Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Michel Ciment on Andrew Sarris

"It amuses me to tell this story, because years later, at the Cannes festival in 1973, after the projection of Jerry Schatzber's Scarecrow, the American critics didn't like the film at all, and in particular one of its biggest authorities, Andrew Sarris, who violently attacked me: "But you seriously like this film?! That's normal because you don't get what is America. You don't know the country, so you can't judge it." He even told me the expression: "You miss the nuance of the English language." And I responded to him: "In that case, how can you be the great American specialist on the Nouvelle Vauge if you do not speak French? While I on the other hand regularly speak in English. You live on Park Avenue in a really nice building. I think that I know a lot better the deep American of Scarecrow than you. Have you slept in a Salvation Army to cheaply spend the night in Nebraska? Have you been in a Greyhound station to wait for the first bus, sleeping for five hours in its waiting area? Have you been in poor hotels à la Faulker, being scared at night because the door to the room didn't lock? I lived through that. And for that I know a lot better than you the lives of Max and Leo." - Michel Ciment (Le Cinéma en Partage)

Monday, October 27, 2014

L’école Truffaut

In the new issue of Cahiers (N.704) there is a good dossier on Truffaut to coincide with the Toubiana cinémathèque exhibition. In it Stéphane Delorme highlights one of Truffaut’s paradoxes, “it is this polemist that theorizes in the most efficient way,” and how for Truffaut film-criticism as a concept is tool of combat. And this means, “Today, where the excessive protection of auteur cinema prevents critical thought, there needs to be a return to Truffaut’s critical standards, to get ready for tomorrow’s cinema. So one must always repeat: this isn’t enough.”

Truffaut’s writing, as characterized by his first text at Cahiers, Les extrême me touchent (N.21, March 1953), a review of David Miller’s Sudden Fear, is one of a restless energy and subjective response. In this first text, Truffaut lays out the arguments that he would bring to the magazine: a defense of American films over French ones, a preference for small B films over pretentious serious ones, compassion for outsiders, and a love of actresses.

It is also worth noting that Joan Crawford plays a key role in Sudden Fear and in Truffaut’s review of it just like she does in one of Steven Spielberg’s early television works Eyes from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Coincidence? – D.D.

I’m Affected by Extremes (Translation from The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut)

Sometimes they make films in the streets of Paris. A few extras [are there], more gapers, but no stars.
Concerned that you are not mistaken for one of the Béotians [people from the rue de la Béotie] who are hoping for the arrival of Suzy Carrier or Philippe Lemaire, you spot an assistant. You explain to him that you are not who he thinks you are. You directed a public debate at the Ciné-Club de Chamalières in Puy-de-Dôme on pure cinema before at least eighty people, and there is nothing you don’t know about the theme of failure in John Huston or about the misogyny of American cinema.
Supposing this first or second assistant hears you out, you ask him the ritual question, “What are filming?” To which he replies – what could he reply? – “We’re filming a linking shot.”
If Aurenche and Bost were adapting Le Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), they would cut sentences, even words: what would remain? A few thousand suspension points; that is rare angles, unusual lighting, cleverly centered. The notion of a shot in France has become concern for clothing, which means following fashion. Everything happens to the right and to the left, off the screen.
This preamble, in order to introduce a film is completely different. An American film. David Miller is the director of Sudden Fear. He made La Pêche au trésor [Love Happy (1950)] and Celle de nulle part [Our Very Own (1950)]. Before that he assisted in [the World War II Allied propaganda series] Why We Fight.
While respectable, nothing in his recent career led us to suspect that David Miller would give us the most brilliant “Hitchcock style” known in France.
Outside of two very short but fairly unpleasing sequences (a dream and a planning sequence in pictures), there is not a hot in this film that isn’t necessary to its dramatic progression. Not a shot, either, that isn’t fascinating and doesn’t make us think it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
If the audience laughs when it isn’t suitable to do so, I take that as a sign of daring, of finish. The public has lost the habit of intensity. Twenty years of adaptations that are guilty of excessive timidity have gotten the public accustomed to golden insignificance. Filming Balzac has become impossible. Put into pictures, Grandet’s deathbed agony reaching for the crucifix would cause gales of laughter in the same people who swoon with admiration when a legless cripple hurtles down a street at fifty kilometers an hour.
The “in” public, the public of the Ciné-Clubs, is hardly any different. Althoug they may allow Ladies of the Boies de Boulogne [1945] (no doubt because of Diderot and Cocteau), they are ready to burst out laughing at all of Abel Gance’s films. What Ciné-Club has shown Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night [1949] or Robert Wise’s Born to Kill [1947] – the most “Bressonian” of the American films?
As for the films, films of psychological anguish, laughter is a form of revenge of the spectator on the auteur of the story, which he is ashamed to have believed in. Yes, twenty years of fake great subjects, twenty years of Adorable Creatures, Return to Life, Don Camillo, and others like Minute of Truth have created this blasé public, whose sensibilities and judgment alike are alienated by the base and despicable “fear of being duped,” denounced by Radiguet.
No doubt it is this attitude of the public that has made Hitchcock pretend not to believe in the subjects he is dealing with by introducing into his films that element of humor –English, so they say – that is useless in my opinion, and Hitchcock’s detractors claim is the “tithe” through which the auteur of Strangers on a Train [1951] will be able to claim a right to purgatory of bad filmmakers of good will.
A weekly paper that no one is obliged to take seriously affirms that Joan Crawford herself financed Sudden Fear with half of her personal fortune: half a million dollars. No Matter.
The casting: it is permissible to have forgotten Crossfire [1947; Dir. Edward Dmytryk], but not a young blond woman who was better than an intelligent extra: as a prostitute, she danced in a courtyard. Even professional critics noticed the dancer; it was Gloria Grahame, whome we saw again in L’as du cinéma [Merton of the Movies (1947); Dir. Robert Alton] playing opposite Red Skelton.
Then Gloria Grahame became Mrs. Nicholas Ray and made In a Lonely Place [1950], with Humphrey Bogart as costar, under the direction of Nicholas Ray himself.
Gloria is no longer Mrs. Ray, as far as we know, and is filming in Germany under the direction of Kazan. We will see her again even sooner in Cecil B. DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth [1952].
 It seems that of all the American stars Gloria Grahame is the only one who is also a person. She keeps from one film to the next certain physical tics that are so many acting inventions and that can only be vainly expected from French actresses. Let’s be serious (we are required to, since a production hangs in the cinematographic balance); Edwige Feuillère, Madeleine Robinson, Danielle Delorme, Michèle Morgan, and Dany Robin opposite the [production] that proposes among a hundred others Lauren Bacall, Joan Bennett, Susan Hayward, Jennifer Jones, and Gloria Grahame? It took all the genius of Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau to make Mila Parely, Maria Casarès, Renée Devillers, and Edwige Feuillère appear to have any genius. From one film to the next, on the other hand, Gene Tierney, Joan Bennett, and Susan Hayward equal on the other hand, Gene Tierney, Joan Bennet, and Susan Hayward equal themselves. That and the bill for American cinema, often perfect right down to “Series Z” films, upset by hierarchy that could not be the same in our country where the only things that count are ambitious screenplays and the producer’s quote. In reality, there are no directors of actors in France, except those four names whose praises can never be sung enough: Renoir, Bresson, Leenhardt, and Cocteau. Gloria Grahame’s acting is all in correspondences between cheeks and looks. You can’t analyze it, but you can observe it. Let us make ours the definition  by Jean-Georges Auriol: “cinema is the art of doing pretty things to pretty women,” and let us wager that as he wrote that, he was thinking more of Jean Harlow than of Lisette Lanvin.
Jack Palance has been known to us since a good film of Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets [1950]. His character here is that of a young man with unusually fine physical qualities and who, by his exceptional charm, acquires the favors of women whose experience with men has made them less demanding and, at the same time, more so.
Joan Crawford? A question of taste. She takes her place in a category that I label rather crudely the “Raimu/Magnani tradition.” But if it’s really true that we owe the existence of this film to her…
Each follows his own path. The one that Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame have chosen will lead them to death.
Joan Crawford’s path is also the San Francisco street that seven years of American cinema from The Lady from Shanghai (1948; Dir. Orson Welles] to They Live by Night [1949; Dir. Nicholas Ray] have made familiar to us. An ingenious screenplay with a fine strictness, a set more than respectable, the face of Gloria Grahame and that street of Frisco whose slope is so steep, the prestige of a cinema that proves to us every week that it is the greatest in the world.”

