Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tron, the film

Serge Daney's 1982 review of Tron. Daney never took to animated films or electronic images but he kept writing about them. Wondering what he would say in a world of CGI, 3D and VOD is anyone's guess but is surely a fascinating endeavour. Would he actually say anything different? As someone who considered that the essence of cinema was somewhere in the "art of showing", he certainly understood the dilemma: "How do you show a computer-animated image?".

That didn't stop him liking the first Tron:
Tron, the film (Tron, Steven Liesberger)
Walt Disney (the man) died in 1966. Walt Disney (the company) keeps surviving him. Walt Disney (the mythology) is an unsinkable iceberg, even over centuries. Beliefs, beasts, fears, and a factory of fine craftsmen: this heritage of traumatising treacle is returning, at the end of 1982, in three forms. Spielberg (E.T.) rediscovers the family sentimentalism of Walt Disney. Don Bluth (a dissident in the Disney factory, author of The Secret of Nimh) resuscitates the drawing technique, image by image. Steven Lieberger (Tron) revives the pioneering spirit of early Disney. Beautiful remains, but the factory is coming back from the brink.

We tend to forget that when Disney (the man) died, the company went through a deep black hole. At the end of the 60s, the surprise comes from insolent and edgy independents (Yellow Submarine, Fritz the cat). From the 70s, there’s a great worry among the Walt Disney conformists. Drawing techniques are stagnating; the secrets of story-telling are getting lost. Cut to the quick, the old house has chosen the headlong rush: to return to the early Disney, the amazing inventor who signed, before the war, films like The Cookie Carnival or Broken Toys.

But in the USA, Tron is kind of a flop. A failure that we are tempted to compare to the success of E.T.. Let’s succumb to the temptation. E.T. balances admirably the well-known parameters of American cinema. Tron must invent a new mix of these parameters. In making Tron, the Disney studios must have thought that today’s kids, their eyes riveted on their video-games, already live in a nice electronic world, sleek and cold, with low contents of mythology: naivety. Spielberg knows that they still live with their warm worn teddy bears: intelligence. But the charm of Tron – it has an eminently likable aspect – is precisely this unfathomable gap between the sophistication of the image and the humility of those living in it: the story and the “actors”. On one side, the simple emotions of the pinball player, on the other, the abstraction pinched from old B series.

The last time a man managed to interrogate head-on the story he’s telling and the new images used to tell the story, it was in 1969, in this genius of a film: 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Kubrick’s heritage has little by little been revived, cropped, domesticated and sterilised. Curiously, Tron is today the film that is taking up the uninterrupted thread. This required that the last traces of the spirit of the 60s disappeared, the illusion of independents, their ideological insolence, etc. There’s now nothing in the scenarios of E.T. and Tron which can’t be found in toy shops, or video-games, or in the imagination of those (little white men) who can afford them. It’s the other lesson from Tron: innovation, once again, comes from above.
Libération, 15 December 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinema et le monde, Volume 2, POL Editeurs, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

English version of "Journey of a Cine-Son"

I've just been alerted of a project for an English version of "Itineraire d'un cine-fils", the long filmed interview that Serge Daney gave to Regis Debray a few months before he passed away.

I'm awaiting more details on this. Watch this space.

Journey of a "Cine-Son" (excerpt) from ibeescus on Vimeo.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saint Zelig, pray for us

Small Christmas gift to all the readers of this blog. So the year does not end without one last translation.

I didn't chose this text for any particular reason. It's from "Le salaire du zappeur" (literally: the wage of the channel hopper), a book where Serge Daney brought together the texts from the daily column he wrote for Libération while watching television every day for 100 days from September to December 1987. The collection of articles contains great texts and some smaller and minor ones. Here's a minor one, clearly written on the day, although still pretty good...

Saint Zelig, pray for us

Where it’s clear that only a filmmaker can give some meaning to what television does without thinking and that we owe Woody Allen the hypothesis of the embodied zapping.

First came euphoria, a dream of ubiquity finally within reach of the hand (then of the thumb, a part of the hand). Thanks to television, being everywhere would cease to be the privilege of the sorcerer’s apprentices akin to Orwell or Mabuse. Once surveillance was democratised, the spectator’s eye started to scan, faster and faster, several strata of images. From the raw documentary of the news to the quiet family shows, from the black and white stock shots to the bright colours of the weather maps, from the MGM lion to the successive test patterns of national public television (1). In the meantime, the ear was adjusting to several types of voices: discoursing or teasing, commenting or stuttering, dubbed or original. “The world at home” was what it was all about.

