Sunday, July 21, 2019

Television: Caretaking and Maintenance

Resuming the production of brand new translations. Here's Daney on Sunday television.

Television: Caretaking and Maintenance 
Old people and children first! It’s to them that every Sunday, television gives priority. Mass medium, but what mass are we talking about? “A large collection of atomised households abstractly targeted by a concept of statistical programming.” 
What’s fascinating about Sunday television is the feeling of seeing television itself, as it never changes. To see, raw and naked, one facet of the television apparatus, its fundamental and most secret weapon. Which facet? Every Sunday, television is the caretaker of the audience. We sometimes forget this essential function and believe – we are so naive – that we are watching television, when it is television that is looking after us. The Sunday schedule is therefore comparable to the organised ‘activities’ that are imposed on two ‘vulnerable’ categories of the population: children and the elderly. To review these programs according to good taste, aesthetics, or cultural dignity makes no more sense than to expect an old folks home to be anything other than a lesser evil, when everything that matters in life is missing.  
TV as a mass medium? A strange mass in any case. Not the real crowds that haunted theatres, circuses or cinemas. A crowd obeys an unpredictable logic since it’s more than the sum of its individuals (what’s more random than crowd movements?). Whereas the masses targeted by television are only this sum (the equivalent of yesterday’s crowd movements could be found in the fluctuations of today’s customer satisfaction indexes), and even a bit less. Mass media audiences, especially of Sunday television, are but a large collection of atomised households abstractly targeted by a concept of statistical programming. Fellini has given a great description of this pernicious effect of television, capable of simulating the old variety shows in front of an audience of shadows and to the sound of their pre-recorded laughter. And if Fellini gets it right in Ginger and Fred, it’s because the logical solitude of dancers on stage (to which he can only identify) is accompanied by two others (that make him rather melancholic). The solitude of the fake audience on the TV set, naively charmed by the spotlights, an audience that claps on demand and that is sent home once its role as a wallflower is over. And the solitude of the audience at home, who has no other recourse than to believe there’s something like a collective, present everywhere except at home. 
The word solitude is the most adequate when we talk about mass communication. But this solitude has a history which moved from cinema to television and which, every Sunday, continues in a stifled atmosphere. This solitude is first linked to the technical nature of recording. “At the theatre”, said Guitry, “the actor plays. At the cinema, the actor has played.”  Although the audience is collectively present, it is in communion through the contemplation of what has happened, once, and which will always come back. The cinephiles in this audience must have felt the solitude of the cinema actor, conscious that he will be seen (and loved) afterward, unimaginable at the theatre. And the more cinema lost its monopoly over mass communication, the more the solitude of the cinephile became a possible burden to carry (bravely or perversely, take your pick). Alone in a sometimes empty film theatre, alone with one’s own company and with the film as a mirror of oneself. But the solitude of cinema is still an act, a choice, the simulation of an encounter in the theatre or on the screen, the senseless hope for this encounter (even when suspicious). It’s an active solitude. In general, the solitude of television is passive. 
Some will say that Sunday television, with its game shows, crowded studio sets and united families is the opposite of solitude. I would reply that promiscuity does not always save you from solitude, and that it is possible to feel very lonely among the ones you live with (and even the ones you love) or when facing Sunday entertainment with its images intended to please everybody a little and nobody in particular. Of course, some adapt to the constraints: women pretend to watch the sports that men devour and men accept to share the maternal emotions of their wives when watching the kids exhibited on the Jacques Martin show. Families live with compromises, they have no other way.  
Through continuous dumbing down, Sunday television has become shameful. But it is the shame of having only Sunday to rest, to breathe a little, to rebuild the labour force. This is how television fulfils another function beyond caretaking, that of maintenance. Maintenance of human material and minimal management of the free time of those whose last remaining freedom is merely to digest after a Sunday lunch. The specialised personnel of these shows (the obviously complex figure of Jacques Martin is emblematic of this), also seems to oscillate between the desire to scream that everything is not fine and that true life is elsewhere, and the moving feeling of lending a charitable hand to an audience which is captive, tired, vaguely converted or gently indifferent. From the beginning of time, the monopoly over the treatment of misery and over the techniques of comforting has created priests. Priests have no illusions about the illusions they have lost but they are right to believe that they are in touch with a form of reality.  
That this reality (which demands the triumph of charity) is not glorious and that it’s accepted that “someone has to do this work” (and to receive the profits) shows that we are in a liturgic space where it’s purely about negotiating the abyss of ‘free’ time between the austere morning mass and the showy mass of the evening news. Each Sunday, television (uselessly) shows families to (supposedly) useless families, and it rushes to fly to the rescue of the latter by telling them that their prison is definitive, that there is no ‘true life’ elsewhere, and that even if there was one, we would have to go through television.  
Sylvie’s job timetabled their lives. Their week was made of good days – Mondays, because they had the morning off and because the cinemas changed their films; Wednesdays, because they had a free afternoon; and Fridays, because they had the whole day off and, once again, the films changed – and bad days: all the rest. Sunday was an intermediate day, pleasant in the morning (they would stay in bed, the Paris weeklies would come), boring in the afternoon, gloomy in the evening unless, by chance, there was a film to attract them, but it was not often that two notable or even just watchable films were put on in the same half-week.   
Abstract from Georges Perec’s Things. Translation by David Bellows.

First published in Dimanche, le temps suspendu, edited by Nicole Czechowski, Paris, Autrement, May 1989. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Critical Function



Here's the last text in our effort to salvage the translations from Steve Erickson's defunct website. I've republished the ones that were lost and have added links to the ones available elsewhere. A few are missing but there are plans to publish them soon.

This last text is an important one but perhaps more for its historical significance. It was written as Cahiers du cinéma were transitioning from their attempt to create a Marxist-Leninist "cultural front" in the early 1970s to a slow return to cinema as Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana took over as editors. It was originally published in four parts between September 1973 and October 1974. The translation below from the volume 4 of Cahiers du cinéma in English somewhat only includes parts 1,3 and 4, omitting a middle section entitled “the people and its fantasies”.

The Critical Function

 
What form should our ‘interventions’ take? How has ‘film criticism’ been defined in Cahiers? (It’s after all our main inheritance from the journal’s past.) There have been two answers, two periods, two tendencies, the one hiding the other and both marked by a certain dogmatism.

 
First, the aesthetic criterion and the political criterion are given equal status. We assume that ‘if there is something missing on the formal level there must also be something missing on the political level’. We remind those inclined to forget it that ‘forms are not neutral’, but this is just an excuse for not investigating their very real content, for not spelling out this content in political terms – we leave that to others.

 
Second, politics is ‘the order of the day’. We no longer leave it to others to pronounce on political content. But we don’t look any further than the scenario, and we limit ourselves to orthodox Marxist-Leninist Theory, conceived more as an ultimate reference point than as a (critical) guide to action.

 
The difficulty, as one can see, is to think of the aesthetic criterion neither as equal (equivalent, analogous) to the political criterion nor as flowing automatically from it but as secondary. This is a very real difficulty and one which must be tackled. For example, by asking ourselves (which we have not done) à propos of progressive films, from Z to Sate of Siege (1) (for these are our primary concern), how we can criticize them effectively, how we can make them progress even further, and ourselves with them, how we can give concrete, straightforward support to those who are using these films today, whether through positive or negative example, in cine-clubs, youth clubs, etc (2). A question which must serve as a guide for the ‘film criticism’ which we have neglected for too long. This text is simply a first attempt at setting the problem out. Others will follow.

 
To write about films (to ‘intervene’) is perhaps, in the last analysis, to establish how, for each film, someone is saying something to us. In other words it is to specify two terms: the statement (what is said) and the enunciation (when it is said and by whom) (3). People will say that it’s a truism. That every Marxist knows (it’s the first thing they learn) that dominant ideas are those of the dominant class and that a film is a means like any other for the bourgeoisie to impose its vision of the world. But this knowledge remains dead, dogmatic, stereotyped and – as we have discovered – ineffective if we are unable to understand how it is imposed in particular films. 

 
In this very journal we have tended for a long time to look for this ‘how’ in areas where no one, except on the mystical far left, was looking for it: in the basic apparatus, or in the structure of fiction or in the configuration of a cinema and the places it assigns. It is not that we were wrong, that all this is false and that all work along these lines must be abandoned. It’s rather that by indicating obstacles which seemed to have to do with the very nature of the cinema, we were bound to have nothing to say when called upon to make a concrete, ‘intervention’ in respect of particular films. 

 
We urgently need to give ourselves the means, including the theoretical means, to specify the exact relation that each film maintains between statement and enunciation – above all, in borderline cases where the relation is unclear and where therefore the element of mystification is greatest. 


This must be done for films where the statement predominates. In a documentary or a television programme, a discourse is presented, but it is so neutral, so objective, that it seems to be coming from no one in particular. We have to remind people forcefully, with examples to prove the point, that there cannot be disembodied statements, a timeless truth or an isolated, free-floating discourse. 

