Esprit; August-September 2007.

Bazin wrote in Esprit.

Why shouldn’t I?

It’s often a “dispositive” that’s at the source of composition in fine art. A dispositive: let’s mean by that the twelve stations of the cross in religious paintings as well as the four seasons, the mother figure, Botero’s curves or Buffet’s straight lines. In cartoons, that’d be the same deformity across a body of work that emphasizes a salient feature of reality. In literature, that’d be the exchange of letters in an epistolary novel, the moral in the last line of fables, the distance created by the chorus of Greek tragedy. In Wagner, the systematic return of the leitmotif. In cinema, we couldn’t discern such a usage until recent years. But things are rapidly changing to the point that if I had to define a locus for cinema today, it’ll be in the recourse to dispositives that I’ll find it. We can group works coming from different backgrounds under this term, Greece (Angelopoulos), Taiwan (Hou), United States (Lynch), France (Coline Serreau), Iran (Kiarostami), Switzerland (Godard), Israel (Gitai), Denmark (Von Trier), Singapore (Khoo). The systems are not exactly the same from one country, one auteur to another. But they have a lot in common.


The construction of the story

In addition to ones based on plastic quality and script, the most evident dispositives are dispositives of structure. Take Abbas Kiarostami. A visual dispositive—the famous pathway shaped like Z made for the film—another more narrative one, the slow journey (The Traveller, Where is the Friend’s Home?), a third, more essential one, the film within the film, rather surprisingly close to deconstructive French cinema post-May 68, and another thematic one, the same village of Koker, which has become the centre of Iranian cinema, and the evolution of the story through an accidental meeting. And, finally, this recent framework for making films using cars—in which everything happens and from which we see everything—which constitutes the masterplan of the last films on Koker, of Ten and The Taste of Cherry. Once the automobile is equipped for shooting, everything is in place for Kiarostami’s dispositives of repetition, paradoxically based on an object conceived to help us change places. We think of Hawks’ Hatari!, where the exoticism and the safari race are undone by the eternal repetition of the act of hunting.

In Kiarostami, dispositives are either those of structure (film within a film) or those related to screenwriting principles (reuse of the same settings from one film to another).

Eleven thousand kilometres away, we find parallel figures in the work of a filmmaker very different from Kiarostami, Lars von Trier. This Dane would’ve been out of work had he not made use of personal dispositives. I use the plural form because he changed them going from Denmark to United States. My opinion of him is perhaps too negative, so I’ll curb my complaints; my goal is the definition of a cinematic reality and not to make yet another value judgment. Besides, my value judgment will be nuanced since I’m a fan of The Kingdom, but maybe that’s because the series remains his one work where dispositives have the smallest part to play, crushed as they are by the demands of television production.

Our Great Dane barks out the principles of his dogma in all directions: no lighting, swaying camera, improvised script, refusal of sets etc., principles that he doesn’t respect quite often. Instead of trying to understand whether the film is successful, the critic is tempted to compare the results to the diktats of the Dogme, compliance being the misleading synonym of success. And when Trier breaks the Dogme, he makes sure that his deviations are skilful. We can see in this scaffolding a shrewd structure to mask a void.

The system will evolve with Breaking the Waves and its chapter-opening vignettes, very wide static shots laced with piercing music, which is perhaps the best part of the film.

The farce of the Dogme liquidated, Trier will modify his system again with the Dogville-Manderlay diptych. Like in avant-garde theatre, the décor loses its third dimension here, the height. It’s a cross-section view of reality, at ground level, like in an architect’s or a registrar’s plan, with symbols of furniture and house openings on the floor. This is a principle deriving from theatre’s poverty and lack of space. But Trier, an international star now, is way beyond his broke years. And this flashy minimalism contrasts with the length of the work and the presence of superstars, both very expensive, and with the principle of stereoscopy. Once again, we’re dealing with a very obvious system, which definitively places our Great Dane among licensed creators and opens the doors to festivals for him. If this principle is productive at times (the successive and stylized surprises, in a single shot, of a truck journey with Nicole Kidman under potatoes), we can wonder whether it really serves the unusual (to say the least) thesis—you will alternatingly be a victim and a torturer, no half measures, a thesis that would have gained from a more realistic presentation. The non-figurative quality of the fable reduces the work to a level of intellectual speculation bordering on ranting.

In Trier, the system is flashier, detectable through just one film (the 2-D world of Dogville), while in Kiarostami, more buried, it becomes clear only after a comparison between films. Dispositives visible upon comparison dominate in Kiarostami, as they do in a number of other filmmakers. This is demonstrated by the titles, which are not just of anecdotal affectation. From the Iranian’s Five and Ten, we go to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times and also the double story of Be with Me (Singapore), from Kings and Queen to Hartley’s Flirt, Jarmusch’s Night on Earth1, not to mention dispositives based on options (Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking). Or they tell us multiple stories (ten at most, often fewer, three being the ideal number, as Renoir showed us once), often set in contrasting countries (Hartley, Jarmusch), which are sometimes the same stories with the same dialogues (Hartley), or they take place in different eras, but in the same place (Hou). The principle of difference in repetition is always made evident.

We find here the descendants—often consciously so—of a Faulkner novel, The Wild Palms (1939), with its exemplary, unpredictable diptych creating new meanings, which has sparked off striking works like Varda’s La Pointe Courte, Chytilova’s Something Different, Godard’s One Plus One, The Power of Speech, and even Breathless, Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour, Eustache’s A Dirty Story.

There’s a desire here to break with the traditional unity of filmed narrative to go beyond, to go farther, higher, towards the cosmic, in a manner that’s primitive at times.

All this is not new: there was already Griffith’s Intolerance, Lang’s Destiny, Murnau’s Satan, Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book, Vidor’s Wine of Youth, all of them made before 19252. But the multi-spatio-temporality of these old films were mostly decorative, even commercial—to show the most amount of spectacle possible—whereas, now, it corresponds to a deeper need3. Hardly the question of appearances or commercial value in Flirt or Three Times. The difference between the eras in the second film is, in all respects, striking whereas they were mostly defined by costumes and accessories in the silent masters’ films. Perhaps the latter wanted to put the pieces back together, to show that nothing had changed with the arrival of the 20th century, while the modern filmmaker shows us the oppositions beyond surface resemblances.

Another great structural dispositive is the one that brings out the absence of meaning. The filmmaker isn’t concerned with making you understand every part of the story he’s narrating, but rather with hiding its meaning. This is in keeping with a more realistic perception of life, where you don’t understand everything that surrounds you. We often don’t know the passers-by on city streets, their professions, or their sexual behaviour. Obscurity reigns in life without our awareness of it. It doesn’t shock us while it tends to bother us in cinema.

There is hence a recent effort by filmmakers to present a reality of an uncertain standing. It’s not necessarily deliberate. Some films are obscure because the script is ill-conceived, or stupid cuts were made at the last moment, or the director was overwhelmed by the events. Sometimes, the filmmaker sees to it that he stays enigmatic. They call it an open film, an open ending. It looks good, it’s snobbish. It produces an impression of inferiority in the audience, who must untangle the film’s threads before judging it. If they can’t, they won’t dare speak about the film or its possible depths, often illusory, and even less criticize it. It’s then up to the critic to determine which category the film is to be placed in, to call out the fraudsters of ambiguity, which is far from easy. This culture of the unknown represents a dispositive that was rarely known in the cinema of yesteryear: Night at the Crossroads (Renoir, 1932), Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, 1947), Line of Sight (Pollet, 1959), Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1960), Woman of the Ganges (Duras, 1973) were its precursors, soon joined by the Kubrick of 2001, Tarkovsky, Weerasethakul, Lemming (Moll), and The Moustache (Carrère), as well as many others.

The work of Lynch is exemplary in this regard: indefiniteness is the law of Lynch. He had an appeal right from his first project, Eraserhead, reaffirmed by the Twin Peaks series, an original crime movie where the pandemonium ends up making the plot implode, and especially his recent films. In my view, the smoke screen of Lost Highway doesn’t work because Lynch starts out on another route altogether, distracting us, while that of Mulholland Drive, present right from the beginning, turns out to be very attractive. But I’m getting too far into subjective territory here. All the more so because a friend maintains that Mulholland becomes clear in the third viewing. I’d argue that this film works on the strengths of its mise en scène, independently of the meaninglessness, which only adds a certain unusual flavour and humour.

There’s a problem here. If Lynch’s cinema clearly makes use of a dispositive, the films of the past I’ve cited, which arrive at a comparable result, don’t necessarily proceed with a design in mind. Can we speak, then, of dispositives? A dispositive is, by definition, disposé (positioned) and hence intentional. Now, the aforementioned Renoir film seems to owe its strangeness to the fact that Jean Mitry lost a reel of it, the meaninglessness of The Big Sleep results from an eleventh-hour editing which looked superior to Hawks’. The Lady of Shanghai because Welles didn’t give a damn. Woman of the Ganges is the daughter of the schizophrenic egocentrism of Duras, who understood the entire story, but was clearly the only one… the nebulousness of Line of Sight is related to the lack of expertise of a twenty-three-year-old debutant. The last two films are nevertheless very impressive, in part because obscurity once stood for originality, brought a breath of fresh air into the confines of too Cartesian a cinema.

Another important element to note: a number of Asian productions seem incomprehensible to us because we are unaware of the local context. Japanese films without translation, German silents without intertitles lost their intoxicating mystery when they got French subtitles. Murnau’s The Haunted Castle suffered a little from the clarification. So, the use of the word “dispositive” can often be questionable.

Another structural systematism has become common these days. The absence of meaning is sometimes related to a Weltanschauung founded on the absurd. The dispositive of disharmony expresses a related meaning hinged on the inability of man to adapt himself to the world, on the fact that the world wasn’t made for man, nor made by him. The films I’ve cited offer us the objective variant of this modern vision, and the ones I’m going to talk about will rather represent a subjective variant. All these dispositives are then only the reflection of a metaphysics.

The most evident prototype is the recent Godard, which superimposes an ancient stained-glass aesthetic on trivial human actions, or at least ones at odds with the splendour of the image. An old palette, but at the same time very modern in the opposition it brings about. In Praise of Love could well have been called The Ontology of Melancholy without any impact to the film: life in the film’s supposed diegesis remains quite withdrawn compared to the work on the image. This kind of disharmony is very present in one form or another in filmmakers as diverse as Oliveira or Tsai Ming-liang, Dumont or Gus Van Sant, Straub or Angelopoulos4. In the latter’s work is an aesthetic founded, above all, on cold, on fog, on rain, on snow, and on the mud in Greece, spread out in long shots of a wide field, imagining various important episodes in recent local history. The shortcoming of the Greek filmmaker, in my view, is that the framework for his dispositive has remained the same in the past thirty years. It has become a system, a label, a structural effect too easy to spot (but critics love cues). We’ve seen the film before we enter the theatre. It’s the drama of a cinema too dependent on an aesthetic formula, which repeats itself over and over, since it can’t renew itself except in small changes in the choice of the action’s timeframe. We can see the steam running out not just in Angelopoulos, but also in Jancso, Syberberg, Leone (who’s been able to shut up in time). Works whose premises are often devastating (The Travelling Players, The Round-up, Ludwig), but whose principle soon becomes stale. A cinema that often refuses empathy, like most of the champions of dispositives of structures, and which pays the price for this refusal.

Another obvious dispositive is that of the sequence-shot. Today, Sokurov (even if it’s a fake sequence-shot created by sly editing), Hou, Vecchiali, Breillat and many others, the specialist being Amos Gitai (Kadosh, Kippur, 11’09”). They harness a tradition initiated by Guitry, Welles, Dreyer, Fuller, Jancso, Rivette, Pialat.

There are two families of filmmakers today, addicts of the long shot and fans of flashy editing (Scorsese, Coline Serreau5), just like how the writing of last century was split between virtuosos of the never-ending sentence—Joyce and Faulkner—and champions of the short sentence—the tandem James Ellroy-Marguerite Duras—taking over from ancient dispositives, like Goethe’s tableaux vivants. Art is located in these two extremes, the middle region deemed insipid, long shots signifying experimentation and flashy editing a more commercial art. It was the other way around at the beginning of cinema, with Eisenstein’s avant-garde and the more mainstream cinema of sequence-shots in Feuillade or Lumière, or in the singing movies of the 1930s. Everyone knows these frameworks of expressions: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2003) based all its publicity on the fact that it contains only one shot, a launching strategy unthinkable ten years ago.

We can’t imagine a filmmaker today having his fingers in both pies, like Godard once did, taking a hundred-and-eighty degree turn from the monstrous tracking shots of cars in Weekend to the automation of The Power of Speech, or Hitchcock, jumping from shots eight minutes long (Rope or Under Capricorn) to the sizzling editing of The Birds or the shower scene in Psycho. Everyone marks out his territory once and for all in order to build his brand image, the long shot implying a certain nobility, a somewhat misleading idea of purity and truth, a cinema ontologically linked to reality. A slightly perverse formula because everything is often meticulously prepared in advance so as to leave nothing to chance, which would actually reinforce the evidence of realism so dear to André Bazin. The principle of the long shot (or of machine-gun editing) is established during scriptwriting, if there is scriptwriting, even before the choice of action and dialogues. It’s true that this has something to do with finances: a series of sequence-shots can be filmed quickly, costs lesser than fragmentation and makes possible the work of a broke filmmaker (Vecchiali, Gitai), wrapped up in three days sometimes. Which doesn’t entirely hold true in 2006, since video editing allows for great shot division at low cost given there’s no more need for a heavy budget for negative editing.


Work on the image

The last great domain of action of dispositives is that of plastic composition. There were some examples earlier of an overall systematization of cinematography in a film, with—I quote randomly—the Figueroa-Fernandez duo, who worked together on twenty-three melodramas, Jammin’ the Blues, Wellman’s Track of the Cat, De Santis’ and Scola’s (rather ridiculous6) A Special Day, the negative that replaces the positive in the Cuban The First Charge of the Machete, Badal’s and Leterrier’s A King without Distraction, Lubitsch’s The Wild Cat etc. But they were rare. Today, the existence of a particular formula for cinematography is increasingly frequent. We can see in this the influence of cinematographers, who have become more dominant in the conception of the visual ambience owing to a lack of control among debutant directors (30% of the films in France are first works) and the need for a specific cinematographic style in order to appear serious (see the statements in the magazine published by Kodak, which are all the more pretentious when the film falls flat) and to hope for good press reviews and festival selections. Doesn’t matter whether the cinematographic style has a precise relation to the film itself or not. This produces a cinema in which the dispositive of cinematography is at complete odds with the rest of the film, generally weaker (Honoré’s Seventeen Times Cecile Cassard, Sandrine Ray’s Alive, Pradal’s Marie from the Bay of Angels). The cinematography directs the film (even in the work of Agnès Godard and Claire Denis, William Lubtchansky and Philippe Garrel). In The Regular Lovers, unity is created by the exaggeration of black and white contrasts, a replica of Expressionist orthochromatism, which produces a delicious clash between the ultra-white tones of the CRS helmets of 1968 and a visual symphony derived from Phantom, made by Murnau in 1922. Or ennobled shit.


A dangerous generalization

The generalization of dispositives can have a negative impact on production: the existence of old-school films based on plot, actors, chance (arising from an improvisation in performance) is threatened: it doesn’t go down well when there are no evident signs of ambition. Allen, Rivette, Doillon, Pialat, Breillat, Altman, Sayles more or less get by, sure, but it’s not easy for them. The craze for dispositives tends to kill life, reality, instinct.

One of the characteristics of dispositivism is its globalization. Films decreasingly have a precise nationality: what could be that of Polanski’s The Pianist? Sometimes, there’s a moral nationality and a financial nationality for the same film (see Lynch, Kusturica, Trier).

The works of Carles, Giuzzanti, Mograbi, Moore, Ophuls have little to do with those of their countrymen, but they have a lot in common with each other, driven as they are by the same dispositive of the aggressive interviewer-director.

We are far from the time when we could speak of German expressionism, Italian neorealism, Swedish landscapism, French impressionism, Russian collectivism. Everything is international now. Directors from the entire world rub shoulders at Cannes or elsewhere, thanks to aerial transport while, in the fifties, Kurosawa or Fuller didn’t set foot in the festivals they were awarded at. On the Croisette, in 2006, filmmakers can see everything, even if they live very far7.

It’s impossible now to write a history of cinema due to the immensity of the task but also due to the difficulty of sorting everything into national or genre-based labels.

We can also regret the touch of decadence here, national character having been devoured by a global standard, often symbolized by the English language present in the speech and, particularly, in the titles (The World, Blissfully Yours, Three Times, Close Up, Be with me, Seven Invisible Men). Thankfully, cinematographic nationality is trumped by regional expression, which demonstrates a more homogenous culture at a more human scale: Midlands, Aquitania, Nordeste, Midwest, Bavaria, Emilia.

I said that dispositivism is a recent phenomenon, citing examples from the past all the while. But these are exceptions. Renoir, Ford, Griffith, Murnau, Borzage, Vidor, Hawks, Rossellini, Gance, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Barnet almost completely avoid dispositivism8. The dialectic imposed by commerce, changing as per fashion, often prevents faithfulness to a permanent dispositive, which remains a feature of current-day auteurism, which is freer from box-office constraints.

To be sure, dispositives already existed in the work of Capra who, at his peak, dealt with just one subject, the innocent man in the moral jungle of the world at large. They existed in Eisenstein, Guitry, Ozu, Lubitsch. Reading the synopsis of a film by one of the last three filmmakers, we wonder whether we have seen it or not. But more often, it’s a dispositive of repetition (a single film not disclosing the underlying framework, revealed only by the reference to the auteur’s other products), which is, in fact, a slighter, rather impure dispositive in comparison to one-off, intrinsic dispositives, evident in just a single film (Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, Mekas’ The Brig, Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking, Scola’s A Special Day), or repeated, intrinsic dispositives (Angelopoulos, Leone and many others).


1Rosales’ Solitary Fragments and Seidl’s Import Export will join the ranks now.

2The Western offers a dispositive of insidious duality: the arrow and the canon, nudity and uniforms.

3Although, at times, it stems from the diktats of coproduction, or the desire to conquer markets that didn’t exist in the silent era: neither Intolerance nor Destiny nor Leni’s Waxworks was intended for the Mesapotamian public, where the films are partly set.

4At work here is an internal dialectic, which closely resembles an external, more superficial dialectic born of the juxtaposition of two stories. In de Oliveira, it’s the quiet mannerism of the image against the violence of the narrated facts; with Dumont, it’s the heaviness of the visual ambience against the crudity and the mystery of the action; in Straub and Huillet, it’s the outpouring of words against the timidity of the image. Godard is the strongest of all since he is the only one to juggle both forms of the dialectic, internal and external.

5Whose strength is in changing dispositives from one film to another: inversion, comic or photo-novel style, ultra-rapid dialogue, choral film.

6It’s surprising to find the same dominant colour scheme, close to washed out yellow or grey that exclude lively tones, in Suwa-Champetier (A Perfect Couple), Sokurov (The Sun), Berri-Nuytten (Jean de Florette), Godard-Pollock (In Praise of Love), experimentation leading to a new standardization.

7To be sure, there was a relation through film sometimes at the international level in the silent era, which diminished with the arrival of the talkies: subtitles were needed. According to Ozu’s diary, the Japanese in the thirties saw very little of Borzage, Vidor, Capra, Hawks. But we must note a little-known particularity: until 1951, it was the West, and not Japan, which was isolated, marginalized, since neither Vidor, nor Borzage, Hitchcock or Renoir knew Ozu or Mizoguchi, who practiced an art inspired by Sternberg’s (who will end his career in Kyoto).

8Of course, notwithstanding the fact that each frame is, in principle, the product of a unique, one-time dispositive, not employed pervasively. But let’s not play on words.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]