Double exposure, issue 6, Fall/Winter 2013-14, translated by Paul Chouchana. Another translation of the same text was published a year ago on this blog.
Double exposure, issue 6, Fall/Winter 2013-14, translated by Paul Chouchana.
This blog keeps track of French film critic Serge Daney's texts available in English. Help me keep it complete.
|Libération front page - 28 February 1991|
Claude Berri replies to Serge Daney
I “may not think” – and that’s what you’re saying – but I sometimes reflect, especially at night.
At first I thought I was angry with you. But after sleeping over it, I read your article again, calmly. Here and there, I even understand a sentence or two. It’s a shame that the article lacks coherence. A detail makes you “rebound”*. A four-seconds shot where the actress Danièle Lebrun leafs through a film magazine of that time, probably Cinémonde. I quote you: “Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on.” There, you wrote it.
I don’t have to flag much more than this. For the rest, I refer the reader to your article dated Tuesday 8 January 1991 (even though Uranus was released on Wednesday 12 December, with a review in your paper on that day). If I, in turn, rebound, Serge Daney – as the right to reply allows me – it’s in the memory of my father who often said to me: “if someone spits in your face, don’t say it’s the rain”. It’s not the first time you’ve been after me. Already, for Jean de Florette, I had forgotten that you had asked the question: so why is BERRI going through all this trouble?
Your interest in me is touching. Few people posed the question in those terms. But after all, it’s not a bad question. And if you haven’t understood, let me answer it for you: I go through all this trouble, Serge Daney, since the age of seventeen – I’m nearly fifty-seven – to make films rather than fur. You know that my father was a furrier. At first, I remind you, I wanted to be an actor. Then, over time, I became a director, producer, distributor and an art lover. You know all that. As for me, I know nothing about you. Where do you come from? Surely, to write like this, you must be educated. What does your face look like? Someday, we must have a drink together. You’re so interested in me, it feels natural we should get acquainted.
So, I went through a lot of trouble, and I’ve done really well. My father would be proud. The only thing that could annoy me would be take too badly what you write about me. But no – re-thinking and re-reading – I don’t take it badly at all. I won’t hide that my first reaction was to want to box your ears. Now that I’m over this first fit of temper, let it be known that, on the contrary, I cannot wait to read again and again the inevitable ramblings that you will surely produce for my next film.
A few years ago, you would have hurt me. I prefered when François Truffaut wrote about my films. It was clear, magnificent. Articles are like films, they resemble their authors. You must be a strange guy. Are you nasty? I’m not. I’ve only had successes, abroad too. Florette played for three years in London. In four weeks, nearly two million French people have seen Uranus. Overall, the media reception has been good. Uranus will represent France at the Berlin Film Festival. Why would I get angry with someone who rambles on? One must watch one’s temper. I prefer to leave that to the professionals. I’d like to see the film that you may make someday.
Ok, no hard feelings. I’m an insomniac. And I’ve had a good time writing to you. And know that, if I didn’t think about anything while making Uranus, I just spent two hours thinking about you. Do you know that Jewish story? Moshe can’t sleep because he owes money to his neighbour. He gets up, opens the window and starts shouting: “Yantel! Yantel!” Yantel, who’s asleep, wakes up and opens the window. And Moshe shouts: “I will never pay you back.” Then Moshe goes back to bed and tells his wife: “Now, he’s the one who won’t sleep.”
There you go, Serge Daney, do continue. Be sure that I will mention you in my memoirs. I’ll include this letter. When I made The two of us with Michel Simon, I immediately and instinctively knew that I’d have my place in history, at least because of that film. Be reassured, you will have your place in history thanks to me. Now, I’m going back to bed…
As my friend Coluche used to say: “So long, babe!”**
* Daney’s article was published in the Op-ed section of Libération called “Rebonds” (Rebound).
** “Allez, salut ma Poule !” A “poule” is a colloquial term which can be used in a friendly way (honey, babe) but also to designate a mistress, or a women of easy virtue. In any case, it must have come across as extremely offending to Daney who was gay.
[Libération, 28 February 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt]From the testimonies I have found, Serge Daney was extremely hurt by the publication of this insulting reply. Here's his account, in the last months of his life (Daney died of AIDS in June 1992, less than two years after the Berri affair):
There were two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic (…) The second was the Berri affair last year, concerning Uranus. I have to say that the idea of “one for all and all for one” took a serious blow. I hoped that, just like in the movies, friends would come out from everywhere, dropping everything else, and saying “What the hell is going on here? We’re going to pummel the guy who’s hassling our friend.” It wasn’t all that important, but no one came out.
[Serge Daney, Postcards from the cinema, Berg, 2007, p.124]And here's Daney's reaction, in an interview he gave for his last book (Recrudescence), soon after the events:
When I surprised myself writing again good things about Fritz Lang and always bad things about René Clair, I was less amazed by my loyalty to the traditional tastes of Cahiers than by the vehemence with which I refused all reconciliation. (...) When a televised film ceremony elected Les Enfants du paradis the finest French film since the talkies, I had the feeling that we hadn’t won. Who is this we? Those for whom French cinema is rather La règle du jeu, Pickpocket, Playtime, L’enfance nue or La maman et la putain. And then I argue it out with myself and tell myself that if we loved those films for their minority violence, it is to be expected that in this period of renewed bourgeois hypocrisy (I prefer this expression to soft consensus, which is now a dull cliché), violence should be ill-regarded, the critical sense devalued and the minority quickly put in the wrong.
So I ought not to be surprised that between the raw and the cooked the war goes on. A culinary war (this is France after all) where, opposing raw naturalism (Renoir), raw impressionism (Bresson) or raw modern art (Godard) we still find Tavernier’s stew or Berri’s fry-up. And I’m not surprised that Berri should hound me through the courts like some wounded big shot. It’s the legacy of Delannoy’s mush or L’Herbier’s boiled beef (he was a dead loss and no mistake). Taking this into account, everything tells me that there is something like a franco-French civil war, which is about this country and its history, which goes beyond the cinema and which will never be over. Someone wrote to me at Libération accusing me of doing a Truffaut thirty years on. He was right. We are thirty years back.
[Serge Daney, Cinema in transit, unpublished]It's not clear what hurt Daney most: Berri's response, that it got published in Libération, what it meant for French cinema (and the state of France as a whole) or the fact that "no one came out" to support him. On the spot, Daney himself was close to a pretty silly reaction (as told by Jean-Claude Biette):
I owe to Daney’s memory to tell that he had the intention, following the controversy over Uranus, to send Claude Berri a copy of Devant la recrudescence, with a dedication mimicking the words Berri had used to salute Daney “Here’s some reading, babe!” and that he had abandoned the idea because of the effort of finding Berri’s address and eventually admitting – in front of this obvious waste of time – the he didn’t hold that much against Berri.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 458, July-August 1992, special issue on Serge Daney, pp. 51-53, my translation]It's perhaps with Serge July - the editor of Libération - that Daney was most upset with. According to Jean Guisnel, in his history of Libération, July had committed himself to write a text next to Berri's reply - a promise he failed to fulfill. Here's the text that July wrote when Daney passed away:
"The question of our cowardly times really is: what is resisting? What is resisting to markets, media, fear, cynicism, idiocy, indignity?" He founded Trafic with this resistance in mind. Daney opened the first issue with a "Diary of the past year" from which this - almost gaullist - quote is from. He rightly blamed me for not having resisted - when I should have done so - to one occurence of the dominant indignity.
