Thursday, November 29, 2012

Preminger - The rules of the game

Otto Preminger's art "is always desperately looking for a place to withdraw into from where it can construct its grandiose architecture."

This is what Serge Daney wrote in one of his first texts, a long review and defence of Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, published in 1963 (Daney would have been 19) in the second issue of Visages du cinéma, the short-lived film magazine he co-created with Louis Skoreki just before they both (and together) joined Cahiers du cinéma (in 1964).

The text has just appeared in a new book on Otto Preminger bringing together some amazing texts (by Skoreki, Rivette, Fujiwara...). An English translation seems to have been available in a limited number of English prints distributed at the Locarno Film Festival.

I hope I'll be forgiven for reproducing the translation below. Translations of Daney are so rare. Thank you to Kurt Walker for spotting this new translation and transcribing it. I've made some small changes.

The rules of the game
Otto Preminger – Advise and Consent
“By remaining long enough on the iridescent surface we understand the price of depth.” – Gaston Bachelard
Let's concede the following to his critics: Otto Preminger's cinema is cold and, what's more, offers nothing for literary criticism. 
Nothing of what is conventionally called mise en scène. Instead, an implacable and bitter gaze. Those who didn't sense the ambiguity of this gaze, beginning with Laura, couldn't be convinced about the beauty of Advise and Consent and would have even more trouble appreciating how it got there. To say that Advise and Consent is to Preminger what Taira Clan Saga is for Mizoguchi wouldn't convince those who snubbed Saint Joan; but let's also refute this kind of pointless proselytism and concentrate on the pleasure of speaking about a man we love and who is, today, the most important living American filmmaker.
Of course, his films are cold, but we tend to forget too quickly that this coldness is also the soul of decency, which is the right word to describe a man who made Margot cry, who filmed the misery of the Jews and Joan of Arc at the stake.
And yet, to excuse Preminger for the sin of being cold and dull is to discover the novelty and importance of his artistic contribution. This excusal would also have prevented quite a few ignorant people from being taken by surprise over the author's desire to adapt Exodus, a decision which could only startle those who think that coldness is a refusal of sentimentality. Nobody has more pity for human misfortune and suffering than Preminger, but, unfortunately for some, this pity is not expressed through some sentimental upheaval. And if Preminger can find a place among the greatest filmmakers, then that is because he endowed his characters with authenticity and truth. But the moment we unreservedly endorse these characters, he goes on and sacrifices them to an idea, for which the actor has to turn into a character, and the actor becomes a symbol.
As a tyrant on set, Preminger had to be pessimistic about his own themes to satisfy us, the critics, who are always haunted by symmetry and in search of patterns. His vision of the world is too complex to stay on such a low level, but it is certainly true that the filmmaker's first task is to recognize the deprivation of the world he is about to describe. 
Whether this is a similar world or a parallel world, a sect, a body, a milieu, it is always a world prone to the inevitable processes of damage and death. The only step from the world of drugs to the world of politics, is the step leading from the particular to the general, from the event to its genesis. In the same way, Mizoguchi speaks less of slaves in his early films than of slave-drivers, and less of prostitutes than of procurers. Naturally, Preminger prefers big topics. This is a surprise for those who can't see the culmination of an idea in these subjects, and who think that there is some supplementary trick behind it to decipher. 
It is more convenient to speak here of a milieu rather than of a world, and the best characteristic the world has to offer is isolation. This is, of course, a banal idea. But it is the first milestone, the foundation of what will become the mise en scène, it legitimizes the importance of the interior set design of an oeuvre particularly rich in palaces, chateâux, apartments, gambling halls, courts of justice and other closed places. 
That will give us a better basis to understand the importance of setting in Advise and Consent, Preminger's second political film after Exodus, which is its exact opposite. Entomology prevails over epic storytelling without excluding it. These are Preminger's two vocations. Advise and Consent is more like an edgy version of Anatomy of a Murder, this film has the humour, the accuracy, and the precision of a documentary. 
In fact, few artists respect reality as much as Preminger, his only wrongdoing was that of not cutting up stages of life in the usual way: that of only seeing the dark sides of life. It is hard to see how certain people who privilege realism are still not able to touch political or judicial life. Those who object to artistic values cherish the excellence of documentary evidence. There is no doubt that Exodus and Advise and Consent were discoveries for many people.
Preminger's art is first and foremost an art of analysis. His point is to show how mechanisms are at work (the script thus turns into a simple role playing situation); his approach is quasi-scientific, and based on observation. The special effects only serve the annihilating condemnation of the enterprise that make his art possible. 
This art is not free, nor is it in tune with its time. It is always desperately looking for a place to withdraw into from where it can construct its grandiose architecture. A closed world, an impenetrable milieu are defined by a preoccupation for orderliness, as well as by a desire to keep away from reality. Judicial norms, religious dogmatisms, political systems, are fruits of intelligence, but, in isolation, they just become signs that survive even though their signification got lost; in such a way, a trial survives justice. If there is a word devoid of meaning in Anatomy of a Murder, it is the word “justice”, and anyhow, how can there be justice since we never know if Barney Quill raped Laura Manion (Lee Remick)? For that reason, the film has an exemplary value; a mechanism will be repeated until it looses meaning, and those who know best how to use it, win.
How to stop oneself from thinking that these environments are the outlines of a game for which the rules are actually laws? All of Preminger's work is a mise en scène of the “homo ludens”, dear to Huizinga. Sometimes the boundaries are blurred and the rule is relaxed  (Anatomy of a Murder and Bonjour Tristesse), and sometimes, on the contrary, creativity and freedom are almost ready to disappear (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Advise and Consent). This kind of game presents and propagates abstract structures, images of closed and protected worlds, ideal for practicing competition. These structures transform into behavioural  and institutional modelling. They cannot be applied to the reality they deny, but constitute as many prospects of an ordered universe as needed to replace universal anarchy.
It would be easy to make a list of these “social games” or “intellectual jousts”(1). Games always illustrate pure milieu, or autonomy, where the rules that are voluntarily respected by everyone neither favour nor harm anyone. 
But crisis erupts as soon as someone ignores or abuses the rule. The game doesn't exist if one doesn't play by the rules; and if one refuses them, the milieu itself is jeopardized.
Because there are people parallel to these regulated worlds, to these withdrawn organisms (that are structured like a circle, which is Preminger's stylistic device par excellence), who, in Francoise Sagan's words, give things “their exacting meaning”. Reduced to hopeless solitude, these people appear uncompromising when they confront the accidents of reality. They fail to comply with the conventions of games. They are another species, they are pure, they are still capable of serving a cause; from Alexis who dreams of saving his country in A Breath of Scandal, to Robert Leffingwell who only contemplates whether or not to save his own. 
These are wounded characters, but they are straightforward. They are motivated by a need to give themselves a cause, and are governed by lucidity. 
The problem comes up the moment they encounter this regulated world, which is a world of immobility, narrow conservatism (Seab Cooley), satisfaction (Guillion in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell) or idiotic (Stogumber), a world where nothing could possibly depart from rules that have become ceremonial. The mysteries of a ritual.
It is not surprising that similar conditions would attract Preminger to Shaw's Saint Joan and to turning the subject into one of his most lucid films. What is it about? The court of the Dauphin (Richard Widmark), a decadent world, withdrawn to itself and to its games, fights for survival while a young peasant woman dreams of resisting the invaders and of crowning the Dauphin. 
These two sides are incompatible. Practical, everyday intelligence and active idealism enter into a deadly conflict. The mise en scène turns into a means of coercion, the trial a set-up, the circle a trao; the circles around Jeanne get tighter and tighter (cf. the farandole in Bonjour tristesse, where Anne (Deborah Kerr) is “trapped”). She will destroy the outer circles but ends up in the middle of a wild mob. Order is saved but Jeanne will follow it. 
Cécile (Jean Seberg) provokes Anne's death through a setup; Zosch (Eleanor Parker) detains Frankie Maclean (Frank Sinatra) in The Man With the Golden Arm. 
In any case, the goal of the mise en scène is to limit the autonomy and the liberty of the actors. Why do we still wonder why Preminger strove for the trial? Is the trial not per definition a mise en scène destined to eliminate personal initiative, where declarations are fixed in advance?
