La Lettre du cinéma no. 31; Winter 2005.

La Lettre du cinéma shut shop after this piece.

What a strange case Michael Powell’s is!

He is attributed the exclusive paternity to his films, even though they are co-signed, for the most part, by Emeric Pressburger under the banner of their company, The Archers, or by Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Ludwig Berger (The Thief of Bagdad, 1940), Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrien Brunel (The Lion Has Wings) and sometimes directed by others. I’m thinking of the ballet in The Red Shoes (1948), the only portion of the film which can have its defenders and which is the work of Leopold Massine. It’s obvious that The Thief of Bagdad is more in the line of Korda (producer of The Jungle Book and The Four Feathers) than in the supposed line of Powell. The work on colour, in his major films, seems to owe predominantly to Jack Cardiff (I’ll come back to this); Kevin Brownlow cited editor David Lean as one of the strongest elements of 49th Parallel. Is Powell the “thief of London”? I think it is posterity that’s responsible for this aggressive exploitation (it’s like lauding Paolo Taviani while ignoring Vittorio). So is alphabetical order. If his name were “Towell” (which would suit him better) instead of “Powell”, he would’ve featured after “Pressburger” in the credits, and the latter perhaps would’ve won all the plaudits. We also know that it’s better to put a disyllabic name in front instead of a trisyllabic one. It sounds better, especially when the first sounds very national and the second very foreign. Powell’s gift of the gab matters too.

What also counts is the fact that, before the beginning of their collaboration, Powell had directed twenty-nine films whereas Pressburger was happy writing scripts. Finally, the existence of a fashionable—and, as it happens, highly overrated—film, Peeping Tom (1959), signed by him alone.

Powell could at best be one link in the production chain, and perhaps a useful one at that. It’s an image that fits well within the British tradition of collective or two-author films—Launder and Gilliat, the Boulting brothers, Lean and Coward, Laurence Olivier and Stuart Burge, Reisz and Richardson—and marks the limits of this cinema: an operation by an industrial group rather than a truly personal cinema, a little like the terrible Russian cinema of the years 1955-65 and its numerous couples.

Moreover, it’s impossible to define Powell’s themes, except for a predilection for ballet films (The Tales of Hoffmann, Oh… Rosalinda!!, Honeymoon) deriving from the commercial success of The Red Shoes, love in Scotland (The Edge of the World, I Know Where I’m Going, The Spy in Black), death achieved during artistic work (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), the red attires of fox-hunters (Black Narcissus, Gone to Earth).

We could suppose that Pressburger was the positive element of the couple, given that he was a scriptwriter by profession and that it’s the basic plot idea that gives the films of P&P their interest. The idea behind Colonel Blimp (the long saga of a disgruntled veteran) is solid, but the direction remains rather lacklustre. It’s the idea behind I Know Where I’m Going (1945)—a girl who knows where she wants to go and wanders around, just like the film—that makes the work charming, but this wandering soon becomes very boring. The same could be said of Peeping Tom. I rushed to the film on the first day at dawn, enticed by an unusual plotline: an amateur filmmaker who summons his acquaintances one by one, only to kill them with the pointed end of his tripod while filming them. Unfortunately, this solid idea, repeated endlessly through the film, only causes weariness. It would’ve been better had the exact cause of the crimes not been revealed right away. It wasn’t until the remarkable M-88 (Jacques Bral, 1972) that the idea finally materialized. A cinema of departures and no arrivals. Powell the director scuttles the possibilities of a basic idea. A weak-willed cinema. Powell is a misdirector (démetteur en scène).

The most surprising thing is that this spinelessness has found support among thematically-strong directors like Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, twin filmmakers whose work uses the possibilities of film grammar to the maximum, while P. P. wander perpetually in their ill-dressed pictures. The support is understandable in the case of Tavernier, always in the Truffauldian search for forgotten genius (but it would’ve been better to laud—to stick with Albion—Jack Gold, Guy Green or Launder and Gilliat), but it’s less so with Scorsese, unless we make reference to American bad taste, which The Red Shoes gets close to.

P. P. are not actors’ directors: in Gone to Earth, Jennifer Jones plays a savage girl, like in Vidor’s Ruby Gentry and Duel in the Sun. But with Powell, her acting remains conventional, whereas she sets the screen on fire with Vidor. The comparison is overwhelming for P. P. We understand Selznick’s anger at the bad treatment meted out to his wife by the two Britishers.

The big question that arises about Powell is this: whodunit? Who is guilty? Who made Powell pass for a filmmaker? It’s probably the Portuguese who are responsible for this canard: in a publication collecting various lists of hundred best European films, Powell has as many votes as Hitchcock and Eisenstein and outclasses Gance, Becker, Barnet, Fassbinder, Cottafavi, Ferreri etc. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone guilty. It’s like in Murder on the Orient Express: each one makes his little stab.

It’s incredible that someone whose first twenty-three and last ten films (except Peeping Tom, which has its fans) are universally deemed unworthy of interest could be taken seriously. P. P. could be classified among parenthetical filmmakers, an ambitious parenthesis that spans from 1940 to 1951 and which calls to mind the case of Yves Allégret and Vittorio De Sica.

What remains at the end of the day? The Edge of the World (1937) is a series of “arty” shots. The Spy in Black is highly banal. A Canterbury Tale (1944) has little going for it except the audacious darkness of the first reel (maybe it was a bad print). The collective film The Thief of Bagdad contains some ravishing special effects thanks to Menzies, 49th Parallel remains a decent action film based on a small, isolated group. But there’s nothing there that rises above the level of a Hathaway, an Andrew Stone or a Terence Young in form.

The Red Shoes pushes the myth of the egocentric and dictatorial artist to a repetitious and excessive degree, and offers, like The Tales of Hoffmann, an obvious, overstuffed, shape-shifting, gaudy pictorial composition without unity.

Black Narcissus (1947) presents an almost unique case. On the level of characters and plot, it’s one of the most idiotic films in the history of cinema and it’s a masterpiece of colour composition: the principle here is to look for a colour that’s always in movement, always changing. But the film is also a conventional and ridiculous melodrama in which P. P. seem to believe, though they are the only ones. The film can’t resort to irony as defence, as can Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People or Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. There is such a disparity between the film and its photography that we are tempted to attribute the good parts and the bad parts of the film to different people, the latter to P. P and the former to Jack Cardiff, the magnificent cameraman of Boulting’s The Magic Box. Only Almendros’ and Malick’s Days of Heaven and Nutten’s and Fleisher’s Zoo Zero contain a comparable dichotomy. In all, the Archers always miss their target: if they were to film William Tell, his son would surely be dead…

Finally, the only P. P. which holds up is A Matter of Life and Death (1946). I’m all the more objective when I say that because it’s not at all my cup of tea, and because I hate the dainty brand of art so common to certain Britishers (Jarman, Ken Russell, Greenaway, Branagh, Lindsay Anderson or the Boorman of Excalibur) who think they are the shit, in contrast to the constipated British vein (Lean & Reed).