I must begin with this: Claude Berri’s indignity. Berri had just made Uranus and Serge Daney, in the Rebound section of Libération, had written an article worthy to feature in an anthology. Its object? An abject side of France in this stinky cinema. Claude Berri subpoenaed Libération, a court agreed and imposed the publication of a right to reply which I steadfastly refused to publish. But I had no choice. The court had chosen the date. It coincided with the most dramatic hours of the Gulf war*: Berri’s text would appear without me defending Serge Daney, publicly at least. That day, I wrote about the war. He never forgave me for not being present at a battle that he judged fundamental. I had - as some used to say - let Berri pass. Daney was right. It remained an incurable wound for him.
* The day Berri's right of reply was published (28 February 1991) was the day George Bush announced the end of the first Gulf war (see image above).
[Libération, 13 June 1992, my translation]Berri himself (who passed away in 2009) came to "regret" his response, albeit not for the best reasons. Here's the interview he gave to Cahiers in 2003:
When you react to Serge Daney’s text in Libération against Uranus, you actually demand a right to reply and you obtain it via the courts. What did upset you so much that you took such a drastic measure?
[Berri gets up and goes to his desk, looking for the article in a folder]: We talked more about this, this conflict with Serge Daney - whom I didn’t know - than about what Henri Langlois wrote about Le Cinéma de papa. [Claude Berri has found the article and reads it outloud] You’ve never read it?
Yes, I did, at the time. I remember what he said about a film magazine in your film, which was a collector’s piece where it should have been new.
When I read the article, I didn’t write to Daney or call him, I only asked for a right to reply. The reply was scathing. At the time, I didn’t know that Daney was sick, I didn’t even know who he was. Especially since three weeks or a month before Libération had printed five pages on the film. The review wasn’t amazing but the film was considered a real event. When I read Daney’s article, I couldn’t contain myself.
There was a sentence, an idea which had shocked you.
When I read it now, not really [laughs]. I didn’t take stock. But it was especially contemptuous. [He reads an extract]. “Given the group portrait of a rotten period in the history of France, can this portrait be drawn without thinking a little bit about how it should be drawn? Answer: no. Did Claude Berri think of anything at all while filming Uranus? Answer: it doesn’t seem so. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to aim a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No comment.
Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.”
It’s a good remark, no?
Yes, yes… Well, no, honestly, with hindsight, re-reading it, I wouldn’t have replied. I had no idea that he was a cult critic, that he was gay and that he was sick, and if I had known...
What would it have changed?
I wouldn’t have replied. I was shooting at an ambulance. I take no pride in having replied.
Serge Daney was more upset with Serge July who didn’t support him than with you.
But my reply was mean. Thierry Levy, my lawyer, went to see July two or three times and we obtained the reply via the decision of a tribunal. It was imposed onto them. They published my reply – a real turn of luck for them – the day of a strike in the press printing industry, which means it wasn’t read by many but clearly left its mark on a few minds. In one’s life, there's a lot, good moments, dramas and moments of stupidity. I didn’t realise how much grief it was going to cause in the eyes of some people. I can even regret to have replied because it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps it came after quite a number of humiliations which I had to suffer in my life.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 580, June 2003, pp. 60-69, my translation]
Uranus, mourning for mourning
Given the group portrait of a rotten period in the history of France, can this portrait be drawn without thinking a little bit about how it should be drawn? Answer: no. Did Claude Berri think of anything at all while filming Uranus? Answer: it doesn’t seem so. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to aim a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No comment.
Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.
Let’s now imagine what might have been the realist solution to this problem. It was enough to make a facsimile of this Cinémonde and obtain a duplicate with fresh pages and white paper, to choose a fake new over a true old, to position oneself on the side of the character and not on the side of the actress (or the props manager). Then we would have had the feeling that the character played by Danièle Lebrun had just bought Cinémonde, a logically brand new Cinémonde. Thanks to this tiny detail we would have had, for a second or two, the feeling of the present of 1945, i.e. of history without a capital H, a history that is still arbitrary and has not yet become a tribunal, with characters who have not yet become a gallery of friendly actors composing in 1990 the not so friendly roles of yesterday. And here is how a movie that is supposed to run on vitriol turns rapidly into museum pomade.
Some would say that this is not what interests Berri and that he only wants to make us laugh (mirthlessly) thanks to the anti-heroes he has found in Marcel Aymé’s novel. Some would even say that it is not fair to pretend to discover that Berri the filmmaker is not up there with the likes of Renoir or Guitry for whom a cinema evocative of the past has never depended on a period-Cinémonde. Uranus is indeed an addition to the rather short list of films attempting to present on screen a France that is not presentable: the France of 1940-1945. A difficult gamble since it implies interesting the audience in a sample of rather uninteresting, fundamentally spineless and despairingly mediocre characters. This is no small task and the surprise is not that Berri failed where even Brecht didn’t always succeed (although Losey did, in the Brechtian Monsieur Klein) but that, ready to take on the challenge and to jump into the unknown, he has failed to reach the bar by such a margin that – probably carried away by consensual and tepid hurrahs - he didn’t even suspect that there was a bar (1).
Let’s take another example. There is one great scene in Uranus, where the Monglat son confronts his father and where the father, wonderfully interpreted by the intense Gallabru, becomes, in the midst of evil, nothing less than Shakespearian. For Berri, who wants to make us laugh about the honest (or dishonest) mediocrity of his Franco-fauna, it’s a failure since Monglat is grandiose. This is because, since Diderot, mediocrity is not a topic available to anyone. Marcel Aymé approached it head on (in Le confort intellectuel) but not with fictional characters. As soon as there is at least one character, the most elementary morals consist in giving him every chance (first to the character, then to the actor’s body and finally to the profession of acting). And if he’s really given his chances, then inevitably, he will interest us. This is the iron law of fiction. Fiction, despite itself, tends to redeem characters. Barthes, who was fascinated by stupidity, didn’t write novels and probably suffered as a result. Even Flaubert admitted in the end that he had developed some sympathy for Bouvard and Pécuchet. Average humanity is a very bad conductor of fiction, especially in cinema.
Since apparently none of this occurred to Berri, he was happy to merely record the frequently lazy work of a group of popular actors trying to save their characters from lack of interest and stale folklore. In French cinema’s tradition of quality, it is always up to the famous actor (and to his tirades) to exorcise the dubious, cowardly and mediocre character he embodies. Thus in Uranus, the collaborator inspires respect, the good stubborn communist empathy and the intellectual communist pity. The engineer is courageous (he hides the collaborator), the professor is far-sighted (he helps the engineer) and if the suspicious barman is a brute, he is saved by his discovery of poetry (he loves Racine). Overall, this is a rather positive appraisal of a France which, having rather hastily taken its spinelessness for a refusal of Manichaeism, smiles to discover itself, despite everything, very likeable in the two-way mirror of the past (“only human after all!”). In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why it is documentaries, like The Sorrow and the pity, that, much better than fiction, have resuscitated France’s past, have been under attack by the censors and generated unease. Uranus does not disturb anyone and pleases everybody.
There again, some would say that this is asking too much of Berri who, after all, is not at the origin of the scandal. He is too busy being the illustrator paying his respect to the most Franco-French regional writers (Pagnol, Aymé, who were not exactly progressives) and too admiring of the other arts (painting) and not enough of cinema – albeit the only art which, impure, oscillates by nature between past and present, between the age of the objects filmed and the hic et nunc of the camera. And then, isn’t there an expiration date for collective mourning – like for yogurt? Aren’t there moments in the life of a people, like in an artist’s career, when something like grief work (Freud’s Trauerarbeit) can happen before fiction redeems everything, albeit cheaply? Shouldn’t the example of the Germans – Fassbinder, Harlan or Syberberg – be meditated upon? Questions. Important and often abstruse questions which some will say Berri didn’t think of. OK, let’s stop demanding too much of Berri and move on to something else. To French cinema for instance.
