Having an Idea in Cinema


by Gilles Deleuze

Transcription of a Lecture Deleuze gave in May 1987 at the FEMIS school. Published in ‘Deleuze & Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture’ (eds. E. Kaufman and K.J. Heller, University of Minnesota Press, 1998). Translated by Eleanor Kaufman.

I too, would like to pose some questions. Pose them to you and to myself. They would be in this vein: What exactly do you, who do cinema, do? And for me: What exactly do l do when l do, or hope to do, philosophy?

I could pose the question otherwise: What is having an idea in cinema? If one does or wants to do cinema, what does having an idea mean? What happens when one says: “Wait, I have an idea’? For, on the one hand, everyone clearly knows that having an idea is an event that rarely takes place; ‘it is a sort of celebration, very uncommon. And then, on the other hand, having an idea is not a general thing. One does not have an idea in general. An idea – like the one who has the idea – is already dedicated to this or that domain. It is sometimes an idea in painting, sometimes an idea in fiction, sometimes an idea in philosophy, sometimes an idea in science. And it is certainly not the same thing that can have all that. ldeas must be treated as potentials that are already engaged in this or that mode of expression and inseparable from it, so much so that I cannot say that I have an idea in general. According to the techniques that l know, I can have an idea in a given domain, an idea in cinema or rather an idea in philosophy.

What is having an idea in something?

So I begin again with the principle that l do philosophy and that you do cinema. Given this, it would he too easy to say that since philosophy is prepared to reflect on anything at all, why wouldn’t it reflect on cinema? This is ridiculous. Philosophy is not made for reflecting on anything at all. In treating
philosophy as a power of “reflecting on,” much would seem to be accorded to it when in fact everything is taken from it. This is because no one needs philosophy for reflecting. Only filmmakers or cinema critics, or even those who like cinema, can effectively reflect on cinema. These people have no need of philosophy in order to reflect on cinema. The idea that mathematicians would need philosophy to refiect on mathematics is comical. 1f philosophy had to serve as a means of relectíng on something. it would have no reason to exist. If philosophy exists, it is because it has its own coment.

What is the content of philosophy?

It is very simple: philosophy is a discipline that is just as creative und inventive as any other discipline. And it entails creating or even inventing concepts. And concepts du not exist ready-made in the waiting for a philosopher to seize them. Concepts must he made. To he sure, they are not made just like that. It’s not that one just says one day, “Look, I’m going to invent such and such a concept,” no more than a painter says one day, “Look, I’m going to make a painting like this,” or a filmmaker, “Look, I’m going to make such and such a film!” There must be a necessity, as much philosophy as elsewhere, for if not there is nothing at all. A creator is not a being who works for pleasure. A creator does only what he or she absolutely needs to do. The fact remains that this necessity – which, if it exists, is a very complex thing – makes a philosopher (and here, l at least know what the concerns of the philosopher are) propose to invent, to create, concepts und not to concern himself or herself with reflecting, even on cinema.

I say that l do philosophy, which is to say that I try to invent concepts.
What if I say, to you who do cinema: What do you do?

What you invent are not concepts – which are not your concern – but blocks of movements/duration. If one puts together a block of movements/duration, perhaps one does cinema. It is not a matter of invoking a story or of contesting one. Everything has a story. Philosophy teils stories as well. Stories with concepts. Cinema tells stories with blocks of movements/duration. Painting invents entirely different types of blocks. These are neither blocks of concepts nor blocks of movements/duration, but blocks of lines/colors. Music ìnvents other types of blocks, equally specific. Beside all this, science is no less
creative. l don’t really see oppositions between the sciences and the arts.

If I ask a scientist what he or she does, the answer is that the scientist also invents. He or she does not discover – discovery exists, but it is not what
defines scientific activity as such – but rather creates just as much as an artist. It is not complicated: a scientist is someone who invents or creates functions. And the scientist is the only one. A scientist as such has nothing to do with concepts. On the one hand, it is precisely- and fortunately – for this that there is philosophy. On the other hand, there is one thing that only a scientist knows how to do: invent and create functions. What is a function? There is a function as soon as at least two wholes are put into correspondence. The fundamental notion of science – and not just of late but for a long time – is the notion of the xhole. A whole has nothing to do with a concept. As soon as you put wholes into correlation, you obtain functions and can say, “I do science.”

If anyone can speak to anyone else – if a filmmaker can speak to a scientist, if a scientist can have something to say to a philosopher and vice versa – it is according to and by function of each one’s creative activity. It is not that talk of creation took place – creation, to the contrary, is something very solitary but it is in the name of my creation that I have something to say to someone. If I lined up all these disciplines that are defined by their creative activity, l would say that there is a limit common to all of them. The limit common to all these series of inventions – inventions of functions, inventions of blocks of movements/duration, inventions of concepts – is space-time. If all the disciplines communicate together, it is on the level of that which never emerges for itself, but which is, as it were, engaged in every creative discipline, and this is the constitution of space-times.

An example of a cinematographic idea is the famous sight-sound dissociatìon in the relatively recent cinema of Hans-jürgen Syberberg, the Straubs,and Marguerìte Duras, to take the best-known cases. What is common to these, and in what sense is this dìsjunctíon of the visual and the auditory a properly cinematic idea? Why could this not take place in theater? Or at least if this happened in theater, if the theater found the means, then one can say without exception that the theater borrowed it from cinema. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but the operation of disjunction between sight and sound, between the visual and the auditory, is just the sort of cinematographìc idea that would respond to the question, What, for example, is having an idea in cinema?

A voice speaks of something. Something is spoken of. At the same time, we are made to see something else. And finally, what is spoken of is under what we are made to see. This third point is very important. You can tell that here is where theater cannot follow. Theater could take up the first two propositions: something is spoken of, and we are made to see something else. But at the same time what is spoken of is placed under what We are made to see – and this is necessary since otherwise the first two operations would have no meaning or interest whatsoever. This can be restated: speech rises into air, while the visible ground sinks farther and farther. Or rather, While this speech rises into air, what it speaks of sinks under the ground.

