Wednesday, August 12, 2020

I Was Born in Calcutta

It's fantastic to see others translating Daney. Here's a new one from The Seventh Art blog: Daney's 1982 interview with Satyajit Ray.  

I Was Born in Calcutta

Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Vertigo - Sueurs froides
Another translation from Cine-journal, Daney's second book. Thanks to Andy Rector / Kinoslang for his help with the translation.

Vertigo / Sueurs froides
All those years without Vertigo: how did we cope? Wasn’t it Alfred Hitchcock’s most sentimental film? Yes.
Truffaut: “I believe the film was neither a success nor a failure.”
Hitchcock: “It will break even.”
Truffaut: “So it’s a failure?”
Hitchcock: “I suppose.”
In 1958, US audiences snubbed Vertigo but the French quite liked Sueurs froides*. In 1984, both films are re-released: Sueurs froides for the philistines, Vertigo for the others. As it became cult, the film didn’t only earn its original English title (that would merely be snobbery) but also earned something like a secret and friendly nickname: “vertigo”, in Latin, – the type of name we give to beloved beings when they are gone (I do say “beings” even though I know it’s only a pile of printed film stock – only a film – but films don’t just age, they watch us age too). We’ve been missing Vertigo for too long. No rain gutters, red robes, sequoia trees, grey suits or San Francisco streets have ever really existed on screen since Vertigo. No film in fact resembles this one. 
Is this a dithyramb? Yes. But a strange one, like the film. For Vertigo, unlike Rear Window, is far from a perfect film. Not funny, like North by Northwest. Not terrifying, like Psycho. Not chilling, like Birds. It’s not even, to use Truffaut’s beautiful expression, a “grand film malade**” like Marnie. No, Vertigo is mostly a moving film.
One interest of this “return to Hitchcock” that – delighted and bemused – we are witnessing today on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make redundant the (sticky) label of “Master of suspense”. For two reasons. Firstly, Hitchcock is a Master, just a Master. Not a so-called money-grubber but the only one to have found the right distance (in a sort of interior exile) to know exactly what the grub was made of. And if the grub had to be American, the knowledge about the grub could be universal. Thanks to Hitchcock. Secondly, because “of” suspense means nothing. What suspense? Hitchcockian suspense is unique and like no other. There are no recipes because they are inimitable. Who will dare to do as he does? Endless “exposition” scenes where nothing seems to happen? Criminals whose identity is known straight away? Films divided in two symmetric parts, folded around a central axis, as is the case in Vertigo? No one.
We won’t tell the story of Vertigo. Let’s not spoil any of the pleasure. But let whomever is seeing the film for the first time know that the “key” to the enigma (a rather crude flash-back but that explains everything) is to be found soon after the first half of the film. Here’s a paradox of a fake ending right in the middle of the film. “Everybody around me”, Hitchcock tells Truffaut, “was hostile to this change, because they thought this revelation should only come at the end of the film”.
But this is precisely where the emotion comes from. It comes when the spectator – mystified until now, then put in the know and proud of his new knowledge – realises that the film is not finished! Suspense of a new suspense. The spectator (you, I hope) watches with compassion the cataleptic bodies of James Stewart and Kim Novak. The spectator didn’t know enough. He now knows too much. He is guessing that appearances will never give up their platonic dance, and that the actors are chained to a fiction that he cannot – in the moment – know what to make of. It doesn’t last but this suspense is deeply moving. Look at Judy when Scottie comes to find her: she slowly turns her head toward the camera, less to give us a look into the camera than to see herself joined by her destiny, with breakneck speed. 
It’s because the first part of Vertigo adopts the point of view of Scottie, the duped man, that such a scene, suddenly seen from the point of view of the woman, gains all its importance. Hitchcock often proceeds this way: in his stories of chained couples, he obscures along the way the character that seemed transparent and lightens the one that seemed opaque. Hence, many of his films are strangely constructed: in two parts, according to a pattern that Rohmer described as helicoidal. Except that the loop never closes back completely. The man/woman symmetry exists no more in the Hitchcockian universe than it does in the real world. The story of Vertigo is that of a man who moves from acrophobia to necrophilia, therefore of a “grand malade”. But the beauty of Vertigo is in the way a woman, despite everything, exists. 
Despite everything. To Truffaut who assures him that eventually Kim Novak was very good in this role designed for Vera Miles, Hitchcock replies nothing. There are many anecdotes telling of how little interest Hitchcock gave to this (still young) star. A limited actress, of vulgar and bland beauty, with ugly legs (Hitchcock insisted on that point) and terrified with stage fright. But this is precisely where the emotion comes from, because of this supplementary mirror effect. 
Kim Novak plays the role of a woman who, twice, is only an image, the materialisation of a man’s fantasy. She is “herself” only once, the day Scottie comes to find her, squeezed into her terrifying green dress. Otherwise, she lives in fear. The fear of betraying herself, the fear of not being up to the job. Kim Novak’s fear as well, as an actress, of not understanding what the “Master of suspense” wanted from her on set. So much so that Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s usual photographer, could not avoid recording this fright and disarray, the solitude of the Hitchcockian actor (or simply of actors in general) at the sound of the clapperboard. We are watching a series of screen tests: they follow each other feverishly, documentary-like, giving Vertigo, this Vertigo-with-Kim-Novak-and-despite-Alfred-Hitchcock, a real unease.
And then there is James Stewart, brilliant. He has been a better actor (in Ford’s Two Rode Together or in Preminger’s Autopsy of a Murder) but Scottie is his most beautiful role. Watching him move – attentively – in Vertigo, one understands what was unique in Hitchcock’s cinema. Unique in the sense that it could only happen once. Here is a man who never stopped denying the “direction” of actors, who said horrible things about them, who prided himself on never looking into the viewfinder and sketching all his shots in advance. He exaggerated of course, overdoing it a bit. Nevertheless, if Hitchcock’s posthumous return today works so well, isn’t it because he is, in the strongest possible sense, an experimental filmmaker, halfway between silent cinema (the art of mime) and television (and its babbling)? The master of all those who prefer to explore their tools than to deliver a message?
Experimental filmmakers generally do without actors or, since they can’t afford them, pretend to hate them. Hitchcock was the only one in the history of cinema who could hate them and afford them. Logically he has given them split character roles. Cruelly, he has directed them like body doubles. But a body double called Cary Grant or James Stewart will never simply be a double. There will always be something remaining of their mastery, aura, intuition and professional reflexes. And this is precisely where the emotion is born.
Look at Stewart in Vertigo: slightly robotic, zombie-like, holding on to reality only by his waking dream and to the set only by the markers of the mise en scène, like so many stitch points*** separated from one another by nothingness. One can laugh at this game, find it slightly obscene and dated. One could also say that Scottie is the last of Hitchcock’s alter egos. Or that the skinny James Stewart is the last actor that the fat Hitchcock still had the desire to identify with. Say what you want, cinema is a very human art.  
First published in Libération on 27 March 1984 with the title “Vertigo, enfin visible” [finally visible]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated with the invaluable help of Andy Rector.

Translator’s notes:
* The French title of the film, literally: “cold sweat”.
** A sick or diseased film.
*** “points du suture” in French.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Ennio Morricone / Sergio Leone

I couldn't resist a (very quick and approximate) translation of this interview with Serge Daney on Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. You can listen to the full programme here, including an interview with Sergio Leone. 