French cinema – this has been repeated ad nauseam – suffers from an exceptional memory deficit. This is why, since the war, it is more about moralist auteurs (New Wave) than artisan-narrators (Tradition of quality). This is why French cinema is absolutely not American, not very Italian and wears its very own ball and chain: a script crisis which is nothing but a part of French history that hasn’t been well digested. The past (collaboration, purges, colonial wars) hasn’t passed (2).
Certainly there have been many score-settling movies, from Le corbeau to Uranus via a few made by Autant-Lara such as La traversée de Paris and the little-known Patates (with Pierre Perret). If mourning was about conducting and revising trials, finding new suspects and denying everyone any responsibility, all these movies with their satisfied masochism and their decorative darkness would have been adequate to the task. But mourning is something else altogether: not a way to disqualify the past but a way to untie oneself, slowly, from a past that is loved in spite of everything, loved even despite its general condemnation by History.
Aesthetically, mourning is an ambiguous work-in-progress which begins by giving to the past the fresh frivolity of its status as ex-present and to characters that freedom of choice which often, too young or too ignorant, they haven’t used. When it is solely ideological, mourning doesn’t work well and loses itself in the bitterness of infinite denouncement (“All rotten!”).
Non-ideological mourning is, more concretely, what separates parents and children. It is the question from the latter to the former (“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”), i.e. the poorly transmitted burden of the hesitating beliefs of the 20th century as it comes to a close. The communist creed for instance – obviously one of the biggest issues of the century – is worth much more than the rapid, ecumenical reconstruction in Uranus. The stubborn refusal of French cinema to transform a pure communist into a character of pure fiction explains in part the amazing, contemporary brain death of the French Communist Party. A refusal so stubborn that a figure like Georges Marchais end up being recycled as a female pig on a televised puppet show! The story of a communist father and of his children who can no longer be communist is one of the stories that French cinema should have made it a priority to tell. But it hasn’t. Italians have done it, with difficulties, and that has allowed them to produce one filmmaker (Nanni Moretti) and to move on to other things (not cinema).
Hence the question: is it too late? And aren’t the limits of mourning biological, assuming the coexistence of two generations still in conflict and, as Straub said, completely nicht versöhnt (not reconciled)? Does this mean that real mourning is not about mourning my beliefs (this would only generate disillusion which generates nothing), but mourning the beliefs of the previous generation, when they were my age? And what if the true scandal of mourning wasn’t only that there are innocents and guilty ones (even unpunished) but also that there has been, in every period and in every sense, people too young not to have been innocent? For instance because the Vichy years were the years of their youth and of their discovery of the world – the world as it was, i.e. not brilliant. The scandal is not only the guilt of old actors, it is also their innocence (“You’re not serious, when you’re seventeen”) – even the innocence of a housewife and mother who buys her brand new Cinémonde and gets a lot of pleasure out of turning its pages.
PS: At a recent “Special evening of cinema” on television – a charitable operation mounted by Canal Plus in support of cinema – Les enfants du paradis was voted the most beautiful French movie since the advent of the talkies. Old Marcel Carné came to thank the jury whereas the least the television broadcasters could have done was to thank – through Carné – cinema for helping them make ends meet in the absence of good programmes. Les enfants du paradis is not a bad movie but it is merely the best that an occupied country can produce, fleeing into the decor, into the past, into the gallery of actors and into the beautiful craftsmanship of movie making. Fleeing into a collective art dedicated to the group portrait and unspeakable nostalgia (what could be more innocent than children and paradise?). As long as the good cinephile and the decent folk prefer the golden hideaway of Les enfants du paradis to the dry account of La règle du jeu, we can be sure that a form of occupation, somewhere, continues.
(1) This is no longer probable; it’s now certain.
(2) It is not impossible after all that the typical situation of French cinema is the one of the prisoner. There would then be two ways out: either by adjusting to prison, by making it human, by surviving with alliances and know-how, or by refusing it, even if it means a chance to discover oneself in a newly found freedom (through spiritual or physical escape). Long held as the greatest French film, Renoir’s La grande illusion (like later Le caporal épinglé) shows both paths. But if Renoir plays this game, Bresson (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) is the one choosing the escape route. See also Cocteau (La belle et la bête), Grémillion (La petite Lise), Becker (Le Trou) and many others. For the New Wave, it was enough to escape from the studios to have access to a certain freedom. This freedom however is never the theme of the movie: even in Rohmer’s movies, one is only prisoner of his social being.First published in Libération, 8 January 1991. Reprinted in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997, pp. 153-6. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.
So, why is Berri going through all this trouble?*
Phew! Yesterday was national Jean de Florette day. Today we can finally talk about the film. It’s an illustration of Pagnol’s novel. By the way, what’s an illustration?
As a dull illustration of a novel that is not dull, Jean de Florette (part one) leaves you a bit depressed but not quite appalled (but are there still movies that can truly appal?). It’s in the very nature of academism – in its fundamental modesty – to discourage exegesis as if it was venom. So, now that the media frenzy is over, there is still a film. And I’m guessing that even the most bashful admirers of the film will admit that it is primarily the (pious) illustration of a (great) book.
To appreciate Jean de Florette with the supposed innocence of its ideal audience, we must make the effort to remember the books of our childhood. These books used to contain, every ten or twenty pages, one illustration (drawing or engraving), with a sentence from the text below it. We must remember that the charm of these illustrations came from their scarcity and that we did not yet have the desire (it was before storyboards) to imagine the whole text in images. We were content, while reading, to take an image break (just as you say a toilet break), which was never more than an image just to see, a hypothesis, a conditional image. Since any illustration is only a series of propositions, the (popular) pleasure that we derive from them consists in quibbling about which actor/actress truly personifies his/her character: a perverse pleasure since it necessarily leaves the door open to all the possible castings (why not Claude Piéplu as Papet, Gérard Lanvin as Ugolin or André Dussolier as Jean de Florette? I can hear you screaming: “No!” You’re already playing…)
The limits of illustration
Illustration always refers to something else. It can be self-referential and create its own autonomous graphic or aesthetic universe (Gustave Doré or Sir John Tenniel). It can attempt to refer to the other illustrations in the book. And that’s where it stops working because the very principle of illustrations is that there is nothing between them but text. Together, the engravings of a book do not create an independent world, in the same way that a stroboscopic vision is not a gaze and a series of toilet breaks doesn’t quite make a river. Only random moments remain, like the stage finish of an invisible Tour de France and the obstacle course of professional screenwriter of adaptations, petrified by the respect of what eludes him (words). In the case of Jean de Florette, each and every one can have its own illustrations. Taken individually they are not worthless (Berri – So Long Stooge proved it – can be competent), but only on the condition that we forget that this is cinema and that a film is not meant to be leafed through but must be watched (and sometimes seen). The arrival of Jean de Florette and Aimée in their rundown farmhouse, Ugolin suddenly dreaming of his carnations, the Papet ruining his eyesight looking cunningly around the hedges, the intromission of the giant rabbits, the yellow sirocco wind, the truth about the emeralds, and especially the clouds that the mountain splits, forcing the rain on the wrong side: all play their roles as icons. This leaves the rest (and regardless of your choice of icons, there will always be something left), i.e. all those shots whose only legitimacy are these images, just as these images are summarised on the film poster (which it would be inappropriate to confuse with an advertisement for a 100% vegetable oil or a new mayonnaise with Herbes de Provence).
