sábado, 6 de maio de 2006

From Movies To Moving

Photography is an immobile image, whereas the cinematic image has mouvement, different kinds of mouvements. In general, photography is contrasted to cinema as immobility to mouvement. True enough. But what's forgotten is that the mouvement of images in cinema could only be perceived because the people - the public - were immobile before those images. It's because people were put into theaters, locked into place before the screen and held in situation of «blocked vision» (as Pascal Bonitzer once put it) that they were able to see all kinds of mouvement: the (technologically fabricated) illusion of mouvement and a still more complicated mouvement, which, if you insist, can be called, the «language» of cinema, though it is much more a grammar: the mouvement consiting of everything that filmmakers from Lumière to our day have proposed in order to make the jump one element to the next. Cinema would never have been art had there not been many different possibilities of montage, many different ways of forbidding oneself to pass from element A to element B without some underlying theory of editing that «ensured» the transition.

But whatever the result (from Eisenstein to Godard's ultra-sophisticated theories of montage to the practice of the linear narrative that seems to «smooth over» all discontinuity), nothing of montage would have been perceived hat there not been a movie theater whith immobile viewers, who furthermore did not have the right to speak. An audience that had been slowly trained to give up its «bad» habits, to quit talking or interrupting the projections with its cries. This course of history, which must have taken considerable time, has left some traces, to judge by what still remains - here in France - of a truly popular cinema. It's enough to watch a kung-fu film at Le Trianon cinema, near Barbès in Paris, to guess how the movie-goers must have played an interactive role with the film - taking advantage of the «intermediary» scenes to go huff down a cigarette in the smoking room, making it back into the theater just when the fight starts again. It's a highly archaic (and quite salutary) relation to the spectacle, one which television, in a sense, prolongs.

That said, what we call the «history of cinema» is the history of the public's domestication, its «immobilization». Broadly speaking: immobile people who became sensitive to the mobility of the world, to all types of mobility, the mobility of fictions (ahead to happier tomorrows and various other dreams), bodily mobility (dance, action), material and mental mouvements (dialectical and logical games).

My hypothesis (and as I state it, I'm trying to see if it «holds up») is that a reversal has occured. At the risk of reducing things to caricature, I'd tend to say that we've become very mobile in relation to images which have become more and more immobile. Here's where we get back to the question of the relations between cinema and photography. The decline in the number of movie-goers results from the fact that more and more people are refusing «blocked vision» - the seat arrest that sentences them to mutism and immobility, before an image which, in a sense, «moves for two». Audiovisual consumption (television of course, but also video installations and things of the sort) tends to prove that we have learned how to pass by images by the way people must have learned to pass by lighted window displays in the ninetheenth century.

The function of cinema as «lighting», the implicit sale of desirable objects, the illumination of commodities for a by-passing public, this is what re-emerges. In a sense television shopping loops one of the loops that could be called «cinema». And one could even say that cinema has reconciled itself to one of its initial vocations, the presentation of things (which is perhaps a more primordial vocation than representation).

So we were immobile before moving images, and today we tend to move before increasingly immobile images. But what is an «immobile» image? It should not only be understood as a «freeze-frame», which a few years ago began to appear as a kind of death-drive instilled in film, which pushes the filmmaker to reconcile himself with one of those 24 images per second, the ones Godard called «the truth». The «freeze-frame» marked a particular moment of cinephilic sensibility, but it was still a case of interruption, and of interruption as an action. Today it seems to me that we are in the presence of a new type if immobile image, a more «serious» one, in a way. Let's take Godard, a filmmaker literally transfixed by the passion of the freeze-frame. Sequences of images, assembly lines, lines of jammed-up cars in a beautiful and premonitory film: Week-end. But he also made another film, Ici et ailleurs, which slipped by more or less unseen in 1975, one of the most beautiful films ever made on the idea of engagement, of political commitment and intervention, or more simply, of «activism». The film includes a quite long and excruciating scene whose «meaning» has finally come clear to me today. You see people, people off the streets, anonymous and average, managers, cleaning women, poorly dressed, fat, crushed, unhappy people... all moving past a video camera which films each alone, one after the other. But each of them carries an image, a still photograph, and this is the image they come to have filmed, one behind the other, tapping each other on the shoulder and taking their turn. As if, in this scene, Godard were tempted to replace the «24 images per second» by «24 people carrying 24 images per second»; a veritable mise en abime, infinite mirroring. No longer does the camera record things, but people come bearing their image like a cross before an indifferent video camera, set up there in a tripod, and it brings them into line, links one to the next. This idea of «standing in line» with one's image so that it can be recorded (as if we were in the East and the were counted - Godard's dream - among the basic necessities) comes back in «Grandeur et décadence d'un petit commerce de cinéma», made for the television, where people move in line as well, but this time to intone, one by one, a long sentence by Faulkner.

