Beyond the terminal station at the edge of the Roman campagna, an arterial road begins, the Via Tuscolana. To the right, a film school; to the left, the walled film city Cinecittà. I looked at those great European film studios for two years but they did not stir my imagination one bit. By the 1960s, the film city had itself become a backdrop, an industrial zone with no activity to speak of (Godard’s Contempt talks about this). They no longer filmed sets in artificial light, but used found locations – the location scout had replaced the set designer. Even though they often talked like naive realists, no one really believed in it. Yet people seemed to want to get out of the studio. Fellini sometimes took his “troupe” into town but what he conjured up out of his hat from that studio was not a topic of discussion in the film school across the road.
I once worked there as an extra in an Italian Bond knockoff. I remember getting up incredibly early (so it really is like that in the film business, I thought) and the dusty dressing rooms. The feeling a conscript has when he is handed a strange suit that strips him of his “self” and invisibly enlists him in the army. I too laid off my clothes and was enlisted in the film’s fiction. In Italy I looked “British” and I was able to capitalise on that stereotypical resemblance.
I remember the studio bunkers and how uninvitingly those boxes isolated from light and sound were scattered over a large area. Inside, it was cool, dusty and dark. An iron truss, metal grids for the lighting, walkways and many lamps towered high above you. The world up there had a fairy-tale-like busyness to it, with people crouching to operate the lights. Blue-smocked elves, were it not for the fact that their foul language pulled me firmly back to the world of labour.
The most impressive conjuring trick was to enter the wooden-carpentry set and suddenly find myself in a closed salon, as uninhabitable as it seemed real, as convincing to the eye as it was implausible to the senses. Made habitable for a few days of shooting. Technicians were shamelessly shifting furniture – after all, the arrangement was of no one’s doing.
An obscure hierarchy governed everyone’s movements and actions. Distances were measured, movements marked, stops, speeds and gaze directions indicated. A swirl of commands, rehearsals, false starts, under an increasingly boiling sea of light. When it finally happened “for real”, you weren’t even able to distinguish it from everything else. From that miscellany of the little understanding of an “I”, you rolled back out. The sun was dazzling you, you were still wearing that borrowed suit and you realised that it stuck to you like a second skin. Everyone saw your “role”, why you had been chosen, which stereotype was in your grasp, what you did for a living. The studio workers’ blue smocks looked like colourful knight costumes to me, my own uniform putting me in fiction’s irons.
A few months later I stepped onto those same huge grounds again. I was looking for another number, another studio, as the second assistant to the director B., who later became very famous. He was still young and generous. He had retreated to a studio set with an American acting troupe for fourteen days. He was shooting a short sketch. No costumes and make-up here, no fiction and commands, no borrowed uniforms and stereotypes. Still, the atmosphere was tense. The improvisations seemed worse than commands. The delineation of autonomy was as fierce as it was sycophantic. The American actors seemed most bothered by the fact that all their work was repeated, interpreted and dominated by the camera, the monstrous eye that followed all their movements, all their glances and to which they had to surrender their appearance and attitude.
And there was the constant waiting, a veritable mystique of pacing behind the sets. Like courtiers to the most capricious of monarchs, you were sent away and called back, painfully incapable of being anything other than the one who waits and does not know exactly what for. Inside, in the operating room of light, they were feverishly working on preparations that would soon be crowning your presence.
In that film city, I understood that the game of appearances and the straitjacket of fiction around the body surpassed my imagination.
I often looked above me, at those blue suits. How did their artisanal soberness attach itself to the madness of the imagination beneath them? How I admired the magic of that imagination when it commanded order and obedience up there! But how frightened I was by that miscellany of idea and dominance, of creation and authority. Walking under the pine trees and along the factory halls in Cinecittà, I decided for myself that this mystery was unfathomable to me and that I wanted to keep it that way. I was able to say, without qualms, that from then on I wanted to be at home in that other space of isolation: the cinema. Not the city of film, but film in the city.
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 English translations of Lauwaert’s most notable writings on film, in collaboration with LUCA School of Arts. 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.
This article was originally published as ‘Het wachten der figuranten‘ in Kunst & Cultuur, maart 1987.
Image (1) from Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)
Image (2) from Le mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
This translation was published by courtesy of Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman.
With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject.