Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the water

‘We have come as a delegation since what we want to ask you is a bit delicate’, they said. ‘We are the fishmen of the film that you just saw. We are under no illusion about our beauty but we’re asking you not to be afraid.’ 
‘You are absolutely hideous’ I said in an understatement, ‘but I’m not afraid.’ 
Why did I choose to watch Island of the Fishmen (1979) by Sergio Martino that evening over many other more dignified films? Was is the nostalgia of small adventure films, quickly made and quickly botched? The exacerbated desire to be surprised? The emotion at the idea to see again, even dubbed, the old Joseph Cotten? In any case, they were here, their squames dripping water on the wood floor, and I knew that these carnivorous piles were fundamentally good and incapable of meanness.  
‘You see’ said their leader, looking for his words, ‘We know that Island of the Fishmen is a film rarely seen. But for us, the fishmen that believed in the script, the adventure is a bit unpleasant since the film is sold under our name and yet we only appear in a few superficial and badly edited horror scenes.’ 
‘Be fair’ I said to show good will ‘there is only one beautiful scene in the film, a real poetic moment, and it’s because of you.’ 
‘Which one, which one?’ The voices said.  
‘I’m thinking of the moment when Amanda comes among you and you emerge out of the water, around her, with your iguana-like claws and piranha teeth, as she distributes a bit of coloured liquid that you drink with a glutinous clumsiness, and if I remember correctly, with little plaintive screams that work very well… If only all the film was made of this water…’ 
‘Ah yes… water…’ muttered the few monsters who, already, were finding the atmosphere stifling. ‘Let’s go back in it, that will be better.’ 
‘No’ said their leader. ‘We must know. We must know what was our true role in this hellish film which we never understood since no one ever told us about the script.’ 
‘Yes’ said a voice that couldn’t bear it any longer. ‘We want to know who we are!’ 
‘Have you seen The Island of Doctor Moreau? Yes? Well, it’s a bit like that. On an island that doesn’t feature on any map, a paranoid adventurer keeps a mad scientist locked up. The scientist (an idealist wanting to do good for future mankind) aims to create a hybrid between man and fish. But the adventurer (a dishonest misanthrope) wants to train the fishmen to dive ever further to bring back treasures from the deep end of Atlantis.’ 
‘That’s what it was? Atlantis?’ 
‘Yes because it’s somewhere in the Caribbean islands that the famous continent was submerged!’ 
‘And the young girl?’ 
‘Amanda (a rather bland thing) is the scientist’s daughter and only she knows how to talk to you to calm you down.’ 
‘And the young man?’ 
‘Claude (an appalling fop) is another doctor washed up on the island. He thwarts all the evil plans and manages to escape the island when a volcanic eruption destroys it.’ 
‘And us?’ 
‘You are the ancient indigenous people of the island on who the scientist (Joseph Cotten) successfully tested his grafts. You retain some intelligence but not the gift of speech. You’re too strong and you tear apart a lot of people. The audience is meant to be very scared by you. Then, it gets used to you. At the end, it can’t care less. When the volcano erupts, you save the star couple by swimming under water and you abandon them on a beach.’ 
Silence follows, and I knew I had said too much. I was about to follow with reservations on the film style but I gave up. The harm had been done. I was facing half a dozen wrecked coelacanths.  
‘We suspected this’, the leader said, ‘but it’s always good to know. Be frank to the end: can it be said that the film in which we play, Island of the Fishmen, is awful?’ 
‘It’s a very weak film I’m afraid.’ 
‘A dud?’ 
‘Yes.’ 
‘Ok, time to go guys’, the leader of the fishmen said. ‘Don’t forget that we can’t stay out of the water too long. Can we use your bowl?’ 
Having dived back in the small screen, they swam joyless for a while then disappeared between two commercials.  
First published in Libération on 26 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2017.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lara, inn-keeper

In 1951, disappointed by The Red Inn, André Bazin said: ‘The moviegoers don’t know what is expected of them because they can’t see what the authors were expecting of their script.’ A comment that defines well Bazin’s idea of cinema but not at all the one that was practiced – with a certain mastery – by Aurenche, Bost and Autant-Lara. They expected only one thing from their script: that it could be identified by anyone – spectators and characters – as a script, and nothing more.  
The characters are split in two camps: those who know the rules of the game (since they have invented them) and those that will never know them. The audience, in on it by default, can only laugh at the show of a tailor-made character: the one that has the whole film to create the script he fell into, a not so simple monk played with great energy by Fernandel. And when terrified, he moans ‘Where have I fallen?’, the black Fétiche replies ‘In an inn where everybody dies!’, which could be the summary of the film in a TV guide.  
Pitched as an anti-bourgeois shooting gallery, The Red Inn is a game with zero risk for the audience: it only has to keep the score and laugh as if watching Hidden Camera. The characters that will catch up with the script will be saved, the others will be abandoned less as the puppets offered to a joyful class hatred than as those whose role was never explained.  
What happens when the scenario has invaded everything? Strange dialogues happen. When the inn-keeper’s daughter falls in love with the monk, she tells him: ‘Why don’t you wait for a heartache before becoming a monk?’ To which the boy replies with a bland voice: ‘One needs a girl to have a heartache.’ They don’t talk like human beings, they talk like intentions of the script.  
There is a strong temptation to oppose this cinema – where everything is sacrificed to the script and to acting – to another, founded on what Bazin called the expectation of the audience, an expectation that only the mise-en-scène could build up. But this debate is well-known and has already happened. Perhaps it is better to compare Autant-Lara to filmmakers seemingly from the same family.  
Autant-Lara had a worldview and a certain conception of cinema, and in 1951, if these were already academic, they weren’t yet Lepenist. In principle, Autant-Lara is closer to Buñuel with whom he shares the same themes (anticlericalism) and a dry and calligraphic art of positioning things. But even this comparison runs short. Why? Because Buñuel never places the audience on the good side, on the side of the wink and of the connivance. Because for him, the script is more an obscure inevitability that clouds the characters than the chance to be on the side of those who have read the script and laugh because of their knowledge.  
The ‘crisis of the script’ may have started in France in the fifties. At a time when too many stories (of France) couldn’t really be told anymore, it was felt right to replace the story that was nowhere to be found with the fake script. It was a mistake because as a result one began to forget that a script is not just a technique (recipes to deal with any topic) but a history onto itself. As any obsessive person will tell you, it’s not funny to spend your life repeating the same scenarios. Buñuel and Hawks are pure script writers: for them the script is more than an object to make, it’s their subject – their passion.  
Seeing again The Red Inn (and let’s be clear, it’s a very funny fabliau which even takes off once or twice), one can feel that it anticipates a series of recent French films where the search for the script becomes the very stake of the film and where it becomes more a board game played willingly by experienced actors. Since we’re gathered up and we’ve assembled a good cast, they seem to say, why couldn’t we improvise a script? 
From Bertrand Blier (Our Story) to Michelle Deville (Paltoquet) and the last Sautet (A Few Days with Me), the children of The Red Inn are more numerous than it seems. The inn is a much broader church, it has less customers and willingly admits its spleen, but it’s the same one that Autant-Lara filmed in 1951. 
First published in Libération on 17 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Deadly dubbing

