Friday, November 16, 2018

The passeur

Wait, what? There's a little known text by Serge Daney called "The passeur"?

Recap for those discovering this blog: "passeur" is a term Daney used to define his position as a critic in his later years and the term has become closely associated with him. Difficult to translate, it can refer to a smuggler, a ferryman (real or mythological), or simply someone passing something to someone else. Here are two quotes where Daney gives clues of what he means:
“I like this small word: passeur. I remember a fantastic article by Jean-Louis Comolli about Eric Dolphy entitled ‘the passeur’. (…) The passeurs are strange: they need borders but only to challenge them. They don’t want to be alone with their treasures and at the same time, they don’t really care about those to whom they pass something. And since ‘feelings are always reciprocal’, we don’t really care about passeurs either, we don’t pass anything to them and we often empty their pockets”. (Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, 1991). 
“As a passeur I stayed midstream, waiting for someone from one of the banks to call me or reach out to me, and since that never happened I began to send little messages, both written and oral, sending news from one bank to the other without myself belonging to either of them” (Persévérance, 1994).
It turns out that Daney played with this term for quite some time, as far back as 1978 when he first used it in a newly found text about Grémillon. Thanks to Pierre Eugène who unearthed this text (via Jeremy Sulpis) and to Andy Rector for helping with the translation.

The passeur 
In 1978, The Action-République cinema took the risk of organising a tribute to Jean Grémillon, a great filmmaker without an audience, struck by some sort of official curse during his lifetime and after his death. Seizing the opportunity to take a closer look, the audience, often young, discovered in Grémillon more than a great filmmaker, they also discovered a passeur who, between two ages of French cinema, obstinately took upon his shoulders the risk of a mutation.  
Before Grémillon, it had been possible to make great films without necessarily being an ‘auteur’. After him, in France, it had become impossible. Before him: a prodigious actors’ cinema. After him: the naked, ungrateful, even unpopular necessity to sign one’s films, not only with a ‘style’ or ‘know-how’ but with one’s body. And that’s a completely different can of worms. Grémillon was the contemporary witness/craftsman/victim of the slow withdrawal of the body of the actor from French cinema. A withdrawal that continued beyond measure, up to the sudden emergence, in the place left vacant, of another body: that of the auteur (today? Godard, Duras, Truffaut…). After the war, it would no longer be really possible for a filmmaker to work, film after film, this filmic material that is the body of the professional actor. And French cinema would start searching for the idea of models, heralded by Bresson, everywhere but with the professional actors (doomed to decadence and then unemployment). Grémillon is the one who, caught between the Renoir-continent and the Bresson-continent (to be simple), will experience uncertainty with regard to actors, with regard to what will eventually be called casting. He belongs to two worlds. It’s enough to see the evolution, throughout his work, of the image of the working-class hero, to which Grémillon is very attached. It begins with Gabin (deeply moving in Lady Killer), followed by the pale Marchal (in Lumière d’été), then the evanescent Girotti (in The Love of a Woman). In the end, all that is left is a vague leather jacket, a cast-off.  
