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.

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