How to find an image of change? It’s a question Godard brought up three decades ago. More pressingly, how to think of an image of change when change itself cannot be imagined? It’s a question in line with the perceived impasse of our consensual times. If words such as “revolution” and “dialectics” are indeed the remnants of old ways of thinking politics, if names such as “worker” and “proletariat” have indeed lost all meaning, implying a termination of the politics bound to these names, how can we even start to consider what change might actually mean in this instance? If the word “change” itself has been emptied of all revolutionary meaning, smothered in slogans such as “Change we can believe in”, “Le changement, c’est maintenant!” (Change is now) or “Veranderen om te verbeteren” (Change to improve), how can it still be used to invent another future? If, as anyone with the slightest sympathy for Marxist beliefs or convictions would tell you, transformation of society should be our prime concern, what new worlds can be brought into being? It is precisely the absence of any horizon that has plunged the Left in an immobilizing feeling of impotence, inducing an oppressive sense of melancholy and cynicism. Views on the possible future before us have turned towards the catastrophe behind us, a pile of debris incessantly growing skyward, piling wreckage upon wreckage. Any hope of an emanipatory politics has been replaced by a defeatist Realpolitik, affirming that liberal democracy and global capitalism are here to stay, no matter what. In lieu of the grand narratives of yesteryear – or rather because of the inversion of their meaning, pointing only towards the impossibility or resisting – the only thing we can seemingly do is wait, await the safety of an improbable ontological revolution, until we finally become different from what we are.
Godard made Changer d’Images (Lettre à la bien aimée) as part of the series Le Changement a plus d’un Titre, commissioned on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of François Mitterrand’s election in 1981. Although many saw this victory, hinged on an exuberant promise of “change”, as the beginning of a socialist new dawn, it turned out to be quite the opposite. The Mitterrand era came to be known as one which was characterized by consensus-oriented politics, solely in service of the integrity of the social whole and the embrace of financial globalization. This outcome was facilitated by an intellectual climate that was overtly keen on denouncing the revolutionary tradition of the Left and repenting the wreckage it had left behind. The message was clear: the utopias of emancipatory politics, whether under the guises of Marxism or Third Worldism, could only lead to catastrophe and totalitarianism. Any hope there might have been before was violently overtaken be an overwhelming sense of guilt. Not only in France, but elsewhere as well leftist dreams had been crumbling: in Germany, Italy or Japan they exploded under the weight of the violent excesses of the radical left, in Portugal the tides generated by the carnation revolution receded as fast as they had risen, national liberation struggles worldwide were being renounced and surrendered, and in the United States and Great-Britain Thatcher and Reagan were pursuing vigorous programmes of neoliberal economic policy and regressive social agendas. The leftist decade was over, that much was clear, and the dreams of the political creation of a “new man” withered soon enough, only giving way to demands for the conservation of the age-old humanity.
The end of the 1970’s not only marked the expiration of the “red years”, but also of particular forms of militant cinema, as emblematized by the work of Godard’s and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group. One of their films in particular can be considered as a testimony to this ending: the one that was supposed to be titled Jusqu’à la Victoire, but in time was given another destiny and another name: Ici et Ailleurs. According to Serge Daney this was the last time a great filmmaker joined forces with a political cause: a long period of film history came to a close. But the film also made use of the critical paradigms of that time to witness how difficult it had become to intervene with images. “There are no more simple images… the whole world is too much for an image”, Godard declared, not much later echoed by Daney: an image all too often “takes the place of a link in a chain, preventing all other images from being seen”. Godard was the one who took up the task to put a halt to the circulation, suspend representation and demonstrate its falsehood. The screen was turned into a blackboard, teaching us how to see what there is (just an image) and imagine what is missing (a just image, arguably). But this art of criticism also turned out to be a labor of mourning. Looking back at this period of widespread Althusserian critique, Jacques Rancière wrote : “as if we had started wanting to read and see, started learning to read and see only when such things were entirely taken up in the system of shock and interpretation and already had no more importance.” As indicated in Daney’s last texts, the same forms of critique that claimed to disrupt the circulation of images, might have just been annexed by that circulation. In a sense, Godard’s film already came come too late: criticism was already inherent in the image, affected as it was by a overhanging sense of distance and irony. Perhaps, in all its eagerness to look behind, it forgot to look aside, ending up conforming to the established system of places.
What could an image of change be for those who grew up after the 1970’s, when the bitter end of the revolutionary era accompanied a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image? “The current skepticism”, writes Rancière, “is the result of a surfeit of faith. It was generated by the disappointed belief in a straight line between perception, affection, comprehension and action.” It now appears that mourning is not only Godard’s sensibility, it is also ours. For those of us who “came after”, a search for grounding and orientation commonly seems to result in a fascination for the dreams and energies of this past revolutionary era. It is no coincidence that numerous artists and filmmakers have recently been staging installations, performances and films as nostalgic tributes to a time when there was still something to fight for, and the image was still something to fight with. The optimistic interpretation of this renewed interest could be that there is still life left in the power of these dreams, even though there’s no way of escaping the truism that we are living in a very different world. Perhaps some of these accounts and fictions can act as potential sources of inspiration, historical poems that gives us new courage in a time of deep despair. Or else, they can give insight in the mechanisms that led to cruel failures: ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better. But by any means, let’s try to get rid of any petrifying sense of guilt and mourning. Let’s get rid of the assumptions that images can act as instruments of change, by rendering visible that which is already recognized as possible. There can be no image of change, for the simple reason that change cannot be anticipated, nor can it be identified. However, what could be subject to change is the configuration of what is visible and invisible, thinkable and unthinkable, as a rupture with the very logic of the system of identification, keeping us in our place. And what this change could bring into being is the invention of a new landscape of the possible. Let’s be done with it: an image of change can never be fully captured. In the end, it might be just another commonplace to cancel out the art of the impossible.
