Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Circle of Deceit

A pretty great film review, not kind to Schlörndorff.

Circle of Deceit (Volker Schlöndorff) 
Beirut, the war and the media. The white man’s burden wasn’t much fun to start with, the big white reporter’s burden is sinister! 
In 1980, the Cannes juries are in a real fix. Solomon-like, they cut their Palme d’or in two. Half a palm will go to Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and another half-palm to Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum). Two war films which create a lot of stir: two successes. 
Of the two it was rather hastily assumed that Coppola was the barbarian, the megalomaniac, the sorcerer’s apprentice. Moralists complained about a director hiring a country (the Philippines) to replay a war (the Vietnam war, just over) merely as a means of spinning out the flabby metaphor of the white man’s destiny, with Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness) in support and Marlon Brando’s shaven skull as a closing gimmick. Schlöndorff, with his fitting, academic adaptation of Grass’s masterpiece, instead was seen as a figure of stricken conscience, a European auteur, dignified and cultured. 
On seeing Circle of Deceit, one observes that things must have been less simple, that, tormented by the desire to compete with Francis Ford Coppola, Schlöndorff wanted to bring the proof that he could be as good, as barbaric, as megalomaniac, and as daring and “swollen” (in the balloon sense) as Apocalypse Now. This proof could only be brought forward on a battlefield. Logically, it could only be an engagement between an American and a German. The war goes on. 
“War is everywhere” we read recently in Libération. It haunts the cinema. Real or imaginary, Sci-Fi or retro, it returns. It returns because it has always been a mine of easy scripts for lazy directors. It returns because we are heading towards a period of retreat into jingoism and panicky reterritorialisations. It returns because the war movie is traditionally the launchpad for technological innovation (like Dolby sound, which turns the spectator into a stunned guinea pig). It returns especially because in this world where the cinema, facing television, has lost the war, the Americans don’t want to lose the battle for the cinema. The titles speak volumes. Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once more, filmed reality and the art of destroying this reality have a stake in common. Enough to make you shiver. 
Coppola had gone to replay the Vietnam war in a Philippine setting. Schlöndorff had to go one better. To film in half-ruined Beirut and to shoot red hot, against the background of war-torn Lebanon, a great new Conradian meditation on the white journalist’s burden; there it is: it’s called Circle of Deceit
What’s it about? A great German newspaper sends two reporters to Beirut. There’s Georg Laschen (this is Bruno Ganz, the idealist of the two; he has a soul, a fine one, and he suffers) and there’s Hoffman (this is the director Jerzy Skolimowski turned actor, the cynic of the two, not much bothered, wanting his exclusive). From camp to camp, from the Kataeb to the Fedayeen, from fear to indifference, from body reflexes (running) to states of mind (thinking), our voyeuristic duo discovers a dangerous but very lively Beirut. Investigative sorties and ploys, newsroom gossip, the sound of bullets and telex machines, slaloming through night street battles, ordinary and not so ordinary encounters: there’s nothing missing from this tableau vivant, which is filmed with genuine savoir-faire by Schlöndorff. 
There’s a woman in it, Ariane Nassar, a German woman in love with the Orient, alone with her desire to take advantage of the events to adopt a child (she’ll manage it too and have an affair with Laschen; this part is played by Hanna Schygulla). At the end of the film the journalist loses his bearings, confusing his personal war with the civil war, becoming a battlefield all of his own and trying to go far far away, to his very limits. Back in Germany, he botches the exclusive and the film fizzles out. 
The war in Lebanon is a backdrop. Very striking and always “beautiful”, even if we understand nothing about it, especially if we understand nothing about it. Aestheticism is very close to win the day. For this war is a civil war and a modern war; it goes into instant replay for the cameras, be they Schlöndorff’s. It’s a war “immediately mediatised”, a polaroid-war. Between those who stage the death of others and those who sell photos of those deaths to journalists, there is a continuous chain of images, a war bounty that winds up somewhere in a press agency. 
In a Beirut hotel, a Frenchman “in love with the Orient” (Jean Carmet) takes photos of a recent slaughter out of a briefcase and puts them up for auction. Children lead Laschen and Hoffman to a carbonised corpse. Everything has image potential, a second, now marketable death. What’s to be made of these images, Laschen wonders? What’s to be made of this chain where we necessarily feature, from one link to another: corpse, photograph, model maker, reader? What’s to be made of his fine soul? 
Godard already asked this question in a film now six years old. The film talked about the Middle East, was called Here and Elsewhere and it wasn’t a great success. Before photos of the victims of the Amman massacres of 1970, Godard allowed himself the black humour of wondering (in an aside) if these extras had been paid, and how much? The lesson was clear. When Godard and Schlöndorff began making films we could still think of war as merely obscene (Les Carabiniers, Coup de Grâce). Nowadays it has become completely pornographic. There are image dealers just as there are arms dealers. A filmmaker occupies a place somewhere in this chain. Does he know this? With Circle of Deceit, Schlöndorff has just found out. 
Godard halted the chain, blocked the spectacle, pondered over an image, imposed his voice on us, the chagrined voice over of a moralist. At the other end of the chain, like a good American, Coppola was coming to terms with the spectacle - with bunnies, surf and napalm, Wagner and helicopters, with this full-scale army theatre worthy of Abel Gance. 
Schlöndorff has neither the abrasive black humour nor the frenzied exhibitionism; the outcome is that he falls into the trap of the Dubonnet commercial, speaking the horror of the spectacle with the help of the spectacle of horror. He can’t invent any distance, he can’t do anything with that spectacle. 
The thing is that he comes from somewhere else. He comes from the realm of vague ideas and good intentions, of well-meaning left-wing reflexes. In The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, he had already taken on the workings of the gutter press and the violation of private life; this film – a success – had played no small part in forging his image as a major conscience of democracy. Fine. Fine, but facile. Facile because in the face of the lie one can always oppose the truth. Whereas in Lebanon, in this war where he has no business and where everyone wants to sell him something, things are less cut and dried. Schlöndorff comes out of it no better than his (bad) journalist hero. 
Georg Laschen cannot endure the real. That “real” where everything has become a message, where everyone has become a medium. He, the man who had scruples and convictions, decides to cross over to the other side, the side of existential experience. To be “like everyone”, Laschen decides to act like everyone, to cross over to the side of evil and shame. To become a saint. So during a bombardment he fortuitously stabs an old man, an Arab. He becomes the Lord Jim of the newspaper world. Anyway, his action is symbolically annulled by that of Ariane Nassar who “buys” (there’s no other word, the scene is pretty incredible) a malnourished kid. One more, one less; it’s war, nobody notices. 
You can see that the film is very ambitious. It’s a real answer to Coppola, the European version of Apocalypse Now. It’s the same question being asked: what crime do we issue from? From the European viewpoint this is against the background of the old colonial dialogue, which consists of exoticism and eroticism, sex and death wish, that the answer comes. The nth, rather self-conscious version of the “white man’s burden” scenario. 
Schlöndorff is very intelligent. He understands everything, but too late. He affects to have become a monster of cynicism, at the very moment when every ex-leftie third-worldist has realised that on this threshold of the Eighties, just wars in poor countries are primarily the poor backdrop for one’s own personal psychoanalysis, a wild couch. That there’s no one to save but oneself. This is where we’ve got to. So much so that the empty grandiloquent gesture with which Schlöndorff has us witness the horrors of war and the pornography of the media ends up by being part of this very pornography. 

