Friday, December 31, 2021

Serge Daney in 2021

Time for the annual wrap-up. 2021 saw 30 (new or revived) translations of Serge Daney:

2022 will mark 30 years since Daney's death and it's possible that we see a bit more happening in the Daney sphere.  

Two books seem on track to be released:
  • The most eagerly awaited is The Cinema House and The World, a translation of the first volume of Daney's complete writings covering the Cahiers period. Over 200 texts due for release around May. Discover more here.
  • Serge Daney and Queer Cinephilia, the output of a university research program which covers wider topics than Daney but will likely have some interesting texts on Daney. (Disclosure: I was invited at the first set of conferences to talk about translations, but no papers from me in the book).
There could be more: 
  • Emmanuel Burdeau is continuing to write his biography of Daney. To be published next year?
  • And I am aware of one other book that could hit the shelves in the future. 
And this blog will continue to look at new translations, some already in-progress. 

In the meantime, it's pretty much the same end of year message as last year. You know what to do: vaccines, masks, look after others as well as yourselves, and stay safe.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

In Praise of Emma Thiers

Early Christmas present with a piece by Daney on a film by Jean-Claude Biette (available on the French Cinémathèque streaming site, with English subtitles). Thank you to Jack Seibert who came up with the idea and made the translation possible.

In Praise of Emma Thiers* (Jean-Claude Biette’s Realism) 

The Theatre of the Matters, a realist film 

There are several ways to say that The Theatre of the Matters is a realist film. Filming a tiny and completely penniless theatre troupe staging Schiller or Bataille in a Paris suburb is a more “realist” choice than, say, filming the anxieties of a known filmmaker scouting locations. Here, I use realist in its most basic sense, meaning statistical: Biette’s film talks about France’s cultural landscape in 1977, the everyday life of a troupe caught between private financing and state subsidies (patrons, in both cases), amateurs as well as professionals, promoters as well as artists. Not out of a taste for failure or for the mundane**, nor for militant miserabilism, but more out of a care for reality. 

Who to film? In front of which bodies should one place the camera? It isn’t good – it’s even worrying – that Godard is the only one attempting to paint the portrait of a permanent union rep (in Comment ça va?) when French cinema continues to apply a left-wing varnish on the honest cops and courageous judges that have already served the Right (pathetic left-wing fictions!). It isn’t good—it’s even sad—that Biette is the only one set on depicting the savagery of the relations between the petty bourgeoisie and art, culture and their institutions when human emotions are haggled as if in a souk, when art and prostitution go hand in hand, when manipulation rules (“some would kill their own parents to get on the stage”). Realism is firstly this: to grant a filmic dignity to that which didn’t have any, to venture an image where there was none. 

Like countless films before, The Theatre of the Matters talks about the spectacle. Yet it is a new film. Neither a demystification (the stage’s wings speak the truth of the spectacle because they exhibit its material conditions: Tout va bien) nor a re-mystification (the backstage of the dream factory renders it even more lovable: La nuit américaine). Not even a reciprocal contamination of theatre with life, “of the city and the stage”: L’Amour fou

For Biette, theatre is neither life nor its opposite. Theatre is like life, it is intertwined with it, flatly. It doesn’t transfigure life, it continues it. So a first trap must be avoided when watching The Theatre of the Matters: to shed a tear on the lost souls of the cultural world, the disadvantaged ones (a hideous expression), to fly to the rescue of a poor-theatre-actually-as-good-as-rich-theatre-because-so-much-more-human. In Biette’s film, we don’t know how good Herman’s (Howard Vernon) plays are. And the theatre troupe is never a simple association of victims (Herman’s patsies) because we see it using its own little powers. 

The other trap would be to politicise the subject too quickly, through hasty groupings: amateurs v professionals, rich v poor, traditionalism v avant-gardism, Schiller v Bataille. At the Theatre of the Matters, only “contemporary” theatre is staged (Dirty for that matter) because it is economical. The theory of the matters that Herman professes is advantageous in that it can adapt to all economic situations, and the formula that sums it up entirely (“theatre is bodies on a set”) says rather crudely, with a play on words***, what’s at stake in the theatre: for the theatre (and for the cinema too), the sets are what cost money while  the bodies are donated, “for nothing”. 

Now, as a filmmaker, Biette knows very well that he will only ever deal with singular bodies and that it is dangerous, sometimes criminal, to homogenise them. As a filmmaker who has chosen this subject, he knows that non-professional actors (or actors who work too little, considering the level of unemployment in the field) haven’t had the time to bend their bodies to the training required by the profession. At the Theatre of the Matters, one comes as one is. And one always knows where one comes from: the benches of a symphonic orchestra (Herman was first violin with Furtwängler, Dorothée harpist with Désomière), the kitchen of a restaurant (Philippe), a travel agency (Dorothée, again), or a great classic theatre (Répétos). It is the clumsiness, the opacity, and perhaps the nobleness of this double body, both amateur and professional, a true factory of “third meaning”, that Biette wants to make us love. This way, he continues on a thread that obsessed the New Wave: the taste for triviality (the cinema of quality was vulgar, the New Wave trivial). Come as you are and expect no transfiguration from the cinema. There will be no aura. This is the case with Bresson (who retains only stage fright from the “actors”), Rohmer (who retains only the first names of the “actors”, in the Moral Tales) or Straub (who, in Othon, retains only the fact that the actors don’t understand well, or at all, what they are saying). 

The passion according to Saint Biette 

This double trap avoided (to commiserate or to group), the spectator can no longer look down from above. The Theatre of the Matters, like any real fiction, resonates with a loud voi ch’entrate. One has to consent to the “step by step” of the fiction, to accept not to precede it. The “good spectator” (if he even exists) tries to turn his loss into a win. His losses: general concepts, doxa, prejudices; in a word, ideology. His gains: sharpness in perception: to see, to hear, to identify, to recognise, to deduct. 

For what makes the current fictions of the French cinema so weak and awkward? All the desire has moved to the side of the spectator, with none left for the actors. Conversely, what is striking in recent great films (Entire Days in the Trees or Comment ça va?) is that they always tell the story of an excessive desire, of a passion. To declare a “return to fiction” – an expression we can hear everywhere at the moment – has the worst possible meaning, a reactionary meaning, if it’s merely demanding structured scenarios, well-built stories and credible characters. The return of fiction however, is of great interest: to allow us to rethink fiction from the angle of passion. The passion of a mother for a child (Entire Days…), of a union rep for his mysterious office colleague (Comment ça va?), of Dorothée for the stage (The Theatre of the Matters). And it is not because the object of desire is, as Lacan says, “a failure” (which in Duras’ film is to be taken literally) that it can be any object. At the Theatre of the Matters, everyone knows what one wants, or believes he knows it. What connects Biette’s film to the “good old films” he’s fond of is that he doesn’t give too big a share to the great Other. From the start of the film, characters say what they want, what they aspire to. That they may be mistaken about the nature of their desires doesn’t imply, at least not automatically, that they are unable to express them. Or even better, to tell the story of them. 

For fiction – narration to be precise – has a double status: it is both form (a film tells a story) and content (in a film, characters can tell a story). A storyteller can also be filmed. In life, one never ceases to tell stories: but stories told in salons are not the same as stories told in bars, just as the Buñuelian imbricated stories are not the same as the Godardian digressions. It is rather curious that the Buñuelian storytelling that everybody finds funny and deep isn’t picked up by any other filmmaker (as if it was the reserve of the Master). Especially as it’s a very classic form of storytelling that can be found in literature (Diderot or Quevedo), characterised by the fact that even the most minor extra can ascend without warning to the status of storyteller, then disappear forever. Why this refusal? 

It is perhaps because whoever tells a story (be it the most banal or dirty – see Eustache) becomes for a moment the master of the film. Not only because the course of the film hangs on the lips of the storyteller but because the storyteller grants himself the time to arrive at a certain satisfaction (he alone knows the ending). In The Theatre of the Matters, Herman’s anecdotes about Furtwängler or Brigitte’s stories in the abandoned lot are moments when the pleasure to tell a story is no longer the sole prerogative of the filmmaker but is shared, disseminated. It is this desire that is rejected by the fictions of the French cinema, because it would be akin to stealing something from the fantasised link between the spectator and the auteur, over and above the characters, and most often behind their back. 

