Friday, January 01, 2016

Serge Daney in 2015

Time for the annual round-up. A small crop of translations in 2015. Only two spotted on this blog:
  • The market of individuals, one of Daney's last text, dissecting what reality TV says about the evolution of the image and society.
  • A true fake Bruce, a review of The Game of Death with Bruce Lee in the form of a dialogue with the film. 
Elsewhere, the final volume of Daney's complete writings, La maison cinéma et le monde 4 - Le moment Trafic, was released in November. It focuses on Daney's output shortly before his death (late 1991 to June 1992) and the texts written as he was launching the review Trafic (including the one above). The book also contains a number of interviews where Daney expand on his view of the state of cinema, the image (and even society) along similar lines as the already published long interview Journey of a cine-son.  

This year, I also spotted a curiosity on YouTube, the short 1986 film made by Maria Koleva featuring Serge Daney: Letter from Paris to the Swiss friend number 7: When a film critic and an independent film director meet in Paris. 

Finally, 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of this blog (yes, ten years of tracking, referencing and writing English translations of Daney). A quick count shows 96 texts. You can all find them on the right-hand column of this page. Which ones have you not read?

Happy new year to all!


Monday, September 28, 2015

A true fake Bruce

A true fake Bruce 
“What I can’t understand,” said the film, “is that you actually chose me. My reputation is rubbish and, between you and me, I’m not worth much at all.” 
“You’re the only Bruce Lee film I haven’t seen. In a way, I’ve always missed you (*).” 
“Nobody ever misses me, believe me. I barely exist. I’m indefensible. Let me be. Or rather, watch me and you’ll understand. 
This is how I entered, walking backward, into The Game of Death (1973). I was immediately in my depth. A nervous young man named Billy Lo, a star of martial arts, fights alone and with bare hands against the brutes of the Syndicate, a powerful international organisation based in Hong Kong and racketing show business and gambling. Strangely, we see less often the good Lo than the bad guys of the Syndicate who, as often in these films, are the only ones endlessly divulging their cruel plans to the camera. The good guy is content to merely hit them courageously once in a while. His fiancée and a journalist - both white - are the only ones he speaks to, in the French dubbed version, with few essential and plain words. Fights happen at night, in back alleys, against petty and masked hitmen riding mopeds. There are very few close ups and, to be honest, a certain unease.  
“Can’t you spot something?” said the film in a sad and sour tone.  
“What I can’t understand,” I thought outloud, “is how a star so concerned with his own image as Bruce Lee chose to act so introvertly, almost in a Bressonian style.” 
“You said it,” sneed the film.  
The rest of the film confirmed my suspicions. In the middle of Game of Death, Billy Lo gets shot in the cheek and is left for dead by the Syndicate. A grandiose burial takes place and the face of the star believed to be dead can be seen in the white coffin. In fact, after a trip to the physio, Billy Lo re-appears, groomed and unrecognisable, and patiently eliminates one by one the Syndicate members. Compared to the others, the last fights are especially spectacular and the final face off between Billy-Bruce and the 2m20 black giant Karem Abdul-Jabeer, a basketball player wearing white shorts and sunglasses, very much looks like a classic.  
“You’re still not getting it?” said impatiently the film which I sensed was ready to reveal its secret. “You do remember which year Bruce Lee died.” 
“July 1973, in Betty Ting Pei’s bed, in circumstances never fully explained. Why do you ask?” 
“Well,” said the film who couldn’t contain itself any longer, “he was already dead when the producers decided to ask the mercenary Robert Clouse to direct Game of Death nonetheless!  What you just saw is a fake or - if you prefer a Baudrillardian word - a simulacrum. Any kid from Barbès or Kowloon knows this but you don’t. You disappoint me.” 
“But if it wasn’t Bruce Lee that I saw with my own eyes, who else was gesticulating instead of him?” 
“Lee Shao Lung, or Ho Chung Tao, or Bruce Li, who cares? A clone among many others.”

“Still,” I insisted, upset, “I had the feeling that it sometimes was the real Bruce Lee. I wouldn’t bet on it now but I thought I recognised his intense gaze and his wild caterwaul.” 
“So you’re not totally hopeless,” answered the film, “and you deserve to know all the truth. Raymond Chow (the producer) used twelve minutes of rushes shot before the film, even before Enter the Dragon, Lee’s penultimate film. Twelve minutes of fighting to be honest.” 
“Those at the end?” 
“Those with the yellow tracksuit?” 
“I see.” 
“You’re seeing absolutely nothing since I kept the best part hidden from you.” (Here the film let go a sardonic laughter). “You remember the shot of Billy Lo’s fake burial with the crowd in tears in the streets of Hong Kong and the face of the dead in the white coffin? It’s from Bruce Lee’s true burial!” 
“You’re saying that they took an image of the truly dead star to play the fictitious role of the falsely dead star? It’s incredible. It’s cynical. It’s great.” 
“You now understand what a myth is about?” 
“Sorry, I didn’t know.
“Go, let me be.”

(*) To be frank, while one cannot avoid Bruce Lee, one can find more charm in Wang Yu or Alexander Fu Sheng.

First published in Libération, 24 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas éditeur, 1991.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The market of individuals

Apologies for not posting recently. I hope to make it up with this text, written a few months before Daney passed away, and perhaps the best example of how his film criticism, applied to TV, ended up branching to social criticism.

It's one of my favourites and seems even more relevant today when looking at the evolution of the Internet. I urge you to read it in conjunction with Daney's comments on the evolution of television in the documentary Journey of a cine-son, especially the bit about how Gérard d'Aboville behaved on television after his solitary crossing of the Atlantic.

