Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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.
Posted by LK at 6:57 am
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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).
(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)." (http://www.noborder.org/without/france.html#five [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.
Posted by LK at 9:38 pm
Monday, September 15, 2014
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  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).
(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.
Posted by LK at 11:15 pm