Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sink the Herring!

It was two minutes past midnight when the Bismarck last sank, on Tuesday morning on Channel 2. It had already sunk for real in 1941, then for Fox in 1960, it might as well sink all over again for a French television channel and, against all expectations, it created a small flow of ink. To tell the truth the old Sink the Bismarck, by that English robot Lewis Gilbert, sinks down nicely on TV, that definitive scuppering machine for flimsy films. For instead of suffering as a coloured ham between two slices of black bread, this black and white Cinemascope production benefits from a lovely grey monochrome that’s quite independent of what everyone intended. At the cinema, there must have been a certain meagre charm in those shots of grey boats cutting through the mists and edging past the ice, or in those torpedoes going their merry little underwater way. On TV, thanks to those two black strips added on, the photography of Christopher Challis B.S.C. gains a great deal in refinement. And since the film is really of no interest whatsoever, the uncomplicated contemplation of those greys can be used as an audiovisual spiritual exercise.  
At the point when the Bismarck sinks (‘the Fuhrer promised to send the Luftwaffe!’, are the plaintive last words of the German admiral, a megalomaniac who turns out to be pretty naive), the English heroes of this English film, locked up for days on end in the heart of London (not far from Trafalgar Square, recognisable by its revolting pigeons), savour their victory with moderation. ‘I thought I’d scream with joy, but really, I can’t’, observes Ann Davis, who is answered by a soldier: ‘I know, it’s always like that.’ If the film is about anything at all, it’s about how tight-arsed the English are. With the excuse that the war is hard, that they’re waging it pretty much on their own in 1941 and that the stakes are huge, the men take the opportunity to offer one another (and to one woman, just one) the grandiose spectacle of their emotional infirmity (except for a very pretty telegraph operator who soon gets sent to the infirmary, since the whole thing turns him feverish). 
Oddly enough, Sink the Bismarck doesn’t reproduce the classic opposition between the simple, dignified humanity of the English and the fanatical efficiency of the German machine. Between the admiral of the Bismarck, his commander and the rest of the crew there are emotions, glasses of champagne, speeches and, finally, quite a bit of irrational behaviour. Die as they do, en masse, around midnight, the Germans look more alive than the stuffed English dummies who send them to the deep. 
This is why the film’s real suspense comes not from whether the Bismarck will be sunk or not, but from whether Jonathan Sheppard, the real sinker of the Bismarck, is able to cry or not. Oddly again, it’s the comic actor Kenneth More who has been asked to give a performance of steely sharpness in the part of a military man ‘as cold as the heart of a corpse’, all super professionalism and inner desolation. This man, who lives only for combat, has lost his wife in the blitz and has no one in the world but a son, based in Gibraltar and also caught up in the war. 
At 23 h 34 (French time) Sheppard is told that the lad is missing in action. In as much as we really don’t give a damn, we’re very interested to see how the actor will manage to convey an emotion that we have trouble sharing. And it’s here that we spot that Kenneth More has a rather original way of closing his eyes very hard as if either to hold back the tears inside them or to overcome the physical pain felt by someone who has just banged his knee. Not bad, we say. But when at 23 h 54, eight minutes before the Bismarck sinks, Sheppard is told that the same lad has been found and More shuts his eyes once again, you realise that the real subject of the film isn’t ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ but actually ‘Drown, in tears!’ This transpires during a rather nice shot where we see the actor, in a mirror, letting out little whimpers into a very clean handkerchief. Otherwise, a film like this is the archetypal film that missed the boat. English courage had the good fortune to be filmed (in the blitz) by the English documentarists (is there anything finer than Humphrey Jennings’ London Can Take It?). For, as J.L.G. says, the usual ‘quirk’ of the English is their lack of imagination, the documentary. Fifteen years after the war ended, Lewis Gilbert should have been ready to film something quite different. Not the tears, and not the Bismarck, but whatever connects the two. 

First published in Libération on 11 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Walsh draws kings

One of the reasons films still carry a lot of punch on television is that we can sense a great physical energy in them. Not the stalling frenzy of TV series where, exhausted by all the zoom shots, we no longer know if the actors have moved within the frame, or if our optic nerve is on orbit. Not the repressed anxiety of the half bodies that read world news or announce continuity between shows. Nothing like that, but instead the sense that one must have been young and healthy to make these old films. It's one of the least proclaimed truth of cinema: nervous impulse and resistance to tiredness are irreplaceable*. Of all the art forms, cinema remains the one that requires to be 'in good form'. Otherwise, one couldn't explain the impressive number of first films that will remain the best of their authors. 
One of the reasons the unexpected re-discovery of Raoul Walsh's The King and Four Queens is a great surprise, is that you can see tiredness in it. In 1956, Walsh had been making films for forty-three years and Gable for thirty-two. And Jo Fleet might only be thirty-seven years old but her role as the MacDaid widow implies that she's at least twenty years older. The least fit in the group is Clarke Gable, who will die four years later. And it's around a slow and flickering King that Raoul Walsh organised his mise-en-scène. Stripped down, minimal, and very refined: a real 'lesson' in mise-en-scène. That being said, the film was never considered a great one. It's perhaps inferior to the other film Walsh directed in 1956, the little known The Revolt of Mamie Stover with Jane Russell, which the author of these lines must confess he secretly worships. The King and Four Queens is the type of entertainment that cinema pioneers could allow themselves to make at the dawn of their long career. 
This reminder is not to move the reader to pity. Walsh's laziness and the fatigue in King are one thing, ours is another. When seasoned veterans start working 'economically', it's because they can afford it. They have accumulated enough experience to signify the energy (and, in Walsh's case, a kind of geometric rage) that begins to lack, in order to fulfil their contract with dignity. The advantage of the now decried 'politique des auteurs' was to provide the loyal cinephile with precise information on the state of natural wear and tear of a material used for a long time. Wear and tear of the actors, of the stories, of the landscapes. But it also showed how what was lost in wild energy was regained in elegance and speed. 
The script of The King and Four Queens is more than clever; like all of Walsh's scripts, it is structured as a Freudian rebus, topped up with the charm of an equation reduced to its essential parts. A woman, mother of four bad boys who are all dead but one, is surrounded by four young widows while waiting for the survivor (nobody knows which of the four he is) to come collect the treasure she has buried somewhere. The Bible under her arm, dressed in grey, her round face distorted by a childish and distrustful rictus, Jo Van Fleet is the most beautiful character of the film and her concluding lines are grandiose: 'after that, I wash my hands.' The four women are torn apart between their desire for money and for the man that will come and free them. Sabrinao, Oralia, Ruby and Birdie swoop on the mysterious Kehoe (Gable) who has come to resolve the equation that makes their heart melt.  
In this film with no fights and where people talk a lot, Gable, thanks to two or three winks and movements of a zen turtle, practices a real psychoanalytic listening (a rather short version of it). Each woman produces for him some symptoms, totally obvious but instructive. Walsh only lays them out like coloured spots in a ball scene. With a beautiful simplicity and this art to quickly reach the essential, he has fun connecting scenes where any spontaneous gestures has been banished. That's ok, since what matters is to let the repressed desires return.  
Dan Kehoe leaves with the treasure and one of the daughters. A very relative happy ending since he must return (almost all) the money to the sheriff. A very Walshian happy ending since the great Raoul never had any other message: he who can do more, can do less.
* It's perhaps one of the fundamental differences with traditional arts. No filmmaker can have the energy of Titian or Picasso when reaching old age. One exception: the great Manoel de Oliveira. 

