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.

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