The market of individuals and the disappearance of experience 
The success of reality TV may point to a double phenomenon: the taking over of television by society and the moulding of the compliant individual. The price to pay is high: nothing less than fading out the idea of human experience. 
Like any boat that has suddenly realised it can sink, television is becoming interesting, and real questions finally appear on the horizon of our impassioned cathode-ray tube. Some of these questions are massive. For instance, how TV channels, in order to produce tomorrow’s audience (you, me, but in a more docile and less moaning version), are already exploring new forms of social caretaking? What role will television have played in the great theme of ultramodern societies: the setting up of a true market of individuals (which might only be the friendly version of a slave market)? 
For if television started by conquering the market, this conquest wasn’t enough to produce the merchandise adapted to the market: the professional individual of today. For a long time now, we’ve witnessed the shaping of this new hero of our time: ever more personalised, tagged, labelled, i.e. reduced to the gaudy folklore of the smallest differences. Of course, no one consciously thought through this process, but it has been possible, for the last few years, to follow its development. And the author of these lines, for example, has often felt alone following it. 
Let’s not go back too much over the well-known phases of development: the recasting of Public Relations towards a progressive de-legitimisation of its members (1). The old reasons which granted a certain right to intervene in the public sphere (passion, pedagogy, expertise, talent, beauty, rarity) have given way to the bad manners of no-fuss, friendly but meaningless mercenaries. It has become embarrassing to be a Mr. know-it-all in a medium whose power is founded on the equitable sharing of average ignorance and indifference. 
This de-legitimisation has hit hard politicians who, used to watch themselves so beautiful in regular and established TV shows, naively didn’t see that they were fuelling National Lepenism. Hence the fierce debates: democratisation or consensus? Consensus or demagogy? Demagogy or (soft) fascism? This de-legitimisation spared no sectors of social representation, including journalists. 
Broadly, the bourgeois society has stopped paying well-wishing bards in order to showcase its own values to itself, preferring the looping images of consensual silence to the old theatre of loud dissension. It can only astonish anyone who lived through the crisis of the idea of representation, theoretically mistreated in the 1960s and eventually slashed in 1968. Did we exaggerate? Who will re-think all this? 
Television was where this tipping point recently happened. The capricious and rubbish policies of the French Socialist government helped the good people understand that television was eventually escaping from the authorities, the sharks, the educators and could finally become the people’s thing, meaning comfortably frivolous and destitute. This explains the popular support to Channel 5 in its struggle for commercial survival, having become something between Justine and a Saint, as it was, very humanly, reporting on itself and complaining (with reason) on its troubles and the misfortunes of its virtue. 
Television finally handed back to the people? Why not? This is, at least, what the young sharp things at the celebrity media agency Sygma-TV are thinking. But one must not think that such an operation could happen by itself. Television will be handed back to the people only if the people becomes at the same time a TV-people, and that implies, as is always the case, technicians to work toward (and profit from) this mutation. For this is a big piece: the re-shaping of the people, who is now asked to play its own part, but no longer simply as an inanimate mass, an audience rating upholder of justice, as silly game show contenders or applauding cattle, but truly as personalised heroes. 
Hence programs like The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives (2) – titles in which one can clearly reads the idea of the emergence from obscurity or the return into the light. For these shows are not just about any form of heroism (there are some controversial ones), but only about small-scale events leading to the unique (and familial) mythology of redemption and second birth. In a new age era, one must accept that such a myth could be, in final analysis, the only horizon of a television which, by the way, has renounced to nearly everything else. 
Is it good or is it bad? One thing is sure, the result is, aesthetically, not watchable. So if it has so much success, it’s not because it concerns the gaze (for there is in the gaze the possibility of critical distance, ethical resistance or aesthetic judgement) but clearly because of something else: nothing less than the collective learning of the gestures by which a large mass of outcasts will learn to play its role in personalised scenarios which it is assured are – finally – its own. Why not? 
If that’s so, this mutation is certainly threatening the existence of other mythologies, that of the artist of course, but of the actor as well. For what is an actor if not the man or woman with an immemorial passion: the passion to be another, which predisposes some among us to take it upon themselves to re-act the experience of others. 
This is obviously the meaning behind Patrick Sébastien’s attacks against The Night of the Heroes. When we are all invited in advance to be one by one the heroes of our own lives (lives that now belong to us and whose copyright we will eventually learn to monetise), how can the actor-impressionist not feel his own existence threatened? He has a horrible suspicion: his particular talent may be of less interest than the non-talent (or even the depressing worthlessness) of these heroes who emerge from the night and, in a Wharolian way, quickly return to it! 
Will the passion to be oneself eventually replace the passion to be another? Are we simply witnessing a mere moment – extremely mediocre but transitory – of the great human emancipation which, even jagged, has secularised beliefs and individualised man for centuries? Will it be enough to redraw, every time, the boundaries between the secular market and the desecrated human, meaning the sacred and non-negotiable share (let’s call it the Other) which will always remain at the heart of the human animal? One can think so, but with no joy. 
Because, with this market of the individual, of which the American reality-TV shows are but the latest symptom, we can spot what must be lost and the price that must be paid. The idea of human experience is definitely lost. It’s as if television had suddenly sat down a whole people on the couch of a psychoanalyst who would work on an assembly line and who would, instead of listening silently to the too beautiful rants of the legendary Self, applaud the patient at the first session and tell him: you are sublime, everything you have said is exactly what you have lived, re-enact it in our home-TV-style (which is your home by the way) and you will be cured. 
Can we so readily throw the baby of human experience with the bathwater (even used) of a few past centuries? This doesn’t seem reasonable. Until a recent date, the person who, by desire or by profession, asked questions to fellow human beings, knew that nothing is less easily communicable than experience. It’s even because of this difficulty that we can recognise experience. “It went very fast, I didn’t feel (see, understand) anything... It’s after that... It’s very difficult to explain… Today still…” are the sentences that millions of tapes and cameras have recorded for ages. 
And it’s because experience escapes us – especially when it’s strong –, that we needed mediators (from the saint to the charlatan, from the friend to the traitor) to help find the words to say it, actors to lend their bodies, artists to explore every possible ways, and writers to conclude, sadly, like Virginia Woolf, that “life experiences are incommunicable, and this is the cause of solitude”. 
Any experience that can be easily reduced to the show of its reality is not an experience. Or rather, it’s not the experience of the person who said he lived it, but the experience of a group with no ideals which will always prefer the adjusted and repeatable spectacle of the re-enactment to the intimate anti-spectacle of the already-performed. At stake is the very possibility of the social fabric, and one mustn’t believe that Hollywood, in its golden age, was doing anything else (just look at Sirk’s films). 
So it’s possible that the great market of the individual, based on disposable heroes and proper scenarios, has decided, in agreement with the interested parties, to move on to the counteroffensive. This is why the idea of subjective truth is skipped everywhere on television or appears as an elitist and definitely unbearable luxury. It is even possible that the cathode-ray tube finally finds a mission matching the political and mythological interests of the France group: the interests of catechism
Why catechism? Because it’s something serious, not very cynical and that, like advertising, has to do with Good. And, once the evil (communist) empire has evaporated, the future actors of the economic war will really need to believe in some Good to give meaning to their actions. That being said, catechism is neither blind faith nor science of the theologian, it’s a tangible ensemble of silly procedures which transform the flock in puppets willing to accept a belief that they no longer have had to experience - at least not for a long time. 
In this sense, the catechism of The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives is the well-wishing and emotionally quivering realisation of what was announced by the 1970s porn cinema. On one hand, X-rated films got stuck on the depiction of the sexual experience (believing stupidly that it only needed to do a live monitoring of the organs and watch for the birdie). But on the other hand, it is true that these films reconstituted for their audience the idealised and reassuring show of continuous sex as a clear fantasy and an imperishable, male and monotonous myth.

