The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)
“Colour film is finally born! True colour film! And, in one fell swoop, it erases even our memory of black-and-white film, as sound-film did to silent images.” In his text ‘The Rebirth of Colour’, French film critic André Bazin praises The River by Jean Renoir: “In this simple story without bumps or dramatic turns, smooth and slow as the serene flow of the river, Renoir has managed to closely combine the landscape with the fate of his protagonists. A pantheistic and deeply spiritual harmony unites the characters with the universe.” Watch The River (1951) now on the Criterion Channel. (Only available when located in the United States or Canada)
Nightcleaners (The Berwick Street Collective, 1975)
Art Cinema OFFoff is hosting a special online screening of Nightcleaners by The Berwick Street Collective (Marc Karlin, Mary Kelly, James Scott and Humphry Trevelyan). The film is selected and introduced by author, lecturer and feminist activist Silvia Federici, who will be in conversation with Irish video artist Jesse Jones. The event will take place on 13 November at 20:00. Save the date, because the event is free but only accessible upon registration. More info and registration here.
Archipels nitrate (Claudio Pazienza, 2009)
At the State of Cinema 2019, Claudio Pazienza presented his text ‘Echoes of an Intimate Language’, in which he is looking for the poet’s language: “I feel it, restless, like a promise. I reckon that if the language cultivates what is possible, horizons will open. I reckon that if certain poets and certain filmmakers make me euphoric, they do so through their intimate language. A rebellious and restless language. An archetypal language. A language that claws away and leaves its trace in me.” Pazienza’s film Archipels nitrate talks of cinema and time in the form of a visual symphony in which a hundred films partake in a unique journey. You can rent the film on Avila.
Nightcleaners is a film about the campaign to unionize the women who cleaned office blocks at night and who were being victimized and underpaid. Intending at the outset to make a campaign film, the Collective was forced to turn to new forms in order to represent the forces at work between the cleaners, the Cleaner’s Action Group and the unions – and the complex nature of the campaign itself.
“The film was about the distance between us and the nightcleaners, between the women’s movement and the nightcleaners, and was choreographing a situation in which communication was absolutely near enough impossible. I mean, there were these women who were in the offices at night who would wave, or sign or whatever, and sometimes we had to get into offices through very, very subterfuge-like means. The women’s movement came mainly from a kind of middle-class background, and I got in terrible trouble for even saying there were distances, or making a film about distances, and that is what I wanted to do, by and large… The nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of W.H. Auden and all those people who say: “Well, you know, a poem won’t stop a tank.” Maybe not, but a poem can actually reveal a tank and… I think with Nightcleaners what we did was we revealed the situation of the nightcleaners on the one hand and on the other, the impossibility of capturing those lives.”
“A film that places the nightcleaners ‘campaign within a series of broader political discussions formulated as an ‘open text’ which asks as many questions about its own status as a film as it does about the socio-political issues that are its subject. No engaged person should overlook its challenge.”
“In the film, we hear one of the bosses rhetorically asking the women who clean for him to replicate the work they’d normally undertake in their own houses, both reinforcing their place in the home and capitalising on it in the workplace. Porter finds that only when working class women feel they’ve adequately discharged their duties at home do they feel able to take on additional duties to supplement the meagre ‘family wage’ brought in by their husbands. This impression is backed up by the night cleaners, who describe how the money they make will not be used for luxuries but necessities – clothes and food for their children. (...)
In the 1970s, collective filmmaking provided a form of collaborative action that served as an alternative to trade union activity, and the work of working-class women was a recurring artistic trope of the period. As you’ll see, Nightcleaners is far from being a straightforward documentary. It drifts between realism and abstraction, resists a linear narrative and eludes simple comprehension, causing it to be written off as ‘unwatchable’ by certain contemporaneous commentators. It rejects the objectivity that is so often claimed for documentary film and breaks down distinctions between observer and participant. It offers us fragments of unattributed thought, and demands that we – its audience – form a coherent position. There is a tactile quality to the film, its evocation of the endless surfaces in need of polishing, the institutional porcelain and the vintage vacuum. But the film goes far beyond mere nostalgia, connecting as it does to present-day struggles.”
