Monday, April 21, 2014

Serge Le Péron on Star Wars (Cahiers N.283)

It's the year 1977 that is the real turning point in Cahiers' history where they shifted positions from a dogmatic Maoist one to a return to a more classic cinephilia that includes writing about more commercial American films. Antoine de Baecque in his history of the magazine points to Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana's editorial Les Cahiers aujourd'hui from March 1974 as the turning point and then consequently after to their writing on the Italian playwright Dario Fo and his theater collective La Commune. But it is in 1977 onwards where they return to writing about American films which had always been looked at as a potential ideal in film-art, whether to contrast with the flatness of a literary tradition in French cinema or in awestruck of the genius of its system. The historical debates of the post-war period regarding form and content that achieved such heated social and intellectual dimensions (cf. Bazin and Sadoul on Citizen Kane) were being renewed in the burgeoning era of the summer blockbuster. The following review by Serge Le Péron of Star Wars (which is coincidentally one of the first serious mentions of Steven Spielberg and his Jaws) illustrates this mixture of renewed attention, fascination and ambivalence.

Serge Toubiana further emphasizes this dichotomy of ambivalence and appreciation towards the Hollywood machine in his review of John Guillermin's remake of King Kong (where coincidentally Jaws is also brought up) in the January-February 1977 issue (N.273). In the review Toubiana discusses Baudrillard and issues around reproductions,
"The measure, in a way, of the growth in productivity of American capitalism, of the heightening that has tended to characterize the Hollywood imagination. Everything is bigger and more expensive, beginning with the beast itself - which also has to appear more often. Because of what it costs to make, and especially because it is a copy, the film carries within the conditions of its production the sign, the trace of capitalism's self-destructive urge: the imaginary is the product not of the finished work but of the conditions that attach to it; in other words, the neurosis and megalomania of Hollywood... Let us say that the first King Kong was immediately invested with a symbolic, primary reading, directly linked to the social conditions in which it was produced. The second version - or the third, if you take into account the famous advertisement for La Samaritaine which was important, crucially important, since it made King Kong a commercial commodity - is made in circumstances where the producers' only motive is to challenge the success of other disaster movies, like Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno and, of course, Jaws... Perhaps it is because Jessica Lange is a star such as Hollywood doesn't make any more; perhaps also because the monster does not exist, it's just an imaginative construction of the Hollywood machine. The monster is not really a monster at all but a pretend monster. This means that King Kong is completely different from Jaws, a film based on a paranoiac construction. Nothing about the Other is aggressive or dangerous. On the contrary. It's only because Capital is always and for ever seeking to reproduce itself (a double metaphor pointing to disaster movies once again) that the Other is forced to intervene in the human world. In Guillermin's version, the adventurers go looking for oil, a primary resource, only to find the ape, the primate: a pure permutation of signs on the basis of the same: black gold/black beast."

Star Wars (Cahiers, December 1977, N.283) w/ Critique by Serge Le Péron, L'Amérique sans peur et sans reproche. (Translated by Chris Darke in Cahiers du Cinéma 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle)

In pursuing the implications of the exceptional success of Star Wars and its huge appeal to filmgoers of all kinds, one ought not to lay too much stress on the film's status as 'science fiction'. For a long time science fiction has been the generic repository of fear, madness, disaster, paranoia, of the speed-freaks and depressives. All are absent from Star Wars, in the genre's finest authors (Dick, Ballard), the future is only secondarily the place of adventure and escape, distraction and entertainment; the genre's best films (2001 for example, but also Lucas's very interesting THX 1138) do not particularly offer themselves as 'modern fairy tales'. It's pointless to labour this.

Star Wars would rather be 'a romantic, confident, a positive vision', atemporal, universal and of course unanimist - but a new kind of unanimism, one no longer concerned with some or other strategy of tension, no longer that of a necessary common front against an enemy with and/or without (disaster films like Jaws), but one which derives from a freely felt consensus, being dictated neither by the law of necessity, nor by a pronounced imperative or any kind of reason, without shock, jolts, fear or surprise but with pleasure and confidence. The encounter with science fiction in Star Wars, the fact that the action takes place in a science-fiction universe, doubtless permits such confidence to be retrieved and projected towards the future, a future offering immediate ideological benefit. But above all, the reference to science fiction has the immense advantage of allowing the creation of a fluid fictional space, without apparent anchorage, one that enfolds and solicits: something like the pacific and pacifying American Mother who gathers to her bosom, with all the soft technological refinements that are hers, all that the bellicose uncle (a certain Unde Sam), because of the brutalities of his war machinery, had excluded. Young people, the hippies, counter-cultural figures were basically rejecting this childish make-believe. Now we are witnessing the full-scale return to the territorial waters of former years, to a floating mass with fluid contours, without frontiers; it's no longer 'to hell with frontiers'. Everyone is invited to play as before with what Welles called 'the biggest electric train set in the world' - the cinema, Hollywood - as a family (like on television), under the calm, honest eye of a mother ever-vigilant over morality (the moral). The America of President Carter? But in such a film it is also capital that talks.