All this existed especially when there was only one television channel. The multiplication of channels has slowly created the reverse feeling of a fundamental “unity” of all images and sounds on television. As if too much diversity was detrimental to the very idea of diversity, and if too much choice rendered trivial the act of choosing. The practice of zapping probably came from this desperate desire to anticipate a nausea certain to arrive. An ambiguous act, zapping carries two contradictory desires. Sometimes we are trying to prove that “elsewhere” (i.e. on another channel) is just the same. Other times we want to enjoy – even for an instant – the appearance of diversity and to dream that it’s more than an appearance. In the first case, we angrily conclude to the prominence of the medium over the message, and in the second case we still seek the moments (a few seconds is all it takes) where our habits are tricked by a show temporarily new. But, like those who want to run faster than their shadows, or who count their chickens before they are hatched, we end up forgetting that an image is made to be seen.

Does the Same, multiplied by the Same, equals the Other (like the multiplication of two negatives makes a positive)? It’s too serious a question to be left to the television people (too busy pretending to be unique and confuse variant and difference). Inversely, it’s a question for the reverie and jurisdiction of filmmakers. Only filmmakers can calmly “analyse” what television is only proposing as a hysterical synthesis. Cinema – and this is not new (Vertov, Rossellini, Welles, Godard, etc.) – is the conscience of television. It’s often its last dignity left. Filmmakers, because they anticipate a process which will eventually escape them, have the time to think about it and make it their own personal concern. But those who inherit from these processes often have the upstarts’ stubborn presumptuousness. Let’s be precise. With Fritz Lang the idea of surveillance is fascinating (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and with Rossellini, the idea of fictionalised news is overwhelming (Paisa). With Welles, the idea of de-programming is staggering (Mr. Arkadin) and with Godard (or Bresson) the idea of forced and indifferent choice is close to anguish. Artists will always be truer than media-people.

And it’s with Woody Allen that the idea of zapping eventually becomes emotive. To watch one morning (on Canal +), drowned amongst other images, a movie like Zelig (1983), is to find to this film a depth that it didn’t have in movie theatres, in front of an audience too enlightened, too “second degree”. Television is the true environment of this film. If the bases of Woody Allen’s films are almost always robust or ingenious ideas (a real history of mediation in the 20th century, going through the de-sublimated star system and the moving evocation of radio), they rarely have a strong enough inspiration to make real films. But only a filmmaker could invent Leonard Zelig, this mutant whose body is zapping through history and through the different ways to film history.

Who’s Leonard Zelig? A nice boy who wants to be loved by the others so much that he finds nothing better than to physically look like them. Zelig is like the cursor of the word processing machine this article is written with: where he is, it’s the Same, and everywhere else is elsewhere. He moves from a body to another just as we hop from channel to channel. He becomes tinged with otherness. He has recourse to mimicry, like these animals which fascinated Lacan. His body (a strange body, good for science, a body made of acetate or nitrate) adapts to the environment, eventually dissolving into it. That’s the true novelty. Unlike the great disguised characters of the past (who dressed up, like Tony Curtis in The Great Impostor by Mulligan), Zelig slips naturally in the skin of others. That’s how we discover him, a scandalous object in the immediate entourage of the Pope or Hitler. This is how he realises our dream of ubiquity (the famous “little mouse” since then become heroin of some personal computers).

We know that cinema would not exist without the persistence of vision. With Zelig, there is another persistence: of a role into another, of a channel into another. Zelig symbolises our desire to be everywhere at the same time (incognito) and our refusal to lose the endangered “thread” of our nomadic life. But we or Zelig no longer travel around the wide world but through those countries which are the different genres of known images of the world: through the interview, the current affairs documentary or the Hollywood film. A chemical world is leading to chemical bodies, and chemical bodies lead to new types of metamorphoses.