How can one consider the relation between cinema and politics today, in an era that has been branded as one of both “post-politics” and “post-cinema”? Even if we for a moment put aside the apocalyptical discourses of today’s cultural and political climates, there is no denying that we experience once again what Hannah Arendt, on the eve of the turbulent 1960’s, called “dark times”, in which ‘”the public realm has been obscured and the world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.” No doubt the world we live in is a different place than the one Arendt tried to engage with. Both the geo-political and the socio-economical landscape have been drastically rearranged, and the revolutionary horizons that were once envisaged, are said to have dissolved in a common state of things that carries names such as “neo-liberalism”, “hyper-capitalism” or “liberal democracy”. All of this has greatly influenced the discursive field for thinking about politics. Cinema has gone through quite a few changes as well. What was once thought of as a particular form of individual and collective experience, a way of inhabiting the world and living with images, has been dispersed over various media and contexts, different ways of approaching the art of the moving image. At the same time the film critical discourse which, around the time of Arendt’s reflections, consisted of interrogating works of cinema on what they tend to show and hide, not only of the state of cinema but first and foremost of that of the world, seems to be caught in a haze of mourning and melancholy, just like almost everything else.
But perhaps this pervasive haze conforms all too well to the prevalent narrative describing our contemporary world, which deems that certain things inevitably had their time. Nothing but ghosts, as Pedro Costa said in a recent talk. According to this narrative, It is no longer reasonable to think of politics as a practice of conflict or a horizon of emancipation, just as it is no longer suitable to think of cinema as an art of struggle or a form of politics. This is what “post” is supposed to mean: as if we are living in the time after the end, when a certain way of making sense of things, as promise to another future, is said to be lost. But this loss might in reality rather be a displacement. After all, it’s not that criticism and resistance have all together disappeared, on the contrary: in all domains of art and politics there are still innumerable critical voices denouncing the way in which everything – cinema not in the least – has become mere commodity and spectacle. In order to uncover some truth, the veil of appearance has to be lifted, providing the knowledge which can then be used to challenge the order of things. This critical sense is basically still the same as it was decades ago – when Jean-Luc Godard, in reference to Bertold Brecht, wrote that it’s not enough “to say how things are real”, one has to “say how things really are” – but perhaps what has changed is the sense of the possible that it entails. As Jacques Rancière has suggested, these denunciations might simply have been disconnected from their horizon: the perspective of revolutionary change that made them viable, at least in the collective imagination, as weapons in struggle.
What happens now that this revolutionary horizon has disappeared from sight, now that the struggle for emancipation is said to be no longer universally sustained and the world can no longer be clearly divided into antagonistic political forces? The danger might be that the logic of domination and the logic of its criticism become tied up with one another, until they turn out to be one and the same. Consider, for example, how the everlasting critical discourse about commodification and the spectacle, once proclaimed by the likes of Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, has become the resentful denunciation of a world reigned by mass individualism. As recent events have shown, this discourse has been taken up all too easily to stigmatise forms of struggle as nothing but the outgrowth of this so-called “democratic hedonism”. Ultimately what used to be dialectical opposites – protest and spectacle, struggle and consumption, individualism and totalitarianism – are staged as part of the same process, governed by the inescapable commodity law of equivalence. So it turns out that the logic denouncing all resistance to economic liberalism as reactionary and the one denouncing the same resistance as accomplice to its disastrous triumph, just might be two sides of the same coin.
This is what Rancière means with “consensus”: a view of the world preempting all forms of opposition, governed by a law of domination that permeates any will to do anything against it. The model of criticism that once legitimized itself by its effect of empowerment, can now only ascertain and negotiate its own impotence. One can not help thinking that it is this rational impotence that is at the heart of today’s overwhelming sense of melancholia. As Serge Daney, Baudrillard and others have suggested some time ago: the world has become liquid. Everything flows, Costa recently said in turn, and all we can do is peddle, even if we know it doesn’t get us anywhere, at least not anywhere else. Precisely because we know, the mechanism of deconstructive criticism ends up chasing its own tail, playing on the very undecidability of its effect. As Rancière has written: “unmasking the ghosts has turned to be an affair of ghosts”.
This ambivalence is also part of today’s discourse on cinema and politics, that often thrives on both the relevance and the irrelevance of this critical model. As Rancière has noted: “art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity.” Many works still rely on decade-old strategies, as used by militant filmmakers in the past, to denounce the “society of the spectacle” and the “reign of the commodity”, and many artists and critics still rely on the rhetoric assuming that a critical demonstration and interpretation of our lived world will make us aware of its underlying machinery, inciting the will to overturn it. Political cinema should strive to “understand the law of the objective world in order to explain the world”, Godard wrote in 1970, and making cinema politically means “actively transforming that world”. Today however the same filmmaker can’t help bemoaning the end of these times: it’s not that melancholy has taken the place of denouncement, it rather expands on it.