But this cast-off is precisely what has always interested Grémillon. He’s not only the one who ‘came at the wrong time’, born too early or too late, he’s the one who this situation (in-between two stages) tortures and enchants. He’s a passeur in more ways than one: between two ages of cinema, between two wars, between two worlds (the best and the other), between two sexes. In other words, he believes that in better tomorrows, women can take the place of men, and vice versa.  
Grémillon’s films, like those of Mizoguchi, are subjected to a double logic and the necessity to concede nothing of one to the benefit of the other. On one side, there’s the social class of the heroes, irreducible and final (Grémillon was one of the rare directors who likes to film people at work). On the other side, there is, in the bonus gift promised by Socialism, a redistribution of the roles between men and women, on either side of the desire that binds them to each other. More than Renoir or Daquin, Grémillon took seriously the question of the positive hero (already the case with the convict played by Alcover in the remarkable Little Lise). But in the end, the positive hero can only be a woman. Throughout Grémillon’s work, we witness a sort of mutation. At the beginning, it’s a world of men where women only bring misfortunes. Men are bound to their labour, naive and violent. Women are without ties, from anywhere and nowhere (see how Gabin, a typographer in Lady Killer, follows Mireille Balin, or how the same Gabin meets Morgan, a woman from nowhere, on a lost vessel in Stormy Waters). But instead of using a generalised phallic solution, Soviet-style (where the woman is virilised without the man being feminised), there is in the surprising The Woman Who Dared a new separation, a new division of labour, and of the elements: man to the earth and woman to the sky, the place of pure passage (and that’s why I wish to see a tribute to Grémillon in the final image of Adolfo G. Arrieta’s Flammes). 
These questions are rather buried, one might say. But is this true? What is Grémillon talking to us about in the end? Something that nowadays is avoided, circumvented, forgotten, left to the photo novels, the sentimental press, and cinephilic nostalgia: that human beings are beings of desire, caught in the class struggle. Remove any of the two components of this sentence and nothing makes sense anymore. Grémillon’s films are carried by one question, too simple not to move us: What is a man? What is a woman? Are there distinctive signs which would be anything other than biological markers or social conventions? Where to draw the dividing line, assuming such a line needs to be drawn? What does a man desire in a woman? Nothing more perhaps than what jerks him in motion (in all possible senses and literally). What does a woman desire in a man? Maybe nothing more than that empty cast-off of his, which she will keep when he is no longer there (a signifier, a ‘lady killer’, a mask). 
Grémillon’s films are difficult because they demand that we stay as close as possible to something (desire) that keeps extending itself, like onward marches, surviving itself, gaining over nothing. Between two scenes, two shots, there are not only ellipses, discontinuity, and the edges of the narrative, but the horror when everything is missing and we have to start from zero. No comfort for the enemies of comfort!
Published in Chefs d’oeuvres et nanars du cinéma français 1930-1956, a booklet for the Grémillon retrospective (Dec 1978 – Apr 1979) at the Action République cinema. 

