This blog keeps track of French film critic Serge Daney's texts available in English. Help me keep it complete.
Averty for ever
Where one despairs that Jean-Christophe Averty will have been alone in the world to believe that television could be used for artistic purposes.
There are two reasons to complain when one is Jean-Christophe Averty. The first is well known, the second less so. The first one says it’s a scandal that French television has so stubbornly focused on inheriting from (and rivalling) cinema, instead of cultivating its own garden. The second one follows on from the first. Averty has been so alone in cultivating this TV-garden, in being its only tireless champion – and for such a long time –, that it has become difficult to assess his work. How can one criticises someone who is alone in following a particular direction, alone in discovering a field with its dead ends and difficulties? How can we say that we like his principles but don’t always share his tastes? A question that will always be asked of inventors.
Averty has dreamt for a while of making something of the little-known play by Henri Rousseau (also known as the Douanier): A Russian Orphan’s Revenge. Averty has always claimed that “one can perfectly make TV from a garage.” Since 6:45pm yesterday (on Channel 3), we’ve been able to watch the first of ten episodes of this TV-garage (60 square meters, according to the author). The episode lasted thirteen minutes and has the charm of what lasts thirteen minutes. A Russian orphan is seduced by the young German that returned her lost canary. She loves him and we guess that he will betray her.
The story really isn’t what counts most in this Revenge. It’s the way it’s dealt with. It’s this very Avertyan oscillation between loving respect (the image never shines too bright that it overshadows the subject) and plastic freedom (allowed by the video medium). On one side, the Russian girls put on all kinds of airs and roll their R’s, the background is made of izbas and details form the author’s paintings, love is expressed through hearts and thoughts via medallions. The things that we see and the things that are talked about trade places. The soundtrack (a violin) is a character, on the same level as the voice-over that tells the story. The words are said as well as written (in Russian and in French). In a word, everything functions like a visual rebus whose permanent solution would be the story.
Averty is obviously interested in early cinema and the era when cinema began (very early in the 20th century). His imagination treats the popular images of that beginning as absolute equals to any other images. Punch and Judy shows, puppet theatre, open-air theatre, primitive films, children’s games and postcards. These images are always frontal, ingenuously provoking the spectator, removing any desire to look elsewhere than in the middle of the frame. They always claim their poverty: in effects, in musical accompaniment, in suspense. The most sophisticated image functions like a tapestry and superimpositions are like a waking dream.
This is the Averty paradox. He didn’t claim the video image (and its thousand gags) to impress but to realise, with it, the real television. And real television, until further notice, is about images as small as the screen that broadcasts them. And if television had been truer to itself, it would have explored – following Averty’s path – this fundamental smallness that is, in a sense, its greatness. By making bodies that have become figurines without psychology dance on the spot, Averty has opened up a path that hasn’t been developed, an eventually scandalous path where there is still the desire to dance but no longer the bodies or space to do it, as if the disappearance of the body under the video bombardment didn’t bother him in any way, and that he found it more touching to see the animation of a tableau vivant, a small tableau fitting for the small screen (shall we talk of “screenlet”?).
It’s his fondness for this miniaturisation of the world (of bodies but also of feelings) that led Averty to stick closely to an artistic television. Yet, thinking about it, it is not evident that television can be an artistic instrument. If it was – or if it had been – such an instrument, it would have been ashamed to have derived its power solely from the monopoly to film reality (let’s not forget what can be beautiful in live broadcasting: reality itself) or from the looting of cinema (let’s not forget what can be beautiful with film reruns: their fiction content).
The question is evermore relevant. The state of the French audiovisual landscape in this 1987 autumn, along with its reminders (the rather sordid failure of Channel 5, the crisis of the look, etc), shows that we’ve confused two things. Television is not just cinema’s small sister (it isn’t great and perhaps never will be). What can happen to it, what has happened to it before our eyes, is to become big, bulimic, inflated with hormones and enzymes. Each time it has been decent recently, it was perfecting small dispositifs (short films, spots or flashes, useful summaries). Every time it’s tried to be an ox, it’s lost its dignity as a frog.
Sunday evening (Channel 2, 22h15), in a program that was actually interesting (and we should only apply this overused adjective to these types of programs), Jean-Luc Godard, in great form, reminded us that if television produces oblivion, cinema produced memories. And if, in the era of opinion polls, what is forgotten cannot be polled, memories remain great. Averty’s dream – and he’s the only one with that dream – will have been to use television anyway to keep amnesia at bay (just as he did on radio with his programs on music hall). When, instead of putting him up on a pedestal, television will have absorbed Averty’s message, it will be ready to leave traces in memory. But when?
Those who supported, assisted and at times organized the immigrant workers' struggles between 1972 and 1975, the two dates that encompass the making of Nationalité: Immigré (1) [Nationality: Immigrant], embarked on the venture by filling out paperwork. Thanks to their constantly explaining the Fontanet-Marcellin directive (2), to their losing themselves in a maze of absurd legislation (residence permits and work permits); thanks to their efforts to eliminate illiteracy through printing and translating flyers and posters and by disseminating campaign literature the French far-left de facto sealed an alliance with those who surfaced in their ranks during the struggles in the post 1968 period: the immigrants. Whatever subjective reasons lay behind this alliance (love of one's fellow human being, be it the Christian or the MRAP [Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples] type, a juncture in the left-wing strategy towards broadening the struggle's popular front), it was by helping the immigrants navigate this sea of paperwork, in which their lives would be submerged, that the activists obtained an opportunity, while winning their confidence, to press ahead with them towards self-awareness, towards mobilization and political organization. First and foremost, however, they had to be of use with the pen.
The paradox was this: On one hand, far-left activists differentiated themselves from meek reformists and the P.C.F. [French Communist Party] by distinguishing legality from legitimacy (according to the analyses in La Cause du peuple (3) from that period). They strove to give widespread appeal and a sense of real-life to slogans such as: “We are right to rise up.” “Dare to fight, dare to win.” Conversely, however, when it came to the immigrants' struggles with the authorities they found themselves way out of their depth regarding the written word, pre-coded norms, bourgeois employment legislation and legal terminology (for leftist ideology distinctly incorporated the notion of precluding the legal system). They were to be confronted by the bourgeoisie's cynical negligence of their own laws. Moreover, there was outrage regarding the blatant disparity between that which appeared on paper and what was to be seen in reality.
As for the militant dream, it was altogether different. It wasn't through being useful with the pen that the activists asserted themselves in the immigrants' struggles; rather, they acted as fomenters, instigators, teachers, bearers of the good word and cogent theory. For them, the written word, while their unscripted domain, was nothing more than a tactical tool designed to win trust, and moreover to prove that one is worthy of it.
Here was a case of twofold neglect. On one hand, the activists failed to grasp the legal system as an authoritative body where something actually takes place (intrinsically coupled with domination, legal agreement, symbolic import). Furthermore, it didn't dawn upon them that immigrants retained concrete ties with such authority, ties that could have been surmised as strong all the same. In (White and particularly Black) Africa, ritual tagging, agreements, one's word are all serious and binding matters. We can be sure that this neglect of the legal dimension is the crux of Sokhona's film, Nationalité: Immigré.
At the core of this militant dream one found instead a sort of ideal scenario, within the realm of inevitable exposure of problems and their resolution. The essential element in this scenario was time, both linear and teleological. The immigrant, the ideal proletarian with only a mattress in a slum to lose, found himself burdened with embodying, through his individual life experiences, the various phases of a thoroughgoing ‘crash course’ in self-awareness, as already recognized and indexed by Western Marxism. This process took a swifter than usual turn. The exploitation and oppression endured by immigrants could only but engender their resistance (albeit initially muted and covert), which led to talk of their revolt. And this, in turn, soon bolstered by a few kind words, could only but invent its specific forms of action and organization. In the end, these were to lead, both short- and long-term, to this alliance, to the shoulder-to-shoulder stance with French workers. This scenario at once steered and pandered to the leftist imagination.
By no means did Sidney Sokhona cater to the leftist's crash course as the form of exposition for his film. That is not to suggest that Sokhona himself doesn't value such a course of action, or doesn't regard it as revealing any truths. It's quite the reverse. Nationalité: Immigré does not in any way lack in what one is entitled to expect in terms of general truths: numbers, statistics, bleak outlook, explicit discourse where the commentary insists on the necessity to deepen awareness, for education, on the need to go beyond partial and wildcat strikes to economic-political struggles alongside the French working class and so on. It is therefore impossible to categorize this work among those pathetic and humanizing films, (Mektoub? and its ilk) (*) with their regrettable lack of a political dimension, but which one nonetheless grudgingly recommends so as to fuel debate about support structures. And why should anyone complain?
Let us return to our point of departure: paper. Sydney Sokhona's film is a voyage to the country in which everything can take place on paper. Paper as a place in which the powers that be demand their dues in concrete terms, (Your papers, please!); paper on which an another authority claims and braces up (flyers, posters, books); paper on which an authority fantasizes (paper as utopia, just as one remarks: ‘it looks beautiful on paper, but...’). His film touches upon that which the leftists precisely eschew (the necessity of legal agreement.) That's why the film is frowned upon, also in left-wing circles.
The film opens in a non-place, a cycling track where the French capital's lackeys, the racist supervisors, call out each immigrant by name, put their name on a list, giving each and every one a sign to clench between their teeth, a sign with which to pin them down, to pinpoint them and to pin onto them. shelter, slum, transit estate. Not only do they insist that the immigrants comply with what has been written; they insist that they interiorize it, that they gobble it up. The immigrants will need to dash it off.
Towards the end of the film there is a noteworthy scene at the market in which two immigrants from the shelter on the Rue Riquet suddenly speak their mind about their condition and their sense of outrage. It isn't a case of them hysterically acting-out. It's more in the line of ‘bitter tale,’ like those told by the Chinese peasantry, a stirring recitation, a reading aloud rather than a speaking out. The scene's emotion derives from that scrap of paper they hold and which they themselves wrote, of that language they speak which isn't theirs. They shout out tirelessly, they read angrily.
Between these two scenes, the opening and the closing, Sokhona films only incidents involving scraps of paper. Clear, precise and edifying incidents. The newspapers an immigrant reads in the morning in search of work are those that another immigrant sweeps up in the evening. It's by perforating betting slips that we truly encounter French daily reality. If the Sidi's parents write from Mauritania, the letter will be read using a voiceover. The links to the various intermediaries are sanctioned by paper: the village wise man derives his power from his obtrusive recitation of the Koran and the cash that he extorts for it. In a Bressonian-like shot, with a white sheet as the background, we are witness to a scene of hand-to-hand, of the barter of paper banknotes for legal papers, in which the immigrants finally obtain their ID papers. The manager of the shelter on the Rue Riquet is not just a smooth-talker; he keeps a list of his tenants in his drawer, on which he ticks off the names of the ringleaders.
Sokhona only films that which could be a source of information. But instead of imposing outside commentary, he makes subject matter even of his images. Political filmmakers never really knew how to avoid inserting ‘title cards’ (inevitably dogmatic) in the midst of ‘true-life footage’ (inevitably jinxed). The fact is they never truly asked themselves the question: ‘How can we film the discourse?’ Sokhona does indeed film cardboard bearing slogans but within the shot itself. He anchors his characters, somewhat like Godard did in Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] where those filmed literally wear their images. Hence the hallucinatory dimension that permeates the film at times. In seeking out as much information as possible, we deny ourselves (as well as deny the spectators) that which gives such pleasure in cinema: the implicit meaning a spectator is supposed to know.
This accounts for why the lazy and the romantic dislike this voyage to the land where everything is written out. The process of denoting spells things out, it inflicts itself. For the act of denotation (that of giving a name, and only one, to things and human beings alike) steers us towards the question of racism (for example, in that scene in which a racist shouts at an immigrant sweeping up too close to him: “Hey, jerk, it's you I'm talking to!”) Confronted with powers to be that unremittingly demand that they identify themselves (your papers?), the immigrants need to start summoning the strength to stand up and be counted. In Sokhona's film, their struggles focus exactly on this point: On the number of people that have to be re-housed together.
