Sunday, June 16, 2019

Welles in Power

From some reason, this early text by Daney has been translated twice: in Andrew Sarris' Cahiers du cinema in English, and in Bridget Lyons' book on Welles. Here are both. The first one is more literal but perhaps reads less well or has aged a bit. Both are correct. You choose.

Welles in Power (Chimes at Midnight)
1. Of Falstaff, Welles said that "He wages a struggle lost in advance." And, too, "I don’t believe that he is seeking something. He represents a value; he is goodness." That strength and genius – unanimously recognized – celebrate our only hopeless causes or majestic downfalls, that a man like Welles, exerting an undeniable influence on those around him, incarnates only the defeated (disappearing, certainly, at the heart of an impressive machinery, but still worn by life, betrayed by his own) – that is a very surprising thing. Strange malediction – that a man too strong can only end badly. And yet, from Kane to Falstaff, from proud display to bareness, from a corpse that one does not see to a coffin that is carried, it is really the same story, that of a man who makes ill use of his power. 
Cinema tends to recount how this or that character (and behind him, often, the cinéaste) has obtained some power, that of speaking, or acting, of making a choice, and so on. Those are perhaps the noblest films (like Le Héros sacrilege, Le Caporal épinglé, or Le Coeur d’une mère), the strange roads on which the cinéastes lead their characters, because the simplest road is not always the most natural, because there are detours more rich than straight lines, defeats more noble than victories, and so on. The winning of one’s power – aiming at it, meriting it, snatching it – is precisely what Welles speaks of least. It is the witches who shape Macbeth, and his intuition that pushes Quinlan forward. The films of Welles begin where the others end; when everything is won, nothing remains but to unlearn everything, unto death, once Quinlan, today Falstaff. 
2. The work of Welles, in that way faithful to Shakespeare, is a reflection on the very idea of Power, that excessive freedom that no one can follow without seeing in it, in the end, degradation and derision. Power is an evil that brings life only to those who do not yet have it. Theirs the bold enterprises, the efficacious and astonishing actions, the well contrived plots – men of the future, born to trample on kings, to whom it is given, at least once in their lives, to rock the world. Kings have other cares; their victory is automatically without prestige, like a repression, a useless recall of the past. Defeat is the only adventure which remains for them. 
Absolute power destroys real power, condemns it to futility. “If there is a sense of the real,” Musil said, “there must be also a sense of the possible”. And a little further, “No doubt God Himself prefers to speak of His creation as potential”. In too extensive a power, the possible gnaws away the real, condemns it in advance; one action is never more necessary than another; good and evil, interchangeable, are equally indifferent. He who is master of the possible at twenty, like Citizen Kane, ends as slave to his caprices, surrendered gradually to a power without object or echo to an arbitrary and mad activity, useless and expensive, which never involves him completely, but which separates him always more and more from others (like the career of a singer without a voice, or the collections heaped up in Xanadu). Who can do the most, does the least, or acts at the margin of his power. Comedy demands then that from a prodigious expenditure of power there results a rigorously useless life. 
From film to film, to the extent that his work proceeds, that Welles ages, the sense of the derisory grows stronger, to the point of becoming the very subject of the film (The Trial) that Welles considers his best. Always, everywhere, power is in bad hands. Those who possess it do not know enough about it (Othello who believes Iago, Macbeth victim of a play on words) – or know too much (Arkadin, Quinlan, Hastler the lawyer), each committed to purely destructive actions by an excess of naivete, as of intelligence. 
3. The life of John Falstaff is a commercial failure. Shortly before dying, he observes that his friend – the feeble but prudent Robert Shallow – has been more successful, and he promises himself to cultivate his friendship. No doubt only his sudden death, which no one had foreseen, spares him the last disillusion. Falstaff was born, not to receive, but to give – without discrimination or hope of return – or, if he has nothing, to give himself as entertainment. Welles calls this waste, the goodness of Falstaff (and the latter himself remarks, “Not only do I have wit, but I give it to others.” Which is a good definition of genius). That Fasltaff – whom Shakespeare had intended mostly ridiculous – has become, imagined, then incarnated, by Welles, a moving character is not surprising. His death is not the disappearance – mysterious and legendary – of a Kane but the drab naked event in which one must read, although nothing is underlined, the end of a word. “If one amused oneself all the year,” says the young prince, “amusing oneself would be forced labor”. Of what is Falstaff guilty? Not so much of having ill used his power, for he has scarcely any, being a character of comedy, moreover without real courage or authority. Perhaps of having used without restraint speech, that power of parody, of having made from it an interminable histrionics, useless and tedious, in which talent, if there is any, asserts itself for nothing. More certainly still of having so long survived so scandalous a waste of his energy (his puns on “waste” and “waist”). And what is still more serious, victim more than culprit, if he makes ill use of his affections too, when he chooses as his friend the very person who will betray him. 
4. The work of Welles is singularly rich in abuses of trust (The Lady from Shanghai) or in friendships betrayed (Othello). The strange and scandalous complicity that for some time links Falstaff and the young prince makes more and more evident what it passes over in silence, the difference in their natures. But there would be no fascination between them if each did not precisely feel that they are radically different, symbols of two complementary and inimical worlds, like face and reverse of the same coin. On one side, Falstaff who lives on his past, on what he is already, in the entropy of a freedom deliberately ruined. On the other, the future Henry V, who is nothing still, who will perhaps be a great king, if he discovers that exact relation between the effort to supply and the end to reach, the austerity and the rigor that makes power utilizable. 
First published in Cahiers du cinema, #181, August 1966. Published in English in Cahiers du cinema in English, issue 11, September 1967. A couple of typos corrected.

Welles in Power (Chimes at Midnight
Welles says of Falstaff "that he fights a battle that has already been lost." And further, "I do not believe that he is looking for anything. He represents a value. He is goodness." There is something very astonishing in the fact that power and genius – unanimously acclaimed as such – should celebrate only hopeless causes or grandiose falls, and that a man like Welles, whose influence on his colleagues is so undeniable, embodies in his art only those who have been defeated. Admittedly this is obscured by an impressive technology, but nonetheless his protagonists tend to be worn out by life, betrayed by those close to them. An extraordinary fate decrees that a man who is too strong can only come to a bad end. And yet from Kane to Falstaff, from pomp to nakedness, from a corpse one doesn't see to a coffin that is carried away, it is always the same story: that of a man who misuses his power. 
... The conquest of power (aspiring to it, living up to it, obtaining it by force) is precisely what Welles deals with the least. For him, this kind of power is represented by the witches who create Macbeth and the intuition which propels Quinlan. Welles' films start where others end; when everything has been won, the only thing left is to be stripped of all knowledge as death approaches: Quinlan yesterday, Falstaff today. 
Welles' work, faithful to Shakespeare in this respect, is a reflection on the very idea of Power: that excess of freedom which nobody can pursue without finding degradation and ridicule at the end. Power is an evil that gives life only to those who do not already have it. Heroic undertakings, actions that succeed in changing the course of events, intricately woven plots: these belong to men of the future, who are born to "tread on kings," men to whom it is granted, at least once in their lives, to shake the world. Kings have other cares; their triumph, like repression or the fruitless re-creation of the past, confers no prestige by definition. Defeat is the only adventure left to them. 
Absolute power destroys true power, reducing it to futility. "If there is a sense of reality," Musil says, "there must also be a sense of the possible." And a little further on he adds, "God himself undoubtedly prefers to talk about his creation as potentiality." When power is too great, the possible consumes reality, dooming it in advance: one action is then no more necessary than another; good and evil are interchangeable and equally meaningless. A man like Citizen Kane, who is master of the possible at the age of twenty, winds up being the slave of his whims, surrendering bit by bit to a power that has neither object nor echo, and to action which is arbitrary and foolish, useless and wasteful, which never involves him fully but which distances him more and more from others (like the career of a singer who has no voice, or the collections heaped up at Xanadu.) He who has the power to do the most achieves the least, or uses only a fraction of his power. The laws of humor require that a prodigious expenditure of energy results in a strictly useless life. 
In film after film as his work develops and as Welles grows older, the inclination to mockery grows stronger, to the point of becoming the very subject of the film Welles considers his best, The Trial. Everywhere and always, power is in bad hands. Those who have it either do not know enough (Othello, who believes Iago; Macbeth – who is the victim of wordplay), or too much (Arkadin, Quinlan, the lawyer Hastler) – all doomed to act for nothing out of excessive naiveté or intelligence. 
In terms of money, the life of John Falstaff is a failure. Shortly before dying, he observes that his friend - the doddering but shrewd Robert Shallow - has succeeded better, and he resolves to cultivate his friendship. Only Falstaff's sudden death, of which there has been no warning, spares him what would undoubtedly have been a last disillusionment. Falstaff was not born to receive, but to give – indiscriminately and without hope of return – or, if he has nothing, to give himself theatrically. Welles calls this prodigality the goodness of Falstaff. That Falstaff – whom Shakespeare especially wanted to be ridiculous – should have become a moving character as imagined and then embodied by Welles, is not very surprising. His death is not the mysterious and legendary disappearance of a Kane, but the prosaic and unadorned event into which the end of the world must be read (although nothing is really emphasized.) "If all the year were playing holidays," says the young prince, "to sport would be as tedious as work." Of what is Falstaff guilty? Not so much of having misused his power, since he hardly has any, being a comic character and one without real courage or authority into the bargain. Perhaps of having been intemperate in his use of words, of having turned his power of parody into an interminably hammy act, an unproductive and tiresome one, where talent, if there is any, asserts itself to no purpose. Even more surely, he is guilty of having survived the squandering of his energy for so long (indicated by the wordplay on "waste" and "waist.") And even more seriously, he is the victim, rather than the guilty one, in making a bad use of his feelings, since he chooses as his friend the very person who will betray him. 
Welles' work offers many examples of breaches of confidence (The Lady from Shanghai) or betrayed friendships (Othello). The strange and scandalous complicity that links the young prince and Falstaff for so long reveals more and more clearly that which is never spoken: the differences in their natures. But there would be no mutual fascination if each of them did not feel himself as radically Other: they are symbols of two worlds that are inimical but complementary, opposite sides of same coin. On one side there is Falstaff, who lives off his past, off what he already is, in the gradual entropy of a freedom that has deliberately been abused. On the other, there is the future Henry V, who is nothing yet, who will perhaps be a great king if he discovers the proper relationship between the expenditure of effort and the object to be attained: the austerity and discipline which make the use of power possible.
First published in Cahiers du cinema, #181, August 1966. Published in English in Chimes at Midnight: Orson Welles, Director, edited and translated by Bridget Lyons, Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Strange Bodies

Another 1966 texts from Cahiers du cinema in English.

