In the beginning, there was the sign. The sign was spoken and sung. Then it was written, first as picture, then as word. Eventually the sign was printed. The ingenious coding system that was writing allowed ideas and feelings, descriptions and observations to be captured and preserved. The technology of printing liberated these written records from isolated libraries, allowing them to be communicated to thousands, then millions. They are the glue that binds our culture together.
As the scientific revolution took hold in the nineteenth century, we discovered methods to capture images and sounds technologically. Photography, then records and film, reproduced reality without the intervention of words. At least we thought they did. We accepted their representations as if they were real. In fact, they were simply a different set of codes. While far more verisimilitudinous than words, the images and sounds of cinema are still code systems—distillations of reality, sometimes distortions of it, always imaginations of it. That's why it is necessary to learn how to read a film.
Movies and their offspring have defined the twentieth century for us.
But now we find ourselves on the verge of a new phase in the history of media. The languages which we invented to represent reality are merging. Film is no longer separate from print. Books can include movies; movies, books. We call this synthesis "multimedia," or "new media." The technology offers tantalizing promise: instant and universal access to the world's knowledge and art, captured or produced with a versatile set of media tools. But it also brings with it some knotty challenges, both technical and ethical.
The Information Age is quite real. The microcomputer revolution of the 1980s has increased our access to and control over information a hundredfold. As that revolution matures over the next generation, information power will increase by another four or five magnitudes. Within our lifetimes, most of the world's knowledge will be available to many of the world's people instantaneously and at negligible cost. There is no turning back, nor is there any longer any doubt. We now know that we can index everything ever printed and that we can build networks to access this print universe in seconds rather than years. (Similar access to audio and video remains beyond current our capabilities, and we haven't yet thought seriously how to index images and sounds, but this will come, too.)
There is a memorable scene in Godard's Les Carabiniers (1963) in which the two soldiers return to their wives after the war with their booty. They have postcards of all the world's wonders which they proudly display, one at a time: the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid, the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon.... They think these images are deeds to the properties. We laugh at their naivete as the pile of postcards mounts. The scene is an emblem of the information revolution: we now have the deeds to all the world's intellectual riches. But what will we do with this unimaginable wealth? Perhaps we are just as naive as Godard's carabiniers: we have been given the keys to the virtual kingdom, but what about the reality that was once its subject?
As we noted in Chapter 1, the virtual world increasingly crowds out the natural world, and the very power that we now have to manipulate these once precious images and sounds devalues them, destroying our faith in their honesty and our appreciation of their art.
When the first edition of this book appeared in 1977, it may have seemed strange that an introduction to film included so much about print and electronic media. At the time, movies and print seemed to have little in common: they were both communication systems, true, but the similarity ended there. Now, as the technologies and distribution systems used to reproduce and disseminate the two converge, we can see how they fit together.
This has happened almost by accident. No one set out in 1960 to find a technological common denominator between books and movies. No Godard fan, noticing his fascination with the clash of words and images, decided to find the link between the two. Nor did a Truffaut aficionado, after having seen Fahrenheit 451 or having read Truffaut's Hitchcock, dedicate years to discovering the technical common bond between the two media which that filmmaker/writer loved equally. The development of semiotics in the sixties and seventies was fortuitous, since it provided a single critical approach to both written language and filmed language, but semiotics was a way of thmking, not a science; there were no semiotics labs funded by governments to discover the basic building blocks of signification.
Rather, as you might expect, the technologies developed more or less independently and for mundane economic reasons. It was only after a decade of furious activity that it became clear that both types of expression, print and film, were going to share a common technology and that—therefore—it would be possible to do both at the same time in the same place. The common technology they now share is digitization.
In the 1950s, computers were regarded simply as number-crunchers. (In 1952 IBM actually estimated that 18 computers would saturate the entire world market.) The machines of that day were programmed by feeding in decks of punched cards—a medium that dated from the 1890s; they required carefully engineered environments ("computer rooms"); and they were operated by specially trained engineers, who—like priests of old—were exclusively ordained to enter the sanctum sanctorum and approach the electronic oracle.
In the 1960s, it became clear that the CRT screen could provide a more efficient link between the machines and the people who operated them than the punched cards or the paper and magnetic tapes that had become common by that time. Indeed, the engineer at IBM who first thought to connect a television cathode ray tube to a computer may be considered the godfather of multimedia, for once that visual device became the basic input/output channel, the development of a visual metaphor for the logical control process became irresistible. This marriage of technologies was not preordained, and if punched cards and band printers had remained the input/output devices for digital computers, multimedia—to say nothing of the microcomputer appliance itself—might have remained a dream.
In the 1970s, when the development of word processors as basic business tools suggested that computers could be operated by ordinary laypeople, interest increased in a visual control metaphor—or "graphical user interface," as the jargon later tagged it. At the same time, filmmakers and audio technicians became intrigued with the exciting possibilities of applying this new tool to the manipulation of images and sounds. Filmmakers like James and John Whitney used mainframes to produce abstract images for their films as early as 1961. Musicians and audio artists became infatuated with the new Moog synthesizer in the late 1960s. The first digital audiotape recorder was offered for sale by the Lexicon company in 1971. By the late 1970s CBS had developed a machine for digital editing of videotape. The price? $ 1 million. (It is not known if any were sold. Today you can do a better job with a system that costs less than $3,000.) The elements of multimedia were evolving.
In December 1968 Douglas Engelbart, an employee of the Stanford Research Institute, demonstrated an effective graphical user interface, fulfilling a dream first outlined by physicist Vannevar Bush in his seminal 1946 essay "As We May Think." In the early 1970s researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and elsewhere combined the graphics on the now ubiquitous CRT with a separate physical pointing device that they called a mouse. What may have appeared to Engelbart to be the end of a line of technological development now revealed itself as instead the beginning of a fertile and fascinating field of inquiry: the invention of a coherent visual and physical metaphor for the complex and subtle interaction between humans and their first true intellectual tools. Interface design rapidly became a subject of intense interest, ft isn't often that a new basic and universal language system is invented.* The twentieth century has seen two: first film, now the graphical interface. As new systems of communication, it was only a matter of time before the languages of film and computers merged to give birth to multimedia.
Apple's Macintosh computer, introduced with great fanfare in January i984, marked the long-anticipated birth of multimedia. As the first microcomputer to commercialize successfully the graphical interface developed at Xerox PARC years earlier, the machine and its software provided a platform sophisticated enough to support the development of new media during the next ten years.
The company had been founded in 1977 by two young Californians, Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. While Wozniak was regarded as the "techie," Jobs, the "business head," turned out to have the greater impact on the history of technology, for it was he who championed the Macintosh vision of the computer as an appliance, like a toaster, with an interface simple enough for anyone without technical training to operate.
Before the introduction of the Mac, Apple had manufactured machines, like the rest of the nascent microcomputer industry, which required a significant amount of technical expertise to operate. Their success until that time had been due to two factors: the feisty and romantic image they had projected, and the lucky accident that two other young men, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had written a program called "VisiCalc," which ran only on the Apple n computer. VisiCalc was introduced to the market in 1979, shortly after the machine debuted. Thousands of young MBAs, heady with the financial dreams of the 1980s, rushed out to buy Apples to run this new "spreadsheet" program, a business planning tool.
The first Macintoshes shipped in 1984 with a painting program as well as word-processing software, Immediately, users could draw on their screens as well as type. Perhaps just as important, the graphic power of the machine was applied to texts as well as images. Writers could actually choose their own fonts and type styles! This was a major advance over the crude representations of the dot-matrix character-based screens of that time. The heretofore arcane concerns of publishers and printers—fonts, leading, point sizes, kerning—quickly became common knowledge for a new generation of assistants and middle managers. This social and esthetic sea-change had been foreshadowed in the 1970s when ubiquitous cheap photocopiers allowed almost anyone to be a publisher. Now the Macintosh let anyone design layouts and set type, too.
The "consumer" celebrated in the fifties and sixties was yielding to the "user" of the eighties and nineties. The consumer had been a passive and dutiful partner for the great industrial producers of the first half of the twentieth century; the user was to become an active, independent, and demanding client for the service providers of the next century. Little did we know, as we marched in the streets in the sixties chanting "Power to the People!," that the power would indeed be granted—but in the arts and communications, rather than in politics and economics.
This relationship between the counterculture of the sixties and the microcomputer culture of the eighties is curious but undeniable. Apple understood it early on, and profited by that understanding. The famous Super Bowl commercial that introduced the Macintosh as "the computer for the rest of us" in January 1984 traded heavily on the residue of countercultural yearnings.
Separately from the cultural mystique that it acquired, the microcomputer was also "revolutionary" in the purest sense of the term, since its historical progress is measured geometrically rather than arithmetically. "Moore's Law" suggests that chip density (and by extension computing power) per dollar doubles every 18 months. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, the dominant chip manufacturer, offered this rule of thumb early on. The history of the microcomputer over the past twenty years bears uncanny witness to its truth. The machine I bought in March 1994 ran 200 times faster than the machine I bought in April 1981, had 200 times the storage capacity, and cost about the same. Those figures are almost exactly what Moore's Law would have predicted. Adjust for inflation, and performance doubles yet again.
This isn't just computer jock talk. Numerically, the information revolution of the 1980s accomplished in fewer than ten years what took the transportation revolution 100 years to achieve before it ended in the 1960s. Put another way, if transportation power had developed at the same speed as information power in the 1980s, the hve-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles would now take about a minute and a half. These numbers are so profound that we can only surmise what the cultural and social effects will be. Bob Dylan's phrase from the sixties comes to mind:
... somedring is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?*
While the burgeoning microcomputer industry led the way in the office, the consumer electronics industry took advantage of the microchip revolution in the home.
At the end of the 1970s, people saw movies in theaters, listened to music on records, watched one of the four national television networks (actually getting up out of their chairs to change channels on occasion), used telephones with wires tethering them to the wall, and, if they were so inclined, corresponded with each other using pens, pencils, typewriters, paper, and the U.S. Postal Service.
By the early 1990s, these same folks saw movies mainly at home on videotape, listened to digital music on Compact Discs (more often walking in the street than sitting at home), had their choice of 40 or more cable channels from which to choose (and channel-surfed without leaving their chairs), made telephone calls in their cars or walking around, and, if they were so inclined, corresponded with each other via fax or electronic mail.
A few years later, they could also, if they so chose, buy a camcorder that would let them shoot videotape of near-professional quality. They could install a home theatre with a screen almost as large as the ones at the local sixplex (and with a sound system that was markedly better). They could watch videodiscs, skipping, browsing, freezing, and skimming as they might with a book; install their very own satellite dish; or buy a computer for the kids to play with that had the power of a 1980s IBM mainframe.
Increasingly they chose this last alternative, often for the sake of the children. By 1990, computer literacy was a prerequisite for admission to many colleges and universities. By 1994, nearly 40 percent of American homes had microcomputers and the stage was set for multimedia to weave together most of the technological strands we have just enumerated.
"You say you want a revolution...." Digitization and computerization completed the profound shift in our cultural architecture that had begun in Edison's labs a century earlier. As the Information Age became a reality and knowledge joined labor and capital in the social equation, ideology couldn't keep up. It is more than coincidental that the rise of the microchip accompanied the end of the Cold War, a conjunction that Mikhaii Gorbachev himself once pointed out.
Despite the exponential speed of the digital revolution in the eighties, it took more than twelve years after the introduction of the CD-ROM in 1985 before multimedia became a marketable product. The reason? Digitized images and sounds, not to mention movies, made extraordinary demands on processor speed, storage capacity, and communication bandwidth. The digital text for this book, fully formatted, amounts to about 2.5 megabytes. The black-and-white images and diagrams that appear in the book take up an additional 90 megabytes on the DVD-ROM version (although they appear on the disc at greatly reduced resolution; the book versions occupy 750 megabytes). The additional illustrations, color, animation, programming, texts, and movies fill up most of the remaining 4,300 megabytes. In other words, the fully formatted text of How To Read a Film occupies less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the disc space required for the multimedia version, while the images and sounds which merely illustrate it consume more than 1,000 times as much real estate.
Some other numbers to think about:
The standard computer screen of the mid-nineties, when multimedia came of age, measured 640 by 480 pixels. II each pixel in a full-screen image was either black or white, 38,400 bytes would be necessary to describe that image.* However, if you have a standard VGA color screen, with a palette of 16 colors, multiply that number by 4; if you have a basic Internet machine with a palette of 256 colors, multiply it by 8; and if you want color approaching the quality of film or television, multiply it by 24. All of a sudden, a single screen occupies nearly a megabyte of storage. You see the disparity: you can store an entire book—or a single decent color image. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but should it cost 150,000? This is not a good deal.
Now, make that still color image move. Don't even think about 24 frames per second. Try 12—it will almost work. Now you need more than 11 megabytes for each second of jerky movie that you show. A CD-ROM, with its gargantuan storage capacity of 650 megabytes, could hold a minute of film (well, not quite). This is also not a good deal. The old analog world never looked so good. (Maybe this digital thing is a bad idea.)
