is already an image?
I am not saying that Fellini and television are the same. I only suppose that television brings about the soulless caricature of a – virtual – world sensed before by Fellini. And I did say “soulless”, because in the final analysis, the difference between cinema and television is that great filmmakers are necessarily moralists where television, at best, wonders about issues of deontology. Increasingly, we feel that what is left of cinema (and what gives it its value, in the strictest sense) is the critical gaze that filmmakers throw upon what couldn’t care less about criticism: television. Even Fellini, who has always done everything not to appear as someone who teaches lessons, recently declared in L’Express: “Sometimes, looking at a face randomly on television, it seems to me one could do better. The eye looks destitute. I think it wouldn’t be without merit to give it a certain conscience.”
Leafing through a book entitled The Time-Image recently, I found on page 14 a sentence in parenthesis full of justness: “(embrace even that decadence which means that one loves only in dreams or in recollection, be an accomplice of decadence, and even provoke it, in order to save something, perhaps, as far as is possible)”. It was Deleuze talking about Fellini. If there is a Fellinian morality, it is to be found on this side, and if it has often gone unnoticed, it is because it is modest. Today, it seems to have found refuge in the formidable character of Ginger (Masina is superb). But one only has to unfold a few memories (each one its own) to find it again. For example in La Dolce Vita, when the paparazzi stalk Steiner’s wife, who does not know yet she is a widow, and take her picture even before they break the news to her. Or in that scene of Amarcord where the pater familias, summoned to the fascist cops who make him drink castor oil, slowly walks back home.
When bravura pieces are over, Fellini seems to say, there is no other bravura than picking up the pieces, “to save something” as Deleuze says. To be present at the moment when it will be too hard for the character, when they will fall from their height (and, especially, from not very high) and risk hurting themselves. Cinema is also the art of walking everyone back home, and Fellinian elegance – or rather his politeness – has increasingly consisted in never levying any tax, any soul supplement, over what is only about simple humanity.
This is why I do not think that Ginger and Fred plays cinema against television, or even the charm of old-style music hall against the botch job of television variety. All that, broadly, is the same. There is in human beings such a passion to be another that even in the world of Lombardini-Berlusconi there will always be thirty seconds of innocence rediscovered, of act re-performed, of re-suspended time, even without preparation, without illusions, without audience. The only problem is that thirty seconds go quickly. And that, unlike music hall and even cinema (cruel but pathetic arts), television – because it has the power to organise the competition of all against all – no longer has to take care of the scrapyard.
(1) Channel Five (“La Cinq”) was France's first privately-owned free terrestrial television network. Created by politician Jérôme Seydoux and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the network broadcasted from 1986 to 1992. [Translator's note].The French version of this text was originally published in Liberation, 24 January 1986 and can be found in Serge Daney, Ciné Journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986, pp. 308-312. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.
Film characters sometimes have great moments of lucidity. To Ginger, who manages to keep herself together, Fred confides sotto voce that he feels like a ghost, not knowing where he comes from or where he is going. He only knows that something ought be done. To dance, speak, or cause a scandal. There is choice. To dance because that’s the reason he came, to speak to Ginger because he also came for this, to make a scene on television because he came for this. A triple program that he will – and this is the sadness of the movie – almost accomplish. He falls halfway through his tap-dancing act but carries on well enough to finish with dignity (albeit exhausted). He says two or three things to Ginger the he had meant to say for several years. It’s only in the third part of the program that he gives up: having come to shout at the spectators for being clots and Panurge’s sheep, his courage abandons him and he finds himself wriggling about as best he can, in the midst of general condescension. Worse: doing so, he salvages a bit of his dignity. It’s terrible.
Fellini has always liked the dialectic of the show-off. In Ginger and Fred, he enriches it with a new chapter on the strangeness of our relationship to television. Contrary to what has been said too quickly, Ginger and Fred is not an attack on television. It also questions without illusions the way we live with it. Hasn’t television made all of us household braggarts, always ready to criticize it from afar, to dream to cause a scandal on air and to have answers to everything, to behave badly in the middle of soothing liturgies and sheepish audience, in a word to make a scream heard, a real one? And aren’t we surprised, if we find ourselves one day in a television debate, to find everybody rather nice, to answer questions with a shaky voice, to play the game, and, very quietly, to slip back into the ranks? Fellini also talks about that, and this is why Ginger and Fred is much more than a satire or a game of destruction. It’s about the spectator as much as it’s about the show.
And this is why this beautiful movie about television, when shown on television – by some sort of dark humour –, is just a movie and nothing else, and is more about the feeling of time that it generates. Why is the beginning of the movie, Ginger’s arrival at Rome train station, her journey to the hotel and the few adventurous steps she takes outside, so beautiful? Is it because Fellini is a great filmmaker with a very sharp eye? Of course, but on television, this beauty is no longer quite the same. We see less Fellini the great visionary filmmaker and we suddenly realise that he is above all a great realist. Without him we would perhaps definitely forget what it looks like, Rome and its traffic jams, rainfall on advertising boards, a hotel appearing out of nowhere, fake daylight falling on the noisy and vaguely efficient human activities. This isn’t a vision, these are things we almost no longer see in movies and never see at all on television.
And if we see these things so well with Fellini, it’s because there is nothing in the film that measures in advance the time allocated to the action. It’s because things must be accepted as they come, and because lots of them, always too many, come round anyway. If we made an effort, we would realise that when it comes to television, we know in advance all the durations, and that this know-how is discouraging our desire to see – even before it kicks in. The most extraordinary example is the peculiar tone that newsreaders adopt when announcing that what they’re saying will be immediately followed by a report in images. The spoken words make the link (or give a leg up) to what is shown, under the surveillance of the viewer who, in turn, spends less time watching what is inside the duration than actually verifying how long it is.
It’s in relation to this pre-emptive right of the useful time over the useless image that any work by a filmmaker increasingly seems to be the fruit of an extraordinary freedom. We mustn’t call (Fellini’s) genius or vision what is after all only the normal exercise of freedom by a filmmaker who wants, like everyone else, to be applauded, but who finds a little bit disgusting this image of the eighth assistant bending down and going around the studio making vile movements with his hands to make a public of ghosts applaud in advance. We can’t really hold this against him.This text was first published in Libération, 23 December 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.