François Truffaut

Eyes by Steven Spielberg

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Michel Ciment on his Career

"On a personal level, I really like the current team at Cahiers but I don't understand their editorial line. I don't want to simplify and say that the films they like are bad ones and that the ones Positif like are the good ones, but I really don't get their why they choose and reject certain ones. And by the way, on the subject of formal mastery, Positif stance for it is in opposition to a certain held belief that it is bad, which is shared by Le Monde, Inrocks, Libération and Cahiers. Mastery is currently viewed to be negative. While for me, mastery, is the basis of occidental art, which goes back to the antiquity, and I don't see why this would stop today."

Follow the link to read an amazing Les Inrocks interview with Michel Ciment :

Dispatch: War Photographs in Print, 1854 – 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Festival Report: Pordenone

I need to thank Moen Mohamed again for contributing this great festival report. - D.D.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, October 4 - 11, 2014
Pordenone, Italy

Have you ever been to a soirée and within minutes you knew you would want to stay for a long time?  That's how I felt after just a few hours about The Days of Silent Cinema (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) in Pordenone.  The cultural, artistic and historic significance of this unique festival has become apparent in the world of cinema.  Though similar in theme to Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, it is quite different.  One is reminded that there is a treasure chest of silent films that rarely gets to be opened.  There is hardly a platform anywhere that showcases these films with the length and breadth of the programming as in Pordenone.  Without having any knowledge of the town or doing any research, I was expecting Pordenone to be small and quaint, which is why its modernity took me quite by surprise.  With its fashion shops, chic restaurants and cafés, it clearly wasn't what I expected.  But like many places in Italy, the people in Pordenone are courteous and warm to visitors, particularly those in attendance to the Giornate, as it is called by the festival regulars and organizers.  Upon arrival, the staff at the guest office greeted me with such smiles and warmth as if I had been attending for years. 

Highly organized and well-run, the festival's screenings are centralized in one location in the middle of the town's main square.  A superb venue indeed is the Teatro Verdi, with its large auditorium plus three balconies.  The soft red velvet seats are fashionably suited to the hardwood floors that run throughout the entire building.  Not to mention the very large screen that works beautifully for all variations of the 1.33 aspect ratio.  No complaints about that screen, it is perfect.  Upon arrival, I was presented with my accreditation which costs a paltry 65 Euros, plus the programme book and a warm welcoming letter from the president and director of the festival.  In addition to the letter, there was supplementary information of every kind that one may need:  supermarket, post-office, pharmacy, emergency etc.  The welcoming letter ends with a most original and amusing wish:  "We want to see you tired, but happy."  There is a welcome and a farewell cocktail party for all pass holders.  Every film is subtitled in English.  What can you say about a festival that flashes a sign on the screen just as the film is about to start that says, "Did you turn off your mobile phone?"

Being a festival of days past and nostalgia, the first dedication upon the screen for my first evening screening was to Peter von Bagh, the artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, who recently passed away.  This 33rd edition of the festival was dedicated to him.  Peter's demise has left a vacuum in the world of the studies on classic cinema.  He will always be remembered and missed.  The thunderous applause that greeted this nightly dedication on the screen was so heartfelt and sincere, that I am reminded each day of Bologna's brilliant programming and Peter von Bagh's tradition of excellence.

Like Bologna, the Pordenone audience comprise of archivists, professors, academics, curators and programmers.  It seems everyone either works or studies within the realm of silent/classic cinema.  A Cinema Studies professor from Wisconsin sitting next to me for a film was surprised when I told her I was on vacation and wasn't "working in attendance" at the festival.  She was even more surprised when she found out what my job was.  Snippets of conversation overheard during the festival contain words like, "nitrate print", "inter-negative", "lost print", "Eastman House", "recently rediscovered".  Announced at this year's festival by a representative from the George Eastman house, is a new film festival to be unveiled in May 2015 called The Nitrate Picture Show.  That will be a trip worth taking to Rochester, New York.  

The films may be the central attraction, but without a doubt, the star of the festival is the music.  These stars are world-renowned musicians who are invited each year to treat the audience to their talent.  Films are not just accompanied with piano solos, but artists playing a variety of instruments are engaged during a single screening for maximum musical serenade.  One of the traditions of the festival is working with Pordenone school children who are still in training as they hone their musical skills.  A rapturous evening it was when about 40 children played a full orchestra and then some, to a series of Chaplin short films.  Another very special event was a live performance of a Japanese Benshi artist who narrated Hot-Tempered Yasubei (1928), with such vigour and skill, not to mention perfect comedic timing.  It was unlike anything I have ever experienced in terms of unique screenings.

Here are my favourites, in order of preference:

35mm | Harald Schwenzen | Norway | 1922 | 107 min | Programme: Rediscoveries
Due to time restraints, I was not able to read anything on any of the films, so I saw all of them blindly.  Pan is the first and only film directed by Harald Schwenzen.  It tells the story of a man who lives almost hermetically in the woods, but not far from the town.  He desperately wants to fall in love even if it means fitting in with societal masquerades.  Unfortunately, he falls for the charms of a woman who plays with him and toys with his emotions.  At times, it becomes almost unbearable to watch.  She insults him and he stays away.  She goes back to him and declares her love then plays the same game over and over.  But is it really a game?  There is one moment of deadpan comedy where she drives him to jealousy on a boat.  He throws one of her shoes into the river.  Later he recovers it and gives it to her saying, "I am sorry I threw your shoe into the river."  She dryly responds, "Yes, that was a weird thing to do," and promptly walks away.  The last third of the film takes a very different turn and is evocative of Miguel Gomes' Tabu.  It is narrated by a friend of the man, who has since left the woman, his home and country.  He and a friend have travelled to Algeria where a different story plays out between the two friends that is evocative of the man's previous history coming back to haunt his current environment.  Pan was appropriately and perfectly programmed in the Rediscoveries section.  Nature in all its Norwegian glory is perfectly blended with the narrative as it highlights the sea, mountains, lakes, forests in all their panoramic beauty.