The culture of narcissism (a theme long addressed by the Americans) leads to paradoxes in which Woody Allen visibly revels. In the past, a mirror was enough (“Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir”, etc.). Today, it’s through the superficial diversity of the TV-things on display that we want to catch the trace of our imaginary presence, even in the (rather minimal) form of the gaze. What we see returns our image, the image of those who, as John Berger said, wanted to “see the seeing”. So for once, Zelig devotes himself out to “represent” our gaze in the country of things watched. We then found ourselves on both sides of the screen and concluded to the “crisis” of cinema.

(1) “ORTF” in the French text: Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française – the old state-owned public broadcaster which dominated French television up until 1974.

Originally published in Libération on October 6th, 1987. Reprinted in Le salaire du zappeur, Éditions Ramsay, 1988. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The raw and the cooked

Adrian Martin (a.k.a. the man behind the most anticipated website in the cinephile world) sends a surprise that he found when "throwing out boxes of old stuff": an new English translation of Serge Daney done for a magazine called France Information in 1981.

I had never heard of this piece and got quite excited (sad, I know). But when I tried to trace it back to the original French text, it became quickly apparent that the magazine Adrian uncovered proceeded to a shameless "collage" of several texts, highly edited, incomplete and assembled together with little regard to what Daney tried to convey in each text... France Information was perhaps one of these industry publications or perhaps an official magazine from the Ministry of Foreign affairs more focused on promoting France abroad than on film criticism. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve with these texts but they certainly butchered the main article by Daney.

Undeterred, I'm publishing my translation of the complete original text "The raw and the cooked": a review of the state of French cinema in the early 1980s which resonates strangely with today's division between arthouse/festival movies and the mainstream production.

The raw and the cooked
(The state of French cinema, 1980)

For French cinema, the 1970s were the post decade: post-New Wave, post-68, post-modern. No ground swell, no new movement, no new school: almost an aesthetic desert. We don’t know how this decade already looks toward the 1980s. We won’t know until later what it has prefigured of the 1980s. While we wait, we must propose a description: neither hot [immediate] nor cold [with hindsight] but tepid.

Authors, but which ones?

Something is undeniable however: French cinema is unique, it resembles no other. Some (and not the least ones: Rohmer, Moullet) say it is the best in the world. As if it was in France that the old “seventh art”, the cinema-art-of-the-twentieth-century, was giving away the least amount of ground, or at least not as fast as elsewhere. As if it was in France that the dialogue between “art and industry” (to talk like Malraux) or between “culture and capitalism” (to talk like Musil, who wasn’t French but wrote – it’s not known enough – film criticism) was obstinately continuing.

This specificity of French cinema can be summed up in one word: it is an authors’ cinema, rich of all the literary connotations of this word: author. The famous politique des auteurs wasn’t born in France by chance and it ended triumphing to the point of covering with one word what was kept separated by many others: metteur en scène, director or even producer. As a result, we no longer know very well what this word, an author, means.

If there was a crisis after 1968, it was the crisis of the other cinema, mass market cinema, the cinema of traditional producers, many of which – we tend to forget – took part in the early days of the New Wave adventure. Confronted to this situation (the disappearance of dialogue, even stormy, between producer and author), filmmakers became (were forced to become?) everything for their films. Throughout the decade, those who could call themselves authors were the ones who, by dint of calculations, tenacity and also egocentrism, simply managed to get their films to exist – and eventually be seen. To do this, they had to be everywhere: upstream and downstream of the film, producer, director, promoter but also tumbler, financier, bursar, delivery man. Many damaged their health and squandered their talent in the venture: how many interesting first films not followed by a second? How many not uninteresting second films not followed by a third? Only the toughest and maddest (about cinema) held out: cinema’s a jungle.

And being everything for a film, is a bit too much. Worse: it’s no guarantee that the film will be personal and will have original ideas of mise en scène or a real thought about cinema. That’s why it’s not enough to talk about an authors’ cinema, whether to praise or criticise it, one must say how the authors, most of whom come from the New Wave or were influenced by her, travelled through this “post” decade. In brief, one should explain this: a politique des auteurs which triumphs in a system where producers have no longer any politique, transforms authors into producers or, more exactly, in small producers. Production, in a wide sense, is therefore the strong idea of the decade.

