Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The raw and the cooked

Adrian Martin (a.k.a. the man behind the most anticipated website in the cinephile world) sends a surprise that he found when "throwing out boxes of old stuff": an new English translation of Serge Daney done for a magazine called France Information in 1981.

I had never heard of this piece and got quite excited (sad, I know). But when I tried to trace it back to the original French text, it became quickly apparent that the magazine Adrian uncovered proceeded to a shameless "collage" of several texts, highly edited, incomplete and assembled together with little regard to what Daney tried to convey in each text... France Information was perhaps one of these industry publications or perhaps an official magazine from the Ministry of Foreign affairs more focused on promoting France abroad than on film criticism. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve with these texts but they certainly butchered the main article by Daney.

Undeterred, I'm publishing my translation of the complete original text "The raw and the cooked": a review of the state of French cinema in the early 1980s which resonates strangely with today's division between arthouse/festival movies and the mainstream production.

The raw and the cooked
(The state of French cinema, 1980)

For French cinema, the 1970s were the post decade: post-New Wave, post-68, post-modern. No ground swell, no new movement, no new school: almost an aesthetic desert. We don’t know how this decade already looks toward the 1980s. We won’t know until later what it has prefigured of the 1980s. While we wait, we must propose a description: neither hot [immediate] nor cold [with hindsight] but tepid.

Authors, but which ones?

Something is undeniable however: French cinema is unique, it resembles no other. Some (and not the least ones: Rohmer, Moullet) say it is the best in the world. As if it was in France that the old “seventh art”, the cinema-art-of-the-twentieth-century, was giving away the least amount of ground, or at least not as fast as elsewhere. As if it was in France that the dialogue between “art and industry” (to talk like Malraux) or between “culture and capitalism” (to talk like Musil, who wasn’t French but wrote – it’s not known enough – film criticism) was obstinately continuing.

This specificity of French cinema can be summed up in one word: it is an authors’ cinema, rich of all the literary connotations of this word: author. The famous politique des auteurs wasn’t born in France by chance and it ended triumphing to the point of covering with one word what was kept separated by many others: metteur en scène, director or even producer. As a result, we no longer know very well what this word, an author, means.

If there was a crisis after 1968, it was the crisis of the other cinema, mass market cinema, the cinema of traditional producers, many of which – we tend to forget – took part in the early days of the New Wave adventure. Confronted to this situation (the disappearance of dialogue, even stormy, between producer and author), filmmakers became (were forced to become?) everything for their films. Throughout the decade, those who could call themselves authors were the ones who, by dint of calculations, tenacity and also egocentrism, simply managed to get their films to exist – and eventually be seen. To do this, they had to be everywhere: upstream and downstream of the film, producer, director, promoter but also tumbler, financier, bursar, delivery man. Many damaged their health and squandered their talent in the venture: how many interesting first films not followed by a second? How many not uninteresting second films not followed by a third? Only the toughest and maddest (about cinema) held out: cinema’s a jungle.

And being everything for a film, is a bit too much. Worse: it’s no guarantee that the film will be personal and will have original ideas of mise en scène or a real thought about cinema. That’s why it’s not enough to talk about an authors’ cinema, whether to praise or criticise it, one must say how the authors, most of whom come from the New Wave or were influenced by her, travelled through this “post” decade. In brief, one should explain this: a politique des auteurs which triumphs in a system where producers have no longer any politique, transforms authors into producers or, more exactly, in small producers. Production, in a wide sense, is therefore the strong idea of the decade.

Those who resembled their time

Towards the middle of the 1970s Godard attempted to get a cleaning lady to sing on a TV program. He wanted her to say a forgotten sentence in The Internationale: “Producers, save yourselves”. This sentence sums up and politicise the question that film-makers faced because of the crisis of traditional cinema. And those who best crossed the desert of this joyless years were the ones who asserted themselves – or were confirmed – as authors by saving themselves as producers. Let’s take three film-makers as different as Godard, Vecchiali and Rohmer: they never stopped filming. Better: they never stopped experimenting; an absolute luxury at a time where others, more dependent on traditional production, found themselves obstructed in their work. Facing a system where they no longer knew how to measure (can one measure himself up against the Advance on box office receipts scheme? Not really; one can only hope and put up with it), they managed to continue their own production machine or, as Rivette says, their “micro-system”. A machine designed to produce a film, but more importantly, to produce the possibility of another film after that – a machine to reproduce. The idea of series has haunted nostalgically this decade doomed to the racing of prototypes, to hits without tomorrow. These micro-systems were named Sonimage, Diagonale, Les Films du Losange, and others.