 
And it must be done for films where the enunciation predominates. In a film d’auteur there is indeed a discourse, but it is spoken by someone who claims so much attention (the auteur) that it fades into the background. We must clearly remind people that behind the auteur and his rich subjectivity there is always, in the last analysis, a class which is speaking. And a class has objective interests, quite apart from the fact that any enunciation implies a statement. Let us note, in passing, that these two aspects can perfectly well co-exist, as in Antonioni’s recent film on China (4). An excess of neutrality (no one is speaking but something precise is being said) or an excess of subjectivity (someone is speaking and saying nothing): these are two denials which we ought to be able to recognize for what they are. This said, they are not symmetrical and they have to be fought against with different weapons: you wouldn’t handle the false neutrality of the commentary in a television programme on Stalin in the same way as you would the false ‘drifting’ of Bertolucci’s latest film (5). 

 
These are extreme cases. Between the two, you have the mass of films that still go under the heading of ‘critical realism’, and among them the so-called ‘progressive’ films. The very expression ‘critical realism’ indicates how necessary it is for filmmakers to think as much about their statements (realism) as about their enunciation (critical realism). Now, in these films (whether R.A.S. or Lucky Luciano (6), you can be sure that there will be others), the dividing line between statement and enunciation is always mobile, shifting, unclear. This is what allows these films to function.

 
Let us take R.A.S., for example. You have the time of the statement (1956; the Algerian war; the recalled soldiers) and the time of the enunciation (1973; France; the loi Debré; the ‘army crisis’ and the youth movement (7)). Even if the statement appears easily to predominate, you can’t get away from the fact that each scene of the film is readable in both contexts, it can be read either way and the reader can choose. Let’s be clear: it isn’t this double reading which is awkward. A film on the French army during the Hundred Years War couldn’t fail to be seen in the light of the army of Massu and de Joybert (8). A double reading is not awkward: it is inevitable. What is problematical is the filmmaker’s relation to this double reading: this is what allow us, in specific situations, to distinguish between a reactionary, a progressive and a revolutionary filmmaker depending on whether he denies it, whether he plays on it or whether he is truly responsible for it. 

Permutations of the statement

 
Who says what? Where and when?

 
Nevertheless, for any class, in any class-based society, the political criterion comes first and the artistic criterion second. (Mao)

 
Destroying an idea

 
We must get rid of a generally accepted idea according to which ‘positivity’ (the positivity of a message or of a hero) is of interest only to the propagandists, the party men, the big sectarian and Zhdanovian dinosaurs. It is nothing other than the outmoded and tedious consistency required of conscious heroes, clear messages, a precise political line; which makes it somehow edifying (in the religious sense) and, as they say, ‘heavily didactic’. Instead of this, in 1974, bourgeois filmmakers (Malle, Cavani, etc.) prefer to ‘decode’ the past, no longer even trying to prove anything at all. Fascinated by the inexplicable, they explain virtually nothing, being content – supported, valorized by a servile criticism (9) – to be ‘daring’ and show what was still hidden only yesterday (sex and politics and what passes for their privileged meeting point, fascism). Their courage is praised; people are grateful to them for not presenting things in black and white and for so pleasurably suspending judgement as they offer tragic dossiers of the kind that television is forever reopening: the Occupation, racism, fascism. Their positivity resides, if you like, in the fact that instead of generally accepted explanations they offer no explanations at all or else an overabundance of them. Too many explanations or too few.

 
We have no intention of replacing their ‘ambiguity’ (another fetish word) by our certainties, Marxist-Leninist or otherwise. To re-emphasize, in response to Malle, the truth and nobility of the Resistance (which he does not deny) or, in response to Antonioni or Yanne, the massive achievements of the Chinese people (which they fully acknowledge – just like Peyrefitte (10)) is a correct but defensive manoeuvre, the very minimum that has to be done. For ambiguity involves not a failure of knowledge or an uncertain knowledge (in which case it would be enough – armed with superior, indeed absolute knowledge – simply to fill in the gaps) but another type of knowledge. Malle and co. do not specialize in the inexplicable (despite their inner agonizing), but in the inexplicit. The inexplicit is not the opposite of positivity, it is one of the forms it takes (the dominant form, even).

 
In other words: each class possesses its own style of ideological struggle, its own way of putting across its view of the world, its (positive) ideas. Positive: that is to say, effective, easy to adopt and to put into practice. Bourgeois propaganda doesn’t take the same form as revolutionary propaganda, any more than bourgeois information, or criticism, or art.

 
In short, we must destroy the idea that positivity is a limited concept or one left over from the past. It is not true that on the one hand you have the ‘system’ (art or commerce, art and commerce) and on the other ‘militant’ films (politics without either art of commerce). Positivity is not the exception but the rule. All films are militant films.

 
A film is always positive for someone

 
A class puts across its positive ideas, its ‘natural’ conception of the world. That means it puts its ideas into action (and in the case of the cinema into images) in such a way that they can be not only read and recognized but adopted and transformed into something else, into a material force, for instance. Take ideas like: ‘Our motives are decidedly impenetrable’, or ‘There’s something of the torturer and the victim in everyone, that’s for sure’ – two fashionable, retro-style stereotypes. Their formulation may well be negative or ambiguous, but from the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie and its immediate interests they are nevertheless positive ideas.

 
And these ideas are all the more harmful for never being made explicit in the body of the film. It is the hypnotized spectator who ‘freely’ draws the lesson whispered in his ear, who cuts along the dotted lines he cannot see. The film’s implicit discourse sends the spectator into a frenzy of interpretation which makes him or her forget the poverty and banality (sometimes the sheer stupidity: Cavani) of the lesson (11).

 
But how is the question of positivity any different from that of meaning, of signification? The fact is that the question of signification, taken by itself, is a meaningless one, of no concern to anyone. In Cahiers itself, the battle cry has been: ‘You don’t see a film. You read it.’ Fine. But this reading, this search for ‘discrete elements’ here, for bits of information there, wouldn’t serve much purpose (except as fodder for academic rumination, as sustenance for semiologists) if one didn’t know what it is that happens on the side of the receiver. The critic must be able to read a film: he or she must also know how the others, the non-readers, read. And there is just one way to find out: by inquiry. For it is a question not only of reintroducing the receiver into communication theory, not in the abstract sense (the general public) nor even in the concrete sense (a given social group or individual); but of remembering that the receiver is also something other than a receiver. Just like the film he is seeing, he is involved in the class struggle, he plays a part in it. And it is on the basis of this struggle, and the turns it takes, that the problem of positivity, as it affects all films, can be posed (for whom? against whom?); on the basis of this struggle too that one can begin to reply.

 
1974: Even for Pariscope, there are political films (12)

 
For whom? Against whom? We do not raise these issues out of dogmatism or a liking for clear-cut oppositions. For if the bourgeoisie never poses this question of positivity (if it did it would have to admit the class nature of its power), it is always coming up with answers. And especially so today. In 1974, all the way through (13) the system of film production and distribution, in France and also no doubt in Italy, right-wing film-makers have seized the initiative. Via all the reactionary, period-style films sympathetic to fascism (or just fascinated by it and therefore – and this is what gives cause for concern – incapable of struggling against it). Malle, Oury, Yanne and the rest have set themselves an ambitious task, politically, ideologically and indeed formally: to propose a new image, a new characterization of France and its inhabitants, the French, to represent on the screen the ‘average Frenchman’ and his two Others, the two objects of his increasingly obvious racism, those who are not French (foreigners) and those who are not average (those who are relegated to the margins). In other words: bourgeois ideologues and artists are working steadily to build a new image of the French people (14).

 
As a result of this shift (the death of Gaullist ideology, the death of Pompidou, the crisis of a bourgeois humanist discourse in need of patching up), it is no longer enough to criticize mainstream cinema as one has done for years, taking it to task for ‘abandoning the real’, for neglecting certain subjects, for excluding or repressing others. It is no longer a simple question of repression. It is not enough to reproach bourgeois filmmakers for not speaking of politics or sex or work or even History since they are the ones talking about these things today. The bourgeoisie can very well hold a (bourgeois) discourse on what, only yesterday, it still wanted to hide: it can film sexual debauchery if it keeps its monopoly over a normative (educational) discourse on sex. It can anchor its fictions in History if it has emptied the word of all content. That is how Malle’s ‘decoding’ operation works (sex: Le Souffle au Coeur; History: Lacombe Lucien; the working-class situation: Humain, trop humain).

 
‘Progressive’ filmmakers are disconcerted by it all. To take an example: how do you explain the commercial success, at the same time, of two films like Lacombe Lucien and Les Violons du bal (15)? The fact is that they bring alive, for the public at large, a part of recent French history that has been veiled in secrecy or misrepresented for far too long. And yet these two films do not occupy the same ground, do not engage in any sort of struggle with each other. The humanist denunciation of racism in Drach’s film would have to be aimed at a cinema which suppressed racism, which refused to speak about it, to have any impact. Even a purely abstract denunciation would then have some point, some urgency. But in the light of Malle’s film it appears for what it actually is: humanitarian and ineffective. For what Drach must repress in the name of his abstract humanism (class contradictions). Malle allows himself the luxury of inscribing (Lucien, the illiterate peasant boy, etc.). Where Drach says nothing at all, Malle exaggerates. For it is obvious that the fact of inscribing such details doesn’t make Malle (any more than the Kazan of The Visitors) a progressive film-maker: class contradictions, for him, are basically no different from other contradictions – they can always be overtaken and absorbed into a metaphysical overview in which they become accidents, particular (historical) instances of an a-historical split: the eternal ambiguity of ‘human nature’ (16).