Just like the American political system, the mechanisms of any governmental organization should inevitably interest our filmmaker. Compared to Exodus, Advise and Consent is like an assessment, a documentation, a gaze over a mechanism unfolding in front of our eyes. Nobody can escape from the importance and complexity of this mechanism, and certainly not Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton) who represents and takes care of it, ready to unmask those who menace the game by disrespecting the rules.
There are two ways of rejecting the game, either by refusing to play at all or by changing the rules. The result is a deception, a kind of special effect that twists the game and threatens the milieu that has created its rules. Consequently, the foreign element with the desire to interfere, has to be eliminated. Cécile has to kill Anne. Seab Cooley has to do everything to expel Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) from his job as Secretary of State.
One can blame Leffingwell for being too much of an intellectual and for never having cooperated with Congress. Indeed, like Jeanne, he feels the need to devote himself to a cause, and to take a job for which he is best qualified. But he belongs to that rare species of idealists that are detached enough to judge things and to envisage changing them. In order to eliminate him, Cooley uses a setup (Gelman's statement), knowing that Leffingwell will be unable to build his career on a lie. But, as often with Preminger, actions have unexpected repercussions: the eagerness of the president (Franchot Tone) reaches in turn the senator Brigham Aderson (Don Murray) who is allowed to believe, for a moment, that he's in control, before being forced to face the same dilemma and to choose the same solution: renunciation, not duplicity. The young Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), however, whose frantic ambitions lead to Brig's suicide, doesn't avoid his colleague's ostracism; his fault is not so much to have refused to play by the rules of the game but to have changed the rules in his favour. Because he always goes too far, because he doesn't know, unlike Coolie, to distinguish between what is a game and what isn't, he is often ridiculed, which recalls another fanatic: Stogumber in Saint Joan. In the end, the condemnation of the president reveals the same attitude. He is guilty of abusing his power by nominating an unknown as Secretary of State, thus menacing the solidity of the edifice he represents.
The president's death also puts an end to his enterprise, where the two parties play off of each other, and Cooley's triumph is confirmed. Just as in the end of Saint Joan, order is safely restored, and all those that challenged it have disappeared.
Considering the themes that have been discussed so far, there's an important idea that might open another perspective: the mise en scène. 
There is Cooley, of course, who, like an excellent tactician calculates the moment where Gelman's (Burgess Meredith) statement will be most effective, but there's also Cécile, who instigates a drama for which she chooses setting and actors. 
In terms of mise en scène, Anatomy of a Murder is Preminger's most complex and exemplary film. This film is neither about justice nor about American society. At the center of the film is a mise en scène that turns into a means, much like it did for Lang's later films, for the artist to think about his art, and also into a disguised confession. 
Many have noticed the resemblance between Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and Preminger himself, it seems though, that rather than simply being a lucky coincidence, we might have to face a true self-portrait which sheds light on both the film and the filmmaker. What is Biegler's purpose? To withdraw completely into a reality out of himself? To let that reality inside, through a trial and through “the ultimate importance he gives to apperances”, and to show reality's truths the way he chooses to. Astonishingly, he accepts Manion's case without knowing what exactly the case is about; how can one not think of the filmmaker to whom every film is a new adventure? To subjugate one's activity to something pre-existing, in this case a murder, in that a novel, is the art of the filmmaker's lawyer; they don't invent things ex-nihilo, but obtain certain results because of certain procedures, meaning mise en scène. This is a job that requires at least as much capability and finesse as the rules of a never-ending game; a trial has its rules (that, like Judge Weaver cunning remarks, change from one State to the next) that are supposed to be followed if one wants to win the game. 
This constraint makes Biegler's final victory even more admirable; his game was mediocre, but he made the best out of the cards he was dealt, which is the privilege of great filmmakers. Many have noticed a fascination as a Premingerian topic, be that's only because hypnotism was another of his favourite topics, but isn't Fascination the goal of every director?
Biegler has to play a role in front of lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), in front of Laura and Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant). But he wasn't prepared for this role. Even though we know up to what point the lieutenant is violent, compared to Biegler he seems moderate and calm. One needs only to recall the scenes where he literally explains his “role” to him, making him guess the only attitude he's allowed to have. Concerning Laura, he turns her into someone she's not: a good wife, an exemplary woman, he event directs her way of dressing, if it is only to have a dramatic effect when he makes her mess up her hair in front of an audience. Well, at least he has to convince Mary Pilant to witness the scene, and thus to act. 
One should also admire his mastery in calculating and measuring the effects he wants to produce, mostly through humour – he ridicules witnesses and adversaries –, but also through the coup de théâtre (2).
Because he knew how to play by the rules of the game (and the judge is always there to decide what is allowed and what isn't), Biegler won the most difficult victory. But is this merit not analogous to Preminger's? Like his hero, Preminger first has to practice his art on something which precedes and is outside of him (in this case, a Robert Traver bestseller), because he has to reach as large an audience as possible. He might appear vulgar, following his demands of commercial productions, then of super-productions, but his greatness (and that if all great Americans) is to know how to play the best of a bad hand, to make sure that the demands on him become his themes and that his film becomes  a work of art.
The film is exemplary in meditating on this mise en scène. The artwork always outlives the artist who can only have control over it for an instant, who can only give it the mark of his imprint before seeing it moving away into an indistinct future. 
We will never know the truth about the rape of Laura Manion, and the protagonists of this drama stay mysterious throughout the entire film. For a while, they have “played” a version of a drama that the director imposed on them, but everything happens as though their own reality is a secret, unknown, and yet burning. Those who think that Anatomy of a Murder is a cold film might be surprised to hear me saying that it is emotional. But can't ice also burn? Preminger's art begins where Biegler's art ends; suddenly Laura is lonely and miserable collapsing on the stairs of her Roulette, to the great astonishment of Biegler who all of a sudden discovers the face behind the mask; behind the revelations of the lieutenant's cellmate, is the lieutenant's rage, which is not pretended and almost touching; Parnell (Arthur O'Connell) is caught between the gaze of Maida (Eve Arden) and Biegler, and asks himself whether to quit drinking. These are moments where time seems to stand still, and where the truth about the characters, that could only be guessed until now, comes out for an instant not defined by artificiality but by reality, not by playing but by life. 
Biegler's as well as Preminger's future resides in an enterprise doomed to failure. The characters, gathered together like chessmen, break away from their role and from the person directing them: the Manion couple leaves without paying the fees, but Biegler doesn't seem surprised. 
This never-ending job is something desperate. Without a doubt, there are more preferable things in life, like fishing or listening to jazz, but it is also a thrill. Knowing and dominating the rules of the game, determining and directing its players, is to impose the marks of demiurge for a while, for a couple of seconds it makes one realize the vocation of the artist.
Preminger like no other, has sensed the fugacity of things, the complexity of people and the necessity to dominate “appearances” to let them live in abstract structures. But in a true return to reality, he saw the danger of replacing the sign with its meaning. This is the drama that nourished this great work over which the bitterness of nostalgic intelligence hovers.
(1) Card games (River of No Return, The Man with the Golden Arm, Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Advise and Consent), roulette (Bonjour tristesse), dice (Porgy and Bess), hopscotch (Saint Joan), fishing (Anatomy of Murder, chess (Exodus).
(2) Even though the second general released doesn't show this, the coup de theatre is Biegler's not Preminger's deed. This version lacks a capital scene distributors aumputated: Parnell's excursion to Sault-Sainte-Marie.
Translated by Moritz Pfeifer. Original French text was first published in Visages du cinéma, issue 2, 1963. Reprinted in La Maison cinema et le monde, 1. Le temps des Cahiers, p. 126-132, P.O.L. English translation is published in Otto Preminger, Capricci, 2012.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Nick Ray and The house of images

