Sunday, April 25, 2021

Ludwig: Viscontians, One More Effort

Slightly revised version of Liz Heron's translation for the abandoned Cinema in Transit project. One of the few texts by Serge Daney on Visconti.

Ludwig (Luchino Visconti) / Viscontians, One More Effort

An uncut version of Ludwig is on Paris screens. We will never see an end to the guided tour of this unclassifiable monument. Neither to Ludwig, about which everything is known. Nor to Visconti, who remains, whatever might be said, a director as little known as he is famous. 

First condition: a German version two hours ten minutes long (by all accounts a real slaughter). Second condition: an English version three hours long (it’s this half measure that came out in France, ten years ago now). Third condition: an Italian version four hours and five minutes long (released today). Viscontians, one more effort if you want to take the tour of this Ludwig, in the disarrayed condition it is, always changing language, lineaments and length without ever ceasing to be your favourite monument. The long version, a “work of devotion” for which we have to thank Ruggiero Mastroianni (the most famous Italian editor) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (one of the most famous Italian screenwriters), is no doubt more “in line with the original”. Except that the original version of a film that is already so original (to put it in a nutshell, a monster) doesn’t mean all that much. In her – sadly, bad – hagiobiography of Visconti, Monica Stirling alludes to half a dozen scenes which the maker of Senso ended up cutting out. Among them was a private performance of Tristan, the death of Wagner, the reaction of Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria to the news of her cousin’s death: “They’ve killed him! Traitors! Murderers!” she exclaimed. 

Nothing stops us from imagining all the additional pictures which Visconti could easily have inserted into his Chinese box fresco. Nothing stops us from suspecting the truth: that in Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), Visconti the man (1907-1976) had found his perfect “subject”, Visconti the painter his fondest motif, Visconti the engagé artist his favourite anti-hero. Had the result been a short, a two-part film or a twelve or seventy-two-hour-long series, the effect would have been the same. This film is infinite like the infinite patience of the man who, having made you his guest, honours you with hospitality and is your guide in his (great) small world. We shall always visit Ludwig for the nth time. All we had seen to begin with were the ceremonial rooms, there suddenly encountering a coronation filmed as if in a kitchen. Then we discovered the key to the keep where the master of the house has his childhood memories. Sooner or later, we’ll come across sealed up doors, forbidden apartments, sauna vapours in a Wagnerian grotto, a stud farm in a corner of this baroque garden, a farm boys’ bordello filmed as if in a palace. We shall never be surprised. We’ve got our minds made up (about Visconti). 

Domesticity, promiscuity, prostitution are the key words of the Visconti universe. It’s not so much that he has made films about love, more that he has filmed every desire as sexual (in its essence) and as economic transaction (in its form). Remember Romy Schneider, the wife who sells herself to her husband in Il Lavoro, an admirable, though short, film. Visconti is less a witness to class struggle than an entomologist with an unimpeded view of promiscuity between classes. And yet, if we forget for a moment the painful clichés about the contradiction of the engagé aesthete or the queer Marxist prince, if we wonder what a Visconti film “is like” (as old Sam would say), we come up against one of the most hermetic styles in the history of the cinema. With the effect of a stationary monument, with the tedium of guided tours, with the feeling of not counting for much in this spectacle which unseeingly tolerates us. 