A Matter of Life and Death is as erratic as the other films of P. P. The central character is, in fact, a pretext, a sidekick, the real star being the setting, the limbo with the large staircase. But we can also appreciate its mockery of national idiosyncrasies and its cosmic introduction. The film really finds its feet only in the final trial, whose viewers are like puppets in a parade.

A film without a centre. But the centred films of P. P are often based on a very disappointing central character (Peeping Tom, Gone to Earth, Colonel Blimp), with P. P not being interested in humans, but only in the settings and the colour. Their films are better off without a centre (A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going).

Why criticize P. P. when I’m defending A Matter of Life and Death? You are likely to hold this contradiction against me. It’s simply that, when you turn out fifty films in your life, it’d be goddamn surprising if you don’t make at least one good one. Look at Schlöndorff and The Tin Drum, Cavani and The Skin, Cayatte and The Crossing of the Rhine.

 

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

Missing the Small Picture

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 458; 20 October 1958.

Carné has often been criticized for being only a director and not an auteur of films. Doesn’t matter, Carné is taking revenge on his critics today by tackling one of the most endearing problems of our time, that of unbalanced youth. Here, it’s rich or idle Parisian students who party all day and profess a pseudo-philosophy of anarchism, which in truth is only an exact negation of bourgeois philosophy. They cheat in this: their system constrains them to reject all emotion and all sincerity. Unavowed and unavowable, a love ends in suicide.

A very interesting subject, but whose handling seems as questionable sociologically as morally. To be sure, the milieu described really exists—although it belongs to the world of five or ten years ago—but the film needs to be a lot more organized or coherent. Even though it’s about intellectuals, it can’t be said, like Carné does, that their thought precedes and justifies their action. It’s perhaps true for some, but they constitute a minority within another minority. Their presence is out of place in a movie that claims to paint of picture of modern student mores, as the diversity of typical characters proves: a bourgeois boy and a daddy’s girl, a bohemian couple, a blackmailer, a cinematheque rat, a homosexual etc. This particularization reveals an outlook quite common to middle-aged people such as Carné: the young generation is, if not lost, at least astray because it has only known a disordered world since the war of 1939. It’s not surprising that the only lucid character in the story, played by R. Lesaffre, the director’s mouthpiece in some ways, is ten years older than his sister, the heroine of the film. Tradition of pessimism so dear to Carné, where man’s happiness is at loggerheads with the laws of the milieu he lives in (see the film’s terrible, tacked-on ending), that’s refuted by reality.

Contrary to the oldest generation, which condemns the excesses of these young ones irrevocably, Carné explains and excuses them: they are victims of events; one of them was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. How convenient is the determinism to which our cinema sacrifices so much! We don’t worry about present-day action anymore, but about the past that justifies it. And the film becomes a series of filmed dialogues. Written by a Jacques Sigurd jealous of Michel Audiard’s laurels, these dialogues are rich in facile effects and prefer a vulgarity completely foreign to the story’s hero over truth.

The rather repulsively paternalistic and bourgeois tone of Young Sinners is the same one we find in reports published by mainstream dailies and magazines on the subject, piles of commonplaces of no interest. Carné resolves a problem as delicate as youth according to his gentlemanly logic. When do we see a film by Carné resolving problems of the atomic bomb or of devaluation, topics evoked here in passing? What we needed was the testimony of a young person, a specialist or a friend of youth. Rebel Without a Cause, Rendezvous in July and Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres—even the laconic Une vie, dealing with a more burning reality than Young Sinners—were able to bring out the positive aspects of this apparently immoral way of life. Is there really a particular problem here? Isn’t it rather an eternal question, coined here in a new way in order to pull the wool over our eyes? Sad, emotional smooth-talking is a new theme.

Honest mise en scène, but not at all commensurate with the ambitions. Effects are fortunately fewer than in Carné’s previous film. Those that remain (close-ups and dramatic crescendos, a night-time chase constructed through editing) are totally ineffective. But it’s only the best of Clouzot here. The performances are disappointing: only Pascale Petit, the only seasoned actress of the film, discovered by Astruc, comes out unscathed; Laurent Terzieff, in particular, struggles to convincingly play the impossible character of the evil genius-philosopher, a new incarnation of Fate once personified by Le Vigan, Vilar, Lesaffre.

 

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

Cynical

Arts no. 715; 25 March 1959.

Like Lucchini in Bonitzer’s Nothing about Robert, I probably didn’t see the film I’m talking about (or maybe one reel, or the trailer, I don’t know)

NB: Fess Parker was rechristened “Fier” Parker in France1.

Alas, the censors are guilty of authorizing this execrably psychoanalytical, misanthropic and incurably zoophilic hagiography for mutts. Cinema is dogs, says Disney, in agreement with De Sica, painter of the bitchiness of life. The SPA2 must get such movies banned because if, coming out of Cinéma Avenue, I’d found some pup at my feet, I assure you that it would’ve gone through hell as a reward for such nonsense instead and in place of its fellow dogs, of Robert Stevenson, an usurper who has nothing to do with the master of adventure, of Dorothy McGuire, worse than the dog, of Fess Parker, a little too “Fier” in our country. Go for it, dogs and even cynephiles. But cinephiles, stay away.

 

1[Translator’s note] Presumably because Fess sounds like fesses (buttocks). Fier: proud.

2[Translator’s note] La Société protectrice des animaux, the society for animal protection.

 

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

 

Doesnt Measure Up to the Subject

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 436; 25 May 1958.

This article was written just for its last line. Radio Cinéma was a very catholic weekly. But the bigots didn’t know that an American shot inevitably framed Eve from head to thighs.

The triple interest of such a film faithful to the book of Genesis in all respects: attract a crowd of believers, lure in fans of Christiane Martel, ex-Miss Cinémonde and Miss Universe, and finally, cut rate production. There is no need whatsoever for several settings, extras or even sound: the subject lends itself particularly to budget cuts. That takes care of commercial interest.

The skill and hypocrisy of Alberto Gout, producer, writer and director, earlier the maker of the rather successful Saint François of Assisi and Adventuress (!)—a Mexican Maurice Cloche of kinds—prevail over sincerity and creativity. A subject with so much nudity should’ve forced the filmmaker to be creative: but no! Perhaps to please both his audiences, Gout has made a film of unbearable dryness. It’s with great difficulty that we find here and there some nice shots of Christiane Martel, our charming compatriot; but our director was much better inspired by Ninon Sevilla.

The only originality that breaks this naïve monotony midway: the passage from medium shots to American shots.

 

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

Karl Valentin’s The New Writing Desk

Bref no. 71; March 2006

This film, Valentin’s third, runs for nine minutes and thirty-one seconds; six minutes and twenty seconds in the copy projected, not at the original speed, but at twenty-four frames/second. This makes our assessment difficult: the acceleration gives too much prominence to stylization. We notice an idea of acting rather than a body language rooted in reality. Impossible to know whether, at the normal speed, Valentin’s acting remains as rapid.

He plays a scribe, may be an accountant (Valentin also wrote the one-act play The New Accountant in 1937) or a transcriber of official documents, happily living through life’s ups and downs, who orders a new writing desk to be able to write on. He realizes the desk is much taller than his chair. He saws the legs of the desk, but imprecisely and a little too much since the desk soon turns out to be wobbly and shorter than the chair, which Valentin then shortens with blows of hammer before sawing the desk again, still too high, and using a drill to further lower the chair even though it’s on ground level. He ends up drilling through the floor and falls on the customer of a barbershop below.

It’s a very simple scenario, based on the logical and the absurd. We are reminded of Ferreri’s Break Up: all Valentin had to do was to take exact measurements so that the desk is at the correct height. But Karl Valentin (1882-1948) milks all imaginable possibilities of a thin scenario, complicating things to the maximum (he sits on the chair by stepping across) and playing ‘village idiots’ (in 1936, in The Chequered Jacket, he unintentionally sells the jacket in which his rent money was tucked away).

Valentin, or tragic misunderstanding, through the comic gloom of poverty and everyday minimalism.

Valentin’s film is based on three acts: outdoors with the delivery men, then indoors—a single long act—with the delivery men and then alone, and finally the “punchline”1 at the barbershop, where the barber is shaving his costumer with a snow-white shaving cream, both men wearing white aprons; proper white suddenly invaded by the dirty white of the dust that falls from the drilled ceiling.

You will have noticed here a theme proper to Mitteleuropa or to Eastern Europe: this scribe is the little cousin to the government officers described by Kafka and Gogol. We clearly see Germany’s mediocrity in the 1900s, reduced to the piddling existence of an impoverished petite bourgeoisie, which we will encounter notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The inanity of the protagonist has to do with that of the slaves of the bureaucratic system.

 

The art of the fugue

But it’s especially Bruegel that the portrait of these physically-deformed beings evokes: the “too big/too small” dialectic that we will later find sublimated in a film made in 1936, The Inheritance (where a couple discards all its furniture before inhering those of distant relatives who turn out to be dwarfs, with beds, chairs and wardrobes of their height, which the couple have to make do with, being completely broke). Next to the tall and skinny Valentin, one of the delivery men is fat and strong, the other seems to be a midget or a kid—an alternation visible right from the first shot in the street, containing extras of similarly contrasting and extreme appearance.

The crux of the film is based on a comic succession of Valentin’s efforts to resolve problems of size. Notice that he’s almost always dressed up in a false or a clown’s nose, which tends to diminish the illusion of reality. He plays with his instruments—saw, measuring tape, hammer, drill—with an assured virtuosity in harnessing clumsiness. Valentin is a practical man, carpenter by training, who lived frugally from this profession in his last years. Objects carry a secondary meaning: crouched or perched on his chair, with a quill over his ear, he evokes an owl on a tree. He plays with his saw as though it were a lyre, a bow to launch arrows with, all of this in a record time that lets us fully appreciate the effect without it being obvious: the art of the fugue. As Isou would say, the chiselling here is as much worked on as the discrepant. All objects are off-screen. He looks for them with a gesture of the hand: this invisible and immediate proximity gives the scene a highly enjoyable, unreal dimension.

The central static shot here is, in fact, made of many successive, similar-looking takes: same axis, same lens and with the same single character. He becomes an indispensable entity, a straitjacket that we can’t escape from any more than from the rigid monotony of the empire of Wilhelm II. The character works his way at the edge of the frame, which doesn’t grow bigger or smaller with respect to him or follow his movements. There are small jumps in continuity, which makes us suspect a positive or a negative damaged over time. But now, these are normal jump cuts that play on contrasts—for example, a woman in evening dress cut to the same woman, now naked—noticeable thanks to the similarity in their contents.

It’s completely against the grammar: Breathless half a century before there was Breathless. The presence of this device can be explained by the fact that there was no cinematic tradition in Germany at that time. The first, mediocre films date from 1910. One could hence do whatever one wanted. Valentin, who started in 1912, is a pioneer and the first auteur of German cinema. And it works just fine. That encourages us to reflect on the value of classical American continuity editing: does it have an ontological value? Or does it turn out to be the simple reflection of a dominant style based on a superficial order and harmony. I lean towards the second hypothesis. We have as proof Japan, whose films constantly cut across the 180-degree line forbidden by the Yankees. Had Germany and Japan won the war, film technique would have been upside-down. Film education, also in the clutches of Wall Street, needs a complete overhaul.

It’s surprising to discover a film so dense and accomplished, so modern and revealing of its time, only four years after the beginning of German cinema. And to think that it must’ve been shot in a day or two. There is even an assistant who enters the frame for a split second; it only shows the amateurism of the shoot.

 

Clown from the cabaret

Valentin’s film art was forgotten or despised for a long time, especially by all the histories of cinema. Valentin is, in fact, one of the great German filmmakers along with Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg and Schroeter, and better than Pabst, who made one good film out of eight, than Riefenstahl, too pompous, than Wenders, who hasn’t stopped declining in the last twenty years.

He was forgotten because he came from cabaret and theatre, where he had a crazy success. So for many, he wasn’t a real filmmaker, even if only a few of his films are based on his plays, fourteen out of fifty-one, if I’m not mistaken. The same judgment was pronounced on Pagnol and Guitry—Chapin escaped this criticism because there’s no trace of his activity in London. Notice, however, that there isn’t a word written or said in The New Writing Desk:  we just see Valentin opening his mouth frequently for inaudible monologues. The final appearance of the floor below proves that it wasn’t a sketch written for the theatre, where a collapse into another setting would’ve been ruled out. Valentin’s future work—his career extends from 1912 to 1941—certainly gives prominence to dialogue: one thinks of Beckett.

