Sunday, April 15, 2012

from "wisdom of the surface" -

"....politics as what a film speaks about – the story of a movement or a conflict, the unveiling of a situation of suffering or injustice, and politics as the strategy of an artistic approach: a way to speed up or slow down time, to diminish or widen space, to match or unmatch look and action, to link or unlink before and after, in and out. We could say: the relation between a matter of justice and a practice of justness. How to think about the way cinema can nowadays put into action the relation between the certainties of injustice, the uncertainties of justice and the calculation of justness?

Rancière has never been interested in film analysis or theory in itself: there just is no concept that integrates all the different conceptions of cinema, just as there isn’t a theory that unifies all the problems they pose.

But at the same time Ranciere has always contradicted the well-spread assumption that this reconfiguration of the landscape can be used as a simple instrument to mobilize militant energies or inform political strategies – an utopian idea that can be traced back to, for example, Vertov, whose work was grounded in a believe that cinema could, in effect, close the gaps between art, life and politics. But once the doomed marriage between communism and cinema was over, writes Rancière,

“the politics of cinema found itself captured in the contradictions that were proper to the expectations of critical art. The view we have on the ambiguities of cinema is in itself marked by the duplicity of what we expect of it: that it gives rise to a certain consciousness due to the clarity of an unveiling, and to a certain energy due to the presentation of a strangeness, that it unveils at the same time all the ambiguity of the world and the way to deal with this ambiguity. We project on it the obscurity of the relation between the clarity of vision and the energy of action. But if cinema can clarify the action, it’s maybe by questioning the self-evidence of that relation.”

In one of the last chapters of Les écarts du cinéma, titled ‘Conversations autour d’un feu’ (first presented in a talk at Centre Pompidou in June 2010) Rancière takes the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, in particular their film Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance) (1979), as a starting point to reflect on how this “questioning” has, over the course of the last decades, taken different forms and attitudes. He writes

“This politics of the communist cantata does not offer us a model of cinematographic politics but a point of reference: the mark of a time when dialectics finds itself scattered from the movement of history that carried it and has to construct a new place for itself, a new distribution of words and gestures, times and spaces; but it is also a fixed point to evaluate the way in which filmmakers have, since that time, wanted to tackle the fractures of history, the shaking up of paths between territories, injustices and new conflicts.”

Dalla nube alla resistenza - based on two works by Cesare Pavese - is not used as an exemplary model, but rather as a significant moment in the thinking of cinema and politics. Rancière indicates three reasons for his choice: first of all, the film ties in with the so-called “Brechtian paradigm”, of which the work of Straub and Huillet is perhaps the most systematic cinematographic form; at the same time, this particular film also represents a sort of turning-point in the dialectical tradition, resulting in a form which Rancière proposes to call “post-Brechtian”; and this critical moment in the work of the two filmmakers also corresponds with a historical juncture: namely, the end of the “leftist” decade, marked by a worldwide diminution of social achievements and revolutionary ideals. Around this period a certain era of cinema-political relations came to an end – characterized by the militant work of Vertov or the Medvedkin Group on the one hand, and historical fresco’s such as Bertolucci’s Novecento on the other. The “post-Brechtian” formula, according to Rancière, thus stands for a certain approach to cinema and politics which is “
less focused on the revelation of mechanisms of domination and repression, and more on the examination of the aporia’s of emancipation”.

Rancière’s venture takes him from a thorough analysis of Dalla nube alla resistenza to a juxtaposition with the more recent work of Godard, notably Eloge de l’amour and Notre musique. Although all these films seem to have certain traits in common - reference to the Resistance, confrontation of historical text and place etc. - their take on the Brechtian paradigm has taken different directions, which are manifest in the relations between what is said and what is shown, between the visibility of speaking bodies and the things they are speaking about, between gestures of justness and the intricacy of injustice. According to Rancière, the politics in the work of Straub and Huillet, exemplified by the sixth episode of Dalla nube alla resistenza, situates itself in “the art of arranging bodies that are at the same time capable of phrasing the dialectical force of division and summarize in one single gesture the resistance of justice to all arguments. This resistance itself proves to be visually equal to its contrary: the resistance of nature to all argumentation of just and unjust.” On the other hand, the dialectical play in Godard’s recent work, loaded with irony and nostalgia, is amplified in such a way that it gives way to “a radical impossibility of choosing between injustices”.

“The justness of cinema depends on the suspense held between two directions of the moving image: that which (in SANSHO DAYU) opens it to the injustices of the world and that which transforms all intrigue of injustice into vibrations on a surface. It’s in relation to this tension between outside and inside, shared by the classical narrative form (Mizoguchi) and the dialectical form (Straub), that we can think of the becoming of the link between cinema and politics.”

He dedicates a separate chapter to Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy, in particular No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth),...Rancière states: “the wealth of the common world and the capacity of any individual cannot be put in a dialectical formula anymore”. Rather, they deploy themselves under the form of a multiplicity of “condensations” of light and color, bodies and objects, words and silences… all of which function as substitutes, floating on the surface of the screen, “of a great lost art that would be the art of life itself, the art of sharing of sensible wealth and forms of experience.”