First published in Libération on 29 October 1981. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinema, 1986. Translation adapted from the Cinema in Transit aborted project.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Our Marriage really holds up

Another text from Serge Daney's second book, Ciné Journal

Our Marriage really holds up   
Until now the editor of her husband’s films (Raoul Ruiz), Valeria Sarmiento has just made a great film, as troubling as beautiful. 
Without families (to hate or create) there would be no domestic scenes – therefore no modern cinema. No Antonioni, no Bergman, no Pialat. But without family there would have been no melodrama – therefore no “classical” cinema. Neither Ford, nor Pagnol, nor so many others who counted on our tears. It is through the aesthetic of the domestic scene that we have become modern (therefore full of resentment), but it is through the cold logic of the melodrama that we remain, despite all, archaic (therefore a little frail). Melodramas make people laugh where not so long ago they made them cry; but as the author of Hallelujah* said: “If you laugh, it’s because you’re afraid”. One shouldn’t be afraid to rush out and see Valeria Sarmiento’s Notre Mariage. A modern melodrama? A magical photo novella? Fetid rosewater? Tricksy Nous deux**? What does it matter, this is the most beautiful film of the week. 
Without families there would be no film. On the one hand there’s a couple, and on the other a widower surrounded by his children. The couple is rich and the widower is hard-up. Salvador (that’s his name) is a solicitor whose exaggerated sense of honour doesn’t’ enrich. Whereas Lorenzo only has his fortune to take care of, and no children (his wife is sterile). This takes place somewhere in a Catholic South, in one of those countries where respect for conventions is as strong as without substance. One day (the film has just started), one of Salvador’s daughters – Lola – is very ill; only an expensive operation can save her. The operation takes place, the little girl is saved, Lorenzo paid the bill. Since that’s the way it is, says the proud Salvador, this child is no longer mine, she belongs to you. 
Lola, the little rich girl, grows up adorably with her “parents” who adore her, just around the corner from her brothers and sisters, who have been ordered not to play with her any more. One evening, she turns into a stubborn young girl, and her “mother”, watching her daughter with nascent jealousy, let herself slowly die. Lola then chooses to live with Lorenzo, rather like those Ozu heroines who “forget” to marry in order to look after their big child of a father, who in turn has “forgotten” to marry them off. The audience allows itself to be led by the hand towards what it imagines to be a deliciously immoral story of bourgeois incest, in the vein of late Buñuel. The audience is wrong. Valeria Sarmiento’s film isn’t immoral, but amoral. 
For, meanwhile, Salvador’s family has become well-off again. The children have prim expressions and conventional ideas. It annoys them that their sister lives with this widower, and the inevitable rumours which indirectly threaten their good reputation make them turn nasty; they want Lola back among them. Too late. For Lola, in love with this false father who is so sweet (and maybe spineless too, despite his big voice and square frame: a stunning Nicolas Silberg), resists the family, confounds its plans and finds a solution on her own. If we get married, she tells Lorenzo, I shall be your wife for others and your daughter between ourselves. Lorenzo doesn’t refuse. 
So the family looks on, in a fury, as appearances are officially kept up. The wedding takes place, then the honeymoon (in Madeira), then the wedding night (sleepless, and chaste like the wedding). Two years go by and Lola doesn’t conceive any children; the family again becomes concerned. Crisis. The couple visits Salvador’s house in the countryside; Lorenzo can’t stand it any more, there’s a tentative rape, a slap, tears. Lola refuses then eventually accepts “normal” physical contact. The final scene is beautiful: Lola, on horseback, does an about-turn and heads towards Salvador, who is watching her from afar. She tells her real father that she loves him very much, “more than anybody in the world”. And since there is now no longer two families, but one, no longer perverse contracts but amnesiac happiness, there is no longer any reason to keep the film going. 
It was Corin Tellado who wrote the book on which Notre Mariage is based. This, it turns out, is a Spanish-language Delly*** or Cartland, widely read in Latin America. Valeria Sarmiento has been clever enough not to imagine herself any smarter than this rather crafty tale. For what does this tale have to say? Roughly (for the sake of speed, even if it shocks) that in the family there are thrills to be had every which way and in every guise, that the family is still the best protected place to cash in on all round desire. Tactfully and with unobtrusive cheek, Notre Mariage manages to capture, in slow motion, what usually is only virtual, secret or repressed. 
Remains the talent, or rather the “chance” of Sarmiento. She is one of those who only film the essential moments in a story, and who, by means of logic and sensuality, rid their narrative of all excess fat (sociological or otherwise). As in all successful melodramas, only the structure counts. As in Buñuel, the more limpid the filming the more it intimates a tortuous and, deep-down, utterly insalubrious story. At each moment in Notre Mariage something irremediable happens, choices are made, irrevocable decisions are taken. It is even this exaggerated gravity that leaves a light, similarly Buñuelesque irony hovering over the film. An affectionate irony, a puzzled smile that is prompted by these actors (all of them excellent) who coalesce in dreaming together too lovely a script, and in speaking – with never a voice raised – lines just distanced enough to make their “inflexions” appealing to us (reminiscent of Arrieta’s best films, like Flammes, or Ruiz’s – allowing that Sarmiento is Ruiz’s wife and collaborator, and that he wrote the script and the dialogues of Notre Mariage). 
Marriage for forms sake, incest in essence (and vice versa). This is the subject of Notre Mariage. But also its form. Valeria Sarmiento’s respect for the American melodramas of her Chilean childhood is flawless. All the same, this is not mere copying of the form. The director has a point of view on her story. This is where we must talk about Jorge Arriagada’s music – spellbindingly effective yet again. All the more noteworthy in that it does more than accompany the film, but follows it step by step, shot by shot. Melodrama-cinephiles will spot traces of scores by Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner or Joseph Newman, and they’ll be right. These are symphony orchestras which, caught somewhere between sound effect and voice over, want to speak in their own right. Like in Mankiewicz’s fairytales or Hitchcock’s filmed pathologies. 
One single difference: here the music no longer doubles up, and when it attacks with violins, swells, lulls or threatens, it is not for suspense. This means that we can watch tranquil moments in terror and witness the horror of others with inordinate calm. For this waywardness alone, it’s worth going out of our way and watch the film.  
Translator’s notes: 
* Georges Bataille. 
** 1985 music video with French rock star Jesse Garon, known for being the first all-digital television production. 
*** Pen name of a late 19th century author of romance novels. 
First published in Libération on 12 September 1985. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Godard Makes (Hi)stories

The French Cinemathèque new streaming service set-up during the pandemic (Henri) recently published the two hour filmed interview of Jean-Luc Godard by Serge Daney. The event took place in December 1988 in Rolle, ahead of the release of the first episodes of Histoire(s) du cinéma.  A transcription of the interview was edited by Daney in a text for Libération published later that month in 1988.

Jean-Luc Godard in conversation with Serge Daney. 
First published in Libération on 26 December 1988. Translated in Jean-Luc Godard son+image 1974-1991 (New York Museum of Modern Art, 1992). Link to Stoffel Debuysere's Diagonal Thought website. Although it's mostly Godard talking, the introduction is by Daney.