In the same vein, American reality TV (and let’s remember that any TV is always American) replaces the patchy and indescribable experience of what has been with the sleek and uninterrupted show of what will have been. What will have been is the aesthetic summary and the humanitarian catechism that any market of the individual will need. This future perfect (which I believe to be the essential tense of audiovisual media) is both a correction of reality and a visualisation of corrected reality.

Our heroes are finally able to see and know what they should have been like when they come on TV to share their biographical bits. And, alas!, we’ve seen it too: they must resemble bad TV, bad cinema, bad theatre. The price seems high: to be on the side of the collective Good (because the group wishes to be in communion with its TV from the comfort of his own home), they must be terribly bad (and terribly humble). 
Some will say that catechism is no great mass, requires no fear or trembling, not even a return to religiosity. However catechism wishes that we, clones allegedly dressed up as unique individuals, renounce forever to having our own memories of what we have lived, unless it can be re-lived with the help of Pascale Breugnot (3) holding our hands – meaning in a very bad way, but in front of our grateful and tearful eyes (what wouldn’t we do to be loved?). 
Eventually, behind the fairy dust of the myth that television is handed back to the people and the individual comes out of the night, it’s still about – even in France – the village demanding its share.

First published in Libération on 20 January 1992.

(1) The recent misfortunes of Patrick Poivre d’Arvor’s fake interview of Fidel Castro can only rejoice us. 
(2) La nuit des héros and Perdue de vue: 1990s French TV shows idealising real rescues by ordinary people and searching for missing people to reunite them with their families [translator’s note]. 
(3) French TV star presenter of the reality TV shows era [translator’s note].

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Serge Daney in 2014

Phnom Penh, 1989
Time for the annual round up of Serge Daney in English.
Blog news:
  • 2014 saw 4,500 "visitors" but as always most of these "users" only stay on the site for a few seconds and I'm fearing they are crawling robots. I reckon we're around 1,000-1,500 actual people who read something on the website (i.e. spent more than 1 minute on a page). This is a big number. Thanks all.
  • Google analytics tell me that c.50% of you were English speaking, and that, although 95% of you read this on your laptop (as opposed to a tablet or smartphone), only 5% of you used Internet Explorer (you alternative bunch).
  • And you seem to have preferred the 2013 posts written with Otie Wheeler as Mannerism and La Rampe remain quite popular. 
2015 will see the tenth anniversary of this blog (no kidding). Don't expect too many big surprises though, I'm currently struggling to make the time to post (blame it on the need for paid work).

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with Eric Rohmer

From 1985 to 1990, Serge Daney hosted a weekly radio broadcast called Microfilms on French public radio "France Culture". It took the form of discussions on films and cinema with all kinds of guests. The May 1990 broadcast with Eric Rohmer just appeared with an English translation on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Rector for spotting it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Averty for ever

It's amazing how some pioneers of video art such as Jean-Christophe Averty can be so little known. For anybody who watched television in France between the 50s and 80s, his work is almost familiar and yet, it was extremely inventive and daring. Here's Serge Daney's reaction to viewing one of Averty's work on television in 1987.

Averty for ever
Where one despairs that Jean-Christophe Averty will have been alone in the world to believe that television could be used for artistic purposes.
There are two reasons to complain when one is Jean-Christophe Averty. The first is well known, the second less so. The first one says it’s a scandal that French television has so stubbornly focused on inheriting from (and rivalling) cinema, instead of cultivating its own garden. The second one follows on from the first. Averty has been so alone in cultivating this TV-garden, in being its only tireless champion – and for such a long time –, that it has become difficult to assess his work. How can one criticises someone who is alone in following a particular direction, alone in discovering a field with its dead ends and difficulties? How can we say that we like his principles but don’t always share his tastes? A question that will always be asked of inventors.
Averty has dreamt for a while of making something of the little-known play by Henri Rousseau (also known as the Douanier): A Russian Orphan’s Revenge. Averty has always claimed that “one can perfectly make TV from a garage.” Since 6:45pm yesterday (on Channel 3), we’ve been able to watch the first of ten episodes of this TV-garage (60 square meters, according to the author). The episode lasted thirteen minutes and has the charm of what lasts thirteen minutes. A Russian orphan is seduced by the young German that returned her lost canary. She loves him and we guess that he will betray her.
The story really isn’t what counts most in this Revenge. It’s the way it’s dealt with. It’s this very Avertyan oscillation between loving respect (the image never shines too bright that it overshadows the subject) and plastic freedom (allowed by the video medium). On one side, the Russian girls put on all kinds of airs and roll their R’s, the background is made of izbas and details form the author’s paintings, love is expressed through hearts and thoughts via medallions. The things that we see and the things that are talked about trade places. The soundtrack (a violin) is a character, on the same level as the voice-over that tells the story. The words are said as well as written (in Russian and in French). In a word, everything functions like a visual rebus whose permanent solution would be the story.
Averty is obviously interested in early cinema and the era when cinema began (very early in the 20th century). His imagination treats the popular images of that beginning as absolute equals to any other images. Punch and Judy shows, puppet theatre, open-air theatre, primitive films, children’s games and postcards. These images are always frontal, ingenuously provoking the spectator, removing any desire to look elsewhere than in the middle of the frame. They always claim their poverty: in effects, in musical accompaniment, in suspense. The most sophisticated image functions like a tapestry and superimpositions are like a waking dream. 
This is the Averty paradox. He didn’t claim the video image (and its thousand gags) to impress but to realise, with it, the real television. And real television, until further notice, is about images as small as the screen that broadcasts them. And if television had been truer to itself, it would have explored – following Averty’s path – this fundamental smallness that is, in a sense, its greatness. By making bodies that have become figurines without psychology dance on the spot, Averty has opened up a path that hasn’t been developed, an eventually scandalous path where there is still the desire to dance but no longer the bodies or space to do it, as if the disappearance of the body under the video bombardment didn’t bother him in any way, and that he found it more touching to see the animation of a tableau vivant, a small tableau fitting for the small screen (shall we talk of “screenlet”?).
It’s his fondness for this miniaturisation of the world (of bodies but also of feelings) that led Averty to stick closely to an artistic television. Yet, thinking about it, it is not evident that television can be an artistic instrument. If it was – or if it had been – such an instrument, it would have been ashamed to have derived its power solely from the monopoly to film reality (let’s not forget what can be beautiful in live broadcasting: reality itself) or from the looting of cinema (let’s not forget what can be beautiful with film reruns: their fiction content).
The question is evermore relevant. The state of the French audiovisual landscape in this 1987 autumn, along with its reminders (the rather sordid failure of Channel 5, the crisis of the look, etc), shows that we’ve confused two things. Television is not just cinema’s small sister (it isn’t great and perhaps never will be). What can happen to it, what has happened to it before our eyes, is to become big, bulimic, inflated with hormones and enzymes. Each time it has been decent recently, it was perfecting small dispositifs (short films, spots or flashes, useful summaries). Every time it’s tried to be an ox, it’s lost its dignity as a frog. 
Sunday evening (Channel 2, 22h15), in a program that was actually interesting (and we should only apply this overused adjective to these types of programs), Jean-Luc Godard, in great form, reminded us that if television produces oblivion, cinema produced memories. And if, in the era of opinion polls, what is forgotten cannot be polled, memories remain great. Averty’s dream – and he’s the only one with that dream – will have been to use television anyway to keep amnesia at bay (just as he did on radio with his programs on music hall). When, instead of putting him up on a pedestal, television will have absorbed Averty’s message, it will be ready to leave traces in memory. But when?