“Speaking of Brecht's theatrical work, Benjamin frames the relationship of audience to stage in explicitly economic terms: “The more consumers it brings in contact with the production process... the more readers or spectators it turns into collaborators.” By making the spectator work to produce meaning, Benjamin argues that he or she is incorporated as producer into the process of the work’s production. This interwar argument about political theater was taken up and developed most vigorously by film theorists in Britain where Brecht was uniquely received principally as fa filmmaker rather than as a playwright. (…)
True to Benjamin’s analysis in “The Author as Producer”, the main emphasis was placed on the formal aspects of the film, with a particular focus on tropes of reflexivity. These included the persistent insertion of sections of black leader tape, the presentation of processed and repeated sequences, and the inclusion of the clapboard, all of which draw the viewer’s attention to the process of the film’s making, to Nightcleaners as filmmaking. These elements, Johnston and Willemen claimed, produces an effect akin to Brecht’s Verfremdungs Effekt, interruptions that disrupt the theatrical (or cinematic) spell and as a result make the audience critically aware of the representational illusion being presented. Reflexivity was thus connected to the notion of critical distance and the idea that the viewer would become an active participant, or to use the Benjaminian term, producer of the film’s meaning.”
- 1. Marc Karlin cited in ‘In Between Times’, Diagonal Thoughts, March 2016.
- 2. Tony Rayns cited on Time Out on Lux.org.uk.
- 3. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, “Berwick Street Collective, Nightcleaners (film, 1975)”, shifty paradigms, February 2017.
- 4. Siona Wilson, Art Labor, Sex Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) 8.
Intimate and personal portrait of the Royal Belgian Cinémathèque (renamed CINEMATEK). And on that screen, flashes of the world, an idea of History, of beauty. On that screen, a congruent portion of humanity. I am what I have seen, said Matisse. But all images do not remain intact. And even less so, the self image. Time permeates them, spoils, martyrises them. And this delicate skin — this layer of nitrate — is the symptom. Archipels nitrate talks of cinema and time in the form of a visual symphony in which a hundred films partake in a unique journey.
« On criait au miracle. »
Opening titles of the film
« Des images. Par milliers. Avec ou sans sons. Parfois intactes, d’autres fois rayées, virées, presque effacées. Des images par milliers qui reviennent à l’esprit de manière sauvage et incontrôlable. Pourquoi ce plan de Sayat Nova de Paradjanov, pourquoi cet autre de The great train robbery de Porter, pourquoi ce regard de Maurice Ronet dans Le Feu follet de L. Malle ou ce visage de l’enseignant sidéré par la beauté de son élève dans De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen de A. Delvaux ? Pourquoi ces images s’incrustent-elles, survivent-elles à d’autres ? Je l’ignore. Soustraites à leur récit initial, ces images nourrissent − dans Archipels Nitrate − une nouvelle partition visuelle. Et c’est un peu le lot de toutes les images car − mémorisées − tout spectateur en fait un usage très intime et détourné pour lequel il n’a de comptes à rendre. Vues, aimées ou pas, elles nous appartiennent aussitôt. Elles cristallisent en elles − parfois − un monde, une vision du monde. Ce qui soude, lie une image à une autre est imprévisible, archaïque. En nous, ces images − de films, d’époques, d’écritures différentes − se parlent, se regardent, s’échangent du sens. Et qu’on le souhaite ou pas, elles parlent toutes de temps. Toute image garde la trace d’un temps. »
- 1. Claudio Pazienza, Archipels Nitrate, présentation du dossier de presse, 2008
Three adolescent girls growing up in Bengal, India, learn their lessons in life after falling for an older American soldier.
“A film about India without elephants and tiger hunts.”
“This... being together... in the garden. All of us happy, and you with us here, I didn't want it to change... and it's changed. I didn't want it to end... and it's gone. It was like something in a dream. Now you've made it real. I didn't want to be real.”
