Thursday, August 31, 2017

Griffith shows us a thing or two

Why is it so essential to see the great classics of silent cinema on television? Because with their intertitles (that tell) and their images (that show), they prove that a true filmmaker can only be one that shows. Griffith is not only a giant because he has set out once and for all, and for everybody, the two or three basic hypotheses of cinema, but because he has shown things that we have never seen again since. Borderline things, always. Things stretching toward their limit. Innocence that calls for sullying. Cruelty that calls for lynching. Widespread warfare that calls for peace. Griffith filmed like boxing, before and after the limit. His only goal is to capture the face of the condemned who, once pardoned, believes he’s already dead. ‘He has’, write James Agee, ‘an incommensurate appetite for violence, cruelty, and for this twin brother of cruelty: a kind of obsessional sensibility which, if we followed it, could become almost repulsive.’ Griffith as an obsessional shower, halfway between Dickens and Bataille.  
Those who went to bed at 2 a.m. on Monday morning know what Orphans of the Storm (1921) is about, its reversal of reversals. The impossibility to forget the incredible sentence by Henriette Girard, condemned to death, asking the Committee of Public Safety to speak less loudly since her sister ‘who’s blind*’ is in the audience. The impossibility to reunite the two orphan girls as long as democracy hasn’t triumphed in France. Robespierre’s throat-slashing gesture and Danton’s cavalcade. The debauchery of the aristocrats later followed by the dance of the mad populace. Of all the Hollywood films on the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm is not only the most staggering, it’s also the least frivolous. 
If cinema is first and foremost the act of showing, it will always depend on those who have the passion to show. A filmmaker shows the world in a film and this film becomes part of the world that, in turns, ought to be shown. It’s – in principle – the task of the distributors, the bosses of film festival or cinematheques and the television schedulers. Yet, no matter how numerous are those who ‘schedule’, fewer and fewer – and all the more precious – are those who ‘show’**.  
Sunday night Orphans of the Storm is indeed an event. We would never have seen it unless some of these stubborn ‘showers’ hadn’t joined forces to gift us the most beautiful possible version of Griffith’s film, unless Patrick Brion (for Channel 3) and Jacques Robert (for Fechner Audiovisual) hadn’t simply done their job. Are those who have got used to seeing silent films in bad conditions (in theatres or on television) conscious to have seen for once – thanks to a scholarly reframing – the complete image of Griffith’s film, in its real aspect ratio (1.33:1)? Will they have guessed that instead of displaying – in a comic frenzy – 24 (or 25) frames per second, the shots from Orphans of the Storm were closer to the 20 frames per second of their era? Who among the theatre managers (including art house venues) provide such care to the ‘product’? 
Hats off to Robert and Brion. And hats off to Dominique Blondeau who composed the soundtrack. He is described by Robert as a phenomenon ‘like few others in the world, one who barely reads music but has an innate sense of cinema and music, a bit like Jean Wiener, so often used by Langlois.’ Compared to the lazy or pretentious soundtracks that regularly inflate silent films, Blondeau’s music is of great intelligence. The musician doesn’t attempt to outdo the images nor defuse their strength. He follows the images in a loyal and soft illustration, underlining them with a fine tune, a tone lower.  
Why is it so essential to rediscover the great classics of silent cinema on television? Because they are so remote from us and we are so remote from the great hypnotised auditoriums that saw them so long ago. The nostalgia of the packed and delighted auditorium can work for the cinema of the forties and the fifties but not for the cinema of the twenties. Conversely, television (as it functions quite a bit on hypnosis) maintains intact our ability to be astonished and our desire to understand why.  
* Michel Chion had the clever idea of talking about a ‘deaf cinema’ rather than a ‘silent cinema’. ‘Silent’ cinema probably never existed. First because of the music in the auditorium, second because of the hallucinatory auditive images.  
** Christian Metz had the clever idea to specify that an image of a revolver doesn’t signify ‘revolver’ but something like ‘here’s a revolver’. The author, for a short while, thought of a ‘great deictic theory’. He now thinks that his was stating the obvious: at the cinema, one can only see what has been shown and only what has been seen can be shown. The rest is television. 