 
We have to recognise that fascist ideology (and this is one of its characteristics) accepts the existence of contradictions, of the class struggle (usually to deplore it, to move beyond it). We have to know that today the struggle must encompass point of view as well as choice of subject. As our Italian comrades of La Commune remind us: ‘It is not enough to counter the false statements of the bourgeoisie. In and through our own statements we must convey a different view of the world.’ For filmmakers of all leanings, in this near-open battle, in their very craft of filmmaking, a single problem emerges: How can political statements be presented cinematically? How can they be made positive?

 
Statement/enunciation [énoncé/énonciation]

 
This cinematic presentation carries another name: enunciation. It consists in the articulation of two main terms: the carrier of the statements (who is speaking?) and the terrain on which they are brought into play (where and when and in what context?). A film’s positivity (whose interests are served?) is based on the nature of the link between statement and enunciation. That is why criticizing a film doesn’t mean shadowing it with a complicit or, as Barthes would say, cosmetic discourse. It doesn’t even mean unfolding it or opening it out. It means opening it up along this imaginary line which passes between statement and enunciation, allowing us to read them side by side, in their problematical, disjointed relationship – and so not being afraid of destroying the false unity conferred on them in the ‘present’ of a cinematic projection.

 
There can be no statement without enunciation. This is the inescapable reality of all discourse, of all fictional films. It is what allows us to avoid the trap of a content-based criticism (a trap which lies in wait for militant criticism, one it falls into all too often). For a criticism of content which did no more than assess the truth (or falsity) of statements, which failed to examine the part they play in the film’s organization, would be (and is) singularly lost for words, singularly ineffective (and quickly reduced to indignation or dogmatism) when required to intervene in day-to-day ideological struggles. ‘Belief in the intrinsic force of the true idea’ is not enough, was never enough to bring a (political or ideological) struggle to a successful conclusion. As Serge Toubiana reminded us, apropos of La Villeggiatura (17): ‘Just because a character makes some politically valid comments doesn’t mean that the film’s discourse, the author’s discourse, has taken it over and is fully responsible for it. 
’

For what characterizes a discourse, a statement, is that it can be made, quoted, repeated, carried by anyone. The links between statement, carrier and terrain are not obvious and natural: we are always dealing with some combination of the three. In a future text, we shall try to describe some of these. The list is long and varied; statements can appear to have no carriers, or too many, they can be carried badly, they can be lost, stolen, hijacked, etc. But there is one of these combinations which we encounter all the time: when a statement that is (politically) true is taken over, carried, by its worst enemy on a terrain where it can have no impact at all. 

 
One example (among thousands). Not so long ago the ORTF showed a short film on prisons. While the camera panned smoothly along the white walls of a model prison, the voice-over took up, in its own right and in its own language, a certain number of demands and problems expressed elsewhere (that is to say everywhere except on television) by prisoners themselves. A content-based criticism will be satisfied with that and rightly see in it the effect – to be read in to the film (18) – of the prisoners’ real struggle without which the film would never have been made in the first place. But isn’t it obvious to everyone that a film like this is inherently different from Attica (19)? The difference can be briefly resumed in the following way: not only are the prisoners in Attica the carriers of true statements which express the truth of this revolt, and every other, against the lies of those in authority, but the prisoners are also those for whom these statements are true (those who can appropriate them and mobilize them for their future struggles); they are the right people to be carrying them. Finally they are carrying them on a terrain (the yard that is occupied, filmed, transformed into a set) that they have built themselves, creating the material conditions for their enunciation and ‘producing’ a great film. 

 
Anti-retro (continued) (20)

 
Two false couples

 
I would like to come back to The Night Porter and, in particular, to a scene that occurs towards the end of the film. In it we see the night porter (Max) meet his friends (Hans and co.) who, like him, are one-time Nazis gradually shedding their guilt – forgetting the past – and finding their place again in society. To be more exact, Max appears before them for – in this matter of his past, linked to theirs, a past in process of liquidation – there are things he must account for. The scene takes place at the top of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Hans and the others are deadly serious; Max, on the contrary is ironical and derisive. To cut short this interview which is getting him down and which, as far as he is concerned, is totally pointless, he tries a mock Hitler salute to which the others – reflex action or the return of the repressed? – respond, giving him just enough time to slip away.

 
At this precise moment in the film, we the spectators know a certain number of things about the night porter. We have seen him meeting up ‘by chance’ with his favourite victim, resuming relations with her, etc. Having been placed in the position of a voyeur (one more eye), we know things about Max that other people (Hans and the others, for instance) don’t. We are in control of this story that is being told for us alone. Hans and his companions are wrong for two reasons: first, because they have been Nazis and are still Nazis at heart since they are still interested in power; and, second, because they don’t see, know or guess anything of what is happening to Max, either in his head (inside him) or in his flat (his private space). They are doubly inferior for reasons which relate first to content and second to the mise en scène of this content in and through the fiction. We, on the other hand, are right for two reasons: first, because we are not Nazis; and, second, because we can observe and perhaps understand what is going on in the mad love between Max and Lucia. We are doubly superior first because we have a clear conscience and second because this clear conscience is reaffirmed in and through the fiction. Let us assume the existence of a law, one we had better know about, concerning the organization of fiction: a piece of fiction (the network of events seen, known or implied, everything that constitutes a film’s internal knowledge) is not only an enigma for the spectator but also, in the imaginary space where they exist, for the ‘characters’ themselves, shadowy beings who also want to find out more, to see more. 

 
This knowledge (about the film, within the film), this mastery, this clear conscience have their price. Let us come back to the scene on the cathedral rooftop. Between Hans, the neo-Nazi undergoing social recycling, and Max, the ex-Nazi who is willing – fairly romantically – to die for it, we simply have to choose. We will be (whether consciously or not doesn’t really matter) in favour of the one who ‘assumes’ his Nazi identity and gets back in touch with his humanity (21) (Max), and against the one who represses himself as a Nazi and so continues to seem completely inhuman (Hans). We will be on the side of madness and humour and against the killer (a torturer yesterday and today). The whole film must, in a sense, culminate in this choice, make it seem natural, obvious to us. To refuse to make this choice (in the darkness of the cinema) is to refuse to see the film, to enter into it, to be one more eye. But as we know – and this is the point – the film is not short of spectators (336,107 admissions to 3 September 1974).

 
Not so long ago a television series, Dossiers de l’écran, devoted a programme (a film plus a debate) to Count Ciano (22). The pretext was that the countess of the same name – daughter of Mussolini and widow of Ciano – had (finally!) accepted an invitation to participate. The film was Carlo Lizzani’s feeble Il Processo di Verona [1962]. The question it raised was to what extent Ciano, a fascist but a germanophobe, had moved away from the Duce (who got rid of him). Already in the film, forced to choose between a Mussolini removed from the scene but all the more present for that and a Ciano who is indecisive, human, full of doubts and worries, the viewer could hardly not ‘sympathize’ with the less bad of the two, that is to say, with Ciano (just as he or she would no doubt have tended to ‘sympathize’ with Mussolini if the choice had been between him and Hitler). In the debate that follows, there is absolutely no mention of the Italian resistance. It’s as if the main opposition is between Mussolini and Ciano, with the latter representing from within fascism everything in the Italian people which resisted fascism and fought against it. Let us add, for the record, that Ciano’s widow, whose contribution to the debate is entirely frivolous, did nevertheless have the last word, stating that fascism (she admits: ‘Perhaps, I’m stupid’) had been and continued to be ‘the best thing for Italy’ – an idea that P. Cardonnel has rightly protested against in a recent article in Le Monde.

 
Either/or

 
What do these two examples (Hans and Max, Mussolini and Ciano) have in common? They make you choose (you have to make up your mind) the less bad of two terms (chosen in advance from within the enemy camp). The main opposition (the real one, the one in relation to which you have to situate yourself) moves elsewhere, passing through one camp only, that of the enemy. Knowing which one, out of Hans and Max of Ciano and Mussolini (and one would guess that the list is endless, that these false couples are everywhere: Hitler can be set against Röhm, Nixon can be compared with Wallace, Guy Lux with Michel Droit (23), Pariscope with Ici-Paris, etc.), represents the lesser evil becomes the only question that is asked and, very soon, the principal question. What is important is that, in this displacement of the opposition, the spectator has something to gain, something that has to do with the fulfillment of desire: a privileged view from above, a chance to step outside History, the right to enjoy the spectacle of contradictions between famous people and to choose between them. (This ties in with a whole conception of History ‘for the people’, Historia, etc. (24)) Nothing could be more fictional than this right that is conferred on the spectator of fiction. Manipulated, he or she joins the ranks of the televised housewife who recognizes (by touching them or smelling them, I can’t remember) which of two piles of laundry is the whiter, not realizing that she is being made to perform twice over: by the ORTF and by a corporation like Unilever feigning – in her person – a competition all the more frenetic for being illusory. 