When I turned 10, my mother bought me a small microscope, entirely black, with a magnification of x100. It came in a red box, with ready-made slides and preparations. It was probably one of the great moments of my life. But I was never able to make the preparations myself and always had to rely on others. Five years later, I had no problems preferring filmmakers who are about seeing, those that one watches in the action of seeing, the filmmakers of the frame and adventures: Bresson, Lang, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock or Hawks. It was much harder with filmmakers for whom the frame wasn't as important, the frontal filmmakers: Walsh, Bunuel, Rossellini, McCarey. And it took me even longer with the filmmakers who were primarily about showing, exhibiting something, often themselves: from Chaplin to Fassbinder. That being said, I think that cinema can be reduced to two fundamental scenarios: to see and/or to show. With all possible intermediary cases: Langlois as a shower, Godard as a seeer.
- To see.
- To see what one shows.
- To see that one shows.
- To show what one sees.
- To show that one sees.
- To show.
“What I can’t understand,” said the film, “is that you actually chose me. My reputation is rubbish and, between you and me, I’m not worth much at all.”
“You’re the only Bruce Lee film I haven’t seen. In a way, I’ve always missed you (*).”
“Nobody ever misses me, believe me. I barely exist. I’m indefensible. Let me be. Or rather, watch me and you’ll understand.
This is how I entered, walking backward, into The Game of Death (1973). I was immediately in my depth. A nervous young man named Billy Lo, a star of martial arts, fights alone and with bare hands against the brutes of the Syndicate, a powerful international organisation based in Hong Kong and racketing show business and gambling. Strangely, we see less often the good Lo than the bad guys of the Syndicate who, as often in these films, are the only ones endlessly divulging their cruel plans to the camera. The good guy is content to merely hit them courageously once in a while. His fiancée and a journalist - both white - are the only ones he speaks to, in the French dubbed version, with few essential and plain words. Fights happen at night, in back alleys, against petty and masked hitmen riding mopeds. There are very few close ups and, to be honest, a certain unease.
“Can’t you spot something?” said the film in a sad and sour tone.
“What I can’t understand,” I thought outloud, “is how a star so concerned with his own image as Bruce Lee chose to act so introvertly, almost in a Bressonian style.”
“You said it,” sneed the film.
The rest of the film confirmed my suspicions. In the middle of Game of Death, Billy Lo gets shot in the cheek and is left for dead by the Syndicate. A grandiose burial takes place and the face of the star believed to be dead can be seen in the white coffin. In fact, after a trip to the physio, Billy Lo re-appears, groomed and unrecognisable, and patiently eliminates one by one the Syndicate members. Compared to the others, the last fights are especially spectacular and the final face off between Billy-Bruce and the 2m20 black giant Karem Abdul-Jabeer, a basketball player wearing white shorts and sunglasses, very much looks like a classic.
“You’re still not getting it?” said impatiently the film which I sensed was ready to reveal its secret. “You do remember which year Bruce Lee died.”
“July 1973, in Betty Ting Pei’s bed, in circumstances never fully explained. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” said the film who couldn’t contain itself any longer, “he was already dead when the producers decided to ask the mercenary Robert Clouse to direct Game of Death nonetheless! What you just saw is a fake or - if you prefer a Baudrillardian word - a simulacrum. Any kid from Barbès or Kowloon knows this but you don’t. You disappoint me.”
“But if it wasn’t Bruce Lee that I saw with my own eyes, who else was gesticulating instead of him?”
“Lee Shao Lung, or Ho Chung Tao, or Bruce Li, who cares? A clone among many others.”
“Still,” I insisted, upset, “I had the feeling that it sometimes was the real Bruce Lee. I wouldn’t bet on it now but I thought I recognised his intense gaze and his wild caterwaul.”
“So you’re not totally hopeless,” answered the film, “and you deserve to know all the truth. Raymond Chow (the producer) used twelve minutes of rushes shot before the film, even before Enter the Dragon, Lee’s penultimate film. Twelve minutes of fighting to be honest.”
“Those at the end?”
“Those with the yellow tracksuit?”
“You’re seeing absolutely nothing since I kept the best part hidden from you.” (Here the film let go a sardonic laughter). “You remember the shot of Billy Lo’s fake burial with the crowd in tears in the streets of Hong Kong and the face of the dead in the white coffin? It’s from Bruce Lee’s true burial!”
“You’re saying that they took an image of the truly dead star to play the fictitious role of the falsely dead star? It’s incredible. It’s cynical. It’s great.”
“You now understand what a myth is about?”
“Sorry, I didn’t know.
“Go, let me be.”First published in Libération, 24 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas éditeur, 1991.
(*) To be frank, while one cannot avoid Bruce Lee, one can find more charm in Wang Yu or Alexander Fu Sheng.
The market of individuals and the disappearance of experience
The success of reality TV may point to a double phenomenon: the taking over of television by society and the moulding of the compliant individual. The price to pay is high: nothing less than fading out the idea of human experience.
Like any boat that has suddenly realised it can sink, television is becoming interesting, and real questions finally appear on the horizon of our impassioned cathode-ray tube. Some of these questions are massive. For instance, how TV channels, in order to produce tomorrow’s audience (you, me, but in a more docile and less moaning version), are already exploring new forms of social caretaking? What role will television have played in the great theme of ultramodern societies: the setting up of a true market of individuals (which might only be the friendly version of a slave market)?
For if television started by conquering the market, this conquest wasn’t enough to produce the merchandise adapted to the market: the professional individual of today. For a long time now, we’ve witnessed the shaping of this new hero of our time: ever more personalised, tagged, labelled, i.e. reduced to the gaudy folklore of the smallest differences. Of course, no one consciously thought through this process, but it has been possible, for the last few years, to follow its development. And the author of these lines, for example, has often felt alone following it.
Let’s not go back too much over the well-known phases of development: the recasting of Public Relations towards a progressive de-legitimisation of its members (1). The old reasons which granted a certain right to intervene in the public sphere (passion, pedagogy, expertise, talent, beauty, rarity) have given way to the bad manners of no-fuss, friendly but meaningless mercenaries. It has become embarrassing to be a Mr. know-it-all in a medium whose power is founded on the equitable sharing of average ignorance and indifference.
This de-legitimisation has hit hard politicians who, used to watch themselves so beautiful in regular and established TV shows, naively didn’t see that they were fuelling National Lepenism. Hence the fierce debates: democratisation or consensus? Consensus or demagogy? Demagogy or (soft) fascism? This de-legitimisation spared no sectors of social representation, including journalists.
Broadly, the bourgeois society has stopped paying well-wishing bards in order to showcase its own values to itself, preferring the looping images of consensual silence to the old theatre of loud dissension. It can only astonish anyone who lived through the crisis of the idea of representation, theoretically mistreated in the 1960s and eventually slashed in 1968. Did we exaggerate? Who will re-think all this?