For a “great deixis” 

One touches here the damage done by wild psychoanalysis (where one knows that “somewhere” we have a subconscious) or Freudo-Marxism (where one knows that “somehow” there is a class struggle) to arthouse cinema and its audience. It is an audience that starts already beaten. That’s the consequence of giving “too big a share to the great Other”. The great victory of modern cinema (to no longer have to hysterically identify oneself with the characters) has its downside. The spectator identifies himself more and more with the auteur. His hysteria (Barthes says, “The image is what I am excluded from”) is no longer fed by the step by step of the fiction and by the bodies that it binds but by the – rapidly anxious – quest for the auteur’s “intentions”, for traces of his presence. 

Films, then, become big soft adverts where bursts of enunciation swim in an ocean of connective tissue. In these conditions, it is not so much what happens on the screen that matters but what we can glean of the intentions of the Auteur (now with a capital A). In these conditions, the old linguistic grid that distinguished between connotation and denotation, so useful to decipher old films, series films, coded and over-coded, eaten away by ideology and gnawed at by script writing, no longer has much purpose (except in universities where semiologists are rushing toward Hitchcock). We should substitute for this grid a new repertoire of bursts of enunciation, a great deixis rather than a great syntagmatic analysis. We would then know how auteurs flirt with spectators, how they use all the tricks of advertising cinema. Among these tricks, a “history of the zoom” would be welcome: we would see how it has lost its Rossellinian worth (to get as close as possible) in favor of an abstract phatic dimension (“yes, you are now at the cinema… we are talking to you… relax… watch out, here the auteur wanted to tell you something… did you see it?”, etc). 

So, to make a film like The Theatre of the Matters, where each element – character, colour, furniture, word – must be taken seriously, either because it’s going to be linked to another, or because it’s going to come back later, is a challenge. A challenge since it requires a spectator who doesn’t start already beaten: a spectator both naive and demanding (a child?), a spectator that calls a spade a spade, and who, as a result, is ready to see it transformed into something else. One can see that I am using Biette’s film as a little war machine against everything that is wrong in the ideology of French arthouse cinema, against an audience which is made incurious and functions more and more according to the “Attention: masterpiece!” (an ad recently seen in France Soir). What could this poorly informed audience fear? 

Realism: to accomplish a programme, to keep one’s word 

What is a film? It’s also a programme. Each element of the film is a programme of its own. A name is a programme. Dorothée knows that tea puts her to sleep (it’s a gag) and the Theatre of the Matters is also the voice of the idiot who interviews Herman twice, “The theatre of Emma Thiers”. We know the role of wordplay for Biette; he has explained it in a recent interview. Beyond the pun, there is a second way to talk about realism. Realism is also the act of realising, to make real, to transform the potential into reality, to keep one’s contract, to accomplish a programme. 

Take an example. When the manager of the travel agency (the admirable Paulette Bouvet) summons Sonia Saviange (excellent as Dorothée) in her office to tell her off, this scene that could have been ordinary is absolutely terrifying. How so? Thanks to a very simple staging trick: the agency manager, instead of staying behind her desk, stands up and sits on the desk she has just walked around, slightly dominating Dorothée whom we can see partially turned away, on the foreground, to the bottom left of the frame. The manager: “Have you seen the weather? Beautiful isn’t it?” Dorothée: “Yes, Madam.” The manager: “Well, you should go outside and get some air sometime.” Dorothée: “But, Madam Nogrette, I don’t understand.” The manager: “It doesn’t matter, let’s go.” In such an example, Biette manages to render all the dimensions of the dialogue. 

There is of course the dimension of the signifier (words with double meaning like “get some air”) and that of the signified (watch out, you’re going to get fired). But there is another one. Let’s suppose for a moment that Dorothée takes the manager at her word and leaves, effectively, to “get some air”: she couldn’t do it because the other is physically blocking her way. That’s the meaning of the staging: the agency manager anticipates the possibility of a literal interpretation of her words and forbids it in advance. The scene captures perfectly the horrors of office life because it plunges us into a world where taking things literally – moving into action, the body that challenges the language – is always possible. It is this dimension of the language – let’s call it the language of the body for now – that fascinates Biette. Not the body that speaks for itself, that reveals the soul, but the body that relays the language, gets intertwined with it, “realises” it (as one says in the vocabulary of economics). Hence the fright. Hence also, comedy as the solution to the fright. 

When Dorothée, after the opening night of Marie Stuart, very joyful despite the failure of the show, asks Herman, “Did we do good today?” and Herman, glum, replies, “Go ask those eight spectators” Dorothée doesn’t see the irony and only hears the signifier (“Go ask...”) and quickly replies, as if to avoid a chore, “Oh dear, I need to go. I’m late already.”  

I am moved. Long live being moved! 

In The Theatres of the Matters, what keeps on being produced are the ghosts of things called upon by words. Things return to the language to haunt it. A haunting that also hovers over the film since any word could be the password that opens the other stage, comical or vile, that of the language of the body, of the language embodied, distorted, by the “matters”. Only filmmakers working in a totally different context, American B-movies, people like Browning, Lang or Tourneur had pushed the desire and the haunting of the referent thus far. Always this fear with Tourneur that pronouncing a word could lead to something that responds or moves. Tourneur, who believed in phantoms, said one must never show anything, which must be understood as: one must show the nothing, as if nothing existed. If the word “nothing” exists, there must be such a thing as “nothing”. 

In a chapter of the first volume of his seminars devoted to Saint Augustine (and to a text entitled De locutionis significatione), Lacan, helped by Father Beirnaert, quotes the following example: how can one signify the meaning of the word “walking” solely through language of the body? Saint Augustine: “If I asked you when you walk: what is walking? How would you teach it to me?” Answer: “I would perform the same action a little faster to attract your attention to something new, while doing nothing other than what needed to be shown.” But Reverend Beirnaert notes that it is no longer “walking” (ambulare) that is signified but “hurrying” (festinare). Impossibility of the body to become entirely language. An impossibility that leads us right to the limits of cinematic realism: mistaking words for things, i.e. psychosis. The Theatre of the Matters ends on a white wall. But it is not even a full stop (except perhaps by anticipating the whiteness of the screen once the lights are switched back on in the theatre). Again, Lacan: “If one points to a wall, how can one know if it is truly a wall, or not something else, for example, the roughness, or the colour green, or grey, etc?” 

If one points. And what does cinema do if not pointing? It is even what differentiates it radically from theatre. In the theatre, there can be a language of the body, more or less codified (dance, mime, pantomime), where the découpage in cinema, spatial and temporal, introduces a dimension inexistent in the theatre: that of the “here is…”. There is always an excess in cinema, coming from the intricacy of the découpage and the enunciation. As soon as one cuts, one enunciates. One can announce, “here is… the thing itself”, but it is in vain: filmed, “the thing itself” starts to function like a sign, which doesn’t close anything, and kickstarts everything like an eternal extra roll of the dice. 

Crisis in the belief 

Realism is also this: to be subjected to a contract where everything that is said can also be shown, while knowing that this conversion is rigorously impossible. Specifically, it is the pact between names and bodies that is at stake in The Theatre of the Matters (nomen, the name, means “pact” or “contract” in Latin). Another pact, just as desperate, is at stake in a film like Pasolini’s Salò, a film overwhelming in its innocence, its tenacity in not saying anything it cannot immediately show – even the worst. Not only to impress the spectators or make them vomit, but because, after all, a filmmaker’s word doesn’t have to be automatically believed.  

All this has consequences for today’s cinema. In a way there are two cinemas: the one exhausting its material and treating it like a programme, and the one that inflates without ever fulfilling it. Use value v exchange value. Sumptuous extenuation (even in penniless films) v counterfeit currency (even in super productions). On the one side, the impossible language-bodies, on the other, the glue of the signifier. In a recent article, Pascal Kané proved that all the flattering chatter surrounding Ettore Scola’s latest film, A Special Day, would have evolved in a lightly outraged boredom had we caught the actor Mastroianni, not in the “role” but in the “posture” of a homosexual. The difference between what is simply implied by the script (its imaginary references in a way) and what is actually shown may seem, related to the global meaning of the film, minimal. Yes, the meaning is not modified. But the difference is immense, since the reception of the film, its success or failure, depends on it. There is always a moment in the cinema where the question is: to show, or not. 

Young French filmmakers are often cinephiles (Jacquot, Biette, Téchiné, Kané, etc), meaning that they explore the depth of cinephilia: the act of believing. They do not denounce it after naively or blusteringly believing that they are freed from it. Instead, they explore it secretly, by reductio ad absurdum. “Why would anyone believe me?” they are all saying, set upon accumulating proofs. Jacquot by making bluffing his great subject (nothing forces us to believe that Gilles in The Musician Killer is a violin virtuoso since even when he is playing, we can’t decide for sure). Téchiné by reducing cinema to a window (nothing forces us to believe that there are women behind it, or even something behind these women: Barocco). Kané by looking into special effects (nothing forces us to believe that the fairies in Dora are all-powerful, since they accumulate mistakes). Their art of filmmaking still assumes a certain type of spectator, perhaps soon to be extinct, able to take interest in a story while at the same time able to take nothing at face value. Unlike today’s spectator who has become educated, smart, cunning and lazy. 