It is, moreover, pointless to expect of them an all-embracing discourse. The victims don't only describe themselves as people just like the others; they also keep count of themselves. This is underpinned by the image of two corpses fished from the water, each draped in a flag, on a bank of the Canal Saint-Martin.
(*) Mektoub? (1970) was directed by Ali Ghalem, who was also the author of L'Autre France (1975).
(1) Nationalité : Immigré (1975) by Sidney Sokhona is a fiction film about a group of mostly African (male) migrant workers in Paris and their awakening political activism. A central location of the narrative is the migrant workers' shelter in Rue Riquet whose residents began a rent strike during the shooting of the film in protest against their exploitation by employers and landlords as well as the degrading living conditions in the shelter. Shot with virtually no budget, the film took several years to be finished, which allowed for frequent inclusion of actual events and the prolonged rent strike to become a central dramatic element. With Sokhona himself and actual tenants of Rue Riquet appearing on camera, the film is a genuine product of those acting in it; a rare example of self-organized auto-representation of African migrants on screen. Sidney Sokhona is of Mauritanian decent and went back to his country of origin soon after finishing his second and better known feature film, Safrana ou le droit à la parole (Safrana or Freedom of Speech, 1978). After working as a documentary and newsreel film-maker for several years, he started a second career as a government official and still holds high ranking positions in Mauritanian politics. Nationalité : Immigré and Safrana remain his only feature-length fiction films.
(2) The Fontanet-Marcellin directive was a set of legal decrees concerning immigrants' rights in France issued in January and February 1972. The name is derived from the two ministers who fathered it under the presidency of Georges Pompidou: Raymond Marcellin (minister for the interior) and Joseph Fontanet (minister for labor). The new decrees severely curtailed immigrants' rights, made resident permits dependant on formal labor contracts and put the legal affairs of immigrants under the control and authority of the police.
"These decrees came into force a few weeks before the campaign against deportations on 15 September 1972. The Marcellin decree of 24 January 1972 limited the granting of work and residence permits to the police. From now on, the only point of contact for immigrants was the police authority (alternatively, the town council) and a central file on them was set up at the Ministry of the Interior. The Fontanet decree of February 1972 made a labour contract for at least one year the precondition for a residence permit, as well as a document issued by the employer certifying 'appropriate housing'. In this way, new forms of control were placed in the hands of police and employers for control of the living conditions and mobility of immigrant workers. The renewal of papers became an arduous process and the authorities reserved the right to refuse the extension of permits on the basis of the 'national labour market' or on political grounds. Any migrant worker who lost his job had to hand in his work permit and produce evidence of a new job within one month. All these regulations were not yet applicable to the so-called 'privileged' nationalities (EC countries, Algerians, francophone black Africans, refugees and asylum seekers, but to the 'non-privileged' (Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks, Portuguese, Yugoslavians)." (http://www.noborder.org/without/france.html#five [last accessed November 2013])
As they spelled immediate precarisation for a large segment of France's migrant community, the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees were met with fierce protests, including a series of hunger strikes, which were prominently supported by French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault.
(3) "La Cause du Peuple" [The People's Cause] was a radical left newspaper published between 1968 and 1978. Within the contemporary political landscape it represented the "Proletarian Left" (GP - Gauche prolétarienne) and drew from a Maoist background. The name "La Cause du Peuple" was a direct reference to a newspaper co-founded by George Sand in 1848. From the "Cause du Peuple" sprang today's weekly newspaper "Libération", founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre who had also been the editor of "La Cause du Peuple" from May 1970 until September 1973.