Strange Bodies 
The film is disappointing enough; yet The Great Race is the film of which Edwards had been dreaming for a very long time, the pure animated cartoon that the earlier films foretold. Was he wrong to tend always more towards the cartoon? There was indeed at the end the absurd bet of The Great Race, but this road passed through The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. Thus it happens that a false idea is revealed as such only after having allowed some truths to emerge. Those truths were that world that was created under our eyes, with its fauna and its logic, at the same time tender and nerves-on-edge; they were the two films with Peter Sellers. But The Great Race, at the same time an accomplishment and a failure, better stresses what was of value only sketched, implied, grazed, without the aid of Cinerama.
The metteur en scène is he who stretches his nets, more sure of his wait than of his catch. The films of Blake Edwards live by one insidious question: how do people react? A mise en scène is a mise-en-condition, a setting-in-state: to wait until a gentle drunkenness, a subtle derangement, will halfway open the doors of the strange, perhaps even, with a little luck, of madness... Drunkenness plays a major role in the films of Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany's and, of course, Days Of Wine And Roses). The point is that it does not bring things on abruptly, it hurries nothing; it forms and deforms slowly. Those who give themselves up to it or who are given up to it are not lost in it, but their timidity suddenly becomes humor; their irony, lucidity; their unconstraint, choreography. The cinéaste does not treat people abruptly either; he knows that there is always a privileged moment, a privileged place, where the unthinkable becomes possible, and the impossible, familiar. Then how do people react? In the form of gags, of strange confessions and of gentle nostalgias... That is the famous malice of Edwards. We owe him the most tender films and the most discreet melodramas. It was enough to barely jostle the characters, glib, vulnerable and a little weak (they are always the same, brilliant and insipid: Curtis, Lemmon, Niven...) and to observe their reactions. Now, there are gags too in misfortune. But it appeared more and more that there were two veins in Edwards. And always the same question: how do people react? You know that that question is at the center of the animated cartoon as well. Of course, less tenderness, and more of the mechanical, is needed there. No doubt Edwards was determined to escape from this slightly satisfied melancholy, this encumbering timidity; he had only to take up his work again, but to strengthen its drawing, to enlarge its strokes, to tighten its contours. To give to its characters, rather than a dim life to drag out, a role to play, and, in the limit, a symbol to incarnate. There was first Clouseau. But he is still too human, too near the cinéaste. The anonymity, the inconsistency, of Leslie of The Great Race were necessary – Leslie all clothed in white, for he represents the Good. Edwards, logical, simplifies to excess, erases and caricatures. Does cinema gain by it? The reply is at the end of the detour and the detour passes through drawing and its virtues. 
Each week, for a year, from drawing to drawing, Copi presents the same character. It is a woman, bad-tempered but simple, with straight hair, sitting facing a void from which all realities come to her, one more unthinkable than another. Her mind alert, her eye fixed, she is there, but always to be more flouted, disappointed, outdone... At length, her mere presence, her obstinacy in "being there," are enough to make one smile. Each week, at each new ordeal, it is a little of our world that she discovers; gestures, words, reasonings, bits and pieces that in the end make up her experience, enclose her in what must indeed be called her "character," for she has one, irreducible... 
The pleasure of the animated cartoon: the mind that knows it will be surprised, then wonders how it will be surprised and enjoys knowing itself, for a few instants, outdone. It is always the unexpected that happens but in a landscape each day more precise and on which each adventure leaves an irrefutable mark. All this life - contradictory, complex - which seemed refused to this character so crudely formed (in a few strokes of the pen) comes to meet him. One day, the drawing no longer has to be comic, efficacious, or comprehensible, for it no longer has to prove anything, much less to establish anything; it is our complicity that makes it live and makes us, again, laugh. At the end of a year, Copi (but one might equally well have cited Jules Feiffer or Don Martin) has invented, not a drawing, but indeed, a world, every bit as opaque, mad and obscure as our own. That is to say (and this is the moral of this digression) that in the measure in which it repeats itself, the animated cartoon (or the comic drawing) acquires what was not given to it: Density, and in that way rejoins what it had as its mission to simplify: life. 
Life is precisely what Leslie and Fate have a priori, what they will not succeed in making one forget. However Edwards, who always liked lightness and a lack of constraint in his characters, this time wanted them insipid and inconsistent, less important than their colors, their costumes, their machines. Docilely, they apply themselves to existing as little as possible, and their race around the world, short-winded and laborious, seems particularly destined to prove that, precisely, no surprise is possible (with the exception of a few parentheses and unexpected happy encounters, like the episode in central Europe, the duel, etc.). 
At the end of the narrative Blake Edwards dreams of a world which has lost all density, of characters without weight, without bodies, escaping gravity, the dimensions of the world becoming the frame of a gigantic cartoon. This temptation that enhanced the earlier films ruins The Great Race, whose premise it seeks in itself. Indeed one sees the characters of Copi acquire the density they lack, but one barely sees how Leslie and Fate could deny their faces, their too-human look, their too-heavy bodies. But in The Great Race – and this is precisely what Cinerama stresses and denounces at each moment – in spite of all their good will, Leslie and Fate are first Curtis and Lemmon, and the heroine, Natalie Wood. And so all that one should forget crops out more than ever: the wrinkles of the one, the histrionics of the other, the vulgarity of the third, each encumbered with his body, with this life, entropic, which however is the raw material of cinema.

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, #175, February 1966. Published in English in Cahiers du cinema in English, number 3, Andrew Sarris (Ed), 1966.

A Nothing on a Ground of Soft Music

More re-posting of the translations from Steve Erickson's old website, now tackling the ones published in the English editions of Cahiers du cinéma by Andrew Sarris, starting with three texts from 1966.

A Nothing on a Ground of Soft Music (The Family Jewels)
In The Family Jewels there is a scene in which one sees a man take off once and for all the costume that made his living, deny its tinsel, denounce its servitudes. It concerns, of course, Uncle Everett, the clown, who has not forgotten that a public entertainer is no more a man than a mask is a face. No doubt, Lewis secretly delighted in making this character, to whom one believed him a priori so near, antipathetic and even odious. But is he really so far from him? Very simply, Everett is less engaged in his creation than Lewis is; he is less involved with his double. 
The more things go along, the more Lewis moves away from his character. With The Family Jewels, it is indeed a question of his present situation, of his chances for survival. Yet in a few years, this character becomes, with age, impossible and derisory. Between now and then it is absolutely necessary to become oneself again, to take one's distance vis-à-vis the mask. In The Patsy, Lewis, sure of his "happy ending," makes the circuit of what has been necessary for him to do, in order for him to deserve himself. It was a film turned towards the past. The future was to be the concern of The Family Jewels
One slides towards a new world. Strangely, it is a question of our world, futile and familiar at the same time. Lewis takes risks there, still a little maladroit and awkward, asking himself whether life there is possible. The Family Jewels is the return of Lewis to the land of men, no longer in front of them but among them. It is a serious film, because never has the actor been so unsure of himself, so intimidated: he has just refused artifice, makeup, magic; he is going to appear as he is and for what he is; he is going to run the risk of not being recognized... For Willard is an entirely normal man, who resembles everyone slightly, even Jerry Lewis... 
These are difficult beginnings, on tip-toe; all the bridges have not yet been cut. In places the mask resists and imposes some of its old tricks (the sequence of the service station.) But those are quotations, references to a universe that it is necessary to go beyond, conceded to an audience that one must not treat too roughly. Halfway between the old and the new, Lewis, who owes as much to himself as to his myth, must change skin without changing audience. 
The Family Jewels will be the place of this metamorphosis. Since there are two Lewises in competition, there will be two films as well, two audiences. And first the "adult" audience – in search of caricatures – will be satisfied by six ineffable uncles, who are six Lewises, therefore six bravura pieces. Empty castoff clothes destined for an audience that awaits them. For the real film is played elsewhere, far from grimaces and distortions, between the real Lewis (Willard) and the real audience (Donna). It is the real film that is the more beautiful as well, the newer, the more moving. The more that what Donna and her chauffeur say and do is banal and insignificant, the more serious the film is; the fewer things happen in it, the richer it is. And one begins to think about the masterpiece Lewis (and he alone) might make by henceforth filming nothing, or almost, on a ground of soft music... The greatest simplicity, the ultimate discovery, invisible to all, can only reach a child. By inventing the character of Donna, Lewis does nothing but conform what he has always said: children alone understand him, because, for them, little preoccupied with second degrees, he does not play at being, he is. If Donna is the ideal audience, it is because she does not think it possible to cheat, to play act. Which makes The Family Jewels, too, into a very simple parable (and especially defense plea.) One proposes to the audience different versions of one same man, and one asks it to choose, reminding it that this choice, decisive, carries along all the future... But one has underestimated the audience in presenting to it only monsters, full of good will, certainly, but too preoccupied with themselves to really think about this very audience. It makes no mistake about that, and chooses the only man who does not wear a mask and who, for that very reason, was out of competition. Scandal in the milieus of spectacle; but they will be defeated. 
The masks give way, the fact triumphs at last in broad daylight. Yet one little detail: Willard wins his audience only on condition of denying himself, at least one minute (but that minute is essential), the putting on the makeup of a clown. That is the curse from which he is not yet wholly safe. To win over his audiences entirely, it is necessary all the same to play the fool a little, more by necessity than by vocation. This little detail does not shake Willard: tomorrow belongs to him...
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, #175, February 1966. Published in English in Cahiers du cinema in English, number 4, Andrew Sarris (Ed), 1966.