It is possible that the audience targeted by Biette with his Theatre of the Matters no longer exists (no more than, say, the audience targeted by Dassault and Autant-Lara when they made Gloria). That it no longer exists at the cinema and that it is in front of the television. In a written introduction to “good old films” that he had curated in a district cinema (the Action-République), Biette wrote that these films had provoked “…the greatest of pleasures: forgetting one’s own life a little bit and playing at living imaginary or insanely real lives for an hour or two.” When belief gets undone (and everything leads to believing that we believe less and less in films), yesterday’s imagination and pleasure are getting mixed. Madness or reality: who would take chances? 

Realism, madness. 

I talked about realism, both as attention to reality and haunting of the real. And to conjure up this double calling, I talked about the theme of the contract. A contract between words and their promise. A contract between names and bodies. A contract between the film and the spectator. It is possible that we are living in an era where the old cinema is getting undone and with it, the naive contract that has bound it, for half a century, to a certain audience. Television and advertising, by taking away from the cinema the monopoly on belief, have accelerated its decline as an “art for the masses” (at least in the western world) while at the same time elevating it to the status of cultural worthiness. Will cinema find a new dispositif of power, a new regime of belief? It is too early to say more. 

In Dialogues, Deleuze writes, “what defines the notion of the masses, isn’t necessarily a dimension of collectiveness, class or togetherness, but the evolution in law from the contract to the statute.” We have been spectators “by status” and it is as if the cinema – or a part of the cinema – was, in front of our eyes, going back the other way: from statute to contract. As if, once this involution was over, we could start from zero again. A strange criss-crossing is happening: whereas consumers of culture are expected to tie their desire to that of the Auteur, the filmmakers that matter the most to us tie their desire to the old places haunted by this “popular audience” that we cannot find today. The places of the cinema were all located in the regions of low culture: colonial imagery and roman-photo, melodrama and family albums, the magic of the stage and the cinema studio. These places are deserted, or rather they are encumbered with codes that have become incomprehensible, haunted by the corpse of the one for whom all this has once happened. Nostalgia? Not quite, even if this corpse begins to smell. The Theatre of the Matters is absolutely contemporary with the possible birth of a “new spectator”, one who wouldn’t be (only) a consumer of culture and about whom we only know one thing at the moment: they are to be counted one by one

* From the play on words in the scene of the interview with a journalist: “Le théâtre des matières” and “le théâtre d’Emma Thiers”, pronounced the same way in French (the former means “the theatre of the matters” the latter “Emma Thiers’ theatre”). 

** tasseux in the French text, a word that doesn’t seem to exist. Did Daney invent it? 

*** In French, the summary formula is “le théâtre, c’est des corps dans du décor”, with “des corps” and “décor” pronounced the same way.

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 285, February 1978. Reprinted in La Rampe, Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Jack Seibert.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

A Critical Time for Criticism

One of the few remaining texts from the Cinema in Transit translation project. With minor tweaks and addition of the missing paragraph and footnotes. 

A Critical Time for Criticism

Some years ago, in Gabès, a film club organiser for southern Tunisia told me what he had to contend with. After a screening it was no longer out of the ordinary for a bearded student to get up and explain in all seriousness that the heroine’s death at the end of the film was not the work of the screenwriters but of God, who had punished her for her sins. How was he to get a film club debate going in these conditions, when there was no longer any debate? 

At the same time, down amongst the Christians, a convulsive upsurge of bigotry was creating quite a stir. The judgement of those who had seen Hail Mary suddenly counted for less than that of those who condemned it “blindly”, without having seen it. With a typical sense of comedy, the film’s director, Jean-Luc Godard, made a show of respecting the judgement of the Pope, less as the head of the Church than as an individual who had a personal ‘thing’ about Mary. Godard did not make any claims for the sacred rights of the individual in regards to the creation, but asked the impossible, namely the rights of the individual Jean-Paul to enter into debate with the individual Jean-Luc about what their respective work share in common. 

This is not the same Godard who had written a fine letter breaking with Malraux in defence of Rivette’s The Nun. In fact, things had changed. Criticism had already thrown in the towel and the “right to creativity” had become a trade union refrain all the noisier that for the “profession’s professionals” there had long since ceased to be anything to debate. A few years later, on the climate of weak-kneed embarrassment that accompanied the release of The Last Temptation of Christ (rapidly dubbed “the Scorsese affair”), film criticism played no part*. 

What is this critical bloodlessness about? That we no longer fight for “freedom of expression **” and that we still don’t know how to fight for “freedom of consumption”. Question: does the consumer of films have an inalienable right to consume the film that he wants? Answer: this isn’t certain. It isn’t certain because it isn’t just objects which are consumed. More and more it is the “social” that is consumed by supposedly free individuals. Free in their choices and excused from having to defend them, thus from having to enter into any kind of debate. For if the consumption of the social still needs pretext-objects, it has greater need of the pretext than of the object. 

The work was the concern of criticism and criticism derived from what was the concern of a piece of work (or, at least, a project). Strictly speaking, a product is concerned only with what it in turn produces. A good product is one that enables us to see how society works. That’s what people want to see, the product of the product and so on to infinity. Society’s auto-consumption via its “phenomena” on the parasitical stage of the media. 

We can see from this how movie-theatres and a critical sense are both being vacated simultaneously. The recent bearification of all social spaces in France has allowed each and every one as they please to graft themselves onto the numerous chain links in the Bear-“model”, the chain link film having no other privilege than that of the shop window. And so it was that a few days after the release of The Bear, I met two women friends. One is complaining because she’s overworked and keeps on missing the film, and the other one asks me to what I attribute its huge success. Curiosity about the consequences now precedes any free consideration of the cause. 

These things are well known and have been described many times. Their paradoxes no longer entertain. When the pretext has overtaken the object, criticism starts to wither, then disappears. Television for example, doesn’t need critics since instead of offering objects to the judgement of the audience, it sells captive audiences to its advertising bosses, audiences that it keeps still through offering “cinema films” in the hope that they don’t change TV channels. The base unit of television is not the chain link but the channel, not the target but the hostage. We know about these things better every day.

Yet it would be naive to imagine that criticism (as a function) or a critical sense (as a value) can “disappear” overnight. The problem lies more in their being recycled. For if the media is the place where modern societies operate a mass dilution of the function formerly handed on only to professional mediators, this operation is not without its mourning, its disenchantment and above all its return of the repressed. And these things, latterly, are not absent. 

In reality every mediator assumes a certain degree of abjection: taking things as they come, studying them and reaching a conclusion, sometimes a verdict. That’s what one ought to learn how to share, perhaps thanks to the simulations television offers us. Television is less and less that machine supposed to “offer things to see”. Conversely, it tends more and more to offer judgements. It shows how to set up a debate, how to exhort truths, confuse the substance of opinion surveys with reality, conduct a trial (mock though it be) or how to give the green light to life or death, amnesty or vae victus, via the Minitel screen. It accustoms us to only retain the final stage of any critical activity: the verdict (or that portmanteau verdict made up of a sum of opinions). The world of media communication has two faces. We willingly believe those blithe utopians who have promised us a world where, overall, more people would have more access more often to more information. But by doing this we’ve rather hastily confused communication with “transmission”. We know by now that this world also has a worrying face. This time it only takes a confusion between communication and “contamination” for the worst to edge back into view. Let’s return to our humble starting point. Criticism ought in effect to be the art of describing singular objects by means of good metaphors (what Godard stubbornly calls montage). But when the possibility for metaphor is lacking, when it is metonymy that has prevailed, things are spoiled. There then returns (this is fundamentalism) a nostalgia for the hard kernel, for a real object, a truth incarnate, a catastrophic exit from the consumption of the societal towards the consuming of the social. There then returns the bigotry of terror.  

Of course we’ve reached it, now that Khomeini has self-interestedly brought in to play a generalised metonymy (a part taken as the whole, gradual contagion, terrorism in other words). We’ve got there, now that every parish priest in the world – from O’Connor to Decourtray – is making the most of the green light given by the old stuff of Teheran to win back his flock. It’s not just about cinema now, nor even, bring Salman Rushdie into it, about literary criticism***. It’s not even about theological debate, of the kind there was – and it was serious – in the golden age of Islam. It’s about making the most of the crazy circus of pretext-objects to move on to the terrorism of the pure-object. 