.....the believe that there’s a clear line between a way of presenting things and the determination to act; between raising a certain consciousness and provoking political action. But today, the real political power of cinema, according to Rancière, does not lie in conveying outspoken political messages but in what he calls the “wisdom of the surface”.
“Some still hold on strongly to the idea that the political effect of art works depends on the production of well-defined feelings of attraction or repulsion, fury or energy. They still hold on to models of causality that pretend to link modes of perception, forms of knowledge and mobilizing affects; but if they grant these powers to the works, it’s only to make them trip up, to be able to extract a diagnosis of impotence. I think that there is more common power preserved in the wisdom of the surface, in the way in which the issues of justice are weighed according to the imperatives of justness. But also the stories of spaces and trajectories, marchers and journeys can help us to inverse the perspective, to imagine no longer the forms of an art put in the service of political goals but the political forms reinvented on the basis of multiple ways in which the arts of the visible invent gazes, place bodies, making them transform the spaces they traverse.”
J Rancière : Vertov’s work is part of the system of historical modernism: eliminating stories and characters, which also means eliminating art itself as a separate practice. His films are supposed to be material performances that link together all other material performances, and these connections are meant to represent communism as a tangible reality. This aesthetic communism, in which all movements are equally possible, is a way of distancing the model of historical plotting on which the Soviet state found itself dependent: a model of strategic action supported by faith in a historical movement. As for Hitchcock, he used moving images to serve his stories, in other words he relegated machines to the status of instruments of narrative machination. Godard wants to release images in order to allow cinema to achieve its primary vocation and atone for its previous servitude to stories, in which is included the bad side of History in the form of 20th century dictatorships. The fragments that he thus isolates, though they link together as smoothly as those of Vertov, have little in common with the energies that Vertov wished to let loose. These images inhabit an imaginary museum in the style of Malraux, and they are testimonies and shadows that speak to us of the horrors of History.


C: The essays on Straub and Pedro Costa clearly demonstrate that a film is not a political message and cannot be measured by its theme or by well-intentioned relationships with what is filmed. In your view, where does their cinematic politics reside, exactly?

J Rancière: Politics in film is not a simple strategy by which awareness and activism are elicited, using well-defined means — as montage was, once upon a time. It is a complex assembly of several things: forms of sensibility, stances adopted towards the current world order, choices about the duration of a shot, where to place the camera, the ways in which the entities being filmed relate to the camera, and also choices about production, funding, equipment and so on. These assemblages give rise to various types of adjustment. Straub and Costa are on the side of the oppressed. They work outside the mainstream, use non-professional actors and make films that are distanced from dominant fictional paradigms. Beyond this point, their methods differ. Straub constructs films around literary texts, but he never “adapts” them. These texts work in two different ways. Initially, they provide, in a Brechtian way, an explanation of or judgement on the characters’ experiences. More and more, though, they specify a particular type of high register or nobility of speech, and the amateur actors, portrayed against a backdrop that illustrates the condensed power of nature, are there to test the ability of common people to utter such speech and rise to its level. This dual purpose is presented in an exemplary way in the extract from Dalla nube alla resistenza (1953) on which I comment, in which a shepherd and his son discuss, as they do in Pavese’s story, the reasons for injustice. Pedro Costa disposes of explanation, and of the heroic aspects of the backdrop and speech. He plunges with his lightweight camera into the life of immigrants and those on the edge of society, and into their relationship with time. He films these people first in shanty towns and then in new social housing. He is committed to showing that these people are able to create ways of speaking and attitudes that are equal to their own fate. He seeks to distil from their lives, environments and stories the nobility of which all people are capable. The film is in the style of a documentary about their lives, although all the episodes were invented as the film progressed, as a way of condensing their experience and making the film less personal. They use different methods, but in neither case do these film-makers seek to express their politics by denouncing a situation; rather, they demonstrate the capabilities of those who are living it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

JLG, 2010

In the Presence of Jean-Luc Godard (part 2)

Following the screening of his latest opus Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard opens and ends a two-hour long discussion with the public making personal – and quite incendiary – statements.

When the moderator announces that a microphone will be circulating around the auditorium, Godard stops him in mid-sentence and goes, “I’d like to say something first, before we begin.”

What follows is almost a manifesto that rejects the status of current cinema. Or popular culture, if you will. Godard wants to make it crystal clear that he feels removed from the current state of affairs – he sees a difference in between “Cinema” (with a capital “C”) and mere “films.” When he started out in the late 1950s/early 1960s, he – and his fellow filmmaker friends – only had 50 years of cinema behind them. On the other hand, the current crop of young and aspiring directors have twice as much as that: more than a hundred years of cinema and masterpieces. “From Murnau to Avatar” Godard says. He stresses several times that today there is no distinction in between “Cinema” and “films.” The same goes for literature: a best selling novel by Marc Levy isn’t necessarily great Literature. A painting by X or Y isn’t necessarily “Art.” A rapper doesn’t necessarily make “Music.” It doesn’t mean he’s less talented. He may aspire to it. But “Music” is other stuff. “Cinema” today has disappeared. What people call “cinema” are (mass market) films.

