Thursday, March 31, 2022

Grey Matter (Jaws)

Another text from La Rampe translated with Sri's help. 

Grey matter - Jaws by Steven Spielberg

Jaws obeys the rules of how a typical disaster film is set on its course. 

1. Opening scene. At night, on a beach, a group of youths sing, drink and smoke. Tipsy (stoned?), two of them go take a skinny-dip expecting much pleasure. Offended, the sea dispatches its shark with its teeth*. The girl who “was the first one,” and who swims elegantly on the film poster, will be reduced to a disgusting pile of flesh in the morning. From then on, all sexual relations are suspended. In a grotesque scene, the cop’s (Roy Scheider) wife suggests to her husband “to get drunk and fool around”. The cop feels queasy and the audience laughs: doesn’t she know, the fool, that she could be “the second one”? So sexual relations are suspended until the clever but abject beast (grey matter, nothing but grey matter) explodes into a reddish powder. The shark is a paper tiger. 

2. If there is such a thing as a link between violence and pornography, it is that they exclude one another in the logic of disaster films (which is also the logic of US imperialism: the politics of “the worse, the better”). If there is violence, there cannot be pornography, since it is the threat of pornography that violence is warding off. Already, in the stupid The Towering Inferno, it is because a (slightly effeminate) rich kid engages in careless flirting that he commits the criminal negligence causing the disaster. He will die as a result (not before proving his incurable spinelessness), as will an illegitimate couple secretly making love even though the fire was already raging and the audience had understood that it wasn’t dealing with a logic of fooling around anymore, but with an escalation of violence. 

Not any violence though. Fire, jaws, quaking grounds help bind the community together again. Not sex (which only binds two people) but paranoid sublimation (which scares a lot of people). In other words – and this is not the least worrying bit of the story – children sin and parents pay the price. 

3. The suspended sexual relations make way for a “three men in a boat” setup bordering on homosexual comradeship, with noble ends and tough guy violence. We know that, in American cinema, this comradeship is defined by the exclusion of two despised groups: women and politicians (thought to have access to suspicious pleasures, in the view of real men). It’s also a question of sealing a triple alliance between the hunter, the scientist and the cop. And this alliance has a class dimension: Quint, the working-class man ill-suited to society (played by the Shakespearian actor Robert Shaw), and two figures of middle class (the modest and idealistic academic – Richard Dreyfus – and an almost failed cop), fight against the rot of money: profit-hungry property developers, irresponsible mass swimmers, a corrupt mayor. And it’s also about binding the audience in the film theatre, to transform it into a petrified collective, bombarded by an advertising campaign that makes them as incapable of escaping Jaws (the film) as the film extras are of escaping the jaws of the shark. 

4. This “Boo! Scare me!” is therefore heavily loaded with the question of “How to reassure the masses?” and “What is the price to pay?”. A misplaced desire (the youths that smoked on the beach and that the fiction will quickly get rid of) will be substituted by a more socialising desire, a desire to end the horror and to return to normality. That is the function of disaster films. But it is not the only one: for what is to be desired, by the same token, is the norm. It is in this regard that this cinema borders on fascism.

What scared more than three hundred thousand spectators in one week? And what are they getting reassured about? About the staging of a violence that – as Alain Bergala says quite rightly – “guarantees the very conditions of the spectator’s pleasure and his future support for every form of counter-violence”.

It’s the perennial cry of the sergeant major saying: “I only want to see one head!” Nothing must stand out: a sleek, full and homogenous body (military or social). A body that can be compared to a loop that closes itself except in one place where it gapes. This is where the shark shows up: it is what Lacan defines as the model of the fish trap, the obturator, the object a. Who is the shark? Nothing more than the actualisation – arriving like a hallucination from outside the fish trap – of the fact that something is rotten inside and attracting the fish. This something is the enemy within, meaning anything capable of pleasure. The supposed pleasure of the youths at the beginning, the real pleasure of the asocial duovidual composed of the hunter and the scientist. For nothing compels Quint to persevere with the hunt except the fatal outcome that he surmises: to be incorporated by the great white. Nothing compels the scientist to make a copy of the Quattrocento cube (the cage) underwater, right under the shark’s nose. He must be a cinephile. Neither he nor Quint will kill the beast. 

5. A normative fantasy must be organised with a mise en scene. Quite simply, it consists in filming everything (events, extras) from two – and only two – points of views: that of the hunter and that of the hunted. There is no other point of view (spatial, moral or political), no other place for the camera, and therefore for the spectator, than this double position. Some talk lightly about “identification” in the cinema. They haven’t noticed that in this kind of film, the identification is with the couple hunter/hunted, with its specular oscillation, a short-circuit between knowledge and point of view, a loss of any point of reference, getting under the other’s grey skin, in summary everything leading to a complete removal of any responsibility. In the pulsation of this double point of view, the camera is with the child who swims and for whom the shark is only this black rectangle speeding by, and it is, in the next shot, with the shark for whom the leg of the child is just what sticks out below the water surface.  

* Reference to the French title of the film: Les dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) [translator’s note].

First published as “The screen of fantasy (2)” in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 265, March-April 1976. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translated by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Moral of Perception

The third and last translation from the newly found Hyperion. Stoffel Debuysere has also translated this text (here).

A Moral of Perception (Straub-Huillet’s From the Clouds to the Resistance

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to website / link to pdf file].

The last Straub-film is composed of two distinct parts, one mythological, the other modern, both without apparent relation. Nube side: six dialogues out of the twenty-seven Dialogues with Leuco written by Cesare Pavese in 1947. Resistenza side: excerpts from another book by Pavese, The Moon and the Fires, published in 1950, a few months before his suicide. This last side will not be surprising: each Straub-film is a survey — archaeological, geological, ethnographic, and military — of a situation where some men had resisted.

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No 305, November 1979, as "The Straubian shot". Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. 

Notes on Saló

Another recently discovered translation from Serge Daney's first book, La Rampe.

Notes on Saló

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to websitelink to pdf file].

It is not because Saló is the last film of Pasolini that you are forced to see it as a “testament” (or a letter bomb, to open only with precaution: “No one indeed, it seems, can recover,” said Roland Barthes about this film). It is much easier to see the reconstruction of what could be, in a comparable context (Italian fascism) and a similar setting (Saló), the final attempt of masters in perdition to enjoy their power. 

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No 268-269, July-August 1976. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. The illustration is from the original edition of La Rampe. The caption reads: "A left arm in Saló by P. P. Pasolini"

The State - Syberberg

Astonishingly, it is still possible to uncover new translations of Serge Daney online. The 2018 issue of the Hyperion journal, published by Contra Mundum Press, has three translations by Serge Daney. I will post the entries separately. 

The State - Syberberg (“Hitler, a film from Germany”) 

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to pdf file].

1. It isn’t very difficult to imagine the film that Syberberg would have made if he had wanted to reassure the critics. He would have justified himself in advance for his choice by highlighting the harsh necessity that we have — more than ever — to analyze and understand “the still fertile belly from which arose the foul beast.” He would have invited the spectator to a denunciation, a demystification, a de-something. The film would not have lasted seven hours, which is too long for a lesson, too long even for a show...

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 292, September 1978. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. The illustration is from the original edition of La Rampe.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Serge Daney's bibliography

The written work of Serge Daney consists almost exclusively of short texts published for the most part in Cahiers du cinéma and in the daily newspaper Libération as well as in some other magazines and books.

Daney published four books in his own lifetime, all collections of articles. He was working on a book project at the time of his death in 1992 (later published under the title Persévérance) and he is also believed to be the author of a little-known book, Procès à Baby Doc, Duvalier père et fils, a 1973 polemic text against the Duvalier regime in Haiti, written under the pseudonym Raymond Sapène.

