Books


Cahiers du cinéma no. 473; November 1993.

Zodiac

During the filming of The Sign of Leo, I’d shouted at Éric Rohmer: “How is it that you, a Christian filmmaker, have suddenly become an apologist for this sham called astrology?”

I’ve realized in the past few years that Rohmer was right: astrology determines even the future of filmmakers.

It’s the American critic Manny Farber who showed me the way. According to him, filmmakers born under the sign of Pisces were concerned with the dialectic between cinema and theatre (Guitry, Pagnol, Rivette) or with another related dialectic: between reality and dream (Minnelli, Rivette). I think we must expand the empire of Pisces filmmakers a little: it could be said that their work is based foremost on actors. This is the case not just of Guitry, Pagnol and Rivette, but also of Téchiné and of Doillon, of Jerry Lewis and his accomplice Tashlin.

We can also note the Pisces taste for never-ending, pretty much unplayable spectacles so dear to Rivette as well as to Marlow or Hugo.

The presence of Biberman, Clément, Rocha or Walsh in this category clearly shows that the dominant feature of a sign is just that and has no general or exclusive value. These aren’t characteristics that we usually attribute to Pisces. Nevertheless, there is a very common trait that we find in certain filmmakers of the sign such as Buñuel or Rivette: the presence of conspiracy, secret and occultism and mysticism.

Aries, sign of pioneers and innovators, brings together experimental or avant-garde filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Duras, Garrel, Epstein, McLaren, who take over from great, more or less marginal poets: Lautréamont, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Verlaine.

Tauruses are especially great actors (Cooper, Fonda, Stewart, Welles, Mason, Gabin, Fernandel). Powerful, obstinate. But we also find great filmmakers, most often focused on the theme of the mirror (Ophuls, Sirk), on the baroque and on awesome tracking shots (Ophuls, Welles), on melodrama and portraits of women (Ophuls, Sirk, Borzage, Vecchiali, Mizoguchi), women – often prostitutes – murdered by ordeals.

Geminis demonstrate an extreme attention to image composition and plastic qualities. They often end up with a certain mannerism. Between the 29th of May and the 5th of June, we meet Sternberg, the Left Bank trio Resnais/Varda/Demy, plus the king of filters, Fassbinder.

On the 7th and 8th of June, we find three Italian specialists of unhappy childhood, De Sica, Rossellini and Comencini.

Wilder, Mocky, Chabrol, Hawks and the Stiller of Erotikon: dark or sarcastic comedy is the prerogative of Cancers. We can also notice in them the art of the storyteller (Hawks, Chabrol, Breillat), a pull towards the fantastic, futurism, occultism and mystery (Cocteau, Browning, Paul Leni, and also Bergman, the Marker of La Jetée, the Astruc of The Crimson Curtain, the Mocky of Litan and The Big Scare, the Chabrol of Death Rite) which we also find in another Cancer, Franz Kafka. A sign, then, with multiple dominant traits.

There is, in Leos, only one real leitmotif quite in keeping with their general reputation: among them, born a day apart, are two of the most widely known filmmakers, DeMille and Hitchcock, classic moonlighters, the only ones to have married highest quality with the top priorities of the box-office. Kubrick and Huston, to a lesser degree, are of the same breed. Of course, we find here many filmmakers from the United States, where it’s difficult to make a career without commercial success. Curiously, there are a number of mavericks (off-beat independents) among the Leos: Fuller, Ray, Boetticher.

Leos have very long careers (Hitchcock, DeMille, Huston, Autant-Lara) with systematic gaps (Boetticher, Fuller, Ray, Riefenstahl, Carné) or prolonged silences (Kubrick, Pialat). One also notices a long life-span (Riefenstahl, Autant-Lara, Carné) or, at the very least, an abundance of work (Ruiz, DeMille). Sometimes sport serves as a substitute to cinema (bullfighting for Boetticher, diving for Riefenstahl, flying for DeMille, boxing and hunting for Huston).

In one way or another, though always unconventionally, some among them could be linked to a right-leaning behaviour (Autant-Lara, Riefenstahl, Fuller, Pialat, or a Christian variant: DeMille, Olmi, Hitchcock, Leenhardt) which is perhaps inextricably linked to commercial success.

Nature is one of the favourite motifs of Virgos (Renoir, Sjöström, Dovzhenko). For these bon vivants, the world is bountiful, often bitter (Renoir, Stroheim, Gene Kelly, Preston Sturges, Germi). Their emotional lives are sometimes complex (Sjöström, Germi, Kazan etc.). One notices the shared birthday of both the master (Renoir) and the pupil (Becker).

Libras express themselves very well through the comic: Keaton, Tati, McCarey, Groucho Marx were all born between the 2nd and the 8th of October, the second decan.

I’m cross with my mother: had she hurried up a little instead of giving birth on the 14th of October, I would’ve belonged to the second decan and would’ve made much funnier films.

The first decan is characterized by a pronounced individualism and asceticism (Bresson, Antonioni).

Scorpios disappoint: to be sure, they comprise of some high-profile names (Gance, Visconti). But it’s a neutral category, hard to discern a central line. Perhaps a certain academic art (Clouzot, Clair, Malle, Visconti) counterbalanced by the other extreme, the marginality of Hanoun, Biette, Muratova, Medvedkin, Rozier.

One can say the same of Capricons, where it’s impossible to determine a common factor, except a taste for working as a collective (Sennett, Vertov) or as a pair (Straub and, more episodically, Leone, Sembene, Murnau): the negation of the ego. Both signs reveal an almost complete American absence.

In Sagittarians, on the other hand, is often a hypertrophy of the Ego: Allen and Godard, who are actors of the same model, Eustache. This egocentrism is the synonym for a persistent angst. One can’t skip over the fact that the only two great filmmakers of the capitalistic world to have shot themselves are Sagittarians, Eustache and Linder, which we can relate to the origins of the two filmmakers, the French South-West often being the seat of an anxiety-ridden expression. Also notable is the frequent frailty of those born in winter: Poe, Chekov and Molière had short lives too.

Among them are also several travellers, emigrants: Lang, Preminger, Dassin, Max Linder.

It is astounding to note the supremacy of Aquarians – conceived in spring and born in winter – as much in their quantity as their quality: two or three times as many great filmmakers (or writers) than in any other sign. These are unquestionable classics, Eisenstein, Griffith, Dreyer, Lubitsch, Vidor, Ford, Flaherty, Truffaut, Mankiewicz, Fellini and also Cottafavi, who succeed Stendhal, Joyce, Dickens, Simenon, Brecht, Lewis Carroll, Marivaux, Conrad, Strindberg, Byron, Beaumarchais, Jules Verne and Virginia Woolf, not to mention Mozart.