Valerie in The River
“Recounting The River is nearly impossible; “so little” is happening. Somewhere along the banks of the Ganges, two English families and three girls: two white girls and one of mixed race. A young American appears, a wounded war hero. Of course, all three adolescents will love him in their own way. Renoir is telling us the story of the birth of love in the hearts of three future women, destined for very different futures due to their education and race, and he does so with the delicacy, finesse and reserve of the most subtle psychological novel. Nothing happens: one day, Prince Charming leaves via the river he came by. And yet everything has slightly changed; the touch of love has opened a new world.”
“One year spent in India cannot help but leave its mark, and when I start talking about it, I can go on endlessly, there’s so much to say.”
“Jean Renoir’s 1951 masterpiece, his first film in color. The story concerns a group of English colonialists living on the banks of the Ganges, but beyond that the film describes how the European mind gradually succumbs to the eternal perspectives of India. Renoir's images flow with the same still motion as his metaphorical river: entering or leaving the frame is a matter of life and death, but in the end it is the same. For Andre Bazin, this was the Rules of the Game of Renoir’s postwar period, a film in which “the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.””
“Like another near-contemporary film, Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), The River has survived falling out of fashion to reemerge as a touchstone for a certain kind of modernity in cinema. It’s a self-conscious, reflective film that draws on the “reality” of India but does so to immerse us in the spiritual drama of its central character. Little wonder that Martin Scorsese values it so highly, as is perhaps evidenced in his own extensive use of voice-over narration and his having tackled, as a Westerner, the portrayal of Tibet in Kundun (1997). Today, the ultimate effect of The River’s otherwise strange projection of an idyllic pre-1920 India into the era of Indian independence is perhaps to challenge Forster’s view of Indians and Europeans as condemned to mutual incomprehension and return to something more like Kipling’s idea of learning from India. The Europeans in the film’s foreground are already an anachronism in an India emerging from colonial rule, but they can still draw strength and inspiration from its age-old customs and beliefs. Meanwhile, one of Renoir’s local advisers, Satyajit Ray, would soon pick up the challenge to Indians of representing India to the world with the first part of his Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali (1955).”
“Satyajit Ray saw the film for the first time with Jean in Hollywood in 1967. Although he could not express his opinion at the time, Ray did not respond to it with any great warmth, except for the background of the life on the river, and a few other scenes such as Harriet’s turning to the fisherman for consolation after her little brother’s death. He could not see in it an authentic picture of Indian life, even filtered through the lens of a Westerner. Jean was conscious, despite his influence on much of Ray’s work, that his protégé was slightly disapproving of The River. When the screening was over, the two men were brought on stage together and introduced with the comment, ‘Ray owes a lot to Renoir.’ Jean replied, ‘I don’t think Ray owes anything to me. I think he had it in his blood. Though he’s very young still, he’s the Father of Indian Cinema.’”
“The River is Renoir’s meditation on his oneness with India. It is also his meditation on what separates him from Indians, what makes him the particular human being he is. In meditating on India’s teaching that diversity is the expression of oneness, Renoir discovers his own civilization, the civilization of the West, as his subject. Hence, The River is followed by the dazzling reflections on European culture of The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena et les hommes.”
- 1. André Bazin, “The Birth of Colour. Jean Renoir’s The River,” translated by Sis Matthé, Sabzian, 28 October 2020. Originally published as ‘Naissance de la couleur. Le fleuve de Jean Renoir’ in Le Parisien libéré, no. 2262 (21 December 1951) and recently in Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, ed., André Bazin. Écrits complets (Paris: Macula, 2018).
- 2. Dave Keher, “The River,” The Chicago Reader.
- 3. Ian Christie, “The River: A New Authenticity,” The Criterion Collection, 20 April 2015.
- 4. Ronald Bergan, Jean Renoir (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992).
- 5. William Rothman, “The River,” in William Rothman, The “I” of the Camera. Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).