Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Les Morfalous

Bouncing on Jordan Mintzer's article "The Smuggler, The legacy and continuing relevance of the French critic Serge Daney", I'm posting a quick translation of Daney's review of Henri Verneuil's Les Morfalous. 



Les Morfalous, with Jean Paul Belmondo

Where the critic, knowing full well that he isn't part of the target audience for the last Belmondo (and that the movie really doesn’t need him), finds the energy to provide a few thoughts on the relativity of film criticism. 
When the bosses of French cinema deny critics the traditional advance press viewing (as is the case with Les Morfalous), they are placing an unreasonable bet. They are betting that the future—and only the future—will tell if their movies were that bad. The future, and not the critics who have the unfortunate tendency to ignore blockbusters, even if they sometime rehabilitate them posthumously. The bosses are not entirely wrong, even if the possibility of being right later is not a consolation for not being legitimated right away. 
But they forget to ask themselves one question: supposing the critics like their movies, would they find supplementary reasons to like them, critics’ reasons, i.e. not obvious, different from the ones already in the bond of trust between the film and its audience? I don’t believe so. Critics can do nothing (and it’s fortunate) against Les Morfalous, but neither can they do something for it. There are movies that, for a time, can’t be objects of criticism. Their success is about sociology, mythology and market studies–but not criticism. 
This shouldn’t surprise us. Most of cinema has always “escaped” criticism. We have too often forgotten the old (but still relevant) debate on the differences between “refined” and “popular” cultures, between what requires time and what is ephemeral, between what Pasolini dared to call—without any pejorative connotation whatsoever—“high culture” and “low culture”. Low culture has never needed criticism. It has other ways to expand: from posters to word of mouth, from tabloids to fashion and mimicry. As soon as a spectacle immediately connects with those it targets, there is no need for a supplementary mediation. It is the very moral of spectacle and it can be respected. 
A high-grossing film, at a minimum, gets his audience to walk to the nearest film theatre, away from television. It is above all a movie that positions itself in front of its audience. "In front of" is about aesthetics, the aesthetics of the social consensus that have become images for everyone's consumption. Take a look at Belmondo on the film poster (or in the film itself): he looks at those looking at him. Why, and in whose name, would critics try to interfere as third parties in this perfect love that needs no comments? 
Nothing can be added to the consensus, or maybe a bit of meanness. Critics will come later, when the star and its audience will be dead and only the image of the former, sola, paupera et nuda, will continue to make funny faces for a public that is no longer its target. Then, maybe, the brandished shotgun and the grin will have a moving sadness. Then, maybe, we will find that Verneuil’s filming was as good as Howard Hawks’. It will be the revenge of recording over performance, of cinema over theatre, of what settles over what evaporates. Who knows?
For what’s at the root of cinema? The theatre, the cabaret, the circus, the stadium, the stage. Everything that Cinema regularly tears itself away from, before returning to it to regenerate. The popular root of cinema is performance. Hence the question: “what can a body do?” It's the figure (the star being an extreme case) that is even more important than the background from which it shines. A hypostasis figure. And to scrub the background, a craftsman is enough. 
We could say that there are two histories of film, intertwined, mixed together but nonetheless distinct: the history of performing bodies (sport, pornography, clowns, stars, dance), and the history of what exists between the bodies, i.e. the language, the history of idols and ether. They sometime coincided (and it’s a miracle, like American burlesque, Tati, Hitchcock), but most often they travel at different speeds, in opposite directions. 
The history of bodies is slow and almost flat. It is an eternal return of the same face-to-face. The history of the cinematographic language evolves before our eyes. Language, with its tricks and rhetoric ages the quickest (what could be more dated than “the great film classics”?). This is why, despite (or because of) their famous myopia, critics have always spotted what moves in the language and never hang onto what is lasting in the bodies. For (at least) 30 years, film critics and historians have learned to tell the movements of language. We know it moves every time there is a political revolution (Eisenstein), a war (Rossellini) or a technological mutation (Godard). This means every time the bodies have been brutalised enough or destroyed to dare parade on a poster. 
And what of the history of bodies? It can’t be told, only celebrated. It can’t be assessed, but only promoted (and sold). Who cares about writing a “constructive criticism” of Les Morfalous? Nobody it seems. What would be the use of a constructive criticism of a movie that has already reached its target audience? One could only criticise the target or say that the target has the stars it deserves. One could only say horrible things (it’s always possible). 
Film criticism hinges on one idea—and one that suddenly seems precarious—which is that between those who manufacture images (and who need to manufacture them) and those who watch them (and who need to watch them), there is a gap, and that this gap is precious. And that it makes sense to interpose a little writing between the film and its public each time they are not exactly face-to-face. It’s a way to gain some time and to reach a few more spectators.
A few more only, not a lot. The work of a bonesetter, not of a griot. Let’s never forget the relativity of criticism. 

PS: I realize I completely forgot to mention that Les Morfalous is a film without much interest, stiffly directed and adequately rendered. More than ever, it’s enough to look at the poster to know what it consists of. The lack of surprise is guaranteed. Those who like the poster for Les Morfalous will like the film too. The others won’t. The lack of ambiguity is total.

Originally published in Libération on 31 March 1984 and re-printed in Ciné-Journal, Cahiers du cinéma-Gallimard, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to reference Gilles Deleuze's mention of this article in his Letter to Serge Daney:

    "We must, then, determine how cinema comes to embody this aesthetic function. Here, by asking yourself what it means to be a film critic, you come up with things I find very intriguing. You take the example of a film like Verneuil's The Vultures, which does without any press viewing, rejects criticism as thoroughly pointless, and seeks direct contact with "the social consensus" as its audience. This is perfectly reasonable, because this type of cinema doesn't need critics to fill, not only the cinemas, but the whole range of its social functions. If criticism has any point, then, it's to the extent that a film bears in it something supplementary, a sort of gap between it and a still virtual audience, so we have to play for time and preserve the traces as we wait."

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