Those who resembled their time

Towards the middle of the 1970s Godard attempted to get a cleaning lady to sing on a TV program. He wanted her to say a forgotten sentence in The Internationale: “Producers, save yourselves”. This sentence sums up and politicise the question that film-makers faced because of the crisis of traditional cinema. And those who best crossed the desert of this joyless years were the ones who asserted themselves – or were confirmed – as authors by saving themselves as producers. Let’s take three film-makers as different as Godard, Vecchiali and Rohmer: they never stopped filming. Better: they never stopped experimenting; an absolute luxury at a time where others, more dependent on traditional production, found themselves obstructed in their work. Facing a system where they no longer knew how to measure (can one measure himself up against the Advance on box office receipts scheme? Not really; one can only hope and put up with it), they managed to continue their own production machine or, as Rivette says, their “micro-system”. A machine designed to produce a film, but more importantly, to produce the possibility of another film after that – a machine to reproduce. The idea of series has haunted nostalgically this decade doomed to the racing of prototypes, to hits without tomorrow. These micro-systems were named Sonimage, Diagonale, Les Films du Losange, and others.

They condensed, often like a parody, everything that cinema has always been made off: fleeting time, violent affects, money flows, power struggles, erotic situations. Godard, Vecchiali, Rohmer – these three names act here as emblems – were tempted by the family business, they lived off the system (without necessarily respecting it), they thought “small is beautiful”, there were, to borrow Deleuze’s beautiful expression, “very populated within themselves”. They had to be since traditional cinema, mainstream cinema, Qualité France and Show-business cinema were then singularly desert (this is about to change).

In these micro-systems, which are also dreamed mini-majors, there was the whole of cinema: a fabulous cinephile memory, false stars (in Vecchiali’s films), false extras (in Godard’s films), war economy, the sense of good management and, last but not least, the love of money. Their strength, at that time, was to love the trade, whatever small, and not to depend mechanically on the laws of a shrunk market.

I mentioned, because they are exemplary, Godard, Vecchiali, Rohmer. I could have said: Truffaut, Duras, Moullet, Straub, even Garrel: Truffaut because he managed to set up Les Films du Losange between France and the USA, Duras because she knew how to be double, Garrel because, at the degree zero of the economy, he managed to last. What differentiate these machines which are so different from one another is not their size (in general, they are small), it’s their ability to allow swerves: to move from a budget to another, from a duration to another, from an experiment to another – yet another luxury. For example, Godard, after 1968, turns his back to his career to follow his time even in its cul-de-sacs (militant cinema and its critique, television and its critique), Vecchiali allows himself to add to his body of works a film with a truly pornographic side (Don’t change hands), Rohmer can alternate without waning (and rather flourishing) a great and a small film (Perceval and The aviator’s wife), etc.

What counts is less the content or the formal choices than the plasticity of the machine which produces them. In front of the naked law of capitalism requiring that those not advancing must decline and those advancing too fast must fall from their heights (a law which is returning in anger in the French cinema of the 1980s, threatening younger film-makers like Jacquot or Téchiné), a handful of film-makers started to work with varying speeds. This was a new luxury (even small-budget films had a certain dandyism, Moullet’s for example). Because the true richness is time, the time an artist needs to work a material, to accumulate experience.

What to say then of the filmmakers who were less tempted (or totally unable) to create their own production machine? Clearly, Demy, Pialat, Rozier, Eustache or Resnais are not – far from it – less important authors. But they haven’t lived through this decade as well: they worked less, experimented less than they had wished – and they probably suffered for it. It allowed them to express their time with acuteness, every time they encountered it (The mother and the whore, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble). They produced X-rays of their time but they didn’t resemble their time. That’s the difference.

For this “post” and disenchanted decade wasn’t just random. There was 1968, beliefs, speeches, utopias: French society was shaken. Remember: the end of militancy and the beginning of feminism, the success of the minority idea (…), the value of the local, of the hic et nunc, of the “do and learn”. The cinema micro-systems were mirroring these post-leftist years: small (desiring) machines, stubborn (and spread out) resistance, different labour divisions (between men and women, manual and intellectual). We won’t find this in the late and politically correct hijackings by mainstream cinema (from Boisset to the left-leaning sociological and naturalist fictions) but in these authors-machines who, for a few years, have resembled their time.

French cinema, itself

The 1970s micro-systems make for a small cinema (too French, restricted, non-exportable, desperately white, etc.): it’s already been said. But it’s also a cinema with a very fine taste. I don’t know if the French cinema is the world’s best, I know that the French cuisine is the world’s best, and I also know, irrefutable syllogism, that there is a cuisine of French cinema, and an old one too.