Oscilloscope have just released the DVD and Blu-Ray of Nicholas Ray's We can't go home again. The booklet contains a text by Serge Daney translated in English.

Nick Ray And The House Of Images

This essay originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema no 310, April 1980 and also appears in La Maison cinema et le monde, I. Le Temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, POL, 2001. Translated from the French by Berenice Reynaud and Bernard Eisenschitz.

I've written to Oscilloscope about it and will ask them to publish the text on line if they respond.

Thank you to Ryan Gallagher for spotting this and sending over the details of the text.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Night Watchman - subtitled

I just found the subtitled version of this 1990 documentary "Le veilleur" which is essentially a long conversation between Jacques Rivette and Serge Daney in the streets of Paris. It's on YouTube so probably illegal and the quality is horrendous. But we've got accustomed to make do with what we can get to read / watch Daney (and Rivette) in English.

It's a film by French filmmaker Claire Denis, made for the TV series Cinéma de notres temps. I remember Denis explaining the difficulties of shooting: the film roll in the camera usually ended by the time Serge Daney had finished asking his question. She had to invent a way to change over reels really quickly and get assistants to continuously load the reels.

Here are Part 1 and Part 2.
[UPDATE 6 JAN 2015: unfortunately the links no longer work on YouTube]

Monday, October 08, 2012

Flurry of online translations of Daney

A number of new translations of Serge Daney have appeared this year on the Belgium blog Diagonal Thoughts written by Stoffel Debuysere and in the last few days on David Davidson's Toronto Film Review blog. It's wonderful to see the writings of Serge Daney continuing to generate such interest. In the face of publishers' inaction, cinephiles are taking the matter in their own hands!

Toronto Film Review publishes "Daney’s first three contributions to Cahiers du Cinéma". 
Note: After a quick search on the French Cinémathèque archives, these are indeed Daney's first texts for Cahiers, published even before his interviews of US film directors which marked his arrival at Cahiers. The first two texts are oddly not included in Serge Daney's posthumous "complete writings". A great find then!

Petit Journal du Cinéma: Retrospective Donskoy - published in Cahiers du cinéma, no 154, April 1964

Petit Journal du Cinéma: Sirk At Munich - published in Cahiers du cinéma, no 156, June 1964. Co-signed with "J.-L. N." (aka Jean-Louis Noames, also known as Louis Skorecki, friend of Daney and fellow film critic).