For there are directors who demonstrate and directors who show. They are seldom the same. Visconti has long had a weakness for demonstration (in The Damned for instance). Not for showing. Which is what, I dare say, makes him a monster. For when all’s said and done, the cinema is “giving to have”. Except that the manner of giving is sometimes more important than what is given. When the Visconti camera frames, de-frames and re-frames, zooms, de-zooms and re-zooms, when it crosses the space of the scene like a thick pencil line (you can almost see the arrow, like in a Veličković painting), hacking through the extras who trample across the shot in full harness, it is not the eye of the master who sees for us, or we who see thanks to him; it is not even the gaze that moves back to judge (there is never any judgement with Visconti, only condemnation, silently and without appeal); it isn’t a matter of vision, it’s a hand. Yes, a hand. The hand of the painter who already has the whole painting in his head and is (furiously) touching up a detail or (hastily) layering a coat of extra colour across a slow-moving scene. The hand of the master of the house who takes advantage of the guided tour to dust his collectors’ items in passing, as if he were discovering them along with us, as if he didn’t know, as if he knew no longer. Always courtesy, always the hand. It is to the painter’s hand that we owe Senso (but then Visconti was, as they say, more engagé with History). It is to the proprietor’s hand that we owe this disarrayed Ludwig. For that’s the oddest thing; Visconti isn’t the inventor of his world (its auteur) more its proprietor. He doesn’t express this world (that would be in distinctly petit-bourgeois bad taste), he takes us round it (that’s the minimum courtesy). He lets us see it, he doesn’t show it. 

Paradoxically, in this orgy of sumptuous sets, and costumes to turn Louella Interim pale with envy and real live castles, there isn’t an ounce of fetishism. Oddly, in this story of kingly extravagance, there isn’t a milligram of surprise, nor any room for suspense. And yet this monster-film is no stone cold alter or disused cathedral (as in Syberberg’s version). You only have to know how to look at it and, for that, to move a little to the side in relation to the unshifting picture and the hand at work drawing. What do you see in the end? Redrawing the ineluctable decline of the king of Bavaria, Visconti opts for no romantic treatment (Ludwig alone, patron and builder) but for a decidedly clinical approach. 

Each scene in the film always plays out the same little scenario: a character “of sound mind” converses with the mad king, demanding something of him, and each time the king yields. He yields to everyone about everything (except to the expensive tart paid to deflower him). To the ambitious Von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini) who asks him to give up his throne, to Durkheim, the noble spirit (Helmut Griem) who reminds him of his kingly duties, to Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) who asks him to settle Wagner’s debts, to the minister who proves to him that Wagner is an adventurer, to father Hoffman (Gert Fröbe), who dissuades him from ceasing to be a virgin king, and above all to his cousin Elisabeth (Romy Schneider, more Sissi than ever) who asks him not to love her. To all of them, he yields; the rest he pays (the travelling player, the valet-lover, etc). 

This is where Visconti catches us out. Either you choose to look at only Ludwig in the image, or else you look at the gallery of “others”. It’s hard to do both. It is a comic situation, a cruel comedy, worthy of Molière: the master is raving, for sure, but the representatives of “good sense” are hardly any better. There’s an Orgon in Ludwig and a Tartuffe in Wagner. So much so that when we look at the others, what we see is painful: not just their toadying faces or their hypocritical demeanour, but also the slack indulgence of those who have realised that, in any case, given the king’s autistic exaltation, there’s no longer a need to feel uncomfortable. What we then see, by anamorphosis, is pure obscenity. On both sides. 

First published in Libération on 6 July 1983 as "Viscontians, One More Effort". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Coppola, Made in Tulsa: Rumblefish

Another revised translation from abandoned project Cinema in Transit.  

Rumblefish (Francis Ford Coppola) 

Out of sorts with the adult world, the unrelenting Coppola concocts a tale of (still) mimetic violence among Tulsa teenagers.

What’s good about Coppola is his awareness of being part of the History of the Cinema, with capital letters. What’s tiresome about Coppola is his awareness that the quickly embittered prophet in him must negotiate hairpin bends within this very history of cinema. That’s why his most recent films are a bit doltish. That’s why they depress American critics (who tend to have a phobia about prophets – look at Welles). That’s why, in spite of everything, he interests us phenomenally (after all, it was Europe that took it into its head to write the History of Cinema).

Watching a Coppola film – Rumblefish more than all the others put together – is like encountering a new pinball machine. A Gottlieb or a new-look Bally (you hardly ever see any Williams any more) where you would put an old ten-franc coin in the slot in a state of anxious excitement. How does this one work? Where are the bumpers, corridors, free spaces, targets, the captive or extra balls, the special? What sort of noise does it make? What’s the best way to win? 