The rest of his written work has been published posthumously in French:

  • Persévérance, Daney's big legacy project of a cine-biography of which he only managed to write the first chapter (The Tracking Shot in Kapo). The rest ended up as the transcript of a long interview recorded by Serge Toubiana. This book has been translated and published in English as Postcards from the cinema.
  • L'amateur de tennis, a collection of his sport articles on tennis matches written for Libération.
  • L'exercise a été profitable, Monsieur., a collection of notes he kept in his computer.
  • La maison cinéma et le monde, a four-volume anthology of texts not previously published, covering nearly everything from his first articles in a high school film magazine to his late years interviews. The first volume is due to be published in English in 2022 as The Cinema House and the World.

Over the years, many texts have been translated, including from Daney's own four books. But because they are scattered around the internet, it's not easy to understand how much of each book is actually available. So here are links to the table of contents of each book, with links to all the translated articles.

La rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982

A selection of his writings for Cahiers from 1970 to 1982, published in 1983.

Published in 1986, the book contains all kind of articles (film reviews, festival coverage, analysis of TV broadcasts, etc) written for Libération which Daney joined full time after leaving Cahiers du cinéma in 1981. 

Published in 1988, it captures nearly all the texts of an eponymous chronicle about television that Daney wrote in Libération between September and December 1987.

A three-part book containing articles written in the last years of his life, from 1988 to 1991. Published in 1991 (one year before Daney's death).

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Samuel Fuller, Bad reputation

Third and final text of the series on Samuel Fuller translated with Andy Rector: a short text by Daney published in 1982.

Samuel Fuller, Bad reputation

Take Sadoul’s excellent little Filmmakers Dictionary (Dictionnaire des cinéastes, Editions du Seuil). Open the last edition to page 112 and read the article on Samuel Fuller. You will first find ten lines written by the late Sadoul himself: “dyed-in-the-wool anti-communism”, “racist themes”, in short: hate. After a paragraph break, comes thirty-seven lines full of praise written in 1981 by Breton and Marie. It’s a different vocabulary: “fanatical individualism”, “narrator instinct”, “in the tradition of Griffith”. Nobody says bad things about Fuller anymore, not even communists. Post mortem, Sadoul’s dictionary goes to Canossa and changes its mind on Fuller (and acknowledges it). Recently in 1982, the French Cinematheque organised a tribute to Fuller and on the day of the inauguration, Sam and his cigar came to exchange a few friendly words with a moved audience. It was the world premiere of White Dog. Fuller has not forgotten that his career as an auteur started in France. A strange career for a strange auteur. 

In the U.S.A., Fuller faced the problem of being an auteur in an anti-auteur system. Of being singular where ordinary individualism prevails. Of being a born narrator, evil-thinking and often inspired. Of being obsessed with two or three questions as old as Griffith and American cinema. I quote: the immediate transfer of History into stories, the live transplantation of documentary onto fiction, the art of the rapid catharsis, the “theme of the hero and the traitor” (with a predilection for the traitor), the archaeology of the American nation (and therefore racism). So, it’s in France that Fuller’s small frenetic films, often B series, were noticed. 

In France, Fuller faced the problem of being reduced to the anti-Communist content of his scripts at a time when the Cold War had dulled even the film critics’ wits. Sadoul got it wrong again and Fuller became an ideal target for those who thought themselves, self-righteously, on the Left. Anti-communist, therefore fascist and racist: nothing was spared. Sensitive cinephiles could see that this unclassifiable filmmaker who was very naturally making a very inventive cinema, converting the constraints of small budgets in creative licence, and only telling his stories, was the opposite of an ideologist. Divided, they concluded that the “form” of Fuller’s art was brilliant but that its “content” was very reprehensible. Pathetic.

One can be very American (and Fuller certainly is) by spinelessly celebrating the values of White America: puritanism and familialism. Some are even “WASPophile”. Never Fuller. He asked himself, more bluntly, from which crimes American came, and why this territory was populated by survivors: Indians, Blacks, Asians, Jews, and why it inherits from all the genocides. Fuller is a mythologist, a precious dismantler of the melting pot, someone always looking at the zero point in a story. This is why he is ahead of everyone in the critical thinking of modern westerns. His wonderful Run of the Arrow (1957) comes a good thirteen years before Little Big Man (and it’s a whole lot better). 

The paradox of Fuller, a journalist, traveller, writer of pulp novels and war stories, always news-hungry, is to have arrived ten or fifteen years too early in the landscape of American cinema. If he hadn’t demonstrated some very “Fullerian” vitality and optimism, he wouldn’t have found the strength to be present when, finally taken seriously, he was able to take up the thread of his broken career again and give us first The Big Red One and then White Dog. Especially White Dog

First published in Libération on 9 July 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinema et le monde, vol.2, P.O.L., 2022. Translated with the help of Andy Rector. 

White Dog, Samuel Fuller

Second text on Samuel Fuller translated in collaboration with Andy Rector. My personal favourite.

White Dog, Samuel Fuller

It’s the story of a racist dog. A good opportunity to revisit Fuller and what he talks about: precisely racism.

The study of racism is not more racist than knowledge of sugar is sweet. Yet, Fuller has always been suspected of being “contaminated” by his topic of predilection: the stupidity of racist delirium. Today, we tend to clear him of that view entirely. Fuller, racist? Of course not, we say shrugging our shoulders, exasperated. We are right to shrug our shoulders, but not to be exasperated. When a filmmaker doesn’t content himself with anti-racist discourse but looks deeper into the question and, acting like the old anarchist mole that he is, creates fiction, philosophy and cinema from it, one has the right to take what he says seriously. 

White Dog (which I can’t bring myself to call by its French title: Dressé pour tuer [Raised to Kill]) is not only his most beautiful film in a long time, but also a sort of pure sketch. A rundown of the question. And an overwhelming rundown, making current American film production appear empty and fussy by comparison. In White Dog, the action film and the philosophical fable progress together. What is physical is never not allowed to become intellectual, and vice versa. By dint of didacticism. 

I am not telling the story of the film. I am laying out its initial equation. It is necessary. A white man conditions a puppy to attack black people. The white man is racist, the dog becomes so. It sees the human species divided into two colours and becomes a “white dog”. One night in Hollywood, the lost dog is hit by the car of a young actress. Julie takes in the dog, saves it from extermination (the pound), heals it. The dog loves the actress and it’s his turn to save her, from a rapist. And then, one day, drama: we discover that the dog is a “white dog”.

A black anthropologist-trainer-maverick works in a sort of mobile zoo for Hollywood. Significantly, he is called Keys. He has made the deconditioning of white dogs his business. What threatens him as a black person has become his passion as a researcher. He needs a “white dog”. “This dog is the only weapon we have to destroy racism in the world”. Guinea pig, stake in the experiment, subject of the cure, bag of symptoms, the dog becomes all this. It all happens in the gaze. Keys, the black man, manages to decondition it, with ninety-eight percent success. 

For Fuller – all his films vouch for this – racism is a matter of education. Nobody is (or was born) racist. Many become so. Fuller doesn’t believe in natural violence, he knows it is nurtured. Since he is a violent filmmaker, he was always considered instinctual. This is an error. Violence in Fuller’s films (and this is why he is modern) is what exists between beings, the consequence of mimesis, the space between bodies, the space of news and media. Paradoxically, this “dyed-in-the-wool anti-communist” has an almost Pavlovian, “mechanistic Marxist” conception of racism. If all evil (or good) comes from education, it must be possible to re-educate. 