Frank Tashlin's Who's Minding The Store? : Frank and Jerry -  published in Cahiers du cinéma, no 156, June 1964. See also my recent translation of Smörgasborg to make the links.

Diagonal Thoughts has been publishing a string of translations over the past year:

The Death of Glauber Rocha - published as ‘La mort de Glauber Rocha‘ , Libération, 24 August 1981.

A Morals of Perception - published as ‘La Morale de la Perception (De la nuée à la résistance de Straub-Huillet)‘ in La Rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982, Cahiers du cinéma, Gallimard.

Mark Images - published as ‘Présentation‘, Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 268-269, the introduction of a special issue dedicated to “Images de Marque”, July-August 1976.

The Fraternal Image - interview of Jacques Rancière by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, originally published as ‘L’Image Fraternelle‘, Cahiers du Cinéma, nos. 268-269, part of a special issue dedicated to “Images de Marque”, July-August 1976.

The militant ethnography of Thomas Harlan - published as "L’ethnographie militante de Thomas Harlan", Cahiers du Cinéma, n° 301, June 1979

The demise of film critical thinking - published (without title) in ‘L’exercice a été profitable’, Paris: POL, 1993.

The non-legendary period of Cahiers - published as ‘La période non légendaire des “Cahiers”. Pour préparer la cinquantième anniversaire’. In ‘L’exercice a été profitable’, Paris: POL, 1993.

The cruel radiance of what is - published as ‘La radiation cruelle de ce qui est’‘, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 290-291, July/August 1978.

The Way South. Johan Van der Keuken - published as ‘Vers le sud. Johan Van der Keuken’, Libération, 2 March 1982.


Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Not reconciled

Jerry Lewis, Smörgasbord

In 1963, Jerry Lewis invented a seducer character entirely motivated by hate. Logically, he called him Love. Mister Love was as opposed to the timid Doctor Jerry as day and night, as Hyde and Jekyll. A very dialectical opposition. To better “accept himself” (the condition for the others – the audience, you, me or a young girl, slightly maternal – to love him in return), the good Jerry had to go through Mister Love-hate.

A (double) star was then born. The total idiot and the cynical star, the one rejected by the others on the campus and the shrewd businessman, Lewis the actor and Lewis the producer. Will they be reconciled one day? Will one kill the other? Or will the merger of the two create a synthetic “Jerry Lewis”, more serene as years go by? This underestimates our auteur. A great comic doesn't just give people “what they want” because he loves them; he distributes – with no hope of getting anything in return – a surplus of energy and an excess of love. This is why the great comics are often our "accursed share"*. This is why Jerry Lewis has never been accepted at home.

So it wasn’t rare to hear, behind Jerry Lewis’s false good feelings, a serious threat. Something like: if one day you stopped loving me as a destitute clown (Jerry), I would be forced to resort to my professional show-business arrogance (Love), to the cold exhibition of my power to do good (Lewis the philanthropist, the friend of children), to my abstract love and my real contempt. The universal Love (with a capital L) declared itself against a background of resentment. In the Lewisian world, a practised ear has no difficulty hearing the bitter calculation of guilt and its transfer: endless and merciless accounting. Inescapably, Jerry Lewis was becoming the benefactor of a humanity from which he was more and more cut off as the days passed. No film between Which Way to the Front? (1970) and Hardly Working (1979), just an unfinished project (The Day the Clown Cried, a serious topic) and the crazy idea that pornographic movies had “stolen” his audience of children.

The inevitable therefore happened. Despite the promise, made in public and in a static shot at the (unforgettable) end of The Nutty Professor, that he will never attempt again to split, the gap between the actor and his double, between Jerry and Love, between poisoned success and poisoning failure, kept growing. A day would come when Jerry Lewis would no longer be able, alone and in one film, to make complete a survey of his own personality.

That day has come. It’s today. 1983 will be the year of Jerry Lewis’s return. The return of all the Lewises. Lewis-Ego, Lewis-Me and Lewis-It. The first will be crowned (the Nobel-type philanthropist of medical research).  We will admire the second’s performance in Scorsese’s film, The King of Comedy (where Lewis is presented as himself). And we will rediscover the third, inspired gagman and crazy inventor, in his latest film, the strangely titled Smörgasbord. The reconciliation didn’t happen, but Smörgasbord is a beautiful film.

Firstly it’s a very free movie, or rather very liberated. Liberated from the Other, liberated from Love, since Love (or more precisely what Love has inevitably become “20 years later”) is entirely in another film, thanks to another film-maker: Martin Scorsese. From then on, it’s everyone for himself. Smörgasbord only looks at the “Jerry” side of the mirror. Except that in this peculiar double picture of Dorian Gray, the two reflections have grown old: (fleeting) time reveals stiffness, wrinkles, sweat, the emptied gaze of the body that supports them. Jerry and Love have become separately horrible. Not one redeeming the other. Redemption is over. The mirror is shattered.

Jerry Langford, in Scorsese’s film, is a Mister Love made bitter, old and tough by success. He doesn’t even look at the one (DeNiro-Popkin) who, starting from nowhere, also wants to succeed. Worse, he’s on the other side, on the side of the respectable, realistic and responsible adults, who were his joyful target when, with Dean Martin, he was still misbehaving.

All you have to do is look at Warren Nefron, Smörgasbord’s hero, to stop asking how long Jerry Lewis can maintain the credibility of his character as a prolonged teenager. Nefron is no longer a nice, crazy, simple kid with a big heart; he’s a universal type: the Misfit by essence, addicted to shrinks, a real loser of our time. Age is no longer relevant.

Freed from the Other, Warren Nefron is also freed from what slowed down previous films. Smörgasbord, with all its dead weight, follows the auteur’s inventiveness, anywhere and at full speed. There’s not a gram of sentimentality, even faked. No “feminine presence”, even innocently phallic. Not a drop of dialectic, even forced. No happy ending, even imposed. No obligation to pretend to tell a story since the script of Smörgasbord is not the cure but rather the disease. And to an incurable disease, one can only oppose a cure “just for laughs”. It’s such a cure that “smörgasbord” precisely symbolises.

