Monday, August 31, 2020


Still revising and publishing the Cinema in Transit translations...

1984 (Michael Radford)

Before our very eyes, Orwell’s classic becomes a listed building. The guided tour is disappointing. Is Michael Radford an academic director? And what is academicism anyway?

What is more ambiguous than excessive fidelity? That of Michael Radford toward 1984 (the book) will undoubtedly please Orwell enthusiasts. It is certainly literal. But if I were in their shoes, I would be vaguely concerned. I would wonder what really motivated Radford and Simon Perry (his producer). A desire to adapt a classic of English literature (“a set book in schools”, says Radford, who read it at fifteen)? The temptation to make a splash (welcome to the new “young English cinema” of the eighties)? Probably both. But above all the wish to film 1984 in 1984. To come full circle. To do it this year or never. To return the book to its author-sender, like a pious boomerang, acknowledging receipt.

Right away, one thing is clear. Radford does everything but a “reading” of Orwell’s book (and even less a “re-reading”). He illuminates no past in the light of the present, no present in the light of the past. He doesn’t start out from the premise that 1984 London – even at a rudimentary level – is not the Oceania of Big Brother (Thatcher isn’t even a Big Sister). He doesn’t sort out what has and hasn’t happened from the Orwellian nightmare. Of the present, only one thing interests him: here we are at last in 1984, and it is possible to return the depressing old utopia to the frontier of the past that saw it come to light. By imagining in 1984 the vision Orwell had of 1984 in 1948, Radford slides (but is he aware of it?) from scrupulous reconstruction into implicit disavowal. Such is the paradox of blind fidelity: with 1984, the film, we’ve settled with 1984, the book. In 1985, just like yoghurt, inedible and past its sell-by date, the film would have been neither fresh nor feasible.

When the letter is dead, there remains fidelity to the spirit. For, prior to being a sci-fi extrapolation, 1984 is a document. Eric Arthur Blair (better known under his pen name Orwell) was first and foremost a great journalist. He was in a good position to undertake – in the thick of things – one of the first Identikit pictures of what was yet to be named “totalitarianism”, but which existed nonetheless, already, among others in the land of the “Father of Nations” (Darkness at Noon appeared in 1940). Genuine fidelity to the spirit of Orwell would entail this same journalistic talent, today. Now, can we imagine the face of a contemporary totalitarianism whose features are different from the ones Orwell definitively popularised? It doesn’t seem so to me (and this lack of imagination – ours and Radford’s – remains disquieting).

Orwell was the contemporary of a “vile beast” (quoting Brecht) which did not yet have a name. Thanks to him we are the contemporaries of the name (“totalitarianism”) with which we baptised the beast in question. Reams have been written (from Hannah Arendt to Daniel Sibony), mournings undertaken (from Syberberg to Tarkovsky), we have a description of paranoia in industrial societies and even a (cosy) way of playing at scaring ourselves half to death retrospectively with the officially detestable image of Dzhugashvili and some others. But the name isn’t the thing and, in a sense, Radford is being honest by kindly posting back a copy of Orwell with illustrations in the margin. He too is unable to imagine in 1984 a different face of totalitarianism than the one that Orwell gave it in 1948. This face still scares him of course, but it is sufficient for him. Thus the rites of good conscience are fulfilled. Hence the unease. As if we were being insistently shown an old yellowing photo of a criminal whom we would not be certain of recognising in his current guise.

Now I can imagine the reader demanding to know a little more about the form of Radford’s film. It’s the reader’s right. But once I’ve said that 1984 is rife with academicism, I’ll only be repeating the same thing (see above) in different words. For what does academicism come down to? Isn’t it just a style, a failing, a lack? No, academicism is the aesthetic of nihilism (and the refuge of professional hardheads). One suspects it’s got nothing to do with optimism and pessimism. Orwell believed in the need to say that there was maybe no hope. Radford “believes” in the need to say that Orwell said it. That’s the difference. Academicism (yes even the kind that’s ubiquitous and which gives us the nasty sense of a return to the “quality cinema” of the fifties) is never anything more than the disillusioned seriousness with which the most traditional and hackneyed form is used in order to signify that there is no content deserving of being painstakingly worked on with a new form. Of course it’s an abdication, but one that goes for the substance too.

Between those two entities that it’s out to tackle (the “great book” to be adapted and the “mass audience” to be edified), academicism maintains a distance (as one “keeps one’s distance”). The audience is merely enlisted as the witness to an immaculate operation which vaguely concerns it but never involves it. We never “see” 1984, we wordlessly turn the pages of a ghastly album. Coated pages, but no more than need be. We see the excellence of the set designer’s work (he’s called Allan Cameron), the pontifical seriousness of the actors (Burton, in his last role, still moves), the creation of a “look” halfway between a documentary on a blitzed London and reminiscences of the “Zone” in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (decidedly a great film). We notice that Radford (who has already given us one good film – Another Time Another Place – and whose talent, be it that of a first assistant, isn’t negligible) has a taste for the dissecting table (Bacon without the colours) and the academy nude.