‘I won’t keep you long,’ says the voice on the phone. ‘I know you’re watching Death Trap. But couldn’t you say something about the appalling way this film has been dubbed? I love Michael Caine but I can’t stand Francis Lax.’ 
Death Trap (1981) is the film adaptation of an Ira Levin play and, probably, an attempt to get as much success as Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, this time with Christopher Reeve (dubbed by Arditi) in the part of the younger man, and Michael Caine (dubbed by Lax) as the older one. Sidney Lumet has ably carried off the screen adaptation of the play, which relies on only two or three plot twists. There would be nothing much to say if it weren’t that the French version is weighing down the film so much that it creates a tiresome feeling. Our perception lags miserably behind a film where there is an essential piece of information in each sentence and plot twists every minute. So much so that by the time the film is really up and running, our eardrums are done for and we’ve called it a day. 
When the filmed theatre play doesn’t shine overly on its own what’s left to look at? The actors. The least you should be able to do is keep your eyes and ears glued to an actor you like and have always been very intrigued by. Born in London in 1933, Maurice Mickelwhite is one of those actors who are, as people say, ‘never indifferent’. Better known by the name Michael Caine, he regularly portrays ruthless and intensely neurotic types who are hard to categorise. His malleability is his strength. English and American, prole and intellectual, hetero and homo, spineless and gutsy, cynic and dreamer, Michael Caine is like the last remaining example of a studio actor, acting ‘in the old style’ those roles and sensibilities that the old-style cinema didn’t deal in. Perhaps the reason he’s so hard to dub is that he’s so fast. You get the clear impression that a whole range of nuances bound up with the English language don’t make it out alive in the transfer to Lax and French. 
All you can do is turn down the volume (after all, what’s so important about this story of mutual manipulation between two queer playwrights?) and sit back and watch how Michael Caine looks in all his glory. Well, here too we’re frustrated. Partly because Lumet, perpetually effective, sacrifices the acting to the snipping supremacy of editing. Partly because even when you feel there must be something out of the ordinary to see, this feeling remains as abstract as a clue. When, twice over, Caine cries (the first time over the death of his wife, when he assumes the role of the weeping husband calling the police, and the second, when his plan has worked and they are tears of nervous relief), it’s a surprise that we don’t feel more emotion. As if we had reconstructed something rather than seen it. 
It is to be feared that the answer will come from Dimitri Balachoff. Who is Balachoff? A Belgian who, having animated many film clubs and presented many films on TV, has written one of those articles (‘Cinematographic language and electronic images’) which clear things up. Balachoff reminds us that in optical projection the entire retina has a complete image pressed upon it every twenty-fourth of a second. Then he explains that in viewing the cathode ray tube ‘there is never any moment when the entire surface of the retina is impressed upon. The pathway of the flying spot is synchronised so as to stimulate only one tiny point on the retinal surface, every four hundred thousandth of a second. It is the retinal persistence which not only reconstitutes the movement of the images but also the static image itself, which in reality is never "seen" in its entirety.’ 
In other words, on TV we reconstitute what we should have seen. The cinema image gave us ‘the eye’ (once a second, retina and image corresponded), precisely in the way that certain great actors – Chaplin is the most famous example – verge on the subliminal by looking at the camera for an almost infinitesimal length of time. Every time we are faced with something fast-moving, like the performance of a true actor, like Michael Caine in the putrid Death Trap, we will now be called to order by Dimitri Balachoff. 
TV isn’t made for seeing, but for viewing. 