As a side note, we notice in them a certain attraction towards water bodies and marshlands, solids that become liquids (see all of Vidor, Louisiana Story, Bitter Rice, Alexander Nevsky, Way Down East, admiral Ford’s Tobacco Road and recall that 400 Blows and La Dolce Vita end at the sea).

It’s with Aquarians that we find the finest argument against sceptics.

There must surely be others: I should’ve deepened my search. But it’s very difficult to know the ascendancy, lunar inclination, the precise time and place of birth of Mizoguchi, Kiarostami or Jasset.

The history of cinema has been written by country (Charles Ford), by period (Sadoul), by genre (Mitry). Why not by zodiac sign?

The discoveries we arrive at will surely have a diminished value given that we know little about the reasons for the dominant traits of a sign. But they can have a great practical use: according to the desires expressed in a cinematographic policy, we could favour one sign over another; I think one must think twice before funding filmmakers of a certain sign, I’m not going to say which one: I’m too afraid of getting my face bashed in the next time I show up at the Filmmakers Association. Filmmakers trying to find their way, either at the beginning or in the middle of their careers, could orient themselves better according to the dominant cinematic traits of their zodiac signs. Had Delluc devoted himself to comedies, David Lean to the underground and Disney to the diary, they would’ve turned out much better films.

 

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

 

Response to Libération’s major survey, May 1987

Luc Moullet

 

To make big bucks, to go on big trips and to meet pretty girls.

 

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

Essai d'Ouverture

As of today, my critical activity stretches over fifty-three years, with a gap between 1969 and 1982 that can be easily explained: Cahiers du cinema had suddenly converted to the cult of Marx. Oh, Karl was a nice guy with a bunch of good ideas, but I confess having trouble working in his sole dominion.

My first texts were pinched from Rivette and Truffaut: I devoured their prose on my way to high school on Wednesday mornings (the day the Arts weekly hit the stands) at the risk of getting run over. I learnt their writing by heart. This groupie mentality, coupled with an inferiority complex, didn’t sit well with me. That’s why I revolted. I frequently reproached Truffaut for some of his texts, something which irritated him. I don’t know if he understood the painful ambiguity of my status as a conformist. Today I regret having upbraided him at a time when not everything was going easy for him.

At the same time, I multiplied my oaths of loyalty to Truffaut. He had replaced the old guard and he thought that I and Straub were going to overtake him, just like Barbara Bates was to overtake Anne Baxter who replaced Bette Davis in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. And when chatting with Straub at the entrance of a theatre, I had to hide whenever I saw Truffaut coming, who suspected me of colluding with Straub…

My other favourite critic was Georges Sadoul; I wanted to become the Sadoul of Hitchcocko-Hawsians, a daring paradox if we think that Truffaut was diametrically opposed to Sadoul… I admired the clarity of his writing, his encyclopaedic mind, his kindness, even if the content of his texts often seemed odious to me. His adherence to communism, for which he was criticized, particularly expressed his wish to belong to one family or the other (there was the Surrealist family before this). In fact, he used to snore at the CP meetings.

I too felt the need for a family. Things were a little turbulent during my adolescence. There were families that I chose myself later, that at Cahiers, the Société des réalisateurs de films, les Films d’ici etc. It was the same situation with the others, such as Godard, who came to Cahiers because it was for him an oasis of civilization, a point of reference, essential for the morale, in face of adversity or stupidity.

Why was I accepted so easily at Cahiers at the age of eighteen?

Because, the perfect bookworm that I was, I was the most well-informed cinephile in Paris.

And then it was always nice to have fans at a time when the straight-shooters of Cahiers were broke and, moreover, highly contested.

Everyone at Cahiers sensed my passion for cinema, which appeared worthy of respect.

And I was the Naïf, the innocent one, the “blue-eyed boy of Cahiers” in Rohmer’s words, the fan incapable of dirty tricks (frequent in the milieu). I was even surprised the day Lydie Doniol-Valcroze handed me my first cheque. I would’ve paid to be able to write in the “yellow magazine”.

Most of all, I made people laugh because I spoke, because I wrote. When I used to bring my papers to Rohmer, I looked forward to the moment he would blush, the moment when tears of laughter would trickle down his right cheek. If you knew Rohmer, you’d know it wasn’t easy to get to this point. For me, it was the kicker. Also, when Daney admitted to me later that the first text he rushed to whenever he opened Cahiers was mine.  

I must confess that, on the 5th of November 1955, I almost fainted when I opened Truffaut’s letter where he told me that my article on Ulmer was accepted at Cahiers. At that second, my whole life was planned out, with several pitfalls to be avoided. The hardest part was done. Now that I had my foot on the stirrup, the passage to filmmaking was like dropping a letter at the post office: I’d written the first long and serious text on Godard, so Jean-Luc, that marvellous Pygmalion of French cinema, advised his producer (who was on his knees since the success of À bout de souffle) to produce my film.

In the beginning, my texts were a little too reverential towards Rivette and Truffaut. It was ridiculous to suck up to them: it was obvious that I took their side in all matters, no matter they wrote. There were also pointless gibes in my articles against overrated directors.

But soon I tried to be more poised and, especially, to be always comprehensible. The great fad at Cahiers then was to write unreadable texts. Demonsablon was a champion of this literature. There was a snobbism of hermeticism. If the reader didn’t understand a text printed on the fine, glazed paper of the magazine, it meant that the editor was superior to him. Even Bazin gave in at times to the sirens of obscurity.

My ingenuousness brought a breath of fresh air.

Godard pointed out to me that my strong point was the art of the catchphrase, the art of finding the right title, more than of getting lost in long sentences like Faulkner, my literary god at the time. And I tried to follow this advice.

My first texts were disorderly, strings of readymade sentences already read somewhere else, sweeping, gratuitous stylistic effects, pretty pirouettes and aggressive positions to get myself noticed (the very first articles by Truffaut, from the year 1953, and Godard were of the same kind), to the point that, in the beginning of 1957, Rohmer made me completely rewrite my text on Eisenstein. He explained to me that every sentence must have an internal coherence and that each one must be organically linked to the next. The ABCs, you’d think. But no professor told me that in the high school or the university. They were too square, always dedicated to teaching stupid rules (no “I”, introduction-thesis-antithesis-synthesis). In a word, it was Rohmer who taught me to write. And it was very kind of him to not have rejected my text outright.

