Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trafic and Serge Daney - Raymond Bellour

A gift from Adrian Martin: his translation of a masterclass by Raymond Bellour on Serge Daney and the principles underpinning Trafic, the film review founded by Daney. Raymond Bellour knew Daney well and has been on Trafic editorial committee since the first issue. The masterclass was given at the Jeonju Film Festival in 2009. Many thanks to Adrian for donating the text and to Raymond for authorising its publication.

Trafic and Serge Daney
By Raymond Bellour
When Serge Daney decided to found Trafic, a ‘cinema review’, at the start of the 1990s, he began from the ‘realisation that the intellectual landscape in which cinema exists has changed a great deal. Changed to the extent that the traditional ways of writing about cinema do not “bite” anymore in relation to the reality of classic literary cinephilic consumption’. (1) Daney aimed thus at the way that we can live the cinema according to its current state, but at the same time attending to it in its largest possible sense. Undetermined, in the first instance, by the appearance of films as they are released in cinemas or at Film Festivals. Rather, a far more multiple ‘currency’, relating as much to the increasingly diverse evolutions of cinema around the world as to all the various modes of reflecting upon films, and to the life that is lived in their company. 
For someone like Daney, who in the 1970s had directed the most prestigious monthly in the history of cinephilia (namely, Cahiers du cinéma), then worked for the ‘cinema’ section of a daily newspaper open (like few others) to current events in culture (namely, Libération), it was a matter, above all, with Trafic (a quarterly publication), of finding a different tempo. A time that is essentially free and vagabond, where it was as much a question of re-seeing as of seeing, and above all of composing an unexpected kind of ‘currency’, defined by the ongoing experiences of each Committee member of the journal, and of every author invited to contribute to it. So this presumes that, in Trafic, the desire to write always takes precedence. ‘Which is a way of saying’, according to Daney, ‘that the intrinsic quality of the texts will always win out over the relative opportunity of their subjects’. Thus it is that this ‘cinema review’ becomes – doubtless alone in the entire world of publications of comparable ambition – a magazine bereft of images, apart from a modest vignette on the cover. Because, in Trafic, it is above all a matter of showing how it is possible to think and write images.
In his programmatic text, Daney enumerated eight types of text destined to co-exist in the magazine. ‘1. Highly personal “chronicles” following, from day to day, what is current in cinema. 2. “Letters From …”, written in a deliberately epistolary style, coming from isolated, faraway friends at the ends of the earth. 3. Texts belonging to cinema’s past (whether French or otherwise) that have become unavailable. 4. Texts by filmmakers, of a “work in progress” nature, moments of assessment, stages or elements in the working process. 5. Texts more precisely dedicated to the “image” in general, and to the way in which such images illuminate, or are illuminated by, the cinema. 6. Free interventions by philosophers, writers, novelists. 7. Regular essays, cinephilic but gregarious’. Daney could also have specified that the magazine also pursues, as part of its vocation, the translation of many foreign texts – in order to reverse the dominant tendency in France, especially in approaches to cinema, towards national self-sufficiency. But the presence in the first issue of Trafic, out of fourteen texts, of Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Rossellini (presented by Adriano Aprà), Joao Cesar Monteiro, Robert Kramer and Bill Krohn was enough to make that point. And the ratio, since then, has only increased.
Already consumed by AIDS at the moment of this first issue, Daney only lived long enough to see the first three instalments of this adventure of a magazine which meant more to him than anything else. But a drive had been initiated, which would then be continued, strengthened, developed and varied, thanks to the energy of an Editorial Committee formed as a collective, comprising Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Patrice Rollet and myself. After Biette’s sudden death in 2003, and the realisation of an enormous 50th issue, both a celebration and a retrospective, the idea of which (titled ‘What is Cinema?’) we had conceived with him, we added an Advisory Committee comprising close friends of the magazine since its inception, people who stood for its many vocations: writer Leslie Kaplan, filmmaker Pierre Léon, philosopher Jacques Rancière, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, art historian and writer Jean Louis Schefer. Each one helps us, in their own way, to fashion the image of a singular cinema magazine.
If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional university writing. But both film critics and university teachers write, of course, for Trafic, provided they are carried away by a project of thought and style in which they are deeply engaged, and closely wedded to their choice of object as well as their personal sensibility. Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works of cinema, whether classical or modern (Mizoguchi, Walsh, Antonioni, Fassbinder, Ozu, Syberberg, Minnelli, Hitchcock, Lang, Ford … with two special issues devoted to these last three names), we have always chosen to support – by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine – a certain group of filmmakers, as diverse as possible, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers: for example, Manoel de Oliveira, Chris Marker, Stephen Dwoskin, Chantal Akerman, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Ken Jacobs, Pedro Costa, Jonas Mekas, Philippe Garrel, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Robert Kramer, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Abbas Kiarostami, Harun Farocki, and Philippe Grandrieux. 
Extract from an essay published in the Masterclass booklet of the Jeonju International Film Festival, Korea, 2009.
1. These words by Daney, like those that follow, are extracted from the short programmatic text which accompanied publication of the first issue of Trafic in Winter 1991.
© Raymond Bellour March 2009. English Translation © Adrian Martin March 2009.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kramer v. Kramer

This is Serge Daney's review of Robert Kramer's Diesel published at the time of the film release in France (1985). Thanks to Otie Wheeler who got in touch with an interest in this text and who helped with the translation. Otie's corresponding piece will appear soon at the Vulgar Cinema blog.