The Serpent's Egg

For a short lived moment in 2007-2008 Cahiers du cinéma published English issues online. None of these are available now but I managed to salvage the one translation of Daney they included in an incredible special issue on Bergman and Antonioni (here's the table of contents).

The Serpent’s Egg  
For all of Bergman’s insistence that this film should be viewed in the light of today, it’s hard to see anything more in it than Germany in 1923 (which has little in common with Sweden in 1977, even for those who don’t pay their taxes). What makes it even harder is to de-historicise his film and read it as an abstract meditation on the human condition, unlike Shame or The Silence, is its historical framework (a rare occurrence with Bergman and no doubt due to the requirements or a large-scale international production), one almost identical to that of a far better film, Cabaret.  
Where Cabaret gave insights into the rise of Nazism within the confines of a stage performance or a song (Cabaret is not “a musical plus serious human problems,” rather it’s serious human problems are also musical), where Bob Fosse rethinks the genre, however, Bergman shamelessly employs the supposed existing knowledge of his audience to make the film the most smeared with prophecies of the past in a long time. So much so that you begin to wonder how far back we need to go into German history (Bismark? Luther? Otho the Great?) to leave the “rise of Nazism” zone. It’s an exhausting exercise (as the pathetic nostalgia pieces by Cavani on Nietzsche and Russell on Mahler already demonstrated).  
These prophecies of the past pervade the film. We witness the hero, Abel Rosenberg, a complete outsider (American in Germany, Jewish, from a family of performers, and an alcoholic), achieving a sort of radical otherness that turns him – in the voice-over accompanying the final shot – into a sort of wandering Jew. Everything that happens to Rosenberg has a double significance: nothing can happen to me / I knew and have always known that something would happen to me. His alcoholism allows for a different turn of the screw: has this already happened to me or should I continue to be afraid? Witness the scene in which he is questioned by policemen and is suddenly “hit” with the idea that he is accused of all these crimes because he is Jewish, and in which the violence of his own reaction and his headlong flight into a (self-made) trap function as if to say “I know it, but still.” 
The viewer sits there, knowing very well where the film is taking him (the rise of Nazism), but the film maker (the Master) forces him to rediscover his supposed existing knowledge through a series of unfortunate encounters (cutting up the horse, ransacking the nightclub) at moments when, we might say, his attention wavered a bit and his defences were lowered. For Abel Rosenberg and for the viewer fear (fear of being taken by surprise by what we already know, fear of being afraid) becomes the motor of the film, making us flee forward, toward a revolting but well-known end, an apocalypse tolerated as long as it absorbs the traumatic moments in an adequately executed work of fiction.  
We should see The Serpent’s Egg as a kind of retro-ideological serial, which could be a genre for the future. In a serial, the main stake is always a secret heavy with repercussions, kept inside individual bodies or containers. The great serials echoed the fears of their period (Lang of course, but also Gance or Feuillade). They couldn’t step back and observe from a distance. Bergman, forty years after the fact, is no longer concerned with secrets but with parading various idées reçues on the rise of Nazism (everything that corresponds to the hideous word ideologem, or discreet signs of ideology). But it is the serial aspect that forms the most successful and surprising part of the film (the final confrontation between Rosenberg and Vergerus, the film screenings, the cyanide, etc.) in as far as the biographical (Vergerus and Rosenberg are childhood friends), sentimental (Vergerus loves Rosenberg), and political (Vergerus the crazed scientist as a future Mengele) intricacies make up a body.  
The entirely reactive Serpent’s Egg is left-wing anti-fiction. The investigation, the will to solve the mystery is not driven by a hunger for truth, or by the desire to denounce and have clarity of vision, but by fear. The taciturn Abel Rosenberg, whose near-muteness sees him taking on the role of relay, doesn’t seek the truth (which he has known all along) but his truth, which is to come face to face with filth and enjoy the spectacle. This is how he becomes attracted to Vergerus’ film screenings, where he can watch himself for a pittance. Poetic art according to Bergman: there’s only one point to showing and that is to create fear. 
Which is precisely what the policeman played by Gert Froebe alludes to in a scene in which he tells Rosenberg that it is fear that makes him a meticulous cop. Basically, he argues, if everyone keeps doing their daily jobs diligently, we might avoid the worst. Not by confronting it, but by retreating and thinking about it, in other words to fear and, who knows, overcome it. A film on the active nature of fear. As a form of resistance, it doesn’t amount to very much. 
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 285, February 1978. Published in English in Cahiers du cinéma, Special issue "Two great moderns", October 2007, pp. 35-36. Translation by Tom Mes.

Waiting for the Snow...

Last translation from The Wage of the Channel Hopper column republished from the old Steve Erickson's website.

Waiting for the Snow... 
Where the zapper feels that he should rest the “French Audio-visual landscape (FAL)” for a while, before hitting it again - soon? - in the small of the back. 
To conclude, let’s start with two quotations: "Christmas time again, with its trail of ancient frights. The shops are chockfull with all kinds of unbelievable rubbish, but there is no stock left of that which we need." (Raymond Chandler) And: "You wouldn't realise to what extent, when an investigation is made in society, the media have become one of the main subjects of revolt." (A reader). The first quotation is a reasonable inducement not to pursue this chronicle beyond Christmas. The second induces a desire to wait for the metamorphosis of the FAL to advance (in the sense of the "advancement" of progress, or the "advanced" state of old meat) before visiting upon it the smiling, if cruel, voyeurism to which, for a hundred days, the zapper has confined himself. 
Is that enough reason to take stock, to draw up a balance sheet? If yes, such a balance sheet would be rather modest in scale. We still do not know what television is, but we are beginning increasingly to imagine that it must be happy enough being "the telly". This irrefutable truism implies that it must not be held responsible for the fact that it bears little relation to thought, to morals, or to poetry. All of which are very noble, to be sure, and which cinema meets from time to time. However, this truism also means that when it comes to information (giving news of the world), to de-ontology (teaching the lesson that others must not be excessively ill-treated), to prose (using better image and sound), television - in the best cases - will have a say. 
In other words, it should be possible to say that we live in homes that have "running water, gas, electricity and images". And while we justifiably complain when the water supply is cut off, we do not believe that water tastes like whiskey when finally it does begin to flow normally from our taps. Water, we will say, is more or less pure, good and chlorinated. This is the essential question where television is concerned: it relates more to ecology than anything else. Rather strangely, everybody came down heavily on that poor word “FAL”, without realising that it was about a landscape, and that we were more its guardians than its vandals. The landscape is not a New Territory to be discovered and opened up in the future (all the speeches about that sublime object which television could, or should be, do begin to get one down), it is an environment in fact, which we have enjoyed already for a long time, an environment which it should be possible to improve, no more., The task involved is, doubtless, titanic, but it may be wiser to entrust it to ants. 
The foregoing paragraphs concern the zapper, inasmuch as he is a citizen and that he has a claim to what a recent tabloid referred to as his rights as a "consumer of media". What follows, however, deals with those obscure reasons which have led him to believe that by zapping he would go beyond appearances, drift towards a lighthouse of truth – truth about French society subject to a mild hysteria, about archaic reflexes lingering in the midst of total modernity, about unknown dogmas and supervised liberties and about that strange desire to see, to see at all costs, employing surprise or stratagems, for fear that there may be nothing or, on the contrary, too much to see. 
Doubtless, one must have seen too many films of cinema to take television seriously. As if one day television will give back to cinema all that it has taken, not only in terms of a portfolio of films, but also in terms of solid hypotheses which filmmakers developed earlier within the cinema only because the other media were not yet ready to welcome them: from (the much forgotten) Rossellini to Godard (who lately has been in great form, and so much the better) through Vertov, Welles and Tati. If there were a "history of communication," cinema would be, at one and the same time, the Golden Age as well as the Era of Suspicion. Television would merely have been its manager (surprising, how prominently this word "manage" figures in our everyday speech), its "digestive," so to speak. So much so, now, when cinema cannot meet our needs, it is still with what we have learned from it that we contemplate that which wishes its death. Can the cinema critic of films still survive? The cinema critic of life, in any case, leads a hard life.

Originally published in Libération on December 24, 1987. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani. With some edits by Steve Erickson and me.

Television and its Shadow

Another one from The Wage of the Channel Hopper.