What is this, if only cinema can do it? I am not saying that cinema should do it but that cinema has done it two or three times; I can merely say that it was the great filmmakers who had this idea. This is a cinematographic idea. It is extraordinary in that it provides a veritable transformation of elements at the level of cinema, a cycle that in one stroke makes cinema resonate with a qualitative physics of elements. This produces a sort of transformation, a great circulation of elements in cinema, beginning with air, earth, water, and fire. All that I say does not diminish the story. The story is always there, but what strikes us is why the story is so interesting if not for the fact that all of this is behind it and with it. In this cycle that I have just defined so rapidly -where the voice rises while what it speaks of flees underground – you can recognize most of the Straubs’s films, their great cycle of elements. Deserted ground is the only thing that can be seen, but this deserted ground is heavy with what lies beneath. And you respond: But what is known about what lies beneath? It is precisely of this that the voice speaks. It is as if the ground buckles with what the voice tells us, and with what comes, in its time and place, to reside underground. And if the voice speaks to us of corpses, of the whole lineage of corpses that come to reside underground, at this very moment the slightest quivering of wind on the deserted ground, on the empty space under your eyes, the slightest hollow in this ground – all of this becomes clear.

I would say that, in any case, having an idea is not on the order of communication.

This is what I’m getting at. All that we speak of is irreducible to any form of communication. This is not a problem. Which is to say what? In the first sense, communication is the transmission and the propagation of a piece of information. But what is a piece of information? As everyone knows, this is
not very complicated: a piece of information is a grouping of order-words. When you are informed, you are told what you are supposed to believe. In other words, informing is circulating a keyword. Police statements are aptly called communiqués. information is communicated to us; we are told what we
are supposed to be ready or able to do or what we are supposed to believe. Not even to believe but to act as if we believed. We are not asked to believe
but to behave as if we believed. That is information, communication, and apart from these order-words and their transmission, there is no information, no communication. All of which underscores that information is precisely the system of control. This is clearly of particular concern to us today.

lt is true that we are entering a society that can be called a society of control. A thinker such as Michel Foucault has analyzed two types of societies that are rather close to us. He calls the former sovereign societies and the latter disciplinary societies. He locates the typical passage of a sovereign society to a disciplinary society with Napoleon. Disciplinary society is defined – and here Foucault’s analyses are rightly famous – by the accumulation of structures of confinement: prisons, schools, workshops, hospitals. Disciplinary societies require this. This analysis engendered ambiguities in certain of Foucault’s readers because it was believed that this was his last thought. This was certainly not the case. Foucault never believed and indeed said very precisely that disciplinary societies were not eternal. Moreover, he clearly thought that we were entering a new type of society. To be sure, there are all kinds of things left over from disciplinary societies, and this for years on end, but we know already that we are in societies of another sort that should be called, to use the term put forth by William Burroughs – whom Foucault admired greatly- societies of control. We are entering into societies of control that are defined very differently from disciplinary societies. Those who look after our interests do not need or will no longer need structures of confinement. These structures – prisons, schools, hospitals – are already sites of permanent discussion. Wouldn’t it be better to spread out the treatment? To the home? Yes, this is unquestionably the future. The workshops, the factories – they are falling apart everywhere. Wouldn’t systems of subcontracting and work at
home be better? Aren’t there means of punishing people other than prison? Societies of control will no longer pass through structures of confinement. Even the school. The themes that are surfacing, which will develop in forty or fifty years and which indicate that the most shocking thing would be to undertake school and a profession at once – these themes must be watched closely. lt will be interesting to know what the identity of the school and the profession will be in the course of permanent training, which is our future and which will no longer necessarily imply the regrouping of school children
in a structure of confinement. A control is not a discipline. In making high-ways, for example, you don’t enclose people but instead multiply the means of control. l am not saying that this is the highway’s exclusive purpose, but that people can drive ìnfinitely and “freely” without being at all confined yet while
still being perfectly controlled. This is our future.

So let us consider information as the controlled system of order-words that are used in a given society.

What does the work of art have to do with this?

Let us not speak of the work of art, but let us at least say that there is counterinformation. There are countries ruled by dictatorships where, under particularly cruel and difficult conditions, counterinformation exists. ln the time of Hitler, the jews who arrived from Germany, and who were the first to inform us of the existence of extermination camps, engaged in counterinformation. It must be noted that counterinformation was never sufficient to do anything. No counterinformation ever disturbed Hitler. Except in one case. What was the case? And here lies its importance. The only response would be that counterinformation only effectively becomes useful when it is – and it is this by nature – or when it becomes an act of resistance. And the act of resistance is neither information nor counterinformation. Counterinformation is effective only when it becomes an act of resistance.

What is the relation between the work of art and communication?

None whatsoever. The work of art is not an instrument of communication. The work of art has nothing to do with communication. The work of art strictly does not contain the least bit of information. To the contrary, there is a fundamental affinity between the work of art and the act of resistance. There, yes. It has something to do with information and communication as acts of resistance. What is this mysterious relation between a work of art and an act
of resistance when men who resist have neither the time nor sometimes the necessary culture to have the least relation to art? I don’t know. André Malraux develops a beautiful philosophical concept; he says something very simple about art; he says it is the only thing that resists death. Let’s return to where we began: What does one do when one does philosophy? One invents concepts. I think this is the basis of a beautiful philosophical concept. Think –
What resists death? One need only see a statuette from three thousand years before our time to find that Malraux’s response is a rather good one. From our point of view, we could then say, rather less elegantly, that art is what resists even if it is not the only thing that resists. Where does such a close relation between the act of resistance and the work of art come from? Each act of resistance is not a work of art while, in a certain sense, it is all the same. Each work of art is not an act of resistance and yet, in a certain sense, it is.

What is having an idea in cinema?

Take the case, for example, of the Straubs when they perform this disjunction between auditory voice and visual image, which goes as follows: the voice rises, it rises, it rises, and what it speaks about passes under the naked, deserted ground that the visual image was showing us, a visual image that had no direct relation to the auditory image. But what is this speech act that rises in the air while its object passes underground? Resistance. An act of resistance. And in all of the Straubs’ oeuvre, the speech act is an act of resistance. From Moses and Aaron to the last Kafka film (Class Relations) and passing through – now this is not in order – Not Reconciled or The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach. Bach’s speech act is his music, which is an act of resistance, an active struggle against the partitioning of the profane and the sacred. This musical act of resistance culminates in a cry. Just as there is a cry in Woyzeck there is a cry in Bach: “Outside! outside! Go on, I don’t want to see you!” When the Straubs underscore the cry, that of Bach or that of the old schizophrenic in Not Reconciled, thìs reveals a double aspect. The act of resistance has two sides. It is human, and it is also the act of art. Only the act of resistance resists death, whether the act is in the form of a work of art or in the form of human struggle.

What relation is there between human struggle and the work of art?

It is the strictest and for me the most mysterious relation. Precisely what Paul Klee wanted to say when he said: “You know, the people are missing.” The people are missing while at the same time they are not missing. The people are missing: that means that this fundamental affinity between a work of art and a people who do not yet exist is not, and never will be, clear. There is no work of art that does not appeal to a people who do not yet exist.

Transparent Things: Mary Helena Clark’s films & influences


25 March 2013 20:30 OFFoff Cinema, Gent

What are we seeing when watching images flickering on the screen? One could say that the cinematic experience always involves an unique play of imaginary presence (perceptual experiences, fantasies, illusions) and real absence (what is represented but not really there). The act of perception may be real, but the perceived is merely a shade, a phantom, “a hallucination that is also a fact”. It is this fundamental tension between presence and absence, actual and perceptual, the visible and the spectre of the hidden, that is at the heart of Mary Helena Clark’s work. Taking cues from the fantasy and illusion of early cinema as well as the material and formal exercises of the avant-garde, her hypnotic pieces explore cinema’s primitive magic, hurtling us down the secretive rabbit holes of the moving image. After having screened several of Mary Helena’s films in previous years, Courtisane will once again showcase her work during the coming Courtisane festival (17-21 April 2013), with the screening of her latest short film, Orpheus (outtakes). As a prologue to this year’s festival, Courtisane will present at OFFoff six films by Mary Helena Clark together with a selection of works by other filmmakers that have inspired her practice.

“Here is a selection of my films from 2008 to 2012 with work by Hans Richter, Anne McGuire, John Smith, Ernie Gehr, Anne Robertson and Saul Levine.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 begins the program with an exploration of constructed space. It’s a minimalist play of dimensionality, finishing with a reinstatement of the flatness of the screen space. Anne McGuire’s I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong still startles me with the spontaneity of her performance. You can almost hear the twists of her mind and feel the tension of the single performer on stage, threatening to turn tragic. And like McGuire, John Smith’s a major and recurring influence. Leading Light, an early work, straddles lyrical and structural modes of filmmaking, using the basic tools of exposure and sound perspective to playfully undermine the veracity of film. Also, I am partial to movies made in bedrooms. Ernie Gehr’s Untitled (1977) was described to me by Ken Eisenstein years before I ever saw it. So for me, there’s a stacking up of the told-film, the film itself, and then how that film lingers in the mind, like a play of tenses. The shifts in Gehr’s film are magical whether imagined, experienced, or remembered. Going To Work by Anne Robertson is one of her quieter pieces. This diary film observes the world with a disconnect that rings true, with a mundane profundity that can hold the viewer in bewildering stillness. Saul Levine’s Dream Story gives me goosebumps. It’s directness reminds me of why I want to make films. The title of this program is taken from a Nabokov novel of the same name. He writes, “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object…Transparent things, through which the past shines!” ”

Hans Richter
Rhythmus 21

Germany, 1921, 16mm, b&w, silent, 3’30

“I conceive of film as a modern art form particularly interesting to the sense of sight. Painting has its own peculiar problems and specific sensations, and so has film. But there are also problems in which the dividing line is obliterated, or where the two infringe upon each other. More especially, cinema can fulfill certain promises made by the ancient arts, in the realization of which painting and film become close neighbors and work together.”

Mary Helena Clark
By foot-candle light

USA, 2011, digital video, color, sound, 9’

“A walk through the proscenium wings. You close your eyes and suddenly it is dark.”

Anne McGuire
I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong

USA, 1997, video, b&w, sound, 11’

A wonderful witty work about nostalgia and desperation. Ann McGuire portrays a Kennedy-era singer performing in a space where theatre meets television. McGuire’s Garlandesque gestures provide both a sense of tragedy and humour. I am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong weaves narrative, performance, memory and history into a ironic and haunting work of unique proportions.

John Smith
Leading Light

GB, 1975, 16mm, color, sound, 11’

“Leading Light uses the camera-eye to reveal the irregular beauty of a familiar space. When we inhabit a room we are only unevenly aware of the space held in it and the possible forms of vision which reside there. The camera-eye documents and returns our apprehension. Vertov imagined a ‘single room’ made up of a montage of many different rooms. Smith reverses this aspect of ‘creative geography’ by showing how many rooms the camera can create from just one.” (A.L. Rees)

Mary Helena Clark
And The Sun Flowers

USA, 2008, digital video, color, sound, 5’

“Based on the true story of the wallpaper in my bedroom.”

Mary Helena Clark
After Writing

USA, 2008, 16mm, color, optical sound, 4’

“Scraps of text gathered from molding filmstrips and peeling chalkboards are photographed and intercut with pinhole shots from a schoolhouse. “

Ernie Gehr

USA, 1977, 16mm, color, silent, 5’

“… a delicious slow pulling of focus over four minutes in which snowflakes, streaming like intercepted chalk marks, fall in front of what seems to be a field, then a pond, and finally is recognized as a brick wall.” (P. Adams Sitney)

Mary Helena Clark
Orpheus (outtakes)

USA, 2012, 16mm, b&w, optical sound, 6’

“An impossible film project: Buster Keaton stars in the outtakes from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, made by me for the cutting room floor.”

