Monday, October 28, 2013

The theatre of entrances

Serge Daney's review of John Ford's Seven Women. A great text for a great film. Special thanks to Ted Fendt for his help with the translation.
The theatre of entrances
“Bastard!” is the last word ever pronounced by a Fordian character in a film by John Ford. “So long, bastard!” says Doctor Cartwright to a collapsing Tunga Khan. The doctor then swallows her strychnine and throws away the cup in a sorry and defiant gesture. Beautiful gesture, fade to black: the end of Ford’s cinema (1966). “A bloody good movie” he will say later to Bogdanovich and how could we disagree?
When the words The End arrive, Doctor Cartwright has sacrificed herself to allow the insufferable Florrie Pether to have – at 40 years old – a child and for the child to survive. The child won’t have a father, just as the doctor and the missionaries of Seven Women won’t have children. They won’t even have the right to complain: haven’t they chosen their fate?
These seven women, cut off from the world and from China – that other world – are not pathological cases that Ford would have looked into in extremis, having realised that, after the Indians, women were the other group to rehabilitate. It is probably more radical: it is the whole of Ford’s cinema which says in as many ways as possible that if I is indeed I – it is the meagre and only certainty in a world where everything else is drifting – a child is, by definition, an Other. Lost, adopted, found, saved: a child is the most serious gag that can happen to man. This is why Tunga Khan and his men split their sides laughing when they discover, in a corner of the shack, lying on the ground, old Florrie Pether and her newborn. An incredible scene which should change the mind of those who still think Ford is self-righteous, sentimental or, in a word, humanist.
He is a humanist but like Mizoguchi, through despair. In Ford’s world, when we have added everything to nothing and the sum is still nothing, the only thing left is to enjoy and play with the narrow privilege of the pithecanthropus erectus: upright position, pose, posture. Man is what stays the course, nothing more. More late Sternberg than Hawks (even though the latter is a great filmmaker and Ford’s lifelong friend). We are indeed far away from the Hawksian vanity of a composure so plainly exhibited that it becomes deafening. Ford, less subtle, is more refined.
What more beautiful theme for the cinephilic debate than the parallel between Ford and Hawks, even today? The yellow Cahiers were right to find Hawks modern. Hawks is modern because he opens an entire cinema which only allows the existence of the specialist of himself, the professional, the self-legitimated individual whose saga is continued today by Besson and whose professionalità is mocked by Morretti. And Hawks, like all true filmmakers, also has a conception of children: a child is a little monkey who emulates everything to perfection and who begins by faking the adults’ autonomy. He is an additional singularity in a permanent museum of the human species. That is why Hawks’ cinema is more racial than racist. In it, the individual functions like a race with only one specimen, as with Rohmer – Hawks’ disciple. In a child, Ford sees the enigma that we must adopt on the off-chance, with no guarantee.
American cinema would have never existed without the necessity for filmmakers to harbour – even implicitly – a theory of the Other. In Seven Women, ten years before the extraordinary Deer Hunter, Ford – admired by Cimino – counts up everything that can threaten an obsidional community from the outside: desire, evil, disease, barbarism, etc. But these figures are derived: their model is the birth of this child within the mission, a birth which will accelerate events and destroy the mission. Life must always be continued, transmitted, protected, written. But never from the point of view of the community, never from the moralising consensus, and always from the point of view of an individual, single by nature, pure passeur but no genitor. This individual is often a drunken doctor (as is sometimes Doctor Cartwright). He is the one who leaves to the others the care to write History because he is happy to ensure things go as planned, like Tom Donpiphon. In 1990, when obsidional groups and buried debts are returning from everywhere, the Fordian individualist also returns and he sounds right.

*    *    * 
When talking about cinema, the word deep is strange and always a bit suspicious. Ford, a deep filmmaker? Let’s dig. For example, Ford’s depth of field is not – like Wyler’s – a place of ambiguity but – like Bunuel’s – a curve in space so the inhibited, and only the inhibited, can burrow into it in order to return without warning, in fast-motion. There are countless examples of what returns: from the darkness of night, like the Indian chief of Two Rode Together, a phalène that Guthrie McCabe has barely the time to erase, as one gets rid of what is left of a bad dream. In Seven Women, it is poor Agatha Andrews who is unwillingly projected within centimetres of young Emma’s body – too rapidly. It is the zero curve, the straight line. It is, if you will, the line of the singles, the line of all lives, one by one, of their portable remorse and their open secrets. From the depth of the image, what confronts the character with his loneliness or his impasse returns right in the middle of it. Shall we talk about the inhibited? Let’s remember that Freud preferred the term renouncement. Shall we talk about forclosure? The hallucinatory return into the real of what was never registered symbolically. You need both.
Fordian solitude – unlike Hawksian autonomy – does expose one to such returns. The lonely being is immediately populated; the collective being, alone, experiences a good solitude, the solitude of the ball, for example, which Comolli has shown is the only possible community. The close-up is the shot where something gets closer to the character: the threat of seeing oneself in a painting or having to toast one’s image like Doctor Cartwright in the mirror. It is an echo to the Irish wake, a wake over this image which, like a guardian angel, watches over each one and stays the course with each one. Even Miss Binns – the admirable Miss Binns in Seven Women – suddenly realises that, as a missionary’s daughter born in China, she has never known Christmas or Europe.
These are not the inhibited things that the movie slowly unveils. It is the possibility, always open, of a short-circuit in space-time and of the encounter between the character and the grief-stricken image of his own desire A desire with no mystery, almost forgotten but never quite completely. An image always-already-there and always-already-fixed, rather like a portrait, a face. By choosing sexual renouncement as its theme, Seven Women is somewhat exemplary.
Ford is a unique filmmaker. In America, he was considered a filmmaker’s filmmaker. Very respected but, towards the end of his life, too much of an aesthete, too contemplative, not commercial enough. Hence, the suite of films from Wagonmaster to Seven Women which is a great moment of the 20th century. But why is he a filmmaker’s filmmaker? Because for him, cinema takes priority over everything else.  Not in the trivial sense of cinema as the art of movement, not even in the more refine sense of cinema as the modulation of duration, but more radically, because cinema allows for the possibility of recording this always-already-there which looks at us one by one, which fades on us and dissolves us. As a guardian angel, the fundamental image is also a black box.
A stopped image older than any freeze-image (1). The pre-emptive right of this image over those of the suite of the world. A challenge to a humanity stopped because it is confronted with the problem of transmission, with the dead end of education, with the risk of disappearance or dispersion, with the threat of sterility, or worse, with the appearance of unrecognisable children, of little others. A generic Ireland populated with doomed Indians, sterile women, pathetic regiment mascots who have all forgotten to set up a home. The humanity of what does not reproduce itself well. This image is like the black box that exists before the accident and survives it. 
Each of the women in Seven Women goes through a black box moment. It is never about becoming conscious, about revelation or grace. Ford is interested in faith – the doctor’s, the lawyer’s and the priest’s faith, all equally. Like Tarkovski, he must have thought that God only exists for those who believe in him. In the end, then, as a primary given: cinema’s inherent power to say I = I, to feel held by it and to hold on to it, with melancholy. The rest is the surface, the place of the theatre. 
*     *     *
Nowadays, many filmmakers entrust cinema with the care of recording, objectivising what theatre produces. With Oliveira, Rohmer or Fassbinder, the gaze over theatre results in a squared cinema. Cinema saves theatre from the false and theatre saves cinema from stiffness. Ford’s approach is more peculiar. Not only does it put cinema at the back and theatre in the foreground, it also pronounces a judgement of non-reconciliation between the two. In that sense, few filmmakers have been as materialist as Ford. Between cinema’s right to the fixed gaze and the necessity of theatre never to stand still, there is no bridge. If cinema is the zero curve, theatre is the sacrificial space of all the other curves, always broken, skewed, mannerist to death. From the curve of Agatha Andrews’ hands which draw convulsive arabesques in space to the curve of Tunga Khan’s hands when, in a quick movement, he breaks his lieutenant’s neck. 
Seven Women’s stage is an enclosed mission, a gate and a courtyard which smells of boards even though it is sand. There is nothing else for the characters to do than not to mess up their entrances and exits. There is nothing more entertaining, for the filmmaker, than playing with the characters by using false alarms, false exits, delayed entrances. The gates of the mission become a real character which often hinges on emptiness. The first time, Charles Pether goes through them and comes back empty handed: he hasn’t found the doctor. But the doctor arrives soon after, on a horse, almost on the sly. The second time, Pether leaves through the gates and doesn’t come back. But at the sound of the car horn, the gates are thrown wide open for Tunga Khan and his horsemen who bring back the car and the Chinese driver. There is an art of entrances and exits that is the other face of the human animal. In the end, the company of missionaries leaves the mission under the jeers of the bandits, like a company of amateur comedians leaving after the audience has thrown tomatoes at them. “The stage is a world”, quite, but the world is not a stage. Ford’s cinema doesn’t fold cinema over theatre and vice versa. This squaring of the circle would be too comfortable. Instead, it is cracked by what comes from the back.
The arabesque is opposed to the short circuit. It never leads to it. And the circuit never leads to the arabesque. Cinema is the fixed image at the bottom of the well, theatre only plays on the side, endlessly. Ford brings a mix of rigour and playfulness, of something hieratic and something erratic, because he allows a bit of playfulness into the game and puts himself into it, unlike professional moralists, his arch-enemies. Gravity and preciosity. The truth, in Ford’s films, is not at the end of the trail, but always before there has even been a road. We always witness the useless circus rounds of a play that has already been played, when everything has been judged and one must – still – ensure the show.
(1) Freeze-image: translation for Daney’s concept  of arrêt sur l’image: a pun on freeze-frame to describe the plight of many of today’s images which have ceased to move, to evolve, in order to protect the clichés or stereotypes they represent – typically: the brand-image, the trademark.
First published as “Le théâtre des entrées” in John Ford, Patrice Rollet and Nicolas Saada (dir.), pp. 62-64, Editions de l’Etoile/Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1990. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt (2013)