Fuller is not left-wing, but an old anarchist who believes in the primary innocence of beings. Outside: mimetic violence, inside: definitive childhood. Angels, children, beasts: men. Another danger: there is only a small step from innocence to purity (and we know that racism is a delirium based on purity). The line is thin, but Fuller has never crossed it. 

Sam Fuller loves victims, there lies his ambiguity. Including victims of racism. The scene is sublime when the real owner of the dog shows up with his two little girls and a box of chocolates. This pig is a kind old man. Sublime the way Julie doesn’t say anything to him (she insults him) but talks to the terrified little girls: “Don’t listen to him, don’t believe a word of what your grandfather told you!” Fuller is clearly in the same line as Griffith, some place in the scenario of the “massacre of the innocents”. 

How to overcome racism? How far do Fuller’s illusions go? White Dog seems to journey toward a happy ending, with the thesis of deconditioning seemingly satisfying everyone (even though it is worrying and suspicious: haven’t we seen recently the “de-conditioning professionals” of the Moon cult?). Keys achieves ninety-eight percent success. The final test: to unleash the dog (in a kind of arena) in the presence of Julie, Keys and his associate, Carruthers, a big, friendly (and white) man. I will not say what happens. 

Fuller doesn’t believe in deconditioning any more than a psycho-analyst believes in curing in a matter of days. The script is good but lacks time. Even cured, the dog is not cured of its violence, but of the racist dimension of it. It must learn not proceed through generalisations, and the only way to manage this is to teach it the “singular” aspect of each human being. One by one. And when it comes to capturing the singularity of beings, there is no one like Fuller, a fervent individualist. The dog has learned to love Julie who saved it, and then Keys who “tamed” it. The dog loves two beings in the world = the world is reduced to two beings. There remains the others, the much larger group – of white and black persons – that it doesn’t know, that it no longer knows. The dog will not manage to accede to the concept of “the human species”. It has switched from a bad generalisation (racism) to the inability to generalise. Its violence is no longer automatic and cold, it is transformed into a violence of love, which only knows those who love it. Who ever thought that love isn’t also a form of violence? No one. Not Fuller anyway. This is why the film is overwhelming. This is why the dog must be put down. For Fuller there is, side by side, an unabated optimism (he believes in good education, in science) and a modest certitude: the violence of love is already superior to the violence of racism. Love is a form of progress over self-hatred. But it too can kill. 

First published in Libération on 9 July 1982. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1982-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Andy Rector and Laurent Kretzschmar.

The Fury of Storytelling - The Big Red One

First of three texts on Samuel Fuller. These translations were done in collaboration with Andy Rector with a view to create a bigger "Fuller Special" at Kino Slang which unfortunately got held up. It's also another text from La Rampe (Daney's first book). 

The Fury of Storytelling - The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller)

One day, maybe, we will see The Big Red One. Not the truncated version bearing this title that represented the U.S.A. at the Cannes Festival, but the four-hour saga that is, if not Samuel Fuller’s best film, his most ambitious project. The film that we are seeing today, thirty-five years after its auteur conceived it (“before Cahiers even existed” he says himself jokingly), is but a portion of the film that Fuller just shot. So, it’s a double discrepancy.  

Audience at zero

If his films were loved by a section of French film critics in the 1950s, if Fuller was endorsed by the Cahiers as a modern filmmaker, it is because he was, more than any other American (except Welles), obsessed with the contemporary. Even when he was narrating past events, he always knew how to create this impression of “for the first time”, of the cinema at its beginnings. As if, before him, no one had ever filmed, nor seen any films. On the one hand, Fuller was interested in the secrets and paradoxes of History (his heroes are always impostors: a fake baron, a fake gangster, a fake Sioux, a fake madman). On the other, his stories always had a founding dimension. His first film, I Shot Jessie James, stages a man destined to act out again, for the theatre, events that he had been the hero of. Also, at the end of Run of the Arrow, this statement to the audience: “the end of this story can only be written by you.” Fuller, both a war reporter and obsessed educator, starts with this idea that the audience knows nothing, or almost nothing. Telling in a few words who the Baron of Arizona, Sergeant O’Meara, the Werwolf, or Hitler is, Fuller never builds on the supposed existing knowledge of the audience. He considers the audience to be, like him, self-taught and in a hurry. So much so that educated and self-righteous audiences, offended to be deemed more ignorant than they are, have always hated Fuller’s films, finding them basic or simplistic, and covered them with insults. What is disturbing with Fuller (or, for others, what is stunning and convincing) are less his ideological convictions (clearly, Fuller is not left-wing, loves his country and hates communists) than this concoction between news and fiction. News: everything that has a name (Fuller is obsessed with proper nouns); fiction: everything that is wearing a mask (nothing excites him more than double-dealings). 

This concoction is not an ellipsis, that elegant way of gaining time. It is something else. Again, in Run of the Arrow, how to quickly show that the Civil War just ended? One could show the front page of a newspaper, or a distressed extra announcing the news, but Fuller is not interested in this type of speed. What interests him is to film Lee’s surrender, played by an extra, walking quickly, without grandiloquence, toward another extra. The historical event in itself, but as an insert. 

This is the modernity of Fuller: the vertigo of the contemporary and the temporary lack of perspective on things. In a small, tiny-budget but admirable and prophetic film (Verboten!) he joins the Rossellini of Germany, Year Zero, and we still think of Rossellini when seeing The Big Red One. The soldiers and the audience discover at the same time the war, and much more than the war: the landscapes and the populations that serve as background to the war. We think of Godard too, except that Godard’s passion for denotation (calling a cat a cat) always threatens to prevail over the desire for storytelling. It is the exact opposite with Fuller: storytelling will prevail over everything else, will distort and divert everything. J.-L.G. narrates very little; S.F. narrates too much. One slows down, the other forges ahead. But the result is the same: they both become marginal, dangerous, and unsavoury filmmakers. 

Impossible not to tell a story

So there was an “auteur” Fuller, an independent that the Hollywood machine ended up rejecting, a “European” Fuller if you will. And there was also an “American” Fuller, super-American even, less because of his political ideas than for his ability to heat up to the point of incandescence a fundamental aspect of American cinema: the impossibility not to transform everything into a story. Into a founding story moreover, a founding of the American identity. Fuller is devoted to fiction like others are devoted to drugs: beyond any taboo, any decency. He is “hooked” on fiction. 

This fury was freely unleashed in the B movies of the 1950s. Paradoxically and against all expectations, it is this fury which prevented Fuller, who was ahead of everyone else, from reaping the benefits of the fires he had contributed so vigorously to starting. He lacked the taste for comfort, the art of arranging a “good place” for his audience in order to unify it against something (that’s what Penn, Peckinpah, or Pollack will know how to do); he wasn’t ideological enough. It is a paradox because ideology (ready-made speeches, idiotic propaganda, doublespeak and clichés) is his very topic, his preferred subject. This is another common point with Godard: he is both interested and horrified by political-speak. His films are pyrotechnical machines that stem from the tongue and set fire to speeches. 

A necessarily ambiguous fire. During the Second World War, the journalist Fuller and the educator Fuller become one: he writes novels that soldiers read at the front, he must speak with the words of the tribe. War for him is perhaps just the extreme experience of the richness of sensations and the insufficiency of language. And to feel “in the present” one must speak with the words of everybody, the words of the GIs, the words of the media, while at the same time experiencing in a barbaric and refined way the inadequacy of these words with what is really happening. To question these words or to put them in quotation marks may raise the level of debate and intelligence, but it is a loss to the vertigo of feeling in the present, meaning to live. Fuller’s films start from what seems stable, fixed, erect and in costume, so a typical American worldview (a spontaneously racist worldview), and destroy along their way any sense of belonging or identity. More through an excess of fiction than out of critical distance. I don’t believe that the great Americans (Griffith or Welles) proceeded in any other way: never by putting quotation marks on the words of the tribe but rather through malfunction, excess or waste. 