Television and its Shadow 
Where nothing is less sure than that a "history of television" will emerge, one day. 
During a (mass media) debate about the future of cinema, a clever chap raised the following argument: melancholic cinephiles, you who flatter yourself that you have rehabilitated the popular (especially American) cinema of yesterday, who is to say that there will not be – in thirty years or more – people who will rehabilitate present-day television, which today we find so difficult not to despise just a little bit? At first glance, the argument seems full of common sense and we begin to imagine the 21st century zapper, sincerely moved by Maguy, Rue Carnot or Miami Vice. What will these people be like? On second thought, however, the argument merely seems clever, and nothing is more misleading than the glib habit of placing cinema and television in total opposition. For it does not help thought, and only produces false symmetries. 
That is what we say to ourselves as we consume here and there the minor subjects offered by Vive la télé (on channel 5). Pre-zapped subjects that we watch with the conspiratorial eye of one who has already seen them in a previous life, who is surprised by his own amnesia (who sang with Les Problèmes? Antoine?) as by his capacity to recall (Ah yes, the painter Fujita, that was his moment of glory, now dead and forgotten.) We identify what we do not recognise and no longer recognise what we know. In this smiling game that we play with ourselves, everything sways towards déja-vu and irony. And, since there is no question of allowing these inserts any more weight than the load of their insignificance, the director Gérard Jourd'hui makes it a point to invent the outdated (discoloured) disguise of what was innocently nude and in vogue twenty or more years ago.  
Of course, we realise that, up to the mid-sixties, the voices of journalists in the wings were peremptory, nasal tones, with the low humour of the forties or fifties. In black and white the very images that were meant to be pure entertainment assume great dignity (fashion show reports, advance clips of the yé-yé culture, Princess Margaret all smiles, Cocteau, etc.) But these images suddenly swing en bloc into the category (duly filed and classified in the archives of the INA or the Gaumont Cinematheque) of images of the past that are also past images. The recent past remains undecidable as long as it does not definitively fall into the overall phenomenon of belonging to the past
Which is why the hypothesis of a future aesthetic rediscovery of television is not certain. It will of course always be possible to find in these images innumerable items of objective information on an era, useful for the historians (for a Marc Ferro yet unborn) or the sociologist. Certainly, those who have actually lived through these events the first time around will feel gelatinously sentimental when watching these retro images that, in Jean-Louis Schefer's superb phrase, "have watched our childhood." But this does not mean that television will be posthumously avenged for the mild contempt in which it has been held by those who watched it (and, too often, by those who worked in it.) 
Existing figures show the cinema/television parallel in a poor light. Television has existed for at least 40 years, and we still do not have anything like "A history of television," a little Sadoul for future telephiles, with explanations, sagas and filmographies. No sentimental reference to television's past consists of anything more than a litany of 2-3 mythic titles (Cinq colonnes a la une, Trente-six chandelles...). As if this could suffice to produce the illusion of a history as rich as that of cinema. 
For, if we look at cinema, we see clearly that in the space of 40 years (say from 1910-1950, from the first Griffith films to the first Fellinis), this burgeoning art produced an incredible number of monuments of masterly creative folly, masterpieces with international audiences, known to succeeding generations (from the nickelodeons to the cine-clubs). So much so, it may be contended, without paradox, that its Golden Age was in its beginnings, and that the last few decades, however interesting they might have been, are already much less in the nature of an adventure. The cinema adventure did not have to wait 40 years to breed crazy theoreticians and incomplete historians: a glance at the texts of Eisenstein or the articles of Delluc (from the twenties) is enough to realise that wild theories and piercing criticism had found their tone at the very outset. 
It is clear then that television is not "like" cinema: the times are different. It is perhaps the end and completion of cinema (its "realisation"), just as it is, sometimes, a trailer of something to come. Moreover - and this is its greatness - as it is the slave of a pure present, with no depth, it is only normal that television should know nothing of itself, that, knowing nothing, it is no more capable of generating its history than its historians.
Originally published in Libération on November 13, 1987. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani. With minor edits by Steve Erickson and myself.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

From the Large to the Small Screen

From Steve Erickson's old website. One of three texts from The Wage of the Channel Hopper column.
From the Large to the Small Screen 
Where, as a matter of provocation, it is affirmed that there is no serious reason for a film to stop being great on the grounds that it is shown on television. 
Nothing is more unanimous (and more self-satisfied) than the following cry: films (especially the big ones) are not shown on television. Yes, of course, television shows them, but they are 'shown' so badly. What we lose by this transfer from the large to the small screen would be downright inexpressible and the images that were large (when we were small) would not survive if they became small (while we have become big). This would also be true for images that, instead of becoming large, were long (like in Cinemascope). This would also obviously be true for spectacular frescos, ornate epics, and films of suspense and pathos. 
To watch Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now or Once Upon a Time in America on television – to cite three recent examples – is an act of highly dubious masochism, a self-induced sabotage of perception, a suspicious taste for the compressed and confined. Nothing could ever replace the theatre, that congenial belly of the cinema whale, and its bigger-than-life actors and sets. 
There can be no response to this cry when it comes from the heart, which is not always the case. As time goes by, the films that could justify this nostalgia for the cinema theatre and for the myth of a perfect projection are becoming rare. There are big films, of course, but it is not because we see the Iguazu falls or the mistral in close-up that The Mission or Jean de Florette cease to be, fundamentally, telefilms. For what, in the ultimate analysis, distinguishes a film from a telefilm is that, in a film, even scenes of intimacy are cinema, while, in a telefilm, even spectacular scenes are television. 
By going through the technical gadgetry of television, cinema, to be sure, does lose something. The question that will be increasingly asked is what? The better we know what is lost, the better we will realise its cost, and the better we will realise what, on the other hand, may have been gained. (We must not forget that television is often the cruel revelation of what was not all that great in cinema.) The question should be asked, film by film, without any preconceived answers. Gigantism is not necessarily a great loser, nor the Lilliputian the great winner. Perhaps Duras' India Song loses more on television than DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Who knows? 
The strangest thing is that the cinephile generation born after the war knew only the decline of large cinema theatres, even as, in the 60s, it lent its support to the adventure of art and experimentation, small theatres and then multiplexes. Those who have lived through the 'Hernani'-like controversies of L'Avventura or Les Carabiniers can scarcely express their regret at the destruction of the Gaumont Palace, where they never went. Just as the exhibitors of art and experimental cinema, currently threatened with depleted audiences, would be wrong to have us believe that the quality of projection in their theatres is not, for the most part, somewhat pathetic. 
If there is regret at all, even at its most sincere, it is more an arbitrarily assembled longing for cinema in its earlier state (as celebrated, for example, by Eustache in Mes Petites Amoureuses). Only, by reducing the size of theatres we have arrived at a point beyond which, at comparable reduction, there is scarcely any difference between a semi-private projection in an empty mini-theatre and the viewing of the same film at home on television. 
We are tempted to ask those who systematically denigrate cinema as it comes across on television, the following question: do you miss the film or the fact of going to the movies? In the latter case, raise your voice so that films may be made once more – real films – that will require large theatres (but do not be too surprised if such films are mostly American and if there are good reasons for French cinema not being able to deliver on such a large scale). But if it is the film that counts and the film was already a work of genius in a theatre, ask yourself if this genius is so volatile that it disappears with the mere change of medium. Chances are rather stronger, perhaps, that the word 'genius' has been used lightly. 
Canal Plus has just had the idea of showing six times, instead of once, one of the least-known films of the last few years, the admirable Once Upon A Time In America by Sergio Leone. A film that has in any case been ravaged, cut in length by one hour: a shade too involved in its plot, but really ambitious (and not pretentious); one of the most beautiful testimonies of love in the American myth ever to come from Europe, but testimony of the lucid love of the eternal immigrant. Yet, what characterizes this film, like the astonishing Lawrence Of Arabia? The fact that, in close-ups or in long shot, things do not happen differently. The film does not change when we move from a spectacular shot with elaborate sets and a large cast to a scene with two characters enclosed within four walls. It is this mastery of distances that really differentiates a film from a tele-film. It is this distance (a way of seeing) that has increasingly abandoned cinema, making way for the non-distance of the zoom (a question of touch, digitalisation, optical zapping). 
So much so, at the end of Leone's film, when an old De Niro, after the lapse of time, accepts the invitation of his ex-friend who has become a big shot in the town, and visits the only woman he ever loved (and raped), 30 years before, when De Niro discovers her in her green room, her face pale (and doubtless withered) beneath her make-up, we are watching a purely intimate scene (in which the music is quite evocative of John Ford), that was magnificent on the large screen and remains magnificent on the small one. Not an iota of emotion is lost in the meeting. There is no greater loss than in Dreyer's close-up of Falconetti's face, or in Chaplin's appearance when condemned to death in Monsieur Verdoux. Our conception of films that moved us strongly in the theatre must be very poor if we imagine that they will not touch us at all if shown on television. In sum, what is strong remains strong. 
The study of cinema today, whether we like it or not, inevitably, takes recourse to television. This will perhaps last only a moment, but this is our moment. Something is lost of course (but paintings too lose their colours, and cathedrals were once white), but something more important is saved. And if there is to be a debate at all, that is what we should discuss. 
We might prefer that films, rather being consumed by the protected and museographed circles of cinephiles, should be shown a second time, running the risk of their natural environment, made up of other images (those of television), and a different use of our time. This risk is real but less than if they were thrown en bloc into the folk-lore of archaeological celebration of 'old-world' cinema. 
It is preferable that, falling upon L'Inhumaine by accident, while zapping between two commercials and a video clip, we thereby discover a beautiful film, rather than that we should feel obliged to call it beautiful (or, worse, 'interesting') because we saw it during a highly mediatised 'cultural' sermon. 
Quite simply, there must be enough faith in images (and in the audiences to come) to believe that where once there has been beauty, there cannot be nothing at all overnight.

Originally published in Libération on November 16, 1987. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani. With minor edits by Steve Erickson and myself.