35mm | Mauritz Stiller | Sweden | 1919 | 109 min | Programme: The Canon Revisited
Three Scottish soldiers, almost dying from starvation but drunk from over-imbibing, embark on a night of mayhem and murder, killing a lord, Sir Arne and his entire family on a small Swedish island.  Their intent was to steal the much rumoured treasure of money that Sir Arne may have hoarded and accumulated by questionable means.  All in the household are killed except one daughter who is consumed with guilt of having survived the ordeal.  The killers all but vanish into the Swedish winter and this chilling landscape consumes each frame and every second of the film with an ice-cold grip.  God's hand and his retribution for evil-doers are very much in the mind of the director.  The winter has frozen every route out from the island, thus trapping everyone.  The murderers, if still alive, would also be trapped.  Guilt and vengeance play out like the best of Shakespeare's tragedies.  

35mm | G. W. Pabst | Germany | 1927 | 92 min | Programme: The Canon Revisited
Pabst creates a tense work of art that is all at once a thriller, melodrama, adventure, political drama and romance - all done in deep shades of noir with areas of grey.  Jeanne escapes Crimea where the Reds and the Whites continue to fight.  After her father is killed by the Bolsheviks, she leaves for Paris to live with her miserly uncle and his blind daughter.  Her lover also comes in search of her from Crimea.  She is reunited with him, but soon their happiness is threatened by a swindler who knew Jeanne and her father in Crimea and is now in Paris, courting the blind daughter of Jeanne's uncle.  Sounds complicated, and so it is, but also purely Hitchcockian.  Along with her mesmerizing performance in Metropolis, Brigitte Helm steals every scene as the blind girl.  There is something so purely cinematic about her face even as she is just staring blankly into space, you know she is not.  One of the most memorable sequence features the miserly uncle who is awaiting a large payment for one a stolen diamond.  He practises as if he is receiving the money (thin air), placing it on his desk, licking his fingers, counting each bundle and placing each imaginary bundle in his safe, which is his only love.  He does this with eyes bulging, perspiration dripping and tongue hanging.  It is a frightening and superbly edited sequence.

35mm | Yakov Protazanov | USSR | 1930 | 84 min | Programme: Yakov Protazanov
Never before has the holy church or religion been skewered with such precision and cynicism.  Well, at least not back in 1930.   Yakov Protazanov's incendiary film attacks organized religion with such a rapacious yet delicate touch, even religious cinephiles will forgive it for what they may deem as "blasphemously insulting".  How this was made and released 84 years ago is in itself be a miracle!  It opens with a gentle-faced, long-haired shepherd with a graceful face.  He is being crucified when an angel appears and he helps him during the ascension.  Suddenly the film and projection stops and we realise we are watching the rushes of a film based on the life of Saint Yorgen (whose life is not different from that of Jesus Christ).  A group of priests are previewing the film which they have financed.  There is the scene when Yorgen walks on water before a group of fishermen.  The plank on which he walks is quite visible.  Yorgen walks but starts gesturing wildly at a group of vacationers whose boat has gotten into the frame.  At the end of the screening, the priests tell the director, "Less psychology and more miracles!"  At a breakneck pace, we encounter the business of religion with church-manufactured items for sale, in particular Yorgen's tears and his hair.  We see the counting of donations and the handing over of the cash to the banks that sponsor the annual Yorgen event, which features a beauty pageant with a holy touch as the annual Bride of Yorgen is chosen.  The winner of this pageant and her family wins 100,000 gold rubles.  Needless to say, the bishop's daughter wins.  In the midst of this confusion, two criminals are surveying the profitable business of the church,  and one of them remarks, "This is how you make money without knowing how to pick a lock!"  

35mm | Fritz Lang | Germany | 1924 | 293 min | Programme: The Canon Revisited
I was completely unprepared for this 5-hour masterwork by the great Fritz Lang.  What begins as a pulsating, mythical adventure soon becomes darkly tragic with overtones of Macbeth (well, Lady Macbeth to be precise) and other Shakespearean tragedies.  Siegfried is granted immortality when he slays a dragon, but is vulnerable in one part of his body.  After winning the deadly queen Brunhild for the king, his death is desired by the queen.  Trust leads to treachery, which leads to murder and this leads to vengeance.  Thus, an all-out war ensues within a family.  Meticulously designed and expertly directly by Lang, it is easy to see how influential these early films of his are.  The burning of the castle in Kurosawa's Ran seems to be an exact replica of the one done by Lang 60 years earlier in this film.  Even the shape of the castle looks the same.  The beautiful 35mm print was rich and sumptuous.

35mm | Yakov Protazanov | USSR | 1928 | 75 min | Programme: Yakov Protazanov
An absolutely delightful social satire.  Pelageya is an old woman from the countryside, illiterate and simple.  She farms her land with her husband.  One day, she crosses the railroad, is accosted and brought before the courts by the priggish and self-important stationmaster, nicknamed Don Diego.  As she doesn't know how to read, Pelageya did not understand the warning sign.  She is sentenced to 3 months imprisonment.  The films of Yakov Protazanov are truly a discovery.  He knows how to create comical situations within a serious social context.  To Pelageya's aid come her neighbours and the local Komsomol.  They endure the quagmire that is Russian bureaucracy with all its injustices and irritations.

35mm | Harry Beaumont | USA | 1924 | 129 min | Programme: The Barrymores
John Barrymore gives one of his most accomplished and heartbreaking performances as the infamous London dandy who became friends with Prince of Wales, who uses Brummel well to his advantage.  The Prince, who later becomes King George, employs Brummel to act as the bait to build his personal gathering of the hip and socially ubiquitous.  Familiarity breeds contempt, so they say.  Kings are supposed to be respected and obeyed, but Brummel does not acquiesce.  His punishment is exile to France, without a penny.  How extraordinarily rich and powerful this film is.   It lightly begins as a royal romp replete with an obese and odious Prince and an arrogant Brummel, and quickly descends into a tug-o-war of shame, deceit, pride and the annihilation of a being.  Loneliness kills ever so slowly.  As with anyone who has ever experienced abject loneliness, the same it is with Brummel, as it eats away at his very existence.

35mm | James Young | USA | 1926 | 64 min | Programme: The Barrymores
The Alsatian winter setting provides the backdrop for a tale of murder and a guilty conscience.  A deeply indebted but good man is tested when presented with an opportunity to steal gold coins from a travelling merchant, who is introduced as a Polish Jew.  After the deed is done, the man is plagued by ghostly apparitions of the dead man as he shakes the bells of his horse, which was his last act before he died.  The bells signify a reckoning, a countdown, a celestial reminder of the heinous act that went without punishment.  They jingle ominously throughout the film.  The musician performing at the film brought similar bells which he rang simultaneously with the ringing in the film.  The effect was chilling.  Hilariously over-the-top with his facial expressions is Boris Karloff as the local mesmerist who is willing to make the murderer confess, if he gets the chance.  Lionel Barrymore's composed yet guilt-induced performance is one of his very best.  

35mm | Fred Niblo | USA | 1925 | 143 min | Programme: The Dawn of Technicolor
I have no idea what critics think about this film or how it was compared to the wildly successful William Wyler's version.  Needless to say, I am sure the Wyler's version is more appreciated and beloved for obvious reasons.  For me, this was a film way before its time, superbly made by a director I don't know anything about.  Much can be said about the scale of the film, the massive sets, the expert editing.  But it is a shame that the Wyler chariot race gets all the credit when the 11-minute heart-stopping chariot race in this silent version is just as thrilling and reckless, perhaps even more so, considering the lack of technology and any special cameras that preceded the 1959 version by 34 years.  Ramon Novarro is splendid as the Jewish Prince.  He is in almost every frame of the film.  It is mainly because of his compelling performance, Ben-Hur is not lost amidst the splendour of a big-budget extravaganza.  Novarro provides the much-needed heart and soul in this film, a typical substance that is usually lacking in such fare.  Scenes of the Christ were done without showing an actor playing Christ - just a silhouette or a light is shown or an illuminated hand.  This was done with grace and respect that it added to the serenity of these scenes which we have seen countless times in other films. 

