Cinema in the Present Tense
I have some good news, for everyone: cinema is in crisis. Which is hardly news, in a way, for it has continuously been in crisis throughout its existence. It is not a sign of future danger either – the future is an enigma, and it takes a lot of irresponsibility to speculate about it, to pretend to decipher its mysteries – but rather that of a seismographic sensibility to the stakes of the present. I think there is no other symptom more relevant to an art’s vitality than its constant reappraisal, in accordance with the constant reformulation of our world. The real issue would be to know whether the forces that transform the world are the same forces that transform the arts, how both feed on one another, unless they are contradictory.
It seems to me that another question arises today as well, which, in its own way, parasitises the other two, muddies the waters, and obscures our reading of cinema and its place in its own history: the nature of the reflection determining our gaze and the way in which this reflection is structured. Historically, that is to say, since the middle of the history of cinema, its modern age, the tools of cinephilia have defined this framework, which was conceived by André Bazin, himself a product of Jacques Maritain’s Social Christianity. Its success and relevance are due to the fact that it was adopted by a generation of young filmmakers, those of the Nouvelle Vague, for whom theoretical writing was the foundation of their practice. Reflection and action were two poles of a dialectic that would become the key to our understanding of cinema, its singularities as well as its paradoxes.
Forgive me for going back so far in time, more than half a century, in order to deal with the current state of cinema, but the problem of time seems vital to me when trying to understand where we are exactly. This is why we should begin by asking ourselves both the question of what this original cinephilia is exactly and what its alternative might have been.
I postulate, rightly or wrongly, that any reflection on cinema is consciously or unconsciously based on the ambiguous nature of cinema’s relationship with the other arts. And, consequently, with their theory. From the earliest days of cinema, a contrast existed between the proponents of a cinema in line with the synchronous history of the avant-garde on the one hand and the proponents of its intrinsic bastardism on the other – torn between popular literature and symbolist imagery. André Bazin and Cahiers du cinéma, for their part, chose to examine praxis and to build an essentialist bubble out of it. Cinema was, as it were, elsewhere, unrelated to the old issues.
The various Nouvelles Vagues that spread through the world federated around this approach.
At the centre of it all was the question of filming and the ethics of filming, and the freedom of the auteur, which allowed all idiosyncrasies. But from the beginning of the 1960s, and more extremely afterwards, this cinephilia was doubly cornered: by the repressed relationship with the visual arts – Jean-Luc Godard made this the centre of his work – and the socio-political evolution of the world, which was shaken up by the youth movement that materialised in France in May 68 and in the United States in the Summer of Love of 1967.
Put simply, the relationship with the visual arts questioned the form of modern cinema, its relationship with figuration and narration, while the upheaval that swept across contemporary societies questioned the place or even the legitimacy of the auteur.
Everything that seemed clear became blurred; everything the new cinema had been built on was consequently called into question, even by its main artisans.
This profound and insoluble question of whether or not cinema is part of the visual arts left its mark on me personally. Is cinema the “seventh art”, a term that is often used without really understanding it, or is it something other than an art, perhaps even the philosopher’s stone that the 20th-century avant-gardes were searching for, the sublation of the arts, in the Hegelian sense of the term. Cinema as an art, indeed, but one that would possess the power to look at the other arts, to solve the mysteries of the representation of the world, in short, to perform the miracle of the reproduction of perception as a whole, the access to which haunts the history of painting – Turner similarly solved the search for movement by way of abstraction.
I often think of what Ingmar Bergman said about Tarkovsky moving freely through spaces whose doors he himself had knocked on his entire life.
In this sense I have always been confused by the misunderstandings sparked off by the distinction between experimental cinema, heir to the early-20th-century Dadaist (Hans Richter) and Surrealist (Man Ray, Buñuel) endeavours, and the narrative cinema that established itself very early on as popular entertainment, gradually winning its spurs. Venom and Eternity (1951) by the founder of Lettrism, Isidore Isou, should in my opinion be regarded as the harbinger of the Nouvelle Vague. And, on the other side of the Atlantic, a similar break brought about by a generation of experimental filmmakers who challenged everything that came before them, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage or John Cassavetes, was the basis of the free cinema to come, of New Hollywood, if you like. Especially in terms of the formal reformulation of cinema’s aesthetics, which far less affected the Nouvelle Vague. Through superimposition and black magic (Anger), abstraction (Brakhage), a diaristic style (Mekas), dramaturgy and the status of the actor (Cassavetes), or the use of the zoom as a reinvention of the fixed shot, liberated from the static camera obscura (Warhol), it is not the syntax but the very texture of cinema that is at stake.