First published in Libération on 8 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Archimède’s TV-drama

Like all duds, Archimède le clochard is ageless. Born old, it can't age any further, nor gain, thanks to television, some sort of posthumous youth. Indeed, bad films have this in common with bad wines: they are eternal plonks that have turned sour well before they had a chance to age. Good films can age. Well or badly, that’s another story, the story of cinema if you want, as it is (ageing) men that make cinema. In short, one mustn’t confuse the wrinkles of a dud for the dignity that comes with old age. The wrinkles were there at the start, age comes with time.  
Let’s take the age of the captain, for example. When he shoots Archimède le clochard, Jean Gabin is only 54 years old. He is therefore a lot less old than his mouthy tramp character, who must be at least ten years older. Because he is still sprightly, he struggles all the more to play a sprightly old man. Let’s take the age of the second in command. Gilles Grangier is only 47 when he directs this grovelling document with Gabin as the imposed subject and Archimède le clochard as the pretext. At this age today, we still talk about the status of a ‘young filmmaker’; at that time, we already anticipated that of an ‘old hand’. French cinema wasn’t only old, it was ageing.  
Let’s take the film now. The film too is ageing. But films are not men: while the actor furiously anticipates his age, the film regresses towards a golden age. Gabin furiously plays at ageing in the very studios where he was once young: this interwar Paris-studio that Grangier, Page (director of photography), Colombier (sets) and the great Albert Valentin (script) tailor just for him but already at the minimum. We easily recognise the small bars, the parade of the sandwich board men, the Halles before Rungis, the cops with a cape: they are the features of the era, the wrinkles of the film.  
Those who take refuge in the past always have the same defect. They don’t want to see in the image of this refuge-past what already threatens them: youth. They can’t stand it, even in flashbacks. In Archimède le clochard, we could search to no avail for a child, a teenager or a young adult (apart from the beautiful Dora Doll, whose role is of no interest). Nothing in the story, the sets, the choice of extras must remind us that there are always several generations at the same time* in a story and that nothing is more perilous than to clear out everything around a single one. 
This ‘Make way for the old!’ needs studios to occupy of course. The studio is the only place where an extra must show years of experience. This is why – beyond Grangier’s absence of talent and Gabin’s laziness – there is in Archimède le clochard the kind of peace that succeeds the settling of scores and little genocides, when everybody has been reduced to silence and this silence spreads around a unique monster. This monster can willingly play all the roles (with a Muscadet and an audience of astounded wrecks), but at the condition that it has been reassured of the disappearance of all the roles it can no longer play.  
Duds are ageless but they still carry dates. So we’re stupefied when we verify that Archimède le clochard was released in France in 1959. This is the year of The 400 Blows and a year before Breathless. The New Wave is very quickly going to bury this cinema of quality, the only anti-youth cinema that has resisted for so long. Of course, Truffaut or Godard had talent and strong ideas about cinema, but what strikes us today when seeing again this anti-Boudu is that Archimède is of a much more trivial order.  
It was enough to film (no matter well or badly) the young people of the sixties to trigger the immediate collapse of the house of cards that was the tradition of quality, definitively stifling and disgusting. And it’s perhaps because it knew this that this cinema, pathetically nestled under the wing of the great actors of the thirties who had become horrible dinosaurs**, was so somnambulant and zealous in its therapeutic dedication. For second degree amateurs, Archimède le clochard is the rather sad documentary of a great actor condemned to be the symbol, the dead end, of an academic and heinous cinema that couldn’t find the trick to become on time what it was from the start: merely mediocre television.  

* Pialat rightly noted that ‘historic’ films didn’t ring true since they functioned thanks to the sets of the era, meaning to the sets of only one era. Strict realism would imply recording in one go all the eras of a single set. But there is a hurdle: in a ‘medieval’ film, nobody will spot the coexistence of a house from the 12th century and a house from the 9th. Is it the same for the different generations living at the same time? If we judge this by the increasing difficulty to host three generations of characters in the same story, the answer seems to be yes.  
** All the great post-war actors (from Gabin to Fresnay and Fernandel) were sacred, aged and reactionary monsters. They were scary. It was impossible for a child to identify with them. Conversely, the seducers with greying hair of the American cinema (from Cary Grant to Henry Fonda and James Stewart) didn’t come across as dinosaurs. There they were the ones that were loved. 
First published in Libération on 5 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The last temptation of the first Rambo