Since criticism of the circular phenomenon that is TV is as yet beyond us, it would be frivolous to abandon its exercise in regards to the links in the chain. One by one if necessary. And not just the films.

* The official swansong of film criticism has a date: in 1982, when it thought clever to oppose a successful movie (Ace of Aces, with Belmondo) to an unbalanced and little-loved film (Une chamber en ville, by Demy). A clumsy petition was circulated. It would be the last one. 

** The author couldn’t have been more right. Two years later, as a reply to his criticism of Uranus, Claude Berri, accountable for the thing that was criticised, found nothing more dignified than to obtain via the courts that a rather appalling right of reply be published in Libération on 28 February 1991. Although minor, this event is an indicator of the constraints restricting the exercise of film criticism (or what’s left of it). In any case, the event wasn’t widely talked about at all, and everybody kept a very low profile. [Translator's note: to understand the "Berri affair", see these posts: 1, 2 and 3.]

*** The most surprising was the quasi-disappearance of old (noble) debates on the essence of Literature. Not more surprising than the “what can Literature do?” or “Literature and the right to die”.

Published in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas editions, 1991, from an article written in Libération on 24 February 1989. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

For a Cine-Demography

An improved translation of a text that had disappeared from the web (it happens). Or "Serge Daney foresaw Instagram".

For a Cine-Demography 

“There must have been a sense of belonging to the world when you went to the cinema,” somebody said, just about ten years ago. The screen indeed had a lot of inhabitants in those days. Stars and supporting roles, bit-players and extras, mobs and crowds, warring nations and struggling classes. This golden age of the cinema can be summed up in one formula: a lot of people in a lot of movie theatres watched films with a lot of people in them. Cecil B. DeMille had a dream: that there should be as many people in the picture as in the movie theatre. That entering the (darkened) auditorium or the (light-filled) camera frame should be one and the same thing.

Nowadays people speak (with dread) of a desertification of the number of movie theatres. But the theme of the desert has been sustaining a whole cinephile melancholy for a good ten years. Wenders was the man who had negotiated this transition toward a suddenly disaffected world in the most honest way possible. He was the man who went in for geography (the famous State of Things) when we started running short of stories. There was melancholy in Wenders even then, but that’s not to say that it won’t be toned down more as time goes on.

The science that ought to be applied to the cinema nowadays is no longer psychoanalysis or semiology, it’s the study of movie-populations. What’s needed is a demography of the filmed beings (1). The critic should start by indicating how many characters a director is able to “hold together” before losing his ability to film competently. One, two, three, not many. To the extent that it isn’t just the movie theatres that are fewer and emptier, it’s the films that are becoming depopulated. Exit the professional extra. The whole acting hierarchy is abandoned in favour of an orphan star system which, for want of a backdrop of “supporting roles”, no longer works. 

The history of the cinema can very easily be narrated through this isomorphism of entrances (into the auditorium and into the frame). We know that towards the middle of the century (post-war, television) fewer and fewer people saw films where there were fewer and fewer people in what was already a surplus of movie theatres. This slimmed down version of spectacle was called modern cinema. And what is the story of L’Avventura if not this symptomatic event: out of a small group of characters there is one who quite simply disappears. Modern cinema, in Europe more than anywhere else, was the real mirror of the economic boom and nascent individualism. The “auteur” was the romantic hero of this birth for a while. The auteur, fatally, will tend to film – one by one –  people he knows and who are like him. What’s important isn’t the number of extras, it’s the authenticity in the gaze of a single actor. Rossellini (several of his classic films have just been re-released), is the man who ushered in the scandal. The scandal? That there is nothing more “serious” nor more complicated than the couple. Now, the couple never has more than two in it (2). 

In over-sized cinemas the (diminishing) audiences of the sixties and seventies gazed upon unforgettable scenes of domestic quarrel. There was talk of anti-spectacle, of “intimist” cinema. In France though, the pleasure will be prolonged: the multi-cinema complex postponed by some twenty years an inevitable death knell. And the death knell sounded on the day when individualism emerged from its “artistic” period (the auteur against the system) and became the economic support for cultural consumption in the wider sense and for the programming industries. “Belonging to the world” is the out-dated dream of the pure cinephile: “belonging to society and its incarnations” is quite enough. 

The crisis of movie theatres becomes unquestionable the day a limit is reached: as few people in the theatre as there are characters in the film. For a long time, the most perceptive directors (they’re usually the best) had been ironically calling attention to the too-large garments inside which they were threatening to drown. There’s an echo effect in a film like India Song: it isn’t made for TV, it’s made for a large almost empty auditorium (3). And then, in the end there’s the dread spectre well-known to the professional film critic: the projection “just for him” of a film about solitude, with the filmmaker waiting for him at the end of the screening. This involution is reaching its limit. One way or another, it’s time to think big again. “Big” is the order of the day. 

This is where a cine-demography would be welcome. To say that a vanished population does not come back to life again and that Cecil B. DeMille’s extras won’t reappear by some miracle. That we are in a different era, something like a post-cinema era (which is also post-television and post-advertising) which can be characterised by this unprecedented situation: many people want to see films with just a few characters in just a few (big) movie theatres. A period which is summed up in a sense by something like the Geode dome theatre. Filmed cinema. Cinema as event. Cinema as sound and light show. A cinema highly mythic in tone, whose hero will be neither the crowd (finally settled down), nor the individual (subdued rather) but something else. 

For you only have to take a look at the recent films that have been real successes to note one or two things. In the first place that they never depend on stars and “cast iron scripts” (to the great chagrin of the poor profession which, disoriented by imbecilic film awards, imagines that the formulas of the Fifties are the right response to the current crisis!). Secondly, these are essentially intimist films. To take two indisputable successes, let’s say that there are very few characters in The Big Blue and that the Chinese masses aren’t really the subject of The Last Emperor.

How do you turn intimacy into something big? It’s a new question. Or again: what kind of intimacy are we talking about? One thing is certain: we have left behind modern cinema (from Rossellini to Godard), which took the individual as heroic hypothesis, the other as hell in proximity, and the relation between human beings as the only subject worthy of treatment. But this doesn’t mean that we have returned to the cluttered “grand spectacle” of early cinema. There’s certainly a “starting from scratch” side to it, but it’s a bit blank. Today’s “heroes” are adrift in an image that’s too big for them, and the only question holding them up is whether or not they still “belong” in this world. 

The great subject of today’s cinema – both in terms of the questions its content is asking and its aesthetic concerns – is probably this disproportion between man and his environment, the loss of a common yardstick and the abandonment of all hope of using others as a point of reference. In this sense, Besson’s deep sea diver and Bertolucci’s Emperor of China, both helpless and seductive in equal measure, are brothers in that they know only one thing, a tautology by its very nature: “I am me…”. Nothing happens to them because nothing can happen to them, because they stand once and for all at a frontier between the human and the non-human. Sterile, between man and beast, between man and gods. To tell their story is to show to what degree they have no (hi)story.

It is because disproportion (in passion, faces, spaces and time) is at the heart of today’s cinema that it is no longer essential for the number of characters to be in proportion with the number of people in the audience. There can be a lot of the latter looking at how the world has become too big a stage for too short actions (diving). They do it in just the same way that they leaf through Club Med travel brochures for instantly, “tailor-made” holidays. Holidays where you’re more likely to encounter the (non-human) Other than the (human) other. Holidays on which you can really count on bringing back some great moments, “video promos” of individual experience drowned in oceans of clichés. Spiritual tourism can begin (4). 

That’s it. To tell the truth, it’s what big directors have been homing in on for a while. The disproportion of things inside an uninhabitable brain is what makes Kubrick’s 2001 (1968!) so brilliant; the path across ruins or desert is at the heart of Tarkovsky (Stalker) or Cissé (Yeelen) etc. A long while ago, directors stopped taking the stuff of the world for granted and have been following their own personal cosmogony instead. What has changed is that this question has become clear enough to finally generate mass audience films. What they do with the question is, one suspects, a different story. 


(1) It would be interesting to tell the last ten years of the cinema from the sole angle of the age of women. Since the deaths of Romy Schneider and Simone Signoret and the fading fame of Annie Girardot, films based on the – popular – image of the mature and strong woman have almost disappeared. A disappearance all the stranger that in French society, post-feminism has rather asserted the status of women and has pushed back the moment, previously fatal, of old age. Is it to say that French society – unlike the American society – is refusing to see what is changing in this space? Is it to say that no woman over the age of fifty can be a character worthy of standing at the centre of a film?

(2) Hence a very beautiful formula by Godard as he edits his Histoire(s) du cinema et de la télévision: “I believe there was this feeling of freedom: a man and a woman in a car. Once I saw Journey to Italy, even if I wasn’t making films, I knew that I could do it and that – although not the equal of the greatest directors – the fact that one could do it would give access to a certain worthiness or something like that.”

(3) Here, a fond memory of this usherette of the late Cinéphone Saint-Antoine movie theatre (now a “Ed, The Grocer”). The theatre was so big that she refused to guide cinephiles toward the front rows (the cheapest) on the pretence that she had been attacked many times on the way and that despite her screams and stolen tips, nobody had ever come to her rescue. It is true that the hollow sound of the pepla of the time (like some great Cottafavi’s films in the sixties) was already creating a desert of ill repute. 

(4) A “great” film today often only exhibits the soft or varnished remains of a mad project or a heroic shooting. This goes on in films as different as Fitzcarraldo (Herzog) or The Bear (Annaud). The spectator believes that the shooting of these films must have been the true adventure that the finished films are not. The proof is that Les Blank’s film on the shooting of Fitzcarraldo is more interesting than the film. We arrive here at the frontier between art and tourism and it isn’t impossible to imagine that one day, the winners of some contest will be invited on the set of a particularly difficult shooting, on the other side of the world. 


First published in Libération on 13 September 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, Aléas Éditions, 1998.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Cannes 1984: The Winners

 Last text of the "Serge Daney at Cannes 1984" series.

The Winners 

In its emptied bunker (no carpet, no bar, no nothing, a set worthy of Tati), the press waited long for the jury to deign to announce the winners list. It fidgeted aimlessly with its typewriters, and understood all of a sudden that it didn’t carry much weight compared to the small screen. For the award ceremony was broadcast live on Channel 2 at 7:15pm. The Cannes Festival awards suddenly looked like the Eurovision prizes or a vulgar César award ceremony. 

Discovering the winners list didn’t provide any comfort. Apart from Wim Wenders’ thoroughly deserved Palme d’Or, it was nonsense. Disconcerting? That’s what we thought at first. And then, out of habit, we began looking for a logic, an intimate consistency, an intent. We searched and we found something. First, the winners list shows a clear retreat into Europe (no Asia, no Latin America). And a retreat not into any Europe, but into the Europe of cultural drama. All those films that are stuffy, dreadfully dignified, exhausting with their noble tone, their intimism bordering on boredom, bear witness, beyond their diverse qualities, to the triumph of this intermediary form, half-way between television and cinema. Cinema as the “museum of popular arts and traditions” moves forward in giant TV-steps. So much so that the victory of Channel 2 yesterday seemed only logical. It takes a television ritual to crown products that are almost televisual. Of course, the films by Metzaros, Pat O’Connor, Mario Camus, Tavernier or Kaniewska are not all bad (bar one) but they have less to do with fierce competition between filmmakers than with cultural exchanges between film clubs, ready to feature on Cinéma sans visa

The losers in all this are obviously filmmakers: those that dive fully dressed into the adventures of cinema and not those that float with a TV-buoy. The absence of Skolimowski, Doillon, Satyajit Ray, Herzog and even Huston (vaguely “thanked” for the entirety of his work) from the winners list proves that there was no room for them this year (unlike last year, it must be said). 

Or rather, there was room for only one of them. Thankfully, it was Wenders and we are unanimous in saying that the Palme d’Or for Paris, Texas really warmed what is left of our hearts. As if, with it, the jury had deigned to consider something that does exist and is called pleasure. The most blasé, weary and exhausted members of the festival crowd were grateful to Wenders for having made a film that reconciled them with cinema, with narration, with wide-open spaces, with a cinema-duration of things, with the American landscape, with family, with all this imaginary world that still resists the shrinking of cinema, its constriction, its global cultural-folklorisation. 

There is no point (right now) questioning whether Paris, Texas is the best Wenders film, whether it’s a qualitative leap, whether it is repetitive or highly innovative. What I know is that Wenders was moved to receive the Palme d’Or, that he looked more youthful than ever, that he thanked everybody, in French and in German, and that I was happy for him. 

As for those who regularly complain that France never wins the Palme d’Or, let them find comfort in the fact that Paris, Texas is a Franco-German co-production. 

First published in Libération as “Wenders, thankfully” on 24 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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We do hope you've enjoyed this series. Here is the list of all the articles:

Laurent & Sri.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Cannes 1984: Muslims and Hindus in Colour

Last film review before the award ceremony from the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. For the anecdote, the French title of the film (La maison et le monde) was one of the inspirations behind the title of the four volumes of Daney's writings posthumously published by P.O.L (La maison cinéma et le monde). Another was a text Daney wrote about Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again ("Nick Ray et la maison des images").
Muslims and Hindus in Colour

Satyajit Ray has always wanted to adapt Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World). This is now done. An entirely political film which also has the most beautiful kiss of the 1984 Cannes Festival.

It’s a fleeting and sparse group of journalists that saw Satyajit Ray’s latest film, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), yesterday. The ailing auteur wasn’t at the festival, but at home in Calcutta. His son, who helped finish the film, was there, but it wasn’t the same thing. This year’s festival has been scarcely Asian (and not at all African). There was Brocka and Ray, meaning this strange and rarified “noise” of an intimate aquarium, with the hustle and bustle of Asian crowds in the background that is only but a murmur by the time it reaches the Croisette. 

Ghare Baire is first a book that Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1915. The environment, the habits and the customs described in the book are “Ray-esque” by definition, meaning Bengali. The action takes place somewhere on the delta of the Ganges River, where Hindus and Muslims live on poor terms despite the presence of a common enemy: the British. The film is entirely political. It expounds on – with a clarity close to abstraction, akin to The Chess Players – a political situation that unfolds on three levels: the objective, the subjective and, one that exists only to link the two, the story. It’s a simple film. Never a fussy filmmaker, Ray increasingly gets straight to the “most urgent” thing and, once it is isolated (like a beautiful tumour), circles it, not scene after scene, but facet by facet. 

So it’s 1905, and Lord Curzon has this old idea: divide and conquer. India, already quite disparate (more than any other country), is divided between Hindus and Muslims. But Indian nationalists, very active at the time, act as if this division didn’t or wouldn’t cut through them. Bengal’s bourgeois intelligentsia is largely nationalist, steeped in English culture and invaded by English products. The yarn for saris is woven in Manchester, and the only decent cigarettes are British. Indian products, on the other hand, are of poor quality and expensive (Indian soap is not worthy of Ponge). That’s for the objective level. 

Now for the subjective one. Ghare Baire involves three characters: Sandip, Nikhil, his friend from the university, and Bimala, Nikhil’s wife. This trio has nothing of the boulevard theatre about them, even though the situations are conducive to it. Desire, money and politics are not linked but tied. Sandip is a rising nationalist mass leader. He opposes the British with an intoxicating and populist idea of a “motherland” that brings him popularity. Confronted with Curzon’s policies, he is among those that urge (and try to impose) a boycott of British products. There are bonfires of British clothes in the villages, fanatic students leave their studies to join the Cause. Sandip lives on the land belonging to his friend Nikhil. A womaniser, he’d like to get to know Bimala. 

Nikhil is a different man altogether. Radical, but like a moralist. A weak politician, manipulable friend and absent husband, Nikhil is the man who lives according to his ideas, and if he decides one day that his wife (who doesn’t demand anything) must emancipate herself and lead her own life, he accepts the risk that Bimala, released from her lethargy, follows the first song of the siren passing by, moving away from him. That is what happens: Sandip, with his speeches, his apparent energy of a bohemian agitator, his flirting charm, seduces Bimala who embraces his ideas. Sandip desires Bimala, but he especially needs her support to neutralise (if not convince) Nikhil over this boycott that he is opposing: the boycott, he says, will hurt only small merchants at the Sukayar market, who are poor Muslims. A political cause, he also says, cannot be just if it is pursued to the detriment of the poor. 

The situation turns serious as it matures. Through corruption, Sandip manages to prevent British goods from reaching the market. But to fund his bribes and his lifestyle (he likes “class”), he needs money, and he asks for some from Bimala who, in the meantime, has given in to him. When she brings him the money in gold coins in two red velvet purses, there is an extraordinary moment where Sandip, noticing the gold, can no longer hold himself back and begins to moan with greed. In a nanosecond, Bimala understands what Sandip really is (demagogue, ambitious, dishonest), but it’s already too late. In Nikhil’s estate, an uprising has begun. Sandip flees discreetly. Bimala goes back to her husband. After the most beautiful kiss seen in Cannes in 1984, Nikhil goes to face the riots and doesn’t come back. 