A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)
From Nicht Versöhnt (1) to Moses und Aron, one idea predominates, entirely contained in this title, Nicht versöhnt: not reconciled. Non-reconciliation: that is, neither the union nor the divorce, neither the whole body (to preserve, to regret), nor the bias of disintegration, chaos (Nietzsche: "One must disintegrate the universe, lose respect for all."), but their double possibility. Straub and Huillet basically start from a simple irrefutable fact: Nazism happened. Because of Nazism, the German people of today is not reconciled with itself (Machorka-Muff, Nicht Versöhnt), but the Jews aren't either (Moses und Aron, Einleitung). Nazism, like any power but more than any other, challenges and provokes the artist, and as a result artists no longer have the right to be irresponsible: Schönberg is still not reconciled with Kandinsky, neither is Brecht with Schönberg. In the Straubian system, a retro mode is simply impossible. Everything is in the present.
Non-reconciliation is also a way of making and producing films. It is the stubborn refusal of all the forces of homogenization. It has led Straub and Huillet to what might be called a “generalized practice of disjunction.” Disjunction, division, fission, taking seriously the famous “one divides into two.” The look and the voice, the voice and its material (the “grain”), the language and its accents are, as Chou En-lai said, “different dreams in the same bed.” The films: the bed where what is disjoint, unreconciled, not reconcilable, “plays”, simulates, suspends unity. Not an (easy) art of décalage but the simultaneous head and tail of the one and the same piece, never played, always revived, inscribed on one side (the tables of the Law, Moses), stated on the other (miracles, Aaron).
What is it that imposes this homogenization against which one always has to disjoint, not reconcile, if not cultural imperialism which is in the process of submitting the film industry throughout Europe (England, Germany, Italy), to submit it to its manufacturing standards (a non-rational mess), to bring, for example, a man who, as first and against all, dared to film with direct sound and in dialect (Visconti: La Terra Trema), to no longer think of his films – for the global art market – in any other way than directly dubbed into English, without anchor point, directly mutilated?
Anchoring films, images, voices means taking seriously the cinematic heterogeneity. And this anchorage, the idea that an image is only possible there and nowhere else, is not just a matter of language and voice. There is also the body. Strangely, the Straubian cinema allows us to understand that the reason why the naked body has such exchange value, why it constitutes for capital (porn movies) such a precious signifier, is because it has no attachment to History, because it makes us loose sight of it. Therefore it is necessary to anchor the body. I'm thinking of the jerseys on the torsos of (true) farmers who lay their offerings before the golden calf in Moses and Aaron. And even of the eroticism in the Straub films, discrete validation, of the most neutral parts of the body, the less spectacularly consumable: an ankle here, a knee there.
The minimum device of enunciation is the voice, the phonic device. For Straub and Huillet this is the preferred device (Othon). But there are others. In Einleitung, rarely enough, the technical recording devices, the “sounding boards” are filmed. In Einleitung, Günter Peter Straschek reads a letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky and Peter Nestler reads a well-known text by Brecht. What do we see? Images of a recording studio, images connoting officiality, the weight of legitimate discourse, heavy, coming from above and destined to provoke no response. Images of talkers, of ’speakers’, servants of speech, therefore not having to rise to speak.
When we see the face of, let's say, Léon Zitrone (2) appear on French TV screens, we have to think – very quickly, once past the first moment of revolt – something like: “power – the power of the bourgeoisie – speaks to us directly.” Does this mean that Zitrone (his voice, his face, his eyes, his intonation) is completely transparent? No, it rather means that he is not talking but is just filling his speaking time. Which is something quite different.
Speaking in the device, speaking ’in position’, means being exempted from enunciation (legitimation). For many years, we have seen oppositional parties fail to master this problem. They spent a huge amount of the time allotted to them (during which time they were actually seen) saying that the rest of the time they were never seen. And then they didn't have any time left to say what they had come to say.
Being removed from power means being removed from one's devices. Being removed from one's devices means being constrained – if only we could break out one day – to take on the dispositives of enunciation (”to distance oneself”) even before stating anything whatsoever. Obligation to note, in the device, an enunciation (the effect and the legitimacy of one's speaking out) which the device dispossesses a priori. This is why the question of enunciation is always linked to one of power (ability to speak, not to speak – Clavel (3) – to say things otherwise), while statements are on the side of knowledge (concentrated power).