We are, from the first images of the film (the failed suicide attempts), in a world where everything has become a conspicuous symptom. If the subconscious is, as Deleuze would have it, a factory and not a theatre, let’s say that for Smörgasbord, the factory workers have become overzealous. As soon as a gag can be built as a slip of the tongue, a daydream, a witz or a rebus, the Lewis factory no longer worries about verbal precautions. It goes all the faster because there is nothing and no one to give moral lessons to. Love, I repeat, is in another film.

The story of the film is not only impossible to narrate, it is, like poetry, impossible to sum up. It is disjointed, like the first Lewis films (The Bellboy, The Errand Boy) that we criticised at the time for being mere catalogues of gags, but it is disjointed like any story that obeys the logic of the signifier (and not literary or psychological plausibility). Smörgasbord is a mechanical bachelor**, happy to simply and energetically emit signals. It calls out no one. An example? The French translation of the title (“T’es fou, Jerry!”: Jerry, you’re mad!) says it all. But that is still someone – an intimate – observing this state of madness. Whereas “Smörgasbord” is madness.

This small Swedish word acts as the “rosebud” of the film, the word that the psycho-analyst, having exhausted all other means, utters to Nefron under hypnosis but which makes him fall into the disease from which Nefron will emerge. It’s a comic “rosebud”. “Smörgasbord” also means “hors d'oeuvre” and one can’t avoid seeing this as a plea pro domo by Lewis, the preemptive response to the accusation of having made yet another disjointed movie. In burlesque, there are only hors d'oeuvres: no need to dish up the story of the (piece de) resistance(s).

Jerry Lewis has been so (psycho) analysed that the exercise is really no longer needed. The “shrinks” clearly belong to his world. But, unlike Woody Allen, Lewis does not give a respectful image of psycho-analysis (the cure, the sofa, etc.). For him, shrinks are part of the Punch and Judy show. It’s in his way of unfolding the film via free association, in his art of making objects suddenly seem like words, it’s in his style that Lewis really takes into account the subconscious, subconsciously of course.

Hence the magnificent, inspired and unforeseen gags and the admirable scene where Nefron tries to have dinner in a restaurant but eventually gives up because the waitress (with the voice of a modern Barbara Nichols!)  lists all the possible dishes. We’re that close to the anxiety of the fanatic. Instead of one decision to make, the list of all possible decisions is presented. Life becomes a series of boxes to tick, up to the point when we run out of boxes and go crazy. This is where the film is at its most staggering, where Lewis remains a modern film-maker. A body that trips over the set, that's funny; one that becomes entirely code when language has become a war machine, that’s crazy.

The beauty of the film is extracted from unhappiness. Smörgasbord is tragically funny. 

* Cf. The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille.
** As in "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even…"

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 347, May 1983. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde: 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, pp. 180-184, POL, Paris, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Bill Krohn.

Monday, July 30, 2012

6 August 1980 - Chris Marker is in town

From a long article published in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1981 gathering Serge Daney's travel notes on the 1980 Honk Kong Frestival.
6 August. Encounters. Chris Marker is in town. He goes back to where he's been and films "randomly", rather happy to have emerged from the adventure of A Grin Without a Cat. His friend Terayama shoots in HK. The festival staff organises a lunch. Marker tells me that HK (which he doesn't like) has changed a lot. He comes from Okinawa and is on his way to China where he hasn't been since Sundays in Beijing. During the meal (on a very hot day), we talk about several things: Bruce Lee's mysterious death, the rumour that the Red Army guards may have filmed things during the cultural revolution. What happened to these films? Will we see them one day? What do they do with films over there? Do they archive them? Someone shows me the press clip of a Chinese newspaper talking about the fire at the warehouse of the Cinémathèque française. And also, why preserve / curate? Cinema will perhaps have been the collective dream of the 20th century? Marker is going to take pictures in Cat Street. We leave each other.
First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 320, February 1981. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 1, POL 2001, p.496. Translation: Laurent Kretzschmar.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In Search of Arthur Pelechian

