Monday, May 12, 2014

Serge Daney hits New York theatres



Sort of. The New York French Institute Alliance Française is showing the theatre play on Serge Daney created a few years ago in France by Eric Didry (director) and Nicolas Bouchaud (actor). The play is based on the long interview that Serge Daney gave on French television shortly before his death: Journey of a cine-son.

The exercise was benefitial, Sir - La loi du marcheur
Wednesday & Thursday, May 21 & 22, 2014
at FIAF, 22 East 60th Street, New York, NY 10022

The play will be in French but with English surtitles, hence its mention on this blog. If you're looking for the real thing, we've translated Journey of a cine-son on Vimeo a couple of years ago.

If anybody goes see the play in New York, it would be great to get some feedback. I've not seen it. My mum has and really liked it (and she's not really a Daney fan).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sous le vent


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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Murmur of the World

Serge Daney's review of Robert Kramer's Route One USA. Daney's take on Kramer's itinerary as a filmmaker is almost too consistent with his text on Diesel written four years earlier.

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.

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.
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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trafic and Serge Daney - Raymond Bellour

A gift from Adrian Martin: his translation of a masterclass by Raymond Bellour on Serge Daney and the principles underpinning Trafic, the film review founded by Daney. Raymond Bellour knew Daney well and has been on Trafic editorial committee since the first issue. The masterclass was given at the Jeonju Film Festival in 2009. Many thanks to Adrian for donating the text and to Raymond for authorising its publication.

Trafic and Serge Daney
By Raymond Bellour
When Serge Daney decided to found Trafic, a ‘cinema review’, at the start of the 1990s, he began from the ‘realisation that the intellectual landscape in which cinema exists has changed a great deal. Changed to the extent that the traditional ways of writing about cinema do not “bite” anymore in relation to the reality of classic literary cinephilic consumption’. (1) Daney aimed thus at the way that we can live the cinema according to its current state, but at the same time attending to it in its largest possible sense. Undetermined, in the first instance, by the appearance of films as they are released in cinemas or at Film Festivals. Rather, a far more multiple ‘currency’, relating as much to the increasingly diverse evolutions of cinema around the world as to all the various modes of reflecting upon films, and to the life that is lived in their company. 
For someone like Daney, who in the 1970s had directed the most prestigious monthly in the history of cinephilia (namely, Cahiers du cinéma), then worked for the ‘cinema’ section of a daily newspaper open (like few others) to current events in culture (namely, Libération), it was a matter, above all, with Trafic (a quarterly publication), of finding a different tempo. A time that is essentially free and vagabond, where it was as much a question of re-seeing as of seeing, and above all of composing an unexpected kind of ‘currency’, defined by the ongoing experiences of each Committee member of the journal, and of every author invited to contribute to it. So this presumes that, in Trafic, the desire to write always takes precedence. ‘Which is a way of saying’, according to Daney, ‘that the intrinsic quality of the texts will always win out over the relative opportunity of their subjects’. Thus it is that this ‘cinema review’ becomes – doubtless alone in the entire world of publications of comparable ambition – a magazine bereft of images, apart from a modest vignette on the cover. Because, in Trafic, it is above all a matter of showing how it is possible to think and write images.
In his programmatic text, Daney enumerated eight types of text destined to co-exist in the magazine. ‘1. Highly personal “chronicles” following, from day to day, what is current in cinema. 2. “Letters From …”, written in a deliberately epistolary style, coming from isolated, faraway friends at the ends of the earth. 3. Texts belonging to cinema’s past (whether French or otherwise) that have become unavailable. 4. Texts by filmmakers, of a “work in progress” nature, moments of assessment, stages or elements in the working process. 5. Texts more precisely dedicated to the “image” in general, and to the way in which such images illuminate, or are illuminated by, the cinema. 6. Free interventions by philosophers, writers, novelists. 7. Regular essays, cinephilic but gregarious’. Daney could also have specified that the magazine also pursues, as part of its vocation, the translation of many foreign texts – in order to reverse the dominant tendency in France, especially in approaches to cinema, towards national self-sufficiency. But the presence in the first issue of Trafic, out of fourteen texts, of Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Rossellini (presented by Adriano Aprà), Joao Cesar Monteiro, Robert Kramer and Bill Krohn was enough to make that point. And the ratio, since then, has only increased.
Already consumed by AIDS at the moment of this first issue, Daney only lived long enough to see the first three instalments of this adventure of a magazine which meant more to him than anything else. But a drive had been initiated, which would then be continued, strengthened, developed and varied, thanks to the energy of an Editorial Committee formed as a collective, comprising Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Patrice Rollet and myself. After Biette’s sudden death in 2003, and the realisation of an enormous 50th issue, both a celebration and a retrospective, the idea of which (titled ‘What is Cinema?’) we had conceived with him, we added an Advisory Committee comprising close friends of the magazine since its inception, people who stood for its many vocations: writer Leslie Kaplan, filmmaker Pierre Léon, philosopher Jacques Rancière, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, art historian and writer Jean Louis Schefer. Each one helps us, in their own way, to fashion the image of a singular cinema magazine.
If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional university writing. But both film critics and university teachers write, of course, for Trafic, provided they are carried away by a project of thought and style in which they are deeply engaged, and closely wedded to their choice of object as well as their personal sensibility. Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works of cinema, whether classical or modern (Mizoguchi, Walsh, Antonioni, Fassbinder, Ozu, Syberberg, Minnelli, Hitchcock, Lang, Ford … with two special issues devoted to these last three names), we have always chosen to support – by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine – a certain group of filmmakers, as diverse as possible, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers: for example, Manoel de Oliveira, Chris Marker, Stephen Dwoskin, Chantal Akerman, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Ken Jacobs, Pedro Costa, Jonas Mekas, Philippe Garrel, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Robert Kramer, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Abbas Kiarostami, Harun Farocki, and Philippe Grandrieux. 
Extract from an essay published in the Masterclass booklet of the Jeonju International Film Festival, Korea, 2009.
NOTE
1. These words by Daney, like those that follow, are extracted from the short programmatic text which accompanied publication of the first issue of Trafic in Winter 1991.
© Raymond Bellour March 2009. English Translation © Adrian Martin March 2009.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kramer v. Kramer