Look at Méliès, what does he do? Not only card tricks or stencilled-coloured Passions, but he films the trial of Dreyfus: he re-enacts the event on the spot with an actor who plays like Mounet-Sully! Every thing is already there in Méliès’ gesture, and less in the famous opposition to the Lumière brothers than in the presence of Lumière-effects in Méliès’ films, and vice versa, in this unique mix of burning news and cold rules. Afterwards, French actors have always had this way to maintain together but disjointed, i.e. united yet separate, what other countries’ cinemas had either united or separated. Between documentary and fiction, the crude and the coded, the hazards and the devices, in a word between the raw and the cooked, there has always been a short-circuit, a striking shortcut, impurity.

The raw easily becomes cruel, obscene, sadistic; the cooked easily becomes too cooked, burnt, perverted. But there is no happy middle. Godard said recently that he fond “average American cinema infinitely superior to average French cinema”. But this is precisely about “average” cinema. We could turn the proposition on its head: non-average French cinema is generally superior to non-average American cinema. It may always have been that way, and one might even say that the only tradition of French cinema resides in its modernity, its unique capacity to house singular experiences in a normal industrial and commercial framework. Modernity: the great French films are more or less documentaries on the state of the filming material, always a two-stage, dialectical, operation. Hence today, French cinema appears better armed than others (in Europe) to face the future while remaining the place of aesthetic works.

For there are two faces of French cinema. On the one hand, the prodigious actors’ cinema, this “Saturday night” cinema, more or less dead today, and whose ghost has not ceased to haunt the 1970s (especially Vecchiali, Mocky, Truffaut). And on the other hand, a certain number of heretical experiments conducted by authors who were often authors in two ways (Pagnol, Guitry, Cocteau, Renoir, Duras are also writers) and who share this fundamental idea that one mustn’t adapt the written for the image but, on the contrary, play with their heterogeneity. To the point that, to study the authors of French cinema, the cautious micro-systems of the 1970s, the 1960s boom (New Wave), the great post-war moderns (Bresson, Tati), the ever great moderns (Renoir, Gance), is to spot every time the demarcation line that they create between what is, for them, the raw and the cooked, the non-cinema and the cinema, a raw material and a crafty device.

This line, which never stays at the same place, is inevitably linked to the fact that, for 50 years, cinema is now talking, even talkative. French cinema authors have in common to have worked the image and to have been worked up by speech. That’s how they changed the cinema, that they modernised it. The emptied body of Bresson’s model, Duras’ writing in voice over, Pagnol’s delirious over-speaking, Tati-Hulot’s rumblings, Eustache’s redoubling stories, the wind in the bushes in Straub’s films, Godard stuttering in front of chattering children, Demy’s bourgeois’ “sprecheesang”, Pialat’s idiolects and Rohmer’s sociolects, Moullet’s statistical reciting, Rivette’s or Vecchiali’s controlled yet absolute freedom of improvisation, Rouch as a white sorcerer, all this – all this raw and unknown material – makes noise. A noise – to stick to the culinary metaphor –, that shall not be reduced.

We often reproach to French film critics no to love the cinema of their own country, to act like snobs towards it, to underestimate it, to love national cinemas which move better (because, the dance here, is all about the forclusion!), etc. The problem is that this reproach almost always comes from those who think that French cinema is too static, too literary, not enough constructed, etc. Whereas this is precisely this that is unique (and lovable): its passion for the language, its lightness and its moralising, its digressions and its authors’ dark narcissism.
Initially published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 323-324 in May 1981. Also published in Serge Daney's first book: La rampe. Cahier critique 1970-1982, Cahiers du cinéma – Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

If anybody is interested, the bibliographic reference of the 1981 "translation" is FRANCE INFORMATION, no. 115 (1981), pp. 23-25.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Nap time. My kid is watching a DVD of Dumbo. Serge Daney was never fond of animated movies, openly admitting he didn’t get them and famously claiming he never saw Bambi. But he was still able to write good pieces of film criticism such as the extracts from this text about Dumbo in 1989.

