Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jean-Louis Comolli on Sergeant York

"My first article appeared in 1962, less than a year after arriving in Paris, an article on Sergeant York [1941] by Howard Hawks. I was astonished, enchanted and very nervous about writing my first article for Cahiers." - Jean-Louis Comolli ("Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...")

The first few generations of Cahiers critics were known to be enamoured by a certain kind of American cinema, specifically the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks (which is why they were referred to by some as "Hitchcocko-Hawksian"). Jacques Rivette's enthusiastic review of Monkey Business, The Genius of Howard Hawks, opens with its famous claim:
"The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks's genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can't be any other reason why they don't recognize it."
Jean Douchet in the book French New Wave writes on Rivette, "the young critic broke new ground not only in the way we understand a film or work of art, but cinema itself." He elaborates,
"For the first time, a film critic didn't limit himself to the surface of the film but attempted to grasp its internal organization and penetrate its organic life. We can image the effect this produced on the review's professional readership. Cahiers' reputation for unreadability stems from this, not from the words and phrases being obscure. Today, they are striking in their clarity. It was the thing itself ("the thing from another world" as Hawks would have called it) that seemed incomprehensible. This wasn't what a film was supposed to be like or the way it was supposed to be interpreted."
Luc Moullet, in his Cahiers review of Rio Bravo, uses contradictions in his argument: "I hate westerns. That's why I adore Rio Bravo." But he goes further, "So why did Hawks make this western? Because it enabled him to present actions that are not ordinarily seen in our everyday world, by beings outside of nature." In Douchet's review of Hatari!, he proceeds in an analysis that describes the film in terms of its scientific methodology, "The economy and efficiency of his methods result from a strict application of the law of conservation of energy."

I've translated here, in English for the first time, Jean-Louis Comolli's initial Cahiers du cinéma review of Sergeant York (Sept '62, N.135) where, in a sophisticated writing style, he elaborates on what are the qualities of good art, how the film's mise en scène can contradict its énoncés (cf. Comolli on Ford), and the genius of Howard Hawks. - D.D. 
The Grandeur of Simplicity
A misunderstanding always separates those for whom cinema is only an occasion for a social, moral, or political engagement; and those who think that the essential of cinema is to make us enter a more authentic dimension of our being and our problems through the creations of certain filmmakers. This fundamental disagreement on art appears again regarding Sergeant York. Some have criticized this film for denigrating the serious problem of conscientious objection. They rely on the fact that the film is an object from the WWII that aims to dismiss, in the USA, the objection of conscientious objection from a religious standpoint. Without a doubt, the adventure experienced by Alvin York, which is the starting point of the film, is a good answer to the scruples of certain Christians, and is an absolution of the act of killing in wartime. But this is also only the pretext for Hawks’ film. To only be limited to this dimension of the film, a schematic view of its scenario, is to not understand the film that was directed by its author, and to not to notice the obvious ambiguity of the Hawksien mise en scène. This ambiguity defines itself in two ways: first it resides in the ambivalence that Hawks looks at his hero, and then, by permitting a total look at the man, it creates a mise en scène that takes its departure to be the simplicity of this man.
            Alvin York is simple. He is uncultivated, rough, naïve, and he is carried away by his faith in religion. His only positive force is to be attached to his little world. Hawks understands and knows this man. This knowledge is both critical and loving: it takes into account failings, limitations, and riches. Hawks’ gaze is also at the same time hard and ironic, sensible and warm. What is the meaning of York’s conversion as Hawks’ constructed it and filmed it? The warnings of the pastor are only addressed to York’s intelligence: they cannot really convince him because they do not move him. As well what is actually significant, to hit the target of something that is close (with a gun), but this time there is a miraculous quality to it, because he is personally engaged, which changes him so that he now understands the fascination of the pastor and hymns. Similarly, if York hesitated to engage in the army, it is because he interpreted naively, without seriously considering its implications, all of the tenants of the oracles that go beyond his understanding and all of its questions as well as the commandments of the bible (he responds to a child who doubts the holy word: "What is written in this book is the truth."). By the construction of the narrative (the sequence of reading the Bible follows the conversion and precedes the flag call), Hawks shows us that York’s religious understanding, which is established on such a basis, also comprises little actual engagement, limited to an absolute faith, an acceptance that is total and sincere, which incontestably looks over the problems posed to a Christian who thinks about these things, but that, by its strength and simplicity, it exceeds exactly all of the spiritual problems, without ever becoming a drama of consciousness. The direction of Gary Cooper during these sequences (his detachment when the pastor intercedes for him, his fatalism when he is incorporated) leaves no doubt about the real intentions of Hawks: to show how York’s simplicity leads him beyond life’s dramas, and how a simple man follows an interior path where his interiority pushes him, without preoccupying his sense, his limitations, or the new responsibilities that he encounters.
            The military section of the film is just a reprisal of the first part. Here too, the Hawksien staging is evident: the Major imposes onto York, to persuade him, a book that he presents to him as another bible, his speech moves him and recalls the exhortations of the pastor, and the permission that the major gives York, like the saying ("I was counting on the good") when York returns convinced, suggests that he knows about what plan to achieve. The choice of York, once again, is not intellectual or spiritual: he is carried (beyond the biblical quote that he interprets and like the lightning in its own way, this justifies a choice that is underlined by motifs that exceed his consciousness) by the fact that Daniel Boone, who is a fascinating hero of liberty, has planted a tree in the Valley of the Three Forks. (Hawks insist on this tree in both parts of the film and the original scenes with Boone refer to them, destructive, Alvin York, shoots them with his gun.)
            On the one hand, what affects York, returning to his native country, engages him more than just through its confrontation of words and ideas; on the other hand, he stays himself throughout the troubles of the responsibilities that he assumed, but which he exceeds through his vital force (helped with this by the fascinating impulses from the pastor and the major who both understand that only a deep emotional contact determines the simple man and drives him into action).
            Does York act? He passes through a war but he does not live it: it is like he is at home where he was shooting a turkey. Nothing affects him: his unconsciousness experiences these atrocities with an admirable inner strength. He kills just like he plows, with the same eagerness. The pretexts that he gives himself does not account for his spirit and his inner drive, beyond the contingencies and problems, which is just as good for removing rocks than it is to kill men. The parallels between the night-time hallucinatory work of the first part and the frightening hunt of the enemies in the second is flagrant: it reveals the same exploit and destructive force. York dreams to own land and a house. Hawks imposes the brutal, in the miracle of seeing it in front of him all of a sudden this dream that is realized, without any direct action and by the same force of a dream. York can fight, though he cannot build. Hawks refuses York the estimable prize of his work (York’s efforts fail to realize his dream) and instead he is rewarded the same prize for killing. This restores York’s true measurement: he is fixed in his strong convictions of man’s condition, and he possesses such a primitive purity that he becomes a saint. So this is why he is accorded miracles: the realization of dreams.
            The man is understood here by his tragic and frightening dimensions, in the ambiguity of life. The authentic existence can escape the efforts of the man who is trying to achieve them, as if he is not himself, but come naturally, when he is. York is always himself. The story of his life is not the description of a battle, but a chronicle of the acts and words of the life of a saint, for whom everything is simple.

The ambiguity of York’s life returns to the simplicity of his being, this corresponds to the ambiguity of the Hawksien mise en scène, which is something that is like the character’s simple existence, this is why the style is very simple.
            One can, in front of Sergeant York, like in front of any major work, including the cinematographic, be carried away by a sudden revelation that returns us to ourselves without giving us time to pick ourselves up and to go through the work, but to be penetrated by a progression of the work in us, and to undergo a maturation. But all personal growth remains a miracle. The definitive moment of fulfillment for each instant of the way stops us from governing the process. This can be said as well for Renoir, Mizoguchi, and Rossellini. What puzzles and worries us in a Hawks’ film, and that is singular to him, is the equilibrium between the feeling of being constantly overcome by ourselves and, at the same time, the certainty that what we are trying to capture is escaping us while we are trying to grasp it. The elusive has no other secret than being in us, rather than beyond.
            It is not a failure to either to try to understand the work through reflection: the work of Hawks can be understood through a variety of approaches.
            Precisely, by all approaches, it presents the same lesson, in it’s entirely, irreducible to the different methods of analysis. It remains unalterable in the fluidity of its different aspects. It was such a force of existence that each rapport between a scene and us, does not make us think of the whole (like in most great works), but presents its entirety in front of us. To this extent, all of Hawks’ films present an essential ambiguity, that they live out in each scene, and in each explanation that we propose, all the while living more fully in the totality (which leaves room for an ambiguity) of moments and explications more than in isolated scenes.
            The difficulty of the critical function and what makes Hawks’ art particularly astonishing is its clarity and simplicity. Everything is already so assimilated, felt and understood, all is said and without mystery or symbols, the cinematographic expression serves only to tell the story, there is no separation between the mise en scène and the scenario, everything is shown to us so immediately that there is no formal or thematic problems to cling to, without ever totally grasping it: it escapes us, even when we have understood. This is the dimension of Hawks.
            How has Hawks managed this simplicity of narrative, and finally what exactly is this simplicity? We must first separate its secret and complex dimension beyond its apparent simplicity. One might think that in this film Hawks’ conveys a thematic concealed behind an easily comprehendible facade to not have to engage with its essential reality. This is thought of for Rossellini, Lang, Preminger, Hitchcock and is verified by a critic who penetrates the work and recreates it, as the author has designed it, on the level of his poetic imagination and his reverie of forms. When this critical method is applied to Sergeant York there is nothing that is crystallized. Every attempt to address the work, we face the film in its whole, which illuminates in some ways but not totally. If there were any latent themes behind its simple appearance, the work would be beyond itself, there would be a dimension where what it is lacking would be a key to understanding it. This dimension would call towards a reality that is more essential than the work, and that would not be able to be felt, expected, searched or at least found. A dimension that would set up a call to a more essential reality of the work, and that could not be felt, expected, and look more or less found. This lack is not revealed in Sergeant York. There is no appeal: on the contrary, every search reveals a reaction to the totality of presence of the film. I do not think Hawks’ oeuvre contains a hidden thematic: it is not deeper than that what is immediately accessible.
            The man is introduced, under the purity and strength of the Hawksien gaze, as if he now could not be those qualities. This constant presence of the essentials confers to the film its greatness and simplicity of the immediate revelations of being. Each scene is the renewal of spirits by the apparition of the man York. The film is not constructed with the function of a progression but allows for this revelation to be total and continuous. This approach to get the essential necessitates a complete lucidity and is tied together through the totality of its existence. At this narrative level, Hawks does more than tell the story of Alvin York, because the narrative is the totality of action and creation. Hawks is making cinema: he is creating York with every moment, and he has for his creatures a profound understanding, irony and love. This mise en scène can only then be simple: to create. The creation is the easiest and most powerful way to access existence.
            This simplicity resides in the totality of the gaze: in its ambiguity (cf. examples). This ambiguity is totally imposed, there are no alternatives, the man is offered in its whole. It surpasses itself in its simplicity of creation which presents in a single moment all of the facets of his being. The critical process accompanies the creative process: Hawks shows Alvin York and his world, and realizes them by the fact that he is showing them.
            The Hawksien creative process is a constant renewing fusion, where there is an eagerness and anticipation, that of the look and act: it is a mise en scène of authentic knowledge. Hawks creates by successive drives that work to create a "grand oeuvres" of cinema: the incessant transmutation of a gaze towards life, from an appearance into being. This process must utilize all of the facts, he realizes a complete movement where nothing is exceeded and that becomes the basis of the scenes. It is a dialectical cinema that is in the state of renewal: a dynamic cinema.
            The apprehension of this dynamic, of this tension, perpetually released to be brought anew, this creates the essence of cinema.
            The idea of the Hawksien process is confirmed when it is renewed, in a way that calls attention to itself, in this dialectic, as its unfolding, is a strong impression: like a perpetual voyage between seizing and giving, between expectation and possession. In terms of the vision, as a reflection of the Hawks process, is lighted by its momentum that creates its movements: it is the movements of life and creation that comes through in Hawks’ art.
            This is the simplicity of Hawks, his grandeur.

Jean-Louis Comolli

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