Bazin, too, had blocked some of my writings at Cahiers or at the Éditions du Cerf. I’m grateful to him for that today for I would’ve found myself guilty of having produced many stupidities. Bazin considered me an irresponsible, mad, young dog of nineteen. That’s why I was so moved later when he complimented me for my review of Les Tricheurs.

I have thus chosen in this collection texts defended or praised by Rohmer (A Quiet American), by Godard (Men in War and the Tarzieff) etc. Rivette told me later that my text on Les Honneurs de la guerre, the first Jean Dewever film, had made him like the film. I’d never have thought of receiving such a tribute from a man from whom I’d stolen so much.

My texts try to resume Truffaut’s principle: start from the particular (the picturesque if possible) – a detail from the film – to veer into the General. Never the opposite, as in the worst kind of criticism which stopped at the General (especially in the years 58-69).

The golden rule: every good film engenders a specific critical approach.

To make the reader laugh, to interest him, was my first concern. I’d set down the list of possible word plays before writing a text. To help inspire me, Rohmer had offered me a copy of the latest Vermot almanac.

I tried to be simple (didn’t always succeed), to narrate the story of a film in a few lines, which still remains an excellent exercise.

Before writing on an important film, I’d read the original novel end to end or skim through it – something which few did. Even Bazin, who was a serious guy, had produced five pages in Cahiers on The Red Badge of Courage without having read the book, which was as famous in the USA as Le Grand Meaulnes is in France.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but I always made sure I made a negative remark when I wrote a lot of good things about a film. I also practiced the opposite. It gives the reader the (misleading) impression that the critic is objective.

Similarly, I’d gather technical information – number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc. – which made subjective positions sound objective.

I’d manage to insert a shock sentence which could help advertise the film, thereby glorifying the film and myself. My greatest shortcoming when it came to a good film by a great director was to attribute everything that was good to my cherished auteur and everything that was bad to his collaborators. The truth is not so simple.

My first years as a critic (1959-1960) were the ones that brought me the most attention from readers, perhaps because people were then interested in criticism that was less tepid, less ecumenical and laudatory than today, perhaps also because I wrote in a flagship magazine which had all the good articles.

Texts today are more dispersed, and they get lost.

Nevertheless, my writings from that time are less pertinent than the ones I’ve written in the past few years, which are more level-headed, generally without controversy and very precise owing to my practical knowledge of filmmaking and, thanks to time, my deeper knowledge of the history of cinema: I must’ve seen eight thousand films in sixty-five years.

This manifestly positive evolution of the quality of my writing is at loggerheads with my career as a filmmaker. I don’t think my later films are any more successful than the earlier ones. My most appreciated productions belong to the midperiod of my career (from 1977, year of Genèse d’un repas, to Essai d’ouverture in 1988).

Here I want to note the similarity between criticism and documentary filmmaking: in both, one studies something which already exists, a projected film or a city, a place or a social fact.

The difference, at least for me: to be a film critic is to say good things about a film; to be a filmmaker is to say bad things about the society, about the absurdity of the world, about a city, about everything… the filmmaker criticizes, and the critic praises.

Today, as a critic, I have the advantage over other reviewers of not being dependent on current events. From 1957 to 1960, I lived on commissions as a critic and so I was subjected to weekly releases by my editors-in-chief. In 2009, I’m a freelancer and can allow myself to write on unknown filmmakers from the present or the past.

These are the days of video criticism. There’s not much difference in there for me who, in 1960, was practically doing video criticism before it even existed, with my chronometer and the light pen that Sadoul had found for me in Moscow and I used to see films twice consecutively in the theatre. But, with video, it’s nevertheless easier and it avoids silly mistakes. The essential thing, today as yesterday, is not to flit from one thing to another, but study one or two points of the film more attentively. I’ve written seven pages on James Stewart’s acting during one and a half minutes of film.

Almost all these texts were written very quickly.

This speed (which I find again during the drafting of the scripts of my films: two mornings for a short film, three to twenty-four days for a feature film) gives me the pleasure of observing the faces of my astonished sponsors when I hand them over my copy. One of them asked me for twelve pages on Bergman. It was complete three hours later, and Rivette even found it good.

This promptness is also a (completely relative) form of humility. You shouldn’t think that the Culture revolves around you.

It’s a question of personal discipline, of habit. You must be able to take the plunge, to abandon yourself. To me, it’s a question of honesty before the reader. I give him what I feel without calculation or detour.

You are deemed guiltier when you commit a crime with premeditation.

It should be the same for an article (or a script).

I think this practice stems from an opposition to my father. He used to write several letters (to Mitterrand, to Hitler and tutti quanti) which he’d start all over when he made a mistake. It’d to take him all day, a little like the hero of El. And I love doing the opposite. Many of my acts were accomplished against the father (even though, the diplomat that I am, I wasn’t on bad terms with him). My first girlfriend was Jewish while he was very anti-Semitic. And I specialized in eulogizing Jewish filmmakers (Lang, Preminger, Lubitsch, Ulmer, Gance, Truffaut, Fuller, DeMille). I made a corpse of my dad in my Billy the Kid.

I say I’m fast, but I’m boasting. My texts with writing quotations (on DeMille, Deleuze or Ellroy) took a lot of time. Moreover, what I write is the result of sixty years of cinematic experiments.  

Whenever it’s possible, I let these texts sleep in a drawer. I let them simmer for thirteen days in order to look at them with new eyes.  

It could be longer. The first version of my text on Bresson is fifteen years old. Re-reading after a long time, you correct everything very fast and with much fairness.

My articles sometimes contain a dense analysis, far too dense. They must always be aerated by humour. They fail otherwise.

What use writing on Renoir or Rossellini?

Besides, Truffaut would never have allowed me to do it: it was his private hunting ground. So, I prefer being THE FIRST. The first to extol a great filmmaker forgotten or unknown at the time: Baldi, Bava, Bernard-Deschamps, Compton, Cottafavi, Dewever, Ferroukhi, Fuller, Godard, Guiraudie, Hers, Itami, Jansco, Kumashiro, Oshima, Rudolph, Skolimowski, Ulmer, Valentin, Zurlini.

I’ve corrected certain articles (very little). For example, when I made a remark based on an wrong colour grading, or when I invoked an event from the era unknown to today’s reader, or when a piece of information turned out to be false, or when my editor in chief had changed the title, made typographical mistakes or didn’t notice that a line was skipped.