Don’t these denunciations all too often amount to an disenchanting expression of futility that is at the same time a mournful demonstration of culpability: guilty of knowing, guilty of complying? If indeed the force of unmasking has turned into something of a “ghost”, doesn’t that mean that the workings of the machinery and the workings of its unmasking have become part of the same game, one being the equivalent double of the other? It might be that it’s not so much the hidden secrets of the machine that keep us trapped in our given place, but rather the assumption of its obviousness. “That’s just how it is” is the line that is used to close off any discussion today: there is only one reality, and only one way to make sense of it, no matter what opinions or aspirations we might have, whatever convictions we want to fight for: everything conforms to everything else. How to escape this spiral? How to escape it in cinema? How to construct a cinematic world that contends this consensual frame, reframing the very field of the given, of the sensible and the intelligible, in order to compose a new topography of the possible? How to find or reinvent modes and concepts to think and speak about what might be a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema today, without resorting to an endless unmasking of ghosts and speculating of flows?
Interview with Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, conducted on 6 July 1999, with the participation of Pedro Costa. Originally published as ‘La sorcière et le rémouleur’ in Cahiers du cinéma no. 538 (Septembre 1999). Translated by Ted Fendt and Stoffel Debuysere
Whether or not by chance, the road that led to Rome passed through a small town in Tuscany called Pontedera, where recently was held a retrospective of the films of Pedro Costa, a great admirer of the Straubs. Chance in any case that the director of the event, Marco Abondenza, made us discover the village of Buti, which is atypical and artistically committed. A man, whose son played in Dalla nube alla resistenza twenty years ago, mentioned that the village theater would show the next Passion of Christ, adapted from Pasolini, in Cape Verde. He also remembered the presence of Godard at one of the presentations of Sicilia ! that the Straubs had organised in preparation of their film. He then invited us to see the Landi house where the Straubs lived during the rehearsals and where the central scene in Sicilia ! had been shot. In front of the fireplace, a discussion unravelled with Marcello Landi and his wife. Once arrived in Rome, still in the company of Pedro Costa, we had a little taste of the Italian mythology surrounding the Straubs. Some not without contempt, others with tenderness, gave them the nickname “punkabbestia”, which usually refers to the hordes of vagrants roaming the streets of Rome, flanked by their dogs. They are not vicious, they say, just a little cumbersome. Indeed, the Straubs may be punkabbestia, punk filmmakers with a love for animals, and capable of violent assaults themselves. We then headed to Borgata Petrelli, on the outskirts of Rome, where the Straubs live. It is there that this interview took place, in all tranquillity, in the presence of a score by Bach and a painting by Cézanne. During this time, a large fire was burning not far away, which, having attracted the televison cameras, inspired Jean-Marie Straub to remark: “What they’re ignoring is that nothing is more difficult than filming a fire.”
Sicilia ! is about the same length as Du jour au lendemain (1997), one hour and five minutes to be precise. For Du jour au lendemain the score and the libretto imposed the duration. For Sicilia !, there was a much vaster work, Conversazione in Sicilia by Elio Vittorini, that you have only used part of. How did you adapt the novel?
JMS: We have left more than half of the novel aside, mainly things that could have yielded a Visconti or Fellini film, especially the last part which is completely metaphorical. But it’s already been thirty years since I’m completely wary of metaphors, even before I got to know kafka’s expression: “Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing.” Films can’t be made with metaphors. To allude to the final part of the novel: it is not possible, in cinema, to film people who are dying, in the dark, of typhus or other things. Even John Ford would not have allowed it.
More than choosing passages that interested you, I suppose you needed to rework what you kept.
JMS: In this novel there is not a single line of dialogue that is complete. Everything is interspersed with psychological or descriptive reflections. Additionally, there is an entire part of the text written in indirect style. But it’s not the first time this has happened to us. The long text dealing with the death of Thérésa in the Kafka film (Amerika/Class relations) was also in indirect style. Here, the text of the Great Lombard, who is sitting in the train and who we see getting up to violently close the compartment door before taking his seat to talk about the stench of the two cops, does not exist. In the novel, more than sixty percent of it is written in indirect style. About Not Reconciled (1965), I said it was a film that was lacking something. The same goes for Sicilia !, but in different way. One should never overdo it on the pretext of having a two-hour film. There is a scene in Mon Oncle that I must have mentioned already twenty times, in which a man who is missing an eye is painting white lines on the tarmac. Suddenly he sees a crushed-raspberry, olive-green Buick pull up, with a playboy and a beautiful girl inside. He follows it with his eye, then raises his brush and says? “Do you want another coat?” Cinema is the opposite. Otherwise it’s Tchaikovsky: there is nothing breathing, everything is crammed in, sealed off. It’s exactly what Brecht has Tiresias say in Antigone: “Und mehr braucht mehr, und wird am End zu nichts”, more needs more, and in the end becomes nothing. Aesthetics is the opposite. One must dilate as much as possible, leaving enormous spaces and then make extreme constrictions. That’s the whole difference between Tchaikovsky and Bach, Beethoven, Schönberg or Webern, who leave in silences. That is aesthetic responsability: take a maximum risk with maximum caution.
What do you mean by caution?
JMS: Knowing how far we can go too far.
And how far can we go too far?
DH: We decide on the basis of the material. With fear and trembling. If you decide to leave in a silent shot, you know it is not without risk.
(Pedro Costa) Are you sometimes afraid to film?
JMS: No. It has nothing to do with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It is a matter of love and respect. We say to ourselves that what we film is something that will no longer exist afterwards, because it will already be different, and we won’t film it again. So in that sense, yes, we are a little afraid. But in this sense only.
DH: You’ve seen Della nuba alla resistenza. You remember this shot with the oxen cart, after the dialogues. While editing, we did not know if we were going to keep it or not. Finally, we chose to keep it in, knowing very well that in doing so we were taking a huge risk. We know very well that some viewers will leave. But we also know that perhaps one day, as it happened with the car rides in History Lesson, one will see that it is at least as strong as the dialogues.