As for Fuller, he will go to the end of the idea of catharsis which is the necessary consequence of this fury of storytelling. Catharsis allows one to live with what shouldn’t be (seen) repeated. It has nothing to do with the “work of mourning”, this suspicion that between fiction and document, dream and proof, one must invent new distances and new rituals. Modern cinema, which was built from the work of mourning (Syberberg, Godard), has been European. But not American cinema which is always forging ahead toward catharsis (The Deer Hunter). In-between the two, Fuller is the only one who dared, twenty years before Holocaust, to bring together in the same film (Verboten!) these two types of images: stock-shots from the Nuremberg trials and images from his own B movie. 

The danse macabre as film form

The Big Red One is therefore, in its current form, a traditional war film, superbly filmed, precise and dry: a film “like they don’t make anymore”. But what we can guess about the original project leads us to imagine a wider, disproportionate film: the crossing of the entire Second World War, seen through the successive missions of a regiment, of a squad of four men plus one, “the Sergeant”, played by Lee Marvin, devoid of any expression. These four indestructible characters cross countries they don’t know (Algeria, Sicily, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and finally Germany), meet other soldiers, friends or foes, collaborators or resistance fighters, and in the end, it still comes down to them to free, open and discover the death camps. 

Fuller’s traditional idea of the war is that it can be reduced to a single question: to kill or to be killed. The rest would be mere intellectual chit chat. An idea as irrefutable as it is shortsighted. Yes, his films have always revolved around the question of identification (to another, to an ideal, to the ideal other) and the aberrations of the eternal “I love you, I kill you”. Fuller’s heroes’ double-dealings are protecting them from the horror of an encounter with a double (like William Wilson) which could lead to their death. They are already double. But the war is the moment when, despite everything, this encounter is very possible indeed, when one constantly risks crossing the gaze of the other, of this enemy that is an enemy only by game and by name*. With Fuller, one of the most violent filmmakers, violence is always mimetic. It is the violence of the masks that no longer hold (his entire body of films mirrors the prodigious opening scene of The Naked Kiss: during a fight, a woman loses her wig – she is bald). It is the violence of the ideologies that don’t hold up much better (in the sense that, according to Zinoviev’s strong expression, ideology is something that one “adopts”, as a sort of voluntary mask).

How to end?

The big difference between life and cinema is that at the end of a film, a small bit of writing, the words THE END, strike through an image. This is the truth of the relation between image and writing. Following the itinerary of the Sergeant, Fuller asks himself under which conditions there could be an end to wars. The answer is literal, tinged with dark humour: there wouldn’t be any more wars if only one war could truly end. But it only takes one soldier, somewhere, to ignore the armistice just signed (this is the story of the hero of Run of the Arrow or of these Japanese soldiers still “holding on” to some Pacific islands) to create a fatality of the return of wars. Just one more bullet and the fury of storytelling starts again. It happens twice to the “Sergeant”, in 1918 and in 1945. Fuller’s obsession – the typical obsession symptom –, is the bullet shot one second too late and the war hero turned into a common law murderer. But how can one know that the “war is over”?

The Big Red One, Fuller’s magnum opus, is haunted with the desire to end, to write the words “the end” for good.  Hence the final happy ending, moving because improbable. “To kill or to be killed”, this warrant officer’s wisdom, is a false choice. In one way, the one that kills dies too, he commits suicide. He becomes Death itself, which ignores the double game. The double game is what saves mimetic violence: only impostors are alive. Otherwise, underneath the features of the four soldiers of the film, too beautiful and too vulnerable, one must see the face of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To join in the camp of the survivors, to have killed the other inside oneself, is to be truly dead.

* In the French text: que par jeu (que par double je). Literally: "only by game (only by double "I").

Translators' note: while translating the text with Andy, we toyed with the idea of keeping some French word references in the English text. I've removed them in the final version to preserve fluidity. But, in the spirit of disclosure (and to show the impossible compromises we had to make), we have used "storytelling" and "story" for récit, "contemporary" or "news" for actualité or informations, "concoction" for précipité and "double game" or "double-dealings" for double jeu

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 311, May 1980. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Andy Rector and Laurent Kretzschmar.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Wim’s Movie

A new translation of Serge Daney. It's another text on Wim Wenders (see here and here), another text on Nicholas Ray, and one more translation from Daney's first book, La Rampe. A big thank you to Srikanth Srinivasan for suggesting it and helping translate it.

Wim’s Movie (Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray)

1. There are two unforgettable lines in the films of Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, aka Nicholas Ray, aka Nick. In 1957, in the Libyan desert of Bitter Victory, Richard Burton observed bitterly: “I kill the living and save the dead”. The year before, James Mason wanted to kill his son screaming “God was wrong!” (wrong to stop Abraham’s hand). The film was Bigger Than Life. These two lines are a program unto themselves. Mason’s line, in Ray’s cinema, is the version of the father, a father who has become insane, threatening, unfit: a deviant. Burton’s line is a son’s impasse, the double bind that he cannot escape, at least not unscathed: kill the living father or save him dead. The subject of Ray’s films is less revolt than the impossibility of revolt, the endless dispute between two men, a young one and an old one, the adopted and the adoptive. The old one “plays” the father, takes the blows, fakes his death, deprives the “son” of his revolt. The hystericised son must sustain the father’s desire, and therefore attribute a desire to the father. In this respect, Wind Across the Everglades is a wonderful film. Nearly all of Ray’s films tell this story, all end badly, or rather they do not end, or on a fake and hurried happy ending. This, the forced alliance toward filiation, or filiation experienced as an alliance, was the cinema of Nicholas Ray. But at the dawn of the 1980s, it is also a way to narrate the “history of cinema”. 

2. In Wenders’ film – this Nick’s Movie that became Lightning Over Water before becoming Nick’s Movie again at the very last moment – Ray has, for Wenders, become a Ray character. This film marks the culmination of the renowned politique des auteurs, a politique invented (here, in France) to defend films like Ray’s and which was itself formulated in a strange, oedipal way: a failed film by an auteur was always more interesting than a successful film by a non-auteur. In other words, the auteur is always right since we are talking about the father figure here. Today, we know what this politique des auteurs has become: on the commercial side, it’s the forced marketing of signature effects, and on the filmmaker side, it’s the often hypocritical cult of the dead. Nick’s Movie is all this but also more than this: less a film about filiation than filiation made film. Wenders believes himself incapable of separating the two films: the one desired by Ray and the one commissioned by Coppola. On the one hand, an auteur’s film, a work that is European, open, even gaping, poor, experimental: a documentary on New York’s loft apartments. On the other, a craftsman’s film, professional, meticulous, expensive, a revival of the California found in film noirs and Dashiell Hammett’s novels. Wenders has “managed” to locate himself simultaneously in two extreme situations for a contemporary filmmaker: not to have chosen your subject and to have been chosen by your subject. But the two experiences communicate with one another: the young German filmmaker learns in the end from the subject Ray the skills that he needs to confront the Coppola machine. He turns a part of America – a wounded, dying part – against America itself. He is not the first one to do this: there is already a long history. In Contempt, Godard played Lang’s assistant on the set of The Odyssey for a paranoid producer called Prokosch. Lang was a fallen old master, a monument of cinema but also someone who had suffered a lot in Hollywood. Then we saw Welles in Chabrol’s film, Fuller in Godard’s (and Wenders’), Fassbinder playing in Sirk’s university films etc.