First published in Libération on 22 December 1987. Republished in The wage of the channel hopper, POL, 1993. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The last temptation of the Toons

October surprise: a new translation of Serge Daney is published in the book accompanying the exhibition for the re-opening of New York's SculptureCentre. It's a great text, and as usual with Daney, it's full of ideas: for example the opposition between Spielberg's central question "Why not me?" and Scorsese's "Why me?".

The last temptation of the Toons - Robert Zemeckis, Who framed Roger Rabbit?
Puddle, Pothole, Portal, edited by Camille Henrot and Ruba Katrib, published by SculptureCenter, Long Island City, NY. "The last temptation of the Toons," by Serge Daney translated by Emily Nathan. First printed as "La derniere tentation des Toons" in Libération, 1st of November, 1988, Paris.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On paper

Here's another translation from the recently published book Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View thanks to the generosity of the book editor Tobias Hering and translator John Barrett. It's a brand new translation. Enjoy.

On Paper
Those who supported, assisted and at times organized the immigrant workers' struggles between 1972 and 1975, the two dates that encompass the making of Nationalité: Immigré (1) [Nationality: Immigrant], embarked on the venture by filling out paperwork. Thanks to their constantly explaining the Fontanet-Marcellin directive (2), to their losing themselves in a maze of absurd legislation (residence permits and work permits); thanks to their efforts to eliminate illiteracy through printing and translating flyers and posters and by disseminating campaign literature the French far-left de facto sealed an alliance with those who surfaced in their ranks during the struggles in the post 1968 period: the immigrants. Whatever subjective reasons lay behind this alliance (love of one's fellow human being, be it the Christian or the MRAP [Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples] type, a juncture in the left-wing strategy towards broadening the struggle's popular front), it was by helping the immigrants navigate this sea of paperwork, in which their lives would be submerged, that the activists obtained an opportunity, while winning their confidence, to press ahead with them towards self-awareness, towards mobilization and political organization. First and foremost, however, they had to be of use with the pen.
The paradox was this: On one hand, far-left activists differentiated themselves from meek reformists and the P.C.F. [French Communist Party] by distinguishing legality from legitimacy (according to the analyses in La Cause du peuple (3) from that period). They strove to give widespread appeal and a sense of real-life to slogans such as: “We are right to rise up.” “Dare to fight, dare to win.” Conversely, however, when it came to the immigrants' struggles with the authorities they found themselves way out of their depth regarding the written word, pre-coded norms, bourgeois employment legislation and legal terminology (for leftist ideology distinctly incorporated the notion of precluding the legal system). They were to be confronted by the bourgeoisie's cynical negligence of their own laws. Moreover, there was outrage regarding the blatant disparity between that which appeared on paper and what was to be seen in reality.
As for the militant dream, it was altogether different. It wasn't through being useful with the pen that the activists asserted themselves in the immigrants' struggles; rather, they acted as fomenters, instigators, teachers, bearers of the good word and cogent theory. For them, the written word, while their unscripted domain, was nothing more than a tactical tool designed to win trust, and moreover to prove that one is worthy of it.  
Here was a case of twofold neglect. On one hand, the activists failed to grasp the legal system as an authoritative body where something actually takes place (intrinsically coupled with domination, legal agreement, symbolic import). Furthermore, it didn't dawn upon them that immigrants retained concrete ties with such authority, ties that could have been surmised as strong all the same. In (White and particularly Black) Africa, ritual tagging, agreements, one's word are all serious and binding matters. We can be sure that this neglect of the legal dimension is the crux of Sokhona's film, Nationalité: Immigré
At the core of this militant dream one found instead a sort of ideal scenario, within the realm of inevitable exposure of problems and their resolution. The essential element in this scenario was time, both linear and teleological. The immigrant, the ideal proletarian with only a mattress in a slum to lose, found himself burdened with embodying, through his individual life experiences, the various phases of a thoroughgoing ‘crash course’ in self-awareness, as already recognized and indexed by Western Marxism. This process took a swifter than usual turn. The exploitation and oppression endured by immigrants could only but engender their resistance (albeit initially muted and covert), which led to talk of their revolt. And this, in turn, soon bolstered by a few kind words, could only but invent its specific forms of action and organization. In the end, these were to lead, both short- and long-term, to this alliance, to the shoulder-to-shoulder stance with French workers. This scenario at once steered and pandered to the leftist imagination. 
By no means did Sidney Sokhona cater to the leftist's crash course as the form of exposition for his film. That is not to suggest that Sokhona himself doesn't value such a course of action, or doesn't regard it as revealing any truths. It's quite the reverse. Nationalité: Immigré does not in any way lack in what one is entitled to expect in terms of general truths: numbers, statistics, bleak outlook, explicit discourse where the commentary insists on the necessity to deepen awareness, for education, on the need to go beyond partial and wildcat strikes to economic-political struggles alongside the French working class and so on. It is therefore impossible to categorize this work among those pathetic and humanizing films, (Mektoub? and its ilk) (*) with their regrettable lack of a political dimension, but which one nonetheless grudgingly recommends so as to fuel debate about support structures. And why should anyone complain?
Let us return to our point of departure: paper. Sydney Sokhona's film is a voyage to the country in which everything can take place on paper. Paper as a place in which the powers that be demand their dues in concrete terms, (Your papers, please!); paper on which an another authority claims and braces up (flyers, posters, books); paper on which an authority fantasizes (paper as utopia, just as one remarks: ‘it looks beautiful on paper, but...’).  His film touches upon that which the leftists precisely eschew (the necessity of legal agreement.)  That's why the film is frowned upon, also in left-wing circles. 
The film opens in a non-place, a cycling track where the French capital's lackeys, the racist supervisors, call out each immigrant by name, put their name on a list, giving each and every one a sign to clench between their teeth, a sign with which to pin them down, to pinpoint them and to pin onto them. shelter, slum, transit estate. Not only do they insist that the immigrants comply with what has been written; they insist that they interiorize it, that they gobble it up. The immigrants will need to dash it off.
