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. Reprinted 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”]. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinema, 1986.