Daney's edits make the interview look a lot more fluid than the video where Godard keeps interrupting a very patient Daney.  Godard used extracts of the interview in the episodes 2A and 3B of Histoire(s), featuring Daney.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Like old couples, cinema and TV have wound up looking alike

Not sure how I managed to have ignored this great text for so long. Anyway, here it is. 
Like old couples, cinema and TV have wound up looking alike  
The feud between the seventh art and the weird and wonderful window onto the world, with its missed opportunities and cumulative resentments, is far from over. This old couple hasn’t had its final say. Is the cinema coming back? Yes, but in what condition? Can we still talk about cinema and television in all seriousness as discrete entities? Nowadays we know that cinema’s survival depends to a large extent on television. That the cinema is at once TV’s income, its concubine and its hostage. What isn’t so clear is that aesthetically as well, the cinema has lost its fine autonomy. This has not been TV’s gain. The winner has been a hybrid, the telefilm. The telefilm and the drama. In Nice this year at a festival of Italian films, an incensed jury insisted on the point that it had throughout the impression that it was judging not films but telefilms. A sign of the times. 
For there is a history of our perception of pre-recorded images and sounds ("the audio-visual", an ugly technocratic word). Our perception of the cine-visible and the cine-audible, as Dziga Vertov would have put it, has come by way of the cinema, the silent, then the talkie, then by way of television. It is now starting to be worked on by video. It is in this history of the eye that the cinema-television couple still has centre stage. 
Flashback to the fifties: the beginning of television. TV didn’t come after cinema, as a replacement for it. It came when the cinema ceased to be eternal. When it had the first intimation of its mortality - therefore its modernity. Connected to current affairs, with no hindsight. To get to that, it took a world war (the second one) and a continent (Europe, together with Orson Welles, who is a continent all on his own). 
Being modern isn’t turning the language of film "upside down" (a naive idea), it is having a sense of no longer being alone. Having a sense that another medium, another way of manipulating images and sounds is pushing through the interstices of cinema. To begin with the cinema was very sure of itself (you only have to re-read Gance or Eisenstein); it began by gobbling up everything that had come before: theatre, dance and literature were mercilessly filmed. And then one day, one, two, or maybe three directors realised that it was no longer the case, that the cinema had less of an appetite, and that an even more voracious monster had come on the scene. 
There are few films as moving as A King in New York (1957). Chaplin stages himself as a dethroned king, having fled his kingdom (the cinema, America), compelled to earn his living by acting in a commercial (for a brand of whisky, his only piece of dialogue being “How nice!”). With tight-lipped irony the greatest director in the world only indicates that the centre of gravity of cinema has just been displaced. He is not the only one. Between the end of the war and the eruption of the new waves (say fifteen years or so), the most modern film directors have often been great TV directors before it was a thing. Television was out there at the end of their perspective lines, their horizon, their unconscious. 
Why is that? A hypothesis: in Europe after the war it was no longer possible to make cinema serve great causes and simple-minded ideals, the end of a "total art" at the service of "total war", the end of uplifting music or dance to get in step with. Then begins the era of the camera-stylo, the taste for micro-analyses, anonymous samples, the fall of the stars and, through live relay techniques, the age of surveillance. This is when cinema goes on the alert. You find all this in Rossellini (the first great roving reporter: Germany Year Zero), Tati (the first great sports reporter: Jour de fête), Welles (the first great game leader, rigged where possible: Mr Arkadin), Bresson (the first inventor of sadistic dispositifs: Pickpocket). And even in old Renoir (the first to film with several cameras, for television: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier). And of course in old Lang-Mabuse, the first man in control of the video-paranoia console. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, knowingly or otherwise, anticipated what was to be the ordinary of television. 
For right now, television is this: a half-hearted monster who keeps an eye on us and which we too keep an eye on, but no more nor less than a cat or a goldfish. 
What’s amusing is that the most rawly sensitive, most “artistic” side of the cinema (from Italian neo-realism to the French New Wave) finds itself in synchronicity with a new continent of rough, primitive and yet to be refined images. The fifties: TV (which still has no notion of its powers) and cinema (which begins to reflect on its powers, yielding to introspection) meet along the way. For there will be no handover. Except in the stubborn dreams of a few visionaries like Rossellini or Godard who - shock, horror - will make television: from The Rise to Power of Louis XIV to France Tour Detour Deux Enfants
For from the sixties on, the triumph of a television now very conscious of its social weight and its role as supervisor will gradually give the cinema its dispensation from modernity. The cinema will embark on its regression: cinephilia, necrocinephilia, retro fashions, kitsch taste, movies nostalgically celebrating the cinema, “the way the movies were” as revivals in old film theatres - and soon on TV – with choc ices, embalmed usherettes and supporting features. The cinema reduced to its rituals. 
Let’s move on to TV. At the start of course it’s the golden age. It is made by tinkerers: adventurers, amateurs, entertainers. In the beginning television is entertaining. Too quickly there comes the moment when centralised power (Gaullist at that time) identifies television as a combination of a formidable social regulator and evening classes. The one reinforcing the other. The power-mongers (barons, not necessarily Gaullist) dive straight into this opening. Nowadays, veterans of the ORTF like Spade or Dumayet locate this decisive turning point around 1964. This slide to be more accurate. Television became less entertaining and lost its freshness. A decision had been made in high places that it too had to have its specificity; but it will never be found, and for good reason. It was there, ready-made, from the start. But we didn’t want to see it. We were a little embarrassed. 
Jerry Lewis once said (with unfeigned scorn) that television was only good for news and games. Admittedly in the USA it was seldom anything else. In France however, it had an important social mission entrusted to it. First to educate, then to entertain. First, non-stop classes in civic education, French history trotted out to the point of nausea, the whole of nineteenth-century literature "dramatised". Then, news and games. 
Alas this noble endeavour took no account of what was new in the television medium. Its specificity, if you will. Its very own pseudopods. It’s a long list. To sum up: the impact and the vagaries of live coverage, international feature stories and series, sport and slow-motion to better see, interlude films such as the little train, the test card, idiotic yet always complicated game shows, the eroticism of the women announcers, the blow-dry hairdos, the different treatment of an image that is itself different, the chroma keying and the overlaid colours, the audience circus and the canned laughter, the timed debates and the show of those who rule us, the video feedback effects, etc. An entire world. One still very little explored (despite pioneers like Averty). 
Television had two possible evolutions. The video game and evening classes. A pinball evolution and a theatre evolution. Two ways of perceiving and constructing the image. In short, two aesthetics. For now it’s the evening classes that have won out. This is TV recycling. The other arts are recycled (the cinema more than any) and the TV viewer, that eternal novice, is recycled too. This situation, incidentally, is very French. Very French, this opposition between pointless TV and responsible TV. Everywhere else things worked out differently. In Japan for instance you can ask your TV terminal questions on all sorts of subjects, including the subject of “traditional Japanese values”, just in case you should happen to forget! Japan is barbaric. In France TV recycling always had one eye on cultural dignity. As a consequence, it inherited the academicism of an already moribund French cinema (the Qualité Française and the repugnant tradition of French-style psychological intimism) and, poor thing, made it its model, its superego. The aptly named “televised drama” symbolised this slide and this choice. It will remain one of the century’s disgraces. And it is still to make its most portentous utterances. Let’s wait for the eight hundred and twenty-seventh version of Les Misérables, the Hossein-Ventura version. Let’s wait for socialist TV. Let’s wait in dread. 
So television scorned, marginalised and suppressed its video evolution, its only chance of being heir to the modern cinema of the postwar period. Heir to that cinema on the alert. Heir to the fondness for the deconstructed and reconstructed image, the break with theatre, the different perception of the human body and its bath of sounds and images. Let’s hope that the development of video art will in turn threaten TV and make it ashamed of its timidity. 
For now, television has above all kept a kind of sub-cinema in isolation (under the protection of an iron-clad corporatism) and it is this sub-cinema which has become dominant. Economically and aesthetically. For the institutional divorce between cinema and television has been such that its paradoxical outcome was the restoration of the cinema. This was to do with distribution networks and it happened during the seventies. But aesthetically this restored cinema is a golem. It is not so much the heir of the old cinema as the way in which the telefilm (and the TV drama) have colonised the cinema. So, is the cinema coming back? Yes, but in what condition? What’s left of cinema’s real inventions? 
1. The cinema pushed very far the perception of distance. Distance between characters, between them and the camera, between the camera and us. Imaginary distances (since the screen is flat), but nonetheless very precise ones. This depth of field was essential to the star system since it made it possible to isolate and illuminate figures (idols or monsters). When a director played with distances it was no small thing. Renoir’s tracking shot of Nana as she dies or the unlikely camera movement which opens Mizoguchi’s Shin Heike Monogatari are hieroglyphs outlined in space. The outline in itself was staggering. 
What happened then? The tracking shot didn’t disappear but the zoom arrived. The zoom has become the form through which we apprehend space. It was invented by one Frank G. Back to film sport on TV. It was (not accidentally) Rossellini who was the first to make systematic use of it. The zoom is no longer an art of the approach but a kind of gymnastics comparable to a boxer s dance to avoid his opponent. The tracking shot was impelled by desire, the zoom spreads phobia. The zoom has nothing to do with the gaze, it is a way of touching with the eye. An entire scenography created by the interplay between the figure and the background becomes incomprehensible. The mere perception of films like Francisca become difficult for the contemporary spectator. Once the camera ceases to move, it looks as though there’s nothing moving. And if nothing moves, it looks as though there’s nothing to see. 
2. Something else. The cinema pushed very far the art of the off-screen. Many effects of fear, ecstasy or frustration came from that certain things were filmed and not others which remained off screen. The eroticisation of the edges of the frame, the frame regarded as an erogenous zone, all the games of entrances and exits from the frame, the deframing, the relationship between what was seen and what was imagined, were - I’d say - almost an art in itself. A certain cinema unto itself. 
What happened next? Since TV started showing films cropped, without their edges, films in nemascope and nicolor, this art has become obsolete. Boorman once said (with unfeigned scorn) that he located all the action in his films in the centre of the image so in case of a TV-showing nothing would be lost. It wasn’t long ago this It’s Always Fair Weather had one dancer out of three amputated from one of its musical numbers. 
TV’s contempt for the frame is limitless. Because on television there is no off-screen. The image is too small. This is the realm of the unique field. And chroma keying makes it possible to respect this unique field while fracturing it. Inconceivable perspectives. 
3. Finally, montage, Or rather, the découpage*. Classic cinema decomposed a continuous space-time and reconstructed it with match cuts, like a puzzle. The art and the technique of cuts (with all its idiotic rules), all its ways of inventing aberrant cuts (the Japanese especially, Ozu especially), the transgression of “discontinuity”, these are what kept cinema alive for a long time. 
What happened next? TV doesn’t reconstruct a puzzle, it is a puzzle. The sequencing of images on television has nothing to do with montage, nor découpage, but with something new which we would have to call inserting. TV always gives itself the right of cutting a flow of images and inserting others, at any time whatsoever, with no concern for the cut. 
These are only examples. I’m not saying that the tracking shot, the off-screen or découpage are “better” than the zoom, the unique field or inserting. That would be stupid. The forms of our perception are changing, that’s all. And in this change the old TV-cinema couple still holds centre stage for now. Like all old couples they have wound up looking alike. A bit too much for my taste. 
Television, still the prisoner of its desire to “make films” perhaps isn’t going far enough in its race forward. Towards the video game. The cinema, hostage, concubine and income of TV, perhaps isn’t going far enough in the exploration of its memory. Its most archaic memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1982, we have high hopes for Passion and Parsifal. Of the studio and special effects. For asymptomatically, old TV and very old cinema have an intersection, one that’s very far ahead and very far back. The point of rendezvous is called Méliès. We have to ask for the moon. 
* [Translator's note] I kept Daney's French words for montage and découpage. And to try to keep things simple:  découpage = how a director decides to (broadly) split and arrange shots, often before or during filming, and montage = the art of (precisely) assembling the shots in post production (which of course can mean re-arranging them). 
First published in Libération on 18 January 1982. Re-published in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation of the first paragraph with the help of Jonathan Rosenbaum. The rest is adapted from the Cinema in Transit translation project.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Death Of Buñuel