Towards the end of the film there is a noteworthy scene at the market in which two immigrants from the shelter on the Rue Riquet suddenly speak their mind about their condition and their sense of outrage. It isn't a case of them hysterically acting-out. It's more in the line of ‘bitter tale,’ like those told by the Chinese peasantry, a stirring recitation, a reading aloud rather than a speaking out. The scene's emotion derives from that scrap of paper they hold and which they themselves wrote, of that language they speak which isn't theirs. They shout out tirelessly, they read angrily.
Between these two scenes, the opening and the closing, Sokhona films only incidents involving scraps of paper. Clear, precise and edifying incidents. The newspapers an immigrant reads in the morning in search of work are those that another immigrant sweeps up in the evening. It's by perforating betting slips that we truly encounter French daily reality. If the Sidi's parents write from Mauritania, the letter will be read using a voiceover. The links to the various intermediaries are sanctioned by paper: the village wise man derives his power from his obtrusive recitation of the Koran and the cash that he extorts for it. In a Bressonian-like shot, with a white sheet as the background, we are witness to a scene of hand-to-hand, of the barter of paper banknotes for legal papers, in which the immigrants finally obtain their ID papers. The manager of the shelter on the Rue Riquet is not just a smooth-talker; he keeps a list of his tenants in his drawer, on which he ticks off the names of the ringleaders.   
Sokhona only films that which could be a source of information. But instead of imposing outside commentary, he makes subject matter even of his images. Political filmmakers never really knew how to avoid inserting  ‘title cards’ (inevitably dogmatic) in the midst of  ‘true-life footage’ (inevitably jinxed). The fact is they never truly asked themselves the question: ‘How can we film the discourse?’ Sokhona does indeed film cardboard bearing slogans but within the shot itself.  He anchors his characters, somewhat like Godard did in Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] where those filmed literally wear their images. Hence the hallucinatory dimension that permeates the film at times. In seeking out as much information as possible, we deny ourselves (as well as deny the spectators) that which gives such pleasure in cinema: the implicit meaning a spectator is supposed to know. 
This accounts for why the lazy and the romantic dislike this voyage to the land where everything is written out. The process of denoting spells things out, it inflicts itself. For the act of denotation (that of giving a name, and only one, to things and human beings alike) steers us towards the question of racism (for example, in that scene in which a racist shouts at an immigrant sweeping up too close to him: “Hey, jerk, it's you I'm talking to!”) Confronted with powers to be that unremittingly demand that they identify themselves (your papers?), the immigrants need to start summoning the strength to stand up and be counted. In Sokhona's film, their struggles focus exactly on this point:  On the number of people that have to be re-housed together.
It is, moreover, pointless to expect of them an all-embracing discourse. The victims don't only describe themselves as people just like the others; they also keep count of themselves. This is underpinned by the image of two corpses fished from the water, each draped in a flag, on a bank of the Canal Saint-Martin. 
(*) Mektoub? (1970) was directed by Ali Ghalem, who was also the author of L'Autre France (1975). 
Editor's notes: 
(1) Nationalité : Immigré (1975) by Sidney Sokhona is a fiction film about a group of mostly African (male) migrant workers in Paris and their awakening political activism. A central location of the narrative is the migrant workers' shelter in Rue Riquet whose residents began a rent strike during the shooting of the film in protest against their exploitation by employers and landlords as well as the degrading living conditions in the shelter. Shot with virtually no budget, the film took several years to be finished, which allowed for frequent inclusion of actual events and the prolonged rent strike to become a central dramatic element. With Sokhona himself and actual tenants of Rue Riquet appearing on camera, the film is a genuine product of those acting in it; a rare example of self-organized auto-representation of African migrants on screen. Sidney Sokhona is of Mauritanian decent and went back to his country of origin soon after finishing his second and better known feature film, Safrana ou le droit à la parole (Safrana or Freedom of Speech, 1978). After working as a documentary and newsreel film-maker for several years, he started a second career as a government official and still holds high ranking positions in Mauritanian politics. Nationalité : Immigré and Safrana remain his only feature-length fiction films.
(2) The Fontanet-Marcellin directive was a set of legal decrees concerning immigrants' rights in France issued in January and February 1972. The name is derived from the two ministers who fathered it under the presidency of Georges Pompidou: Raymond Marcellin (minister for the interior) and Joseph Fontanet (minister for labor). The new decrees severely curtailed immigrants' rights, made resident permits dependant on formal labor contracts and put the legal affairs of immigrants under the control and authority of the police. 
"These decrees came into force a few weeks before the campaign against deportations on 15 September 1972. The Marcellin decree of 24 January 1972 limited the granting of work and residence permits to the police. From now on, the only point of contact for immigrants was the police authority (alternatively, the town council) and a central file on them was set up at the Ministry of the Interior. The Fontanet decree of February 1972 made a labour contract for at least one year the precondition for a residence permit, as well as a document issued by the employer certifying 'appropriate housing'. In this way, new forms of control were placed in the hands of police and employers for control of the living conditions and mobility of immigrant workers. The renewal of papers became an arduous process and the authorities reserved the right to refuse the extension of permits on the basis of the 'national labour market' or on political grounds. Any migrant worker who lost his job had to hand in his work permit and produce evidence of a new job within one month. All these regulations were not yet applicable to the so-called 'privileged' nationalities (EC countries, Algerians, francophone black Africans, refugees and asylum seekers, but to the 'non-privileged' (Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks, Portuguese, Yugoslavians)." ( [last accessed November 2013])
As they spelled immediate precarisation for a large segment of France's migrant community, the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees were met with fierce protests, including a series of hunger strikes, which were prominently supported by French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. 
(3) "La Cause du Peuple" [The People's Cause] was a radical left newspaper published between 1968 and 1978. Within the contemporary political landscape it represented the "Proletarian Left" (GP - Gauche prolétarienne) and drew from a Maoist background. The name "La Cause du Peuple" was a direct reference to a newspaper co-founded by George Sand in 1848. From the "Cause du Peuple" sprang today's weekly newspaper "Libération", founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre who had also been the editor of "La Cause du Peuple" from May 1970 until September 1973. 