I’ve narrated the story because it’s beautiful, but also because the film follows it step by step. Each scene is like a “demonstration”, elegant and implacable, allowing the audience great latitude in understanding the motivation of each character. Bimala’s illusions and Sandip’s lies are obvious from the start, but one must wait (that’s the essence of Ray’s art) for the moment when, eyes finally opened, they will see each other for who they really are, not without some courage. 

Nikhil’s character is more enigmatic, I believe, for one good reason: of the three characters, he is the one closest to the auteur. 

There are many sophisticated, listless but lucid aristocrats in Ray’s films. This man of Anglo-Indian culture has never thought of himself as a flag bearer for India. Political activism scares him and demagogy makes his skin crawl. For the people, he has this distant respect typical of a lord with more a burden of the soul than a mission to accomplish. This is why, once the film is over (yes, it’s a bit long at 2 hours and 13 minutes), we want to retrospectively choose the character through which it touched us the most. Nikhil is the one who, at the risk of being overshadowed, misunderstood or killed, has the attitude of a man who does what he says, that of a saint. And when it comes to politics, saints are a problem. Perhaps with ulterior motives (but not without risk), he pushes his wife into the arms of his friend because it is at that price that she will come back to him (the time of a kiss – and what a kiss!); with the taste for a democracy yet to be invented, he accepts being the loser of this story; out of cowardice, he doesn’t say no to that which says no to him. 

And the film? It’s perhaps not Ray’s greatest. A little long, predictable, straitjacketed, filmed like a TV drama, without those moments where time rushes by and where Ray is the greatest. Everything happens on such a level of abstraction that it is this abstraction which sometimes overwhelms the audience and sometimes distances it from the film. That said, to pretend that it isn’t a beautiful (nocturnal and muted) film, with incredible colours, would attest to an incurable lack of taste.

First published in Libération on 23 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Cannes 1984: Pitching and Rolling Aboard The Pirate

The Pirate was booed at Cannes that year. But not just a little. According to witnesses, the 2,000 strong audience jeered and mocked the film from start to finish, during both screenings.

Pitching and Rolling Aboard The Pirate

Observing the festival in real-time, the meaning of the hisses that greeted The Pirate was clear: Jacques Doillon’s film was the mandatory scapegoat that “professional critics” treat themselves to each year at Cannes. 

“If we never like anything, we’ll never move on!,” shouts Jane Birkin at the press conference for The Pirate. Moved, the audience applauds. It applauds all the more since it wants to redeem itself from those (“the others”) who, the day before, behaved very badly during the first press screening of the film, and who keep spreading the shitty annual Croisette rumour: that Doillon’s film is very bad. As if, every year, a film had to be denounced, if possible from the French selection. The negative word of mouth about The Pirate replicates the rumour against The Moon in the Gutter last year, even if these two films have little in common and if Doillon’s is a much better film than Beineix’s. 

A year ago, at the award ceremony (with Orson Welles), it was the dinner jacket socialites that thought it clever to boo Bresson and Tarkovsky. This year, it’s the press that heckled the film: jeers, vulgar taunts, people leaving the theatre five minutes into the film. Not the entire press of course, but a large part of those whose work (we no longer dare say “passion”) is to report on films. In other words, things are not getting any better. 

People can think whatever they want about The Pirate, but first, they do need to think. Otherwise, the “whatever they want” quickly becomes nonsensical. One only had to watch, side by side from left to right, Olivier Lorsac (producer, ex-advertiser), Andrew Birkin (Jane’s English brother), Laure Marsac (enfant terrible on the shoot), Jane Birkin (the heart of the film and Doillon’s wife), Maruschka Detmers (star), Philippe Léotard (anxious comic), Jacques Doillon (deus ex machina) and Bruno Nuytten (photography) to understand that this family was united by a very strong feeling of having, individually and together, leapt into the void by boarding The Pirate ship; that it wasn’t for show; and that their difficulties in talking about it (fearing the worst) are matched only by the difficulty of one being critical about them without hitting low. 

As if the mere appearance of the small troupe of this film, narcissistic and terrorised, was a smack in the face of the media humdrum of the big troupe, isolated in a bunker, that is the festival crowd. As if, we dare say, it was suddenly somewhat intolerable to hear a (still) young filmmaker say that his film probably came from “a sort of (personal) necessity”.

What am I talking about? An auteur, of course. Take it or leave it, of course, but don’t ostracise him from the festival. Or we will end up thinking (and I’m not far from this) that this is the definition of an auteur. 

Au auteur who doesn’t (quite) fit the image that the media have of him for the simple reason that this image doesn’t exist yet. The repressed controversy surrounding “auteurs today” became meaningful again with the screening of The Pirate and in the way, from the film to the press conference, it was obviously one single experience that was unfolding. We are not responsible for who we are, but for how we are, said even Léotard, paraphrasing Sartre. 

Ten or so years ago, when The Big Feast or The Mother and the Whore were showcasing France at the festival, the controversy was about the films’ content, which was provocative. The form merely followed. Today, we would struggle to find even one festival-goer (press or not) who attaches any importance to what the films are saying. So the films have no recourse other than mannerist stylisation or rancid academism. And the media have no difficulties in inflating an “event” that is already full of hot air. 

Cannes 1984 will end soon. At the start of the festival, we said that Cannes is the capital city of an imaginary but very real country, ours, the Cinema. It’s still true. But this capital city sometimes adopts the pathetic rituals of a school, with its star students, its dunces, its scapegoats and its stubborn examiners. The victory of the media-Cannes in the past few years is a double-edged sword. The festival grows in stature, but in return, it produces what may be called “films made for Cannes”, conceived (even by the best) with a precise idea, consciously or subconsciously, of what needs to be avoided to make a film worthy of the “Palme” (a dosage of water and wine, nothing else). In this obstacle race, top students always win over dunces, and a young auteur (especially if he has only a good cinephilic reputation going for him) must expect to be turned down temporarily.

The only solace for Doillon is to remember that Bresson, at eighty years of age, was still heckled for L’Argent last year; and that everything, in a way, is following the Cannes order of things. 

First published in Libération on 23 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Cannes 1984: The Quilombo Utopia

Antepenultimate day at Cannes 1984. 

The Quilombo Utopia 

Search as we may, there is no subject more beautiful for a filmmaker than the staging of what does not exist. Or what no longer exists. Or doesn’t exist yet. Or has existed, but without leaving any trace. Or what should exist (even if we don’t know how). In short: utopia. Filmmakers are already wearing themselves out trying to scrutinise what surrounds them (reality), how are they going to make us see what we have never seen and which only exists “revised and edited” by legends or by our dreams? Certainly not from where we are currently, them and us. Isn’t the beauty of cinema to show us what is at our disposal when we want to film something that has happened without really having happened: utopia? 

Political films can be divided in two unequal groups. The bigger (indefatigable) one is made of social observations, denunciations, reality checks and forward-looking scripts. The smaller one is made of colonies, communities, “liberated zones” etc. Scripts no longer looking at the future but asking rather “How can we remain where we are today? How can we continue like before?”. Utopia, when protected, goes nowhere. 

The Brazilian Carlos Diegues might not make it to Cannes winners list, but Palmares* is the name of a group of villages that, for a century (the seventeenth), led a struggle against the Portuguese and especially against slavery. Quilombo tells the story of two turning points in this struggle: the power transfer between Queen Acoti and Ganga Zumba, and the one between Ganga Zumba (guilty of believing he could make a pact with the whites) and Zombi do Palmares who fought hard before being defeated in turn (but Palmares will keep on living, for Palmares, like any symbol, is eternal). 

Twenty years ago, Carlos “Caca” Diegues, one of the pioneers of the Cinema Nuovo, had told that story in Ganga Zumba, the title of his first film. The theme there was only the struggle for freedom, not so much utopia. Quilombo is both a sequel to and a commentary on Ganga Zumba. The question becomes: free yes, but what to do with this freedom? What kind of society to build with it? Diegues says there is a parallel between this story in two parts and the history of contemporary Brazil, before and after “liberalisation”. What to do with a relative freedom of expression when one is a Brazilian filmmaker, a slightly official one, and regularly present in international festivals? What to say? 