Here’s a visual example for you, Godard says. He carefully plucks from the small wooden table in front of him a folded piece of paper, which he had been nervously playing with since he took the stage. With the aid of the moderator, he unfolds it before the audience’s eyes. It’s a two page spread from the esteemed French newspaper Le Monde. A black and white advertisement by a luxury brand – the close-up photo of a young man who’s staring seductively at the camera – takes up 60% of the space. The actual article from the newspaper runs on two columns, one on the left, the other on the right of the gigantic picture. The great provocateur, with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, says to the audience, “I’ll show you a little example of what is cinema today.”

Stalin Today

“Readers, they read the text, they jump over the image, but they don’t think that the image is part of the spread.” Pointing to the left column of text Godard says “This is a film.” Pointing to the right column: “this is also a film.” The cinema would be the whole thing, the two page spread and the photo. Some people in the auditorium are quizzically looking at each other and scratching their heads. “L’Homme” (the man) – that’s the slogan of the ad. Godard continues: “‘L’Homme’ – it made me think of Stalin’s sentence: ‘Man is the most precious capital.” Pointing to Le Monde, “Here’s an image and here is a text by Stalin. Stalin is called Dior today.” Thunderous laughter and applause ensue.

Godard takes questions for the next two hours. The tone of his answers has already been set by his film and by his initial statement: I am under the impression that Godard feels above us all, disgusted by the current state of cultural and political affairs, and nostalgic of an earlier time.

On Elitism

An audience member, a man in his early 20s, takes the microphone and, in true French fashion, starts rambling on for five minutes, saying that he found the film somewhat hermetic and elitist – but “it is sometimes the job of the artist to do that.” And then he asks Godard, “Did you want to capture on film moral regression?”

Stung by the accusation of “elitism,” Godard snaps back: “If you look at a painting by Rembrandt, you don’t think it’s elitist. But he worked for the kings. Moliere worked for Louis XIV. Did they think of themselves as elitist? I was trying to affirm a point of view. You see the sea. What’s hermetic about the sea? Why do you look at the sea and think, ‘I don’t understand?’ Who’s the elitist here? I think it’s actually you, more than me.” Broad smiles around the auditorium.

A cow, alone, in an empty field

Later, another questions bothers JLG. A 30-something man with long, curly hair asks him about a scene that appeared in the film. During a cruise, we see people merrily dancing, while philosopher Alain Badiou (who plays himself), is in the cruise liner’s auditorium, giving a lecture in an empty room. The audience member asks, “What’s the meaning of that?”

Godard, feeling skittish, cuts him off in mid-sentence: “Eh alors? So? What’s terrible is: if I had filmed a dog or a cow alone in a field, would you have asked, ‘Why is the cow all by herself in the field?’ I’m not speaking of Badiou. I should have said a wolf or a tiger in his case. But why do you interpret everything?” People laugh in reaction to his comment.

The great master has nothing to say when an older gentleman takes the microphone and announces before the entire auditorium that he was a classmate of Godard’s: they went to high school together. While this man lavishes Godard with touching compliments, Godard himself shuffles in his chair, takes a couple of drags from his cigar and starts rummaging through his pockets looking for something. During the entire speech of this older gentleman Godard doesn’t acknowledge him nor does he make eye contact. Not even once.

Real Equality

At the end of the discussion, after the moderator has announced that the evening has concluded, Godard takes the microphone again and makes one final statement. He talks about a scene that he wanted to put inFilm Socialisme, but eventually left out. He wanted the little boy to say, “Why do ‘equality’ and ‘shit’ rhyme?” But this would have gone too far, he thought. Too bad. Godard goes on to explain, “Whether you are Nicolas Sarkozy or Madame Bettencourt, rich or poor, there is one unique moment in people’s lives that serves as a great equalizer. It’s not when we talk or hear or eat or love. It’s when we have a bowel movement. It’s the moment when we are all sitting on a throne. Equality is right then and there. And we find something that is tragedy and democracy. Real equality. But if that’s the only place where it happens, it’s quite tragic.”

After exiting from the auditorium, Pippa and I are faced with two choices: follow the trail of people on the way out of the cinema, or sneak into the cinema’s bar, where the two illustrious guests may be hanging out. We go for the latter option. And sure enough, as soon as we make it past the swinging doors, we see the New Wave’s mom and dad talking to each other, not even two feet away from us.

My friend Pippa eventually builds up the courage to go up to Godard and speak to him. I tell her that, given his previous shenanigans, I would be traumatized for life if he ever said anything rude or dismissive to me. He is, after all, the living director I admire the most. So Pippa heads in his direction while I and my palpitations go to the bar and fetch a glass of water. By the time I’m back in the spot where I left Pippa, I see her leaving Godard and coming towards me, trembling just a tiny bit. Godard is looking in our direction. We make eye contact and he flashes me a huge smile. I’m in a state of Nirvana. Pippa tells me about their exchange: she asked him what he thought of the Internet and if he was at all interested in multimedia projects or web films. His answer: “I’m a painter. I don’t even have an internet connection at home.”