Friday, October 05, 2018

The eye was in the tomb and watched Franju

Jonathan Rosenbaum showed a short film by Chloé Galibert-Laîné at a recent workshop in Paris. The film stems from a comment by Daney in a text on Franju's Eyes Without a Face. What better opportunity to translate this text. Film and translation below.


The eye was in the tomb and watched Franju 
Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face  
For a long time, a sound has been worse than many images. A sound from Eyes Without a Face. In a night scene in a cemetery, a man in a hurry attacks the slab of a family vault with a pickaxe. His fearful accomplice wears a black raincoat and, on a neighbouring tomb, they have laid an inert body, a kind of mummy. When thrown into the finally opened vault, the body smashes with a sharp sound. This is why, until very recently, I haven’t watched again Eyes Without a Face. Because of this sound. But I always maintained that the film was superb. I saw it again: it is superb. 
The burly man in a hurry is called Genessier. A famous surgeon, the archetype of the big boss, raging mad, whose daughter has been disfigured in a car accident (he was driving, drunk). Genessier (Pierre Brasseur, more than intimidating) happens to be an allograft specialist. How can he give back a face to his daughter who is cloistered, declared dead, guarded by a hundred dogs (Edith Scob, more than intimidated)? Simple, by kidnapping young girls, operating on them at night in a secret lab, behind the garage, hoping that the skin graft will work. Meanwhile, there are dead bodies without faces to get rid of, mummies. 
We don’t talk much about ‘plastic beauty’ these days, only of ‘plastic surgery’ (Franju being a pioneer). Should we use these words again, we shouldn’t reserve them for Lumière, Feuillade or Lang, but also use them for one of their last great heirs: Franju. For I can’t imagine how one could forget the black raincoat of the professor’s accomplice-assistant-lover (?), even shinier than the eyes of Alida Valli (the actress). Similarly, I had never thought that a Citroën 2CV could have such screen presence (watch the first scene and its wonderful editing), that a Citroën DS could be parked with such a sly elegance, that a tree could seem to suffer so much, and of course that a skin mask, ‘between tweezers’ as we would say ‘between inverted commas’, could leave with regrets the face of a future mummy (the unfortunate Juliette Mayniel). Calling Franju a ‘plastic artist’ doesn’t mean that he knows how to compose images but that he films inexplicably beautiful objects. 
For a 2CV to be beautiful, it can’t just be ‘well filmed’, it needs to become ‘someone’. Franju isn’t overtly interested in his characters (well-drawn, but with a big brush) and never tries to play games with the audience. Hot cockles games don’t interest him. He prefers letting the objects become both characters and spectators. Characters since they have a role to play (the 2CV runs) and spectators since they are witness of unspeakable horrors (there’s often a dead body on the back seat of the tragic 2CV). That’s Franju’s poetic art. 
It goes a long way. The most terrifying scene of the film is not the surgery (especially for us, since bucketloads of haemoglobin have been poured on film screens), but the following one. When we finally discover the beautiful face of the real Edith Scob and that we’re made to believe that it’s someone else’s skin, we understand why any true beauty is always ambiguous in films. Challenged to choose between the ‘how does it work’ of realism and the ‘it’s as if’ of fiction, we will always let the objects choose for us. With Franju, since Blood of the Beasts, any beauty originates by facing horror, hence its muffled radiance, its ironic calm. 
If it’s true (as we keep saying, as loud as we can) that a film is worthless unless it invents its own time, Eyes Without a Face unfolds with a calm we are no longer accustomed to. As if, from a dead body to another, the action only accelerated a little, just a bit. As if, for us as for the characters, there was no need to get agitated since the 2CV, the raincoat, the kennel of test dogs, the scalpels, were ready, with a desperate calm, to get going again, in-between two failed graft. If there is an emotion in this film, it comes from this implacable melange of awkwardness and routine. Genessier is a monster, maybe, but he isn’t cut out to break into a tomb at night, just as Valli isn’t meant to solicit young girls in the cafés of the Latin Quarter. These sleepwalkers continue – realism oblige – to carry their weight of humanity. 
P.S. In the end, the sound from the breaking of the bones of the disfigured mummy isn’t that terrifying. I was less scared and it allowed me to rediscover the scene in which I found a shot that I had forgotten, an incredible shot which one shouldn’t look for at the bottom of the vault but in the nocturnal sky where Franju – for no apparent reason – shows a passing plane. Protective model, witness-object, pure poetry. 
First published in Libération on 25 September 1986. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.145-7. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Mizoguchi, The Good Distance

