Friday, January 14, 2011

A ritual of disappearance (Giscard)

Two posts (today and in a few days) for a double text by Serge Daney on two television events of the 1981 presidential elections which have become absolute classics in France (it's the stuff of dinner conversations of the political elite and of a few PhD theses).

Published two days apart in Libération, Daney brought these two texts together in in his book Ciné-Journal with these words of introduction:
MAY 1981. FLASH-BACK. THE MEDIA HAVE BECOME MAINSTREAM. POLITICIANS PLAY WITH THEIR IMAGE. IN SUCCESSION, GISCARD AND MITTERRAND INVENT A RITUAL.


A ritual of disappearance (Giscard)

Source: Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA) - zoom-out starts at 7 min 25
There are some rare things on television. An outgoing president getting himself filmed while leaving, it’s rare. An empty shot on television, it’s rare. An empty and silent shot, it’s even rarer. There was a great moment Tuesday evening, shortly after 8pm, between the instant when Giscard’s tall figure left the frame (on the left, towards the top) and the pompous sounding of La Marseillaise. An unexpected and well-executed moment of television, new and interesting, authored and acted by Giscard. For you had to be at least Giscard to impose to television what it refuses by essence: silence, emptiness, nothingness. You had to have the power of an outgoing president, to have it for a few more seconds, to attempt to invent a ritual in front of France’s dumbfounded eyes. A ritual of disappearance, nothing less.

In an old film by Cecil B. DeMille (I can tell you the title, it’s Unconquered), Gary Cooper amazes naïve Indians by suddenly appearing in a cloud of smoke. Giscard managed something like that, but in reverse.

It’s not what he said that counted. It’s not his weak “Good luck France!” which will impress viewers, it’s this empty shot, unbearably empty, it’s this man slowly walking into the depth of field, getting nearer to the edge, and disappearing “off-screen” as we say in the jargon of cinephiles.

Since May 10th, there was “Giscard beaten!”. Suddenly there is “Giscard off-screen”. Off-screen, Giscard is truly beaten. At 8 o’clock, the woman speaker still hesitates: “Monsieur Giscard d’Estaing, President of the Republic”. At 08:05, she wouldn’t have hesitated.

It’s during his seven-year term that mass audiences have become less naïve and smarter in front of the media. The audience knows that things may exist, that there may be wars and men to fight them, but that all this is nothing without the television baptism of fire. Things and people start to count the moment they air on television, when they become unreal, hyperreal through prolonged exposure to this rectangle of light.

Nevertheless, until now, the stakes, the supreme goal, was to occupy television as one occupies a territory, as one guards something, less to transmit a message than to prevent the transmission of any other messages. To obstruct rather than communicate. A few years ago, Godard bitterly noted that only the head of state had the right to talk on television for an hour long, and that it was the most tangible sign of his power. This is why story tellers are not loved on television: they are a menace, they might give us back the taste for duration. Because television is like disco, like our brain, it must give the feeling that it never stops, without ever giving us the feeling of duration. Television has no duration. Emptiness, an emptiness that lasts, silence, a silence which settles in, represent sheer horror, an abomination. So with his empty frame, Giscard breaks, in extremis, something of the false good health of television.

This shot – it must be said – is beautiful. The deserted office, the bluish curtains are beautiful. We, cinephiles of the late 20th century, have a prodigious memory of these types of effects of mise-en-scène. We have seen many of these in filmmakers mad about off-screen, those who eroticise the edges of the frame, who make them an object of delight and horror. In? Out? Leaving? Not leaving? The empty screen, emptied, still full of the echo of the actor’s presence, like a crime scene after the criminal has gone, we can feel in all this a filmmaker’s trick.

Between cinema, television and advertising, there are flowing currents, silent exchanges, bits of common rhetoric. We will have to increasingly mix these, to mix rags and towels, television rags and cinema towels. Until now, we needed the caution of the great visionaries – from Walter Benjamin to Marshall McLuhan, from Eisenstein to Godard – to assert this idea, now well-rehashed: that the mise-en-scène, the “windowing” of a leader, a star or a product, is nothing more than a rhetorical matter.

In 1981, it’s significant that in his desire to give back a bit of dignity to the political show, Mitterrand, a dreadful actor, took in his hands the staging of the TV debate with Giscard, and that, with good advice, he imposed the technical modalities and therefore the aesthetical effects of the debate. Having imposed the form of the clash, he won it, less because of what he said than because of his choices as filmmaker: no reverse shot, the camera always on the one who speaks, no off-screen, and especially no electronic manipulation of the image.

Compared to this desire to stitch everything, Giscard’s little one man show is rather impulsive. Like someone saying “if it’s like this, I’m leaving, so there!” But it’s this “so there!” that is historical.
Originally published in Libération on 21 May 1981, reprinted in Ciné-Journal, Cahiers du cinéma / Seuil, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

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