Friday, December 29, 2017

Triple bill on the movie star: Marilyn, Delon, Lambert

With Daney's output composed almost entirely of singleton reviews and articles, most of them produced either monthly in Cahiers du cinema or daily in Libération, it's easy to miss the recurring themes and correspondances from text to text. This leaves us with the pleasure of discovering the consistency and evolution of Daney's thinking. After an earlier post on Mannerism, here's another example on the theme: what is a star?

August 1982. The recurring theme that there are no more stars, but there were some. 
What’s a star? A moment in the history of cinema. The moment where the ‘seventh art’ knows it has developed a fundamental cancer: it simulates depth but its image is flat, forever flat, like a lowland pampa.  
Yet, from the start, stars were actors with an extra dimension, a weigh in flesh, a dedicated space, an enigmatic depth. Bodies barred from pleasure, fated to imitation and to the pleasure of constant disappointment and recurrent promise.  
Cinema would be always caught between its low image and the pathetic refinement of things (the art) which give the impression that these flesh and bones were moving within a space, for real, with the depth of field used as the limelight. But the space of the stars is themselves, the limits of their bodies, a waving stand-still, a wavering movement which slowly hasten to going nowhere.  
The star system is over. It’s behind us, although not too distant. It reconstructs itself differently with new technologies that we don’t know about. It knocks itself up in another way. Will there be stars in the video world? As for the old stars, they expectedly ended up in cinematheques and on film posters, reduced to a black and white surface. The turmoil that came from the third hallucinated dimension led to the mere cluttering of the space, to an imagery. The image killed the idol. It happened to Garbo, to Dietrich.  
Did it happen to Marilyn? No. And yet, one of the most radical, raging and urgent gesture of the 20th century was the reduplicating operation by which Andy Warhol negated the Marilyn-body and kept, on gaudy surfaces, the same industrial smile.  
Marilyn, by the same token as the Campbell tomato soup, also symbolised modern art, the modernity in art: this flattening technique, disenchanted dead beat and joyful mourning of the third dimension. Never a star has been so strangely celebrated - and negated. Cartloads of analysts have held forth on Warhol’s gesture. Good for them. 
But were they right? No. For something had deserted this industrial image: suffering. We know that Marilyn’s life was a valley of tears. What we know less is that a part of her suffering was physical. It was her body that was mutilated: remodelled, denatured, forced, remade: an ordeal.  
The last star of the transition from black and white to colour. The first star whose blood would have been red. Unique and double fate: the image on one side, the body on the other. The iconic image and the body of comedy. How many have suffered like her to be beautiful (or themselves): fake Marilyns singing out of tune “My heart belongs to my Daddy!”, swallowing their disguised tears, strident blonds, cosmopolitan queens, plastic surgery for the destitute.  
It’s only through her that the passion to be another continues to devastate us. The passion to be a female other. 
First published in Libération on 5 August 1982. Reprinted in Ciné journal, Cahiers du cinema/Seuil, 1986. 