I, for my part, regard cinema as a whole: narrative cinema has always fed on experimental works just as the latter have always been inspired by the limits or deadlocks of figuration. What I mean is that there is some Brakhage in Michael Bay and some Warhol in Fassbinder or Almodóvar.
At the heart of these matters, as is often the case when it comes to questioning the contemporary, is the work of Jean-Luc Godard, initially a product of classical cinephilia and haunted until sundown by his questioning of and by the doubt eating away at this same cinephilia, the knot of suffering that has defined his art for a long time now.
Theory is thought in motion, thought in its capacity to take hold – including in strategic terms – of the issues of a present that is constantly redefined. At what point, when exactly, did cinema cease to be thought? When did it lose the vital, essential link between the practice of an art and its reflection? I fear that many irresistible forces have contributed to what I continue to perceive as the failure of a generation.
First of all, I would say that cinema has been the victim of its own prestige, and (auteur) theory of its international success, which has opened wide the doors of the academy. As soon as film thought became an academic discipline, it became fixed; it ceased to be the continuation of filmmakers’ material and practical concerns. Who, today, is seriously interested in how lenses transform space, particularly by the long focal lengths specific to modern cinema? Who wonders about the monocular perspective as a limit to cinema’s reproduction of the real? Or, again, who explores the disparity between the open, free field of novel or modern-theatre writing and the narrow limits of the conventions governing the work of committees and commissions holding the power of life and death over cinematographic works? Not to mention series, whose standard-bearers seem all too happy to have a go at applying the tissue of conventions and platitudes from American screenwriting textbooks.
What I am getting at is the point when living theory becomes dead ideology. In the hands of university professors, who see it as a chance to add a touch of modernity to their teaching, thought in motion becomes a doxa, an assemblage of rules, of automatisms, no longer based on anything since we have forgotten their very source, the source of youth, of the most spontaneous poetry.
If I wanted to take my reflection another step further and be more provocative than I wish to be in this context, I would say that it is time, today, to seriously, and responsibly, confront the failure of cinephilia. I do not mean to cast doubt on its achievements, nor on its critical importance within 20th-century thinking about the image: it is of paramount importance. But the very success of this treasure of film history should open our eyes and force us to admit that it is a moment of cinema, that this moment is long past because it no longer produces anything new, if not a form of tetany resulting in the idea that the totality of cinema would have been thought in the era of 1960s modernity and of classical cinema before that, and that the only thing left for us today is to be satisfied with the values and tools of an ironic, or rather non-duped postmodernity, if not lapsing into baroque grotesques.
What I mean is that in a world of proliferating images, of all kinds, we cannot but notice the fragility of the place of cinephile thought, which has become a fall-back position, whereas, until recently, it was still at the centre of the debate.
Once its great principles had been acquired, once film had been recognized as a legitimate object of study, once its auteur had gained the prestige that was formerly reserved for those practising older and more serious disciplines, once its legitimacy had been recognized to be halfway between high and low culture, we did not move an inch, it seems. I have witnessed the walls of a – university – stronghold being constructed so as to protect, around the guardians of this temple, values that have not produced anything useful or relevant for a very long time.
I say this all the more uneasily as I put myself not only in the position of essayist here but also in that of a filmmaker examining theory, asking the question of knowing, of understanding, in what way it would have been useful or stimulating to me beyond what I learned by contributing to Cahiers du cinéma for five years, between 1980 and 1985. The answer, as far as I am concerned, and it could – perhaps – be different for others, is brutal: nothing. And, as nature has gifted me with a rather contrary spirit, I am left with the feeling that I had to swim against the tide of ephemeral conceptions, of lucky charms, of instantly forgotten fashions of a drifting cinephile thought, determined by a late connection with Bourdieusian sociology, dabbling in the mirror games of postmodernity and naively running after the prestige of the visual arts, ever since the latter have invaded the field of the moving image via the practice of installation art, however fragile and questionable.
Please allow me to look to the past one last time before coming to less negative considerations, although I am in many ways a supporter of the powers of the negative, which were a great inspiration to me.