 
We are saying: the spectator’s knowledge is bought at a price, and the underside of mastery is submission. This submission doesn’t come about only in the cinema: you choose between two presidents, two answers, two names, two washing powders within the same ‘either/or’ framework, failing to remember that you can refuse to choose between these two terms and insist on others that are more legitimate and more in line with your interests. For there is only ever one question, that of knowing exactly who is asking the questions. 

 
Let us go a little further. A characteristic of bourgeois ideology is that it is for ever asking you to choose. A characteristic of the ‘retro style’ is that this choice is always situated inside the camp of yesterday’s enemy (so that nothing has to be said about today’s). Struggling against this twofold mechanism means not only criticizing the way in which the bourgeoisie in general poses its questions, but also finding another questioning system to put in its place. For this, two things are needed. First, a theory of what I shall call ‘compulsory choice’ (or arbitration). This would help us to detect the ‘either/or’ configuration everywhere it operates (elections of course (25) – questionnaires, surveys, opinion polls – fiction), and show us that it is a manipulatory, hence authoritarian technique. Second, what must be called (and not simply as a piece of wishful thinking) a definition of what constitutes the people’s camp in France in 1974. Only in this definition can we even roughly trace a line from which we can start to learn to ask questions again – our own. 

 
Compulsory choice

 
I must now answer a question that the reader must have asked him or herself. We know that The Night Porter is not seen by a ‘spectator’ aloof from the class struggle but in the main by a petit-bourgeois audience whose ideology and fantasies it echoes and supports (conferring on them, by way of a bonus, the dignity of the work of art). It is therefore dangerous to assume that a popular audience will react in the same way to this particular film as the intellectual petite-bourgeoisie. What is at issue is the social class of the audience. Two things follow from this. First, the mechanism of ‘compulsory choice’ is integral to bourgeois ideology. It becomes more specific when it is taken over, internalized by the different classes dominated by the bourgeoisie. According to whether it is experienced (taken over) by the petite-bourgeoisie or experienced (suffered) by the masses, it takes different forms – and a knowledge of these forms will depend on surveys still to be carried out, practical surveys into how films are actually received. Second, a further specification, relating to the particular medium of film: there is hysteria (26) inherent in cinematic projection. 

 
Arbitration 


Let us come back to our two examples. The television programme on Ciano was not so much trying to make the viewers think as to get them to commit themselves emotionally. Let us suppose that a popular audience, even if the choices presented to it are not its own, comes down in favour of one side or another. This, travestied in the bourgeois presentation of sport, is the logic of the supporter. But it is also, when seen in its true light, that of commitment. The petite-bourgeoisie on the contrary – this is the very form its fantasy takes – internalizes both sides, both terms, and is for ever keeping the score. To take the sporting metaphor one step further, this is the logic of the referee. Acting the referee, for a class that is divided, hesitant, unsure of itself etc., is a means of preserving its existence, of giving itself, a little weight, a little meaning. To be a referee, to be an arbiter, you have to know the rules and be able to apply them. Legalism: taking the Other at his word, the Other: the bourgeois. 

 
Two different attitudes are involved here. In the very excess of his commitment, the supporter may always see the feebleness of what he is supporting and redirect the excess in positive ways. The referee, on the other hand, is easily convinced of the importance of his role: without him, so he thinks, the game could not take place. He easily forgets that there is no referee for the class struggle. 

 
This idea that the class struggle can be followed from a distance and pronounced upon, though completely false, is very much alive, even among the masses. Revisionism has a lot to do with it. You cannot with impunity present class confrontation in terms of a peaceful rivalry, you cannot ask the masses to choose, on the evidence presented to them, the least bad manager of bourgeois affairs, without making them more aware of  the ideological hegemony of the petite-bourgeoisie (a hegemony in which the general idea of ‘arbitration’ is a principal element). 

 
That is why it is no good saying to oneself, by way of reassurance, that The Night Porter is just a petit-bourgeois film. In the domain of the cinema, the assimilation of the dominant ideology by a popular audience means that the auteur film (thought, reflection, experimentation, a signature) can combine with the pornographic-film-set-in-a-concentration-camp, a ‘popular’ genre of which there are many recent examples, like Camp spécial no. 7 or Goodbye Uncle Tom by the fetid Jacopetti. And this combination is precisely what we find in The Night Porter. 
 
Hysteria
 
The fantasy of being the referee or arbiter (knowing the rules, applying them and, in this case, taking the Other at his word) goes with the position of the spectator. The hysteric is a prisoner of the discourse of the Other. And fiction relies crucially on the desire for this discourse. In letting the (desiring) spectators into the rectangle of light, it presents them with two Others (in the enemy camp) and forces them to choose the one whose discourse they will support and identify with. It’s what Hollywood film-makers have always known. Take Hitchcock. What finer metaphor for the place of the spectator (for hysterical desire) than North by Northwest? A man (Gary Grant) is accidentally mistaken for another, an Other who is about to be killed. To save his skin he tries to become this Other. He is not successful; for the Other does not exist: he is a fictional character invented by the FBI as a bait for some spies (in the pay of the Soviets). It is Gary Grant (and not the Other he wanted to become) who ends up helping the FBI of his own free will. In the film, as in the reality which produced it, fiction is a power structure. 

 
The people’s camp 


The fiction (27) we are talking about here, the kind that obliges you to make choices from within the enemy camp, must be fought against, and therefore understood. We have to be able to say why these couples, these choices, are false, why the really important opposition – yesterday as today – is not between Hans and Max or Ciano and Mussolini. There is, of course, no question of denying these oppositions, but it isn’t tolerable, even in a film, that they should function as the main ones, and the point needs to be made urgently. There is also, of course, no question of denying that something can be learned, that there are lessons to be drawn from these oppositions, but ‘teaching by negative example’ simply doesn’t work, is just an idle illusion, unless a positive alternative already exists in relation to which the negative can be situated, graded and criticized, and can provide valuable lessons. Now, the question of the positive alternative is always specifically, directly political. Where is the main dividing line in France, today? Where is the analysis of class in French society? These questions should not be thought too large or too general. In so far as film criticism aims to intervene politically in the ideological struggle, it must link up with what it considers to be the people’s camp (always in the making through popular struggles), beginning from (but not limiting itself to) the particular place from which it speaks (the cinema).

 
For that, it is not enough to recite ‘On a just resolution to contradictions among the people’, to say with Mao that ‘the notion of “the people” assumes a different meaning in different countries and a different periods of history’. Or to recall that there exist different types of contradiction and therefore different modes of resolution. These (infinitely true) principles are likely to prove irrelevant if they are made to function dogmatically. It was Mao who said: ‘The dogmatic are lazy.’ They are lazy if they do not consider what (or who) is involved and what is at stake in different kinds of contradiction. Fighting dogmatism means, for a film critic, facing up to a question that has become unavoidable: in the name of what do I criticize? 

 
Criticism in the name of what?

 
Let us return once again to our point of departure: the ‘retro-style’. Its ‘merit’ was to bring to light the weakness, the ineffectiveness, and even the mistakes of a criticism based on principles. A criticism that brings only moral disapproval into play. A criticism that reproaches Malle or Cavani for the philosophical assumptions of their films. These assumptions relate to the most hackneyed idealism. But precisely, the struggle against idealism is eternal (Engels). A criticism, finally, which consists in setting these films against ‘historical truth’. For this truth is not a given. It can’t be reduced to a formula like ‘Gradually the French people recovered the desire to fight’ (Foucault’s example) or hollow stereotypes like ‘The French people resisted heroically’. This truth needs a corpus that can be assembled and reassembled; the fact that the image of the French resistance, for example, is monopolized by Gaullism and the PCF [French Communist Party], and that there isn’t another one, must not be repressed. Now that a rich literature is being published on this period, now that a man like Guingoin is finally publishing his memoirs, it’s a question of saying: this image can be assembled, the image of a maquis organizing the people for the postwar period. It’s time to say: that could be the subject of a film. And to add: our comrades in Lotta Continua have done it for Italy. 

 
Film criticism in the name of what? In the name of something which is not given, but which exists in embryo, in the form of scattered elements that are repressed and disguised, impossible to recognize on occasion because they are differently coded. How can we build on these elements if we are not in a position to encourage them when they surface, to bring them back to life when they disappear? It is then, as we sift through the evidence, that principles come into their own, are truly useful, and that the experience of our Chinese comrades, for instance, becomes something other than a bleak recitation.

 
In the various individual confrontations of the class struggle, the enemy can score a point only if there is weakness on the other side. One such weakness is the absence of what might be called a perspective of the left on the analysis of fascism, one that is reasonably coherent and actively applied. Fascism poses two questions today: that of power as an exception (the departure from bourgeois democracy) and that of the eroticization of this power. On these questions the Marxist economic tradition, which has come down to us along with revisionism, has nothing to say. And what we know is that if this perspective of the left can be constructed, as it must be, it won’t be in the name of some remote dogma, or even the endlessly repeated names of Brecht or Reich, but on the basis of what, today, in the practice of those who meet these questions in their struggle, already contains this construction. 