Back to the Future

This text was written as the concluding chapter of the book The Wage of the Channel Hopper published in 1988. The book is a collection of daily columns Daney wrote between September and December 1987 in the newspaper Libération.
Back to the Future 
When Nanni Moretti gave his last film the title La Messe est Finie (The Mass is Ended), he did not realise how apt his words would be. Since when has a film critic been like a priest whom people go to see from time to time so that he may baptise, with a little help from his pen, increasingly inferior audio-visual products as "films"? Since when has there no longer been either mass or sermon? Since when has the audience - finally grown up - only gone by the dictates of its own mind? And since when has the Cannes “Fete” become a cathodic butchery? Be that as it may, now, in 1987, faced with the “cinema crisis” (which is primarily a crisis of the film theatre), the small fry amongst the “professionals of the profession” have begun to lose hope, a sense of direction. I have, for the first time, started asking myself the most hackneyed question: what does it mean today to be a film critic? 
I used to like television. I liked it all the more because to me it did not count. I, already very much a cinephile, used to watch it late at night, and, being a trifle perverse, I had immediately applied to it the inadequate criteria of cinema. Thus, to me television was, even by absurdity, an extension of emotions and habits acquired at the cinematheque in the sixties. I came from a journal – Cahiers du Cinema – that had always put cinema on a pedestal and considered the real “impossible”. It was at Cahiers, working alongside Jean Douchet, that I learned to look closely at films, in “close-up”, as Eisenstein used to say, as if my head were the ultimate projection room. Which is why I had always been suspicious of those to whom nothing remained of a film the moment it passed from the large to the small screen. 
However, as time went by, it became clear that “love for cinema” could mean a number of different things. Those who perhaps had greater affection for the film theatre than for the film they watched, were right now to talk of nostalgia and treason. But others – including myself – had undoubtedly preferred the film to the theatre. The former loved the Saturday evening social ritual, while the latter preferred to invent all kinds of personal rites for themselves in the dark anonymity of the nonstop cinema. The former were still attached to the theatre and its rituals, while the latter were already very much involved in the audio-visual flow of images. The former would never get over their lost object – say Casablanca or Les Enfants du Paradis – while the latter would follow their object to the end of the world, and even beyond, up to television. 
Which is why comparisons, whether exalted or Manichean, between cinema and television did not, to my mind, yield anything worthwhile. It prevented thought on what had transmitted from cinema to TV. So I concocted a pro domo theory for myself, a theory of cine-TV incest. By and large, it was enough to note that all the filmmakers who have to some extent or another revolutionised the way films are made seemed to reason more in terms of a “history of communications” than in relation to a hypothetical “history of cinema”. The real impact of filmmakers such as Vertov, Rossellini, Bresson, Tati, Welles, Godard or Straub (among others) rose from their unstable position between the poetic requirements of cinema and the progress of mass mediatisation of the world. Most of them, moreover, did not despise television (Rossellini even opted for it with much ado at the end of the sixties), and they might even have worked for television had it not rushed into making sickly-sweet melodramas or educational films in keeping with the Autant-Laras or the Delannoys of the fifties. The exchange of good and bad was total, and the circle complete. 
It was after these ruminations that I started, from September 15, 1987, to watch television regularly. To observe, to describe, not to giggle – this was the only rule I set, the other being to write every day. A hundred days later, the outlook seemed clearer, even simplified. Like a return to common sense after fruitless complications. Like the terra firma of first principles. 
It appeared to me, first and foremost, that all that was hateful on TV had one thing in common. Those dispensing “culture” and talk show hosts trying to be funny all behaved in the same ultra-sweet fashion, pitying us for having to fall back upon them to fill the tragic gaps in our supposedly barren lives. They made us feel that without them we would amount to nothing. They whispered to us that real life was not “elsewhere”, that there was nothing more lovable or loving than a cosy corner in a well-lit studio. They tried to pass off the built-in monopoly television has on the solitude of its viewers as magnanimity, as the greatness of their soul. My first (mental) cry of revolt was: “TV compensates nothing”. 
Thereafter, I realised that my old theory about cine-TV incest (another way of describing the adventure of “modern cinema”, from Rossellini to Godard) was no longer true. The art of cinema had undoubtedly consisted of answering in advance questions that no one knew how to ask. But in 1987 there was no longer any reason to hesitate. At best, television - and adult TV - would perhaps again take up these questions. Cinema, however, had no choice but to ask new questions. It was no longer the trailer announcing the all-powerful myth of effective and happy communication. It was what remained of communication, before or after it had passed. 
From that moment, it became possible not to reproach television for not giving what it did not have. Like he always does, Godard, full of punch after the launch of Keep Your Right Up, made two or three provocative and pertinent remarks full of common sense. That culture is TV because culture is transmitted and TV can only transmit. That cinema had transmitted itself, which is why it sometimes became an art. But then it became equally possible to criticise television every time it moved away from its function, which could be best described as “ecological”. Television would accompany our lives without replacing them; it would give us “news” about the world, it would be the least polluting of all landscapes. 
Had I zapped only to discover these primary truths? Ought I to get used to an effortless dissociation of cinema from television? Had there been a new deal, where each actor could take his pickings afresh? It was enough to listen to the “noise” made about recent films to realise that an era was truly coming to a close. I, who had become used to fighting Straub's cause, was not surprised to find myself “defending” the latest Fellini films. Not that they were being criticised, but because they had incited the same worn and indifferent reactions in their admirers and detractors. 
Definitely in the minority, cinema did not any longer have to be “auteur” based since the auteur was one who responded personally to constraints and orders. This was untraceable in present-day cinema: whoever made a film, small or big, French or American, traditional or daring, would now do so at a personal level. 
Defunct as an industry, cinema will once more become an artisanal art, poor or affluent, and will talk of everything that remains in shot(s) once the compressing rollers of mediated communication have gone by. Any resistance? 
I thus de-zapped on an optimistic note. Things actually seemed simple and the physical separation of cinema and television could at last be envisaged. TV was a matter of ecology because it spoke to the responsible citizen in us, that it to say, to the adult. It is the adult whose role it is to say "no" to the permanent risk of being puerile. But cinema had derived its strength and longevity (one century!) from its childlike aspect - an aspect it could lose, but not do without (an "adult audience" is utopia). If “to give what we do not have” is love, and if television is fuelled by love (that is to say, in Lacan's words, by "miam-miam"), it is clear that cinema is powered by desire. If television is a vehicle of culture, cinema transmits experience. If TV must have its own de-ontology, the tracking shots of cinema have been “moral” questions. If TV programming can reveal talent, nothing will ever release cinema from the desire to produce. Finally, if TV is our prose (and we will never talk well enough), cinema no longer stands a chance except as poetry.

Originally published in Le Salaire du zappeur, Ramsey, 1988. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani, Samgam Books, 1991. With minor edits by Steve Erickson and me.

Coup de Torchon

From Steve Erickson's old website.

Coup de Torchon  
I've picked out at least three scripts in Coup de Torchon. The first is psychological, the second could be political, the third would love to be metaphysical. In 1938, in Bourkassa, a village of French West Africa comprising "Population 1,275" (the name of the celebrated Jim Thompson novel from which the film is adapted), the cop is called Lucien Cordier. He's a naive, spineless man, easy to hold up to ridicule. Philippe Noiret is the hero of the first story: his big body takes blows and doesn't return them, effaces itself. But Cordier is held in contempt by people themselves so evidently contemptible (Marielle as a pimp, Marchand as a soldier and Eddy Mitchell as a notorious parasite) that the spectator feels that all this is exaggerated, that there is something fishy. And if Cordier wasn't weak or naïve after all? And what if he was cooking something up for us? (One knows the importance of cooking in Tavernier's films.) 
Effectively, a second script takes the relay of the first: Lucien Cordier sets himself to kill, without warning but without anger. We are here in the "even at the base of abjection he finds the force to rebel against an inadmissible situation" story. In this occurrence, the situation in Africa on the day before the war, Bourkassa like a cabaret set, the intense mediocrity of colonial life, with its African zombies and its lost and repulsive little white men. Noiret is also the hero of this story. This time, it's his big body that gives blows and his intelligence that plans them. Oh good, says the relieved spectator: a little revolt, a little simplistic anti-colonialism is good. And at the same time, he's not convinced, the spectator; he says that in 1981, an anti-colonialist film is a little facile and almost retro. Today, a director, especially of the left, should go further, interrogate more deeply. (Look at Schlöndorff.) And if Cordier wasn't just courageous and rebellious? And what if Tavernier was cooking something up for us? 
So the third script tumbles down, the most ambitious of the three. The cabaret becomes very bloody and Cordier very talkative. Not weak, not naive, he gives a true lesson in Evil and in negative theology for novices. All this explains itself: if the cop never arrests anyone, it's because, lucidly, he knows that all his little world is condemned - and him with it. So he would be, not one who kills nor one who saves, but one who finishes off indifferently those who are already lost and who ignore it (from the ignoble Mercaillou to the good Negro Vendredi.) And when he kills, it's a little of himself that dies. Noiret is more than ever the hero of the story, a sort of exterminating angel, a little chubby perhaps but implacable. Beginning as a thick farce on the side of an African Clochermerle, Coup de Torchon would love to end on the side of the aces of error and redemption. On the side of Christians. Ford or Graham Greene, for example. In 1938, Tavernier tells us that the white man's burden (again!) was very heavy to carry. Thank God. 
I then asked myself why these three stories set end to end don't manage to make a good film, at least a film. Why Coup de Torchon remains less troubling than its subject, less risky than old-fashioned, less dynamic than agitated. Why the Steadicam direction transforms the space into a rugby field and the characters into a confused mass, making the spectator seasick without setting him on the move? I respond to myself: 
1. Something about Noiret doesn't work. From the beginning of the film, it's clear that Noiret’s acting is just a composition, bringing not a gram of unease in a supposedly scandalous story. Noiret plays a naïve but with a clever air, a weakling with a hard air: he equalises everything, he is monotone. One sees the actor measure out his composition, one doesn't see the character take form. He sweats, he agitates himself, he falls, but that doesn't mean that he moves. Coup de Torchon fails to make us discover “another Noiret”, who would be for Tavernier the object of an affectionate documentary and not a narcissistic double. 
2. Something about Cordier doesn't work. In the film, there is only one character. Only one that has a history, a soul, questions in a world where no one poses them: it's Cordier. The others are just the decor of his inner trajectory. One can find them more or less successful: Huppert as a rather good cast against type, Marielle convincing in a second half-role, Audran equal to herself, Marchand already stereotyped, Eddy Mitchell evidently remarkable in the role of the little chatterbox Nono. But none of them weigh up to Cordier-Noiret, the only one who advances the story and has an interest in all this having any meaning. It's as if Tavernier asked spectators to laugh (even falsely) at the spectacle offered by the little whites of Bourkassa but that, of those who consider themselves deep thinkers, he begs them to direct their regard towards the little Africans who eat squatting down under the eye of Cordier in the first and last shots of the film. Would the meaning of the film be here? The meaning, perhaps, but not the film. And what one sees is the film, not its meaning. 
3. Something about the dialogue doesn't work. So Noiret lends his body and voice. But it's precisely no more than a loan. The motor of the film is the dialogue, and as one could expect, that of Aurenche and Tavernier oscillates between the funny story and the disenchanted aphorism about the human condition. The illustrated screenplay is a tenacious film genre, returning from afar (but it's returning, that's sure). It rarely produces interesting films but it pleases the public that, titillated every twenty seconds by a bon mot, becomes the film's accomplice more than its spectator. This showiness in dialogue writing only "works" in two cases: that of the actor-writer (Guitry) or that of the great, genial show-off (Jouvet, Brasseur, Berry performed their "numbers," without caring about the rest.) Today, those great, genial show-offs are dead. One must invent others. It's clear that Tavernier is devoting himself to it. He has his work cut out. 
4. Something about the Tradition of Quality doesn't work. Obviously, I'm playing naive (and weak), I know that all this has a name: Tradition of Quality and that Tavernier has made no secret of his love for this “old school” cinema, where the dialogue always matters more than the story and the casting over the direction. Good. But the more the Tradition of Quality returns (and it returns at full speed, unfortunately) the better one understands the extent to which it wasn't only an aesthetic affair, but an attitude of spirit, an ideology (the big word is let out, never mind.) Formal academicism, the submission of cinema to literature and literature to the author's words, the revindication of professionalism always arrive in tandem with a pessimistic vision of a dull, disenchanted world. Academicism is lazy. It's illusory to want to change this rotting world, so why the Devil make it the subject of a story and direction, of a game with the spectator? To what goal? Why incarnate Evil in a story (like Hitchcock, Bresson and Dreyer have done, to remain among the Christians) where all the world's horror can be summed up at little cost in a bon mot, on the counter of a bistro, in Bourkassa or elsewhere? Because it goes quicker, it's less difficult and upsets no one. The favourite character of the old Tradition of Quality cinema (one finds it with Clair, Carné, Autant-Lara), the one to whom one never tells stories because he already knows everything, the bad public quickly blasé, is the Devil. One must one day make a history of French cinema through the character of the Devil. It would be very revealing. 
If I've told the three stories of Coup de Torchon, it's because it is clear for me that Tavernier hesitates between them. A psychological story? To what goal? And one passes to the political story. To what goal? And one passes to the metaphysical. I had the feeling of a pre-determined escape – a shame because this Christian scenario seems to interest Tavernier the man. It's Tavernier the artist who doesn't follow.