Knowing that cinema is twenty-four images per second, and that eleven billion francs has just been spent to make merely four or five images in a film that is over two hours long, the cinephile feels depressed (but, I repeat, not appalled). A filmmaker – the cinephile perseveres in thinking – is a person who makes the in-between perceptible: in-between images, in-between actions, in-between stars and extras, in between anything, just in-between. A filmmaker doesn’t believe in illustrations as a nice supplement to the text (especially when the text is strong) but he dreams of a film woven by images and not decorated with them. But let’s leave the cinephile to his field of carnations, and let’s see how, even in the context of pious and academic cinema, Jean de Florette falls short. And this forces us to ask the question of Berri’s masochism.
Jean de Florette is not only a great book (the story is so strong that it literally carries through the film and saves it from boredom), it is also written by a man who was a great filmmaker. From Berri’s statements, we can unfortunately deduct this: he felt it useful to tone down the folklore of Pagnol’s world (less Pastis, less accent, less local colour) for a rather naive conception of the holy Greek-therefore-universal-tragedy on a background of beautiful landscapes. Worse than treason, it’s a real step back compared to Pagnol the filmmaker. For Pagnol, landscapes didn’t exist and places – in black and white – owed their strong presence to being the stakes in the stories. Pagnol is not Giono. He is – like Benoit Jacquot? – a filmmaker of the contract and promise, and nothing else interests him. Pagnol’s world, including the folklore, is abruptly thrown against the savagery of the Word and the precision of peasants’ calculations.
Mercy for the actors
What’s left is another form of Berri’s masochism: the actors. Nothing can be added to the comparative assessment of the three male stars of the film (in the spirit of the game, let’s say that Montand is inconsistent and Depardieu amazes but in a vacuum; let’s say that it doesn’t really matter; let’s also say that Auteuil is indeed remarkable), but there is still the question (which, obviously, does not interest anyone) of the small roles. And it’s always worth starting with the hare of small roles, because it says something about a film’s ethics. Take Aimée (Elisabeth Depardieu) for example. At one point, the problem is no longer that the actress is not good or that the role has been hollowed out, but that we are watching her shots with the same embarrassment we feel in front of someone we’ve invited over without telling her why, without offering her a seat or suggesting she wait and leaf through an illustrated magazine while the thing goes on. Between the failure to assist actors in danger and a lack of interest for characters on the sole basis that they are secondary, lie the reasons why Berri is not yet David Lean or William Wyler (who were academic filmmakers too).
It’s not merely an ethical question of relations with actors and to what they are supposed to impersonate, it’s also – of course – a question of aesthetics. If cinema is twenty-four images per second and n bodies in presence, a filmmaker is the one who manages to make everything move at the same time. And when I say move, it doesn’t mean jiggling around hysterically, transitional cuts or jolting the camera around, it means that film characters (just like an object, a rabbit or a field) are like clouds, they move even when they’re not being filmed. It means that great films are those where the things that are filmed (called on screen) and the things not filmed (called off screen) are exposed together to wind, erosion and time. It means that between a shot and a reverse shot, there isn’t an actor waiting for his turn, but time passing for all.
PS: I imagine that Berri, both producer and director of the film, has been caught between the two demands and that the producer’s demands (putting together the project, securing the cast, guaranteeing the image, providing some media-ready material) took precedence. They are laudable, and there is no doubt that Berri is one of the great producers of French cinema, but the fact that he is more personal as a producer than as a director is an issue, and perhaps a final bit of masochism. For the movie – no doubt about it – will be a success.* “A quoi ça sert que Berri, il se décarcasse ?” The title is a pun on a popular TV commercial for herbs and spices food manufacturer Ducros: "A quoi ça sert que Ducros, il se décarcasse ?". The commercial was on TV for most of the '70s and '80s and played heavily and annoyingly on the folklore of the Provence region.
The theatre of entrances“Bastard!” is the last word ever pronounced by a Fordian character in a film by John Ford. “So long, bastard!” says Doctor Cartwright to a collapsing Tunga Khan. The doctor then swallows her strychnine and throws away the cup in a sorry and defiant gesture. Beautiful gesture, fade to black: the end of Ford’s cinema (1966). “A bloody good movie” he will say later to Bogdanovich and how could we disagree?When the words The End arrive, Doctor Cartwright has sacrificed herself to allow the insufferable Florrie Pether to have – at 40 years old – a child and for the child to survive. The child won’t have a father, just as the doctor and the missionaries of Seven Women won’t have children. They won’t even have the right to complain: haven’t they chosen their fate?
These seven women, cut off from the world and from China – that other world – are not pathological cases that Ford would have looked into in extremis, having realised that, after the Indians, women were the other group to rehabilitate. It is probably more radical: it is the whole of Ford’s cinema which says in as many ways as possible that if I is indeed I – it is the meagre and only certainty in a world where everything else is drifting – a child is, by definition, an Other. Lost, adopted, found, saved: a child is the most serious gag that can happen to man. This is why Tunga Khan and his men split their sides laughing when they discover, in a corner of the shack, lying on the ground, old Florrie Pether and her newborn. An incredible scene which should change the mind of those who still think Ford is self-righteous, sentimental or, in a word, humanist.He is a humanist but like Mizoguchi, through despair. In Ford’s world, when we have added everything to nothing and the sum is still nothing, the only thing left is to enjoy and play with the narrow privilege of the pithecanthropus erectus: upright position, pose, posture. Man is what stays the course, nothing more. More late Sternberg than Hawks (even though the latter is a great filmmaker and Ford’s lifelong friend). We are indeed far away from the Hawksian vanity of a composure so plainly exhibited that it becomes deafening. Ford, less subtle, is more refined.What more beautiful theme for the cinephilic debate than the parallel between Ford and Hawks, even today? The yellow Cahiers were right to find Hawks modern. Hawks is modern because he opens an entire cinema which only allows the existence of the specialist of himself, the professional, the self-legitimated individual whose saga is continued today by Besson and whose professionalità is mocked by Morretti. And Hawks, like all true filmmakers, also has a conception of children: a child is a little monkey who emulates everything to perfection and who begins by faking the adults’ autonomy. He is an additional singularity in a permanent museum of the human species. That is why Hawks’ cinema is more racial than racist. In it, the individual functions like a race with only one specimen, as with Rohmer – Hawks’ disciple. In a child, Ford sees the enigma that we must adopt on the off-chance, with no guarantee.American cinema would have never existed without the necessity for filmmakers to harbour – even implicitly – a theory of the Other. In Seven Women, ten years before the extraordinary Deer Hunter, Ford – admired by Cimino – counts up everything that can threaten an obsidional community from the outside: desire, evil, disease, barbarism, etc. But these figures are derived: their model is the birth of this child within the mission, a birth which will accelerate events and destroy the mission. Life must always be continued, transmitted, protected, written. But never from the point of view of the community, never from the moralising consensus, and always from the point of view of an individual, single by nature, pure passeur but no genitor. This individual is often a drunken doctor (as is sometimes Doctor Cartwright). He is the one who leaves to the others the care to write History because he is happy to ensure things go as planned, like Tom Donpiphon. In 1990, when obsidional groups and burried debts are returning from everywhere, the Fordian individualist also returns and he sounds right.
