Saturday, July 31, 2010

The world seen from above

Ten years in London and I just found that the library of the French cultural centre has a very decent film section. I had little time to scan the bookshelves, so I quickly borrowed the issue 37 of Trafic ("Serge Daney, after, along"). Trafic is the film review founded by Daney in 1991, a year before his death. Despite Daney only able to contribute to the first three issues, the review has carried on since.

The issue 37 was published in 2001 - 10 years after its creation - and all the articles are about Daney. They are a strange mix of testimonies, memories, reflections and development on Daney and his work. And for some reason, it doesn't work at all. Commemorating Daney, who himself was so focused on the present, seems strangely out of place. It really lacks the immediacy, sharpness and wit that characterises Daney's writing. I even found myself hoping to find little-known personal anecdotes to report in this blog. Thankfully, there are none.

There are a few texts by Daney himself. Here's one:

The world seen from above
Serge Daney

Film making with planes: easy. Taming space, this strange environment: not so easy.

One evening in Tokyo, an anthology of Japanese B series films (ghost stories) is on television. At some point, a samurai’s decapitated head starts to fly, crosses the screen several times from left to right and, at the end of its mad flight, bites another surprised samurai. A head cut off, a flying machine whose passengers are (bloodshot) eyes, a mouth twisted at the idea of being dead, teeth, a nose. And hate as the engine. An airplane if you want.

Man, we are told, cares for his dream. Flying is one of them (from Icarus to Valentin the birdman). Recording real movement, and in real time, is another. A few years before the century, planes and cameras began to make noise at the same time. Then two world wars (and many others, less global) allowed them to expand their field manoeuvres and destructive off-field. Synchronicity.

But before fitting a camera on an airplane, cinema had made a (little) plane of our eye, allowing it to climb up, to move in space, and to become a missile, a rocket, a voyeur-kite, a bird gliding at low altitude. All of us, before we’ve even taken the plane, we've had the experienced of a crane (Dolly or Mitchell) and of this extraordinary invention: the "camera movement". The golden age was perhaps silent cinema. Not yet hampered by the necessity to also record sound, cameras fly around in an extraordinary world. What ultra light plane will have the elegance of a tracking shot by Murnau or Keaton? Our eye has taken the plane on its own and, even if it didn't go very far, we have travelled with him, by proxy.

The plane as a machine to see differently. The plane, an object made to be seen, exposed, made fetish. On the ground (insect) or in flight (bird), later a calm cetacean in space, or imprudently left to barracks comedy (Rellys!), falling into a tailspin, in flames. The plane is only an object and, as such, joins our toy collection. It doesn't create big problems for filmmakers. Some, not the least, are also plane pilots. The most famous, in the U.S., is Hawks. The airplane movies made by Hawks are among his most beautiful (The dawn patrol, 1930, Air Force, 1943). But the title of one of them (Only angels have wings, 1939) says it all. Hawks' cinema was famous for always placing the camera "at man-level" – not "at angel-level". And even when the aviator goes high in the sky and becomes this attractive leather ball fasten to his seat and clenching his joystick, Hawks doesn't get lost. In his films, air is not just another element; it is the element that makes possible the purest of movements. But these movements are still those of the ground.

That is why American war movies (those we know best) are the most "classic". The ground is targeted, time is measured, it is already the video game. There is no time to wonder, once "high up": that's another world! There's no high and low but an infinity of highs and lows, no sea but something resembling a large elephant skin, no earth but a patched up fabric, no sky but cotton wool between us and the sun! It is really strange that planes have become familiar objects but the amazing beauty seen from a plane has not stopped filmmakers filming the sky as if it was a two-bedroom apartment in a movie studio (think of DeMille's mundane comedies like Madam Satan (1930), it is the same thing).

This was the case for a long time. But from times to times, there were breaches, jumps in the unknown, bright spells in this all-too-balanced world. How could we forget the Spanish peasant who gets on a plane for the first time in his life and, suddenly, does not recognise the land for which he is ready to die: the peasant separated from his land in Malraux's Espoir (1939)? Or Wayne's and Janet Leigh's dangerous tailspins in Sternberg's Jet Pilot (1957)? The empty cockpit at the end of Mr. Arkadin (1955)? Dr. Strangelove's atomic bomber (1964)?

At the movies, the plane object is a matter for the props manager, but space, air, is a matter for the artist – those artists crazy enough to have a cosmogony and to make flying an adventure of perception, a new deal in the image we have of ourselves. They may be aviators (Hawks), or suffer from airplane phobia (Kubrick).

Space became an enigma again when the spaceship replaced the airplane. We started to fear meteorites, to meet wrecked spacecrafts, to populate space (including with the horrible “Alien”). The end of Icarus’s dream and the beginning of a new kind of nightmare: weightlessness. With 2001, Kubrick opens a new era (1968). Others followed. In the USSR also, we went from Hawksian classicism (Youli Raizman’s The Pilots, 1935 – a little known masterpiece) to panicked questioning (Tarkovski’s Solaris, 1972) and, more secretly, to someone like the Armenian Pelechian who in Cosmos* (1980) puts the spaceman not in the middle of the cosmos but at the centre of his diving suit, of his sons and of his vision as a stressed guinea pig.

It is a strange story, with three characters: the target, the plane and the gaze. We easily identified with the plane, we (sometimes) identified with the ground seen (bombed) from a plane; we are starting to forget both and to put all our drives in-between: the child of the 80s identifies with his own gaze as a projectile in the video game. For this, he no longer needs real skies, nor good old airplanes.

* The French title for Our Century.

Originally published in a “ciné-avion” supplement of Libération, 8 December 1983. Republished in La maison cinema et le monde, vol. 2, P.O.L., 2002, pp. 531-533. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.