Mizoguchi, The Good Distance 
Kenji Mizoguchi, Street of Shame (Akasen chitai
Street of Shame is Mizoguchi’s last film. At the end of this TV retrospective, we move away from the idea of the humanist and cosmic Mizoguchi and see with more precision the Sadean maker of films with women, speed, killer camera angles and the worn human machine. 
Before spelling out why we much watch tonight Mizoguchi’s last film and the last in this retrospective (Street of Shame, 1955), I’d like to bring up a personal memory. A week ago, exactly the same evening, I had resigned to the idea that once again an emotional tsunami would leave me gasping in front of my televisual fish bowl. The big fish (“Wait for your turn, no need to sulk” goes a zen saying quoted by Vuillemin) was called Sansho the Bailiff (1954). A melodrama of the type that we don’t make anymore but that we knew how to make, which begins in the 11th century, in an undergrowth, and finishes on a beach, in Japan. Watched many times.  
Following with my gaze the camera of the great Miyagawa Kazuo, which itself was following the members (particularly mistreated by fate) of a noble family in pre-feudal Japan, I observed that my eyes remained dry and that the camera itself often had the wish to flatten characters. It used any pretext for this: a flashback, a dolly shot, a shortcut, soaring music (by the great Hayasaka Fumio). 
I wasn’t surprised since it was precisely this that had overwhelmed me (and not just me) when the film was released. This art to modulate the distance between gaze and bodies, to make the gaze a body and the body a ghost. This art to take some distance (as we say), to place the pathetic detail back into the wider glaze, to film only to verify that what was irremediable has indeed happened, that any thinking is wishful, that defeat is the only reality, and that compassion is the last possible feeling. 
Last Friday, I had the courage to confess to myself (in a low voice) that the characters in Sansho the Bailiff never really touched me (except two: Anju and Taro), that the irritating Tanaka Kinuyo had rarely minced so much, that the character Zushio-Mutsu-Waka was rather bland, and that Sansho was but a schematic puppet. Worse, hadn’t I been always delighted by their misfortunes?  
Even worse, wasn’t Mizoguchi himself, as a Sadean filmmaker, delighted to send his characters to the firing line, never tiring of their eternal suffering grimaces? Deciding to be honest and, if needed, iconoclastic (we no longer need to fight for Mizoguchi to be recognised, everybody knows he’s one of the greats – it’s for Naruse, Kinoshita, Gosho, Yamanaka that we should make an effort), convinced that real cinephile events happen on television and, after I gave a call to Marguerite Duras who, in a small voice, admitted that she had found the film “a bit long” (before talking about the only recent cinema event: the umpteenth showing of The Night of the Hunter), I dared ask the question: what if Mizoguchi was moving away from us? And what if a few shots by Ozu, recently gleaned while channel hopping, had suddenly seemed closer, more vibrant?  
What is moving away is perhaps the all too universal idea of a humanist, cosmic, ample Mizoguchi. We have discovered his films in the reverse order: Street of Shame, his last film, was the first one released in France. We have rightly admired the costume dramas of his ‘late period’ which are those where Mizoguchi, in the name of a very exalted humanism, tries to stay the distance of the great, minutely calligraphed sagas, with real breathing and story-telling problems (that’s how we should re-read the comments from his script writer, Yoda, published in Cahiers).  
There is a risk of academism in these films, especially the costumed ones. We do find in them the most beautiful camera movements in the history of film making (along with Murnau’s) but it’s because the camera is tired to stick with characters plagued by eternal bad luck or fake heroism. There are no contradictory characters with Mizoguchi: good one are too good, evil ones are truly horrible. There’s only one moving character in Sansho the Bailiff: Sansho’s son, Taro, who becomes a monk.  
What appears with more precision though, is the real Mizoguchi. The Mizoguchi of the modern films, the women films, the films of the immediate post-war period (The Lady of Musashino, Women of the Night, The Woman in the Rumor). The Mizoguchi that hasn’t yet taken any distance or height, the sex maniac who can only invent (climax) at the heart of the cruellest traps, when filmed women and filming camera behave like turtles and hares, nailed to the floor, to paper walls, to mats stained with tears and sperm. Mizoguchi’s passion (singular as any passion) had been to find the killer angle, the salutary corner, the redeeming detail, the speed that avoids the blows, the elegant jolt, the tiredness of the human machine.  
It’s all this that begins for the last time, in a terrifying calm, in Street of Shame, tonight. 
First published in Libération on 10 April 1987. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde. 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, P.O.L., 1991, pp. 149-151.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Famous Last Scene


Another piece on Douglas Sirk...