On August 9th, 1983, in French daily newspaper Libération, at the end of a long article deploring the lack of interest of the thirteenth Moscow International Film Festival, Serge Daney writes:
Going South. 
Towards the end of the Kinofestival, the critic doubts. Is he not at risk to confuse the USSR with the city of Moscow and Moscow with the Press Bar of the Rossia Hotel? He is delighted therefore to enjoy the ritual gift offered by the festival: a few days in a Soviet Socialist Republic. The study trip to Armenia which, despite our efforts, was met with an ever more formal "niet" (for reasons that we were only suspecting), gets, in extremis, the green light. A big fish had intervened in our favour. Four persons would go to Yerevan, invited by the Association of Armenian Filmmakers, to see film, churches, war memorials, to drink local wines and cognacs and take a look at the Mount Ararat. In Moscow, a soviet friend, a true connoisseur of good cinema, had told me: if you go to Armenia, ask to see the movies of Arthur Pelechian, he’s a wild man, a bit mad, but an exceptional filmmaker.
Here's the article he wrote on the 11th of August. A really big thank you to Daniel Fairfax for the help with the translation and his recent article on Pelechian.
In Search of Arthur Pelechian
In the USSR, thank god, there are not just functionaries and dissidents. Arthur Pelechian, an Armenian filmmaker living in Moscow, works. On documents, on Armenia, on the cosmos and on the theory of montage.
Yerevan, a modern city in an ancient location, with one million inhabitants spread out over its sprawling hills, between tarted-up slums and tall tower blocks in various states of completion. We’re in the South. The little Socialist Republic of Armenia seems prosperous; the percentage of Russians in the population is minimal. People keep to themselves. Yerevan, contrary to the claims made in travel books, is not pink but of a deep burgundy hue, the colour of tuff. Porous, volcanic, carved in right angles, the rock turns Yerevan into a declaration of the existence of the Armenian people. More than a city, it is an act of architectural vengeance. For something of the beauty of ancient churches (Etchmiadzin, Gekhard) persists in the most unbridled modern architecture (the metro, the fountains). Yerevan – with its beautiful Spendiarov opera, its Lenin Square, worthy of accommodating a peplum, its trees and the poignant sobriety of its war memorial – has some charm.
The filmmakers of Armenia give us a warm welcome. Cognac, even in the morning, friendly chitchat, polite advice. In the Yerevan studios, the local film industry puts out four movies and three telefilms a year. It’s modest. We hope that you will like our land, our people, and, who knows, our films, say the filmmakers. They’re modest, too. Maybe they suspect that their films are not that good (in which they are perfectly right). “What about Pelechian?” I enquire. A slight unease. “We Armenians are a strange and generous people: we gave Mamoulian to the US, Verneuil to France and Pelechian to the Soviet cinema.” In fact, our man lives in Moscow, but we will see his films. It’s a promise.
Three films (We, 1969; The Seasons, 1972 and Our Century, 1982) easily convince me that I am dealing with a filmmaker, a real one. Unclassifiable, except for the catch-all category of “documentary”. What a poor category! In fact, it’s a work on montage of the type I thought was no longer made in the USSR since Dziga Vertov. A work on, with and against montage. I suddenly have the (pleasant) feeling of coming face to face with a missing link in the true history of cinema.
How to speak of his films? Of the image, pulsating like the oscillations of an electrocardiogram? And of the sound, true echo of space? How can one forget the beginning of The Seasons? Armenian shepherds and their animals caught in a torrent where they may be drowning, head over heels? Peasants fleeing before unleashed haystacks or hurtling down slopes, here of snow, there of rock? This brief intertitle fallen from the sky: “This is the land”. But it is a land with no North, filmed, perhaps, from the viewpoint of a meteorite which doesn’t know where it falls. And, in We, this tearful Armenian people in the archive footage of successive repatriations (from 1946 to 1950): the return to their homeland, the embraces, the reunions, the bodies twisted by emotion, and the montage which, within these images, spins like a whirlwind, a vertigo, a dizzy spell? And in Our Century, a long meditation on the “space race”, rocket launches going nowhere, the dream of Icarus encapsulated by Russians and Americans, the faces of the accelerated cosmonauts deformed by weightlessness, the catastrophe which never ceases not to come?
Whatever the theme of the movie, Pelechian propels disoriented human body into orbit. These bodies are caught in the turbulence of matter, where there’s nothing human anymore, nothing merely human, and where the elements (earth, water, fire, wind) make their return. Not man in the cosmos, but the cosmos in man. In this raw cosmogony, I could see a Vertov in the era of Michael Snow, a Dovzhenko added to Godard, Wiseman or van der Keuken. I recognise the fatal and paranoid flirtation between science and poetry, where the filmmaker cruelly extracts his quotient of terror from aesthetic emotion.

“The cinema I like doesn’t like chance”

Back in Moscow, I hastened to meet Pelechian. I liked the uncertainty of whether or not I would actually see him, as well as the strange things that I was told about him. He doesn’t speak much, does not know any foreign languages, and perhaps barely any Russian. He’s strange, he had been put away, he doesn’t look like a typical Russian filmmaker (you know, with a leather jacket and all), he has written theoretical texts, he may have moved house, and when someone phoned him recently there was religious music at the end of the line…
The meeting took place on the eve of my departure, on neutral terrain, in a little corner of a big screening room in the Domkino (the “house of filmmakers”, Vasilevskaya Street, famous for its excellent restaurant). Pelechian resembled his films. He spoke Russian – a lot. Anxious to be understood, he patiently tore apart a matchbox and smoked my Marlboros.
Before being a filmmaker, he was an engineer (“the cinema I like,” he said, “doesn’t like chance”). And before that, he was born in an Armenian village (“there was no cinema there”). In 1963, he was studying documentary at the VGIK in Moscow. A question haunted him: “Does the cinema need me? Because I certainly need the cinema.” The curriculum included the classics: Vertov, Eisenstein, etc. When Pelechian talks about them, it is as an equal, as if he bore a grudge against them, all the while knowing that it was necessary for the cinema to pick up where they left off – or where, maybe, they misled it. “Vertov and Eisenstein invented a new machine, but they put it on railway tracks, whereas this machine needed an air cushion. It was a dead end.” But among those who condemned them, there were those (the rare few) who saw the dead end, and those (all the others) who saw neither the machine nor the tracks. These “others” are numerous today in Soviet film circles. They cannot speak harshly enough of these apprentice sorcerers, these “formalists” (a word which both condemns and hurts). And so it was in minor, less prominent genres that a concern with montage (both in terms of theory and practice) took refuge. Where a man like Pelechian operates today.
His goal: “to capture the emotional and social cardiogram of his time.” He uses a scientific vocabulary and medical metaphors, in the vein of Godard. “The whole film is present in each of its fragments and each frame is comparable to a coded genetic cell.” It must then find its place in the whole, in order to construct (as genetics would have it), “a reality which could also have been real.” Pelechian believes in this all the more, as, in his view, “a man’s life reproduces, in a certain manner, the entire history of mankind.”

“If you had more time…”