Specificity my ass. What matters is not that Valentin shuttles indifferently from cinema to theatre, with the latter preceding only by five years. What matters is the achievement of a body of work that makes us laugh, that touches us, moves us, overwhelms us, like that of Chaplin (whom he perhaps influenced), through its innovation in acting, its verve, its sense of the absurd and of repetition, its darkness and its bitter outlook towards the human condition and towards the average couple, which he created with his wife, Liesl Karlstadt. He was forgotten because he was “into” short films: fifty in all, of which twenty-nine seem to have been lost. He is the only cinema genius (outside of animation and documentary) to have limited himself to short films, with the exception of The Eccentric (1928).

His sketches for the theatre, à la Davos, à la Dubillard, à la Bedos-Robin, never cross forty pages (The Dance Hall remains the longest). Brevity is often the synonym of concision and perfection, like in poetry. The cinema often attains the highest summits (Puissance de la parole) since it frequently spans the shortest durations, which remains a form of respect towards the viewer, expressing the politeness and the humility that you mustn’t make him waste his time.

Valentin was forgotten because he worked not in noble drama, but in comedy. And the Germanics don’t have a sense of humour. Since Valentin’s retirement in 1941, there has only been one good German comedy, Satan’s Brew, made by Fassbinder. Excepting Lubitsch and Wilder, the defectors, who fall into the category of Jewish humour2, we notice the lack of humour among the “great” Germans. There is no comedy by Lang. Murnau failed with his The Finances of the Grand Duke. A country too cold for laughter, like Scandinavia, which turns out to be slightly better (Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time, Bergman’s All These Women). If the Germans had had a sense of humour, the laughable Hitler would’ve been a fiasco and there would’ve been fifty million fewer deaths.

 

1[Translator’s note] A play on two meanings of the word chute (referring to both a fall and the punchline of a story or a joke).

2Isn’t the Holocaust also the hatred towards laughter, towards a civilization based on life-sustaining humour?

 

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

 

Cahiers du cinéma no. 483; September 1994

The telecast of Jean de Florette has helped draw attention to an original treatment of colour, whose seeds were already to be found in A Special Day, made in 1977 by Ettore Scola.

The novelty of this film stemmed from a colour very close to black and white, whose justification was given to us by the director’s statements. He wanted to capture the style of postcards of the era in which the story is set (the Mussolini years) and their reduced colour range propping up ultra-conformist subjects and attitudes. There was, for him, an amalgam between this antiquated two-colour palette and fascist moral rigidity. So it was fun, per Scola, to use this particular format in service of an ideology completely opposed to the one it usually emphasized and, more precisely, to tell, among other things, a short love story between a brave, prototypical Roman matron, wife of a militant fascist, and a homosexual facing deportation (a hardly credible story for Italy in the 1930s, stemming from a very anachronistic soixante-huitard liberalism, but the problem isn’t that). A little like porno on stained-glass windows or machinations of hooligans on Bach.

The hiccup is that the washing-out machine of Scola and his cameraman Santis can only work after reading these statements. Non-Italians are unaware of these old, transalpine postcards, just like Italians under forty who haven’t lived under fascism—an ignorance that will only increase in the years following the film’s release and which thus will affect a large majority of viewers. And I’m not sure if, without the help of this footnote that is the director’s interview, even older Italians can appreciate Scola’s tortured intellectualism and discover his ironic intentions. Even with the help of this key, appreciation for the film remained theoretical since it could correspond only very rarely to visual memory.

Unjustified for nearly everybody, this format contributed nonetheless to the film’s success as the reflection of a totally gratuitous fantasy, originality and mannerism. What interests a good number of cameramen is above all a chromatic and stylistic unity, a distinctive look, a personal stamp. You get the impression that, before shooting, they try to prepare their Kodak ad. I’m referring to those articles written by image masters, promoted by the monopoly in question since many years, that highlight the particularities of their art and their plastic orientation in pompous and esoteric terms.

To be sure, this very specific definition of their activity allows cameramen to recognize themselves through their work, but we are within our right to wonder if it really serves the films.

Consider Jean de Florette. The plot revolves around Jean, the poor man who will be completely ruined, and his house whose ambiance is characterized by washed-out, reduced colours, notably a rather dirty, obscure and soft yellow of the ‘dead leaves’ variety. So be it. But it’s the same for scenes set at the residence of Papet, the villain who destroys Jean, and which should be differentiated aesthetically from the house of the poor man. Perhaps this is a gesture of supreme daring: Papet is a rich Scrooge who lives in the same mediocrity as the man he ruins. Oppressors and oppressed reduced to the same condition, vanitas vanitatum… But we must disabuse ourselves: we realize that the houses in the village are also marked by an identical tone, whereas they should look wealthier and emphasize their contrast with the physical and moral poverty and isolation of the one or two principal houses.

This yellow jaundice1 has spread its wings. All villagers from the 1920s—rich, oppressed, clustered, isolated—are put in the same basket of a rather reprehensible colour. To be sure, we can appreciate the value of the yellow better when we consider that all papers from thirty or more years ago—newspapers and wall decorations—have become of this colour. What we are witnessing is an aesthetic logic based on print and thus already biased. Not everything that’s old is yellow: I’m thinking of faces, furniture, objects and stones2. And, of course, papers in 1920 or 1940 weren’t already of this colour. It’s moreover impossible today to film a real newspaper from the past, Pour vous or L’intransigeant, since we’ll immediately see from its colour that it cannot be a newspaper read by an actor in a period movie, but an antique copy that has survived generations. So you have to use expert photocopies. In a film about the past, yellowness can be justified only by an intrusion of the present, by a subjective and powerful contemporary gaze—the Carlos Saura principle—or by the sudden appearance of an abandoned house, in High Aragon for example, that has remained as it is over several decades, which is not at all the case in Claude Berri’s simplistic and unitemporal narrative.

With time, the viewer has completely assimilated this very convenient and absurd convention: when we press the yellow button, comrade Pavlov, it means we are at the beginning of the century and maybe in the countryside3. Apart from this flattening of differences, yellowness produces two other negative effects. First: the filmmaker could’ve gotten a very pretty visual effect, like the haricots of The East of Eden, or conveyed the tragedy of man without showing its face, when the little field withers due to a water shortage brought about by Papet’s Machiavellianism. But here, on the contrary, we don’t get the impression of a drought since everything was already yellow to begin with. We understand the disaster and the filmmakers’ intention through the context rather than the image. We strain to see the field as more decayed than it actually is and convince ourselves that we saw it radiant before.