* * *
When talking about cinema, the word deep is strange and always a bit suspicious. Ford, a deep filmmaker? Let’s dig. For example, Ford’s depth of field is not – like Wyler’s – a place of ambiguity but – like Bunuel’s – a curve in space so the inhibited, and only the inhibited, can burrow into it in order to return without warning, in fast-motion. There are countless examples of what returns: from the darkness of night, like the Indian chief of Two Rode Together, a phalène that Guthrie McCabe has barely the time to erase, as one gets rid of what is left of a bad dream. In Seven Women, it is poor Agatha Andrews who is unwillingly projected within centimetres of young Emma’s body – too rapidly. It is the zero curve, the straight line. It is, if you will, the line of the singles, the line of all lives, one by one, of their portable remorse and their open secrets. From the depth of the image, what confronts the character with his loneliness or his impasse returns right in the middle of it. Shall we talk about the inhibited? Let’s remember that Freud preferred the term renouncement. Shall we talk about forclosure? The hallucinatory return into the real of what was never registered symbolically. You need both.Fordian solitude – unlike Hawksian autonomy – does expose one to such returns. The lonely being is immediately populated; the collective being, alone, experiences a good solitude, the solitude of the ball, for example, which Comolli has shown is the only possible community. The close-up is the shot where something gets closer to the character: the threat of seeing oneself in a painting or having to toast one’s image like Doctor Cartwright in the mirror. It is an echo to the Irish wake, a wake over this image which, like a guardian angel, watches over each one and stays the course with each one. Even Miss Binns – the admirable Miss Binns in Seven Women – suddenly realises that, as a missionary’s daughter born in China, she has never known Christmas or Europe.These are not the inhibited things that the movie slowly unveils. It is the possibility, always open, of a short-circuit in space-time and of the encounter between the character and the grief-stricken image of his own desire A desire with no mystery, almost forgotten but never quite completely. An image always-already-there and always-already-fixed, rather like a portrait, a face. By choosing sexual renouncement as its theme, Seven Women is somewhat exemplary.Ford is a unique filmmaker. In America, he was considered a filmmaker’s filmmaker. Very respected but, towards the end of his life, too much of an aesthete, too contemplative, not commercial enough. Hence, the suite of films from Wagonmaster to Seven Women which is a great moment of the 20th century. But why is he a filmmaker’s filmmaker? Because for him, cinema takes priority over everything else. Not in the trivial sense of cinema as the art of movement, not even in the more refine sense of cinema as the modulation of duration, but more radically, because cinema allows for the possibility of recording this always-already-there which looks at us one by one, which fades on us and dissolves us. As a guardian angel, the fundamental image is also a black box.A stopped image older than any freeze-image (1). The pre-emptive right of this image over those of the suite of the world. A challenge to a humanity stopped because it is confronted with the problem of transmission, with the dead end of education, with the risk of disappearance or dispersion, with the threat of sterility, or worse, with the appearance of unrecognisable children, of little others. A generic Ireland populated with doomed Indians, sterile women, pathetic regiment mascots who have all forgotten to set up a home. The humanity of what does not reproduce itself well. This image is like the black box that exists before the accident and survives it.Each of the women in Seven Women goes through a black box moment. It is never about becoming conscious, about revelation or grace. Ford is interested in faith – the doctor’s, the lawyer’s and the priest’s faith, all equally. Like Tarkovski, he must have thought that God only exists for those who believe in him. In the end, then, as a primary given: cinema’s inherent power to say I = I, to feel held by it and to hold on to it, with melancholy. The rest is the surface, the place of the theatre.* * *Nowadays, many filmmakers entrust cinema with the care of recording, objectivising what theatre produces. With Oliveira, Rohmer or Fassbinder, the gaze over theatre results in a squared cinema. Cinema saves theatre from the false and theatre saves cinema from stiffness. Ford’s approach is more peculiar. Not only does it put cinema at the back and theatre in the foreground, it also pronounces a judgement of non-reconciliation between the two. In that sense, few filmmakers have been as materialist as Ford. Between cinema’s right to the fixed gaze and the necessity of theatre never to stand still, there is no bridge. If cinema is the zero curve, theatre is the sacrificial space of all the other curves, always broken, skewed, mannerist to death. From the curve of Agatha Andrews’ hands which draw convulsive arabesques in space to the curve of Tunga Khan’s hands when, in a quick movement, he breaks his lieutenant’s neck.
Seven Women’s stage is an enclosed mission, a gate and a courtyard which smells of boards even though it is sand. There is nothing else for the characters to do than not to mess up their entrances and exits. There is nothing more entertaining, for the filmmaker, than playing with the characters by using false alarms, false exits, delayed entrances. The gates of the mission become a real character which often hinges on emptiness. The first time, Charles Pether goes through them and comes back empty handed: he hasn’t found the doctor. But the doctor arrives soon after, on a horse, almost on the sly. The second time, Pether leaves through the gates and doesn’t come back. But at the sound of the car horn, the gates are thrown wide open for Tunga Khan and his horsemen who bring back the car and the Chinese driver. There is an art of entrances and exits that is the other face of the human animal. In the end, the company of missionaries leaves the mission under the jeers of the bandits, like a company of amateur comedians leaving after the audience has thrown tomatoes at them. “The stage is a world”, quite, but the world is not a stage. Ford’s cinema doesn’t fold cinema over theatre and vice versa. This squaring of the circle would be too comfortable. Instead, it is cracked by what comes from the back.The arabesque is opposed to the short circuit. It never leads to it. And the circuit never leads to the arabesque. Cinema is the fixed image at the bottom of the well, theatre only plays on the side, endlessly. Ford brings a mix of rigour and playfulness, of something hieratic and something erratic, because he allows a bit of playfulness into the game and puts himself into it, unlike professional moralists, his arch-enemies. Gravity and preciosity. The truth, in Ford’s films, is not at the end of the trail, but always before there has even been a road. We always witness the useless circus rounds of a play that has already been played, when everything has been judged and one must – still – ensure the show.
First published as “Le théâtre des entrées” in John Ford, Patrice Rollet and Nicolas Saada (dir.), pp. 62-64, Editions de l’Etoile/Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1990. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt (2013)(1) Freeze-image: translation for Daney’s concept of arrêt sur l’image: a pun on freeze-frame to describe the plight of many of today’s images which have ceased to move, to evolve, in order to protect the clichés or stereotypes they represent – typically: the brand-image, the trademark.
A chatty Minnelli movie - Vincente Minnelli, Home from the Hill
If images are things, then the channel hopper descended from the apes and Jean-Baptiste Mondino is right. The channel hopper is a bulimic and unsatisfied monkey who checks out everything because he wants everything, right now. His mental prison is made of all the TV channels and schedules. But if images are beings, with the gifts of speech and memory, then the monkey becomes a human again, and the channel hopper a simple cinephile. The monkey channel hopper earned its wage as an audiovisual guinea pig, the cinephile lives off his private income of cinema knowledge. And when old playfellows pay him a visit, he gives them a warm welcome. “How are you?” is the first sentence they exchange, “What are you up to?” the second, and “I didn’t recognise you”, the worst.
Absent-minded, half-asleep, bored by Jean Guitton’s screams on the Bernard Pivot show, I was watching vaguely familiar images late night last Friday. A hunting scene in Texas in Panavision, with Mitchum on the lookout and the camera floating above the thicket. A film? Yes, since there were subtitles and that, reading them, I had a hallucination.
“You don’t recognise me?” said the film (and I could feel it was sad to have failed to immediately impress).