When you look at the backglass of the pinball machine (let’s call the “old” part of Coppola’s films their “backglass”) you always see the same inscriptions. “It’s more fun to compete” means there is more pleasure playing with others (because of the competition). Well, Coppola’s films are always stories of gangs. Mafiosi, soldiers after that, teenagers after that. “A game of skills” means that you have to be dextrous in order to play and have total command of the film technique (and film memory). Now when you look under the glass of the pinball machine (let’s call the most modernist part of Coppola’s films the “glass”) you can easily see that this man has a need to test himself out by pursuing the movies in their most advanced form. 

I say “advanced” as I would say “decomposed” if talking about a piece of meat. Twenty years on, Rumblefish is the equivalent of what Arthur Penn tried to do in his little-known film Mickey One (1964). The same kind of blandly angelic good looks hero (Warren Beatty then, Matt Dillon now), the same retro-style black and white, the same metaphysics of scores outstanding, the same vanities. Except that in twenty years the images and sounds of the American cinema, worked on by video, electronics, Europe and its idea of its future, are now able to come up with different dreams in the same bed (in the same film). Nowadays it’s an experience that can be bought. In 1964 it was Penn who was mannered. In 1984 it’s the audience of Rumblefish (an audience targeted by Coppola as younger and younger) which is naturally mannered. All of today’s directors with a bit of life in them (from the most laborious, like Beineix, to the most talented, like Ruiz) are heirs to this phenomenal corpse: the cinema. All big wheels in a sense, but rolling at breakneck speed towards the “new images”. Auteurs, it’s true, but of somewhat comical prosthetic parts. The truth of the lie was yesterday. The powers of the false are for today. Signs of the times. 

There was one important date in the history of the pinball machine (but a clever anthropologist would align it with the history of cinema); it was when it too started talking. “Play me again!” implored the abject Xenon. “Bye-bye!” the irritating Q*bert’s Quest simpers nowadays to the player who has just lost his stake. There’s nothing human about these voices, they no longer “stick” to the image, they accompany it. 

Coppola is contemporary to Xenon. His “style” is a matter of displaying – conspicuously if possible – the choice of amplification to which he submits this or that detail (whether visual or in sound) so as to make it play a little solo, just like in jazz. This is what he started doing in One from the Heart. Something in between pointless showing off and last-minute verification, the test and the check-up. So in Rumblefish there are solos: of images (Stephen Burum’s), words, music (Stewart Copeland’s, the drummer from Police), of gestures, camera movements, of everything. They have no purpose apart from the pleasure of someone noisily revving up a very fine machine before riding out on it. 

Some examples. The film’s American title cues its meaning, that’s to say that unless we leave the tribe we are doomed to hurl ourselves upon our own image and to gnaw it or destroy it; in “French": the title has become Rusty James. Now these are the words most often heard in the film. The hero is continually called by his name, either in challenge or with affection, often in the way that a child is spoken to, to get it used to the idea that it has a name – its name, a name all of its own. This “Rusty James!” uttered in an Arkansas accent (the setting is Tulsa) is a way of drawing in the spectator, like the Xenon pinball machine’s “play me again”. There are many other examples of this art of amplification. The decision to film in black and white with the alibi of the Motorcycle Boy’s colour-blindness. Or that long scene between the two brothers where the elder (the Boy in question) keeps on asking the younger just one question: “Why?”. “Why why?” the other finally protests. And the scene continues, getting stuck on this little word like a clot of blood. Or again those fight scenes choreographed like commercials, shot at Adidas level, as if already quoting from a film that we were supposed to know. Or the sudden colour of the fighting fish (red, blue) in their poverty-stricken aquarium. Or the virtuosity of the camera movements, as if, since he has begun using video to rehearse his films like ballets, Coppola was finally able to treat the camera with all the consideration owed to a character. 