First published in Libération on 9 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Illegal history

There are utopias we hold dear. To see the first images of a film, one day, without knowing where they go or what they want. To witness something that is born, builds itself, oscillates and gets undone. To renounce to know too quickly who’s good and who’s evil because it’s so much more interesting to simply observe. In short, to keep one’s neurons going and to be surprised to still be that clever, as clever as the man who made the film, Jerzy Skolimowski in this case. 
In 1982, Skolimowski is not unknown in cinephile circles. It’s just that we know nothing of the film that he just shot (very quickly) in London and that is going to represent Great Britain at the Cannes film festival. Moonlighting is seen before we could find out what it is about. For once, the viewing of the film went faster than its pre-digested image. And if Cannes was enchanted by the film, it’s because it fulfilled the buried dream of any film critic: to discover a film as its story unfolds in front of our eyes. The utopia of real time.  
Obviously, the subject of Moonlighting is real time itself. To save money, a powerful Polish dignitary gets his London flat renovated by Polish workers who will spend a month (the length of their tourist visa) to work (illegally) like dogs before returning to Poland where they will be generously paid (even in zlotys). Because he speaks English, a certain Novack chooses the workers (who are not very smart) and manages the operations (with an iron fist). Time and money are counted and the four men have little time to see London apart from a glum bit of pavement (it’s Christmas time), a dull supermarket and the red spot that is the telephone box on the street corner. 
The film is told through Novack’s voiceover and eye-rolling movements (Jeremy Irons, frankly neurasthenic, but great). Novack hates his workers and laboriously makes do with pathetic specimens of the English population (the supermarket supervisor in a red tailor suit is unforgettable). When he learns about the military coup in Poland, he decides to wait until the very last moment (on the road to the airport) to tell the others. 
Why tell the story? To feel like script writers for a few minutes. Because there are films that will never tire to make others, who have not seen them, wonder how well and cleverly the story is told. To make them guess that the one who has found such an angle – sending back to back his country of origin (Poland) and his country of residence (England) – will have no problem to film – as others should do more often – this ungrateful and fascinating thing that is labour. Seen on a small screen (where, thanks to commercials, there are still grotesque pictures depicting labour), the frenzy with which Skolimowski’s illegal workers take down walls and install plumbing pipes comes across as – yes – refreshing.  
Among the last films we saw, Moonlighting is one that sticks so well to reality that it benefits from its energy. The Polish reality being, rightly, sinister, the film itself is not joyful, even if it’s funny. But Moonlighting is one of the first films which, in the midst of these boring and repeated stories about communication, has the freshness of Christopher Columbus’ egg. Cut off from everything, living like moles, the four Polish men of London need only to go down the street to benefit from one of these miraculous phone boxes where one can call anywhere in the world for very little. They therefore talk to their wives in Warsaw. And when Jaruzelski takes power in Warsaw, Novack nearly crawls down in the rain to contemplate, astounded, the images of tanks in the window of an electrical goods shop.  
These images are beautiful because they are today the most likely to be right. No need to be exiled, drunk, or Polish to encounter on a street corner the countless proofs that the world continues, sometimes elsewhere and almost always without us. This gives a sort of hungerless appetite, a cold desire and a raging nostalgia, which results from the effect that techniques of communication have on those who – like Novack – have the utmost trouble in communicating with themselves.  
First published in Libération on 7 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is first and foremost a hymn to the night. Whether it’s a crowded circus train or female elephants working to hoist the big top in the rain, or the shadow that’s cast on the same big top destroyed, or the remote cabin where Dumbo’s mother - now a ‘mad elephant’ - weeps, the film’s great moments have the night as their decor. It is night when the young mouse whispers to the man who imagines he is dreaming the idea of the show with Dumbo as its star, and it is night, when after the catastrophe, the big-eared elephant and his pal, the young mouse, fall into a well of champagne. What a strange cartoon it is, this Dumbo in darkness. What a strange story, that of a bogus baby elephant*.  
The answer to the question ‘Where do babies come from?’ first seems to be: ‘with the stork’ (it’s 1941). This is how the film begins, with the storks in their zeal going so far as to also service part of the animal world. But if the she-bear is delighted to take delivery of her cub, the she-elephant (an otherwise irreproachable mother) suspects that those hypertrophied ears will only bring trouble to their wearer. It is the other (jealous) she-elephants who give the name ‘Dumbo’ to he who will never be Jumbo and whom they decide to ‘erase from the elephant race’. Just as later the young mouse will tell him, by way of consolation: ‘Tell yourself your ancestors were mammoths!’ But does he really believe it? For Dumbo who is clumsiness itself, learns nothing, acquires no elephant ways, and doesn’t even speak. 
We know the moral of the film. It is all the more familiar for being thoroughly American (from Disney to Spielberg). It says that an individual never honours his group more than when he has found the strength to transform his personal handicap into a collective strength**. So it’s no surprise to see Dumbo revealed to himself and the others in the last part of the film. The little albatross with giant ears that hinder him from walking, will fly instead and, simultaneously, be up and away with the limelight, stealing the show from the rest. The ending is an apotheosis, with the flying baby elephant escorting the train, the circus and his mother. 
But this moralising reading of Dumbo isn’t obligatory. The film is perhaps more beautiful if you see it less as Dumbo’s revenge than as a process described in many myths, a process that tells the story of the hero’s double birth. The first birth is from day to night. The second birth from night to day. In the first of these Dumbo would be badly programmed in the role of the baby elephant which he isn’t, and in the second he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a species with only one member: the dumbo. Light would finally be cast on the ‘true nature’ of this celestial entity, at the end of a harrowing series of nocturnal tests. In short, Dumbo may not be an elephant. 
Why hazard this mind-blowing thesis? Because there’s one extraordinary episode in Dumbo. Because before he winds up on a tree ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on the ground and there, in all innocence, he gets thoroughly sozzled. Everyone who loves cartoons, their crazy euphoria or sheer graphic invention, will know Dumbo’s drunken spree with its frieze of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not entirely without logic. From the black background where elephantomorphic figures at first stand out laughing, to the pink clouds of dawn on Dumbo’s first real day, there is a real rite of passage. And this is a whole series of figures parading, dancing and wriggling, figures comic and grotesque, whose only remaining elephantness is their trunk, indeed just a ‘concept’ trunk. Carnivalesque bipeds, lewd and devil-may-care, wearing masks with black holes in the middle, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, automobile-elephants, all delighted at their improbability, a real ‘shape shifter’ of pagan ritual, joyously overseeing the true birth of one of their own: the Dumbo. We are suddenly a very long way from the storks and mummies of the start. 
Dumbo was on TV on Monday on Canal Plus. The next day, still on the pay-TV channel, you could watch – mesmerised – Zbigniew Rybczyński’s sublime Fourth Dimension. Oddly, these two films which are separated by almost half a century, brought up the same questions. The issue is no longer anthropomorphism. It is the return of the figure. And when the figure exists in all of its forms it bears the lovely name: metamorphoses***. 

* The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was bored senseless in Malta and he likes elephants. He saw the film in an empty and filthy theatre.  
** This is why there’s something truly heroic in Chaplin’s last films: Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York. The last of these can rightly be considered as one of the most unremittingly lugubrious masterpieces of the cinema. This can never be said enough. 
*** Rybcziński, who is from the Eastern bloc, perhaps has more respect for the great figures of the cinema, and he revisits them one by one (Tango, Steps) like a prestidigitator who, before our eyes, would perform the necessary metamorphosis of a plastic world into another one, playing with some kind of retinal super-persistence of the History of the Cinema.
First published in Libération on 5 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Heavens, a telefilm!

