Fragments of Dirk Lauwaert
For almost 50 years, Dirk Lauwaert (1944-2013) published texts on film in several periodicals: Film & Televisie, Kunst & Cultuur, Versus, Andere Sinema, De Witte Raaf and many more. Lauwaert also wrote about fashion, photography, the city and visual arts. As a tribute to his writing and his love for cinema, Gerard-Jan Claes and Elias Grootaers selected a number of meaningful fragments from Lauwaert’s impressive oeuvre for Sabzian’s second cinephile publication, compiled on the occasion of the festive screening of Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) on February 14, 2015 in Brussels. De Witte Raaf has also issued an edition with a selection of texts on cinema written by Lauwaert between 1964 and 1970.
“A boy, temporarily orphaned, watches a projection at the house of a grandparent. A cherished uncle stretches a screen, obscures the room and cracks boyish jokes while switching on a prehistoric wooden box that pounds, violently erupts light, plopping moving figures (Chaplin?) onto the sheet. He didn’t see the depth of the image, but rather the flat projection on the screen. The boy, a little less orphaned now, settles with grandfather on wooden chairs in a school, in order to see a film about Spain, Alcatraz. He sees action, dust, explosions, sweat, suffering and death. He sees a story.
The boy goes to the big city with his father to see a [Romy] Schneider film. He is in love. On the journey back, his father probes his soul: to observe the infatuation, as if in a small cinema? The boy has seen a beautiful woman whose lips, speaking, move him to this day. He understands (but does not accept) that she came close to him while he has to stay so far away from her.
Three phases: the image, the story, the woman. Some more films. Some more deadlocks, and life has shifted him into the position of preferring the dark theatre, the kitschy melodrama, the far-away image to all of reality’s enticements. Luckily, there was cinema.” 
“The cinema was his America, images succeeded one another like solemn giant leaps, or like the 100-meter dash. He slid from place to place, from one figure to another. And it always happened while keeping the right distance. He didn’t realise, but film swirled him in a partner dance. Later, he understood everything revolved around an oxymoron: to be moved unmovingly. In the cinema, all emotions are exclusively lived interiorly (people watch inside their heads, in much the same way they started to read silently). The ossification of a theatre full of moviegoers is terrifying. Their total lack of expression simply makes for a silly appearance, much like the people watching the landing in Close Encounters…
During daytime, film was an empty theatre where an artificial light showed everything the sun out there never could. It was the most blissful way of being: all alone in the vicinity of an intense illusion. Watched life: more gripping than lived life. The other: so much more captivating than the self, an oneiric substitute for the self. (The eternal bovarism of the bourgeois boy, gratified by an industry.)
Because watching is your whole life. Because you mistrust the power over the concrete, which is indispensable for life. You experience film as an essential, sublime distance.” 
“Exoticism places you elsewhere, moves you around, rearranges the relations between body and imagination, between looking and knowing, between the consciousness of something outside of oneself and self-awareness. All of the substance of the mental apparatus, all of the weight of the moral and practical order of things, topples. Not in a movement of revolutionary recalibration, in its turn definitive again, but rather in a movement that remains makeshift, inconsistent and half-hearted. Cinema changes everything and leaves everything undisturbed. It is the pre-eminent domain of what is uncertain, dubious. Shiftingly, cinema drives a wedge between worldly certainties.
(Film is indeed always the other country – America, France, Italy. It is a way of traveling, of seeing how people live elsewhere, how they live in other landscapes, other houses and cities. Wearing other clothes, with marvellously unfamiliar ways of moving the body, with other sounds and intonations to express their feelings. It is a permanent world’s fair, an inexhaustible encyclopaedia where nothing ever becomes banal.)” 
“Film was definitively an other, a radically innocent, free-floating culture, without institutions, without official language, without norms. It was low culture, elusively rudderless and therefore carefully observed by society. An ungoverned territory, a ‘third world’ where anyone with the wildest fantasies could venture. A world, also, where from scratch you could delineate a commitment, map out your own routes, devise your own genesis and invest it with ultimate value. It is true, the cinephile has developed his own semiotics, a rudimentary system of trails and wisps of smoke, with which he clues in only the initiated. No gatherings, no common language, no clauses to which the game could be subjected. The hikers on this long journey never meet. They leave their tracks in such a way that no one could use them to procure an established order. He behaves according to the fanatic idiosyncrasies of the collector.” 
“Whether a film is beautiful remains the central question. This beauty ranges from ‘I liked the film’ to ‘there is a balance between form and content’. For someone presupposing the existence of the culture industry, the reading of a film is oriented altogether differently. He assumes that it is not the isolated work, not the abstract relationship spectator-work-director, not the subjective impression, that tell us something about the way a film operates in our society. On the contrary, he examines the totality of the products of a culture industry and the ideology issuing from this totality. What I have tried to elaborate over the previous film pages is precisely an analysis of the ideologies generated by this culture industry and unconsciously consumed by the public. I do not try to judge the isolated film on its merits, but rather on its position within the configuration of the film industry. In this way, by talking about films I say something about the fundamental powers at work in cinema. In doing so, I do not have the slightest impression that I am speaking about something abstract, precisely because I am convinced that the transmission of diverse ideologies is the fundamental function of the culture industry.” 
