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.