The Death of Buñuel  
First, round numbers. Buñuel was born in 1900, not long after cinema and psychoanalysis, and at the same time as the century. He is thirty years old when he astonishes the world (L’Age d’Or, 1930). He is fifty when he makes his first Mexican come back (Los Olvidados, 1950), sixty when he returns to shock his native country (Viridiana, 1960) and seventy when he bids it farewell (Tristana, 1970, sublime). Logically, Buñuel should have died in 1990 or in 2000, but eternity wasn’t to his liking. “Dying or disappearing forever doesn’t strike me as awful, but perfect. However, the possibility of living eternally terrifies me.” 
On Buñuel’s work, we’ve had plenty of time to say everything. There will always be volunteers to interpret it and the naive to think cinema is made of symbols. There is nothing to add on what never ceased to obsess him, throughout his life. The histories of cinema have already laid out all the “-isms” that crossed his path (surreal-, commun-, fetish-, Catholic-, oneir-). There is nothing to say about himself and what he has shared about it: an ordered life, a successful marriage, a good balance of serious work and simple pleasures (wine, whisky). And there is not much to go on about his style: he has always filmed as frontally as possible complicated situations related to the study of social customs, bourgeois ethology and the science of dreams. A documentarist. 
Where’s the mystery then? Neither in life nor in the work but in his career with its ups and downs. And what is it that dies today with Buñuel (after Renoir and Chaplin)? A certain way for a filmmaker to be in the century and to have, his arteries aside, the same age as cinema. The idea that time is not the enemy, that one wastes it by trying to gain it, that there is always time left. Buñuel’s “career” is one of the most disarming adventures in cinema. Here is a man who begun by surviving modestly the three thunderclaps of his unforgettable debut (Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, Land Without Bread). Here is a filmmaker who found nothing better than to start his first film (financed with his mother’s money) with the image of an eye being slices in two that still stuns. Here is a man who, for fifteen years, seems to have forgotten to fight to make his films at all costs. An ace of the avant-garde who accepts to produce (in Spain) and to make (in Mexico) purely commercial films. A deaf Spaniard who, late in the day, drew the most eloquently French portraits of the French bourgeoisie. In short, here is a man who did not always do what he wanted but always did what he could, and who remained himself. 
When we talk of humanism, or say that someone is “humane”, we often refer to the weaknesses that, by dint of generosity mixed with cowardly relief, we have decided to confer to him. Buñuel’s humanism has nothing to do with this. It is rather the (moral) honesty of a man who accepts to stay in direct contact with his own contradictions, without really trying to “resolve” them, without hoping to escape common fate, without any scorn for this fate. A rigorous craftsman who declares war only in the full knowledge that he cannot but declare it. Or win it. But who will always know the difference between concessions over secondary things and betrayal of the essential. 
Like all those who seem to be offering the audience a coded work and encrypted messages, Buñuel has been the perfect example of the filmmaker to interpret (meaning to hijack). But he hastened slowly enough and he lived long enough to discourage his exegetes. Not because he was changing but because they were. A few fixed and simple ideas, as stubborn as insects, indifferent to fashion, made it possible for him to say two or three things but in all the languages: the language of the avant-garde, of the popular melodrama, of the French tradition of quality. Few things in reality: that desire keeps us alive, and that its object is, in the end, obscure, that man considered as homo erectus is the only object worth studying, that man as a social animal lives in a sweet immorality, and that any truth, especially provisional, is worth saying. 
In the French films of his late period, from Belle de jour to That Obscure Object of Desire, he had the last words on his commentators: everybody suddenly rediscovered that a symbol doesn’t necessarily need to be explained, that the subconscious is quite a puzzle, that fantasies make us laugh, that the real is ironic, and that the bourgeoisie even have a discreet charm. A few years earlier he had effectively declared that the desire to find an explanation for everything was a bourgeois vice. By stripping his audience from this desire, he sort of liberated it. Buñuel remains a distinct filmmaker, less an inventor of new forms than a documentarist of the forms of the subconscious, or its formations rather. Each one of his films is in that sense like a dream. The best ones have the vividness of the dreams you can recall in their entirety. Hence their literal comedy effect. The lest successful ones are only remembered in bits and pieces. What difference does it make: it’s always about a dream and the capacity to transcribe and be faithful to dreams. Buñuel followed the adventure of cinema (or rather doubled it, like the lining of a jacket) as a wide-awake dreamer, a free man. 
First published in Libération, 1 August 1983. Reproduced in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Rear Window