Finally, assiiming that you can find some way to lick the storage problem, remember that you will have to transfer 11 megabytes per second from disc to CPU to screen in order to show your 12-frames-persecond "movie," while the standard transfer rate of CD-ROMs in the late 1980s was 150,000 bytes per second.
You now have some idea of the technical challenges that confronted the digital video pioneers! The solutions they worked out for this seemingly insurmountable problem are ingenious and instructive. For the most part, they were not initially hardware-based. Building chips that could process this amount of information quickly enough and at a reasonable price would have solved only half the problem, since the storage demands were just as astronomical as the demands on the processors. Separate Digital Signal Processor chips (DSPs) are useful—even necessary—but the first stage of multimedia was made possible by software that uses purely mathematical techniques that are as beautiful as they are effective.
Although they are too complex to detail here, suffice it to say that these algorithms compress the amount of data required to store and display an image (or that succession of images known as a movie) by recording the difference between successive pixels or frames rather than the individual values of each pixel in each frame. For example, a still image with a large background of a single color would take much less room to store than the same image with a multicolored, variegated background. It is the number of changes that count, not the number of pixels. Similarly, a movie that is slow moving with few cuts requires far less storage than a quickly changing scene with numerous cuts. Only the differences between frames are recorded, not the complete data for each frame. The compression of each still image is known as "spatial compression;" the compression of succeeding frames is called "temporal compression." Both sets of algorithms are necessary to produce economically viable digital video.
These compression techniques can easily reduce storage for a still image by a factor of 10 and storage for a moving image by a factor of 100. So we are back within the limits prescribed by the capacities of current hardware. The main standard for still image compression is known as JPEG (for the group that designed it, the Joint Photographic Experts Group) while the main standard for movies is called MPEG (for Motion Picture Experts Group). The DVD specification is based on MPEG-2 and provides for full-screen, full-motion video. There are many other schemes in use as well. (Oh, yes. There is also a very simple way to reduce the amount of data necessary for a digital movie: reduce the size of the image. That's why most digital movie windows on early multimedia CD-ROMs looked like large postage stamps.)
Although the Voyager Company had demonstrated the possibilities of multimedia as early as 1989 with their release of Robert Winter's CD Companion to Beethoven's Ninth, multimedia did not begin to become a market reality until June 1991, when Apple introduced their software technology for movies known as QuickTime. (Microsoft followed with Video for Windows the next year.) QuickTime was designed as an architecture to support all media types, time-based or not.
One of its aims was to provide a platform-independent technology so that moving images could be shown at the best quality that the hardware on which they were run was capable. As successive versions of the software were issued the architecture supported more features (text, interadivity), more codecs (compression algorithms), and adaptations for use on the Internet (streaming, variable transmission rates). With QuickTime, new media producers had their first effective tool for integrating audio and video in a text environment, but they were still constrained by the hardware. Their delivery media, the CD-ROM and the Internet, were both limited. CD-ROM was based on technology that was devised in the late 1970s, while Internet transmission was hampered by low modem speeds. DVD, the successor to the CD and designed to have sufficient capacity and speed for digital video, was not marketed until 1997, while high-speed cable modems and DSL Internet connections did not become widespread until the turn of the century.
Developed jointly by Philips and Sony, the laser-based CD was introduced as an audio medium in 1982. Within six years it dominated the recording business, one of the great success stories of twentieth-century consumer electronics marketing. The success of the CD in the audio market brought prices down rapidly, making this physical medium even more attractive for the computer industry which in 1985 adopted CD-ROM as the storage technology of the future.
Ironically, Sony, like Philips, had little success in the multimedia market. During the early 1990s the company brought out at least four versions of a portable CD-ROM player, but neither the Data Discman (in several incarnations), the Bookman, nor the MMCD player was accepted by the public. Success would come, but not until the next generation: DVD.
The audio CD succeeded so quickly because Sony and Philips controlled the technology: a single uniform standard was adopted by all manufacturers. Conversely, until the advent of DVD, CD multimedia development was slowed by a multiplicity of approaches. In addition to the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft MPC formats and Sony's efforts, the list of erstwhile contenders included Philips's CD-I (introduced in 1991), Commodore's CDTV, Tandy's VIS, IBM's Ultimedia, and the game machines of Sega, Nintendo, Sony, and 3DO. Except for CD-I, all were nonstarters. Like its imitators, CD-I discs played on an attachment to the television set (priced at about $600 at introduction) controlled by a remote joystick that lacked a keyboard. CD-I was hampered by two major limitations: the poor resolution of the television screen combined with the lack of a keyboard meant that very little could be done with text. CD-I turned out to be little more than a playback medium for still images. The base technology simply hadn't the muscle to support effective video. Although hundreds of companies rushed to market in the early 1990s with CD-ROM-based products (many of them quite ingenious), multimedia remained more a dream than a reality. By 1995 most of the early multimedia producers were out of business. The only successful CD-ROM genres were games and text-centric products like encyclopedias and reference works. Indeed, by 1994 more encyclopedias were sold on disc than in traditional book form.
The original specification for the CD aimed for a product that could deliver more than an hour of digital audio, uncompressed. DVD was designed to have the capacity to deliver a standard two-hour feature film on a similar-sized disc. By using a laser with a shorter wavelength engineers were able to fit almost seven times as many bits on the same disc, but as we have seen that is not nearly enough capacity for raw video. Compression technology was necessary for a viabte product. Here's where it gets interesting.
Compression algorithms come in two flavors, "lossy" and "nonlossy." As their names imply, nonlossy compression faithfully reproduces every digital value captured from the original, while lossy compression does not: it approximates some values. Furthermore, the very nature of digitization itself implies a loss of values. No matter how high the sampling rate, theoretically values in between the steps are lost. There are still audiophiles who complain about the "coldness" of CD reproduction, preferring the old-fashioned analog vinyl disks, despite their fragility.
Because it depends on heavy, lossy compression, the DVD format established as a standard late in 1995 for the next generation of optical disc technology compounded these esthetic problems. Most consumers marvel at the picture quality of DVD-Videos. Indeed, the resolution and color fidelity are both far superior to the VHS tape with which a DVD-Video disc is usually compared. The DVD-Video launch was one of the most successful introductions of a consumer electronics product in history.
But, just as CD sound is cold and lifeless for audiophiles, so the digital image is too clean and airless for some videophiles; they continue to prefer analog Laserdisc. As Robert Browning put it, "What's come to perfection perishes."
The problem is ethical as well as esthetic: most of the frames in a DVD-Video simply aren't there; they haven't been recorded. And most of the pixels in the frames that do exist also aren't present. You don't get 100:1 compression for nothing. Filmmakers may very well prefer DVD-Video to VHS for its clarity while at the same time reserving the right to criticize the medium for its supercilious attitude toward fidelity. But then, they are all copies, aren't they?
The fully digital image also presents challenges to distributors. Because copies are exact and there is no generation loss, DVDs present serious piracy problems. Once movies are digitized they are just as easy to duplicate and transmit as digital text. It's only a question of bandwidth.
Yet the call of the digital siren was irresistible to the hardware companies. The MPEG-2 algorithm was adopted by the floundering consumer satellite television industry for its digital second-generation product in the mid-1990s and proved successful. By 1998 the consumer electronics market was flooded with digital cameras, both still and video, and film-based photography was under siege. Sony had tried to market a digital still camera called Mavica as early as 1989. In 1992 Kodak had introduced the Photo CD format to deliver film-based photos digitally. Both had languished. Now, the time was right. From the moment DVD-Video was introduced in April 1997 analog was dead—at least in marketing terms.
James Monaco / HOW TO READ A FILM /The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia
And if cinema today still works on television, it's because television itself has no love. . .. On television, you can find power in its pure state, and the only things that people like seeing on TV at all are sports and cinema films, and that is because they seek love...
-Jean-Luc Godard, 1983
Godard's interest in video, including mass-market television and offbeat "video art" formats, did not grow into a strong preoccupation until the middle of the 1970s. This makes him something of a latecomer to the field, since alternative or "guerrilla" television had already picked up a good deal of steam among American artists and activists.
It goes without saying that his tardiness was not caused by timidity or conservatism. The main thing at issue was his longstanding loyalty to the apparatus of motion pictures: the professional 35mm equipment he had worked with during most of his career, and the flexible 16mm format (carrying many of the benefits associated with portable TV equipment) used for many of the Dziga-Vertov Group films.
His first production using video as a major tool was Numero deux in 1975. This was a full five years after the American video underground had started its efforts to satirize, subvert, and ultimately replace the establishment-bound institutions of commercial TV, inspired by the countercultural mood of the 1960s in general, and the writings of fashionable theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller in particular.2 Some of these TV guerrillas wanted to produce in-depth documentaries and "specials" that would promulgate their radicalized views on specific social and political issues. Others wanted to produce regular series or miniseries that would challenge conventional notions of TV programming as a whole. Once he embraced video, Godard wanted to do both; and within the next five years he did, also finding time to pioneer a whole new genre - the video scenario, a short work made as a commentary or supplement to a 35mm feature. He may have arrived at the video party late, but once in the group, he made his presence forcefully felt.
Godard's video productions, many of them codirected or otherwise aided by Mieville, have been as controversial as his films. Some critics damn them with faint praise, saying his turn to video has mainly been a savvy economic move, allowing him to make individualistic works without too much financial risk. Others praise them with faint damns, regretting the reduced image quality of his video pieces compared with his "real" movies, yet acknowledging that video's flexibility and malleability make it useful for personal, spontaneous creation. Still others see them as the last refuge of a marginalized artist whose eccentricities have sadly limited his access to mainstream production, distribution, and exhibition.
There is some truth in each of these views. The image quality of video is indeed inferior to that of movie film,a lthough the medium compensates for this by allowing a range of manipulations and "special effects" that are relatively simple to accomplish. It is also true that video encourages low-budget production, but this should enhance rather than diminish its prestige, since it allows for an individualism and experimentalism that adventurous filmmakers have found increasingly hard to practice, especially since cultural politics turned more conservative in the 1980s and 1990s, reducing financial support (and ticket-buying audiences) for innovative work.
Godard himself has lent credence to the notion that video offers a haven from the slings and arrows of commercial cinema, characterizing himself as an incorrigible experimenter who will never be the kind of media celebrity he could have become if he'd pursued a more conventional path. As an artist who has made the sociocultural margin his home, he appears to have realized at some point, he can't profess too much surprise at finding himself a marginalized artist. He amplified on this at a 1995 press conference, giving it a distinctly positive spin: "I am something of a loner.. . . I've always considered myself marginal. In a book, the primordial space is the margin, because it joins with that of the preceding page. And you can write in the margin, and take notes, which is as important as the 'main text.'"
Godard's admirers have long maintained that, under the influence of his strong creative personality, the margin becomes the center when he is occupying it. It is certainly true that his excursions into video have helped legitimize that medium as a valid option for serious artistic expression.
Conversely, video has served him well - not only as a flexible, lowbudget medium for some of his more audacious ventures, but also as a new arena in which to pursue his longtime fascination with spontaneous creation and (always at the top of his agenda) challenging commonsense notions of socially productive art, entertainment, and communication.
Asked by an interviewer about his growing interest in video during the mid-to-late 1970s, he responded with a revealing statement, noting that when a technology is new,
it is less rigid, and there are less instructions from the police, the law or circulation. There is not less law, but it hasn't been made, it isn't written down. It is before the written.... You have no rules so you have something to live with, you have to invent some rules and to communicate with other people. ... I was interested because there were no rules. . . . You have to findr ules in yourself and when to work more or to love.
When he observes that the "law" governing new technologies is "before the written," Godard recalls his desire to capture a state of innocence and innovation that stands above or beyond the everyday realities of our socially conditioned world. His affection for light-gathering and soundrecording equipment with not-yet-written rules is clearly connected to his quest for perceptions that predate "beginning was the word" consciousness, to cite Stan Brakhage once again. Approaching a new audio or video technique, Godard can be imagined asking the question posed by Jules the gardener: If nobody labels it or gives it a name, what then is this phenomenon? One possible answer: whatever we choose to make of it. As Godard said of video in another portion of the interview just quoted, "I don't know why I got interested. Maybe because it wasn't run by movie people so there was no law. So I was authorised."
The idea of video as an escape route from "law" crops up more than once in his statements over the years. Speaking in 1993 of his "videoscript" for Passion, Godard says, "I have always been against writing. It represents the laying down of the law," which becomes "fixed and constraining" like a straitjacket. "I want to work like a painter with images and details," he adds. "Delacroix painted five hundred hands before drawing a full human figure." And later, "The scenario should be an inquest, an investigation, not a certainty, a written law."6 Video thus represents a way to evade the coercive tendencies of the written word, allowing the artist to circumvent verbal preconditions and draw upon visionary resources that are comparatively free of well-worn sociocultural habits. Godard's engagement with video was not sudden or arbitrary. It emerged from tendencies that were already visible in his filmmaking, and picked up strength from two further developments that touched his life, one personal and one political.
