Friday, August 18, 2017

Three years after the Dragon

What is near and what is far? There are questions which may well not survive the art of cinema. How do things go about reaching us from the ends of the earth? And how are we to see them coming? Populations, news and drugs are a part of these things. They are at the heart of Year of the Dragon (1985) and of Michael Cimino’s films. Seeing again Year of the Dragon, on Canal Plus, three years on, makes us realise just how much this question will never be one for television. On television, what is far is always-already-there, an ‘old faithful’, with neither aura or fripperies. TV’s real exoticism is what happens ‘at home’, when by chance something happens which we were far from suspecting. With cinema, things went quite differently and it wasn’t unusual for great directors (Cimino is sometimes one) to take on journalists’ issues. Funny kinds of journalists, convinced that ‘everything is meshed’ and you only have to pull a thread to bring – why not? – the whole world to you. A world they would be crazy enough (paranoia is the word) to fit into one film. 
‘This goes back a long way’ is the leitmotiv of captain White, the furious hero disguised as Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon. This what? This everything. The activities of the Chinatown gangs, which go back to the Sino-American mafia, which goes back to the Hong Kong triads, which goes back several thousand years in China and to the historical presence of Chinese in the United States. Not to speak of the drugs arriving from Bangkok on a Polish ship, the Kazimierz Pulawski, a quirk of fate when you think that White also comes from a long way away – from Poland to be precise – with a painful detour via Vietnam. Resentment too goes a long way back, like anger which is better tasted cold and grudges which push back the limits of the world. 
We remember the ‘controversy’ that greeted the film on its release: was it racist or not? On TV you can see more clearly how much the racism is only a petty rationalisation of what Cimino still has it in him to film with the voraciousness and folly which any director worthy of the name can’t but possess, and which always exceeds his ideological limits. 
Year of the Dragon has to be seen as a (sometimes futile) exercise in style on this question of what’s close and what’s a long way away. This is the effect TV has on the film. What has to be seen is how Cimino tries everything before getting to the only confrontation which could tie up every loose end in the film. What has to be seen is the way Cimino builds up his scenes from big camera movements, within which there’s a proliferation of actions which aren’t simultaneous (as on TV), but parallel (as in the cinema). Once, the crucial question was how to get close to things. But where the zoom has replaced the actors’ movements with the movements of our eyes, Cimino thrusts Rourke like a living zoom into the thick of what suddenly shifts from ‘too far’ to ‘too near’, from jealousy to phobia. 
So, for Cimino, it’s also necessary that what’s far recedes as what is near gets closer*. About halfway through Year of the Dragon there are some extraordinary scenes. Criticised by all the other characters in the film, analysed and completely exposed, Stanley White collapses under the strain and becomes a wreck for several scenes. That’s when Cimino abandons him without warning and follows his enemy, the seductive Joey Tai, the young Chinese mafia leader, on a ‘business’ trip into the Thai (or Burmese?) forests. An incredible episode where we are compelled to ‘identify’ with this character, who is after all the villain of the film. Cimino succumbs to a very strange temptation, that of replacing his deadbeat lawman with his sworn enemy and granting him a nice piece of adventure movie. 
The result is that when we return to New York and the Polish choir at the funeral of White’s wife, we get something like a poignant illustration of the kind of movies Cimino’s unconscious dreams about. Movies with ever-wider concentric circles, where the threads connecting what’s close and what’s far are woven before our eyes, where the whole world communicates with itself. This was, incidentally, his stroke of genius in The Deer Hunter, moving without warning from Vietnam to Pennsylvania, and it’s this kind of thing that made Cimino (up until The Sicilian) so special a director. 
This is only a temptation though. Whether to enlarge the circles to infinity or to plunge into the target’s heart, where only one of the two men can survive? Year of the Dragon opts for the second solution, the one more in keeping with its stale moralism, but against the nature of Cimino’s talent. 

* The ultimate image of the double phobic movement: the vertical shot down the clock tower staircase in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
First published in Libération on 14 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television

In the autumn of 1988, Serge Daney started to write about films on French television in a column called 'Ghosts of permanence' for the newspaper Libération. A large selection of these texts featured in Daney's fourth book Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting translations of many of these texts, quite rapidly and in chronological order, attempting to match the rhythm of the column (every other day or so). Keep checking the blog. Here's the intro he wrote in Recrudescence.
Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television 
To Jean-Claude Biette * 
This daily chronicle of ‘films on television’ came about from an irritation. For years, I’ve heard my old fellow cinephiles saying that a film on TV ‘is not the same thing’. Something, it was suggested, was irremediably lost. ‘Something’ which, in the event, nobody would venture to describe. To all of them it seemed certain that, on television, all that would be left of a film like The Ten Commandements would be a multi-coloured genocide, while India Song would be a triumph on the small screen. As if the passage from projection to broadcasting, from big to small screen, from chemical optics to electronic was solely about the opposition between intimacy and spectacle. 
I’ve always had the feeling it was nothing of the sort and that if, in the passage from the auditorium to the living room, there was, if not a metamorphosis, at least an anamorphosis, it would be a more subtle and less expected one. That in this passage of films under the X-rays of TV, something was lost (in terms of embodiment, seduction, of a certain captivating brilliance), but that something else at times was preserved, indeed gained (in terms of the nervous system, the skeleton, a certain head-on violence). In short, one had to take a closer look, and in person, with the certitude that, whatever the case, future generations will discover cinema with its loss
A daily column was the best tool of enquiry. For one thing because French television is – France oblige – very cinephile and day in day out there were all kinds of films to choose from – some of them, a rarity, in the original version. For another thing because, from rare late night cine-club items to obscure filler films and the eighties top grossers that could now be seen with hindsight, one could rediscover in this column the charm and flavour of old-school criticism, for whom a film, before being targeted or labelled, was only a film (one film one vote). Plunged into the trivial promiscuity of television, films ‘breathe’ better than on the lone pedestals of cinematheques. 
The other reason for this column was the somewhat disenchanted verdict I had reached by the end of my previous column (Le salaire du zappeur). My Lumière-Rossellini-Bazin-Godard hypothesis, which held out some hope of seeing on television the eventual continuation of one strand of cinema (the strand concerned with, not to say obsessed by, the concept of ‘information’), seemed to me more and more refuted by the way in which the power of the media was evolving. Looking at the mechanisms of run-of-the-mill French television ‘as a cinephile’, I had been struck by the triumph of parochial values and their enactment, to the detriment of what I saw more and more as the posthumous beauty of cinema: nothing less than a relation to the ‘world’. Television was not a continuation of cinema, for the good reason that it was not a machine for creating, nor even for producing, but instead for racketeering (at worst) or (at best) for showing
A film on television is neither cinema nor television, it’s a ‘reproduction’ or else an ‘information’ about a prior state in the coexistence between men and images, the images that nourish them and the images that give them life.
* The column 'Ghosts of permanence' was created in the early 80s by Daney's fellow film critic (and future filmmaker) Jean-Claude Biette.

Notes on the translation: For most of the texts, I've re-worked the translations from the manuscript Cinema in transit, an unpublished English-language anthology which I got from Steve Erickson. In practice, this has meant correcting typos, adjusting the style and tackling mistranslations (there were quite a few) which I've checked against the original text. I've also translated some other texts from scratch with the invaluable help of Otis Wheeler.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Serge Daney in Portuguese

While an anthology of Daney in English remains a distant dream, the rest of the speaking world continues to publish translations. After books in Spanish, German, Dutch, Japanese, Italian and others, the Portuguese publisher Angelus Novus released last year a selection of Daney's writings: O Cinema Que Faz Escrever: textos críticos. The translators have sent over the table of contents which you can read below with links to existing (English) translations.

Choosing these 26 texts must have presented the obvious headache (the French edition of Daney's complete writings run into nearly 3,000 pages) but this small selection hits the spot in many ways. The book opens with 'The tracking shot in Kapo' - Daney's last and most encompassing text, covering his life as a cinephile in relation to modern cinema - and ends with 'Montage Obligatory' - one of the key texts written while watching the first Gulf War on TV and which made Daney abandon "traditional" criticism and found the more literary review Trafic.

In-between are the best known theoretical texts from the 70s (most of them already translated in English), a few great film reviews of international authors (e.g. Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Paradjanov), and a pretty perfect selection of Daney's key texts from the late 80s and early 90s where he developed his opposition between the image and the visual (including "The last image" from the landmark exhibition "Passages du cinéma"). I particularly like the short section called "The Portuguese pole" with three reviews of films by Reis/Cordeiro, Oliveira and Rocha, as if Daney's many travels and writings on international cinema allowed any country in the world to create a small Daney collection of their own.

O cinema que faz escrever: textos críticos
Serge Daney


The Tracking Shot in Kapo
Trafic n.º 4, Autumn 1992


Amphisbetesis (François Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 222, July 1970

The screen of fantasy (Bazin and animals)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 236-237, March-April 1972

A tomb for the eye (Straubian pedagogy)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 258-259, July-August 1975

The t(h)errorized (Godardian pedagogy) AKA The therrorized (Godardian pedagogy)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 262-263, January 1976

The organ and the vacuum cleaner (Bresson, the devil, the voice-over and other things)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 279-280, August-September 1977

Éloge d'Emma Thiers (Réalisme de Jean-Claude Biette)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 285, February 1978

The cruel radiance of what is (Johan Van der Keuken)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 290-291, July-August 1978

D’une rosière à l’autre" (Jean Eustache, La Rosière de Pessac I et II)
Cahiers du cinema n.º 306, December 1979

Wim’s movie (Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 318, December 1980


Loin des lois (António Reis et Margarida Cordeiro, Trás-os-Montes)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 276, May 1977

Que peut un cœur? (Manoel de Oliveira, Francisca)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 330, December 1981

Exil, amour et tatami portugais (Paulo Rocha, L'Île des amours)
Libération, 20 May 1982


Jacques Rivette, Le Pont du Nord
Libération, 26 March 1982

Not reconciled (Jerry Lewis' Smörgasbord)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 347, May 1983

Exil en Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovski, Nostalghia)
Libération, 4 June 1985

Paradjanov remonte au créneau (Sergueï Paradjanov,  Legenda o surasmoj kreposti)
Libération, 4 December 1986

Rohmer côté court (Éric Rohmer, Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle)
Libération, 4 February 1987


L'œil était dans la tombe et regardait Franju (Georges Franju, Les yeux sans visage)
Libération, 25 September 1986

Mizoguchi, la bonne distance (Kenji Mizoguchi, Akasen chitai)
Libération, 10 April 1987

La première fois (Roberto Rossellini, Francesco, giullare di Dio)
Cahiers du cinéma, Hors-série Roberto Rossellini, 1989


Le mot de la fin
L’Âne, n.º 7, Winter 1982

From movies to Moving AKA From projector do parade AKA From defilement to filing past
La Recherche photographique n.º 7, 1989

Le cinéma et la memoire de l'eau
Libération, 29 December 1989

La dernière image
Passages de l’image Catalogue, dir. Raymond Bellour, Catherine David, Christine van Assche, Centre Georges-Pompidou, 1990

Montage obligatory (The war, the gulf and the small screen)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 442, April 1991