Television was where this tipping point recently happened. The capricious and rubbish policies of the French Socialist government helped the good people understand that television was eventually escaping from the authorities, the sharks, the educators and could finally become the people’s thing, meaning comfortably frivolous and destitute. This explains the popular support to Channel 5 in its struggle for commercial survival, having become something between Justine and a Saint, as it was, very humanly, reporting on itself and complaining (with reason) on its troubles and the misfortunes of its virtue.
Television finally handed back to the people? Why not? This is, at least, what the young sharp things at the celebrity media agency Sygma-TV are thinking. But one must not think that such an operation could happen by itself. Television will be handed back to the people only if the people becomes at the same time a TV-people, and that implies, as is always the case, technicians to work toward (and profit from) this mutation. For this is a big piece: the re-shaping of the people, who is now asked to play its own part, but no longer simply as an inanimate mass, an audience rating upholder of justice, as silly game show contenders or applauding cattle, but truly as personalised heroes.
Hence programs like The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives (2) – titles in which one can clearly reads the idea of the emergence from obscurity or the return into the light. For these shows are not just about any form of heroism (there are some controversial ones), but only about small-scale events leading to the unique (and familial) mythology of redemption and second birth. In a new age era, one must accept that such a myth could be, in final analysis, the only horizon of a television which, by the way, has renounced to nearly everything else.
Is it good or is it bad? One thing is sure, the result is, aesthetically, not watchable. So if it has so much success, it’s not because it concerns the gaze (for there is in the gaze the possibility of critical distance, ethical resistance or aesthetic judgement) but clearly because of something else: nothing less than the collective learning of the gestures by which a large mass of outcasts will learn to play its role in personalised scenarios which it is assured are – finally – its own. Why not?
If that’s so, this mutation is certainly threatening the existence of other mythologies, that of the artist of course, but of the actor as well. For what is an actor if not the man or woman with an immemorial passion: the passion to be another, which predisposes some among us to take it upon themselves to re-act the experience of others.
This is obviously the meaning behind Patrick Sébastien’s attacks against The Night of the Heroes. When we are all invited in advance to be one by one the heroes of our own lives (lives that now belong to us and whose copyright we will eventually learn to monetise), how can the actor-impressionist not feel his own existence threatened? He has a horrible suspicion: his particular talent may be of less interest than the non-talent (or even the depressing worthlessness) of these heroes who emerge from the night and, in a Wharolian way, quickly return to it!
Will the passion to be oneself eventually replace the passion to be another? Are we simply witnessing a mere moment – extremely mediocre but transitory – of the great human emancipation which, even jagged, has secularised beliefs and individualised man for centuries? Will it be enough to redraw, every time, the boundaries between the secular market and the desecrated human, meaning the sacred and non-negotiable share (let’s call it the Other) which will always remain at the heart of the human animal? One can think so, but with no joy.
Because, with this market of the individual, of which the American reality-TV shows are but the latest symptom, we can spot what must be lost and the price that must be paid. The idea of human experience is definitely lost. It’s as if television had suddenly sat down a whole people on the couch of a psychoanalyst who would work on an assembly line and who would, instead of listening silently to the too beautiful rants of the legendary Self, applaud the patient at the first session and tell him: you are sublime, everything you have said is exactly what you have lived, re-enact it in our home-TV-style (which is your home by the way) and you will be cured.
Can we so readily throw the baby of human experience with the bathwater (even used) of a few past centuries? This doesn’t seem reasonable. Until a recent date, the person who, by desire or by profession, asked questions to fellow human beings, knew that nothing is less easily communicable than experience. It’s even because of this difficulty that we can recognise experience. “It went very fast, I didn’t feel (see, understand) anything... It’s after that... It’s very difficult to explain… Today still…” are the sentences that millions of tapes and cameras have recorded for ages.
And it’s because experience escapes us – especially when it’s strong –, that we needed mediators (from the saint to the charlatan, from the friend to the traitor) to help find the words to say it, actors to lend their bodies, artists to explore every possible ways, and writers to conclude, sadly, like Virginia Woolf, that “life experiences are incommunicable, and this is the cause of solitude”.
Any experience that can be easily reduced to the show of its reality is not an experience. Or rather, it’s not the experience of the person who said he lived it, but the experience of a group with no ideals which will always prefer the adjusted and repeatable spectacle of the re-enactment to the intimate anti-spectacle of the already-performed. At stake is the very possibility of the social fabric, and one mustn’t believe that Hollywood, in its golden age, was doing anything else (just look at Sirk’s films).
So it’s possible that the great market of the individual, based on disposable heroes and proper scenarios, has decided, in agreement with the interested parties, to move on to the counteroffensive. This is why the idea of subjective truth is skipped everywhere on television or appears as an elitist and definitely unbearable luxury. It is even possible that the cathode-ray tube finally finds a mission matching the political and mythological interests of the France group: the interests of catechism.
Why catechism? Because it’s something serious, not very cynical and that, like advertising, has to do with Good. And, once the evil (communist) empire has evaporated, the future actors of the economic war will really need to believe in some Good to give meaning to their actions. That being said, catechism is neither blind faith nor science of the theologian, it’s a tangible ensemble of silly procedures which transform the flock in puppets willing to accept a belief that they no longer have had to experience - at least not for a long time.
In this sense, the catechism of The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives is the well-wishing and emotionally quivering realisation of what was announced by the 1970s porn cinema. On one hand, X-rated films got stuck on the depiction of the sexual experience (believing stupidly that it only needed to do a live monitoring of the organs and watch for the birdie). But on the other hand, it is true that these films reconstituted for their audience the idealised and reassuring show of continuous sex as a clear fantasy and an imperishable, male and monotonous myth.
In the same vein, American reality TV (and let’s remember that any TV is always American) replaces the patchy and indescribable experience of what has been with the sleek and uninterrupted show of what will have been. What will have been is the aesthetic summary and the humanitarian catechism that any market of the individual will need. This future perfect (which I believe to be the essential tense of audiovisual media) is both a correction of reality and a visualisation of corrected reality.
Our heroes are finally able to see and know what they should have been like when they come on TV to share their biographical bits. And, alas!, we’ve seen it too: they must resemble bad TV, bad cinema, bad theatre. The price seems high: to be on the side of the collective Good (because the group wishes to be in communion with its TV from the comfort of his own home), they must be terribly bad (and terribly humble).
Some will say that catechism is no great mass, requires no fear or trembling, not even a return to religiosity. However catechism wishes that we, clones allegedly dressed up as unique individuals, renounce forever to having our own memories of what we have lived, unless it can be re-lived with the help of Pascale Breugnot (3) holding our hands – meaning in a very bad way, but in front of our grateful and tearful eyes (what wouldn’t we do to be loved?).