“Of course I do”, I lied.
“I’m Home from the Hill” said the film, which had felt that I lied. “I know, the French title: The One who Brought the Scandal, is ridiculous, so cinephiles call me by my English name.”
“My God, a Minnelli!” I shouted, now totally awake. “Excuse me, I didn’t recognise you.”
“How could I be upset?” said the film kindly. “With my edges missing, I must only make a tiny impact compared to the one I used to make in theatres. And I’m not even talking of the two black bands within which I’m floating like an invitation card…”
“That’s all right”, I said, “I have good memories of you, and I’m going to watch you until the end.”
“That’s kind of you”, said the film, “but don’t forget that I’ve always been criticised for being too long: I last 150 minutes.”
“I know. You’re one of Minnelli’s great melodramas. You’re even known as one of the most unbearable.”
“Note that I’m slightly embarrassed to be returning on the small screen of television” it added. "But you know us, films, we’re real hams, and the thought of no longer being seen totally depresses us. This being said,” it added with pride, “even my enemies have always accepted that I possess a few strong moments. My boar hunting scene for example, I think is quite good…”
“Of course. And the final reconciliation between Mitchum and Eleanor Parker. And the character of Rafe, as the bastard son, when he proposes to Libby in the drugstore scene. And this shot of…”
“A shot? You really remember of shot?”
“Of course. When the legitimate son returns to the party with his bunch of flowers and we spot him behind a group of black kids in a wood!”
“You’re reassuring me. I was told that, because of all the Texan TV series based on Greek tragedy that are shown on this machine (he meant: ‘on television’), I no longer had a chance to make an impact.”
“It’s true,” I said with critical honesty, “that young people won’t see you as I saw you, in the early ‘60s. You tell in two hours the type of story that they are used to follow over two years. They’re inevitably going to find either too short, or too long.”
“Note” said the film with modesty, “I’m not the best Minnelli.”
“Don’t be silly and let’s watch you for a bit.”
The film was reassured and did its best to show itself on television. There were no ad breaks, Mitchum’s voice sounded good, and the emotion was present, right at the end of a series of family catastrophes. But we had to part.
“You have no idea,” said again Home from the Hill, “how many of us there are in this purgatory called ‘history of cinema’ waiting for a TV scheduler to gives us another chance. Of course, going back to work as a miniature hurts our pride, but one gets used to it.”
“Home” I said firmly, “I liked seeing you again. And I’m probably not the only one. It’s quite possible that this machine (I meant: ‘television’) allows films like you to continue to give us signs – I mean to signify something.”
“You really think so?” said Home as the snow started to fall on the screen.
“I’m sure of it” I said with a certainty that surprised even myself.
“Will you talk about us?”
“Every day, promise. And to prove it to you, I’m throwing away this sad instrument (I meant: ‘the remote control’). Anyway, I’m tired of hopping between channels.”First published in Libération on October 10th, 1988. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, volume 3, POL, 2012, pp. 163-165. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, 2013.
La rampe - Postscript
We finish, of course, with theatre. The play could be called “History of Cinema?” with the tagline: “Hoping it exists!”. This book is like the boards. The author acted as if the key to his own story was in the sum of images that he has seen and in the series of films that, as Jean-Louis Scheffer says beautifully, have watched our childhood.
The author is a cine-phile, a cine-son, who was born somewhere in a history of cinema, between two pages of Sadoul, between two wars or two war films. He knew in front of Hiroshima mon amour that there won’t be any other “home” than the little known labyrinth of the History of Cinema, capital letters included. And not only to live by proxy, to dream the world and write a book, but to tell his story, to invent his own genealogy through films. The very wild auto-analysis of someone born the year Rossellini began to shoot Rome Open City (1944) and who therefore is more or less the same age as modern cinema.
This theatre is full of allegories, devoured by mostly legendary myths. No play could have taken place inside without the conventional characters named “classic cinema” and “modern cinema.” No representation could have happened without the firm belief that between “classic” and modern” there was a fight and an order, a just fight of adult against the immature, and a necessary order between classicism and modernity, with classicism coming first.
This scenario is linear, therefore naïve, but it’s a naivety shared by all: critics, film magazines, educators. We thought we were preparing mass audiences to have a more responsible relationship with images. We dreamed of an audience of workers, of good pupils, of well-behaved Oedipus. We won. By that I mean: “the culture of cinema as an art” won. But we lost too.
“Classic” cinema is today an empty model and a nostalgic wave. “Modern” cinema is a provocation without object and an endless mourning. The dispute between them is never-ending. They are chained.
One is left with picking up this scenario again, with attempting new periodisations. Not the one of this book where classicism played the role of the dream and modernity the role of the vigil, but with another curvature.
For what do we see today? What is happening to the cinematic form? The most sophisticated experiments and the most popular dispositifs always end up meeting up again somewhere. Beyond its crisis, or perhaps its “death,” cinema is closing a loop started very early: a dialogue with silent films.
This is when we realise that the archaic and the post-modern have a family resemblance.
|Ruiz: Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting|
La rampe (bis)
We call “classic” the rather short moment in the history of cinema – thirty years? – during which filmmakers knew how to create the illusion of what seems to always be missing in cinema: depth. It was the golden age of scenography, the paradoxical triumph of a scenography without stage. The advent of talking cinema made disappear the place of live musical accompaniment: orchestra or piano. After talking cinema, this scenography will be haunted by the memory of the studio set, of the stage used for shooting, necessarily lost, now fragmented, vanished, brutalised by the montage, by the vagaries of the frame, by cuts and closer frames. This brutality was called “mise en scène,” the art of marking out itineraries for the audience in a game of chicanes and stepped walls, of losing the audience in a labyrinth of shots. All this is well known.
We’re now quite removed from this filmmaking. We no longer know how to make it, and for that reason, we love it more than ever. From the place where we’ve been, where we’ve abandoned ourselves, we realise that the only possible depth – the illusion of which was created by classic cinema – ought to be a “desired depth,” as one talks of a “desired child.” The title of one of Fritz Lang’s American films sums up well this scenography and this desire behind the door: Secret Beyond the Door. The desire to see more, to see behind, to see through.
What was it about all this time? About the differed moment when we’ll see what was behind, behind anything. The pact with the audience is about one thing: there is indeed something “behind the door.” It could be anything. It may be sheer horror. But this horror is better than the cold and disenchanted observation that there is nothing and that there couldn’t be anything since the image of cinema is a surface with no depth. That’s what we’ll call modern cinema, which broke the pact.
The scenography of classic cinema therefore consisted in laying out obstacles in a studio, then lights, then rails for the camera, and finally, actors. Great actors of this cinema are simply the ones that least bump into obstacles. Or, like Cary Grant, who do it with such elegance, that this secret, too, has been lost. Good filmmakers are those who can transform any object into a temporary mask, full of the promise that there is “more to see.” Pivotal objects: doors and windows, gazes and mirrors, bodies about to move, door frames. And this immaterial object, the word, when it begins to function as a pun or a rebus.
This cinema captured audiences more lastingly than any other because it never ceased to offer them exits, such as breathing windows or reassuring endings. It knew how to push the spectator out of the scene of the film, only to make him return to enjoy the happy ending of false exits. Hence the relative indifference of classic cinema to the “contents” of its film, the only real content of a film residing in the art of not discouraging the audience to come back to see another film, which will only be another variant of the same film.