How does this thing that you finally decide to keep become necessary?
DH: What bothers or moves people is feeling that it is necessary without knowing why.
JMS: I come back to Vittorini: thanks to a story like his, of which we have left out half, there is the possibility of having a film of which the fiction is very strong without the film being loaded with fiction. Because we do the opposite of what producers do when they buy the rights of a book. They don’t buy the texts, they buy a plot. And from there, they clog the holes. Here, the intrigue is there, if we speak of intrigue in the Cornelian sense, but it does not devour the material of the film. It is not in the foreground, it is cited, suggested. In that sense, it is completely different than Du jour au lendemain, which is theatre.
DH: An intrigue that is there without devouring the rest: that is also true of a film like Jean Renoir’s La nuit du Carrefour. If the film is impressive and we’re not completely dissapointed at the end – as is almost always the case with police films – it’s precisely because it’s not wrapped up.
In regards to the “story”, Sicilia ! is much closer to Not reconciled, with its different layers of time and history.
JMS: I’ll leave you the responsibility of this parallel. In 1965 I said, about Not reconciled, that I had risked making a film that was lacking something. But there is not only Not reconciled. Without looking to make comparisons, there is a film which is very related to Sicilia !, that it picks up from all while trying to do something else: Class relations. There is this similar desire to refuse to make a historical film which is dated in the images. Moreover, Sicilia ! and Class relations have another point in common. Class relationships was meant to be a twenty minutes film based on Kafka’s The Stoker, and Sicilia ! was initially meant to be composed only of the sequence with the orange vender, which correponds to a personal experience. During our first trip to Sicily in 1971 or 1972, at the time of Moses and Aaron, while driving around with the 2CV of Danièle’s mother, we discovered, near a river, mountains of oranges that had been thrown away to prevent the prices to fall. It is also the story that you hear at the beginning of Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe, with which Sicilia ! also has something in common, without it being premeditated by us. The other title of Kuhle Wampe is “To Whom Does the World Belong?”. And we amused ourselves, after the fact, by giving Sicilia ! the subtitle male offendere troppo il mondo (too evil to offend the world)
Sicilia ! seems to me more ample, more vast in what it evokes than Du jour au lendemain. We could say it’s more generous.
DH: This is mainly because Du jour au lendemain takes place in only one space. It’s like something set on a bus: it’s always heavier.
JMS: In Sicilia ! there is a completely different social reality. Du jour au lendemain stages a petit-bourgeois family constructed from two cultural machines, the male singer and the female singer. In Sicilia !, it is no longer an affair of cultural machines. The actors had never set a foot on a theater stage, and most of them didn’t know what grammar was. And their jobs were also different: there were several plasterers, a tiler, a seller of neckties. The mother had a life that was very similar to the one in the film. When you see what these people have managed to do in Sicilia !, one understands how shameful the controversy in Cannes about non-professional actors was. The Italian newspapers have not stopped talking about it. There is one thing I discovered during the Cannes festival: the Italian press is just a notch below the press of Dr. Goebbels and Goering. And this happened in only four years time. You could read things like: “What’s with these films that have received awards and feature non-professional actors who in any case are bad and won’t make any career in cinema?” I read this in good democratic, liberal and bourgeois newspapers, which are nevertheless no flesh-peddler magazines.
DH: Bresson worked in this way his whole life. He never called on professional actors. Dreyer, despite everything, took on actors. Obviously, at the time there were fewer Le Pen-like arguments such as “They won’t make a career, they received an award, it’s a shame.”
JMS: This goes way back. Do you know why all Italian films are dubbed? It comes from a law Mussolini made to protect the Italian language. That’s where the parasitism of dubbing started. And when they dubbed Renoir’s Toni a few years ago, the Italian actors arriving in the south of France, Toni in particular, were dubbed by Milanese voice-actors imitating the Sicilian accent, so they wouldn’t be confused with the other actors dubbed in Italian. All of the sudden, the Italians who landed in the south of France became Sicilians arriving in the north of Italy. That is what they are capable of in Italy … Andreotti, as leader of the Christian Democracy, once wrote a letter to Filmcritica, at the time when it was still a small magazine, to explain that one had no right to make films like the Bicycle Thief, that dirty laundry shouldn’t be aired in public.
Are there for you advantages in shooting with non-professional actors, rather than with professional ones?
JMS: Renoir said that he could have made a broom act.
DH: Undoubtedly there is less need to play tricks with non-professional actors.
JMS: It’s true, but we did have some difficulties with the mother in Sicilia !, with whom we started working three months before the others.
DH: Because she played tricks on us.
JMS: When Danièle brought up the text I wrote, based on Conversations in Sicilia, in 1992, and proposed to make it into a film, I answered yes, on the condition that we would rework it using the same method we used for Antigone (1992), meaning that we would have to recruit actors on the spot. The theatre of Buti had written to us ten years before, saying that they would be delighted if one day we could make something with them. So I proposed the Vittorini to them, explaining that it would allow us to prepare actors of Sicilian origin in view of a film we wanted to make. They accepted right away, very kindly.
To continue to compare your two last films, in Du jour au lendemain there is a kind of dispute, a violent reaction of the woman against the confusion that has befallen her husband. She ends up using the same spectacular means as her adversery, in order to win back her husband. We could say that this reconquest is a war machine. In Sicilia !, it is no longer necessary, as the Great Lombard says, to be content with being good citizens, one has to find new responsibilities in order to be at peace with men. So it isn’t irrelevant that, in Du jour au lendemain, love inscribes itself in the interior of the couple and the discourse while in Sicilia ! it was born from an extramarital affair, from a subversion.