This is Serge Daney's review of Robert Kramer's Diesel published at the time of the film release in France (1985). Thanks to Otie Wheeler who got in touch with an interest in this text and who helped with the translation. Otie's corresponding piece will appear soon at the Vulgar Cinema blog.

Kramer vs. Kramer (Diesel, Robert Kramer)
Robert Kramer, an American filmmaker working in France, tries to compose with the imperatives of trendy and gloomy sci-fi. Diesel is kind of a failure, but exists nonetheless.
When Diesel begins, the worst seems to have already happened. We find ourselves in the polluted light of a post-atomic faux jour, between slums and mud, dusk and nightfall, dogs and wolves. The dogs (or is it the wolves?) live in a futuristic city, metallic and fascist. A mad architect (Finch / Laurent Terzieff) rules over this isolated world. Of the city, we mostly see the “Building,” the place of joyless pleasures, managed by an alcoholic head pimp (Walter / Richard Bohringer) and prostitutes with no illusions (Kim / Souad Amidou is their beautiful leader). The wolves (unless it’s the dogs) occupy a piece of land where everything rots, the “Village”. There, they preserve a bit of human warmth and the concept of freedom. It looks very much like the typical script about fascism in the city and guerrilla in the periphery, except that the boundary is blurry and thresholds are quickly crossed. It only takes one of the girls (Anna / Agnes Soral) to refuse the law of the Building and to run away, for the pimp to send two unsentimental killers (Nelson / Niels Arestrup and Drimi / Xavier Deluc), and for something like a story to set off.

If the word gloomy hadn’t lost its value, Diesel would make us reinvent it. For we begin to know more and more this faux jour (created by Ramon Suarez’s beautiful work). It’s the faux jour of cinema and 1980s science fiction. Nowadays, sci-fi no longer has the atomic cataclysm as its horizon (the 1950s are long past). Being among the survivors becomes, if not desirable, at least imaginable, and in any case imageable. The future of cinema seems to take place at the same time as the future of the human race. The survival theme rekindles imagination, hence these colourful monsters, the fighting panoply, the return of barbarism. Today’s images feed on this survivalist mythology, from Ridley Scott to Luc Besson. With Diesel, Robert Kramer also attempts to institute this minimal ecology. He doesn’t pull it off unfortunately. Fortunately, he doesn’t pull it off.

As a Mad Max-type comic book for kids, Diesel is not very effective indeed. There are either too many or not enough resources; the casting doesn’t make sense; the story stays unclear for a long time, and its cruelty is not sincere. Kramer forgets to bring the spectator in on the plot, to establish the topography of locations, and to define the stakes of all this violence. Characters don’t even play the strange game of speaking in the supposed lingo of the supposed time in which they live. They are only strange because of their outfits and of this world of fury through which they glide without paying much notice. Listening to the dialogue, we clearly feel that they still belong to our world and that they obey motivations that, thanks to Freud, we still recognise. The disparate casting means that each character outrageously quotes him/herself. And honesty obliges us to say that, at this game, the best ones (Arestrup, Bohringer, Blanche) are a ham, and the worst ones (Soral, Klein – unpardonably) are those whose image as actors is so vague that they can’t even propose a caricature of it. Only Magali Noël stands out, erratic and sublimely bad.

Yet, as the film moves from the Building to the Village and the story merely becomes a chase between Nelson and Diesel (Klein), we find that the film, despite everything, works. Except that its fuel is mysterious. And we then remember that Robert Kramer is not just any director. He was a great filmmaker until 1975 and has been, in the last decade, a case – a great case.

What happens with Diesel? Kramer fails where he should have succeeded (on the side of the spectacle, of business) and he succeeds a bit where he has never failed (on the side of cinematographic writing). His characters are badly drawn out, blurry, and not storyboarded; they don’t become types, let alone myths. But Kramer only ever took interest in the opposite: not the characters, one by one, but in what links them all. He’s interested in the link, not the linked ones. In this sense he is a modern filmmaker, i.e. not very American (he admires Resnais). He’s American in the sense that for him the link is tribal and never erotic or psychological. Kramer may have changed, moved, lived and worked in France, he knows what a tribe is, this mix of paranoid fascination and group narcissism. He knows it like any other American, from Ford to Cimino.

In In the Country (1967), The Edge (1968), Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975), the tribe was that of radical Americans, Weathermen and militants, spoiled kids who had become crazy, abandoned to argumentative panic and good sentiments. Kramer filmed his brothers without taking stock. These four films are among the rare contemporaneous testimonies that cinema (the art, not the sociological hijacking) has produced about Leftism in the 1960s. These films are rarely seen but they matter. Unknown in the USA, taken seriously in France, Kramer has made a strange bet: to arrive, one day, on real screens, in front of a real (French) audience without passing by square one (America). He didn’t come out of the last ten years unscathed, and even if the inspiration of his first films is far away, it is still behind what exists in Diesel.

How to illustrate what we’ve, one day, lived through? To be a good action movie, Diesel would have to treat paranoia as a decorative problem. But it’s precisely the opposite that Kramer used to know how to do. He weaved a web of words, chattering, fears and hearsays around his characters. And violence sometimes tore a hole in this web. It took a whole film and a patient labour of approach and domestication (hence the reason that in France Kramer has been one of those who has best mastered video, see A toute allure and Notre Nazi) before the spectator realised he was in front of a collective portrait. In Diesel, this portrait still bears some shreds. In this dispersed gang of love-scarred faces, we remember knowing each other too well in the past. It’s the meaning of the (rather good) scene where Nelson meets Diesel in the dark. It’s the meaning of this almost reunion when Nelson understands too late that this other scarred survivor was once his comrade.

One more effort and the memory of these old solidarities will be erased for good. Will Kramer be ready to succeed in making an action movie, a real one? Perhaps. But what about the adventure of filming?

First published in Libération, 15 August 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et la monde, volume 2: Les années Libé 1981-1985, POL, 2002, pp. 269-71. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Point of view: three new translations

Three new English translations of Serge Daney are being published today in a new book, Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View: Perspectives of political film and video work. The texts are from Daney's first book, La rampe (first published in 1983 as a collection of articles written mostly in the 1970s for Cahiers du cinéma), focusing on the place of the filmmaker and the concept of point of view
There's a book launch event this evening at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin. A big thank you to Tobias Hering, the editor of the book, for sharing this with us.

A tomb for the eye (Straubian Pedagogy)

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 259-259, July-August 1975. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by Stoffel Debuysere and John Barrett. Stoffel's initial translation is available here

On paper

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 265, March-April 1976. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by John Barrett. This is a new translation.

The restaging

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 268-269, July-August 1976. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by John Barrett. Another translation is available here.

For more info and context on La rampe, see the series of posts from last summer.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Andre Bazin

The winter issue of Double Exposure - Columbia University's undergraduate film journal - features two translations of Serge Daney. And they're available online.

Paris, Texas

Daney's review of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. The text was first published in Libération on September 20th, 1984 and was reprinted in Daney's second book, Ciné-Journal, in 1986. 
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.