 
Criticism would then become something more heterogeneous, something less settled than the simple metalanguage it is today. Neither a catalogue of what is beautiful (old-style cinephilia) nor an account of what is wrong (new-style dogmatism). For there are beautiful films that are harmful (‘poisonous plants’, as they say in China) and mistakes from which much can be learned. To criticize would be to specify, for a film or a mode, the precise terrain (28) on which it intervenes, the issue on which it adopts a position. You would no longer say: Malle is an idealist or Malle is an academic film-maker (though these statements are true). You would say: the real subject of Lacombe Lucien is the memory of popular struggles. From his point of view, that of an upper-class liberal, Malle is right: this terrain, deserted by revisionism, is still neglected; and there is hardly anyone in a position to make it productive (but there is Le Peuple français (29) in France, and in Italy Dario Fo).

 
From our point of view, we must build on everything that will help us establish a perspective of the left on popular memory (we must read, investigate, translate the considerable contribution of the Latin Americans, Sanjines, Littin, etc.).

 
This perspective of the left doesn’t yet exist, it isn’t there for us to apply. Often, it will even require translation. Let us return to the example of Malle’s film and ask a simple question: is there anything today in the cinema (in this specific arrangement of images and sounds) that you could set against Lacombe Lucien? There is not. But in another area, itself heterogeneous (history? literature?) M. Foucault’s work on Pierre Rivière provides a starting point, a possible counter-argument to Malle’s theme of the ‘primitive as plaything of a stupid history’ (30).

 
This argument has already been set out in the interview with M. Foucault. Let us return to it briefly.  What is important for Malle? That Lacombe doesn’t internalize anything or memorize anything, that he can be made to carry statements that he doesn’t even understand (31) and would be incapable of making in his own right? For Malle, Lacombe is a barbarian (who answers to nothing but nature, human or vegetable). For the revisionist Emile Breton, on the other hand, Lacombe bears witness to the ‘confusion of certain social strata as yet incapable of producing for themselves a scientific analysis of the world’ (Nouvelle Critique, no. 72). His development has therefore not progressed very far. The problem is: how can we think of Lacombe as anything other than a barbarian (who lacks humanity) or as underdeveloped (lacking knowledge)? When Foucault speaks about Rivière, what he emphasizes is that, if Rivière lacks knowledge, he doesn’t lack discourse, or memory. Alienated doesn’t mean a-historical. 

 
The fact is that Malle poses (and resolves – for the bourgeoisie) a problem on which a left viewpoint can be established. The problem is this: how can you construct a piece of fiction (a story) from a perspective which does not imply an ‘absolute knowledge’ (of History)?

 
In Malle’s system (to which, in this very journal, we had applied the term ‘modernist’), the only person you could possibly contrast with Lacombe is not another peasant but a master – even if, cunningly, the master is unworthy (the schoolmaster in the film) or easily blamed (Malle since 1968). To get out of the system you have to ask another question (Littin’s, for example, in this issue): how can you accurately retrace a process from the viewpoint of those who do not master it fully, those who neither speak nor theorize?

 
This question is always going to require our intervention. That is the meaning of ‘anti-retro’. 


Notes:

 
(1) Z (1968) and State of Siege (1973): films by Costas-Gravas, the first about a plot to murder a left-wing Greek politician, the second about the clandestine involvement of the CIA in Latin America.

 
(2) Youth clubs: the publicly funded Maisons de la Jeunesse et de la Culture. (Translator’s note) 


(3) The statement and the enunciation: in French, l’énoncé and l’énonciation, a usage deriving from the linguist Emile Benveniste’s distinction between the art whereby an utterance is produced (énonciation) and what is uttered (énoncé).

 
(4) I.e. the documentary Chung Kuo (China), discussed by Jacques Aumont in Cahiers 248.

 
(5) I.e. Last Tango in Paris. We have been unable to identify the television programme referred to here. 


(6) R.A.S. (Yves Boisset, 1973); Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1973).

 
(7) The loi Debré: a law which obliged students to complete their military service before the age of twenty-one. It was perceived by the left as a way of suppressing the student movement. 


(8) Jacques Massu and Marc de Joybert, French military leaders during the Algerian war. Massu was dismissed by de Gaulle in January 1960 for publicly opposing his policy of self-determination in Algeria.

 
(9) An example of ‘impressionable’ criticism: Bory (on Cavani): ‘Where reason is powerless, where logic disappears, where morality is beside the point, where darkness, the unconscious, the unavowed and the unavowable hold sway, how can you analyse? It’s better to show.’ (Author’s note)

 
(10) The reference is to Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo (1972) and Jean Yanne’s Les Chinois à Paris (1974). Alain Peyrefitte, French politician and writer, published a book on China in 1973. (Translator’s note.)

 
(11) This is what happens in advertisements where, as P. Bonitzer has suggested, the manipulation involved in the message appears less and less as a shameful conditioning technique but demands to be recognised, studied and desired as such. Advertising knows all about desire, and hence about the signifier. (Author’s note) 


(12) Pariscope: organ of the lumpen intelligentsia. Tries desperately to mimic Parisian intellectual debates. A Filipacchi publication (Author’s note.) The publisher Daniel Filipacchi had bought Cahiers in 1964. When he wanted to dispose of it in the aftermath of May 1968 and the magazine’s politicization it was bought back from him.

 
(13) It would be totally false to oppose the film d’auteur to the commercial film. This distinction exists but is of secondary importance. From Lacombe Lucien to Les Chinois à Paris via Le Führer en folie (Philippe Clair) it’s the same ideological tendency that emerges. (Author’s note)

 
(14) This does not happen automatically. A class, even when it is in power, takes a little time to find its ideologues, the people who will operate on its behalf in this or that situation. It too must work, or rather it must try to make something out of what it has inherited: in this case a certain tradition of French cinema (Pascal Thomas claims to take his inspiration from Renoir) or a reassuring classicism (Malle, Granier-Deferre). The cinema too is returning to the past. But acritically. (Author’s note)

 
(15) Les Violons du bal (1974): a self-referential film by Michel Drach, about his experiences as a Jewish boy in occupied France.

 
(16) There are two ways for bourgeois ideology to ignore contradiction or do away with it. Either it sees it nowhere (universal harmony) or it sees it everywhere (universal contradiction). Malle chooses the second solution with a zeal and an application which give Lacombe Lucien an almost touching quality. One is tempted to announce, as in a film, in alphabetical order: collaborator/member of the Resistance, father/son, Jew/Gentile, law/desire, man/woman, nature/culture, peasant/bourgeois, torturer/victim, etc. You can say that he has simply overdone it and that these contradictions are not all on the same level. But that’s where Malle succeeds in his sleight of hand: making us believe that he is being analytical. For him, not only are all the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production present, but they are all fundamental! It is not too difficult to see how, in these conditions, being unable to establish any kind of hierarchy, Malle and his heroes can never hope to understand anything. (Author’s note)

 
(17) La Villeggiatura: a film by Marco Leto, reviewed by Serge Toubiana in Cahiers 249. 
(18) To read or write something into a film. This much bandied about phrase might benefit from being considered historically. For example: when Resnais’s Muriel is shot, in 1963, the Algerian war, torture, are in effect forbidden topics in the cinema. To write this prohibition into the film, to import it in the form of an empty and all the more disquieting signifier (‘Muriel’ precisely) is a way of getting round the problem. That is what revisionist critics forget when they read anything into anything. Theirs is an accommodating reading of an inscription that poses no danger, no longer a ruse but a compromise, with film-makers (and critics) accepting that they no longer have to define themselves (their practice, their weapons) in the teeth of the restrictions imposed by a political power. (Author’s note)

 
(19) Attica: a 1973 documentary by Cinda Firestone, focusing on the conditions at the Attica State Penitentiary in New York, which provoked a major prison riot. The film is discussed by Thérèse Giraud in the same issue of Cahiers.

 
(20) Anti-retro: a reference to the interview with Michel Foucault in Cahiers 251, translated in this volume, Ch. 12.

 
(21) There can be no ‘retro style’ without a discourse on human nature, without bourgeois humanism. And no such discourse without prior repression of class determinations. In Cavani’s work, this takes the form of neutralization. It had to be the case that Max was socially dominant (linked to Nazi power) and Lucia a victim of this power (socially dominated), and the opposite had to be the case as well (Max a night porter and Lucia married into money). The ‘human nature’ effect is obtained by somehow inscribing the class struggle as a simple struggle for position, a game of musical chairs in which whoever loses wins. This can easily be proved a contrario: the story of The Night Porter played by a working-class couple would make people laugh (cf. Reiser, in Charlie-Hebdo) or bore the upper classes stiff. (Author’s note.) Charlie-Hebdo was a weekly paper which used the crude simplifications of the comic-strip format to make social and political points.

 
(22) Ciano was Mussolini’s minister for foreign affairs. He was implicated in the coup which overthrew his father-in-law’s regime, but was captured and shot by the renegade fascists of the shortlived Salo republic.

 
(23) Guy Lux was a television entertainer and game show host; Michel Droit was a famous television journalist.

 
(24) Historia: a glossy magazine edited by right-wing historians, which presented a popular, romantic view of history. 