This is how F. ‘Ford’ C. painstakingly creates today’s mannerist cinema. This Italo-American is our Parmigianino or our Primaticcio. Everything he loses on the one hand – spontaneity, humour, inspiration – he gains on the other – inventiveness, melancholy, courage. Of course, there’s often a desire to beg him (you’d have to shout very loud) to let his characters and his shots breathe, not to smother them – and us – beneath his show-offish expertise, not to lose what often gives his films their charm (for example the whole Mark Twain-style episode in The Outsiders), not to want to perpetually control everything (because “everything” is too much). Of course, he is further away from the lyricism of Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller (other analysts of group violence and its homosexual core) than from the frigid pyrotechnics of Otto Preminger. But all the same, he’s there. 

For the mistake would be in imagining that Coppola makes do with tacking on a hypertrophied style to what are in the end hackneyed themes. This isn’t quite true. The man possesses a “vision of the world” which is perfectly in keeping with the pandemonium he has in mind for the movies. 

What’s the story of Rumblefish? An attractive and charismatic ex-gang leader known by the name of Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) comes home to Tulsa now older (he is twenty-one!) after a trip to California. He joins his father, an out-of-work alcoholic lawyer (Dennis Hopper, who is terrific) and more especially his younger brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon). While he has been away Rusty has tried to keep the gangs going and be one of their leaders. Rusty is wildly beautiful. Rusty totally looks up to his brother. But Rusty is betrayed by words; the fact is: he’s not very smart. He doesn’t realise that no one believes any longer in this kind of heroism, nor does anyone believe in him as a leader. How is he to be made to realise this? Motorcycle Boy is in the fiendishly Coppalesque situation of someone who has touched bottom, found nothing there, and is reduced to sporting a dandyish demeanour of few words (he’s not just colour-blind but half-deaf!). So that his little brother can become a man (who knows?), he will have to resort to the complicated metaphor of the rumble fish. And this metaphor will be the death of him. 

Clearly, Rumblefish is a story of disillusionment. Made flesh, the ideal disappoints. Idols have feet of clay. (Remember Kurz-Brando in Apocalypse Now). This is nothing unusual. A filmmaker who wants to rethink the cinema’s powers of illusion needs to believe that the world (the “real” world) is already an illusion. That it consists of appearances, of celestial twinkles and earthly shams. The beautiful, very innocently Disneyesque scene where Rusty James has been knocked out and dreams he is dead and you see his levitating body turned into a soul in transit overflying a smoke-filled field of mourners, perhaps tells us the truth of Coppola’s cinema. The world in essence hardly exists. The director only manipulates its substance in order to extract a little of his soul.

 First published in Libération on 15 February 1984 as "Coppola, made in Tulsa". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Introduction to Indochinema: Dust of Empire

 Another revised translation from Cinema in Transit. 

Dust of Empire (Lam-Le)

Lam-Le does more than pulling off his first feature; he is planting the seeds of his personal cosmogony. Confusion is only on the surface.

Say there’s a footbridge [passerelle]. The kind with room only for one person at a time. In the middle, reckless and clever, there’s a man – alone of course. It’s Lam-Le, who was born in Haiphong thirty-six years ago. He is really “in the middle”. He has lived eighteen years in Vietnam and eighteen years in France. Then he made Dust of Empire. A passeur between two worlds (but he’s the one who built the footbridge), magnetised by two cultures (but without losing the North), a fragile ambassador between Paris and Hanoi (but working independently), he has made a film where, logically, everything is doubled, starting with the title. Dust of Empire or Hon Vong Phu (the Vietnamese title) is one of the most ambitious and original films to be seen for a long time. 

