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.

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