Second limitation: the obscure yellow hardly allows us to see the hero’s face, which is all the more unusual since these are top-paid superstars (Depardieu, Montand). We can credit the film with this provocative, almost Godardian daring, but we clearly see that it has no place in a film of this kind based on a classical narrative and that it upsets the whole with no real benefit.

We could broadly state that the mistake lies in the sacralization of formal unity. This norm harks back to an academicism at least three centuries old. To be sure, this can be easily defended in a film with a single setting such as a prison. But unity of style doesn’t function as well when it’s not linked to a unity of place and time. It’s not just with Jean de Florette that we lament this excessive extension of a plastic universe linked to a single setting to all the settings of the film. It’s a recurrent feature today. Cameramen in comedies struggle to find their famous look since colour often comes in way of laughter. How does the grain and the sharp contrast of the remarkable Nobody Loves Me help the performance of the actors, which is the strength of the film? In Three Men and a Cradle (which I love), the central apartment is rather retro, not far from yellowness. We find it hard to see how this setting serves this comedy. Perhaps the director had an apartment like this. But we come to terms with it. What we accept less is the echo of this basic tone in most other locations of the film.

Yellowness, which we find so often today, even in Madame Butterfly, succeeds the booming fad for black in 1976-80—how far can we descend into darkness? (cf. the admirable opening sequence of Mais ou et donc Ornicar?)—and the more dubious fad for dirty, Fuji-Polar blue around 1982-85 (of the So Long, Stooge variety). In their own way, all these fashions witness a reaction against Technicolor fireworks. Aren’t they more the work of cameramen than directors? There doesn’t seem to be a real conflict in this regard. It’s hard to imagine a cameraman working against the director all through a film. But a number of filmmakers remain somewhat weak in this subject and are satisfied when a man of image proposes something. They don’t think of all the consequences of their plastic choices.

After the admirable India Song and before Jean de Florette, Nuytten was responsible for the magnificent, original photography of Zoo Zéro, which seems to come out of nothing, or from another world, and remains internally coherent contrary to Fleisher’s film, which seems to want to go somewhere but doesn’t get anywhere. Nuytten’s earnest initiatives seem to have driven him, logically enough, to become a director.

 

1[Translator’s note] Moullet plays on the word jaunisse (referring to jaundice but also evoking yellowness). The word has been translated either way depending on context.

2Without slipping into gaudy Technicolour or the then-recent neon lights, people nevertheless liked colours in the 1920s.

3Another related reflex has to do with the status of black and white: since the reality of the years roughly between 1914 and 1950 is known essentially through monochrome films, we tend to identify, rather excessively, this era and its neighbouring periods with black and white (often made necessary by the lack of newsreel footage in colour, especially for war movies). To make use of black and white in one of my films, I was compelled by the producer to dedicate my film to a comic filmmaker of the silent era, since silent cinema necessarily means absence of colour…  The funniest part is that colour is an absolute must for epics, films on the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. Typically, everything should be in colour before or after this gap of thirty-five or forty years.

 

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

 

Unpublished

The striking feature of recent cinema is the scattering, disappearance even, of human presence, or at least the suppression of the individual, his dilution, his erosion, his erasure, his atomization, I don’t know what the right word is. In order not to compromise myself too much, I’ll speak of “rarefaction”.

 

The situation manifests itself in many forms.

Firstly, there is human erasure to the advantage of the animal. We have in this category some of our successful documentaries, Winged Migration, Microcosmos. But the phenomenon has expanded: the contagion also impacts fiction (The Bear, The Big Blue and its dolphin, Two Brothers and its tigers, Roselyne and the Lions¸ The Fox and the Child). We sense here a desire to seek “nature” in general, rather precious in an era marked by technology. Moreover, Jacques Perrin, the producer of the two aforenamed documentaries has also produced Himalaya, which shows life in a current-day society, but one untouched by civilization. Annaud, the man behind The Bear, also tackled Quest for Fire and His Majesty Minor, a prehistoric super-production, a nostalgia for barbarism that paradoxically requires the most sophisticated technical means.

The predominance of the animal over man already existed in Hollywood cinema in a more specific way through Rin Tin Tin, King Kong, the Disney factory and the products of MGM, which glorified the dog Lassie, the cervid of The Yearling, the nag of National Velvet, the MGM that was, by far, the most reactionary company in Hollywood.

We find a similar equation in France.

Brigitte Bardot, who admirably campaigns for seals, reveals herself through her Mémoires to be rather close to certain racist stances. It’s also true that there still exist canine competitions based on… the purity of breed. Love for animals and racist or right-wing behaviour (cf. François Nourissier) are often interrelated, just like how the love for sport or nature frequently coincides with a reactionary or pro-government ideology.

This massive animal intrusion in cinema is enabled by the very principle of the film exhibition system. Children often go to cinema with their loved ones, which makes for a large viewership. It’s thus a very, very profitable market, much more than that of children’s books, which only children read.

And what the child likes is animals. Many animals are of kids’ size, or even smaller (canaries, dogs, cats). The child can hence dominate them, whereas he is at the mercy of adults. He can even tame a large animal (there are ten-year old mahouts), generally and logically more stupid than the kid.

The infantilization of the entire cinema audience is hence a given, even though most animal films are made specifically for kids. The cream of the crop would be to make films for children that are not too stupid and which even adults can appreciate (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Demy’s Donkey Skin). Mind you, adults love showing their parental love by going to idiotic movies with their kids. It allows for quid pro quos like this: “You forced me to go see 101 Dalmatians. Now, you’ll help me by staying out of trouble.”

Animal and children’s movies have the advantage of lasting forever: a ten-year old child will go see Snow White in 2009 or in 2039 as much as in 1939. No need for expensive remakes, necessary on the other hand for fiction films, dependent as they are on new stars and modern costumes. Hence, colossal profits.

We see then that man’s erasure to the advantage of the animal, if it’s increasingly frequent in cinema, doesn’t offer much of interest. It’s pretty low-brow stuff.

 

On the other hand, there exists a temporary distancing of man, a distancing that I’d call “tactical”, which can turn out to be very productive. We find it in classical American cinema. It’s not a distancing of man in general, but an obscuration, a withholding of the hero, specifically at the beginning of a film. The hero doesn’t appear until several minutes, sometimes half-an-hour, into the film, and we find it hard to spot him. A good example would be the beginning of Sergeant York, where we don’t immediately recognize Gary Cooper, who appears at the end of the second reel, deep in the frame, somewhat hidden. The beginning of the film helps depict the ambiance. The other characters of the film, always blended into the story, seem to have been picked up on the spot, played as they are by less-known actors. The viewer hence has an impression of reality unfolding. A while later, there is the sudden entrance of the hero, who is not only the beloved star, but apparently also someone like the others whom we’ll have the pleasure of recognizing (we had paid to see him, we aren’t conned, phew!), someone who is close to you and anchored in the reality of a quasi-documentary. It’s the same device we find in Raoul Walsh, notably in A Lion is in the Streets.

This also corresponds to the structure of the classical novel: twenty or thirty pages of presenting the place, the milieu, the era, the secondary characters, before coming to the protagonists. It is, for example, Balzac’s approach in The Duchess of Langeais, whose main action starts very late.

We find this tactic in Tavernier’s films such as Captain Conan or Safe Conduct. The device doesn’t work as well in Conan given it’s not Gary Cooper, but less-famous actors, like Philippe Torreton or Didier Bezace, whom we don’t necessarily recognize. When it’s Gary Cooper, we at least understand right away that he’s the hero…

In every sequence of Safe Conduct, thanks to a colossal effort, Tavernier succeeds in making his hero, Gamblin, emerge after a few seconds in an ambiance that’s already carefully developed. Gamblin becomes part of the reality. His character becomes incontestable, irrefutable.

This initial erasure of the protagonist is a brilliant dramatic trick that glorifies his future presence all the more.

We find an even more modern approach that begins with Purple Noon (Réné Clément, 1959), where, in the middle of a police plot, the camera loses track of the story and lazily shows various stalls of a fish market—a nice diversion that Pierre Kast will repeat in 1978 with Le Soleil en face.

The principle will be amplified in Antonioni. In L’Avventura (1959), the heroine, Lea Massari, mysteriously disappears from a small island. The other characters will spend a good part of the film looking for her in vain (there will be a similar disappearance of the heroine mid-film in Hitchcock’s Psycho, made three months later, but it turns out better: we see right away that she is murdered).

And there’s the astounding ending of L’Éclipse (1961): Antonioni leaves the star couple Alain Delon-Monica Vitti once and for all to linger for about ten minutes on urban still life, roads, buildings, cars, trees etc., forgetting human beings altogether.

I confess that I don’t appreciate most of Antonioni’s films; they are boring, but I must acknowledge that he set a precedent, that he started something. He’s a precursor. In my opinion, he paid the price. But his influence, as well will see later, seems incontestable. He is singlehandedly responsible for the existence of more elaborate works his colleagues and imitators will produce.

Godard’s entire career seems to constitute a quest towards an increasingly provocative and radical erasure of man, of the individual, of the actor. Starting from the omnipresence of Anna Karina or Belmondo, he’ll proceed, step by step, to diminish the human being, to exclude him, forget him, to deny his identity. For a start, the dubbing of Belmondo by Godard himself in Charlotte et son Jules (1958) was prophetic. And later, there were the long theoretical speeches made by an invisible actor over the image of a silent worker in the middle of Week-end (1967). And even more drastically, the non-performance of the two superstars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, often filmed from behind, in Tout va bien (1973): the presence of stars and their vacuity for the sake of the form; their fall from the pedestal… we can also wonder whether it’s the imposture of the star system or the minimalism proper to each human being, a simple atom lost in the world, that the film expresses. Or maybe both at once.

Godard will go farther with Nouvelle Vague (1990), where Alain Delon—decidedly destined for the suppression his personality seems to cry out for—occupies an insignificant place compared to the invasive trees, who will be the only stars of Germany Year Zero (1991).

 

Long live oaks, down with penguins. Such is the lesson of modern cinema1.

These films by Godard belong to his Maoist or post-Mao period, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to find a very similar perspective of man in Asian or Chinese filmmakers2.

 

To simplify things, I’ll take three examples (but there are many more): Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1996), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006) and Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006). I’m certainly a little embarrassed to put in the same Asian bag filmmakers from distant places separated by three-thousand kilometres, different languages and belief systems. It reminds me of my guide in Peru, who clubbed the Spanish and the Finnish under the same word: “Europa” … But as we will see, there is nevertheless a number of commonalities.

Hou’s film certainly shows us human beings throughout its runtime. But our perspective of them is seriously disturbed by the mise en scène, which makes sure that we only see very little of them. They frequently remain in the shadows, they are filmed from behind, women’s faces remaining covered by their hair. And all this in vast, static group shots, in which humans appear lost. Characters have an important and animated discussion in the background, somewhat concealed and hardly visible, while in the foreground we clearly see a dog and a man who are simply eating. A while later, we see a rather dramatic scuffle deep in the frame. And there’s absolutely nothing in the foreground. Sequence-shots are often filmed from up high, which allows to pack more people into the frame and reduces human beings to puppets. Long sequences interrupt the story to show us a car or a motorbike in transit (line in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours) or to present the city’s neon lights.

The image of the broken-down car with the protagonists in it is reduced to nothing by the darkness of the night. The petty intrigues of the principal characters are all the more diminished, minimized, revealed to be Lilliputian compared to the grand fresco of life, often centred on the car or the motorbike.

This is what surfaces from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film as well. Shots of green nature or of modern buildings break the fragile story containing two plots. The female character is only a stray reflection within the general image of the meadow. The unsettling, surrealist, round orifice of the airduct robs the actors of their star status. Perhaps to prevent the risk of our identification with the actor, the film changes its story midway, as is always the case with Weerasethakul. There are two vague centres of interest, one after the other. The relationship between them remains rather feeble, as in Still Life, which I’ll come back to. This predilection for the diptych or the triptych format is affirmed even more evidently in Hou’s Three Times, and the Singaporean Khoo’s Be with Me and Twelve Storeys. A single story would give too much importance to the individual, who must always be embedded in a collective fresco encompassing other humans and the universe.

We shouldn’t be surprised to find this importance of the collective and of unanimity in the China of Still Life, but it could seem more surprising in a Thai filmmaker and in the Taiwanese Hou, who, it is true, was born in continental China. It’s perhaps that communism has established itself all the more easily in these lands because the mental and religious ambiance of the Asian continent is inherently predisposed to facilitate this galloping collectivism. The suppression of man seen in films from the Far East can also be explained by the fact that Asian religions endure better than Christianity, torpedoed by triumphant individualism.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, we find not only this scattering of the individual within the shot or the film (like in Hou), but also the increasing importance of the natural, temporal element, which make us forget about man a little. Syndromes is firstly the story of natural or artificial landscape, of the sun and the moon, just like how Blissfully Yours was the story of the Edenic forest and river, of their repetitive and haunting sonic ambiance. In Blissfully, characters exist through a part of their body—like in Bresson—and not through their face or their thoughts, rather mysteriously for us.