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is firstly a hymn to the night. Whether it’s the circus train, the female elephants raising the big top under the rain, the shadow cast over the destroyed big top or the isolated hut where Dumbo’s mother – now a “mad elephant” – is crying, the great moments of the movie happen at night. It’s at night that the mouse whispers to the man the idea of the show where Dumbo will be the star, and it’s at night, after the disaster, that the elephant with too large ears and his mouse friend fall in a well of champagne. Dumbo is this strange animated movie taking place in half-light and the strange story of this fake elephant (1).


The film is perhaps more beautiful if we look less at Dumbo’s revenge than at a process described in many mythologies: the hero’s double birth. First birth: from day to night. Second birth: from night to day. At first, Dumbo would be wrongly cast in the role of the baby elephant that he isn’t, and then he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a unique species with only one individual: the dumbo. Light ends up revealing the true nature of this celestial entity, after a long and difficult series of nocturnal tests. In a word, Dumbo would not be an elephant.

Why this surprising thesis? Because there is an extraordinary moment in Dumbo. Before he finds himself up in a tree, ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on earth, and there, in all innocence, he gets copiously drunk. Amateurs of animated movies, of happy fantasies, or simply of graphic invention, all know Dumbo’s booze-up with its procession of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not without its logic. From the black background against which the laughing elephant-like figures stand out, to the pink clouds of the dawn of Dumbo’s first day, there is a true rite of passage. And it’s a whole series of figures which parade, dance and jig, laughing and grotesque figures which only retain their trunk, or the concept of a trunk, as a distinctive elephant sign. Carnival bipeds, carefree and lewd, with black holes instead of a mask, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, car-elephant, all happy to be improbable, true cage of forms of a pagan ritual, joyously watching over the true birth of one of them: the Dumbo. Suddenly, we’re very far from the strokes and the mothers of the beginning of the film.

(1) The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was really bored in Malta and he like elephants. He saw the movie in a filthy and empty theatre.

Originally published in Libération on 2 January 1989 and reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wings to attempt to land - Wings of desire (Wenders)

How common themes and new concepts emerge from Serge Daney's writings over time is one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspect or reading his film criticism. Here's a small example on the theme of the sky in cinema. You need to read in parallel the review below of Wings of desire (Wenders, 1987) that Daney wrote when watching it on television and the text I translated a few month ago on airplanes (The world seen from above). Although the two texts were written four years apart, they read together very well.

Wings to attempt to land
We often hope the same thing will happen to movies as to planes: that they take off. But when we see them on television, on a background of wallpaper, we worry that they fall onto us like peeled off paper, disappointing and even sticky. We should change our metaphors and, to stick with aerial ones, hope that movies land well and touch down elegantly on the grey runway of the small television screen. Movies made for the cinema land on television as coming from above, from a screen high up or from the sky, from a real sky with black and white clouds and rains of fallen angels, like in a Wim Wenders’ film, one of the first to have made the sky return as one of the objects of cinema (1).

How to make a movie take off when its characters have only one goal: landing? That’s the impossible equation that Wenders has laid down, if not solved, in Wings of desire (1987). A strange and unique film, yet laborious, whose ideal spectator would be a floating Cartesian devil searching, between the boredom of the sky (Himmel) and the prison that is Earth (Berlin), a ‘strange place’ (über), to witness the aerial encounter between Damiel the angel and Marion the trapeze artist.

For the movie to function in the weightlessness of suspended desire, Wenders must navigate between two nostalgias: of the sky (and the era when silent cinema wasn’t afraid to film the sky) and of the Earth (and the era when talking cinema wasn’t afraid to lay down everything at man-level). A professional melancholic, Wenders knows he needs an increasingly heavy and complex machine (as heavy as Peter Handke’s pretentious texts and as complex as Henri Alkan’s beautiful light) “to be able, at each step, at each gust of wind, to say: Now”. What happens to the hic et nunc when nunc is jetzt and that’s the snag?

Wings of desire has something akin to Mission: Impossible: a desire for a desire which gets lost in a theory of wings; wing beats which get lost in a theory of desire. As if, to dare advance one step in the world above, we had to make the whole world below parade one last time. That’s the common fate of today’s (good) filmmakers: the present (jetzt) in their films is just the mystical short-circuit between a past and a future which are equally anterior. Among the filmmakers that Wenders admires – Ford and Ozu –, past and future were not yet anterior. Their films told stories. It was before fiction regressed towards the fictitious and the fictitious returned to the virtual, i.e. the programmable.