 

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

[In the coming months, I will be publishing a translation of Luc Moullet’s Piges Choisies (2009, Capricci) on this site. The following table of contents, also available on the “Translations” page on top, will be updated with each published piece. Articles already available in English have been linked with credits.]

Piges Choisies (From Griffith to Ellroy)

 

OPENING ESSAY

Why Do You Film?

The Twelve Ways of Being a Filmmaker

 

1. MY BEGINNINGS

L’Écran français

Binary Unity (Que viva Mexico)

 

2. MY MASTERS

Georges Sadoul: The Goats of Le Poil

François Truffaut: Seesaws and Connections

Jean-Luc Godard:

Jean-Luc Godard  [Translated by David Wilson]

– A Letter from Luc Moullet

– Cosmic Film

 

3. THE ROYAL PENTAGON

Sam Fuller in Marlowe’s footsteps [Translated by Norman King]

Kenji Mizoguchi: Ugetsu

Luis Buñuel: Otras Inquisiciones (The Exterminating Angel)

Raúl Ruiz: All is two, except Allah who is one (The Blind Owl) [Translated by Rouge]

Robert Bresson: Think, You Fool

 

4. THE HEXAGON AND ITS FACETS

A Small Treatise on Cinematic Determinism

The Mysteries of Paris: An Investigation by Inspector Juross

The Maoists of the Centre du cinéma

The Real Problems

Chance, Counterpoint and Meteorites

 

5. THE WOMB OF AMERICA

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: a “Non-sense” Gem

The Last Hunt: Frozen in Hate

Men in War: Nothing but Facts

A King in New York: Austerity of Style

A Quiet American: Metaphysics of the Arabesque

The Naked and the Dead: Better than the Bridge on the River Kwai

Wind Across the Everglades: On Inspiration and Neorealism

John Ford: The Slide of the Admiral

Edgar G. Ulmer: Webs of Fate and Shoestrings

 

6. FESTIVALS

The Martyr of San Sebastian

Oshima at Cannes

 

7. THEORY

On the Toxicity of Film Language, on its Uselessness…

Dispositivism in Contemporary Cinema

Long Live Oaks! Down With Penguins!

Jaundice

 

8. ELOQUENCE OF THE SILENT

Ah Yes! Griffith was a Marxist! [Translated by Ted Fendt]

Breugel, Kafka, Jump Cut and Beckett (Karl Valentin)

Towards A Pure Fiction: Cecil B. DeMille [Translated by Ted Fendt]

 

9. TURKEYS & WINDBAGS

Adam & Eve: Doesn’t Measure Up to the Subject

Old Yeller: Cynical

Young Sinners: Missing the Small Picture

Michael Powell Doesn’t Exist

Pedro Almodóvar: Nothing About My Mother

 

10. SURPRISE STARS & REVELATIONS

Michelangelo Antonioni: A Serene Nihilism (Blow Up)

Colline Serreau: The Cellular Tree (Saint-Jacques… La Mecque)

The Devil’s Blast

Gian Vittorio Baldi, Real Winner of Tours Festival, Isn’t Among the Awardees

Alain Guiraudie: Tit for Tarn

Jorge Furtado: The Goldsmith of Porto Alegre

 

The Bravura Sequence [Translated by Ted Fendt]

 

James Ellroy and the Revolution of ’89

 
 

The New Cinephilia
Girish Shambu
Caboose, 2015

 

In a letter I wrote to Girish Shambu about my qualms with 21st century cinephilia last year, I had said: “Part of the reason I am so ardently looking forward to your book is to understand how to give a form to an activity as variegated, vehemently personal and solitary as cinephilia.” Here it is now. Girish’s erudite new book seeks to etch a picture of cinephilia as it exists in the internet age. Bookended by references to Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay on ‘the decay of cinema’, it is a forward-looking, optimistic work that responds to Sontag’s lamentation about the death of cinema and of cine-love. Girish starts off by defining what he means by cinephilia:

“Cinephilia, as we know, is not simply an interest in cinema or the propensity to watch a great number of movies. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for cinephilia. Not only watching, but thinking, reading, talking and writing about cinema in some form, no matter how unconventional: these activities are important to the cinephile. In other words, cinephilia involves an active interest in the discourse surrounding films.”

The New CinephiliaThe definition above is interesting – and crucial for the remainder of the book – both in terms of the individuals whom it characterizes as “internet cinephiles” and those it excludes through such a specific formulation. For one, it ascribes the cinephile label to those who are involved in the production, dissemination or consumption of ‘texts’ about films online – a cross-section that, whether we like to think of it that way or not, wields the privilege of language. On the other hand, the coinage leaves out not only the vast demographic obsessive film-watchers not involved in film-critical discourse (including film tribes and sub-cultures such as anime fandom), but also those who might be labeled the “cinephilic working class” – people and groups involved in alternate forms of distribution of films: hosts and seeders of torrent trackers, unorganized bootleggers, uploaders of rare VHS and TV rips and voluntary subtitlers, who are, in fact, the players responsible for the reincarnation of New Cinephilia as a global phenomenon. This underclass, as it were, is almost single-handedly responsible for the geographic and intellectual expansion of cinephilia in not only multiplying the breadth of material available to movie-lovers but also providing access to such material to cultures and regions without alternate distributors, arthouses, film societies, festivals or film discourse. Personal experience convinces me that the torrent is the most prominent birthmark of the internet cinephile.

With this definition in place, Girish goes on to touch lucidly on various aspects of this cinephilic upper class, especially those involved in production of film discourse: the internet’s transformation of the subjective after-experience of a film, the shift in style of film reviewing from generally descriptive to particularly analytical, the continuing centrality of conversation in cinephilic practice, the everyday experience of a cinephile on social networking websites and the importance of writing to cinephilia through the ages. Despite numerous commentators bemoaning a number of these changes, detailing the narcissism, knee-jerk reactions and philistinism they foster, Girish sees them in a positive light, viewing them as being organically liked to the continuous, necessary mutation of cinephilia. From his view of New Cinephilia changing foundational ideas about cinema to his affirmative response to the question of whether social change can be brought about by a cinephile qua cinephile, Girish’s indefatigable optimism is, in fact, daunting to a full-time cynic like me who, although he understands how cinephilia performs a useful social function by giving young folk something to construct their identities around, can only see the underbelly of cinephilic explosion in the new millennium. I quote here from my letter to Girish two reasons for my disillusionment with internet cinephilia:

One, that cinephilia in the 21st century, I think, has become a glorified form of consumerism. Not just in the way it facilitates the circulation of material commodities like DVDs, but in its very ratification of the desire to watch as many films as possible, in its insistence on the investment, in terms of time, energy or money, in practicing cinephilia. There was a time that I used to naively think that my cinephilia set me apart from more direct materialist pursuits around me because (a) I don’t collect films as objects and that they are an ‘experience’ (b) it is art appreciation and not consumerism. But it dawned on me, as it dawns sooner or later on anyone willing to think critically, that investing in experiences is the most rampant form of consumerism today. (I am thinking particularly of the valorization of tourism, extreme sports and social networking). I realized that I approached cinema more or less the way people around me were approaching electronic gadgets. I hear people talking about the history of a particular mobile phone, comparing it with its predecessors, appreciating its ergonomics and locating it within a historical trend and I see in it a equivalent to the commodified form of auteurism that the internet cinephiles have bought into en masse. Auteurs are brand names and wanting to consume their films seems to me to be little different from wanting to try out the next hot gadget. Commodity fetish, that was once a domain of material objects, is now displaced on to experiences, art experience in particular. Given that any film now is just minutes away from access, having missed out on a good film, new or classic, is considered an embarrassment and a reason for not being able to get into discussion circles. Obsessive shopping is denigrated while binge-watching is considered a reflection of one’s passion.

And two, that 21st century cinephilia is a direct descendent of the rise of nerd culture. I have been in programming circles, quizzing circles and cinephile circles – the major planets in the geek galaxy – and they are all united by their near-total absence of women. The new cinephilia (the only one I have experienced), not just the mainstream version of it, in its rapacious movie-watching, choleric debates and obsession of canonizing and classification feels to me to be characterized by a typically straight, young, male aggressiveness. This cinephilia, unlike the other honest, self-styled nerd groups, has the advantage of seeming to transcend geek culture under the garb of being a higher, more mature pursuit. The stereotype of the New Cinephile being an unkempt omega male in his early twenties, intelligent, atheist, left-leaning, piracy-supporting, career-agnostic, philosophy-loving social misfit derives from a general taxonomy of geeks, but is not without a modicum of truth. Reading many perceptive commentaries about what is now called the “millennial generation”, of which I am most certainly a part, I realize that cinephilia is the direct offspring of this tectonic geek-oriented generational/cultural shift.

But the most thought-provoking part – by which I mean the part I most vehemently reacted to – is the book’s centerpiece titled “Building a large conversation” in which Girish examines the reasons for the large gap between film studies and film criticism and reflects on the possibility of bridging it. To illustrate the reluctance of film critics to keep themselves abreast of the developments in film scholarship, he cites an Artforum roundtable where Annette Michelson puts down late-period Pauline Kael:

To have continued to write into the ’90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that [Kael] ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale.

Now, I have neither read the roundtable in its entirety, nor Kael extensively. But the excerpt above seems to suggest that film criticism has an intellectual obligation to learn from film studies. At the risk of antagonizing readers from academic background, I venture to suggest that film criticism has as much obligation to learn from film academia as experimental filmmaking has to learn from genre cinema. To be clear, I am not saying that film criticism has nothing to gather from film studies. Achievements of film theory can clear much rudimentary ground for film criticism by avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. But the finest film criticism works in a territory that academia has not yet explored. In my mind, film criticism is the avant-garde to the arrière-garde of film studies, the punctum to the studium of scholarship. It must work on aspects of film that have not yet been theorized and institutionalized, that are untheorizable even. While most scholarship treats films as fodder for validating and perpetuating sacred theoretical frameworks, much like Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, film criticism takes each film primarily as an autonomous art object and derives from the object the analytical tools necessary for discussing it, which may or may not be found in film theory toolkit. I cannot imagine any consistent ‘method’ or ‘system’ of film criticism that will not undermine its essential openness to being surprised and rendered speechless by the art object. Every act of film criticism is like a surgery – always haunted by the risk of failure, always at the risk of discovering something ineffable. No matter how well you institutionalize it, there is always a good possibility that the best critical work comes from outside the establishment. What’s most exciting about film criticism in the internet age is that it is truly democratic: the best criticism can come from the most unexpected quarters, from personalities without any history or credentials in film criticism or studies. It is in this quality of perennially being a level playing field for film criticism that 21st century cinephilia is most promising, rejects as it does both the intellectual priesthood of the academia and the oligarchic taste-making of print criticism.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the dominant, non-formalist form of film studies, with its systemic handicap of abstaining from value judgment and not being able to treat the film as an independent aesthetic object capable of producing an infinite variety of affects, can be terribly instructive for the enterprise of film criticism, which necessarily calls for a hierarchy of values on the part of the practitioner and his/her acknowledgement being a sentient, unique subject capable of being transformed by the film. (Presumably to show that this is indeed possible, Girish, taking the example of Tom Gunning’s study of Fritz Lang’s films. tells us how theoretical research and film scholarship has demystified the romantic conception of the artist as an endowed being and challenged auteur theory’s far-flung claims. But then, it speaks only of an awkward state of film criticism if it requires film studies to disabuse it of artistic mythmaking.) These disagreements, rather than being drawbacks, are precisely what make the book so interesting to read because, to me, the book is a logical extension of Girish’s work at his blog, where such disagreements and conversations take place all the time. I can imagine making the same comments at his blog had the material of the book unfolded as a series of blog posts. And true to the spirit of his style of posting, the book is an ideal déclencheur, a trigger to get conversation going. That’s more than a good reason to get to it.

 

The View From The Train
Patrick Keiller
Verso, 2014

 

British filmmaker and photographer Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train features thirteen essays written over a period of almost 30 years – roughly overlapping with the length his career – dealing with cinema, architecture, public housing system in the UK and physical space in general, seen in the context of the city of London. Presented in the order they were written, these essays were written originally for various architectural journals and catalogues and hence contain considerable repetition of material. While some of these pieces are not very rewarding for those unfamiliar with London’s townscape (or the works of Charles Dickens, which forms the subject of one of the essays), the others offer valuable and original insights into not just the subjects discussed but also Keiller’s own filmography, his working methods and his artistic ambitions.

Like his third feature film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), The View from the Train deals primarily with London’s public housing in whose dilapidated state Keiller finds a kind of contradiction in late capitalism’s promises of material abundance and universal prosperity. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution, the general condition of life has improved in Europe. The life expectancy has seen an increase while access to luxury goods has become easier. The cost of housing, on the other hand, has not stopped increasing, especially in London where, Keiller says, the rate of construction of new buildings has saturated and the majority of the existing structures are over a century old. He points at the economic system as reason for this domestic malaise:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling…Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.