There is a certain madness to his discourse, as if, encoding increasingly reduced fragments, and sinking deeper into the matter of the film, he had come up against what he calls “absent frames”, which are invisible but which allow us to see, within the void, the heart of matter (“Truce!” I yelled to myself). Pelechian speaks like a scientific researcher, and when I tell him that, on certain points, there are similarities between him and Bresson, he seems neither surprised nor flattered: “It is normal, he notes, that researchers cross paths ‘somewhere’.” What he is looking for is his business. He knows that his films are not what he (nicely) dubs “protocol films”, but up to now he has done what he wants to do. He has a strong, reputedly bizarre personality, and is capable of convincing his commissioners (Armenian television mainly) that a film must be judged on the basis of its images rather than its script. Moreover, he is recognised by his peers, has won prizes for his work, and is currently working on a film about the Orthodox Church, commissioned by West Germany. It took him three years to shoot and edit Our Century, less because he was refused access to the stock footage of space exploration than because nobody could locate them. The only trouble he had: when he had to interrupt the movie because the cosmonauts were in space (for 185 days), he was required to furnish a certificate from said cosmonauts explaining their absence.
Authentic, unknown Soviet filmmakers? The friend who first told me about Pelechian confirmed it. But, as he would clarify, they can be found more among the ranks of documentary and scientific filmmakers. Naturally. When it is Science speaking, it is no longer the Party’s voice: the enunciation is more unpredictable, the rhetoric stranger. As long as individual fictions are blocked in advance by the fiction of the State, leaving room only for luxurious literary celebrations or dull social neo-realism based on allusions to daily life (of the “life is not pink everyday” kind), it is in documentary cinema, in the delirious clash between science and poetry, that fiction can clear a path. The path of science-fiction, no less.
The problem, as my friend insisted, is that in a country such as this, where information has trouble circulating, a researcher can be searching without anyone knowing about it, a filmmaker can make his movies on the condition that he relinquishes any interest in distribution – which he doesn’t have any control over anyway. So, like everything which has value in this country, the passion for making comes from the private sphere and, in the final analysis, from inner life. When it comes to people who are really working, you have to go find them in their own homes, in the Soviet Republics, closer to American “independent” film than to our French-style auteur cinema. Their names populate an imaginary map of the USSR like so many question marks: a certain Franck in Riga, a school of documentary filmmakers in Tallinn, a certain Sokurov in Leningrad (already four films banned!). But who will go see them?
“If you had more time,” Pelechian tells me before leaving, “I could have introduced you to some very interesting people. They ask for nothing, they’re not looking for any publicity. They are painters, artists, they’re not even dissidents. They’re more like monks.”
It was a mouthwatering idea – but I didn’t have the time.
Originally published in Libération, 11 August 1983. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde 2. Les Années Libé 1981-1985, POL éditeur, Paris, 2002, pp.410-413. Translation by Daniel Fairfax and Laurent Kretzschmar, 2012.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Les Morfalous

Bouncing on Jordan Mintzer's article "The Smuggler, The legacy and continuing relevance of the French critic Serge Daney", I'm posting a quick translation of Daney's review of Henri Verneuil's Les Morfalous. 

Les Morfalous, with Jean Paul Belmondo

Where the critic, knowing full well that he isn't part of the target audience for the last Belmondo (and that the movie really doesn’t need him), finds the energy to provide a few thoughts on the relativity of film criticism. 
When the bosses of French cinema deny critics the traditional advance press viewing (as is the case with Les Morfalous), they are placing an unreasonable bet. They are betting that the future—and only the future—will tell if their movies were that bad. The future, and not the critics who have the unfortunate tendency to ignore blockbusters, even if they sometime rehabilitate them posthumously. The bosses are not entirely wrong, even if the possibility of being right later is not a consolation for not being legitimated right away. 
But they forget to ask themselves one question: supposing the critics like their movies, would they find supplementary reasons to like them, critics’ reasons, i.e. not obvious, different from the ones already in the bond of trust between the film and its audience? I don’t believe so. Critics can do nothing (and it’s fortunate) against Les Morfalous, but neither can they do something for it. There are movies that, for a time, can’t be objects of criticism. Their success is about sociology, mythology and market studies–but not criticism. 
This shouldn’t surprise us. Most of cinema has always “escaped” criticism. We have too often forgotten the old (but still relevant) debate on the differences between “refined” and “popular” cultures, between what requires time and what is ephemeral, between what Pasolini dared to call—without any pejorative connotation whatsoever—“high culture” and “low culture”. Low culture has never needed criticism. It has other ways to expand: from posters to word of mouth, from tabloids to fashion and mimicry. As soon as a spectacle immediately connects with those it targets, there is no need for a supplementary mediation. It is the very moral of spectacle and it can be respected. 
A high-grossing film, at a minimum, gets his audience to walk to the nearest film theatre, away from television. It is above all a movie that positions itself in front of its audience. "In front of" is about aesthetics, the aesthetics of the social consensus that have become images for everyone's consumption. Take a look at Belmondo on the film poster (or in the film itself): he looks at those looking at him. Why, and in whose name, would critics try to interfere as third parties in this perfect love that needs no comments? 
Nothing can be added to the consensus, or maybe a bit of meanness. Critics will come later, when the star and its audience will be dead and only the image of the former, sola, paupera et nuda, will continue to make funny faces for a public that is no longer its target. Then, maybe, the brandished shotgun and the grin will have a moving sadness. Then, maybe, we will find that Verneuil’s filming was as good as Howard Hawks’. It will be the revenge of recording over performance, of cinema over theatre, of what settles over what evaporates. Who knows?
For what’s at the root of cinema? The theatre, the cabaret, the circus, the stadium, the stage. Everything that Cinema regularly tears itself away from, before returning to it to regenerate. The popular root of cinema is performance. Hence the question: “what can a body do?” It's the figure (the star being an extreme case) that is even more important than the background from which it shines. A hypostasis figure. And to scrub the background, a craftsman is enough. 
We could say that there are two histories of film, intertwined, mixed together but nonetheless distinct: the history of performing bodies (sport, pornography, clowns, stars, dance), and the history of what exists between the bodies, i.e. the language, the history of idols and ether. They sometime coincided (and it’s a miracle, like American burlesque, Tati, Hitchcock), but most often they travel at different speeds, in opposite directions. 
The history of bodies is slow and almost flat. It is an eternal return of the same face-to-face. The history of the cinematographic language evolves before our eyes. Language, with its tricks and rhetoric ages the quickest (what could be more dated than “the great film classics”?). This is why, despite (or because of) their famous myopia, critics have always spotted what moves in the language and never hang onto what is lasting in the bodies. For (at least) 30 years, film critics and historians have learned to tell the movements of language. We know it moves every time there is a political revolution (Eisenstein), a war (Rossellini) or a technological mutation (Godard). This means every time the bodies have been brutalised enough or destroyed to dare parade on a poster. 
And what of the history of bodies? It can’t be told, only celebrated. It can’t be assessed, but only promoted (and sold). Who cares about writing a “constructive criticism” of Les Morfalous? Nobody it seems. What would be the use of a constructive criticism of a movie that has already reached its target audience? One could only criticise the target or say that the target has the stars it deserves. One could only say horrible things (it’s always possible). 
Film criticism hinges on one idea—and one that suddenly seems precarious—which is that between those who manufacture images (and who need to manufacture them) and those who watch them (and who need to watch them), there is a gap, and that this gap is precious. And that it makes sense to interpose a little writing between the film and its public each time they are not exactly face-to-face. It’s a way to gain some time and to reach a few more spectators.
A few more only, not a lot. The work of a bonesetter, not of a griot. Let’s never forget the relativity of criticism. 