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Speaking of revolutions: Too Early, Too Late
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Blog / Speaking of revolutions: Too Early, Too Late

Posted on 09/03/11

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Too Early, Too Late (Trop tôt, trop tard) 1981 © The artists

The following interview took place on the 20th of October 2010, at Jean-Marie Straub's home in Paris, three months before the start of what is currently designated as the "Egyptian Revolution". While the outcome of this uprising is not yet known, the film Trop Tôt, Trop Tard as well as this conversation have now gained quite a different dimension, and seem, above all, timely. This interview is being published to coincide with a screening of Trop Tôt, Trop Tard, at Tate Modern on 12 February 2011, on the 19th day of the Egyptian uprising. Unable to go to Egypt to exhibit the ongoing work Il n'y a plus rien that research around Trop Tôt, Trop Tard was part of, the event was organised with some urgency, as a way of foreseeing the present.

-Céline Condorelli

Céline Condorelli: I only have three questions for you.

Jean-Marie Straub: That’s very good, because I don’t have anything to say about this film.

Speaking of revolutions: Too Early, Too Late (Trop Tôt, Trop Tard) with Jean-Marie Straub interviewed by Céline Condorelli
This interview is part of a larger project entitled 'There is nothing left'

[jwplayer mediaid="669"]
Transcript of the complete interview in English:

Celine Condorelli: I am really wondering how to address a country like Egypt, and speak of a city like Alexandria, or of the situation following the Egyptian revolution. What is the appropriate position? The film Trop Tôt, Trop Tard is very clear in these terms, explicitly locating where it looks and speaks from, or reads from. My three questions are all about this, about positioning.

So Trop Tôt, Trop Tard was made in 1981, and I know you had been filming in Sicily, just beforehand. How did you get to Egypt, why choose sites of Egyptian rebellion in the second part of the film, following the French revolution. Why Egypt, why the Egyptian revolutions?

Jean-Marie Straub: It was purely by chance, just like everything that happens in this domain. It is a chance encounter. We went to Egypt the first time in 1973 or ‘72, I do not remember, for Moise and Aaron. Because while Moise and Aaron is an old project, of 1958, we wanted to shoot it, not in Egypt, but halfway somewhere, possibly in Italy, without knowing where exactly. In the end we shot a part in an amphitheatre in Massa d’Albe in the Abruzzi, and the last part a little more south. We went to Egypt in order to understand life there, and to bring back some objects, not many, a jug… a camel saddle, stupidly…

Coming back to Rome afterwards of course we had a lot of unanswered questions, what is happening in this country, how did it get to this, after the coming of Napoleon and before… One day we were just hanging out in a bookshop not far from us on the other side of the bridge, and there we found a book, in which we found informations, which is the one from these two gentlemen.

CC: Mahmoud Hussein.

JMS: And that’s when we had that idea. And of course the film does not have anything to do with what they wrote, with everything they say, and all the facts they mention; because they had not seen what they talked about. While writers say things and give information, they are not interested in geography, in topography, in places etc… and we went to check those informations’ topography, the geography of the thing. That is all.

The same thing happened to us with Fortini / Cani. There is a sentence in Fortini / Cani in which he says: “I consigli comunali delle Apuane rifiutano il ricorso in grazia, dopo il comune di Marzabotto” [The municipal councils of the Apuane (where twenty three years ago Reder and his helpers killed hundreds of people) oppose the petition for reprieve, after the municipality of Marzabotto]. That was all. The writers do know the facts as they put them down on paper, but they hadn’t seen most of the places… when they saw the first screening of the film at the French cinematheque here in Paris, one of them was crying, for his country, when he saw his country. We just went and filmed things they did not know. We went a first time to see all these places from north to south, from Alexandria to Assouan, and then we went back to shoot, a year or six months later, I can’t remember. That is all.

CC: Why did you decide to place this in relationship with the French revolution? Was it first Egypt and then France, or the opposite… which way did the film come about?

JMS: It consists in doing a diptych, that is all. To compare places that in France look deserted with places that in Egypt are full of life and people. It is only a contrast. What there is in this from an ideological point of view, I don’t know. But of course 1789, that Danièle speaks about in the beginning [of the film] is beforehand. You need to limit yourself in life, especially in matters of aesthetics; you cannot do everything at the same time. Nasser's revolution caused the authors to leave Egypt, but they first had to spend I don't know how much time in one of Mr. Nasser's concentration camps, before leaving for France. I think they spent two years in there. There.

But you do see at the end of the film a news edit, and you see Nasser himself speaking and saying: “Good people, blow off your lights, it is cold, it is snowing, and go home quietly, stay there, we are going to take care of you”. You see him in the film and even Neguib, sitting on a hospital bed shortly before he died, and taking the phone from his bedside table… you do see them. And you also see several glimpses of what you call Nasser's revolution. The end of the film is Nasser, even though we do not make anything glorious out of it.

CC: This was a question in relationship to positioning, as I already mentioned earlier. Knowing what position to speak from is a difficult thing in the Egyptian context.

JMS: This is exactly what fascinated us when we read this book, and the preface in particular. That’s where we found some information at last, on something that seemed nebulous to us on our return from Egypt, like a fog. We said to ourselves, it just isn't possible, how could they … did they never rebel, and what happened?