(25) For which the electoral system is the ultimate model and guarantee. The late Murray Chotiner, a formative influence on Richard Nixon’s political thinking, was of the opinion that people generally voted against something or someone, rarely for. Indeed, choosing the lesser evil has become the rule in American elections. The more the electoral apparatus is distanced from the people and from the real political life of the country, the more it has to highlight whatever little differences can still be found and make them sparkle in its own sphere (star system); a huge amount of energy, money and talent goes into it. The same could be said (minus the talent) of a particularly stupid ORTF programme, L’Antenne est à vous, where the Saturday-afternoon viewers are always voting: for one Western against another, for one cartoon against another, for one song against another. The point being that they should experience little differences as absolutely fundamental, and their vote as an act of world-shattering importance. (Author’s note)

 
(26) And this hysteria cannot (cannot only) be exchanged for the illusory mastery that knowledge confers. The cinema makes use of knowledge, but only to refocus on the belief that lies at its heart. (Author’s note)

 
(27) The famous argument that ‘forms are neutral’ depends on another: that there is only one ideology, the dominant one. Those two arguments, taken together, allow two others to be discounted: the argument that forms are not neutral, that they are themselves a form of action (in other words that they are linked dialectically to the ideologies which inform them), and the argument that there is something which resists the dominant ideology and which, for want of a better term, we must call working-class ideology. This ideology needs forms; it needs to know that fiction, for instance, is not an empty mould but a power structure, so that the question of its own power (its own ideological hegemony) can be posed. (Author’s note) 


(28) The ‘real’ subject is not the scenario of the theme. Determining the real subject means taking it over by force. You have to re-insert the film-object into a scene whose very existence it denies: that of the battle of ideas where no blow is lost, where no object stays empty for long. Taking it over by force:  it is essential not to cut ourselves off from the ideological/political conjuncture. And this conjuncture isn’t only what circulates as ‘news’, but what we can learn from popular struggles, provided we stay in touch with them (the famous ‘cultural needs of the people’: who could produce an account of ‘Lip and the cinema’?). That means you have a foot in the apparatus (where struggles are taking place) and a foot in popular struggles (where the question of the apparatus is debated; cf. the cultural front). What is certain is that from the apparatus you can only see the apparatus. (Author’s note) 


(29) Le people français, a journal of popular history launched over three years ago by a group of teachers. Published quarterly. (Author’s note) 


(30) See Ch. 12 in this volume

 
(31) Lacombe to Horn: ‘My friends don’t much like Jews.’ By implications: I (nature) can’t see the difference (culture). The whole film is in that statement. It would fall apart if Lacombe were just to day: ‘I don’t much like Jews.’ (Author’s note)
Translated by Annwyl Williams in Cahiers du Cinéma: Volume Four, 1973-1978 : History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle : an Anthology from Cahiers du Cinéma, Nos 248-292, September 1973-September 1978, edited by David Wilson, Routledge, 2000.  Originally published as ‘Fonction critique’ in four parts in Cahiers du cinema, issue 248, Sept-Dec 1973, issue 249, Feb-Mar 1974, issue 250, May 1974 and issue 253, Oct-Nov 1974.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The New Wave - A Genealogical Approach 


The New Wave - A Genealogical Approach  

Something unique happened with the New Wave which one only fully realises with hindsight. The Cahiers du cinéma people weren't satisfied with being a group held together by a journal, nor with having talent, nor with being around at the right moment i.e. at a time when a load of worm-eaten elements in French cinema believed themselves indestructible just because they were dominant. They actually began their careers on the offensive; they were both insolent and respectful, although for a long time one saw mainly insolence (particularly with Truffaut) and only subsequently respect (again especially Truffaut). They were sufficiently familiar with the cinema that had preceded them to be able to recognise friends and enemies from both the present and the past. They chose their family: challenged fathers, protected forefathers, hailed uncles. They saw the possibility of forging a particular set of relations in cinema history, and their good fortune was to have, in addition to these co-opted 'godfathers', enemies from 'quality' French cinema who were sufficiently arrogant and powerful to make any struggle worth the effort. 

 
It has become difficult to understand such a phenomenon, and impossible to imagine that such a situation could come about today. In the present context, we can see how much cinema has changed and shrunk: today it is misplaced to speak of a generation, a group, a school or even a pack. A young filmmaker now, from fear of being unnoticed, quickly becomes a fighting machine geared only to self-defence and self-celebration (Beneix or Carax for example). Also of course, they'd be hard pressed to identify easily either friends or enemies amongst already established filmmakers. A quarter of a century after the beginnings of the New Wave, the number of films and filmmakers world-wide has grown enormously. The New Wave were able to know personally some of the giants who were in at the start of the cinema. They were able proudly and modestly to set themselves by their side (as Godard did in Le Mépris, giving himself the part of Fritz Lang's assistant). Today after enormously long careers, the pioneers are dead and the filmmakers who are getting to the ends of their careers - from Fellini through Bresson to Bergman - aren't the types to enthusiastically welcome the first tentative steps of a new generation of filmmakers. This applies equally to the filmmakers from the New Wave who are visibly reluctant to become 'founding fathers'. In its future as a minority medium (mass media having triumphed everywhere) cinema leaves few possibilities for different generations to acknowledge each other as their paths cross, let alone set up continuities. 

 
It's for this reason that the years 1953-58, which precede the first films of the New Wave (Le Beau Serge, Les 400 coups, A bout de souffle) are perhaps more unusual than they have seemed. The 'young Turks' could choose from the films of the past what they fundamentally wanted to be like. It wasn't a question of copying, of acting like good pupils absorbing 'the Good Film Guide'; it was a question of not betraying a certain attitude found in Renoir but not in Duvivier, in Cocteau but not in Delannoy. It's because they reckoned on being faithful to this 'spirit' that the New Wave novices weren't afraid to be like school kids proliferating quotations and acknowledgements. Subsequently, the referencing became heavy and irritating, but in the beginning it was no more than the euphoria of the first (and last?) generation of cinephile filmmakers. 

 
We'll leave to one side the links between the filmmakers and 'foreign' cinemas, but the reasons for preferring definitively Rossellini to De Sica, Hawks to Wyler or Barnet to Pudovkin aren't different from those which allowed them to make choices from within French cinema. What was specific here was that three generations were working together and the third is always permitted to ignore the second (the 'fathers' generation') and make alliances with the first (the generations of the virtual 'grandfathers'). The New Wave didn't attach itself to a single figure, seeing in Renoir less a father than, as Rivette described him, a 'boss'. And if quite early on the Cahiers critics stopped taking part in the condescending dismissal of embarrassing figures like Guitry or Pagnol (they were accused of producing filmed theatre) it's nevertheless the case that Guitry and Pagnol remain distant references from another world. The same goes for Bresson, Cocteau, Tati, Ophuls, all independents. The only filmmaker respected by the New Wave as well as by its enemies was Jacques Becker. 

 
It's not difficult to see what the filmmakers championed by the future filmmakers of the New Wave have in common. They are loners; they make cinema for a purpose but they don't reduce it to that purpose. They don't set a lot of store by the established canons of 'pure cinema' and they don't overstress a social, political or educational function for cinema. That's why no-one ever forgives them anything and whatever celebrity they do achieve is put down to their decadence. 

 
Renoir is the best example. Few filmmakers have been so singled out and yet suspected of the worst. After the war it was only Cahiers who persisted in finding 'new' Renoir as interesting as the old and there is something moving in seeing Rohmer write in Cahiers a review of Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe called 'Renoir's youth'. 

 
The example of Renoir is interesting for another reason. There were other independents and if it's Renoir who's important and not L'Herbier, Clément, Carné, or any other master craftsman, it's for a very simple reason. In launching the 'politique des auteurs', the New Wave highlighted an area which it intended later to develop itself and clearly was ready to reap the benefits. But by 'auteur' it never meant the creator responsible for every last detail of his film; if it did it would have admired more Carné, Clouzot, and Clément. Rather by 'auteur' the New Wave meant someone who responds personally to the very real constraints and controls, and with a style of his own gets through a game not of his own making nor one which he fully controls. Renoir is such a man, with the admirable freedom of someone who always does 'what he can' as opposed to the selfish constraints of someone who only does 'what he wants'. 

 
This point is crucial to understanding how, once the euphoria of their first successes was over, the New Wave directors knew how to organise their work. In admiring Renoir rather than Carné, an unpredictable freelance rather than a star worker, they put themselves in the place of filmmakers who'd be interested in accommodating themselves to the system rather than serving it. There is finally a kind of modesty in this approach and even today Godard never stops regretting the fact that producers don't exist anymore with whom he can share the adventure of filmmaking. What the New Wave didn't foresee on the other hand is precisely that the gradual break-up of the system would make producers disappear (and conversely overvalue directors) and that it would fall to them frequently to be their own bosses (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer) in order to be able to continue working. 

 
Consequently it wasn't just an aesthetic that the New Wave was fighting via the Tradition of Quality. It was also the deceptive comfort of a conception of both the world and of cinema which there was no point in imitating because ultimately it would become a real handicap. One saw this very quickly when, after the first successes of the New Wave and then their first setbacks, the 'quality' directors were unable to understand what had happened, to adapt to what had changed, and for the most part lost their talent and gained only bitterness. Someone like Clément went through the same evolution as the American filmmakers of his generation who, all of them from Ray to Minnelli, proved incapable of surviving the collapse of the studio system in the 1960s. 