First published in Libération on 15 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Doped up Marilyn

The real star of Let’s Make Love isn’t Marilyn Monroe. It goes by the name of Demerol, Amytal, Nembutal or Phenobarbitone. At the start of shooting this film, Marilyn is really not well, and doctor Greenson, a Freudian, is appalled by the pharmacopia he discovers at his patient’s house. Did Fox believe that the silly-goose role was still just right for her in 1960? Did Cukor really hope to transcend the ineptitude of the script? Did Brynner, Grant, Hudson and Heston show foresight in successively turning down the masculine lead? Had Arthur Miller kidded himself about the state of the couple he and Norma Jean were in? Hadn’t the musical comedy turned into a bare sprinkling of cosy cabaret numbers, necessary intimist, given the paralysis that had overtaken the genre? 
All these questions loomed large around the TV-viewing of Let’s Make Love on Sunday night. Everything this film had been designed to cover up came back like the return of a thing long and painfully repressed. Everything which, on the big screen in 1960, might have worked as illusions, now owned up to not just wrinkles but a pretty sorry state of decomposition. The facelift hadn’t held. Confirmation, yet again, that the American films of the fifties and sixties, often only held together by a desperate show of glitter and glamour, are the ones that TV undoes the most pitilessly. Seeing Let’s Make Love on TV is like watching a documentary about Marilyn doped up, Cukor gone soft and Fox moronic. It isn’t without interest, but it’s not much fun. 
When you quote somebody or something, it’s wise to open inverted commas. What (who) ever you can’t get to hold together, you separate with inverted commas, which are yet another, almost voluntary, way of joining them. There’s a hint of that in Let’s Make Love when Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly are paraded on in succession like a little museum of quotations. Like Hawks making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Cukor must have quickly realised that Marilyn, a quotation embodied in the flesh and the tormented soul, was there for nobody, save the camera. More intuitive than all the others put together, Marilyn plays her part as it ought to be played in this studio system that’s as sick as her, and which, what’s more, won’t survive her. 
This is why this film can be kept like a good memory. Precisely because of that ‘inverted commas’ effect, which makes the first musical number in the film (Cole Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’) linger in the mind quite apart from the film it introduces. Because of Marilyn’s blue sweater. Because of ‘Specialisation’, which is a good number. Because of the moments when the oomph returns and the grace with it. 
Shot in Cinemascope, Let’s Make Love suffers more than others from the transfer to the small screen. It doesn’t hover between the two black bands of letterboxing, it itself is the band unrolling between two big dark blocks which clasp it yet again in the manner of inverted commas, transforming its viewing into a clinical case study. Dark (not black) blocks which on Sunday night flickered ceaselessly between black, very dark green or a purplish hue. An effect due to the whim of a single television set (mine)? Or underhand colourisation, where the application of video colour abruptly tip the thin band of De Luxe colours into the almost batrachian vision of a world gone runny lengthwise? That night the TV didn’t show Cukor’s film, it provided information on the way colour films of thirty years ago couldn’t keep their make-up from smudging. 
We mustn’t, it needs to be said, compare this film with others by Cukor. Not that its subject isn’t eminently ‘Cukorian’, but because Cukor has often given a personal inflection to the ethos of the milieu (showbiz) which was his own habitat, with an additional dash of lucidity. For Cukor, the only natural elements in the world are whatever you concoct artifice with. Cukor knows something about the truth of Hollywood, and in exchange he has accepted that Hollywood should stop him from saying it too loudly. His viewpoint is expressed briefly by Jean-Marc Clément, the Frenchy millionaire in the film: ‘You can only ever give what you have’. Cukor has made some very fine films based on this kind of stoicism. Except that to make them he needed its opposite. What do you call someone who knows (like Lacan) that love is, on the contrary, making a gift of what you do not have? The star, obviously. 
First published in Libération on 13 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Alien: come what may

So, are there films that don’t transfer well on TV? Yes, and Alien is one of them. We can remember the publicity slogan that launched it: ‘Out in space no one can hear you scream’. But the space-time of the cinema auditorium is not the space-time of apartments dimly irradiated by our TV sets. We might well scream in fear when the blood-soaked alien pierces John Hurt’s ribcage, but this scream will none-the-less be weaker than the racket of the commercial break that comes straight after it, exploiting our terror to unfurl (Chanel, Braun, Tefal, Oasis, Mir wool and so many others). Advertising bursts into the body of the film in just the same way the alien ‘exit’ the body of the man. Shame follows on too quickly after fear. This is how one of the most disquieting films of the last decade becomes, on the small screen, nothing more than a curious and awkwardly apprehended object. 
With his background in advertising, Ridley Scott remains rare among filmmakers in systematically seeking out cinematic themes to match the sensory tremor that derived from the rhetoric of advertising. What he was after in Alien was a story that would justify the subliminal procedures of advertising and he found it in the most contemporary terror, the one that brings back the organic oozing right in the midst of spotless machines. 
We shall never know whether, with each appearance of the alien, we have seen enough of it. For some it’s already too much; for others it will never be enough. For everyone, however, there will be no way of getting used to the monster since it only comes in avatars. The paradoxical power of Alien is that it is a film at the edge of the visible, compelling its audience to strain its eyes in the effort of focussing the look. It is a film that requires a big screen. It is above all a film that requires darkness. The bigger the screen the less forgivable the failure to see anything. The darker the auditorium, the more time there is to very gradually acquire night vision. 
Like many films that test our perception, Alien has a script which we rediscover with each fresh viewing. In our obsession with the monster we forget that the human crew are undergoing the same treatment; it is only gradually that we close in on their faces with the hope of reading something in them. The film doesn’t encourage any psychologising along the lines of ‘the human group finding itself in the face of danger’ and if, like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, forever magnificent), we are drawn to learn more about what the enigmatic Ash has in his head, our desire will be fulfilled to the letter. One of the few close-ups in the film is in fact of Ash’s head, frothing and torn off his robot body and disclosing in an even voice the heart of the story. There is no more interiority, there is only a succession of insides and what’s inside them. 
Why do the adventures of those on board the Nostromo (the alien included) work less well on television? Because the desire to still see something is more quickly dampened by the size of the screen. Because the desire to hear is thoroughly stifled by the anaemic sound of the television set. Because television viewers are less used to having to take bearings than film viewers. Because they haven’t even had time to work out where they are on the Nostromo when it becomes a strange and boundless place for its passengers, a real museum of primeval fears (the basement, the hold and the cubbyholes) inherited from the planet Earth. 
And then, thanks to La Cinq, that inveterate grand butcher of film, we become aware of another reason for our discomfort. Among the many commercials that have interrupted the film, there is at least one that seems to come out of the same plastic universe as Alien. This is the Braun commercial where a man and a razor appear to communicate in a futuristic idyll. Now Alien’s story is in a sense about what would happen to this ‘hero’ were he to be placed in a time-span that wasn’t that of the commercial. Maybe he would happen to cut himself, to discover with horror that the razor is an alien, to find himself spattered with blood (like in Scorsese’s parodic little film The Big Shave), and to transform from the status of pure image to that of visceral heap. 
If in 1979 Alien-the-murky really was a puritanical repulsion of advertising hygienic obsession, then it’s perhaps logical that its TV viewing should vaguely irritate. 
First published in Libération on 8 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Zurlini, from the back