Moreover, he sees this characteristic as belonging to a bigger tendency in modernity, perhaps descending from the protestant work ethic that dominates Anglo-Saxon nations: the glorification of the values of work over those of domesticity. He summarizes thus:

The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.

As a response to this near-impossibility of changing public and domestic spaces of London, Keiller proposes, the idea of subjective transformation of space enjoyed a growing popularity in the city. This, he believes, harks back to artworks and movements of the past, such as the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Eric Baudelaire, in which we witness a subjective capacity to reinterpret the city space, and the theories of Surrealism and Situationism, whose proponents sought a subjective metamorphosis of everyday reality in their ‘rediscoveries’ of abandoned objects and buildings. Keiller reminds us that this is not an academic concept without practical application:

Transformations of everyday space are subjective, but they are not delusions, simply glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.

This remark above recalls the aesthetic transformation of public spaces during moments of great political crisis (as demonstrated in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent film, Maidan (2014), where the central square in Kiev becomes a site for the theatre of revolution). Nevertheless, according to Keiller, this return to popularity of Surrealist and Situationist – movements with revolutionary intentions – practice and philosophy in the 1990s in London doesn’t signify as much an atavism as the bourgeois appropriation of these movements:

The dérive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods.

Elsewhere, Keiller investigates the mutual influence of architecture and cinema. He argues that cinema in inspired by architecture, but more importantly, it opens up various possibilities for the latter in the form of spatial critique. Cinema illustrates and critiques existing spaces and points at the possibility of new, unrealized spaces. Old films reveal historic changes in architecture and landscape and help us reevaluate current day architecture and city design.

The best passages of the book, are however, the last essays in which Keiller studies the relation between cinema and trains. Cinema is intimately related to the railways ever since its birth. The first films of the Lumière brothers present a train arriving at a station. The rapid succession of passing landscape seen from inside the train bestowed in the spectator-traveller a thoroughly modern mode of perception which made the comprehension of cinema’s moving images possible. He writes:

Both cinema and the railway offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do. Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel-sided strips divided laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.

In the best essay of the book, Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film, he analyzes films made before the 1900s and characterizes two film genres in which the railways played a pivotal role. The first consists of films that depict passing panoramas during a train journey. Scholars call the second category Phantom Rides – films that present the view of railway tracks as seen from the front or the rear end of the train. Taken together, these two genres of early cinema offer perceptual experiences which embody in them a unique image of modern times:

This sequence [from Brief Encounter (1948)], with its added superimpositions and narration, confirms an interpretation of the railway panorama – suggested by Promio’s first examples – as an image of the stream of consciousness. In 1913 Sigmund Freud wrote, famously, that psychoanalysts might usefully tell their patients to ‘say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside. The phantom ride, on the other hand, more particularly resembles Henri Bergson’s ‘predatory’ image of duration introduced in Matter and Memory (1896), in which the present is ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’

 

(Originally posted here)

Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Baradwaj Rangan
Penguin/Viking, 2012

 

Conversations with Mani RatnamSomewhere near the midpoint of noted Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam lies a startling, self-referential moment, a moment so out of step with the rest of the book that it becomes a poetic aside in itself. In the middle of a dialogue about one of Ratnam’s movies, Rangan, with his characteristically keen eye for minor details of the mise en scène, makes a comment about the director clutching a bunch of pencils. Ratnam, perhaps as startled as the reader, asks Rangan if he’s found some deeper meaning to this gesture as well. He goes on to note that the problem with critics is that they try to find a hidden meaning when none exists. This confrontational exchange, the only moment in the entire book when the critic and director aren’t separated by the screen that is Ratnam’s body of work, embodies the central dialectic of Conversations, between a critic who sees an authorial presence, a motivation, an intention behind distinctive film elements binding a filmography and a filmmaker who considers them merely the product of logistical necessity or an instinctive thought, at best, between a professional who relies on bringing to surface structures and mechanics of films and another whose job is to conceal them.

Rangan’s book consists of a set of 17 conversations between him and Ratnam that takes us through the latter’s twenty-odd films in chronological order. This conversational format, as opposed to a paraphrased version¸ has the benefit of retaining the director’s voice, with all its conceptual blind spots (this book is perhaps the best source to understand my reservations with late-period Mani Ratnam’s naïve humanism, where personal dramas are planted obliquely on topical issues, almost like an afterthought, essentially making them, despite his refusal, “message movies”) and anecdotal digressions intact, instead of glossing over gaps and presenting a smooth, monolithic view of Ratnam’s oeuvre as a fully-formed, theoretically integral body of work. It also saves the reader a lot of time since he/she can read the simple, pragmatically-worded conversations quickly instead of having to stop regularly to admire the elegance of Rangan’s typically graceful prose. On the other hand, it results in passages where the two participants aren’t on the same page, where Ratnam, neither complementing nor contradicting, unhelpfully goes off on a tangent in response to certain questions.

It doesn’t help when a convincing critic opens his book with a review of his own and Rangan’s introduction to Conversations serves both as a sharp review of the material that follows as well as an autobiographical piece that details the author’s personal journey with Ratnam’s cinema and his motivations for taking up this project. In it, Rangan characterizes Ratnam as being specifically a “Madras” filmmaker – a term with both geographical and historical connotations – who, he believes, captured the sensibilities of a generation of Madras-dwelling urbanites and the rhythms of the city like no other filmmaker of the time. He also goes on to bifurcate Ratnam’s filmography into his Madras films – movies where the city and its inhabitants became the focal point – and his non-Madras films – ones where his concerns diffused and his field of vision widened. Intriguingly, on a lighter note, he points out two personal tendencies that he traces in this project: a desire as a man of science to document the thoughts of a filmmaker he considers very important in the national film scene and as a man of faith to channel the words of an artist who was a veritable god to his generation.

The duality is vital here. In a modest, reverential and otherwise undistinguished foreword, composer and long-time collaborator A. R. Rahman makes a striking contrast between his profound faith and Ratnam’s considered atheism after having elaborated on the symbiosis between him and the director. Dichotomies such as these, besides paralleling the book’s critic-filmmaker split, presage the book’s crystallization of the bipartite structure of Mani Ratnam’s films. The conversations gradually reveal the bed of binaries that the director’s films are founded on and the centrality of the number “2” in them. (Iruvar (“The Duo”, 1997), admittedly the director’s best effort, literalizes the image/text conflict that cinema itself wrestles with). They help trace this preoccupation, though not overtly, to Ratnam’s thought process as a screenwriter, wherein he eschews western scriptwriting models and instead constructs his screenplays around a single conflict involving two persons, geographies, ideologies, time-lines or emotions.