Eventually, behind the fairy dust of the myth that television is handed back to the people and the individual comes out of the night, it’s still about – even in France – the village demanding its share.
First published in Libération on 20 January 1992.
(1) The recent misfortunes of Patrick Poivre d’Arvor’s fake interview of Fidel Castro can only rejoice us.
(2) La nuit des héros and Perdue de vue: 1990s French TV shows idealising real rescues by ordinary people and searching for missing people to reunite them with their families [translator’s note].
(3) French TV star presenter of the reality TV shows era [translator’s note].
|Phnom Penh, 1989|
Averty for ever
Where one despairs that Jean-Christophe Averty will have been alone in the world to believe that television could be used for artistic purposes.
There are two reasons to complain when one is Jean-Christophe Averty. The first is well known, the second less so. The first one says it’s a scandal that French television has so stubbornly focused on inheriting from (and rivalling) cinema, instead of cultivating its own garden. The second one follows on from the first. Averty has been so alone in cultivating this TV-garden, in being its only tireless champion – and for such a long time –, that it has become difficult to assess his work. How can one criticises someone who is alone in following a particular direction, alone in discovering a field with its dead ends and difficulties? How can we say that we like his principles but don’t always share his tastes? A question that will always be asked of inventors.
Averty has dreamt for a while of making something of the little-known play by Henri Rousseau (also known as the Douanier): A Russian Orphan’s Revenge. Averty has always claimed that “one can perfectly make TV from a garage.” Since 6:45pm yesterday (on Channel 3), we’ve been able to watch the first of ten episodes of this TV-garage (60 square meters, according to the author). The episode lasted thirteen minutes and has the charm of what lasts thirteen minutes. A Russian orphan is seduced by the young German that returned her lost canary. She loves him and we guess that he will betray her.
The story really isn’t what counts most in this Revenge. It’s the way it’s dealt with. It’s this very Avertyan oscillation between loving respect (the image never shines too bright that it overshadows the subject) and plastic freedom (allowed by the video medium). On one side, the Russian girls put on all kinds of airs and roll their R’s, the background is made of izbas and details form the author’s paintings, love is expressed through hearts and thoughts via medallions. The things that we see and the things that are talked about trade places. The soundtrack (a violin) is a character, on the same level as the voice-over that tells the story. The words are said as well as written (in Russian and in French). In a word, everything functions like a visual rebus whose permanent solution would be the story.
Averty is obviously interested in early cinema and the era when cinema began (very early in the 20th century). His imagination treats the popular images of that beginning as absolute equals to any other images. Punch and Judy shows, puppet theatre, open-air theatre, primitive films, children’s games and postcards. These images are always frontal, ingenuously provoking the spectator, removing any desire to look elsewhere than in the middle of the frame. They always claim their poverty: in effects, in musical accompaniment, in suspense. The most sophisticated image functions like a tapestry and superimpositions are like a waking dream.
This is the Averty paradox. He didn’t claim the video image (and its thousand gags) to impress but to realise, with it, the real television. And real television, until further notice, is about images as small as the screen that broadcasts them. And if television had been truer to itself, it would have explored – following Averty’s path – this fundamental smallness that is, in a sense, its greatness. By making bodies that have become figurines without psychology dance on the spot, Averty has opened up a path that hasn’t been developed, an eventually scandalous path where there is still the desire to dance but no longer the bodies or space to do it, as if the disappearance of the body under the video bombardment didn’t bother him in any way, and that he found it more touching to see the animation of a tableau vivant, a small tableau fitting for the small screen (shall we talk of “screenlet”?).
It’s his fondness for this miniaturisation of the world (of bodies but also of feelings) that led Averty to stick closely to an artistic television. Yet, thinking about it, it is not evident that television can be an artistic instrument. If it was – or if it had been – such an instrument, it would have been ashamed to have derived its power solely from the monopoly to film reality (let’s not forget what can be beautiful in live broadcasting: reality itself) or from the looting of cinema (let’s not forget what can be beautiful with film reruns: their fiction content).
The question is evermore relevant. The state of the French audiovisual landscape in this 1987 autumn, along with its reminders (the rather sordid failure of Channel 5, the crisis of the look, etc), shows that we’ve confused two things. Television is not just cinema’s small sister (it isn’t great and perhaps never will be). What can happen to it, what has happened to it before our eyes, is to become big, bulimic, inflated with hormones and enzymes. Each time it has been decent recently, it was perfecting small dispositifs (short films, spots or flashes, useful summaries). Every time it’s tried to be an ox, it’s lost its dignity as a frog.
Sunday evening (Channel 2, 22h15), in a program that was actually interesting (and we should only apply this overused adjective to these types of programs), Jean-Luc Godard, in great form, reminded us that if television produces oblivion, cinema produced memories. And if, in the era of opinion polls, what is forgotten cannot be polled, memories remain great. Averty’s dream – and he’s the only one with that dream – will have been to use television anyway to keep amnesia at bay (just as he did on radio with his programs on music hall). When, instead of putting him up on a pedestal, television will have absorbed Averty’s message, it will be ready to leave traces in memory. But when?
Those who supported, assisted and at times organized the immigrant workers' struggles between 1972 and 1975, the two dates that encompass the making of Nationalité: Immigré (1) [Nationality: Immigrant], embarked on the venture by filling out paperwork. Thanks to their constantly explaining the Fontanet-Marcellin directive (2), to their losing themselves in a maze of absurd legislation (residence permits and work permits); thanks to their efforts to eliminate illiteracy through printing and translating flyers and posters and by disseminating campaign literature the French far-left de facto sealed an alliance with those who surfaced in their ranks during the struggles in the post 1968 period: the immigrants. Whatever subjective reasons lay behind this alliance (love of one's fellow human being, be it the Christian or the MRAP [Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples] type, a juncture in the left-wing strategy towards broadening the struggle's popular front), it was by helping the immigrants navigate this sea of paperwork, in which their lives would be submerged, that the activists obtained an opportunity, while winning their confidence, to press ahead with them towards self-awareness, towards mobilization and political organization. First and foremost, however, they had to be of use with the pen.