Anne Charlotte Robertson
Going To Work

USA, 1981, Super8 to video, color, sound, 7’

“Anne took the written diary form and extended it to include documentary, experimental and animated filmmaking techniques. She did not shy away from exposing any parts of her physical situation or emotional life. She became a pioneer of personal documentary and bravely shared experiences and observations on being a vegetarian, her cats, organic gardening, food, and her struggles with weight, her smoking and alcohol addictions, and depression (she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder). Romance (or lack thereof) and obsession are long-running themes in her films, as is the cycle of life.” (Harvard Film Archive)

Mary Helena Clark
The Plant

USA, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 8’

“A film filled with clues and stray transmissions built on the bad geometry of point-of-view shots.”

Mary Helena Clark
Sound Over Water

USA, 2009, 16mm, color, optical sound, 5’

“Blue water and blue sky meet on emulsion.”

Saul Levine
Dream Story

USA, 2001, digital video, color, sound, 5’

Dream Story is about a dream I had of Marjorie Keller.”

DISSENT ! Hartmut Bitomsky


28 March 2013 20:30 Galeries, Brussels
in conversation with Stoffel Debuysere

“As once stated in a Brecht play: if two things come together, you need a third thing. The third thing, back then, was political film making”. For about ten years, the film work of Hartmut Bitomsky could hardly be dissociated from that of Harun Farocki. In the second half of the 1960’s they both formed the backbone of the Projektgruppe Schülerfilm, an initiative of Berlin students building on the leftist intellectual legacy by combining militant cinema and Brechtian didacticism. After their studies, they continued to make a number of films together, and consequently co-founded the Filmkritik magazine as an outlet for their cinephile enthusiasm. But it was only a matter of time before their ways parted: “Farocki comes from Eisenstein, and I come from Rossellini. He is very fond of montage, I am more interested in life”. Although they are both exploring a critical-essayistic perspective, Bitomsky considers documentary film as an instrument for articulation rather than for deconstruction. So, each film he has been making since the 1970’s provides some sort of map, its routes leading us through unruly territories, covering themes such as memory, history, technology and image culture. In this fourth installment of the DISSENT ! series a selection of Bitomsky’s films will serve as the starting point for a conversation on cinema, documentary practice, image and reality.

Before the talk, on March 28th, we’ll be screening
Hartmut Bitomsky & Heiner Mühlenbrock, Deutschlandbilder
1983-84, 35mm, b/w, German with English subtitles, 60′
“The film is composed of excerpts from more than 30 documentary films that were made and shown in the period between 1933 and 1945. The documentary films present a clean and self-confident Germany and a people of nature lovers, who respect its traditions, is devoted to progress and has an appreciation for beauty. This was something the Nazis particularly liked; they had a pronounced need for beauty. They loved films and they made ample use of them. Most of the films deal with work, leisure and work again. They indulge in a certain kind of populism, one that casts a look of understanding at the simple man. In this way they function like a reversed plebiscite: the regime confirms its people because they show themselves to be devoted and able and because they participate in everything with creative enthusiasm. Today, however, we must ask ourselves what these films can still tell us. They are profoundly hypocritical, and their intention is to conceal which function has been assigned to them. The more they intend to show, the more they seem to need to keep secret. What can be studied in the films is how film pictures are managed: how they are engaged and turned into instruments, how they are arranged and edited, how commentary and sound is added to them, and how they were taken and used. The Nazi film-makers took great pains to do this. Like advertising strategists, they wanted to seduce. The films and their pictures are like masks that show one face and at the same time cover another. Pictures were taken from reality served to hide reality. Kracauer wrote about this that “The Nazis falsified reality just like Potemkim; instead of cardboard, however, they used life itself to build imaginary villages.” (HB)

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG & VGC. The visit of Hartmut Bitomsky is supported by Galeries and Goethe-Institut Brussels.

Also read ‘The documentary world by Hartmut Bitomsky.

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

The documentary world


By Hartmut Bitomsky

Originally published in ‘Hartmut Bitomsky: Retrospective’, Goethe Institut München, 1997. As found in the Doc’s Kingdom 2010 catalogue. Hartmut Bitomsky will be our guest for the next DISSENT ! session, on March 28.

Films are not alone. They live in an environment of wonderful moments. One, for example, is in Flaherty’s The Land, when a child takes a little piece of bread and wipes the last remaining bit of sauce from his plate. There is the scene of a sandstorm in Turksib by Viktor Turin: the figures are seen crouching down behind the bodies of the camels, and the bulging bales of cotton burst open. The sand buries and suffocates a whole caravan. At the end only a couple of pieces of white fluff remain, which are blown about over the dunes by the wind.
We know nothing about the people nor about the covering letters that they were carrying under their jackets. The greatest tragedies always probably occur in a state of anonymity; it is not necessary to have individuals and persons in order to speak about the human condition.
There is the smile of Nanook, the Eskimo whom Flaherty got to play himself, but who in smiling into the camera stepped out of his role, and in doing so created what many would like to call the documentary moment, the moment of truth that only cinematography can create.
There is the circle of faces that Eisenstein in The General Line has gathered around a separator, the device that removes cream from milk. In the spinning movement of critical emotions a clarity shows in the faces of the farmers. One can see the smoothness of the features, the swaying of firm opinions and the hardness of the singular character.
Another film is Las Hurdes [Land Without Bread], which impresses me because of its incorruptible pitilessness. It does not ally itself with poverty, nor does it blur the difference between film-making and the filmed subject
There is the bird that flies up from a branch, startled in anticipation of the pealing of a bell, which Basil Wright only includes later in the film when he adds the sound track to Song of Ceylon.
From Franju we learn that even in the cruellest moments, there is something like a condition of mercy in which everything has a part – people and things – even in the shabbiest and most despicable state.
There is Vigo, who during every take in A propos de Nice cannot conceal how filming has made him so excited, and the cheerfulness that overcomes him in view of the fact that someone with a maimed hand takes part in a game that nonetheless requires dexterity.
In Forest of Bliss Gardner describes to us the world in its total unintelligibility and incomprehensibility. People develop activities, carry out plans and ritually obey regulations and laws, and yet there is no real reason why things have to happen the way they happen.
Nothing must be the way it is.
In a Kinopravda [cinema-truth] by Vertov, a person is seen crossing the wide street, and the camera moves with him showing his movement in great detail, in order to let us see exactly how crossing a street takes place – as if this walking movement were the most important event happening at this moment in the world. There is Grierson, who in Drifters, as sailors at sea wake up in the morning blinking their eyes, inserts shots of houses situated on the beach, as if the seamen with a feeling of longing are trying to salvage their last dreamy thoughts or home from the depths of sleep into the reality of the day.
And there is also the cheerfully light, almost carefree film-making style of Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un Été, with his nearly brazen use of an obsolete grammar of film to treat a unsuitable subject.
We also have the media of film to thank for showing us that people are no more than masks, masks that bear an extraordinary resemblance to themselves. What they do in film are simply attempts to acquire a physiognomy through their work – one could also say, attempts to make a grimace at the world.
That is the society in which I see my films.