Something cruel happens to Wings of desire which is confirmed when seen on television. The film is never as beautiful and moving as at the beginning, when angels are doing for us a fantastic scouting of locations over the city of Berlin, this magnificent microcosm. Why? Because we don’t know yet who is who and who wants what. The desire is still on our side. When it swings over to the other side – Damiel’s – we no longer know how to make this desire ours and we start, before the film, our descent towards the ending (even if the director finishes the movie with “to be continued”).

It’s not that the movie lack emotions, it’s just that, in this movie, Wenders has managed to invent a world without contradictions, with no hate nor desire, solitary and reconciled. The erroneous French title mentions desire when it’s really about pleasure [jouissance]: pleasure to be here, neither to take off nor to land, with a bleeding body who knows the taste of coffee and who can feel “his framework advance when walking” (2).

This is why this fascinating and overestimated movie is essentially exotic. True exoticism (and Wenders, as a great traveller, knows it well) doesn’t mean opening wide eyes like a stupid tourist simply because he feels dépaysé, it means entering an unknown world as if we’ve always lived in it, less to see it than to feel with one’s body the effect it has on those who are not born in it. And if exoticism is the truth of this film, it is logical that the spectator experience it with the angels, and that he finds it more absorbing than the experience angels have with him.

Wenders may well never think evil but there is nonetheless a minimal threshold of voyeurism below which cinema is no longer worth it.

(1) The sky has become again an object of cinema in the 80s. Two moments: the beginning of Passion (Godard) and of Ran (Kurosawa).

(2) Something doesn’t work in these subtle and sensitive movies that are Woody Allen’s The purple rose of Cairo and Wings of desire. Why? Why is the return to Earth betrayed by cinema?
Published in Libération on November 3rd, 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, Aléas éditeur, Lyon, 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The world seen from above

Ten years in London and I just found that the library of the French cultural centre has a very decent film section. I had little time to scan the bookshelves, so I quickly borrowed the issue 37 of Trafic ("Serge Daney, after, along"). Trafic is the film review founded by Daney in 1991, a year before his death. Despite Daney only able to contribute to the first three issues, the review has carried on since.

The issue 37 was published in 2001 - 10 years after its creation - and all the articles are about Daney. They are a strange mix of testimonies, memories, reflections and development on Daney and his work. And for some reason, it doesn't work at all. Commemorating Daney, who himself was so focused on the present, seems strangely out of place. It really lacks the immediacy, sharpness and wit that characterises Daney's writing. I even found myself hoping to find little-known personal anecdotes to report in this blog. Thankfully, there are none.

There are a few texts by Daney himself. Here's one:

The world seen from above
Serge Daney

Film making with planes: easy. Taming space, this strange environment: not so easy.

One evening in Tokyo, an anthology of Japanese B series films (ghost stories) is on television. At some point, a samurai’s decapitated head starts to fly, crosses the screen several times from left to right and, at the end of its mad flight, bites another surprised samurai. A head cut off, a flying machine whose passengers are (bloodshot) eyes, a mouth twisted at the idea of being dead, teeth, a nose. And hate as the engine. An airplane if you want.

Man, we are told, cares for his dream. Flying is one of them (from Icarus to Valentin the birdman). Recording real movement, and in real time, is another. A few years before the century, planes and cameras began to make noise at the same time. Then two world wars (and many others, less global) allowed them to expand their field manoeuvres and destructive off-field. Synchronicity.

But before fitting a camera on an airplane, cinema had made a (little) plane of our eye, allowing it to climb up, to move in space, and to become a missile, a rocket, a voyeur-kite, a bird gliding at low altitude. All of us, before we’ve even taken the plane, we've had the experienced of a crane (Dolly or Mitchell) and of this extraordinary invention: the "camera movement". The golden age was perhaps silent cinema. Not yet hampered by the necessity to also record sound, cameras fly around in an extraordinary world. What ultra light plane will have the elegance of a tracking shot by Murnau or Keaton? Our eye has taken the plane on its own and, even if it didn't go very far, we have travelled with him, by proxy.