The paradox was this: On one hand, far-left activists differentiated themselves from meek reformists and the P.C.F. [French Communist Party] by distinguishing legality from legitimacy (according to the analyses in La Cause du peuple (3) from that period). They strove to give widespread appeal and a sense of real-life to slogans such as: “We are right to rise up.” “Dare to fight, dare to win.” Conversely, however, when it came to the immigrants' struggles with the authorities they found themselves way out of their depth regarding the written word, pre-coded norms, bourgeois employment legislation and legal terminology (for leftist ideology distinctly incorporated the notion of precluding the legal system). They were to be confronted by the bourgeoisie's cynical negligence of their own laws. Moreover, there was outrage regarding the blatant disparity between that which appeared on paper and what was to be seen in reality.
As for the militant dream, it was altogether different. It wasn't through being useful with the pen that the activists asserted themselves in the immigrants' struggles; rather, they acted as fomenters, instigators, teachers, bearers of the good word and cogent theory. For them, the written word, while their unscripted domain, was nothing more than a tactical tool designed to win trust, and moreover to prove that one is worthy of it.
Here was a case of twofold neglect. On one hand, the activists failed to grasp the legal system as an authoritative body where something actually takes place (intrinsically coupled with domination, legal agreement, symbolic import). Furthermore, it didn't dawn upon them that immigrants retained concrete ties with such authority, ties that could have been surmised as strong all the same. In (White and particularly Black) Africa, ritual tagging, agreements, one's word are all serious and binding matters. We can be sure that this neglect of the legal dimension is the crux of Sokhona's film, Nationalité: Immigré.
At the core of this militant dream one found instead a sort of ideal scenario, within the realm of inevitable exposure of problems and their resolution. The essential element in this scenario was time, both linear and teleological. The immigrant, the ideal proletarian with only a mattress in a slum to lose, found himself burdened with embodying, through his individual life experiences, the various phases of a thoroughgoing ‘crash course’ in self-awareness, as already recognized and indexed by Western Marxism. This process took a swifter than usual turn. The exploitation and oppression endured by immigrants could only but engender their resistance (albeit initially muted and covert), which led to talk of their revolt. And this, in turn, soon bolstered by a few kind words, could only but invent its specific forms of action and organization. In the end, these were to lead, both short- and long-term, to this alliance, to the shoulder-to-shoulder stance with French workers. This scenario at once steered and pandered to the leftist imagination.
By no means did Sidney Sokhona cater to the leftist's crash course as the form of exposition for his film. That is not to suggest that Sokhona himself doesn't value such a course of action, or doesn't regard it as revealing any truths. It's quite the reverse. Nationalité: Immigré does not in any way lack in what one is entitled to expect in terms of general truths: numbers, statistics, bleak outlook, explicit discourse where the commentary insists on the necessity to deepen awareness, for education, on the need to go beyond partial and wildcat strikes to economic-political struggles alongside the French working class and so on. It is therefore impossible to categorize this work among those pathetic and humanizing films, (Mektoub? and its ilk) (*) with their regrettable lack of a political dimension, but which one nonetheless grudgingly recommends so as to fuel debate about support structures. And why should anyone complain?
Let us return to our point of departure: paper. Sydney Sokhona's film is a voyage to the country in which everything can take place on paper. Paper as a place in which the powers that be demand their dues in concrete terms, (Your papers, please!); paper on which an another authority claims and braces up (flyers, posters, books); paper on which an authority fantasizes (paper as utopia, just as one remarks: ‘it looks beautiful on paper, but...’). His film touches upon that which the leftists precisely eschew (the necessity of legal agreement.) That's why the film is frowned upon, also in left-wing circles.
The film opens in a non-place, a cycling track where the French capital's lackeys, the racist supervisors, call out each immigrant by name, put their name on a list, giving each and every one a sign to clench between their teeth, a sign with which to pin them down, to pinpoint them and to pin onto them. shelter, slum, transit estate. Not only do they insist that the immigrants comply with what has been written; they insist that they interiorize it, that they gobble it up. The immigrants will need to dash it off.
Towards the end of the film there is a noteworthy scene at the market in which two immigrants from the shelter on the Rue Riquet suddenly speak their mind about their condition and their sense of outrage. It isn't a case of them hysterically acting-out. It's more in the line of ‘bitter tale,’ like those told by the Chinese peasantry, a stirring recitation, a reading aloud rather than a speaking out. The scene's emotion derives from that scrap of paper they hold and which they themselves wrote, of that language they speak which isn't theirs. They shout out tirelessly, they read angrily.
Between these two scenes, the opening and the closing, Sokhona films only incidents involving scraps of paper. Clear, precise and edifying incidents. The newspapers an immigrant reads in the morning in search of work are those that another immigrant sweeps up in the evening. It's by perforating betting slips that we truly encounter French daily reality. If the Sidi's parents write from Mauritania, the letter will be read using a voiceover. The links to the various intermediaries are sanctioned by paper: the village wise man derives his power from his obtrusive recitation of the Koran and the cash that he extorts for it. In a Bressonian-like shot, with a white sheet as the background, we are witness to a scene of hand-to-hand, of the barter of paper banknotes for legal papers, in which the immigrants finally obtain their ID papers. The manager of the shelter on the Rue Riquet is not just a smooth-talker; he keeps a list of his tenants in his drawer, on which he ticks off the names of the ringleaders.
Sokhona only films that which could be a source of information. But instead of imposing outside commentary, he makes subject matter even of his images. Political filmmakers never really knew how to avoid inserting ‘title cards’ (inevitably dogmatic) in the midst of ‘true-life footage’ (inevitably jinxed). The fact is they never truly asked themselves the question: ‘How can we film the discourse?’ Sokhona does indeed film cardboard bearing slogans but within the shot itself. He anchors his characters, somewhat like Godard did in Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] where those filmed literally wear their images. Hence the hallucinatory dimension that permeates the film at times. In seeking out as much information as possible, we deny ourselves (as well as deny the spectators) that which gives such pleasure in cinema: the implicit meaning a spectator is supposed to know.
This accounts for why the lazy and the romantic dislike this voyage to the land where everything is written out. The process of denoting spells things out, it inflicts itself. For the act of denotation (that of giving a name, and only one, to things and human beings alike) steers us towards the question of racism (for example, in that scene in which a racist shouts at an immigrant sweeping up too close to him: “Hey, jerk, it's you I'm talking to!”) Confronted with powers to be that unremittingly demand that they identify themselves (your papers?), the immigrants need to start summoning the strength to stand up and be counted. In Sokhona's film, their struggles focus exactly on this point: On the number of people that have to be re-housed together.
It is, moreover, pointless to expect of them an all-embracing discourse. The victims don't only describe themselves as people just like the others; they also keep count of themselves. This is underpinned by the image of two corpses fished from the water, each draped in a flag, on a bank of the Canal Saint-Martin.