CC: And you clearly chose to place yourselves in relationship to these revolts. Did you go to Alexandria in 1981, when you were filming? Had you already decided not to film there?

JMS: We’d been there a year earlier. We had already been in 1973; we went three times before going back a fourth to film all this mess. We went twice for another film, and then we went back, and then went back again to find the locations, the villages on which there were informations given by the two Egyptian writers, and at this point we went back six months or a year later to film. We didn't decide, it was their (Mahmoud Hussein) text that did. They placed themselves later, after the Alexandria riots, because they wanted to speak about something that lead to Nasser.

CC: How was this translated to how you placed yourselves in the filming? There is a lot of consideration in the distance of each scene, between the camera moving or staying still, with the fact that people do not seem to be disturbed by its presence... How does one choose the appropriate position for the camera?

JMS: That is the least one can do when filming.... You need to go there and walk around. Walk around a place or a village three times, and find the right topographic, strategic point. In a way that one may be able to see something, but without destroying the mystery of what one sees… but this isn't specific to this film, this is the case in all our films.

CC: Especially the topographic point, I really recognised this in the film Sicilia!

JMS: That is what cinema is. The writer gives informations that he puts down on paper, that come out of archives. The same thing happened to Engels, who started from Kautsky's text, and said to him “you didn't understand anything”, and enumerates all these facts. All the facts he refers to become the list of grievances of the French revolution. So we went to the archives here in Paris, and we got the lists. We had two big piles, carefully tied with ribbons, that barely anyone had ever opened… We unwrapped them cautiously, and checked the facts. And then went from the North of France to the South, to see where all this happened, where it had taken place. What was left of it. And what is left of it? Nothing, there is nothing left. The topography, nothing else.

CC: But does the topography speak, can it have a voice?

JMS: Well cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarme said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”

CC: The film is also very clear in the relationship between text and image. Mahmoud Hussein's text seems to be the context, the large context, that names sites but doesn't necessarily have an immediate relationship with them, it remains at an abstract level of politics. But the images, the landscape itself appears as a character in the film - more than the text itself, although the latter is present as a voice. This relationship with the voice over… you specifically asked the writers to read it themselves?

JMS: Yes, one of the two reads the text; he reads it in French and as he speaks very good English, also reads it in English. Danièle reads the other text. What you saw was a French version?

CC: Yes, it was.

JMS: They (Mahmoud Hussein) always refused to have the film shown in Egypt.

CC: Do you know why? It was not possible to find their book in Egypt, no one I spoke to had even heard of it.

JMS: Because they didn't want it to be, that is all. And they are not known in Egypt because they left, they went on exile, and Egyptians do not want to know them, that's all. They were incarcerated in a camp there for two years after all.

CC: Yes but there is nevertheless a strong history of opposition in Egypt. There are nevertheless people who followed the history of Marxism Maoism for example.

JMS: Official ideology in Egypt is very respecting, and we are talking about two characters that are not respectable.

CC: Yes but still, they have been deleted a bit, deleted from Egyptian history. Could you explain me the relationship between text and images? Between what one sees and what one hears?

JMS: I cannot explain that to you. That's the film. That's the least one can do when making a film. People do not do this anymore, or hardly, and this is a decadence, that's all.

CC: You mean that people do not work on this relation anymore? This creates a specific distance, because the images are immediate, one is very close.

JMS: I do not like the word distance much, because everyone thinks the word distance comes from Brecht. Distanciation (in French), Brecht never spoke of distanciation. He spoke of Verfremdung, which means strange, it is completely different. The French always translated that with distanciation, and the English are even worse, they translate it with alienation.

CC: How would you translate it? Making uncanny?

JMS: The operation that consists in making things strange.

CC: Estrangement then.

JMS: But this film is really about this, the French part as well as the Egyptian part, by it not being fictional, and yet the fiction becoming reality. There is an element of fiction, but it comes from the place itself. When you see a donkey passing by chance, and of course this only happened for one take, pulled with a rope by a man, with a woman sitting on it… of course this becomes mythological.

Things like this cannot be anticipated, and are the gift of chance. But of course you need to have enough time, margins, and space for things like that to occur. Which is to say you need to behave as a filmmaker and not a paratrooper. Filmmakers nowadays are paratroopers; they fall from the sky, and show something that they did not have time to see, film before seeing anything, and never look at anything before seeing, or look again at something after having seen it, so… If one was pretentious, one could call that… well, it is a bit like counter point. This one (pointing at the cat on the table) is called Neguib.

CC: (Looking at the cat) We were just talking about you! Is this the relationship in the film, knowing how to look, knowing how to wait to be able to see what one sees, in terms of what is too early or too late?

JMS: I hope so. I am pleased to hear you say it, that's all, but I cannot add anything to this. And as I do not have anything to add to this, the film is there and that is all, and I hope it exists.

CC: It exists, and does exist today, proof is...

JMS: ... That you are here (he lights his cigar again).

CC: And I am here on my return from Egypt, where I took the film with me. Coming back, I decided to come and speak with you.

JMS: Griffith said: "What modern movie lacks is the wind, the moving wind through the trees. ”

CC: Would you consider having the film shown in Egypt?

JMS: Yes, I would, but I do not travel anymore. I would like them to see it, that’s all.
One must never take pity on intellectuals

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Interview credits:
D.O.P. Sarah Beddington,
with thanks to Merel Cladder who first told me about the film.

About the film:
Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub Trop
tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 105 minutes, 16mm colour, 1981)
Camera: William Lubtchansky, Caroline Champetier (in France);
Robert Alazraki, Marguerite Perlado (in Egypt)
Sound: Louis Hochet, Manfred Blank
Voice over: Danièle Huillet (part A), Bhagat el Nadi (part B)
Production: Straub-Huillet

Celine Condorelli works with art and architecture, combining a number of approaches from developing structures for ‘supporting’ to broader enquiries into forms of commonality and discursive sites. She is the author/editor of 'Support Structures' on Sternberg Press, 2009, and one of the founding directors of Eastside Projects, an artist-run exhibition space in Birmingham, UK. Current exhibitions include 'Il n'y a plus rien', first movement at Manifesta 8, Murcia (sept 2010- jan 2011), and Second Movement at A.C.A.F, Egypt (feb-march 2011).

The artist Uriel Orlow, currently collaborating with Celine Condorelli, has also curated an online exhibition of three films by Egyptian artists related to the problem of the president

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Nights of Labor Revisited by Jacques Ranciere

Preface to the Hindi edition of The Nights of Labor:
the workers' dream in 19th century France. Trans. Abhay
Dube. English Trans. Rana Dasgupta . To be published by

The Indian reader who opens this book in 2009 will no
doubt think it is a strange thing. How can these
stories of nineteenth-century French lockmakers,
tailors, cobblers and typesetters be relevant to the
information revolution, the reign of immaterial
production or the global market? This question, it
should be said, was already present for the French
reader who opened this book twenty-seven years ago. We
did not speak yet of globalization, nor of the end of
the proletariat, of history or of utopia. Quite the
contrary: France had recently elected a combined
socialist and communist government, which proudly laid
claim to the traditions of Marxism and of working class
politics. And it is in this context that the book
seemed to run counter to its own time, and became
difficult to classify. The author was a professional
philosopher who had struck his first blows, in the
1960s, by participating in the theoretical enterprise
of Louis Althusser, who wished to rebuild Marxist
theory. Now, instead of offering philosophical theses,
he was telling stories about the French working class
of the nineteenth century. And he offered nothing by
way of Marxism - no analysis of the forms of industrial
production, of capitalist exploitation, of social
theories or of class struggles or worker movements. His
workers, moreover, were not "real" workers; they were
artisans from olden times, dreamers who dabbled in
poetry and philosophy, who got together in the evening
to found ephemeral newspapers, who became intoxicated
by socialist and communist utopias but for the most
part avoided doing anything about them. And the book
seemed to lose itself in the aimless wanderings of
these people, following the dreams of one, or the
little stories others recounted in their diaries; the
letters they wrote about their Sunday walks in the
Paris suburbs, or the everyday concerns of those who
had left for the United States to try out their dream
of fraternal communalism. What on earth were readers to
do with these stories in 1980?

The question is not, therefore, one of geographical or
temporal distance. This book may seem untimely in an
era that proclaims the disappearance of the
proletariat, but it also seemed so in the previous era,
which claimed to represent the class that had been
united by the condition of the factory and the science
of capitalist production. Let me put it simply: this
book is out of place in a postmodern vision for the
same reasons that it was already out of place in a
classical modernist vision. It runs counter to the
belief, shared by modernism and postmodernism alike, in
a straight line of history where cracks in the path of
time are thought to be the work of time itself - the
outcome of a global temporal process that both creates
and destroys forms of life, consciousness and action.
This book rejects this because, despite its apparent
objectivity, such an idea of time always places a
hierarchy upon beings and objects. The belief in
historical evolution, said Walter Benjamin, legitimizes
the victors. For me, this belief legitimizes the
knowledge that decrees what is important and what is
not, what makes or does not make history. It is thus
that the social sciences have declared that these
little stories of workers taking an afternoon walk, or
straying far from the solid realities of the factory
and the organized struggle, have no historical
importance. In doing so they confirm the social order,
which has always been built on the simple idea that the
vocation of workers is to work - and to struggle - good
progressive souls add - and that they have no time to
lose in wandering, writing or thinking.

This book turns this idea of time on its head. In the
grand modernist narratives of the development of
productive forces and of forms of class consciousness,
this book sees a way of diverting the intimate energy
of the very struggles they claim to represent, and
re-attributing it to the order of time that was
struggled against. It sees such narratives as a way of
reinforcing the power of those who believe they have a
masterful, external perspective on the history in which
they declare everyone else to be collectively
imprisoned. This idea of imprisonment, and this
position of mastery, had found their radical form in
the project of Louis Althusser that I had participated
in. For this project, the agents of capitalist
production were necessarily caught in the ideological
traps produced by the system that held them in their
place. That is to say that our project itself trapped
them in a perfect circle: it explained that the
dominated were kept in their place by ignorance of the
laws of domination. But it also explained that the
place they were in prevented them from knowing the laws
of domination. So they were dominated because they did
not understand, and they did not understand because
they were dominated. This meant that all the efforts
they made to struggle against their domination were
blind, trapped in the dominant ideology, and only
intellectuals, who were capable of perceiving the logic
of the circle, could pull them out of their subjection.