There are nights – Monday nights especially – when there’s a great temptation to go and see with your own eyes what the difference is between a film and a telefilm. An English telefilm, thoroughly classy, a posh BBC production lost on M6, is so perfect for the experiment that whatever else you say about the English you can’t fault them for the seriousness with which, for decades, they’ve tackled things televisual, having first thought fit to neglect their cinema. So nothing could be more appropriate than this adaptation (1985) of George Eliot’s classic, Silas Marner (1860). You see Ben Kingsley, the ready-made victim, weaving away like a madman in the mists of Raveloe, little Eppie growing up more beautiful and red-haired, the rich suffering in their own way and the poor in theirs. What you see mostly though are blotchy faces craning forward just far enough to fit into the picture, as if they were just as afraid of bumping into the edges of the frame as into the doors of the pub. 
This is the first difference from film. There are no close-ups in the telefilm since there’s scarcely anything but close-ups. Obviously these have the advantage of speeding up narration by replacing the movement of bodies with the fast reading of faces. They have another, less obvious, advantage which lies in escaping any temptation of subjectivism: what you see is never seen by anyone but the TV viewer. We know, besides, just how much the English, with their instant enmity for any intrusion by the author into the work, similarly hate any idea of ‘point of view’. At the idea that even for an instant his perception could be merged with that of a character, the viewer verges on invoking the right of Habeas corpus
Taken to excessive limits, the close-up merely spells out immediately the meaning of a scene. So, when Silas Marner discovers this gift from heaven which is the child, a close-up of the money that has been stolen from him (and which the child will all the better replace) leaves the TV viewer in no doubt about the meaning with which the whole story has to be endowed. He thought he was coming to things of a deeply stirring nature and all he’s done is read a cut-and-dried picture puzzle, as revolting as a too-easy crossword which we throw away undone and with embarrassment at the idea that we could have drawn some satisfaction from having done it all the same. 
These aren’t great discoveries of course. But a cinema film would always have some theories of its own – more or less implicit or clever – about how to close in on distance or keep closeness at a distance. A telefilm belongs well and truly to our time, which treats all images like the letters on an optician’s eye test chart, forever fixed where they are and, even more so, for our own good. The problem, one feels, is that we no longer follow stories (with delight) from A to Z but (which is much quicker), from Z to U. 
This being said, we must temper this fitting sadness. Silas Marner is watchable, precisely because of the very Britishness of the treatment. Being less haunted than their French colleagues by the memory of cinema (from which they’ve never expected great things), the English TV-makers at least have the merit of keeping their little world together in the shape of a ZU. The actors’ bloated faces come straight out of Hogarth and, for a film whose action takes place in the nineteenth century, they are lit as they should be, meaning little and badly. The English are perhaps the only people on earth capable of this honesty so lacking in our own costumed tele-things: which takes the form of showing that life back then was hard, dismal, graceless and plunged in semi-darkness. By pure and simple respect for the ‘subject’ we might just find enough to justify the abuse of the close-up and the crowded image. If we remember that we had to wait for Barry Lyndon before it dawned on us how the world must have looked by candlelight, we can’t blame Giles Foster for having kept his story in a consistently greenish twilight. 
Is a telefilm depressing? Yes, it’s depressing. Less because it has forgotten the ample gestures of the costumed film, than because it doesn’t go all the way of its gloomy naturalism. Now, the English have been naturalists for long enough to have an inkling (sometimes) that TV, with its static illustrations and its short-cutting close-ups, could offer us some interesting simulations of space-time as lived in the past. This is why, we’re always a little be grateful with them for the care they take to suggest that this past wasn’t a piece of cake.  

First published in Libération on 28 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Citizen Cain

If it’s always odd to see films taking their place in the TV listings grid, this oddity becomes sheer irony when the film begins with images of grids. And the grid that separates the dying Kane from the rest of the world is among the first objects that we see in Citizen Kane. Beyond the ‘No trespassing’ sign, a camera movement goes over a wall of barbwire and a steel fence, with a dissolve on the wrought iron letter K and the enigmatic images of a night time Xanadu with parks, monkeys and gondolas. And when the film ends with the unfinished investigation and the shot of the Rosebud sleigh in flames, it’s on the same ‘No trespassing’ sign, and still tip-toeing. 
A similar thing happens with Welles, Fellini, Kubrick or any filmmaker labelled ‘baroque’. We should breathe new life in this word (baroque), making it current. For what is baroque with these filmmakers cannot be reduced to a taste for irregularity or anamorphosis. Rather, this taste must have come to them at the same time they became conscious, one after the other, of a real metamorphosis of what was not yet called ‘audio-visual’ or ‘landscape’. In fact, it’s with baroque filmmakers that the intertwining of public and private life became a real headache.  
‘Rarely a private life has been so public,’ says a description of the film when talking about Kane. Welles was the first one to invent, with Rosebud, a gimmick that is less a fictional ‘last word’ than a ‘sound bite’ left to the voracious media. The line that separated reserve and exhibition, bad faith and pious lie, treachery and illusionism, must constantly be drawn and replayed, and Welles would dedicate his life to doing so. The radio host who scared his fellow citizens with The War of the Worlds will never abandon this line. With his morality, Welles will be torn apart between the desire to become a citizen among others and the desire to remain Kane, meaning Cain.  
There’s no point pushing the first open door of the year by saying how beautiful Citizen Kane is. But there is a point in wondering about the transfer on television of this old masterpiece (1941). For it’s precisely what we now call ‘media’ that Welles is already talking about. It’s leaning over the cradle of the media that Welles has had his best success. This success belonged for a long time to the history of cinema but, with time, we understand more and more that they also represent a kind of historical ‘right to look’ of a filmmaker – Welles, a great mediator – over a world – the media – that is distancing itself from cinema (after having picked its pockets).  
It’s enough to see the fake news report on Kane’s life (News on the March) that opens the film to see how much it anticipates the great pompous TV-obituaries based on archive footage. It’s enough to watch the way that Cotten, Sloane and the others, made up to look older, are filmed in the interviews (with the reporter in an over the shoulder shot) to see how much Welles anticipates the craving for commemorations and survivors’ testimonies that please radio and television so much. In other words, one of the great reasons behind the modernity of the style of Citizen Kane is that Welles was already filming with composite styles and according to several rhetorical stances, as if he would be doing it for a TV channel (which would be the dream of ubiquity of his own Mercury theatre troupe). 
Wellesian wisdom, worthy of Zeno of Elea, says that whatever the technique used, it will miss something in the news (perhaps the essential, but not necessarily). But the Wellesian greatness will never make a big deal of it. It’s the movement towards information that is positive (making good citizens out of us), not the always disappointed belief that truth could be told in full or that it could be expressed in just one word (making us all little Cains, meaning consumed with envy). 
Welles never stopped to invent monsters like Kane, Arkadin, Quinlan and others news traffickers. He exorcised what must have come across to him as his own demon as well as the demon of the century: the art to seduce victims and to get rid of witnesses. The prophet Welles got only one thing wrong: his monsters had a child-like side and a seedy greatness that will sorely miss in their successors heading TV listing grids and channels. 
First published in Libération on 2 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Laura’s aura

