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.