35mm | John S. Robertson | USA | 1920 | 87 min | Programme: The Barrymores
I haven't seen any other versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale, but this silent version should certainly be among the best.  John Barrymore is riveting as the good doctor who is challenged by his colleague to question the notion of a full life.  If one only does good deeds and experiences only the decent things in life, then how can one claim to have a complete life's experience?  This sets the plot in motion and leads to the doctor's twisted transformation into his sadistic and brutal alter-ego.  With just simple make-up and body contortions, John Barrymore creates the good and evil facets of man's duality.  It is a shame this early silent version is not nearly as well-known as the others.

35mm | Yakov Protazanov | USSR | 1929 | 74 min | Programme: Yakov Protazanov
Another wonderful film by Yakov Protazanov based on short stories by Chekhov.  It chronicles how we behave within societal class structures and the human cost.  A girl of lower class is married to a much older but wealthy man.  She promises to help her poor father and brothers but her husband is stingy and treats her like a servant.  One day, he is invited to a ball hosted by very rich and important officials.  His wife accompanies him but makes a splash with her beauty.  Within a short time, all the men at the party are at her feet.  The tables have turned and with a renewed self-esteem, she now controls her house.  But will she help her family or even remember them?  The other story is a unique delight.  An ordinary man sneezes with the utmost liquidity at the back of the head of a high-ranking and powerful official at a performance of the Russian Ballet.  He is overcome with fear and guilt.  He apologizes but is ignored.  He tries again but is told to go away as the official doesn't care about man's apology.  The man is utterly torn apart and is consumed by his need to be forgiven, but most importantly, to be acknowledged that his apology is sincere.  Things go from worse to catastrophic when the man shows up at the official's workplace the next day, intent on having his apology acknowledged.

35mm | Kenneth Webb | USA | 1921 | 62 min | Programme: The Barrymores
Lionel Barrymore plays yet another anti-hero, in fact, this time he is downright rotten.  He plays a master forger whose employer uses Barrymore's forgery skills to his advantage in business.  When an act of a forged cheque places him in the hands of the underbelly of Wall Street miscreants, he is bound for twenty years to forging his way through life and eventually to a massive fortune.  He has no regrets as his life is one of luxury and pleasure.  But it is always in the matters of the heart that one stumbles.  He forges his way into the life of a young woman by imitating her handwriting and her fiancé's, writing break-up letters to both from the other.  He marries her and settles down.  But the past, even when written in someone else's handwriting, always comes back to haunt.

35mm | Albert Parker | USA | 1926 | 96 min | Programme: The Dawn of Technicolor
Well, a Douglas Fairbanks picture has finally won me over.  I was cheering along with the packed audience even before the film ended.  This early Technicolor extravaganza from 1926 is a lean, no-nonsense adventure on the seas without any clichés or silliness that one would find in films of this genre.  A merchant ship is attacked and the crew plus a princess are taken hostage for ransom.  What proceeds thereafter is a tense and exciting cat and mouse game played by the gallant pirate (who is really a Duke) and some malefactors on board, ready for some malfeasance.  And these men are really impatient as to who will get to sample the princess.

Moen Mohamed

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ciment & Godard Pt. II

Maybe one of the most influential and violent anti-Godardians, Michel Ciment’s rare interview with the director even expresses this barely concealed reticence and their mutually shared opposition (though this isn’t necessarily unique to Ciment, for Godard). Ciment consistently derides the accomplishments of the New Wave – eg. Auteurism and formal innovation existed long before them, with the holy trinity being Lumières-Delluc-Epstein (cf. the new Projection Privé on Jean Epstein) – and the French cinema during the 40s and 50s is judged to be their true Golden Age, which is also in opposition to the original Cahiers project. The following, from Film World: Interviews with Cinema’s Leading Directors and translated by Julie Rose (initially from Positif February 1999, n°456) is probably one of the best Godard interviews. I’m still trying to make sense of its conclusion… - D.D.
Meeting François Truffaut one day in 1958, I expressed my regret that Jean-Luc Godard, in his essay on Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory published in the Cahiers du Cinéma, hardly bothered talking about the actual film. He said I was wrong, for Godard was, in his view, the most gifted of them all. Truffaut was right. Along with Eric Rohmer, Godard was to build the faithful to a certain financial marginality and to a new aesthetic they have stuck to come hell or high water. When I joined Positif in 1963, it was still a Mecca, with Robert Benayoun and Louis Seguin at the helm, in the battle against Godard, and even if I allowed myself, not without impudence to sing the praises of A Married Woman, when it was shown at Venice, I shared the editors’ irritation with the provocative stance taken by the author of Alphaville. In the 1960s, I admired certain flashes of the artist in Godard rather than any coherent line. He seemed to me more of an instinctive filmmaker, with his acute sense of montage (his ‘beau souci’, or wonderful preoccupation), of color and sound, and not so much a thinker of any great lucidity, even if Week-End or ‘The Chinese’ took on prophetic tones.
            After the period in the wilderness of the 1970s and his deluded excursions into Maoism, Godard went back to making movies that were more like essays. As Truffaut implied, Godard as a critic was already a filmmaker. Today the filmmaker doubles as a critic. Which is why I wanted to meet him in the company of a young collaborator from Positif, Stéphane Goudet, to talk with him about his monumental History(s) of the Cinema. In this interview we were prepared to get polemical if the occasion arose, for the unanimous adulation surrounding Godard for so long now is doubtless the worst favour you could do to this rebellious spirit whose brilliance no one any longer contests.

On History(s) of the Cinema (Paris, November 1998)