JMS: This women in Silicia !, i can tell you what she is: a witch. Him, the son, behaves like all men of the inquisition. Do you know how many witches the Inquistion burned? Thirty thousand. As many as Communards were executed. In Sicilia !, a gentle son cares for his old mother. Little by little, he starts to ask questions like an inquisitor. He judges her, then he realizes that as a woman she had her freedom and took it. A witch is revealed. That is what the Inquisition did not allow.
DH: It is at this moment that we understand why she gets angry when her son says to her “But did it not matter to you to no longer see the track, did it not matter to you to no longer hear the train” and she answers “But what does it matter…” You understand why. It is the fault of the railwaymen who let the police pass, it is the fault of this railroad that the strike was crushed.
JM: The woman in Du jour au lendemain is also a witch in her own way, because she takes on all the sorrow of the world in her machination. But she is a petit-bourgeoise who plays the witch, whereas the other, one fine day, is struck by lightning, by the arrival of this man. This wife of a railroad man suddenly reveals herself as a witch. It’s something completely different.
Sicilia ! is more vague than your other films, as if in the end there has to remain some uncertainty regarding the morality, the struggle, the couple. It’s a matter of movements and surges of politics and love that overtake whatever we might say about them, and that, in the final analysis, constitute a risk of which one doesn’t know, to come back to something you said earlier, if it is supported by a strong caution. One has the feeling that the film is extremely open and that a certain truth, whatever it is, is hard to formulate and can only be formulated at the price of multiple contradictions, the way in which the mother says of her father: “He had a head for a thousand things.”
JMS: If Sicilia ! seems more open than Du jour au lendemain, if it actually is, it’s because it’s a film in which there are many blanks. And to make a film of more than an hour is a luxury. I will tell you where all of this comes from. It’s what I call the science-fiction effect. Again there can be found some relation with Not reconciled: when, after the revelations about the hardship that the young Schrella has endured from eighty percent of her classmates, he finds himself on the bridge with Robert, who asks, looking for an explanation: “What are you? Are you Jewish?” At this moment in the film, there is no sign saying “1934, beginning of anti-semitism”. That is what I call the science-fiction effect. What is this strange world in which being Jewish could be an explanation? All of Sicilia ! is constructed in this way. For example, when we hear someone in the train saying “Ogni morto di fame è un uomo pericoloso” – each man dying of hunger is a dangerous man, this could have resulted in an entirely different film. We had foreseen to to do as in the Kafka film: to avoid, contrary to what Forman does in his Hollywood films, showing old cars that point out the periode we’re in. For Sicilia ! we went through a lot of trouble to find a train wagon that, without it being state-of-the-art, couldn’t be traced back to a certain period. We saw to it that the images weren’t historically dated, and the same for the costumes.
The black and white plays an ambiguous role in regards to this science-fiction effect.
JMS: The black and white is actually a correction of what I just described. There again we find the idea of caution. One has to go very far in making “modern” images but then it’s better to make them in black and white than in color. And when the Great Lombard, in the train, develops what I call his Communist utopia, it’s not the great European Communist utopia, as put forward by Hölderlin at the beginning of the last part of Empedocles. It’s not a universal Communist utopia, it is a Communist utopia that doesn’t state its name and is rather particular: it’s the Communist utopia of the men that have been massacred by Stalin in Ukraine. A Communist utopia that is searching for something, that dreams of something and that says: “To arrive at what I’m searching for, I would give everything I own, my land and my horse.” That goes very far. But if we point out that these words stem from after 1917, with in the background the war in Spain, and anticipating McCarthyism and everything else, it doesn’t work in the same way. That is what I call the science-fiction effect. Conversely, when we would have filmed the train in color, the film would have been too close to us.
DH: the silent moment, at the end of the train scene, ends up making our head spin. It becomes completely dreamlike. In color, the sky would have been blue…
JMS: Blue, not really, because it was grey… Even it there was the Sirocco blowing. But it’s true that with color the landscape wouldn’t have had this lunar quality. The black and white, in correcting the science-fiction effect, also allows to make things more abstract.
It’s not only the black and white or the lunar quality of the story that gives Sicilia ! its wide openness: there is also the undeceidability of place, a continuous movement that makes the film pass by without anything – the speech and the perception we have of the characters – ever concluding or freezing. Let’s take for example the scene between Silvestro and his mother, their movements, the fact that they occupy, in turn, the same place and that the space is very cut up. The geometry of the space keeps escaping us. The other day, seeing the house in Buti where this scene was shot, I was surprised by its smallness, while for Du jour au lendemain the space seemed more imaginable.
JMS: Let’s be more down to earth. Du jour au lendemain is simply a film with one single setting decor, and for the first time for us, a studio decor. It came from a challenge and the desire to amuse ourselves shooting between three walls, with one open wall and the orchestra in the back. Consequently, it’s a film that says what it is. Sicilia ! is a film starting in Messina, going up to the centre of Siciliy. That’s all.
Still, in Siclia ! we find ourselves, more than usual in your films, at odds with the space, with the off-space, especially in the train with the Great Lombard.
DH: When the Great Lombard is filmed alone in the train, it corresponds to a moment when he himself forgets the people around him. The risk is then knowing if you can succeed to get across the fact that, when he is shot alone in the train, he forgets what is around him. What remains of the off-space – and it’s something very strong that can’t be obtained in theatre – are his eyes looking through the window and in which you can see the light from outside.