Accordingly, we are not surprised that the film’s only success should be of decorative order. Radford has “respected” the book and the audience too much not to find himself empty-handed every time he took steps to make his narrative progress dramatically. When you don’t want to “play” with your audience at all, you wind up – it’s normal – not even being able to tell it a story. What was appalling in Orwell’s words (O’Brien’s double game, the final scene, the rats) merely becomes discomfiting in Radford’s images. In the end a director has to be someone who lights a fire between his film and us, especially when he’s confronting a “big subject”. To warm us up, to play with it, to deserve the risk of getting burned. Remove that risk and the cinema becomes a poor thing. Decent and dead.

One final question: what is English academicism? And why have those two words always gone together so well? Why is English cinema nearly always decorative, phobic, flat? Why is Hitchcock the only exception (and even the one who knows all there is about playing with the audience)? I hazard a cruel hypothesis. This is it. If there is a single nation in Europe that is ill-equipped to speak from the inside of a phenomenon like totalitarianism it has to be the English (Cromwell died in 1658). 

This is even the reason we can like England and the reason the best English films (the films of Humphrey Jennings for example) are the ones where you feel that democracy, civic sense, resistance to delirious excess are not just for show. Of course, they are almost all documentaries, for as far as “mourning” fictions are concerned they’ve come from Italy and Germany, just as one might expect them from the USSR (let’s not expand on collaborationist France).

The country to which any kind of madness is most foreign (alien), condemned to stiff respect for the other (habeas corpus) and pathological politeness (“I am afraid that…”), is similarly the one that can only supply the decorative frame for what unhinges entire nations; but elsewhere, on the continent.

 First published in Libération on 15 November 1984. Re-published in Ciné journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

On Daney - Bill Krohn's Letters from Hollywood

Bill Krohn's newly published Letters from Hollywood 1977-2017 - a selection of his writings as "the Los Angeles correspondent of Cahiers du cinéma" - is pretty much essential reading when it comes to Serge Daney, not only for the real life connection between the two film critics but also for resurfacing an important interview that Bill conducted with Daney (translated in English of course). 

The first part of the book features Daney almost as a central character. Bill Krohn explains in the introduction that it is "Serge" who appointed him as the Cahiers American correspondent after they met during the Semaine des Cahiers at the Bleecker Street Cinema in 1977. Two texts written for this event follow: "The Tinkerers", on the theoretical influence of Cahiers and an "Interview with Serge Daney" (who was Cahiers editor-in-chief). The book also contains the English version of the obituary Krohn wrote at the time of Daney's death and which details his friendship with Daney ("Serge Daney 1944-1992"). 

The rest of the book has of course some great writings by Bill Krohn, so if you can afford the price tag, don't hesitate. The first chapter is available for free online at the State of New York University Press website.

UPDATE 2 FEB 2021: Jonathan Rosembaum's review of the book is much more thorough!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

I Was Born in Calcutta

It's fantastic to see others translating Daney. Here's a new one from The Seventh Art blog: Daney's 1982 interview with Satyajit Ray.  

I Was Born in Calcutta

Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Vertigo - Sueurs froides
Another translation from Cine-journal, Daney's second book. Thanks to Andy Rector / Kino Slang for his help with the translation.