The Famous Last Scene - Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life 
The last scene of Imitation of Life is a piece of anthology. 
There are those who didn’t know the film. Until then, we felt sorry for them. Now, we can say: “Go! Go see it.” since it’s released again (at the Action Christine). There are those who have seen it, once, and who saw it again, more than once, or have been told about it. Imitation of Life? Ah, yes, the final scene with Mahalia Jackson that no one - whether animal, plant or mineral - can remain unmoved by? The moment when whoever hasn’t already been transformed in a human mop feels he’s sobbing? The famous last scene of Imitation of Life? Let’s talk about it. 
So, Annie Johnson dies of sorrow because her daughter Sarah Jane has disowned her (and her race) and has decided to live away as a white girl. By the deathbed, a few seconds ago, we were already crying: Lana Turner was devastated, Sandra Dee looked like a little old lady, the expressionless John Gavin looked despondent. Then suddenly, change of scenery, low-angle shot on a (big) black woman: Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble in the World! Known Cinephile Shock (KCS). It’s the funeral of Annie Johnson with great pomp and music: four white horses pull a black carriage loaded with a mountain of white roses. The bad daughter arrives almost too late to embrace the coffin screaming “I killed her.” Tears. 
This famous last scene is strong. This great moment of American Melodrama is also a tour de force. The last time I saw the film, overcoming my pain, I had the strength to ask myself if Douglas Sirk’s secret wasn’t precisely here. This final scene is overwhelming precisely because we are suddenly wondering if it’s the same film that continues. We remember a short scene where Annie, already sick, mentioned proudly having sorted every details of her funeral. Of another scene where Lora Meredith, as an aside to a conversation, discovered (with the great idiocy of sympathetic white bosses) that Annie, the good and faithful Annie, existed outside her household. And what did Annie Johnson do? She looked after religion, she was baptist, she belonged to several congregations, was good and bigoted, a bit Auntie Tom but with many friends. 
And the friends are all here. From the children in Sunday clothes to the priests with their serious look as professionals of spirituality. Gospel, dignity, the black people in mourning: Swing high, swing low, sweet chariot. And the suspicion gets confirmed: what if she was the main character of the film? Annie Johnson. What if we had known and seen nothing? But then, what film did we see? 
Let’s be honest, the resistible rise of Lora Meredith, the platinum blonde queen of the stage and the screen, is of little interest. Worse: few films have shown with so much polite indifference the mediocrity of the American Dream, its silly romantic fury, its stupid bravura. It required the gaze of Detlef Sierck. It required the talent of Douglas Sirk at the end of his Hollywood career so that Lora Meredith, with her twenty four costumes and her Woolworth-style bovarism generates a suspicion in the audience. What if all this care to make up, dress and dress again, age and make look young this imitation of a star that then was Lana Turner was only there to deceive? Or to suggest that one should have looked elsewhere, where the black people is. 
For Annie Johnson is the pivotal character of the film. A mother was hiding another mother. The black one was the right one, the other only an artefact. But the black mother comes with a problem: she’s black. In true Hollywood logic, she needs to at least die so that her friends, the black people, have the right to be in the image. In extremis, the thirty seconds of Mahalia Jackson cancel an hour and a half of Lana Turner. This is why, in this “famous last scene”, a bit of regret joins our tears. We cry for the other film, the one we haven’t seen, with Lana Turner in a small role. 
Mirror = abyss 
The hypocrisy of Hollywood is without limit. In 1958, Universal could accept a film about “the racial question” but if possible without any blacks. Only one filmmaker could handle such a contradiction: Douglas Sirk. As any good film critic will tell you: Sirk is the filmmaker of the mirror. Nothing puzzles him more than the abyss between the thing reflected and the distorted reflection. An abyss with no end. A mirror only ever gives us the image of an image. An image hides another, comes instead of another. There’s no way out (that’s the kitsch effect). 
It’s precisely because she has had this immodest and vengeful idea of a grandiose funeral that Annie Johnson accedes (post-mortem) to the status of image. The famous last scene of Imitation of Life is also: welcome to the kingdom of imitation, dear Annie. And fake needs to be fabricated. It’s a whole profession, and not one of the worse ones. Sirk’s films are a bit like Charon’s trip. Any character transported to the bank of the screen has become an imitation. Like the cascade of fake diamonds in the title scene. There’s no exception. The art of cinema is only the barge and the tears the consequence of a light heartache.
First published in Libération on May 3rd 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L., 2002, pp.320-322.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Tarnished Angels