What was the right sentence? ‘Ok, old bastard, you can start filming Monday,’ or ‘You can start filming Monday, starting from scratch’? Who shall we believe: Leonard Mosey in his book on Zanuck or Preminger in his autobiography? When Zanuck, the Fox tyrant, finally gives the green light to Preminger, Laura (which will be a box office and critical success before turning cult-film) is a poor and damaged thing. The number of people that became upset along the Laura-project is incredible. Vera Caspary, because his novel was first confined to Fox’s ‘B’ department. Brian Foy, the boss of this department, who detested the script but was overruled by Zanuck. Clifton Webb, a theatre actor, who was asked – supreme humiliation – to do a screen test. Mamoulian, who was chosen to direct the film and only accepted it reluctantly, to make a bit of money. Dana Andrews who, for his first starring rule, was held in contempt by Zanuck. Mamoulian’s wife who painted Laura’s first portrait but saw her work replaced by a large modified photography. Judith Anderson who took herself for Medea and was asked to play more economically. And Zanuck himself who, having forced an ending of his choosing, finally had to give in. Only Preminger, producer and eventually ‘auteur’ of this pile of muffled hatred, was right to take it on the chin and hold firm. Laura is not only the film that established his reputation as a director but, bizarrely, will stay as the leading film of this troubled period for Fox.  
These anecdotes are not meant to devoid Laura of its merits but to remind us of the rule of the game (and the beauty of cinema): films are not only the results of their conditions of production, they are – sometimes – their reflection. To watch and watch again Laura is to understand how, as early as 1944, nothing is simple anymore in Hollywood. We’re witnessing in real time the birth of mannerism. And because it’s in real time, we see on Gene Tierney’s and Dana Andrew’s inexpressive faces and amateurish acting, their real innocence as they sink (and us with them) in a world of useless complications, alternative truths and bouncing lights.  
What’s Laura if not the story of a gaze to come, Mark MacPherson’s gaze (played by Dana Andrews) on the Laura in flesh and bones that replaces the Laura in portrait as the storm rages outside? Throughout his relentless and fast-paced investigation, Dana Andrews only has eyes for the small baseball game that he carries in his pocket, as if his own eyes were steel balls that refused to move to an object that don’t deserve them. Dana Andrews – we will never say enough how much the great American cinema of the fifties owe to his closed and stubborn acting – is one of these actors that listens with his eyes. He listens (to the others’ lies) until he finds, in front of him, an object worth looking at: Laura. And when she (who exists so little) is facing him, he becomes immediately, in the great tradition of Premingerian heroes, the one that has, all in all, only one gaze for himself (we shall never forget Jean Simmons’ gaze at the end of Angel Face, how could we?). 
Mannerism is not being fussy, it’s taking samples. The characters in Laura belong to a world where people talk a lot but communicate very little because the organs of communication suffer a handicap. If a cop only has one gaze, the writer only has one voice, his, and a voice over on top of that. Waldo Lydecker’s voice (Clifton Webb’s) opens the film, accompanies his holder until he dies, to the sound of his own radio programme. As for Laura, she exists so little that the film is consumed in trying to make her image exist, for lack of anything else. Of Laura, we know the two houses, the portrait, the fatal negligee, the rapid career: all the samples taken on a bland character, a young women enjoying success but who doesn’t know – at all – what a man is.  
We called ‘mise en scene’ this know-how that saves appearances once the organs of fascination have become independent of the bodies they adorned.  
First published in Libération on 27 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the water

‘We have come as a delegation since what we want to ask you is a bit delicate’, they said. ‘We are the fishmen of the film that you just saw. We are under no illusion about our beauty but we’re asking you not to be afraid.’ 
‘You are absolutely hideous’ I said in an understatement, ‘but I’m not afraid.’ 
Why did I choose to watch Island of the Fishmen (1979) by Sergio Martino that evening over many other more dignified films? Was is the nostalgia of small adventure films, quickly made and quickly botched? The exacerbated desire to be surprised? The emotion at the idea to see again, even dubbed, the old Joseph Cotten? In any case, they were here, their squames dripping water on the wood floor, and I knew that these carnivorous piles were fundamentally good and incapable of meanness.  
‘You see’ said their leader, looking for his words, ‘We know that Island of the Fishmen is a film rarely seen. But for us, the fishmen that believed in the script, the adventure is a bit unpleasant since the film is sold under our name and yet we only appear in a few superficial and badly edited horror scenes.’ 
‘Be fair’ I said to show good will ‘there is only one beautiful scene in the film, a real poetic moment, and it’s because of you.’ 
‘Which one, which one?’ The voices said.  
‘I’m thinking of the moment when Amanda comes among you and you emerge out of the water, around her, with your iguana-like claws and piranha teeth, as she distributes a bit of coloured liquid that you drink with a glutinous clumsiness, and if I remember correctly, with little plaintive screams that work very well… If only all the film was made of this water…’ 
‘Ah yes… water…’ muttered the few monsters who, already, were finding the atmosphere stifling. ‘Let’s go back in it, that will be better.’ 
‘No’ said their leader. ‘We must know. We must know what was our true role in this hellish film which we never understood since no one ever told us about the script.’ 
‘Yes’ said a voice that couldn’t bear it any longer. ‘We want to know who we are!’ 
‘Have you seen The Island of Doctor Moreau? Yes? Well, it’s a bit like that. On an island that doesn’t feature on any map, a paranoid adventurer keeps a mad scientist locked up. The scientist (an idealist wanting to do good for future mankind) aims to create a hybrid between man and fish. But the adventurer (a dishonest misanthrope) wants to train the fishmen to dive ever further to bring back treasures from the deep end of Atlantis.’ 
‘That’s what it was? Atlantis?’ 
‘Yes because it’s somewhere in the Caribbean islands that the famous continent was submerged!’ 
‘And the young girl?’ 
‘Amanda (a rather bland thing) is the scientist’s daughter and only she knows how to talk to you to calm you down.’ 
‘And the young man?’ 
‘Claude (an appalling fop) is another doctor washed up on the island. He thwarts all the evil plans and manages to escape the island when a volcanic eruption destroys it.’ 
‘And us?’ 
‘You are the ancient indigenous people of the island on who the scientist (Joseph Cotten) successfully tested his grafts. You retain some intelligence but not the gift of speech. You’re too strong and you tear apart a lot of people. The audience is meant to be very scared by you. Then, it gets used to you. At the end, it can’t care less. When the volcano erupts, you save the star couple by swimming under water and you abandon them on a beach.’ 
Silence follows, and I knew I had said too much. I was about to follow with reservations on the film style but I gave up. The harm had been done. I was facing half a dozen wrecked coelacanths.  
‘We suspected this’, the leader said, ‘but it’s always good to know. Be frank to the end: can it be said that the film in which we play, Island of the Fishmen, is awful?’ 
‘It’s a very weak film I’m afraid.’ 
‘A dud?’ 
‘Ok, time to go guys’, the leader of the fishmen said. ‘Don’t forget that we can’t stay out of the water too long. Can we use your bowl?’ 
Having dived back in the small screen, they swam joyless for a while then disappeared between two commercials.  
First published in Libération on 26 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lara, inn-keeper