Throughout the conversations, Rangan keeps tracing auteurist strains in Ratnam’s work, deftly pointing out consistencies in plotting, character sketches, filmmaking style and world view across the movies. There appear to be three typical ways in which Ratnam reacts to these critical reflections. At best, Ratnam’s acknowledges these observations with no acknowledgement. Alternately, he would downplay Rangan’s remarks with peripheral comments that replace artistry, voice and authorial intention with accidents, logistical and functional necessities. At worst, like John Ford, he plainly denies the obvious. (Case in point, his denial that Laal Maati (“Red Earth”), the name of the tribal village in Raavan (2010), has no Maoist undertone is so moot that one is tempted to doubt the truthfulness of his other statements).  Ratnam’s modesty here is, in turns, gratingly vehement, as when he extensively uses first person plural or second person for explanation, and gratifying, especially the manner in which he avoids people politics and convenient namedropping.

But the most fascinating and, perhaps, the most important aspect of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is its unequivocal establishment of the director as a mainstream filmmaker. Neither does Rangan picture him as a “middle cinema” auteur straddling arthouse and grindhouse nor is Ratnam apologetic about his status as a popular filmmaker embracing all the conventions of the industry. (The latter uses the word “product” five times in the book to describe finished films). The conversations explore in detail Ratnam’s grafting of personal stories on tried-and-tested screenwriting tropes – familiar character arcs, interpersonal relationships, the mid-movie interval and devices for moral justification – that Rangan characterizes as a flirtation with melodrama and casting tricks (Ratnam’s fine point about casting famous faces for minor parts to do away with the need for building an emotional connection from scratch and to harness their screen legacy warrants further analysis). Most of all, Ratnam’s opinion of songs in Indian cinema as powerful, mood-enhancing trump cards that give the filmmaker the freedom to take to poetry, abstraction, secondary narration and cinematic experimentation makes for a strong counter-argument to the line of thought that advocates abolishing this tradition as the first step towards a better cinema.


[Excerpts from Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1984/89)]

From the original watch-tower through the anchored balloon to the reconnaissance aircraft and remote sensing satellites, one and the same function has been indefinitely repeated, the eye’s function being the function of a weapon.

The industrial production of repeating guns and automatic weapons was thus followed by the innovation of repeating images.

 

A war of pictures and sounds is replacing the war of objects (projectiles and missiles)

War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instill the fear of death before he actually dies.

Apocalypse Now

…the history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.

“I still remember the effect I produced I produced on a small group of Galla tribesman massed around a man in black clothes,” reported Mussolini’s son during the Abyssinian war of 1935-36. “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the centre, and the group opened up just like a flowering rose.”

Dr. Strangelove

Rudolph Arnheim once remarked that, after 1914, many film-actors became props and the props took the leading role. Similarly, women became the objective tragedy in the wars from which they were excluded.

The star system and the sex symbol were the result of that unforeseen perceptual logistics which developed intensively in every field during the First World War.

Drums Along The Mohawk

World War One was the reason for Hollywood”.

Cinemas, too, were training camps which bonded people together in the face of death agony, teaching them to fear the death of what they did not know – or rather, as Hitchcock put it, of what did not exist.

Dr. Strangelove

…the Allies’ victory in the Second World War was at least partly due to their grasp of the real nature of Nazi Lebenstaum, and to their decision to attach the core of Hitler’s power by undermining his charismatic infallibility. They did this by making themselves the leading innovators of film technology.

Eyesight and direct vision have gradually given way to optical or opto-electronic processes, to the most sophisticated forms of ‘telescopic sight’.

Only serial photography was capable of changing troop positions or the impact of long range artillery, and hence the capacity of new weapons for serial destruction.

Dr. Strangelove

As Andre Malraux wrote: “Caesar could have conversed with Napoleon, but Napoleon has nothing to say to President Johnson

Positional warfare, then, had had its day. The extreme mobility of mechanized armies impaired a new temporal unity that only cinema could apprehend.

Napoleon

Just as weapons and armour developed in unison throughout history, so invisibility and visibility now began to evolve together, eventually producing invisible weapons that make things visible.

The projectile’s image and the image’s projectile form a single composite. In its tasks of detection  and acquisition, pursuit and destruction, the projectile is an image of ‘signature’ on a screen, and the television picture is an ultrasonic projectile propagated at the speed of light.

Dr. Strangelove

Camera Lucida
Roland Barthes (Translated by Richard Howard)
Vintage Books, 1993

 

Camera LucidaAt first glance, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980/1981) appears to be the sort of material the author of Mythologies (1957/1972) will blow a hole through. Part a study of the nature of photographs, part a work of commemoration of the author’s mother, Barthes’s final book hovers frighteningly close to what, in his early years, he had deemed to be an act of bourgeois mythmaking: stripping a decidedly historical phenomenon of its sociopolitical traces and presenting it as an undisputable truth, a ‘nature’, a human essence. True, Camera Lucida finds Barthes’s interest turning away from the historicity of photography to its metaphysics, from the question of how a photograph signifies to what it represents, from a near-scientific system of classifying images to unwieldy pseudo-theory of the photograph, from the idea of signifier and signified to the material referent itself. (This sharply defined arc, in fact, follows closely the trajectory taken by critical theory itself.) Barthes himself makes no effort to underplay this recantation (“…a desperate resistance to any reductive system”) and keeps undermining any approach that could lead to the formation of a totalizing framework like the one proposed in that early book of his.

Camera Lucida, nevertheless, also underscores a significant attitude that illustrates an unassailable continuity between these two books – a continuity that’s most characteristic of Barthes’s thought: a vehement resistance to ‘Naming’. Both Mythologies (“[Astrology] serves to exorcize the real by naming it”) and Camera Lucida (“What I can name cannot really prick me”) work against a culture in which tends to naturalize ideas – dominant and dissenting – and provide immunity against possible threat by naming it and defining its bounds. The crucial difference, however, is that the Barthes of Mythologies, if not a full-fledged, had his sympathies overtly aligned with the Left, whereas in the latter book, written over two decades later, he seems to be holding onto an ideological zero point. Like many critics who are disillusioned by the rigidity of narratives of the Left and the Right and their daunting tendency to pigeonhole people and ideas into stable, tractable categories, Barthes, here, seeks to find the ground for a kind of writing that can not be assimilated, so to speak, by either of these ideologies.