There are many ways of approaching the story. With the poster? Try and see. An overturned colonial helmet, red graphics for the title and the names of two outstanding and well-known actors: Dominique Sanda and Jean-Francois Stevenin. She’s a (nameless) missionary and he’s a sergeant in the French army (his name’s Tamisier, but he calls himself Tam-Tam). You’re right in the middle of “Indochina War” (water, rice fields, sweat, military kit) and you watch the jeering NCO and the lofty nun carefully compose their characters, somewhere between Hergé and televised Noh theatre. They gesticulate and strike attitudes, they quote. They quote the films of John Ford (7 Women) or John Huston (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison). The white cinema of fine colonial souls, with soldiers soft-hearted beneath surly ways and nuns who are still women beneath their stiff looks.

That said, their “action” is modest: showing the Vietnamese villagers a little Pathé-Baby film on the life of Christ, cobbling together a screening, preaching. They are theatrical about their film show, they’re no great shakes and they make a mess of it into the bargain. Outside, the rain turns to a downpour, the screening is cut short (they don’t even get to the Wedding at Cana), dark water rises in the cabin where they’re staying, the enemy prowls around, the nun is on edge and when they go on their way the next morning, all covered in mud, they are unceremoniously mowed down by Vietcong machine guns. The film goes on without them and, as a disconcerted spectator, you can’t help wondering. What, the stars are dead already? Is this a different film starting now? Have you been had?

You then remember that, parallel to this story, there’s another narrative thread, tenuous but this time unbroken. In the village, a wounded guerrilla (played by Lam-Le) was entrusting a message-poem to a dumb child. He wants to let his wife know that he isn’t dead. The guerrilla’s wife is a servant with the French in Saigon. The guerrilla sticks the message on the child’s kite. The child meets the nun-Tam-Tam couple, smiles at them, takes them to the cabin, then disappears, forgetting his kite. When the water rises, someone deciphers the rain-washed message, but it’s too late.

It’s then you suspect that the real “hero” of Dust of Empire is the four lines of poetry and their transmission, and you’re right. As a result, when you think about the long Sanda-Stevenin episode you perceive one of the most hazardous things that a director can come up with: a shortcut which goes astray, a blind alley which leads back to square one. But this doesn’t mean that the episode is without meaning. For one thing it is filmed in a certain way and the rest of the film in a different way. As if the film-maker had two styles.

When he talks about it, Lam-Le is very specific. As a director, he is very much – almost too much – at ease with this dramatic scenario. But as someone who was once a Vietnamese child, he hasn’t forgotten the impression white adults made on him, their heavy-footed and alarming way of occupying space, of jostling everything, of detaching syllables (to preach) or gobbling them up (to insult). His is the memory of the colonised. Perhaps he wanted his film to “go through this”, as a kind of exorcism, halfway between affectionate homage and spiteful parody. Perhaps he wanted to show where his liking for the cinema came from: from the colonists and their pious images.

And so the film begins all over again. We encounter the guerrilla in prison. There’s an escape from the adjoining cell. He entrusts his message (the same four lines) to an escaping prisoner. Night, topless bodies, flight, accomplices, a house. And in the house a leprous old woman and a little boy, Phong (the wind). The message is passed in whispers. The child learns it by heart then writes it in a piece of paper, next to a yellowing drawing. The nuns – them again – send the old woman back to the leper colony and the child to Saigon.

And at this point the film takes off into the ether. Phong – the wind-child, grave-faced, with his baggy shorts and his satchel tucked jauntily under his arm, crossing Saigon in search of the “Villa des Roses” where the guerrilla’s wife works. He finds her. The wife looks after the children of a French couple who are going back home. She goes with them, heavy-hearted. On the quayside, Phong gets the message to a smilingly beautiful singer (Myriam Mezières, in yet another fine performance) who is signing autographs before embarkation. From then on, the piece of paper travels incognito, enters into the French children’s games (the little girl makes a fan out of it), following them to Marseille, then to Paris where, for more than twenty years it’s used to wedge the buttons on a radio set. Is it lost?