3. I am not talking about the influence of the older filmmakers on the new ones, or of cinephile generosity (although we have seen Scorsese supporting Minnelli and others trying to help Tourneur produce a new film). I am talking of the presence – the physical presence – of certain filmmakers in films of the new wave (the French New Wave firstly, and then the Italian and the German ones). And not just any filmmakers, but those, born in America around 1910, who had their careers cut short, stymied or simply destroyed. Between 1960 and 1965, filmmakers as important as Welles, Mankiewicz, Kazan, Sirk, Ray and Fuller fell silent or lost the favours of audiences, and therefore of the studios. They had often become too singular or too modern for Hollywood. At the time, we saw it as the consequence of the crisis in American cinema or the malice of the Majors. But this phenomenon was also symbolic. For the first time in the history of cinema, a generation born in cinema (unlike the previous generation, that of the pioneers) no longer works and has lost the right to say “filmmaking, our profession”. Faced with the exceptional longevity of their elders (Dwan, De Mille, Walsh, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock), their horizons have shrunk, their time has gone fast, and even though they still have a lot to say and to film, they have been reduced to silence. 

Illustrations from La Rampe. Bitter Victory (top) and the set of Nick's movie (bottom). 

4. This had never been the case, at least not in America. And it happened at the time of the emergence of European “new waves”, of the first cinephile filmmakers. We hadn’t really noticed at the time that these young auteurs, who had invented the said politique only to be its beneficiaries, weren’t sure at all that filmmaking would be, for them, a profession. It is not impossible that, faced with the demands of modern cinema (which focuses on experience rather than know-how), the very idea of a profession came across as regressive, outdated. Yet, twenty years later, despite the cold war that they are engaged in, Godard and Truffaut have this in common: they have never stopped filming, with or without an audience, for the audience or against it. Filmmaking is their profession. As Truffaut says: “what makes me happy about making films is that it offers me the best possible use of my time”. But Truffaut made sure this was true, true for him. It likely will be the same for Wenders or Bertolucci, Fassbinder or the Straubs. In Europe, what is decisive is not box-office success but the capacity of filmmakers to build the machine which, despite occasional failures, can continue to reproduce itself. This is how an aesthetic can take shape. But there is no such thing in the USA (except perhaps for Cassavetes): the broken generation of the 1960s didn’t know how to operate in any other way – it was Hollywood or bust. If not for his lifetime contract with MGM, Minnelli is prematurely finished, Kazan and Fuller have taken to writing, Sirk has comeback to Europe, Tourneur just died in France, Ray has sought exile, Welles has been showboating, and even Wilder, Preminger and Mankiewicz are facing difficulties. I believe that the young European filmmakers have then exorcised their fear of not being able to make films forever by granting their American elders a sort of filmic survival. So as to truly be their heirs. A paradox: The American Friend is always the case of an American father who has run into trouble. 

5. I find the word “cinephilia” too limiting to explain this phenomenon. Nor is it a case of an abstract history of forms or a list of influences (because genuine influences are always oblique). It’s about the status of these filmmakers, their history, where they come from and the mythical history they have fabricated for themselves. It’s also about something that cinema, and only cinema, can do – better than painting – because it is a figurative art, meaning that it can make figures come back, come back from a past where they have represented something unique for someone else. Actors are those privileged figures: they are essential to the dialogue between filmmakers. Because of them, cinema cannot be the mere succession of styles or schools, and the phenomena of filiation take shape through nostalgic, ageing images of the same bodies. The body of the actor spans all cinema, it is its true history. This history is never told because it is always intimate, erotic, made of devotion and rivalry, of vampirism and respect. But as cinema gets older, it is this history that films bear testimony to. The encounter between Ray and Wenders and the film born of this encounter are a chapter in this history. Comolli had clearly seen – in a text in Cahiers that was mistaken for a joke – that, in 55 Days at Peking, Ray played the role of a paralysed American ambassador, as a metaphor for his situation as the auteur of a film that was getting out of his hand. End of his official career as a filmmaker and beginning of his career as an “actor”. An exhibitionist actor who was aware of it and who watched himself age in the films of others, and sometimes in his own films (see the perfectly named We Can’t Go Home Again). What was modern was the survival of a filmmaker as an unemployed body, a crazed guest star, a ghost. And the most modern, in this sense, was Welles. Conversely, what was classic was the elision of the body of the filmmaker (or its ironic presence: Hitchcock): what is more unthinkable than the appearance of Mizoguchi, Ford or Hawks in their own films? Nothing. Toubiana was right to say (in an article for Libération) that Ray has bequeathed his body to Cinema like others bequeath theirs to Science. Except that Cinema doesn’t exist, it’s always a filmmaker – and in this case, it was Wim Wenders.

6. This is why the attitude that consists of criticising Nick’s Movie for moral reasons seems to me short-sighted if not unjustified. What is abject in cinema is the figurative surplus value, the “supplementary image” that a protected auteur extracts from the spectacle of an exposed actor (exposed to ridicule, indecency or death). It consists of ignoring the non-reciprocity of the filmic contract. But what happens if the exposed actor, having also been an auteur and understanding both sides, has generated this spectacle, if he has desired it? And if he has bequeathed this spectacle as well? Opposite Ray, there is another introverted, rather ill-at-ease actor: Wenders. The game is equal between them because they have something in common: they are both posers. Since the very beginning, Wenders has been a filmmaker of seduction, not exhibition but a discreet, imperceptible posture where the most neutral of images confer to those within the image and to the one who has put them there the secret pleasure of knowing that they are being seen or caught “not posing”. A “double posturing” that irritated me in Wenders’ first films and in The American Friend but I like the fact that, instead of cultivating it further, Wenders has made it the very subject matter of Nick’s Movie. For one gets the feeling that the encounter between Ray and Wenders is turning out to be a genuine encounter. Between father and son probably, between peers for sure. Ray knows the stakes of this game of hot cockles between the one who poses and the one who is made to pose, between the one who kills and the one who dies (in Bitter Victory, also featuring in The American Friend: it’s the one dealing the fatal blow who screams, and who screams in place of the other). Just watch the end of the film and the exhaustion on Ray’s face. There is nothing left to say, he says “Cut!” Wenders (off-camera) says, “Don’t cut!” Ray: “Don’t cut.” It’s a game where no one wins but which saves the film from pure and simple necro-cinephilia. There is such an awareness of the camera among everyone involved that it is as if its presence became the only driving force of the film, pushing the viewer to the periphery, depriving him of his “slice of death.”