Illustrations are from the original article.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A chatty Minnelli movie (Home from the Hill)

In his column for French newspaper Libération about films seen or re-seen on TV, Serge Daney often engaged in a dialogue between him and the film. Here is a great example. To read along with another dialogue (Minnelli caught in his web).
A chatty Minnelli movie - Vincente Minnelli, Home from the Hill
If images are things, then the channel hopper descended from the apes and Jean-Baptiste Mondino is right. The channel hopper is a bulimic and unsatisfied monkey who checks out everything because he wants everything, right now. His mental prison is made of all the TV channels and schedules. But if images are beings, with the gifts of speech and memory, then the monkey becomes a human again, and the channel hopper a simple cinephile. The monkey channel hopper earned its wage as an audiovisual guinea pig, the cinephile lives off his private income of cinema knowledge. And when old playfellows pay him a visit, he gives them a warm welcome. “How are you?” is the first sentence they exchange, “What are you up to?” the second, and “I didn’t recognise you”, the worst. 
Absent-minded, half-asleep, bored by Jean Guitton’s screams on the Bernard Pivot show, I was watching vaguely familiar images late night last Friday. A hunting scene in Texas in Panavision, with Mitchum on the lookout and the camera floating above the thicket. A film? Yes, since there were subtitles and that, reading them, I had a hallucination. 
“You don’t recognise me?” said the film (and I could feel it was sad to have failed to immediately impress). 
“Of course I do”, I lied. 
“I’m Home from the Hill” said the film, which had felt that I lied. “I know, the French title: The One who Brought the Scandal, is ridiculous, so cinephiles call me by my English name.” 
“My God, a Minnelli!” I shouted, now totally awake. “Excuse me, I didn’t recognise you.” 
“How could I be upset?” said the film kindly. “With my edges missing, I must only make a tiny impact compared to the one I used to make in theatres. And I’m not even talking of the two black bands within which I’m floating like an invitation card…” 
“That’s all right”, I said, “I have good memories of you, and I’m going to watch you until the end.” 
“That’s kind of you”, said the film, “but don’t forget that I’ve always been criticised for being too long: I last 150 minutes.” 
“I know. You’re one of Minnelli’s great melodramas. You’re even known as one of the most unbearable.” 
“Note that I’m slightly embarrassed to be returning on the small screen of television” it added. "But you know us, films, we’re real hams, and the thought of no longer being seen totally depresses us. This being said,” it added with pride, “even my enemies have always accepted that I possess a few strong moments. My boar hunting scene for example, I think is quite good…” 
“Of course. And the final reconciliation between Mitchum and Eleanor Parker. And the character of Rafe, as the bastard son, when he proposes to Libby in the drugstore scene. And this shot of…” 
“A shot? You really remember of shot?” 
“Of course. When the legitimate son returns to the party with his bunch of flowers and we spot him behind a group of black kids in a wood!” 
“You’re reassuring me. I was told that, because of all the Texan TV series based on Greek tragedy that are shown on this machine (he meant: ‘on television’), I no longer had a chance to make an impact.” 
“It’s true,” I said with critical honesty, “that young people won’t see you as I saw you, in the early ‘60s. You tell in two hours the type of story that they are used to follow over two years. They’re inevitably going to find either too short, or too long.” 
“Note” said the film with modesty, “I’m not the best Minnelli.” 
“Don’t be silly and let’s watch you for a bit.” 
The film was reassured and did its best to show itself on television. There were no ad breaks, Mitchum’s voice sounded good, and the emotion was present, right at the end of a series of family catastrophes. But we had to part. 
“You have no idea,” said again Home from the Hill, “how many of us there are in this purgatory called ‘history of cinema’ waiting for a TV scheduler to gives us another chance. Of course, going back to work as a miniature hurts our pride, but one gets used to it.” 
Home” I said firmly, “I liked seeing you again. And I’m probably not the only one. It’s quite possible that this machine (I meant: ‘television’) allows films like you to continue to give us signs – I mean to signify something.” 
“You really think so?” said Home as the snow started to fall on the screen. 
“I’m sure of it” I said with a certainty that surprised even myself. 
“Will you talk about us?” 
“Every day, promise. And to prove it to you, I’m throwing away this sad instrument (I meant: ‘the remote control’). Anyway, I’m tired of hopping between channels.” 
First published in Libération on October 10th, 1988. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, volume 3, POL, 2012, pp. 163-165. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, 2013.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

La rampe - Table of contents

La rampe was Daney's first book as a critic. It covers writings from Cahiers du cinéma from 1972 (one year before Daney took over the reins of Cahiers in collaboration with Serge Toubiana) to 1982 (one year after Daney left Cahiers for the newspaper Libération). To give a sense of how much of the book is already translated (and what is not), here's the complete table of contents, with links to translations.