The personal development has been pithily described by French critic Philippe Dubois, who notes that "the appearance of video in Godard's work corresponds fairly precisely to the appearance of Anne-Marie Mieville in his life and work."7 Mieville has been less public than Godard about her background, although it is known that she is also Swiss; that she had a brief singing career in Paris during the 1960s; and that she acquired some filmmaking experience before joining her new companion - who shared her urgent interest in the Palestinian crisis - as still photographer for Tout va bien, and then helping him establish the Sonimage production company.8 Serving as cowriter and (usually) codirector of his next several projects, she helped him appropriate video as a weapon against what they perceive as the cultural degradation and dehumanization caused by contemporary society's mass-media blitz, a major contributor to which has been (ironically) video itself.
The political event was the 1974 election of Valerie Giscard-d'Estaing as president of France, bringing a series of liberal reforms that included the decentralization of the Organisation de Radio et Television Francais - which regulated broadcasting activities - into a number of smaller units with some degree of independence from one another. This allowed Godard and Mieville to make a coproduction deal with the Institut National Audiovisuel, calling for two miniseries that would certainly not have seen the light of day under France's previous media regime.
Even before video became a primary concern for Godard and Mieville, the first three filmst hey worked on together dealt as much with questions of media and communication as with the sociopolitical problems that appear to be their main subjects. This is conspicuously true of Here and Elsewhere in 1974 and Comment ga va in 1976, which discuss how mass media transform our perceptions of globally important events and concepts; it is more subtly true of Numero deux in 1975, which shows (indeed, reproduces) the impact of media technologies on emotional dynamics within a household. The filmmakers' goal in these works, as Dubois summarizes it, is to respond "m images and sounds to the set of questions that address why we no longer know how to communicate, speak, see, and think, and how we can still try to speak and create with images and sounds." Among their key devices are various forms of direct or spontaneous address, manipulation of the image by electronic means, and experiments in slowing and "de-composing" the image, thus reducing its power to mesmerize and confuse.
In retrospect, the three films that launched Godard's collaboration with Mieville seem like relatively straight continuations of the Dziga-Vertov Group's overall project. Their political overtones are overt, and their styles make absolutely no concessions to popular movie conventions. Godard and Mieville readmitted a certain degree of mass-market appeal in 1979 when they gave Sauve qui peut (la vie) a reasonably linear story, along with movie stars and a great deal of truly sensuous cinematography; such later works as First Name: Carmen and Detective continued this trend, mixing a few crowd-pleasing ingredients (dramatic acting, narrative suspense, etc.) with the unusual and demanding elements that were obviously their primary interest. This phase of their partnership also produced a pair of large-scale experiments that stand with their most audacious achievements. These are the video series coproduced by Sonimage for broadcast by French television: Six fois deux /Sur et sous la communication, six episodes made in 1976, and France I tour I detour I deux I enfants, a dozen episodes made in 1977 and 1978.
Although these programs have baffled media critics unfamiliar with Godard's avant-garde sensibility, thoughtful observers have noted the essential point about them: They do not represent an effort to employ or exploit television, but rather to intervene in the cultural scene that TV has dominated throughout its reign as the world's most pervasive and influential communications medium. Godard is not "moving into television" with the hope of revitalizing his career - if that had been his goal, he could surely have found more realistic ways of approaching it! - or of "reforming" an institution sunk so deeply into triviality that even commercial movies appear sophisticated by comparison. His aim is to radicalize popular attitudes toward TV by pushing to the limit the elements and capabilities that he finds most potentially valuable within it. These include
• the closeness and potential intimacy between the medium and its viewers, who consider the TV screen a comfortable part of their everyday surroundings;
• the extended time frame of the TV series, which allows a set of subjects to be explored for hours and hours without necessarily seeming odd or long-winded;
• the ease with which images and sounds can be handcrafted via advanced video technology;
• and, related to all of these, the unforeseen possibilities that might arise from defamiliarizing the taken-for-granted ordinariness of the medium itself, and of the questionable social structures it currently mirrors.
Instead of spinning stories, inventing characters, and diverting viewers from the cares of the day, therefore, Godard and Mieville use television as a sort of scientific probe. Their method is to fill the living-room TV set with faces, bodies, and voices taken from ordinary life, and allow the personalities, histories, mannerisms, and other traits of these persons a dignity and attention that conventional programming would never have the patience or imagination to allow. It's unlikely that the artists expect a large number of viewers to sit and consume this slowly evolving material with the same avidity granted to traditionally "entertaining" shows; but they do hope spectators will realize that as a component of contemporary life, TV should not merely echo but actually absorb and embody contemporary experience. We should be able to switch on the tube, that is to say, and find our world encapsulated there in all its unadorned actuality. If the planet's most powerful medium is to discover the truth that existence precedes essence, then the sheer presence of material reality must precede the artificial constructions and definitions that conventional television (like conventional cinema) works so hard to bestow on it.
To understand the aims and accomplishments of Six fois deux and France/ tour/detour/deux/enfants, it is helpful to recall a slightly later work that comes closer to those programs in spirit than any of the other films made immediately before and after them. This is (ironically) the only filmo f the period that does not carry Mieville's name in its credits: Passion, the 1982 drama that investigates painting and mise-en-scene as intently as First Name: Carmen explores music and as intuitively as Hail Mary burrows into religious material.
As noted earlier, Passion chronicles the experiences of a filmmaker named Jerzy as he directs a movie involving soundstage re-creations of great paintings. Near the beginning, a worker on the film-within-the-film mentions the "rules" of cinema - presumably the very rules that drove Godard to experiment with video, which he considered free of regulations and constraints. "There's a story, and you have to follow it," says the worker, in tones resembling those of Betty Berr, a host of the France/ tour/detour series. Jerzy then appeals to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who momentarily becomes a character in the film, reassuring Jerzy that cinema has no rules - yet mumbling a bit later that there are two rules: "minimum effort canceled by maximum nuisance."
All this is clearly meant to seem more sardonic than serious, especially since Jerzy is having great trouble holding his production together, much less creating motion-picture art. The mood turns more earnest, however, when he starts working with a video recorder. Two scenes involving Jerzy and his video setup help us understand Godard's own attitudes toward TV technology.
The first comes shortly after a factory worker, played by Isabelle Huppert, observes that work and pleasure are similar since they share the same gestures. This casts light on Godard's theory of acting, which refuses sharp distinctions between different categories of behavior. It also shows his continuing (Marxian) distaste for divisions of labor, which inevitably divide the human spirit, too.
Back at Jerzy's place, Jerzy and an actress played by Hanna Schygulla watch a videotaped scene from the movie they're making; the scene involves Hanna, an unnamed male actor, and an operatic voice halfheartedly synced with Hanna's lips. "It's our work," Jerzy reminds Hanna, who appears reluctant to view her image on the screen. "Love working, work at loving - show me the difference," he then says to a telephone caller.
Meanwhile, the video scene runs on and on, as if it were not an episode in a drama but some kind of interminable home movie. Hanna, never becoming comfortable with it, keeps grimacing and giggling. What emerges from this moment is Godard's idea that the duration and intimacy of video allow representations of living, loving, and creating to overlap with our off-screen lives more obviously and definitively than happens with any other medium. Indeed, televised material can seem to the viewer as persistent (and embarassing) as "real life" itself. The main difference between TV and existential reality, it seems, is that TV focuses our attention on details of experience that ordinarily get lost in the multilayered shuffle of everyday activity.
The other relevant scene comes during a part of the movie when Jerzy is arguing with film executives who can't understand why he doesn't tell stories like a normal director. Transfixed again by Hanna's video image - framed in a tight close-up, she speaks about "talking to myself" and "traveling into myself" - he spools the cassette forward and backward, muttering a few words over and over: "Don't forget me. . . . I'm forgetting you." On one level this seems contradictory, since film and video work against forgetting, capturing images with a permanence that memory can't equal; but the moment has a deeper meaning, since Jerzy's manipulations of the video image give it an ephemerality that underscores its artificial nature. It is not Hanna who shimmers and flickers before him; it is only Hanna's image, and the harder he tries to grasp this, the more he risks letting the real Hanna slip away from consciousness.
As television producers, Godard and Mieville take their cue from two notions suggested by these scenes: (a) TV is the most lifelike of media and therefore the most unlike traditional means of expression, with imperatives and potentialities all its own; and (b) TV's vivid yet transient nature makes it a particularly seductive competitor and a potentially insidious substitute for the complex authenticities of actual experience.
What's needed, Godard and Mieville conclude, is a Brechtian television that presents itself not as a replacement of but rather a complement to the existential world. TV shows of this sort would not take the viewer out of reality - the goal of "escapist" entertainment - but would exist alongside that reality, opening our perceptual lives to new possibilities rather than sucking our attention into a commercially driven "vast wasteland."
The term "antitelevision," meaning "a complete turning of television conventions against themselves," aptly describes the Sonimage approach in Six fois deux and France I tour /detour.11 These programs challenge TV norms in many ways - replacing the tube's usual noise and chatter with intermittent stretches of silence, for instance, and developing material in fits and starts ("stammering") that deliciously subvert commercial television's "natural" flow of consumer-friendly sights and sounds.
In many respects, however, the shows don't so much invert the medium's normal functions as place them between ironic quotation marks. One sign of this is the fact that Six fois deux and France I tour I detour both fall into TV's most commonplace format: Each is a series, meant to appear in living rooms week after week with reassuring regularity. Each also makes extensive use of on-camera interviewing, putting its own spin on this common device but reproducing it all the same. These and other similarities with mainstream TV indicate the producers' desire not to ignore the habits cultivated by broadcast video but rather to employ such patterns for their own purposes.
Although their goal is to recast television in a radically new form, moreover, they do not claim definitive answers as to exactly what this new form should be. Accordingly, they try to make viewers (along with other figures in the media industry) question basic assumptions about the very notion of television as it has hitherto existed. In each series, what they create is an attempt at a TV show, to borrow one of Godard's favorite formulations from bygone days. More precisely, it is an attempt at a new conceptualization of the medium, intended more to open minds than to gratify eyes and ears. The results of this intervention are as drastically different from mainstream norms as any of Godard's theatrical films, including the movies of the Dziga-Vertov Group, whose essayistic structures remain a source of energy and ideas for the TV ventures. It should also be stressed that Six fois deux and France I tour I detour are not intended as models for other producers to imitate; even Godard and Mieville stayed with series TV for only a short time, soon swinging back to feature-film production and nonseries video.
Of the two series, France I tour I detour I deux I enfants is more germane to Godard's overall trajectory, because (as Colin MacCabe has accurately noted) it gets beyond the lingering political preoccupations of Six fois deux, pointing less to Godard's polemical past and more to an aestheticized future in which the everyday world will be mined for instances of beauty, mystery, and transcendence. If this enterprise goes well, video will become "philosophy as chamber music" and series TV will be reborn as simultaneously "a novel and a painting," as Godard said in 1980.
This is at once an exhilarating new goal and a characteristic result of Godard's longtime quest to reinvent reality in his own romantic terms. His hope for the mid-1970s television work is nowhere better expressed than in the mid-1960s film 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, which I have cited earlier: "My aim: for the simplest things to come into being in the world of humans, for man's spirit to possess them, a new world where men and things would interrelate harmoniously." Weekly television is a promising venue for bringing together the world of things and the world of human agency, since it combines the serial form of the nineteenth-century novel (always one of Godard's great loves) with the perceptual precision afforded by the most modern audiovisual tools. It is an excellent forum for the "passion for self-expression" that Godard admits to in the 2 or 3 Things commentary, where he gives himself one of his most accurate signatures: "writer and painter."
Describing his approach to Six fois deux and France I tour I detour, Godard said he "functioned as a network programmer, that is, by making a programming grid." This is technically correct, but Godard is being at least partially ironic when he uses the lingo of institutional TV in such a deadpan manner, as if he had merely aimed to hammer together a professionally acceptable series. The significant thing, of course, is how he and Mieville used their "programming grid" once it was sketched out. Conventional programmers fill their allotted time slots with "content" of various kinds - fictional or nonfictional, live or prerecorded, and so on - that combines the reassuring consistency of a standardized product (pretty much the same from one broadcast to the next) with the refreshing novelty of whatever small variations the programmers allow into each individual segment. Perhaps the most important single innovation that Godard and Mieville brought to this process was to minimize the notion of content - or rather to undramatize it, allowing the simple existence of human activity on the tube to constitute the "compelling interest" that viewers presumably demand.
