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.

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