JMS: But that should be any filmmaker’s strategy, small or great, young or old. It consists in playing with distance and space. We have gone through a lot of trouble with this compartiment. It was a matter of three centimeters to isolate it from the others. In reality we had to cheat a little. If we would have chosen a compartiment in second class, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. In first class, we won the fifteen centimeters that made the movement possible. At first, Willy Lubtchansky wanted us to take out a seat each time the camera changed places. I was against. So we filmed from each side of the seats, camera on the shoulder, except for the shot of the two cops, for which the camera was mounted on the level of the compartment door and turns towards the hallway.
DH: Jean-Marie was stubborn and he was right. Let’s say the material is much stronger because the train, Willy and the camera are moving at the same time.
JMS: As soon as we had chosen a lens, we couldn’t move an inch anymore. We didn’t have a zoom, and the lenses were fixed focal length. As soon as you choose a strategic position, you start doing things you had never done before. Thirty years ago, I would have been horrified to make a shot like the close-up of the great Lombard. The first time I used a 100mm lens was for The Death of Empedocles (1987). Before that I had only went up to 75. To return to the house, what made me decide to shoot this way was the black wall inside the fireplace. We lived in this house in Tuscany during the two months of rehearsals. We’d done quite a few explorations in Sicily, seen a lot of houses. Finally, we decided to shoot there. The wall in the fireplace is the only part of the house that is three centuries old. That was even worse than in the train. There are two camera positons in the whole sequence. There is one where you see him at the door and her at the fireplace, a position that is kept to film them both at the table and the window. The camera is close to the fireplace. And here it becomes exciting because all the shots are the result of a space that is not made of rubber. One feels very well that we haven’t tried to correct the perspective to make a more beautiful shot. You can play with the focal lengths but the perspective is correct, it’s always the same. It’s what we did with the Kafka, even if it was a bit more complicated then because we had to show solaridarity with Karl Rossman and, during the trial, be a bit closer to him than to the others. If you constantly change the perspective to make this or that shot, a close-up for example, then that close-up is of no importance at all.
In Class relations, we basically witnessed more of a trench war, camp against camp, exploiters against exploited. in Sicilia ! the dialectics, the conflict has given way to the evocation of memories and the world, even poetic and melancholic in the last sequence. It is about satisfaction, dignity, God …
JMS: This is a film of old people, that’s all, and it’s an airy film. This is a film in which there is air, in which the viewer or the citizen has more possibilities to exist, to breathe, than in the previous films … But there is not only the dignity of the grinder, the canons etc… It all the same ends with dynamite and that’s not nothing, especially if you think about certain recent events. And before the dynamite there is cannoni, cannoni and before that there is talk of sickles and hammers. And after the canons and the dynamite, there is another contradiction. When the grinder puts his hat back on and salutes, you have the impression that there are two characters who are saying goodbye to each other, each on one side of of an invisible abyss – they’re almost two Fordian characters. Then they begin to speak about healing and sickness. What is interesting is what is experienced at that moment. If you get to a point where humanity needs dynamite, it means that the world is sick. So there should be a convalescence. That, for me, is taken up by Beethoven… What the Great Lombard says is something typically Italian, which, twenty years ago, would have made me red with anger. But this time, I took it seriously. I said to myself “here is someone who is searching for something.” And as it was written in indirect style in the book, I put it in direct style, which made it more shocking and substantial. There is also the grinder who says “troppo male offendere il monde.” Reading this when I was eighteen, I would have shrugged my shoulders. But here, all of a sudden, it takes on a certain weight. It’s also in this sense that I say that this is a old people’s film. This is a film that could be called After the deluge.
There are other films that are set after the deluge and that, in the same way as Sicilia ! , advance following individual or collective memories, as well as their contradictions, defining some kind of space of the present by way of the past. I’m thinking of Hiroshima Mon Amour or other films by Resnais.
JMS: Let’s consider that as a compliment, and it sure is one. But let us rather talk of one of the people I like the most in contemporary cinema, Otar Iosseliani. I really loved Chasing Butterflies, but I think that his last film is a film armored by the story, the meaning, a desire not to leave holes or gaps. What can you do, cinema is not a language. Rivette and Moullet, a long time ago, reacted against the pornographic cinematographic writing. From my side, I arrived at the same conclusion. Cinema is not a language, in the way that Lenin said that bourgeois politics was pornography. Referential films, cinema becoming its own object, it’s dreadful.
Sicilia ! is much more beautiful and stronger for its dialogues being simple and yet dense. that’s what is undoubtedly at the origin of the impact and the surprise it produces. At once short and simple.
JMS: It’s very difficult to write texts like these ones. It’s what I told Otar when he asked me, ten years ago, “But why don’t you write your own texts?” I prefer to take them elsewhere because I know those texts will be richer than those I’m capable of writing, that they’ll resist me, and that I’ll have the courage to impose them on the actors for two, three, four months.
What is the meaning of the grinder’s enigmatic line: “one sometimes confuses the pettinesses of the world with the offenses to the world.”
JMS: Piccolezze, the small things of the world.
DH: Pettinesses! The grinder, who should have given this service for free, given the pleasure that he got from meeting Silvestro, apologizes for having tried to extort two francs more. He says to Sulvestro: “What kind of thing is that one, isn’t that a man who offends the world?” And the others says “Ooh” with a smile implying “Don’t exagerate, it’s all the same not serious.” The grinder answers him “Thanks you my friend, one sometimes confuses the pettinesses of the world with the offenses to the world.”