When historical cinephilia was formed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, did the theory of the visual arts have anything at all to say about cinema, about its history and the powerful forces that determined its transformation? Not much, in my opinion, and you do not have to be, as I was, a reader of Guy Debord and the Situationists to observe that during those years, faced with the advent of the New York School (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko...), the main question troubling the European avant-gardes was their own political failure and the rehashing of the deadlocks of abstraction, the repetition of transgressions that weren’t even shocking anymore in 1930. Cinema was so far removed from the concerns of the theory of the visual arts that it referred, even in its most contemporary variations, such as Italian neorealism, to the the most basic monocular reproduction of the world. Cinema’s question of figuration seemed insignificant compared with the exploration of the obscurities or the dazzlement of the unconscious through the means of abstraction and, even more so, compared with the movement of art’s negation through happenings in their most radical and extreme variations, such as Viennese Actionism. Or, again, the Hamburg Theses of Debord, Vaneigem and Kotanyi which signalled the Situationist renunciation of art in favour of the “realization of philosophy”.
I am writing this to recall how cinephile thought was also a powerful antidote to the destructive forces at work within the avant-gardes and how it enabled the budding filmmakers of the time, undoubtedly the richest and most prolific generation in the history of film, to find a basis for a practice of representing the world, which the visual arts were denying them.
We will have to come to the present. I am going to try and do that. I would like to begin with the issue of theory, given that I reject cinephilia for its ossification into ideology and dogma.
In his recent book A History of Pictures, David Hockney, whom I consider to be the main contemporary thinker of the image, apart from being the greatest living painter, pursues a fascinating reflection on the origins of representation: how it was long built around a relationship with the monocular perspective, with the technical evolution of lenses and their usage, and the technique of the camera obscura. As much as these tools allow him an infinitely stimulating rereading of the classical era of painting, he also deals with their modern reappraisal. The Cubist moment was a pivotal event in this regard, breaking with the traditional reference points of perspective through a multiplication of angles for one and the same image.
In my view, Hockney does not go far enough, in the sense that his view is not supported by the theory of cinema, which has over time forgotten being a theory of perception – except with Gilles Deleuze who, primarily in The Movement Image, has been one of the very last great thinkers of cinema. It is indeed from the point of view of movement – and of the multiplication of perspectives and axes within a sequence, not within a shot, which is not the true syntagm of cinema – that the question of cinema as an answer to Hockney’s concerns plays out, as a way of questioning the limits of the original camera obscura. The movement of the camera, ever since it can be carried, and the use of long lenses, including indoors, ever since we have sensitive enough opticals at our disposal, indeed brings us several steps closer, I think, to the reproduction of perception, which is finally within reach.
Hockney refuses to take stock of these questions at work in cinema, which is the limit of his reflection, but it seems to me that the last breakthrough in his most recent work is essential, in the sense that it suggests placing painting back at the heart of the history of images. To summarize it schematically, he does not consider the shift from painting to photography as a break but a continuity in which the decisive invention is not so much the rival reproduction of the real as it is the ability to fix – on photographic paper – an image that painters had already known for a long time through their use of perspective and which was at the source of its techniques and their evolution.
The importance of this idea lies in its relegitimization of the age-old artistic theory developed around painting at the heart of cinema, which could quite reasonably be considered the continuation of the invention of photography. Fundamentally, the question I am trying to ask would be to know if it would not be in the interest of cinema today to confront the wealth of reflections that have, since the Renaissance, been concerned with considering both the question of the reproduction of the world and the even more essential question of the exploration of perception. If I were asked what I think is most useful to teach in today’s film schools, I would recommend these two tracks.
Besides, in order to support these intuitions, it would suffice to observe how the thinkers of the image that Jean-Luc Godard – the most authentically plastic of all the great modern filmmakers – most often refers to are Elie Faure and, above all, André Malraux, whose brilliance and staggering juxtapositions – theoretical short circuits – most certainly continue to haunt us.
What I am trying to say here is how poorly equipped cinephilia is to face these questions, which are at the heart of the understanding of cinema’s mysterious contemporary nature, whose very elements still seem to escape us. Whereas the history of the arts offers us a wealth of stimulating opportunities to reinvent our relationship with the moving image and, perhaps, to set it back in the long history that ended up being obscured by the opposition between classical cinema and modernity, a productive time.