The work of an artist, says Lévi-Strauss, is engaged in a threefold dialogue. First of all there is the dialogue with the audience or, as it is referred to these days, with the user, which is a halfway acceptable term. However, when we consider the many misunderstandings, the wrongly understood and forgotten and rediscovered works, the outrage of scathing reviews, the condemnations, the attacks of the censors, the scandalous events, the ridiculing and mutilation, then it becomes clear how difficult and controversial this dialogue is. And perhaps it must be this way, confused and erratic. This illustrates clearly the extent to which indeed all communication also contains an element of unreconciled opposition and conflict. In a work of art this might even appear to be enlarged.
The reason for this seems in part to lie in exactly the other two dialogues that the work maintains. One of these dialogues refers to the depicted things, the represented objects, the model (Lévi-Strauss uses the term model here, because he is referring to paintings and sculptures in the fine arts; for similar reasons Bresson, incidentally, also calls his actors and actresses models). From a broad perspective this is a dialogue with the world and with reality, which the artist confronts together with his work of art, and which attempt to gain entry to the work in various ways.
Finally, the third dialogue deals with the artistic material that the artist has, or does not have, at his disposal the material that he must select or master. For the filmmaker this artistic material consists of the camera, the lens, filters, light, sound and editing, and the whole history of film and all methods of making a film that exist or that do not yet exist.


In the dialogue with the artistic processes there appears something that in another place would be called the aesthetic resistance. The work of art gives to things a particular form, one that they do not bring with them naturally – it first has to be given to them, and sometimes in a really violent way. A situation is not simply filmed; the images, the shots have to be worked out. Eisenstein speaks of the film shot, and thus of filmmaking in general, as knocking out a piece of reality by means of the lens. This is related to Michelangelo’s dictum, according to which the statue may indeed already be contained within the block of marble, but the superfluous parts would still have to be hammered away. In Man of Aran Flaherty shows how a small boy catches fish from high above in the cliffs. The boy is wearing a balloon-like cap. He smiles as he removes it, and he has to take it off because under the cap he keeps his bait – live shrimps. Having no fishing rod, he extends his leg outward and lowers the line down to the water between his toes.
In order to show all of this, perhaps three of four shots would have sufficed. One long shot for general information, a close-up of the boy, another one of the foot, then another long shot and the episode would have been clear to anyone. Flaherty, however, shot the scene from all sides, from the front, from the side, from the back and again from the front, from above and from below; he repeats takes, re-edits and cross-edits them. He really has the boy work in front of the camera.
This method has, of course, a delaying effect, completely in the style of Flaherty’s slow procedure, referred to as slight narrative. This can be called the putting up of aesthetic resistance. Just as in music a phrase is modulated again and again, the film images, as if they wanted to be heard from all sides, spread out in every conceivable direction, until it becomes evident that here Flaherty is comparing the work of the boy with that of film-making, and that the one type of work is just like the other, as if there is a close affinity between them.


The third dialogue is the dialogue with the subject, with the object in the lens, with reality, the dialogue with the world. What happens in front of the camera at the moment of filming is the domain of the documentary film. The camera is aimed at objects that exist independent of it and of the situation in which the filming is taking place. It is fixed on the material world, in a visibility of its own.
With a certain justification it can be assumed that the documentary film works with ready-made objects: things that already exist, that are prefabricated in a particular, already developed form and state, and with a separate history; things that have their own distinctive right to exist, that have developed in a specific (even if perhaps unknown or only vaguely suspected) context to become what they are. I call this development a primary production, by which I also truly understand the process of a person’s life, the production of his biography and physiognomy, his individuality, his character and his fate.
The film-maker – by making a picture and by recording a sound – tears the subject out of its original context, sometimes in quite a violent way but sometimes without leaving behind a distinct mark (which is what happens with ready-made objects in the strict sense of the term), and places them in a new context and into another structure. This is what I term secondary production or the aesthetic production (it can well be minimalist or, in accordance with the theories of Direct Cinema, consist more of an avoiding of the aesthetic element)
Grierson once defined the documentary film as a creative treatment of actuality – whereby creative treatment could indeed refer to what has here been called the second aesthetic production and should certainly be associated with Levi-Strauss dialogue with the artistic material. Behind the concept of actuality there appears once again the completed substance of reality, as it is also suggested in the term ready-made object. It is from this consideration that the idea of the primary production was developed
In keeping with this idea Siegfried Kracauer in his most important work, Theory of Film (which bears the subtitle “The Redemption of Physical Reality”), distinguished between the two fundamental categorical functions of film, namely a recording function and a revealing function. This certainly goes along with Dziga Vertov’s dual appeal to film: it is to capture the world as it is, and at the same time it must decipher it.