They condensed, often like a parody, everything that cinema has always been made off: fleeting time, violent affects, money flows, power struggles, erotic situations. Godard, Vecchiali, Rohmer – these three names act here as emblems – were tempted by the family business, they lived off the system (without necessarily respecting it), they thought “small is beautiful”, there were, to borrow Deleuze’s beautiful expression, “very populated within themselves”. They had to be since traditional cinema, mainstream cinema, Qualité France and Show-business cinema were then singularly desert (this is about to change).

In these micro-systems, which are also dreamed mini-majors, there was the whole of cinema: a fabulous cinephile memory, false stars (in Vecchiali’s films), false extras (in Godard’s films), war economy, the sense of good management and, last but not least, the love of money. Their strength, at that time, was to love the trade, whatever small, and not to depend mechanically on the laws of a shrunk market.

I mentioned, because they are exemplary, Godard, Vecchiali, Rohmer. I could have said: Truffaut, Duras, Moullet, Straub, even Garrel: Truffaut because he managed to set up Les Films du Losange between France and the USA, Duras because she knew how to be double, Garrel because, at the degree zero of the economy, he managed to last. What differentiate these machines which are so different from one another is not their size (in general, they are small), it’s their ability to allow swerves: to move from a budget to another, from a duration to another, from an experiment to another – yet another luxury. For example, Godard, after 1968, turns his back to his career to follow his time even in its cul-de-sacs (militant cinema and its critique, television and its critique), Vecchiali allows himself to add to his body of works a film with a truly pornographic side (Don’t change hands), Rohmer can alternate without waning (and rather flourishing) a great and a small film (Perceval and The aviator’s wife), etc.

What counts is less the content or the formal choices than the plasticity of the machine which produces them. In front of the naked law of capitalism requiring that those not advancing must decline and those advancing too fast must fall from their heights (a law which is returning in anger in the French cinema of the 1980s, threatening younger film-makers like Jacquot or Téchiné), a handful of film-makers started to work with varying speeds. This was a new luxury (even small-budget films had a certain dandyism, Moullet’s for example). Because the true richness is time, the time an artist needs to work a material, to accumulate experience.

What to say then of the filmmakers who were less tempted (or totally unable) to create their own production machine? Clearly, Demy, Pialat, Rozier, Eustache or Resnais are not – far from it – less important authors. But they haven’t lived through this decade as well: they worked less, experimented less than they had wished – and they probably suffered for it. It allowed them to express their time with acuteness, every time they encountered it (The mother and the whore, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). They produced X-rays of their time but they didn’t resemble their time. That’s the difference.

For this “post” and disenchanted decade wasn’t just random. There was 1968, beliefs, speeches, utopias: French society was shaken. Remember: the end of militancy and the beginning of feminism, the success of the minority idea (…), the value of the local, of the hic et nunc, of the “do and learn”. The cinema micro-systems were mirroring these post-leftist years: small (desiring) machines, stubborn (and spread out) resistance, different labour divisions (between men and women, manual and intellectual). We won’t find this in the late and politically correct hijackings by mainstream cinema (from Boisset to the left-leaning sociological and naturalist fictions) but in these authors-machines who, for a few years, have resembled their time.

French cinema, itself

The 1970s micro-systems make for a small cinema (too French, restricted, non-exportable, desperately white, etc.): it’s already been said. But it’s also a cinema with a very fine taste. I don’t know if the French cinema is the world’s best, I know that the French cuisine is the world’s best, and I also know, irrefutable syllogism, that there is a cuisine of French cinema, and an old one too.

Look at Méliès, what does he do? Not only card tricks or stencilled-coloured Passions, but he films the trial of Dreyfus: he re-enacts the event on the spot with an actor who plays like Mounet-Sully! Every thing is already there in Méliès’ gesture, and less in the famous opposition to the Lumière brothers than in the presence of Lumière-effects in Méliès’ films, and vice versa, in this unique mix of burning news and cold rules. Afterwards, French actors have always had this way to maintain together but disjointed, i.e. united yet separate, what other countries’ cinemas had either united or separated. Between documentary and fiction, the crude and the coded, the hazards and the devices, in a word between the raw and the cooked, there has always been a short-circuit, a striking shortcut, impurity.

The raw easily becomes cruel, obscene, sadistic; the cooked easily becomes too cooked, burnt, perverted. But there is no happy middle. Godard said recently that he fond “average American cinema infinitely superior to average French cinema”. But this is precisely about “average” cinema. We could turn the proposition on its head: non-average French cinema is generally superior to non-average American cinema. It may always have been that way, and one might even say that the only tradition of French cinema resides in its modernity, its unique capacity to house singular experiences in a normal industrial and commercial framework. Modernity: the great French films are more or less documentaries on the state of the filming material, always a two-stage, dialectical, operation. Hence today, French cinema appears better armed than others (in Europe) to face the future while remaining the place of aesthetic works.