In 1951, disappointed by The Red Inn, André Bazin said: ‘The moviegoers don’t know what is expected of them because they can’t see what the authors were expecting of their script.’ A comment that defines well Bazin’s idea of cinema but not at all the one that was practiced – with a certain mastery – by Aurenche, Bost and Autant-Lara. They expected only one thing from their script: that it could be identified by anyone – spectators and characters – as a script, and nothing more.  
The characters are split in two camps: those who know the rules of the game (since they have invented them) and those that will never know them. The audience, in on it by default, can only laugh at the show of a tailor-made character: the one that has the whole film to create the script he fell into, a not so simple monk played with great energy by Fernandel. And when terrified, he moans ‘Where have I fallen?’, the black Fétiche replies ‘In an inn where everybody dies!’, which could be the summary of the film in a TV guide.  
Pitched as an anti-bourgeois shooting gallery, The Red Inn is a game with zero risk for the audience: it only has to keep the score and laugh as if watching Hidden Camera. The characters that will catch up with the script will be saved, the others will be abandoned less as the puppets offered to a joyful class hatred than as those whose role was never explained.  
What happens when the scenario has invaded everything? Strange dialogues happen. When the inn-keeper’s daughter falls in love with the monk, she tells him: ‘Why don’t you wait for a heartache before becoming a monk?’ To which the boy replies with a bland voice: ‘One needs a girl to have a heartache.’ They don’t talk like human beings, they talk like intentions of the script.  
There is a strong temptation to oppose this cinema – where everything is sacrificed to the script and to acting – to another, founded on what Bazin called the expectation of the audience, an expectation that only the mise-en-scène could build up. But this debate is well-known and has already happened. Perhaps it is better to compare Autant-Lara to filmmakers seemingly from the same family.  
Autant-Lara had a worldview and a certain conception of cinema, and in 1951, if these were already academic, they weren’t yet Lepenist. In principle, Autant-Lara is closer to Buñuel with whom he shares the same themes (anticlericalism) and a dry and calligraphic art of positioning things. But even this comparison runs short. Why? Because Buñuel never places the audience on the good side, on the side of the wink and of the connivance. Because for him, the script is more an obscure inevitability that clouds the characters than the chance to be on the side of those who have read the script and laugh because of their knowledge.  
The ‘crisis of the script’ may have started in France in the fifties. At a time when too many stories (of France) couldn’t really be told anymore, it was felt right to replace the story that was nowhere to be found with the fake script. It was a mistake because as a result one began to forget that a script is not just a technique (recipes to deal with any topic) but a history onto itself. As any obsessive person will tell you, it’s not funny to spend your life repeating the same scenarios. Buñuel and Hawks are pure script writers: for them the script is more than an object to make, it’s their subject – their passion.  
Seeing again The Red Inn (and let’s be clear, it’s a very funny fabliau which even takes off once or twice), one can feel that it anticipates a series of recent French films where the search for the script becomes the very stake of the film and where it becomes more a board game played willingly by experienced actors. Since we’re gathered up and we’ve assembled a good cast, they seem to say, why couldn’t we improvise a script? 
From Bertrand Blier (Our Story) to Michelle Deville (Paltoquet) and the last Sautet (A Few Days with Me), the children of The Red Inn are more numerous than it seems. The inn is a much broader church, it has less customers and willingly admits its spleen, but it’s the same one that Autant-Lara filmed in 1951. 
First published in Libération on 17 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Deadly dubbing

‘I won’t keep you long,’ says the voice on the phone. ‘I know you’re watching Death Trap. But couldn’t you say something about the appalling way this film has been dubbed? I love Michael Caine but I can’t stand Francis Lax.’ 
Death Trap (1981) is the film adaptation of an Ira Levin play and, probably, an attempt to get as much success as Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, this time with Christopher Reeve (dubbed by Arditi) in the part of the younger man, and Michael Caine (dubbed by Lax) as the older one. Sidney Lumet has ably carried off the screen adaptation of the play, which relies on only two or three plot twists. There would be nothing much to say if it weren’t that the French version is weighing down the film so much that it creates a tiresome feeling. Our perception lags miserably behind a film where there is an essential piece of information in each sentence and plot twists every minute. So much so that by the time the film is really up and running, our eardrums are done for and we’ve called it a day. 
When the filmed theatre play doesn’t shine overly on its own what’s left to look at? The actors. The least you should be able to do is keep your eyes and ears glued to an actor you like and have always been very intrigued by. Born in London in 1933, Maurice Mickelwhite is one of those actors who are, as people say, ‘never indifferent’. Better known by the name Michael Caine, he regularly portrays ruthless and intensely neurotic types who are hard to categorise. His malleability is his strength. English and American, prole and intellectual, hetero and homo, spineless and gutsy, cynic and dreamer, Michael Caine is like the last remaining example of a studio actor, acting ‘in the old style’ those roles and sensibilities that the old-style cinema didn’t deal in. Perhaps the reason he’s so hard to dub is that he’s so fast. You get the clear impression that a whole range of nuances bound up with the English language don’t make it out alive in the transfer to Lax and French. 
All you can do is turn down the volume (after all, what’s so important about this story of mutual manipulation between two queer playwrights?) and sit back and watch how Michael Caine looks in all his glory. Well, here too we’re frustrated. Partly because Lumet, perpetually effective, sacrifices the acting to the snipping supremacy of editing. Partly because even when you feel there must be something out of the ordinary to see, this feeling remains as abstract as a clue. When, twice over, Caine cries (the first time over the death of his wife, when he assumes the role of the weeping husband calling the police, and the second, when his plan has worked and they are tears of nervous relief), it’s a surprise that we don’t feel more emotion. As if we had reconstructed something rather than seen it. 
It is to be feared that the answer will come from Dimitri Balachoff. Who is Balachoff? A Belgian who, having animated many film clubs and presented many films on TV, has written one of those articles (‘Cinematographic language and electronic images’) which clear things up. Balachoff reminds us that in optical projection the entire retina has a complete image pressed upon it every twenty-fourth of a second. Then he explains that in viewing the cathode ray tube ‘there is never any moment when the entire surface of the retina is impressed upon. The pathway of the flying spot is synchronised so as to stimulate only one tiny point on the retinal surface, every four hundred thousandth of a second. It is the retinal persistence which not only reconstitutes the movement of the images but also the static image itself, which in reality is never "seen" in its entirety.’ 
In other words, on TV we reconstitute what we should have seen. The cinema image gave us ‘the eye’ (once a second, retina and image corresponded), precisely in the way that certain great actors – Chaplin is the most famous example – verge on the subliminal by looking at the camera for an almost infinitesimal length of time. Every time we are faced with something fast-moving, like the performance of a true actor, like Michael Caine in the putrid Death Trap, we will now be called to order by Dimitri Balachoff. 
TV isn’t made for seeing, but for viewing. 

First published in Libération on 15 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Doped up Marilyn

The real star of Let’s Make Love isn’t Marilyn Monroe. It goes by the name of Demerol, Amytal, Nembutal or Phenobarbitone. At the start of shooting this film, Marilyn is really not well, and doctor Greenson, a Freudian, is appalled by the pharmacopia he discovers at his patient’s house. Did Fox believe that the silly-goose role was still just right for her in 1960? Did Cukor really hope to transcend the ineptitude of the script? Did Brynner, Grant, Hudson and Heston show foresight in successively turning down the masculine lead? Had Arthur Miller kidded himself about the state of the couple he and Norma Jean were in? Hadn’t the musical comedy turned into a bare sprinkling of cosy cabaret numbers, necessary intimist, given the paralysis that had overtaken the genre? 
All these questions loomed large around the TV-viewing of Let’s Make Love on Sunday night. Everything this film had been designed to cover up came back like the return of a thing long and painfully repressed. Everything which, on the big screen in 1960, might have worked as illusions, now owned up to not just wrinkles but a pretty sorry state of decomposition. The facelift hadn’t held. Confirmation, yet again, that the American films of the fifties and sixties, often only held together by a desperate show of glitter and glamour, are the ones that TV undoes the most pitilessly. Seeing Let’s Make Love on TV is like watching a documentary about Marilyn doped up, Cukor gone soft and Fox moronic. It isn’t without interest, but it’s not much fun. 
When you quote somebody or something, it’s wise to open inverted commas. What (who) ever you can’t get to hold together, you separate with inverted commas, which are yet another, almost voluntary, way of joining them. There’s a hint of that in Let’s Make Love when Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly are paraded on in succession like a little museum of quotations. Like Hawks making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Cukor must have quickly realised that Marilyn, a quotation embodied in the flesh and the tormented soul, was there for nobody, save the camera. More intuitive than all the others put together, Marilyn plays her part as it ought to be played in this studio system that’s as sick as her, and which, what’s more, won’t survive her. 
This is why this film can be kept like a good memory. Precisely because of that ‘inverted commas’ effect, which makes the first musical number in the film (Cole Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’) linger in the mind quite apart from the film it introduces. Because of Marilyn’s blue sweater. Because of ‘Specialisation’, which is a good number. Because of the moments when the oomph returns and the grace with it. 
Shot in Cinemascope, Let’s Make Love suffers more than others from the transfer to the small screen. It doesn’t hover between the two black bands of letterboxing, it itself is the band unrolling between two big dark blocks which clasp it yet again in the manner of inverted commas, transforming its viewing into a clinical case study. Dark (not black) blocks which on Sunday night flickered ceaselessly between black, very dark green or a purplish hue. An effect due to the whim of a single television set (mine)? Or underhand colourisation, where the application of video colour abruptly tip the thin band of De Luxe colours into the almost batrachian vision of a world gone runny lengthwise? That night the TV didn’t show Cukor’s film, it provided information on the way colour films of thirty years ago couldn’t keep their make-up from smudging. 
We mustn’t, it needs to be said, compare this film with others by Cukor. Not that its subject isn’t eminently ‘Cukorian’, but because Cukor has often given a personal inflection to the ethos of the milieu (showbiz) which was his own habitat, with an additional dash of lucidity. For Cukor, the only natural elements in the world are whatever you concoct artifice with. Cukor knows something about the truth of Hollywood, and in exchange he has accepted that Hollywood should stop him from saying it too loudly. His viewpoint is expressed briefly by Jean-Marc Clément, the Frenchy millionaire in the film: ‘You can only ever give what you have’. Cukor has made some very fine films based on this kind of stoicism. Except that to make them he needed its opposite. What do you call someone who knows (like Lacan) that love is, on the contrary, making a gift of what you do not have? The star, obviously. 
First published in Libération on 13 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Alien: come what may