Who is thinking cinema today, from which point of view and based on which values? And what does cinema think of itself, according to which ethics and principles? Two questions of a very different nature, whose answers seem to have crumbled – especially on the internet – and whose coherence has become infinitely difficult to imagine.
Seen from a limited angle, that of French cinema, it seemed to me that, although I was not part of it myself, the strong personalities of Serge Daney and Claude Lanzmann served as reference points for a while by founding a sort of funeral postscript to cinephilia, which was post-leftist rather than post-modern and defined by the question of the taboo: on the one hand, the “tracking shot in Kapò” which was criticized by Jacques Rivette in an essay about Gillo Pontecorvo’s film of the same name (Pontecorvo made The Battle of Algiers and had previously been an indestructible idol of anti-colonialist cinema) and which, for Daney, becomes obscenity itself, the aestheticisation of deportation, at a time when he is giving a deeply moving literary form to his own hitherto repressed personal history of a father he never knew, a Polish Jew and victim of the camps.
Claude Lanzmann, on the other hand, the auteur of the astonishing masterpiece Shoah, by grasping deportation in a transcendental way and refraining from using archival images, built a film ethics around this question that made a lasting impression.
The combination of these two issues served as theory for a generation of filmmakers who were themselves rarely directly affected by these historical questions but who were looking for a moral code which the ruins of classical cinephilia, already critically wounded by leftism, were unable to provide.
The paradox of this moment in cinema theory is that it had nothing constructive to propose other than the establishing of some code of restriction. Complete with the obligingly raised spectre of the death of cinema. I wouldn’t have liked to start making films in those dire circumstances, and it was Arnaud Desplechin who, in La Sentinelle – a film I always thought Serge Daney would have loved – managed to untie this knot and rescue cinema from this curse. But wasn’t there a fundamental truth to all this and wasn’t Serge Daney, who climbed aboard the post-Bazinian train during the 1970s, nearly clairvoyant with regard to the deadlocks of cinephilia around which he had established himself and whose unravelling, decomposing and self-denial he witnessed while he was himself dying?
What is left of these questions? Do they remain, did they get past the borders of France? Not really. Do they appeal to young filmmakers? Do they have a posterity, or are they only relevant within the context of this reflection on the present state of cinema? Hardly.
When trying to identify the place of a reformulation of cinephilia today, it is impossible not to situate it on the internet and in the latter’s redefinition of both the viewing modes of cinema and the way in which we move through its history. It is an irrelevant commonplace and yet a truth worth mentioning that today’s generations have an infinitely wider access to history – to the entire history of cinema as well as to its present – unimaginable for pre-digital humanity, who only had access through the Cinematheque to a fraction of the masterpieces of cinema, some of them remaining perfectly unattainable.
We don’t see everything, but we have access to almost everything, free of charge even; cinephilia has dissolved into a multitude of conflicting cliques, each organized around one fragment of one glorious past, to the extent that even its symbolic value continues to diminish. There are still films, often very good ones too – more good films are made today than at any other time - whose stakes play out on an ad hoc basis: will it win the Oscar, the Palm, the Lion, the Bear, will it be nominated? While filmmakers as auteurs are fading. Who today knows how to follow the thread of an oeuvre, to understand what is at work in an artist’s search, however senseless and futile? It’s all about this film right here, and after that everything starts all over again. In the digital fragmentation and its dilution of theoretical pertinence today, the entire legacy of auteur cinephilia is pretty much called into question.
Which theory is entering into dialogue with cinema in the present, which theory is accepted, has the right to help shape the inspiration of filmmakers? To whom is one accountable? I am a little afraid of the answer, to be honest.
It seems to me that it is sociology – it is easier to say the political – and communitarianism. But is this a good or a bad thing? And am I not venturing onto fragile, shifting sands? I believe there is an injunction to address these questions, even if I doubt that I will be able to formulate a satisfactory, let alone consensual, answer.
We know the evils of our time. Global warming, ecological disaster, an insane increase in social inequalities, the impossibility of managing migratory flows and, above all, the inability of those who govern, of states, to give a satisfactory or even vaguely reassuring response to these anxiety-inducing subjects, not to mention wars, epidemics or unemployment. Conversely, it seems as if the self-destructive opposition to the apprehension of these evils has in our democracies become an electoral asset.