PS: I realize I completely forgot to mention that Les Morfalous is a film without much interest, stiffly directed and adequately rendered. More than ever, it’s enough to look at the poster to know what it consists of. The lack of surprise is guaranteed. Those who like the poster for Les Morfalous will like the film too. The others won’t. The lack of ambiguity is total.

Originally published in Libération on 31 March 1984 and re-printed in Ciné-Journal, Cahiers du cinéma-Gallimard, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The star and the leftovers

I've finally found the time to proof-read this little text on Bardot and Et Dieu créa la femme. Daney also refers to it in the Journey of a Cine-Son interview.

The star and the leftovers 

It was the day before a bad flu confined me to bed. I was determined to take a look at Et Dieu créa la femme (Vadim, 1956), curious to watch again the movie that launched Brigitte Bardot and prepared the Nouvelle Vague. 
- “Am I only this?” complained the movie. “Will I never be something else?” 
- “I am sure your charm is intact”, I said between two coughing fits. 
And it was true. The charm was intact. Not the obsolete charm of the past, but the innocent charm of the present. By watching again movies on television, one verifies more and more to which extent there was already a lot of pre-television (management, digestion, edification) in old movies and in numerous “classics” (La beauté du diable being a recent example). This makes it all the easier to spot the movies where the authors had called on the audience to witness the birth of something. There is cinema when the emotion of the beginnings prevails and there is television when it is about seasoning the leftovers. It may be because Bardot, ultimate star of French cinema, has never been seen recycled on television, that there is some curiosity to watch her beginning in a small, almost amateurish movie, produced during the ice age of the Qualité Française by Raoul Lévy and directed by Roger Vadim: Et Dieu créa la femme
What is beautiful in this rather modest movie is that the characters are like the audience of the film: they discover, suddenly astonished, that the shameless Saint-Tropez starlet has not only the means to seduce them (because she is beautiful) but also to make them sound hollow (because she is a star). Her thirst for the absolute renders relative the virile parading of the little males who thought too quickly they were in a sexy movie. The movie, which had started on a quasi-bucolic mode, suddenly falls into the unknown, to the great displeasure of its characters. The three men (Jurgens, Marquand and Trintignant) learn with various levels of success that such a woman cannot be possessed. The woman discovers that she is not like the others since she doesn’t know how to lie
We have stopped a long time ago to be saddened or disappointed by Vadim’s subsequent movies. In Et Dieu créa la femme, we can see that his filming is already without energy, his script without rhythm and that he tells a story with no nerves. We cannot even say that he looks at Bardot with the exaltation of a bashful lover. But this does not matter much. For the strength of the movie lies mainly in its dialogues. Because Bardot says sentences that only she could have said at the time and that are enough to protect the modernity of the movie. From “I don’t like to say good bye” or “I work at being happy” to “what a nitwit this rabbit!” (1), Bardot’s short sentences are strong because they are, already, without possible reply. 
Did Vadim write this dialogue or did he simply make himself available to the promise of this voice? It doesn’t matter since he was present at the moment of the birth of a myth, and that this presence, still today, makes Et Dieu créa la femme a small event in the history of French cinema. It doesn’t matter because Vadim was himself just starting his career and he’s not yet affected by his future appalling know-how. In 1956, the simple act of filming a dialogue which is not the then predominant tit-for-tat of filmed theatre, a dialogue which calls less for a reply than for silence and which leaves the other characters stunned, was forcing Vadim to make proper shots and (almost) to rethink movie making. 
On television, the actor is a function. In cinema, the actor was also an enigma. It is not exaggerated to defend that every time a filmmaker has stuck to this enigma, this has disrupted – not always intentionally – the “language” of cinema. It is not exaggerated either to consider the stormy transformations of this language as a consequence of a succession of love stories, singular enough to be lived and universal enough to be offered to the public. Is this vision a bit rosy? Indeed, but when one looks at today successful movies – from Le grand bleu to L’ours – which stabilise the image of a possible consensus between the audience and the general public, one understands better why none of these movies actually innovates in film making. They do very well without actors – and a fortiori without stars (2). Post-advertising aesthetics: as soon as the product is the star, there is no point putting it in competition with only one of its components.
(1) A sentence which Bardot must regret today considering her terrifying discourse on the purity of animals opposed to the human stain.
(2) It must be possible to re-tell the history of cinema starting from the singularities of great actors. That is what the Canadian Paul Warren did in The Secret of the American Star-System.

The French version of this text was originally published in Libération, 12 November 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997,  pp.34-35. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Trafic at the Jeu de Paume

The Centre Pompidou just hosted a series of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of Trafic, the review that Serge Daney founded the year before he died. They have just put online the video of Daney's last public speech, in May 1992, at a conference about Trafic.

Here's a translation of Daney's first sentences. The full French text is also available in the special Cahiers du cinéma book about Daney. Warning: French wordplay galore!

Trafic, a new review about cinema. Let's leave aside for a moment the word "cinema" and let's take the word "review". The desire to review was very strong in all of us. I've always had it since my life partly coincided with the life of a review which is called Cahiers du cinéma. At one point, I've had the feeling that one mustn't let go of this: the idea of review, in the sense that Godard says that in "review" there is "re-view" [to see / to watch again] - in the same way that in Renoir there is renaître [rebirth], that type of wordplays. It's a good thing to watch films again, a review is meant to watch again, perhaps to better see what wasn't seen the first time round. In a general atmosphere of slightly desperate, mediocre and wild mediatisation, the idea to create a review appeared to me, not as an original programme, but rather as if I had opened the dictionary and looked up the word "review" to check what it was about. (...)

Monday, February 06, 2012

The militant ethnography of Thomas Harlan

I just spotted this new translation at Diagonal thoughts, Stoffel Debuysere's blog. Pleasant surprise.

The militant ethnography of Thomas Harlan
Serge Daney, Cahiers du cinéma, issue 301, June 1979. Translation by Stoffel Debuysere and Charles Fairbanks.