Sunday, January 16, 2011

A ritual of appearance (Mitterrand)

Part 2 of a double post. Part 1 is here.

A ritual of appearance (Mitterand)

First, the pre-credits sequence: a man leaves the crowd and walks towards us. The camera captures him the moment he climbs up the stairs of an imposing building. He’s filmed from a low angle, alone, very alone. He’s well dressed, a bit stiff, but he knows where he’s going. The camera is then placed further and lets the actor arrive: it keeps see him coming. His footsteps resonate, (classical) music is heard: the sound reverberation lets us imagine a large building. The man moves closer. Does he know he’s being filmed? Will someone tell him it’s a candid camera? It’s not sure. Will he speak? Even less sure. In any case, he’s holding a flower.

Entered from the left of the frame, he logically exits from the right, once the camera has panned to uncover a pile of marble and statues with these simple words: National Convention. The man glances at them. Is he hesitating? No, but he moves away and disappears from the image. Clever, the camera gets ahead of him and frames an opening of soft golden light where our actor suddenly appears.

A closer shot shows him immobile, meditating. The suspense would be unbearable if it didn’t unravel abruptly: the man makes one step on the side and lays the flower – it’s a rose – on a block of stone where these simple words are written: Jean Moulin. Emboldened by his gesture, he repeats it on two other tombs: Victor Schoelcher’s (“who abolished slavery in 1841” explains a surtitle) and Jaures’. We are in the Pantheon. When the camera lingers on the six letters of the engraved word “Jaures”, the music gets louder. The effect is arresting. With no more flowers, the man leaves as he arrived: alone. End of the pre-credits sequence, beginning of the film, i.e. the seven-year presidential term.

This short film is not without merit, even if, in the dignified and monumental style, it’s neither Ivan the Terrible nor Land of the Pharaohs. We find out that Serge Moati is its author and Mitterrand its unique star. It’s a real film, with rehearsals, body doubles, prop managers (for the flowers) and everything. The great moments of cinema are in Cannes this year but on the 625 daily lines of our TV sets. For this little film is Mitterrand’s response to Giscard’s media challenge.

We remember that the latter had attempted to invent on air a ritual of disappearance: Mitterrand had to take up this challenge by inventing another ritual, one of appearance of course. A ritual of arrival in the field, of the camera and of history. By saying “Good bye” to France from a television studio, Giscard had implicitly assimilated France to French television – a dangerous metonymy. Once already he had made the mistake, talking to viewers, to call them “Mes chers téléviseurs (My dear TV sets)”. It was his “idea of France”, a limited and cynical idea, with no memory but not without a certain irony. It would have been a mistake for Mitterrand to remain prisoner of this decor, to come back exactly to the seat left empty by Giscard. So he too has attempted something: to force television to come to him, to film him, where it never goes, in the Pantheon, i.e. among the dead.

The message is clear, and there’s no doubt it was heard. A need for legitimacy, a desire to fit in the history of France (a double history, of the winners and the losers), a desire to choose his own ancestry by choosing “his” dead, to go point them out, not with his finger (it’s not appropriate) but with roses. In all mythologies, the hero must present himself alone in front of the dead but under the dumbfounded eyes of the living. You need to be three to create a symbolic event. Moati’s film created Mitterrand’s temporary loneliness, snatched from the living then released to them after a trip with the dead under the electronic gaze of the camera. It changes from Giscard’s amnesia, his inability to any pathos. This revival of the Republican mythology is rather perky, even if it can quickly lead to really pompous aesthetics (which the film gave a foretaste of).

But why wouldn’t we accept a bit of academic style? For the moment, there is emotion, at least in this desire to touch or to be touched which was characteristic of the whole ceremony. Then, we’ll have to see if this idea that television is a cool media is that true. We’ll see if television inevitably de-realises, de-ritualises, desecrates. It’s Mitterrand’s new challenge to McLuhan. To be continued.

All this was what we could see on television, the evening before yesterday. Later, on the same channel, I felt that the same film, the same trip to the land of the dead, was happening again: a young man moves forward, as if magnetised in a dark and bleak decor, he meets a friend that he thought he had lost a long time ago and they start speaking with strange voices “coming from elsewhere”.
- You look rather pale... and you smell like earth...
- You too...
- Are you going to stay here long?
- Forever...

We found out that it was a dream. One of these dreams that Luis Bunuel sprinkled in the film on Channel 2 that evening: The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Originally published in Libération on 23 May 1981, reprinted in Ciné-Journal, Cahiers du cinéma / Seuil, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A ritual of disappearance (Giscard)

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

Published two days apart in Libération, Daney brought these two texts together in in his book Ciné-Journal with these words of introduction:

A ritual of disappearance (Giscard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cinemeteorology: Too Early Too Late

Jonathan Rosenbaum published online his translation of Serge Daney's review of my favourite Straub-Huillet film. The text was available on Steve Erickson's website but it's good to have it published directly by Jonathan who has long been the most vocal about the need to translate Daney in English.

Cinemeteorology: Too Early Too Late
Originally published in Libération, February 20-21, 1982. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Serge Daney in 2010

It's time for the usual annual review of news about Serge Daney in English (which celebrates its fifth year of existence).

Keeping up the interest about Daney in the English-speaking world was a bit of a solitary exercise this year. As far as I know, there were no translations outside the blog. I kept posting quick translations of minor texts to show how amazing a proper book of translations would be. I managed to translate about six texts:
Not much then. But there are some interesting signs to avoid being gloomy...

A theatre play was created in France about Serge Daney. It is enjoying an extended run at the Théatre du Rond-Point. I've heard some good things about it (including from my mum and aunt who liked it a lot). A video of the show is here (in French). Serge Toubiana blogged about it. Will this trigger a renewal of interest for Daney in France? It would be fantastic if POL would finally start the work on the final volumes of Daney's complete works.

2011 looks more promising with the likely publication of a book about Daney in Dutch (when will English publishers realise they are missing a trick?) and the project of a translation of Journey of a Cine-son. More on this blog soon.

The audience of this blog is broadly stable. Just as last year, about 1,000 different people enjoyed this site (if I only count unique viewers coming more than once and staying more than 10 seconds - there are a lot more hits but probably not worth counting). There is a small group of people methodically checking every update (just under a hundred). The only interesting pattern is the increasing proportion of traffic coming from referring sites: all those blog posts, lists of links and tweets which direct readers to this site. They accounts for a third of traffic to Serge Daney in English. So thanks a lot to @thedailyMUBI and all for picking up my blog entries and revealing them to your (much wider) audience.

And many thanks to all for your interest and loyalty.

Happy New Year!