La rampe

Taking a view (1970-1972) – Violence and representation (saving the screen)
Points of view 1 (1974-1976) – Adding in the filmmaker’s eye (militant cinema)
Points of view 2 (1975-1978) – Adding in the filmmaker’s body (morality and engagement)
Vanishing points 1 (1975-1980) – Engima-bodies (paranoid politics)
Vanishing points 2 (1977-1981) – Language-bodies (It speaks)
La rampe (bis)


Sunday, August 25, 2013

La rampe - Postscript

Serge Daney's postscript to La rampe.
La rampe - Postscript
We finish, of course, with theatre. The play could be called “History of Cinema?” with the tagline: “Hoping it exists!”. This book is like the boards. The author acted as if the key to his own story was in the sum of images that he has seen and in the series of films that, as Jean-Louis Scheffer says beautifully, have watched our childhood. 
The author is a cine-phile, a cine-son, who was born somewhere in a history of cinema, between two pages of Sadoul, between two wars or two war films. He knew in front of Hiroshima mon amour that there won’t be any other “home” than the little known labyrinth of the History of Cinema, capital letters included. And not only to live by proxy, to dream the world and write a book, but to tell his story, to invent his own genealogy through films. The very wild auto-analysis of someone born the year Rossellini began to shoot Rome Open City (1944) and who therefore is more or less the same age as modern cinema. 
This theatre is full of allegories, devoured by mostly legendary myths. No play could have taken place inside without the conventional characters named “classic cinema” and “modern cinema.” No representation could have happened without the firm belief that between “classic” and modern” there was a fight and an order, a just fight of adult against the immature, and a necessary order between classicism and modernity, with classicism coming first.
This scenario is linear, therefore naïve, but it’s a naivety shared by all: critics, film magazines, educators. We thought we were preparing mass audiences to have a more responsible relationship with images. We dreamed of an audience of workers, of good pupils, of well-behaved Oedipus. We won. By that I mean: “the culture of cinema as an art” won. But we lost too.
“Classic” cinema is today an empty model and a nostalgic wave. “Modern” cinema is a provocation without object and an endless mourning. The dispute between them is never-ending. They are chained.
One is left with picking up this scenario again, with attempting new periodisations. Not the one of this book where classicism played the role of the dream and modernity the role of the vigil, but with another curvature. 
For what do we see today? What is happening to the cinematic form? The most sophisticated experiments and the most popular dispositifs always end up meeting up again somewhere. Beyond its crisis, or perhaps its “death,” cinema is closing a loop started very early: a dialogue with silent films.
This is when we realise that the archaic and the post-modern have a family resemblance. 
August 1982 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

La rampe (bis)

Ruiz: Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
Serge Daney's "concluding" text at the end of La rampe.
La rampe (bis)
We call “classic” the rather short moment in the history of cinema – thirty years? – during which filmmakers knew how to create the illusion of what seems to always be missing in cinema: depth. It was the golden age of scenography, the paradoxical triumph of a scenography without stage. The advent of talking cinema made disappear the place of live musical accompaniment: orchestra or piano. After talking cinema, this scenography will be haunted by the memory of the studio set, of the stage used for shooting, necessarily lost, now fragmented, vanished, brutalised by the montage, by the vagaries of the frame, by cuts and closer frames. This brutality was called “mise en scène,” the art of marking out itineraries for the audience in a game of chicanes and stepped walls, of losing the audience in a labyrinth of shots. All this is well known.
We’re now quite removed from this filmmaking. We no longer know how to make it, and for that reason, we love it more than ever. From the place where we’ve been, where we’ve abandoned ourselves, we realise that the only possible depth – the illusion of which was created by classic cinema – ought to be a “desired depth,” as one talks of a “desired child.” The title of one of Fritz Lang’s American films sums up well this scenography and this desire behind the door: Secret Beyond the Door. The desire to see more, to see behind, to see through.
What was it about all this time? About the differed moment when we’ll see what was behind, behind anything. The pact with the audience is about one thing: there is indeed something “behind the door.” It could be anything. It may be sheer horror. But this horror is better than the cold and disenchanted observation that there is nothing and that there couldn’t be anything since the image of cinema is a surface with no depth. That’s what we’ll call modern cinema, which broke the pact.
The scenography of classic cinema therefore consisted in laying out obstacles in a studio, then lights, then rails for the camera, and finally, actors. Great actors of this cinema are simply the ones that least bump into obstacles. Or, like Cary Grant, who do it with such elegance, that this secret, too, has been lost. Good filmmakers are those who can transform any object into a temporary mask, full of the promise that there is “more to see.” Pivotal objects: doors and windows, gazes and mirrors, bodies about to move, door frames. And this immaterial object, the word, when it begins to function as a pun or a rebus. 
This cinema captured audiences more lastingly than any other because it never ceased to offer them exits, such as breathing windows or reassuring endings. It knew how to push the spectator out of the scene of the film, only to make him return to enjoy the happy ending of false exits. Hence the relative indifference of classic cinema to the “contents” of its film, the only real content of a film residing in the art of not discouraging the audience to come back to see another film, which will only be another variant of the same film.
What is the limit of classic cinema? That eyes, doors, words, pivotal objects and cover-objects no longer open up onto anything. This is already the case with Hitchcock: slashed eyes, sealed doors, intransitive and flat language. Nothing hides anything because everything is there to see. And what happens if there’s nothing to see “behind”? An accident: the looping of the scopic drive. The gaze no longer gets lost between obstacles and depth but is sent back by the screen, like a ball bouncing off a wall. The image ebbs back toward the spectator with the acceleration of a boomerang and hits him with full force. 
I would call “modern” the cinema that took on this non-depth of the image, that claimed it as its own, and that thought of making it – with humour or fury – a war machine against the illusionism of classic cinema, against the alienation of industrial series, against Hollywood.
This cinema was born – not by chance – in destroyed and traumatised post war Europe, on the ruins of annihilated and disqualified cinema, on the fundamental refusal of the fake, of mise en scène, of the stage, of a divorce from theatre, strongly expressed by Bresson.
This refusal only makes sense if one doesn’t lose sight of this: the great political mises en scène, the state propagandas that became living pictures, the first mass movement of humans, all this theatre had – in reality – ended up in disaster. Behind this warring theatre, like its hidden side or its shameful truth, there was another stage which has not since ceased to haunt the imagination: the stage of the extermination camps.
So, regardless of how different they are from one another, the great innovators of modern cinema, from Rossellini to Godard, from Bresson to Resnais, from Tati to Antonioni, from Welles to Bergman, are those who radically keep their art separate from the theatrical-propagandist model that was omnipresent in classic cinema. They have in common to foresee that they are no longer dealing with the same bodies as before – before the camps, before Hiroshima. And that it’s irreversible.
What scenography for modern cinema since we are in presence – dark humour – of a “new man,” a survivor of post-industrial societies, a weightless body shown on television through a weak and pale radiography? It’s not surprising that painting, and not theatre, had been the first reference, the first witness of modern cinema. The bestowing of “auteur” as a status, with its associated “politique,” came at a timely moment to signal that the old profession of “metteur en scène” [stage or film director] will never be innocent anymore.
A new scenography was needed now that the image functioned as surface, with no simulated depth, with no games of chicanes, with no exits. A wall, a sheet of paper, a canvas, a blackboard, always a mirror. A mirror where the spectator could catch his own gaze in the same way that he would catch the gaze of an intruder, as an additional gaze. The central question of this scenography is no longer: what is there to see behind? But rather: can my gaze sustain what I’m seeing anyway and which happens in a single shot?
It’s a scenography of obscenity, very different to the sacred pornography of the old star system. What made Garbo or Dietrich stars was that they looked something far away which wasn’t unimaginable. Modernity begins when the photo of Bergman’s Monika transfixes a whole generation of cinephiles without making a star of Harriet Andersson; or when the furtive and insisting look to camera in Bresson’s Pickpocket influences the whole of the New Wave cinema even though the name of the “actor” who carried that look is forgotten. 
What changed? These looks place us in an unbearable situation, unbearable at least for the “great” and “good” public of cinema: to be the witness of the jouissance of another: another who’s not a star but anyone, another who “knows nothing of it” and who looks through us, without seeing us. It’s erotic but very Bataillean: excess and suffering. 
In that respect, if modern cinema was born with Rome Open City and the torture scene witnessed by a third person, it ends perhaps with the eternal question-denial of Godard’s latest films: why do we always see victims facing us but the back of torturers? It’s very much a question of scenography, with, at its centre, the look to camera that denies the existence of the spectator and breaks all possible identification. Because if torturers were filmed facing us, it’s the spectator that they would be torturing. QED.
Today, it’s possible to propose the following: “modern” cinema, with its flat image and its scenography of the look, is rescinding. Not because it would have withered or because it would have definitely lost the spectator it had defied. But because it would have been relayed, generalised and somewhat “automated” by another medium: television. On television, the lack of depth and the spectacularisation of everything are the rule. As a surveillance tool, television has accomplished modern cinema. But it has also betrayed it. The horror in front of the indifference that gave Godard’s films the pathos of moral jolt has become, on television, pure and simple indifference in front of the horror.
And cinema? The most inventive filmmakers of the 70s have stopped denouncing the illusions of the stage. Less hysterical, more genealogical, they reveal its mechanism, not to demystify it but to give back to cinema this complexity lost with the advent of talking movies. The cinema stage, with its theatrical reminiscences, is complex. The bodies of cinema, real or effigies, are necessarily heterogeneous, unpredictable, made of bits and pieces.
Neither the simulated depth of the flat image, nor the real distance between the image and the spectator, but the possibility offered to the spectator to slowly slide along images which are themselves sliding on one another. With delight and with irony. One of the great moments of this scenography of the third type can be found at the beginning of Raoul Ruiz’s beautiful The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. The camera frames, in front view, a painting along which it slides imperceptibly, sideways, creating its anamorphose, moving behind it and taking us along. And what do we find? Neither something, nor nothing, but a dark mess which will turn out to be a museum, a museum of scenography.
We are back in the wings of the image, in the attic of cinema. And in this no man’s land, the different systems of illusion can function next to each other. It’s the democracy of demolition: living pictures, “real” actors who move and talk, small puppets in a drawer, real paintings, etc.
This scenography is neither classic nor modern but relates to the “guided visit.” The History of Cinema, should such a thing exist, is taking this baroque bridge. In Syberberg’s films, the deep end of the image is always already an image, an image of cinema. Between this image and us, in the thin apron of the cinema studio, the illusion is being created in front of our eyes, exactly like in Méliès’ films.
At stake in Syberberg’s work is the utopia of a primitive cinema, where heroes would be children or puppets. This utopia is played in front of the hysterical spectacle of the old cinema, the cinema of propaganda, of Hitler, of Hollywood. From now on, cinema is the backdrop of cinema. 
And the spectator, invited to these film-ceremonies as if in a museum of his own illusions, is no longer the stakes or the target of this laminated and baroque scenography which takes the form of a slide show. He is the spectator in the front row, the one closest to an imaginary footlight, neither theatre nor cinema but this ambivalent place that is the studio. 
Syberberg and Ruiz are full of culture. I could have quoted Duras, Schroeter, Carmelo Bene or Oliveira. Strangely, at the other end of the industry of cinema, in the new Hollywood of young nabob-cinephiles, it’s the same question that is being asked through the return to special effects, to Walt Disney and to the phantasmagoria of silent cinema. 
So, Baroque? 
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