Once it has become impossible to separate a film from the mass phenomenon it has become, once a celluloid hero has become an all-purpose emblem, there are advantages to seeing the film again on television, as a simple guest to the small screen. Rid of its aura, it becomes again what it started as: sounds and images among other sounds and images. It even happens that the film loses nothing in this modest recycling. 
Appalled by the recent offsprings, Rambo 2 and 3, we remain cool-headed enough to recognise the initial qualities of Rambo 1 (directed by Ted Kotcheff). How did John Rambo, the Vietnam hero, become a maddened beast, the films asks. How did Rambo, the film, degenerate into ever sillier sequels, is asking the same question. How come it’s probably no longer possible to follow through ideas is yet again the same question, asked this time of cinema as a whole. It applies both to Rambo and Rocky, meaning Stallone, who went from great to grotesque in each of them. These days, tapping a vein means betraying it at the first opportunity. Before being a vengeful brute, Rambo was a hunted animal in a state of legitimate defence. Rambo in fact doesn’t exist and if he starts out so gentle and sensitive, it’s because at the time (1983) America hadn’t yet made peace with its war and Jane Fonda hadn’t yet apologised to veterans. When America finished its Vietnam mourning, Rambo gained back in biceps what he had entirely lost in neurons. The series has no inherent logic: it’s an opinion poll in progress
This doesn’t stop the telly-vision of the first Rambo from being one of the nicest things. Everything is clear in this film with its qualities of primitive American cinema, with the action set at the centre of the picture and the motivations at the centre of the dialogue. Everything is clear because the only not-so-clear thing (the still recent Vietnam war) is only mentioned at the end of the film, when Rambo, in tears, is about to give himself up. In the meantime, everything that happens takes the form of a trauma, mirroring the much criticised ‘acting’ of Sylvester Stallone. 
Rambo isn’t just a film about someone who has almost lost the power of speech, it is fundamentally a silent film. Silent about all the big questions whose formulations it delays as much as possible. Silent about buried causes and ultimate motives, silent in the face of violence and nature. We should be grateful to Stallone to have re-invented for this film an acting style with wide-eyes and gazes as expressive as semaphores. This makes him like the actors in the early westerns, totally silent, traumatised at the slightest thing and twitching in the midst of hostile nature.  
If Rambo were a western, Rambo would be an Indian. Not the vanquished Indian of De Mille’s films but the angry Indian who has returned to challenge his former conquerors now vanquished by Vietnam. This western section is the best part of the film, and the most significant. Rambo has no need of a script because Rambo is its script, its memory that is. The recent memory of the Vietnam trauma, the ancient memory of the Indian genocide, quite simply the memory of the American people insofar as they are not to forget that they too are a warrior people. It is when they encounter Rambo (a shade roughly), and thanks to the war he declares to them by himself, that the forces of law and order of a small American town learn how to fight again. This is Rambo’s sacrifice; this is his Christ-like dimension. The suffering for him, the awakening for the others. In this sense Rambo is a true Christ and his ‘last temptation’ (that of merely being a man like any other) coincides with the ‘first blood’ (the blood he was made to shed, initially, by pure cruelty). Here’s someone who at least saves the world, instead of living the snobbish torments of contemporary individualism, like his future little Scorsesian brother. 
This is the real reason why so many have identified with his masochistic bodybuilding physique. All those for whom individualism is still a luxury recognise themselves in redeeming heroes, and they are never too particular about the ultimate nature of what is redeemed. For these too serious heroes who make them laugh redeem them from one thing at least: boredom. 
First published in Libération on 28 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

