|Ruiz: Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting|
La rampe (bis)
We call “classic” the rather short moment in the history of cinema – thirty years? – during which filmmakers knew how to create the illusion of what seems to always be missing in cinema: depth. It was the golden age of scenography, the paradoxical triumph of a scenography without stage. The advent of talking cinema made disappear the place of live musical accompaniment: orchestra or piano. After talking cinema, this scenography will be haunted by the memory of the studio set, of the stage used for shooting, necessarily lost, now fragmented, vanished, brutalised by the montage, by the vagaries of the frame, by cuts and closer frames. This brutality was called “mise en scène,” the art of marking out itineraries for the audience in a game of chicanes and stepped walls, of losing the audience in a labyrinth of shots. All this is well known.
We’re now quite removed from this filmmaking. We no longer know how to make it, and for that reason, we love it more than ever. From the place where we’ve been, where we’ve abandoned ourselves, we realise that the only possible depth – the illusion of which was created by classic cinema – ought to be a “desired depth,” as one talks of a “desired child.” The title of one of Fritz Lang’s American films sums up well this scenography and this desire behind the door: Secret Beyond the Door. The desire to see more, to see behind, to see through.
What was it about all this time? About the differed moment when we’ll see what was behind, behind anything. The pact with the audience is about one thing: there is indeed something “behind the door.” It could be anything. It may be sheer horror. But this horror is better than the cold and disenchanted observation that there is nothing and that there couldn’t be anything since the image of cinema is a surface with no depth. That’s what we’ll call modern cinema, which broke the pact.
The scenography of classic cinema therefore consisted in laying out obstacles in a studio, then lights, then rails for the camera, and finally, actors. Great actors of this cinema are simply the ones that least bump into obstacles. Or, like Cary Grant, who do it with such elegance, that this secret, too, has been lost. Good filmmakers are those who can transform any object into a temporary mask, full of the promise that there is “more to see.” Pivotal objects: doors and windows, gazes and mirrors, bodies about to move, door frames. And this immaterial object, the word, when it begins to function as a pun or a rebus.
This cinema captured audiences more lastingly than any other because it never ceased to offer them exits, such as breathing windows or reassuring endings. It knew how to push the spectator out of the scene of the film, only to make him return to enjoy the happy ending of false exits. Hence the relative indifference of classic cinema to the “contents” of its film, the only real content of a film residing in the art of not discouraging the audience to come back to see another film, which will only be another variant of the same film.
What is the limit of classic cinema? That eyes, doors, words, pivotal objects and cover-objects no longer open up onto anything. This is already the case with Hitchcock: slashed eyes, sealed doors, intransitive and flat language. Nothing hides anything because everything is there to see. And what happens if there’s nothing to see “behind”? An accident: the looping of the scopic drive. The gaze no longer gets lost between obstacles and depth but is sent back by the screen, like a ball bouncing off a wall. The image ebbs back toward the spectator with the acceleration of a boomerang and hits him with full force.
I would call “modern” the cinema that took on this non-depth of the image, that claimed it as its own, and that thought of making it – with humour or fury – a war machine against the illusionism of classic cinema, against the alienation of industrial series, against Hollywood.
This cinema was born – not by chance – in destroyed and traumatised post war Europe, on the ruins of annihilated and disqualified cinema, on the fundamental refusal of the fake, of mise en scène, of the stage, of a divorce from theatre, strongly expressed by Bresson.
This refusal only makes sense if one doesn’t lose sight of this: the great political mises en scène, the state propagandas that became living pictures, the first mass movement of humans, all this theatre had – in reality – ended up in disaster. Behind this warring theatre, like its hidden side or its shameful truth, there was another stage which has not since ceased to haunt the imagination: the stage of the extermination camps.
So, regardless of how different they are from one another, the great innovators of modern cinema, from Rossellini to Godard, from Bresson to Resnais, from Tati to Antonioni, from Welles to Bergman, are those who radically keep their art separate from the theatrical-propagandist model that was omnipresent in classic cinema. They have in common to foresee that they are no longer dealing with the same bodies as before – before the camps, before Hiroshima. And that it’s irreversible.
What scenography for modern cinema since we are in presence – dark humour – of a “new man,” a survivor of post-industrial societies, a weightless body shown on television through a weak and pale radiography? It’s not surprising that painting, and not theatre, had been the first reference, the first witness of modern cinema. The bestowing of “auteur” as a status, with its associated “politique,” came at a timely moment to signal that the old profession of “metteur en scène” [stage or film director] will never be innocent anymore.