La rampe - V. Vanishing points (1977-1981)

Serge Daney's introduction to the fifth chapter of La rampe.
V. Vanishing points (1977-1981) - The language-bodies (It speaks)
Last chapter. Too close to us to be contextualised. I was saying: the human body is an enigma? Quite, but sonorous too, especially at the cinema. It speaks endlessly and sometimes even with the voice of another. French cinema, more than any other, is the story of a word-by-word rapidly turning into a body-by-body (and vice versa). That’s its strength (and its weakness), the sign of its modernity, its originality.
The dialogue of cinema (among all sounds) is a paradoxical object. It’s difficult to study it without studying at the same time the one who pronounces it: the actor of course. And, late, emerges the great loser of modern cinema, repressed from our cinephilia and from this book. A modest emergence: Bresson’s “model,” Biette’s living riddles or Truffaut’s mascots are some distance from Errol Flynn or Rock Hudson in a Walsh film, and yet…
The actor of cinema (among all sound sources) is a paradoxical object. One cannot dissociate the image of the actor from all the films where he played, “where he has been.” For today’s filmmakers (Wenders), he is a sort of legitimising emblem, the proof that they belong to the History of Cinema. He’s the bit of the film that belongs to other films, a precious impurity, a waking dream. Not only is he saying his text, but he is himself text, from head to toe.
This text introduces the following articles:
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

La rampe - IV. Vanishing points (1975-1980)

Serge Daney's introduction to the fourth chapter of La rampe.
IV. Vanishing points (1975-1980) - The enigma-bodies (paranoid politics)
A word (“body”) had allowed everybody to eventually disengage from political jargon. Barthes, once again, was first. A great use and abuse of the word “body” will take place – in Cahiers, especially in the following texts. And not without reason. What other “politique” can a filmmaker film than that which, sooner or later, goes through observable and imaginable bodies? The body of actors predisposed to this affection, or the anonymous bodies collected randomly in documentaries?
These texts are a sort of Cahiers’ “retro period,” resolutely not naturalist, dealing with a series of disjointed, broken up, even burlesque bodies. It’s the end of the decade. Cinema is at the heart of a mutation: any certitude about the nature of the image is now collapsing. In a ricochet effect, television, video and electronic images bring the re-emergence of these archaic and raw things: theatre, cabaret, puppets, circus. The footlight is returning. Each film must somehow establish its own theory of the singular nature of its filmic objects. The chemical image tips over into the idea that it is “a thing of the past.” The computer-generated image realises the utopia (until now the exclusivity of cartoons) of an image without traces of the accumulation of something upon reality. The Bazinian issue and the associated ethics are, in worst cases, obsolete.
The “politique des auteurs” is still the order of the day. But it’s no longer joyous. As for the auteurs dearest to Cahiers, we should talk about them as Deleuze does, as single war machines, with cinema as one of their weapons, and a definition, each time personal, of their cinema.
Those mentioned here, far from the candid pleasure of narration, are concerned with known stories or cursed aspects of History. They are searching for a body of images for paranoid politics. They create it ex nihilo, or over the ruins of past cinema.
The body always remains an enigma as to what it can do or what it contains, as to what sets it in motion or what holds it down. An enigma with a thousand faces: erotic and political for Pasolini (the working-class body), smooth and inhabited by the demon for Spielberg (catastrophic and puritan America), playful and trivial for Syberberg (the puppets of Nazism), hypothetical and dreamed for Sembene Ousmane (the body of the African oral tradition), human, all too human for Straub and Fuller (even gods are an enigma!). 
This text introduces the following articles:
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

La rampe - III. Points of view 2 (1975-1978)