“In this way, I think I can eventually contribute to the much-needed shattering of the divisions that are consciously preserved by the culture industry, and that reveal its class-bound role most clearly. Prestige directors are opposed to commercial mass products, the more sophisticated commercial film is opposed to the marginal serial production of westerns or pornographic films, the art film as opposed to the popular film, the family film as opposed to the risqué film, etc. In the current social system, one erroneously differentiates between better and worse products. Bergman or Fellini exploit their public in the same way a porn film does. It is important to realise that a different society will have to rethink society as it exists in all its aspects.” 
“A man appears on the screen. He looks at us, speaks to us – no, this can’t be the film yet. Films never look into the theatre – they take place in an indifferent aquarium. But Maurice Chevalier (in Gigi), Spencer Tracy (in Father of the Bride), William Powell (in Ziegfeld Follies), Gene Kelly (in An American in Paris) clasp us by the arm. They look into our eyes, until we are finally silent and listen.” 
“Almost all of Minnelli’s films are versions of Cinderella. Two situations: a false one and a real one, that has to appear as real life. The world is very deceitful – after all, what is, isn’t necessarily real! Minnelli tells us that the world and our consciousness undergo metamorphoses, his films are stories of initiation. There is a before and an after: what is given and what is dreamt, what is dull versus what is fulfilling, reality and art. One can think of numerous terms for this polarity – Minnelli used them all. But he is less a filmmaker of dreams, fantasy or art, than one of metamorphosis. From walking to dancing, from the filled and stable film frame to the choreography of crane movements, from tranquil nature to the wind, from indifference to an acknowledging ‘you!’, from reality to the enchanting spectacle.” 
“Minnelli’s world is not that of tragedy, nor that of the individual. It is the world of the universal and hence (!) of hope. His last film, shot in 1976 and hopelessly lost in our time, wonderfully sums up Minnelli’s aesthetics as well as his ethics. Cabin in the Sky and A Matter of Time are 33 years apart. But always, his films show us the same inspired naïveté that tells us how life should be lived, how stories should be told, how beauty should be shown – scandalously direct and clear.” 
“It is always a technique both of and in the world. Through a technical umbilical cord, the apparatus radically and staggeringly connects the film to the world.
Watching film and loving film is thus a way to be with the world. Albeit through a detour which is at the same time a revelation: disclosing distance. Film then, is essentially relation and not code. Film is fundamentally the choice of a viewpoint in space, toward that space. Film is recording and therefore fundamentally contemporary (one cannot record that which is gone, the past). The spectator always watches contemporary images (even when they have aged, they remain contemporary through their model). This disposition sees to it that those who love films become ‘contemporary’ with every film.” 
“Dealing with film became a subtle balancing act. It certainly didn’t suffice that films propagated a proper conviction or that they looked beautiful, but it sufficed that they vibrated with life to qualify for admiration. The touchstone was not originality (when film becomes art), but rather an intuition about the irrefutable accuracy that had placed the images on the screen, that had positioned the images vis-à-vis the world. It did not matter that others felt this accuracy where you didn’t see it. It was about the category.
A forceful way of eliciting this accuracy was the constant revision but also the comparative repositioning of films in subtle, shifting movements, allowing the ever more subtle assessment of qualities. The smallest distinction contained the biggest difference.” 
“Those who love film face adversaries both obstinate and shamelessly inane. Again, we have to struggle against moralism. Again, we have to stress that the experience of film is crucial, that this experience is physical-erotic. Again, it needs to be stated that what carries this experience is neither film stock nor magnetic tape, but the social itself. This both simple and immensely complicated connection of every fragmented ‘I’ to the immensity of the world, of the democratic citizen to the lost whole, has been of invaluable significance to our century. It has made us.” 
For over half a century, Belgian critic Dirk Lauwaert (1944-2013) published essays on film for magazines including Film & Televisie, Kunst & Cultuur, Versus, Andere Sinema and De Witte Raaf. In addition, Lauwaert wrote about fashion, photography, the city and visual art. For Lauwaert, such criticism was never a purely professional affair; it was, first and foremost, a way of documenting how a film or a piece of art personally impacted him as an amateur. Lauwaert’s film criticism is not, as yet, internationally recognised. To provide a first corrective to this, Sabzian will be publishing a series of roughly ten English translations of Lauwaert’s most notable writings on film. This will provide our international audience with an occasion to become acquainted with his work and its singular writings. Lauwaert was an author for whom “watching film and loving film [was] a way to be with the world”. Remaining suspicious of “the power over the concrete, which is indispensable for life,” Lauwaert was someone for whom the act of watching films made up his “whole life.” In this sense, film for Lauwaert turned into the experience of that “essential, sublime distance.” A more extensive English introduction to Lauwaert can be found here.
‘Filmkunst of cultuurindustrie’ [‘Cinema or Culture Industry’], Kunst & Cultuur (June 1970)
‘Dromen van een expeditie’ [‘Dreaming of an Expedition’], Kunst & Cultuur (April 1989)
‘Lessen van Minnelli’ [‘Lessons of Minnelli’], Kunst & Cultuur (May/June 1987)
Translated by Elias Grootaers, Veva Leye and Hannes Verhoustraete for LOLA Journal and Sabzian
Image (1) Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)
Image (2) Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)