What counts especially is “time”. We might see an immobile character for eternity. What’s important is not the character, but the time that flows—a sprawl alien to the norms of film production.

 

Still Life makes this constant of Asian cinema even more evident. It involves, first and foremost, showing the relationship of man to the world3, his real, miniscule place within the universe. The two plots narrated here, which are finally the same despite their surface inversion (the search for the lost spouse is undertaken, in the first part, by a man and, in the second, by a woman), are a pretext to a quasi-documentary revelation of exterior world.

The word “pretext” is perhaps excessive since these plots are not uninteresting, nor devoid of meaning. But it’s that this expansion of romantic problems doesn’t last long since we feel that, beyond the temporal limits Jia sets them, it’s all likely to collapse into soap opera or melodrama.

Jia can thus end up, thanks to a discreet common thread represented by one character or another, with a “smooth-flowing” presentation, like the Yangtze River, of a cosmic whole that includes, among other things, light effects (the illumination on the bridge), the fascination of a new spectacle provided by the destruction and submersion of a city (a theme that Villier’s and Giono’s Girl and the River, Kazan’s Wild River and even Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Sea could exploit well), the customary plots, schemes and fights in contemporary China, a certain natural and artificial fantasy based on an astounding dialectic. I’m thinking of the building that collapses without warning in the background to the discussion between two protagonists and of the rocket that takes off while, in the same frame, a woman hangs her laundry on a cord. We have here, in the same shot, neorealism and Star Wars at once.

And the mutation of the city (thanks to a destruction that’s a nice change for us from the interminable, gigantic constructions offered by industrial, super-spectacular cinema) only reinforces the feeling of mutation of the characters during the time that has passed before the beginning of the film and which is invoked here.

Finally, in Jia’s work, the erasure of man, of the protagonist, is part of a general, cosmic plan for the film that requires that no single element—psychological, thematic, visual or aesthetic—be preponderant.

Of course, this rarefaction of the individual remains somewhat theoretical since each image is filmed by a team of invisible human beings, since the landscape of cities and fields has been elaborated by man. But let’s remember, on the other hand, that the films where we only see heroes talking in tight shots are often lazy and empty of humanity.

It’s clear that this insertion of the individual bit by bit into the film’s body, an uncommon sprinkling, is likely to unsettle western audience, used as it is to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end, to whose eyes all shots without the protagonists or without humans are “longueurs”.

But our excessive glorification of individualism, beyond all ideological positions, opens up only limited and beaten paths in cinema in 2007, compared to all the perspectives that this new insertion into the filmic work offers: fragmentary, implicit and in outlines. The fixation on the individual has nothing do with a purported cinematic ontology, it was already brilliantly broached by some of our occidental filmmakers and by the loss, which I’d label Bressonian, of the fundamental role of the actor, doomed by Hollywood to cover up the shortcomings of a false, unbelievable and conventional American script through his art, his body language, his facial expression, his phrasing and his rhythm.

 

1Note the importance of trees in Straub and Serreau (Saint Jacques… La Mecque). Trees that outlive man.

2Antonioni was to make a long documentary on China himself. This new Sinophilia (cf. Ivens or Bertolucci) succeeds a return to India started from 1950 onwards by Renoir, Rossellini, Malle, even Lang and Cukor.

3Jia’s cinema, and Far Eastern cinema in general, make a more pertinent use of stereoscopy than Hollywood, too preoccupied with easy effects: man in the middle and, on the right and left of the screen, the rest of the world.

 

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

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]

Lecture at a round-table on the theme “For a new critical consciousness of film language”.

Mostra de Pesaro, 4 June 1966

This lecture shocked Metz, Barthes and Pasolini (who was nonetheless a fan of my first film). But it delighted Godard.

The delay and the difficulty with which we have come to understand the components of film language (film languages, for there exist, alongside the Hollywoodo-European language, Japanese, Hindu and Egyptian languages) have made us take this understanding for a great success. I think that we were right to be proud, because it wasn’t easy to discover. But where we were wrong is in believing that our magnificent effort made us understand something magnificent. We were wrong in mistaking our effort for its result. Because the result, the knowledge of film languages, reveals but one thing, and this thing is the congenital artistic mediocrity of past, present and future film languages.

Christian Metz says that we cannot attack film language, since it codifies pure forms. I disagree: right from the moment when a human being invented these forms that others will transform into codes, these forms are impure, tarnished—and fortunately tarnished—by his/her personality. Metz says that the alternation of images implies simultaneity of facts. In this case, it’s a personal codification initiated by the creator of the first parallel montage, which could also signify, among various possibilities, the alternation of facts and the hero’s thoughts (The War Is Over), comparison between time periods (Not Reconciled), alternation of the creator’s and the hero’s thoughts (Marienbad). Even though these three implications are contrary to the original meaning, they are no less comprehensible: it isn’t necessary that the devices be codified in order to be understood. Indeed, the first film employing parallel montage was successfully understood, even when the code hadn’t yet come into existence.

Metz also says that we should not pass an artistic judgement on language, which is necessary and neutral. Now, a communicative instance is always also the first time an aesthetic instance. It’s the second time that it becomes solely communicative. The first time we perceive this instance, we indeed experience an emotion of an artistic order based particularly on surprise. Similarly, an aesthetic instance is always likely to be a communicative instance, at times even exclusively. So it is with the dramatic value of colours. Defining art solely as a means to harness a medium common to everyone seems to me to be a bourgeois conception of art: eighty percent fixed stock, twenty percent sauce of your choice. It’s a conception that can be defended only if one attributes a secondary role to film art, an entertaining function, a purely decorative interest. And, in that case, I think our presence, this colloquium and the Mostra would be useless. Art’s interest lies especially in being able to, in having to destroy and reconstruct its own foundations and venture into its own depths. To be sure, I understand that art can attach itself to language if the creator superposes another aesthetico-communicative—or rather, I prefer, communico-aesthetic, for it’s prettier—instance over it that’s also liable to be transformed into language. It’s very common in cinema. But whether this instance attaches itself to language or not has no bearing on its value, and thus is of no importance.

There is a complete opposition between film language and film art, for film language spills over into art, invades, and suffocates it. It is a relationship of opposition, not one of indifference: language and art are the bottom and the top of the same thing; language is failed art.