The original essay, "Sur le papier", by Serge Daney was first published in Cahiers du Cinema No. 265 (March/April 1976) as part of a dossier dedicated to Sidney Sokhona's film Nationalité: Immigré (see note no. 1). The dossier further included essays by Jean-Pierre Oudart and Serge Le Péron as well as a long interview with Sidney Sokhona conducted by the same three authors. When "Sur le papier" was reprinted in Serge Daney's essay collection "La Rampe" (Collection Cahiers du Cinéma-Gallimard, 1983), the text was revised and slightly modified. The English translation commissioned for this volume is based on the text version in "La Rampe". Translated by John Barrett.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)

"I have also profited from your blog as a reader so I am glad to give something in return."

A little while ago, I blogged about a new book (Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View: Perspectives of political film and video work) which had three new translations of Serge Daney. Thanks to the generosity of the book editor (Tobias Hering, whose quote is above) and of the translator (John Barrett), we get to publish two translations on the blog, starting with a key text on Straubian pedagogy (remember that other text on Godardian pedagogy?).

If you're curious about the book and are in London on October 29th, come and join Tobias at the book presentation at The Showroom. I particularly liked reading some questioning not seen since the political 70s, with a definite current angle.

A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian pedagogy)
From Nicht Versöhnt (1) to Moses und Aron, one idea predominates, entirely contained in this title, Nicht versöhnt: not reconciled. Non-reconciliation: that is, neither the union nor the divorce, neither the whole body (to preserve, to regret), nor the bias of disintegration, chaos (Nietzsche: "One must disintegrate the universe, lose respect for all."), but their double possibility. Straub and Huillet basically start from a simple irrefutable fact: Nazism happened. Because of Nazism, the German people of today is not reconciled with itself (Machorka-Muff, Nicht Versöhnt), but the Jews aren't either (Moses und Aron, Einleitung). Nazism, like any power but more than any other, challenges and provokes the artist, and as a result artists no longer have the right to be irresponsible: Schönberg is still not reconciled with Kandinsky, neither is Brecht with Schönberg. In the Straubian system, a retro mode is simply impossible. Everything is in the present.
Non-reconciliation is also a way of making and producing films. It is the stubborn refusal of all the forces of homogenization. It has led Straub and Huillet to what might be called a “generalized practice of disjunction.” Disjunction, division, fission, taking seriously the famous “one divides into two.” The look and the voice, the voice and its material (the “grain”), the language and its accents are, as Chou En-lai said, “different dreams in the same bed.” The films: the bed where what is disjoint, unreconciled, not reconcilable, “plays”, simulates, suspends unity. Not an (easy) art of décalage but the simultaneous head and tail of the one and the same piece, never played, always revived, inscribed on one side (the tables of the Law, Moses), stated on the other (miracles, Aaron).
What is it that imposes this homogenization against which one always has to disjoint, not reconcile, if not cultural imperialism which is in the process of submitting the film industry throughout Europe (England, Germany, Italy), to submit it to its manufacturing standards (a non-rational mess), to bring, for example, a man who, as first and against all, dared to film with direct sound and in dialect (Visconti: La Terra Trema), to no longer think of his films – for the global art market – in any other way than directly dubbed into English, without anchor point, directly mutilated?
Anchoring films, images, voices means taking seriously the cinematic heterogeneity. And this anchorage, the idea that an image is only possible there and nowhere else, is not just a matter of language and voice. There is also the body. Strangely, the Straubian cinema allows us to understand that the reason why the naked body has such exchange value, why it constitutes for capital (porn movies) such a precious signifier, is because it has no attachment to History, because it makes us loose sight of it. Therefore it is necessary to anchor the body. I'm thinking of the jerseys on the torsos of (true) farmers who lay their offerings before the golden calf in Moses and Aaron. And even of the eroticism in the Straub films, discrete validation, of the most neutral parts of the body, the less spectacularly consumable: an ankle here, a knee there.
The minimum device of enunciation is the voice, the phonic device. For Straub and Huillet this is the preferred device (Othon). But there are others. In Einleitung, rarely enough, the technical recording devices, the “sounding boards” are filmed. In Einleitung, Günter Peter Straschek reads a letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky and Peter Nestler reads a well-known text by Brecht. What do we see? Images of a recording studio, images connoting officiality, the weight of legitimate discourse, heavy, coming from above and destined to provoke no response. Images of talkers, of ’speakers’, servants of speech, therefore not having to rise to speak.
When we see the face of, let's say, Léon Zitrone (2) appear on French TV screens, we have to think – very quickly, once past the first moment of revolt – something like: “power – the power of the bourgeoisie – speaks to us directly.” Does this mean that Zitrone (his voice, his face, his eyes, his intonation) is completely transparent? No, it rather means that he is not talking but is just filling his speaking time. Which is something quite different. 
Speaking in the device, speaking ’in position’, means being exempted from enunciation (legitimation). For many years, we have seen oppositional parties fail to master this problem. They spent a huge amount of the time allotted to them (during which time they were actually seen) saying that the rest of the time they were never seen. And then they didn't have any time left to say what they had come to say.
Being removed from power means being removed from one's devices. Being removed from one's devices means being constrained – if only we could break out one day – to take on the dispositives of enunciation (”to distance oneself”) even before stating anything whatsoever. Obligation to note, in the device, an enunciation (the effect and the legitimacy of one's speaking out) which the device dispossesses a priori. This is why the question of enunciation is always linked to one of power (ability to speak, not to speak – Clavel (3) – to say things otherwise), while statements are on the side of knowledge (concentrated power).
And when we return to the images of the two friends of the Straubs (Straschek and Nestler) reading, it is clear that they are not professional 'speakers'. And what do they read by the way? Let us quote. In the letter from Schönberg to Kandinsky: “When I walk in the street and all men look to see if I am a Jew or a Christian, I cannot tell everyone that I am the one whom Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, while doubtless Hitler is not of this opinion.” And Brecht: “Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf. They are willing to eat the calf, but they dislike the sight of blood.
What do these two speeches have in common? These are speeches of victims, of people in exile, speeches that do not participate in any power. Never.