In 1975, «Ici et ailleurs» came off as either a caprice or a gag. Yet the film spoke how difficult it had become to intervene - from an activist's viewpoint - with images. Though sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, having filmed in the camps, Godard could not find an organizing principle for the images he brought back. He lacked a mouvement to organize the images. So, as always in such cases, he traded the question for the same question (squared: «Why can't I find the right montage for these images?»). I think this was the last time a great filmmaker joined forces with a political cause (and an organization). A long period of film history came to a close.

In Godard's work the return to the inanimate (the freeze-frame) is clearly both a catastrophe and a pleasure (sado-masochistic, in a word). In his «Histoire(s) du cinéma (et de la télévision)» he takes the problem to the extreme. The idea is to salvage bits of cinema, sometimes in stills, sometimes reframed, at normal speed or in slow motion, to edit them together with words, music, and texts, and then proceed to do an improvisation whose aim is no longer to relay the mouvement of the world but to recreate it from the tag ends (shavings, crumbs) that have filtered down from the filmed world: images already recorded, saturated with meaning and emotion. But is it true that Godard's ultimate question is «How does cinema made us historians?»

Mouvement, marching public, immobile images: another great example of premonition was given by a filmmaker who is at first sight Godard's oposite: Fellini. We laughed uproariously at the parading people in «Fellini Roma», especially the Vatican nuns on roller skates. But from «La Dolce Vita» onwards Fellini makes his actors not much more than bit players, only there to spend a brief moment before a supplementary character: the camera. There are no beginnings and ends in a Fellini film, those are questions he resolved once and for all, after «La Dolce Vita». All the way until «Ginger and Fred», his films abound in parade scences which are increasingly less affectionate parodies of what television does - in any case. «Ginger and Fred» is a major documentary on human stockpilling by television. And finally, with a bit of distance, two filmmakers as different as Fellini and Godard seem much closer, like two journalists both saying the same thing: look, you can no longer film anything but parades!

Perhaps they say it at a time, 1970-1975, which is a turning point in the history of cinema. And perhaps they are the last to possess such a cultural, craftsmanly memory of their instrument, the last before the amnesia. Each in his way, Godard and Fellini «flirt» with advertising. The former sees it as obscenity, the second more like pornography - but both find it stimulating. Today, the advertising aesthetic seems to have triumphed in utter seriousness. Ten years ago it would have been a paradox to say that «Le Grand Bleu» and «L'Ours» were finally nothing more than advertising (I remember having said that about the first Lelouch films). Now, ther order of the day is no longer the «contamination» of cinema by advertising (the question was resolved by «Diva»). Instead, the dominant form of cinema (the kind that «works») has reached a post-advertising stage. Cinema now inherits prefabricated shots, ready-to-use «cliches», in short - immobile images.

It's as though cinema had to retrace the path it has come by. This path was paved by the question: where are we going (where is the mouvement)? It now becomes: where have we come from (where does the mouvement come from)? The mouvement is no longer in the images, in their metaphorical force or in our capacity to edit them together, it's in the enigma of the force that has programmed them (and here the reference to television - the triumph of programming over production - is unavoidable.) «Le Grand Bleu» is far from being an innocuous film: it tells of the programming of the little ones («le petit d'homme», as Lacan would say), of the new forms of totemism and the immobile unfolding of images which are already «cliche». If there is a history of audiovisual communication - which will be increasingly harder to confuse with the more singular history of cinema - then «Le Grand Bleu» is part of it.