(*) Mektoub? (1970) was directed by Ali Ghalem, who was also the author of L'Autre France (1975).
(1) Nationalité : Immigré (1975) by Sidney Sokhona is a fiction film about a group of mostly African (male) migrant workers in Paris and their awakening political activism. A central location of the narrative is the migrant workers' shelter in Rue Riquet whose residents began a rent strike during the shooting of the film in protest against their exploitation by employers and landlords as well as the degrading living conditions in the shelter. Shot with virtually no budget, the film took several years to be finished, which allowed for frequent inclusion of actual events and the prolonged rent strike to become a central dramatic element. With Sokhona himself and actual tenants of Rue Riquet appearing on camera, the film is a genuine product of those acting in it; a rare example of self-organized auto-representation of African migrants on screen. Sidney Sokhona is of Mauritanian decent and went back to his country of origin soon after finishing his second and better known feature film, Safrana ou le droit à la parole (Safrana or Freedom of Speech, 1978). After working as a documentary and newsreel film-maker for several years, he started a second career as a government official and still holds high ranking positions in Mauritanian politics. Nationalité : Immigré and Safrana remain his only feature-length fiction films.
(2) The Fontanet-Marcellin directive was a set of legal decrees concerning immigrants' rights in France issued in January and February 1972. The name is derived from the two ministers who fathered it under the presidency of Georges Pompidou: Raymond Marcellin (minister for the interior) and Joseph Fontanet (minister for labor). The new decrees severely curtailed immigrants' rights, made resident permits dependant on formal labor contracts and put the legal affairs of immigrants under the control and authority of the police.
"These decrees came into force a few weeks before the campaign against deportations on 15 September 1972. The Marcellin decree of 24 January 1972 limited the granting of work and residence permits to the police. From now on, the only point of contact for immigrants was the police authority (alternatively, the town council) and a central file on them was set up at the Ministry of the Interior. The Fontanet decree of February 1972 made a labour contract for at least one year the precondition for a residence permit, as well as a document issued by the employer certifying 'appropriate housing'. In this way, new forms of control were placed in the hands of police and employers for control of the living conditions and mobility of immigrant workers. The renewal of papers became an arduous process and the authorities reserved the right to refuse the extension of permits on the basis of the 'national labour market' or on political grounds. Any migrant worker who lost his job had to hand in his work permit and produce evidence of a new job within one month. All these regulations were not yet applicable to the so-called 'privileged' nationalities (EC countries, Algerians, francophone black Africans, refugees and asylum seekers, but to the 'non-privileged' (Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks, Portuguese, Yugoslavians)." (http://www.noborder.org/without/france.html#five [last accessed November 2013])
As they spelled immediate precarisation for a large segment of France's migrant community, the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees were met with fierce protests, including a series of hunger strikes, which were prominently supported by French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault.
(3) "La Cause du Peuple" [The People's Cause] was a radical left newspaper published between 1968 and 1978. Within the contemporary political landscape it represented the "Proletarian Left" (GP - Gauche prolétarienne) and drew from a Maoist background. The name "La Cause du Peuple" was a direct reference to a newspaper co-founded by George Sand in 1848. From the "Cause du Peuple" sprang today's weekly newspaper "Libération", founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre who had also been the editor of "La Cause du Peuple" from May 1970 until September 1973.
A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)
From Nicht Versöhnt (1) to Moses und Aron, one idea predominates, entirely contained in this title, Nicht versöhnt: not reconciled. Non-reconciliation: that is, neither the union nor the divorce, neither the whole body (to preserve, to regret), nor the bias of disintegration, chaos (Nietzsche: "One must disintegrate the universe, lose respect for all."), but their double possibility. Straub and Huillet basically start from a simple irrefutable fact: Nazism happened. Because of Nazism, the German people of today is not reconciled with itself (Machorka-Muff, Nicht Versöhnt), but the Jews aren't either (Moses und Aron, Einleitung). Nazism, like any power but more than any other, challenges and provokes the artist, and as a result artists no longer have the right to be irresponsible: Schönberg is still not reconciled with Kandinsky, neither is Brecht with Schönberg. In the Straubian system, a retro mode is simply impossible. Everything is in the present.
Non-reconciliation is also a way of making and producing films. It is the stubborn refusal of all the forces of homogenization. It has led Straub and Huillet to what might be called a “generalized practice of disjunction.” Disjunction, division, fission, taking seriously the famous “one divides into two.” The look and the voice, the voice and its material (the “grain”), the language and its accents are, as Chou En-lai said, “different dreams in the same bed.” The films: the bed where what is disjoint, unreconciled, not reconcilable, “plays”, simulates, suspends unity. Not an (easy) art of décalage but the simultaneous head and tail of the one and the same piece, never played, always revived, inscribed on one side (the tables of the Law, Moses), stated on the other (miracles, Aaron).
What is it that imposes this homogenization against which one always has to disjoint, not reconcile, if not cultural imperialism which is in the process of submitting the film industry throughout Europe (England, Germany, Italy), to submit it to its manufacturing standards (a non-rational mess), to bring, for example, a man who, as first and against all, dared to film with direct sound and in dialect (Visconti: La Terra Trema), to no longer think of his films – for the global art market – in any other way than directly dubbed into English, without anchor point, directly mutilated?
Anchoring films, images, voices means taking seriously the cinematic heterogeneity. And this anchorage, the idea that an image is only possible there and nowhere else, is not just a matter of language and voice. There is also the body. Strangely, the Straubian cinema allows us to understand that the reason why the naked body has such exchange value, why it constitutes for capital (porn movies) such a precious signifier, is because it has no attachment to History, because it makes us loose sight of it. Therefore it is necessary to anchor the body. I'm thinking of the jerseys on the torsos of (true) farmers who lay their offerings before the golden calf in Moses and Aaron. And even of the eroticism in the Straub films, discrete validation, of the most neutral parts of the body, the less spectacularly consumable: an ankle here, a knee there.
The minimum device of enunciation is the voice, the phonic device. For Straub and Huillet this is the preferred device (Othon). But there are others. In Einleitung, rarely enough, the technical recording devices, the “sounding boards” are filmed. In Einleitung, Günter Peter Straschek reads a letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky and Peter Nestler reads a well-known text by Brecht. What do we see? Images of a recording studio, images connoting officiality, the weight of legitimate discourse, heavy, coming from above and destined to provoke no response. Images of talkers, of ’speakers’, servants of speech, therefore not having to rise to speak.