Graham Allen, in his excellent introduction to Barthes’s works, points out that Barthes found the ideal neutral point in the figure of his own body – a site that scandalizes both the rational Left with its individualist inwardness and the moralist Right with its hedonist underpinning. Camera Lucida, perhaps also a result of his mother’s passing and his subsequent mourning, is rife with bodily terms (‘wound’, ‘laceration’ etc.) that are used not only in the evocative passages of the book, but also in association with the various theoretical terms presented. Further, Barthes extends this essential neutrality of the body to the photograph (another commonality between them being the dread of death that both invoke instantly), which, according to him, retains its wholeness, eluding the grasp of dominant forces and ultimately remaining irreducible. For him, the photograph perpetually resists mechanisms that attempt to pin down its meaning and it is in this non-thinking, non-partisan, non-determined nature (“indifferent”, “impotent with regard to general ideas”, “image without code”) of the image that its power rests.

The central theoretical framework of the book is grounded in a dichotomy between what Barthes calls the studium of a photograph –all its theorizable aspects the engagement with which necessitates the involvement of external baggage such as the observer’s political and historical awareness – and its punctum – that unaccountable, non-conscious, partly-accidental detail or feature – a point of reversibility of text, a Derridean supplement – that defies classification and sets the meaning of the photograph into play. The studium, we are told, is that which cries out to be read and around which discourses are constructed while the punctum remains invisible to precisely these forces. The latter, it appears, keeps changing shape, never becoming a concept or following what could be called an objective pattern across various photographs. Barthes’s own definition of the punctum keeps assuming various forms (“shock”, “idle gesture”, “undevelopable”, “cries out in silence” etc.), abandoning its history and avoiding coagulating into anything might be called a theory. What Barthes leaves, as a result, is the trace of a method, instead of a fleshed-out hermeneutic system, so that the readers never latch onto it, but merely discover newer ways of engaging with the photograph,

In the second part – a split among many others – of the book, Barthes moves from a description of the punctum as a material detail in the referent of the photograph – a definition that could be assimilated into the studium by artful photographers no doubt – to one that is based on an experience of time. His reading of the photograph as an “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life” plants him firmly in the tradition of image-theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer (“Seemingly ripped from death, in reality [the photographed present] has succumbed to it]”). Andre Bazin famously traced photography’s roots to Egyptian mummification process and hence to a desire to transcend mortality and preserve one’s image for eternity. Barthes, in contrast, suggests that in the photograph’s assurance that what it represents is real and has been there before the camera in flesh and blood (unlike painted objects) only invokes utter dread, a sense of “double loss” where the beholder is made aware that not only is the person she is looking at already dead now, but that he is going to die some time after the development of this photograph – a moment that the photograph directly channels. In Eduardo Cadava’s words: “memories of a mourning yet to come”. (One is reminded of Scottie’s predicament when he sees Judy after his first loss in Vertigo (1957); Barthes himself calls this experience a “vertigo of time”.)

In itself, the central idea here is not entirely unheard of. Benjamin (a writer who deeply shares Barthes’s fascination with the visual) works towards a similar relationship in his Little History of Photography (1931, “No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”) and Barthes himself touches upon similar notions in his earlier essay on Eisenstein. But Camera Lucida presents it in so many seemingly tautological forms, aided in no small part by the book’s structure (a string of minor theses), which prompt the reader keep shifting perspectives, to undo and redo the mental image of the ideas the book presents. In a way, then, the book itself enacts the duality that it proposes, continuously unsettling its model of the photograph – the studia that most books are – with specific, eccentric punctum-like inflections on the text.

Camera Lucida is self-consciously grounded in on a number of such contradictory thrusts: Science and sentimentality, phenomenology and method (“I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own”), the empirical and the theoretical, the universal and the ungeneralizable, For Barthes, such apparent paradoxes – these twin movements – are not indicators of the fallibility of his approach. Rather, it is a gesture in a direction opposite to the one taken by reductive, structuralist approaches. Instead of applying a universal rule to the specific and deeming the latter a mere variation, Barthes’s approach takes the specific – the present, the undeniable – as the starting point and extrapolates the result for every other instance in the world (“…to extend this individuality to a science of the subject”, to achieve “the impossible science of the unique being”). What he achieves by taking this almost anti-scientific route is a strong resistance to reduction of the individual – in this case, his mother. Barthes treads the precarious line between the necessity to remember his mother and the threat of his mother becoming Mother, a universal truth. (That he does not supply us with the crucial Winter Garden photograph of his mother indicates a refusal to generalize the specific). Camera Lucida is a work that conceals its radiant center, allowing us to only sense its emanations and forces us to become the center of our own image-theories. As Barthes puts it:

I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?

 
Note: There is surely something to be said about the way Barthes examines photography in opposition to cinema. For instance, his insistence that there is no possibility of a punctum in cinematic imagery, thanks to the forward-thrust of montage. I think I disagree. Going by what I understand when Barthes speaks of it, I would say that the punctum – the wounding arrow that catches one off-guard, the spark of contingency – manifests itself in various shapes and sizes in cinema. See Daniel Kasman’s writings, for instance, for the ways one can find oneself moving away from the zone of general interest – the area where films consciously work – into a field of personal commitment – that point where, perhaps, cinema betrays its photographic roots.

(Nearly) random excerpts from Robert Bresson’s Notes On Cinematography (1977):

 

  • Cinematography, the art, with images, of representing nothing.
  • Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.
  • Shooting. No part of the unexpected which is not secretly expected by you.
  • Many people are needed in order to make a film, but only one who makes, unmakes, remakes his images and sounds, returning at every second to the initial impression or sensation which brought these to birth and is incomprehensible to the other people.
  • Economy: Racine (to his son Louis): I know your handwriting well enough, without your having to sign your name.
  • Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.
  • Actor. The to-and-fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.
  • To defeat the false powers of photography.
  • Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. (The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?)
  • From the beings and things of nature, washed clean of all art and especially of the art of drama, you will make an art.
  • X demonstrates a great stupidity when he says that to touch the masses there is no need of art.
  • Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy or by drama.
  • Empty the pond to get the fish.
  • Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses).
  • Your film’s beauty will not be in the images (postcardism), but in the ineffable that they will emanate.
  • Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion.
  • The CINEMA did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.

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