7. We believe too easily in the power of the camera to cut through poses, to strip away masks. We are too quick to cry rape. But a camera merely captures masks and reflexes, hidden behind or beyond the “role”. “Live broadcast” is merely the name given to a technique for recording images and sounds. There is no live per se. “Live,” we witness the making of a subtle body, formed of material clues resulting from the idea that the body exposed to the camera has of itself. A subtle body, the vague hope of a mask, a turmoil, a mutation, a hieroglyph: nothing simple. This is more than actorly know-how (if it were the case, then everyone would be an actor) because this subtle body, this protecting body, this extra layer of skin, is the same as the other, barring a hymen (but the hymen is solid). That is why I think Wenders was right to edit Nick’s Movie again. The version shown in Cannes was a long, uneasy and rather chaotic film that could be defended only if we thought that it was the reality of the shooting that was being captured. A shooting that no one had wanted, an orphan film that no one wants to take responsibility for. In a scene that has disappeared in the final cut, the editor could be seen trying to put the film in order. I had the impression that the film was neither Ray’s (who died before the end of the shoot) nor Wenders’ (who, in another scene that has disappeared, is criticised by the team for abandoning the film and setting off to California to attend to his other film, Hammett), but that of the editor, Peter Przygodda, and that the film bore witness to his difficulties and sufferings. Przygodda emphasised Ray’s moribund figure, the stalling of an uncertain shoot, the misery of the team gripped by helplessness and a desire to do well. It is clear that Wenders has betrayed something in editing the film again: Przygodda’s film, the raw documentary. One could find it regrettable, of course. But it’s certain that, in doing so, Wenders has found the real subject of his film, neither Ray’s death, nor the film in a film, but the truth of his relationship to Nicholas Ray. Recall the magnificent scene from Kings of the Road where Zischler, having returned to see his father and unable to talk to him, designs the front page of a newspaper (he is a printer) while the father sleeps. Writing triumphs where speech fails. “While father is sleeping.” While Nick Ray is dying: benefitting from an intermittence. In the final version of Nick’s Movie, such is the presence of Nick Ray: intermittent, mysterious. Sometimes it even seems that he has been long dead. And I love this scene (which could be deemed too explicit but it’s precisely what I like with Wenders: the ponderousness of explanations) where Wenders dreams that he is in Ray’s sickbed himself and that Ray is watching over him: a zombie-like Ray, attentive, slightly comical, like a ghost out of Kurosawa. 

8. Wenders has said that he wanted Nick’s Movie to eventually be a fiction film. This is why he has undone his friend’s (Przygodda) edit. It’s not just a difference in style or a commercial concern, it’s a question of content. There may only be two great subjects in cinema: filiation and alliance. Ray and Wenders have the commonality of trying to mix, conflate and swap the two. I said at the beginning: filiations experienced as alliances or forced alliances toward filiation. Is Wenders Ray’s friend or his heir? His decision to renounce documentary devotion for fiction shows that he has opted for filiation, a filiation that he has the heart to accept. That is how I interpret the return of Wenders’ style in the final cut, including his quirks and facile choices (especially the musical bridges). As if he told himself, at one point, I am going to make this film such that the Officiel des spectacles* can summarise it as: “An elderly man and a younger one, linked by a strange friendship, attempt to make a film together, but the former dies prematurely…”. The film had to become anonymous again. The dead body had to be nondescript, embalmed. The only way to respond to Ray’s perverse injunction (something like: I demand that you betray me) is to be a good son, a good cine-son. 

* Well-known weekly printed magazine listing all the cultural events in Paris with short summaries (translator’s note). 

First published in Cahiers du cinéma in April 1980. Reprinted in La Rampe, Gallimard editions, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Serge Daney in 2021

Time for the annual wrap-up. 2021 saw 30 (new or revived) translations of Serge Daney:

2022 will mark 30 years since Daney's death and it's possible that we see a bit more happening in the Daney sphere.  

Two books seem on track to be released:
  • The most eagerly awaited is The Cinema House and The World, a translation of the first volume of Daney's complete writings covering the Cahiers period. Over 200 texts due for release around May. Discover more here.
  • Serge Daney and Queer Cinephilia, the output of a university research program which covers wider topics than Daney but will likely have some interesting texts on Daney. (Disclosure: I was invited at the first set of conferences to talk about translations, but no papers from me in the book).
There could be more: 
  • Emmanuel Burdeau is continuing to write his biography of Daney. To be published next year?
  • And I am aware of one other book that could hit the shelves in the future. 
And this blog will continue to look at new translations, some already in-progress. 

In the meantime, it's pretty much the same end of year message as last year. You know what to do: vaccines, masks, look after others as well as yourselves, and stay safe.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

In Praise of Emma Thiers

Early Christmas present with a piece by Daney on a film by Jean-Claude Biette (available on the French Cinémathèque streaming site, with English subtitles). Thank you to Jack Seibert who came up with the idea and made the translation possible.

In Praise of Emma Thiers* (Jean-Claude Biette’s Realism) 

The Theatre of the Matters, a realist film 

There are several ways to say that The Theatre of the Matters is a realist film. Filming a tiny and completely penniless theatre troupe staging Schiller or Bataille in a Paris suburb is a more “realist” choice than, say, filming the anxieties of a known filmmaker scouting locations. Here, I use realist in its most basic sense, meaning statistical: Biette’s film talks about France’s cultural landscape in 1977, the everyday life of a troupe caught between private financing and state subsidies (patrons, in both cases), amateurs as well as professionals, promoters as well as artists. Not out of a taste for failure or for the mundane**, nor for militant miserabilism, but more out of a care for reality. 

Who to film? In front of which bodies should one place the camera? It isn’t good – it’s even worrying – that Godard is the only one attempting to paint the portrait of a permanent union rep (in Comment ça va?) when French cinema continues to apply a left-wing varnish on the honest cops and courageous judges that have already served the Right (pathetic left-wing fictions!). It isn’t good—it’s even sad—that Biette is the only one set on depicting the savagery of the relations between the petty bourgeoisie and art, culture and their institutions when human emotions are haggled as if in a souk, when art and prostitution go hand in hand, when manipulation rules (“some would kill their own parents to get on the stage”). Realism is firstly this: to grant a filmic dignity to that which didn’t have any, to venture an image where there was none. 

Like countless films before, The Theatre of the Matters talks about the spectacle. Yet it is a new film. Neither a demystification (the stage’s wings speak the truth of the spectacle because they exhibit its material conditions: Tout va bien) nor a re-mystification (the backstage of the dream factory renders it even more lovable: La nuit américaine). Not even a reciprocal contamination of theatre with life, “of the city and the stage”: L’Amour fou

For Biette, theatre is neither life nor its opposite. Theatre is like life, it is intertwined with it, flatly. It doesn’t transfigure life, it continues it. So a first trap must be avoided when watching The Theatre of the Matters: to shed a tear on the lost souls of the cultural world, the disadvantaged ones (a hideous expression), to fly to the rescue of a poor-theatre-actually-as-good-as-rich-theatre-because-so-much-more-human. In Biette’s film, we don’t know how good Herman’s (Howard Vernon) plays are. And the theatre troupe is never a simple association of victims (Herman’s patsies) because we see it using its own little powers. 

The other trap would be to politicise the subject too quickly, through hasty groupings: amateurs v professionals, rich v poor, traditionalism v avant-gardism, Schiller v Bataille. At the Theatre of the Matters, only “contemporary” theatre is staged (Dirty for that matter) because it is economical. The theory of the matters that Herman professes is advantageous in that it can adapt to all economic situations, and the formula that sums it up entirely (“theatre is bodies on a set”) says rather crudely, with a play on words***, what’s at stake in the theatre: for the theatre (and for the cinema too), the sets are what cost money while  the bodies are donated, “for nothing”. 

Now, as a filmmaker, Biette knows very well that he will only ever deal with singular bodies and that it is dangerous, sometimes criminal, to homogenise them. As a filmmaker who has chosen this subject, he knows that non-professional actors (or actors who work too little, considering the level of unemployment in the field) haven’t had the time to bend their bodies to the training required by the profession. At the Theatre of the Matters, one comes as one is. And one always knows where one comes from: the benches of a symphonic orchestra (Herman was first violin with Furtwängler, Dorothée harpist with Désomière), the kitchen of a restaurant (Philippe), a travel agency (Dorothée, again), or a great classic theatre (Répétos). It is the clumsiness, the opacity, and perhaps the nobleness of this double body, both amateur and professional, a true factory of “third meaning”, that Biette wants to make us love. This way, he continues on a thread that obsessed the New Wave: the taste for triviality (the cinema of quality was vulgar, the New Wave trivial). Come as you are and expect no transfiguration from the cinema. There will be no aura. This is the case with Bresson (who retains only stage fright from the “actors”), Rohmer (who retains only the first names of the “actors”, in the Moral Tales) or Straub (who, in Othon, retains only the fact that the actors don’t understand well, or at all, what they are saying). 