The question at hand is significant: how to stage speeches in a film (or these specific speeches, which are literary texts)? The Straubs' solution is at least paradoxical, something born from fantasy: to inscribe, to lodge discourses “of resistance” in the dominant devices. Fantasy: a state radio voicing Brecht. In order to have, at once, the enjoyment of revenge (the extreme – comical – instance of such a revenge would be Zitrone reciting Brecht), and most of all to get close to the moment when, between dominated discourse and dominating device, the incompatibility, the non-reconciliation takes its course. Still,and again and again. 
Remember Christian Metz saying that the linguistic translation of a shot of a gun would not be the word “gun” but something like: “Here’s a gun” (observe in passing that this example is not neutral: trajectory of finger, eye and bullet, scopic drive, ballistic drive). The whole problem of enunciation in cinema: knowing what, during the time of the projection of a film, functions as the instance that expresses, the voice that silently says: “Here it is... Here are corpses, a B-52... etc.”. Sound has the privilege to assert – as it is through sound that sense is made and from which militant cinema, for example, takes comfort –, but the privilege of the image, presentification, the very act of “Here it is” [voici] hasn't really been examined.
By solely considering the image as a surface, infinitely divisible, by only seeing in its iconic content what can be passed – decanted – from the realm of connotation to that of denotation, one leaves aside the basic fact that in the present of the film projection, something (but what?), someone (but who?) functions as the instance that says, “Here it is.” – We are given to see.
That is why we cannot follow Marc Ferro all the way to the end of his argument (see "Le Monde diplomatique", May 1975). As a good historian, he thinks he can help the maximum of the public by getting across whatever the news images (archive footage, stock-shots) contain haphazardly, implicitly, involuntary, in the domain of the denotable, of information, of knowledge (knowledge after the fact, the historian's knowledge.) However, the problem is not to reduce the image or to dream up one that would be information, purely denoted. This reduction, we begin to suspect, is impossible: like any implementation of code it secretes something irreducible, a “third meaning” (Roland Barthes (4)). The problem is rather that the image is not a flat surface to anyone, except for those who have chosen to make it flat.
As much as an image is alive, as much as it has an impact, as much as it calls out to a public, as much as it provides pleasure, it means that in this image, around it, behind it, something in the domain of primitive enunciation (power + event = “Here it is”) functions. In cinema, enunciation might be, hidden somewhere, a little machine wound up to repeat the Lacanian phrase: “You want to look? Well, look at this”.
The cinematic image can not only be accounted for by the competence of those who know how to keep it at a distance. It is like hollowed out by the same power that has allowed it, that wanted it. It is also this thing that people have enjoyed making and others have enjoyed seeing. And this pleasure remains: the image is a tomb for the eye. Seeing a film is coming into view of what has already been seen. Seen by others: the camera, the author, the technicians, the first audience, those responsible, sometimes political people, tyrants. And what has been seen has already been enjoyed.
It happens that this power is inscribed in the image, as something that marks it, guarantees, authenticates it. Hitchcock, master of suspense and of each image of this suspense, appears briefly to remind us that he is the master (the enunciator). And this “politics of the authors” becomes politics tout court, like in this extraordinary scene in Kashima Paradise [1973] by Yann Le Masson and Bénie Deswarte where we see the police simulate for television a Japanese attack in order to justify in advance their response (that television will be filming).
In this little film by the Straubs, Einleitung, there's the image of the Communards in their coffins, and that of B-52s  bombing. These are of course not neutral images. They serve not only to identify such body or such bomb. They also tell us – whether intended or not – that the camera was American, on the same side as the bomber, just as the photographer probably was on the side of Mr Thiers. The non-neutrality of these images is not only that they put us in the presence of something horrible, it is that they show something for which there is no counter-shot, no counter-proof, no other positive image: a photo taken by the Communards or the B-52 seen from the ground, i.e. from the bombed field, and that is to say, an impossible photo.
The same goes – a fortiori – for these images of Nazified masses feeding the current retro style. We have said that for Straub and Huillet Nazism was a central event. However, they never make use of images taken from the inside of Nazism. Why? Perhaps because they believe that the responsibility of an artist is to create his own image, current and risky, of his own anti-nazism (for them this meant to dedicate their most recent film to Holger Meins (5)), rather than to reproduce images taken by Nazi cameramen in so-called 'critical' or 'detached' montages. Any reproachful and hypocritical commentary would be powerless when confronting the turmoil of these images. The Straubs' lesson: the derisory well-meaning assertions on the soundtrack and the 'Here it is' of the Nazi image have different dreams in the same bed.
What makes Einleitung, as the authors say, "an agitation film" is perhaps its order of exposure, the time that it gives us to restore these images to what they are: images taken on the basis of U.S. power, taken from the other side. It consists of cleaning the images from every déjà-vu. It consists of bringing out (making ooze, bringing to light, driving out) from these images the power that has wanted them and that wanted them to not even surprise us anymore. Therefore, the horror is no longer the eternal return of the Same in the guise of the Same (retro mode), but the intolerable present (Holger Meins, 1975). 
Editor's notes 
(1) Daney frequently abridges film titles in this essay.
(2) Léon Zitrone (1914 -1995) was a host and anchorman on French television.
(3) Maurice Clavel (1920 - 1979) was a French writer and political essayist. The incident Daney refers to was the spectacular scene of Clavel walking out on a TV debate after he had been repeatedly cut off, bidding farewell with the words: "Good evening, my censors." (This detail is explained in an editor's note in a German collection of Serge Daney's essays [Serge Daney, Von der Welt ins Bild: Augenzeugenberichte eines Cinephilen, edited by Christa Blümlinger, Berlin: Vorwerk8, 2000.]
(4) Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980) is credited for the term "third meaning" in the earlier version of the text (Cahiers du Cinéma), but the credit is missing in the "La Rampe" version. Barthes introduced the term in his essay "Le troisième sens" (1970 – English: "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills", in: Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Transl. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)
(5) Holger Meins, German, born in 1941, was arrested along with members of the "Baader gang"; he died in prison in 1974 after 53 days of hunger strike. (Original note by Daney in "La Rampe".)

