Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The politics of catastrophe movies 2

More from Daney's Cahiers articles on sci fi, horror and catastrophe movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(Don Siegel)

(...) What is more surprising is that science fiction movies are precisely the ones where the feeling of strangeness is the least disturbing, where the idea of the Other would be familiar or ordinary. And these are often reactionary movies where man, far from going beyond himself - where he is so little -, ends up accepting, bitterly and convincingly, this human condition that some (totalitarian regimes let's say) want to deny him.

Cahiers du cinéma, issue 197, January 1968, my translation.

Night of the Living Dead

We haven't taken notice enough, in American cinema, of a tenacious and underground taste for the apocalypse. As if too much good conscience could only be carried through by bringing up the most definitive horrors - horrors which do not come without a certain pleasure, as clearly seen with DeMille (or with King in In Old Chicago or with Van Dyke in San Francisco), the filmmaker of the catastrophe and the accident, themes which gravity can impress and which productivity is not to be neglected since that on top of the photogenic destruction came the secondary benefits of revaluing the characters (at least those who survived) who, when reduced the state of rags, were more sublime and more human than ever. Great natural accidents but also ordeals largely-deserved by a futile humanity; it was so in DeMille’s movies and later in Hitchcock’s, or in these low budget Sci-Fi movies that were made suddenly possible towards 1950 by the idea of an atomic end, the abrupt mutations of a rebelling nature become absurd and monstrous, the ever so possible eradication of man, etc. (Five, Them!, Body Snatchers). And yet, there like elsewhere, the apocalypse disappointed, because men, stupid enough to deserve it, were also wise enough to stop it, opposing a united front from where – all differences having been erased – a feeling properly overwhelming of the human was coming to the light of day. Of the human as such, i.e. non-monstrous.

Cahiers du cinéma, issue 219, April 1970, my translation

Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now

(…) Ok, Apocalypse Now is an exceptional film. But it is also an average post-Viet Nam American movie. Recently American cinema keeps going around the theme of the presence of the Other in ourselves. Other as in “Alien”, the title of the biggest success of the summer in the US. "Ourselves", of course and one more time, is the American considering himself as a general equivalent of the human species. Except that to “be” an American is never that obvious or that simple (I pass on the melting-pot and other myths) and it seems that one is always ready to do anything to be more American (see Kazan). Ideologically, the idea of all these films (Alien, The Exorcist, The Deer Hunter, even Close Encounter of the Third Kind) is to make the Americans even more Americans by making them exorcise an Other (evil usually) which haunts or inhabits them. The novelty of these movies, their strength too, is that they have decided to stop being stingy on the (technological) means to show us the other, the alien, in ourselves. Until now it was often B movies which used to tackle this theme (in the 50s and through anti-communism) but with no resources, forced to resort to weak effects and script subtleties (the Tournerian off-camera) which could amaze only very naive or very sophisticated spectators (cinephiles). The decision to show what cannot be shown is recent. And there are different versions. With Cimino, it is the Asian who is responsible for having woken up the beast the sleeps inside us: we therefore kill him and shame him for having woken up the beast – a known melody. With Ridley Scott (Alien) it is the protean monster literally emerging from the human body and occupying the spacecraft like a cancer with terrifying unpredictable metastases.

Cahiers du cinéma, issue 304, October 1979, my translation

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The politics of catastrophe movies 1

Being busy with my new baby boy, I’ve found a new advantage to Daney's articles: I can read exactly two of them while putting my baby to sleep. Since I do this every three hours at night, I've been reading quite a bit of Daney lately, especially his early writings.

And since I’ve noticed a pattern in Daney’s remarks towards catastrophe or horror movies, here is a selection of quickly translated quotes from his 70s articles in Cahiers du cinéma. Interesting if not always original; rather typical of how Daney stayed loyal to pure cinephilia during the left-wing tendencies of the time.

Grey Matter – Jaws by S. Spielberg

(…) This “Booh! Scare me!” is therefore heavily related to a “How to reassure them?” and to a “What is the price to pay?” A misplaced desire (the young people smoking by the beach that the fiction will promptly get rid off) will be replaced by a more social desire, the desire to end the horror, the desire to return to normality. This is the function of catastrophe-movies. It is not the only one though, for what is given to desire is the norm. And in this way, this cinema, at its limit, is fascist.

What can scare more than three hundred thousands spectators in one week? And what can reassure them? The mise en scène of violence which, as Alain Bergala rightly points out “guarantees the precise conditions of the spectator’s pleasure and his subsequent adhesion to any form of counter-violence.”

This is the same old shout of “I only want to see one head in the rank!” Nothing must stain: one body (military or social), full, sleek, homogenous. A body that can be compared to a circle closing on itself – except in one place where there is a gap. This place is where the shark comes forward: the shark is what Lacan calls the obturator, the a object. Who is the shark? Nothing more than the actualisation – from a hallucination – that there is something rotten inside which attracts the fish.

(…) A normative imaginary, which must be staged, simply. It means shooting (events, extras) from two – and only two – points of views: the hunter’s and the hunted’s. There is no other point of view (spatial, moral, political), no other place for the camera, and therefore for the spectator, than this double position. We talk lightly of “identification” in cinema if we haven’t seen that in these types of movies, it is identification to the hunted/hunter couple, with speculative oscillation, bypassing of knowledge and point of view, loss of any reference, getting under the other’s grey skin, and in a word: everything that leads to a total irresponsibility. Flapping between these two points of views, the camera is with the swimming child for whom the shark is only a dark rectangle, and it is with the shark is in the next frame, for whom the child’s leg is only what stands out from the surface of the water.

in La Rampe, 1983, my translation

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Various Daney news

While we're all waiting for the publication of Paul Grant's translation of Persévérance (Postcards from the cinema, to be released in December), there are a few other events worth noting eventhough they are all in French.

Daney on video
The French video website Vodeo sells the two best filmed interviews of Daney: the 3 hours documentary Itinéraire d'un ciné fils on DVD (which was already available from Amazon) and Pascal Kané's Le cinéphile et le village which can be downloaded online for a fee.

Daney radio programme
The French National Audio-Visual Insitute (whose mission is to preserve and make available the audiovisual archives in France) has made available a number of recordings of Daney's Sunday evening radio program. You can access them via their Video On Demand website by typing "Microfilms" in the search tool.

From September 1985 to July 1990, Daney hosted a weekly radio broadcast called Microfilms on French public radio station France Culture. These are discussions between Daney and others involved with cinema (actors, filmmakers, technicians, critics).

Here's a first list of the programs available online at the moment. They can be purchased individually for 5 euros.
- Philippe Garrel
- Jori Ivens
- Robert Kramer
- Maurice Piallat
- Barbet Schroeder
- Jean Rouch
- Raoul Ruiz
- Jacques Rivette
- Jacques Demy
- Claude Chabrol
- Manuel De Oliveira
- Marin Karmitz
- Raymond Depardon
- Francois Dupeyron
- Jean-Luc Godard
- Raoul Sangla (TV film director)
- Jacques Doillon
- Wim Wenders
- Jean-Marie Straub
- André Techiné
- Etienne Chatillez
- Michel Piccoli
- Georges Franju
- Eric Rohmer
- Jean-Christophe Averty (a French video artist pioneeer)
- About John Cassavettes
- Jean-Claude Brisseau
- Michel Chion
- Cinema through the eyes of a blind person
- Elisabeth Roudinesco (a French Psychanalist) on Batman
- Philippe Queau
- Gérard Frot - Coutaz (filmmaker) and Micheline Presle (actress)

The increasing amount of video and audio material available about Daney is a challenge to our translation efforts. Video interviews can be subtitled (and english subtitled versions of Jacques Rivette Le Veilleur and Itinéraire d'un ciné-fils exists already) but I don't see how the radio programmes could become available in English without some massive transcription effort.

Let's hope that the popularity of Daney in film and audio format combined with the release of Postcards help make an even stronger case the case for the translations of all the other essential written material.