Sunday, February 15, 2015

Serge Daney on his Hollywood Trip

"Alright, America. In 1964 I was 20, and there were still a few sublime old timers in Los Angeles. For instance McCarey, who had never done an interview, neither at Cahiers, nor anywhere else, so we were the first. McCarey wasn’t a sublime old timer, he was a sick man, an extremely emaciated (compared to the pictures) has-been, and also very bitter. Louis Skorecki and I experienced the interview, which took place in the cafeteria of I don’t remember what big studio, perfectly ‘McCareyian,’ as proof of a well founded politique des auteurs. It was pure awkwardness. McCarey was eating yogurt and spilling it all over the place, while singing the praises of his first film in a somewhat sour voice. We saw his senility. Naturally we also found it atrocious that the 1940s box office smash, was twenty years later this survivor. It seemed like we experienced the cruelty of Hollywood, of the system, and we knew which side we were on.
We didn’t go there to find just anyone. We had a list of those whom we wanted to see and many of them were going into exile or disappearing. Those in charge of the “foreign press,” seeing us ask to speak with Jacques Tourneur must have taken us for nuts but they handled it rather well, as they very matter-of-factly called Tourneur from his seat at the Directors’ Guild. We saw a tall man arrive, a little hesitant, who spoke to us immediately in a southern French accent. Occasionally we would stumble upon more contemporary filmmakers, those who were more conscious of their situation. Sam Fuller, who was delighted to play the role that wasn’t quite yet his in front of two European kids, or Jerry Lewis, who was in the middle of shoot with Tashlin, interrupted the scene to show everyone the special issue of Cahiers where he had ranked among the filmmakers!

On the other hand, I remember the way Cukor treated us as what we must have been and appeared to be from the outside: a couple of crackpot amateurs, one fat, one skinny, full of admiration and determined not to be disappointed. I often think about this episode with Cukor as you might think about some episode that you couldn’t see at the time to what extent it was emblematic. It was a hot summer day in an amazing villa, among his courtship and minions, and everyone there seemed to be blossoming, except for us, drenched in sweat, saying how much we loved Sylvia Scarlett, which we just discovered in Paris. Cukor wasn’t particularly flattered that we valorized one of his flops from the beginning of his career. Just like Katherine Hepburn in her autobiography, excusing herself for having made it, and immediately lowering herself in my esteem. The law of showbiz is that a commercial failure can’t be a good film. When I imagine the two of us with that old broken man, crafty as a monkey, and whose last film Rich and Famous proved that he never went senile, I am still astounded by the way we chose to love American cinema not by their norms but by our own.

At some point the conversation touched upon Nicholas Ray, and we must have said that we loved Wind Across the Everglades. Hearing this Cukor started howling, the laugh of a mean and sour old lady, crying to the others “Come here, come here! You know which film they like? Wind Across the Everglades! The film that Jack Warner didn’t even dare release!” I can still see us irritated but unshaken, persuaded that we were right, and in fact we were. It was just like six years later when for our first course at Censier, Pascal Bonitzer and myself, mortified at the front of the red lecture hall–coming unstitched, and when interrogating the cinema oscillating between Sam Peckinpah and Francesco Rosi–howled in blanching voices that materialist cinema was Godard and Gorin’s Vent d’Est and the Straub’s Non Réconciliés, and there was to be no compromise. This feeling of remaining a sincere and stubborn child with all his caprices in the face of the condescending and bloated good sense of the adult world is certainly something that I’m still a little proud of. 

The cinephile isn’t the one who loves and copies in life the objects and attitudes that he first loved on the screen. He is at the same time both more modest and infinitely prouder: what he asks of cinema is to endure like cinema. He might need the politique des auteurs, but in the sense that a film obeys a point of view, a vision of the world that legitimizes it, gives it its logic. But ultimately the film becomes a sort of being, a character, a kind of portrait of Dorian Gray in which I can see myself aging. That’s why we didn’t make too much of Cuckor turning his nose up at Sylvia Scarlett. It’s why I’ve always had a little bit of pity for the madmen of American cinema–the sweet fetishists–who spent their lives disguising themselves as little Americans of the 1950s, with their boots, jackets and cars. This explains how I was able to learn to breathe outside polluted France in American cinema, and at the same time I had no problem being furious in the 70s with American imperialism. 

Intellectually, America was completely at peace: it was a very powerful world that never stopped demanding of us, and of secreting in itself antibodies of lucidity, irony and cracks. France was an oversized midget, and America was a giant which could produce internal dissidents who were our heroes: from Welles to Ray, the martyrologue was inexhaustible and the most “normal” thing in the world. This astounding split, this American presence at the heart of my culture and nowhere in my dreams, is perhaps difficult to understand today; as difficult as the “communist dream,” which was its parallel. The falling aesthetics of Yalta have finish falling." - Serge Daney (Postcards from the Cinema)

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