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.