Serge Daney's introduction to the third chapter of La rampe.
III. Points of view 2 (1975-1978) - Adding in the filmmaker's body (morality and engagement)
It’s the so-called “retro” period. Beyond the scandal of its scenarios (it was broadly about reminding that there was pleasure in servitude and that it was possible to love one’s torturer), the retro period may have been a first attempt at a return to fictional cinema, which, to be credible, needed an ostentatiously disrespectful vision of history, hence films such as Lacombe Lucien or The Night Porter.
Cahiers were anti-retro. In the same way that, later, they won’t much appreciate commercial attempts under Brechtian patronage - they called it “left-wing fiction” (L’affiche rouge, for example). In the same way that, even later, at the beginning of the ‘80s, they will be saddened by the return, unchanged in form and substance, of the old Qualité France.
The retro period was naturalist, with ambiguous characters, neither-entirely-evil-nor-entirely-heroes, enlightened by the easy and fashionable Freudian Marxism of the time. At no point in their history did Cahiers like naturalism in cinema, this art to confuse what is represented with reality, to naturalise contradictions, to resolve the heterogeneity of beings and things. They always enjoyed the effect of strangeness arising from the fact that cinema is an art of the present (of hic et nunc, of urgency).
In the middle of the decade, the mourning of Leftism comes to an end; the dialogue with the militant/filmmakers, the serious debates on the “point of view” had suddenly stopped, for lack of participants in the dialogue. Two original ones remained. Their names placed side by side formed the “sesame” of the period. Two tough radical regressive nuts, two irredentists that Pascal Bonitzer, in a beautiful text, had referred to via their initials: “JMS and JLG”*. In a word, the strobgodar, a duovidual which terrified quite a few.
Godard, Straub (and Huillet) didn’t settle for continuing to exist in the margins of the good old cinema being restored, nor for surviving to the indifference and the contempt of the public and the cultural establishment (you can read this both ways), nor for being involved in controversies with dominant cinema – Cahiers playing the role of a weak and slightly fanatical spokesperson. They continued as if there were still lots of things to think through and to say about Cinema (and cinephiles are the talkative type), bets to take, dreams and idées fixes which mustn’t be given up.
In his text, Bonitzer didn’t hesitate to talk about “sainthood.” An exaggeration?  How shall we understand it? Simply, I think. The strobgodar-cinema doesn’t aim for the spectator’s desire (at least, not only) but for his capacity for jouissance. And the cinema-jouissance has little to do with recipes for pleasure. Lacan, still very much read at the time, talks of a “black hole.” The jouissance of the cinema-thing set against the pleasure derived from the cinema-effect? Yes, except that in the past the two were not always opposed; at the beginning of cinema (let’s say Keaton or Feuillade), one didn’t have to claim to be a materialist to give (mass) audiences the jouissance of the material. By 1975, it had changed a lot. 
Pleasure at the cinema is linked to the triumph of an illusion – the spectacle of a combined character-actor-body-voice – to the plenitude of this confusion, to the return of this plenitude. Pleasure is, let’s say, Errol Flynn or Rock Hudson in a film by Raoul Walsh, charging as a block toward their fate. Psychologism and humanism united in one common fight.  
For a long time, from a thousand signs, we saw that this so-called “classic” cinema (born in fact with the big majors, so rather late) was haunted by the explosion of this too beautiful model, by its dysfunction at least. What if character, actor, body and voice began to leave their own lives? Independently? “Not reconciled”?
Already the notion of “character” had been cunningly mocked by Welles or Bunuel. The idea of actor was dryly rejected by Bresson or Tati. Porn cinema was going to “liberate” bodies and their organs from any “persona.” Finally, direct sound and the lightweight cameras of the Nouvelle Vague will rekindle all the inside games of the language and the voice: the Italian technique of perverse dubbing (Fellini, Pasolini), the French demand for a perfect synchronism (Rohmer, Pialat, Rivette, etc.).
What was “modern” in cinema was the implicit decision not to start with “humans” but with their environment. This way, the strobgodar is perhaps the monster that presided over the end of modern cinema (not that the demand for modernity has vanished, but it must be found again in television, video and new technologies and less in a cinema that has become cultural and nostalgic). They still believe, in a Sartrean way, in communication. Not as a self-evident thing, but as an experience. They practice, like surgeons, always the same operation: the disjunction. To make visible the original heterogeneity of the cinema-thing.
“In-between” is the word that runs through the following texts. We began with militant cinema – with the relation between the filming and the filmed, with uncovering the filmmaker’s powers – and what do we find ourselves filming? Discourse and text. Filmed, these discourses are mere grimaces and words. Recorded, these words become accent, voices with their texture, speech delivery, breathing on magnetic tapes, etc. Everything become always disjointed and reveals, in the midst of a game with no end or exit, the scandal of the jouissance-cinema, of the cinema-thing.
Even the old Kurosawa, after the failed suicide attempt following the commercial flop of Dodes’ka-den, teaches us to perceive the space between characters: as much space as there are characters! Robert Kramer, one of the very rare real-time ethnographers of yet another lost generation, makes the insert the burning side of a stifling world. Johan van der Keuken is searching for the “wrong place” to guarantee to himself that the distance between him and the object he is filming remains tangible. In other words, there is only jouissance “in-between.”
The question of the point of view slowly becomes an enigma. What’s the point of view of the one taking a position, as soon as he can, between things? And who, if it must be done, cuts a thing in two (the audience for example) to take place in-between?
* Cahiers du cinema, issue 264, February 1976. 
This text introduces the following articles:
 Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

Friday, August 16, 2013

La rampe - II. Points of view 1 (1974-1976)

Serge Daney's introduction to the second chapter of La rampe.
II. Points of view 1 (1974-1976) - Adding in the filmmaker's eye (militant cinema)
Between 1972 and 1973, Cahiers du Cinéma engaged in a “Cultural Revolutionary Front.” A belated and rather disastrous project. The texts that the magazine published back then (the famous period “without pictures”) didn’t age very well.
Needless to say, there existed a certain type of “cinema of intervention, agitation, testimony,” or as we preferred to call it: a “militant cinema.” Well-known filmmakers became fellow travellers; unknown militants took themselves for filmmakers.
While the French film industry, once the storm had passed, reshaped itself (1970: creation of the Path-Gaumont economic interest group; 1972: sale of UGC.; 1974: film production rights granted to channel 3; 1975: Daniel Toscan du Plantier appointed CEO of Gaumont), a retro dialogue seemed to develop between militants/filmmakers and members of the old magazine.
For Cahiers, deep down, it was not so much about verifying the social efficacy of the militant films than about searching for a certain quality in the relation between those filming and those being filmed. The shooting of a militant film reproduced “on a smaller scale” the great fantastical scenario of Maoism in distress, with its “people’s camp,” its “zones liberated in some way,” its “right to speak” and its “enemies of class.” It was tempting to politicize – or at least, to moralize – some of the old acquaintances: frame and out of frame, commentary and voice-over, naked speech and metalanguage, naturalism and typage.
The mana-word of this short period was “point of view.” After a reflection on the act of filming and a return to Bazin, after the infamous polemics of “technique and ideology” – which for the last time confronted Leftism in art (Comolli) with the exhausted experts of the communist party (Lebel) – the Cultural Front project proceeded to a concrete examination of the way in which some tried to “put forward” a political point of view in their films.
Luckily, the dice were loaded: “point of view” had at least two meanings. The first was part of the standard militant language: the point of view as the application of the political line of an organization (even micro) concerning a certain issue (even “specific” – another convenient word at the time). In that sense, it necessarily existed before the film was made, and nobody cared much about knowing how, at a certain point, it became a specific problem for the filmmaker.
The second meaning was broader. It implied the situation that a filmmaker, his team and his tools de facto occupied during a shoot, their contact with the “actors” whom they didn’t know, even (and especially) if they supported them and their just causes. “Situation” in the touristic sense of the travel guide or the military sense of the Ordinance Survey map. The “point of view” of a militant filmmaker on a protest was not the same as that of the police or of state television, who filmed a crowd from up high (to count it up, and, imaginarily, to machine-gun it); the filmmaker only captured feet, banners and cries. The temptation was great to dwell on this difference and to find it, from the outset, “political.”
Over time, this “debate” on militant cinema, that these three texts attempt to establish, appeared as an empty ritual, for a simple reason that has remained unnoticed: the imaginary of the ‘68-ers has been nourished by theatre and not by cinema. Speeches, dogmatic recitations, points of order, voicing opinions, memories of 1789, but no images. We had “taken” the Odéon, not the state television HQ.
However, by way of some tradition, since the great Soviet cinema (twenties) and the cinema of the Popular Front (thirties), everyone pretended to need images while no one had the means nor the taste to produce them, only enough to learn how to “read” them (hence, eventually, the academic success of the Leftist semiology). Already, in 1975, Godard and Miéville’s film essay on Palestine (Ici et Ailleurs) cut short a debate that it resumed admirably.
That being said, the issue of the “point of view” survived very well at Cahiers, on the condition of becoming once again a question of morality. Beyond the backward surge of militant activity and the withdrawal of every notion of a “Front,” we rediscovered what always had nourished the magazine: the morality of shooting, the effacement of the notion of actor, the emergence of the author.
More and more, we would ask “militant” filmmakers not to manipulate their images without having watched them, without having considered them both as their thing and as a thing, to lodge themselves in the gap of this dialectics, to cheat as little as possible, to make of every film a documentary on the politics of its conditions of production. Always radical-regressive. That is how the author of these lines, between 1972 and 1976, would go to Canossa and end up admitting that he prefers Antonioni’s Chung Kuo to Ivens and Loridan’s Yukong.
A filmmaker as a witness of his time? A filmmaker as a witness of his images? What does it matter as long as the witness is present, doesn’t stand in the way of his images, and somehow inscribes his flesh and blood in them.
Unfortunately, the three auteurs mentioned in this chapter were not present very long. Belmont filmed only a bit (and badly). Sokhoma abandoned cinema. Ivens in China was already directing his last film.
This text introduces the three following articles:
  • The political space (Histoires d’A)
  • On paper (nationality: immigrant)
  • Re-mise en scène (Ivens, Antiononi, China)
Translation by Stoffel Debuysere, with minor changes.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