When we see the face of, let's say, Léon Zitrone (2) appear on French TV screens, we have to think – very quickly, once past the first moment of revolt – something like: “power – the power of the bourgeoisie – speaks to us directly.” Does this mean that Zitrone (his voice, his face, his eyes, his intonation) is completely transparent? No, it rather means that he is not talking but is just filling his speaking time. Which is something quite different.
Speaking in the device, speaking ’in position’, means being exempted from enunciation (legitimation). For many years, we have seen oppositional parties fail to master this problem. They spent a huge amount of the time allotted to them (during which time they were actually seen) saying that the rest of the time they were never seen. And then they didn't have any time left to say what they had come to say.
Being removed from power means being removed from one's devices. Being removed from one's devices means being constrained – if only we could break out one day – to take on the dispositives of enunciation (”to distance oneself”) even before stating anything whatsoever. Obligation to note, in the device, an enunciation (the effect and the legitimacy of one's speaking out) which the device dispossesses a priori. This is why the question of enunciation is always linked to one of power (ability to speak, not to speak – Clavel (3) – to say things otherwise), while statements are on the side of knowledge (concentrated power).
And when we return to the images of the two friends of the Straubs (Straschek and Nestler) reading, it is clear that they are not professional 'speakers'. And what do they read by the way? Let us quote. In the letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky: “When I walk in the street and all men look to see if I am a Jew or a Christian, I cannot tell everyone that I am the one whom Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, while doubtless Hitler is not of this opinion.” And Brecht: “Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood.”
What do these two speeches have in common? These are speeches of victims, of people in exile, speeches that do not participate in any power. Never.
The question at hand is significant: how to stage speeches in a film (or these specific speeches, which are literary texts)? The Straubs' solution is at least paradoxical, something born from fantasy: to inscribe, to lodge discourses “of resistance” in the dominant devices. Fantasy: a state radio voicing Brecht. In order to have, at once, the enjoyment of revenge (the extreme – comical – instance of such a revenge would be Zitrone reciting Brecht), and most of all to get close to the moment when, between dominated discourse and dominating device, the incompatibility, the non-reconciliation takes its course. Still,and again and again.
Remember Christian Metz saying that the linguistic translation of a shot of a gun would not be the word “gun” but something like: “Here’s a gun” (observe in passing that this example is not neutral: trajectory of finger, eye and bullet, scopic drive, ballistic drive). The whole problem of enunciation in cinema: knowing what, during the time of the projection of a film, functions as the instance that expresses, the voice that silently says: “Here it is... Here are corpses, a B-52... etc.”. Sound has the privilege to assert – as it is through sound that sense is made and from which militant cinema, for example, takes comfort –, but the privilege of the image, presentification, the very act of “Here it is” [voici] hasn't really been examined.
By solely considering the image as a surface, infinitely divisible, by only seeing in its iconic content what can be passed – decanted – from the realm of connotation to that of denotation, one leaves aside the basic fact that in the present of the film projection, something (but what?), someone (but who?) functions as the instance that says, “Here it is.” – We are given to see.
That is why we cannot follow Marc Ferro all the way to the end of his argument (see "Le Monde diplomatique", May 1975). As a good historian, he thinks he can help the maximum of the public by getting across whatever the news images (archive footage, stock-shots) contain haphazardly, implicitly, involuntary, in the domain of the denotable, of information, of knowledge (knowledge after the fact, the historian's knowledge.) However, the problem is not to reduce the image or to dream up one that would be information, purely denoted. This reduction, we begin to suspect, is impossible: like any implementation of code it secretes something irreducible, a “third meaning” (Roland Barthes (4)). The problem is rather that the image is not a flat surface to anyone, except for those who have chosen to make it flat.
As much as an image is alive, as much as it has an impact, as much as it calls out to a public, as much as it provides pleasure, it means that in this image, around it, behind it, something in the domain of primitive enunciation (power + event = “Here it is”) functions. In cinema, enunciation might be, hidden somewhere, a little machine wound up to repeat the Lacanian phrase: “You want to look? Well, look at this”.
The cinematic image can not only be accounted for by the competence of those who know how to keep it at a distance. It is like hollowed out by the same power that has allowed it, that wanted it. It is also this thing that people have enjoyed making and others have enjoyed seeing. And this pleasure remains: the image is a tomb for the eye. Seeing a film is coming into view of what has already been seen. Seen by others: the camera, the author, the technicians, the first audience, those responsible, sometimes political people, tyrants. And what has been seen has already been enjoyed.
It happens that this power is inscribed in the image, as something that marks it, guarantees, authenticates it. Hitchcock, master of suspense and of each image of this suspense, appears briefly to remind us that he is the master (the enunciator). And this “politics of the authors” becomes politics tout court, like in this extraordinary scene in Kashima Paradise  by Yann Le Masson and Bénie Deswarte where we see the police simulate for television a Japanese attack in order to justify in advance their response (that television will be filming).
In this little film by the Straubs, Einleitung, there's the image of the Communards in their coffins, and that of B-52s bombing. These are of course not neutral images. They serve not only to identify such body or such bomb. They also tell us – whether intended or not – that the camera was American, on the same side as the bomber, just as the photographer probably was on the side of Mr Thiers. The non-neutrality of these images is not only that they put us in the presence of something horrible, it is that they show something for which there is no counter-shot, no counter-proof, no other positive image: a photo taken by the Communards or the B-52 seen from the ground, i.e. from the bombed field, and that is to say, an impossible photo.
The same goes – a fortiori – for these images of Nazified masses feeding the current retro style. We have said that for Straub and Huillet Nazism was a central event. However, they never make use of images taken from the inside of Nazism. Why? Perhaps because they believe that the responsibility of an artist is to create his own image, current and risky, of his own anti-nazism (for them this meant to dedicate their most recent film to Holger Meins (5)), rather than to reproduce images taken by Nazi cameramen in so-called 'critical' or 'detached' montages. Any reproachful and hypocritical commentary would be powerless when confronting the turmoil of these images. The Straubs' lesson: the derisory well-meaning assertions on the soundtrack and the 'Here it is' of the Nazi image have different dreams in the same bed.
What makes Einleitung, as the authors say, "an agitation film" is perhaps its order of exposure, the time that it gives us to restore these images to what they are: images taken on the basis of U.S. power, taken from the other side. It consists of cleaning the images from every déjà-vu. It consists of bringing out (making ooze, bringing to light, driving out) from these images the power that has wanted them and that wanted them to not even surprise us anymore. Therefore, the horror is no longer the eternal return of the Same in the guise of the Same (retro mode), but the intolerable present (Holger Meins, 1975).
(1) Daney frequently abridges film titles in this essay.