What is the limit of classic cinema? That eyes, doors, words, pivotal objects and cover-objects no longer open up onto anything. This is already the case with Hitchcock: slashed eyes, sealed doors, intransitive and flat language. Nothing hides anything because everything is there to see. And what happens if there’s nothing to see “behind”? An accident: the looping of the scopic drive. The gaze no longer gets lost between obstacles and depth but is sent back by the screen, like a ball bouncing off a wall. The image ebbs back toward the spectator with the acceleration of a boomerang and hits him with full force.
I would call “modern” the cinema that took on this non-depth of the image, that claimed it as its own, and that thought of making it – with humour or fury – a war machine against the illusionism of classic cinema, against the alienation of industrial series, against Hollywood.
This cinema was born – not by chance – in destroyed and traumatised post war Europe, on the ruins of annihilated and disqualified cinema, on the fundamental refusal of the fake, of mise en scène, of the stage, of a divorce from theatre, strongly expressed by Bresson.
This refusal only makes sense if one doesn’t lose sight of this: the great political mises en scène, the state propagandas that became living pictures, the first mass movement of humans, all this theatre had – in reality – ended up in disaster. Behind this warring theatre, like its hidden side or its shameful truth, there was another stage which has not since ceased to haunt the imagination: the stage of the extermination camps.
So, regardless of how different they are from one another, the great innovators of modern cinema, from Rossellini to Godard, from Bresson to Resnais, from Tati to Antonioni, from Welles to Bergman, are those who radically keep their art separate from the theatrical-propagandist model that was omnipresent in classic cinema. They have in common to foresee that they are no longer dealing with the same bodies as before – before the camps, before Hiroshima. And that it’s irreversible.
What scenography for modern cinema since we are in presence – dark humour – of a “new man,” a survivor of post-industrial societies, a weightless body shown on television through a weak and pale radiography? It’s not surprising that painting, and not theatre, had been the first reference, the first witness of modern cinema. The bestowing of “auteur” as a status, with its associated “politique,” came at a timely moment to signal that the old profession of “metteur en scène” [stage or film director] will never be innocent anymore.
A new scenography was needed now that the image functioned as surface, with no simulated depth, with no games of chicanes, with no exits. A wall, a sheet of paper, a canvas, a blackboard, always a mirror. A mirror where the spectator could catch his own gaze in the same way that he would catch the gaze of an intruder, as an additional gaze. The central question of this scenography is no longer: what is there to see behind? But rather: can my gaze sustain what I’m seeing anyway and which happens in a single shot?
It’s a scenography of obscenity, very different to the sacred pornography of the old star system. What made Garbo or Dietrich stars was that they looked something far away which wasn’t unimaginable. Modernity begins when the photo of Bergman’s Monika transfixes a whole generation of cinephiles without making a star of Harriet Andersson; or when the furtive and insisting look to camera in Bresson’s Pickpocket influences the whole of the New Wave cinema even though the name of the “actor” who carried that look is forgotten.
What changed? These looks place us in an unbearable situation, unbearable at least for the “great” and “good” public of cinema: to be the witness of the jouissance of another: another who’s not a star but anyone, another who “knows nothing of it” and who looks through us, without seeing us. It’s erotic but very Bataillean: excess and suffering.
In that respect, if modern cinema was born with Rome Open City and the torture scene witnessed by a third person, it ends perhaps with the eternal question-denial of Godard’s latest films: why do we always see victims facing us but the back of torturers? It’s very much a question of scenography, with, at its centre, the look to camera that denies the existence of the spectator and breaks all possible identification. Because if torturers were filmed facing us, it’s the spectator that they would be torturing. QED.
Today, it’s possible to propose the following: “modern” cinema, with its flat image and its scenography of the look, is rescinding. Not because it would have withered or because it would have definitely lost the spectator it had defied. But because it would have been relayed, generalised and somewhat “automated” by another medium: television. On television, the lack of depth and the spectacularisation of everything are the rule. As a surveillance tool, television has accomplished modern cinema. But it has also betrayed it. The horror in front of the indifference that gave Godard’s films the pathos of moral jolt has become, on television, pure and simple indifference in front of the horror.
And cinema? The most inventive filmmakers of the 70s have stopped denouncing the illusions of the stage. Less hysterical, more genealogical, they reveal its mechanism, not to demystify it but to give back to cinema this complexity lost with the advent of talking movies. The cinema stage, with its theatrical reminiscences, is complex. The bodies of cinema, real or effigies, are necessarily heterogeneous, unpredictable, made of bits and pieces.
Neither the simulated depth of the flat image, nor the real distance between the image and the spectator, but the possibility offered to the spectator to slowly slide along images which are themselves sliding on one another. With delight and with irony. One of the great moments of this scenography of the third type can be found at the beginning of Raoul Ruiz’s beautiful The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. The camera frames, in front view, a painting along which it slides imperceptibly, sideways, creating its anamorphose, moving behind it and taking us along. And what do we find? Neither something, nor nothing, but a dark mess which will turn out to be a museum, a museum of scenography.
We are back in the wings of the image, in the attic of cinema. And in this no man’s land, the different systems of illusion can function next to each other. It’s the democracy of demolition: living pictures, “real” actors who move and talk, small puppets in a drawer, real paintings, etc.
This scenography is neither classic nor modern but relates to the “guided visit.” The History of Cinema, should such a thing exist, is taking this baroque bridge. In Syberberg’s films, the deep end of the image is always already an image, an image of cinema. Between this image and us, in the thin apron of the cinema studio, the illusion is being created in front of our eyes, exactly like in Méliès’ films.
At stake in Syberberg’s work is the utopia of a primitive cinema, where heroes would be children or puppets. This utopia is played in front of the hysterical spectacle of the old cinema, the cinema of propaganda, of Hitler, of Hollywood. From now on, cinema is the backdrop of cinema.
And the spectator, invited to these film-ceremonies as if in a museum of his own illusions, is no longer the stakes or the target of this laminated and baroque scenography which takes the form of a slide show. He is the spectator in the front row, the one closest to an imaginary footlight, neither theatre nor cinema but this ambivalent place that is the studio.
Syberberg and Ruiz are full of culture. I could have quoted Duras, Schroeter, Carmelo Bene or Oliveira. Strangely, at the other end of the industry of cinema, in the new Hollywood of young nabob-cinephiles, it’s the same question that is being asked through the return to special effects, to Walt Disney and to the phantasmagoria of silent cinema.
So, Baroque?Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.
V. Vanishing points (1977-1981) - The language-bodies (It speaks)
Last chapter. Too close to us to be contextualised. I was saying: the human body is an enigma? Quite, but sonorous too, especially at the cinema. It speaks endlessly and sometimes even with the voice of another. French cinema, more than any other, is the story of a word-by-word rapidly turning into a body-by-body (and vice versa). That’s its strength (and its weakness), the sign of its modernity, its originality.
The dialogue of cinema (among all sounds) is a paradoxical object. It’s difficult to study it without studying at the same time the one who pronounces it: the actor of course. And, late, emerges the great loser of modern cinema, repressed from our cinephilia and from this book. A modest emergence: Bresson’s “model,” Biette’s living riddles or Truffaut’s mascots are some distance from Errol Flynn or Rock Hudson in a Walsh film, and yet…
The actor of cinema (among all sound sources) is a paradoxical object. One cannot dissociate the image of the actor from all the films where he played, “where he has been.” For today’s filmmakers (Wenders), he is a sort of legitimising emblem, the proof that they belong to the History of Cinema. He’s the bit of the film that belongs to other films, a precious impurity, a waking dream. Not only is he saying his text, but he is himself text, from head to toe.This text introduces the following articles:
IV. Vanishing points (1975-1980) - The enigma-bodies (paranoid politics)
A word (“body”) had allowed everybody to eventually disengage from political jargon. Barthes, once again, was first. A great use and abuse of the word “body” will take place – in Cahiers, especially in the following texts. And not without reason. What other “politique” can a filmmaker film than that which, sooner or later, goes through observable and imaginable bodies? The body of actors predisposed to this affection, or the anonymous bodies collected randomly in documentaries?