La rampe - I. Taking a view (1970-1972)

Salador TV ad
Serge Daney's introduction to the first chapter of La rampe
I. Taking a view (1970-1972) - Violence and representation (saving the screen)
1968: the events. Two years of exotic-obsessive travels and a real disease. Back to Cahiers, which had become Maoist (“Marxist-Leninist” to be more precise, “m.-l.”). These three texts are written by an already old cinephile between 1970 and 1972. Yet it’s still a disaster.
Something is going to be served up to mourning, to melancholia, and to re-reading. A little while ago, cinema was self-evident, life was edited in the rectangular frame, auteurs were crystallised in their “politique,” the waves of young cinema were hitting shores all over the world. And then, the gaze opens itself again, evidence breaks, a way of life cracks. A “politique des ôteurs [those who take away]” begins: taking away illusions about cinema and its powers. 
The dark room gets associated with obscurantism, there is suspicion at the very place that gave us pleasure. The cinephile’s loneliness is somewhat asocial and makes him ill-prepared for the seriousness of political work, for the militant’s modesty. A book* talked with contempt of the spectacular future of all things, and saw the world doomed to the irony of détournements and simulacra. We talked of “society of the spectacle” and not yet of the “media.” 
In front of these strange events demanding so much of the idea of spectacle, many showed common sense: re-politicise the contents of (the scenarios of) films and shoot, Italian-style, tons of Z “to help the struggle” – an easy and bankable option. Others had the idea to re-politicise the old question of the form, re-reading the epic Brecht-Eisenstein saga under the corrosive light of structuralism (Althusser, Barthes, Lacan). Cahiers took part in the latter. 
A period began that was marked by what Christian Metz gently called “theoretical raids.” Weak souls were terrified. The terrifying ones weren’t so sure either. They tried to convince jeering amphitheatres that the study of Nicht Versöhnt (Straub) and Vent d’Est (Godard) was useful to the revolution. Their loyalty to their tastes honoured Cahiers
The Chinese watchword “that the ancient serves the new” otherwise allowed to re-read “classic cinema” and to take, again and always for the last time, the path of unforgettable pleasure. We had to extract its essence and transmit it to the politicised students in new teaching modules at “red” universities, Censier or Vincennes.  
At that time, violence (even verbal) was accepted but representation was distrusted. For a long time it had been badly treated by modern cinema. Leftist politics relegated it to the bourgeois and the “révisios”**. Lacanian psychoanalysis and Althusserian Marxism were seeking articulations (not reflections) and overdeterminations (not simple causalities).  Nietzsche was being re-published and read again. As a result, we no longer knew what use representation was serving (the true question at the time was rather: “whose use?” and the answer, always the same: “The bourgeoisie!”). But we felt that this wasn’t right, and was already obsolete. We didn’t know yet how to say, with Barthes’ brilliant simplicity: what is represented is not the real. 
These three texts could be subtitled: “Violence and representation” or “Representation as violence.” They belong to a genre of that time: radical-regressive, or absolutist involution. To write in Cahiers was to inherit, even unknowingly, Bazin’s idée fixe, one which can’t be easily dismissed: cinema is a gaze upon the world. Bazin had said “Forbidden montage” and Rossellini had added “Things are here – why manipulate them?”. 
So we inherited the resulting aporia. For what allows this gaze to be set upon something – the screen, that is – becomes an impossible object, both window and hiding, hole and hymen. Invisible, it makes things visible; visible, it makes them invisible. At the beginning of the 60s, “MacMahonism” had already been a far-right fallout of Bazinism. These three texts belong to the side of the post-68 Cahiers (this “I” not yet pronounced) which took heart in attempting to get rid of this MacMahonism.  
The paradox is to have gone all the way to de-naturalise film representation where it was considered natural, self-evident. For example with Bazin who stuck to “the seamless garment of the real,” or with this fetish filmmaker of Cahiers about whom Rivette had written this definitive sentence: “Evidence is the mark of Howard Hawks’ genius.” 
These texts call on psychoanalysis to undo the false evidence of classic film representation, to reveal the type of desire that it betrays and inhibits at the same time, to say (blaring discovery!) that this desire is, structurally, obsessional, and that the cinephilic cult is akin to the eponymous neurosis. This writing is an exorcism. And this exorcism “saves” the screen. It saves it from the dubious violence that were then advertising (the violence of prostitution display: “On Salador”), circus games (Bazin, the beasts and “Nero’s complex”), and the obscenity of time eroding faces (“The one grows old”). 
* I’m talking of course of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
** Translator's note: accused of revisionism of Marxist-Leninist theory, communists (party members) were called “révisios” in Leftist slang.
This text introduces the following three articles:
Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

Monday, August 12, 2013

La rampe

La rampe is the first book that Daney published as a film critic. It's a selection of articles he wrote for Cahiers du cinéma between 1970 and 1982, surveying the landscape of cinema and film criticism over the '70s. It was published in 1983. Daney would have been 38 or 39 years old ("an already old cinephile" as he describes himself). He had already left Cahiers, where he started as a film critic at the age of 20, for the daily newspaper Libération.

Many of the individual articles gathered in La rampe have been translated -- most of them available online -- but what's missing is the overall narrative that Daney offers in the texts introducing each of the book chapter.