First, say something wise. “I no longer believe in an apocalyptic, trivial and sad cinema,” says Carlos Diegues, among other constructive things, at his press conference. The utopia of the blacks in Quilombo is indeed neither apocalyptic, unbelievable or sad (and even if the film isn’t really “convincing”, it is pleasant to watch). We can see people fighting while dancing, dying without hesitation, joyfully renouncing property, accepting the other, and mixing African gods with the crucified one. They know no contradictions other than those related to power and its transmission, to the right strategy and behaviour to adopt toward the whites (who are amusing as shopworn conquistadors). 

Diegues, who has a real taste for the music hall (Xica da Silva, Bye Bye Brazil), never films better than at a distance, where everything becomes a party, a scene or an open-air dance hall. It’s clear that he has no desire to embrace the tragic side of this story of free slaves who take longer than planned to become second-class citizens of modern Brazil (multi-racial society, my foot!). Gilberto Gil’s beautiful music follows suit. 

So much so that a doubt – a horrible doubt – grips the audience: are we witnessing a rosy “everyone’s beautiful, everyone’s nice” kind of vision? Everybody is certainly very beautiful (from the great Zezé Motta to the energetic Antônio Pompêo), but talking of kindness is a bit too much. Is Quilombo a film on utopia or is it Quilombo that is a utopia of a film on utopia? (In the hollow stretches of political life, utopia is a topic that suits everyone). For real utopia (from the one described by Comolli in La Cecilia to Jim Jones’ horrible deeds) isn’t always so rosy. 

* In French, the Palmarès de Cannes refers to the Cannes winners list. 

First published in Libération on 22 May 1984. Republished in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Cannes 1984: Twice Upon a Time in America

Our favourite text of the Cannes 1984 series (Laurent and Sri).

Twice Upon a Time in America

Wenders recounts that during a recent trip to Osaka (Japan), he discovered a “Wim Wenders fan club”. They had only seen three of his films but they wanted to know everything about him. “I had the feeling,” says Wenders, “that distances were abolished, that Osaka was the suburb of another place, which itself was… It’s incredible to what extent cinema is a country, a family, a language.”

Leone discovered that there was a mythology about him in the USA, that UCLA students in California have dissected his films. “They have analysed the final duel in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly frame by frame, just to understand the play of glances!”, laughs Leone who, ever since, has believed in youth’s love for cinema.

By a lucky and objective coincidence, Paris, Texas and Once Upon a Time in America, two of the most eagerly awaited films of the 37th Cannes film festival, succeeded one another this weekend. And since they are both beautiful films, not only did they not disappoint but they also reminded festival goers (tired, blasé, sometimes sinister) that they too were a large fan club of eternally spotty-faced teenagers. With a lot of seriousness, these two films brought a lot of pleasure. You could see yourself in the mirror they held. The applause that welcomed Paris, Texas right from the opening titles is a clear sign. It’s cinema that’s coming home. Which means that we drop by America once again. It’s only logical; the dialogue between the Old and the New World can have no better mediators than these two: Wenders and Leone. 
America for them is always at the beginning. Sergio Leone wanted to make Once Upon a Time in America even before Once Upon a Time in the West. He kept at it for fourteen years. And if De Niro plays the role of Noodles, it’s because Leone had already talked to him about it when the little-known actor played in Mean Streets! This persistence is somewhat heroic: from obtaining the rights for Harry Gray’s memoirs (The Hoods), to Grimaldi, the Italian producer, acquiring them, to then buying them back from Grimaldi (when the latter was about to give up on the project owing to financial difficulties). Leone even took the Americans (Arnon Milcham for Alan Ladd Jr.) to court before showing the film. 

And this is just the part of the legend that can be told, the admissible tip of the iceberg: the genesis of Once Upon a Time in America had become a myth even before the shooting began (lasting eight months, in various places in Rome, New York, Montreal, and costing close to twenty million dollars).

As for Wenders, he didn’t spend fourteen years wanting to make Paris, Texas, but when he began painting, before shooting films, he took inspiration from the deserted landscapes of the Westerns that he had enjoyed as a child. “I was somewhat indebted to this landscape,” he says today. It’s strange how cinephilia is related to debt. Did the Cannes audience feel it? In any case, it applauded the first shot of Paris, Texas: a camera flying low over a Fordian canyon. It’s magnificent. 

But there are two Americas: real and imaginary. It is the place that makes it possible to dream, but also the corner of reality that dreams crash into. Even Leone’s. Once Upon a Time in America is not the film he had dreamt of and, if the version seen at Cannes is the one closest to it, the US version will be the one furthest away from it. Leone hopes to show the entire film one day, on television. You can’t sell Americans a European view (even one struck by wonder) of their mythology without risk. “Over there, I am respected,” he confesses, “but not liked”. Why would they like him when he tells the story of two losers in a scrambled chronology, when he sets his story in the Jewish community of the Lower East Side of the 1920s, and especially when he “invades America” with his 45-member Italian crew? Unions didn’t like him and the wily Leone had to play their rivalries against one another, pay American technicians to remain idle, and be criticised by the press for doing so (“Reagan wrote articles against me, so did Ted Kennedy…”).

Unions were a problem for Wenders too. Paris, Texas is the first Franco-German co-production filmed in the USA. He has had to pay teamsters to do nothing and face threats of strike.

For in the end, it’s time that decides, i.e. duration. Leone originally intended the film to be shown in two parts (4½ hours in total) before he was told that it is impossible in the US where no film is longer than three hours. With a heavy heart, he agreed to cut one hour, but it was still too long. Today, the film is in the hands of Warner Bros., ready to be edited all over again (it will be a carnage) and Leone is ready for another trial (and to remove his name from the credits). To be dependent on the US market is tragic. Wenders knows about this since he was employed by Coppola on Hammett. This (naturally bitter) experience is now behind him. 

It’s a never-ending paradox. On one hand, Leone as well as Wenders have a vital need for America, as if even the most universal stories were credible only when they unfolded there. On the other, they have a vital need for Cannes (or the Osaka fan club), awards and reputation which are their only currency when confronted with the American idea of the market of images. This contradiction is inexhaustible. Wenders lived in the USA, today he prefers traveling across the country, without settling down. “America fascinates me,” says Leone “the more I know it, the more I like it and the more I feel light years away from it.”

Why do they need America so much? Big question. Leone is an Italian filmmaker who has never filmed modern Italy, but has Italianised everything that has passed in front of his camera. Wenders is a German filmmaker for whom Germany only inspired meandering, melancholic and meteorological stories. “In France, in Italy,” Leone told me in Paris, “there is only France or Italy. In America, there is the whole world.” “In Europe,” he added sourly, “there are no contradictions any more, only the bitter logic of survival”. To Benito Craxi who encouraged him to make a film on Garibaldi’s life, he answers: no, because he would then have to make “Once Upon a Time There Was Italy,” but since Italy still hasn’t come into being, it would be “Once Upon a Future in Italy”. Is Europe already too jaded, or perhaps not furious enough, to really produce stories (other than cultural ramblings)? Wenders clarifies that a “story” is quite different from a “succession of events”. He has no problems stringing events together, but not so with telling a story. 

It’s long been Leone’s dream to narrate the siege of Leningrad and the two million that sacrificed their lives there. Is it because there are more stories coming from the East? Evidently so (see Skolimowski and Zulawski this year). Or because in the East, even in its putrescent state, there are still myths? Evidently even more so. Wenders, for his part, has an Australian project close to his heart. That’s only logical: it’s a country that emerged from nothing, therefore fit for myths. 

Both know (Leone always did, Wenders does more and more) that a story (in the banal and technical sense of a script) is a poor thing when it doesn’t stem from a myth that has imploded (or exploded). And since myths from defeated countries (Italy and Germany with its Macisti and Übermenschen) were also defeated, only the myths of the victors remain available. “What is useful in the long run,” Wenders told me in Paris, “is to believe in myths and not question them.” This is why we must drop by America (even at the risk of being ragged). This is why Paris is in Texas and not in France. 

“A man comes back. It took him a long time. He was in an unknown country. He comes back from the dead, like Ulysses. And this man, believed to be dead for four years, appears in the desert. He doesn’t speak. But he has a goal, we can feel it. He wants to find something again. First, he finds his brother who helps him find his son, and with the son, he begins to search for his wife, and he tries to recreate his family again.” That’s the story of Paris, Texas as summarised by Wenders (written with the probably decisive help of Sam Shepard). Now, imagine Harry Dean Stanton in the role of the “man” (Travis), and around him, Dean Stockwell as the blond child, Nastassja Kinski and Ry Cooder’s music. Let them roam everywhere, from Los Angeles to Houston, on the road or in the Mojave Desert. Immerse them in Robby Muller’s lighting and Wenders’ mise en scène (which, yes, you already like) and you have a very beautiful film whose beginning, incidentally, reminds us of Sergio Leone. 