Kramer vs. Kramer (Diesel, Robert Kramer)
Robert Kramer, an American filmmaker working in France, tries to compose with the imperatives of trendy and gloomy sci-fi. Diesel is kind of a failure, but exists nonetheless.
When Diesel begins, the worst seems to have already happened. We find ourselves in the polluted light of a post-atomic faux jour, between slums and mud, dusk and nightfall, dogs and wolves. The dogs (or is it the wolves?) live in a futuristic city, metallic and fascist. A mad architect (Finch / Laurent Terzieff) rules over this isolated world. Of the city, we mostly see the “Building,” the place of joyless pleasures, managed by an alcoholic head pimp (Walter / Richard Bohringer) and prostitutes with no illusions (Kim / Souad Amidou is their beautiful leader). The wolves (unless it’s the dogs) occupy a piece of land where everything rots, the “Village”. There, they preserve a bit of human warmth and the concept of freedom. It looks very much like the typical script about fascism in the city and guerrilla in the periphery, except that the boundary is blurry and thresholds are quickly crossed. It only takes one of the girls (Anna / Agnes Soral) to refuse the law of the Building and to run away, for the pimp to send two unsentimental killers (Nelson / Niels Arestrup and Drimi / Xavier Deluc), and for something like a story to set off.

If the word gloomy hadn’t lost its value, Diesel would make us reinvent it. For we begin to know more and more this faux jour (created by Ramon Suarez’s beautiful work). It’s the faux jour of cinema and 1980s science fiction. Nowadays, sci-fi no longer has the atomic cataclysm as its horizon (the 1950s are long past). Being among the survivors becomes, if not desirable, at least imaginable, and in any case imageable. The future of cinema seems to take place at the same time as the future of the human race. The survival theme rekindles imagination, hence these colourful monsters, the fighting panoply, the return of barbarism. Today’s images feed on this survivalist mythology, from Ridley Scott to Luc Besson. With Diesel, Robert Kramer also attempts to institute this minimal ecology. He doesn’t pull it off unfortunately. Fortunately, he doesn’t pull it off.

As a Mad Max-type comic book for kids, Diesel is not very effective indeed. There are either too many or not enough resources; the casting doesn’t make sense; the story stays unclear for a long time, and its cruelty is not sincere. Kramer forgets to bring the spectator in on the plot, to establish the topography of locations, and to define the stakes of all this violence. Characters don’t even play the strange game of speaking in the supposed lingo of the supposed time in which they live. They are only strange because of their outfits and of this world of fury through which they glide without paying much notice. Listening to the dialogue, we clearly feel that they still belong to our world and that they obey motivations that, thanks to Freud, we still recognise. The disparate casting means that each character outrageously quotes him/herself. And honesty obliges us to say that, at this game, the best ones (Arestrup, Bohringer, Blanche) are a ham, and the worst ones (Soral, Klein – unpardonably) are those whose image as actors is so vague that they can’t even propose a caricature of it. Only Magali Noël stands out, erratic and sublimely bad.

Yet, as the film moves from the Building to the Village and the story merely becomes a chase between Nelson and Diesel (Klein), we find that the film, despite everything, works. Except that its fuel is mysterious. And we then remember that Robert Kramer is not just any director. He was a great filmmaker until 1975 and has been, in the last decade, a case – a great case.

What happens with Diesel? Kramer fails where he should have succeeded (on the side of the spectacle, of business) and he succeeds a bit where he has never failed (on the side of cinematographic writing). His characters are badly drawn out, blurry, and not storyboarded; they don’t become types, let alone myths. But Kramer only ever took interest in the opposite: not the characters, one by one, but in what links them all. He’s interested in the link, not the linked ones. In this sense he is a modern filmmaker, i.e. not very American (he admires Resnais). He’s American in the sense that for him the link is tribal and never erotic or psychological. Kramer may have changed, moved, lived and worked in France, he knows what a tribe is, this mix of paranoid fascination and group narcissism. He knows it like any other American, from Ford to Cimino.

In In the Country (1967), The Edge (1968), Ice (1969) and Milestones (1975), the tribe was that of radical Americans, Weathermen and militants, spoiled kids who had become crazy, abandoned to argumentative panic and good sentiments. Kramer filmed his brothers without taking stock. These four films are among the rare contemporaneous testimonies that cinema (the art, not the sociological hijacking) has produced about Leftism in the 1960s. These films are rarely seen but they matter. Unknown in the USA, taken seriously in France, Kramer has made a strange bet: to arrive, one day, on real screens, in front of a real (French) audience without passing by square one (America). He didn’t come out of the last ten years unscathed, and even if the inspiration of his first films is far away, it is still behind what exists in Diesel.

How to illustrate what we’ve, one day, lived through? To be a good action movie, Diesel would have to treat paranoia as a decorative problem. But it’s precisely the opposite that Kramer used to know how to do. He weaved a web of words, chattering, fears and hearsays around his characters. And violence sometimes tore a hole in this web. It took a whole film and a patient labour of approach and domestication (hence the reason that in France Kramer has been one of those who has best mastered video, see A toute allure and Notre Nazi) before the spectator realised he was in front of a collective portrait. In Diesel, this portrait still bears some shreds. In this dispersed gang of love-scarred faces, we remember knowing each other too well in the past. It’s the meaning of the (rather good) scene where Nelson meets Diesel in the dark. It’s the meaning of this almost reunion when Nelson understands too late that this other scarred survivor was once his comrade.

One more effort and the memory of these old solidarities will be erased for good. Will Kramer be ready to succeed in making an action movie, a real one? Perhaps. But what about the adventure of filming?

First published in Libération, 15 August 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et la monde, volume 2: Les années Libé 1981-1985, POL, 2002, pp. 269-71. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.