The format of Six fois deux is as regularized as its title, presenting six "movements" of two sections each - the first exploring a social or cultural issue from a generalized or theoretical standpoint, the second focusing on some individual whose life somehow illustrates or intersects with the concerns that have been raised. The format of France/tour/detour is more elaborate, but just as predictable in its overall shape. The main "characters" are a boy and girl who take turns "starring" in each half-hour segment. The basic ingredients are (a) electronically altered views of the child's daily life, (b) an interview with the child, conducted by Godard off camera, (c) an oblique commentary on all this by two "hosts" in a studio, (d) a short video-essay relating to some aspect of the episode's theme, and (e) more commentary by the hosts, leading to an inconclusive ending that points toward future developments with the words, "That's another story...."
Viewing these episodes for the first time, one might think Godard has lost his longtime interest in spontaneous expression. Each program seems locked into the same rigid mold as the others: same format, same hosts, even the same words at certain key moments. To some degree, this impression is correct. Determined to wring new possibilities out of TV's most familiar properties, Godard and Mieville confront the challenge of standardized programming head-on, making regularity and repetition a part of their own plan. They recognize that television is a ritual experience. In ordinary TV the purpose of the ritual is to mesmerize us with "entertaining" trivia. By contrast, Godard and Mieville see the ritual of the halfhour segment as a liberating concept: Giving each episode the same basic structure is like recognizing that a typical day, a typical year, or a typical lifetime has a basic structure that can either be resented as a confining straitj acket or - taking a more positive attitude - be valued as a known, dependable framework within which we're free to explore, experiment, and daydream as we wish.
The overall shape of France/ tour/detour can certainly be compared with a day or a lifetime. The series moves through a wide range of activities and interests that engage most ordinary children, from school and family life to sports, music, fashion, even history and politics. However, this more-or-less linear development is balanced by the repetitious structure of the individual programs, as when each one begins with everyday images "de-composed" by slow-motion photography, and finishesw ith a promise of more to come ("That's another story... .") as if the hosts were parents reluctantly closing their storybooks but assuring us that the cycle will continue on its steady, reliable course.
Like the individual movements, the series as a whole also subsumes its linear elements into what ultimately becomes an orderly cycle, reinforced by having the first and last episodes begin with one of the children preparing for bed. Indeed, the series may be viewed as a recurring dream that sloughs off the purposeful agendas of conscious life - including the conventional TV shows that influence our minds - and lets us wander through various nooks and crannies of everyday existence at a leisurely pace geared to contemplation rather than accomplishment. The first segment of the first episode guides us clearly in this direction. "Preparing your body for the night," the voice-over says. "Uncovering a secret, then covering it up again. The beginning of a story, or the story of a beginning. To slow down is to decompose."
What must be decomposed is not only the imagery of ordinary television but also the mental habits that superficial entertainments plant and cultivate within us. Faced with the predictable, antidramatic events of France/tour/detour, we may pay full attention if we choose, scrutinizing the words and gestures and expressions of the people-just-like-us who appear on screen. Alternatively, and just as legitimately, we may treat the TV set as the piece of furniture it is, glancing at its contents when they interest us and ignoring them otherwise. Or we may alternate between these possibilities. The only option not available is the one conventional TV pitches relentlessly at us: being drawn into the hypnotic grip of false "realities" chosen not for their "truth" or "beauty" but for their compatibility with commercial needs.
All this having been said, it must now be added that the regularity and predictability of the episodes are actually far from hostile to Godard's perennial love of spontaneity and improvisation. Indeed, the very sameness of the week-to-week structure enables him to experiment in fresh ways with "last-minute focusing," as he dubbed his ever-flexible style back in 1962.15 Taking a hint from Godard's jazz references in Hail Mary and elsewhere, we might say (as with narrative-film procedures cited in the previous chapter) that the standardized shape of each episode serves the same function as the underlying chord structure of a bebop composition: It provides a basic framework that's familiar to artists and audience alike, and thus enables the performers/producers to take off in any direction they desire with no fear that communication or understanding will break down.
To use another analogy, the rigid "rules" of the series serve the same purpose as the genre conventions that Godard employed in his early films - the gangster genre in Breathless and The Little Soldier, the musical genre in A Woman Is a Woman, the science-fiction genre in Alphaville, and so forth. These provide a reliable, ritualized base upon which the producers can extemporize as they wish. At times Godard and Mieville work within the conventions they have chosen, respecting the time-tested links between these protocols and enduring human interests and values. At other times the artists eagerly subvert those same conventions, foregrounding their weaknesses and turning them back upon themselves in the sort of aggressive parody called detournement by members of France's radical Situationist movement, which shared Godard's hostility toward the modern "society of the spectacle," as theorist Guy Debord called it.
It is a wish to capitalize on both of these implicit models - improvisation and detournement - that leads Godard and Mieville to some of their fundamental choices in France I tour I detour, such as the decision to focus most of its attention on the children of a middle-class family. True, the depiction of domestic life in France I tour I detour veers far from the narratives found in ordinary shows: There is no story to shape the school and household events that dawdle along from week to week; parents are rarely glimpsed; the children spend large amounts of time on mundane activities like eating, doing homework, and responding to meandering questions from an interviewer we never see. Still and all, everyday family life provides the backdrop for a great deal of commercial TV, and Godard knows that a certain portion of the French viewing audience can be depended upon to watch for at least a little while when family-related images flicker across the living-room screen. During this time, as during a bop composition or a genre movie, any reasonably attentive viewer will always have a basic grasp of where we are (a TV show about kids), what's going on (commonplace situations at home and school), and what the time frame is (a half-hour per show). Within these parameters, Godard and his collaborators can improvise, ruminate, and free-associate with a fair degree of freedom before commercially conditioned viewers start switching their dials to something more conventionally entertaining.
Spectators who share the producers' interest in freeing TV from its traditional formulas have greeted this experiment with applause on the in frequent occasions when it has been publicly screened. Those with no such interests have found themselves bored or befuddled, but their unexamined notions of TV programming have received a bit of salutary shaking up for however long they did stay tuned. By the mid-1970s stage of their careers, it's unlikely that Godard or Mieville expected viewers in the latter category to emerge much changed from a momentary encounter with improvisatory, norm-challenging television. Surely a few seeds have been planted in a few receptive minds, however, and certainly the gesture of contesting consumer-driven TV has had sociocultural significance beyond the number of spectators measured by ratings-survey statistics.
Video work by Godard and/or Mieville has taken sundry forms in the years since Six fois deux and France /tour /detour, still their most audacious forays onto the turf of commercial television. In 1978, shortly after those ventures, the pair returned to the arena of international politics by arranging with the government of Mozambique to work on a multifaceted project that involved TV production - five hours of programming called North against South was envisioned - as well as surveying the country's own capacity to develop TV communications, and empowering residents to operate video equipment for their own purposes. More recent years have seen everything from videotaped interview sessions - such as the rambling Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation between Two Friends on a Hard Subject) and the concise /. L. G. Meets W. A. (Meetin' W. A.), both produced in 1986 - to two treatments of film history that couldn't be more dissimilar: the lean 2 x jo Years of French Cinema and the extravagant Histoire(s) du cinema.
Linking a good deal of the video work, emphatically excluding the Histoire(s) du cinema series, has been a desire to take advantage of the spareness and economy (aesthetic as well as economic) that video readily provides. This ties in with Godard's abiding wish, encountered so many times in these pages, to evade the seductive superficialities that make conventional cinema a diversion rather than an education, an enlightenment, an epiphany.
It is true that his films of the 1990s, from Nouvelle Vague through For Ever Mozart, have a sensuous quality arising from their saturated cinematography, rich if cut-and-spliced musical tracks, and appealing performers (even when, like Alain Delon in Nouvelle Vague, they are shot more like objects than personalities). Still, this sumptuousness arises from Godard's effort, first crystallized in the "sublime" trilogy, less to exploit the physicality of cinema than to undermine it by segmenting, fragmenting, and collaging it in ways that suggest - and even produce - the metaphysical dimensions that increasingly preoccupy him. Video works like the mid-1970s television programs, J.L G. Meets W.A. (Meetin' WA), and 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema represent the other side of this coin, as he strips away superficially enticing moments in hopes of finding a "zero degree" of cinematic language - an objective dating back (with different sets of inflections) to the Dziga-Vertov Group films and even to The Little Soldier and portions of Breathless. The goal of this effort is made clear by an exchange I cited in the introduction to this book, between Emile Rousseau and Patricia Lumumba, the punningly named protagonists of Le Gai Savoir, near the beginning of that movie. "I want to learn," says Patricia, "to teach. . . that we must turn against our enemy the weapon with which he fundamentally attacks us: language." Emile agrees, adding, "Let's start from zero." Patricia then refines their task by asserting that "first we have to go back there, return to zero," a process that will mean dissolving "images and sounds" in order to grasp how these are constituted and capitalized on in the modern world.
As noted in Chapter 5, this invocation of "zero" has much in common with that of cultural critic Roland Barthes, who coined the expression "writing degree zero" in his 1953 book of that title. In describing a "colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language,"17 Barthes is testing a possible resolution of certain tensions that have emerged in modern literature - tensions between writing as communication, using language to engage the attention and action of one's reader, and writing as silence, probing the limits of language (Robbe-Grillet, Camus, Burroughs, et al.) as a pathway to interiority, desublimation, and ultimately the transcendence (or eradication) of verbality itself.
As he explores this "style of absence," Barthes is not so much advocating its usefulness as teasing out whatever theoretical possibilities it might contain. Like him, Godard finds it seductive as a concept but problematic as a model for actual practice, which helps explain why he has oscillated so frequently between the minimalist tendencies of, say, France I tour I detour and the more effusive qualities found in, say, the "trilogy of the sublime" films. Even in works that approach a zero-degree style through deliberate flatness and repetition - much of France I tour I detour, for instance - he often balances his cinematic spareness with prolix linguistic highjinks. What he seeks here might be called a colorless visual technique - not literally colorless, of course, but one that denies ordinary pleasures to achieve a Brechtian emphasis on intellectual content - coupled with a verbal radicalism that strives not so much for absence as for a mercurial, ungraspable fluidity that offers precisely the liberation from "pre-ordained language" of which Barthes wrote.
The results of this endeavor are works that fuse the image-wary iconoclasm found in his career by some critics (such as Angela Dalle Vacche) and the language-wary semioclasm found by others (such as James Monaco) into an unprecedented whole. Godard embraces this fusion for many reasons; as we have seen, there are complex motivations behind nearly all of his artistic decisions. Before closing this study, however, I would like to suggest that his evident hostility toward preordained languages (visual and verbal) might be productively explored in the terms of French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, who argues that male children resolve their prepubescent Oedipal crises (giving up desire for the mother, accepting the prohibitive Law of the father) by submitting to a Symbolic order represented by the preexisting domain of language. This is the very domain that Godard's twin "clasms" so vigorously contest in a valiant effort to regain the Utopian "zero" of presocialized plenitude, boundlessness, and freedom. Evidence of such unconscious struggles is as easy to find in his work as are the obliquely Oedipal cinematics that often embody them - from the partial erasure of grown-ups in France I tour I detour to the videographed abjections in Numero deux and the key moment in Sauve qui peut (la vie) when the character named Paul Godard stands before a blackboard emblazoned with the words "Cain et Abel /Cinema et Video."
Cain and Abel were brothers as well as rivals for the affection of a paternal deity, and Godard seems to regard cinema and video as the same complements and opposites, partners and competitors, potential lovers and possible annihilators of one another, depending on whose "laws" are governing their technologies, their economic structures, their relationships with producers and consumers. At some moments Godard has turned to video as a path to renewed flexibility and productivity, and at other times he has returned with unabashed eagerness to luxuriant 35mm cinema. In the magnificently abundant Histoire(s) du cinema he succeeds in having it both ways, assembling a history of film in a video format that coaxes extraordinary crispness, precision, and sheer beauty from that medium, and demonstrates that breaking the laws of standard either/or production can open new horizons hardly dreamed of in the past. Here and elsewhere in his work, Godard's ever-shifting efforts to slip around the "laws" of creating, writing, naming, social conditioning, and other common practices of our complicated era produce some of the most profoundly personal yet richly communicative moments ever to grace the film or video screen. In the end, what has drawn so many devotees to his videos and movies is not the proliferation of intricate psychological clues, or the allure of a Beat-like spontaneity, or the prospect of a verbal-visual purity that might cleanse moving-image expression of its many sins. Rather, it is the boundless creativity of a dedicated artist (with gifted collaborators) who has refused to budge from the socioaesthetic margin despite the allure of a mainstream career that might once have been his for the asking. In the 1990s, as cinema has moved toward its second century, his most ambitious efforts have again moved in a sensuous direction, and it is possible that Histoire(s) du cinema will prove the most enduring of his many monuments. All that appears certain as he approaches a half-century of cinephilia is that his cameras will stay busy, his imagination will stay alert, and his sensibility will stay as ornery as ever.
"I live on the border," Godard told critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 1980 interview18 that illuminates his lifelong refusal to settle for film or video, images or words, France or Switzerland, stories or essays or experiments too singular to be named. "Our only enemies are the customs people," he continued, "whether these are bankers or critics.... People think of their bodies as territories. They think of their skin as the border, and that it's no longer them once it's outside the border. But a language is obviously made to cross borders. I'm someone whose real country is language, and whose territory is movies."