And when we return to the images of the two friends of the Straubs (Straschek and Nestler) reading, it is clear that they are not professional 'speakers'. And what do they read by the way? Let us quote. In the letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky: “When I walk in the street and all men look to see if I am a Jew or a Christian, I cannot tell everyone that I am the one whom Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, while doubtless Hitler is not of this opinion.” And Brecht: “Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood.”
What do these two speeches have in common? These are speeches of victims, of people in exile, speeches that do not participate in any power. Never.
The question at hand is significant: how to stage speeches in a film (or these specific speeches, which are literary texts)? The Straubs' solution is at least paradoxical, something born from fantasy: to inscribe, to lodge discourses “of resistance” in the dominant devices. Fantasy: a state radio voicing Brecht. In order to have, at once, the enjoyment of revenge (the extreme – comical – instance of such a revenge would be Zitrone reciting Brecht), and most of all to get close to the moment when, between dominated discourse and dominating device, the incompatibility, the non-reconciliation takes its course. Still,and again and again.
Remember Christian Metz saying that the linguistic translation of a shot of a gun would not be the word “gun” but something like: “Here’s a gun” (observe in passing that this example is not neutral: trajectory of finger, eye and bullet, scopic drive, ballistic drive). The whole problem of enunciation in cinema: knowing what, during the time of the projection of a film, functions as the instance that expresses, the voice that silently says: “Here it is... Here are corpses, a B-52... etc.”. Sound has the privilege to assert – as it is through sound that sense is made and from which militant cinema, for example, takes comfort –, but the privilege of the image, presentification, the very act of “Here it is” [voici] hasn't really been examined.
By solely considering the image as a surface, infinitely divisible, by only seeing in its iconic content what can be passed – decanted – from the realm of connotation to that of denotation, one leaves aside the basic fact that in the present of the film projection, something (but what?), someone (but who?) functions as the instance that says, “Here it is.” – We are given to see.
That is why we cannot follow Marc Ferro all the way to the end of his argument (see "Le Monde diplomatique", May 1975). As a good historian, he thinks he can help the maximum of the public by getting across whatever the news images (archive footage, stock-shots) contain haphazardly, implicitly, involuntary, in the domain of the denotable, of information, of knowledge (knowledge after the fact, the historian's knowledge.) However, the problem is not to reduce the image or to dream up one that would be information, purely denoted. This reduction, we begin to suspect, is impossible: like any implementation of code it secretes something irreducible, a “third meaning” (Roland Barthes (4)). The problem is rather that the image is not a flat surface to anyone, except for those who have chosen to make it flat.
As much as an image is alive, as much as it has an impact, as much as it calls out to a public, as much as it provides pleasure, it means that in this image, around it, behind it, something in the domain of primitive enunciation (power + event = “Here it is”) functions. In cinema, enunciation might be, hidden somewhere, a little machine wound up to repeat the Lacanian phrase: “You want to look? Well, look at this”.
The cinematic image can not only be accounted for by the competence of those who know how to keep it at a distance. It is like hollowed out by the same power that has allowed it, that wanted it. It is also this thing that people have enjoyed making and others have enjoyed seeing. And this pleasure remains: the image is a tomb for the eye. Seeing a film is coming into view of what has already been seen. Seen by others: the camera, the author, the technicians, the first audience, those responsible, sometimes political people, tyrants. And what has been seen has already been enjoyed.
It happens that this power is inscribed in the image, as something that marks it, guarantees, authenticates it. Hitchcock, master of suspense and of each image of this suspense, appears briefly to remind us that he is the master (the enunciator). And this “politics of the authors” becomes politics tout court, like in this extraordinary scene in Kashima Paradise  by Yann Le Masson and Bénie Deswarte where we see the police simulate for television a Japanese attack in order to justify in advance their response (that television will be filming).
In this little film by the Straubs, Einleitung, there's the image of the Communards in their coffins, and that of B-52s bombing. These are of course not neutral images. They serve not only to identify such body or such bomb. They also tell us – whether intended or not – that the camera was American, on the same side as the bomber, just as the photographer probably was on the side of Mr Thiers. The non-neutrality of these images is not only that they put us in the presence of something horrible, it is that they show something for which there is no counter-shot, no counter-proof, no other positive image: a photo taken by the Communards or the B-52 seen from the ground, i.e. from the bombed field, and that is to say, an impossible photo.
The same goes – a fortiori – for these images of Nazified masses feeding the current retro style. We have said that for Straub and Huillet Nazism was a central event. However, they never make use of images taken from the inside of Nazism. Why? Perhaps because they believe that the responsibility of an artist is to create his own image, current and risky, of his own anti-nazism (for them this meant to dedicate their most recent film to Holger Meins (5)), rather than to reproduce images taken by Nazi cameramen in so-called 'critical' or 'detached' montages. Any reproachful and hypocritical commentary would be powerless when confronting the turmoil of these images. The Straubs' lesson: the derisory well-meaning assertions on the soundtrack and the 'Here it is' of the Nazi image have different dreams in the same bed.
What makes Einleitung, as the authors say, "an agitation film" is perhaps its order of exposure, the time that it gives us to restore these images to what they are: images taken on the basis of U.S. power, taken from the other side. It consists of cleaning the images from every déjà-vu. It consists of bringing out (making ooze, bringing to light, driving out) from these images the power that has wanted them and that wanted them to not even surprise us anymore. Therefore, the horror is no longer the eternal return of the Same in the guise of the Same (retro mode), but the intolerable present (Holger Meins, 1975).
(1) Daney frequently abridges film titles in this essay.
(2) Léon Zitrone (1914 -1995) was a host and anchorman on French television.
(3) Maurice Clavel (1920 - 1979) was a French writer and political essayist. The incident Daney refers to was the spectacular scene of Clavel walking out on a TV debate after he had been repeatedly cut off, bidding farewell with the words: "Good evening, my censors." (This detail is explained in an editor's note in a German collection of Serge Daney's essays [Serge Daney, Von der Welt ins Bild: Augenzeugenberichte eines Cinephilen, edited by Christa Blümlinger, Berlin: Vorwerk8, 2000.]
(4) Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980) is credited for the term "third meaning" in the earlier version of the text (Cahiers du Cinéma), but the credit is missing in the "La Rampe" version. Barthes introduced the term in his essay "Le troisième sens" (1970 – English: "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills", in: Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Transl. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
(5) Holger Meins, German, born in 1941, was arrested along with members of the "Baader gang"; he died in prison in 1974 after 53 days of hunger strike. (Original note by Daney in "La Rampe".)
We live, we make movies, as if we were occupied. I was listening to the radio yesterday, in the middle of the night, an interview with Godard. And Jean-Luc says: "the French have always made a great prisoner's cinema, the most beautiful prisoner's cinema in the world." And when I saw Bresson's Pickpocket, I realised there was greatness in being a prisoner. But a Bressonian prisoner is also Dostoevskian (...).
(...) Telling a story, a bit like wondering what came before me, what I inherited without realising it. And it's no mystery: we inherited war, 1940-45. And we must be the only country in the world that was occupied, didn't resist much and produced a very strong cinema during the war. It was, as Autant-Lara said, the heyday of French cinema. And from his point of view, it's correct (...).
But others were making a cinema that prepared something else, or said something else. And one could follow that. But they were at the margins: Franju, Melville, Cocteau, Bresson, Tati. So the official idea I developed of French cinema was that it was made by mavericks, by non-conformists. There has been so many of them since the beginning, since Feuillade. (...)
That's the war. Everything in French cinema that was professional, unionised, with home-made aesthetics and ideology, is rather what I have no interest in. And I say "rather" because there are magnificent things. I'm interested in what was marginal. But I feel this can only be said of France. American cinema has some great and sublime mavericks but (...).Extract from Sous le vent, a film by Robert Kramer that was part of a series of film commissions (La culture en chantier) by the French Ministry of cultural affairs in 1991. My (quick) translation.
Murmur of the World (Robert Kramer, Route One USA)
“If we are truly together, the dark of the day is the best moment to see. But we must be truly together,” said Robert Kramer, fifteen years ago. Only a man threatened by solitude can say this. Only a man very inhabited inside can deal with this solitude when it does more than threaten. For, if populations change over time, it’s always about them.First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 246, December 1989. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.130-132. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.
In 1975, Kramer and John Douglas co-signed Milestones, the film that closed a first loop, that of American radicalism, which he had, better than anyone else, drawn the portrait of (The Edge, Ice, In the Country).
With Milestones, another generation – that of the opposition to the Vietnam war – could call itself “lost”. The fragile sound of a page being turned could even be heard in a Cahiers round table (issue 258-259) flatly but sincerely named: Milestones and us.
The rest is better known: Kramer leaves the USA, puts himself at the service of several struggles (Portugal), settles in France, tries everything (video as amusement or scalpel, auteur cinema, an hallucinated police film) and doesn’t quite pull it off. One doesn’t need to be Freudian to see that, sooner or later, Robert Kramer will need to return, a way or another, to his starting point.
A small film shot in Portugal (Doc’s Kingdom, scandalously not released) amounts to getting ready for the departure. Its hero – Kramer’s alter ego – is a drunken and narcissistic doctor who has somehow survived to all his beliefs. He’s the doctor we follow all along Route One.
For this is indeed, fifteen years later, a sequel to Milestones. The road comes after the milestones. The road in Milestones went from “the snowy mountains of Utah to the natural sculptures of Monument Valley, to the caves of the Hopi people, and to the dust of New York City”; the road in Route One simply connects Cape Cod to Miami. For the one starting again, any road, chosen randomly, is the right one: the first one, for example.
Why choose a doctor? Because Robert Kramer’s father is a doctor (there is an auscultation scene in Milestones)? Because there is a doctor theme in John Ford’s films (whom Kramer admires and of whom he is – I’ve always thought this – one of the rare heirs)? Because the USA is sick? Or because, when we are “truly together”, we ought to care for each other? A little bit of all this, of course. But all this would remain abstract if Robert Kramer’s art (for he is an artist, and a great one) wasn’t fundamentally that of a doctor’s, that of a general practitioner. As such, he can’t afford to choose his patients: he is the adult truth of the militant that he was (“at the service of the people”).
And what does the doctor do when combing the countryside? He uses his eyes and takes out of his briefcase this old emblem: the stethoscope. He measures up the state of populations, he takes their pulse (and, with the help of age and humour, he knows that his own health is no longer perfect). In short, the wandering doctor works in the audiovisual sphere.
Filmmakers who are both great show-offs and great editors are rare. Kramer has acquired an exceptional eye (his work with video is for something in this) but doesn’t expect from it – and that’s exceptional – a voyeuristic added value. Of the people he meets and listens to, along Route One, he expects no truth: he simply follows them in a phase of their existence (always according to the principle that one must only film people that work, at the same time, at something else).
He diverts them – a bit – away from their route, as if offering them a free consultation. He doesn’t dramatise the road (it’s the opposite of a road movie), nor the encounter: these people are always already there and they have other things to do. Follows the beautiful portrait of what we can continue to love in America: its hard labour, its sense of duty, its basic energy.
As for the sound, the direct sound of the social stethoscope, it is no less (and no more) than the pulsation of hearts and ideas, of the rhythm that allows something to be heard. It’s the most mysterious part of Kramer’s art – its most Fordian part. As a puritan for whom, everywhere and always, only the social bond requires and justifies the presence of cinema, he cannot prevent, over free consultations, to let the murmur of the world rise, America being a world in itself. A man blowing on embers is Fire. A fish in a tank is Water. A soldier bending under the weight of his kit, is Earth.
We need, despite everything, witnesses. And witnesses need to have time on their side. Kramer might not have needed fifteen years of diversions and a four-hour movie if American cinema (special effects aside) was able – as it used to be – to draw up such a state of things. Ironically, this man, who left because he suffered too much from the evils of American imperialism (from Indians to Vietnamese), returns to a country which is, for the first time in its history, no longer at the centre of the world, not even at the centre of itself. Only an exile like Kramer can continue to love America – by force if necessary.
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.
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.
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?
|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.