Literary language, less absorbent, is indifferent to art: it remains a simple and modest medium of art as of information. Film language, on the other hand, conditions art. One could say that good cinema starts where language ends and dies where language resurfaces. And if all bad films are not necessarily representatives of film language, for there are bad avant-garde films, it’s nonetheless sure that film language can only produce bad things, with one rare exception. If not all rubbish is language, language is always rubbish: the proof for this is that, in all books on film language, the best examples are drawn from rubbish and the list of cited films are made of many duds and leaves out many masterpieces.

Why this state of affairs? It’s simple: the viewer receives a work made by the artist. It’s the first stage, that of communication. Alas, there can be a second stage: the viewer, having become director, redoes what the artist has done. It’s a reply along the same lines, an inter-communication. That’s what’s called language, redoing what another has done, redoing that which doesn’t belong to us. Language is theft. Art is individual, communication of a single instant, it’s that which can exist only once. Language is that which can only exist from the second time onwards, when an associate has transformed art into signs. There is no more creation, only mechanical reproduction. Art can never be reused. Language can only be reused, for it’s in being reused that it proves itself to be language. It is the vain attempt at eternalization of artistic success the human being always dreams of. It is the negation even of artistic originality. We perceive film art thanks to a personal effort of reflection or intuition. We perceive cinema of language with no effort—and it is, besides, for this reason that we have such difficulty in being aware of this language: it is made for our laziness. In film language, the thing expressed is no more than a common symbol, a sign that filmmaker-robots employ and which viewer-robots understand.

The biggest danger of film language on the artistic level is that the one who employs it thus destroys his own personality. The French who imitate American cinema are but appropriating the means conceived by Griffith and DeMille to express in the best possible way their personal universe, marked by Southern spirit and a puritanism that has nothing to do with the universe of the French directors. When Lelouch borrows Godard’s language by recopying Godard’s stylistic ideas, he necessarily fails because Godard’s stylistic expression depends on the fact that Godard is Swiss and Protestant and that he is Godard. Now, Lelouch is nothing of that sort, he expresses personal themes different from Godard’s, or most often, he doesn’t express themes. Language is thus alienation.

Moreover, the successive and separate landings of film language—Griffith-language, Godard-language for example—are necessarily contrary to art, which proceeds without ever being able to stop at any landing. If it does, it ceases to be art.

We thus see how great the harmfulness of film language is: the viewer has to make no effort to understand the film. The signs of language make him understand everything without effort. He becomes passive, lets himself be put to sleep by the fiction of the film. Cinema loses its role as a school of life, before which man retains the same passivity. During the years 1945-1955, language had crushed cinema with such power that viewers, who generally didn’t have past filmic experience, believed that cinema coincided with film language, and that all that wasn’t cinema of language was without interest and bad. It took ten years for the public to start understanding that the language-cinema it was used to was but one episode in the history of cinema, which could very well develop without it. One could say that the refinement of film language considerably delayed the development of film art and the civilization of the masses.

Film language nonetheless possesses four strengths: firstly, the clarity with which it appears now, thanks to the efforts of researchers, has allowed the enumeration of all its devices. That is to say, everything that should not be done. It’s quite convenient. Certain films even mount a critique of film language, which they turn upside-down to obtain surprise effects. It’s the case of some scenes in Godard, Hitchcock, who are therefore dependent on the mediocrity of film language.

Secondly—and this is the exception I mentioned earlier—filmmakers can hypocritically respect language in order to take the viewer into confidence and slide in a revolutionary thought more easily, or to indict social or psychological conformism of which the very principle of film language is but a reflection, with the film presenting itself as burnt offering. It’s the path of more or less anarchist filmmakers, Buñuel, Chabrol, Franju. It’s the destruction of language from within.

Thirdly, directors can respect the rules of the language and create an original work despite language, for reasons external to language, which neither brings nor takes anything away from them. I think almost all good films retain the echoes of film language. If we attribute a value to them, it’s because they carry fewer echoes than others, it’s because these have little importance, because we forget them and especially because there is something else in the film. Our appreciation is thus on relative terms and not absolute ones: we like them because there’s nothing better. This third alternative has a great financial advantage, as does partly the previous alternative: it guarantees the commercial career of the films.

For, fourthly, film language above all has a monetary advantage: since it’s easily accessible to everyone, it’s the prime mover of the film industry, which partly conditions the art of film. It’s the reason why the politicians and the grocers of cinema, the grocer-politicians and the politician-grocers of cinema love it. It will therefore be impossible to make film language disappear and even undesirable to do so: the value of films being found in relation to other films, it is impossible that, out of a hundred films, there are fewer than seventy-five bad ones. Better that these seventy-five duds respect film language, which brings in money, than orient themselves towards bad avant-garde, which brings no money. It avoids unemployment. Just that what happened in the world ten years ago—and what’s still happening in Germany today, namely ninety-five out of hundred films being language-cinema—must not happen again. For, in that case, the public is led to refuse all art and thus all new forms of language-cinema. Prohibiting such a renewal spells doom for art and also for the industry, which needs, from time to time, this small dose of innovation brought about by every new landing of language-cinema that art unveils.

Each one of us in this room, critic or filmmaker, should therefore undertake a struggle against film language, which should assume, in order to be more effective, a new offensive appearance, but which is in fact defensive, since art should be and always will be a minority with respect to language.

Filmmakers, to the extent that they are not constrained by material necessities, must refuse to make language-cinema; they must even refuse the double-game I mentioned, creation within or outside of language, for in respecting the rules of language without following its spirit, they will always be defeated by those who respect its spirit, that is to say the merchants who will crush them. Critics must study the history of cinema, learn by themselves and make others learn that film language is like religion, that the well-known film language isn’t the only one to exist or to have ever existed, that it belongs to a determined time and place, that one particular film language should not be favoured nor a film language be expected during the projection of each film, that film language is but the fruit of laziness and lack of imagination. Each of us must be able to shout out loud: “Down with film language, so that long lives cinema!”

 

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

I have written a few theoretical texts. Not too many, that’s dangerous. Metz, Deleuze, Benjamin and Debord committed suicide. Maybe they discovered that theory takes you nowhere and the shock was too rude (not to mention Althusser).

In this regard, great critics die young. Delluc, Canudo, Auriol, Agee, Bazin, Truffaut, Straram, Daney. Seeing too many films eats you up.

I’m still there, which is proof that I’m not a great critic.

This theory holds good only for good critics. Charensol was almost hundred when he died.

 

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