How can, however, this registering and the revealing, the reproduction and the deciphering tally in this equation? When Joris Ivens unexpectedly encountered difficulties during the production of a film a while ago, he believed to have discovered that the aesthetic production was definitely derived from reality. The task involved filming some workers as they were in the process of moving basalt rocks, but somehow Ivens was not able to correctly capture the work in pictures. So, he looked for a way of gaining access to the action in that he performed the work himself, and this gave him information about how to go about filming the subject: “I noticed that the greatest exertion was in the shoulder muscles and in the chin. Thus, to film this action, these places had to be emphasised because they are an organic part of the work. From then on the camera, the angle of shooting and the composition of the picture were all determined by these muscles and the chin. They became something like two focal points of the action. The photography is determined by reality and not by my aesthetic efforts to obtain a well-chosen balance between line and light. But then it was precisely this realistic viewpoint that was the most beautiful one. I could not film the stoneworkers before I had understood the physical exertion involved in their work.”
Although it cannot be denied that Ivens insight has a certain, almost touching persuasiveness about it, nevertheless there are doubts that the standpoint of the work and the standpoint of the film-making could simply coincide. The reason for this is that pictures do no just come from the things they depict; they also originate from other pictures, and this origin cannot be placed in a picture.


Another film by Ivens, namely De Brug (“The Bridge” was his first film, which one notices because of his particular fascination with pictures) elucidates the problem from another point of view. The film, as the title indicates, is all about only one thing: a bridge. The one here is a lift bridge, which is raised so that large ships with high superstructures can pass under it.
The film shows all views and aspects of the bridge, every single element and each individual function during the construction of the bridge. One would almost like to say that each detail corresponds to a camera shot, just as the bridge itself corresponds to the engineers’ detailed plans according to which it was constructed. Indeed, one could say that the film is a blue print of the bridge – it is created before our eyes a second lime, and this time it is not to be used by pedestrians or by railway passengers, but rather to be looked at.
This leads us to consider that a documentary film does not simply reproduce reality, but rather causes it to be created visually once again: it shows us how reality is created. What we perceive is the creation of reality, the creation of a second reality.
Jean Rouch, who with his cinéma vérité worked on exactly the problem of how to record and reproduce reality, was incidentally led to the concept of cinétrance by a similar realisation. The concept cinétrance describes the fact that when a piece of reality and a camera are brought together, something new is created, something that would not exist if the camera were not present.


This conclusion causes, of course, a certain uneasiness and invites us to contradict it. With the documentary film there is an almost yearning expectation of reality, enlightenment and truth. In the same way there is also its opposite, namely a disappointment and a discontent of all those truths and realities that are brought to the surface in the documentary idiom.
Chris Marker once described this conflict as two fundamental ways of behaving, which the documentary film synthesises. On the one hand the film-maker behaves in a modest way towards reality and accepts it as it is. On the other hand, however, he determines beforehand what reality has to be – and when in fact it does not correspond to this, then reality is just wrong. In other words, first reality is accepted, and even more than that, it is held as if in a tender embrace; then it is rejected and denied.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men written by James Agee there appears a photo of a pair of torn-up shoes, which was taken by Walker Evans. This photograph puts the observer in an almost paradoxical situation. It is apparent that the shoes have reached the end of their usability, and they are looked upon as someone’s wretched belongings, as poverty that is naked and above all dispossessed of its usefulness. We revolt at the sight of them.
Nevertheless, at the same time these shoes have a unique preciousness: they are real shoes and they have a true life-story. They were not devised nor specially produced for the picture: they are not props, not part of the scenery, and they have not been made instruments of something. They simply are what they are. And they are beautiful, with an unmistakable beauty all their own. Finally, it should definitely be added here that the shoes in the photo no longer exist. They have rotted. The pictures show a reality that does not exist. Perhaps the documentary is nothing more than a place of exile for reality, a home away from home.
What I am getting at is that the documentary, because of its subject, is a critical genre. It is the expression of a crisis, because that which we call reality is itself something that is in a crisis. This realness is always in the process of dissolving, breaking apart, breaking down and breaking through, of developing and changing, of slipping away and of crossing over. The concept of reality itself indeed concerns an object in its crisis.


Franju, whose film Sang des Bêtes will remain unforgotten, although the slaughterhouses in Paris no longer exist – they are now art exhibition halls – and although the animals in the meantime are slaughtered in a completely different, namely industrial, way, Franju in a discussion once emphasised the artificial aspect of realness as it appears in film. He said that with a film the world had to be created again, because it was constantly running away from us. “Reality denies reality” – this is the formula he reduced it all to, and for this reason the artist always has to give reality an aspect of artificiality. Reality is always on the run. A documentary film cannot keep a firm hold on it; it can only create it again.
In a metaphorical way Fellini once evoked this loss of reality as a wonderful albeit wistful moment: In the film Roma, when a catacomb is opened during excavation work for an underground, frescos are discovered which have survived there in the darkness for two thousand years, but in that moment through the fresh air that streams in and the daylight that filters in they are destroyed and vanish from the walls before our eyes.


New York, N.Y. is a film whose subject refused being captured by the camera in another, perhaps even more extreme way. It is an almost inconspicuous, casual little film by Raymond Depardon, who made it in New York at the beginning of the eighties, and it consists of only three albeit long shots.
The first one is a travelling shot high above the East River along a bridge full of traffic, taken from the gondola of a cable railway that passes over the river at that location. The second shot shows a street intersection in Manhattan in the twilight – a couple of pedestrians are crossing the street. The third shot is again a travelling shot over the river, although in the opposite direction and at a later time of day.
In a voice-over during the first shot Depardon says a few sentences about how the film came about: A few years before, he had stayed in New York for a couple of weeks, and every day he had set out with his camera to take shots of the city. After finishing he had gone into a little café and looked out of the window at the intersection. At some point in time he had discontinued shooting the film, had returned to Europe and had totally forgotten the film about New York until he discovered these three shots during an occasional examination of his film material.
These three shots became the film, but it is not about New York: it is the film that New York made against the film-maker. He looked at the subject, but it did not look back at him; it merely turned its back on him.
The filming was done in New York, but what it shows is not this city but rather a hazy diffusion, which softens the three pictures with shadows, as if perceived through the unwashed windowpane of a café. The passers-by at the street intersection are nothing else but strange, anonymous silhouettes, who are wandering through a Nietzschean metropolis. No one sees anyone else, and everyone is alone.