SIMSOLO: This was the music of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone’s last film, hopefully not his final one. Serge Daney, you remember that one day we had lunch with Sergio Leone and what had striked you that you didn’t know at the time was this sort of precision in what he was doing. Despite appearances, he was very conscious of what he was doing. And although he was attacked by critics at first: destruction of the American western genre, phoney filmmaker that caricatures things, bit of a joker, etc, he slowly established himself as an obvious style, rejected or embraced, but clearly a style, total and consistent. When he makes Once Upon a Time in America, there is a use of the mythology of the cinema of Hollywood, of archetypes of the America of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. And with Morricone, his old accomplice as he said very clearly in the interview we just heard, a research so that the sound outline of the film, sound and music, integrate elements of originality and dramatisation but without illustrating. He is not a filmmaker that uses music as an illustrator, like Hawks for example, but uses music like total element of the fiction. So I’d like to put the question to Serge Daney, film critic but also sport and society critic: how do you feel the effects of this unique work? 
DANEY: What strikes me is that we have realised very late that music in the American cinema was broadly a rehash of the Viennese School through the Jewish, German, Austrian and Hungarian musicians who left Europe for America. And we accepted this so naturally that we forgot to ask a very simple question. There has been a serious American music, and I do say “serious”, which is not bad at all, and which almost doesn’t feature at all, apart in some musicals, in the American cinema. And one only has to listen again to some records on 20th century American music to discover people that are relatively known, like Ives for example, to realise that there has been a music that tried to take into account European classical music and something specifically American (marching bands, choral societies, guimbards, hymns from North and South, of the Civil War, etc). This music is not in the cinema. 
SIMSOLO: except a bit in Ford’s films. 
DANEY: A little bit with Ford. Wagon Master for example. Things like that but rather in the minority. And it came down to an Italian filmmaker, a childhood friend of an Italian musician: Ennio Morricone, a pupil of classical music, to bring back through Italy – the pure conscience of classical music – that there had been an American music which was called Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson. People like that with a bit of jazz, a lot of popular music. And so it was thanks to Italy, and musically as well, not just the relation between Leone and Ford – Leone as the ultimate heir to Ford – but also Leone as the ultimate heir to Ives, let’s say. With a sort of village cacophony, with very simple melodies, and some very complex things, mixed together and having nothing to do with the serious music of the Viennese School. 
SIMSOLO: A sort of return of America and its music via a European. Whereas until now Europe had fed Hollywood and Europe had fed from Hollywood. 
DANEY: Yes, I would say that it’s the Europeans who have sent the pupils of Schoenberg or Bartók to Hollywood. But it’s also one European, two Europeans, two Italians, late, in the sixties, who implicitly said to the Americans: listen as well to your own musicians, the locals, from your village. 
SIMSOLO: I’ll give you an anecdote that Sergio Leone told me. Maybe you were there. He said “The first time that I saw Morricone, I asked him: What did you do before?”. And Morricone said “The music of some western film”. “But that is bad Tiomkin.” And Morricone replied: “But what if they had commissioned bad Tiomkin?” And I think this is very revealing of what you have just said. For a while, through the imitation of the Hollywood system via the Italian or German series of fake westerns, musicians were asked to compose fake Tiomkin music or fake Waxman or fake Steiner music. Morricone was doing this but when he meets Leone, this is no longer what needs to be done. One has to return to the real. 
DANEY: And the real when it comes to America is something quite simple. It’s a rather exploded culture, with many different parts, with a mix of very serious and very popular things, something lost in Europe. And what Morricone does with some magnificent melodies but also very refined orchestrations is to bring – apologies for the slightly pompous word – a carnivalesque dimension, in the way Bakhtin meant it, a heterogenous mix of things. So in the music that Morricone composes for Leone there are the guimbard (which in the end refers to the Jew’s harp), Viennese waltzes, and there is mainly military music. And military music is extremely important with Leone because he is perhaps the last filmmaker that is profoundly pacifist, anti-militarist actually, to make films. There is a description of war in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a hate of war, which apart from Ford, the Ford of The Horse Soldiers, had never really been shown in the American cinema. 
SIMSOLO: And what also happens is that the music of Hollywood, illustrative or contrapuntal, or to think of it in as a function in the fabric of cinema, played either the theme of the character, and Morricone knew how to do this, as we’ve seen with Addio a Cheyenne, or of the situation, but rarely played the profound origin of people. It’s only with Ford that when a character arrived, we heard in the music some Irish rhythms to guess his origins. Whereas with Leone and this is what we will hear now. Since in Once Upon a Time in America, it’s about the Jewish mafia, one character is going to play the pan flute, as someone could have played it in the Palestine of the 1910s. And it’s mixed with the rest of the music, which means not only there is the character and the situation but there is also what the character fundamentally is, and he can’t function in any other ways than through his profound origins, and that music becomes in this instance not only part of the fabric but also an element of the analysis we can make about the cinema. 
DANEY: We could say that this is the music that De Mille couldn’t create.  
SIMSOLO: So as we reach the end of this series of broadcasts, there are a few things I’d like to say which are a bit anecdotical, slightly beside the point. But it’s true that when we got to know each other at the end of the 60s, at the time of the Cahiers du cinéma, before Cahiers du cinéma take an ideological turn, we sometimes found ourselves in popular film theatres with people like Jacques Rivette who watched films by Leone, who had been rather despised at some point, and who found an immense force in his cinema. And it’s also true that the force we found in Leone wasn’t just the mise en scène, in the flattest possible sense of the term, meaning how one enters the field of camera, how one cuts, how one constructs a close-up, but also the whole of the tapestry, of the mechanic that was rendered. And it’s true that even though critics like those at Cahiers du cinéma and other precise critics didn’t take the music in film as a fundamental element of the quality of a film. There was even this sentence if you remember that said “when the music of a film is good, we don’t hear it, we don’t remember it.” Leone and Morricone have reversed this problem. It is not possible to think of Leone without Morricone’s music as the interview I conducted with him in Annecy just reminded us. And we have the impression today, twenty years later, is that this crystallisation that he managed to operate between a very present music and a very present cinema modified the way in which people use music in cinema. 
DANEY: And you inadvertently just said the word that allow me to make a link… 
SIMSOLO: Why “inadvertently” Serge? 
DANEY: Hold on. You don’t know which word I mean. It’s “crystal”. I didn’t invent that. It’s in the tome two of Deleuze’s book where there are some beautiful things about the cinema. And he talks about certain filmmakers, not Leone because perhaps he doesn’t know him well enough, but he talks about Renoir, people like that, about Ophüls with whom it is already more telling, and he talks about the structure of the crystal. This means that the ensemble of the things that happened, character by character, action by action, memory by memory, is in a crystal. So we can’t touch it. And inside the crystal, there is a small merry-go-round. And each character is riding his own merry-go-round. And the merry-go-round is circular meaning that the characters can’t escape the crystal. It is the past. Fossilised but always ready to return, with the same intact emotional force. 
SIMSOLO: Yes, like in the finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where the dead punctuate the duelling trio. 
DANEY: Exactly. It takes place in front of a cemetery, in front of the dead. And perhaps because of Leone and also Demy with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as it’s around the same time, there has been the possibility for a film to have a music that was both in complete synchronicity, in complete osmosis with the film, a music that said the same thing as the film, that there was this unforgettable and slightly idiotic crystal where people turn round in circles, are in cycles, do the same gestures, the same mistakes, the waltz of the shadows, and that we could remember the film or the music individ... indifferently. It set a precedent, for better or worse, often for the worse. And the most moving moment is the starting point: Leone. Leone is the first who made films, with Morricone as a magnificent accomplice, where the crystal was eternal. And what could we see inside the crystal? We could see both refrains, which is very Italian, like Nino Rota, differently but in the same way as Nino Rota. Something that an American can’t do. An American can’t create a refrain because he is caught in the countdown of an action. He can only compose a melody with a final catharsis like Tiomkin. Italians have always composed melodies, even refrains and choruses which they have even integrated into classical music. Morricone did this and it matches perfectly with the Leonian project which was to say: look at the cinema we no longer know how to make, let’s say Ford to be quick, before it disappears, and look also at the cinema that is coming: a cinema where we are going to take sample / signs, where we will be between fashion, advertising, short forms, recitative forms, extremely pathetic, where each character do their act, in a loop, with accompanying music. 
SIMSOLO: I remember showing to an editor, Khadicha Bariha who worked with Chris Marker, films by Leone that she didn’t know but knew of reputation: popular films, etc. And seeing these films as the technician that she was, as someone who sticks together images and sounds to make a film, she told me “it’s strange, these are auteur films, totally”. Meaning there isn’t one element that has not been thought of. The films are popular but are fundamentally auteur films, as much as Straub or Garrel. And what’s very peculiar in the crystallisation that I was referring to. Leone, while playing a card completely distinct from popularity, but by mixing different elements, managed to give back to the popular cinema its great lyrical force, while never abandoning anything from his own project. And this is where others like Peckinpah have tried but not succeeded as well. For them, the musician, the actor, the archetype, the script, the décor, and always the music, came like an opera which was the musical opposite of the libretto, like a permanent counterpoint, to give a breathing to the modern cinema that we were expecting. That Leone and Morricone gave to us and that for years nobody had seen it. 
DANEY: Nobody saw it but everybody took it, everybody copied it, digested it. His films have entered a sort of vague and obscure collective conscience. And now we see very well that Leone was the first, not only to have announced things that are common today, but to have said: this is the river bank we are leaving behind, and this is what is in front of us. What we leave behind is the painting, the symphony. And what we are heading towards is the sampling. We sample qualities from a character, a character from a décor, a rather empty décor. We become incredibly sensitive to a mix of hyper realistic documentary (Leone has observed the true West a lot) which becomes a neo-neorealism [term prompted by Simsolo] and we could say that if there was a history of the sur-figurative, Leone would be its starting point, but more friendly and moving than its current forms because Leone still knows after what this is coming. So this is really a mandatory passage. It’s like the bridge in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We blow it up in the end. But once it’s been blown up, we’ll have a lot of difficulties in continuing to tell stories. 
SIMSOLO: There’s also something more technical. What has always titillated me with Leone is that I have listened to a lot of soundtracks which were illustrative, contrapuntal, theme of a character, theme of a situation. But with Leone, something very strange happened. The feeling of the montage: close-up, medium shot, relations between the two to be structuralist. The instruments played a role. When the pan flute plays, it indicates a certain framing of the image. When it’s the Jew’s harp, it’s something else. Music is not here just as a total element of the tapestry, it is sometimes like in painting or in modern music, a given element that can redefine itself and recompose itself. And it’s particularly striking because it’s only Morricone with Leone, not with the others. 
DANEY: What Morricone does with music is the equivalent of what Leone does with his shots. He gives a feeling of what is close and what is far. Of what we are getting close to and at what a musical close up would look like. What we often take as melodies, magnificent of course, are close-ups. And what we take for complex orchestral things, are simply long shots. And to have worked with someone who was doing in his domain, his art, music, the same effort of distancing to take a general view, or of tightening to get to a close-up is something absolutely unique. And it’s true that Morricone didn’t do it with the others. 
SIMSOLO: That’s the problem. Because with the others, it was: here’s the music, do what you want with it. With Verneuil, with Don Siegel, with great filmmakers. What’s surprising with Leone is this osmosis that we haven’t found elsewhere. Like Rota with other filmmakers than Fellini. 
DANEY: This what everybody can understand today with the Dolby, the compact disc, or spatialised music. Music is also in the space. And people in the sixties must have felt implicitly, very directly, that the space that Leone was fracturing in a very inventive way, by keeping in turns the general picture and the close-up, the other one, in music, was doing the same. 
SIMSOLO: Let’s listen to the music of a film that I believe like me you like very much Duck, You Sucker!
First broadcasted on 24 February 1989 on France Culture. Part of Noël Simsolo's series "Musiciens pour cinéastes". 

Friday, July 03, 2020

On Le Pont du Nord

This translation was in the booklet of a DVD of Rivette's Le Pont du Nord, now out of stock and discontinued. Thanks to Craig Keller, the translator, for sharing it and allowing its publication here. 

On Le Pont du Nord

Bulle and Pascale Go Boating in Paris (or in Ailleurs-les-Oies? [i.e., “Elsewhere-the-Geese”, connoting The Game of the Goose –ed.]).  To properly choreograph these “Ogier Follies”, Rivette needed to succeed in orchestrating his comeback. Done.  
As is customary, one says: I’m going to see a film. Often, one only sees two or three images floating inside of a void, shameful adverts, stretched-out commercials, but it doesn’t matter; one says: I saw a film. Force of habit, fatal grip of the a. Sometimes, one truly sees a film, something that doesn’t resemble anything else around – Le Pont du Nord, for example. And here, if one were being honest (and less a slave of the a), one would say: I saw films, or: I saw cinema. Nuance. 
I’ll provide an example. Towards the end of Le Pont du Nord, the two Ogiers wander the length of a railroad. While Marie (Bulle) carries on in monologue, Baptiste (Pascale) lies down on the ground and puts her ear to the rail. Light euphoria in the theatre, cinephilic gag, a flash: we’ve already seen this image – we’ve seen it a hundred times, but we’ve seen it somewhere else: in westerns. It’s the classic situation of the solitary lawman, lost in a strange land, while some green-horn who wants to make himself useful follows along with the clumsy stubbornness of Rantanplan in Lucky Luke [a long-running Belgian comics series created in 1946 by cartoonist Maurice De Bevere, aka Morris –ed.] or John Derek in one of Ray’s westerns (Run for Cover [1955], to be exact). 
Except that in Rivette, it’s more than a gag – it gives you the sudden urge to watch Le Pont du Nord over again from the beginning, but as a western. The film lets you: the concrete and scrap-iron city is like a desert (or like a ghost-town), the Indians (the “Max”s) are everywhere, there’s shelter to be found at night, places to get some water, a map, a compass, showdowns. It has to end with a rancid old story and rest can only be thought of – later on. 
Fall off or dance? 
This is just one example. Le Pont du Nord is also in fact a political thriller with a hunt for a woman and an urban setting, a documentary on the state of Paris in 1981, an old modernist film composed out of an incomplete and undecidable tale, of the Paris nous appartient type, a modern metaphor of ancient myths with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur, etc. These aren’t “levels of interpretation”, these are films to see and to listen to all at the same time. A film, Le Pont du Nord? Come on! One should see it like one slides a finger (nervously) along a dial in order to tune in to n free-radio stations. Free, that’s what the film is – Rivette is the needle, and we are the dial. 
This is why it would be useless to try and “sum up” the scenario, the script, of Le Pont du Nord. On the pretence that the two heroines come from nowhere and wander about a Paris filmed as it never has been before (such a beautiful city!) – on the pretence that the film perhaps takes place in “Ailleurs-les-Oies” and that it has to do with terrorism, a blacklist, and a great deal of paranoia – we’d be pulled too quickly onto the side of allegory or capital-S Symbolism. No – we have to throw aside the open-ended artwork and the bon chic bon genre lacuna (this a bit worn out – at least for the time being) and speak differently about this film. Don’t start with the script. 
There’s good reason for this. Rivette’s cinema always tells the same story: how to forget about the script, the scenario. A clarification, here: the Scenario is many things. It’s that thing dictated and banged out on the machine that you have to write to convince the Advance on Receipts [a French production-financing arrangement –ed.] or to reassure a financier. It’s that inevitability that ensures that each generation be deemed at some moment a “lost generation” (for example, a generation of terrorists, political and aesthetic, pre- and post-’68, a generation which the faces of Bulle Ogier and Pierre Clémenti incarnate in an almost documentary manner, all the way down to the twitching, the tics, and the hippie-locutions). A scenario is obsessive short-circuits too, the minuscule rituals we undertake throughout all life-experience and which create the automatic reflexes of the cinema, in some way its safety net. A glance should encounter an object, that’s the scenario – a bullet should go through a body, there’s another one – a line of dialogue should fall off before the end, that’s typical too. Every scenario is the story of a fall
This is why, besides the fact that it’s a moment of superbly filmed euphoria, the final scene between Stévenin and Pascale Ogier, the karate lesson on the Pont du Nord, tells something of the truth of the film: “Don’t forget your enemy is imaginary,” Stévenin says. And if the glances, the bullets, the words “don’t carry”? And if there was only dance? And if dance alone – “the passion of being someone else” – allowed one to forget about the Scenario? And if Rivette (alone or almost so within French cinema) were a choreographer making his comeback? To speak of Le Pont du Nord as a musical comedy – the “Ogier Follies” or “Paranoid in Paris” – that’s already better. 
One will say: but the Scenario doesn’t forget about you. Of course. It doesn’t neglect Marie Lafée who foolishly dies in a twist of fate after having brought to her murderer the precious “documents” (which were what, exactly? a map of Paris with a Game of the Goose drawn over the top: again a scenario, with 63 scenes!). It doesn’t neglect Rivette either, who needs it, but in the way one needs a negative pole, a trap to avoid, a threat to flee – a wicked North. Whence the Ogiers’ wanderings. 
Return to Paris 
Leaving the scenario aside, frustrating its inevitability, dancing it in order to shoot it, is already old news, that of modern cinema, that of Rivette. Le Pont du Nord is, on this day, its most recent episode, and its most joyful one, too. Let’s recapitulate. It all started with a paranoiac scenario out of Lang (Paris nous appartient), followed by a scenario of persecution whose sadised victim was a woman (La Religieuse [The Nun, Jacques Rivette, 1966]). Then, taking off from L’Amour fou and its entangled device, in which the scenario, which contained the same idea, was scrapped, with Rivette staying dedicated to his troupe of actresses (Ogier, Berto, Karagheuz, etc.). From Céline and Julie in their boat [as at the beginning of the essay, Daney refers here to Rivette’s 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau / Phantom Ladies Over Paris, or Céline and Julie Go Boating or Céline and Julie Go Off the Deep-End, etc. –ed.] to the company of Amazons of Noroît [Scènes de la vie parallèle: 3: Noroît (une vengeance), or Scenes from the Parallel Life: 3: Nor’wester (A Vengeance), 1976], the most experimental period of his oeuvre corresponds to the unrealised project of the “Filles du feu” [“Daughters of Fire”]. Facing a scenario whose terms are set, more or less hypocritically, by men (stories of secret societies, scavenger hunts, traps), the women respond by inventing an even more aleatory way of acting! A game unto themselves, then a game between themselves – beyond all hope, parodic, and excessive. In the face of this fire, Rivette scorched his wings a little. 
This is why Le Pont du Nord marks Rivette’s returning, in the double sense of the term. Returning to the circuit of cinema; re-turning in, retracing, his steps. Returning and new departure. For there’s a difference in stature. Up to this point, Rivette was only interested in what might happen between characters of the same age group. In stories of alliances and sects, as it were. With Le Pont du Nord, for the first time, he chances the description of two generations. His actresses have gotten older; they themselves could have children – have had them, in any case, and, what’s more, the children are all grown up. Which is where Bulle and Pascale come in. A generation is only ever lost when it no longer knows how to tell its story to the generation that follows. It’s rescued when it knows that it no longer knows anything. Between Marie Lafée and Baptiste, time has dug a strange gully. Rivette’s (and William Lubtchansky’s) camera becomes ethnographic again, a little Rouchian, sensitive to these two ways of speaking, of thinking, of moving, of shivering or taking in the sun, of acting and of withdrawing from the act. One must see Baptiste listening with a benevolent gravity to Marie’s soliloquies, and must see Marie cast a glance upon the prowess of karate-ka Baptiste. To speak of incommunicability is to say too much. “To each her own thing” would be better: to you, the voice; to me, the body; and an identical space to accommodate the two; an identical film to act in. 
Not everyone gets the chance to make a first film twice. It’s a luxury that is paid in journeys across the desert and in blacklists. Like Marie Lafée, Rivette could say: But I’m still alive! Le Pont du Nord proves that he’s very much alive, even. Last year, Godard was said to be very happy to have made – with Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man for Himself, 1979] – a first film for the second time, that is, for a second generation of spectators. Twenty years later. Rohmer, as well, said that after years in the studio and making costume films, he had rediscovered the desire to go down the street and see if Paris had changed any. This resulted in La Femme de l’aviateur [The Aviator’s Wife, 1981, the first in the series of Rohmer’s Comédies et proverbes, or Comedies and Proverbs]. I’m citing individuals from the Nouvelle Vague. Deliberately. These are the only ones today to carry any trace of our recent past – twenty years of adventures in and through the cinema. After a period of experimental withdrawal, having lost nothing of their independence, they’re starting once again from square one, from Paris, from this fictive and documentary Paris which was the theatre of their débuts. The Game of the Goose has once more been initiated. Amnesia is impossible but bereavement is done with; those rugged years of the Seventies are now in the distance. 
Le Pont du Nord restarts in a minor mode what Rivette had once pretended to take too seriously. The squabbles over the scenario of men and the body of women? An enigma and a dance – nothing more. Jean-Claude Biette recently said that The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man [La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1981] was the first Italian film after the death of Pasolini. I’d offer that in France, Le Pont du Nord is the first film of the Eighties. 
First published in Libération on March 26th, 1982. Translation by Craig Keller. 

INTERVIEW WITH RIVETTE by Serge Daney and Jean Narboni 1981 

DANEY & NARBONI: You’ve just finished a film, Le Pont du Nord, which we haven’t seen yet. Can you tell us about it? 
RIVETTE: Maybe only anecdotally, because I don’t even know what this film is yet – maybe I’ll never know, that’s what happens sometimes. But with this, we have the feeling (I say “we” not in the royal sense of the word; it’s a collective “we”, as this film was made with several collaborators, and I think we’re all in the same state of mind) that it’s very difficult to know what it is. And the reactions from a few people to whom we showed the work-print are so dissimilar that it hardly helps us any. 
DANEY & NARBONI: At the start, you spoke about it as an “appraisal film” about the France of 1980... 
RIVETTE: That’s only what I said when I started it!... But no, it’s a small story about two people who wander through Paris... Actually, we began with the desire to make, ten years after Out 1 [1971/1989] (since the project goes back to a year ago, April ’80, and the shoot of Out 1 was April ’70), the desire to make a different film... – “appraisal” is too much, but actually, still, a small sort of tableau of France as seen from my little tower: what Out 1 wanted to be, for even if, concretely speaking, Le Pont du Nord only deals with a couple people, I hope that something comes across of what France was like two years after ’68 and (this was exactly what the project of the film was) that it comes across in ricochets, without ever being addressed directly. So, with this, we had the desire with Bulle, and Suzanne [Schiffman], to kind of remake the same thing, ten years on; very quickly, we tried to bang out a story where there’d be Bulle, and eventually Juliet [Berto] – but it turned out the film project she’d been developing for several months was starting to take shape [this was Neige (Snow, 1981) –ed.], and that, as happens, she was no longer available enough to work with us – and then the same thing with Hermine [Karagheuz]. In fact, everything ground to a halt pretty quickly: because, first of all, we had the feeling that it risked being too much of the same thing from ten years prior, even if it was the same things that I’m into and with the people that I’ve always wanted to shoot a lot with: then, seen from the point of departure we’d taken (while using as the backdrop another Balzac novel), it risked being a copy of the first film too much. Actually, there was just as much risk of making a relatively expensive film, relatively difficult to edit, not to mention there not being that many producers on the horizon. And so one fine day, the fact that Juliet was tied up with her own film; the fact that, on the other hand, Bulle and Pascale were very attached to the project; the fact of being told that, if you wanted the chance to make the film, it had to be as marketable as possible – all this eliminated the initial project. So we started over with the principle of being as simple and economical as possible, therefore: to shoot a film with two characters (Bulle and Pascale) and with exteriors alone: where there wouldn’t be a single interior shot, not a single lit shot, everything in the streets of Paris, from the first image to the last, and without leaving the confines of Paris. Which gave us a good, precise, and stimulating framework. Only then maybe would there be the ability to return in bursts to the first project, “Tableau of France in 1980”, but this isn’t “Tableau of France”, it’s just glimpses, overtures, things like that, here and there, by way of these two characters and two male characters who cross their paths (Pierre Clémenti and Jean-François Stévenin)... It’s a film that, as is often the case with films I make (this is something I’ve always wanted to do and which sometimes works out well, sometimes badly) seems to be headed in a certain direction in the first half-hour, takes a 180 at the end of the half-hour, takes a second 180 a half-hour later, a third 180 again three-quarters of the way through... Sometimes I think this works well, like in Céline et Julie, sometimes less well, like in Merry-Go-Round [1978/1981]; sometimes the turns are a little hair-pin, like in Duelle [Scènes de la vie parallèle: 2: Duelle (une quarantaine), or Scenes from the Parallel Life: 2: Duelle (A Quarantine), 1976] and, in this moment of the 180, half the audience heads for the exit... 
DANEY & NARBONI: Is this zig-zag construction, in general, premeditated, or does it occur to you only once the film is finished? 
RIVETTE: This is a film that, in my opinion, doesn’t resemble Céline et Julie or Merry-Go-Round whatsoever, except through this principle of construction I was just talking about, but which operates, I hope, a little differently. Aside from this, it was shot in the same fashion, that is, there’s a pretty precise construction at the beginning, more precise than for Merry-Go-Round where we were obliged to modify things several times in the course of the shoot; here, we largely kept the construction we’d established beforehand, which anyway was a very simple one. And it was written, as we went along, by different people, the principal one being Jérôme Prieur who did the basic work of writing the dialogue; therefore at certain moments it’s Jérôme’s dialogue exactly as it was written, then at other, more simple moments, shot with more or less prepared improvisation (for example, Bulle improvises, but Pascale’s interventions were devised beforehand). This is a formula I really like: let the dialogue take its own shape as we go along via someone who’s been somewhat involved in the course of the shoot, with repercussions and interaction from the one to the other... Aside from this, it was very “aleatory” in the same shooting plan because we were outside the entire time; we were lucky in that it never rained, but on the other hand it was freezing cold and the days were very grey and short. And when you shoot in the cold, you’re not really doing the same things you’d do when it’s warm out. In this case, I suddenly understood why, as you’re aware, despite my being crazy about Altman, there’s one Altman film that I won’t defend – and that’s Quintet [1979]: because it’s a film paralysed by the cold! 
DANEY & NARBONI: So the ignition was the desire to make a new film with people you’re friendly with? 
RIVETTE: This is a film that started from the desire to make a film, as is always the case. And then to shoot once more with Bulle, because, if it goes great shooting with actors you admire and who aren’t yet well-known, like, for example, was the case with Geraldine Chaplin for Noroît or Maria Schneider for Merry-Go-Round, it’s insanely great to shoot with actors or actresses you’ve known for a long time and with whom you’ve already made several things; of course, it depends who it is – but I know that with Bulle, it’s the fifth film, and I have the impression that we could still make at least five other ones, and that I’d always discover even more new things. I think that with Juliet, it would be the same, with Hermine too, and several others... So, the project was born out of a conversation with Bulle, and Bulle got on board right away while proposing the idea for an eventual character. Then also Pascale came up with the idea for her character pretty quickly. And with Suzanne, we started tracing the steps of these two characters. 
DANEY & NARBONI: There’s also often an idea, a principle, of music at work, as you start planning your films... 
RIVETTE: The only music is a collage, after the fact, in the editing. There was, from the start, in the work-print, a three-minute sequence where there was no sound, and so that this sequence wouldn’t be too depressing a thing to have to sit through in the first work projections, we said: we’re going to put a record on – and then we got used to this record being there, and we left it in. 
DANEY & NARBONI: What is it? 
RIVETTE: It’s a tango by Piazzolla!... It’s somewhere between brothel music and church music, but I really like it! So we wanted to keep this music in and, as a result, there are two, three little echoes like this at other points in the movie, which come like little gusts of wind... 
DANEY & NARBONI: Are you thinking that we’re going to sense, with your film, the end of the reign of Giscard [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of the French Republic from 1974 to 1981 –ed.], as you liked saying the last time we spoke? 
RIVETTE: Of the first reign of Giscard, is what I said exactly!... Once again, it’s above all a film about two characters who meet and spend three-and-a-half days together. It happens that, at certain moments, they get to talking a little about things that connect them, and there’s a lot to say about France, but, in any case, Paris at the end of October and the beginning of November in 1980. Anyway, I was going to mention this explicitly at the beginning... I’ve got two kinds of films: there are those where I want to put a date at the opening, and those where I don’t. It’s used in Paris nous appartient, in Out 1 (the case of La Religieuse is totally different), it’s used with the date at the beginning of the film corresponding to the date of the shoot (or the writing of the scenario, in the case of Paris nous appartient). Since, at best, the film won’t be released earlier than six months from then, so I don’t know what the case will be with this one in six months’ time, but it will inevitably be very “staggered” by virtue of its connection with what October ’80 was... or maybe not even. 
DANEY & NARBONI: So, there are two tendencies in your films – films anchored in a particular moment in time, and then the mythical films; those that want to be marked with a date, and those that don’t. And yet what hasn’t been elucidated much is what it is for you that was the point in common with the Tetralogy [Scènes de la vie parallèle] that you were supposed to make: the four days off during which the dead return to earth. 
RIVETTE: This was a point of departure, a point of reference for subsequently telling stories. Because I’m pretty crazy about the carnival, the Celtic myths... But it’s great when, suddenly, a desire to film meets certain elements, and you say to yourself: “Well, maybe this material’s possible after all!” and then this material ends up working out well, or doesn’t. Here, I had the feeling that this little book about the carnival by Gaignebet, which I came across at random, contained material which set me off on my way. In the end, it got mixed together with a bunch of other things: Duelle, for example, uses lots of elements of the quote-unquote French pseudo-poetic film, while trying to be, more or less successfully, something in a Cocteau-Franju vein; as for Noroît, there’s practically nothing other than that... But in these films there wasn’t really a general idea – it corresponded instead to something that I think I wasn’t the only one, at that moment, to have experienced, and which was already there in Céline et Julie – something which was, actually: the need to create types of little structures of protection closed-off from any connection with the outside world... I think that this is found in the same subjects: it’s not for nothing that Noroît takes place in a kind of citadel, and Duelle entirely in closed-off, nocturnal environments; and this would have been there just as strongly in [Scènes de la vie parallèle] Part One, if it got made – the love story between Leslie Caron and Albert Finney, which was practically nothing but a tête-à-tête between two people in an isolated house... [i.e., Marie et Julien, the material of which Rivette later revisited for his 2003 film Histoire de Marie et Julien, or Story of Marie and Julien, starring Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz –ed.] Yes, there was a period when I didn’t really want to make things that were related, either closely or loosely, with whatever was going on in France. It was a refusal, it held no interest for me, and this refusal has for the time being fallen a bit to the wayside. 
The same thing can also be found in La Religieuse or L’Amour fou, which are just as much films of imprisonment (but more concretely so, less cut off from what’s called reality) and alternate with two films, Paris nous appartient and Out 1, which are a little more opened-up – let’s say that in them, from time to time the windows are open... However, generally speaking, they’re still films of imprisonment, when all’s said and done. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Isn’t the element of the citadel, whether under siege or not, your central theme? 
RIVETTE: Perhaps. Except that in this most recent one, there’s no citadel. Or rather, it’s Paris, whose ramparts have been fallen for a long time now, but everyone acts like they’re still there. 
DANEY & NARBONI: This theme of the citadel is certainly there in the films of Ruiz which recently have begun to deal with it more and more, but under a theoretical guise, under the direction of someone who has a great familiarity with theology and who always poses the question of point of view, in the way in which power is bred. But with you, it’s the citadel of the point of view, perhaps, of the people who are already inside of it...? 
RIVETTE: It’s never the point of view of power, that’s for sure! As the only time there are tiny approaches toward people who gaze outward from the side of power is in Out 1, with the characters of [Jacques] Doniol-Valcroze and Françoise Fabian, who still remain internecine intermediaries, and who aren’t portrayed in a very serious light. That too, I wouldn’t have been able to do any other way. I always feel incapable, it’s probably a handicap, of showing a character of power in a serious light. But in order to do this, maybe you have to do what Jean-Marie [Straub] does: go looking for Corneille, Schönberg, or Brecht! 
DANEY & NARBONI: It’s true, if you take the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, that they all had this moment of withdrawal: La Chambre verte [The Green Room, 1978] by Truffaut; Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1974], Numéro 2 [Number 2, Jean-Luc Godard, 1976], Godard sleeping on top of his editing table; Rohmer making historical films, yourself making mythological films. 
RIVETTE: I’m telling you, it was Giscard!... I think that, without exaggerating anything, by the end of ’74 there was a very strong feeling, that all of us more or less experienced, of a collective vacuum, and the desire to try to remake ourselves, to close ourselves off from ourselves and those who were close to us. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Do you think you’ve managed to escape it now? 
RIVETTE: I think so, yes! But maybe since we’re going to come back to this a few months from now, let’s wait for the counter-shock of the elections. And then again, also, maybe the cinema is an outdated medium. It’s very possible. The distribution of cinema, such as it exists, in any case, gives one the impression that we’ve arrived at a breaking point: the way in which films are consumed, are circulated, are viewed, also figure into it. And, just take music, where everything is now refined, digital recording systems, etc., it’s as though there’s some hesitation among monied interests to make the jump towards an approaching future, because it’s too strong a shift from the current marketplace. I think that’s where cinema is at, as well. Which is where this impression of being stuck in a rut comes from. Almost every filmmaker of the last ten years has spent their time in a rut; good or bad, with more or less talent, but during these ten years there hasn’t been a change on the horizon, or anywhere, to my knowledge. As though it were a general shut-down... waiting for the messiah, for the apocalypse, call it whatever you want! And we continue filling time waiting, because we live on, we get by, years pass... 
DANEY & NARBONI: In France, or more generally speaking? 
RIVETTE: I have the impression that this is an almost global phenomenon... Yes. Giscard isn’t in power by chance, after all! It’s a European phenomenon, in any case. But we’re not going to launch into the philosophy of history!... This isn’t only related to politics, it also reflects the fact that, after ten years, every filmmaker feels that the way in which films are made – and this is as much to do with the technical method as the method of distribution – is in suspension... And this is a very strong feeling that I’ve had ever since L’Amour fou as we already did it with Out 1, very prematurely, in a thirteen-hour-long perspective, thinking of a kind of eventual televised serial, along with parallel, utopian, or even inaccessible possibilities of distribution, but already, even so, thinking of something else. It happened that, effectively, now, there’s still no possible means of distribution for this type of enterprise; that, or they remain very unsatisfying; same for Jean-Luc’s [five-hour long] Le Tour de France [France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, or France/Tour/Return/Two/Children, Jean-Luc Godard, 1977], or, in another way, Syberberg’s  [seven-hour long] Hitler [Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland, or Hitler: A Film from Germany, 1977] – there are lots of examples... 
DANEY & NARBONI: [In a previous interview with the Cahiers] you put forward a certain number of ideas very much within the sensibility of the era: the idea of the obstacle as opposed to the spectacle; the abject in cinema; the rejection of the auteur, the erasure of the auteur... 
RIVETTE: I’ve always agreed with this idea of erasing the auteur. Maybe not erasing, but still... I keep thinking that a film is more interesting if aspects of it are handled by different people. There are of course exceptions to this – Bresson, and a couple others. But all the same, the entire American cinema, and the major part of Western cinema, is never one sole individual – it’s not a writer at his work table nor a painter before his canvas; I think something happens by way of a connection between a person who is the director and the actors, and also the principal technicians when they know how to play their part. Of course there’s always someone who has to take the responsibility of the [spoken in English] “last cut”, and not only that. In fact, there are two responsibilities on a film: the one is: “it gets started”, and the other is: “it gets finished”. There obviously has to be someone who says: “we’re starting”, and who brings other people together by way of a project that’s supposed to happen; and another who says: “we’re wrapping up, we’re through, that’s the way it is, done, we’re making the release-print, this is the way people are going to see it”. It’s not necessarily the same person who says both of these things. What happens within the French cinema system, more often than not, nine times out of ten, is it’s the filmmaker who makes the initial proposal, and who decides when it’s finished. But everything in between these two things, I think it’s more interesting if there’s an opening, even if this opening is a tactical one, if it’s a manoeuvre. This is what bothers me a little in recent American films, like The Deer Hunter [Michael Cimino, 1978] or Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980] – it’s the fact that they’re centripetal, self-sufficient. It’s even more striking in De Niro and all the American actors of his generation; it’s evident in a film like The Dogs of War [John Irvin, 1980], a film which vacillates its entire run-time between being a banal mercenary film and the second-coming of The Deer Hunter, in which, in turn, Walken totally wants to be a new De Niro; it’s evident that [De Niro] was the key figure throughout the entire film, that the project was probably built around him, that he’s the one who prepared his character all on his own for six months, seeing as De Niro was most likely the one who laid down the law – at least that’s the impression one comes away with – who influenced all the decisions on the set. De Niro pulls this off because there’s no-one to get in the way, thanks to his rapport with Scorsese, and yet the result is that this generation of actors – not just De Niro or Walken, but also Stallone, etc. – can now only play the roles of men who are obsessed, paranoid. And likewise, Scorsese, and Coppola, can no longer direct this. Even so, it’s a little disturbing; an enormous limitation of subjects, compared to all the possible and eventual human relationships out there. All this because there are still power struggles. I for one continue in theory, and as much as I’m able to do in practise, to stand against power struggles. Of course, everyone knows quite well, bearing that discourse in mind, that there’s an element of hypocrisy, an element of cowardice, an element of obvious degradation, and that the attitude that this cultivates on my part during the shoot is often very difficult for the actors and the technicians to deal with: that is, refusing to hold on – not always, but sometimes – to the place that, in the end, should be mine alone. And standing around waiting for something to come from one side or the other, and sometimes it comes, other times it doesn’t, of course... What I’m describing is the method by which I make films, and this method, as always, creates subjects; one might see a thematic throughline here after the fact, but I believe that it’s always the outcome of a way of shooting which is purely physical. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Yes. And still one senses that you’re closer to Altman or Cassavetes. By the fact that you allow a certain margin within your acting?... 
RIVETTE: Yes. One which is always rigged and booby-trapped! But it’s true, I like this feeling!... You really get the sense in Altman and Cassavetes that they’re not trying to be demiurges. Maybe what I like the most in Altman is precisely the messy side, which shocks people, even if it’s not always graceful – far from it – and which gives this impression that something’s happening, something’s coming closer, which hasn’t been anticipated; and which comes about because a certain number of people found themselves brought together by certain circumstances, as though by accident. The feeling also that everyone would have been different if there were other people involved – the opposite of pre-established and interchangeable “roles”. 
And indeed, in the extraordinarily rigid system of American cinema, Altman and Cassavetes are practically the only ones to have tried doing this in the last ten years. When you know how difficult it is within the European system, you can only imagine the enormity of the difficulties that they must encounter... 
DANEY & NARBONI: [And Robert] Kramer? 

RIVETTE: Yes. But, without wanting to take anything away from his merits, Kramer had the advantage of his marginality... 
The text is excerpted from Cahiers du cinéma no. 327, September 1981. Translated by Craig Keller.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Circle of Deceit

A pretty great film review, not kind to Schlörndorff.

Circle of Deceit (Volker Schlöndorff) 
Beirut, the war and the media. The white man’s burden wasn’t much fun to start with, the big white reporter’s burden is sinister! 
In 1980, the Cannes juries are in a real fix. Solomon-like, they cut their Palme d’or in two. Half a palm will go to Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and another half-palm to Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum). Two war films which create a lot of stir: two successes. 
Of the two it was rather hastily assumed that Coppola was the barbarian, the megalomaniac, the sorcerer’s apprentice. Moralists complained about a director hiring a country (the Philippines) to replay a war (the Vietnam war, just over) merely as a means of spinning out the flabby metaphor of the white man’s destiny, with Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness) in support and Marlon Brando’s shaven skull as a closing gimmick. Schlöndorff, with his fitting, academic adaptation of Grass’s masterpiece, instead was seen as a figure of stricken conscience, a European auteur, dignified and cultured. 
On seeing Circle of Deceit, one observes that things must have been less simple, that, tormented by the desire to compete with Francis Ford Coppola, Schlöndorff wanted to bring the proof that he could be as good, as barbaric, as megalomaniac, and as daring and “swollen” (in the balloon sense) as Apocalypse Now. This proof could only be brought forward on a battlefield. Logically, it could only be an engagement between an American and a German. The war goes on. 
“War is everywhere” we read recently in Libération. It haunts the cinema. Real or imaginary, Sci-Fi or retro, it returns. It returns because it has always been a mine of easy scripts for lazy directors. It returns because we are heading towards a period of retreat into jingoism and panicky reterritorialisations. It returns because the war movie is traditionally the launchpad for technological innovation (like Dolby sound, which turns the spectator into a stunned guinea pig). It returns especially because in this world where the cinema, facing television, has lost the war, the Americans don’t want to lose the battle for the cinema. The titles speak volumes. Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once more, filmed reality and the art of destroying this reality have a stake in common. Enough to make you shiver. 
Coppola had gone to replay the Vietnam war in a Philippine setting. Schlöndorff had to go one better. To film in half-ruined Beirut and to shoot red hot, against the background of war-torn Lebanon, a great new Conradian meditation on the white journalist’s burden; there it is: it’s called Circle of Deceit
What’s it about? A great German newspaper sends two reporters to Beirut. There’s Georg Laschen (this is Bruno Ganz, the idealist of the two; he has a soul, a fine one, and he suffers) and there’s Hoffman (this is the director Jerzy Skolimowski turned actor, the cynic of the two, not much bothered, wanting his exclusive). From camp to camp, from the Kataeb to the Fedayeen, from fear to indifference, from body reflexes (running) to states of mind (thinking), our voyeuristic duo discovers a dangerous but very lively Beirut. Investigative sorties and ploys, newsroom gossip, the sound of bullets and telex machines, slaloming through night street battles, ordinary and not so ordinary encounters: there’s nothing missing from this tableau vivant, which is filmed with genuine savoir-faire by Schlöndorff. 
There’s a woman in it, Ariane Nassar, a German woman in love with the Orient, alone with her desire to take advantage of the events to adopt a child (she’ll manage it too and have an affair with Laschen; this part is played by Hanna Schygulla). At the end of the film the journalist loses his bearings, confusing his personal war with the civil war, becoming a battlefield all of his own and trying to go far far away, to his very limits. Back in Germany, he botches the exclusive and the film fizzles out. 
The war in Lebanon is a backdrop. Very striking and always “beautiful”, even if we understand nothing about it, especially if we understand nothing about it. Aestheticism is very close to win the day. For this war is a civil war and a modern war; it goes into instant replay for the cameras, be they Schlöndorff’s. It’s a war “immediately mediatised”, a polaroid-war. Between those who stage the death of others and those who sell photos of those deaths to journalists, there is a continuous chain of images, a war bounty that winds up somewhere in a press agency. 
In a Beirut hotel, a Frenchman “in love with the Orient” (Jean Carmet) takes photos of a recent slaughter out of a briefcase and puts them up for auction. Children lead Laschen and Hoffman to a carbonised corpse. Everything has image potential, a second, now marketable death. What’s to be made of these images, Laschen wonders? What’s to be made of this chain where we necessarily feature, from one link to another: corpse, photograph, model maker, reader? What’s to be made of his fine soul? 
Godard already asked this question in a film now six years old. The film talked about the Middle East, was called Here and Elsewhere and it wasn’t a great success. Before photos of the victims of the Amman massacres of 1970, Godard allowed himself the black humour of wondering (in an aside) if these extras had been paid, and how much? The lesson was clear. When Godard and Schlöndorff began making films we could still think of war as merely obscene (Les Carabiniers, Coup de Grâce). Nowadays it has become completely pornographic. There are image dealers just as there are arms dealers. A filmmaker occupies a place somewhere in this chain. Does he know this? With Circle of Deceit, Schlöndorff has just found out. 
Godard halted the chain, blocked the spectacle, pondered over an image, imposed his voice on us, the chagrined voice over of a moralist. At the other end of the chain, like a good American, Coppola was coming to terms with the spectacle - with bunnies, surf and napalm, Wagner and helicopters, with this full-scale army theatre worthy of Abel Gance. 
Schlöndorff has neither the abrasive black humour nor the frenzied exhibitionism; the outcome is that he falls into the trap of the Dubonnet commercial, speaking the horror of the spectacle with the help of the spectacle of horror. He can’t invent any distance, he can’t do anything with that spectacle. 
The thing is that he comes from somewhere else. He comes from the realm of vague ideas and good intentions, of well-meaning left-wing reflexes. In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, he had already taken on the workings of the gutter press and the violation of private life; this film – a success – had played no small part in forging his image as a major conscience of democracy. Fine. Fine, but facile. Facile because in the face of the lie one can always oppose the truth. Whereas in Lebanon, in this war where he has no business and where everyone wants to sell him something, things are less cut and dried. Schlöndorff comes out of it no better than his (bad) journalist hero. 
Georg Laschen cannot endure the real. That “real” where everything has become a message, where everyone has become a medium. He, the man who had scruples and convictions, decides to cross over to the other side, the side of existential experience. To be “like everyone”, Laschen decides to act like everyone, to cross over to the side of evil and shame. To become a saint. So during a bombardment he fortuitously stabs an old man, an Arab. He becomes the Lord Jim of the newspaper world. Anyway, his action is symbolically annulled by that of Ariane Nassar who “buys” (there’s no other word, the scene is pretty incredible) a malnourished kid. One more, one less; it’s war, nobody notices. 
You can see that the film is very ambitious. It’s a real answer to Coppola, the European version of Apocalypse Now. It’s the same question being asked: what crime do we issue from? From the European viewpoint this is against the background of the old colonial dialogue, which consists of exoticism and eroticism, sex and death wish, that the answer comes. The nth, rather self-conscious version of the “white man’s burden” scenario. 
Schlöndorff is very intelligent. He understands everything, but too late. He affects to have become a monster of cynicism, at the very moment when every ex-leftie third-worldist has realised that on this threshold of the Eighties, just wars in poor countries are primarily the poor backdrop for one’s own personal psychoanalysis, a wild couch. That there’s no one to save but oneself. This is where we’ve got to. So much so that the empty grandiloquent gesture with which Schlöndorff has us witness the horrors of war and the pornography of the media ends up by being part of this very pornography. 

First published in Libération on 29 October 1981. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinema, 1986. Translation adapted from the Cinema in Transit aborted project.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Our Marriage really holds up

Another text from Serge Daney's second book, Ciné Journal

Our Marriage really holds up   
Until now the editor of her husband’s films (Raoul Ruiz), Valeria Sarmiento has just made a great film, as troubling as beautiful. 
Without families (to hate or create) there would be no domestic scenes – therefore no modern cinema. No Antonioni, no Bergman, no Pialat. But without family there would have been no melodrama – therefore no “classical” cinema. Neither Ford, nor Pagnol, nor so many others who counted on our tears. It is through the aesthetic of the domestic scene that we have become modern (therefore full of resentment), but it is through the cold logic of the melodrama that we remain, despite all, archaic (therefore a little frail). Melodramas make people laugh where not so long ago they made them cry; but as the author of Hallelujah* said: “If you laugh, it’s because you’re afraid”. One shouldn’t be afraid to rush out and see Valeria Sarmiento’s Notre Mariage. A modern melodrama? A magical photo novella? Fetid rosewater? Tricksy Nous deux**? What does it matter, this is the most beautiful film of the week. 
Without families there would be no film. On the one hand there’s a couple, and on the other a widower surrounded by his children. The couple is rich and the widower is hard-up. Salvador (that’s his name) is a solicitor whose exaggerated sense of honour doesn’t’ enrich. Whereas Lorenzo only has his fortune to take care of, and no children (his wife is sterile). This takes place somewhere in a Catholic South, in one of those countries where respect for conventions is as strong as without substance. One day (the film has just started), one of Salvador’s daughters – Lola – is very ill; only an expensive operation can save her. The operation takes place, the little girl is saved, Lorenzo paid the bill. Since that’s the way it is, says the proud Salvador, this child is no longer mine, she belongs to you. 
Lola, the little rich girl, grows up adorably with her “parents” who adore her, just around the corner from her brothers and sisters, who have been ordered not to play with her any more. One evening, she turns into a stubborn young girl, and her “mother”, watching her daughter with nascent jealousy, let herself slowly die. Lola then chooses to live with Lorenzo, rather like those Ozu heroines who “forget” to marry in order to look after their big child of a father, who in turn has “forgotten” to marry them off. The audience allows itself to be led by the hand towards what it imagines to be a deliciously immoral story of bourgeois incest, in the vein of late Buñuel. The audience is wrong. Valeria Sarmiento’s film isn’t immoral, but amoral. 
For, meanwhile, Salvador’s family has become well-off again. The children have prim expressions and conventional ideas. It annoys them that their sister lives with this widower, and the inevitable rumours which indirectly threaten their good reputation make them turn nasty; they want Lola back among them. Too late. For Lola, in love with this false father who is so sweet (and maybe spineless too, despite his big voice and square frame: a stunning Nicolas Silberg), resists the family, confounds its plans and finds a solution on her own. If we get married, she tells Lorenzo, I shall be your wife for others and your daughter between ourselves. Lorenzo doesn’t refuse. 
So the family looks on, in a fury, as appearances are officially kept up. The wedding takes place, then the honeymoon (in Madeira), then the wedding night (sleepless, and chaste like the wedding). Two years go by and Lola doesn’t conceive any children; the family again becomes concerned. Crisis. The couple visits Salvador’s house in the countryside; Lorenzo can’t stand it any more, there’s a tentative rape, a slap, tears. Lola refuses then eventually accepts “normal” physical contact. The final scene is beautiful: Lola, on horseback, does an about-turn and heads towards Salvador, who is watching her from afar. She tells her real father that she loves him very much, “more than anybody in the world”. And since there is now no longer two families, but one, no longer perverse contracts but amnesiac happiness, there is no longer any reason to keep the film going. 
It was Corin Tellado who wrote the book on which Notre Mariage is based. This, it turns out, is a Spanish-language Delly*** or Cartland, widely read in Latin America. Valeria Sarmiento has been clever enough not to imagine herself any smarter than this rather crafty tale. For what does this tale have to say? Roughly (for the sake of speed, even if it shocks) that in the family there are thrills to be had every which way and in every guise, that the family is still the best protected place to cash in on all round desire. Tactfully and with unobtrusive cheek, Notre Mariage manages to capture, in slow motion, what usually is only virtual, secret or repressed. 
Remains the talent, or rather the “chance” of Sarmiento. She is one of those who only film the essential moments in a story, and who, by means of logic and sensuality, rid their narrative of all excess fat (sociological or otherwise). As in all successful melodramas, only the structure counts. As in Buñuel, the more limpid the filming the more it intimates a tortuous and, deep-down, utterly insalubrious story. At each moment in Notre Mariage something irremediable happens, choices are made, irrevocable decisions are taken. It is even this exaggerated gravity that leaves a light, similarly Buñuelesque irony hovering over the film. An affectionate irony, a puzzled smile that is prompted by these actors (all of them excellent) who coalesce in dreaming together too lovely a script, and in speaking – with never a voice raised – lines just distanced enough to make their “inflexions” appealing to us (reminiscent of Arrieta’s best films, like Flammes, or Ruiz’s – allowing that Sarmiento is Ruiz’s wife and collaborator, and that he wrote the script and the dialogues of Notre Mariage). 
Marriage for forms sake, incest in essence (and vice versa). This is the subject of Notre Mariage. But also its form. Valeria Sarmiento’s respect for the American melodramas of her Chilean childhood is flawless. All the same, this is not mere copying of the form. The director has a point of view on her story. This is where we must talk about Jorge Arriagada’s music – spellbindingly effective yet again. All the more noteworthy in that it does more than accompany the film, but follows it step by step, shot by shot. Melodrama-cinephiles will spot traces of scores by Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner or Joseph Newman, and they’ll be right. These are symphony orchestras which, caught somewhere between sound effect and voice over, want to speak in their own right. Like in Mankiewicz’s fairytales or Hitchcock’s filmed pathologies. 
One single difference: here the music no longer doubles up, and when it attacks with violins, swells, lulls or threatens, it is not for suspense. This means that we can watch tranquil moments in terror and witness the horror of others with inordinate calm. For this waywardness alone, it’s worth going out of our way and watch the film.  
Translator’s notes: 
* Georges Bataille. 
** 1985 music video with French rock star Jesse Garon, known for being the first all-digital television production. 
*** Pen name of a late 19th century author of romance novels. 
First published in Libération on 12 September 1985. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Godard Makes (Hi)stories

The French Cinemathèque new streaming service set-up during the pandemic (Henri) recently published the two hour filmed interview of Jean-Luc Godard by Serge Daney. The event took place in December 1988 in Rolle, ahead of the release of the first episodes of Histoire(s) du cinéma.  A transcription of the interview was edited by Daney in a text for Libération published later that month in 1988.

Jean-Luc Godard in conversation with Serge Daney. 
First published in Libération on 26 December 1988. Translated in Jean-Luc Godard son+image 1974-1991 (New York Museum of Modern Art, 1992). Link to Stoffel Debuysere's Diagonal Thought website. Although it's mostly Godard talking, the introduction is by Daney.

Daney's edits make the interview look a lot more fluid than the video where Godard keeps interrupting a very patient Daney.  Godard used extracts of the interview in the episodes 2A and 3B of Histoire(s), featuring Daney.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Like old couples, cinema and TV have wound up looking alike

Not sure how I managed to have ignored this great text for so long. Anyway, here it is. 
Like old couples, cinema and TV have wound up looking alike  
The feud between the seventh art and the weird and wonderful window onto the world, with its missed opportunities and cumulative resentments, is far from over. This old couple hasn’t had its final say. Is the cinema coming back? Yes, but in what condition? Can we still talk about cinema and television in all seriousness as discrete entities? Nowadays we know that cinema’s survival depends to a large extent on television. That the cinema is at once TV’s income, its concubine and its hostage. What isn’t so clear is that aesthetically as well, the cinema has lost its fine autonomy. This has not been TV’s gain. The winner has been a hybrid, the telefilm. The telefilm and the drama. In Nice this year at a festival of Italian films, an incensed jury insisted on the point that it had throughout the impression that it was judging not films but telefilms. A sign of the times. 
For there is a history of our perception of pre-recorded images and sounds ("the audio-visual", an ugly technocratic word). Our perception of the cine-visible and the cine-audible, as Dziga Vertov would have put it, has come by way of the cinema, the silent, then the talkie, then by way of television. It is now starting to be worked on by video. It is in this history of the eye that the cinema-television couple still has centre stage. 
Flashback to the fifties: the beginning of television. TV didn’t come after cinema, as a replacement for it. It came when the cinema ceased to be eternal. When it had the first intimation of its mortality - therefore its modernity. Connected to current affairs, with no hindsight. To get to that, it took a world war (the second one) and a continent (Europe, together with Orson Welles, who is a continent all on his own). 
Being modern isn’t turning the language of film "upside down" (a naive idea), it is having a sense of no longer being alone. Having a sense that another medium, another way of manipulating images and sounds is pushing through the interstices of cinema. To begin with the cinema was very sure of itself (you only have to re-read Gance or Eisenstein); it began by gobbling up everything that had come before: theatre, dance and literature were mercilessly filmed. And then one day, one, two, or maybe three directors realised that it was no longer the case, that the cinema had less of an appetite, and that an even more voracious monster had come on the scene. 
There are few films as moving as A King in New York (1957). Chaplin stages himself as a dethroned king, having fled his kingdom (the cinema, America), compelled to earn his living by acting in a commercial (for a brand of whisky, his only piece of dialogue being “How nice!”). With tight-lipped irony the greatest director in the world only indicates that the centre of gravity of cinema has just been displaced. He is not the only one. Between the end of the war and the eruption of the new waves (say fifteen years or so), the most modern film directors have often been great TV directors before it was a thing. Television was out there at the end of their perspective lines, their horizon, their unconscious. 
Why is that? A hypothesis: in Europe after the war it was no longer possible to make cinema serve great causes and simple-minded ideals, the end of a "total art" at the service of "total war", the end of uplifting music or dance to get in step with. Then begins the era of the camera-stylo, the taste for micro-analyses, anonymous samples, the fall of the stars and, through live relay techniques, the age of surveillance. This is when cinema goes on the alert. You find all this in Rossellini (the first great roving reporter: Germany Year Zero), Tati (the first great sports reporter: Jour de fête), Welles (the first great game leader, rigged where possible: Mr Arkadin), Bresson (the first inventor of sadistic dispositifs: Pickpocket). And even in old Renoir (the first to film with several cameras, for television: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier). And of course in old Lang-Mabuse, the first man in control of the video-paranoia console. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, knowingly or otherwise, anticipated what was to be the ordinary of television. 
For right now, television is this: a half-hearted monster who keeps an eye on us and which we too keep an eye on, but no more nor less than a cat or a goldfish. 
What’s amusing is that the most rawly sensitive, most “artistic” side of the cinema (from Italian neo-realism to the French New Wave) finds itself in synchronicity with a new continent of rough, primitive and yet to be refined images. The fifties: TV (which still has no notion of its powers) and cinema (which begins to reflect on its powers, yielding to introspection) meet along the way. For there will be no handover. Except in the stubborn dreams of a few visionaries like Rossellini or Godard who - shock, horror - will make television: from The Rise to Power of Louis XIV to France Tour Detour Deux Enfants
For from the sixties on, the triumph of a television now very conscious of its social weight and its role as supervisor will gradually give the cinema its dispensation from modernity. The cinema will embark on its regression: cinephilia, necrocinephilia, retro fashions, kitsch taste, movies nostalgically celebrating the cinema, “the way the movies were” as revivals in old film theatres - and soon on TV – with choc ices, embalmed usherettes and supporting features. The cinema reduced to its rituals. 
Let’s move on to TV. At the start of course it’s the golden age. It is made by tinkerers: adventurers, amateurs, entertainers. In the beginning television is entertaining. Too quickly there comes the moment when centralised power (Gaullist at that time) identifies television as a combination of a formidable social regulator and evening classes. The one reinforcing the other. The power-mongers (barons, not necessarily Gaullist) dive straight into this opening. Nowadays, veterans of the ORTF like Spade or Dumayet locate this decisive turning point around 1964. This slide to be more accurate. Television became less entertaining and lost its freshness. A decision had been made in high places that it too had to have its specificity; but it will never be found, and for good reason. It was there, ready-made, from the start. But we didn’t want to see it. We were a little embarrassed. 
Jerry Lewis once said (with unfeigned scorn) that television was only good for news and games. Admittedly in the USA it was seldom anything else. In France however, it had an important social mission entrusted to it. First to educate, then to entertain. First, non-stop classes in civic education, French history trotted out to the point of nausea, the whole of nineteenth-century literature "dramatised". Then, news and games. 
Alas this noble endeavour took no account of what was new in the television medium. Its specificity, if you will. Its very own pseudopods. It’s a long list. To sum up: the impact and the vagaries of live coverage, international feature stories and series, sport and slow-motion to better see, interlude films such as the little train, the test card, idiotic yet always complicated game shows, the eroticism of the women announcers, the blow-dry hairdos, the different treatment of an image that is itself different, the chroma keying and the overlaid colours, the audience circus and the canned laughter, the timed debates and the show of those who rule us, the video feedback effects, etc. An entire world. One still very little explored (despite pioneers like Averty). 
Television had two possible evolutions. The video game and evening classes. A pinball evolution and a theatre evolution. Two ways of perceiving and constructing the image. In short, two aesthetics. For now it’s the evening classes that have won out. This is TV recycling. The other arts are recycled (the cinema more than any) and the TV viewer, that eternal novice, is recycled too. This situation, incidentally, is very French. Very French, this opposition between pointless TV and responsible TV. Everywhere else things worked out differently. In Japan for instance you can ask your TV terminal questions on all sorts of subjects, including the subject of “traditional Japanese values”, just in case you should happen to forget! Japan is barbaric. In France TV recycling always had one eye on cultural dignity. As a consequence, it inherited the academicism of an already moribund French cinema (the Qualité Française and the repugnant tradition of French-style psychological intimism) and, poor thing, made it its model, its superego. The aptly named “televised drama” symbolised this slide and this choice. It will remain one of the century’s disgraces. And it is still to make its most portentous utterances. Let’s wait for the eight hundred and twenty-seventh version of Les Misérables, the Hossein-Ventura version. Let’s wait for socialist TV. Let’s wait in dread. 
So television scorned, marginalised and suppressed its video evolution, its only chance of being heir to the modern cinema of the postwar period. Heir to that cinema on the alert. Heir to the fondness for the deconstructed and reconstructed image, the break with theatre, the different perception of the human body and its bath of sounds and images. Let’s hope that the development of video art will in turn threaten TV and make it ashamed of its timidity. 
For now, television has above all kept a kind of sub-cinema in isolation (under the protection of an iron-clad corporatism) and it is this sub-cinema which has become dominant. Economically and aesthetically. For the institutional divorce between cinema and television has been such that its paradoxical outcome was the restoration of the cinema. This was to do with distribution networks and it happened during the seventies. But aesthetically this restored cinema is a golem. It is not so much the heir of the old cinema as the way in which the telefilm (and the TV drama) have colonised the cinema. So, is the cinema coming back? Yes, but in what condition? What’s left of cinema’s real inventions? 
1. The cinema pushed very far the perception of distance. Distance between characters, between them and the camera, between the camera and us. Imaginary distances (since the screen is flat), but nonetheless very precise ones. This depth of field was essential to the star system since it made it possible to isolate and illuminate figures (idols or monsters). When a director played with distances it was no small thing. Renoir’s tracking shot of Nana as she dies or the unlikely camera movement which opens Mizoguchi’s Shin Heike Monogatari are hieroglyphs outlined in space. The outline in itself was staggering. 
What happened then? The tracking shot didn’t disappear but the zoom arrived. The zoom has become the form through which we apprehend space. It was invented by one Frank G. Back to film sport on TV. It was (not accidentally) Rossellini who was the first to make systematic use of it. The zoom is no longer an art of the approach but a kind of gymnastics comparable to a boxer s dance to avoid his opponent. The tracking shot was impelled by desire, the zoom spreads phobia. The zoom has nothing to do with the gaze, it is a way of touching with the eye. An entire scenography created by the interplay between the figure and the background becomes incomprehensible. The mere perception of films like Francisca become difficult for the contemporary spectator. Once the camera ceases to move, it looks as though there’s nothing moving. And if nothing moves, it looks as though there’s nothing to see. 
2. Something else. The cinema pushed very far the art of the off-screen. Many effects of fear, ecstasy or frustration came from that certain things were filmed and not others which remained off screen. The eroticisation of the edges of the frame, the frame regarded as an erogenous zone, all the games of entrances and exits from the frame, the deframing, the relationship between what was seen and what was imagined, were - I’d say - almost an art in itself. A certain cinema unto itself. 
What happened next? Since TV started showing films cropped, without their edges, films in nemascope and nicolor, this art has become obsolete. Boorman once said (with unfeigned scorn) that he located all the action in his films in the centre of the image so in case of a TV-showing nothing would be lost. It wasn’t long ago this It’s Always Fair Weather had one dancer out of three amputated from one of its musical numbers. 
TV’s contempt for the frame is limitless. Because on television there is no off-screen. The image is too small. This is the realm of the unique field. And chroma keying makes it possible to respect this unique field while fracturing it. Inconceivable perspectives. 
3. Finally, montage, Or rather, the découpage*. Classic cinema decomposed a continuous space-time and reconstructed it with match cuts, like a puzzle. The art and the technique of cuts (with all its idiotic rules), all its ways of inventing aberrant cuts (the Japanese especially, Ozu especially), the transgression of “discontinuity”, these are what kept cinema alive for a long time. 
What happened next? TV doesn’t reconstruct a puzzle, it is a puzzle. The sequencing of images on television has nothing to do with montage, nor découpage, but with something new which we would have to call inserting. TV always gives itself the right of cutting a flow of images and inserting others, at any time whatsoever, with no concern for the cut. 
These are only examples. I’m not saying that the tracking shot, the off-screen or découpage are “better” than the zoom, the unique field or inserting. That would be stupid. The forms of our perception are changing, that’s all. And in this change the old TV-cinema couple still holds centre stage for now. Like all old couples they have wound up looking alike. A bit too much for my taste. 
Television, still the prisoner of its desire to “make films” perhaps isn’t going far enough in its race forward. Towards the video game. The cinema, hostage, concubine and income of TV, perhaps isn’t going far enough in the exploration of its memory. Its most archaic memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1982, we have high hopes for Passion and Parsifal. Of the studio and special effects. For asymptomatically, old TV and very old cinema have an intersection, one that’s very far ahead and very far back. The point of rendezvous is called Méliès. We have to ask for the moon. 
* [Translator's note] I kept Daney's French words for montage and découpage. And to try to keep things simple:  découpage = how a director decides to (broadly) split and arrange shots, often before or during filming, and montage = the art of (precisely) assembling the shots in post production (which of course can mean re-arranging them). 
First published in Libération on 18 January 1982. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation of the first paragraph with the help of Jonathan Rosenbaum. The rest is adapted from the Cinema in Transit translation project.