David Sterritt/ The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (Seeing the Invisible)
It is time to say a little more about the film from which this shot comes. The Spiral Staircase tells the story of a murderer who attacks women suffering from various handicaps. The heroine, who has become dumb following a head injury, is a clearly appointed victim for the killer, all the more so (we soon understand) in that he inhabits the same house where she has the job of governess, responsíble for the care of a sick old lady and caught up in an atmosphere of hatred créated by the rivalry between two half-brothers. Having spent a níght without any other means of protectíon than the telephone number of the doctor who lives bar - not the most effective recourse for someone who can not speak, obviously - she would have suffered her fate of destined victim had the murderer not, at the decisive moment, been killed by his mother-in-Iaw - a new trauma as a result of which she regaíns her powers of speech.
How does this relate to the small child from the ghetto and the professor's inaugural lecture? Apparently as follows: the murderer is not the mere victim of irresístible drives. He is a methodical man of science whose design is to do away, for their own good and everyone else's, with beings whom nature or chance has reordered infirm, and thus íncapable of a completely normal life. No doubt the plot is derived from a 1933 Englísh novel whose author would seem not to have had any particular polítical motive. But the film came out in 1946, which makes il reasonable to suppose that it was made in 1945. And the director was Robert Siodmak, one of the collaborators on the legendary Menschen am Sonntag - a 1928 film diagnosis of a Germany ready to give itself to Hitler and one of the filmmakers and cameramen who fled Nazism and transposed the plastic and sometímes polítical shades of German Expressionism into American film noir.
Everything, therefore, seems to be explained: the extract is there, superimposed 00 the image of the ghetto's surrender, because in it a filmmaker who fled Nazi Germany speaks to us', through a transparent fictional analogy, of the Nazi program for exterminating sub-humans'. This American film of 1946 echoes the Germany, Year Zero which an ittalian director, Rossellini, shortly thereafter devoted to a different transposítion of the same program - little Edmund's murder of hís bedridden father. In its fashion, it attests to the way in which cinema spoke of the extermination through exemplary fables - Murnau's Faust, Renoir's La Regle du jeu, Chaplin's The Great Dictator. From here it is easy to complete the puzzle, to confer meaning on each of the elements that are fitted together in the episode. The merry public that is seated in front of Nosferatu is taken from the closing shots of King Vidor's The Crowd. Of little importance here ís the fictional situation in this film from the last days of silent movies: the final reconciliation in a music-hall of a couple on the verge of breaking up. Godard's montage is clearly symbolic. It shows us the captívation of the crowd in darkened movie theaters by the Hollywood industry, which feeds it with a warm imaginary by burning a reality that will soon demand payment in real blood and real tears. The letters that appear on the screen (l'ennemi public, le public) say this io their own way. Public Enemy ís the title of a film by Wellman, a story about a gangster played by James Cagney and slightly postdating The Crowd. But in Histoire(s) it is also the title given by Godard to The Crowd's producer, Irvin Thalberg the embodiment of the power of Hollywood that vampirized cinema crowds, but also liquidated the artists/prophets of cinema à la Murnau.
The episode, therefore, creates a strict parallel between two captivations: the captivation of German crowds by Nazi ideology and of film crowds by HoIlywood. Falling within this parallel are the intermediate elements: a man/bird shot taken from Franju's Judex; a close-up on the eyes of Antonioni, the paralyzed, aphasic filmmaker, all of whose power has withdrawn into his gaze; the profile of Fassbinder, the exemplary filmmaker of Germany after the catastrophe, haunted by ghosts that are represented here by the quasi-subliminal apparitions of riders taken from Fritz Lang's Siegfried's Death. The text that accompanies these fleetíng apparitions is taken from Jules Laforgue's Simple agonie that is, not only from a poet who died at the age of 26, but also from a French writer nurtured in exemplary fashion by German culture in general and by Schopenhauerian nihilism in particular. Everything is therefore explained, except that the logic thus reconstructed is strictly indecipherable exclusively from the silhouette of Dorothy McGuíre, an actress as little known to viewers of Histoire(s) as the film itself. Accordingly, it Is not the allegorical quality of the pIot that must connect the shot of the young woman and the photograph of the ghetto child for viewers.It is the power of the sentence image in itself - that is, the mysterious bond between two enígmatic relatíons. The first is the material relationship between the candle held by the fictional mute and the all too real Jewish child that it seems to illuminate. Such is, in fact, the paradox It is not the extermination that is to clarify the story presented by Siodmak, but quite the reverse: it is the black and white of cinema that is to project 00 to the image of the ghetto the power of hístory that it derives from great German cameramen like Karl Freund, who (Godard tells us) invented in advance the lighting effects of Nuremberg, and which they themselves derived from Goya, Callot and Rembrandt and his 'terrible black and white', And the same is true of the second mysterious relationship contained in the sentence-image: the relationship between Foucault's words and the shot and photograph that they are supposed to link. In accordance with the saníe paradox, it Ís not the obvious link provided by the film's plot that is to unite the heterogeneous elements, but the non-link of these words, The interesting thing, in fact, is not that a German director in 1945 should stress the analogies between the screenplay entrusted to him and the contemporary reality of war and extermination, but the power of the sentence image as such the ability of the staircase shot to come directly into contact with the photograph of the ghetto and the words of the professor. A power of contact, not of translation or explanation; an ability to exhibit a community constructed by the 'fraternity of metaphors'. It is not a question of showing that cinema speaks of its time, but of establishing that cinema makes a world, that it should have made the world. The history of cinema is the history of a power of making hístory. It's time, Godard tells us, is one when sentence-images had the power, dismissing stories, to write history, by connecting directly up with their 'outside. This power of connecting is not that of the homogeneous - not that of using a horror story to speak to us of Nazism and the extermination. It is that of the heterogeneous, of the immediate clash between three attitudes: the solitude of the shot, that of the photograph, and that of the words which speak of something else entirely in a quite different context. It is the c\ash of heterogeneous elements that provides a common measure.
How should we conceive this clash and íts effect? To understand it, it is not enough to ínvoke the virtues of fragmentation and interval that unraveI the logic of the action. Fragmentation, interval, cutting, collage, montage - all these notions, readily taken as criteria of artistic modernity can assume highly diverse (even opposed) meanings. I leave to one side instances where fragmentation, whether cinematic or novelistíc, is simply a way of tying the representative not even more tightly. But even omitting this, there remain two major ways of understanding how the heterogeneous creates a common measure: the dialectical way and the symbolic way.
Jacques Rancière/The Future of the Image/Part 1: The Future af the Image/ THE GOVERNESS, THE JEWISH CHILD AND THE PROFESSOR
edit in Grammarly by Dejan Stojkovski
However, in terms of auteurs' ideas about the world, Cahiers conceded, in an important 1960 article by Fereydoun Hoveyda, 'the consistency of the ideas we came across in the films of Lang, Rossellini, Renoir, Welles ... we realized that our favourite auteurs were in fact talking about the same things. The "constants" of their particular universes belonged to everybody: solitude, violence, the absurdity of existence, sin, redemption, love, etc. Each epoch has its own themes, which serve as a backcloth against which individuals, whether artists or not, act out their lives.' But if these themes were more or less constant across different auteurs, how were they to be told apart, and what made them original?
The originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e. the mise en scene, through which everything on the screen is expressed ... As Sartre said: 'One isn't a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way'. Why should it be any different for cinema? ... the thought of a cineaste appears through his mise en scene. What matters in a film is the desire for order, composition, harmony, the placing of actors and objects, the movements within the frame, the capturing of a movement or a look; in short, the intellectual operation which has put an initial emotion and a general idea to work. Mise en scene is nothing other than the technique invented by each director to express the idea and establish the specific quality of his work ... The task of the critic thus becomes immense: to discover behind the images the particular 'manner' of the auteur and, thanks to this knowledge, to be able to elucidate the meaning of the work in question.
Mise en scene thus establishes itself as a - perhaps the - central and essential concept in Cahiers and in later criticism influenced by Cahiers. There is clear continuity, for example, between Truffaut's comment that 'it is not so much the choice of subject which characterizes [Jacques] Becker as how he chooses to treat this subject' and V. F. Perkins's comment on Carmen Jones that 'what matters is less the originality or otherwise of Preminger's theme than the freshness, economy and intelligence of the means by which the theme is presented'.
In origin mise en scene is a word drawn from the theatre, neutral in intention, meaning literally 'placing on the stage' or 'staging', that is, the way in which a play-text becomes a staged play. For several reasons, the word's original descriptive neutrality no longer applied to its usage. Firstly, Antonin Artaud, in The Theatre of Cruelty, had used the term polemically in relation to theatre in arguing for the supremacy of the director, as the person responsible for visualizing the spectacle, over the writer:
The typical language of the theatre will be constituted around the mise en scene considered not simply as the degree of refraction of a text upon the stage, but as the point of departure for all theatrical creation. And it is in the use and handling of this language that the old duality between author and director will be dissolved, replaced by a sort of unique Creator upon whom will devolve the double responsibility of the spectacle and the plot.
In the 1940s Alexandre Astruc, arguing for the camera-stylo as a 'means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel ... in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts', had taken a recognizably similar position in relation to the auteur-director in cinema (and one similar to Truffaut's in 'Une Certaine Tendance'): 'this of course implies that the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning. Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing.
Secondly, the way Cahiers conceived mise en scene tended toward an aesthetic which privileged realist, or illusionist, narrative. In this sense mise en scene became a sort of counter to theories of montage, privileging the action, movement forward and illusion of narrative against any foregrounding of the relations between shot and shot, and narrative function against any sense of pictorialism in the individual shot (hence Astruc's 'tyranny of what is visual; the image for its own sake'). The body of conventions to which this conception of mise en scene was attached was, of course, broadly that of mainstream narrative cinema, particularly American cinema - that cinema characterized so effectively by V. F. Perkins in Film as Film. It is a relatively 'conservative' aesthetic, and one broadly adhered to by Cahiers in the 1950s. There is a clear enough continuity, for example, between Bazin's pre-Cahiers writings on realism and both the aesthetic assumptions of most Cahiers critics and the aesthetic practices of the films they themselves made in the late 1950s - see, as an instance, Hoveyda's account of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups. Interestingly enough, at the same moment that this aesthetic triumphs with Les 400 Coups and the nouvelle vague, it is also 'challenged' by the relative modernism of Hiroshima mon amour.
Thirdly, mise en scene was not a neutral term in the sense that it was the start of an attempt to raise the very important question - fundamental to the critical-theoretical debates which Cahiers provoked in Britain and the USA - of specificity: 'the specificity of a cinematographic work lies in its form rather than in its content in the mise en scene and not in the scenario or the dialogue'. This concept of specificity was absolutely central to the discussion and validation of American cinema, as Elsaesser points out:
Given the fact that in Hollywood the director often had no more than token control over choice of subject, the cast, the quality of the dialogue, all the weight of creativity, all the evidence of personal expression and statement had to be found in the mise en scene, the visual orchestration of the story, the rhythm of the action, the plasticity and dynamism of the image, the pace and causality introduced through the editing.
Much Cahiers discussion of genre, for example, depended on the supposedly transcendent qualities of mise en scene: 'the strength of the cinema is such that in the hands of a great director, even the most insignificant detective story can be transformed into a work of art.'
It was this question of the cinematographic specificity of mise en scene which contributed so decisively to what John Caughie calls the 'radical dislocation' in the development of film theory: auteurism 'effected ... a shift in the way films were conceived and grasped within film criticism. The personality of the director, and the consistency within his films, were not, like the explicit subject matter which tended to preoccupy established criticism, simply there as a "given", They had to be sought out, discovered, by a process of analysis and attention to a number of films.' As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it: 'It was in establishing what the film said, rather than reasons for liking or disliking it, that authorship criticism validated itself as an approach.' Mise en scene provided the means by which the auteur expressed his thought, as Hoveyda put it, and thus also the means by which the auteur is critically discovered, analysed.
In many respects, the attention to mise en scene, even to the extent of a certain historically necessary formalism, is probably the most important positive contribution of auteurism to the development of a precise and detailed film criticism, engaging with the specific mechanisms of visual discourse, freeing it from literary models, and from the liberal commitments which were prepared to validate films on the basis of their themes alone.
Cahiers du Cinema/ Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave
Among some common misconceptions is the idea that Cahiers was alone in taking American cinema seriously: Positif, founded shortly after Cahiers, in 1952, for example, also took American cinema seriously, though in a rather different overall perspective. But, more important, neither Cahiers nor Positif was being particularly radical or original in its interest. The cinema, and the popular culture aspect of it best represented by Hollywood, had long been taken more seriously in France than in Britain, while Britain in turn had often been a good deal more interested than the USA itself: one need think only of the French Surrealists' interest, for example, not only in the 1920s when cinema was more generally a respectable concern for intellectuals, but also consistently since then (Positif itself being an important manifestation of this continuing interest), while John Grierson's writings from the 1920s and 19305 on American cinemas provide a good example of (rather different) British interest. In the case of Cahiers the relationship to historically well-defined ideas and areas of interest is particularly clear. A great deal of Andre Bazin's important work had been done well before the inception of Cahiers in 1951, much of it in a journal that was very specifically the forerunner of Cahiers, the Revue du Cinema, which had been published 1929-31 and 1946-9 under the editorship of Jean-George Auriol. In the hundredth issue of Cahiers in 1959 Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, looking back, leaves no doubt about the relationship: 'In the minds of the founders of Cahiers it was never a matter of anything other than continuing the work undertaken by Jean-George Auriol.'
Even a cursory examination of the contents of the Revue du Cinema reveals a profile strikingly similar to that of the later Cahiers. In the 1929-31 period, more or less equal weight was being given to European 'art cinema' and avant-garde film (Pabst and Lang, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Man Ray, Ruttmann and Bunuel, Dreyer) and American cinema (articles on Stroheim, Chaplin, of course, but also on Laurel and Hardy, Langdon, King Vidor, Hawks, Borzage, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Dwan), alongside discussions of technology and aesthetics (pre-eminently, at this time, the coming of sound, of course) and of historical origins (Melies, Emile Cohl, for instance). None of which would have seemed at all out of place in Cahiers in the 1953. It is hardly surprising that the similarities should be even greater between Cahiers and the Revue in its 1949 phase, when both externally (Cahiers inheriting its familiar 1950s and early 1960s yellow cover from the Revue) and internally (in content) clear continuities exist: a concern with American cinema, in particular films noirs and, via Welles, Wyler, Toland and Flaherty, questions of realism; an interest in realism also in relation to Italian cinema, and Rossellini in particular; a special concern with French cinema, with articles on or by Clement, Clair, Cocteau, Rouquier, Renoir, Autant-Lara, Gremillon, Ciouzot, Leenhardt, Becker; a continuing interest in the work of film-makers such as Lang, Eisenstein, Dreyer, Lubitsch, Hitchcock; regular critical contributions from subsequent Cahiers editors Buzin and Doniol-Valcroze, as well as from later occasional contributors to, and friends of, Cahiers (such as Lotte Eisner, Henri Langlois, Herman Weinberg, Georges Sadoul), plus the first articles by Eric Rohmer (then writing under his real name, Maurice Scherer), later also a Cahiers editor. If we then glance fonvard ten years to 1959, at the end of the period covered by this volume, what are the typical contents of Cahiers? A continuing concern with American cinema, with many names familiar from the Revue in the 1920s (Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, Lang), as well as, of course, some newer names (Brooks, Fuller, Lumet and Frankenheimer, Ray, Minnelli, Tashlin, Mann, Preminger); a continuing concern with Italian cinema and realism (Zavattini, Visconti, Rossellini) as well as with realism more broadly (the first signs of interest in 'direct cinema'); a continuing attention to Soviet cinema (Eisenstein and Dovzhenko) and 'art cinema' generally (Bergman, Bunuel, Mizoguchi, Wajda); and polemics for French cinema, with articles on or by Cocteau, Becker, Renoir, Vigo as well as newer names more associated with the nouvelle vague, such as Franju, Chabrol, Truffaut, Resnais.
Clearly, polemical and influential though Cahiers proved to be, it inherited a great deal both generally from French culture and very specifically from a tradition of film cultural concerns and interests well established since the 1920s. More immediately, the central elements of Bazin's theses about realism - generally endorsed by Cahiers as a whole in the 19508 - had already been established in the 1940s through articles not only in the Revue du Cinema but also in the Catholic journal Esprit and elsewhere well before Cahiers began. Bazin and Pierre Kast had also written for the Communist-sponsored journal Ecran Francais, which also published, for example, Alexandre Astruc's important essay The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La camera-stylo' in 1948,8 until, apparently, that journal's hostility to American cinema caused them to stop writing for it; Kast's first article for the Revue appeared in 1948. As well as Bazin, then, the Revue helped to establish Doniol-Valcroze, Kast and Rohmer: Bazin and Rohmer were to be decisive editorial influences on Cahiers in its first decade. Almost certainly Jean-George Auriol, editor of the Revue, would have become editor of the new journal already being planned before the final demise of the Revue. As it was, Auriol's death in a car accident in 1950 gave considerable impetus to the birth of Cahiers: the first issue was dedicated to his memory. But there had been other influences at work, linked to the same personalities. In 1948-9, something else was being born, as DoniolValcroze put it, which would 'constitute the first link in the chain which is resulting today in what has been called the nouvelle vague, the first jolt against a cinema which had become too traditional: "Objectif 49", a cineclub unlike any other, which under the aegis of Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, Roger Leenhardt, Rene Clement, Alexandre Astruc, Pierre Kast, Raymond Queneau, etc. brought together all those - critics, film-makers and future film-makers - who dreamed of a cinema d'auteurs'.
It was, then, from the background of the Revue du Cinema and 'Objectif 49' that Cahiers derived its main contributors and concerns when the first issue was finally published in April 1951, with Lo Duca (who had also been active on the Revue), Bazin and Doniol-Valcroze as joint editors (though Bazin was ill and was not officially on the editorial mast-head until the second issue) and Leon Kiegel financing. But by the end of 1953the tenor of Cahiers was already changing: over the period of a year or so in 1952-3 Jean-Luc Godard (initially under the pseudonym Hans Lucas), Jean Domarchi, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol wrote their first articles for Cahiers and became regular contributors, Truffaut coming from a close personal relationship with Bazin, and Godard, Rivette and Chabrol from an involvement during 1950-1 with Rohmer through the Cine-Club du Quartier Latin and its bulletin, edited by Rohmer, the Gazette du Cinema, which published articles by Rivette and Godard.
Among the early contributions to Cahiers which in retrospect he singled out as important, Doniol-Valcroze mentionsll Bazin on Bresson, Rohmer on Murnau, Flaherty and film space, the special issue on Renoir, the first articles by Godard and Truffaut, articles on Murnau by Astruc and Domarchi and Rivette on Hawks. Is Thus, in retrospect at least, the socalled 'young Turks' were seen to have made their mark on Cahiers very quickly. As if to emphasize the point, Doniol-Valcroze remembers that the publication of Truffaut's article 'Une Certaine Tendance du cinema francais' in January 1954 - apparently after some months of hesitation _ consciously marked a definitive new departure for the journal:
the publication of this article marks the real point of departure for what, rightly or wrongly, Cahiers du Cinema represents today. A leap had been made, a trial begun with which we were all in solidarity, something bound us together. From then on, it was known that we were for Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Cocteau, Bresson ... and against X, Y and Z. From then on there was a doctrine, the politique des auteurs, even if it lacked flexibility. From then on, it was quite nahlral that the series of interviews with the great directors would begin and a real contact be established between them and us. Ever afterwards people could pull the hitchcocko-hawksiens to pieces, get indignant about the attacks on 'French quality cinema', declare as dangerous the 'young Turks' of criticism ... but an 'idea' had got under way which was going to make its obstinate way to its most logical conclusion: the passage of almost all those involved in it to directing films themselves.
With Truffaut's salvo fired, the journal's complexion was now clearer, and everything seemed in place for Cahiers to do what its subsequent reputation suggested that it did. Editorially speaking, Cahiers was then relatively stable through the 1950: Bazin, Lo Duca and Doniol-Valcroze continued as joint editors, with Bazin (and perhaps Truffaut) exercising most influence, until early 1957, when Rohmer replaced Lo Duca and began to exert increasing influence, in part just because others were so busy (Truffaut and Godard were also writing for the weekly newspaper Arts and other publications while also, like Chabrol, preparing films), in part because of Bazin's illness; Rohmer's position as joint editor with Doniol-Valcroze was then confirmed after Bazin's death in November 1958 and continued until 1963. But it is always wrong to think of the Cahiers writers during this period as a really homogeneous group: Bazin and Rohmer were close in their Catholicism and their theses about the realist vocation of film, but Bazin argued strenuously against Rohmer on Hitchcock and Hawks; Rivette and Godard admired Rossellini for reasons considerably different from those of Rohmer; Godard and Rivette were more inclined, relatively speaking, to 'modernism' than most of their colleagues; Kast stood out in this period as almost the only Cahiers writer with clearly left-wing, anti-clerical sympathies, but like Bazin he opposed aspects of the politique des auteurs, though for different reasons; Truffaut was personally close to Bazin but proved very often distant from him in his tastes and values, and so on. Yet Doniol-Valcroze is right to talk about 'solidarity' in the sense that despite their differences there were usually broad areas of agreement and shared assumptions on some fundamental questions.
Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave/Introduction
('Neo Realisme et Phenomenologie', Cahiers du Cinema 17, November 1952)
'Realism' is one of those words which should never be used without a determining correlative. Does 'neo-', as applied to post-war Italian realist cinema, fit the bill? Judged in terms of the more or less universal usage it has acquired, the answer would have to be yes. But if, on the contrary, we sift through the innumerable critiques to which it has been subjected, even by artists themselves, and if we note that all those who use it do so with some reservation in the form of brackets or circumlocutions (in short, with a bad conscience), the temptation is to look for something to replace it.
But does that 'something' have to be sought retrospectively, through a process of elimination, in one of the movements classified by the 'history of aesthetics', or in the future 'in the depths of the unknown where, alone, the new is to be found'? Did neo-realism re-chart worlds already mapped in detail, or did it strike out along its own path? In other words, should the accent be on the 'realism' or on the 'ned?
Reality and the cinema
There is no doubt that film realism has its beginnings with Lumiere, a man who never imagined his invention could be anything but an instrument for reproducing the real world. But from the outset, the mere fact that he positioned his camera in a particular spot, started or stopped filming at a particular moment and recorded the world in black and white on a flat surface was enough to establish an inevitable gap between the representation and the real.
The impossibility of bridging that gap is brought out again by the strange phenomenon of Dziga Vertov. He realized that the high point of realism in film was the documentary; hence the need to shoot outside the studio, without actors or script. The ideal would have been to set a camera rolling at some crossroads. But the question then is, would what emerged from such extreme limits of realism have been a film, an oeuvre? Or would it have been a collection of moving photographs which constituted a document of primary importance to the town planner or the sociologist, but of no great interest for those concerned with art? Vertov realized that if photographs of this kind were to be transformed into film, a particular rhythm had to be imparted to them by the editing. Thereafter, his concern with that aspect assumed such a role that he progressively lost interest in the individual elements at his disposal, retaining merely a kind of finished symphonic movement with a highly calculated tempo where the initial subject was no longer important. Thus from the starting point of the rawest kind of realism we are thrown back into abstract art. The dialectic is significant and illustrative of the inevitable dead-end to which documentary film, with its claim to passivity and its belief in its own impersonal objectivity, leads.
To avoid this dead-end, the verist movement in cinema rejected from the first any naive direct route to the real in favour of a digression via truth, i.e. via art and reason. The artist takes an event and deliberately reconstitutes it in order to give it verisimilitude. And because he knows I that the 'forms' of his art must always pare down the real content, he takes care to heighten its features, either by making shadows darker still black, intellectual verism, with all its play on the various shades of grey or by intensifying light, which gives all the rose-tinted shades, from deepest red to palest pink, from Gremillon to Cloche, via socialist realism.
Neo-realism and phenomenology
How should 'neo-realism' be put into perspective? Should it be seen as simply a transformation of verism, or has it found an alternative way out of the documentary's dialectical impasse? To avoid arguing in the abstract, let us base the discussion on an extract which seems to all intents and purposes specifically neo-realist - the final sequence of Germany, Year Zero.
This film has a number of dimensions: first, documentary, the state of Germany after the war; then, psychological, social psychology that charts the ill-effects of a Nazi education, plus the individual psychology of the child. But this is where the originality begins, for the concern is in no sense with child or adolescent psychology (the cinema has plenty of that already). It is quite different, very precisely the concrete, all-embracing depiction of the human attitude of a child in a given situation. No introspection, no internal, nor very often even external dialogue, no play with facial expression. Nor, however, is there any concern with psychology in the behaviourist sense. We are well beyond psychology here and this has nothing to do with a sequence of reflexes. Rather, the issue is a human attitude in its totality, captured in a 'neutral' way by the camera. To understand the completely original element in this process, it is necessary only to grasp that at no point does the child give the impression of 'acting', or of being an actor. It is impossible to say that he 'acts' his role well or badly. He is not part of the game in that sense, just as the viewer is not involved in degrees of sympathy or antipathy. The child simply lives and exists there before us, captured in his 'existence' by the camera. For contrast, look at little Kucci in Quelque part en Europe, or the adolescent in Les Dernieres Vacances, or Le Garson sauvage; more often than not, they all 'act well', i.e. they give a superlative rendering of the feelings the filmmaker imagines they ought to experience. In the present instance, what are the sentiments to which the child's attitude could correspond? Regret, remorse, despair, stupor? None of the labels are satisfactory, any more than their combinations, because here we are faced with the question of all-embracing human attitudes or, let us say, an existential attitude. What is at stake is the child's being as an entity; hence the child is not' acting' .