Lockdown post

Rear Window 
The first of four great Hitchcock films released again, Rear Window (1954) is open to a frenzy of interpretations, to all the fantasies and to the pleasure of the spectator. 
“We have become a race of peeping Toms” says the prophetic Stella (the admirable Thelma Ritter) at the start of Rear Window; she is the nurse who comes every day to massage the raw-boned back of L.B. Jeffries, “Jeff” (James Stewart), the photographer immobilised in his New York apartment (because of a broken leg in a plaster cast), a tall lanky misanthrope worn down by inactivity (isn’t he lecherously spying on his neighbours with his telephoto lens?), affected by the heatwave (New York summers are notoriously muggy: you go through them in pyjamas), and tormented by the snobbish Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, beautiful), a dream-like creature who is taking advantage of his temporary infirmity to try and foist on him her dreams of bourgeois marriage. 
What’s an “immobilised” voyeur? A spectator of course. A man rivetted to his seat, condemned to a “blocked vision” (as Pascal Bonitzer puts it nicely), a cinephile, us. But what does this spectator want? A spectacle of course. And not just any spectacle. Ideally, he would catch by accident, “by chance”, an event that would go along with his most unspoken (therefore murky) desires. To make films out of his evil thoughts. If he fulfils his desire (for example to get rid of the woman who is badgering him), even via an intervening third person (what we call a “character”), he won’t have wasted his time. If along the way he realises that this desire is not a nice one, he will be ashamed of it, he will be punished, and, masochistically, it will do him even more good. At the little game of guilt, every pay-off matters. 
Let’s take Jeff, with his big telephoto lens and his long, plastered leg. As he scans the human comedy playing out in the windows across from him, as if on so many screens, he notices one or two suspicious details. One day, the (invalid) wife of one of his opposite neighbours disappears from his field of vision. What if her (exasperated) husband had ended up killing her? Convinced that this is what has happened, Jeff enlists a cop friend (in vain) and Lisa and Stella (with some success). The latter, who made the remark about the “race of peeping Toms”, becomes immediately a super voyeur. As for the zealous Lisa, better than a right arm, she transforms herself (already) in Jeff’s true “other half”. The three of them, together, all excited, charge headlong towards the solution to the mystery. 
And we, who in the darkness of the film theatre watch Hitchcock’s Rear Window, are like them, meaning that we embrace the Jeffian desire, that we want him to have “seen right”. And we are ready, if needed, to be (a little) afraid. After all, didn’t we pay in advance at the box office for our right to a blocked vision and to unblocking desires? Meaning our place as spectators? As voyeurs? Yes. 
There are two kinds of voyeurism in the cinema: Rossellini’s and Hitchcock’s. One that tips over into obscenity and one that tends towards pornography. If I spy on someone who, by definition, can never return that look, I am confronted with obscenity (that’s tough!). If I look at someone as an object and suddenly that person turns his object’s eyes on me, and looks at me, I am in a pornographic situation, I am with Hitchcock (that’s perverse!). Anyone who has felt safe thinking his human objects were kept at a distance by his binoculars, yet still believed the he somewhat caught their eyes, will know what I’m talking about, and what fear I am referring to. 
For the spectacle to have its moral, the game between the two cats (Jeff and Hitchcock in this case) and the two mice (the criminal and the spectator) needs to gradually balance itself, the game of hot cockles needs to accelerate, and “hell is other people” needs to change during the film into “each in turn playing the devil’s part”. To the point of vertigo. It is at this price that Hollywood was telling stories already dreamed by its audience. This is how one man, just one, told better than others what he had analysed better than others: Sir Alfred Hitchcock. 
In the end, Jeff hadn’t (just) dreamt his neighbour’s guilt. The fat Thorwald (Raymond Burr) did chop up his wife. And since he has figured out that Jeff knows, here he is (it’s the end of the film), crossing the courtyard, climbing the stairs, entering Jeff’s apartment through the front door and asking, in a strangely loud and distraught voice: “What do you want from me?”. I won’t describe the ending: there are still some people who between 1954 and 1984 haven’t seen this cult film. 
Why is it a cult film? Firstly because it has become one. For reasons of (mere) invisibility. A shrewd businessman, Sir Alfred had decided to give it (along with three other films: Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Rope, all of them with James Stewart) another release, with new prints and a brand new audience. Secondly because it has always been a cult film. In the summary I’ve just given, I’ve only replayed familiar tunes. For thirty years, it has been hard to tell the story of Rear Window without instantly being transformed from a cinephile frog into a theoretician ox. Thanks to this film, the best minds have always had the feeling of fully understanding Hollywood and the art of suspense with its twisted morality and its most intimate secrets. Better than a film "that thinks", it’s a film that gives food for thought, generously, to the point of vertigo. 
And yet, today, what’s admirable is not that Rear Window is (quite obviously) a film about the cinema, a perfect summary of the poetic art according to Hitchcock, the most beautiful mise en abime of what it’s like to consume images in the dark (like sins), it’s that with all this and despite all this, this film has retained its colour, its flesh and its mugginess. It is that this stylised and deconstructed slice of life has not lost anything of its rawness and its fundamental nastiness. 
A last surprising point. Although Rear Window has always been a film that we talked about in terms of gaze, voyeurism and scopic drive, it is also (and perhaps above all) a fantastic soundtrack, and that without it, it might not have “aged” so well. 
Oddly, it is what strikes us the most today. Because he is “visual”, Hitchcock fundamentally remains a director of silent films, meaning that he considers all sounds to be equally artificial. He didn’t baulk at telling Truffaut: “Dialogue is a noise among other noises, a noise coming out of the mouths of characters whose actions and gazes tell a visual story.” This is what allowed him, in the context of the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, to be – in his own way – a contemporary to the likes of Tati or Bresson who, in Europe, were asking – in their own way – the same questions. 
The courtyard that the window overlooks is above all a sound bath, saturated, urban, full of rumours and promiscuities, of warm air and shameful resonances. And through this magma of sound there is a little song pushing its way through – and on which in the end everything depends. Listen to Rear Window
First published in Libération on 8 February 1984 as “Cours des miracles” [the French title of the film is “Fenêtre sur cour”]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinema, 1986.