A new scenography was needed now that the image functioned as surface, with no simulated depth, with no games of chicanes, with no exits. A wall, a sheet of paper, a canvas, a blackboard, always a mirror. A mirror where the spectator could catch his own gaze in the same way that he would catch the gaze of an intruder, as an additional gaze. The central question of this scenography is no longer: what is there to see behind? But rather: can my gaze sustain what I’m seeing anyway and which happens in a single shot?
It’s a scenography of obscenity, very different to the sacred pornography of the old star system. What made Garbo or Dietrich stars was that they looked something far away which wasn’t unimaginable. Modernity begins when the photo of Bergman’s Monika transfixes a whole generation of cinephiles without making a star of Harriet Andersson; or when the furtive and insisting look to camera in Bresson’s Pickpocket influences the whole of the New Wave cinema even though the name of the “actor” who carried that look is forgotten.
What changed? These looks place us in an unbearable situation, unbearable at least for the “great” and “good” public of cinema: to be the witness of the jouissance of another: another who’s not a star but anyone, another who “knows nothing of it” and who looks through us, without seeing us. It’s erotic but very Bataillean: excess and suffering.
In that respect, if modern cinema was born with Rome Open City and the torture scene witnessed by a third person, it ends perhaps with the eternal question-denial of Godard’s latest films: why do we always see victims facing us but the back of torturers? It’s very much a question of scenography, with, at its centre, the look to camera that denies the existence of the spectator and breaks all possible identification. Because if torturers were filmed facing us, it’s the spectator that they would be torturing. QED.
Today, it’s possible to propose the following: “modern” cinema, with its flat image and its scenography of the look, is rescinding. Not because it would have withered or because it would have definitely lost the spectator it had defied. But because it would have been relayed, generalised and somewhat “automated” by another medium: television. On television, the lack of depth and the spectacularisation of everything are the rule. As a surveillance tool, television has accomplished modern cinema. But it has also betrayed it. The horror in front of the indifference that gave Godard’s films the pathos of moral jolt has become, on television, pure and simple indifference in front of the horror.
And cinema? The most inventive filmmakers of the 70s have stopped denouncing the illusions of the stage. Less hysterical, more genealogical, they reveal its mechanism, not to demystify it but to give back to cinema this complexity lost with the advent of talking movies. The cinema stage, with its theatrical reminiscences, is complex. The bodies of cinema, real or effigies, are necessarily heterogeneous, unpredictable, made of bits and pieces.
Neither the simulated depth of the flat image, nor the real distance between the image and the spectator, but the possibility offered to the spectator to slowly slide along images which are themselves sliding on one another. With delight and with irony. One of the great moments of this scenography of the third type can be found at the beginning of Raoul Ruiz’s beautiful The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. The camera frames, in front view, a painting along which it slides imperceptibly, sideways, creating its anamorphose, moving behind it and taking us along. And what do we find? Neither something, nor nothing, but a dark mess which will turn out to be a museum, a museum of scenography.
We are back in the wings of the image, in the attic of cinema. And in this no man’s land, the different systems of illusion can function next to each other. It’s the democracy of demolition: living pictures, “real” actors who move and talk, small puppets in a drawer, real paintings, etc.
This scenography is neither classic nor modern but relates to the “guided visit.” The History of Cinema, should such a thing exist, is taking this baroque bridge. In Syberberg’s films, the deep end of the image is always already an image, an image of cinema. Between this image and us, in the thin apron of the cinema studio, the illusion is being created in front of our eyes, exactly like in Méliès’ films.
At stake in Syberberg’s work is the utopia of a primitive cinema, where heroes would be children or puppets. This utopia is played in front of the hysterical spectacle of the old cinema, the cinema of propaganda, of Hitler, of Hollywood. From now on, cinema is the backdrop of cinema.
And the spectator, invited to these film-ceremonies as if in a museum of his own illusions, is no longer the stakes or the target of this laminated and baroque scenography which takes the form of a slide show. He is the spectator in the front row, the one closest to an imaginary footlight, neither theatre nor cinema but this ambivalent place that is the studio.
Syberberg and Ruiz are full of culture. I could have quoted Duras, Schroeter, Carmelo Bene or Oliveira. Strangely, at the other end of the industry of cinema, in the new Hollywood of young nabob-cinephiles, it’s the same question that is being asked through the return to special effects, to Walt Disney and to the phantasmagoria of silent cinema.
So, Baroque?Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler, 2013.