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.

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