 
This inability to adapt on the part of practitioners bound to a corporatist notion of 'the fine craft of cinema; was related to an inability to think through a future for the cinema. 
 
 
Comfortably shielded during the war, French cinema thought it could save face by displaying a disillusioned and decorative face to the world. This cinema of Occupation imagined nothing better than occupying the studios and making a cinema of closed off interiorised psychological dramas. It was this closure, in every sense of the word, which condemned it. Its logical consequence was television, starting with the Buttes-Chaumont school whose successors, the Bluwals and the Lorenzis barred from the New Wave, exercised in television the same ideological and union power, based on the same conception of literary adaptation, masquerading as unbiased public service aimed at increasing public literacy. Basically there are two eternally opposed traditions in French cinema (and television): that of the freelance artisan who invents as he goes along, always on the lookout for escape routes from the studio to the street, and that of the' schools' which boxes itself in and comforts itself with the control it gets from studio and decor. 

 
Finally it's interesting to consider which filmmakers, in relation to the New Wave strictly speaking (the Cahiers team), played a role of precursor, fellow traveller or more or less distant relative. From Franju to Leenhardt, from Melville to Astruc, from Rouch to Rouquier, what they all have in common is a concern for ways out, for escape, finally for the adventure that's possible with the camera at your shoulder. 

 
In its taste for written dialogue (literature not 'the literary') and in its consistent signalling of the Lumière heritage (recording not drawing) the New Wave - with its complex and self-conscious genealogy - is an important moment in this continuous serial. 


First published in Jean-Loup Passek (ed), D'un cinéma à l'autre: notes sur le cinema français des années cinquante, Paris, Centre Pompidou, Cinema/Singulier, 1988. Translated by Jim Cook for a course at King's College Films Studies Department.

John Ford for Ever



Still salvaging texts from Steve Erickson's old website. Perhaps my favourite Daney text: looks simple, easy to read, but demanding so much from cinema and the spectator.

John Ford for Ever


A common and questionable idea has it that on television close-up shots are king. If it was true, the man who one day shouted “I don’t want to see nose hair on a fifteen-meter screen!” would not stand a chance on the small screen. John Ford wasn’t fond of close-ups, or of expository scenes, which amounts to the same thing. He filmed very quickly and spent only 28 days directing She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (and not La charge héroïque, the ill-translated and stupid French title). It was in 1949; he was his own producer and did whatever he fancied. Forty-one years later, the film ‘passes’ perfectly from the big to the small screen (on Channel 1). Elementary, you say? Not quite.
 
 
Gilles Deleuze one day reminded the youngsters of the FEMIS school of cinema that their work as filmmakers would consist in producing ‘blocks of duration-movement’. And if Ford’s blocks remain so perfect, it’s because they respect the most elementary of golden numbers: they only last the time it takes a practised eye to see everything they encompass (1). The time to see all there is to see is the right duration and the right movement for an eye as disciplined in the art of looking as Ford’s horsemen are in the art of riding.
 
 
A principle so simple that it allowed Ford to complicate, refine and even convolute things while always giving a feeling of timeless classicism. It isn’t the action which determines duration, it’s the perception of an ideal spectator, of a scout who would see from afar all that there is to see (but nothing more).
 
 
Rapid contemplation is the Ford paradox. It’s impossible to watch his movies with a lazy eye because we then no longer see anything (except stories of romantic soldiers). The eye must be sharp because in any image of a Ford’s film, there is likely to be a few tenths of a second of pure contemplation before the action starts. Someone goes out a wood shack or leaves the frame, and there are red clouds over a cemetery, a horse abandoned in the right hand corner of the image, the blue swarming of the cavalry, the distraught faces of two women: things to be seen at the very beginning of a shot, because there won’t be a ‘second time’ (too bad for the sluggish eyes).
 
 
Ford is one of the great artists of cinema. Not only because of the composition and the light of his shots but more deeply, because he shoots so quickly that he makes two movies at the same time: a movie to ward off time (stretching his stories, for fear of ending) and another to save the moment (the moment of the landscape, two seconds before the action). He enjoys the show ‘before’ (2). So, with Ford there is not point looking for characters who, in front of a beautiful landscape, would say “How beautiful!” The character is not to whisper to the spectator what he should see. That would be immoral.
 
 
And the characters are busy enough postponing retirement and the end of the twists and turns of the story. This theme emerges in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and will keep coming back. Ford’s characters (soldiers included) are but the traveling acrobats of their beliefs – beliefs which tend less and less to lead to promise lands, even if they draw the figure of riders on a bright red sunset sky or in the moonlight. This image is in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon of course. This circular parade, going from left to right, is collective and never-ending.
 
 
But there is another movement, more mysterious, which comes from the deep end of the shot, and always emerges in the middle of the image (3). As if this film maker, who had built everything on the refusal of close-ups and expository scenes, on occasion let something come toward his characters. Thus, we find one close-up in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. We can see Nathan Brittles-John Wayne-Raymond Loyer (4) talking to his wife, long dead and buried two feet away, explaining that he has only six days left before retirement and that hasn’t made any decisions. Then the shadow of a woman appears on the grave. It’s only a harmless young girl but for those who have learned to watch Ford properly, this brief moment frightens. It’s the past that returns in the middle of the image, without warning, ‘à la Ford’. Needless to say that when an image has not only edges but also a heart, the small screen welcomes it with due consideration.

 
(1) I got this remark from the Portuguese film maker A.P. Vasconcelos.
 

(2) We could venture to say that, reversely, a film maker taking stock to show us the beauty of the landscape ‘after’ is immoral.
 
 
(3) The author of the article has reaffirmed his ‘Fordism’ at the page 62 of the excellent special issue of Cahiers du cinéma on John Ford.
 
 
(4) Raymond Loyer is the French voice of John Wayne in dubbed movies (translator’s note).
 

First published in Libération, 18 November 1988 and also found in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991. 
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Before and After the Image

A critical text where Daney expands on his concepts of the image and the visual. It was on Steve Erickson's old website (published at a time where no texts from Serge Daney were online) but it has since found its way to JSTOR. So I'm referencing it here with the first few lines and a link.

Before and After the Image 
The distinction I have made between the image and the visual is entirely pragmatic. It simply seemed practical to call on to two different words. There is also the fact that the word "visual" is often repeated in the vocabulary of the media and "artistic directors" of newspapers. The visual is both reading and seeing: it is seeing what is given to read. Someone knows how to read the press when he can decipher the visual of a newspaper very quickly, even in the case of a newspaper without photos, like Le Monde. Perhaps we are going towards societies who know better and better how to read (which is to say: decipher, decode, acquire the reflexes of reading) and less and less to see. I call "image", then, what still relies upon an experience of vision, and of the "visual" the optical verification of a procedure of power, whatever this may be (technological, political, advertising or military), a procedure which only requires, as sole commentary, a “receiving loud and clear”. Obviously, the visual concerns the optic nerve, but is not for all that an image. 
The condition sine qua non for there to be an image is, I think, alterity. Every culture makes something of this more or less empty category, the category of "there’s some otherness" (to paraphrase Lacan). 
(...)
First published in Revue d'études palestiniennes, issue 40, Summer 1991. Published in English in Discourse, vol. 21, No. 1, Middle Eastern Films Before Thy Gaze Returns to Thee (Winter 1999), pp. 181-190. Available from JSTOR here. I think another English translation of this text might be in the exhibition book for Documenta X.