So, are there films that don’t transfer well on TV? Yes, and Alien is one of them. We can remember the publicity slogan that launched it: ‘Out in space no one can hear you scream’. But the space-time of the cinema auditorium is not the space-time of apartments dimly irradiated by our TV sets. We might well scream in fear when the blood-soaked alien pierces John Hurt’s ribcage, but this scream will none-the-less be weaker than the racket of the commercial break that comes straight after it, exploiting our terror to unfurl (Chanel, Braun, Tefal, Oasis, Mir wool and so many others). Advertising bursts into the body of the film in just the same way the alien ‘exit’ the body of the man. Shame follows on too quickly after fear. This is how one of the most disquieting films of the last decade becomes, on the small screen, nothing more than a curious and awkwardly apprehended object. 
With his background in advertising, Ridley Scott remains rare among filmmakers in systematically seeking out cinematic themes to match the sensory tremor that derived from the rhetoric of advertising. What he was after in Alien was a story that would justify the subliminal procedures of advertising and he found it in the most contemporary terror, the one that brings back the organic oozing right in the midst of spotless machines. 
We shall never know whether, with each appearance of the alien, we have seen enough of it. For some it’s already too much; for others it will never be enough. For everyone, however, there will be no way of getting used to the monster since it only comes in avatars. The paradoxical power of Alien is that it is a film at the edge of the visible, compelling its audience to strain its eyes in the effort of focussing the look. It is a film that requires a big screen. It is above all a film that requires darkness. The bigger the screen the less forgivable the failure to see anything. The darker the auditorium, the more time there is to very gradually acquire night vision. 
Like many films that test our perception, Alien has a script which we rediscover with each fresh viewing. In our obsession with the monster we forget that the human crew are undergoing the same treatment; it is only gradually that we close in on their faces with the hope of reading something in them. The film doesn’t encourage any psychologising along the lines of ‘the human group finding itself in the face of danger’ and if, like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, forever magnificent), we are drawn to learn more about what the enigmatic Ash has in his head, our desire will be fulfilled to the letter. One of the few close-ups in the film is in fact of Ash’s head, frothing and torn off his robot body and disclosing in an even voice the heart of the story. There is no more interiority, there is only a succession of insides and what’s inside them. 
Why do the adventures of those on board the Nostromo (the alien included) work less well on television? Because the desire to still see something is more quickly dampened by the size of the screen. Because the desire to hear is thoroughly stifled by the anaemic sound of the television set. Because television viewers are less used to having to take bearings than film viewers. Because they haven’t even had time to work out where they are on the Nostromo when it becomes a strange and boundless place for its passengers, a real museum of primeval fears (the basement, the hold and the cubbyholes) inherited from the planet Earth. 
And then, thanks to La Cinq, that inveterate grand butcher of film, we become aware of another reason for our discomfort. Among the many commercials that have interrupted the film, there is at least one that seems to come out of the same plastic universe as Alien. This is the Braun commercial where a man and a razor appear to communicate in a futuristic idyll. Now Alien’s story is in a sense about what would happen to this ‘hero’ were he to be placed in a time-span that wasn’t that of the commercial. Maybe he would happen to cut himself, to discover with horror that the razor is an alien, to find himself spattered with blood (like in Scorsese’s parodic little film The Big Shave), and to transform from the status of pure image to that of visceral heap. 
If in 1979 Alien-the-murky really was a puritanical repulsion of advertising hygienic obsession, then it’s perhaps logical that its TV viewing should vaguely irritate. 
First published in Libération on 8 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Zurlini, from the back

What’s left of films once they transfer into that first small screen: memory? Films like Valerio Zurlini’s Family Portrait (1962), where there is already one character evoking the memory of another, his brother, who has disappeared. And where another one has the image of a woman brought up to him – his mother – whom he has never known. For me, what ‘was left’ of this film which (so loudly and painfully) already asked the question ‘who will be left to try and tell the little that was left of a life’ was only the almost olfactory memory (the overpowering smell of faded flowers) of certain funeral shots. 
In a flop or a banal film there often remains one or two scenes exceptionally well made that persist in the memory. In a real film like Family Portrait there might very well only remain one or two images. But these images don’t persist in the memory as the ‘best moments’ in a forgettable or half-forgotten film; they remain because they are like screen memories that stand guard around the personal secrets of a film loved almost in secret. Because, as Frederic (Federico-Mastroianni) could say: you must protect yourself, after all. 
A man waits for the telephone call that will bring him news of his brother’s death. The walls are yellow and sweaty (we’re in Naples), the receiver black, the booth derelict. Facing us, the red-eyed, voiceless man waits for the thing to be said, at the other end of the line. But at the moment when it is, as if to discourage the camera ‘closing in’ on him, Mastroianni turns his back and this back takes up the whole screen. And this back becomes a screen memory; what would be the film’s cipher if the film were a strongbox. 
Is this an effect of style intended (obligingly) to signify humility? You might think so if it were not that in the following scene a tearful Mastroianni is followed at length (by the camera and the music) through the deserted, insalubrious and never more beautiful streets of Naples. Zurlini does not shun the ‘grand aria’ of suffering, he makes do with showing things twice over: one face on (for the scene) once back-turned (for the camera). He is probably one of the last directors never to have stopped wavering between the aesthetic of the secret and the aesthetic of display, and the very particular music of his film insists, convincingly, that there was no middle ground for him. 
The film tells a love story between two men who are brothers reunited too late in life. The scene where Laurent (Lorenzo-Perrin) takes refuge with his elder brother, who is by now tuberculous and virtually down and out, and where with him we discover the classic little room of the solitary, is a great cinematic moment (or, at any rate, the scene so cruelly missing from usual gay soapy love films). The older brother pretends to be working and the younger to be sleeping. Turned sometimes towards the wall and sometimes towards his brother, as if each line of dialogue compelled him to invent a new way of settling. Now, a bed is the very place where turning your back on the other is impossible, because a back speaks volumes. 
Family Portrait is a film where love is born from the need felt by the one who faces up to things for the one who has his back against the wall, and vice versa. It is a film about weakness, a subject rarer than would appear. Seen again on television, it gives a valuable insight into a moment in cinema (a few years after Pickpocket or L’Avventura) when it was still possible to tell stories where characters progress through life, albeit retreating, in other words ‘back-turned’. And for whoever progresses in this way, the only escape routes are those rushing headlong away from the unknown future or the half-glimpsed present towards the retro-vision of the past. 
The tele-vision of a film like this also makes us acutely aware of the fact that in the media, in general, backs have disappeared. ‘Turning your back to the camera’ is more than a discourtesy: it’s a crime. Just as television has accustomed us to a world where ‘artificial daylight’ has reduced the role of shadows, it makes us used to bodies without backs, reduced to the idiotic frontality of a recto without any verso. Synthesized images pirouette with such gay abandon only because they have no reverse. In the cinema everything could turn into a face; in the media everything is already a face. The result of course is that the gaze is no more, and when one Sunday evening we come across Mastroianni and Perrin, it isn’t just their capacity to weep face on that knocks us out, but the capacity of their back to envisage the worst. 
First published in Libération on 6 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Rossellini, Louis XIV, the first