First published in Libération on November 6, 1981. Republished in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, pp.51-53. Translated by Steve Erickson/Philippe St-Germain with minor edits.

The Thread

Jean Eustache obituary by Serge Daney. Reposted from Steve Erickson's old site.

The Thread 
The director Jean Eustache was found dead Wednesday/Thursday night in Paris.
The death of Jean Eustache shocked but it didn't surprise. His friends said he was suicidal. He held on to life only by a small number of threads, so solid that one thought them unbreakable. The desire for cinema was one of these threads. The desire not to have to film at any cost was another. This desire was a luxury and Eustache knew it. He would pay the price. 
It's not much to say that he was born to cinema with the Nouvelle Vague, a little bit after it, but with the same refusals and admirations. It's not much to say that he was an "auteur", his cinema was mercilessly personal. That is to say, mercilessly tied up with his experience, to alcohol, to love. Filling up his life in order to make the material of his films was his only moral code but it was a moral code of iron. The films came when he was strong enough to make them come, to bring back what he made in life. 
In the thread of the desolate 70s, his films succeeded one another, always unforeseen, without a system, without a gap: film-rivers, short films, TV programs, hyperreal fiction. Each film went to the end of its material, from real to fictional sorrow. It was impossible for him to go against it, to calculate, to take cultural success into account, impossible for this theoretician of seduction to seduce an audience. 
The audience was with him once, when he made the most beautiful French film of the decade, The Mother and the Whore. Without him, we would have no face to set to the memory of the lost children of May ‘68: lost, already ageing, talkative and old-fashioned. (Bernadette) Lafont, (Jean-Pierre) Léaud and especially Françoise Lebrun, her black shawl and her stubborn voice. Without him, nothing would have remained of them. 
An ethnologist of his own reality, Eustache could have made a career, become a good auteur, with fantasies and a vision of the world, a specialist of some sort in himself. His moral code prohibited it: he only filmed what interested him. Women, dandyism, Paris, the country and the French language. It's already a lot. 
Like a painter knowing that he'd never quite finish, he never ceased returning to the same motif, using cinema not like a mirror (that's for the good directors) but like the needle of a seismograph (that's for the greats). The public, one moment seduced, would forget this perverse ethnography that had the bad manners to keep coming. An artist and nothing but an artist (he didn't know how to do anything except make films), he held to the contrary the speech of an artisan, absolutely modest and proud. The artisan weighs everything, evaluates everything, takes on everything, memorises everything. Thus Eustache worked. 
One year, some Moroccan friends had organised a complete retrospective of his work in Tangier. A strange idea. A brilliant idea. All the reels, the heaviness, the age, the rust, the incredible number of kilograms that The Mother and the Whore represents were put into a diplomatic case, crossed the sea and found themselves in front of assiduous Moroccan cine-club goers. Would Eustache come? It was difficult to make him leave Paris, we thought. But he came and remained two days. The projection of the Eustachian opus took place, outside of time, for this impromptu audience who was disconcerted by all these stories of sex and desire, of the French countryside and the fauna of Montparnasse. Eustache would disconcert them even more. His mildness, his patience and his manner of responding to questions with an indecipherable mix of irony and gravity, surprised everyone. 
Tangier wasn't Paris nor the port cafés the Closerie des Lilas, but we searched for a late bar to have a beer and talk about cinema. Eustache spoke of his masters, with whom he didn't compare himself, of Pagnol and Renoir, these other artisans who came before him. I will never forget the way in which he made them live again in his language, shot by shot, with his accent. It shocked but didn't surprise. Eustache resembled his times too much to be comfortable. He ended by losing. Too bad for us.
First published in Libération November 16, 1981. Republished in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, p.53-55. Translated by Steve Erickson.

Two texts in Framework

Continuing to salvage the translations lost from the old Steve Erickson's website. Framework – The journal of cinema and media published two translations of Daney:
  • "One From the Heart", Framework, issue 32/33, 1986, translated by Ginette Vincendeau. The original article is "Coup de coeur" published in Libération on September 29, 1982, and reproduced in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, pp.123-6. The text is available on JSTOR
  • "The Forbidden Zoom", Framework, issue 32/33, 1986, translated by Ginette Vincendeau. The original article is "Zoom interdit" published in Libération on November 3, 1983, and reproduced in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, pp.185-7. The text is available on JSTOR.


Reposting from the old Steve Erickson's website.