It is only natural that filmmakers are citizens too and thus legitimately involved in the issues society is facing. But the political is the domain of the complex, and it does not necessarily produce good cinema. What’s more, fictional cinema struggles – which is normal – to grasp social issues that are analyzed or represented much more adequately by publishing, the press or even documentaries, longer and therefore more legitimate forms that possess the ability to treat fragile or sensitive subjects with the necessary rigour, precision and exactingness that cinema can only very exceptionally offer.
From my point of view, the sociological is a bad branch to catch hold of, not least because simplifications, amalgamations, and dramatization risk cutting out the facts, reducing them to comfortable generalities and resulting in an interpretation that is both erroneous and harmful.
I do not wish to criticize or delegitimize a cinema that aims to be accountable to the state and its citizens; on the contrary, it is perfectly commendable. I just want to say that I find it very difficult, and sometimes even dangerous, and that I do not at any rate discern a key there that would allow us to think contemporary, let alone future, cinema in a satisfactory or stimulating way.
What to think of communitarianism, which has become a factor influencing our societies and which in turn examines cinema for lack of being examined by it, which would seem more fundamental, riskier and more satisfying anyway to our minds; I have always been convinced that it is the role of cinema and art to examine society and certainly not to be examined by it, especially not in terms of censorship, the eternal hallmark of totalitarian regimes.
I was an adolescent in the 1970s. I have often repeated this and will continue to do so because this period, and its questioning of all society’s values, left an indelible mark on my life. I lived and was actively involved in a counterculture that advocated the liberation of everyday life, and I was engaged in forms of leftism that promoted individual liberation rather than collectivist utopias and support for authoritarian or even genocidal regimes. I have seen the liberation of homosexuality in words and deeds, I have seen the revival of feminism and its decisive victories. I have seen the invention of a Franco-Maghrebi identity, of a culture originating in the districts the African immigrants were relegated to, encouraged to settle in France in order to serve as labour for Gaullist France’s great infrastructure works.
I was less interested, afterwards, in the identitarian drift that followed from these steps forward, nor in their political or ideological instrumentalization. Perhaps they were fatal; perhaps they were necessary, I don’t know. I have personally never thought of my relationship with others in terms of the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences. As for my relationship with women and feminism – which would be my lifelong favourite political party because I am utterly convinced that toxic masculinity has become the source of all evil in our world – it was Groucho Marx who gave the best definition when he said that man is a woman like any other. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I add these more personal comments not just to define who I am but, in this instance, “where I’m speaking from”, to use the jargon of the political years. I personally think that cinema can be communitarian – I do not think it is intended that way, but why not – but this communitarianism is nevertheless entirely unsuited to taking the place of the absence of theoretical thinking on cinema, which we have to take stock of today.
I will have to address Hollywood. I have practically nothing positive to say about it except that this industry’s prosperity and new modalities do not delight me, they frighten or even repulse me, because what they have recently produced is diametrically opposed to what I loved or admired about the American cinema that, throughout film history, provided this art with several of its greatest masters.
We are witnessing the triumph of series, the distribution of films through digital platforms and the confiscation of screens in the service of (mostly Disney-studio) franchises, whose hegemony now seems absolute.
Why take the trouble to finance a film that is not meant to provoke a sequel, a spin-off, or another film “in the universe of” and whose unsure relationship with the public is unpredictable? For a long time now, in Hollywood, the territory of film has been shrinking. To the benefit of an independent cinema forced to make do with ridiculous budgets – and thus limited in its practicing of the contemporary syntax of cinema, which is reserved for major productions.
And Netflix, and Disney Plus, and Apple, etc.: hasn’t cinema taken refuge there? Haven’t Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, the Safdie brothers, and Noah Baumbach found political asylum there? I have even been there myself, since my film Wasp Network is distributed by Netflix in most places, except where it had been bought in advance — first of all in France, where it was an honest public success on the big screen. No other distributor offered the producers of the film a viable alternative.
If there is one issue cinema-thinking – which could use some sorely missing theoretical tools – comes up against, it is the confusion generated by the profound transformation of film distribution and financing. First of all, do the platforms intend to finance ambitious contemporary auteur cinema, beyond the incidental effect of fame that comes with the rivalry in this field of newcomers determined to take over a large share of the market? In other words, will Netflix, in need of prestige and symbolic value today, still need it next year or the year after? Not really, I guess. As for the studios, will they return to film as a business model or is the deviation towards franchises on the one hand and series on the other definitive?