JMS: Moreover, I have to say that the word pettiness is well chosen, because in Italian it’s also a noun, even if it’s a bit forced. Probably, if we would have translated Piccolezze by small things, we would have translated inaccurately.
DH: No, that’s not true, it corresponds to narrow mindedness. Stop, in this domain you can’t beat me.
JMS: Ok… But I would like to add something about this thing (showing the press dossier) that I’m not unhappy about. There are three texts by Vittorini here. There is one very short one on Hölderlin, and another, even shorter, on color in cinema, and a final one, a bit longer, on Dreyer. I want it to be known that before making the film and even when we were editing it, I was completely unaware of these texts. One should give César his due: it was François Albéra who sent them to me. Why are they interesting? You see that Vittorini was interested in Hölderlin, which I would have never imagined. You also learn that he wrote about a film by Mamoulian: “Can color ever replace the innumerable shades of black and white?” It’s something important. In regards to the text on Days of Wrath, I’ve put it in there for one reason only: because of this witch. I also want it to be known that that I have never thought about Days of Wrath while working on Sicilia ! But I have to confess that when I arrived in Paris in 1954, the film that I knew the best, besides two films by Grémillon, two films and a half by Renoir en three films by Bresson, was Days of Wrath, which I must have seen at least seven times on 16mm, in my attic. So, consequentely, if there is something, in the scene between the mother and the son, that makes on think about Days of Wrath, it’s not surprising. A film that you see at that age leaves traces. In addition, I want Pagnol to be cited in regards to Sicilia ! I want that to the extent that I don’t really know Pagnol. But one day I discovered that images don’t exist for him. He does an enormous amount of work on the sound, and besides he bragged about it. Everyone was saying “You see, when the sound is right, the images are right”. But it’s not true. Pagnol locked himself in his sound-studio and, actually, he didn’t want to see anything. Of course, that’s not why the images don’t exist. But it happens that they don’t exist. One has to admit that, even is there is something in common between Toni and Pagnol, politically Renoir and him have nothing to do with each other. Pagnol is a bit tiresome. Bazin admired Manon des sources because of the priest’s long speech. I have never seen the film again. One would have to see if it stood the test of time. There are for example two filmmakers whom I admired a great deal when I was young and who irritate me today: Murnau and Rosselini. Their cinema ends up chasing its own tail.
You often talk about Dreyer, Bresson, Renoir, Ford, Stroheim, Lubitsch or Chaplin, but not a lot about filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Antonioni, Vertov or Ozu. Should we assume that you don’t have much sympathy for them?
JMS: It wasn’t Bresson who taught me about space, it was Hitchcock. When, in the course of a dialogue, there is a close-up and then a low-angle shot in close-up, it’s never fanciful. Even if I have slowly grown tired of Hitchcock’s stories and his roman-photo side. The first text I have written was sixty pages long and was about Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore. It was about the film without really being about the film, based on Dostojevski’s The adolescent and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I showed it to Bazin who told me that he wasn’t sure if the film would support this pyramid. For my part, I found it to be a synthetic and new cinema, particularly in regards to space. Bazin sent me to Marker, at Esprit, to try to publish the text. But nobody wanted to. After that, I went to Germany and I burned it. I also wrote a text about Rear Window that Doniol, Bazin and the others had even put in the layout. I did some proofreading but then they decided that the special issue on Hitchcock would only take in account the films made up until Dial M for Murder. It was just a small analysis of the spatial relations in Rear Window. So, if I learned anything on space, it comes from there as well. Ozu I discovered very late. When we arrived in Berlin with Not reconciled, an old German was always saying to me: “Ozu, Ozu”. I told him I didn’t know Ozu, and answered “Mizoguch, Mizoguchi”, because I had seen his films before leaving Paris, and I knew Sansho, O’Haru and Street of Shame very well. You know what Mizoguchi said to Ozu? It’s the most beautiful compliment a filmmaker can give to another filmmaker. Responding to someone who was critisizing Ozu, Mizoguchi said “Yes, but what Ozu does is perhaps more difficult than what I do.” The other beautiful compliment was made by John Ford. An American journalist asked him which filmmakers he admired. And he said “Renoir, for example.” And the journalist: “Ah, Renoir, La Grand Illusion, but what other Renoir films? – But all of them!” He certainly hadn’t seen them all. To come back to Mizoguchi, if I have something in common with him, it’s a certain anger that you don’t find in Ozu’s work. Mizoguchi is all the same the greatest Marxist filmmaker. There are other films I admire a lot, like Monsieur Verdoux, films that have certainly left traces. In Limelight, in the big number with Buster Keaton, after a few seconds Chaplin cuts the sound. At the beginning there is off-screen applause that is perfectly cinematic, reconstituted, invented. But Chaplin had such an experience with theaters and audiences that, abruptly, he cuts everything. And each time the movie theater takes over.
Originally published as ‘au milieu du bout du monde’ in Libération, June 1983. ‘Ana’ will be shown during the Courtisane Festival (17-21 April 2013), as part of the programme “Once Was Fire”.
Nothing is lost. Beyond the beaten track of the media and the summoning appeal of presold films, still occur a few aerolites. One every year, that is not so bad. The year 1982 was that of Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova, 1983 could well turn out to be, by way of dazzling surprise, the year of Ana. Completely unclassifiable, this second feature film of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro; how wonderful this journey into the world calmly pierced from our perceptions, between the accuracy of dreaming and the inaccuracy of waking, all through the vertigo of the present. Perhaps there are not enough films left that make you want to whisper, in delight, “Where am I?”. Less of fear for being lost or astray, then to recover the emotion of the sleeper who, while waking up, does not know where he’s coming from, in which refuge he has just rested, and which world he’s waking up to. Out of gratitude for this disoriented moment and the pleasure to be able to say this archaic formulation of an archaic emotion: “where am I?”. For the verb “to be” that comes before this little overestimated name: “I”. For the awakening.