It just happens that in order to exist, such a «product» necessarily inherits the movie theater without inheriting the formal memory of cinema. The fact that such a film - «of L'Ours», which is even harder to stomach - can score such a tidal-wave success allows us to distinctly register the public's demand for cinema (something hardly possible before). It's no longer mysterious, and I would say it consists in expecting cinema - and its rituals: dark room, big screen, group audience - to help establish the genealogy of the advertising image, in so far as advertising is now bound to the adventure of modern individualism. That the path should lead through mythology seem inevitable; that it should be a mythology of the individual, and no longer of man, must also be thought through. That on such a quest one should cross those who, for a century, have been its specialists, the Americans, seems equally destined. And that modern European (Franco-Italian) cinema - Godard, Fellini - whose greatness was to remain caught between «myth and history», should meet with the respectful indifference of the public is, alas, just part of the picture. And yet - that said - one needn't be Manichean. From 1945 to 1975, while «modern cinema» (cinema coming out of the war, starting over from zero, from the ruins, in Japan as well as Europe, much more so than in the US) tried to save an ideal of man, and while television tried clumsily to save an ideal of the collectivity, the village, and society, a third force - long unnoticed - was working toward the figurative safeguarding of the individual. This third force was advertising. When it became clear (only very recently in France, long ago elsewhere) that cinema depends economically on television and that the latter depends on advertising the «adaptation» could begin. The loop was looped, meaning that advertising could begin the «adaptation» (that's what «creatives» do) of a part - a small part - of the bodies and components inherited from cinema.

At the price of gradually losing its public (from which it asked too much maturity), modern cinema hat nonetheless «tamed» some rather tough realities, stretching the very limits of the spectacle: death, suffering, ugliness, everyday anonymity, dirtiness, dead time, and so on. Once the public had been pretty much lost, advertising counter-attacked and set about fabricating a positive world, an always-better world which, like the unconscious, would be univisited by negation. The diver of «Le Grand Bleu» is not a repeat of the diver in the advertising spot, the one who came up with a rose between teeth brushed in Ultra-Brite. No, he's the Ultra-Brite diver who had never before been taken seriously - figuratively and mythologically speaking. And what is serious, in the reign of immobile images, or the fabrication of a figure whose very principle is immobility, the immobility of he who knows only one mouvement, who cannot evolve, cannot be changed (by love or competition), who can do more than disappear (it's actually quite touching) in the enigma of his own programming, in a mythical parity with the dolphins. Rather than speaking of immobile bodies (and images), we should speak of images and bodies as automatons, as does Philippe Quéau, whose latest book, «Metaxa» joyously celebrates their arrival in our world.

The recomposition or «reconfiguration» of the world is, as one might well suspect, the order of the day. Filmmakers - the real ones - have been working at it relentlessly, and that's how one should analyze the mannerist wave that has washed over the best of cinema in the last ten years. Mannerism kept up a hysterical-affective relation with advertising (Wenders, Jarmusch etc.). I get the impression this relation is running out of steam. The bodies of advertising are to cinema what those of religious trinketry were to sacred art: a terminal stage before the renunciation of the image (or its effective replacement by automatons).

In other words: one can't tell much of a story through them, almost nothing is known of their innermost mouvements, nor anything of how they get along with the others (even sexually). The ads, let's not forget, are not only «little films», but they unfold in a deserted world, where at most two bodies fit on the screen, where the singularity of the bodies echoes no off-screen regularity (to the point where those abominable ads for Hollywood chewing-gum with their tons of joyous adolescents begin to seem like something out of Cecil B. de Mille). There is - to conclude - another, crassly sociological way of telling this story of mobility and immobility. It's that we're in a period of triumphant tourism, where every one travels much more than in the past. It's no longer a question of «discovering the world», its exotic dangerous lands, through the window of «documentary». Or rather: the bar of exoticism has been lifted much higher. Here again «Le Grand Bleu» is contemporary with a moment when it's possible to go trekking in Bhutan with selected sherpas, yak-milk tea, and personalized mystical experience. But precisely because this experience is no longer something special (just a product of tourist industry) it may be unnecessary to ask cinema to give a desirable or convincing image for those who've stayed home. The proof? What do the kids say when they want to indicate that they've lived through things as complex as they are «impossible»? They say, «man, I'm not even gonna tell ya!» And people complain about a crisis of fiction!

Serge Daney

This text was first published in French in La Recherche photographique, no 7, 1989.

This version is translated by Brian Holmes and was published in documentadocuments2, 1996.

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