What’s left of films once they transfer into that first small screen: memory? Films like Valerio Zurlini’s Family Portrait (1962), where there is already one character evoking the memory of another, his brother, who has disappeared. And where another one has the image of a woman brought up to him – his mother – whom he has never known. For me, what ‘was left’ of this film which (so loudly and painfully) already asked the question ‘who will be left to try and tell the little that was left of a life’ was only the almost olfactory memory (the overpowering smell of faded flowers) of certain funeral shots. 
In a flop or a banal film there often remains one or two scenes exceptionally well made that persist in the memory. In a real film like Family Portrait there might very well only remain one or two images. But these images don’t persist in the memory as the ‘best moments’ in a forgettable or half-forgotten film; they remain because they are like screen memories that stand guard around the personal secrets of a film loved almost in secret. Because, as Frederic (Federico-Mastroianni) could say: you must protect yourself, after all. 
A man waits for the telephone call that will bring him news of his brother’s death. The walls are yellow and sweaty (we’re in Naples), the receiver black, the booth derelict. Facing us, the red-eyed, voiceless man waits for the thing to be said, at the other end of the line. But at the moment when it is, as if to discourage the camera ‘closing in’ on him, Mastroianni turns his back and this back takes up the whole screen. And this back becomes a screen memory; what would be the film’s cipher if the film were a strongbox. 
Is this an effect of style intended (obligingly) to signify humility? You might think so if it were not that in the following scene a tearful Mastroianni is followed at length (by the camera and the music) through the deserted, insalubrious and never more beautiful streets of Naples. Zurlini does not shun the ‘grand aria’ of suffering, he makes do with showing things twice over: one face on (for the scene) once back-turned (for the camera). He is probably one of the last directors never to have stopped wavering between the aesthetic of the secret and the aesthetic of display, and the very particular music of his film insists, convincingly, that there was no middle ground for him. 
The film tells a love story between two men who are brothers reunited too late in life. The scene where Laurent (Lorenzo-Perrin) takes refuge with his elder brother, who is by now tuberculous and virtually down and out, and where with him we discover the classic little room of the solitary, is a great cinematic moment (or, at any rate, the scene so cruelly missing from usual gay soapy love films). The older brother pretends to be working and the younger to be sleeping. Turned sometimes towards the wall and sometimes towards his brother, as if each line of dialogue compelled him to invent a new way of settling. Now, a bed is the very place where turning your back on the other is impossible, because a back speaks volumes. 
Family Portrait is a film where love is born from the need felt by the one who faces up to things for the one who has his back against the wall, and vice versa. It is a film about weakness, a subject rarer than would appear. Seen again on television, it gives a valuable insight into a moment in cinema (a few years after Pickpocket or L’Avventura) when it was still possible to tell stories where characters progress through life, albeit retreating, in other words ‘back-turned’. And for whoever progresses in this way, the only escape routes are those rushing headlong away from the unknown future or the half-glimpsed present towards the retro-vision of the past. 
The tele-vision of a film like this also makes us acutely aware of the fact that in the media, in general, backs have disappeared. ‘Turning your back to the camera’ is more than a discourtesy: it’s a crime. Just as television has accustomed us to a world where ‘artificial daylight’ has reduced the role of shadows, it makes us used to bodies without backs, reduced to the idiotic frontality of a recto without any verso. Synthesized images pirouette with such gay abandon only because they have no reverse. In the cinema everything could turn into a face; in the media everything is already a face. The result of course is that the gaze is no more, and when one Sunday evening we come across Mastroianni and Perrin, it isn’t just their capacity to weep face on that knocks us out, but the capacity of their back to envisage the worst. 
First published in Libération on 6 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Rossellini, Louis XIV, the first

