In the new book Assayas par Assayas, through an extended conversation about his life and films with Jean-Michel Frodon, the director provides a rich portrait of his early age. His father, who was a screenwriter and went by the name Jacques Rémy, would get a young Assayas into the film industry first through assistantships. He worked on Richard Donner’s Superman at the Pinewood Studio in London where he would number the rushes; he describes seeing Christopher Reeves and Marlan Brando around on set. On Richard Fleischer’s Crossed Swords, which was filmed in Budapest, he would be a third-assistant where his tasks included serving Charlton Heston tea… He would meet there his friend Laurent Perrin who introduced him to the idea of making Super 8mm films, which were apparently democratizing cinema.
Assayas would return to Paris where he would write about paintings and films for some of its underground magazines. He wrote a couple of short-films, which were influenced by punk rock music, which he experienced first hand in London. In 1979 the two Serges (Daney and Toubiana) would like his first short film Copyright and present it at the Semaine des Cahiers du Cinéma (after nowhere else would play it), which would lead to Assayas getting involved with the magazine.
“Daney and Toubiana wanted to open the magazine up to new critics,” writes Assayas, “While Leos Carax and Laurent Perrin (who was invited by Pascal Bonitzer) preceded me by a few month, I joined around the same time as Charles Tesson.”
This was a period of rejuvenation at Cahiers. The magazine returned towards a regular monthly format in 1978 and Daney, unique to his editorship before leaving in 1981, would emphasize a new cinema of mutating images and one built upon its classical Hollywood heritage, also one of obscure and challenging films, thus creating a foundation for the magazine for the upcoming decade. “It’s one of the richest periods of the magazine’s history,” writes Assayas.
On his initiation,
“My relationship to the cinema was still rough, as it was constituted in an anarchic way. I knew contemporary films, but I had some terrible gaps, and I especially ignored all of cinema’s theory and this history: I’ve never even read Bazin. On the other hand, I was bringing my own ideas, with their naïve convictions, which, due to being at the dawn of a new period, wasn’t a problem, since everything was to be reinvented. And it was passionate to arrive at Cahiers when they had to start over: it took years to put everything back together. We made special issues on screenplays, actors, French and American cinema, just reconnect with what was going on.”
Assayas writes on Cahiers’ previous political era and why he didn’t read them,
“Let’s just say it wasn’t even a consideration since Cahiers dealt mostly with politics and not really with cinema. Without even going into how their positions were greatly different then my own. Either way, I had the impression that Cahiers was determined by a mixture between structuralism (which I knew about and didn’t like), Lacanianism (which I ignored), and a dogmatic gauchisme. So I don’t know even know why I would have read Cahiers, which represented the literal opposite of what I was into, on all registers. I wasn’t interested in Positif either, which defended a classic cinephilia, which was serious and applied. It wasn’t really sexy.”
Assayas on what he wanted to bring, “What I thought was new was the American horror cinema.” Surrounded by reviews of a European cinema, which tried to grasp the films through a theoretical and political approach, Assayas’ writing in the magazine especially stood out (see: probably didn’t belong). His background in the arts and painting, growing up in a post-‘68 France, major interest in painting and music, along with his earlier writing in underground publications, all contribute to the uniqueness of his taste and writing style. These pieces radically shatter the expectations of what kind of reviews could be published in Cahiers and did a lot to contribute to an opening up of the magazine.
In Assayas’ review of The Fog he aligns Carpenter, in a similar argument at Cahiers at the time, with a post-studio system American cinema, which forced the directors to re-create their ascendance's production methods by creating their own groups and companies (cf. Lucasfilm, too), while also building on its narrative patterns, techniques and themes. This review (N.310) is also the start of Cahiers’ relationship with Carpenter, who they’ve continued to champion throughout his entire career, and which culminated with their issue (their only one) which featured Village of the Damned on its cover (December 2000, N. 552).
Antoine de Baecque, in his Dictionnaire de la pensée du cinéma, writes about Assayas,
“through a hundred of texts there was the creation of a new idea of cinema, which principally came from, and was interested in, these ‘bad objects’… The originality is great, and even though he’s side-stepping certain issues, it takes an authority to champion these films and directors, the were long undefendable, especially in a magazine that is just barely out of a decade-long period of a dominant dogmatism. In defending the undefendable, his analyzes are an anti-conformist assault and are an out-of-the-norm manifestation.”
Though Assayas' knowledge regarding the history of the magazine isn't great - he talks about the first issue that he picked up being the Godard special issue (N.300), while also having some knowledge of its original project (his father was on the attacked side along with the academic old-guard of French cinema) - this doesn’t stop him from building upon an earlier incarnation of the Cahiers project, which is that of an iconoclastic Americanophilia. He even cites Jacques Rivette’s famous review of Monkey Business and the genius of Howard Hawks. This also comes out in his pieces on Spielberg, Lucas, Eastwood, Fuller, and De Palma. Assayas in this new book also describes a fascinating documentary made with Jean-Claude Arié, which was supposed to follow the Cahiers team in Hollywood, as they were making their Made in U.S.A. trip, for the show Étoiles et Toiles, which was produced by Frédéric Mitterrand and Alain de Sédouy. (If anyone has any more information about this, please let me know).
But Assayas wasn’t the only new critic championing the margins of American horror cinema. For example, Charles Tesson’s review of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is a masterpiece of this genre. Just read this conclusion:
“As paradoxical as it might appear, it is tempting to bring together two films that are otherwise very different: Passion and Poltergeist. Why? Because they are both haunted by only one and the same interrogation: where comes the light? And especially, what to do with it, once it has infiltrated, in a film studio or in a factory (Passion) or in a house (Poltergeist)? Spielberg really believes in invocations (where are you, light?) and in UFOs as vehicles for the light. This is exactly what the domestic UFOs are (Unidentified Luminous Objects), which for Spielberg are the televisions in Poltergeist. Especially at nighttime, when they are ‘snowy’.In his Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard, in addressing Spielberg, admits that he’s truly a ‘director of the third kind.’ This makes sense, since Spielberg, is attracted to these phenomenon, which makes him the person that he has to meet. Where Godard is outside of the family as a contemporary filmmakers, Spielberg is inside and seems really preoccupied by everything that it involves. The middle-class family of Poltergeist is saved when it is at an extreme (when the little girl is just about to be abducted) gratefully by a spirit ‘if all of the people in the world… hand in hand, were brought together’ which re-animates the familial spirit. The troubled celebration of the familial order, is the television. This domestic UFO is familiar and disrupting, this object of the third kind, figures as an intrusion in their cinema, it would be the same thing if Godard decided to meet Spielberg. We already know the fate of the television: off, ejected from the balcony. Maybe one day the Spielberg galaxy and Godard’s, even though from a normal eye view they might be light years apart, will end up encountering for good. But at this hour, they remain parallel but hold the good line: light.”
The publishing of Assayas’ review of The Fog, he says, gave him more confidence in his own critical voice. He started attending the weekly Cahiers council meetings along with Daney, Toubiana, Alain Bergala, Serge Le Péron, Pascal Bonitzer, Danièle Dubroux, Louis Skorecki and Jean Narboni. Assayas, “I was impressed, I was stupefied that they listened to me and they took into consideration my opinions.” It was Daney that proposed to him to write about science fiction films,
“I remember just about his terms: according to him, the magazine had always overlooked this genre, and maybe I could help remedy this situation… According to me, the question was less about science fiction films, but instead that of special effects, of new cinematic tricks… It was putting into question the raw material of the image, it was reinventing it. This was the first time since its invention that the cinema was going through such a metamorphosis.”
Once Assayas moved away towards directing feature films – Désordre in 1986 – he would no longer write in Cahiers as he would start to be featured in it as a director. He now talks about his experience there,
“In reality, the force of Cahiers, is their engagement with what’s actually going on in their periods: it's the legitimacy of their diverse incarnations. In these years there were two major events that will be remembered, other than their problematics with French cinema, concerning the totality of cinema, and the first one is the revolution of special effects, as I’ve already mentioned, and the other one, nonetheless jus as important, is the discovery of Asian cinema.”
Assayas was only at Cahiers as a critic from January 1980 to November 1985, and today, in Assayas par Assayas, he comments on its current incarnation,
“Today, I have the impression, for the most part, that to be a writer at Cahiers is an end in itself, while for myself, it was just a stage. I don’t see anything in that especially valorizing… But it was always the practice of making cinema that attracted and writing there was nothing but one more step to get there.”
Olivier Assayas on John Carpenter’s The Fog (Cahiers du Cinéma, April 1980, N.310)
Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter’s first film (Dark Star, which preceded it, is essentially an artisanal product) testifies an evident cinematographic quality, which prefigures a future oeuvre if not fundamental, at least interesting. He is close, either way, to a career trajectory of that of other American filmmakers, who brightly made their first films in the popular thriller genre, to then later make films that are more ambitious, and also more expensive (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Bogdanovich). But what makes Carpenter more unexpected, or even more unique, is that his work gains in merit from a close analysis, more so than was expected. Initially, he would tell anyone that would listen to him, that for him cinema stopped with Howard Hawks, so he decided so create his own form of expression, renewing a previously lost classicism, which is almost puritanical in its diversion qualities.
This ambitious task, testifies an unexpected mature conviction, which led him to disregard lucrative propositions from the major studios, to follow a solitary path. This voluntary marginalization led him to the heart of independent productions, which allowed him to impose his esthetic and especially deepening it towards an abstraction. An obsessed formalist, re-imposing, film after film, the same thematic, always more complex, purer, Carpenter proves with The Fog a unique masterfulness for his generation. Carpenter is extremely dynamic at the heart of a cinema that is popular and whose commercial success is almost phenomenal, which motives him to keep going on. Without owing anything to the system, he has been able to occupy privileged place in the American film production.
Surrounded by a technical team, which is almost familial, who, like also a lot of his actors, have followed him since Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter is the creator of a singular oeuvre, which, like is usually the case, continues a certain tradition, which is that of a horror cinema, like Night of the Living Dead, which allows him to make this projects excessively personal and to fill them with his unique preoccupations.
From the horror cinema, Carpenter holds a contact with the spectator that is purely physical, that of emotions, which really shakes them, and which isn’t metaphoric. One of his scenes that work really accomplishes this. This has led him to continue to explore the fundamentals of a censorial dramaturgy, as it was determined by Hitchcock with Psycho – a masterful film and major reference for Carpenter. (Janet Leigh is even casted in The Fog and also her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, who was equally the star of Halloween). Narration and ‘realism’ are here parasitical elements that emerged from literature and theater that Carpenter systematically discarded to privilege a dramaturgy of movement, pure cinematographic rhythm of the montage, a mechanism of frights.
It is more in his cinematography and rhythm, more so than in horror, that you’ll find the center of Carpenter’s preoccupations. There aren’t devils in his films, no possessions, but a pain that emerged from a traumatic childhood experience: the boogie man in Halloween isn’t anything more than an incarnation of being afraid of the dark. In this film, at nighttime, or at least according to Anglo-Saxon tradition, when the children amuse themselves by scaring each other, this is the night when a real horror decides to appear. There is constantly a mise en abyme of the horrific that is reinforced by the pleasure of a manipulative director who is enjoying himself by keeping the audience guessing: The subjective reveals itself by a camera move, the camera movement reveals a subjective shot; a disquieting climate is based on the jokes of the youth, the games the teenagers play reveals the irruption of a monster. All of this is to remind the spectator, like the kids in Halloween, that it’s all about having fun and getting scared. But what is more irrational than being scared?
The logic of Carpenter’s films is that of a nightmare, it’s its impeccable way to tell a story that leads us on, its contradictions especially, just like how in The Fog, the brutal realization when the mist slowly retires. There also, the reference to childhood is capital. The film starts on a story told at a campfire. The old traditional sailor (John Houseman) enjoys scaring the kids, by telling them, right at midnight, a terrifying story. The wide eyes of the children, absorbed by this story, by the warmth of the fire, by the watch that’s ticking, will be our eyes as spectators: the mute apprehension, the pleasure of the fright, sitting in our chairs, untouchable. The worry of midnight is one of the themes of the film, the traditional hour of ghosts. I’ve almost forgot, but its also the hour young kids should be in bed. The presence of the fog also brings to mind this adolescent worry. ‘There’s something in the fog,’ says one of the characters, without knowing too much what it is, which echoes our own personal worry.
There is in the dramatic construction of The Fog a lot more than just good direction, all of the apparent written concerns of Halloween and Assault finally take their significance: the search for a pure form where the tension would replace the narration. Here there is no story. Only a resource of connections that draw a line around a local radio station, which is run by a young woman. Without ever encountering the other protagonists, she’s able to occupy the center of the dramaturgy, a voice throughout the night, which is able to connect all of these individuals, whom are lost in this fog. The actual encounters between the characters that we follow will be treated like veritable effects: the saving of boy, for example. The binding form of communication and relations, like in Halloween, is the telephone, which breaks of the nocturnal solitude, a connection which is just as strong as it is vulnerable. The extremely complex utilization of the film score adds to all of this. Its very hard to discern the difference between the audio special effects and the music (which is composed by Carpenter), all that we hear purifies all of the other elements, and proceeds like the ticking of a clock.
He doesn’t preoccupy himself with urban paranoia like in a certain horror film tradition, what we find in The Fog is a truly personal language, which is irreducible to its esthetic mode. The integrity of John Carpenter, the maniacal exigencies of his formal work, all contribute to making him one of the most audacious American auteur. And certainly of an individuality that we’ll be hearing a lot more about.