Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trafic n°100 – L’écran, l’écrit

There’s a beautiful idea at the heart of the 100th issue of Trafic, which is to get thirty-six different writers to write their equivalent of Serge Daney’s Tracking Shot in Kapo – to reflect on an important essay or film book that has personally marked them. The issue is at its best when the essays are the closest to the original spirit of Daney’s journal: cinephile, erudite, personal, heartfelt and as Deleuze would characterize Daney’s thought, both optimistic and pessimistic. If Daney was able to reflect on his life and pinpoint Jacques Rivette’s On Abjection as offering a moral compass for his life, then these responses are too at their best when they conjure a life, morality and a way to live with the cinema.

The issue proceeds chronologically from the foundational studies of the early twentieth century through the Occupation to the post-war period to the events of May ’68 all of the way the present day. This is an ethos that developed in the context particular to the history of French film culture.

So Jacques Aumont joyfully imagines a conversation between Jean Epstein (whose Bonjour Cinéma graces the cover) and the Cinema screen, Jean-Louis Comolli goes in depth on the influence of Freud’s L’Avenir d’une illusion on his life and its appropriation to film analysis, and Pierre Gabaston writes about André Malraux and his importance. Two of Trafic’s committee member Patrice Rollet and Raymond Bellour both write on Surrealism through their essays on André Breton and Ado Kyrou. While the other two editors Sylvie Pierre Ulmann writes about introducing Glauber Rocha to France and Marcos Uzal on Barthélemy Amengual’s fine book on Jean Eustache.

The essays work best when there is a sense of surprise to the choices and when the most obvious work by their authors are not the ones that are discussed. Though you can find Luc Moullet writing on François Truffaut’s Certain Tendency essay (perhaps already too commented upon, but the more Moullet the better) and Jean Narboni on André Bazin’s Montage, Interdit (one of his most famous essays), you can also find Dominique Païni on Rivette’s Lettre sur Rossellini and how it helped him both as a critic and programmer, Fabrice Revault meditating on his own film-going pleasures that parallel Roland Barthes’ in En sortant du cinéma, Jean-Michel Alberola on the relation between music and film spring-boarded from Louis Skorecki’s Contre la Nouvelle Cinéphilie, and Dork Zabunyan on how Daney’s essay on Federico Fellini’s Ginger et Fred articulated how he perceived Rome when he was living there. The essays on Claude Ollier and Jean Collet are also superb and the filmmakers Eugène Green and Philippe Grandrieux respectfully have essays on Robert Bresson and Samuel Beckett.

The pleasure from reading these articles comes from how they offer new perspectives on previously read texts and how they create a desire to revisit them. They provide historical context about the earlier pieces and how they were received and how their meaning has evolved over time. The articles provide thoughts and understanding that go beyond their particular analysis. For example, Jean Louis Schefer in his letter describes the influence the bible had on the cinema (you can probably imagine a dozen classical Hollywood films based on its scripture), which for me was particularly resonant after seeing Martin Scorsese’s Silence whose testing of faith while the world is collapsing is another new example. A recently discovered Daney essay Godard, morale, grammaire analyzes the use of language in Godard films, which made me think of the complexity of language mixed with the disruption of social norms in the films of Matt Johnson. And if I had to play this game myself I would probably pick one of the following books: Peter Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang in America, Raymond Durgnat's Films and Feelings, Annick Bouleau's Passage du cinéma, 4992, Don Owen's Captain Donald’s Quest for Crazy Wisdom or Zoé Bruneau's En Attendant Godard.

One wonders what Daney would think of the journal, cinema or even of the depressing state of the world today? Zabunyan would highlight how Daney described the mannerism of the eighties as cinema’s second death, which implies that it would live through it and reemerge. The importance and continuation of cinema would be that there are still films that communicate a thought and which necessitate a rebounding, an engagement (to use of Daney's tennis metaphors) that would necessitate a response through film criticism. When I think of some films that illustrate some of Daney’s last ideas they would include the scenes in Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me (which he has a cameo in, through archive footage) of the gay couple watching an old Hollywood film on their couch together or the utopian environmentalism of Sebastião Salgado in Wim Wenders’s The Salt of the Earth (Wenders being an early close friend to Daney).

If there is anything a little disappointing with Trafic is that there is something non-unified about it and some of its different essays can appear to be contradictory. Other times it can be bland, obscure, too theoretical or set in its past views. In this particular issue some of the debated points throughout the essays include the merits of Bazinien realism, the fragmentation into groups, the respectability of cinema, and a hope for its future. Not that contradictions are bad or that the journal doesn’t have its own editorial position (which it does) but it's its constant return to its same old positions and polemics (with its stiff text-only format, which wasn’t always the case) that can sometimes be stifling. I would have also liked to have seen more on Stanley Kubrick or Alain Resnais in this issue (two of Daney’s favorite filmmakers) or a mention of one of my favorite film critics, Iannis Katsahnias. But as Trafic's full lengthy list of published authors at the back suggests, it does regularly expands its scope towards others and its project and history is quite impressive.

But to end on a graceful note, it is perhaps Stéphane Delorme’s editorial Ensemble from the latest issue of Cahiers and his review of this issue of Trafic that made me better appreciate it. Delorme writes, 
The word ‘ensemble’ doesn’t have a good reputation these days. What’s fashionable instead is fragmentation and specialization that leads quickly to narcissism and shortsightedness. We learn quickly to find our place and to claim our territory. We learn to judge too quickly the pieces without seeing the ensemble. We must instead rise to the occasion and see that an ensemble exists.
These days there is too much a focus on dividing people and thinking about the individual. Delorme at Cahiers and the Trafic team are trying to bring people together, allow for thought to develop from a group, and to unite through the cinema. A message that is even more vital now with every sad thing (and there are many) that is happening in the world. It’s good to think with others. This issue of Trafic illustrates some new ways of thinking about reading a text and opening up to the world to better understand how to live with films.

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