That’s cinema

Talking about A Strange Place to Meet, a person whose opinions count* recently declared two things. One: it’s very good. Two: that’s cinema. But the latter statement wasn’t made with the vengeful admiration that was once held for exhilarating shows (‘Now, at least, that’s cinema!’) but as a simple observation. It seems that we know better today what resembles ‘a film of cinema’. Not a telefilm, or a televisual prowess, but, more and more, ‘a strange place to meet’.  
Witness by Peter Weir is therefore a film of cinema. A beautiful film by the way, as if dreamt by an Australian in the United States. With a strange place and enough human beings to be able to meet. Since Witness, everybody knows the place: this Amish country that lives in another century (the 19th), with its own beliefs (religious, rigid, egalitarian and pacifist), close to Philadelphia and yet aside from the industrial world (no cars, no phones, no television). The Amish in Peter Weir’s film come straight out of a costumed Ford’s film** or, because of their Nordic language, of an elegiac Dreyer’s. Yet, we are in 1984.  
Rachel and Samuel, the mother and the child, leave the Amish country to go – they believe – to Baltimore. That’s forgetting the script which makes the child the witness of a murder and the detective in charge of the investigation (Harrison Ford) their obligatory partner for the rest of the film. But the investigation takes a different turn and the film with it. Having discovered that the criminals were crooked policemen who had ‘lost their (moral) bearings’ (including his boss), the injured detective takes refuge where no one can find him: in the Amish country. He’s safe there (for a while) because this (strange) place is outside time. Follows a long digression – the film -  where he meets the Amish community, the works and days, and of course Rachel (the beautiful Kelly McGillis). 
A film starts in one direction, forks, changes its mind, takes a deviation and comes back – wise to the world – to its starting point. This freedom to digress, usually accepted for writers, so cruelly lacks filmmakers that we’re grateful to Peter Weir to have, even modestly, found it back. All roads of a film inevitably lead to the words ‘The end’, yet nothing becomes more sinister over time than the ‘simulated’ driving along the highways of cast-iron scripts and high-growth concepts. It’s what happens along the way that makes the charm of traveling. It’s the way things pretend not to happen that makes them actually happen.  
Today, a film ‘of cinema’ is perhaps this: to leave the beaten tracks of the highways and to follow again the paths that fork, even those that lead nowhere or bring you back to square one. To lose time in order to gain time, to invent lost time. That’s what we tell ourselves when we fall under the charm of Witness because the film has this rare quality to progress everything at the same time, without excessive haste.  
Whoever digresses will end up coming back, that’s for sure. But at the right time. There are many scenes in Witness that have this strange freshness of the old cinema, when you had to wait for the beginning of a new scene before being sure that nothing more would happen in the previous one. Of this way of hosting an event in the last third of a scene, of this art of fluid and fatal rebound, Ford (John) was the greatest filmmaker. There is a little bit of all this in Witness and, watching the film on television, you suddenly measure how much television had deprived us of this wait for an always possible event and always more beautiful – even minimal ones – that it finds us sufficiently awake to see it happen.  
Ford wanted to be modest and modesty is a fundamental value of the Amish. Also Ford (Harrison) is the most modest of stars and you can’t imagine the film without him. He belongs to this very precious species of American stars who are as distant from the Actor’s Studio and its psychological playacting as the Amish country is from the rest of America. He plays a bit like John Wayne, with a body always more flexible than it seems and a very quick way to judge, in a blink of an eye, the space that belongs to him. This film is decidedly Fordian.   

* The Capricorn Serge July, director of Libération.  
** This was before the deplorable Dead Poets Society. Let’s observe that if that film had been made by Ford, it’s Robin William’s character that would be ‘causing problem’, not the students. 
First published in Libération on 24 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cop in the box

The TV is on but no one’s watching it. It drones, blasts and cackles (in short, it’s working) in another room. Yet, a doubt takes hold: is this faint muffled sound really the TV? What if it had turned off all by itself? What if it had started quietly dreaming aloud, zombie like? So, to check it out: we watch. And we see. 
In a train, a yellow-haired giant carries a black attaché case full of white powder and settles into his compartment for the night. From a helicopter flying over the train, a man climbs down a rope, slips into one of the toilets, takes off his flying suit and undoes his sneakers to emerge in a dressing gown, forces the door open using a big magnet, knocks out the sleeping giant, steals the attaché case, goes back into the toilet, gets dressed again, comes out and heads back to his helicopter. All this in real time, without a word*. It isn’t Mission Impossible, it’s Un flic, Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film (1972). 
It’s rare for a film’s sound not to end up smashed to pieces when it shifts to TV. It’s the law of the jungle here, that’s to say whoever roars the loudest**. A worthless law, since, besides its weak technical quality, TV sound never goes beyond the level of descriptive sound effects. A law one can react to by shouting even louder (which advertising does) or, more seldom, by making less noise. Because ‘less noise’ on TV is as disturbing as when you suddenly no longer hear a child play. 
The Melville of Un flic is that very serious child who has chosen his toys once and for all, who is dead set on them and will never budge. Long since broken, the toys in question are amazed they can sustain the shock of a story again, resisting once more the tests of time and images. Resistance interests Melville. Men’s Resistance against the Occupation, and then the resistance of bodies to what degrades their image. 
Melville’s toys are men and the (zero sum) game is based on masculine friendship. But this (which we know) is not the crucial thing. The crucial thing is that in 1972 Melville takes narcissism to the limit and doesn’t even pretend to bring in young people (or women: Deneuve is minimal) to his story. He has the cool nerve just to film people of his own age (he’s 55), guys in their forties or fifties who are competent but slow, professional but encumbered. 
If the film weren’t so sombrely hieratic, it would be burlesque. The burlesque comedy of an aesthete who contrives to multiply an accessory (a suit, glasses, a face, a Burberry, a colour, a background noise) times two, times three, times four, times n. Although the film’s star, Delon is hard put to escape from this game of mirrors where everything is cloned***. So much so that the characters’ emotions, rather than being kept in beneath the mask of the actors, are constantly coming out and proliferating from shot to shot. It only takes two characters at a distance from one another to light a cigarette at the same time for all the familiar reference points to falter (and not just the old metaphysics of Good and Evil, now somewhat dilapidated). All it takes is for someone to look and an object comes to meet him, always the ‘right’ object, always the one that needed to be seen and which awaited only that: being seen. This is what happens to a flawless world: it proliferates within its limits. 
Why is it so beautiful? Because it’s vulnerable, because it ‘connects’ everything and ‘holds’ nothing. Because it is so easy to speak of ‘mannerism’. Why is it so beautiful on TV? Because on TV, the all too visible intimism of Melville’s cinema becomes pure and simple intimacy. This intimacy is no longer a moral ‘value’ (shame, whatever), it’s the very stuff of Un flic, the sole reality whereby the small screen can serve as a box for precious things. The small screen becomes a jewel box. 
What’s in the box? Delicate things, indeed. Quavering inserts, seconds of gravity, breaths of pathos. Soberly dressed killers who go to some lengths to get some sleep for their over-muscled bodies. Men who are never more naked than when they’re engaged in the incidental toils of keeping fit. The clumsy eroticism of the heavily built and the maternal gaze of the drag queen upon her big man****.  
In Un flic, Melville no longer idealises, nor sublimates, nor moralises. Like all great directors, he ends up settling for filming what - that’s to say who - he loves. 

* Real time works here only because it only covers ordinary events from a script perspective. For the mysticism of real time and the blackmail around absolute present, see the Gulf War on television.  
** If television was a pet dog, sound would be its leash.  
*** At the time when Melville directs his last films, I barely noticed them. Cruel irony, since at the time when Cahiers where all about détournement and re-use of the codes of dominant cinema, the only French film maker who successfully managed this operation of internal neutralisation of the star system is precisely Melville. Bourvil is not revealed as a great actor in Le cercle rouge (he was already one), but reaches the genius of singular anonymity. The same goes for Delon and Montand. A great injustice.  
**** I must confess that at the time, I only liked Tadzio. A great injustice (bis).
First published in Libération on 21 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Stella, ethics and existence

‘What do films become when on television?’ 
‘They become what they are of course.’ 
‘But what if they are nothing?’ 
‘If they are nothing, they might be television.’ 
 ‘But is television really nothing?’ 
We could go on like this for hours but it wouldn’t stop us from spitting this out: Stella by Laurent Heynemann is almost nothing. Stella (1983) is skeletal. 
Merely existing as a film, Stella is a tele-film with ethics. Reduced to its core, without the matter and thickness that make a film, unsteady with the image and wobbly with the sound, it is perfect to introduce a television debate. In the same way human beings can donate their body for science or medicine, films can recycle their old reels on television. To best introduce a debate on television, better be skeletal and talk about ethics*. 
Nicole Garcia (Stella) is not quite skeletal when she leaves a concentration camp at the beginning of the film. She loves Yvon (Thierry Lhermitte) who joined the Gestapo to save her, and as long as she loves him, she will turn a blind eye to what others say or think. But from the pale rogues with no hope to the impeccable resistance fighters, all of them – even the most repulsive ones – have this in common: ethics. And since nothing is really happening to them (more than an action film, Stella is a film where the concept of an event is unknown), they have nothing else to do but to expose him, with such literary words disguised in sober sentences and such monochord tones that it’s embarrassing. 
Stella forces us to take on earlier than planned this difficult question: does television exist, and if yes, how do we know? That an increasing number of ‘films’ are accidentally released in theatres (where they usually don’t last) is now a phenomenon unanimously accepted (and even faded). That there was an entire dispositif which was only made possible because of the theatres (with spectators and their identification, with time and distances, the whole and the details, the light and the shadows) will eventually become obvious. That these films will be (slightly) better off on television goes without saying. For television doesn't need this dispositif (it has its own) and calls upon something totally different: the goodwill of the TV citizens and its ability to judge – and even to condemn. Hence its need for skeletal products to trigger debates (between guests) or verdicts (with questions from the audience). 
Where’s the disaster? With the actors of course. There’s nothing more depressing for an actor than to offer their character to the tribunal of History without having a chance to defend** it, even if the character is indefensible. There’s nothing more sinister than Lanoux, once again spineless, than Brialy, losing even more of his panache, than Lhermitte, playing another monster, than Denner acting as the clever one and Nicole Garcia as the lucid but tormented soul. But what else can they do other than underplay their roles or cast on everything around them the detached gaze of the one that judges? As if on television, characters mimicked the way they know they will be watched: like easy allegories. 
Some will say that Heynemann avoids Manicheism and belongs a new generation of (left-wing) film makers who – finally! – accept that those stories of collaboration, resistance and ethnic cleansing are not so simple. The problem is that he makes them complex instead of revealing their complexity and that the necessity to abandon all-white resistant fighters and all-black collaborators comes with a lack of interest in anyone. It’s probably why all the characters talk in the same way, as if actors’ style had become obscene when all we need are a few well-known extras. 
We should be worried for this type of products. They no longer belong to the menu of cinemas and they are only listed on television for their roles as starters. Sometimes, we feel an incredible cruelty making us think that a few commercial breaks would really help Stella. We would then have the feeling of a secret rhythm and scansion, of a thread often lost but always rediscovered. One more step and we might change channel. 

* All of those who didn’t like the debates in political cine-clubs have now been avenged by Nanni Moretti in Sogni d’oro
** Conversely, I remember how much I was touched by the actor Yves Alfonso who, at the release of Doubles Messieurs, had defended so well ‘his’ character, and only the character. 
First published in Libération on 19 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Patrick Brion isn’t just a TV voice, he’s an educator. By following Sunday night’s transmission of Marie-Antoinette with King Without A Crown, he showed us why it was in all seriousness that the American cinema of the thirties felt the obligation to also take on the legacy of Europe and the Old Regime (queens, kings, courts and other fripperies). Marie-Antoinette (1938) is a lazy hotchpotch directed by Van Dyke, decorated by Gibbons and with Shearer mincing about in the lead, and King Without A Crown (1937) is an educational short film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and probably concocted on the basis of Jack Conway’s Tale of Two Cities (1935). 
It’s the ending of Tourneur’s little film (as elliptical and convoluted as a mock Raoul Ruiz in search of mock TV) which provides the key to the gross piece that preceded it. King Without A Crown relates the story of Eleazar Williams, one of the innumerable possible Louis XVII’s, an American clergyman by profession. The film closes on an image of a cinema audience and a voice-off thundering: ‘Could there be a descendent of the Dauphin among you!?’ One realises that in these conditions, Barrymore’s Louis XV in Marie-Antoinette is particularly ill-advised when he proclaims the famous ‘After me . . . the deluge!’. This imbecile should have said: ‘After me . . . MGM’. 
It is in the name of this putative American Louis XVII that in 1938 (a year after Thalberg’s death) the smart, upstart Hollywood of MGM takes on the wife of Louis XVI. You only have to have Marie-Antoinette played by Norma Shearer, the Thalberg widow out of a comic strip drawn by Greuze, to leave the audience not knowing which way to turn between the (supposedly sublime) concept of the queen and the (decidedly shopgirlish) bearing of an actress’s body. This rather Brechtian trick is well known. While the petty bourgeoisie of in-house stars gets the king and queen parts, the proletariat of in-house extras plays the grimacing part of the French people (that is to say, the vilest sort of plebs there is). An improbable aristocracy and an unspeakable people are thereby subsumed into the otherwise crude hierarchy of the Hollywood star system. 
Marie-Antoinette is one of those films where the American dream (the middle-class one) is clothed in the old noble garments of European history. The charm of these films is also their limitation, for if you can manage to believe that Tyrone Power is Axel Fersen, it’s still better that he doesn’t have too many scenes to play. 
One TV magazine recommended to watch this film with a curious glance, as a kitsch item. For all those wearied of this smarty-pants approach, Marie-Antoinette remains in 1988 the toshy film is was in 1938 (and the savoir-faire of Van Dyke – who at the time became known as the man for working wonders with the impossible – changes nothing). In 1988 it has merely become a neo-tosh item, and what’s more, difficult to watch. One minute (like a good little Frenchman) it’s a matter of being a stickler for historical truth and raising eyebrows at the frivolities of the script. The next, it’s like watching an unwitting documentary on the unpalatable Norma Shearer with her way of acting for the camera and never with her co-stars. 
In cinema, a good film is a film that can yield up perhaps two or three readings, depending on different periods and audiences. A bad film yields only one: the first. And since, forty years on, there is nobody in the audience who is imbecilic enough to read the film as its original audience did, all that’s left is recourse to the ‘kitsch’, that mock second reading whose byword could be ‘bring your own sandwiches’. 
This doesn’t stop Marie-Antoinette from having the average qualities of American film-making and for these characteristics to function in such a void that they’re in plain sight for everyone. For example, the way of making anything follow on from anything, willy-nilly, as if was just simplistic cause and simplified effect and there was nothing more important than hysterically joining up the links in an endless chain, of no interest to anyone anyway, with neither start nor finish. One character alone, though, suspects that this story is scarcely worth the trouble of being lived and divulged, and this is the worthy Louis XVI, played by Robert Morley, all pouts and whites of eyes. There’s a moment when Van Dyke (whose specialty is more the adventure film) gives way and films the future Louis XVI nearly beating up Louis XV-Barrymore as he sits there, pox-ridden in his armchair. An unexpected bit of body contact. We can breathe. 

First published in Libération on 18 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Translator’s note: the French title is ‘néo-cruche’. ‘Cruche’ is a derogatory name for a stupid person. I've kept the translation 'neo-tosh' (from Cinema in transit) which isn't ideal but difficult to replace.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Three years after the Dragon

What is near and what is far? There are questions which may well not survive the art of cinema. How do things go about reaching us from the ends of the earth? And how are we to see them coming? Populations, news and drugs are a part of these things. They are at the heart of Year of the Dragon (1985) and of Michael Cimino’s films. Seeing again Year of the Dragon, on Canal Plus, three years on, makes us realise just how much this question will never be one for television. On television, what is far is always-already-there, an ‘old faithful’, with neither aura or fripperies. TV’s real exoticism is what happens ‘at home’, when by chance something happens which we were far from suspecting. With cinema, things went quite differently and it wasn’t unusual for great directors (Cimino is sometimes one) to take on journalists’ issues. Funny kinds of journalists, convinced that ‘everything is meshed’ and you only have to pull a thread to bring – why not? – the whole world to you. A world they would be crazy enough (paranoia is the word) to fit into one film. 
‘This goes back a long way’ is the leitmotiv of captain White, the furious hero disguised as Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon. This what? This everything. The activities of the Chinatown gangs, which go back to the Sino-American mafia, which goes back to the Hong Kong triads, which goes back several thousand years in China and to the historical presence of Chinese in the United States. Not to speak of the drugs arriving from Bangkok on a Polish ship, the Kazimierz Pulawski, a quirk of fate when you think that White also comes from a long way away – from Poland to be precise – with a painful detour via Vietnam. Resentment too goes a long way back, like anger which is better tasted cold and grudges which push back the limits of the world. 
We remember the ‘controversy’ that greeted the film on its release: was it racist or not? On TV you can see more clearly how much the racism is only a petty rationalisation of what Cimino still has it in him to film with the voraciousness and folly which any director worthy of the name can’t but possess, and which always exceeds his ideological limits. 
Year of the Dragon has to be seen as a (sometimes futile) exercise in style on this question of what’s close and what’s a long way away. This is the effect TV has on the film. What has to be seen is how Cimino tries everything before getting to the only confrontation which could tie up every loose end in the film. What has to be seen is the way Cimino builds up his scenes from big camera movements, within which there’s a proliferation of actions which aren’t simultaneous (as on TV), but parallel (as in the cinema). Once, the crucial question was how to get close to things. But where the zoom has replaced the actors’ movements with the movements of our eyes, Cimino thrusts Rourke like a living zoom into the thick of what suddenly shifts from ‘too far’ to ‘too near’, from jealousy to phobia. 
So, for Cimino, it’s also necessary that what’s far recedes as what is near gets closer*. About halfway through Year of the Dragon there are some extraordinary scenes. Criticised by all the other characters in the film, analysed and completely exposed, Stanley White collapses under the strain and becomes a wreck for several scenes. That’s when Cimino abandons him without warning and follows his enemy, the seductive Joey Tai, the young Chinese mafia leader, on a ‘business’ trip into the Thai (or Burmese?) forests. An incredible episode where we are compelled to ‘identify’ with this character, who is after all the villain of the film. Cimino succumbs to a very strange temptation, that of replacing his deadbeat lawman with his sworn enemy and granting him a nice piece of adventure movie. 
The result is that when we return to New York and the Polish choir at the funeral of White’s wife, we get something like a poignant illustration of the kind of movies Cimino’s unconscious dreams about. Movies with ever-wider concentric circles, where the threads connecting what’s close and what’s far are woven before our eyes, where the whole world communicates with itself. This was, incidentally, his stroke of genius in The Deer Hunter, moving without warning from Vietnam to Pennsylvania, and it’s this kind of thing that made Cimino (up until The Sicilian) so special a director. 
This is only a temptation though. Whether to enlarge the circles to infinity or to plunge into the target’s heart, where only one of the two men can survive? Year of the Dragon opts for the second solution, the one more in keeping with its stale moralism, but against the nature of Cimino’s talent. 

* The ultimate image of the double phobic movement: the vertical shot down the clock tower staircase in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
First published in Libération on 14 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television

In the autumn of 1988, Serge Daney started to write about films on French television in a column called 'Ghosts of permanence' for the newspaper Libération. A large selection of these texts featured in Daney's fourth book Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting translations of many of these texts, quite rapidly and in chronological order, attempting to match the rhythm of the column (every other day or so). Keep checking the blog. Here's the intro he wrote in Recrudescence.
Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television 
To Jean-Claude Biette * 
This daily chronicle of ‘films on television’ came about from an irritation. For years, I’ve heard my old fellow cinephiles saying that a film on TV ‘is not the same thing’. Something, it was suggested, was irremediably lost. ‘Something’ which, in the event, nobody would venture to describe. To all of them it seemed certain that, on television, all that would be left of a film like The Ten Commandements would be a multi-coloured genocide, while India Song would be a triumph on the small screen. As if the passage from projection to broadcasting, from big to small screen, from chemical optics to electronic was solely about the opposition between intimacy and spectacle. 
I’ve always had the feeling it was nothing of the sort and that if, in the passage from the auditorium to the living room, there was, if not a metamorphosis, at least an anamorphosis, it would be a more subtle and less expected one. That in this passage of films under the X-rays of TV, something was lost (in terms of embodiment, seduction, of a certain captivating brilliance), but that something else at times was preserved, indeed gained (in terms of the nervous system, the skeleton, a certain head-on violence). In short, one had to take a closer look, and in person, with the certitude that, whatever the case, future generations will discover cinema with its loss
A daily column was the best tool of enquiry. For one thing because French television is – France oblige – very cinephile and day in day out there were all kinds of films to choose from – some of them, a rarity, in the original version. For another thing because, from rare late night cine-club items to obscure filler films and the eighties top grossers that could now be seen with hindsight, one could rediscover in this column the charm and flavour of old-school criticism, for whom a film, before being targeted or labelled, was only a film (one film one vote). Plunged into the trivial promiscuity of television, films ‘breathe’ better than on the lone pedestals of cinematheques. 
The other reason for this column was the somewhat disenchanted verdict I had reached by the end of my previous column (Le salaire du zappeur). My Lumière-Rossellini-Bazin-Godard hypothesis, which held out some hope of seeing on television the eventual continuation of one strand of cinema (the strand concerned with, not to say obsessed by, the concept of ‘information’), seemed to me more and more refuted by the way in which the power of the media was evolving. Looking at the mechanisms of run-of-the-mill French television ‘as a cinephile’, I had been struck by the triumph of parochial values and their enactment, to the detriment of what I saw more and more as the posthumous beauty of cinema: nothing less than a relation to the ‘world’. Television was not a continuation of cinema, for the good reason that it was not a machine for creating, nor even for producing, but instead for racketeering (at worst) or (at best) for showing
A film on television is neither cinema nor television, it’s a ‘reproduction’ or else an ‘information’ about a prior state in the coexistence between men and images, the images that nourish them and the images that give them life.
* The column 'Ghosts of permanence' was created in the early 80s by Daney's fellow film critic (and future filmmaker) Jean-Claude Biette.

Notes on the translation: For most of the texts, I've re-worked the translations from the manuscript Cinema in transit, an unpublished English-language anthology which I got from Steve Erickson. In practice, this has meant correcting typos, adjusting the style and tackling mistranslations (there were quite a few) which I've checked against the original text. I've also translated some other texts from scratch with the invaluable help of Otis Wheeler.