The passion according to Saint Biette 

This double trap avoided (to commiserate or to group), the spectator can no longer look down from above. The Theatre of the Matters, like any real fiction, resonates with a loud voi ch’entrate. One has to consent to the “step by step” of the fiction, to accept not to precede it. The “good spectator” (if he even exists) tries to turn his loss into a win. His losses: general concepts, doxa, prejudices; in a word, ideology. His gains: sharpness in perception: to see, to hear, to identify, to recognise, to deduct. 

For what makes the current fictions of the French cinema so weak and awkward? All the desire has moved to the side of the spectator, with none left for the actors. Conversely, what is striking in recent great films (Entire Days in the Trees or Comment ça va?) is that they always tell the story of an excessive desire, of a passion. To declare a “return to fiction” – an expression we can hear everywhere at the moment – has the worst possible meaning, a reactionary meaning, if it’s merely demanding structured scenarios, well-built stories and credible characters. The return of fiction however, is of great interest: to allow us to rethink fiction from the angle of passion. The passion of a mother for a child (Entire Days…), of a union rep for his mysterious office colleague (Comment ça va?), of Dorothée for the stage (The Theatre of the Matters). And it is not because the object of desire is, as Lacan says, “a failure” (which in Duras’ film is to be taken literally) that it can be any object. At the Theatre of the Matters, everyone knows what one wants, or believes he knows it. What connects Biette’s film to the “good old films” he’s fond of is that he doesn’t give too big a share to the great Other. From the start of the film, characters say what they want, what they aspire to. That they may be mistaken about the nature of their desires doesn’t imply, at least not automatically, that they are unable to express them. Or even better, to tell the story of them. 

For fiction – narration to be precise – has a double status: it is both form (a film tells a story) and content (in a film, characters can tell a story). A storyteller can also be filmed. In life, one never ceases to tell stories: but stories told in salons are not the same as stories told in bars, just as the Buñuelian imbricated stories are not the same as the Godardian digressions. It is rather curious that the Buñuelian storytelling that everybody finds funny and deep isn’t picked up by any other filmmaker (as if it was the reserve of the Master). Especially as it’s a very classic form of storytelling that can be found in literature (Diderot or Quevedo), characterised by the fact that even the most minor extra can ascend without warning to the status of storyteller, then disappear forever. Why this refusal? 

It is perhaps because whoever tells a story (be it the most banal or dirty – see Eustache) becomes for a moment the master of the film. Not only because the course of the film hangs on the lips of the storyteller but because the storyteller grants himself the time to arrive at a certain satisfaction (he alone knows the ending). In The Theatre of the Matters, Herman’s anecdotes about Furtwängler or Brigitte’s stories in the abandoned lot are moments when the pleasure to tell a story is no longer the sole prerogative of the filmmaker but is shared, disseminated. It is this desire that is rejected by the fictions of the French cinema, because it would be akin to stealing something from the fantasised link between the spectator and the auteur, over and above the characters, and most often behind their back. 

For a “great deixis” 

One touches here the damage done by wild psychoanalysis (where one knows that “somewhere” we have a subconscious) or Freudo-Marxism (where one knows that “somehow” there is a class struggle) to arthouse cinema and its audience. It is an audience that starts already beaten. That’s the consequence of giving “too big a share to the great Other”. The great victory of modern cinema (to no longer have to hysterically identify oneself with the characters) has its downside. The spectator identifies himself more and more with the auteur. His hysteria (Barthes says, “The image is what I am excluded from”) is no longer fed by the step by step of the fiction and by the bodies that it binds but by the – rapidly anxious – quest for the auteur’s “intentions”, for traces of his presence. 

Films, then, become big soft adverts where bursts of enunciation swim in an ocean of connective tissue. In these conditions, it is not so much what happens on the screen that matters but what we can glean of the intentions of the Auteur (now with a capital A). In these conditions, the old linguistic grid that distinguished between connotation and denotation, so useful to decipher old films, series films, coded and over-coded, eaten away by ideology and gnawed at by script writing, no longer has much purpose (except in universities where semiologists are rushing toward Hitchcock). We should substitute for this grid a new repertoire of bursts of enunciation, a great deixis rather than a great syntagmatic analysis. We would then know how auteurs flirt with spectators, how they use all the tricks of advertising cinema. Among these tricks, a “history of the zoom” would be welcome: we would see how it has lost its Rossellinian worth (to get as close as possible) in favor of an abstract phatic dimension (“yes, you are now at the cinema… we are talking to you… relax… watch out, here the auteur wanted to tell you something… did you see it?”, etc). 

So, to make a film like The Theatre of the Matters, where each element – character, colour, furniture, word – must be taken seriously, either because it’s going to be linked to another, or because it’s going to come back later, is a challenge. A challenge since it requires a spectator who doesn’t start already beaten: a spectator both naive and demanding (a child?), a spectator that calls a spade a spade, and who, as a result, is ready to see it transformed into something else. One can see that I am using Biette’s film as a little war machine against everything that is wrong in the ideology of French arthouse cinema, against an audience which is made incurious and functions more and more according to the “Attention: masterpiece!” (an ad recently seen in France Soir). What could this poorly informed audience fear? 

Realism: to accomplish a programme, to keep one’s word 

What is a film? It’s also a programme. Each element of the film is a programme of its own. A name is a programme. Dorothée knows that tea puts her to sleep (it’s a gag) and the Theatre of the Matters is also the voice of the idiot who interviews Herman twice, “The theatre of Emma Thiers”. We know the role of wordplay for Biette; he has explained it in a recent interview. Beyond the pun, there is a second way to talk about realism. Realism is also the act of realising, to make real, to transform the potential into reality, to keep one’s contract, to accomplish a programme. 

Take an example. When the manager of the travel agency (the admirable Paulette Bouvet) summons Sonia Saviange (excellent as Dorothée) in her office to tell her off, this scene that could have been ordinary is absolutely terrifying. How so? Thanks to a very simple staging trick: the agency manager, instead of staying behind her desk, stands up and sits on the desk she has just walked around, slightly dominating Dorothée whom we can see partially turned away, on the foreground, to the bottom left of the frame. The manager: “Have you seen the weather? Beautiful isn’t it?” Dorothée: “Yes, Madam.” The manager: “Well, you should go outside and get some air sometime.” Dorothée: “But, Madam Nogrette, I don’t understand.” The manager: “It doesn’t matter, let’s go.” In such an example, Biette manages to render all the dimensions of the dialogue. 

There is of course the dimension of the signifier (words with double meaning like “get some air”) and that of the signified (watch out, you’re going to get fired). But there is another one. Let’s suppose for a moment that Dorothée takes the manager at her word and leaves, effectively, to “get some air”: she couldn’t do it because the other is physically blocking her way. That’s the meaning of the staging: the agency manager anticipates the possibility of a literal interpretation of her words and forbids it in advance. The scene captures perfectly the horrors of office life because it plunges us into a world where taking things literally – moving into action, the body that challenges the language – is always possible. It is this dimension of the language – let’s call it the language of the body for now – that fascinates Biette. Not the body that speaks for itself, that reveals the soul, but the body that relays the language, gets intertwined with it, “realises” it (as one says in the vocabulary of economics). Hence the fright. Hence also, comedy as the solution to the fright. 