There are times as rare as they are beautiful when you stop asking whether what you’re watching is TV or cinema, because it’s irrelevant. If television weren’t the mushy disaster to which we are all too well accustomed, it would more often accommodate images like those of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) and everybody would be happy. What’s most extraordinary is not that Rossellini’s TV film should be regarded as a great film and a great moment in French television history, what’s most extraordinary is that Rossellini’s lesson has been neither replayed nor understood, nor studied in the slightest. For like everything presented with an elegance that seems totally natural, The Taking of Power rests on certain iron rules. 
Let’s take a scene at random. The deer-hunting scene with the young King and his court, dogs on the scent of an animal, a few bits of landscape and bushes. Let’s take one shot from this scene – the zoom on the dogs furiously swimming behind their prey – and ask a simple question: why is there such emotion and intensity in this zoom shot? Let us make the question the more emphatic given that the scene then diverges, abandoning the hunt and following the King who goes off to shag Madame de La Vallière in the undergrowth before the eyes of the chattering court. Why is it that from then on, we have the feeling that prior to this scene no dogs had ever yelped, swum or hunted? 
Perhaps the answer is this. It is by force of contagion, or through training, that these dogs have the appearance of being the first hunting dogs in the history of humanity. It is because (almost) all the other events narrated in the film are filmed like events, as if taking place for the first time. What makes Rossellini stand out (or Renoir with La Marseillaise) from other TV evocations of costumed History is that he’s only interested in those past events which their protagonists immediately perceived as events which shook them up. Rossellini and Gruault focus their attention on the way Louis XIV reinvents the rules for the exercise of power. They show the upset Queen mother, Fouquet arrested and the court stunned, ordered to silence and dress-up. They show all this as if it were a putsch and because of this, we get the sense of a last-minute glimpse of what daily life was like at the French court just before the putsch. Cinema is an art that always fails in reconstructing the past, but what it can do is seize the moment when something is passing
This is why Rossellini has always been interested in heroes. Not in the cretinous sense of the ‘superman’, but of in the sense that things will never be the same after them. In the didactic telefilms of his last period, the hero is the one who resets the pendulum from scratch, or initiates some founding gesture, or thinks some unprecedented thought*. The cinema, the art of the present, exists to play its part, that of recording a zero point of departure and simultaneously recording the enchanted or defeated attitudes of the period’s witnesses. The secular panoply of Rossellini’s heroes goes by way of Jesus, St Augustin, Descartes, Cosimo di Medici, Alberti, Pascal, Socrates, Marx and Louis XIV: all-or-nothing figures. ‘That’s something I feel is very important,’ R.R. affirmed. ‘As far as I’m concerned, you have to take risks all the time. Put in another way, never be bored.’ The fact is that for a gambler, it’s always the first time. 
‘I have often observed,’ remarks the young Louis XIV (the amazing Jean-Marie Patte), ‘that my first thought was the right one.’ Every action in the film, following the immutable moment of Mazarin’s death, is a ‘first’. The first roaming King’s councils, the first time Louis puts the Queen mother back in her place, the first time Colbert spells out his programme and above all a first in fashion, with the King as a guinea pig setting an example that brings about an abrupt transition from the hardly austere fashions of the Fronde to the furbelowed follies of a Court fettered to Versailles and ruined with ribbons. 
In these conditions does it matter whether the actors are relatively good or their acting wooden? Do the usual drawbacks of the costume drama matter? From the moment when Rossellini had the intelligence to narrate how, from one day to the next, there were men who neither knew where to put themselves nor what to put on, the subject and the medium are a perfect match for one another.  
That’s how even dogs enter history. 

* There is at least one limit to the Rossellini system: he’s obliged to only select first grade inventors, prophets or thinkers as heroes, because only them have created in their lifetime a feeling of a break with their contemporaries. Deep down, disdainful of both blind romanticism and cunning subconscious, Rossellini acts as if information had always circulated in a way that the great historical turns were accessible to the actors of History. For a film maker who had started by showing ordinary individuals caught in ignorance, it’s such a radical change that one could wonder if, pursuing this new stand headlong, Rossellini had not created another dogmatism.

First published in Libération on 5 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Leone at war

If, like perception, a film is a pausible hallucination, some films really are hallucinations. They persist as an image, a single image. Or a theme tune composed by Morricone. Everybody has seen them, believe they’ve seen them or believe that everybody had seen them. They’re no longer distinguished from the impact they had, the landscape they’ve opened up or the clones that have followed them. So much so that when we come across them on the small screen we are staggered to find again that state of freshness they – and we too – had at their birth. This is the case for instance with Sergio Leone’s first three westerns (called ‘spaghetti westerns’ no doubt because one hundred per cent durum wheat is probably the stuff good humanists are made of, including their director) and with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which Channel 3 showed on Monday evening. 
The film starts with what in the end was left of it, with that exhibitionism that makes entrances into shot and into the action comparable (this has been observed so often that it’s a cliché) to the great arias of verismo opera. Three actors who belong to three worlds of the cinema (Wallach comes largely from working with Kazan, Van Cleef was Ford’s second string and Eastwood isn’t Eastwood yet) indulge in three jubilatory recitatives and slowly prepare to argue about a lost haul of $200,000. Everything is enacted through their eyes (rather than their acting), eyes that are there more to be seen than to see. Whether widened, narrowed or mean, these organs of sight do not prevent their owners from missing the only reality of the time: the Civil War. 
For this is where the TV re-viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns out to be a fascinating experience. The real film does not resemble the memory it left behind. There aren’t three but four characters, and where it takes forty minutes to introduce the first three, it takes even longer to allow the fourth – the war – to creep into the picture and carry more and more weight. So much so that between the moment when we learn that the booty is buried in Sad Hill cemetery and the moment when we finally reach it, the word cemetery (and its image) has changed meaning. It’s the film that undertook to remind us that in a cemetery there are more corpses of dead soldiers than buried treasures. How subtle is Leone’s didacticism; there’s no mention of a war, it’s encountered during the film and suddenly you realise it’s been there for a long time and is horrifying. 
What’s beautiful and makes this a great film about War in general is that Sergio Leone isn’t mixing genres. Either out of artistic honesty or out of a prescient intuition of what awaits the cinema. He offers a new way of showing bodies floating in dust coats and figures adrift in the desert of a landscape too vast for them. Tautological figures, disconnected from virtually everything, their only know-how being a touch of cunning and a lot of style when it comes to handling objects. Faces that advertising, fashion and music videos have looked at a lot thereafter. At the same time, once the screen fills up and the war crams it with little flesh and blood soldiers, Leone films differently. In wide shot, with the greatest reserve and a respect for distances and characters that can only remind us of that other great sentimentalist who had little time for photogenic slaughter: John Ford. Precisely as if Leone were prolonging Ford’s legacy for a few years while simultaneously showing the new landscape, the one coming after and altogether of a different order
It can happen (though this is a defect) that a film contains several films. It is rare that a film is located precisely at the crossroad between a classical art whose secret will soon be lost and baroque proposals whose recipes will be a huge hit. It is rare that a director is honest (or schizoid?) enough to simply juxtapose, without any possible reconciliation, what is no longer quite compatible. It is even rarer that instead of suffering from this split, his talent thrives on it. It is later perhaps that the Leone of Once Upon A Time in America will suffer, when he will want to restore the classicism at the heart of a cinema that will by then have absorbed Leone’s mannerism beyond recognition. In 1966, it is different. Sergio Leone is both ahead of everyone and late behind everyone, he is therefore on time. 
First published in Libération on 1 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The essential Buñuel

