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.