There are times as rare as they are beautiful when you stop asking whether what you’re watching is TV or cinema, because it’s irrelevant. If television weren’t the mushy disaster to which we are all too well accustomed, it would more often accommodate images like those of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) and everybody would be happy. What’s most extraordinary is not that Rossellini’s TV film should be regarded as a great film and a great moment in French television history, what’s most extraordinary is that Rossellini’s lesson has been neither replayed nor understood, nor studied in the slightest. For like everything presented with an elegance that seems totally natural, The Taking of Power rests on certain iron rules. 
Let’s take a scene at random. The deer-hunting scene with the young King and his court, dogs on the scent of an animal, a few bits of landscape and bushes. Let’s take one shot from this scene – the zoom on the dogs furiously swimming behind their prey – and ask a simple question: why is there such emotion and intensity in this zoom shot? Let us make the question the more emphatic given that the scene then diverges, abandoning the hunt and following the King who goes off to shag Madame de La Vallière in the undergrowth before the eyes of the chattering court. Why is it that from then on, we have the feeling that prior to this scene no dogs had ever yelped, swum or hunted? 
Perhaps the answer is this. It is by force of contagion, or through training, that these dogs have the appearance of being the first hunting dogs in the history of humanity. It is because (almost) all the other events narrated in the film are filmed like events, as if taking place for the first time. What makes Rossellini stand out (or Renoir with La Marseillaise) from other TV evocations of costumed History is that he’s only interested in those past events which their protagonists immediately perceived as events which shook them up. Rossellini and Gruault focus their attention on the way Louis XIV reinvents the rules for the exercise of power. They show the upset Queen mother, Fouquet arrested and the court stunned, ordered to silence and dress-up. They show all this as if it were a putsch and because of this, we get the sense of a last-minute glimpse of what daily life was like at the French court just before the putsch. Cinema is an art that always fails in reconstructing the past, but what it can do is seize the moment when something is passing
This is why Rossellini has always been interested in heroes. Not in the cretinous sense of the ‘superman’, but of in the sense that things will never be the same after them. In the didactic telefilms of his last period, the hero is the one who resets the pendulum from scratch, or initiates some founding gesture, or thinks some unprecedented thought*. The cinema, the art of the present, exists to play its part, that of recording a zero point of departure and simultaneously recording the enchanted or defeated attitudes of the period’s witnesses. The secular panoply of Rossellini’s heroes goes by way of Jesus, St Augustin, Descartes, Cosimo di Medici, Alberti, Pascal, Socrates, Marx and Louis XIV: all-or-nothing figures. ‘That’s something I feel is very important,’ R.R. affirmed. ‘As far as I’m concerned, you have to take risks all the time. Put in another way, never be bored.’ The fact is that for a gambler, it’s always the first time. 
‘I have often observed,’ remarks the young Louis XIV (the amazing Jean-Marie Patte), ‘that my first thought was the right one.’ Every action in the film, following the immutable moment of Mazarin’s death, is a ‘first’. The first roaming King’s councils, the first time Louis puts the Queen mother back in her place, the first time Colbert spells out his programme and above all a first in fashion, with the King as a guinea pig setting an example that brings about an abrupt transition from the hardly austere fashions of the Fronde to the furbelowed follies of a Court fettered to Versailles and ruined with ribbons. 
In these conditions does it matter whether the actors are relatively good or their acting wooden? Do the usual drawbacks of the costume drama matter? From the moment when Rossellini had the intelligence to narrate how, from one day to the next, there were men who neither knew where to put themselves nor what to put on, the subject and the medium are a perfect match for one another.  
That’s how even dogs enter history. 

* There is at least one limit to the Rossellini system: he’s obliged to only select first grade inventors, prophets or thinkers as heroes, because only them have created in their lifetime a feeling of a break with their contemporaries. Deep down, disdainful of both blind romanticism and cunning subconscious, Rossellini acts as if information had always circulated in a way that the great historical turns were accessible to the actors of History. For a film maker who had started by showing ordinary individuals caught in ignorance, it’s such a radical change that one could wonder if, pursuing this new stand headlong, Rossellini had not created another dogmatism.

First published in Libération on 5 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Leone at war

If, like perception, a film is a pausible hallucination, some films really are hallucinations. They persist as an image, a single image. Or a theme tune composed by Morricone. Everybody has seen them, believe they’ve seen them or believe that everybody had seen them. They’re no longer distinguished from the impact they had, the landscape they’ve opened up or the clones that have followed them. So much so that when we come across them on the small screen we are staggered to find again that state of freshness they – and we too – had at their birth. This is the case for instance with Sergio Leone’s first three westerns (called ‘spaghetti westerns’ no doubt because one hundred per cent durum wheat is probably the stuff good humanists are made of, including their director) and with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which Channel 3 showed on Monday evening. 
The film starts with what in the end was left of it, with that exhibitionism that makes entrances into shot and into the action comparable (this has been observed so often that it’s a cliché) to the great arias of verismo opera. Three actors who belong to three worlds of the cinema (Wallach comes largely from working with Kazan, Van Cleef was Ford’s second string and Eastwood isn’t Eastwood yet) indulge in three jubilatory recitatives and slowly prepare to argue about a lost haul of $200,000. Everything is enacted through their eyes (rather than their acting), eyes that are there more to be seen than to see. Whether widened, narrowed or mean, these organs of sight do not prevent their owners from missing the only reality of the time: the Civil War. 
For this is where the TV re-viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns out to be a fascinating experience. The real film does not resemble the memory it left behind. There aren’t three but four characters, and where it takes forty minutes to introduce the first three, it takes even longer to allow the fourth – the war – to creep into the picture and carry more and more weight. So much so that between the moment when we learn that the booty is buried in Sad Hill cemetery and the moment when we finally reach it, the word cemetery (and its image) has changed meaning. It’s the film that undertook to remind us that in a cemetery there are more corpses of dead soldiers than buried treasures. How subtle is Leone’s didacticism; there’s no mention of a war, it’s encountered during the film and suddenly you realise it’s been there for a long time and is horrifying. 
What’s beautiful and makes this a great film about War in general is that Sergio Leone isn’t mixing genres. Either out of artistic honesty or out of a prescient intuition of what awaits the cinema. He offers a new way of showing bodies floating in dust coats and figures adrift in the desert of a landscape too vast for them. Tautological figures, disconnected from virtually everything, their only know-how being a touch of cunning and a lot of style when it comes to handling objects. Faces that advertising, fashion and music videos have looked at a lot thereafter. At the same time, once the screen fills up and the war crams it with little flesh and blood soldiers, Leone films differently. In wide shot, with the greatest reserve and a respect for distances and characters that can only remind us of that other great sentimentalist who had little time for photogenic slaughter: John Ford. Precisely as if Leone were prolonging Ford’s legacy for a few years while simultaneously showing the new landscape, the one coming after and altogether of a different order
It can happen (though this is a defect) that a film contains several films. It is rare that a film is located precisely at the crossroad between a classical art whose secret will soon be lost and baroque proposals whose recipes will be a huge hit. It is rare that a director is honest (or schizoid?) enough to simply juxtapose, without any possible reconciliation, what is no longer quite compatible. It is even rarer that instead of suffering from this split, his talent thrives on it. It is later perhaps that the Leone of Once Upon A Time in America will suffer, when he will want to restore the classicism at the heart of a cinema that will by then have absorbed Leone’s mannerism beyond recognition. In 1966, it is different. Sergio Leone is both ahead of everyone and late behind everyone, he is therefore on time. 
First published in Libération on 1 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The essential Buñuel