At this point in the film you fear for the piece of paper. It’s to be expected: you’ve entered into the logic of the melodrama and you will be very moved. One day the old wireless set has broken down altogether. Time has gone by, even in Vietnam where the “American war” has just ended, and the little girl has grown up. She falls upon the folded paper and everything comes back to her. The guerrilla’s wife is now an elderly, stooped woman. At the Mutualité for the Tết celebrations, she cries as she receives this message which has reached her so late. It’s her daughter who will bring things full circle and take a plane to Vietnam, landing there today. A dilapidated airport reeking of the Third World and littered with plane corpses. The guerrilla’s daughter rides through the Vietnamese countryside on a bike. Time stopped, accelerated, plainly dreamed. Sublime.

Everything is doubled in this film. The four lines of poetry and the piece of paper aren’t the only “heroes” of this “second” part. The fourth line refers to a “waiting stone*”. the film’s title is Hon Vong Phu. This means precisely “waiting stone” and it’s the ultimate symbol of the film, derived from a legend of a woman who, having to wait for the man she loves, takes on the form of a great grey stone sunk into the ground, such as the ones found in Vietnam. In the crevices people leave messages: signs of life or proofs of love. Vietnam = patience. The guerrilla’s daughter finds the stone mentioned in the poem and embraces it in tears. A bright-eyed young girl born with the new Vietnam comes and speaks to her. “Are you the one who has come from France?”, “Do you know the story of the stone?”

It’s then that you remember. The real beginning of Dust of Empire was neither the story of the cinephile nun and the sergeant Tam-Tam, nor was it even the bleeding guerrilla writing on a kite; it was – quite simply – the credits! The ideogram “sky” exploding in the darkness of the world’s creation with a meteorite plunging fast towards the earth and towards this part of the earth called Vietnam. Lam-Le doesn’t begin his film “somewhere”, but nowhere, with his own cosmogony. And to end it, above the woman standing near the stone, a star speeds through the sky and closes the film. The stone from the beginning, but seen from below.

Nor is it over yet. This stone is really precious and here is why. Simultaneously a narrative thread, a container for the message, and a proof of Lam-Le’s existence as a director and as a Vietnamese. It bears proud and modest witness to he who wishes to “leave something” behind him. It’s a good symbol, this fat pebble. For this stone isn’t a real stone found and filmed by Lam-Le in Vietnam, it’s a polystyrene sculpture, designed and constructed in France and taken to Vietnam. A part of the set, that’s all.

Afterwards (Lam-Le narrates with delight) the stone stayed on – half as an oddity, half as a souvenir of the filming –, like the wreckage from the first “French” film shot (partly) in Vietnam, the sign of an alliance, a crumb of bread on the fragile footbridge of the “friendship between peoples”. A fake that has become real. Hollow, it has assumed weight. Not the least touching thing is the thought of Lam depicted as some kind of Little Poucet leaving a real film here and a fake stone there, restoring something sacred to Vietnam. Not a film (he settled accounts with sacred cinephilia with his Pathè-Baby movie-patronage episode), but a “waiting stone” fallen off a film cargo.

If I had time I would now begin to tell you what kind of artist I think Lam-Le is. I say “artist” advisedly because he has already done painting, acting and drawing (he has even designed story boards for other people’s film); an exceptionally talented artist of our time. That is to say aware of the powers of the false and the truth of the sham. That’s another reason to make Dust of Empire a landmark. A political reason, no less.

For what have we seen of the North-South dialogue in the cinema department? The South reduced to walk-on parts or silence, while the North took the principal roles (nun and soldier for example) and had plenty to say. The South reduced to its folklore difference which was then recreated in the studios of the North (Hollywood). The guilt-ridden North going to the South to extract “real images” which will be thrust upon the noble souls of the North (Malle filming Calcutta, for example). The South filming like the North, with State sponsoring.

Lam-Le is different. He doesn’t “extract” images-as-evidence, he “adds on” objects-as-signs. Extracting something original still comes down to removing. Adding on a copy is still enrichment.

* "Pierre d’attente" in French is a technical term in theatre and construction [toothing stone] broadly meaning a harbinger.

 First published in Libération on 7 October 1983 as "Introduction to Indochinema". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.