We’d like to focus this interview on History(s) of the Cinema and on your relationship to images a a director and critic. You’ve always loved the transparent cinema of Hawks and Rossellini, yet have always made films involving a critical dimension. The eight episodes of History(s)… aren’t they a sort of ending from this viewpoint?
Not really. But I’ve always turned movies into hand-made books. I don’t have any children and men, even more than women, always try to pass something on. I wanted to pass on those eight programmes, even if I know hardly anyone will see them. At the end of the day, if I’d been able to do without my royalties, I’d have loved not to sign the books, so that they remained like traces of cinema. At one point, I even thought of doing a play from History(s)… It would be called The Book of Cinema. But that takes time; a person is too alone. It would have to be performed on a cathedral square, with equipment relayed by short actors who’d turn the pages of a great big book on which images would be projected while the text was recited.
You thought of not signing them, but the films and the books are, obviously, very personal.
I don’t think so. They’re photos and texts that were put together by an editor or a composer, who happens to be me. It’s a souvenir book of the film. Others would have arranged things differently. There could be hundred of History(s)… Instead of souvenir albums about the great Garbo for collectors. There are a lot of cinema books around today. There were very few when I started. For a long time I looked out for Eisenstein’s Film Form and Film Sense, which hadn’t yet been translated into French. I’ve got them now, but I never read them. As for histories of cinema, properly so called, I realized that I hadn’t read any and that they didn’t interest me, except for the very first, written by Bardèche and Brasillach. So I put a little poem of Brasillach’s in the first programme, but people didn’t recognize it; it’s his will, written in prison. I’d read his book on André Chénier a long time ago as well as Our Avant-Garde, without knowing anything about politics, as Positif and Freddy Buache quite rightly noted.
The project goes back to the 1970s?
Yes, it’s part of a project about Henri Langlois. Afterwards, I thought of doing a film based on Malraux, which would be called The Metamorphosis of the Gods. And little by little, it took that particular shape, with the tile the same as the 1980 book, Introduction a une veritable histoire du cinema. The idea of the book was that there would be as many images as text, that they’d be dealt with on an even footing, without any sense of which comes first. I respect the histories of Sadoul or Mitry, but that’s something else. I was after a book that was critical, in its very matter, for instance. When the woman who heads the Belgian Cinematheque tells me I don’t talk about American comedy, I have no comeback. There is effectively a certain pretentiousness in saying: there’s only one way to write history and this is it. But cinema has this capacity, through its photographic material and through this lingering feeling that it has some sort of relation to reality, which is different from the copy that painters make. It also seemed to me the right moment to tackle it, for we’ve come to the end of a certain era in cinema and even in art in general, an era that lasted for about ten centuries.
You’ve claimed to have a fairly Hegelian vision of history. What do you mean by that?
I don’t know Hegel. I quote a lot of people I’ve read three sentences of. Hegel talks about the ‘end of history’. But he believes history exists, like Peguy when he wrote Clio. And I believe it does too.
What is striking in History(s) of the Cinema is the astonishing complexity not only of the cutting between images, but of the relationship between image and sound and of the work done inside the very frame by superimpositions and inserts. Has editing always been for you, contrary to Bazin or Roherm, the very basis of the cinema?
That certainly corresponded to something in me but it also stemmed from my contrariness. I can see that clearly, still, with a certain of today’s critics: the desire to take the opposite stance, like what happens between Le Monde and Liberation, but, with me, they don’t do that… In the beginning, I was very much a follower in relation to Rohmer, Rivette and Truffaut. I took a long time to find my feet. Yet we were all relatively in agreement in saying that form and content were basically the same. I didn’t really know what Bazin and Rohmer were getting at with theory of the sequence shot. I felt that in the shooting script, the shot/countershot business, there ought to be something other than the usual click… In my article, Montage, mon beau souci, which is written in a pretty pompous style, I cited a novel of Balzac’s Les Chouans, which we all liked a lot, to show that only editing could express certain things and that a sequence shot doesn’t follow eye movement. That said, today, we don’t know how to follow eye movement the way they did in the days of silent film.
Your predilection for editing is also found in the way you welcomed the advent of Hiroshima mon amour, and in your admiration for Welles and Eisenstein.
When we saw Hiroshima we were jealous: we were clearly behind. We hadn’t seen it coming. Other people were saying good things about it and we immediately organized a roundtable, like Stalinists, to try to contain the enemy. Whereas I’d absolutely rave about Le Chant du Styrene, for instance, before… With Welles, it’s different. His style depends largely on the trouble he had filming. If he begins Touch of Evil with a sequence shot, it’s because he had a very short shoot and if a sequence shot is well set up, it can save you five or six days. But for Mr. Arkadin, which took him three or four years, he had to resort of necessity to montage when he had a shot filmed in Berlin in spring and the counter shot in Spain in autumn. Yet, in Welles, there’s a kind of fluidity with extremely short shots and a way of chopping up reality that’s just incredible. His way of editing is very different from Eisenstein’s. When Bazin, on the other hand, pitted Ford against Wyler, I just didn’t get it. At the time, I didn’t like either of them. Then, very slowly, I came round to Ford and today I find The Best Years of Our Lives magnificent, one of Wyler’s best films and one of the greatest works on war.
Doesn’t the editing correspond to your way of thinking and seeing things? You claim you never finish a book, you hop from one idea to the next…
I think editing is an ideal figure of cinema and thought, whose heir it should have been. But society was against its making this inheritance bear fruit. The old way of thinking, this one, two, three business, the idea that there isn’t a single image, but that you have to take into account the one before and the one after – all that is obvious in film. It’s the Koulechov experiment… that no one ever saw and that was possibly made up by Poudovkine. The figure three is found in all studies on civilization, in the three orders in Dumezil, in Duby, in Michelet, in dialectics, naturally… In Woe is Me, I quoted the philosopher Leon Brunschwicg, who, in about 1900, said of the Christian divinity: ‘The one is in the other, the other is in the one, and they are three.’ Cinema was the secular trustee of this idea. It was its very matter. And anyone makes film or produce criticism is in a position to account for this historic aspect of the world.
But for you the arrival of the talkies meant this bid to reveal the editing sort of lost the plot.
Yes, I think so. Because they re-established the omnipotence of the text, which is not the great text, but a political text, a text that tries to dominate the image sociologically, like with television or the press. I don’t know what cinema might otherwise have become; it’s impossible for us to know. But it was primed to become something else. In 1929, radio existed, the gramophone existed and cinema was silent, which is incredible. For a long time no one complained about that. The sudden commercial boom might have occurred in 1920. That’s what the great historians study, historians like Braudel and Duby, who was in there at the start of History(s) of the Cinema with La Sept, as well as Koyre. They start with examples to study what happened to this or that theory or phenomenon. I said to Duby: ‘Cinema is the end of the Middle Ages’, which didn’t end till the end of the nineteen century. And he laughed, but he acknowledged that I was not wrong… The problem now is that this ontology no longer exists as it did in the days of Bazin or myself. We thought we were the first, but we were the last. You don’t see shots anymore, you see words, ‘pictures’, from advertising; you almost never see the raw image of a woman crying, a beggar begging, a war causing slaughter, anymore. If I proceed by breaks, leaps, short-circuits, it’s because we are  the children of quantum mechanics. We are waves and corpuscles at once. You leap and you never know where you are. And all these discoveries date from the end of the nineteenth century, the same time as the first screenings. This is why I say in the film that the twentieth century didn’t much exist in itself. That’s a tad provocative, but our century didn’t invent wars, or quantum mechanics, or cinema. Everything that caused it to exist, it owed to the previous century. And I don’t have the impression that any of the other centuries were as dependent on the one that preceded them.