In the France of 1968 it became abundantly clear that
the circle of domination was held in place in fact by
this so-called science. It became clear that subjection
and revolution had no other cause than themselves and
that the science that pretended to explain subjection
and inspire revolution was in fact a part of the
dominant order. It is with this lesson in mind that I
undertook in the 1970s the long period of research in
the labor archives that culminated in this book. On the
way, many surprises awaited me. I set out to find
primitive revolutionary manifestos, but what I found
was texts which demanded in refined language that
workers be considered as equals and their arguments
responded to with proper arguments. I went to consult
the archives of a carpenter in order to find out about
more about the conditions of labor; I first came upon a
correspondence from the 1830s where this worker told a
friend about a Sunday in May when he had gone out with
two friends to enjoy the sunrise over the village,
spend the day discussing metaphysics in an inn, and end
it trying to convert the diners at the next table to
their humanitarian social vision. Then I read documents
in which this same worker described an entire vision of
life, an unusual counter-economy which sought ways to
reduce the worker's consumption of everyday goods so
that he would be more independent of the market
economy, and better able to fight against it. Through
these texts, and many others, I realized that workers
had never needed others to explain the secrets of
domination to them, and that the problem they faced was
having to submit themselves, intellectually and
materially, to the forms by which it inscribed itself
on their bodies, and imposed upon them gestures, modes
of perception, attitudes and language. "Be realistic:
demand the impossible!" the protestors cried in 1968.
But for these workers in 1830, it was not about
demanding the impossible but making it happen
themselves: of appropriating the time they did not
have, either by spying opportunities in the working day
or by giving up their own night of rest to discuss or
to write, to compose verses or to work out
philosophies. These hard-won bonuses of time and
liberty were not marginal phenomena, they were not
diversions from the building of the worker movement and
its great ideals. They were a revolution, discreet but
radical nonetheless, and they made those other things
possible. They comprised the work by which men and
women tore themselves away from an identity forged for
them by a system of domination and affirmed themselves
as independent inhabitants of a common world, capable
of all the refinements and self-denials that previously
had been associated only with those classes that were
released from the daily concern of work and food.

It is the necessity of acknowledging this revolution
which gives to this book its unusual form. The book
plunges us directly into workers' words, in all their
forms - from personal confidences and everyday
anecdotes to fiction composed in diaries to
philosophical speculations and programs for the future.
It does not seek to impose any differences in status,
any hierarchy between description, fiction or argument.
This does not arise from some fetishistic passion for
the lived. This is generally the excuse for a division
of roles in which the people are made to speak in order
to prove that they do indeed speak the language of the
people, which allows the poor to have the experience of
the real and the flavour of the everyday in order to
better reserve for itself the privilege of creative
imagination and analytical language. It is precisely
this division between the language of the people and
literary language, between the real and fiction,
between the document and the argument that these
"popular" texts call into question. We will never know
if their memories of childhood, their descriptions of
the working day or their accounts of their encounters
with language are authentic. A narrative is never a
simple account of facts. It is a way of constructing -
or deconstructing - a lived world. The learned
philosopher and the child of the people go about it in
the same way. In the third book of Plato's Republic,
Socrates asks his interlocutors to accept an unlikely
story: if some people are philosophers and legislators
while others are workers, it is because the gods mixed
gold into the souls of the first group and iron into
the souls of the second. This outlandish tale is
necessary in order to give consistency to a world in
which differences in condition must be accepted as
differences in nature. The worker narratives presented
here are like counter-myths, narratives that blur these
differences in nature.

This is why it was so important to me to unravel the
mesh of words, in which narrative, dreams, fiction and
argument are all part of the same enterprise, in order
to upset the order of things that puts individuals,
classes and forms of speech in their place. There is no
popular intelligence occupied by practical things, nor
a learned intelligence devoted to abstract thought.
There is not one intelligence devoted to the real and
another devoted to fiction. It is always the same
intelligence. This is the message proclaimed in the
same historical period by Joseph Jacotot, a teacher who
broke with all tradition. While his contemporaries
wanted to give the people just the instruction that was
necessary and sufficient for them to adequately occupy
their place in society, he called them to free
themselves intellectually in order to demonstrate the
equality of all intelligences (1).

In the very diversity of their expression, the workers
whose stories are told in this book demonstrate
precisely this equality. In order to show the
subversive power of their work I needed to break with
the conventions of the social sciences for which these
personal narratives, fictional writings and essays are
no more than the confused expression of a social
process which only they can know. I needed to remove
the conventional labels from these texts ? of
testimony, or symptoms of a social reality ? and to
exhibit them as writing and thought that worked towards
the construction of an alternative social world. That
is why this book renounces the distance of explanation.
It attempts instead to weave a sensory fabric of these
texts so that their radical energy may resonate again
in our own time, and threaten the order which gives
categories to times and forms of speech. And this is
the reason why our severe theorists and historians
decided that this book was literature. The issue for me
was to recall that the arguments of philosophers and
intellectuals are made of the same common fabric of
language and thought as the creations of writers and
these proletarian narratives.