Stalker is a Soviet film (it is Tarkovsky's sixth and, in my opinion, his best) but "to stalk" is an English verb (and a regular one at that). To be precise, to stalk is to "pursue at close range," a way of closing in, a walk, almost a dance. In "stalking" the part of the body which is afraid lags behind and the part which is not afraid is compelled to move forward. With its pauses and its terrors, the stalk is the walk of those who make their way through unknown territory. In Stalker danger is everywhere, but it has no face. The landscape too is without end, without horizon, without North. There are plenty of tanks, factories, giant pipes, a railroad, a corpse, a dog, a telephone which still works, but the whole thing is being overrun by nature. This fossilised industrial landscape, this corner of the twentieth century which has become a strata (Tarkovsky was a geologist in Siberia from 1954 to 1956, and it is still a part of him), this is the Zone. One does not go into the Zone, one has to creep in because it is guarded by soldiers. One does not walk there, one "stalks." 
In the cinema we have seen cowboys who move towards each other with coquettish steps before they shoot, the stagnation of crowds, couples dancing and urban motion; we have never seen the stalk. Tarkovsky's film is first and foremost a documentary about a certain way of walking, not necessarily the best (especially in the USSR) but the only one left when all reference points have vanished and nothing is certain any more. As such, it is the first of its kind: a camera follows three men who have just entered the Zone. Where have they learned this crooked walk? Where are they from? And how did they become so familiar with this no man's land? Is their familiarity the false familiarity of the tourist who doesn't know where to go, what to look at or what to be afraid of? One of them has come with only a bottle of vodka in a plastic bag: he's just come off a drinking binge among high society. Meanwhile, the second one has something secret in a small traveling bag. The third one, who has nothing but his furtive glances and his quickly extinguished bursts of enthusiasm, is the Stalker. And before pouncing on the countless interpretations which this kaleidoscope of a film leaves open, one should watch closely as these three excellent Russian actors (Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko) "stalk" in the Zone. 
The film doesn't begin so abruptly. It is a bit more orderly, but not much. Tarkovsky, in a liberal adaptation of a science fiction novel by the brothers Strugatsky, imagines a world in which a mysterious accident has left part of the planet alien, dangerous and closed off from access. The Zone is that forbidden corner, returned to its primitive state. It's a last reserve of fantasy and a territory of macabre beauty. Shadowy characters, for a little money, give "tours" of it. They are the Stalkers. These transitory people live a miserable existence between two worlds. This time, the Stalker (part sage, part tour guide, very much hoodlum) has brought with him a Writer and a Professor. The Writer (with his plastic bag) speaks little, but has an idea in mind. For there is a goal to this trip à trois: In the middle of the Zone there is a "room" which, they say, fulfills the wishes of those who enter it. So they say. 
At the entrance to the room, the Stalker and his two clients back down: no one will step inside. First of all, out of fear, then out of wisdom. Out of fear because if the room is a hoax, it would be humiliating to let on that one had believed in it; and if it really does fulfill all wishes, nothing will be left to wish for; and if it answers unconscious desires, one doesn't know what to expect. Out of wisdom because no life is liveable without the absolute, of course, but the absolute is not a place, it is a movement away: a movement which diverts one, which deports one (in every sense of the word), which makes one "stalk". It matters little in the end what's put on the plate, or even that one believes: that one believes in believing or in others capacity to believe. What matters is one's movement. 
As a spectator, one cannot resist "stalking" in the forest of symbols which the film becomes. Tarkovsky's scenario is such a diabolical machine that it does not exclude any interpretation a priori. In a kaleidoscope, one can see what one wants. Perhaps the Zone is planet Earth, the Soviet continent, our unconscious, or the film itself. The Stalker could easily be a mutant, a dissident, a crazed psychoanalyst, a preacher looking for a cult or a spectator. You can "play symbols" with the film, but it's a game you shouldn't overdo either (no more with Tarkovsky than with Fellini or Buñuel, other great humorists of interpretation.) Besides, the freshness and the beauty of Stalker lie elsewhere. 
When the film is over, when we are a little tired of interpreting, once we've eaten everything on the plate, what is left? Exactly the same film. The same compelling images. The same Zone with the presence of water, with its teasing lapping, piles of rusted metal, nature at its most voracious, and inescapable humidity. As with all films that trigger a rush of interpretation in the viewer, Stalker is a film which is striking for the physical presence of its elements, their stubborn existence and way of being there, even if there was no one to see them, to get close to them or to film them. This is not a new phenomenon: already in Andrei Rublev there was the mud, that primal form. In Stalker the elements have an organic presence: water, dew and puddles dampen the soil and eat away at the ruins. 
A film can be interpreted. This one in particular lends itself to it (even if in the end it hides its secrets.) But we are not obliged to interpret it. A film can be watched too. One can watch for the appearance of things which one has never seen before in a film. The watcher-viewer sees things which the interpreter-viewer can no longer make out. The watcher stays at the surface because he doesn't believe in depth. At the beginning of this article, I was wondering where the characters had learned the stalk: that twisted walk of people who are afraid but who have forgotten the source of their fears. And what of these prematurely aged faces, these mini-Zones where grimaces have become wrinkles? And the self-effacing violence of those who wait to receive a beating (or maybe to give a beating if they haven't forgotten how?) And what of the false calm of the dangerous monomaniac and the empty reasonings of a man who is too solitary? 
These do not come only from Tarkovsky's imagination. They cannot be invented, they come from elsewhere. But from where? Stalker is a metaphysical fable, a course in courage, a lesson in faith, a reflexion on the end of time, a quest, whatever one wants. Stalker is also the film in which we come across, for the first time, bodies and faces which come from a place we know about only through hear-say. A place whose traces we thought the Soviet cinema had lost completely. This place is the Gulag. The Zone is also an archipelago. Stalker is also a realist film.
First published in Libération on November 20th, 1981. Republished in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Frank Matcha with Steve Erickson.

Baby Seeking Bathwater

Reposting another (slightly more challenging) text from the old Steve Erickson's website.

Baby Seeking Bathwater 
Among the metaphors which have seen lots of service in recent years, there’s the one about the baby and the bathwater. Some still favour keeping the former in a splash of the latter. For example, they’ll say all of communism should be thrown out except the idea of communism, which is sublime and pure. Others, less prudent: you get the feeling they want to throw out the tub and even destroy the bathroom. More rare are those who want to show us what it looks like, a baby without bathwater. Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani are clearly among the uncommon few. 

It’s a poignant spectacle, because the ancestor of all bathwater is the amniotic fluid from which every human being emerges – and which, to judge from “the Grand Bleu generation,” is so desperately lacking to our children. To point where, for fear of being thrown out, they prefer to dive in straight away, instead of sinking later on. 

It’s in this sense that the now-famous Benetton ad is the cynical answer of publicist parents (yesterday’s radicals?) to their unhappy offspring, who have taken to scuba gear like monks take their vows. The ad is the precise and complicitous corollary to Atlantis. Where Besson films the mildest manta like an individual proudly playing his role as a ray in an underwater fashion parade, the Benetton ad photographs the little human animal immediately “immersed” in the void. Curious little human, with an umbilical mother and as the promise of another cord to be plugged in as quick as possible (something like SOS Image).

Thus it is via the billboard that the mythology of the postmodern individual will be signified. For there is always mythology whenever the origin is questioned, even by means of the image. Confided so quickly to our sole gaze, the Benetton baby – it’s a girl, her name is Giusy – has been captured at the very outset of her future course through life as a sexed-and-speaking being (she was born on March 3, 1991, beneath the sign – oh irony! – of Pisces). The Benetton firm is not selling its textiles, nor even its name (after the “did-you-guess-who?” trick, it doesn’t need to anymore). What it signifies here is the power of advertising in general to produce the naked child which, in any case, will have to be dressed one day. Not the future client of Benetton, but the consumer in general, the one who will have to be attached to the market (thus the cord). 

And since we’re decidedly in a world where “there’s no room for the lazy” (as they sang in the International), there’s no question of waiting until this baby has finished being born before putting her image directly to work. The currently supreme form of capitalism is no doubt a kind of progress, since the child labour that so saddened Dickens has now been replaced by the labour of the child’s image, which only shocks a few recalcitrant moralists. Outdated? Uncertain, in any case, that humans will never again be forced to suffer the kind of treatment being publicly inflicted on their image.

Worthy souls have been moved by such crudeness. Some might accept the ungracious looks of the little object (how to escape it? fathers now witness the birth of their children), but still balk at the disappearance of a warm and humane environment for the barely-born. Shall we ridicule such tender sentiments? The obstinate desire for Nativity, for the cow and the donkey? Shall we wax nostalgic for Sunday-school images, normal, “intimate” ads showing innumerable well-washed babies gurgling in bales of maternal cotton? Not sure. But since Benetton is such an ace among pollsters, let’s be as brave, dumb, and average as the polled, and get this tongue-wagging symptom talking.

Its message is first of all aesthetic. The ad shows that when the bathwater has vanished, the former foetus has a tough time getting immersed in anything at all. Looking it over closely, you’ll find it’s plunged into nothing. Neither air, nor water, nor artistic blur, nor pure colour. Just the material medium of any ad destined for the billboard: white paper, left white, delivered as such. A Mallarmean infant born amid the anxiety of the blank page. Well can we understand her tears. 

Is this an abduction? It’s definitely a case of amputation, and there’s nothing new about that. For years now, almost decades, one of the most meaning-fraught operations of contemporary aesthetics has been the disjunction between figure and ground, body and environment, detail and whole. People have given the name of “mannerism” to what is only the already-long “history of amputation” (transplants, quotes, appropriations, all kinds of parasitism). The aim is always to break the natural solidarity of bodies with their surrounds. Advertising aesthetics has been the driving force of this operation. 

That said, the message is not only aesthetic, it’s also semiologic, indeed “semiurgic.” The semiurgic is the omnipotence of the sign – like “demiurgic” – at the moment when it has lost all aura and become a productive force. It is the victory (bitter? oh how bitter!) of an economy of the sign which is all the more totalitarian in that the signs too have finally been “individualised” and set free to “live their lives.” Hence, in passing, the economic miracle of Japanese culture, the most refined empire of signs. 

This too is old news. Beneath the pretext of selling yogurt and noodles, advertising has long laboured at the production of the autonomous signifiers (visual and linguistic) which it would one day need for much grander causes than yogurt and noodles. That day has come. In a world exchanging before our very eyes the old realist picture of mass production for a brand-new landscape of more personalised simulacra, advertising has played its vital role, which consisted in “liberating” the productivity of the sign. The umbilical cord that mysteriously linked the sign to a signified or a referent is also on the verge of being severed. The Benetton ad, both an image of separation and a separated image, confirms the darkest reflections of Debord (on alienation) and Lacan (on castration). 

Which is why, despite everything, the image cannot merely be semiologic: it is also humanitarian. One cannot amputate something – a sign, a being, indeed, a farmer – from the surrounding environment without racking up a little surgical-aesthetic cruelty. That’s why our animal friends have long paid the dues of this delicate operation, by suffering iconic vivisection and shameless manipulation, of which L’Ours (Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “The Bear”) is a good recent example. Whoever talks amputation and transplant is also talking about risk of rejection. Calculated risk of rejection. Calculation of the risk. The risk market. 

By posting up their newborn, solus, pauper, et nudus, on the city walls and the newspaper pages, Benetton and Toscani have created in each of us the vague sentiment that we should adopt this orphan too (as our children have blindly adopted the abandoned bear cub fostered off by Jean-Jacques Annaud, complete with its faked synthesizer squeals). Our malaise before the gigantic proof of human neotony comes less from the realism of the image than from the obligation that we now feel to “manage” not only with individualism as an ideology, but also with the first powerful icons of individuals without the bathwater. On our side as well, the umbilical cord begs to be knotted. On the social, or why not, the religious side, since religion – that which links, religere – always needs a cord. To adopt this child is to immerse her in something: a little writing, for example, in this newspaper-column-as-bathwater. 