This film sticks like a thorn in the flesh of documentary film-making. It instantly caused all other documentary films to age, so that the whole genre, in its self-confidence of being able to capture what is real, has something strangely old-fashioned clinging to it. This is because the documentary film has always seen itself as a driving force in the salvation of reality, and in this regard it was always certain at the affirmation of the real object.
Here, however, the object manifests itself through its absence. It has vanished from the film.


In order to continue developing the concept of disappearing reality (of the reality of disappearing), we should remember the fact that there are astonishingly few film recordings of the Gulf War. The explanation given is the rigid censorship of the military. The Vietnam war had been accompanied by a flood of pictures – it has even been suggested that this flood of pictures was a decisive factor which contributed to ending the war. This time history was not to repeat itself, and thus the entire press coverage of the war was put under the massive control of the military. In a way the censors functioned like a photo agency, which at their own discretion did or did not make their material available to the press.
As a consequence the visuality of the Gulf War remained rather meagre. When new material was released recently, which until then had been kept under lock and key, it was possible to view scenes like the following: A group of tanks moving at high speed through the flat desert (this shot was fairly long) suddenly came to halt and then fired a series of rounds in an undefined direction. No target could be seen, and for that reason it was not possible to determine what damage the barrage of cannon fire had caused. Finally, the tanks turned around and returned in the direction from which they had come. Then there is a cut to General Schwarzkopf, who said that they had hesitated for a long time before attacking the heavily fortified lines of the Republican Guard, but then finally decided to proceed, and in fifteen seconds the job had been completed.
What took place cannot be called a battle of tanks. To identify this event as a conflict between two opposing military forces who resolved their differences with the use of weapons is simply impossible. The kind of weapons and strategies used make traditional war invisible. The soldiers are no longer engaged in action; they fight each other over enormous distances, and instead of making contact with the enemy, they sit down in front of television monitors on which combat targets appear as small dots of light.
Other pictures of this war – but should we not call them pictures? – were made by cameras mounted on missiles, which glided through a milky darkness until the missile hit the target and the transmission on the monitor died because the missile and with it the camera exploded. Nothing was seen of what took place. It was necessary to resort to one’s imagination in order to recognise again a reality in this softened representation, a reality that at one time was powerful but now has been done away with.
In the television series Heimat [“Home”] by Edgar Reitz there was an aerial shot of Hunsrück, which was supposed to show in one take the entire area where the action with its stories would cover. The shot was filmed from a jet fighter, which flew at the speed of sound. It lasted, I don’t know, for about two minutes, and what there was to see can no longer be called a picture: it was a trembling, blurred shaking movement of visually perceived elementary particles, crashing into each other grey in grey. Such enormous speeds disconnect the cinematographic picture from every object, and the unit of measurement of twenty-four frames per second can no longer capture it. Virilio will probably not have seen this shot. Otherwise he would have rewritten his book Cinema and War. Modern war and cinematic pictures do not go together any more.


With the advent of digitalised pictures, the detachment of reality from the cinematographic and photographic image has again continued at an accelerated pace. Every digital element can be substituted for another digital element without leaving any trace of this substitution. A photograph (or what looks like a photograph) does not necessarily have to refer to a real model, at least not entirely. Then we would be at the end of the age of a consubstantiality of photography and object. The technique of retouching – for which photography in the Soviet Union was condemned and ridiculed – has become a generally used, accepted and commended process (Forrest Gump was still a bit chubby, but that will improve).
This situation is a challenging one. In the future the documentary film will have to change in order to survive and to have new definitions for itself to develop. It will no longer be able to exist by guaranteeing a truth that is based on the mechanical reproduction technology of the camera and the film material. Authenticity has held the documentary film in shackles long enough, and consuming reality instead of producing it more than ever will not be sufficient. And it will become evident that the reality even of something documentary is not to be found somewhere beyond the pictures but rather in them.

Too Early, Too Late


By Serge Daney

Originally published in Libération, February 20-21, 1982. Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

What do John Travolta and Jean-Marie Straub have in common? A difficult question, I admit. One dances, the other doesn’t. One is a Marxist, the other isn’t. One is very well-known, the other less so. Both have their fans. Me, for instance.

However, one merely has to see their two films surface on the same day on Parisian screens in order to understand that the same worry eats away at both of them. Worry? Let’s say passion, rather — a passion for sound. I’m referring to Blow Out (directed by Brian DePalma) and Too Early, Too Late (co-signed by Danièle Huillet), two good films, two magnificent soundtracks.

The cinema, you may persist in thinking, is “images and sounds.” But what if it were the reverse? What if it were “sounds and images?” Sounds which make one imagine what one sees and see what one imagines? And what if the cinema were also the ear which pricks itself up — erectile and alert, like a dog’s — when the eye loses its bearings? In the open country, for instance.

In Blow Out, John Travolta plays the part of a sound effects freak who, starting off with one sound, goes on to identify a crime and its author. In Too Early, Too Late, Straub, Huillet and their regular sound engineer, the inspired Louis Hochet, lose themselves in the French countryside before they set about wandering along the Nile and within its delta, in Egypt. Starting off with sounds — all the sounds, from the most infinitesimal to the subtlest — they too identify a crime. Scene of the crime: the earth; victims: peasants; witnesses to the crime: landscapes. That is, clouds, roads, grass, wind.


In June 1980, the Straubs spent two weeks filming in the French countryside. They were seen in places as improbable as Treogan, Mottreff, Marbeuf and Harville. They were seen prowling close to big cities: Lyon, Rennes. Their idea, which presides over the execution of this opus 12 in their oeuvre (already twenty years of filmmaking!) was to film as they are today a certain number of places mentioned in a letter sent by Engels to the future renegade Kautsky. In this letter (read offscreen by Danièle Huillet), Engels, bolstered with figures, describes the misery of the countryside on the eve of the French Revolution. One suspects that these places have changed. For one thing, they are deserted. The French countryside, Straub says, has a “science fiction, deserted-planet aspect.” Maybe people live there, but they don’t inhabit the locale. The fields, roadways, fences and rows of trees are traces of human activity, but the actors are birds, a few vehicles, a faint murmur, the wind.