Lucas comes from the ranks of those we used, some time ago, to call nostalgics, pessimists, depressives, and we now know that they were right to be so. lt is also men like him who find themselves now entrusted with gigantic projects (like Star Wars) in the general fight against depression, and they certainly do this with the same eagerness with which they struggled against repression in the previous decade. There has been a sea-change (if not a change of base) in America. This is a period less of rebellion against the symbols of repression, more of a determined recharging of flat batteries - through the artificial injection of a lost imagination. The question is: what imagination? It is no easy matter to rediscover it. For a film-maker like Lucas, barely thirty years old and finding himself of the post-Westerns generation, the solution resides in a return to childhood; more precisely, in a return to the conditions of his childhood and the cinema of easy-going adventure movies in which he was cradled. Because of the lack of the 'positive' in the available contemporary imagination (above all in science fiction), the solution is seen to lie in a synthesis of old forms. The problem, therefore, is technical; it is enough to return to the terms and themes of this cinema (those in fact brought out by film studies) and make them more sophisticated, dress them up in special effects, present them as signs to be recognized, decoded. 'Heroes as independent as they are enterprising, irredeemably evil bad guys', 'the triumph of good over evil', etc.

From this point it is a matter of making the screenplay scientifically conform to this programme, following the computer logic which translates its question-signs into response-signs. Equally, story, characters, actors don't in themselves have great importance: they are there simply to attest to the intentions of the screenplay, they are the supports of these intentions. This is what gives the film its coldness (not an aggressively dry coldness; the film is more cool than cold) and the feeling that everything is already played out in advance (in contrast to the adventure films already referred to) and that the events are only detours in a standardized plot. You very quickly get the impression of a con- stant interchangeability (as with those standard parts of a machine which can be replaced by an identical part), and it is soon impossible to see Princess Leia Organa as anything other than 'the impeccably brave heroine' of the advance publicity, or to nod knowingly when the cliches of the Western crop up in the scene in the city of Mos Eisley, or to do more then see Peter Cushing as the sign of absolute evil because of his numerous shady dealings with Dracula and Frankenstein. A reading without risks that rapidly becomes monotonous (one could also see the wheels turning in Jaws, but there were nevertheless a few moments when the film carried the audience with it, a few troubling passages).

And the whole thing (the vast apparatus of Production-Direction-Distribution), whilst functioning admirably (in the packed cinemas at the end of the film we applaud the heroes when they enter the royal hall on the planet Yavin, at the same time as the enthusiastic crowd on the screen), leaves the lover of fiction hungry for more; but logically so, for the fiction of Star Wars functions like nothing so much as a user-friendly computer in perfect working order.

One way or another, fiction requires passion; there is no great fiction without great passion and no great film without there being a great love story behind it. This is what differentiates the cinema from other media such as the comic strip, which gets by very well without it, or television, which serves here as the model of cinema (and perhaps is the key to its success). Like Inspector Kojak in the American television series, the heroes of Star Wars are not impassioned types; they act intuitively and are utterly disengaged. The passions that they come up against are fleeting and comprehensive, and without consequence. Rivals co-exist, calmly: an unthinkable state of affairs in the old adventure films where the rule was, in the Gresham's Law of Hollywood fiction, that the hero chased the other man. In the fiction of Star Wars one finds the binary system which is the working practice of capitalism today: two heroes, virtually equivalent (and in the princess's heart, as strictly equivalent as the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the heart of New York), and incredibly, deliberately desexualized.

The fictional system of Star Wars echoes the intense participation and great lethargy, deep involvement and great indifference that belong to the consumption of television. Where it all happens or in what historical period is immaterial; as is whether the young protagonists love one another or not (and whether the princess loves either of them); sex has no importance, nor does violence; nor even the dedicated totalitarianism of the 'Empire' (its nature, and what is implied by that); nor the death of Ben Kenobi (the old patriarch played by Alec Guinness). Everything is and is intended to be deliberately abstract, presenting itself as principle, postulate and conventional indicator and never the motor, dynamic force or launching pad of fiction.

Star Wars therefore breaks with the cinematic mania that in recent years has pushed films beyond any previously conceivable limits, towards extreme violence, hard pornography, disaster movies; the mania for bringing everything into the open in order to provoke a strong emotional response and a bellicose unanimism. In Star Wars a heterogeneity is admissible, all alterities and differences can be present, functioning in perfect narrative harmony, provided that all this takes place in the absence of sex. So the problem is resolved at its very root, if one can put it like that: no more sex, violence, passion, or even fiction, only cohabitation, intrigue, aloofness (such is the fate of these aloof heroes). Finish with sex and you finish with the risks of conflict, violent emotions, the force of fiction. No matter, the 'force' is elsewhere, as the film's poster ('May the Force be with you') puts it.

It is the quiet force of capital that has produced the film with remarkable economy; one precisely matched in the shooting and the special effects, in line with the film's ambition and budget. It is a knowing film that renews the Hollywood spirit of wanting films to be in some way edifying; here, in what replaces fiction, is the film's whole concept.

This approach is one that has nothing in common with Kubrick in Barry Lyndon where, for the battle scenes, he used long lenses to film thousands of extras as if he had only thirty, in story terms a pointless expense. Such is the twilight (noted by Oudart) of the Hollywood machine, clouded over by a crazy imagination which gives way to this calm and starry sky where technique triumphs over imagination; like all the rest, fed through the synthesizer. The Story of the film's production would constitute a real science-fiction subject that would make one shudder.

Serge Le Péron

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