Friday, January 24, 2020

North by northwest

Serge Daney described how his move from Cahiers to Libération "liberated" him, how the pressure to publish almost daily unleashed his creativity and how he enjoyed being the "the absolute master of his page". 
I wrote a lot. After all, it was articles of five or six times the basic 1,500 characters units, because at the time, we didn't have any advertising at first, so we did the whole page. I've even had that extraordinary pleasure of writing an article, spending almost the whole night on it, of bringing it the next day to the paper, following it through to the press, of leaving, at the time at one in the morning, and I saw it composed, and I even helped the editor to put on a title, a caption etc. (...) For me, my page was like, like a film. I did the captions, I did the title, I did everything. [Journey of a cine-son]
Here's perhaps the most famous example.

North by northwest  
Snobbery didn’t work. We’ve always said La mort aux trousses*, never North by Northwest. Yet, inside the luxury train heading north by northwest, one of the most torrid scenes ever imagined by Hitchcock – a salacious filmmaker – takes place. Eve Kendall (who’s engaged in at least triple-crossing, hence her unease) welcomes in her compartment Roger Thornhill (a great clumsy oaf still very close to his mother). The case is clear: they will kiss.  
A few years ago, a discrete survey of avid Parisian cinema-goers asked: for you, what is the most beautiful film kiss? Not making out, not a snog, not a bite, but a kiss. The answers often mentioned this kiss, with Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. Why?  
Take a 35mm copy of North by Northwest and directly extract the images from that scene. You’ll obtain 3,426 images (called photograms). Put these photograms end-to-end, like in an intellectually perverse picture story, and what can you see?  
Firstly that, as Truffaut says, Hitchcock has always filmed love scenes like murders (and vice versa). Look at Cary Grant’s vicious and Brechtian look, his long hairy hands searching for a neck to strangle, the cold sensuality, the calculating euphoria. Look at Eva Marie Saint’s old skeleton’s hands, her large forehead, her overplayed ecstasy. Many things happen in a kissing shot. Many mixed things.  
North by Northwest is the right title. Like Cary Grant, the cinema audience is losing its bearings. Hitchcock is a machine: he knows where the north is (meaning the dénouement, the last stop, Mount Rushmore). But one never goes straight up north. One goes there by northwest. The real film, the one that you hallucinate and that feeds your most enduring dreams, is the northwest. The film heads north; the photograms – the unknown flesh of a film – head northwest. Here’s a “west” page.  
* The French title of the film, literally: death on the tail. [translator's note]
First published in Libération, 25 June 1982. Republished in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Visitors

Daney wrote some pretty scathing film reviews. Here's one from his Cahiers years on Elia Kazan's The Visitors courtesy of Andy Rector from KINO SLANG

The Visitors
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 240, July-Aug 1972. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde. Volume 1: Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, P.O.L., 2001.