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. Reprinted 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.

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