Friday, March 15, 2013

Guy de Maupassant

Daney's never ending hate of the Qualité française... for good reasons.

Guy de Maupassant, Michel Drach 
Who’s again at the door? It’s the drama-doc, toc, toc. The cultural religious kitch. The new film by Michel Drach. 
Ever the rotten barrel of the good old French cinema, the cultural hagio-biography had slowly taken refuge on television. In the shape of drama-docs, and with various successes, it was the TV’s equivalent of school literature manuals. This old propaganda tool (“our great men”), even re-read by lifeless Brechtians, is a risk-free genre, a cushy number. On one side, the TV audience can be moved that the great artists from the past appear as people “like you and me” with their greatness and their smallness, and on the other side, the audience knows deep inside that they were not people like you and me because they are in the dictionary, and not us. 
Take Maupassant for example. This celebrated man, to whom everything succeeded, comes to a bad end: he contracts syphilis, becomes mad and dies (in 1893). The authors of the film must have thought noble and audacious to follow the writer from his public life to his life in disease, and not to spare any of Maupassant’s committal and painful end to the audience. The film, despite being ridden with random flashbacks, broadly moves from fiction to documentary. From being a subject (of the film and of his own life), Maupassant becomes an object in Dr Blanche’s clinic. 
Michel Drach, having always better succeeded in morbid dryness than in imaginary games (The Red Sweater is in my mind his best film, The Simple Past his worst), we can say that in Guy de Maupassant, it’s the least bad when it’s sad, it’s really bad when joyous (and super-bad when Ophulsian). We can also say that with immense good will, Claude Brasseur gives a strong performance, Miou-Miou is bizarre as a lesbian fellow traveller, Carmet is stereotyped as a possessive servant and Signoret is very “Signoret” as a not so stupid mother.
This being said, what’s wrong in such a film? A certain “moralism of perception” I think. Let me explain myself. Poor spectator, you and I wander among the shots of this pompous drama fearing that a voice (over) tell us: careful, don’t touch anything, everything is in place, the disorder is only an appearance, every sidekick and prop has a number, it all has a meaning, it has to. The film is invisible because it has no stakes for the spectator. For example, Maupassant comes across as a sex beast, but no, a flash back reveals that as a teenager (what a surprise!), he had a traumatic experience which… (extenuating circumstances). At another moment, the writer is presiding over a king of orgy. You are crazy (the mise en scène whispers to the spectator): look at him, this poor genius, artistically wedged in a corner of the frame, the eyes pointedly distant and weary: he’s not having fun (in the subtext: unlike you!), he’s obviously already writing in his head a tale or a novel where this orgy will find its sense: he’s scouting locations, don’t disturb him, or maybe just with a discreet zoom in, just like that, yes.  
We end up wondering if Drach is not filming a Maupassant who is desolately watching the orgy that Drach is staging – a strange masochism. Anyway, Guy de Maupassant is a film which sends us always elsewhere, forward or backward. Forward with the writer’s childhood, a background that explains many things, a gruff Flaubert, the already crazy brother. Backward with the books that he’s going to write where all this will be transmuted into Art. And what about us then, who are now the spectators of this film? What are we doing in the midst of this simulacrum? What is the point of the guided visit in this museum which seems badly kept as if trying to be modern?  
Another, funnier, example: at the end of a social evening, a woman introduces new guests to the writer. The last of them is young, gaunt and sweet. “My dear Guy,” says the woman, “Let me introduce you to the little Proust”. And the little Proust walks in front of the camera (after all, this is not his film, he knows it, he is very young and Gaumont studios have not yet built the cork-lined room). Smiles in the theatre, but fake smiles when we realise that the authors, have actually written, typed, photocopied, rehearsed, shot, and still kept this sentence at the editing, apparently without smiling. They have written this sentence thinking it realistic, because it ought to be done!  
After all, we’re not obliged to film writers. There have been many unhappy, crazy, syphilitic characters (especially in the 19th century). There are plenty of dying people. But if we suppose that Drach took the trouble to make a film on a certain Guy de Maupassant, it’s because we remember him as a writer, as someone who lost his life (it happens to every one) but who – for a time – won the war of words. He won it to the extent that he took the trouble, feeling he was becoming mad, to write the progress of his disease. There are few things in the literature of that time as terrifying as Le Horla. To verify what’s left of his reason, Maupassant transformed himself in an object of experiment and wrote what happened to him. None of this features in Drach’s film of course. (I remind every one that Jean-Daniel Pollet made a beautiful film about this in 1966 with Laurent Terzieff).  
There is a rather bizarre disdain for the actual writing that can be felt behind all this imagery. Drach could very well film Maupassant (but then, that he’s a writer is anecdotal) or he could try to film the writer (but then, the character doesn’t explain much). I can admit that Drach is neither Straub nor Bresson, that filming writing is a challenge and, in the production system within which it operates, Drach has no incentive to take it up. I’m just upset that he pretends to regret it. I’m a bit upset that he doesn’t do like Guitry.  
When I see a cultural hagio-biography like this one, I always think of the way Guitry (in La Malibran) has settled the question.  
One night, two bourgeois go to the Council declare the birth of a child. “Surname?” asks the clerk without raising his eyes from the register. “Poquelin” timidly answer the parents. “First name? – Jean Baptiste.” Then the clerk raises his eyes ecstatically and shouts: “Molière!”  
The scene is not only an easy gag of the type Guitry indulged upon. It gives to the person who laughs the possibility to also laugh about his knowledge (his culture if you want). His knowledge doesn’t refrain him, he doesn’t become its hostage. Whereas the “Let me introduce you to the little Proust” only provokes the nasty laughter of the one who knows more than what the film pretends it doesn’t know. It denotes a wrong relation with knowledge, spectator, time, cinema. Decidedly a rotten barrel.
First published in Libération on 14 April 1982 (at the time of the release of the film). Reprinted in Ciné-Journal, 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma/Seuil, 1986.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Only the cinema