Buñuel’s films are like Buñuel, who is unlike anything. Buñuel didn’t impose his stamp on the different systems of film production he passed through, instead he highlighted what was Buñuelesque in each of these successive systems. What is Buñuelesque of course is that the obscure parade of objects neither initiates nor exhausts desire and that there is a fundamental asymmetry between men’s desires and women’s (the former is a puppet and the latter is double and, in That Obscure Object of Desire, quadruple). But what is Buñuelesque in the end is that things are sufficiently complex (and funny) in themselves to avoid the need to further complicate them. Whatever is given at the outset, Buñuel strips it to the bones of its internal logic. This is why his last films are so enigmatic: this is indeed bourgeois middlebrow French cinema, the ironic no-frills X-ray of a doomed genre to which the old master has given, in extremis, extreme unction.  
Like all films where nothing exists but the logical sequence of situations, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) transfers very well to television. Nothing distracts from the essential, since only the essential is left. To the point where you suddenly have that obscure desire to make a list of all the objects Buñuel has dispensed with. What you then get is a strange picture in the negative of everything that usually encumbers our perception (wrongly held as ‘natural’) of the cinema. 
Music, of course. No music in Buñuel. No need for music. A need, conversely, for very precise sound effects (which he usually does himself). It is the heady sound, the even rhythm of a continuous dream with no little music hinting that it may become nightmare or comedy. The Buñuelesque dream is not the dream of the bear cub in The bear, it has the exaggerated clarity of a (shred of) dream that we talk about because we can remember it. And this dream is talked about because there is nothing in Buñuel that does not happen between human beings. 
Music would be wrong for another reason. It would create what the director – this is Buñuel’s ethic – refuses more than anything: complicity, connivance between the audience and the film. It’s a matter of understanding (and laughing) not judging. Never does a scene really begin until there are at least two characters on the screen; it is between them, and them alone, that it takes place. Buñuel, the last great director of the unconscious drive and of the social, has no business with the solitude of this or that individual. With him you’ll never see any of that facile stagey business where at the end of a scene the camera seizes on the pout or the grin of a character that remains alone. Martin, Don Mateo’s servant, supplies a very funny example of this: he would like to comment on the action, put in his pennyworth, in short represent the spectator (and good sense) in this story which he witnesses in silence though not without reflection. Twice he even interferes (each time muttering misogynistic aphorisms). Twice he is drily called to order. ‘No comment’ (musical or otherwise) could be the film’s watchword. 
If we were to continue this little game of spotting, by their absence, the easy things Buñuel denies himself, we’d also be talking about shot-counter-shots or subjective shots. There aren’t many. As if the eternal intertwining of woman and puppet were the picture’s sole subject, the eternal subject and the only one worth anything. And as if, from the very fact of being eternal, this subject were no longer to be treated as a modulated sequence of rising and falling intensities but as an obsessive drifting that can only end – for the time being – for want of combatants. 
This is Buñuel’s last film. There’s a lot of talk about terrorism and even about an ARGIJ (Armed Revolutionary Group of the Infant Jesus) which would be no blot on the current landscape. Terror isn’t absent from the film; it is subtly displaced forwards in the brusqueness with which the camera endlessly nabs the characters at the point when they’re setting out on their endless encounters ‘with one another’. It is in the way the film ends, accidentally, because there must be an ending, in the public alleyway. It is with a smoke screen hiding the characters from us that Luis Buñuel closes what he had begun by slicing an eye. Like in the theatre. 
First published in Libération on 29 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Clair, grandad of the music video

