Monday, May 17, 2021

Cannes 1984: The Karma of Images

This text was published in Libération on the same day as Daney's first review of Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl.

The Karma of Images 
The Cannes Festival is a rite. It also used to be a celebration. Every year, international critics used to discover the geopolitical map of the world (of images) through a selection of unreleased films (at least in France) that they were the first to see. Things were fresh and there was even a small thrill: that of being the first audience of a film, to have rights and duties toward the film. That of relating what they had seen, to create the desire to see what they had liked, to criticise what had disappointed them – or what had shocked them (the scandal of L’Avventura in 1960!). I have not known this era but everything tells me it existed. 
But what happened over the years? More images were consumed ever more quickly by fewer people. The world of cinema (film rotas, news, ideas, trends and people) accelerated and then started to race. Although still a rite, the Cannes Film Festival is less a baptism of fire or a crossing of the line for films than a sort of test or confirmation, a second chance or a rematch (I’m speaking of the official selection of course). The Americans send in films that have already missed the Oscars, but which, because of their strangeness, may attract European audiences (Coppola, Cimino and, this year, Leone), while large distributors kill the goose and the golden eggs by releasing the film in theatres at the same time as the festival, or right after, transforming the opening night gala into a mundane preview. In short, the festival goer is losing his cinephilic privilege, that of coming back to Paris, with a tan if possible, and answering the feverish questions of his friends wearily and enigmatically: “So, how was the…?”. And when a film from the French selection (always a ridiculous State affair every year) has already been released in theatres, the talk is about a “César effect” of the festival: the rite hesitates between redemption and intensive medication. 
One must be a cinephile to feel these things, but one would be naive to think it only concerns the world of cinema. This loss of the feeling of the present is obviously the great phenomenon of the media. We aren’t facing things anymore, yet we are unable to shake off their image, as if it were a friendly ontological glue. The urgency to see a film is reduced, and it may eventually result in a reduced urgency to make films. We’ve entered the era of recycling. The karma of images is to be reborn. They will bury us all. 
What happens to the film critic who comes home, late and tired, to his small hotel room? He switches on the TV on instinct and discovers – joy of joys! – that beyond the end of daytime programmes and the embarrassing “bonne nuit les petits!” that the announcers use to send to bed the good (working) people of France, there are still images! Not everywhere, sure, but on a thousand TV sets that play Sygma’s “Star 84” show after midnight. And there, in spite of good sense, with neurons fried and retinas on fire, the film critic continues to watch! Because after midnight on Sygma, there is the “Gaumont film club”, there is yet another film. 
It’s a strange (and slightly revolting) experience that consists of watching large extracts of, for example, City of Women or Identification of a Woman, when one should be sleeping. An amazing sensation of floating in which old acquaintances come nourish our REM sleep. Last reflexes of the critic (does the film still hold together?), remnants of daytime lucidity, strange gratitude towards these images which needn’t be written about or discussed the day after. This is how, every evening, images cure us of images. 
This loss of the feeling of the present also leads to an indifference towards the future and a forgetting of the past. All images are suddenly equal. Recycling counters are reset to zero. The day before yesterday, barely managing to watch Identification of a Woman, I had to make an effort to recall that this film was in competition here at Cannes in 1982 and that we had to fight (for the film, and even to see it, to enter the film theatre, to convince those that snubbed it, to improvise two pages for the newspaper). Was that which was true, or this discrete return of the film two years later, already as an object for film clubs? 
It is becoming harder every day to identify with films. Because we no longer come across them (like shooting stars) but because they begin to resemble us: in reserve, taped, waiting, in TV listings, vaguely present and always ready. 

First published in Libération on 17 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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