For there are two faces of French cinema. On the one hand, the prodigious actors’ cinema, this “Saturday night” cinema, more or less dead today, and whose ghost has not ceased to haunt the 1970s (especially Vecchiali, Mocky, Truffaut). And on the other hand, a certain number of heretical experiments conducted by authors who were often authors in two ways (Pagnol, Guitry, Cocteau, Renoir, Duras are also writers) and who share this fundamental idea that one mustn’t adapt the written for the image but, on the contrary, play with their heterogeneity. To the point that, to study the authors of French cinema, the cautious micro-systems of the 1970s, the 1960s boom (New Wave), the great post-war moderns (Bresson, Tati), the ever great moderns (Renoir, Gance), is to spot every time the demarcation line that they create between what is, for them, the raw and the cooked, the non-cinema and the cinema, a raw material and a crafty device.

This line, which never stays at the same place, is inevitably linked to the fact that, for 50 years, cinema is now talking, even talkative. French cinema authors have in common to have worked the image and to have been worked up by speech. That’s how they changed the cinema, that they modernised it. The emptied body of Bresson’s model, Duras’ writing in voice over, Pagnol’s delirious over-speaking, Tati-Hulot’s rumblings, Eustache’s redoubling stories, the wind in the bushes in Straub’s films, Godard stuttering in front of chattering children, Demy’s bourgeois’ “sprecheesang”, Pialat’s idiolects and Rohmer’s sociolects, Moullet’s statistical reciting, Rivette’s or Vecchiali’s controlled yet absolute freedom of improvisation, Rouch as a white sorcerer, all this – all this raw and unknown material – makes noise. A noise – to stick to the culinary metaphor –, that shall not be reduced.

We often reproach to French film critics no to love the cinema of their own country, to act like snobs towards it, to underestimate it, to love national cinemas which move better (because, the dance here, is all about the forclusion!), etc. The problem is that this reproach almost always comes from those who think that French cinema is too static, too literary, not enough constructed, etc. Whereas this is precisely this that is unique (and lovable): its passion for the language, its lightness and its moralising, its digressions and its authors’ dark narcissism.
Initially published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 323-324 in May 1981. Also published in Serge Daney's first book: La rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

If anybody is interested, the bibliographic reference of the 1981 "translation" is FRANCE INFORMATION, no. 115 (1981), pp. 23-25.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Nap time. My kid is watching a DVD of Dumbo. Serge Daney was never fond of animated movies, openly admitting he didn’t get them and famously claiming he never saw Bambi. But he was still able to write good pieces of film criticism such as the extracts from this text about Dumbo in 1989.

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is firstly a hymn to the night. Whether it’s the circus train, the female elephants raising the big top under the rain, the shadow cast over the destroyed big top or the isolated hut where Dumbo’s mother – now a “mad elephant” – is crying, the great moments of the movie happen at night. It’s at night that the mouse whispers to the man the idea of the show where Dumbo will be the star, and it’s at night, after the disaster, that the elephant with too large ears and his mouse friend fall in a well of champagne. Dumbo is this strange animated movie taking place in half-light and the strange story of this fake elephant (1).


The film is perhaps more beautiful if we look less at Dumbo’s revenge than at a process described in many mythologies: the hero’s double birth. First birth: from day to night. Second birth: from night to day. At first, Dumbo would be wrongly cast in the role of the baby elephant that he isn’t, and then he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a unique species with only one individual: the dumbo. Light ends up revealing the true nature of this celestial entity, after a long and difficult series of nocturnal tests. In a word, Dumbo would not be an elephant.

Why this surprising thesis? Because there is an extraordinary moment in Dumbo. Before he finds himself up in a tree, ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on earth, and there, in all innocence, he gets copiously drunk. Amateurs of animated movies, of happy fantasies, or simply of graphic invention, all know Dumbo’s booze-up with its procession of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not without its logic. From the black background against which the laughing elephant-like figures stand out, to the pink clouds of the dawn of Dumbo’s first day, there is a true rite of passage. And it’s a whole series of figures which parade, dance and jig, laughing and grotesque figures which only retain their trunk, or the concept of a trunk, as a distinctive elephant sign. Carnival bipeds, carefree and lewd, with black holes instead of a mask, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, car-elephant, all happy to be improbable, true cage of forms of a pagan ritual, joyously watching over the true birth of one of them: the Dumbo. Suddenly, we’re very far from the strokes and the mothers of the beginning of the film.

(1) The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was really bored in Malta and he like elephants. He saw the movie in a filthy and empty theatre.

Originally published in Libération on 2 January 1989 and reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.