In the small room of the hero, a wall. On the wall, a photo that is falling off. In the photo, a vamp who’s had her day. On the doorstep, the hero about to go out seeing that the photo has fallen yet again. On his face, boredom. On the pavement below, the real young woman who loves him. Beneath the rooftops of Paris, garlands that are pinned to the sets like captions to photos. And over Paris, the most poetic of objects: rain. It is the 13th of July, the eve of the 14th. 
If the picture wasn’t really grey and the lighting so meticulous, if the actors’ heads weren’t cut off halfway, if the sound wasn’t typical of the early talkies, in short if the film hadn’t long been classified in the category of ‘classic cinema’, one may well hesitate. For what is Quatorze Juillet (1933) really about? It’s certainly not a great film, not even René Clair at his best (that’s Paris qui dort), quite simply an excuse for Maurice Jaubert (music), Lazare Meerson (sets) and Georges Perinal (director of photography) to exercise their huge talents - thanks to a nothing script and a vacuous subject. On a recent re-viewing, Beauté du diable wavered between pre-TV mini-drama and the aesthetic of the trailer. René Clair was a director so enamoured of shortcuts that anything that lasted was hell for him. Thirteen years earlier, emerging from the art of silent films and the Twenties avant-garde, Quatorze Juillet, shot at Epinay for Henckel and the German-owned Tobis, is not so much a film of cinema as – yes, blasphemy! – an ancestor of the music video. 
There’s no lack of common features. In both music videos and René Clair’s films there’s never enough time for any kind of build-up. The poetry lies not in the exploration of what is in front of the camera but in the rapid procession of objects – ‘captions without words’ – that are already ‘poetic’. Only one thing ever happens at any time, as dry and ephemeral as a promise already forgotten. Nothing is intimately connected with either the actor or the character, but everything depends on a kind of collective poetic capacity embodied in the sets (Clair) or in the movie quotations (the music video). Love is an abundance of kissing couples. Boredom is an abundance of yawning extras. Paris is an abundance of taxi drivers with simultaneously abundant witty chat. 
It’s this reduced appetite for singularity* which makes René Clair a director so notably dated. Though a critic of mechanisation, he went no further than a conception of poetry that was itself mechanical, closed off to anything that is not already coded by folklore, blind to anything that goes beyond puppetry with the actors. This is why we feel embarrassed for those who, in all seriousness, weigh up the respective merits of Clair and Renoir. Of the latter, everything remains. Of the former, nothing would be left if it weren’t possible - through a spiralling, rhyming effect due to History – to see in him one of the ancestors of the modern music video.  
So it is Jaubert’s music, Perinal’s images and Meerson’s sets that are the real trumps of the film (to which should be added the very modern acting of the magnificent Annabella). These elements share a mission between the three of them: to make us forget that cinema is now the talkies and that, for Clair, it’s a disaster. Why? Because sound cinema created the problem of duration for directors. Recorded duration, no longer reconstructed, a disaster for those who – like the directors of music videos of today – worked by sequencing images rather than shots. Renoir or Grémillon fundamentally needed this ‘sound bath’, but not Clair. For this ‘bath’ was a step forward towards singularity – hence towards de-folklorisation – of people and groups. Dreadful. 
‘We can’t but shudder when we learn that certain American industrialists of the most dangerous sort see talking cinema as the spectacle of the future and that they are already at work to bring about this fearsome prophecy’, wrote the future auteur of Quatorze Juillet in 1927. Five years later, thanks to this bogus musical with just the right amount of noise in it, he managed not to shudder too much. Sixty years later the music video arrives to plug the same gap, but the other way around. Except that this time it’s as if it was sound cinema that was condemned, and that in the resulting aphasia, it was yet again towards music that we sought recourse. No longer to delay the appearance of speech but to cover it up. René Clair’s revenge in a way. 

* ‘Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such – this is the lover’s particular fetishism.’ This sentence by Giorgio Agamben (The Coming Community) is damning for René Clair’s entire filmography.  
First published in Libération on 28 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Mad Max, Opus 2

One of the drawbacks of watching films again on television is that, in their immense majority, they only belong to two categories: American cinema and French cinema*. Even if we accept that these two are – from the beginning – two real poles of the history of cinema, we must realise that everything that doesn’t come out of the Franco-American power struggle is doomed to a sad TV-oblivion. The idea of a prime time Soviet, Indian, or simply British film, is akin to Third-Worldism and to the fantasy of a retarded cinephile. In that way, television aggravates this desertification of the world, which happens to be – no surprise, it’s always been like this – one of the great themes of the contemporary non-American cinema. From La région centrale (Michael Snow, sublime) to Stalker (Tarkovsky, not bad) through to, why not, the Australian Mad Max 2 (1981).
One of the advantages of watching films again on television is that, in their immense majority, they’ve all been made ten years ago or so and it’s therefore possible to see all the points they already had in common at the time. That’s how we can already take enough stock to identify what makes Mad Max 2 a contemporaneous film to Diva. Where Beinnex was trying to film emotions stored in objects stacked up in loft-like studios or in clichés engraved in memories by advertising, George Miller filmed feelings stored in diverse objects generously offered to all possible destructions along the roads and deserts of Australia. 
In both cases, it’s the unfolding of the array of things, its sentimental exhibition or its murderous demonstration, that is essential to the film. Whether it’s behind closed doors or in open spaces, it’s all about the extensive use of a finite number of objects. As if, faced with the difficulty to invent stories and characters, one had drummed up the return of the accessories and props that have served the history of cinema, even if it means one last round of honour, for one’s pleasure (Spielberg will do the same with his toons). A few years before the first classics of ‘perfect void’ like The Bear, there were filmmakers who played for a while with this pleasant paradox: to film in the places that are both encumbered and deserted. Emptied and overpopulated. For example, the Australian desert. 
Mad Max 2 begins very well, with the voice over and the fake black and white archive from after the end of the world. But Mad Max 2 ends up rather flat, at the end of a pursuit where monotony takes over even pyrotechnics. In fact, the film begins where the documentary finishes and finishes where the myth should start over. It only exists for a short moment, between the trauma of the past and the utopia of the future. The myth is biblical, with a community under siege, united by the most precious good: oil. But oil is a metaphor for the human essence, eventually preferred to the folkloric barbarism of the tribes. Mad Max 2 still belongs to the films that play the human against the inhuman, meaning that they hold the human as a value and the inhuman as the spectacle. Max is the perfect fellow traveller for these new oil-thirsty Christians.
Caught between two poles, the film never ‘functions’ as well as when it settles (with humour) in a form of perversion: how this motley crew of good and evil characters, all individuals, abandons itself, with utmost fury, to the most banal violence, in an array of things unveiling simultaneously their inner workings and their strangeness. The binoculars co-exist with the spyglass, the crossbow with the flamethrower, the snake with a flying machine, the boomerang with the microphone. Nothing is more stimulating for the audience than the mandatory choice one must constantly make between the identification of a machine (what’s this?) and the spectacle of its efficiency (how does it work?). All anthropologists know this and George Miller’s fake anthropology is still, at the start of the eighties, one of the most inventive. The price to pay is that, after a while, this unbridled functionalism stops being surprising and ends up being rather tiresome. And it’s when tiredness has won (over Max and the audience) that the script brings the rabbit out of the hat: the morale of the story and the meaning of History. 