If the foregoing is accurate, we have passed beyond psychology and, not surprisingly, ended somewhere in the area of ethics or metaphysics. We do not have to turn Rossellini into a philosopher to get there. All he has to be is a human being, depicting in its totality a human attitude. What emerges is of necessity a total sense of existence, not in the form of a thesis which the film is intended to demonstrate, or at least to illustrate and which was therefore a necessary preliminary to the conceptualization of the film, i.e. where essence preceded existence, to use a phrase which is now commonplace. On the contrary, the 'meaning' here is an integral part of the concrete attitude. Hence its ambiguity. Some see the economic disorder of a decadent society crystallizing in a child and killing him; others, the polarization of the absurd as a whole, everything 'rotten' in a world where people are superfluous. Still others see evidence of a world where God's great love can find no way through the sad and bloody play of human passions, except in the shape of a figure kneeling over a dead child. Rossellini makes no decisions. He puts the question. In the face of an existential attitude, he proposes the mystery of existence.
It is clear what distinguishes this attitude from the verist and documentary movements. This film's documentary element lays no claim to any special passive 'objectivity'; its 'neutral' presentation is never cold or impersonal. If reason and thesis play no part, there are always awareness and involvement. Social polemic there is, but not propaganda. But above all, the objective, subjective, social, etc., are never analysed as such; they are taken as a factual whole in all its inchoate fullness, a bloc in time as well as volume, and we are not spared a single second or gesture. Faced with this entity, the attitude of the viewer has to change radically. To look becomes an act because everything is called in question, answers are demanded, action required. This is a summons to freedom. It is striking to note how the film-maker places us face to face with a human event taken in its totality, but refrains from fragmentation or analysis, simply surveying it, describing it concretely and working in such a way that in the midst of watching we lose the sense of spectacle and the awareness of acting in the actors disappears. In other words, by giving primacy to existence over essence in all things, the method comes oddly close to what the philosophers call phenomenological description. This method has undoubtedly been interpreted with a range of nuances, depending on the doctrines associated with it, but given that the artist, who is not a professional thinker, may legitimately take a little distance on things, there is no denying that Rossellini and a few others have tried, like Husserl, to go zu den Sachen selbst, to things themselves, to ask what they manifest through themselves.
There is, above all, their way of running an opposing course to that of analysis, of putting an end to any compartmentalized view of man and the world, ceasing to delve subtly into 'characters' and 'milieux', putting all that between brackets and in a sense attempting a total apprehension which is sequentially complete like existence in time, or like human events in which the whole mystery of the Universe is co-present. In other words, the mystery of being replaces clarity of construction.
Such a reversal of perspective, perhaps new for the cinema, was experienced by other fields of art, and the novel in particular, well before philosophers adopted the mode of expression and turned it into theory. Could it not be argued that both involve 'essays in a direct description of experience as it is, without regard to its psychological genesis or the causal explanations which the scientist, historian or sociologist may provide', a kind of 'descriptive study of a set of phenomena as they manifest themselves in time or space, as opposed to the fixed, abstract laws governing such phenomena, the transcendental realities of which they are a manifestation, or normative criticism of their legitimacy'? Now this is precisely the definition given to phenomenology by Merleau-Ponty on the one hand and, on the other, by Lalande's Vocabulaire de la philosophie. Obviously, the applicability of the word 'study' is open to challenge. At best, withdrawing it is basis enough for denying the works of Rossellini or Dos Passos the character of research or philosophy, something they never claimed; but perhaps it does not justify denying the aesthetic movement they represent a more accurate title than that of 'neo-realism'. Phenomenological realism, for instance.
Art in phenomenological realism
Always supposing that what we are talking about is an aesthetic movement. The rejection of 'style' inherent in phenomenological realism is surely the expression of a determination to find a place outside the field of art. But to avoid arguing in a vacuum, let us look at a particular work, De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Here we have a man in search of his bike who is not just a man who loves his son, a worker desperately engaged in trying to steal another bike, a man who, finally, represents the distress of the proletariat reduced to stealing the tools of its trade. He is all that and a ho.st of other things besides, indefinable, unanalysable, precisely because pnmarily he is, and not in isolation, but surrounded by a bloc of reality which carries traces of the world - friends, church, German seminarians, Rita Hayworth on a poster. And this is in no sense merely decor, it 'exists' almost on the same level as he does.
A rejection of choice, therefore, but isn't choice what art is about? It is, but the choice is essentially one of means. In this instance the means are quite rigorous. The important thing is that the very realism of this work can only come through the use of devices much more subtle and conscious than anything attributed to the fullest kind of spontaneity. Phenomenological realism, like the method which inspires it but in a rather different sense, is also the result of a kind of parenthesis, an 'encapsulation'. Between brackets is the work, that fragment of the world which gives the viewer precisely that sense of not being present at a spectacle, even a realist spectacle. But outside the brackets there is the transcendent I which is the auteur, the one who knows the full cost of the artistic effort required to achieve the impression of reality and to give the audience the sense that he, the auteur, has never set foot inside the brackets. Surely infinite art is required to organize a narrative, construct a mise en scene, direct actors, while giving the final impression that there are neither narrative, mise en scene, nor actors involved. In other words, we are dealing again with a second-stage realism, a synthesis of the documentary and verist movements. With verism came the realization that the ideal of primary realism could not be achieved by reproducing the real directly; now came the rejection of the belief that the indirect approach had to take the form of a stylization of the event. The perfect aesthetic illusion of reality can only result from ascesis of the means in which there is ultimately more art than in any of the various forms of expressionism or constructivism.
First, ascesis of the script. The concern is no longer with a script that is well-constructed according to some impeccable dramatic logic with subtle psychological counterpoints. The question is not one of architecture but of existence. If an artist merits the divine name of creator in any sphere, it is here. And he is rarely alone. Italian scriptwriting teams are famous. There has been an attempt to explain this away as a question of publicity, but its roots lie deeper, in a sense of the infinite richness of life which one man could never evoke successfully. Zavattini and De Sica worked for months on the script of Bicycle Thieves in order to make people believe there was no such thing.
The ascesis of the script is completed by ascesis of the mise en scene and actors (admirably analysed by Andre Bazin in his article for Esprit, November 19493). This always calls for supplementary devices to ensure, for example, that the introduction and operation of a camera in the filming of a street scene does not cause any obvious disruption and that the worker and his son assume no more of a role than the bicycle. In phenomenological realism, art is therefore established within the very act by which it seeks to destroy itself. But it is perfectly conscious of that and indeed turns it into its claim to validity as art. The definition needs also to take account of the fact that everything is filmed in such a way as to produce the dense texture of life which, to quote a thought that predates Sartre, is the only true measure of beauty.
This is why the category of neo-realist films where the formal concerns are clear (the best example of which is La terra trema) cannot be brought in as an argument against the views just expressed. If they are taken as authentically phenomenological, and I believe this is true for La terra trema at least, they cannot be explained, like II Cristo proibito, solely in terms of the conjunction between the neo-realist tendency and the great Italian tradition of the grandiose, the operatic and the baroque. Even in these films the beauty is less a function of their formal aspects than of the dense texture of life in them. The very essence of their form is the tactile quality of the subject matter, their ponderable human mass. Or to put it more precisely, what needs to be acknowledged is the masterly conjunction of the two elements, their genuine and deliberate reciprocity. It has been said that a poster must not be too beautiful or the passer-by may never get past the surface to the real point. This is not altogether so. Alongside neutral form there is a place for a translucent art, an instrumental kind of beauty which is plenitude and transparence at the same time. Like those figures which can be seen in depth or relief at will, a Vermeer painting can be a diligent lace-maker at her window or a skilful chromatic effect in blue, silver-grey and very pale orange, radiating out from a pulpy, velvety, almost fleshy surface. The same experience can come from Visconti's genuine Sicilian fishermen. The glory (in almost the theological sense of the word) he shrouds them in does not veil them but is what enables them to be seen. I know that this is dangerous ground and that the majority of other, similarly oriented films have remained trapped in their self-indulgence, but at least in this case it is impossible to avoid seeing in the formal shaping a kind of ontological humility which is to the deliberate neutralism of Bicycle Thieves what mysticism is to asceticism.
Human reality and its meaning
There are a number of aesthetic tendencies which may be opposed to phenomenological realism, the most appropriate being the piece a these, the drama with a message, or its more attenuated form, the piece a these. Their constant characteristic is a certain transcendence of the work which takes the form of a particular, extrinsic end and entails a constant pursuit of the ideal of unambiguous meaning in its simplest possible form. This, even when the interpretation is subtle, is diametrically opposed to phenomenological realism with its determination not to tamper with events, nor to permeate them artificially with ideas and emotions. But the all-mclusive nature of the event takes in both the spatio-temporal reality and a relation to human consciousness which is part of its essence and is lts meaning' or 'sense'. Because it can only be deciphered by a consciousness which is never rigidly directed to an external end, this 'sense' can always be interpreted and coloured by consciousness according to its Own standards and theories, i.e. its own Weltanschauung, exactly like the real world itself.
The result is a fundamental ambiguity. The condition, of course, is that the event has been allowed to conserve its completeness. The slightest intrusion of any treatment whereby the author tends to make his personal interpretation of the intrinsic meaning explicit compromises the whole operation. We are back with the message. This shows how far from phenomenological are those films which claim to be as existentialist as Les Jeux sont faits or Les Mains sales. Sartre clearly has a commitment in the themes (if not the message) he deals with, unlike Kafka, whom he commended for engaging in a unified situation and complete event. It is not just under the analysis of the critic that everything breaks up into problems; in order to bring them to life, the author has to be committed. To do otherwise it is probably necessary not to be a philosopher, but to have the genius of Zavattini ... or Pagliero.
Pagliero's film, Un Homme marche dans Ia ville, is in fact a notable illustration of all that has just been said of phenomenological realism, and at the same time it offers some valuable additional dimensions. This film too describes in minute detail an all-embracing human situation and all the events, large and small, it brings together. There are no main characters for whom the rest are merely the supporting cast. They are all equally present - the big Brazilian, the presumed murderer and the corner cafe alike. Lives unfold side by side, sometimes enmesh, sometimes separate. The end is not really an end; one is left with the sense that everything could continue. And when the critic's eye extrapolates themes, these are so much the flesh of things that making them explicit is immediately to betray them. Since they are there, however, they need to be mentioned: the problem of the misunderstanding - the so-called murderer is innocent; the absurd - a man kills another by mistake because he takes the victim for someone else; loneliness of the gregarious kind - not one authentic communication passes between one person and another in love or hate and love is no more than the contact of skins; the child who is de trap, constantly pushed into the street, out of the way. The adults too suffer the nausea of existence and are in part strangers to themselves. They are are beings-for-death; the worker with the 'ugly mug' or 'the face of an undertaker', as he is often told, cannot find a job and ends up being ridiculously killed. The woman who cannot find any kind of love and gasses herself. The negro who dies of TB, killed by his working conditions. 'All men are mortal' and here no one dies of 'natural causes'. None of these people escapes his situation and in the end there is a clear sense that the boat pulling out to sea is not an escape to the 'Islands of the Blessed', but that the true murderer and the supposed one are both leaving for a new situation which will prove to be like the first. They are temporarily 'reprieved' but will never manage to extricate themselves from the situation which constantly coagulates around them.
And the formal element 'clings' strangely to these people. It can be summed up in a word: the film is 'flat'. The light has something hard and lustreless about it, not atmospheric but brittle, angular and brutal. The most gripping image, the wounded man on a stretcher ascending the steep wall that dominates the quay, is an existential metaphor of uncommon rigour and power - the 'wall' behind which there is only nothingness and death. The wall is not there to 'symbolize' the facticity4 of existence, it 'is' existence itself, freezing into facticity, becoming a thing and taking on the cold permanence and blind hardness of things. There is nothing here of Carne's mists of Le Havre or the radiant light of Italian films, which each in their way evoke extra-human horizons .. It is the steel screen which blots out these horizons, the wall which supports the closed doors of the human prison in which we are condemned to freedom. The total absence of music, the heavy, grating soundtrack, again underlines this aspect and prevents any evocative effect.
Thus it is an existentialist or, more precisely, Sartrian meaning that Pagliero makes us give the events he describes phenomenologically. But because he does this with a quite different sense of the demands of the work and a quite different respect for the concrete and for method, he brings a complement to the preceding analyses which is valuable in quite a different way from Sartre's own films. Since, without any obvious distortion, he ends up impressing on the audience such a clearly directed vision of the world and of man, it seems that Heidegger was right to oppose Husserl in asserting that a description of existence always and necessarily confirms the idea one has of it, since that idea is already an element, mode and factor of existence itself. It was therefore possibly a little premature to congratulate, as we just did, Rossellini, De Sica and Zavattini, for their reserve and the freedom of interpretation they allowed the audience. If their worlds seemed less marked by their vision, this was doubtless because they still hesitated in the face of choice, or because their choice was on quite a different level, up there where Gabriel Marcel's words might possibly be verified: 'All existence which does not refer to the transcendental degenerates into falsity and facticity.' It is therefore fruitless to question Pagliero's captivating depictions, and enough simply to set them at a different angle.