Over the next two weeks, I'll be publishing the translation of these introductory texts, following the chapter structure of La rampe, at the rhythm of one every other day. It's the fruit of a big translation effort with Otie Wheeler, to whom I owe a really big thank you. We start today with Daney's introduction to La rampe (which begins mysteriously with a dedication to "Stuff and Thing" and a whole page of pictures of lepers in Fritz Lang's Indian Tomb).
La rampe*
First there was fear, of course. Imagine Paris at the beginning of the 1950s, a movie theatre that might well be called the Cyrano-Roquette, and a child who simply needed to go downstairs and up a street to be at the movies, hidden away. I was this fearful child.
We didn’t “go see a film,” we would “go to the cinema.” There was a small film and there was the big film. There were Fox-Movietone news as well (we said “mauviétonne”), and the wall full of local ads, and a series of “coming soon to a theatre near you.” And the interval. While the useless curtains closed over the grey screen and the usherette shouted with no conviction “Candies, caramels, ice-creams, chocolates!”, the stage – quiet horror – was being populated by what we then called the “attractions.”
Insignificant singers slowly took possession of “the stage.” The microphone was not set up correctly; the sound of floorboards signalled the – horrific – return to reality; the theatre became again a miserable shed. A meagre repertory of old songs (“Etoile des neiges”), of easy magic tricks, of bawdy hypnotisms was presented to an embarrassed and weary audience. In this audience were my mother and I, nearby neighbours. 
Attractions didn’t last. Ghosts soon announced their arrival in the audience, moving swiftly between rows, calling on our generosity. The child saw them wandering, hands open, with a different voice, so horribly real. These living dead, busking in the name of the thousands of obscure performers who died on all the stages of the world, were coming toward him. 
What to do? Which attitude to adopt? Bury oneself underground? Glance emptily? Give them a lot of money so they never return? Too late. The movie theatre was a delicious trap for the child, and the “attractions” the bitter side of these delights (later he will call them “their inhibited side”). Anyway, the big film was about to start, the most dilapidated copy would look sumptuous, and darkness would offer the most beautiful refuge. Poor cinema would make up for misery theatre, as would the film titles soundtrack for the buskers’ microphone. We would be irremediably saved. So, for darkness to come back quicker, by fear of the light and its monsters, we gave a little bit of money to the “attractions,” not much (we too were poor).
As a cinephile and a film critic, I’ve established my pleasure of images and sounds over the oblivion of this theatre of shame. I’ve learnt to take pleasure from my fear, to play with it and to write about it. It’s almost a profession. I regularly come across interval attractions in films. In 1960, for example, Fritz Lang’s lepers in The Indian Tomb almost came toward me in a suburban theatre in the north of Paris. They held out their stumps like hands and called for my generosity in the same way. Thankfully, “in my place” was Sabine Bethmann, lying on a patch of blue-grey sand, looking at them with the quiet horror I knew well. It wasn’t the same fear: cinema had become for me the place of off-camera, of montage, of stitching, of “the place of the spectator,” the opposite of theatre, in a sense. Besides, in the film, the cave collapsed on the band of lepers and the loyal Asagara sacrificed himself to maintain his too-real actors in the cave of cinema, in the tomb of the frame, in the dark.
La rampe is a bit of all this. The number of an archaic fear. The still theatrical architecture of the cinema: a bit of stage here, a floorboard there, what’s left of backstage, a pit without orchestra, threatening balconies, curtains. La rampe is the separating line in the scenographic cube that the grey ghosts (grey because no longer basking in full light) will walk to get out of the screen and crawl toward me as in a bedlam, requiring my pity, laughing at my embarrassment. La rampe is the limbo of cinema, the seedy place of a dreaded kidnapping. 
It doesn’t take much to become a cinephile in this context, and a moralist too, a Bazinian, a reader then writer then editor then “in-chief” of Cahiers du cinéma. In order to avoid becoming this cinephile (there are other types), one should have shouted back to the attractions, played “theatre” with them, mocked them, pushed them back, sent them a dead cat as in Fellini’s films. But it was too late. The shame to have seen but not spoken out carries the challenge to see everything, to sustain everything with one’s gaze, to follow cinema in its most absurd adventures. To see everything like in a zoo, “everything” doubly locked in the cage of the screen. And, from the retrospective fear to have been called out in the theatre of charity, the child begins to expect everything from the cinema of cruelty. It lasted a long time, it may never end.
All the articles in this book were written between 1970 and 1981 for Cahiers du cinema. The idea to work for another magazine simply never crossed my mind. The paradox of these texts – barely altered – was that they were written to take stock of the situation of the magazine throughout the decade, between its spontaneous likes and dislikes, between the legend of yesterday and the recent past, from one fashionable term to another. There’s a strange “we” in these texts, an easy “one” and a weird “I”. To follow one by one, theorising every step, the dead ends and the metamorphoses of a “household” issue inherited from 1968, Bazin and the yellow Cahiers, reformulated with the language of structuralism (Lacan especially), now appears as a rather strange fancy. Embryonic theories can be found next to rancid debates, wild appraisals mix with boring pedagogical bits, etc. 
This heterogeneity is perhaps a good thing. If it’s true that, in France, film magazines had the privilege to better carry the great political and aesthetic frenzies of that time, I hope that through La rampe it will be possible for today’s reader to follow the avatars of two or three ideas – naiveties or obsessions – that allowed Cahiers to resemble, once more, its era (the arid 70s) and the author of these lines to get closer to himself. 
August 1982
* Translator's note: The "rampe" is literally the set of footlights at the front of a theatre stage, lighting up the actors from below. In French, it's closely associated with the expression "être sous les feux de la rampe" which means "to be in the limelight". 
First published in La rampe, Cahiers du cinéma / Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.

For more on Cahiers, film criticism and Daney in the 1970s, see the interview Bill Krohn conducted with Daney in 1977.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jacques Rivette, Le pont du nord

Serge Daney's review of Rivette's Le pont du nord is translated in the booklet of Eureka new eponymous Blu-ray disc.

Jacques Rivette, Le pont du nord
First published in Libération on March 26th, 1982. Re-printed in La maison cinéma et le monde - volume 2, POL, 2002, pp. 99-102. Translated by Craig Keller, 2013.

In it, Daney describes the film as a western, a political thriller, a documentary on Paris, an "old modern film" and a "modern metaphor of ancient myths".

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Death of the world's oldest filmmaker: Allan Dwan (1885-1981)

Ted Fendt has translated the obituary Serge Daney wrote in Libération after the passing of Allan Dwan.

Death of the world's oldest filmmaker: Allan Dwan (1885-1981)
First published in Libération, December 28th, 1981. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, volume 2: Les années Libé 1981-1985, POL, 2002, pp. 377-9. Translation by Ted Fendt, 2013.

Monday, May 13, 2013


This post stems from a tweet by Otie Wheeler which brought back to mind Serge Daney's idea of a "mannerism" in cinema, a concept he used a lot for a while before seemingly abandoning it.

Daney was always particularly sensitive to any "cinema effect" (when a filmmaker, using one too many tricks, reveals his arrogant presence as master of ceremony, disrupting the flow of reality in the film). And I think he used the term mannerism to capture a particular version of this phenomenon, one that resonated with his idea of the death of cinema, a sort of decadence, perhaps akin to the passage from classicism to Baroque (and Rococo) via Mannerism in the late Renaissance.

He uses the term regularly in the 80s in several articles about a specific set of film-makers: some he calls the "small masters" like De Palma, Peckinpah, Bolognini and Argento. But the term is also developed in texts on Coppola, Melville, Zurlini, Leone, Spielberg, Wenders or Jarmush.

In the context of the 80s, when the question was the influence of the advertising aesthetic on cinema and the image, the term was quickly picked up, for example by Gilles Deleuze in his preface to Daney's second book, Ciné-journal:
And you give the apt name of mannerism to the tense, convulsive form of cinema that leans, as it tries to turn round, on the very system that seeks to control or replace it. You’d already, in La Rampe, characterized the image’s third phase [after classicism and modernity] as “mannerism”: when there’s nothing to see behind it, not much to see in it or on the surface, but just an image constantly slipping across pre-existing, presupposed images, when “the background in any image is always another image,” and so on endlessly, and that’s what we have to see. 
I can't find a mention of the term in La Rampe. Daney's first use of mannerism seems to be in his 1982  review of Coppola's One from the heart:
Coppola's films, like those of Brian de Palma or some of Spielberg's, are the mannerist side of American cinema. How can one define this mannerism? Nothing happens to human beings, everything happens to images - to Images. Images become characters with pathos, pawns in the game. We tremble for them, we want them to be kindly treated, they are no longer just produced by the camera, but manufactured outside it, and its "pre-visualization," thanks to video, is the object of what little love is left in the cold hearts (I am exaggerating) of the filmmakers. In a mannerist world, actors "of flesh, blood and celluloid" are quickly reduced to the status of stand-ins and quotations of themselves, to visual signals. They're still there, but they've ceased to be interesting ages ago.
As he often does, Daney best articulates his idea in close inspections of key moments in movies. Here are two texts on Zurlini and Argento where mannerism is illustrated in its most simplest form.
Hell Means Nothing - Dario Argento's Inferno (1979)
(...) The amused boredom aroused by the TV viewing of this cult film derives from the way Argento, and only he, has fun with it. In his mannerist fashion he multiplies the signature effects so that every one of his images will cry out that it is stamped with the name of Argento and that it [the image] knows it. Red or blue filters, flattened lighting (Romano Albani), Orff-type score (Keith Emerson), wild discontinuities and soft padding, red herrings and animals of all kinds. This is all pointless but not unlikeable. Thanks to Argento in particular, there is ample time to think a bit on mannerism in general.
Let’s take one example. At one point young Sara (who, like young Rose, will soon come to a bad end) finds one of the three houses in Rome and, fearing nothing, makes her way at night into a library that’s open, then into a cellar, where some faceless alchemist (who has a corpse-like hand) turns his back to her before hurling himself upon her. Sara finally takes fright and runs away, tearing her dress, gets home, where she asks a neighbour to keep her company, which he does quite willingly before winding up with a knife across his throat and with the reckless Sara quite inconsiderately stabbed. Just as she’s getting out of a taxi opposite the library, Sara pricks her finger on something sharp and inconspicuous (let’s say a nail) attached to the vehicle. It all happens very quickly, even too quickly: close-up of the nail, close-up of the nail and the finger, close-up of the finger with a drop of blood. What's odd is that this detail has no dramatic purpose whatsoever, since in a matter of moments, Sara will be skewered. What's odd is that it is too hastily constructed to have any function, even of premonition. What's odd, finally, is that the appearance of this nail is virtually confused with the "function" that it has, a function that is rigorously pointless.
The same things go for characters as for objects, as for everything in Inferno and in mannerism. It’s a matter of a fake functionalism where things and characters (which are seen as things) are only there to serve no purpose. The passage from mannerism to the baroque is the passage from "serving no purpose" to "only serving the nothingness", the great Nada that needs great dispositifs. Mannerism, for its part, can choose to be as modest and carefree as a schoolboy exercise. It’s in this respect that Inferno, made ten years ago, was already a film for our times. For if the advertising aesthetic is the serious face of mannerism, the parody of the horror film is its facetious face. You only had to see Inferno interrupted (just after the guillotine scene) by nine commercials in a row to superimpose the two faces of mannerism. For a while now commodities have been filmed like the nail that pierces Sara’s poor little finger: they only arrive when they’re needed, except that they serve no purpose.

Zurlini, the stylist (Violent Summer, 1959)
(...) In other words: watching films again on television is less about posthumously reconsidering great directors than facing up to the stylistic effects of cinema. How do we see them today, the great stylists, the mannerists, the small masters and tutti quanti?
Let's take Valerio Zurlini (1926-1982). It's beautiful, it's good that [Patrick] Brion programmes a series of his movies on late night television, if only to bring back from oblivion this filmmaker who dies prematurely, who was a great morbid aesthete, perhaps too disengaged for the boom-times of Italian cinema (when engagement was almost natural), a sometimes immense director, and (at least) the author of Family Diary (Cronaca familiare, 1962), one of the most harrowing film ever made. Zurlini is a case [of manerism], which was confirmed during the viewing of his second film, Violent Summer (1959), on Sunday night. A typical film of Italian cinema in one of its golden ages? "A great sick film" (Truffaut's experession) and by an already atypical director? It's a question of methodology of course. A question of the gaze, as always. And perhaps also a question of screen sizes.
For when the joyous gang of spoiled boys and girls of the fascist bourgeoisie play on the black and white beach of Rimini 1943, and when the camera, to better highlight the approach of another character (is it the widow?) toward the group, begins by hiding itself behind a deck-chair, and when this unfolded object acts for two seconds as a starter, we have an example - among thousand of others - of what was irritating in Estate Violenta, the product of an Italian - too Italian - calligraphist, always ready to sacrifice his subject to the pleasure of decoration, of the camera playing hide-and-seek with objects, which are also characters or "subjects", whose summation, somewhere, must form the subject of the film. We were angry against Bolognini, Cottafavi or Zurlini for this game, because it was formal, fretting, unnecessary, etc.
Daney's review of in Coppola's The Cotton Club extends his conception of mannerism from the stylistic effects of some directors, to something like a trend in 1980s cinema.
Cotton's song
The Cotton Club is an example of what Jean-Claude Biette (well-inspired) once called "filmed cinema". The Cotton Club is a filmed signed by Coppola, Coppola is a filmmaker of our times (and one of the most stimulating), and we live in the time of filmed cinema. One no longer captures reality, one embellishes it with another coat of additional "cinema-effects". 
(...) "Filmed cinema" is neither the copy nor the imitation of the old cinema, more a "reading" of it. University-trained (UCLA) filmmakers have learnt to read the films they loved, word by word, effect by effect. Television didn't give them films to see again but films to read again. And electronics (the general irony of a world gone through video) puts filmmakers in the situation of restorers of old paintings who know that underneath the surface's appearance, there is a palimpsest to scrape or discover. Obsessed by the fragment, the restorer ends up losing sight of  the whole painting, and when Coppola says that his Cotton Club is an octopus, we should take him seriously: each tentacle, armed with a torch light or a laser, highlights a part of the fresco that no one can paint entirely or see with one gaze.
 (...) In the old film noirs (Lang's for example, because they are the most rigorous), there were characters, and between these characters there were relations. The filmmaker had to invent a whole mise en scène (a whole game of distances to "keep") which allowed us to understand the nature of these relations, and from there, to love or judge the characters. Coppola does something entirely different: he's only interested in the relation between the character and the audience. Two characters no longer exist together for the audience, the both exist only for the audience, taking turns. The mise en scène is merely the management of hints (discrete but constant) to the audience. And Coppola is satisfied to collect characters without creating any space between them. 
(...) Today's cinema is pulled between two conniving evils: academicism and mannerism. Coppola  have gone from one to the other. The Americans prefer him academic, we prefer him mannerist. It's a matter of cultures settling scores. The academic filmmaker starts from the whole (the idea of a finished film, already present in the script) and laboriously illustrates it in each and every detail. Academic filmmakers are not very stimulating but they re-assure and command respect. The mannerist filmmaker starts with the details, but risks getting lost in the journey, discouraging everyone and missing the whole. Mannerists are more stimulating but because they pose a bit too much (they have "manners"), they exasperate and disappoint. Personally, and provisionally, I prefer the mannerists (Coppola, second phase), even if every other time they wear out by not knowing how to conclude (the hesitation-waltz that is the end of Apocalypse Now).
In the Passeur interview in the Recrudescence book, Daney takes mannerism much further, as a moment in the history of cinema...
I've eventually abandoned the word "classic" because there's probably never been a classic cinema (for me, there have been pioneer, modern and mannerist filmmakers).
And he gives mannerism the closest thing to a definition:
What’s a great mannerist? It’s someone who works relentlessly to a certain kind of anamorphosis, with an intimate knowledge of the image, of the face from which he started. 
And what of the mannerists? They’re the ones who appended their signatures to the anamorphosed becoming of what the moderns had glimpsed. But before becoming a pure market effect, the personal "signature effect" in Melville or Leone cannot escape a degree of pain. A signature is like a detail which replaces the whole that it cannot forget. That’s what mannerism is. 
Yet, Daney seems to drop the concept in his last years. I couldn't find even traces of it in his last long interviews: Journey of a cine-son and Postcards from the cinema.

Looping back to the starting idea for this long post, I cheekily challenged Otie Wheeler to expand on his initial tweet. He has kindly accepted and, having reviewed Daney's texts above (and even helped improve the translation), he has sent these thoughts over:
What would Daney, who wrote of a “calligraphist, always ready to sacrifice his subject to the pleasure of a decoration,” have made of Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, the only film I know of to confuse calligraphy with sex?
Being ahead of his time put Daney at a disadvantage: he articulated ideas about cinema before the cinema could fully articulate those same ideas, and so he wrote about a terminal mannerism that from our vantage looks more like a beginning than an end (the beginning of an end?). The tendency he wrote about seems to reach maturity (termination?) in works like Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son, Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, and Terence Malick’s To the Wonder, films by masterful directors that are irreproachable if looked at frame by frame but which are easier to appreciate than to love, closer to art history than to art, perhaps, or closer to art than to cinema, being as they are all signature, all detail—mise en scène in search of narrative, “a palimpsest to scrape or discover.”
  • Hells means nothing: first published in Libération, 13 January 1989; reprinted in Recrudescence, 1991, pp.84-5. Translation by Liz Heron (from the unpublished book Cinema in Transit), slightly modified by me.
  • Zurlini, the stylist: first published in Libération, 15 November 1988; reprinted in Recrudescence, 1991, pp.36. My translation.
  • Cotton Club review: first published in , 3 january 1985; reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, volume 2, POL, 2002, pp.252-6. My translation.