When Dorothée, after the opening night of Marie Stuart, very joyful despite the failure of the show, asks Herman, “Did we do good today?” and Herman, glum, replies, “Go ask those eight spectators” Dorothée doesn’t see the irony and only hears the signifier (“Go ask...”) and quickly replies, as if to avoid a chore, “Oh dear, I need to go. I’m late already.”  

I am moved. Long live being moved! 

In The Theatres of the Matters, what keeps on being produced are the ghosts of things called upon by words. Things return to the language to haunt it. A haunting that also hovers over the film since any word could be the password that opens the other stage, comical or vile, that of the language of the body, of the language embodied, distorted, by the “matters”. Only filmmakers working in a totally different context, American B-movies, people like Browning, Lang or Tourneur had pushed the desire and the haunting of the referent thus far. Always this fear with Tourneur that pronouncing a word could lead to something that responds or moves. Tourneur, who believed in phantoms, said one must never show anything, which must be understood as: one must show the nothing, as if nothing existed. If the word “nothing” exists, there must be such a thing as “nothing”. 

In a chapter of the first volume of his seminars devoted to Saint Augustine (and to a text entitled De locutionis significatione), Lacan, helped by Father Beirnaert, quotes the following example: how can one signify the meaning of the word “walking” solely through language of the body? Saint Augustine: “If I asked you when you walk: what is walking? How would you teach it to me?” Answer: “I would perform the same action a little faster to attract your attention to something new, while doing nothing other than what needed to be shown.” But Reverend Beirnaert notes that it is no longer “walking” (ambulare) that is signified but “hurrying” (festinare). Impossibility of the body to become entirely language. An impossibility that leads us right to the limits of cinematic realism: mistaking words for things, i.e. psychosis. The Theatre of the Matters ends on a white wall. But it is not even a full stop (except perhaps by anticipating the whiteness of the screen once the lights are switched back on in the theatre). Again, Lacan: “If one points to a wall, how can one know if it is truly a wall, or not something else, for example, the roughness, or the colour green, or grey, etc?” 

If one points. And what does cinema do if not pointing? It is even what differentiates it radically from theatre. In the theatre, there can be a language of the body, more or less codified (dance, mime, pantomime), where the découpage in cinema, spatial and temporal, introduces a dimension inexistent in the theatre: that of the “here is…”. There is always an excess in cinema, coming from the intricacy of the découpage and the enunciation. As soon as one cuts, one enunciates. One can announce, “here is… the thing itself”, but it is in vain: filmed, “the thing itself” starts to function like a sign, which doesn’t close anything, and kickstarts everything like an eternal extra roll of the dice. 

Crisis in the belief 

Realism is also this: to be subjected to a contract where everything that is said can also be shown, while knowing that this conversion is rigorously impossible. Specifically, it is the pact between names and bodies that is at stake in The Theatre of the Matters (nomen, the name, means “pact” or “contract” in Latin). Another pact, just as desperate, is at stake in a film like Pasolini’s Salò, a film overwhelming in its innocence, its tenacity in not saying anything it cannot immediately show – even the worst. Not only to impress the spectators or make them vomit, but because, after all, a filmmaker’s word doesn’t have to be automatically believed.  

All this has consequences for today’s cinema. In a way there are two cinemas: the one exhausting its material and treating it like a programme, and the one that inflates without ever fulfilling it. Use value v exchange value. Sumptuous extenuation (even in penniless films) v counterfeit currency (even in super productions). On the one side, the impossible language-bodies, on the other, the glue of the signifier. In a recent article, Pascal Kané proved that all the flattering chatter surrounding Ettore Scola’s latest film, A Special Day, would have evolved in a lightly outraged boredom had we caught the actor Mastroianni, not in the “role” but in the “posture” of a homosexual. The difference between what is simply implied by the script (its imaginary references in a way) and what is actually shown may seem, related to the global meaning of the film, minimal. Yes, the meaning is not modified. But the difference is immense, since the reception of the film, its success or failure, depends on it. There is always a moment in the cinema where the question is: to show, or not. 

Young French filmmakers are often cinephiles (Jacquot, Biette, Téchiné, Kané, etc), meaning that they explore the depth of cinephilia: the act of believing. They do not denounce it after naively or blusteringly believing that they are freed from it. Instead, they explore it secretly, by reductio ad absurdum. “Why would anyone believe me?” they are all saying, set upon accumulating proofs. Jacquot by making bluffing his great subject (nothing forces us to believe that Gilles in The Musician Killer is a violin virtuoso since even when he is playing, we can’t decide for sure). Téchiné by reducing cinema to a window (nothing forces us to believe that there are women behind it, or even something behind these women: Barocco). Kané by looking into special effects (nothing forces us to believe that the fairies in Dora are all-powerful, since they accumulate mistakes). Their art of filmmaking still assumes a certain type of spectator, perhaps soon to be extinct, able to take interest in a story while at the same time able to take nothing at face value. Unlike today’s spectator who has become educated, smart, cunning and lazy. 

It is possible that the audience targeted by Biette with his Theatre of the Matters no longer exists (no more than, say, the audience targeted by Dassault and Autant-Lara when they made Gloria). That it no longer exists at the cinema and that it is in front of the television. In a written introduction to “good old films” that he had curated in a district cinema (the Action-République), Biette wrote that these films had provoked “…the greatest of pleasures: forgetting one’s own life a little bit and playing at living imaginary or insanely real lives for an hour or two.” When belief gets undone (and everything leads to believing that we believe less and less in films), yesterday’s imagination and pleasure are getting mixed. Madness or reality: who would take chances? 

Realism, madness. 

I talked about realism, both as attention to reality and haunting of the real. And to conjure up this double calling, I talked about the theme of the contract. A contract between words and their promise. A contract between names and bodies. A contract between the film and the spectator. It is possible that we are living in an era where the old cinema is getting undone and with it, the naive contract that has bound it, for half a century, to a certain audience. Television and advertising, by taking away from the cinema the monopoly on belief, have accelerated its decline as an “art for the masses” (at least in the western world) while at the same time elevating it to the status of cultural worthiness. Will cinema find a new dispositif of power, a new regime of belief? It is too early to say more. 

In Dialogues, Deleuze writes, “what defines the notion of the masses, isn’t necessarily a dimension of collectiveness, class or togetherness, but the evolution in law from the contract to the statute.” We have been spectators “by status” and it is as if the cinema – or a part of the cinema – was, in front of our eyes, going back the other way: from statute to contract. As if, once this involution was over, we could start from zero again. A strange criss-crossing is happening: whereas consumers of culture are expected to tie their desire to that of the Auteur, the filmmakers that matter the most to us tie their desire to the old places haunted by this “popular audience” that we cannot find today. The places of the cinema were all located in the regions of low culture: colonial imagery and roman-photo, melodrama and family albums, the magic of the stage and the cinema studio. These places are deserted, or rather they are encumbered with codes that have become incomprehensible, haunted by the corpse of the one for whom all this has once happened. Nostalgia? Not quite, even if this corpse begins to smell. The Theatre of the Matters is absolutely contemporary with the possible birth of a “new spectator”, one who wouldn’t be (only) a consumer of culture and about whom we only know one thing at the moment: they are to be counted one by one

* From the play on words in the scene of the interview with a journalist: “Le théâtre des matières” and “le théâtre d’Emma Thiers”, pronounced the same way in French (the former means “the theatre of the matters” the latter “Emma Thiers’ theatre”). 

** tasseux in the French text, a word that doesn’t seem to exist. Did Daney invent it? 

*** In French, the summary formula is “le théâtre, c’est des corps dans du décor”, with “des corps” and “décor” pronounced the same way.

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 285, February 1978. Reprinted in La Rampe, Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Jack Seibert.