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.

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