Falling Out of Love

Continuing the series of reposting lost translations from Steve Erickson's old website with a slight bending of my publishing rule (e.g. don't reproduce texts that are easily accessible and affordable). This piece is still available via a paid subscription to Sight and Sound but it's also an important text which we can't afford to lose. A great translation too and with some of Daney's most scathing remarks (my favourite: "a world where the personal appropriation of clichés is a condition for the spread of cultural tourism").
Falling Out of Love* 
There is an expression in French which people use, apologetically, to describe a film during which they have had difficulty staying awake: Ça m'est tombé des yeux, literally, "It fell from my eyes." A rather nice phrase, which seems to register the fact that every film is simultaneously projected twice: once onto the cinema screen and once onto our retinas. It is almost as if, when we 'take in a movie,' we have to hold it like on a cloth in the depths of our eyes, and cannot do so – cannot make it stick – without the 'clothes pegs' which constitute our appreciation of that beautiful thing we call cinema. 
A film which 'falls from your eyes' is one where you have to keep readjusting your retina, just as circus clowns keep pulling up their trousers. The tears it produces are fake tears, caused by conjunctivitis, not emotion. And the anger it provokes is also fake, born of irritation, not revolt. It is in this sense that bad films are fake films. 
L’amant (The Lover) is a film which falls from your eyes. As a production it is somewhat less alarming than the campaign of intimidation which accompanied its launch, and it would merely inspire pity were it not for the realisation that with Annaud we now have the prototype – fully operational at last – of a new brand of filmmaker: the 'post-filmmaker,' in other words, one who knows nothing of what cinema once knew
But he didn't start yesterday. Annaud found his Road to Damascus a decade ago, when he had the truly blinding intuition that everything which had for so long been 'natural' in cinema – the fact that there were men and women, bodies and characters, emotions and experiences, stories in short – was destined to fall into a kind of "dark continent" which henceforth we could only reach from outside, with the help of ever more rhetorical and consensual simulations, of which 'reality shows' represent the televisual pits. 
Annaud is thus the chief usherette who was present at the birth of humanity (La guerre du feu) and its middle age (The Name of the Rose), at a young animal's introduction to life in the wild (The Bear) and a young girl's introduction to eroticism (The Lover). So that’s how he put his stamp on several media events of the 80s, years which – let us not forget – were inevitably marked by the regrettable revival of old mythologies in our televisual village. Mythologies which needed a new aesthetic matrix (advertising and its kitsch imagery) and, eventually, a new kind of communicator, devoid of feeling (Annaud, for example.) 
For unlike Besson and Beineix, who are more talented or are still consumed by the passion of cinema, Annaud has always made films in complete ignorance of the fact that there had been any cinema before him. By dint of imagining himself to be the guiding light shining on the first faltering steps of anything which moves, by dint of watching over the prehistory of our species and our origins as Pithecanthropus Erectus, Annaud forgot that there were others before him who had played with this marvellous device, with cinema and those clothes pegs which hold its images on our inflamed retinas. 
To judge by the way The Lover has been promoted, it may well be that audio-visual vandalism has at last found its own Vandals. Will we ever convert them to Cinema? Who will save us from them? Will they put us to the sword? And who are 'we' anyway? Let's just say that 'we' are the fans of clothes-peg cinema, people who increasingly have the feeling of being other, other than Vandals
Annaud, too, isn't just anyone: he is the first non-cinephile robot in the history of cinema. In the manual he mugged up in the space capsule which carried him through time to us, "The Human Species in Twenty Storyboards," he read that cinema consisted of 'telling a story in pictures'. And one feels that he will never get beyond that particular cliché, that he will always know what cinema should look like, that it should be a 'summary' of human feeling and behaviour. But that is indeed all he knows: his knowledge is that of the robot who doesn't know that he doesn't know everything. 
He doesn't know, for example, that there are things which you see without really seeing them, and others which stare you in the face but don't reflect any real experience; that there are moments when you must not make too much noise; that there are things which are omnipresent but insignificant, and others which are absent but powerful; that there are collective lies and partial truths – in short, that there are experiences which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach (yet its dignity lies in the attempt). This is hardly surprising. It wasn't in the manual, because the manual – well produced though it was – was written by advertisers during the 80s. 
Let us go back to the cinema, to our retinas and clothes pegs. Why does this film fall from our eyes? Because something essential – essential to cinema – has disappeared in films like The Lover. Cinema has always depended on a simple fact: the knowledge that something communicates itself from one frame to the next, one image to the next, one moment to the next, one shot to the next, and that these all end up constituting a logical and entangled fabric, full of twisted threads: one where the viewer doesn't have to be continuously 'grabbed' in order to be implicated, involved, delighted and caught up in new configurations of space-time. This is why all the great manipulators of the audience – from Hitchcock to Tati, from Chaplin to Leone – have also been great logicians, who gambled on the pride which we had every right to feel – as viewers – when we had learned to see, to deduce, to imagine, on the basis of the rebus they offered us. 
That pride vanished some time ago, to be replaced by mere enjoyment of the effects of 'filmed cinema'. It is undoubtedly to faire cinema – to put on a show – in the manner of all the parvenus who seem to have acquired droit de seigneur over the entire world – to clothe himself in the cheap literary finery of a story signed "Marguerite Duras" (a story where essentially there is nothing but moisture, heat haze, nervous flux and contagious sensuality), that Annaud accepted the very costly challenge of giving his interpretation of a best-selling colonial novel. Which only makes all the more obvious the way that, for him, the manufacture of images has replaced cinema. 
Let us take an example. Let us take a single bad cut (there are quite a few in The Lover). If my memory serves me well (and I have no intention of seeing the film again to check), the first thing we see of the lover is one of his shoes. The shoe, extremely fashionable and expensive, is pointed towards the viewer, rather like a face, in a long, vacant close-up. A close-up which lasts long enough for the viewer to reach the following conclusion: these shoes don't come from Bata** and the feet which are wearing them aren't just any old feet. And indeed, in the following image we see the elegant, finely dressed form of the Chinese lover straightening out before us as he steps from his luxury car. The problem is that between the way the shoe is positioned in relation to the viewer and the movement of the actor's body there is, dare I say it, a degree of awkwardness, of clumsiness, which results in the image 'falling from the eyes' for lack of clothes pegs. In short, the tragedy of a bad cut. Of course, I appreciate that a bad cut isn't a crime and doesn't shock anyone. But this time it's not because – as in the days of Breathless – cinema is trying to overturn the dusty old rules which say 'how' one should cut. No, it's because Annaud's work no longer has anything at all to do with memory, sequence, time, montage. This is cinema where there is no communication, because everything is communicated.  
The shoe is an item from the script which has turned into a surreptitious little commercial for an attractive marketable object, a kind of Indochinese Lobb, just like all the other promotional objects in the film, from the virgin car to the designer girl. 
But readers will point out, of course, that the vast majority of the press and television has endorsed the thing. That is true, unfortunately. And they will add, the film is a success and no one has complained. Only too true. So it is now that I must show myself worthy of this publication and introduce someone very important to the life and death of films: no one less than the viewer. Let us return - I'm afraid we must – to the shoe. 
For if the shot is so long, so badly cut and so insulting to the viewer's intelligence, it is not only because Annaud has a poor notion of his audience's critical facilities, it is also because he assembles his film as a series of orphan images, images which must, one by one, be seen, recognised and, so to speak, ticked off by the spectator-consumer. 
In this aesthetic, an image never finds its sequel, its mystery or elucidation in another, more or less contiguous image. Henceforth, images are to be 'scanned' twice, once by the post-filmmaker who signs them and once by the post-public who endorses them. They are only presented to the audience (and no longer articulated with other elements in the film) as a kind of preview, a run-through of visuals, not the sharing of a vision. "You saw nothing in Cholon***, nothing". The images line up on a waiting list, to be submitted for public approval, for instant endorsement, for God knows what kind of mark of confidence. 
Let us be serious. Many people have talked about contemporary individualism and its paradoxes. One of these paradoxes is nothing less than a certain eradication of taste among a public who are more adult, that is, better informed, less naive, better off, easily bored, happily cruising among the various lifeless luxuries which the market tosses in their direction. These spectators, proud of their independence and well aware of their power, nonetheless have to face the rather comic obligation to adopt as 'theirs' all the latest clichés and the conformism of their social group, with the proviso that they can feel they are living and 'managing' them on their own behalf
And nothing makes them angrier than pointing out that for all their individuality, their refusal to follow fashions and formulae, they are still trotting out the same stunningly conformist idiocies as their closest neighbours. Which is why film critics, and indeed critics in general, for the simple reason that they dislike clichés and off-the-peg ideas, are an endangered species. In a world where the personal appropriation of clichés is a condition for the spread of cultural tourism, that's hardly surprising. 
What, then, is this close-up of the Chinese shoe? Nothing less than a cry. The shoe cries out to be recognised, recognised in its advertising essence as a solitary shoe, in its radical shoeness (Heidegger’s famous Schuhekeit). It cries out that it's been selected by Annaud for the spectator, in the same way as bingo numbers are called out for players to cross off their cards. Too bad for anyone accustomed to cinema, who waits impatiently for the next shot to follow, irritated by the way this film falls from his eyes. For there is no shot to follow, merely another image which in turn will demand approval and authentication by the spectator. 
What was bound to happen has happened. From now on the autonomous spectator-consumer is confronted by an image which resembles him, which, like him, proclaims it has no need of others (other images, but also sound and duration) in order to create social and domestic kitsch (in this case, a kind of Emmanuelle with a bit of literary gloss). 
The result, of course, is lamentable. For having become master of all he surveys in a film which is communicated to him image by image, the spectator is trapped by his own feeble status as a consumer-decoder. He hasn't time to understand anything which he didn't already 'know,' which leaves him with nothing, with the already seen or the scarcely seen at all, with ads and logos, visuals and kitsch, in short, with banalities and platitudes. How utterly pointless it was for Annaud to have shot the film in the real Vietnam. Hadn't the unfortunate man already ensured there was no danger of his camera accidentally recording a few seconds of unprocessed reality?  
But in an age of synthetic images and emotions, the chances of an accidental encounter with reality are remote indeed.

* LK note: I assume “Falling Out of Love” is the title chosen for the publication in Sight & Sound. I don’t know what the original title was in Libération. In the French edition of Daney’s complete writings, the title is “Read our film review below” (sic).

** Retailer of cheap shoes.

*** Cholon is the Saigon suburb in which The Lover is set. The reference is to Hiroshima, mon amour: "Tu n'as rien vu a Hiroshima, rien."

First published in Libération, 31 March 1992. Published in English in Sight & Sound, July 1992.