Someone like Rohmer has a way of thinking that is very different from yours. There’s nothing discontinuous in, for example his essay on music, De Mozart en Beethoven.
But he’s not doing history. That’s the text of a cultivated mind, it talks about art, but it’s not interested in history. Personally, I believe in history. But I think other people don’t believe in it and don’t like it. Already they don’t like it in themselves: the history of their bodies, their illnesses, their love affairs. And I’m the same as the rest. It took me years to get interested in my own history rather than other people’s. One of the most hated men today, after all, is Freud. Or, rather, we don’t hate him as we prefer to forget him or to say that he’s outdated. When he died, a refugee in Englad, the British had written ‘Enemy Alien’ on his passport. They could have put ‘Foreign Friend’ but he’d come from Vienna and Austria had rallied to Germany… Yet, at the same time, they took him in, protected him…
In History(s) of the Cinema, you opt to use only very short extracts. Why?
There are so many of them, we couldn’t get everything in. In 35mm, the project would have been impossible to produce. With video, you can wipe the canvas and start again. By hand, by the feeling. At a given moment, you tell yourself: ‘Right, we’re away.’ After that, if you put down a particular image, you wonder what needs to follow to hold the note. In fact, there are fewer images than you think, since a lot of them keep coming back, from Eisenstein, Rossellini, Hitchcock… When you know what you’re doing and you like one or two things, they’re enough, especially as you get older. What video lets you get, like in music, is the fluidity of superimpositions. The new wave had a hand in doing away with small banal superimpositions – someone leaves the room, superimposition, he goes downstairs, superimposition, we see him in the street. Personally, I really liked superimpositions, in particularin Stevens, who used very long ones in A Place in the Sun. When you turn them into the main material, they allow you to go from one place to another without forgetting the place you started out from, without yet knowing the one you’ll get to, knowing that in the middle, or three-quarters in, the unexpected can suddenly crop up. That’s why I mentioned music. Video lets you play two-handed or four-handed piano, while literature only works with one hand.
You describe the history told by cinema as ‘the greatest history, because it can be project,’ yet we now find it reduced to a television screen. How do you deal with that contradiction?
But cinema no longer exists. On television, it’s not projected, it’s broadcast. Yet we an still tell stories, anyway, and this one’s an old-timer’s story for his grandchildren: ‘Once upon a time, there was something that was projected…’ You see it broadcast now, but what it was like when it was shown on the big screen is impossible to know anymore. That’s what I call the memory of a screenable story. And one day, when Anne-Marie’s grandchildren hit thirty-five, they’ll stumble across this story by their grandmother’s friend. Given what cinema will be in their day, they won’t understand a thing about it and they’ll say: ‘Right, so that’s what Grandma called “cinema”?’ And they’ll suddenly realize that there was a time when people went to movie theatres.
Another film makes the connection between history and the history of cinema by questioning the concept of projection: Syberberg’s Hitler, a Film From Germany.
Yes, that’s an interesting film, not as methodical as mine, not as ample, but just as much about cinema, true. His style is a lot more that of a historian, in the good sense of the term, than Visconti’s in Ludwig, which is a more classic film, magnificent to boot. Ludwig is closer to a history painting painted in his own manner or to La Chanson de Roland, whereas Syberberg’s film is very influence by the philosophers of history.
There are also aspects of Chris Marker’s approach, up to The Last Bolshevik, that are like you: the importance of editing, the reflection on history, the relationship between image and commentary…
There’s more than that, but it’s a bit of the reverse of me. Chris was very literary. He headed a collection a du Deuil. He started out with the word and ended up with the image. I started out with the image, and ended up with what I’d been taught in school, that is, the text. In a way, we met in the middle, but there’s always a point of departure and Chris is, after all, more of a wordsmith and less of a painter.
Yet he is also a photographer.
Yes, but the photographs have always been very much bound up with the words. Underneath the photo there’s a caption and its power is immense. In the 1920s, the surrealists, Duchamp included, decided to take an ashtray and call it Portrait of a Young Girl Naked (Portrait d’une jeune fille nue). The first time it produced a shock, less so the second time, the third time, it did nothing. Today everyone does it; it’s become a new academism. There’s a whole epistemological history there to tackler. But maybe cinema would have needed to develop differently for such research to be taken on. The main department of the Centre national de recherché scientifique, the CNRS, ought to be the film department. In my first essay on Rouch, perfectly naively and instinctively, I wrote of I, A Negro: ‘A researcher at the Musee de l’Homme, what better definition of the filmmaker!’ That was in the days when I was trying to find my way and even a voice, because I used to use Rohmer’s and others’ a bit when I talked. One of the essays that influenced him and Rivette every bit as much as me is Scherer’s Le cinema, art de l’espace, in La Revue du cinema, where we discovered the theory of cinema put forward by Langlois before he went over to the Cinematheque. Rohmer marked a decisive new direction in relation to Bazin, which, curiously, I’m only just now discovering.
Even if it means taking the opposite view… You explain that the young Turks of Cahiers established their hierarchies according to ‘the works, not the authors’. Now, Bazin precisely blamed the ‘politics’ of the review for privileging the people of the films they made and occasionally falling into an ‘aesthetic cult of personality’.
That’s what we used to thing, but then later I gradually came to realize that it was wrong, that it was even the reverse. When anyone and everyone claims to be an auteur, I tell myself I prefer to refer to the work and reject the tile of auteur. Besides, instinctively, I only rarely signed my films. For me, the new wave was the works, not their authors.
Truffaut nonetheless adopted Giraudoux’s saying: ‘There are no works, there are only authors.’
Francois, he was more into that, yes. He, more than me or anyone else, needed to carve out a niche for himself, to personalize his relationships, give his past. He’d had a difficult relationship with his parents and he always looked for father figures: Renoir, Hitchcock… He was the first to enter into negotiations with authors like Becker, Joffe… And he was the only one to attack certain filmmakers by name. The rest of attacked the works. That was a time when, in film, the author was the scriptwriter. Directors were considered producers, not authors. The great filmmakers like Hitchcock had their names well below the title or weren’t even listed. There was a quarrel between Cahiers and Positif, but the two reviews were part of the same movement and both said, with perhaps more insistence in Cahiers, that the person who makes the film is the director.
You forgot that ‘film authors’ were defended by La Revue du cinema as early as 1930. Vidor, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Lang were acknowledged as directors. In 1945, already a journal as popular as The Saturday Evening Post defined the ‘McCarey touch’ as being halfway between the ‘Lubitsch touch’ and the ‘Capra touch’…
Yes, most of them were recognized as authors because they were their own producers. And look at the great authors: they were broken by the studios. Stroheim is the prime example. Chaplin, Lang were cultural celebrities, names, but I think it was celebrity itself that was recognized in them rather than the authors. What we did was extend the notion to the unknowns. Jacques Daniel-Norman’s L’Ange rouge (with Tilda Thamar), which Francois and I especially loved, became a film d’auteur. I’d like for the pleasure of the duel, to concede that we said it badly. And I’ve said it again badly since, but there was something the politics of the auteur and that was the word ‘politics’. For us, that was the important bit.
You get the impression a bit in seeing History(s) that your tastes, your passions, crystallised in your days as a critic. You don’t give much space to the generations that succeeded you or the most contemporary cinema, except for a film title of Kiarostami’s, a shot here and there of Coppola’s, Angelopoulos’s or Garrel’s. How do you explain that there are so few films later than 1960, apart from your own?
What do you want? History is history, told here at a given moment. I don’t claim to tell all. People also say I know nothing about contemporary painting, that I stopped at Picasso. But that’s my history. I’m not stopping anyone else from telling theirs.
And how do you explain the West-centric nature of these History(s)…?
But cinema is a Western art, bade by Europeans and Americans. That’s all there is to it. Furthermore, America is reduced to the United States and there have only ever been three or four filmmaking nations in Europe: France, the USSR, Germany before the war, Italy.
Why deny the existence of British cinema?
I’m not saying there haven’t been great British directors. Those I prefer come from the documentary school: Dickinson, Grierson… The others, Hitchcock, Chaplin, sought exile in the United States. I’m saying England is not a great nation for film. That’s not so terrible. Any more than realizing that we are not a great nation for painting, unlike Italy, Holland, for a time, or France. I think that England and Japan are not great nations for cinema. Because they haven’t had a cinema history, an awareness of that history. I know very well that there have been a few great Japanese directors, but I don’t think that’s enough to make a great nation on a par with France.
What justifies thinking now of cinema history by nation and making this territorial allegiance a decisive factor in retaining this or that film?
It’s a fact of history. It doesn’t matter where we are today with the idea of what a nation is. In these four countries, there are so many filmmakers that in the end that has become what cinema is. On the other hand, for the rest of them, there could be a hundred good directors, but it won’t amount to a cinema.
Aren’t you struck by the fact that silent film, omnipresent in the History(s), has been erased from our landscape and our memory? From that point of view, hasn’t passing on been interrupted?
In the days when we were critics, it already no longer existed. It existed for us, but not for anyone else.
You distinguish two epistemological breaks in the history of cinema, the arrival of the talkies and the existence of concentration camps.
I tell myself that the camps were foreseen, heralded by cinema, by Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, The Great Dictator… Similarly, music before the First World War or at the end, with Wagner, in its way heralded the disasters that were looming. But, after the camps, cinema threw in the towel. Only the newsreels still serve to relate history. Cinema lost its documentary eye. At the Liberation, there was a kind of shame in Europe, and a resistance film saved honour in Italy.
But it was the liberation by the Americans that allowed Rossellini, a former maker of fascist propaganda films, to take on Rome, Open City.
Roberto’s personal history, here, doesn’t count. The fact that he made The White Ship beforehand doesn’t change anything. He simply did work that was a little bit redeeming. The first time, there was some success. But from Germany, Year Zero, it was all over… The problem is that no real thinking went into what had happened. There were books but there were no resistance films, no matter how stupid, shot in London or Algiers. There were rolls of film, cameras, actors, directors. They didn’t do it. If you tell me that in the Vercors, in France, in the snow, you couldn’t make a fiction film like that, all right. But that wasn’t where it ought to have been made. Afterwards, having not been made during the war, no one made the film, except the Poles. But Munk’s Passenger is a film of atonement, which they had to make because of their anti-Semitism and because the camps were on their territory.
You yourself thought about making a film on the concentration camps?
Yes, but it was just hypothetical. I had no idea. I was too young. I couldn’t get a feel for it. The only idea I had was a bit like what Mikhail Romm did in Common Fascism, which is very interesting, even if he stays in the German camp without going to have a look in the other one, the Soviet one. I would have made a film about the working of a camp, on the bureaucratic side, daily management, with secretaries, accountants, only showing the deportees here and there. It was a notion about form, if you like, as a way of getting to the bottom of it all. And then, I didn’t get to it. I didn’t feel up to it, or I forgot about it.
Do you now regret not having made it? Do you think it was essential?
Yes, but not made by me. By others, who should have made it.
In the first part of History(s)… you shift from the word ‘German’ to ‘Jew’, than from ‘Jew’ to ‘Muslim’, a name by which Jews who were nearing the end were known in the camps.
That, I am the only person to have observed. It’s a filmmaker’s observation. I read about it and stuck it in Here and Elsewhere. Yet, twenty-five years later, it’s still not talked about. And Lebanon and the so-called occupied territories; it’s still a mess. No one, including any of the deportees, has said that it is after all weird that the Jews and the Muslims are fighting when, in the amps, the Germans called certain Jews ‘Muslims’. But in Here and Elsewhere we had something to prove, we wanted to pit the good camp against the bad. We were more didactic.
You once said you were interested in the concentration camps ‘because of your past, your social class, your guilt.’ How do you mean?
I was in a family who were more collaborators and I read a lot of right-wing books, notably on the war. I felt guilty, even if unconsciously, because no one had told me about them. I got interested independently in the Resistance and in the camps, but I should have come across them sooner. The same way you discover your own history very late in the piece. When I saw Night and Fog, my interest in the subject was still theoretical. It came later, through the gang in a back-to-front way. I often start things back-to-front, even when I read a detective story. I really delved into the issue by filming the Palestinians…. Because in militating for Palestine, we started to think about Israel, and so on. And then it became more real, it made sense, it was the people we’d seen…
How do you view your Maoist period today?
I thought I was a Maoist, subscribing to Pekin Informations, etc. I’ve always been a bit marginal and liked marginality, I think. And it was a small group… In reality, it’s not that we didn’t want to know, but that it takes time depending on what place you’re in. If you’re caught in a rip, you have to get out of the rip to start with, to think that you can get out of it. We couldn’t believe Simon Leys. But, you know, the main anti-Soviet and anti-fascist essays were published in the 1930s – those written by Boris Souvarine, Andre Gide, Panait Istrati… Well, we didn’t listen to them. Later, I got interested in history. Making amends, if that’s possible. But no one knows much at all about the history of that particular period in France. And we were young. I feel like I’m only just beginning now to catch up after lagging so far behind in film: I started thinking about film between the ages of twenty and thirty and making films at thirty. In film terms, we were babies. Now I’ve got forty years of cinema and seventy of life under my belt, the superimposition is beginning to take. Before, in my personal relations with people, I was, I think, better in film and not good at all at what we might call life. Which was a bit the case with everyone in the new wave, I think.
Religion is very much a part of History(s) of the Cinema, with the themes of the apocalypse, paradise lost, original sin.
Religion is part of history. And the Christian religion in particular has been very much bound up with the philosophy of the image, which was not the case with, I don’t know… the Aztecs or the Chinese. I took up a great line of Wittgenstein’s, replacing Christianity by cinema: ‘You have a history, there, believe in it, no matter.’ And then again, cinema invented the happy ending and the Bible the happy beginning, no?
The authors you most often quote are Bernanos, Malraux, Sartre…
That comes from my adolescence and it’s stuck. You know, I’ve never read Don Quixote or Montaigne. You have to keep a few them in reserve. After the Liberation, I remember the first book I liked was Thomas the Obscure by Blanchot. It’s linked to German romanticism, which, as an adolescent, is what I liked the best. Maybe that comes from my father, but only unconsciously. He never said to me, this is what you have to read, not that.
A sense of loss is one of the meeting points between German romanticism and Christianity.
In Forever Mozart, the director says this sentence Anne-Marie dug up for me: ‘Cinema is wonderful for showing the world, but it’s a shame that when you do that, you have to abandon what really matters.’ That’s almost ontological. There is in the image a sense of buying back, of merit, redemption, which was expressed by the Church fathers. After that, if something other than religion gets made of it… But it’s true that if 120 people stare into the dark in the same direction at the same time…
The notion of cinema as an instrument of thought, which Deleuze also examines, seems close to your History(s) project… It seems unachievable.
Completely. That’s not what we were after. But we’re not after painting either. And music is tolerated, accepted and loved, but we don’t ask it to think. As for Deleuze, the problem is that he wrote really badly, alas for him, like Levinas, especially if we compare them to Bergson.
In the last episode you break up Wellman’s title Public Enemy and transform it into ‘The Public, The Enemy.’ Why?
It’s a phrase that belongs to Jules Renard, who says of the critic that he ‘deserts his camp and goes over to the enemy. What is the enemy? The public!’ You know, often, the public, the audience, has the courage to live out wonderful adventures, but they don’t have the courage to relate them. So, when we go to a show, we’re in a state of abdication of responsibility. As a result, when a film is the opposite of a blockbuster, as we say, we can redeem ourselves; we have a sense of resisting. But, between going to see a good film by Straub or Cassavetes and a bad Bruce Willis or De Palma, even I prefer to buy myself an ice-cream cone, and see the Willis munching away, because I’m part of the public. Afterwards, you’re ashamed of yourself…
How do you live with this extraordinary notoriety and quasi-unanimous critical acclaim that tends to transform you from an iconoclast into an icon?
Really badly. I try to get myself forgotten yet at the same time the only chance I have of making a film is to go and borrow a bit from the bank or from Canal Plus by assuring them: ‘You see, I’m not forgotten.’ It’s a total contradiction. In fact, I’m the most famous of the forgotten. I still have to represent the possibility of saying: we can still make the film we want to, outside the usual confines, or we can make the film we can. What’s hard is not coming up with the money, it’s making the film have to make, morally, in its own way.
How do you view the waning power of criticism?
Criticism belongs to the cultural pages. I notice that the books page of Liberation and Le Monde are infinitely more serious, in the classic sense of the term, than the cinema pages. At least they talk about books! The others don’t talk about films. Read the articles on Benigni or the so-called Ophulsian sequence shot in Snake Eyes. The critics talk about a cinema that’s part of Paris life, it’s not the same thing. And then, there are heaps of cliques, but, well… Me, I’d have liked to see my books reviewed by Dagen, or someone, anyone who sees an art book in a different light, Maggiori, say, in Liberation, anyone but Gerard Lefort! In Le Monde, same thing, anything but a review by Frodon, preferably a review by Roger-Pol Droit, who does philosophy. But maybe those blokes wouldn’t have done it…
Let’s go back to History(s). You systematically liken the German occupation during the Second World War to the ‘American occupation’ that, according to you, followed. How do you justify this semantic and geographic slide of the nouns ‘occupation,’ ‘resistance’ and ‘annexation’?
That’s my point of view. Historically, it has been proved by films and by the visual. American literature did not invade French literature; the press, not entirely. But to the extant that we spend hours in front of the television and that practically everything we see comes from the Unites States… On the other hand, there is still Le Figaro… It could very easily have been replaced by the New York Times in French. In this century, more Germans than anyone else emigrated to America. Germany has historically been the country closest to the United States. It was their only rival in cinema and in many other industries. They had to bring them down a peg or two to have them in their power. The Americans have always waited till they were killing each other in Europe before intervening. In the end, they did after all choose one camp over another, between the two brawling brats. But they turned up when everyone was worn out, never at the beginning, neither in 1914 nor in 1940. All they wanted was to invade! And they still want to invade, because they don’t have a past. They need to invade countries that do. Now, they’re everywhere. They’ll see in the future which is the past most amenable to becoming an ancestor of their own. In Germany Year 90 I’d taken up something good old Giraudoux said, that went: ‘ The United States have never waged war. They have only waged civil war.’ And when they’ve waged war against a country, they have done so to a country with the same faults as their own. Normally you wage war against a country you reckon has qualities different from yours, that you want to appropriate. With Saddam Hussein, it’s very clear. They’re waging war against an American who happens to live in Baghdad and who has exactly the same faults they do. And they can’t stand anyone else having their faults. They have always waged civil war. Against the British, among themselves, then against the Germans.
But to make a connection between the destruction of European cinema by this American cinema that you’ve loved so much and the word ‘Endlosung,’ ‘The Final Solution,’ isn’t that confusing the two issues?
Yes. But, since the link is made by something which Blanchot says: ‘The image is happiness’ and that it is ‘nothingness gazing upon us’, it’s a bit of both. And for my part, I can’t believe in the mix-up. Or maybe it’s a mix-up that muddles the waters. Hitchcock said: ‘If you want to be sure of being understood, hit hard.’ You don’t hard with a hammer. You hit hard with an image, with a comparison, which is not hitting hard at all. I’m not the one saying Endlosung is hard. It’s the Jewish people, the Germans, they’re the ones saying it… In the business with the sans-papiers, last year, what really touched me was that it was filmmakers who said: you only have to read the texts. We use the same words today as under Vichy. We also say to them: you mustn’t confuse the issue! But they’re right to say: the words are the same, and that’s all there is to it!
We might also wonder when you compare split-screen images of deportees in a concentration camp and images from a pornographic film. What do this form and this comparison set up by way of thinking?
It’s what happened to West German cinema.
So the comparison bears on the effect of national continuity, because the porn is German?
Yes, but people don’t actually know that. Only I know it’s German porn.
What the viewer reacts to is the common nakedness of bodies.
There is something obscene there. An obscenity we need to be able to talk about better, without anathema. But I agree, there’s something that jars.
Something obscene in comparing the two images?
Yes, but we ought to see if there isn’t something that allows us to make such a hard-hitting comparison. And to see, if need be, what the comparison is up against, what comes before and what comes after, so that it’s not taken just like that, at face-value. It’s not a matter of saying by way of comparison: the Russians killed eighty-five million people and the Germans only killed fifteen million… At certain moments, you feel like putting two images of dead people together and saying: where’s the one that…? The relationship between images allows us to approach these issues more calmly, to perhaps show the violence that there is in things.
So it is the violence of pornographic cinema that is supposedly ‘revealed’ by this confrontation?
Historically, the image of the camps we chose was an image from Munk’s film. He actually re-enacted a scene where a dog eats a deportee, fights him. After, we can use the same image of the dog. If Munk hadn’t used it, I could never have made it up.
To wrap up, let’s go back over the issue of the way the work is viewed. How, in your opinion, can one view these History(s)? Who are they addressed to?
For me, the best way to look at these shows is to get into the images without having names or references in mind. The less you know about them, the better.
Do you really think so? When you follow Tous en scene immediately with Faust, we don’t see the apparent connection if we don’t know that the director in Minnelli’s film is endeavoring to stage a modernized Faust. So the work is enriched by this outside knowledge and a knowledge of film. And it risks excluding those who haven’t seen those films, no?
I don’t think so. But maybe, from that point view, the books come off better since you’re not tempted, while you’re reading them to try and identify this or that extract at any cost. Obviously, I don’t make any old connection…
Take the more precise example of your ‘Introduction a la method d’Alfred Hitchcock’. In the mixing, Hitchcock’s voice from an interview ends up dominating yours as you comment in a voice-over ant the viewer retains from seeing his films. Your voice is covered and we can’t follow your written text, which is nonetheless particularly pertinent.
For that, you have the book.
That means the work doesn’t exist in itself, that it has to be grasped scattered between different places and arts, between the book and the film?
Well, yes, that’s right. But other things are enough. At times, you don’t need to hear the voice. You heard it before and you hear it a bit later. I’m a good enough technician to know how to make what I want heard when I want.
No doubt. But the reflex action which consist in systematically casting back to the written text or to the works quoted to fill in the gaps and hollows in the film, reintroduces the book, the meaning, the caption, which you wanted, in principle to get around.
Then it’s a fault…
You can obviously play on loss, on the impossibility for the viewer of fully mastering what he sees, but why gloss over these rather lyrical sentences that, beyond Hitchcock, describe your very project?
I thought they’d be heard clearly. That’s a fault I have, too. I’m a confused person and I sometimes hide my confusion behind a lyrical and musical that isn’t necessarily appropriate. This can be criticized. And a good critic would do it. Good criticism does not consist in saying: ‘Godard is an idiot’, or Godard is something else, but in saying, ‘there, we should have heard this and not that.’