Thursday, March 31, 2022

Gray Matter (Jaws)

Another text from La Rampe translated with Sri's help. 

Gray matter - Jaws by Steven Spielberg

Jaws obeys the rules of how a typical disaster film is set on its course. 

1. Opening scene. At night, on a beach, a group of youths sing, drink and smoke. Tipsy (stoned?), two of them go take a skinny-dip expecting much pleasure. Offended, the sea dispatches its shark with its teeth*. The girl who “was the first one,” and who swims elegantly on the film poster, will be reduced to a disgusting pile of flesh in the morning. From then on, all sexual relations are suspended. In a grotesque scene, the cop’s (Roy Scheider) wife suggests to her husband “to get drunk and fool around”. The cop feels queasy and the audience laughs: doesn’t she know, the fool, that she could be “the second one”? So sexual relations are suspended until the clever but abject beast (gray matter, nothing but gray matter) explodes into a reddish powder. The shark is a paper tiger. 

2. If there is such a thing as a link between violence and pornography, it is that they exclude one another in the logic of disaster films (which is also the logic of US imperialism: the politics of “the worse, the better”). If there is violence, there cannot be pornography, since it is the threat of pornography that violence is warding off. Already, in the stupid The Towering Inferno, it is because a (slightly effeminate) rich kid engages in careless flirting that he commits the criminal negligence causing the disaster. He will die as a result (not before proving his incurable spinelessness), as will an illegitimate couple secretly making love even though the fire was already raging and the audience had understood that it wasn’t dealing with a logic of fooling around anymore, but with an escalation of violence. 

Not any violence though. Fire, jaws, quaking grounds help bind the community together again. Not sex (which only binds two people) but paranoid sublimation (which scares a lot of people). In other words – and this is not the least worrying bit of the story – children sin and parents pay the price. 

3. The suspended sexual relations make way for a “three men in a boat” setup bordering on homosexual comradeship, with noble ends and tough guy violence. We know that, in American cinema, this comradeship is defined by the exclusion of two despised groups: women and politicians (thought to have access to suspicious pleasures, in the view of real men). It’s also a question of sealing a triple alliance between the hunter, the scientist and the cop. And this alliance has a class dimension: Quint, the working-class man ill-suited to society (played by the Shakespearian actor Robert Shaw), and two figures of middle class (the modest and idealistic academic – Richard Dreyfus – and an almost failed cop), fight against the rot of money: profit-hungry property developers, irresponsible mass swimmers, a corrupt mayor. And it’s also about binding the audience in the film theatre, to transform it into a petrified collective, bombarded by an advertising campaign that makes them as incapable of escaping Jaws (the film) as the film extras are of escaping the jaws of the shark. 

4. This “Boo! Scare me!” is therefore heavily loaded with the question of “How to reassure the masses?” and “What is the price to pay?”. A misplaced desire (the youths that smoked on the beach and that the fiction will quickly get rid of) will be substituted by a more socialising desire, a desire to end the horror and to return to normality. That is the function of disaster films. But it is not the only one: for what is to be desired, by the same token, is the norm. It is in this regard that this cinema borders on fascism.

What scared more than three hundred thousand spectators in one week? And what are they getting reassured about? About the staging of a violence that – as Alain Bergala says quite rightly – “guarantees the very conditions of the spectator’s pleasure and his future support for every form of counter-violence”.

It’s the perennial cry of the sergeant major saying: “I only want to see one head!” Nothing must stand out: a sleek, full and homogenous body (military or social). A body that can be compared to a loop that closes itself except in one place where it gapes. This is where the shark shows up: it is what Lacan defines as the model of the fish trap, the obturator, the object a. Who is the shark? Nothing more than the actualisation – arriving like a hallucination from outside the fish trap – of the fact that something is rotten inside and attracting the fish. This something is the enemy within, meaning anything capable of pleasure. The supposed pleasure of the youths at the beginning, the real pleasure of the asocial duovidual composed of the hunter and the scientist. For nothing compels Quint to persevere with the hunt except the fatal outcome that he surmises: to be incorporated by the great white. Nothing compels the scientist to make a copy of the Quattrocento cube (the cage) underwater, right under the shark’s nose. He must be a cinephile. Neither he nor Quint will kill the beast. 

5. A normative fantasy must be organised with a mise en scene. Quite simply, it consists in filming everything (events, extras) from two – and only two – points of views: that of the hunter and that of the hunted. There is no other point of view (spatial, moral or political), no other place for the camera, and therefore for the spectator, than this double position. Some talk lightly about “identification” in the cinema. They haven’t noticed that in this kind of film, the identification is with the couple hunter/hunted, with its specular oscillation, a short-circuit between knowledge and point of view, a loss of any point of reference, getting under the other’s gray skin, in summary everything leading to a complete removal of any responsibility. In the pulsation of this double point of view, the camera is with the child who swims and for whom the shark is only this black rectangle speeding by, and it is, in the next shot, with the shark for whom the leg of the child is just what sticks out below the water surface.  