Andre Bazin

Daney's review of Andrew Dudley's biography of André Bazin, which was published in French in 1983. The review was first published in Libération on August 19th, 1983 and was reprinted in Daney's second book, Ciné-Journal, in 1986. 
Double exposure, issue 6, Fall/Winter 2013-14, translated by Paul Chouchana.



Saturday, January 25, 2014

The "Berri affair" 3: the Berri affair

Libération front page - 28 February 1991

Serge Daney's review of Uranus (see: Uranus, mourning for mourning) incensed the film director - the French producer and filmmaker Claude Berri, best known for Jean de Florette - so much, that he sought to obtain a right to reply to be published in the newspaper. French law makes the right to reply an absolute right, open to anyone named in a periodic publication. However the custom is that art criticism, when not defamatory, does not warrant a response from the artist. Berri's persistence made him go to court twice before a judgement forced Libération to publish the text below. It was such an extraordinary event that it is considered jurisprudence and is now used as a reference in law studies on the possible abuse of the right to reply.
Claude Berri replies to Serge Daney
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!”**
Claude Berri
* 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]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Berri affair" 2: Uranus

Second post on the "Berri affair": Daney's review of Claude Berri's Uranus published in the daily newspaper Libération in January 1991. This is the text at the source of the controversy. It has become a sort of a new reference in the never-ending fight within French cinema between New Wave / modernity and the tradition of quality / academism. Next post will cover Berri's extraordinary reaction and how the affair unfolded.
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.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The "Berri affair" 1: Jean de Florette

I'm starting a series of three posts on the "Berri affair", which Serge Daney described as one of the "two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic." Future posts will attempt to describe what happens in 1991 (a year or so before Daney's death). But we must begin with an earlier text: Daney's review of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette.

 The TV commercial that Daney refers to in the title *
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. 
Pagnol: forgotten
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.

First published in Libération, 29 August 1986, reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde volume 3, POL, 2012, pp. 53-56. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Serge Daney in 2013

It's time for the annual round up of English translations of Serge Daney. This blog spotted thirteen new translations, some here, several elsewhere. The highlight of the year was the co-translation with Otie Wheeler of Daney's introductory texts to the chapters of his first book, La rampe, published as a series in the summer. I strongly recommend you to read them if you haven't done so already. I was surprised to see that over time, most of La rampe has been translated.

A most satisfying part for me was the sheer number of people who gave their time and effort to translate or help translate Daney. What, at times, has felt like a solitary endeavour has become a collaborative effort. So thank you to Adrian Martin, Ted Fendt, Stoffel Debuysere, Craig Keller and Otie Wheeler. Let's keep it up in 2014.

Elsewhere:
On this blog:
In terms of readership, Google Analytics tell me that there were 5,500 unique visitors to the blog (a thousand more than in 2012). However, when I filter down this meaningless number (it counts web crawling robots) to the visitors who stayed more than a minute, we're talking about 900 people (the same as last year, you loyal readers!)

Google also tells me that, although visitors came from over a hundred countries, only 40% of you were from English-speaking ones, that most of you are under 34 years old and 54% are male, and that the text on Mannerism seems to have been the most popular.

So here's to 2014. New texts are already being prepared. Happy New Year!

Laurent

Monday, October 28, 2013

The theatre of entrances

Serge Daney's review of John Ford's Seven Women. A great text for a great film. Special thanks to Ted Fendt for his help with the translation.
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.
(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.
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)

Illustrations are from the original article.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A chatty Minnelli movie (Home from the Hill)

In his column for French newspaper Libération about films seen or re-seen on TV, Serge Daney often engaged in a dialogue between him and the film. Here is a great example. To read along with another dialogue (Minnelli caught in his web).
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.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

La rampe - Table of contents


[Update 13/03/2014: addition of a link to a translation of "On paper"]

[Update 03/01/2014: addition of a link to a new translation: Re-mise en scene]

In the past weeks, I've published Serge Daney's introductory texts to each chapters of his first book, La rampe. To give a sense of how much of the book is already translated (and what is not), here's the complete table of contents, with links to translations.

La rampe

Taking a view (1970-1972) – Violence and representation (saving the screen)
Points of view 1 (1974-1976) – Adding in the filmmaker’s eye (militant cinema)
Points of view 2 (1975-1978) – Adding in the filmmaker’s body (morality and engagement)
Vanishing points 1 (1975-1980) – Engima-bodies (paranoid politics)
Vanishing points 2 (1977-1981) – Language-bodies (It speaks)
La rampe (bis)

Postscript