Originally published as "Un tombeau pour l’oeil (En marge de L'Introduction à la musique d’accompagnement pour une scène de film d’Arnold Schoenberg de J.-M. Straub)" in Cahiers du Cinéma 258-259 (July-August 1975). Republished in Serge Daney, "La Rampe", Collection Cahiers du Cinéma - Gallimard, 1983. First translated by Stoffel Debuysere in the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent”, (KASK/HoGent). The translation has been modified for this volume and made to match the revised version of the text published in "La Rampe". Revisions by Alexandra Bordes, Nicola Guy and Tobias Hering. No reproduction without permission.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Serge Daney hits New York theatres

Sort of. The New York French Institute Alliance Française is showing the theatre play on Serge Daney created a few years ago in France by Eric Didry (director) and Nicolas Bouchaud (actor). The play is based on the long interview that Serge Daney gave on French television shortly before his death: Journey of a cine-son.

The exercise was benefitial, Sir - La loi du marcheur
Wednesday & Thursday, May 21 & 22, 2014
at FIAF, 22 East 60th Street, New York, NY 10022

The play will be in French but with English surtitles, hence its mention on this blog. If you're looking for the real thing, we've translated Journey of a cine-son on Vimeo a couple of years ago.

If anybody goes see the play in New York, it would be great to get some feedback. I've not seen it. My mum has and really liked it (and she's not really a Daney fan).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sous le vent

We live, we make movies, as if we were occupied. I was listening to the radio yesterday, in the middle of the night, an interview with Godard. And Jean-Luc says: "the French have always made a great prisoner's cinema, the most beautiful prisoner's cinema in the world." And when I saw Bresson's Pickpocket, I realised there was greatness in being a prisoner. But a Bressonian prisoner is also Dostoevskian (...).
(...) Telling a story, a bit like wondering what came before me, what I inherited without realising it. And it's no mystery: we inherited war, 1940-45. And we must be the only country in the world that was occupied, didn't resist much and produced a very strong cinema during the war. It was, as Autant-Lara said, the heyday of French cinema. And from his point of view, it's correct (...).
But others were making a cinema that prepared something else, or said something else. And one could follow that. But they were at the margins: Franju, Melville, Cocteau, Bresson, Tati. So the official idea I developed of French cinema was that it was made by mavericks, by non-conformists. There has been so many of them since the beginning, since Feuillade. (...)
That's the war. Everything in French cinema that was professional, unionised, with home-made aesthetics and ideology, is rather what I have no interest in. And I say "rather" because there are magnificent things. I'm interested in what was marginal. But I feel this can only be said of France. American cinema has some great and sublime mavericks but (...).
Extract from Sous le vent, a film by Robert Kramer that was part of a series of film commissions (La culture en chantier) by the French Ministry of cultural affairs in 1991. My (quick) translation.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Murmur of the World

Serge Daney's review of Robert Kramer's Route One USA. Daney's take on Kramer's itinerary as a filmmaker is almost too consistent with his text on Diesel written four years earlier.

Murmur of the World (Robert Kramer, Route One USA
“If we are truly together, the dark of the day is the best moment to see. But we must be truly together,” said Robert Kramer, fifteen years ago. Only a man threatened by solitude can say this. Only a man very inhabited inside can deal with this solitude when it does more than threaten. For, if populations change over time, it’s always about them.

In 1975, Kramer and John Douglas co-signed Milestones, the film that closed a first loop, that of American radicalism, which he had, better than anyone else, drawn the portrait of (The Edge, Ice, In the Country).

With Milestones, another generation – that of the opposition to the Vietnam war – could call itself “lost”. The fragile sound of a page being turned could even be heard in a Cahiers round table (issue 258-259) flatly but sincerely named: Milestones and us.

The rest is better known: Kramer leaves the USA, puts himself at the service of several struggles (Portugal), settles in France, tries everything (video as amusement or scalpel, auteur cinema, an hallucinated police film) and doesn’t quite pull it off. One doesn’t need to be Freudian to see that, sooner or later, Robert Kramer will need to return, a way or another, to his starting point.

A small film shot in Portugal (Doc’s Kingdom, scandalously not released) amounts to getting ready for the departure. Its hero – Kramer’s alter ego – is a drunken and narcissistic doctor who has somehow survived to all his beliefs. He’s the doctor we follow all along Route One.

For this is indeed, fifteen years later, a sequel to Milestones. The road comes after the milestones. The road in Milestones went from “the snowy mountains of Utah to the natural sculptures of Monument Valley, to the caves of the Hopi people, and to the dust of New York City”; the road in Route One simply connects Cape Cod to Miami. For the one starting again, any road, chosen randomly, is the right one: the first one, for example.

Why choose a doctor? Because Robert Kramer’s father is a doctor (there is an auscultation scene in Milestones)? Because there is a doctor theme in John Ford’s films (whom Kramer admires and of whom he is – I’ve always thought this – one of the rare heirs)? Because the USA is sick? Or because, when we are “truly together”, we ought to care for each other? A little bit of all this, of course. But all this would remain abstract if Robert Kramer’s art (for he is an artist, and a great one) wasn’t fundamentally that of a doctor’s, that of a general practitioner. As such, he can’t afford to choose his patients: he is the adult truth of the militant that he was (“at the service of the people”).

And what does the doctor do when combing the countryside? He uses his eyes and takes out of his briefcase this old emblem: the stethoscope. He measures up the state of populations, he takes their pulse (and, with the help of age and humour, he knows that his own health is no longer perfect). In short, the wandering doctor works in the audiovisual sphere.

Filmmakers who are both great show-offs and great editors are rare. Kramer has acquired an exceptional eye (his work with video is for something in this) but doesn’t expect from it – and that’s exceptional – a voyeuristic added value. Of the people he meets and listens to, along Route One, he expects no truth: he simply follows them in a phase of their existence (always according to the principle that one must only film people that work, at the same time, at something else).

He diverts them – a bit – away from their route, as if offering them a free consultation.  He doesn’t dramatise the road (it’s the opposite of a road movie), nor the encounter: these people are always already there and they have other things to do. Follows the beautiful portrait of what we can continue to love in America: its hard labour, its sense of duty, its basic energy.

As for the sound, the direct sound of the social stethoscope, it is no less (and no more) than the pulsation of hearts and ideas, of the rhythm that allows something to be heard. It’s the most mysterious part of Kramer’s art – its most Fordian part. As a puritan for whom, everywhere and always, only the social bond requires and justifies the presence of cinema, he cannot prevent, over free consultations, to let the murmur of the world rise, America being a world in itself. A man blowing on embers is Fire. A fish in a tank is Water. A soldier bending under the weight of his kit, is Earth. 

We need, despite everything, witnesses. And witnesses need to have time on their side. Kramer might not have needed fifteen years of diversions and a four-hour movie if American cinema (special effects aside) was able – as it used to be – to draw up such a state of things. Ironically, this man, who left because he suffered too much from the evils of American imperialism (from Indians to Vietnamese), returns to a country which is, for the first time in its history, no longer at the centre of the world, not even at the centre of itself. Only an exile like Kramer can continue to love America – by force if necessary.
First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 246, December 1989. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.130-132. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.

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.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Point of view: three new translations

Three new English translations of Serge Daney are being published today in a new book, Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View: Perspectives of political film and video work. The texts are from Daney's first book, La rampe (first published in 1983 as a collection of articles written mostly in the 1970s for Cahiers du cinéma), focusing on the place of the filmmaker and the concept of point of view
There's a book launch event this evening at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin. A big thank you to Tobias Hering, the editor of the book, for sharing this with us.

A tomb for the eye (Straubian Pedagogy)

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 259-259, July-August 1975. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by Stoffel Debuysere and John Barrett. Stoffel's initial translation is available here

On paper

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 265, March-April 1976. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by John Barrett. This is a new translation.

The restaging

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 268-269, July-August 1976. Reprinted in La rampe, Cahiers du cinema/Gallimard, 1983. Translated by John Barrett. Another translation is available here.

For more info and context on La rampe, see the series of posts from last summer.