In short, is there still room for a free cinema on the big screen? I believe that if this window is not closing, it is at least shrinking before our eyes. The only real model left is an independent, radical, daring cinema, alas with limited distribution.
Am I comfortable with that? Not really. I come from the visual arts originally; I was influenced by contemporary poetry, and my musical tastes have most often led me to artists on the margins’ margins, not to mention my aesthetic, philosophical, and political convictions, which are of a terribly minority nature within my generation. But if I chose to devote myself to cinema, it was because of its majority status, because it was the last art form that profoundly resonated with society, that wasn’t trapped in its stronghold, that hadn’t suffered the overwhelming deviation of the visual arts, which opted for an alliance with triumphant financial capitalism, choosing a false cynical radicalism, which Guy Debord called “state Dadaism”, meant to promote it to stratospheric heights.
The cinema that inspired me, that I loved, that I have tried to practise myself is an impure and open cinema, particularly accessible to those for whom cinema is often the only opportunity to encounter art as vital, beneficial and, why not, salutary.
Do I think, in this regard, that Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and so many others have been right in choosing a form of security and entrusting their films to Netflix? I don’t. I think that their films demonstrate that the cinema I believe in is alive and feasible – most of these films could have easily been financed without the help of Netflix or other platforms – and that it is the extension, the continuation of an art that is truly of our time, of our generation, that gives the most susceptible, sensitive account of the transformation of the world, of beings, of time, so many things that belong to cinema and which are in danger of getting lost or forgotten in the flow of images; and, even if I have few certainties, I am certain that this danger is very real, that facing it and persevering will unite us, however powerful the forces we have to face.
At this point, my reader has every right to ask me what this absent theory is, exactly, that cinema in the present time would need. It seems I have already evoked the indispensable back and forth between intuitive, spontaneous, uncontrolled practice, often determined by the use of new tools or new mediums, and its thought. I don’t mean to say that the development of the arts is the word of the Pythia and that it is up to critics, essayists, and certain filmmakers too, as I am doing at this very moment, to try to decipher its enigmas. But I do think it might be important, perhaps even essential, that works generate what Roberto Longhi called ekphrasis, that is to say the discourse made possible and provoked by the questions, enigmas and breakthroughs that art in its quest for life and its contradictions leaves unsolved. A writing that would be in dialogue with the artists, a revelation of the work and by this very fact an intercessor for the spectator.
I understand this in the most literal sense, that of knowing how to read and answer the questions raised day by day by the practice of film, but I would also like to push this issue a little further and open it up to two fields which seem to offer great potential within the present context. The first is the unconscious, and the second is ethics.
Here, more than elsewhere, I must speak in the first person and share concerns that have always haunted me, even when they were losing ground in film reflection and in the inspiration of filmmakers.
Applied to cinema, and please forgive me the inevitable simplifications and shortcuts when approaching that vast a subject, psychoanalysis enlightens us in two different forms. The first, broadly Freudian, form reminds us that auteurs are never entirely aware of what they are doing in their apprehension of characters and their acts, in the same manner that writers, taking up their pen, do not always write what they had planned to, as writing reveals thought rather than thought freezing writing: in short, I mean that both filmmakers and writers, however lucid they may be, do not always know what they are saying or doing because their unconscious is at work.
In another time, not long ago, this went without saying, and one went looking for what motivated or determined the modern individual, for better or for worse, in reflections on Ingmar Bergman’s, Michelangelo Antonioni’s or Jacques Tati’s characters. I believe the same could be the case today, at a time when the meaning of films, in its multiple forms, has more than ever become a subject of debate and polemics. In films, as in any work of the mind, it is the unconscious that acts. We open our doors to it and there is nothing more precious than what it expresses through us once we refrain from commonplaces, convenience, conventions and all the false dramatic rules determining committees and commissions on which the present and future of cinema sadly all too often depends, limiting and distorting the authentic inspiration and desires of young filmmakers who are taught how not to be themselves by the dominant rules of the film industry.