Vertigo / Sueurs froides
All those years without Vertigo: how did we cope? Wasn’t it Alfred Hitchcock’s most sentimental film? Yes.
Truffaut: “I believe the film was neither a success nor a failure.”
Hitchcock: “It will break even.”
Truffaut: “So it’s a failure?”
Hitchcock: “I suppose.”
In 1958, US audiences snubbed Vertigo but the French quite liked Sueurs froides*. In 1984, both films are re-released: Sueurs froides for the philistines, Vertigo for the others. As it became cult, the film didn’t only earn its original English title (that would merely be snobbery) but also earned something like a secret and friendly nickname: “vertigo”, in Latin, – the type of name we give to beloved beings when they are gone (I do say “beings” even though I know it’s only a pile of printed film stock – only a film – but films don’t just age, they watch us age too). We’ve been missing Vertigo for too long. No rain gutters, red robes, sequoia trees, grey suits or San Francisco streets have ever really existed on screen since Vertigo. No film in fact resembles this one. 
Is this a dithyramb? Yes. But a strange one, like the film. For Vertigo, unlike Rear Window, is far from a perfect film. Not funny, like North by Northwest. Not terrifying, like Psycho. Not chilling, like Birds. It’s not even, to use Truffaut’s beautiful expression, a “grand film malade**” like Marnie. No, Vertigo is mostly a moving film.
One interest of this “return to Hitchcock” that – delighted and bemused – we are witnessing today on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make redundant the (sticky) label of “Master of suspense”. For two reasons. Firstly, Hitchcock is a Master, just a Master. Not a so-called money-grubber but the only one to have found the right distance (in a sort of interior exile) to know exactly what the grub was made of. And if the grub had to be American, the knowledge about the grub could be universal. Thanks to Hitchcock. Secondly, because “of” suspense means nothing. What suspense? Hitchcockian suspense is unique and like no other. There are no recipes because they are inimitable. Who will dare to do as he does? Endless “exposition” scenes where nothing seems to happen? Criminals whose identity is known straight away? Films divided in two symmetric parts, folded around a central axis, as is the case in Vertigo? No one.
We won’t tell the story of Vertigo. Let’s not spoil any of the pleasure. But let whomever is seeing the film for the first time know that the “key” to the enigma (a rather crude flash-back but that explains everything) is to be found soon after the first half of the film. Here’s a paradox of a fake ending right in the middle of the film. “Everybody around me”, Hitchcock tells Truffaut, “was hostile to this change, because they thought this revelation should only come at the end of the film”.
But this is precisely where the emotion comes from. It comes when the spectator – mystified until now, then put in the know and proud of his new knowledge – realises that the film is not finished! Suspense of a new suspense. The spectator (you, I hope) watches with compassion the cataleptic bodies of James Stewart and Kim Novak. The spectator didn’t know enough. He now knows too much. He is guessing that appearances will never give up their platonic dance, and that the actors are chained to a fiction that he cannot – in the moment – know what to make of. It doesn’t last but this suspense is deeply moving. Look at Judy when Scottie comes to find her: she slowly turns her head toward the camera, less to give us a look into the camera than to see herself joined by her destiny, with breakneck speed. 
It’s because the first part of Vertigo adopts the point of view of Scottie, the duped man, that such a scene, suddenly seen from the point of view of the woman, gains all its importance. Hitchcock often proceeds this way: in his stories of chained couples, he obscures along the way the character that seemed transparent and lightens the one that seemed opaque. Hence, many of his films are strangely constructed: in two parts, according to a pattern that Rohmer described as helicoidal. Except that the loop never closes back completely. The man/woman symmetry exists no more in the Hitchcockian universe than it does in the real world. The story of Vertigo is that of a man who moves from acrophobia to necrophilia, therefore of a “grand malade”. But the beauty of Vertigo is in the way a woman, despite everything, exists. 
Despite everything. To Truffaut who assures him that eventually Kim Novak was very good in this role designed for Vera Miles, Hitchcock replies nothing. There are many anecdotes telling of how little interest Hitchcock gave to this (still young) star. A limited actress, of vulgar and bland beauty, with ugly legs (Hitchcock insisted on that point) and terrified with stage fright. But this is precisely where the emotion comes from, because of this supplementary mirror effect. 
Kim Novak plays the role of a woman who, twice, is only an image, the materialisation of a man’s fantasy. She is “herself” only once, the day Scottie comes to find her, squeezed into her terrifying green dress. Otherwise, she lives in fear. The fear of betraying herself, the fear of not being up to the job. Kim Novak’s fear as well, as an actress, of not understanding what the “Master of suspense” wanted from her on set. So much so that Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s usual photographer, could not avoid recording this fright and disarray, the solitude of the Hitchcockian actor (or simply of actors in general) at the sound of the clapperboard. We are watching a series of screen tests: they follow each other feverishly, documentary-like, giving Vertigo, this Vertigo-with-Kim-Novak-and-despite-Alfred-Hitchcock, a real unease.
And then there is James Stewart, brilliant. He has been a better actor (in Ford’s Two Rode Together or in Preminger’s Autopsy of a Murder) but Scottie is his most beautiful role. Watching him move – attentively – in Vertigo, one understands what was unique in Hitchcock’s cinema. Unique in the sense that it could only happen once. Here is a man who never stopped denying the “direction” of actors, who said horrible things about them, who prided himself on never looking into the viewfinder and sketching all his shots in advance. He exaggerated of course, overdoing it a bit. Nevertheless, if Hitchcock’s posthumous return today works so well, isn’t it because he is, in the strongest possible sense, an experimental filmmaker, halfway between silent cinema (the art of mime) and television (and its babbling)? The master of all those who prefer to explore their tools than to deliver a message?
Experimental filmmakers generally do without actors or, since they can’t afford them, pretend to hate them. Hitchcock was the only one in the history of cinema who could hate them and afford them. Logically he has given them split character roles. Cruelly, he has directed them like body doubles. But a body double called Cary Grant or James Stewart will never simply be a double. There will always be something remaining of their mastery, aura, intuition and professional reflexes. And this is precisely where the emotion is born.
Look at Stewart in Vertigo: slightly robotic, zombie-like, holding on to reality only by his waking dream and to the set only by the markers of the mise en scène, like so many stitch points*** separated from one another by nothingness. One can laugh at this game, find it slightly obscene and dated. One could also say that Scottie is the last of Hitchcock’s alter egos. Or that the skinny James Stewart is the last actor that the fat Hitchcock still had the desire to identify with. Say what you want, cinema is a very human art.  
First published in Libération on 27 March 1984 with the title “Vertigo, enfin visible” [finally visible]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated with the invaluable help of Andy Rector.

Translator’s notes:
* The French title of the film, literally: “cold sweat”.
** A sick or diseased film.
*** “points du suture” in French.