(2) Léon Zitrone (1914 -1995) was a host and anchorman on French television.
(3) Maurice Clavel (1920 - 1979) was a French writer and political essayist. The incident Daney refers to was the spectacular scene of Clavel walking out on a TV debate after he had been repeatedly cut off, bidding farewell with the words: "Good evening, my censors." (This detail is explained in an editor's note in a German collection of Serge Daney's essays [Serge Daney, Von der Welt ins Bild: Augenzeugenberichte eines Cinephilen, edited by Christa Blümlinger, Berlin: Vorwerk8, 2000.]
(4) Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980) is credited for the term "third meaning" in the earlier version of the text (Cahiers du Cinéma), but the credit is missing in the "La Rampe" version. Barthes introduced the term in his essay "Le troisième sens" (1970 – English: "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills", in: Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Transl. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
(5) Holger Meins, German, born in 1941, was arrested along with members of the "Baader gang"; he died in prison in 1974 after 53 days of hunger strike. (Original note by Daney in "La Rampe".)
We live, we make movies, as if we were occupied. I was listening to the radio yesterday, in the middle of the night, an interview with Godard. And Jean-Luc says: "the French have always made a great prisoner's cinema, the most beautiful prisoner's cinema in the world." And when I saw Bresson's Pickpocket, I realised there was greatness in being a prisoner. But a Bressonian prisoner is also Dostoevskian (...).
(...) Telling a story, a bit like wondering what came before me, what I inherited without realising it. And it's no mystery: we inherited war, 1940-45. And we must be the only country in the world that was occupied, didn't resist much and produced a very strong cinema during the war. It was, as Autant-Lara said, the heyday of French cinema. And from his point of view, it's correct (...).
But others were making a cinema that prepared something else, or said something else. And one could follow that. But they were at the margins: Franju, Melville, Cocteau, Bresson, Tati. So the official idea I developed of French cinema was that it was made by mavericks, by non-conformists. There has been so many of them since the beginning, since Feuillade. (...)
That's the war. Everything in French cinema that was professional, unionised, with home-made aesthetics and ideology, is rather what I have no interest in. And I say "rather" because there are magnificent things. I'm interested in what was marginal. But I feel this can only be said of France. American cinema has some great and sublime mavericks but (...).Extract from Sous le vent, a film by Robert Kramer that was part of a series of film commissions (La culture en chantier) by the French Ministry of cultural affairs in 1991. My (quick) translation.
Murmur of the World (Robert Kramer, Route One USA)
“If we are truly together, the dark of the day is the best moment to see. But we must be truly together,” said Robert Kramer, fifteen years ago. Only a man threatened by solitude can say this. Only a man very inhabited inside can deal with this solitude when it does more than threaten. For, if populations change over time, it’s always about them.First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 246, December 1989. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.130-132. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.
In 1975, Kramer and John Douglas co-signed Milestones, the film that closed a first loop, that of American radicalism, which he had, better than anyone else, drawn the portrait of (The Edge, Ice, In the Country).
With Milestones, another generation – that of the opposition to the Vietnam war – could call itself “lost”. The fragile sound of a page being turned could even be heard in a Cahiers round table (issue 258-259) flatly but sincerely named: Milestones and us.
The rest is better known: Kramer leaves the USA, puts himself at the service of several struggles (Portugal), settles in France, tries everything (video as amusement or scalpel, auteur cinema, an hallucinated police film) and doesn’t quite pull it off. One doesn’t need to be Freudian to see that, sooner or later, Robert Kramer will need to return, a way or another, to his starting point.
A small film shot in Portugal (Doc’s Kingdom, scandalously not released) amounts to getting ready for the departure. Its hero – Kramer’s alter ego – is a drunken and narcissistic doctor who has somehow survived to all his beliefs. He’s the doctor we follow all along Route One.
For this is indeed, fifteen years later, a sequel to Milestones. The road comes after the milestones. The road in Milestones went from “the snowy mountains of Utah to the natural sculptures of Monument Valley, to the caves of the Hopi people, and to the dust of New York City”; the road in Route One simply connects Cape Cod to Miami. For the one starting again, any road, chosen randomly, is the right one: the first one, for example.
Why choose a doctor? Because Robert Kramer’s father is a doctor (there is an auscultation scene in Milestones)? Because there is a doctor theme in John Ford’s films (whom Kramer admires and of whom he is – I’ve always thought this – one of the rare heirs)? Because the USA is sick? Or because, when we are “truly together”, we ought to care for each other? A little bit of all this, of course. But all this would remain abstract if Robert Kramer’s art (for he is an artist, and a great one) wasn’t fundamentally that of a doctor’s, that of a general practitioner. As such, he can’t afford to choose his patients: he is the adult truth of the militant that he was (“at the service of the people”).
And what does the doctor do when combing the countryside? He uses his eyes and takes out of his briefcase this old emblem: the stethoscope. He measures up the state of populations, he takes their pulse (and, with the help of age and humour, he knows that his own health is no longer perfect). In short, the wandering doctor works in the audiovisual sphere.
Filmmakers who are both great show-offs and great editors are rare. Kramer has acquired an exceptional eye (his work with video is for something in this) but doesn’t expect from it – and that’s exceptional – a voyeuristic added value. Of the people he meets and listens to, along Route One, he expects no truth: he simply follows them in a phase of their existence (always according to the principle that one must only film people that work, at the same time, at something else).
He diverts them – a bit – away from their route, as if offering them a free consultation. He doesn’t dramatise the road (it’s the opposite of a road movie), nor the encounter: these people are always already there and they have other things to do. Follows the beautiful portrait of what we can continue to love in America: its hard labour, its sense of duty, its basic energy.
As for the sound, the direct sound of the social stethoscope, it is no less (and no more) than the pulsation of hearts and ideas, of the rhythm that allows something to be heard. It’s the most mysterious part of Kramer’s art – its most Fordian part. As a puritan for whom, everywhere and always, only the social bond requires and justifies the presence of cinema, he cannot prevent, over free consultations, to let the murmur of the world rise, America being a world in itself. A man blowing on embers is Fire. A fish in a tank is Water. A soldier bending under the weight of his kit, is Earth.
We need, despite everything, witnesses. And witnesses need to have time on their side. Kramer might not have needed fifteen years of diversions and a four-hour movie if American cinema (special effects aside) was able – as it used to be – to draw up such a state of things. Ironically, this man, who left because he suffered too much from the evils of American imperialism (from Indians to Vietnamese), returns to a country which is, for the first time in its history, no longer at the centre of the world, not even at the centre of itself. Only an exile like Kramer can continue to love America – by force if necessary.