Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Last Two Delorme Issues: “La poésie doit être un peu bête”

There’s Buster Keaton, bored, at a graduation ceremony, in a full academic robe and square cap, as his peers brightly look towards the future. How to interpret his recognizable blank expression? While his cohort seems excited at the prospects of being indoctrinated into “civil” society, Keaton’s heart is elsewhere, that blank stare perfectly expressing that dread of imposed restrictions. 

The still is from College and it graces the cover of the penultimate issue of Stéphane Delorme’s editorship of Cahiers du Cinéma. Delorme writes in its editorial “The End” that the current team had to leave out of principal due to the recent purchase of the magazine by high profile French producers and businessmen. Their departure is a protest against the concentration of press outlets into the hands of a narrower group of millionaires that have close ties to the political sector. This is an ontological conflict of interest. Delorme writes, “The health of Cahiers is its virulence. That it be as firm as possible in the service of ideas, passions and convictions.” This is one of the reasons its readers liked Cahiers so much. They inspired faith to strengthen one’s convictions.
            The issue’s feature dossier is on the pedagogy of cinema studies and film production programs in French universities and colleges. This is representative of the Delorme ethos. He saw Cahiers as a place for youth to discover cinema and to be inspired. Each new issue offered strong ideas that formed a basis to argue for a counterculture. It would be a place to foster curiosity and idealism for an emerging generation of youth.
I always imagined the Cahiers team like rebels on the school yard. That it be a gateway drug towards a counterculture for cinephiles. It was never for the sake of aggressivity but instead to protest ideals that become withered due to neoliberal policies. Bertold Brecht ironized, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the building of one?”
Jean-Philippe Tessé speaks of being a Cahiers critic in terms of having a monk-like existence. There should be no galas or careerism, impositions or compromises. Nothing. All that matters is an unburdened relationship to the screen and to be sincere and trenchant about what you felt and saw. 
Jean-Sébastien Chauvin addresses what’s essential about films through his teaching, “I ask my students to start off with an emotion instead of trying to artificially impose a meaning onto a scene. To follow the through line of the emotion as it progresses through different shots and editing… to be able to understand the organic relationship that unites its sensation to its cinematographic qualities. If the emotion is palpable, it’s that the surface of the image is hiding a secret. The emotion is usually volatile and subjective, but it should be your first guide, a compass.”
            The reviewed films could sometimes be esoteric if you don’t live in Paris. For example, in the last two issues they featured Kongo, Si c’était de l’amour, Né à Jérusalem (et toujours vivant), Brooklyn Secret, Monsieur Deligny: vagabond efficace, La Communion, Abou Leila and Hotel by the River. Films that I can guarantee would never be released, even in better times, in Toronto. But in every issue, out of their plethora of texts, there were still many fascinating things to read. In these last two issues there are impressive features on the major French directors Jean-Daniel Pollet and Anne-Marie Miéville; an impressive overview of Australian genre films; interviews with John Waters and Hollywood’s bugman Steven Kutcher; and homages to Kirk Douglas and Max von Sydow. To end it all they even put together an impressive thirty-page dossier on how they defined their period and what makes for good film criticism.
            I always admired their team especially in response to a lack that I’ve felt in the Canadian context. We don’t really have a comparable close-knit group here, at least in Toronto, that discusses and writes about what gets made. People have their allotted territory and there’s no encroaching upon it. Everyone is compartmentalised and no one speaks to each other. It’s to a point that there’s no way to see the bigger picture and everyone loses. It’s really sad. 
And on top of that critics are so poorly perceived by the industry, especially in Toronto, where the industry is too complacent in pandering to American productions for money and work or promoting mediocrities barren of any regional specificities and that nobody wants to see. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re usually the outliers that prove the rule.
Only by coming together as a group can our voices be heard. You have to believe that people can come together. You have to be hopeful for it to the point of a naïve optimism. Because you can’t create a culture on the basis of lament. I think that is what really is at stakes in terms of the future of Canadian cinema. To imagine, once the cinemas re-open up, that folks from a variety of backgrounds, strangers and friends, could come together and talk to each other, particularly about Canadian films. That’s really hope. Cinema, and Cahiers, offers a useful tool to do this and to think about ways to make it possible. As Stéphane Delorme writes, “Criticism is the art of kindness because cinema is the art of kindness.” It’ll either be a swan song to wanting the best of the world or nothing at all.