In May 1981, the Straubs are in Egypt and film other landscapes. This time the guide isn’t Engels but a more up-to-date Marxist, author of the recent and celebrated Class Struggles in Egypt, Mahmoud Hussein. Again offscreen, the voice of an Arab intellectual speaks in French (but with an accent) about the peasant resistance to the English occupation, up until the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Once again, the peasants revolt too early and succeeded too late as far as power is concerned. This obsessive recurrence is the film’s “content.” Like a musical motif, it is established from the outset: “that the middle-class here as always were too cowardly to support their own interests/that since the Bastille, the plebes had to do all the work.” (Engels)

The film is thus a diptych. One, France. Two, Egypt. No actors, not even characters, especially not extras. If there is an actor in Too Early, Too Late, it’s the landscape. This actor has a text to recite: History (the peasants who resist, the land which remains), of which it is the living witness. The actor performs with a certain amount of talent: the cloud that passes, a breaking loose of birds, a bouquet of trees bent by the wind, a break in the clouds; this is what the landscape’s performance consists of. This kind of performing is meteorological. One hasn’t seen anything like it for quite some time. Since the silent period, to be precise.


While seeing Too Early, Too Late (especially the first part), I recalled another film, shot in Hollywood in 1928 by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom: The Wind. This magnificent movie showed how the sound of the wind drove Lilian Gish mad. The film was “silent,” which only gave it more force. Anyone who’s seen The Wind knows that it’s an auditory hallucination. Anyway, there’s never been a “silent cinema,” only a cinema deaf to the racket produced inside each spectator, in his very body, when he becomes the echo chamber of images. Those of the wind, for instance.

One had to wait for the sound film before silence had a chance. Again, Bresson is optimistic when he writes, “The sound film invented silence.” The possibility of silence, at least. Take the example of the wind. One doesn’t have a clear memory of the wind in the films of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties. Or, rather, it was the thunderstorms which went whoosh in pirate films. But the North wind, the draught, the air current, all those winds so close to silence? The West wind? And the evening breeze? No. One had to wait for the Sixties, the small sync-sound cameras, the New Waves. One had to wait for Straub and Huillet.


For at the point of refinement when they arrived at the practice of direct sound, a very strange phenomenon is produced in their films (such as From the Clouds to the Resistance). One rediscovers there the “auditory hallucinations” proper to the “silent” cinema. The same phenomenon crops up in certain recent films by some “old”figures of the New Wave: Rouch (Ambara Damda), Rohmer (The Aviator’s Wife), Rivette (North Bridge). As if the direct sound brought back the absence of sound. As if, out of a world that’s integrally sonorous, the body of a burlesque actor once again emerges.

It’s normal: when the cinema was “silent,” we were free to lend it all the noises, the tiniest as well as the most intimate. It was when it set about talking, and especially after the invention of dubbing (1935), that nothing remained to challenge the victory of dialogue and music. Weak, imperceptible noises no longer had a chance. It was genocide.

They came back again, gradually. In America through an orgy of sonorous effects (see Travolta), in France through the re-education of the ear (see Straub). Too Early, Too Late is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the few movies since Sjostrom’s that has filmed the wind. This has to be seen — and heard — to be believed. It’s as if the camera and the fragile crew took the wind for a sail and the landscape for a sea. The camera plays with the wind, follows it, anticipates it, comes back behind like a ricocheting bullet. As if it were held on a leash or tied to another machine, like the one invented by Michael Snow in that stupefying film that was La Région Centrale (in Snow’s case as well, the terrain of the camera’s performance was a deserted planet of sorts. This explained that.

To see and hear at the same time – but that’s impossible, you’ll say! Certainly, but (1) the Straubs are stout-hearted, and (2) voyages into the impossible are very instructive. With Too Early, Too Late, an experience is attempted, with us and in spite of us: at moments, one begins to see (the grass bent by the wind) before hearing (the wind responsible for this bending). At other moments, one hears first (the wind), then one sees (the grass). Image and sound are synchronous and yet, at each instant, each of us can create the experience in the same order in which one arranges the sensations. It is therefore a sensational films.


This is the first part, the French desert. It works differently in overpopulated Egypt. there, the fields are no longer empty, fellahs work there, one can no longer go anywhere and film anyone any which way. The terrain of performance becomes again the territory of others. The Straubs (whoever knows their films realizes they’re intransigent on this matter) accord much importance to the fact that a filmmaker should not disturb those whom he films. One therefore has to see the second part of TToo Early, Too Late as an odd performance, made up of approaches and retreats, where the filmmakers, less meteorologists than acupuncturists, search for the spot — the only spot, the right spot — where their camera can catch people without bothering them. Two dangers immediately present themselves: exotic tourism and the invisible camera. Too close, too far. In a lengthy “scene,” the camera is planted in front of a factory gate and allows one to see the Egyptian workers who pass, enter and leave. Too close for them not to see the camera, too far away for them to be tempted to go towards it. To find this point, this moral point, is at this moment the entire art of the Straubs. With perhaps the hope that for the “extras” thus filmed, the camera and the fragile crew “hidden” right in the middle of a field or a vacant lot would only be an accident of the landscape, a gentle scarecrow, another mirage carried by the wind.

These scruples are astonishing. They are not fashionable. To shoot a film, especially in the country, means generally to devastate everything, disrupt the lives of people while manufacturing country snapshots, local color, rancid back-to-nature museum pieces. Because the cinema belongs to the city and no one knows exactly what a “peasant cinema” would be, anchored in the lived experience, the space-time of peasants. It is necessary therefore to see the Straubs, city inhabitants, mainland navigators, as lost. It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moistened fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it’s saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and esthetics, content and form, derives from this.

One may find the experience unbearable; that sometimes happens. One may stop finding the very idea of the experience bearable; that happens every day. One may decide that filming the wind is a ridiculous activity. What a lot of hot air! One may also bypass the cinema when it takes the risk of straying from its own turf, away from the beaten paths.