Seul le cinéma /  Le cinéma, seul

I'm reading about Raymond Bellour's latest book, La querelle des dispositifs, which attempts to differentiate a specific dispositif of cinema:
"To live through the projection of a film in a theatre, in the dark, the prescribed time of a more or less collective screening, has become and remains the condition of a unique experience of perception and memory, defining its spectator."
from that of other moving images - as in contemporary art installations - each of them having to invent its own dispositif.

And I came across this early passage, challenging the idea of a decline of cinema:
"At a time when, in phases, throughout the 80s, Daney seemed to lose hope in cinema as it was being hit, from outside and inside, by the invasion of television, advertising, 'brand images', everything he called 'the visual', with the concurrent drop in ticket sales and the desertification of theatres, at the time when he wrote this apocalyptic text 'From Movies to Moving' which seems to consummate a death or at least an irremediable transformation of cinema, this same year, 1989, Daney symbolically conceives in his diary the idea of a chronicle entitled 'Only the cinema' [Le cinéma, seul]."
Here's the extract from Daney's diaries (the first entry for 1989):
"Let's start up again here. This chronicle should be called 'Only the cinema'. It should talk about  what only the cinema is in charge of pursuing. It should be a way out from the period when we talked of 'images', the era of all the incests and the clever tricks. Anyway, it's my new starting point."
 And the translation of course is anything but simple. "Le cinéma, seul" can be read both as the exclusive "Solely the cinema" and as the melancholic "The cinema, alone."

Besides, it's "Le cinéma, seul" and not "Seul le cinéma" (Only the cinema). The latter has been used by Godard in Histoire(s) du cinéma, episode 2A... the one beginning with a chat with Daney...

Thursday, March 07, 2013

New Grammar

[Updated July 2019]

Bernadette Corporation published translations of Serge Daney in their magazine Made in USA in 1999. The magazine is available on Apple Books and it's well worth it (for a few dollars or sterling, you get the full magazine, plus two translations of Daney!).
What Out of Africa Produces
Extract: "Out Of Africa belongs to an actual 'genre': the film-which-is-an-ad-for-cinema, oscarizable genre which runs on a mixture of professionalism and pandering nostalgia [note: to designate this genre of films, Jean-Claude Biette has found an unbeatable expression: 'filmed cinema'.]. The annoying thing is that, on tv, this genre doesn't hold up. Or rather, it return to its original state: the ad." 
Made in USA, Issue 1, Fall/Winter 1999-2000, Translated by John Kelsey, pp. 106-8. First published in Libération on 11 October 1988; reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sac à main - cinéma, télévision, information, Aléas éditions, 1991.
New Grammar
First paragraph: "The annoying thing about television is that we still talk about it using the words of cinema. We're ridiculous and don't know it. We talk of shots, we talk of montage, of camera movements, of flash-backs. We act as if time in television was linear and its space was homogeneous. We (and our poor words) are completely wrong. We should change the vocabulary one of these days. And since the benefit of televised sports is to make this question a bit more concrete, we should make use of it."
Follows a brilliant text on the meaning of slow-motions, instant replays, close-ups and zooms on television during the 1984 Olympics. 
Made in USA, Issue 1, Fall/Winter 1999-2000, Translated by Antek Walczak, pp. 108-9. First published in Libération on 4 August 1984; reprinted in Ciné Journal, 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma / Seuil, 1986.