These texts are a sort of Cahiers’ “retro period,” resolutely not naturalist, dealing with a series of disjointed, broken up, even burlesque bodies. It’s the end of the decade. Cinema is at the heart of a mutation: any certitude about the nature of the image is now collapsing. In a ricochet effect, television, video and electronic images bring the re-emergence of these archaic and raw things: theatre, cabaret, puppets, circus. The footlight is returning. Each film must somehow establish its own theory of the singular nature of its filmic objects. The chemical image tips over into the idea that it is “a thing of the past.” The computer-generated image realises the utopia (until now the exclusivity of cartoons) of an image without traces of the accumulation of something upon reality. The Bazinian issue and the associated ethics are, in worst cases, obsolete.
The “politique des auteurs” is still the order of the day. But it’s no longer joyous. As for the auteurs dearest to Cahiers, we should talk about them as Deleuze does, as single war machines, with cinema as one of their weapons, and a definition, each time personal, of their cinema.
Those mentioned here, far from the candid pleasure of narration, are concerned with known stories or cursed aspects of History. They are searching for a body of images for paranoid politics. They create it ex nihilo, or over the ruins of past cinema.
The body always remains an enigma as to what it can do or what it contains, as to what sets it in motion or what holds it down. An enigma with a thousand faces: erotic and political for Pasolini (the working-class body), smooth and inhabited by the demon for Spielberg (catastrophic and puritan America), playful and trivial for Syberberg (the puppets of Nazism), hypothetical and dreamed for Sembene Ousmane (the body of the African oral tradition), human, all too human for Straub and Fuller (even gods are an enigma!).This text introduces the following articles:
III. Points of view 2 (1975-1978) - Adding in the filmmaker's body (morality and engagement)
It’s the so-called “retro” period. Beyond the scandal of its scenarios (it was broadly about reminding that there was pleasure in servitude and that it was possible to love one’s torturer), the retro period may have been a first attempt at a return to fictional cinema, which, to be credible, needed an ostentatiously disrespectful vision of history, hence films such as Lacombe Lucien or The Night Porter.
Cahiers were anti-retro. In the same way that, later, they won’t much appreciate commercial attempts under Brechtian patronage - they called it “left-wing fiction” (L’affiche rouge, for example). In the same way that, even later, at the beginning of the ‘80s, they will be saddened by the return, unchanged in form and substance, of the old Qualité France.
The retro period was naturalist, with ambiguous characters, neither-entirely-evil-nor-entirely-heroes, enlightened by the easy and fashionable Freudian Marxism of the time. At no point in their history did Cahiers like naturalism in cinema, this art to confuse what is represented with reality, to naturalise contradictions, to resolve the heterogeneity of beings and things. They always enjoyed the effect of strangeness arising from the fact that cinema is an art of the present (of hic et nunc, of urgency).
In the middle of the decade, the mourning of Leftism comes to an end; the dialogue with the militant/filmmakers, the serious debates on the “point of view” had suddenly stopped, for lack of participants in the dialogue. Two original ones remained. Their names placed side by side formed the “sesame” of the period. Two tough radical regressive nuts, two irredentists that Pascal Bonitzer, in a beautiful text, had referred to via their initials: “JMS and JLG”*. In a word, the strobgodar, a duovidual which terrified quite a few.
Godard, Straub (and Huillet) didn’t settle for continuing to exist in the margins of the good old cinema being restored, nor for surviving to the indifference and the contempt of the public and the cultural establishment (you can read this both ways), nor for being involved in controversies with dominant cinema – Cahiers playing the role of a weak and slightly fanatical spokesperson. They continued as if there were still lots of things to think through and to say about Cinema (and cinephiles are the talkative type), bets to take, dreams and idées fixes which mustn’t be given up.
In his text, Bonitzer didn’t hesitate to talk about “sainthood.” An exaggeration? How shall we understand it? Simply, I think. The strobgodar-cinema doesn’t aim for the spectator’s desire (at least, not only) but for his capacity for jouissance. And the cinema-jouissance has little to do with recipes for pleasure. Lacan, still very much read at the time, talks of a “black hole.” The jouissance of the cinema-thing set against the pleasure derived from the cinema-effect? Yes, except that in the past the two were not always opposed; at the beginning of cinema (let’s say Keaton or Feuillade), one didn’t have to claim to be a materialist to give (mass) audiences the jouissance of the material. By 1975, it had changed a lot.
Pleasure at the cinema is linked to the triumph of an illusion – the spectacle of a combined character-actor-body-voice – to the plenitude of this confusion, to the return of this plenitude. Pleasure is, let’s say, Errol Flynn or Rock Hudson in a film by Raoul Walsh, charging as a block toward their fate. Psychologism and humanism united in one common fight.
For a long time, from a thousand signs, we saw that this so-called “classic” cinema (born in fact with the big majors, so rather late) was haunted by the explosion of this too beautiful model, by its dysfunction at least. What if character, actor, body and voice began to leave their own lives? Independently? “Not reconciled”?
Already the notion of “character” had been cunningly mocked by Welles or Bunuel. The idea of actor was dryly rejected by Bresson or Tati. Porn cinema was going to “liberate” bodies and their organs from any “persona.” Finally, direct sound and the lightweight cameras of the Nouvelle Vague will rekindle all the inside games of the language and the voice: the Italian technique of perverse dubbing (Fellini, Pasolini), the French demand for a perfect synchronism (Rohmer, Pialat, Rivette, etc.).
What was “modern” in cinema was the implicit decision not to start with “humans” but with their environment. This way, the strobgodar is perhaps the monster that presided over the end of modern cinema (not that the demand for modernity has vanished, but it must be found again in television, video and new technologies and less in a cinema that has become cultural and nostalgic). They still believe, in a Sartrean way, in communication. Not as a self-evident thing, but as an experience. They practice, like surgeons, always the same operation: the disjunction. To make visible the original heterogeneity of the cinema-thing.
“In-between” is the word that runs through the following texts. We began with militant cinema – with the relation between the filming and the filmed, with uncovering the filmmaker’s powers – and what do we find ourselves filming? Discourse and text. Filmed, these discourses are mere grimaces and words. Recorded, these words become accent, voices with their texture, speech delivery, breathing on magnetic tapes, etc. Everything become always disjointed and reveals, in the midst of a game with no end or exit, the scandal of the jouissance-cinema, of the cinema-thing.
Even the old Kurosawa, after the failed suicide attempt following the commercial flop of Dodes’ka-den, teaches us to perceive the space between characters: as much space as there are characters! Robert Kramer, one of the very rare real-time ethnographers of yet another lost generation, makes the insert the burning side of a stifling world. Johan van der Keuken is searching for the “wrong place” to guarantee to himself that the distance between him and the object he is filming remains tangible. In other words, there is only jouissance “in-between.”
The question of the point of view slowly becomes an enigma. What’s the point of view of the one taking a position, as soon as he can, between things? And who, if it must be done, cuts a thing in two (the audience for example) to take place in-between?
* Cahiers du cinema, issue 264, February 1976.This text introduces the following articles: