Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Famous Last Scene


Another piece on Douglas Sirk...

The Famous Last Scene - Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life 
The last scene of Imitation of Life is a piece of anthology. 
There are those who didn’t know the film. Until then, we felt sorry for them. Now, we can say: “Go! Go see it.” since it’s released again (at the Action Christine). There are those who have seen it, once, and who saw it again, more than once, or have been told about it. Imitation of Life? Ah, yes, the final scene with Mahalia Jackson that no one - whether animal, plant or mineral - can remain unmoved by? The moment when whoever hasn’t already been transformed in a human mop feels he’s sobbing? The famous last scene of Imitation of Life? Let’s talk about it. 
So, Annie Johnson dies of sorrow because her daughter Sarah Jane has disowned her (and her race) and has decided to live away as a white girl. By the deathbed, a few seconds ago, we were already crying: Lana Turner was devastated, Sandra Dee looked like a little old lady, the expressionless John Gavin looked despondent. Then suddenly, change of scenery, low-angle shot on a (big) black woman: Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble in the World! Known Cinephile Shock (KCS). It’s the funeral of Annie Johnson with great pomp and music: four white horses pull a black carriage loaded with a mountain of white roses. The bad daughter arrives almost too late to embrace the coffin screaming “I killed her.” Tears. 
This famous last scene is strong. This great moment of American Melodrama is also a tour de force. The last time I saw the film, overcoming my pain, I had the strength to ask myself if Douglas Sirk’s secret wasn’t precisely here. This final scene is overwhelming precisely because we are suddenly wondering if it’s the same film that continues. We remember a short scene where Annie, already sick, mentioned proudly having sorted every details of her funeral. Of another scene where Lora Meredith, as an aside to a conversation, discovered (with the great idiocy of sympathetic white bosses) that Annie, the good and faithful Annie, existed outside her household. And what did Annie Johnson do? She looked after religion, she was baptist, she belonged to several congregations, was good and bigoted, a bit Auntie Tom but with many friends. 
And the friends are all here. From the children in Sunday clothes to the priests with their serious look as professionals of spirituality. Gospel, dignity, the black people in mourning: Swing high, swing low, sweet chariot. And the suspicion gets confirmed: what if she was the main character of the film? Annie Johnson. What if we had known and seen nothing? But then, what film did we see? 
Let’s be honest, the resistible rise of Lora Meredith, the platinum blonde queen of the stage and the screen, is of little interest. Worse: few films have shown with so much polite indifference the mediocrity of the American Dream, its silly romantic fury, its stupid bravura. It required the gaze of Detlef Sierck. It required the talent of Douglas Sirk at the end of his Hollywood career so that Lora Meredith, with her twenty four costumes and her Woolworth-style bovarism generates a suspicion in the audience. What if all this care to make up, dress and dress again, age and make look young this imitation of a star that then was Lana Turner was only there to deceive? Or to suggest that one should have looked elsewhere, where the black people is. 
For Annie Johnson is the pivotal character of the film. A mother was hiding another mother. The black one was the right one, the other only an artefact. But the black mother comes with a problem: she’s black. In true Hollywood logic, she needs to at least die so that her friends, the black people, have the right to be in the image. In extremis, the thirty seconds of Mahalia Jackson cancel an hour and a half of Lana Turner. This is why, in this “famous last scene”, a bit of regret joins our tears. We cry for the other film, the one we haven’t seen, with Lana Turner in a small role. 
Mirror = abyss 
The hypocrisy of Hollywood is without limit. In 1958, Universal could accept a film about “the racial question” but if possible without any blacks. Only one filmmaker could handle such a contradiction: Douglas Sirk. As any good film critic will tell you: Sirk is the filmmaker of the mirror. Nothing puzzles him more than the abyss between the thing reflected and the distorted reflection. An abyss with no end. A mirror only ever gives us the image of an image. An image hides another, comes instead of another. There’s no way out (that’s the kitsch effect). 
It’s precisely because she has had this immodest and vengeful idea of a grandiose funeral that Annie Johnson accedes (post-mortem) to the status of image. The famous last scene of Imitation of Life is also: welcome to the kingdom of imitation, dear Annie. And fake needs to be fabricated. It’s a whole profession, and not one of the worse ones. Sirk’s films are a bit like Charon’s trip. Any character transported to the bank of the screen has become an imitation. Like the cascade of fake diamonds in the title scene. There’s no exception. The art of cinema is only the barge and the tears the consequence of a light heartache.
First published in Libération on May 3rd 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L., 2002, pp.320-322.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Tarnished Angels

For those watching the Douglas Sirk retrospective on MUBI (UK), here's a short extract of a review of The Tarnished Angels by Serge Daney.
The Tarnished Angels, Douglas Sirk   
(...)  We know Fritz Lang’s (mean) small phrase on Cinemascope: “it’s only good for snakes and funerals.” Strictly speaking, there aren’t any snakes in Douglas Sirk’s films (although there’s a lot of crawling and an abundance of venom) but there are first rate funerals and wakes are pieces of bravura. Sirk is perhaps the filmmaker that Lang wasn’t thinking of, the one that was good - naturally good - with Cinemascope, and The Tarnished Angels was the film we were burning to watch again. We did watch it again. We were right to burn.   
Lang was right too. It was wrong to believe, as in the mid-Fifties, that Cinemascope would give the audience more to see. Experience proved the contrary. More things, yes, but less to see. The Cinemascope-gaze opens wide too quickly on the image; and too wide a reach means smaller grasp, drifting and spoils. From a deformed world, it only brings back magnified cattle and emptied space. Lang, as a surveyor, had no use for a curved space that treats gaze like a boomerang, but it’s this curve that Sirk, as a Baroque, loved, like his friend and disciple Fassbinder. In his great films of the Universal period, between 1954 and 1959, the ex-Detlef Sierck always knew why Cinemascope was beautiful. Beautiful, yes, but like an unkept promise.  
Beautiful like an unkept promise, the Sirkian world - a circus - meets the Faulknerian world - a mess. The history of film is full of great writers betrayed by small film directors. Not this time. Legend has it that, of all the films adapted from his writings, Faulkner only tolerated The Tarnished Angels, a film that Douglas Sirk, inversely, said he didn’t like. Perhaps it required a non-American (Sirk is German) to reconcile, for the duration of a film, Hollywood and the opposite of Hollywood, Literature that is. Perhaps it needed a Baroque to use Cinemascope in that way: never to add space, but to remind that at the heart of this silly merry-go-round, space is missing ad nauseam. Sirk films airplane competitions like routine flights and he films intimate scenes like air raids. 
What takes a lot of space in The Tarnished Angels is not the plane that twists and turns in the sky and crashes in the sea, but Dorothy Malone on a sofa, folding her legs before telling her life story; a child sleeping at the foot of a bed; Roger Schumann throwing the dice to abolish chance; Burke Devlin walking on the runway like a bear with his popcorn and newspaperman’s notepad. Short, meaningless movements that are suddenly endowed with space: unforgettable. It’s this promiscuity made of confessions, monologues, stories and text. It’s this light (Irving Glassberg was in charge of photography) that doesn’t come from the sky but from a night-light that still burns at dawn when all other fires have been put out. It’s this black and white that only means the colours have ended up deserting this world grown pale. Promises (of space, of light, of colours) unkept for so long that we have forgotten to have one day hoped something from this gloomy hell. (...)  

First published in Libération on 1 April 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L. editions, Paris, 2002, pp. 339-340.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Which Way to the Front?

Andy Rector of KinoSlang just posted a translation of Serge Daney's 1971 review of Jerry Lewis' Which Way to the Front? along with a 1980 interview of Jerry Lewis by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.

Jerry Lewis, Which Way to the Front?
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 228, March-April 1971. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde: 1. Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, pp. 118-120, POL, Paris, 2001. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, Andy Rector, Sonja Bertucci.

For those in Los Angeles, Andy is organising a screening of the film at the California Institute of the Art tomorrow (March 16th).

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Image Pit

The Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video art in Berlin - just posted a translation of one of many reports by Serge Daney on tennis matches. This one was written at the time of the 1982 French open.

The Image Pit
First published in Libération in 1982. Reprinted in L’amateur de tennis, P.O.L. Editeurs, 1994.


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Serge Daney in 2017

Annual round-up of new translations.

With the help of Otis Wheeler, this blog published thirty new translations from Daney's column 'Ghosts of Permanence' in Libération. You can find them (among others) on this updated table of contents of Daney's fourth book Recrudescence, two third of which is now translated.

Jugend Ohne Film published a new translation of Daney's review of Ritwik Ghatak's Clunker.

And a few days ago, I put the finishing touches to three texts on the theme What is a star?

Happy New Year everyone.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Triple bill on the movie star: Marilyn, Delon, Lambert

With Daney's output composed almost entirely of singleton reviews and articles, most of them produced either monthly in Cahiers du cinema or daily in Libération, it's easy to miss the recurring themes and correspondances from text to text. This leaves us with the pleasure of discovering the consistency and evolution of Daney's thinking. After an earlier post on Mannerism, here's another example on the theme: what is a star?

Marilyn 
August 1982. The recurring theme that there are no more stars, but there were some. 
What’s a star? A moment in the history of cinema. The moment where the ‘seventh art’ knows it has developed a fundamental cancer: it simulates depth but its image is flat, forever flat, like a lowland pampa.  
Yet, from the start, stars were actors with an extra dimension, a weigh in flesh, a dedicated space, an enigmatic depth. Bodies barred from pleasure, fated to imitation and to the pleasure of constant disappointment and recurrent promise.  
Cinema would be always caught between its low image and the pathetic refinement of things (the art) which give the impression that these flesh and bones were moving within a space, for real, with the depth of field used as the limelight. But the space of the stars is themselves, the limits of their bodies, a waving stand-still, a wavering movement which slowly hasten to going nowhere.  
The star system is over. It’s behind us, although not too distant. It reconstructs itself differently with new technologies that we don’t know about. It knocks itself up in another way. Will there be stars in the video world? As for the old stars, they expectedly ended up in cinematheques and on film posters, reduced to a black and white surface. The turmoil that came from the third hallucinated dimension led to the mere cluttering of the space, to an imagery. The image killed the idol. It happened to Garbo, to Dietrich.  
Did it happen to Marilyn? No. And yet, one of the most radical, raging and urgent gesture of the 20th century was the reduplicating operation by which Andy Warhol negated the Marilyn-body and kept, on gaudy surfaces, the same industrial smile.  
Marilyn, by the same token as the Campbell tomato soup, also symbolised modern art, the modernity in art: this flattening technique, disenchanted dead beat and joyful mourning of the third dimension. Never a star has been so strangely celebrated - and negated. Cartloads of analysts have held forth on Warhol’s gesture. Good for them. 
But were they right? No. For something had deserted this industrial image: suffering. We know that Marilyn’s life was a valley of tears. What we know less is that a part of her suffering was physical. It was her body that was mutilated: remodelled, denatured, forced, remade: an ordeal.  
The last star of the transition from black and white to colour. The first star whose blood would have been red. Unique and double fate: the image on one side, the body on the other. The iconic image and the body of comedy. How many have suffered like her to be beautiful (or themselves): fake Marilyns singing out of tune “My heart belongs to my Daddy!”, swallowing their disguised tears, strident blonds, cosmopolitan queens, plastic surgery for the destitute.  
It’s only through her that the passion to be another continues to devastate us. The passion to be a female other. 
First published in Libération on 5 August 1982. Reprinted in Ciné journal, Cahiers du cinema/Seuil, 1986. 

Le Choc – with Alain Delon 
All is not well in French Cinema, since even Le Choc is ignored. When Delon badly manages his image, it’s also part of ‘the crisis of French Cinema’. 
Orson Welles was definitive: 'The star', he reminded us recently, 'is a totally distinct animal from the actor. It’s something else. The two vocations are different'. Guided by these strong words, I wanted to see what a big-French-film-with-stars looks like. A 1982 Delon for example. So I saw Le Choc. The film is lousy? Yes, but that’s not the question. I felt that something about the star system, in France, wasn’t doing too well. Incidentally, Le Choc isn’t a commercial success: targeting 1 million spectators, it is peaking at 400,000 box office sales. All things equal, it’s like Godard’s Passion, a flop. And a flop, sometimes, makes you think. 
In the old system that Welles is referring to, it was enough for the stars to appear in a maximum of close ups, the number of which was determined by contract. Numerous 'Yes Men' managed, with relative talent, this image capital. The script and the mise en scène dragged themselves at the feet of the stars, and there was some sublime dragging (Sternberg, Cukor). But the star, to better shine, needed a background to stand out from and a landscape to light up. The star needed actors to gain value. It needed supportive characters, young people with bright futures, good actors playing villains, extras sometime unforgettable... A whole world. The star was 'a totally distinct animal from the actor' but it didn’t want the end of the actor. This was yesterday, even the day before yesterday. 
Watching Le Choc, I had the painful feeling that this old star system had passed, that it was running aimlessly, like affected by advanced dementia or autism. And that Delon was the symbol of all this. Simply, Le Choc is a movie where the stars are no longer content to outshine non-stars with their brightness, but must, in addition, physically eliminate them, rid the screen of them, erase them one by one. To Deneuve who is naively asking what he does for a living, Delon answers furiously 'cleaning!'. He puts all his taciturn narcissism of a professional into cleaning up the film from everything that is not him. Le Choc eventually ends because there are no more supporting roles to swiftly kill, extras to shoot like rabbits, second rank actors to send back off the camera field. And when they happily run toward the little red helicopter which is going to finally take them away from this film-chore and this joyless hecatomb, Delon (and Deneuve) have really created a vacuum around them. The surviving couple could shout 'alone at last!'. I even feared that the helicopter pilot, although a not very well known actor, might be shot too for the insolent way he shared for an instant the space of the star couple.  
For it’s not enough for the star to have, like in the past, the monopoly of the close ups, it also needs the long shots, the medium shots, the intermediary shots, everything. Indeed (I thought) the system is not ageing well. Delon (or Belmondo) seem self-satisfied, but their movies smell of rage, contempt, self-hatred and even laziness. They put their image at stake with as much generosity as the Italian football team during a World Cup.  
Some might say this comes from Delon himself, from the way he intends to protect his image, by taking less and less risk. His ‘honesty’ is not to pretend any longer. For, if Le Choc is lousy, it’s a curious film, inferior to For a Cop’s Hide, but still better than a Belmondo. Taken individually, the elements of the film are not unacceptable: Robin Davies’ direction is okay, photography is decent, Sarde has composed worse soundtracks, the ‘small actors’ (Chicot, Audran, Léotard, Perrot) get by, the story is a Manchette adaptation, Deneuve drinks the bitter cup of the luxurious extra to the dregs and Delon, the actor Delon, continues to intrigue. What’s wrong then? The rest, all the rest: the conception of the film, the thinness of the story, and even the film aesthetics.  
Le Choc is a gamble. As the absolute master of his own image (Clément, Visconti, Losey or even Zurlini are long forgotten), Delon does his utmost (and it’s pathetic really) to prove that, should he want to, he could play everything. That he can be a little bit sadistic, a little bit naked, a little bit funny, a little bit sensual, a little bit sentimental. But he refuses to be any of these any longer than necessary. There is a taboo in the film: there must be one emotion by Delon in every scene, but there mustn’t be a change of emotion within the same scene. Robin Davis, as a filmmaker focused on ambiances (Ce Cher Victor) must have found this taboo a headache. 
Delon doesn’t play, he sums up what he could play. As soon as he opens his mouth, what matters is not what he says (let’s admit it: the dialogues are weak) but what he wants to communicate. One: that he thinks faster than anybody else (including us). Two: that he has already asked himself all the questions and has already found all the answers and that, if he has chosen to resort to the most used clichés, it’s voluntary. His infuriated gaze orders us to think that he knows that we know that he could say or do something else. It’s the inertia, the slowness, the stupidity of the other characters which exasperate him. He’s almost ready to kill them for being so slow, by impatience, to go faster. Le Choc could almost be a short film. 
In the past, the star got his/her power to fascinate from the capacity to play languorously with dialogues and time, to offer the audience a face changing like a landscape while remaining him/herself at the same time. It’s through this ‘slow motion’ that the star was different from an actor. Today, imprisoned in himself like a statue, finding below himself to let any other in his acting, Delon is condemned to appear in ever shorter scenes and shots which end up being nothing more than commercial spots to the glory of the animal-Delon. How do you make a mass market but high class movie with a series of spots? A serious question. An aesthetics question. A question for the media. 
French police movies no longer suit Delon. A new genre should be invented for him, a series of spots where, like in the burlesque era, we would see him victoriously engaging in only one action. There would be: ‘Delon takes a shower’, ‘Delon throws a knife’, ‘Delon is sexual’, ‘Delon plays the fool’, etc. The actor’s fans would be delighted and he wouldn’t have to suffer the chore of inventing a story and sharing an hour and a half with others. 
When we talk about ‘the crisis of French cinema’, we always see it from the same angle. The angle of the ‘politique des auteurs’, ‘boring artists’, ‘intellectual masturbation of images and sounds’. Recently, the French cinema establishment at Cannes booed Godard to let him know that it was unacceptable to continue to live cinema like an adventure in front of everyone. Passion has therefore been relegated to the fringes, with experimental cinema. 
But why not ask the same question (what’s wrong with French cinema?) about a big film that misses its mass audience target? Le Choc for example. A film made of fragments, without a proper story, with embryonic scenes, vague gestures, words without context, the image of a star which doesn’t quite fit the frame of a ‘normal’ movie, Le Choc has been rejected to the fringes, like an experimental movie, just like Passion. Of course Passion is very good and Le Choc is very bad. But it’s not unreasonable to think that if Delon knew better how to make Le Choc, Godard would face less trouble with Passion. The boss and the artist talk from the same planet. There is only one world of the images.
First published in Libération, 28 June 1982. Reprinted in Ciné Journal, Cahiers du cinema/Seuil, 1986. 

From the star to the celebrity 
Where the abuse of the word ‘star’ is seen as a symptom: there were stars in cinema but there hasn’t been any on television so far. 
When Christophe Lambert left the TV set of Michel Denisot (on Channel 1), he stated that we won’t see him again on television for six months. As a master of his own image and not inclined to debase it, the neo Salvatore Guiliano, a monster of kindness and casualness, meant that his image will not be eternally served up as fodder. We’ve seen him everywhere for the release of The Sicilian: we won’t see him promoting his merchandise on the small screen for a while. 
If never appearing on television condemns the ordinary mortal to irremediable obscurity, squatting TV studios clearly and deceitfully disqualifies anyone. This is valid for actors as it is for politicians. If there is little demand on television, the repetitive supply of the same products generates a vaguely pitiful inflation. Television confers longevity (it even stages it), but longevity is quite the contrary to mystery. And without mystery, there’s no image that holds up very long.  
Watching (and listening to) Christophe Lambert (in a pink jumper) giving docile answers to Denisot’s docile questions, we had plenty of time to revisit an old question: what is a star? And since Lambert is clearly one (to be liked by Cimino, to have been Tarzan and to make thirteen year old girls dream is not nothing), this was a good opportunity to see what it’s like, a star on television. 
The answer is no longer simple. That some individuals were born ‘stars’ and can do nothing about it is hardly a deniable fact. We believe less nowadays in the paranoid (and too easy) idea of stars entirely created by cynical majors or evil managers. This is first because a star is born ‘already entirely created’ and that this is precisely the enigma of the star: both a whole and the sum of its parts. The irony is that we have probably never been so keen to adore them than at the moment where – in the world of the images at least – they have become definitely rare.  
The proof is in the ridiculous inflation of the word ‘star’ (or rather ‘staaar’) in a culture (ours) where it is the more modest celebrities who often have the upper hand. The return to television after the summer holidays has quickly stumbled upon the imposture of the very concept of ‘television star’ (ideal sons-in-law, great communicators, popular entertainer, and so on). It’s an imposture because what used to characterise a star in the traditional sense is that it really didn’t communicate anything precise or targeted while being – body and soul – a true incarnation of the idea of communication. The movie star targeted a vast and unknown audience, all ages and sexes together. It filled in alone and randomly the social enigma of ‘sexual difference’, living somewhere in the sky, making its body a limit beyond which the non-human would always overcome the human. (Hence the easy tragedy of stars and the tragic facility of their cult). 
Perhaps there can only be real stars at moments where the industry of images is in expansion. In silent films, in Hollywood of course, in the Indian cinema obviously. A star would be, stricto sensu, a rocket or a shooting star which lights up for a moment a terrain not yet conquered and temporarily unknown. As soon as cinema stopped being in expansion, it produced tragic stars (Marilyn, James Dean, Monty Clift, the late Bogart) and then no stars at all (look at De Niro and how he is becoming this great-actor-of-exceptional-participation). This does not mean that there are not in society some obvious star destinies (Adjani is the most painfully obvious example in France but there was also Maria Schneider), but the film industry has become too small for them (and when cinema returns to its traditional craft, it builds less on stars than on ‘auteurs’ who, year after year, are replacing them: Kubrick, Fellini). 
The tiebreaker question is becoming really obvious. Can there be television stars? If television is still in expansion, yes. If not, no. But if there is a boom and inflation of images in general, does this mean there is an expansion of television? This is not certain. In any case, there’s nothing indicating the appearance of stars of a new type (could we imagine a present day Orson Welles, using the modern tools of media manipulation, to pull The War of the Worlds trick again? Will it be allowed one day to play with the fire of global broadcasting? Will we be that playful?). For now, there are living emblems, logos on foot, media-persons more or less close to the audience, nannies and portable gurus. In a world that close and so devoted to the positivity of television, we can hardly see how the wings of tragedy or the bull’s horns could scar a body with their shadows.  
And Lambert? Lambert is perfect: a star, no doubt. You can still see it providing you have eyes. First in the sound, then in the image.  In the sound, it takes real talent to be able to spontaneously gather up all the stereotypes that a star needs to pretend to rediscover in order to offer a response to stereotyped questions. Lambert has this innate talent. Don’t count on him to talk about films which didn’t work well (I Love You by Ferreri, which was interesting). Don’t expect him to say that cinema should be like daily life (cinema, he says as if it was a very personal idea of his, is the dream 'greater than life'). Similarly, what counts is not the encounter with an auteur or a role, but always the story, the subject, the script. Known chorus.  
The surprise is less in this ‘faultless’ static babbling than in the freshness with which it is babbled and re-invented, live and for us. It’s the way it dresses common themes which makes the star.  In the case of Lambert, it’s his art to stick to the image of his fans (he replies in their language, effortlessly, like a watchful big brother), it’s the kid’s smile that nobody could ever resist, it’s the good mood of the one who has so much headwind that he can afford to play the figurehead. 
The surprise, finally, is in the image. There’s still a difference between the movie star and the pseudo television star. The latter has got so used to live without off screen, without perspective lines, wedged, stuck in the middle of the minuscule space of the TV set, that it has lost this amazing plasticity of the movie star. The movie star (even Lambert) keeps intact a capacity to change entirely in an instant, from a shot to another. The face of Christophe Lambert is at the centre: banal, without volume and then suddenly lit up, the slightly extinguished gaze which in a second becomes sparkling. Not just at the centre of the image or the set, but at the centre of the world. These are only fleeting moments, but they are worth the look. 
Originally published in Libération, 29 October 1987, and reprinted in Le salaire du zappeur, POL, 1993. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ghatak’s Clunker

I love the surprise of finding a new translation of Daney on the web. Here's Daney's review of Ritwik Ghatak's Ajantrik with a copy of the original article as published in Libération.

First published in Libération on 31 October 1986. Translation by Arindam Sen & Ivana Miloš.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Recrudescence - table of contents

Serge Daney's fourth and last book (published during his lifetime) is Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, cinéma, télévision, information. The title is a somewhat mysterious reference to a notice put up in a film theatre warning that 'Due to the increase in handbag thefts in public spaces, we advise our customers to remain vigilant and not place handbags on the floor'.

It brings together a selection of articles from two columns that Daney wrote for the French newspaper Libération (between October 1988 and April 1991) and a lengthy interview with Philippe Roger conducted in January 1991.

Over the years, many of the texts have been translated, especially with the 30 texts published recently on this blog for the Ghosts of Permanence series. So here's the entire table of contents of the book with links to translations (and the film reference where relevant).


GHOSTS OF PERMANENCE - from cinema to television

What Out of Africa produces
(Out of Africa, Syndey Pollack, 1986)

Les Baccantes mises à nu 
(Ah! The Nice Moustache or Peek-a-Boo, Jean Loubignac, 1954)

Three years after the Dragon 
(Year of the Dragon, Michael Cimino, 1985)

The Pirate isn't just decor
(The Pirate, Vincente Minnelli, 1948)

Neo-Tosh
(Marie-Antoinette, W.S. Van Dyke, 1938)

Stella, ethics and existence 
(Stella, Laurent Heynemann, 1983)

Cop in a box
(Un flic, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1982)

Minnelli caught in his web
(Cobweb, Vincente Minnnelli, 1955)

That's cinema
(Witness, Peter Weir, 1985)

The last temptation of the first Rambo 
(First Blood, Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

‘Wings’ to attempt to land
(Wings of desire, Wim Wenders, 1987)

Archimède's TV drama
(Archimède le clochard, Gilles Grangier, 1959)

Le Diable, maître du scénario
(Beauty and the Devil, René Clair, 1949)

Griffith shows us a thing or two
(Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith, 1921)

The star and the leftovers
(And God Created Woman, Roger Vadim, 1956)

Zurlini, the stylist
(Violent Summer, Valerio Zurlini, 1959)

Un bon Lelouch ? Oui.
(Love is a funny thing, Claude Lelouch, 1969)

John Ford for ever
(She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford, 1950)

Qui aime Maurice Cloche?
(Rooster Heart, Maurice Cloche, 1946)

Beineix, Opus 1
(Diva, Jean-Jacques Beinex, 1981)

Mad Max, Opus 2
(Mad Max 2, George Miller, 1981)

A true fake Bruce
(Game of Death, Bruce Lee - Robert Clouse, 1972)

Clair, grandad of the music video
(Bastille Day, René Clair, 1933)

The essential Buñuel
(That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel, 1977)

Leone at war
(The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone, 1968)

Rossellini, Louis XIV: the first
(The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, Roberto Rossellini, 1966)

Zurlini, from the back
(Family Portrait, Valerio Zurlini, 1962)

Un Verneuil sans espoir
(La vingt-cinquième heure, Henri Verneuil, 1967)

Alien: come what may
(Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979)

Le roi était nu
(The King, Pierre Colombier, 1936)

Doped up Marilyn
(Let's Make Love, George Cukor, 1960)

Deadly dubbing
(Death Trap, Syndney Lumet, 1982)

Lara inn-keeper
(The Red Inn, Claude Autant-Lara, 1951)

Inusables cigognes
(The cranes are flying, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

Downstairs, étude
(Downstairs, Monta bell, 1932)

Zefirelli, tchi tchi
(La Traviata, Franco Zeffirelli, 1982)

Realist Fellini (Ginger and Fred, Federico Fellini, 1986)

In the water
(Island of the Fishmen, Sergio Martino, 1979)

Laura's aura
(Laura, Otto Preminger, 1944)

Heavens, a telefilm!
(Silas Marner, Giles Foster, 2985)

Sissi impératrice
(Sissi, the Young Empress, Ernst Marischka, 1956)

Citizen Cain
(Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941)

The Dumbo case
(Dumbo, Walt Disney production, 1941)

Illegal history
(Moonlighting, Jerzy Skolimowski, 1983)

Walsh draws kings
(The King and four Queens, Raoul Walsh, 1956)

La vie est un Donge
(The Truth about Bebe Donge, Henri Decoin, 1952)

Sink the Herring!
(Sink the Bismarck!, Lewis Gilbert, 1960)

A touch of Hell
(Inferno, Dario Argento, 1986)

Colourful DeMille
(The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille, 1956)

Liliom's arms
(Liliom, Fritz Lang, 1934)


THE PASSEUR

Interview with Philippe Roger


INFORMATION FANTASIES - from information to war

Les loges des intellectuels

For a cine-demography

Moment critique pour la critique

Autant-Lara n'est (vraiment) pas une merveille

Quand le rythme vient à manquer

Catéchisme audio-visuel

Le cinéma et la mémoire de l'eau

l'"Amour en France", et nous et nous et nous

Nicolae et Elena lèguent leurs corps à la télé

In stubborn praise of information

Le tour de l'info en voiture-balai

Uranus, mourning for mourning

Beauté du téléphone

Montage obligatory


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Liliom’s arms

This is the last text of the Ghosts of permanence series on this blog. 30 texts in 50 days. I tried to match Daney's nearly daily rhythm when he was writing in Libération. I hope you enjoyed it.
Lilion's arms 
‘I’m sorry we didn’t have the chance to meet sooner,’ says Goebbels. - ‘Yes’. - ‘Will you have any trouble finding the way out?’ - ‘No’. 
This is how (in the strange Langopolis) a young American scriptwriter imagines the end of the famous dialogue between Goebbels and Fritz Lang. The latter does so well at finding the way out that a few minutes later he’s on a train bound for Paris. This is 1934 and Lang will never be the boss of Nazi cinema. On the 17 h 30 train, en route for Paris Gare du Nord, Lang is already the man who will turn the cinema against itself and denounce punishment with the very weapons of surveillance. The first director to have seen the threat of the audiovisual panopticon, the first moralist of the media yet to come, he leaves nascent television to Leni Riefenstahl and to Triumph of the Will. He will have his whole ‘American period’ to prove that cinema can, through ever more rigour, be useful
This is why there’s nothing more useful today than seeing Fritz Lang’s films again. And seeing them again on French television. Just as TV’s awash with reconstructed trials and mass-video redemptions, before the televised re-enactments of the trials of Petain or Barbie, it’s good to go back to Lang, who filmed a lot of trials and who, frequently, cited cinema as a witness. If the trial in Fury is better known than the one in Liliom, it’s because Liliom (1934) is a little seen film and, on the surface, not typical of Lang. It was adapted from the play by Molnar and filmed in Paris for his friend Pommer before leaving for California. The other thing is that the trial in Liliom takes place not on earth, but in heaven. 
Liliom is a harmless hooligan who proceeds through life like a Parisian ape man who never knows what to do with his arms. These are the arms of Charles Boyer, arms made to hold more than one woman, and which therefore know not what to do with the fragile body and stubborn love of Madeleine Ozeray. Liliom lets himself be persuaded by Alfred (the great Alcover) to get involved in some nasty business, which goes so awry that Liliom’s arm can find nothing else to do but to stick a kitchen knife in Liliom’s heart, and he dies. 
Lang wasn’t the kind who believed that death wipes out wrongs that need to be righted (‘That would be too convenient. What about justice?’). This is why Liliom, his corpse still warm, is arrested for a second time (‘We are God’s police’) by two pre-Wenders angels. Far, far away from Earth, the dead man is escorted to a celestial police station where the personnel (equipped, it’s true, with little wings) is the same as on Earth. Liliom, arms still dangling, guileless and truculent, struts in front of the police chief to no avail. To no avail, since the latter has an unprecedented card up his sleeve, the card of cinema
And so out of the celestial cinematheque there looms the film-as-a-witness of the life of Liliom Zadowski, and one scene in particular. On July 17, at 8:40am, Liliom slapped Julie because she’d let him drink all the coffee she’d made for them, so as (he says) to blame himself by setting herself up as a victim. The audience has seen this scene in Liliom and already found it beautiful, as they have found beauty in all the scenes played by two characters (with Lang’s camera, which sometimes will go straight for a detail before letting go). Now they see it again, in a private screening and in the company of Liliom, who is flabbergasted. But this time they see it as a jury or, let’s say, as film critics. What they’re saying now isn’t that Lang has style and that this style has what it takes, they’re asking themselves what this style is for, what is the use of this camera homing in and this eye seeking out a viewpoint to adopt. 
Lang was proud, but not so proud to compete with the Eye-in-chief of the divine gaze. Anyway this eye is an ear. Man invented the restless body of silent cinema, then the satisfied speech of the talkies. Man did not invent the resonant thoughts of a deaf cinema. In his wisdom (and in his own cinematheque), the Good Lord alone has the truly original version, with Liliom’s thoughts explaining Liliom’s arms; the thoughts that just need to be heard for these arms to become human. Indeed, throughout the whole of the scene-as-a-witness, his inner voice was reproaching him, and it was in self-disgust that he struck the woman whom he loved without being able to tell her so. 
It is the cinema that saves Liliom (and which we’re beginning to miss so dreadfully). 

First published in Libération on 17 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Colourful DeMille

When the Eternal (tired to be off screen) finally talks to Moses, he wears a beautiful spinach green tunic. This green is profoundly different to the apple green gauze underneath which we feel Nefertiti is naked. It’s not the grasshopper green of the tutus worn by a bunch of dancers. Nor the earth green of the cloud that kills Egypt's first-borns, nor the bleached green of the Red Sea when it opens up. Nor especially the beautiful turquoise blue of the headdress of the spineless Baka. This turquoise blue is the type you can still find in very old prints of the National Geographic Magazine. For anyone who is overwhelmed by a colour chart, The Ten Commandments (1956) is more a story of colours than of taste. DeMille’s taste is what it is but the colours are of a different nature, a nature loved like never before by the late Technicolor.  
If Cecil Blount DeMille, a filmmaker little known and without a great reputation, ended up being recognised, it’s less for the religious feeling that his films are strangely devoid of than for the way he tirelessly was able to talk about belief. With DeMille, you only believe what you see, and you only see colours. The man that turns the acid green Nile blood red must have a very powerful God on his side. And a God who sends a teaser in the shape of red cloud followed by a green halo on a mountain, knows that Moses is not colour blind.  
To believe in colours must have been easy after the Eternal had invented Technicolor. It would be harder today as the colour in cinema is everywhere ugly and unremarkable. There was a time when the gelatine of the three positives could be impregnated with the right dye and the matrices were quite happy to discharge their colouring on the mordanted surface of the silver halide film*. Colours then demonstrated a rock-solid stability. Seeing again The Ten Commandments is to understand that DeMille was not only the bigoted and reactionary tyrant who liked to see all his flock of extras piled into a single image, but also the kitsch aesthete that took the liberty to treat colours as extras.  
Stability is the right word to talk about this damaging filmmaker. DeMille is the man of belief, and of blind belief. But also the man of blindness, because blindness is also a belief. In the end, he talks less about sacred love than pagan love and if The Ten Commandments only contained the thoughtful Moses’ saga, the film would be a short one. Thankfully there are these surprising characters, among others: Nefertiti, Ramses and Dathan. These ones are, in a sense, ‘incredible’. The Hebrew God multiplies stunning miracles in front of their eyes and they couldn't care less! Nefertiti can’t see she’s boring Moses, the Pharaoh can’t see that his people are in danger and Dathan finds a way, two seconds after the Red Sea closes back, to continue to excite the people against Moses. Stubborn love, boasting arrogance, and constant nastiness become the real passions. The passion to see nothing of what stands out so obviously. They are as stable in their blindness as the colours of the film are in their stridence.  
In fact, DeMille’s real serious topic, the one he doesn’t deal with and perhaps never even suspected, was composed by Schoenberg in 1932 and filmed by Straub in 1974. It’s Moses and Aaron, the eternal (and painful) story of the quarrels between writing and image. If René Bonnell, thanks to whom we managed to see again (on Canal Plus) the Cecil B version, was logical, he would now schedule the Schoenberg-Straub version, and would thus contribute to the work of civilisation. If only to give Aaron his chance. His chance to doubt** and to be interesting.  
* Some are pointing out that this description is sexual. Duly noted.   
** Unfortunately, Bonnell (René) couldn't care less about this chronicle. 
First published in Libération on 16 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, October 02, 2017

A touch of Hell

Bodies that balked at quaking with fear at the cinema can find a belated revenge in the TV screening of horror films. Without a darkened auditorium, fear is no more contagious than laughter. To be afraid you need to know you’re more alone than others and smaller than the screen. The only effect a TV-miniature can produce, gory though it is, is unease. There is unease at taking the guided tour of sites and scenes where, in principle, there was horror and panic. Unease at obliquely entering the intimacy of fear. From Psycho to The Shining, for a while now there’s been nothing more disturbing than ‘site visits’ and those increasingly cinephile and mannerist returns to the ‘scene of the crime’. 
In Dario Argento’s Inferno (1979), an architect called Varelli has built three houses and written a book. In the book, he relates how he has made these houses for three ‘mothers’. Mater tenebrarum (the Rome house), Mater suspirorum (the Freiburg house) and Mater lacrimorum (the New York house) are but one whose identity is revealed only at the end of the film. Inferno doesn’t tell old Varelli’s story, but follows a series of characters, mostly young, who are fascinated by the book and are all destined for ridiculously gory deaths. All but one (the insipid Mark) to whom Varelli confides in extremis: ‘This house is my own body . . . and its horror has become my own heart.’ The owner of the house, the single name of the three mothers joined together, is indeed Death, whose scythe and skeleton are centre-stage in the final conflagration. 
The amused boredom aroused by the TV viewing of this cult film derives from the way Argento alone has fun with it. A mannerist, he multiplies the signature effects so that every one of his images will cry out that it is stamped with the name of Argento and knows it. Red or blue filters, flattened lighting (Romano Albani), Carl Orff-style score (Keith Emerson), wild discontinuities and soft padding, red herrings and animals of all kinds. This is all pointless but not unlikeable. Thanks to Argento in particular, there is ample time for a bit of general reflection on mannerism in general. 
Let’s take one example. At one point young Sara (who, like young Rose, will soon come to a bad end) finds one of the three houses in Rome and, fearing nothing, one night she makes her way into a library that’s open, then into a cellar, where some faceless alchemist (who has a corpse-like hand) turns his back to her before hurling himself upon her. All the same, Sara takes fright and runs away, tearing her dress, gets home, where she asks a neighbour to keep her company, which he does quite willingly before winding up with a knife across his throat and with the reckless Sara quite inconsiderately stabbed. Just as she’s getting out of a taxi opposite the library, Sara pricks her finger on something sharp and inconspicuous (let’s say a nail) attached to the vehicle. It all happens very quickly, even too quickly: a close-up of the nail, a close-up of the nail and the finger, a close-up of the finger with a drop of blood. The odd thing is that this detail has no dramatic purpose whatsoever, since in a matter of moments, Sara will be skewered. The odd thing is that it is too hastily constructed to have any function, even of premonition. The odd thing finally is that the appearance of this nail is virtually confused with the ‘function’ that it has, a function that is rigorously pointless. 
The same goes for characters as for objects and for everything in Inferno and in mannerism. It’s a matter of a fake functionalism where things and characters (which are seen like things) are only there to serve no purpose. The passage from mannerism to the baroque is the passage from "serving no purpose" to "only serving the nothingness", the great Nada that needs great dispositifs*. Mannersism, for its part, can choose to be as modest and carefree as a schoolboy exercise. It’s in this respect that the Inferno made ten years ago, was already a film for our times. For if the advertising aesthetic is the serious face of mannerism, the parody of the horror film is its facetious face. You only had to see Inferno interrupted (just after the guillotine scene) by nine commercials in a row to superimpose the two faces of mannerism. For a while now commodities have been filmed like the nail that pierces Sara’s poor little finger: they only occur for the moment they’re good for, except that they’re good for nothing

* The author cannot help thinking that if once again the baroque were to succeed mannerism, this would only be achieved by dynamiting the space of the cinema or the small screen. Will there one day be some kind of ludic engineering of collective illusion? Perhaps this is something for a new species of creator: an adventurer in communications, a machine of technological warfare, an iron-willed organiser, a transversal agitator. Goude’s parade in July ‘89? 
First published in Libération on 13 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sink the Herring!

It was two minutes past midnight when the Bismarck last sank, on Tuesday morning on Channel 2. It had already sunk for real in 1941, then for Fox in 1960, it might as well sink all over again for a French television channel and, against all expectations, it created a small flow of ink. To tell the truth the old Sink the Bismarck, by that English robot Lewis Gilbert, sinks down nicely on TV, that definitive scuppering machine for flimsy films. For instead of suffering as a coloured ham between two slices of black bread, this black and white Cinemascope production benefits from a lovely grey monochrome that’s quite independent of what everyone intended. At the cinema, there must have been a certain meagre charm in those shots of grey boats cutting through the mists and edging past the ice, or in those torpedoes going their merry little underwater way. On TV, thanks to those two black strips added on, the photography of Christopher Challis B.S.C. gains a great deal in refinement. And since the film is really of no interest whatsoever, the uncomplicated contemplation of those greys can be used as an audiovisual spiritual exercise.  
At the point when the Bismarck sinks (‘the Fuhrer promised to send the Luftwaffe!’, are the plaintive last words of the German admiral, a megalomaniac who turns out to be pretty naive), the English heroes of this English film, locked up for days on end in the heart of London (not far from Trafalgar Square, recognisable by its revolting pigeons), savour their victory with moderation. ‘I thought I’d scream with joy, but really, I can’t’, observes Ann Davis, who is answered by a soldier: ‘I know, it’s always like that.’ If the film is about anything at all, it’s about how tight-arsed the English are. With the excuse that the war is hard, that they’re waging it pretty much on their own in 1941 and that the stakes are huge, the men take the opportunity to offer one another (and to one woman, just one) the grandiose spectacle of their emotional infirmity (except for a very pretty telegraph operator who soon gets sent to the infirmary, since the whole thing turns him feverish). 
Oddly enough, Sink the Bismarck doesn’t reproduce the classic opposition between the simple, dignified humanity of the English and the fanatical efficiency of the German machine. Between the admiral of the Bismarck, his commander and the rest of the crew there are emotions, glasses of champagne, speeches and, finally, quite a bit of irrational behaviour. Die as they do, en masse, around midnight, the Germans look more alive than the stuffed English dummies who send them to the deep. 
This is why the film’s real suspense comes not from whether the Bismarck will be sunk or not, but from whether Jonathan Sheppard, the real sinker of the Bismarck, is able to cry or not. Oddly again, it’s the comic actor Kenneth More who has been asked to give a performance of steely sharpness in the part of a military man ‘as cold as the heart of a corpse’, all super professionalism and inner desolation. This man, who lives only for combat, has lost his wife in the blitz and has no one in the world but a son, based in Gibraltar and also caught up in the war. 
At 23 h 34 (French time) Sheppard is told that the lad is missing in action. In as much as we really don’t give a damn, we’re very interested to see how the actor will manage to convey an emotion that we have trouble sharing. And it’s here that we spot that Kenneth More has a rather original way of closing his eyes very hard as if either to hold back the tears inside them or to overcome the physical pain felt by someone who has just banged his knee. Not bad, we say. But when at 23 h 54, eight minutes before the Bismarck sinks, Sheppard is told that the same lad has been found and More shuts his eyes once again, you realise that the real subject of the film isn’t ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ but actually ‘Drown, in tears!’ This transpires during a rather nice shot where we see the actor, in a mirror, letting out little whimpers into a very clean handkerchief. Otherwise, a film like this is the archetypal film that missed the boat. English courage had the good fortune to be filmed (in the blitz) by the English documentarists (is there anything finer than Humphrey Jennings’ London Can Take It?). For, as J.L.G. says, the usual ‘quirk’ of the English is their lack of imagination, the documentary. Fifteen years after the war ended, Lewis Gilbert should have been ready to film something quite different. Not the tears, and not the Bismarck, but whatever connects the two. 

First published in Libération on 11 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Walsh draws kings

One of the reasons films still carry a lot of punch on television is that we can sense a great physical energy in them. Not the stalling frenzy of TV series where, exhausted by all the zoom shots, we no longer know if the actors have moved within the frame, or if our optic nerve is on orbit. Not the repressed anxiety of the half bodies that read world news or announce continuity between shows. Nothing like that, but instead the sense that one must have been young and healthy to make these old films. It's one of the least proclaimed truth of cinema: nervous impulse and resistance to tiredness are irreplaceable*. Of all the art forms, cinema remains the one that requires to be 'in good form'. Otherwise, one couldn't explain the impressive number of first films that will remain the best of their authors. 
One of the reasons the unexpected re-discovery of Raoul Walsh's The King and Four Queens is a great surprise, is that you can see tiredness in it. In 1956, Walsh had been making films for forty-three years and Gable for thirty-two. And Jo Fleet might only be thirty-seven years old but her role as the MacDaid widow implies that she's at least twenty years older. The least fit in the group is Clarke Gable, who will die four years later. And it's around a slow and flickering King that Raoul Walsh organised his mise-en-scène. Stripped down, minimal, and very refined: a real 'lesson' in mise-en-scène. That being said, the film was never considered a great one. It's perhaps inferior to the other film Walsh directed in 1956, the little known The Revolt of Mamie Stover with Jane Russell, which the author of these lines must confess he secretly worships. The King and Four Queens is the type of entertainment that cinema pioneers could allow themselves to make at the dawn of their long career. 
This reminder is not to move the reader to pity. Walsh's laziness and the fatigue in King are one thing, ours is another. When seasoned veterans start working 'economically', it's because they can afford it. They have accumulated enough experience to signify the energy (and, in Walsh's case, a kind of geometric rage) that begins to lack, in order to fulfil their contract with dignity. The advantage of the now decried 'politique des auteurs' was to provide the loyal cinephile with precise information on the state of natural wear and tear of a material used for a long time. Wear and tear of the actors, of the stories, of the landscapes. But it also showed how what was lost in wild energy was regained in elegance and speed. 
The script of The King and Four Queens is more than clever; like all of Walsh's scripts, it is structured as a Freudian rebus, topped up with the charm of an equation reduced to its essential parts. A woman, mother of four bad boys who are all dead but one, is surrounded by four young widows while waiting for the survivor (nobody knows which of the four he is) to come collect the treasure she has buried somewhere. The Bible under her arm, dressed in grey, her round face distorted by a childish and distrustful rictus, Jo Van Fleet is the most beautiful character of the film and her concluding lines are grandiose: 'after that, I wash my hands.' The four women are torn apart between their desire for money and for the man that will come and free them. Sabrinao, Oralia, Ruby and Birdie swoop on the mysterious Kehoe (Gable) who has come to resolve the equation that makes their heart melt.  
In this film with no fights and where people talk a lot, Gable, thanks to two or three winks and movements of a zen turtle, practices a real psychoanalytic listening (a rather short version of it). Each woman produces for him some symptoms, totally obvious but instructive. Walsh only lays them out like coloured spots in a ball scene. With a beautiful simplicity and this art to quickly reach the essential, he has fun connecting scenes where any spontaneous gestures has been banished. That's ok, since what matters is to let the repressed desires return.  
Dan Kehoe leaves with the treasure and one of the daughters. A very relative happy ending since he must return (almost all) the money to the sheriff. A very Walshian happy ending since the great Raoul never had any other message: he who can do more, can do less.
  