Buñuel’s films are like Buñuel, who is unlike anything. Buñuel didn’t impose his stamp on the different systems of film production he passed through, instead he highlighted what was Buñuelesque in each of these successive systems. What is Buñuelesque of course is that the obscure parade of objects neither initiates nor exhausts desire and that there is a fundamental asymmetry between men’s desires and women’s (the former is a puppet and the latter is double and, in That Obscure Object of Desire, quadruple). But what is Buñuelesque in the end is that things are sufficiently complex (and funny) in themselves to avoid the need to further complicate them. Whatever is given at the outset, Buñuel strips it to the bones of its internal logic. This is why his last films are so enigmatic: this is indeed bourgeois middlebrow French cinema, the ironic no-frills X-ray of a doomed genre to which the old master has given, in extremis, extreme unction.  
Like all films where nothing exists but the logical sequence of situations, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) transfers very well to television. Nothing distracts from the essential, since only the essential is left. To the point where you suddenly have that obscure desire to make a list of all the objects Buñuel has dispensed with. What you then get is a strange picture in the negative of everything that usually encumbers our perception (wrongly held as ‘natural’) of the cinema. 
Music, of course. No music in Buñuel. No need for music. A need, conversely, for very precise sound effects (which he usually does himself). It is the heady sound, the even rhythm of a continuous dream with no little music hinting that it may become nightmare or comedy. The Buñuelesque dream is not the dream of the bear cub in The bear, it has the exaggerated clarity of a (shred of) dream that we talk about because we can remember it. And this dream is talked about because there is nothing in Buñuel that does not happen between human beings. 
Music would be wrong for another reason. It would create what the director – this is Buñuel’s ethic – refuses more than anything: complicity, connivance between the audience and the film. It’s a matter of understanding (and laughing) not judging. Never does a scene really begin until there are at least two characters on the screen; it is between them, and them alone, that it takes place. Buñuel, the last great director of the unconscious drive and of the social, has no business with the solitude of this or that individual. With him you’ll never see any of that facile stagey business where at the end of a scene the camera seizes on the pout or the grin of a character that remains alone. Martin, Don Mateo’s servant, supplies a very funny example of this: he would like to comment on the action, put in his pennyworth, in short represent the spectator (and good sense) in this story which he witnesses in silence though not without reflection. Twice he even interferes (each time muttering misogynistic aphorisms). Twice he is drily called to order. ‘No comment’ (musical or otherwise) could be the film’s watchword. 
If we were to continue this little game of spotting, by their absence, the easy things Buñuel denies himself, we’d also be talking about shot-counter-shots or subjective shots. There aren’t many. As if the eternal intertwining of woman and puppet were the picture’s sole subject, the eternal subject and the only one worth anything. And as if, from the very fact of being eternal, this subject were no longer to be treated as a modulated sequence of rising and falling intensities but as an obsessive drifting that can only end – for the time being – for want of combatants. 
This is Buñuel’s last film. There’s a lot of talk about terrorism and even about an ARGIJ (Armed Revolutionary Group of the Infant Jesus) which would be no blot on the current landscape. Terror isn’t absent from the film; it is subtly displaced forwards in the brusqueness with which the camera endlessly nabs the characters at the point when they’re setting out on their endless encounters ‘with one another’. It is in the way the film ends, accidentally, because there must be an ending, in the public alleyway. It is with a smoke screen hiding the characters from us that Luis Buñuel closes what he had begun by slicing an eye. Like in the theatre. 
First published in Libération on 29 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Clair, grandad of the music video

In the small room of the hero, a wall. On the wall, a photo that is falling off. In the photo, a vamp who’s had her day. On the doorstep, the hero about to go out seeing that the photo has fallen yet again. On his face, boredom. On the pavement below, the real young woman who loves him. Beneath the rooftops of Paris, garlands that are pinned to the sets like captions to photos. And over Paris, the most poetic of objects: rain. It is the 13th of July, the eve of the 14th. 
If the picture wasn’t really grey and the lighting so meticulous, if the actors’ heads weren’t cut off halfway, if the sound wasn’t typical of the early talkies, in short if the film hadn’t long been classified in the category of ‘classic cinema’, one may well hesitate. For what is Quatorze Juillet (1933) really about? It’s certainly not a great film, not even René Clair at his best (that’s Paris qui dort), quite simply an excuse for Maurice Jaubert (music), Lazare Meerson (sets) and Georges Perinal (director of photography) to exercise their huge talents - thanks to a nothing script and a vacuous subject. On a recent re-viewing, Beauté du diable wavered between pre-TV mini-drama and the aesthetic of the trailer. René Clair was a director so enamoured of shortcuts that anything that lasted was hell for him. Thirteen years earlier, emerging from the art of silent films and the Twenties avant-garde, Quatorze Juillet, shot at Epinay for Henckel and the German-owned Tobis, is not so much a film of cinema as – yes, blasphemy! – an ancestor of the music video. 
There’s no lack of common features. In both music videos and René Clair’s films there’s never enough time for any kind of build-up. The poetry lies not in the exploration of what is in front of the camera but in the rapid procession of objects – ‘captions without words’ – that are already ‘poetic’. Only one thing ever happens at any time, as dry and ephemeral as a promise already forgotten. Nothing is intimately connected with either the actor or the character, but everything depends on a kind of collective poetic capacity embodied in the sets (Clair) or in the movie quotations (the music video). Love is an abundance of kissing couples. Boredom is an abundance of yawning extras. Paris is an abundance of taxi drivers with simultaneously abundant witty chat. 
It’s this reduced appetite for singularity* which makes René Clair a director so notably dated. Though a critic of mechanisation, he went no further than a conception of poetry that was itself mechanical, closed off to anything that is not already coded by folklore, blind to anything that goes beyond puppetry with the actors. This is why we feel embarrassed for those who, in all seriousness, weigh up the respective merits of Clair and Renoir. Of the latter, everything remains. Of the former, nothing would be left if it weren’t possible - through a spiralling, rhyming effect due to History – to see in him one of the ancestors of the modern music video.  
So it is Jaubert’s music, Perinal’s images and Meerson’s sets that are the real trumps of the film (to which should be added the very modern acting of the magnificent Annabella). These elements share a mission between the three of them: to make us forget that cinema is now the talkies and that, for Clair, it’s a disaster. Why? Because sound cinema created the problem of duration for directors. Recorded duration, no longer reconstructed, a disaster for those who – like the directors of music videos of today – worked by sequencing images rather than shots. Renoir or Grémillon fundamentally needed this ‘sound bath’, but not Clair. For this ‘bath’ was a step forward towards singularity – hence towards de-folklorisation – of people and groups. Dreadful. 
‘We can’t but shudder when we learn that certain American industrialists of the most dangerous sort see talking cinema as the spectacle of the future and that they are already at work to bring about this fearsome prophecy’, wrote the future auteur of Quatorze Juillet in 1927. Five years later, thanks to this bogus musical with just the right amount of noise in it, he managed not to shudder too much. Sixty years later the music video arrives to plug the same gap, but the other way around. Except that this time it’s as if it was sound cinema that was condemned, and that in the resulting aphasia, it was yet again towards music that we sought recourse. No longer to delay the appearance of speech but to cover it up. René Clair’s revenge in a way. 

* ‘Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such – this is the lover’s particular fetishism.’ This sentence by Giorgio Agamben (The Coming Community) is damning for René Clair’s entire filmography.  
First published in Libération on 28 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.