So this article is the charitable act that a journalist has dedicated to the grand, enormous image of a tiny, forlorn child. Is it time to stand up and applaud? Hardly. It’s never difficult to interpret that which has been fabricated precisely for interpretation, and which tends typically toward the self-service market of social phenomena. What’s not easy, on the other hand, when faced with a provocation of this kind – which is finally rather benign – is to adopt a personal attitude, a way of being serene without being cynical. The difficulty is understandable: any individual response to a mass message is necessarily inadequate, frustrating, ridiculous. Even when the message in question is the theatrical display of the naked individual (that nackte Individuum evoked by the young Marx).

To those who would claim they are shocked, it’s hopefully possible to answer that we should be able to live with a share (a “quota”?) of scandal. Not for the sake of spineless tolerance, but because no one should be forced into forgetting the horrible reality on which the social tie is always founded. There is in our societies a potlatch of images which must be lived with. This frivolous waste is perhaps, optimistically, the condition for less frequent genocides: only our images (and no longer our bodies) will be sent off to the front. In any case, the capacity to not always replace what enrages us by what soothes us is just proof of a little maturity. Or simply proof – but the word has so completely disappeared from current parlance that one hesitates to voice it – of “humanism.”


A cute little symptom of our current environment, the Benetton baby asks a question that seems less and less avoidable. So let’s formulate it. Given the disappearance of art from our societies – to the benefit of culture, then cultural tourism, and finally tourism tout court – why not admit that flexible and effective programs of social communication could take up the fallen torch of collective “catharsis,” purging a few passions from time to time and dispensing the unfortunate intellectuals from the public management of “the philosophical debate”? After all, there’s more talent in the Benetton ad than in the pitiful agora constituted week after week by the combined headlines of the news magazines. What if cynicism were the unexpected face of whatever innocence we can still muster? In 1973, faced with an ad that had the public up in arms, Pasolini observed: “The cynicism of this slogan holds an intensity and an innocence which are absolutely new.” Pasolini was being provocative – but the ad was already signed Toscani (and Pirella).

A new scandal of “advertising for advertising’s sake” would be no worse than the old scandal of “art for art’s sake,” which it would replace to great advantage. Indeed, products are more quickly digestible than “works,” the Pavlovian communication of formats is more quickly accomplished than the transmission of content, and market shares are more quickly figured than the private emotions of the citizen. Of course there’ll be no more major scandals (we’ll all be “one big family” in which the “public menace” will be rare: the stupid Eugénie who derided Manet’s Olympia right there in the middle of the Salon is long dead and gone). But we’ll all be unfailingly titillated, stimulated, disgusted, dismayed, teased, tested, polled, in short saved from the boredom which, since the eighties, has rendered public space more or less unbearable. 
So is it time to turn the page and admit that when it comes to stating the truth of a society like ours (meeting the “scandal quota,” as it were), mass-oriented social communication can advantageously replace the vestigial elitism of outdated modern art? This is obviously the real question. And if the answer is yes, then it’s clear that the Toscanis of the world (and in Italy alone, a “creative” country, you also have Testa, Pirella, Sanna, D’Adda, Panzeri…) would love to be credited as the heroes of such a transformation. But is the answer yes? What if it were more like “yeauh…”?

There is another piece of history here, linked to the history of amputation. Call it the history of advertising, if you will. Or rather, of the new term between the spheres of “public” and “private.” Publicity and privatisation define more and more strictly the aesthetic framework of that which can be displayed, promoted, and sold. In this story of the world’s re-enchantment after its last destruction (WWII), the “announcement” was initially as servile as the pilot bird (or fish) that says nice things about the beast it’s perched on. Gone are the days when the role of advertising was above all to sell the product. Not much longer lasting, the days when it was a matter of building up the brand image over time: the era of popular hymns to liquid soaps, when advertisements, to Barthes’ great joy, inadvertently conveyed “something ideological” as well. A touching era, itself now liquidated. 

Because what happens, at the close of the three golden decades that put the meat on its bones, when the beast – the market economy – becomes the sole imaginable reality and the sole horizon worthy of global dreams? What happens when the last illusions about another possible type of society fade away? When all the bathwater is declared dirty? What happens is that advertising no longer works for the market, but the market works for advertising. More precisely, the market lets advertising climb up on its shoulders so it can shout down the news of a vast landscape to be explored and conquered.  
An extraordinary, unheard-of landscape where it’s no longer a question of our needs but of our desires, no longer of our pleasures but our caprices, no longer of our dreams but our fantasies. The market of the coming century will be that of immaterial goods, psychological and spiritual trinkets. A whole new world of communicational junk is already threatening. This is the landscape which the ultramodern Benetton advertising, like a pilot bird turned Sister Anne, sees coming from on high. And it’s toward that future, with no time to lose, that it has launched little Giusy, the pure foetus severed from everything. 
If that’s the story, then it’s easy to see that this “advertising of the third kind” demands a less stingy, stay-at-home ideology than the old-fashioned sort (which consequently shrinks back into its corner and pouts). By throwing out this baby without any bathwater, Toscani, we’ll say it again, is less concerned with selling the Benetton logo and line than with performing, gratuitously, a test that combines the advantages of a cultural proposal, an ideological debate, and even a morality lesson. Is Benetton “disinterested”? It would be more appropriate to say that its campaign immediately interests any and everybody. This child will belong to whoever is able to dress it. The blank page says only that the green light has been given and given to everybody. The economic war of all versus all is the possibility for each to interpret the object-pretext and extract some information from it. And this information, in the last analysis, is always economic. 

Now we can get back to our question: has advertising become the privileged vector of social communication? Will it replace the older (tottering and limited) forms of communication? Seized by vertigo, we won’t answer. No doubt the modern societies also needed their hard truths to come from an internal elsewhere: the sacred, poetry, art, but also warfare, politics, and ideology successively occupied these “sites of otherness” that Bataille called “the accursed share” and whose strange economy he sought to understand. And no doubt, in the postmodern societies, the all-conquering plasticity of the market has no more need for that kind of exteriority, but holds in its possession – via advertising as social communication – the means to bend the accursed entirely to its own ends. The “borderline” that the Benetton ad flirts with is not the border between the social and its repressed (what you might call the “good scandal,” the one that awakens fear and trembling), it’s just another disposable tool in the communication kit. Which is the real scandal, the “bad” scandal.

This is why the fundamental difference between creators and creatives, between art and advertising, is obviously not a question of talent, audacity, or technique. It’s a question of desire, of one’s position toward truth.  After all, why can’t I respect a creative? Because he’s a slave, to put it bluntly. The slave of a social interactivity in which he functions as a sophist or an overpayed mercenary. Because now that it has become the rule, the interactivity is currently diluting the idea of responsibility right along with the ideas of arbitration or of a symbolic dimension. Creatives are superior technicians in the service of a closed-circuit process which is largely virtual. A process which needs nothing more than overplayed impresarios, professional exaggerators.

Toscani takes himself for Caravaggio (let’s hope he doesn’t meet the same fate). He takes himself for a hero of Art. But there’s nothing moral in the way Toscani rests content with testing (not to say prodding) the morals of its contemporaries. The proof? Let’s go back for a moment to our newborn (decidedly abandoned by everyone, even in this article). When some English group protested over this image, what did Benetton do? “Fair play,” they said, and retracted the image. Caravaggio never retracted anything.

What does their retraction signify? That the image has shifted entirely to the side of economic power. And that nothing is ever put up for us to see (the naked baby) without an aim to see something else (the dressed and dressing parents). That the advertising image is the very model of the ricochet-image, the image just to see. Like in poker. Thanks to the reaction of an English lobby, something unexpected from England has become visible. The cultural proposal (this article) and the ideological campaign (the English reaction) are no longer anything more than the natural means whereby a new piece of information comes to light. What information? That henceforth, the ideological components of the market must be taken into account. 

For it was clearly too hasty when people spoke about the “end of ideologies,” on the pretext that they haven’t been making much noise over the past ten years. It’s because they too needed to be (re)constituted as values, on a “secondary market” internal to the primary one. That’s nothing new, it will be said quite rightly. Because the new strategy of Benetton is elsewhere. It does not consist, for example, in simply billboarding an ideological line that corresponds to the firm conviction of Lucian himself (the playful anti-racism of United Colors). On the contrary, it lies in the quest for a subtle dissensus, an internal limit to collective convictions (and conventions).

Small but provocative details (the horns on the little black devil next to the blond angel) are the springboards in the quest for finer, more precise information about ideology. No longer the hard-bitten, doctrinaire ideology that can’t sell anything more (and disgusts people instead), but the “lived experience” of ideology, its intimate blurring, its changing borders, its facile contradictions. In this sense, Benetton is like the devil’s advocate (that’s the final meaning of the “did-you-guess-who?” trick), testing us for the temptation to think something else, the impulse to thing the contrary of what we claim to think.

In a period where contradiction is no longer the motor of anything, the compromise formation that Freudians know so well risks becoming the major trope of social communication. Just as negotiation stands every chance of becoming the nerve-centre of economic war. And just as economic war looks poised to take over, all by itself, for the defunct march of history. 
It’s in this sense, to conclude, that the message of the ad is political. The auto-regulation of society, its free-wheeling interactivity, are the service that advertising (writ large) renders to the market economy (writ very large) and to its wars of the third kind. It’s an entirely free service, carried out on the eye and for the eye. Which claims (or prefers) to know nothing about the hand that guides it. It just blinks its pretty lashes. Should it be taken on its word? 
In any case, we’ll never be miscreants enough for its taste.

First published in Libération in two parts on 30 September and 1 October 1991. Published in English in Documenta Documents 2, 1996, Cantz Verlag. Translation by Brian Holmes.