* It's perhaps one of the fundamental differences with traditional arts. No filmmaker can have the energy of Titian or Picasso when reaching old age. One exception: the great Manoel de Oliveira. 

First published in Libération on 9 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Illegal history

There are utopias we hold dear. To see the first images of a film, one day, without knowing where they go or what they want. To witness something that is born, builds itself, oscillates and gets undone. To renounce to know too quickly who’s good and who’s evil because it’s so much more interesting to simply observe. In short, to keep one’s neurons going and to be surprised to still be that clever, as clever as the man who made the film, Jerzy Skolimowski in this case. 
In 1982, Skolimowski is not unknown in cinephile circles. It’s just that we know nothing of the film that he just shot (very quickly) in London and that is going to represent Great Britain at the Cannes film festival. Moonlighting is seen before we could find out what it is about. For once, the viewing of the film went faster than its pre-digested image. And if Cannes was enchanted by the film, it’s because it fulfilled the buried dream of any film critic: to discover a film as its story unfolds in front of our eyes. The utopia of real time.  
Obviously, the subject of Moonlighting is real time itself. To save money, a powerful Polish dignitary gets his London flat renovated by Polish workers who will spend a month (the length of their tourist visa) to work (illegally) like dogs before returning to Poland where they will be generously paid (even in zlotys). Because he speaks English, a certain Novack chooses the workers (who are not very smart) and manages the operations (with an iron fist). Time and money are counted and the four men have little time to see London apart from a glum bit of pavement (it’s Christmas time), a dull supermarket and the red spot that is the telephone box on the street corner. 
The film is told through Novack’s voiceover and eye-rolling movements (Jeremy Irons, frankly neurasthenic, but great). Novack hates his workers and laboriously makes do with pathetic specimens of the English population (the supermarket supervisor in a red tailor suit is unforgettable). When he learns about the military coup in Poland, he decides to wait until the very last moment (on the road to the airport) to tell the others. 
Why tell the story? To feel like script writers for a few minutes. Because there are films that will never tire to make others, who have not seen them, wonder how well and cleverly the story is told. To make them guess that the one who has found such an angle – sending back to back his country of origin (Poland) and his country of residence (England) – will have no problem to film – as others should do more often – this ungrateful and fascinating thing that is labour. Seen on a small screen (where, thanks to commercials, there are still grotesque pictures depicting labour), the frenzy with which Skolimowski’s illegal workers take down walls and install plumbing pipes comes across as – yes – refreshing.  
Among the last films we saw, Moonlighting is one that sticks so well to reality that it benefits from its energy. The Polish reality being, rightly, sinister, the film itself is not joyful, even if it’s funny. But Moonlighting is one of the first films which, in the midst of these boring and repeated stories about communication, has the freshness of Christopher Columbus’ egg. Cut off from everything, living like moles, the four Polish men of London need only to go down the street to benefit from one of these miraculous phone boxes where one can call anywhere in the world for very little. They therefore talk to their wives in Warsaw. And when Jaruzelski takes power in Warsaw, Novack nearly crawls down in the rain to contemplate, astounded, the images of tanks in the window of an electrical goods shop.  
These images are beautiful because they are today the most likely to be right. No need to be exiled, drunk, or Polish to encounter on a street corner the countless proofs that the world continues, sometimes elsewhere and almost always without us. This gives a sort of hungerless appetite, a cold desire and a raging nostalgia, which results from the effect that techniques of communication have on those who – like Novack – have the utmost trouble in communicating with themselves.  
First published in Libération on 7 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is first and foremost a hymn to the night. Whether it’s a crowded circus train or female elephants working to hoist the big top in the rain, or the shadow that’s cast on the same big top destroyed, or the remote cabin where Dumbo’s mother - now a ‘mad elephant’ - weeps, the film’s great moments have the night as their decor. It is night when the young mouse whispers to the man who imagines he is dreaming the idea of the show with Dumbo as its star, and it is night, when after the catastrophe, the big-eared elephant and his pal, the young mouse, fall into a well of champagne. What a strange cartoon it is, this Dumbo in darkness. What a strange story, that of a bogus baby elephant*.  
The answer to the question ‘Where do babies come from?’ first seems to be: ‘with the stork’ (it’s 1941). This is how the film begins, with the storks in their zeal going so far as to also service part of the animal world. But if the she-bear is delighted to take delivery of her cub, the she-elephant (an otherwise irreproachable mother) suspects that those hypertrophied ears will only bring trouble to their wearer. It is the other (jealous) she-elephants who give the name ‘Dumbo’ to he who will never be Jumbo and whom they decide to ‘erase from the elephant race’. Just as later the young mouse will tell him, by way of consolation: ‘Tell yourself your ancestors were mammoths!’ But does he really believe it? For Dumbo who is clumsiness itself, learns nothing, acquires no elephant ways, and doesn’t even speak. 
We know the moral of the film. It is all the more familiar for being thoroughly American (from Disney to Spielberg). It says that an individual never honours his group more than when he has found the strength to transform his personal handicap into a collective strength**. So it’s no surprise to see Dumbo revealed to himself and the others in the last part of the film. The little albatross with giant ears that hinder him from walking, will fly instead and, simultaneously, be up and away with the limelight, stealing the show from the rest. The ending is an apotheosis, with the flying baby elephant escorting the train, the circus and his mother. 
But this moralising reading of Dumbo isn’t obligatory. The film is perhaps more beautiful if you see it less as Dumbo’s revenge than as a process described in many myths, a process that tells the story of the hero’s double birth. The first birth is from day to night. The second birth from night to day. In the first of these Dumbo would be badly programmed in the role of the baby elephant which he isn’t, and in the second he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a species with only one member: the dumbo. Light would finally be cast on the ‘true nature’ of this celestial entity, at the end of a harrowing series of nocturnal tests. In short, Dumbo may not be an elephant. 
Why hazard this mind-blowing thesis? Because there’s one extraordinary episode in Dumbo. Because before he winds up on a tree ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on the ground and there, in all innocence, he gets thoroughly sozzled. Everyone who loves cartoons, their crazy euphoria or sheer graphic invention, will know Dumbo’s drunken spree with its frieze of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not entirely without logic. From the black background where elephantomorphic figures at first stand out laughing, to the pink clouds of dawn on Dumbo’s first real day, there is a real rite of passage. And this is a whole series of figures parading, dancing and wriggling, figures comic and grotesque, whose only remaining elephantness is their trunk, indeed just a ‘concept’ trunk. Carnivalesque bipeds, lewd and devil-may-care, wearing masks with black holes in the middle, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, automobile-elephants, all delighted at their improbability, a real ‘shape shifter’ of pagan ritual, joyously overseeing the true birth of one of their own: the Dumbo. We are suddenly a very long way from the storks and mummies of the start. 
Dumbo was on TV on Monday on Canal Plus. The next day, still on the pay-TV channel, you could watch – mesmerised – Zbigniew Rybczyński’s sublime Fourth Dimension. Oddly, these two films which are separated by almost half a century, brought up the same questions. The issue is no longer anthropomorphism. It is the return of the figure. And when the figure exists in all of its forms it bears the lovely name: metamorphoses***. 

