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.