In Leone’s film too, an old man comes back (from Iowa to the New York of his early years, so from faraway) to get over with a story that he thought he was the hero of, before the story left him behind. 

Once Upon a Time in America is the tangled tale of two petty Jewish criminals from the Lower East Side over a century: Max (James Wood, very carnal) and Noodles (Robert De Niro, very nuanced). They are inseparable, more than they think. When Max, in a bout of self-destruction, gives in to the violence that comes with power, Noodles betrays him to save him from the worst. Then Noodles disappears, anonymous and defeated by his gesture. But when he comes back, much later, like a Henry James character or a Shakespearian ghost, he discovers Max isn’t dead, but he too is a defeated man, albeit a rich, powerful and corrupt one. 

Now, add three hours and forty minutes of action, plot twists, bravura set pieces, a moving chronicle of Jewish New York at the beginning of the century, then the classic episodes of prohibition, with speakeasies and shady unionists, time passing strangely on the faces of women, an opium den as epicentre of this story full of dupes and fury, a decked up De Niro, magnificent and hunched over, and you have Once Upon a Time in America, another very beautiful film.

Myths, Mircea Eliade explained, are almost always stories that answer the question: how does something (or someone) come into being? Ex nihilo. How does it return from nowhere? Leone’s and Wenders’ heroes return from nowhere. There is a “hole” in their lives: four years for Travis, more than thirty for Noodles, a total of thirty-four years of which we will know nothing – an “absence to themselves” that forces them to rebuild everything, patiently. 

For we are no longer in the era – a rather naïve one in hindsight – where it seemed so desirable and so easy to “demystify” everything, starting with America. We don’t even believe psychoanalysis to be our last means of getting a grip on ourselves, thanks to our neuroses, to myths (Oedipus and company). 

A few years ago, we would have analysed Travis’ itinerary (a prodigious Harry Dean Stanton) as a puzzle-like reconquest of the ego in struggle with a repressed id and an inhibited superego. Wenders would have probably done it too. That was Kings of the Road. That was Once Upon a Time in the West (the great flashback, “keep your lovin’ brother happy!”). Stories of traumas and cures that unfolded like testimonies of patients undergoing analysis, with digressions (opera, wanderings) and ellipses. Knowledge about myths is useless today. What alone counts is the desire to lay out stories propelled by their myths. And there, we can say that Leone sums himself up and breaks free and that Wenders gathers himself and has a lot of fun. 

Let’s return to their films in greater detail later. For now, let’s talk about them as we have found them: together in the same festival. Creative stylists, Leone and Wenders quickly found a “form” that was the spontaneous answer to essential questions that they couldn’t yet ask. Questions about myths. Once Upon a Time in America is less brilliant, picaresque and pyrotechnical than the first Spaghetti Westerns. The hour edited out is cruelly missing. The actors are not all good. The central section (the 1930s) is slightly banal. But there is something that we were wrong to think Leone was incapable of: recreating a period, a risky genre if there was one, that he masters with unexpected freshness, transforming each object into a character, daring to reference Chaplin, filming a New York never seen before – especially by Americans. As for the modern section (the 1960s), I will only say that the scene of Noodles’s return toFat Moe’s restaurant is worthy of Ford. 

And Wenders manages the tour de force of transitioning, almost seamlessly, to linear storytelling, progressing step by step, neither boastfully nor vainly, of using his style instead of being led by his style, and of managing to film “the right things with a wide angle” (Leone’s words). And wide angle is not a question of format. It is the privilege of a filmmaker sufficiently confident of his know-how to hazard a few steps in a direction that he was avoiding until now. For Wenders, the pitfall was always women. He has never really known what to do with the women characters in his films. In Paris, Texas, if the relationship between the father and the son is perfect, making Jane (Nastassja Kinski, formidable) the object of the quest is one way of solving the problem (even if the much anticipated peep show scenes are a bit disappointing). In front of her, there is finally a man “with a goal” and who storms ahead. 

In the beginning, finally, there is desire. Well, Wenders remarks: “Americans are very good when it comes to moving in a single direction.”

First published in Libération on 21 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Cannes 1984: Skolimowski: at any Cost

Second text published in Libération on 19 May 1984.

Skolimowski: at any Cost*

The English title of the film is Success is the Best Revenge. It says a lot about Jerzy Skolimowski’s morals and ambition: this new film carries the auteur toward glory… at the cost of a few shortcuts. 

Alex, a Polish playwright, is looking for funding to produce a show on Poland, the country he has left. He lives (slightly above his means) in London with his wife and his two boys. At the start of the film, he’s in Paris, receiving an award from a minister of culture who looks like Piccoli (the film is a co-production, so there’s French money). Alex (Michael York) looks like the auteur of the film (Jerzy Skolimowski). Like him, he coaches a team of amateur Polish footballers. His eldest son Adam (sixteen years old) is in the team. Adam looks like a brother to Skolimowski’s son (in fact, that’s him).

Blissful though it is, this exile is not exactly perfect. In fact, Alex owes something to this unbearable martyr-country, his country: Poland. So, he recreates it everywhere: on a “stage” and on the giant lawn of a football ground. That’s his job. There are many episodes, all charming, handled like sketches. They help us imagine the unease (the nervousness, rather) in the life of the Rodak family. These episodes are often very funny, with an outsider’s point of view on Thatcher’s England. A broken chronicle, a cracked family painting, a portrait of the artist as a father, as a half-crook, as a beautiful soul. A portrait of his son as a new type of rebel, as a stranger already. 

For, as the father reconstitutes Poland in vitro (and that’s the irony of the film), the film stealthily moves East in vivo. The film ends at the Warsaw airport. Adam, with red hair and punk-style make-up, has chosen his freedom, that of seeing what Poland, real Poland, looks like. A short, blond provocateur, he suddenly resembles the Jerzy S. of the 60s a lot: the gifted artist of the “young Polish cinema” (now dead). 

Moonlighting was one of the most beautiful films of the last few years and, in 1982, the cinephile favourite at Cannes. Autobiographical, sarcastic and logical, Moonlighting was even more than that: a miracle. A story which, from A to Z, was both realistic and allegorical, physical and metaphysical. One of those films – we thought – that a filmmaker only makes once in his life (like an incredible scoring opportunity in football). Were we right? Skolimowski probably thinks that we weren’t. Success is Moonlighting at high speed, on steroids, with a great ambition. Skolimowski has clearly decided to take his rightful place as a great filmmaker (a place that was already his), as the best English filmmaker (paradoxically acquired during exile), and as a great Polish soul (finally). Until now, he demurred owing to modesty (Wajda having already assumed the role). He has taken over it with pride now. Success is therefore the testimony of a defeated Pole, with something of the joyful heathenism of Gombrowicz still in him, but with the required seriousness already to figure more than honourably in the prize list of major international film festivals. 

How can we be angry with him? That would be petty. But the title says it all. Success is the Best Revenge. Seventeen years after the complete ban of his last Polish film in his own country (even after Gdansk), Skolimowski has obviously felt that his (immense) talent can’t be satisfied with a critical half-success anymore. But the cost to pay is evident: no more signified, no more fine words, no more amplification of the things that he was doing so well for so long. The result is almost an advertising prospectus, superb but a bit cold, where an artist shows all his eggs and all his baskets, anticipates his “”, summarises all that he knows, all that he knows how to do and all that he intends to let us know. 

The result is strange. On one hand – “strictly on a cinematic level”, as is said in circles that don’t really love cinema – Success is well ahead of almost everything that is currently being produced (and that we have seen until now at the festival): a pure and simple genius of scenography, a ballistic conception of cinema as a weightless space where everything regains weight in falling, a razor-sharp irony, nervous actors and irreverence. On the other hand, the film comes across a little like a cinema version of a high-speed train, the “Skolimowski Express”, and the wide-eyed viewer watching it suddenly realises that it isn’t certain that this train will stop very long for him to hop on. 

Slightly out of breath, we recognise all the chapters already written of the Skolimowski saga in each carriage. There is a Polish carriage that reminds us of The Barrier with its shady crowds that trot around silently and aimlessly. There is an English carriage coming in from the interchange at Deep End with its cold and normal teenage eroticism (it’s the part with Adam, written by Sko Jr. himself). And there is the international carriage reserved for the theme of the international artist. And an engine that spits fire. 

Success is superb. The next train could be brilliant. 

* Translators' note: The French film title is “Success at any cost” (Le succès à tout prix).

First published in Libération, 19-20 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.