* Reference to the French title of the film: Les dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) [translator’s note].

First published as “The screen of fantasy (2)” in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 265, March-April 1976. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translated by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Moral of Perception

The third and last translation from the newly found Hyperion. Stoffel Debuysere has also translated this text (here).

A Moral of Perception (Straub-Huillet’s From the Clouds to the Resistance

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to website / link to pdf file].

The last Straub-film is composed of two distinct parts, one mythological, the other modern, both without apparent relation. Nube side: six dialogues out of the twenty-seven Dialogues with Leuco written by Cesare Pavese in 1947. Resistenza side: excerpts from another book by Pavese, The Moon and the Fires, published in 1950, a few months before his suicide. This last side will not be surprising: each Straub-film is a survey — archaeological, geological, ethnographic, and military — of a situation where some men had resisted.

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No 305, November 1979, as "The Straubian shot". Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. 

Notes on Saló

Another recently discovered translation from Serge Daney's first book, La Rampe.

Notes on Saló

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to websitelink to pdf file].

It is not because Saló is the last film of Pasolini that you are forced to see it as a “testament” (or a letter bomb, to open only with precaution: “No one indeed, it seems, can recover,” said Roland Barthes about this film). It is much easier to see the reconstruction of what could be, in a comparable context (Italian fascism) and a similar setting (Saló), the final attempt of masters in perdition to enjoy their power. 

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No 268-269, July-August 1976. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. The illustration is from the original edition of La Rampe. The caption reads: "A left arm in Saló by P. P. Pasolini"

The State - Syberberg

Astonishingly, it is still possible to uncover new translations of Serge Daney online. The 2018 issue of the Hyperion journal, published by Contra Mundum Press, has three translations by Serge Daney. I will post the entries separately. 

The State - Syberberg (“Hitler, a film from Germany”) 

Hyperion, On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol XI, No 1, Summer 2018. Translation by  Rainer J. Hanshe. [link to pdf file].

1. It isn’t very difficult to imagine the film that Syberberg would have made if he had wanted to reassure the critics. He would have justified himself in advance for his choice by highlighting the harsh necessity that we have — more than ever — to analyze and understand “the still fertile belly from which arose the foul beast.” He would have invited the spectator to a denunciation, a demystification, a de-something. The film would not have lasted seven hours, which is too long for a lesson, too long even for a show...

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 292, September 1978. Reprinted in La Rampe, cahier critique 1972-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. The illustration is from the original edition of La Rampe.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Serge Daney's bibliography

The written work of Serge Daney consists almost exclusively of short texts published for the most part in Cahiers du cinéma and in the daily newspaper Libération as well as in some other magazines and books.

Daney published four books in his own lifetime, all collections of articles. He was working on a book project at the time of his death in 1992 (later published under the title Persévérance) and he is also believed to be the author of a little-known book, Procès à Baby Doc, Duvalier père et fils, a 1973 polemic text against the Duvalier regime in Haiti, written under the pseudonym Raymond Sapène.

The rest of his written work has been published posthumously in French:

  • Persévérance, Daney's big legacy project of a cine-biography of which he only managed to write the first chapter (The Tracking Shot in Kapo). The rest ended up as the transcript of a long interview recorded by Serge Toubiana. This book has been translated and published in English as Postcards from the cinema.
  • L'amateur de tennis, a collection of his sport articles on tennis matches written for Libération.
  • L'exercise a été profitable, Monsieur., a collection of notes he kept in his computer.
  • La maison cinéma et le monde, a four-volume anthology of texts not previously published, covering nearly everything from his first articles in a high school film magazine to his late years interviews. The first volume is due to be published in English in 2022 as The Cinema House and the World.

Over the years, many texts have been translated, including from Daney's own four books. But because they are scattered around the internet, it's not easy to understand how much of each book is actually available. So here are links to the table of contents of each book, with links to all the translated articles.

La rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982

A selection of his writings for Cahiers from 1970 to 1982, published in 1983.

Published in 1986, the book contains all kind of articles (film reviews, festival coverage, analysis of TV broadcasts, etc) written for Libération which Daney joined full time after leaving Cahiers du cinéma in 1981. 

Published in 1988, it captures nearly all the texts of an eponymous chronicle about television that Daney wrote in Libération between September and December 1987.

A three-part book containing articles written in the last years of his life, from 1988 to 1991. Published in 1991 (one year before Daney's death).