The other dimension according to which psychoanalysis defines cinema I would like to call broadly Jungian, in the sense that cinema in its entirety, even in its most conventional and simplistic form, can – and, in my opinion, should – be regarded as a collective unconscious. The world of images, the fantastic, the imaginary, wherever it may lead us, often in the most disappointing or banal ways, is the dream of our society, and it informs us, often without knowing, about the state of the world better than any other art, with the exception maybe of songs, of popular entertainment and music in all its forms, providing a real-time account of what is flowing through our present time.
For example, I have always considered Star Trek a quasi-documentary look at office life and the interactions between employees, torn between their daily routine and the dangers of the outside world; I only later realized what was literally staring me in the face, that their spaceship is called “Enterprise”...
On a darker note, it is difficult not to consider the proliferation of films that are in some way haunted by destruction and the end of the world, and built around Marvel superheroes, a sort of revenge of masculinity, which is threatened by the redefinition of the place of women in modern societies.
And I deliberately choose two rather simple tendencies with the sole intention of showing that unravelling these threads could contribute to thinking the truths, including the unpleasant ones, that animate our time.
Which brings me to ethics.
It deserves to be examined, even if the present state of cinema might provide us with few easy or satisfactory answers.
It is not a question of morality for me, given that most of the works of Eisenstein or Vertov could be defined as propaganda, that Rossellini himself made films approved by the fascist state, that it can be painful to watch The Birth of a Nation, one of film history’s masterpieces, that Bergman, Hitchcock and many of the most eminent artists in the history of cinema have made Cold War films. This does not detract from their genius. Not to mention Leni Riefenstahl, who is denied her – important – place only because of her Nazism and the benefits she derived from it. A great filmmaker like Xie Jin, the inspired auteur of Two Stage Sisters and Woman Basketball Player No. 5, had no scruples about pursuing his career during the Cultural Revolution’s darkest hours.
I rather consider it a question of practice, like when André Bazin spoke of a “forbidden montage” when two antinomic shots are put together, a wild beast on the one hand and an actor disguised as an explorer on the other. Or when Claude Lanzmann, who I quoted earlier, examines the legitimacy of representing, of fictionalizing the concentration camps and the gas chambers. Everyone has the right to argue and to defend his or her point of view on this issue. It is no less relevant and it has, above all, the merit of going to the utmost limit of a question that arises on a smaller scale in every single gesture of the practice of cinema.
Who finances films, where does the money come from, whose accomplices do we become when spending that money, when practising our art? What did we give up, what did we have to compromise with when we needed to meet the demands of the market and the industry dictating their rules? The practices of which television channel, basing its audience on which demagogy, do we approve of? To which fantasized demand, to which “general public”, despised by those who claim to speak in their name, have we given in?
For example, fifteen years after the fact, I discovered that my film Sentimental Destinies had been distributed in the United States by a company, and a very sympathetic one at that, whose main shareholder happened to be the extreme-right agitator Steve Bannon. Am I comfortable with that? No, I’m not. Do I have a choice? I don’t know, perhaps, but things would be much clearer if these issues were discussed and laid out in black and white. The same goes for American megaproductions adapting their scenarios to the demands of the Chinese government’s politico-confucian censorship in order to reach the planet’s largest audience.
I am often reminded of the title of an article by François Truffaut, ironically called ‘Clouzot at Work, or the Reign of Terror’. We have to acknowledge, as Truffaut did, the image, widespread at the time and more diffuse today, of the demiurge-filmmaker who abused his authority and power to the benefit of an unspeakable quest, an absolute as vague as it is hard to formulate, and whose whims, anger and impertinence are as many tangible expressions of it, remaining, however, inaccessible to ordinary mortals. I consider the opposite important, that filmmakers are accountable to their crew and that the quality of concentration, the richness of sharing, the clarity of intentions all form a decisive part of the collective adventure of a film shoot. I have often, whenever I had the opportunity, thanked the crew of my films and reminded them how much cinema is the sum of energies relayed by a director, whose art often depends on his ability to listen, to pay attention to ideas, to the flow of things that arises on set day after day. His talent also depends on knowing how to give rise to that. For me, it is an old and deep conviction that the best of cinema depends on the quality of everyone’s commitment to a strange undertaking which has to do with the reinvention and re-enchantment of the real, but which is also a parallel world, a parallel life in which everyone must be able to surpass themselves, to find fulfilment and, in a way, to give meaning to what is a little more than a job, the commitment of a life, an intimate quest.