* It’s worse than that. No only non-French and non-American films are disappearing from television, but between ten and twenty years of the history of cinema are fading away from the conscience of the new cinephiles. I’m talking of the ‘new cinemas’ of the sixties and the seventies. It’s a fair bet to think that the first films made by Glauber Rocha, Tanner, Oshima, Skolimowski, Eustache, Ferreri, Kramer, Olmi, Bene, Passer, Perrault, Iosseliani, Fassbinder and others are unknown today. The author, upset, hopes this is just a purgatory. 
First published in Libération on 22 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, 2017.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Beineix, Opus 1

At the start of the eighties, an unknown director was redefining, in spectacular fashion, Good and Evil at the cinema. The audience, alone, loved Diva which the critics shunned*, merely reproaching Jean-Jacques Beineix for having indulged in a fussy exercise in ‘applied advertising’. Beineix is the last director about whom anything resembling an ‘aesthetic debate’ has taken place in France. After The Moon in the Gutter, in fact, people wearied of the Manichean opposition between the art of cinema and the advertising aesthetic. It’s not that they’ve been reconciled, but because, in the end, the ads have won. Hence the current desert (no more debate, no more criticism, just blah, blah, blah). 
The reason the debate folded was that the question wasn’t properly asked. For advertising is more than an ‘aesthetic’, it’s a way of being and perceiving, evaluating and judging, a view of the world in short. Diva’s success came from the fact that Beineix was the first to attempt to moralise the advertising heritage, by offering a new dividing line between the unsellable (the soul, creativity) and the pre-sold (objects, clichés). 
I can hear the most Nietzscheans among my readers getting impatient. What about Good and Evil in all this? Let’s start with Evil. There’s a very negative character in the film: one of the two killers working for the vile Saporta. An insalubrious little thug thoroughly deserving to end up dead in a lift cage, not so much because he loves nobody but because he loves nothing. ‘I don’t like Beethoven’, ‘I don’t like parking lots’, ‘I don’t like lifts’. To dislike any object or decor to that extent, that’s Evil. 
As far as Good is concerned, besides the young music-loving post office worker, there’s the strange deus ex machina played by Bohringer. If he unravels all the plot threads and makes the happy ending possible, it’s because he represents the consciousness and masterly incarnation of objects and sets. The man who has turned his loft into a masterpiece and who can theorise about caviar and butter toasts can only be on the side of Good. There’s no need to know more about this character. The camera only needs to move discreetly around him to give us a guided tour of his personalised museum. Each of us, perhaps, should live in a personalised museum where every object would have its private and public space. Could that be Beineix’s lesson? 
The best proof of this is given near the end of the film in the episode of the white Traction Avant that is put at the disposal of the vile Saporta, and seems tele-guided by Bohringer’s voice. It’s quite a funny moment when all the plot threads come together thanks to this ideal object which was in the hands of the cops and the villains before passing into the hands of the museum curators: a Traction Avant. What irony of this voice simultaneously mimicking advertising, guided tour and clichés; the Traction Avant as an indestructible object which will explode and will immediately be replaced by another one. As the little Vietnamese girl says at the start of the film: ‘You wouldn’t think a Rolls can have an accident!’. Objects like this are the soul of the world. 
So there was a moment in recent cinema - exemplified by Diva - where there began to be more stories and desires crammed into sets and objects than into characters. A moment when everyone wanted to go back the studio. Not to build another street but to discover that the word ‘studio’ now had two meanings: the place where you film (to make ‘true artifice’) and the place where you look at yourself living (in the midst of ‘artificial truth’). 
Seeing Diva again one Sunday morning on Canal Plus is of course a confirmation of just how much the film is in its element on television. Why? Because in 1980 Beineix had the very accurate intuition that one shouldn’t get all worked up about cast-iron screenplays, but instead had to compose, detail by detail, films that are little TV programme schedules unto themselves, disparate and customised for the era of random channel hopping. In the Diva index there are several sub-programmes: a thoroughly French but barely sketched thriller, a meditation on the artist and his audience, fillers, a documentary about Paris loft life, etc. Beineix was honest enough not to attempt to convey something between all these elements. Indeed, if there is something that advertising cannot film and whose very memory it has entirely lost, it is precisely what there is between people and things. 

* For all that, it isn’t easy for a director to be adopted by the public and not applauded by the critics. All criticism is good for now is to baptise this or that audio-visual product as a ‘film’. All it has left is this scant symbolic function. The dreary thing is that a director who has not had the ‘luck’ to be recognised (by those for whom, more often than not, he has no recognition, and sometimes wants to see skinned alive) may never get over it and things may turn sour. This happened with Jerry Lewis, who was forever scorned by American critics, or with Pagnol, Guitry or Lelouch. Often, these directors get canonised. They are forgiven for having been popularly successful in the first place, once the popularity is no longer there. Recently, the resentment has speeded up to the extent that it’s the cinema as a whole which can no longer allow itself to leave it to the fullness of time for justice to be done. Hence the pathetic Cesars, the expeditious self-acquittal of the ‘profession’ under the mocking and ecstatic eye of television. 
First published in Libération on 21 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.