Where are we in Ana? In Portugal, since the filmmakers are Portugese. But this small country is still too big. In the North of Portugal, in the region of Miranda do Douro, where Reis and Cordeiro have already shot a film a few years ago, another wonderful and unclassifiable film called Tras-os-Montes. Here and nowhere else. Here and anywhere else. Because the strength of Ana, which discourages in advance all lazy classifications, is just that. It’s been a while since a film has reminded us so clearly that cinema is at the same time an art of the singular and the universal, that images float so much better if they dropped their anchor somewhere. Ana-fiction? Ana-documentary? This distinction is really too crude. Documented fiction? Not even.
Fiction means putting oneself in the middle of the world to tell a story. Documentary means going to the end of the world not to have to tell. But there is fiction in documentation as there are insects in fossile rocks, and there is documentation in fiction for the good reason that the camera (it cannot help itself) records what you put in front of it, everything that you put in front of it. Ana-end of the world? Ana-midst of the world? There’s a strange scene in this film. In the family home where Ana lives (and where she will die), a man (her son) talks incessantly, just as an academic on holiday would do to try out his course on a familiar public. He speaks of what he knows: the strange matches between his country (this part of Portugal) and ancient Mesopotamia, between two cultures of fishermen, two ways of moving in the water. “What is Mesopotamia?” a child asks. The father might say: it’s next door. The filmmakers might say: it’s the next shot. Already in Tras-os-Montes, the same question was asked (by another child): “Where is Germany?” he asked his migrant working father. There, said the man. And we could feel that for the child, “there” started next pokies free online door, at the next bend in the river. It was at the end of the world and in the midst of the world. It was a child. And in Ana, when Reis reads – off screen – a poem by Rilke in the shot in which the sick little boy stirs in his sleep, this is not an coquetry, it is this idea of a poet (Reis has written poems, they were published) that there are rhymes here below in this world. Touching, embracing, intertwining. And that cinema is still adequately local (and not provincial) and universal (and not Esperanto) to let them occur. That is why Ana risks to be disorientating: by making color the Euphrates in the Douro, it makes us lose the orient, for real.
A film by poets, but also by geologists, anthropologists, sociologists, by all the possible -ogists. Reis and Cordeiro are Portuguese, but not from Lisbon (it is a much too provincial capital city), not even from Porto. They situate their films in this North of Portugal where the tourists never come (they invade the Algarve in hordes, the fools). Beautiful and abandoned landscapes, which have to be perceived as sumptuous ruins; a countryside that is filmed as if it were a city. In Ana, the trees, the roads, the stones of the houses almost have names. Everything is a junction; nothing is anonymous. The film is a consoling buzzing: the sound of the wind causes the images to swell and shrink like a sea. There is emptiness in the heart full of sensations, the way there is an emptiness in this part of Portugal. The films by Reis and Cordeiro record a disorienting situation of emigration, caused by the exodus: the men have left, the children are now left to their games and the elderly are left to guard the places. There is no supervision from the parents here, only the guardianship of grandparents, in a game of glances, fleeting and tender, surprised and serious.
And the story? There is one, if you want. But you do not have to want to. Ana is the name of an old woman who’s staying in her house, right as an emblem. Her face is worn-out and proud, her body heavy and noble. Ana is a little more than a grandmother and a little less than a symbol. Certainly not the symbol of the earth or the roots. Ana is a woman too and she falls ill. Or rather, she doesn’t fall. There’s a wonderful moment when, wearing a cloak trimmed with ermine, she passes through the countryside with the muffled elegance of a Murnau character. The version of Bach’s Magnificat we’re hearing is at the right height of the beauty of this advent. The old lady, from the back, cries out a name: Miranda! Blood then comes to her mouth, she looks at her reddened hands, she knows she will die. Miranda is the name of a small village nearby and it is the name of a cow that has strayed and that we find again in the next shot. There are always many things to respond to a word. There is a risk of dying, crying out alone in the countryside. Always poetry.
“Cinema is not the spectacle of multinationals.
Cinema is not the dictate of specialists.
Cinema is not video recording.
Cinema is not films with beautiful photography, perfect frames, gorgeous scenography, immaculate and conventional sonorisation.
Cinema does not exist without films. But a film only exists on the basis of the visceral decision of who’s making it, regardless of the idiocy of programmers, cultural operators, stupid producers, government officials, bankers, auxiliaries, bureaucrats. Cinema is our films.
Cinema is the negation of technicism, semiologism.
Cinema is a place where you and I recognize each other, “me” and others embrace.
Cinema is all the films not made, yet contemplated in the explosion of existence.
Cinema is the domain of fragile and impossible films.
Cinema is the liberating application of the margins in search of the proper world (cosmos).
Cinema is the space of the accursed and the inebriated.
Cinema is the eternal proposition of being.
Cinema is the social taking place on one condition; let the being and the temporal (cosmic) transpire behind the facade of the cogito.
Cinema is the point of convergence-divergence between the real and the unthinkable, the imaginary and the impossible.
Cinema is this promise-threat, the return of the inconceivable, the audacity of the unexpected.”
– Stavros Tornes, 1977