* The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was bored senseless in Malta and he likes elephants. He saw the film in an empty and filthy theatre.  
** This is why there’s something truly heroic in Chaplin’s last films: Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York. The last of these can rightly be considered as one of the most unremittingly lugubrious masterpieces of the cinema. This can never be said enough. 
*** Rybcziński, who is from the Eastern bloc, perhaps has more respect for the great figures of the cinema, and he revisits them one by one (Tango, Steps) like a prestidigitator who, before our eyes, would perform the necessary metamorphosis of a plastic world into another one, playing with some kind of retinal super-persistence of the History of the Cinema.
First published in Libération on 5 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Heavens, a telefilm!

There are nights – Monday nights especially – when there’s a great temptation to go and see with your own eyes what the difference is between a film and a telefilm. An English telefilm, thoroughly classy, a posh BBC production lost on M6, is so perfect for the experiment that whatever else you say about the English you can’t fault them for the seriousness with which, for decades, they’ve tackled things televisual, having first thought fit to neglect their cinema. So nothing could be more appropriate than this adaptation (1985) of George Eliot’s classic, Silas Marner (1860). You see Ben Kingsley, the ready-made victim, weaving away like a madman in the mists of Raveloe, little Eppie growing up more beautiful and red-haired, the rich suffering in their own way and the poor in theirs. What you see mostly though are blotchy faces craning forward just far enough to fit into the picture, as if they were just as afraid of bumping into the edges of the frame as into the doors of the pub. 
This is the first difference from film. There are no close-ups in the telefilm since there’s scarcely anything but close-ups. Obviously these have the advantage of speeding up narration by replacing the movement of bodies with the fast reading of faces. They have another, less obvious, advantage which lies in escaping any temptation of subjectivism: what you see is never seen by anyone but the TV viewer. We know, besides, just how much the English, with their instant enmity for any intrusion by the author into the work, similarly hate any idea of ‘point of view’. At the idea that even for an instant his perception could be merged with that of a character, the viewer verges on invoking the right of Habeas corpus
Taken to excessive limits, the close-up merely spells out immediately the meaning of a scene. So, when Silas Marner discovers this gift from heaven which is the child, a close-up of the money that has been stolen from him (and which the child will all the better replace) leaves the TV viewer in no doubt about the meaning with which the whole story has to be endowed. He thought he was coming to things of a deeply stirring nature and all he’s done is read a cut-and-dried picture puzzle, as revolting as a too-easy crossword which we throw away undone and with embarrassment at the idea that we could have drawn some satisfaction from having done it all the same. 
These aren’t great discoveries of course. But a cinema film would always have some theories of its own – more or less implicit or clever – about how to close in on distance or keep closeness at a distance. A telefilm belongs well and truly to our time, which treats all images like the letters on an optician’s eye test chart, forever fixed where they are and, even more so, for our own good. The problem, one feels, is that we no longer follow stories (with delight) from A to Z but (which is much quicker), from Z to U. 
This being said, we must temper this fitting sadness. Silas Marner is watchable, precisely because of the very Britishness of the treatment. Being less haunted than their French colleagues by the memory of cinema (from which they’ve never expected great things), the English TV-makers at least have the merit of keeping their little world together in the shape of a ZU. The actors’ bloated faces come straight out of Hogarth and, for a film whose action takes place in the nineteenth century, they are lit as they should be, meaning little and badly. The English are perhaps the only people on earth capable of this honesty so lacking in our own costumed tele-things: which takes the form of showing that life back then was hard, dismal, graceless and plunged in semi-darkness. By pure and simple respect for the ‘subject’ we might just find enough to justify the abuse of the close-up and the crowded image. If we remember that we had to wait for Barry Lyndon before it dawned on us how the world must have looked by candlelight, we can’t blame Giles Foster for having kept his story in a consistently greenish twilight. 
Is a telefilm depressing? Yes, it’s depressing. Less because it has forgotten the ample gestures of the costumed film, than because it doesn’t go all the way of its gloomy naturalism. Now, the English have been naturalists for long enough to have an inkling (sometimes) that TV, with its static illustrations and its short-cutting close-ups, could offer us some interesting simulations of space-time as lived in the past. This is why, we’re always a little be grateful with them for the care they take to suggest that this past wasn’t a piece of cake.  

First published in Libération on 28 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Citizen Cain

If it’s always odd to see films taking their place in the TV listings grid, this oddity becomes sheer irony when the film begins with images of grids. And the grid that separates the dying Kane from the rest of the world is among the first objects that we see in Citizen Kane. Beyond the ‘No trespassing’ sign, a camera movement goes over a wall of barbwire and a steel fence, with a dissolve on the wrought iron letter K and the enigmatic images of a night time Xanadu with parks, monkeys and gondolas. And when the film ends with the unfinished investigation and the shot of the Rosebud sleigh in flames, it’s on the same ‘No trespassing’ sign, and still tip-toeing. 
A similar thing happens with Welles, Fellini, Kubrick or any filmmaker labelled ‘baroque’. We should breathe new life in this word (baroque), making it current. For what is baroque with these filmmakers cannot be reduced to a taste for irregularity or anamorphosis. Rather, this taste must have come to them at the same time they became conscious, one after the other, of a real metamorphosis of what was not yet called ‘audio-visual’ or ‘landscape’. In fact, it’s with baroque filmmakers that the intertwining of public and private life became a real headache.  
‘Rarely a private life has been so public,’ says a description of the film when talking about Kane. Welles was the first one to invent, with Rosebud, a gimmick that is less a fictional ‘last word’ than a ‘sound bite’ left to the voracious media. The line that separated reserve and exhibition, bad faith and pious lie, treachery and illusionism, must constantly be drawn and replayed, and Welles would dedicate his life to doing so. The radio host who scared his fellow citizens with The War of the Worlds will never abandon this line. With his morality, Welles will be torn apart between the desire to become a citizen among others and the desire to remain Kane, meaning Cain.  
There’s no point pushing the first open door of the year by saying how beautiful Citizen Kane is. But there is a point in wondering about the transfer on television of this old masterpiece (1941). For it’s precisely what we now call ‘media’ that Welles is already talking about. It’s leaning over the cradle of the media that Welles has had his best success. This success belonged for a long time to the history of cinema but, with time, we understand more and more that they also represent a kind of historical ‘right to look’ of a filmmaker – Welles, a great mediator – over a world – the media – that is distancing itself from cinema (after having picked its pockets).  
It’s enough to see the fake news report on Kane’s life (News on the March) that opens the film to see how much it anticipates the great pompous TV-obituaries based on archive footage. It’s enough to watch the way that Cotten, Sloane and the others, made up to look older, are filmed in the interviews (with the reporter in an over the shoulder shot) to see how much Welles anticipates the craving for commemorations and survivors’ testimonies that please radio and television so much. In other words, one of the great reasons behind the modernity of the style of Citizen Kane is that Welles was already filming with composite styles and according to several rhetorical stances, as if he would be doing it for a TV channel (which would be the dream of ubiquity of his own Mercury theatre troupe). 
Wellesian wisdom, worthy of Zeno of Elea, says that whatever the technique used, it will miss something in the news (perhaps the essential, but not necessarily). But the Wellesian greatness will never make a big deal of it. It’s the movement towards information that is positive (making good citizens out of us), not the always disappointed belief that truth could be told in full or that it could be expressed in just one word (making us all little Cains, meaning consumed with envy). 
Welles never stopped to invent monsters like Kane, Arkadin, Quinlan and others news traffickers. He exorcised what must have come across to him as his own demon as well as the demon of the century: the art to seduce victims and to get rid of witnesses. The prophet Welles got only one thing wrong: his monsters had a child-like side and a seedy greatness that will sorely miss in their successors heading TV listing grids and channels. 
First published in Libération on 2 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.