For those watching the Douglas Sirk retrospective on MUBI (UK), here's a short extract of a review of The Tarnished Angels by Serge Daney.
The Tarnished Angels, Douglas Sirk   
(...)  We know Fritz Lang’s (mean) small phrase on Cinemascope: “it’s only good for snakes and funerals.” Strictly speaking, there aren’t any snakes in Douglas Sirk’s films (although there’s a lot of crawling and an abundance of venom) but there are first rate funerals and wakes are pieces of bravura. Sirk is perhaps the filmmaker that Lang wasn’t thinking of, the one that was good - naturally good - with Cinemascope, and The Tarnished Angels was the film we were burning to watch again. We did watch it again. We were right to burn.   
Lang was right too. It was wrong to believe, as in the mid-Fifties, that Cinemascope would give the audience more to see. Experience proved the contrary. More things, yes, but less to see. The Cinemascope-gaze opens wide too quickly on the image; and too wide a reach means smaller grasp, drifting and spoils. From a deformed world, it only brings back magnified cattle and emptied space. Lang, as a surveyor, had no use for a curved space that treats gaze like a boomerang, but it’s this curve that Sirk, as a Baroque, loved, like his friend and disciple Fassbinder. In his great films of the Universal period, between 1954 and 1959, the ex-Detlef Sierck always knew why Cinemascope was beautiful. Beautiful, yes, but like an unkept promise.  
Beautiful like an unkept promise, the Sirkian world - a circus - meets the Faulknerian world - a mess. The history of film is full of great writers betrayed by small film directors. Not this time. Legend has it that, of all the films adapted from his writings, Faulkner only tolerated The Tarnished Angels, a film that Douglas Sirk, inversely, said he didn’t like. Perhaps it required a non-American (Sirk is German) to reconcile, for the duration of a film, Hollywood and the opposite of Hollywood, Literature that is. Perhaps it needed a Baroque to use Cinemascope in that way: never to add space, but to remind that at the heart of this silly merry-go-round, space is missing ad nauseam. Sirk films airplane competitions like routine flights and he films intimate scenes like air raids. 
What takes a lot of space in The Tarnished Angels is not the plane that twists and turns in the sky and crashes in the sea, but Dorothy Malone on a sofa, folding her legs before telling her life story; a child sleeping at the foot of a bed; Roger Schumann throwing the dice to abolish chance; Burke Devlin walking on the runway like a bear with his popcorn and newspaperman’s notepad. Short, meaningless movements that are suddenly endowed with space: unforgettable. It’s this promiscuity made of confessions, monologues, stories and text. It’s this light (Irving Glassberg was in charge of photography) that doesn’t come from the sky but from a night-light that still burns at dawn when all other fires have been put out. It’s this black and white that only means the colours have ended up deserting this world grown pale. Promises (of space, of light, of colours) unkept for so long that we have forgotten to have one day hoped something from this gloomy hell. (...)  

First published in Libération on 1 April 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L. editions, Paris, 2002, pp. 339-340.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Which Way to the Front?

Andy Rector of KinoSlang just posted a translation of Serge Daney's 1971 review of Jerry Lewis' Which Way to the Front? along with a 1980 interview of Jerry Lewis by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.

Jerry Lewis, Which Way to the Front?
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 228, March-April 1971. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde: 1. Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, pp. 118-120, POL, Paris, 2001. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, Andy Rector, Sonja Bertucci.

For those in Los Angeles, Andy is organising a screening of the film at the California Institute of the Art tomorrow (March 16th).

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Image Pit

The Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video art in Berlin - just posted a translation of one of many reports by Serge Daney on tennis matches. This one was written at the time of the 1982 French open.

The Image Pit
First published in Libération in 1982. Reprinted in L’amateur de tennis, P.O.L. Editeurs, 1994.


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Serge Daney in 2017

Annual round-up of new translations.

With the help of Otis Wheeler, this blog published thirty new translations from Daney's column 'Ghosts of Permanence' in Libération. You can find them (among others) on this updated table of contents of Daney's fourth book Recrudescence, two third of which is now translated.

Jugend Ohne Film published a new translation of Daney's review of Ritwik Ghatak's Clunker.

And a few days ago, I put the finishing touches to three texts on the theme What is a star?

Happy New Year everyone.