Phenomenological realism and the Catholic meaning of grace
This is perhaps what Cielo sulIa palude offers. Like all the other films of the school, it constitutes a social, psychological and ethical entity. It can be seen as simply a documentary on the Pontine Marshes, for the Goretti family is presented as profoundly integrated with land, water and sky. But gradually attention is focused on the mutual attitudes of Alessandro and young Maria, without, however, causing any break with the rest of the event. The whole of life on a farm on the Pontine Marshes continues to unfold in parallel as Alessandro's attitude becomes more precise, revealing its true nature as an irresistible sexual obsession which culminates in several attempted rapes and finally the crime.
In the meantime the film shows us the girl's preparation for her first communion, then the ceremony with its always slightly fussy details, especially in countries where the old religious traditions survive. Nevertheless, the film does not conceal the sincerity and profound attention which Maria brings to the act, any more than the empty formality which it perhaps represents for some of her companions. After the crime, the injured girl is taken care of in the hospital, where she dies. The crowd sees her as a saint and prays.
These are the events as they are shown, with no pressure directing the interpretations they should be given. If, on emerging from the cinema, the viewer discovers that the girl was actually canonized, he may well find that utterly absurd. His personal set of values did not have to change for the events to hold his interest.
But for the believer, applying the religious interpretation to the intrinsic meaning of these events presents no problems. The ambiguity itself is in a sense a criterion of authenticity. The illusory area of external visions and internal voices would be far more alarming. Here everything is so profoundly marked by corporeality and so far from fantasy that it presents no problems and there is no difficulty in recognizing the finger of God. Where everything is susceptible of a natural explanation there is still room for a transcendent reality within the natural development of determinations, and indeed this is one of the characteristics of that transcendence itself.
In other words, the ambiguity is the mode of existence of the Mystery which is the safeguard of freedom. Whatever the appearances to the contrary, a Christian will have no difficulty in recognizing, from the mystical point of view, a level and a quality which is at least equal if not superior to the worlds created by Bresson.
For if the psychology in the proper sense is infinitely less elaborate, grace is no more hidden and the ambiguities are not fundamentally greater; it is in any case in the very nature of grace to be hidden and ambiguous precisely because it is the human face of the transcendent Mystery of God.
Such, it seems to me, are the possibilities and the dangers of phenomenological realism in the area of religious expression. But the bigger danger would certainly be to want to take greater care of God's interests than He does himself by trying to direct events by force and constrain the audience to read in them a meaning which is only accessible to those who discover it freely.
The gamut of meanings accessible to phenomenological realism is thus as broad as human reality itself. It rejects no a priori, provided these meanings remain in the order of question rather than solution, for while, like Jean Wahl, it knows that problems have a value in themselves, it believes with Pascal that they can only be resolved by stepping outside them and that the human prison is open to the sky.
Translated by Diana Matias
Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave/Part One: French Cinema /
Amedee Ayfre: 'Neo-Realism and Phenomenology'
Edited by Jim Hillier
Harvard University Press
Les 400 Coups is not a masterpiece. So much the better for Francois Truffaut! In the first place the word has been so debased that it finally becomes meaningless. Next, and above all, with a masterpiece in his pocket at twenty-seven Truffaut would really have something to worry about - he would have to spend his life trying to shed the burden. Les 400 Coups is better than a masterpiece. Together with Hiroshima mon amour, it is one of the two most original films made in France since the war.
Unafraid to mix genres, Truffaut begins in the usual narrative vein, then, without warning, moves on to reportage, goes back to what appears to be the story and on to a portrait of manners, with a bit of comedy and tragedy inserted here and there. He tells us a complete story just as it should be told, makes his presence felt as a scrupulous observer of reality, turns investigator, then poet, and completes his film on a very beautiful lmage which is also a first-rate director's idea.
Every time one sees Les 400 Coups one wonders how Truffaut manages so miraculously to avoid confusion and chaos and end up with a work that is moving and coherent. The miracle lies in Truffaut's talent; every shot in the film is crowded with his ideas and imagination. Already in Les Mistons the threads of the narrative were caught up in the whirlwind, and what we tasted was the enchantment that attended the work and which before our eyes gave cohesion to a formless mass, turning it into a unique and engaging whole.
Truffaut's films make me think of the magician who says 'Look! Nothing in my hands, nothing in my pockets!' Dazzling tricks follow one after the other, and out of the hat pops the unexpected. But while he is a conjurer, Truffaut abhors illusionism. He does not create out of thin air. The material he uses is taken from what is richest and most solid - the real. There lies his secret. Resolutely turning his back on that 'certain tendency' that he had virulently denounced because it destroyed realism 'by locking human beings in a closed world, barricaded by formulae, plays on word maxims', Truffaut allows his characters Ito reveal themselves as they are before our eyes'. In this, as in many other things, he remains true to himself.
It is interesting to observe the extent to which his conceptions of the script, the editing and the direction were already present in his critical writing. Everyone knows the little series which aims to introduce great writers 'in their own words'.2 Nothing is easier than to introduce Truffaut lin his own words', by reference to his writing in Cahiers or Arts.
Go back and read his proclamation on the subject of the first Cinema-Scope films in Cahiers no. 25, and you will understand why he has chosen a similar process.
Are you shocked by the dislocated construction of Les 400 Coups? Go back to Cahiers no. 83 and re-read the article that he dedicated to Juvenile Passion where to him each shot seemed rich and interesting because it had the same value as all the others, and none had the function of preparing for the following shot.
You judge his film imperfect? And what if he wished it to be so? You doubt this? Consult Cahiers no. 475 and learn from the words of Robert Lachenay, a loyal friend and follower of Truffaut, that perfection does not exist without an element of baseness, that all the great films in the history of cinema were failures, that from the moment you acknowledge that the cinema is more than just spectacle, notions of failure and success lose their meaning.
Do you think that Truffaut the film-maker has short-changed his ideas as a critic? Take another look at his output in Cahiers or Arts and you will see - not without a few surprises - that Truffaut the critic has shaped the director of the same name.
What is Truffaut's purpose? To describe one of the most difficult periods in our lives, which adults with a short memory frequently endow with an aura of hypocritical beauty. Les 400 Coups is an episode in life's problems, the confusion of the individual thrown into the world without being asked first, and refused any means of adjusting. It is a faithful account of the incomprehension which parents and teachers often experience when faced with the problems of children waking up to adult life. A second birth, but no one will assume responsibility for the birth pangs. The child has no alternative but to forge an acceptable world for himself with the means at his disposal. But how can he escape the tragedy of everyday life, as long as he is torn between his parents - fallen idols - and an indifferent, if not hostile world?
To appreciate the accuracy of the film it is enough to take any manual of psychology or psychoanalysis and consult the chapter on the phenomenological description of 'the adolescent's difficult period of adjustment'. All the characteristic features of adolescence are evidenced in the personality and the situation of little Antoine Doinel.
But Truffaut, with a restraint that is all to his credit, finds it distasteful to go into too much personal detail, to take the case' of his hero to excess.
To secure the tears of his audience all the more easily, he could have made his Antoine an 'extreme case', His film would have gained in violence and facility. But there it is: with a kind of artistic masochism Truffaut refuses anything easy. He and Marcel Moussy have systematically drained the story of any too heavy emphasis. Antoine is neither too spoiled nor too unhappy; just an adolescent like so many others. It is indifference he comes up against, not ill-treatment. An unwanted child, he feels in the way, the intruder on a couple locked in the problems of existence. In a perpetual state of anguish he leaves behind one complicated situation only to fall into another, in a web of lies that is as stupid as it is inevitable. Who is to blame? Everyone, and no one. The film brings out a combination of circumstances as the apparent root of the boy's fate - socio-economic (financial situation of the parents, the cramped flat), family (relationship between the parents and with the child) and individual (Antoine's masochistic attitude in relation to his parents).
And so Truffaut's hero acquires an ambiguity that endows him with truth, for which the writers of the script and the dialogue must be congratulated. Antoine is a victim who at the same time colludes in his oppression. Compare his swaggering demeanour outside with his submissive attitude at home. Les 400 Coups has a note of authenticity and a deep truth that cannot fail to move the viewer. a deep truth that cannot fail to move the viewer.
It has been said that the film was autobiographical. Truffaut disclaims this completely. I am inclined to think that, after the fashion of one of his masters, Hitchcock, he is laying false trails for his audience. He muddles the clues as it takes his fancy. But lacking as yet the practised hand of the celebrated Hollywood Englishman, he doesn't quite manage to conceal what he is up to. Anyway, every film is in some sense autobiographical. For better or worse, the film absorbs and reflects the personality of the auteur. Les 400 Coups is what you might call an imaginary autobiography, a genre just as valid as the autobiography and in any case more artistic, since it allows a freer transposition. One could try, as certain literary critics do, to distinguish between the lived and the invented. A futile exercise, for yet again, what does Truffaut the individual matter here? Let's be content with saying that the subject matter of Les 400 Coups is the experiences of Truffaut and Moussy as children, reflected upon and transposed by Truffaut and Moussy as adults.
What should be emphasized are the qualities of the script and the mise en scene: a phenomenological description of adolescence with the characters and the action clearly situated right from the beginning, the complete freedom of the little hero as we watch. This idea of 'freedom' calls for an important comment: the impression is often that a hidden camera is following Antoine, that he has no idea that he is being filmed. And it is precisely this illusion of the 'direct' and 'untampered with' that gives the film that emotive quality which counterbalances the shock and disorder that might be generated by the film's beginning. The adoption of the television style for the psychology scene by no means constitutes a stylistic hiatus, but ultimately confirms the general impression of the 'direct'.
In this way Truffaut achieves a sense of the real that is rare in the cinema and is underlined by his unfailing concern to refer to authentic details. There is not a single shot where Truffaut does not use some element of the setting to send the profound truth of his subject shattering through the screen. He has an innate sense of inanimate objects and their relationship to human beings. As in the works of the great novelists, these characters also find themselves exposed to objects which oppose them with a form of resistance. From this derives a sense of duration to which we have been unaccustomed in the cinema. Truffaut has a passion for everything that at first sight seems trivial: the papers to be burned, the dustbin to be emptied, the curtains the boy uses to dry his hands, the sideboard from which he takes the cutlery, the banana skin he cuts up, etc. Things thus assume an importance and help to explain the hero's character.
I am also struck by the way the film moves from the particular to the general. The description of adolescence, as I said before, fits those given in specialist manuals. Antoine is simultaneously Truffaut and Moussy, you and me. Sartre said: 'You must know how to say we before you can say I.' To talk to us Truffaut has chosen to begin with the first person plural. In fact his film sometimes seems too general and not particular enough. But what does it matter, since Truffaut progresses consistently: in Les Mistons 'we' was a group of children, here it is one. Not bad going. Perhaps he will be reproached for some carelessness in the film's construction, a touch of rawness in the story. But is there really a story here? Isn't it rather as he has said himself, a chronicle of the thirteenth year?
The ending is very beautiful, stopping the film with the hero's gesture as he turns, leaving the door open to the future. But it still leaves us unsatisfied: what will Antoine be like when he gets through adolescence? No doubt Truffaut will deal with this other subject some day. Here his purpose was only descriptive.
As in Les Mistons, Truffaut's infinite tenderness towards his characters does not fail. He seeks to express it even better by referring to the filmmakers he admires: Vigo, Renoir, Rossellini. Sometimes he likes to pay them direct homage with those 'lavish quotations' he himself talked about in an articles. It is of little importance. For the moment Truffaut is not yet alone. He is going through his 'adolescence' as a director. He is still with the 'we' as a means of expression. By necessity, but most of all because of modesty (which is not the least of his qualities). And since I have taken the liberty of explaining our friend in his own words, I shall quote yet another of his articles: 'It must be acknowledged, clearly, that the greatest film-makers in the world are over fifty; but it is important to practise the cinema of one's own age and,if you are twenty-five and admire Dreyer, to aim to equal Vampyr rather than Ordet. Youth is full of small ideas, young film-makers have to make films that are absurdly fast, with characters in a hurry or shots piled on, vying for the last word; films full of small ideas. Later the small ideas will disappear and give way to a single, big idea.'
It only remains for me to wish that Truffaut may make many films, so that it will take as little time as possible before he addresses us in the first person singular.
Translated by Liz Heron
Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave/Part One: French Cinema /
Fereydoun Hoveyda: 'The First Person Plural' (article on Francois Truffaut's Les 400 Coups)
Edited by Jim Hillier
Harvard University Press
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