This in no way means that I would renounce what I have often declared, namely that directing is first and foremost a force of disruption in the automatisms that structure the functioning of a set. It is indeed up to the mise en scène to constantly unsettle conventions and conveniences, forms that are only alive if they are constantly shaken up and questioned: and the more we shake them up, the more we refuse to content ourselves with ready-made answers, the more we put into practice the conviction that cinema can and should be a thousand things – what it was in the past or what remains to be explored, that this territory is infinite and the only one that really deserves exploring – the more chances we get to reveal the very meaning of our art and its place in the world. But none of that can be achieved alone. It needs to be extended, deepened, applied by everyone, with all attendant risks and with the exactingness necessary to realize this ambition.
This applies to all filming and to all filmmakers who have chosen to practise their art outside the laws and rules of the streaming industry and who have been able to preserve their often hard-won freedom – cinema’s supreme value – to their own benefit, of course, but also, and just as much, to the benefit of their collaborators. A film is a microcosm, all of society, every stratum is represented in it, and the same waves, the same tensions run through it, except that these values are put to the test more immediately, more urgently, on a daily basis and with immediately observable consequences. This is why I attach inestimable value to an ethical practice of cinema whose beneficial effects, pleasures as well as dangers, would be shared by all, amounting to a disalienated work at the heart of the very territory of alienation. I talked about accountability, and I believe one must first of all submit one’s work to the respect of these values.
As you can guess, I do not really like what has become of the current film industry in the hands of executives who look more like business managers produced by business schools, or of senior civil servants, who are often people of great quality but whose instincts, ambitions and imagination are a million miles away from those of the adventurers, the players and visionaries who built this cathedral we all share, the cathedral of the first century of cinema.
In this regard, I have always put my Faith in what is called independent cinema – structures whose historical models would be François Truffaut’s Les Films du Carrosse or Barbet Schroeder’s and Eric Rohmer’s Les Films du Losange. But this would disregard the work of producers who have, in the often hostile undergrowth of various film-funding bodies and in the maze of the banking system, managed to support – beyond any profit logic, happy not to be out of pocket themselves – singular, atypical works against the values of their time. Works by authentic authors who are themselves carried by nothing but their convictions, their obsessions but also their limits and their fragilities, the raw material of their work.
It is this ecosystem, rephrased time and again in different cultures and countries, more or less dependent on cinema-favourable legislation or patronage, or on nothing at all, that has kept alive reflection, research, daring and, first of all, a form of integrity that is indispensable to the best practice of cinema.
We have seen the wave of streaming cinema grow, we have seen cinema become an industry, and this industry become dominant – and I am hesitant to use the words “mind-numbing” or “alienating ”, which would have, until recently, flown quite naturally out of my pen without even feeling the need to justify it. Yet whereas, in another time, one could dream of cinema as a utopia, it seems to me that it has become perfectly dystopian and that, in the name of entertainment or whitewashed in conformism and bland good intentions, it is essentially devoted to the perpetuation and flattery of the most conventional emotions and of the lowest, if not inane, desires. In this respect, I am happy enough when a film, for lack of a concern with nature, light and the human, at least refrains from being harmful.
This is why, deep down, today, cinema must be made against cinema. Especially if it wishes to embody, within the new world of images, that which is most precious and most vital: the freedom to think, to invent, to search, to wander and to err, in short to be the antidote we need so as to preserve our faith and keep the flame alive, which it is our duty to know how to protect and transmit, generation after generation, in a battle that is never won.
March – April 2020
In 2018, by analogy with similar initiatives in other art forms, Sabzian created a new yearly tradition: Sabzian invites a guest to write a State of Cinema and to choose an accompanying film. Once a year, the art of film is held against the light: a speech that challenges cinema, calls it to account, points the way or refuses to define it, puts it to the test and on the line, summons or embraces it, praises or curses it. A plea, a declaration, a manifest, a programme, a testimony, a letter, an apologia or maybe even an indictment. In any case, a call to think about what cinema means, could mean or should mean today.
For the third edition on 26 June 2020, Sabzian was honoured to welcome the French filmmaker and author Olivier Assayas. He had chosen Tarkovsky’s The Mirror to accompany his lecture. Sadly, due to the corona crisis, the screening could not take place. Olivier Assayas’ State of Cinema was streamed online.