The plane as a machine to see differently. The plane, an object made to be seen, exposed, made fetish. On the ground (insect) or in flight (bird), later a calm cetacean in space, or imprudently left to barracks comedy (Rellys!), falling into a tailspin, in flames. The plane is only an object and, as such, joins our toy collection. It doesn't create big problems for filmmakers. Some, not the least, are also plane pilots. The most famous, in the U.S., is Hawks. The airplane movies made by Hawks are among his most beautiful (The dawn patrol, 1930, Air Force, 1943). But the title of one of them (Only angels have wings, 1939) says it all. Hawks' cinema was famous for always placing the camera "at man-level" – not "at angel-level". And even when the aviator goes high in the sky and becomes this attractive leather ball fasten to his seat and clenching his joystick, Hawks doesn't get lost. In his films, air is not just another element; it is the element that makes possible the purest of movements. But these movements are still those of the ground.

That is why American war movies (those we know best) are the most "classic". The ground is targeted, time is measured, it is already the video game. There is no time to wonder, once "high up": that's another world! There's no high and low but an infinity of highs and lows, no sea but something resembling a large elephant skin, no earth but a patched up fabric, no sky but cotton wool between us and the sun! It is really strange that planes have become familiar objects but the amazing beauty seen from a plane has not stopped filmmakers filming the sky as if it was a two-bedroom apartment in a movie studio (think of DeMille's mundane comedies like Madam Satan (1930), it is the same thing).

This was the case for a long time. But from times to times, there were breaches, jumps in the unknown, bright spells in this all-too-balanced world. How could we forget the Spanish peasant who gets on a plane for the first time in his life and, suddenly, does not recognise the land for which he is ready to die: the peasant separated from his land in Malraux's Espoir (1939)? Or Wayne's and Janet Leigh's dangerous tailspins in Sternberg's Jet Pilot (1957)? The empty cockpit at the end of Mr. Arkadin (1955)? Dr. Strangelove's atomic bomber (1964)?

At the movies, the plane object is a matter for the props manager, but space, air, is a matter for the artist – those artists crazy enough to have a cosmogony and to make flying an adventure of perception, a new deal in the image we have of ourselves. They may be aviators (Hawks), or suffer from airplane phobia (Kubrick).

Space became an enigma again when the spaceship replaced the airplane. We started to fear meteorites, to meet wrecked spacecrafts, to populate space (including with the horrible “Alien”). The end of Icarus’s dream and the beginning of a new kind of nightmare: weightlessness. With 2001, Kubrick opens a new era (1968). Others followed. In the USSR also, we went from Hawksian classicism (Youli Raizman’s The Pilots, 1935 – a little known masterpiece) to panicked questioning (Tarkovski’s Solaris, 1972) and, more secretly, to someone like the Armenian Pelechian who in Cosmos* (1980) puts the spaceman not in the middle of the cosmos but at the centre of his diving suit, of his sons and of his vision as a stressed guinea pig.

It is a strange story, with three characters: the target, the plane and the gaze. We easily identified with the plane, we (sometimes) identified with the ground seen (bombed) from a plane; we are starting to forget both and to put all our drives in-between: the child of the 80s identifies with his own gaze as a projectile in the video game. For this, he no longer needs real skies, nor good old airplanes.

* The French title for Our Century.

Originally published in a “ciné-avion” supplement of Libération, 8 December 1983. Republished in La maison cinema et le monde, vol. 2, P.O.L., 2002, pp. 531-533. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Le ragazze!

Two videos appeared recently on youtube showing Serge Daney at the launch of Trafic in 1992. They were posted by Jean-Paul Hirsch who works at POL, the publisher of Trafic. Serge Daney founded Trafic in 1992, shortly before his death in June that year. He only wrote in the first three issues.

For a long time, particularly when I was working for Libération, I thought you had to talk about the image in general. Those were the days of crosscurrent approaches and I didn't like the way film appreciation was wrapped up in itself. We talked about advertising, video - no privileges, we proclaimed, let's treat film on the same footing... Trafic breaks with that. We only talk about the art of cinema. (Serge Daney, interviewed in Art Press, issue no. 182, Dec 1993)

Launch evening on 28 January 1992 at Terrasse de Gutenberg (Paris) with Serge Daney, Jean-Claude Biette, Raymond Bellour, Sylvie Pierre...

POL Edition stand at the Paris Salon du livre on 21 March 1991 with Serge Daney, Jean Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Patrice Rollet et Jacques Rozier. The cameraman asks who they will vote for in the upcoming regional elections.