Le Choc – with Alain Delon 
All is not well in French Cinema, since even Le Choc is ignored. When Delon badly manages his image, it’s also part of ‘the crisis of French Cinema’. 
Orson Welles was definitive: 'The star', he reminded us recently, 'is a totally distinct animal from the actor. It’s something else. The two vocations are different'. Guided by these strong words, I wanted to see what a big-French-film-with-stars looks like. A 1982 Delon for example. So I saw Le Choc. The film is lousy? Yes, but that’s not the question. I felt that something about the star system, in France, wasn’t doing too well. Incidentally, Le Choc isn’t a commercial success: targeting 1 million spectators, it is peaking at 400,000 box office sales. All things equal, it’s like Godard’s Passion, a flop. And a flop, sometimes, makes you think. 
In the old system that Welles is referring to, it was enough for the stars to appear in a maximum of close ups, the number of which was determined by contract. Numerous 'Yes Men' managed, with relative talent, this image capital. The script and the mise en scène dragged themselves at the feet of the stars, and there was some sublime dragging (Sternberg, Cukor). But the star, to better shine, needed a background to stand out from and a landscape to light up. The star needed actors to gain value. It needed supportive characters, young people with bright futures, good actors playing villains, extras sometime unforgettable... A whole world. The star was 'a totally distinct animal from the actor' but it didn’t want the end of the actor. This was yesterday, even the day before yesterday. 
Watching Le Choc, I had the painful feeling that this old star system had passed, that it was running aimlessly, like affected by advanced dementia or autism. And that Delon was the symbol of all this. Simply, Le Choc is a movie where the stars are no longer content to outshine non-stars with their brightness, but must, in addition, physically eliminate them, rid the screen of them, erase them one by one. To Deneuve who is naively asking what he does for a living, Delon answers furiously 'cleaning!'. He puts all his taciturn narcissism of a professional into cleaning up the film from everything that is not him. Le Choc eventually ends because there are no more supporting roles to swiftly kill, extras to shoot like rabbits, second rank actors to send back off the camera field. And when they happily run toward the little red helicopter which is going to finally take them away from this film-chore and this joyless hecatomb, Delon (and Deneuve) have really created a vacuum around them. The surviving couple could shout 'alone at last!'. I even feared that the helicopter pilot, although a not very well known actor, might be shot too for the insolent way he shared for an instant the space of the star couple.  
For it’s not enough for the star to have, like in the past, the monopoly of the close ups, it also needs the long shots, the medium shots, the intermediary shots, everything. Indeed (I thought) the system is not ageing well. Delon (or Belmondo) seem self-satisfied, but their movies smell of rage, contempt, self-hatred and even laziness. They put their image at stake with as much generosity as the Italian football team during a World Cup.  
Some might say this comes from Delon himself, from the way he intends to protect his image, by taking less and less risk. His ‘honesty’ is not to pretend any longer. For, if Le Choc is lousy, it’s a curious film, inferior to For a Cop’s Hide, but still better than a Belmondo. Taken individually, the elements of the film are not unacceptable: Robin Davies’ direction is okay, photography is decent, Sarde has composed worse soundtracks, the ‘small actors’ (Chicot, Audran, Léotard, Perrot) get by, the story is a Manchette adaptation, Deneuve drinks the bitter cup of the luxurious extra to the dregs and Delon, the actor Delon, continues to intrigue. What’s wrong then? The rest, all the rest: the conception of the film, the thinness of the story, and even the film aesthetics.  
Le Choc is a gamble. As the absolute master of his own image (Clément, Visconti, Losey or even Zurlini are long forgotten), Delon does his utmost (and it’s pathetic really) to prove that, should he want to, he could play everything. That he can be a little bit sadistic, a little bit naked, a little bit funny, a little bit sensual, a little bit sentimental. But he refuses to be any of these any longer than necessary. There is a taboo in the film: there must be one emotion by Delon in every scene, but there mustn’t be a change of emotion within the same scene. Robin Davis, as a filmmaker focused on ambiances (Ce Cher Victor) must have found this taboo a headache. 
Delon doesn’t play, he sums up what he could play. As soon as he opens his mouth, what matters is not what he says (let’s admit it: the dialogues are weak) but what he wants to communicate. One: that he thinks faster than anybody else (including us). Two: that he has already asked himself all the questions and has already found all the answers and that, if he has chosen to resort to the most used clichés, it’s voluntary. His infuriated gaze orders us to think that he knows that we know that he could say or do something else. It’s the inertia, the slowness, the stupidity of the other characters which exasperate him. He’s almost ready to kill them for being so slow, by impatience, to go faster. Le Choc could almost be a short film. 
In the past, the star got his/her power to fascinate from the capacity to play languorously with dialogues and time, to offer the audience a face changing like a landscape while remaining him/herself at the same time. It’s through this ‘slow motion’ that the star was different from an actor. Today, imprisoned in himself like a statue, finding below himself to let any other in his acting, Delon is condemned to appear in ever shorter scenes and shots which end up being nothing more than commercial spots to the glory of the animal-Delon. How do you make a mass market but high class movie with a series of spots? A serious question. An aesthetics question. A question for the media. 
French police movies no longer suit Delon. A new genre should be invented for him, a series of spots where, like in the burlesque era, we would see him victoriously engaging in only one action. There would be: ‘Delon takes a shower’, ‘Delon throws a knife’, ‘Delon is sexual’, ‘Delon plays the fool’, etc. The actor’s fans would be delighted and he wouldn’t have to suffer the chore of inventing a story and sharing an hour and a half with others. 
When we talk about ‘the crisis of French cinema’, we always see it from the same angle. The angle of the ‘politique des auteurs’, ‘boring artists’, ‘intellectual masturbation of images and sounds’. Recently, the French cinema establishment at Cannes booed Godard to let him know that it was unacceptable to continue to live cinema like an adventure in front of everyone. Passion has therefore been relegated to the fringes, with experimental cinema. 
But why not ask the same question (what’s wrong with French cinema?) about a big film that misses its mass audience target? Le Choc for example. A film made of fragments, without a proper story, with embryonic scenes, vague gestures, words without context, the image of a star which doesn’t quite fit the frame of a ‘normal’ movie, Le Choc has been rejected to the fringes, like an experimental movie, just like Passion. Of course Passion is very good and Le Choc is very bad. But it’s not unreasonable to think that if Delon knew better how to make Le Choc, Godard would face less trouble with Passion. The boss and the artist talk from the same planet. There is only one world of the images.
First published in Libération, 28 June 1982. Reprinted in Ciné Journal, Cahiers du cinema/Seuil, 1986. 

From the star to the celebrity 
Where the abuse of the word ‘star’ is seen as a symptom: there were stars in cinema but there hasn’t been any on television so far. 
When Christophe Lambert left the TV set of Michel Denisot (on Channel 1), he stated that we won’t see him again on television for six months. As a master of his own image and not inclined to debase it, the neo Salvatore Guiliano, a monster of kindness and casualness, meant that his image will not be eternally served up as fodder. We’ve seen him everywhere for the release of The Sicilian: we won’t see him promoting his merchandise on the small screen for a while. 
If never appearing on television condemns the ordinary mortal to irremediable obscurity, squatting TV studios clearly and deceitfully disqualifies anyone. This is valid for actors as it is for politicians. If there is little demand on television, the repetitive supply of the same products generates a vaguely pitiful inflation. Television confers longevity (it even stages it), but longevity is quite the contrary to mystery. And without mystery, there’s no image that holds up very long.  
Watching (and listening to) Christophe Lambert (in a pink jumper) giving docile answers to Denisot’s docile questions, we had plenty of time to revisit an old question: what is a star? And since Lambert is clearly one (to be liked by Cimino, to have been Tarzan and to make thirteen year old girls dream is not nothing), this was a good opportunity to see what it’s like, a star on television. 
The answer is no longer simple. That some individuals were born ‘stars’ and can do nothing about it is hardly a deniable fact. We believe less nowadays in the paranoid (and too easy) idea of stars entirely created by cynical majors or evil managers. This is first because a star is born ‘already entirely created’ and that this is precisely the enigma of the star: both a whole and the sum of its parts. The irony is that we have probably never been so keen to adore them than at the moment where – in the world of the images at least – they have become definitely rare.  
The proof is in the ridiculous inflation of the word ‘star’ (or rather ‘staaar’) in a culture (ours) where it is the more modest celebrities who often have the upper hand. The return to television after the summer holidays has quickly stumbled upon the imposture of the very concept of ‘television star’ (ideal sons-in-law, great communicators, popular entertainer, and so on). It’s an imposture because what used to characterise a star in the traditional sense is that it really didn’t communicate anything precise or targeted while being – body and soul – a true incarnation of the idea of communication. The movie star targeted a vast and unknown audience, all ages and sexes together. It filled in alone and randomly the social enigma of ‘sexual difference’, living somewhere in the sky, making its body a limit beyond which the non-human would always overcome the human. (Hence the easy tragedy of stars and the tragic facility of their cult). 
Perhaps there can only be real stars at moments where the industry of images is in expansion. In silent films, in Hollywood of course, in the Indian cinema obviously. A star would be, stricto sensu, a rocket or a shooting star which lights up for a moment a terrain not yet conquered and temporarily unknown. As soon as cinema stopped being in expansion, it produced tragic stars (Marilyn, James Dean, Monty Clift, the late Bogart) and then no stars at all (look at De Niro and how he is becoming this great-actor-of-exceptional-participation). This does not mean that there are not in society some obvious star destinies (Adjani is the most painfully obvious example in France but there was also Maria Schneider), but the film industry has become too small for them (and when cinema returns to its traditional craft, it builds less on stars than on ‘auteurs’ who, year after year, are replacing them: Kubrick, Fellini). 
The tiebreaker question is becoming really obvious. Can there be television stars? If television is still in expansion, yes. If not, no. But if there is a boom and inflation of images in general, does this mean there is an expansion of television? This is not certain. In any case, there’s nothing indicating the appearance of stars of a new type (could we imagine a present day Orson Welles, using the modern tools of media manipulation, to pull The War of the Worlds trick again? Will it be allowed one day to play with the fire of global broadcasting? Will we be that playful?). For now, there are living emblems, logos on foot, media-persons more or less close to the audience, nannies and portable gurus. In a world that close and so devoted to the positivity of television, we can hardly see how the wings of tragedy or the bull’s horns could scar a body with their shadows.  
And Lambert? Lambert is perfect: a star, no doubt. You can still see it providing you have eyes. First in the sound, then in the image.  In the sound, it takes real talent to be able to spontaneously gather up all the stereotypes that a star needs to pretend to rediscover in order to offer a response to stereotyped questions. Lambert has this innate talent. Don’t count on him to talk about films which didn’t work well (I Love You by Ferreri, which was interesting). Don’t expect him to say that cinema should be like daily life (cinema, he says as if it was a very personal idea of his, is the dream 'greater than life'). Similarly, what counts is not the encounter with an auteur or a role, but always the story, the subject, the script. Known chorus.  
The surprise is less in this ‘faultless’ static babbling than in the freshness with which it is babbled and re-invented, live and for us. It’s the way it dresses common themes which makes the star.  In the case of Lambert, it’s his art to stick to the image of his fans (he replies in their language, effortlessly, like a watchful big brother), it’s the kid’s smile that nobody could ever resist, it’s the good mood of the one who has so much headwind that he can afford to play the figurehead. 
The surprise, finally, is in the image. There’s still a difference between the movie star and the pseudo television star. The latter has got so used to live without off screen, without perspective lines, wedged, stuck in the middle of the minuscule space of the TV set, that it has lost this amazing plasticity of the movie star. The movie star (even Lambert) keeps intact a capacity to change entirely in an instant, from a shot to another. The face of Christophe Lambert is at the centre: banal, without volume and then suddenly lit up, the slightly extinguished gaze which in a second becomes sparkling. Not just at the centre of the image or the set, but at the centre of the world. These are only fleeting moments, but they are worth the look. 
Originally published in Libération, 29 October 1987, and reprinted in Le salaire du zappeur, POL, 1993. 

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