This is also why I am not afraid that this book will
suffer too much from distances of time, place and
language. For it does not simply tell the story of the
working class of a far-off time and place. It tells a
form of experience which is not so far away from our
own. Contemporary forms of capitalism, the explosion of
the labor market, the new precariousness of labor and
the destruction of systems of social solidarity, all
create forms of life and experiences of work that are
possibly closer to those of these artisans than to the
universe of hi-tech workers and the global bourgeoisie
given over to the frenetic consumption described by so
many contemporary sociologists and philosophers. In our
world, just as in theirs, the challenge is to obstruct
and subvert the order of time imposed by a system of
domination. To oppose the government of capitalist and
state elites and their experts with an intelligence
that comes from everyone and anyone.

It remains for me to offer my warmest thanks to the
editors and translators who have made it possible for
the voices of these anonymous people, forgotten for so
long, to speak in an Indian language, and so to
encounter new voices with which they may mix and extend
their appeal.

Jacques Ranciere

David Walsh (the Troskyist) on Straub-Huillet

Buenos Aires 4th International Festival of Independent Cinema—Part 3
"Drama, ideas and life"
By David Walsh
20 May 2002


An absurdity from Straub-Huillet

Workers, Peasants (Operai, contadini), directed by the well-known team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, is an absurdity. A group of performers, non-professional presumably, stands in the woods and reads monologues for two hours. The material comes from the pen of Elio Vittorini (Le donne di Messina), a left-wing Italian writer (1908-66). It recounts the story of a group of Italians who, at the end of the Second World War, decide to build together a new social life in the ruins of an abandoned village in northern Italy. Various dramas ensue, which will be incomprehensible to all but the most masochistic viewer. The piece is uninvolving, finally excruciating, pure charlatanry.

Straub and Huillet have represented a certain tendency, of artistic asceticism and the refusal to adapt to popular tastes, for several decades in European filmmaking.

I noted in 1998: “Straub-Huillet’s first film, Machorka-Muff (1963), was based on a novel by Heinrich Böll. The film for which they are best known, even to this day, is The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), a love story about Bach and his second wife, as Straub described it. Straub-Huillet have made films based on Corneille’s Othon, Schönberg’s Moses and Aaron, Brecht’s The Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar and Franz Kafka’s Amerika. No one has challenged their intellectual seriousness or their commitment. Some, however, including the late R.W. Fassbinder, the German director who worked with Straub as an actor in the late 1960s, have criticized their unwillingness to make their material accessible to wider audiences.”

In commenting on From Today Until Tomorrow (1997), based on a relatively obscure Schönberg opera composed in 1929, I wrote: “Still, it is difficult to be entirely enthusiastic about a project whose production one feels is permeated by rigidity, self-seriousness and a nearly religious attitude toward art. The work is remarkable for what it is, a film of a Schönberg opera, but there is something disturbing about left-wing artists so frightened of chaos, emotion and confusion, and finding it so difficult to reach, rather than intimidate, an audience.”

These comments, as it turns out, were all too generous. To a certain extent,From Today Until Tomorrow and Sicilia! (1999, also based on the writings of Vittorini) deceived us. They were both relatively short, to the point, even accessible. Now with Workers, peasants (no less!) Straub-Huillet have inflicted on us their “maximum program.” Two hours of flatly delivered, unintelligible nonsense. And people politely sit through this at film festivals.

This passes for “dialectical” art, for “communist” art, as the film’s presenter described it in Buenos Aires. Well, Straub-Huillet have certainly perfected the “alienation effect”; the new work is indeed alienating. They have not, however, after some decades of work, proven able to dramatize even the most elementary human emotions or situations. Or to convince anyone of anything. If such a thing as “sectarianism” in art exists, Straub and Huillet belong in that category.

The pair are possessed by a messianism. They believe they are the only true filmmakers on earth. But a messianism toward what end? This is a quote: “We must make specific films, for specific languages, dealing with specific questions. We must reinvent borders, destroy the Europe of Dr. Goebbels. We are the only European filmmakers, filmmakers of European nations.” Long live borders! Long live the European nation-state! This is fairly dire.

Little more needs to be said about Straub and Huillet. To those who continue to be deceived, so much the worse.


le texte est une partition

Au préalable, mettons que la base, l'étincelle, c'est la relation du texte et de l'image. Les films de Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet sont toujours l'occasion pour le spectateur d'entendre un texte dit à l'écran.

Mais dans l'autre sens aussi, c'est du mouvement initié, pour les réalisateurs et pour les acteurs, par la lecture d'un texte, que le film sort. Les films sortent donc, entre autres de Corneille (Othon, 1964), Brecht (Leçons d'histoire, 1972), des lettres de Johann Sebastien Bach (Chronique d'Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), de Schoenberg (Moïse et Aaron, 1974), de Mallarmé (Toute Révolution est un coup de dés, 1977), et d'Elio Vittorini pour Sicilia, en 2000 et Ouvriers, Paysans (Operai, Contadini) maintenant. Ils en sortent et ils nous y amènent, c'est leur enjeu.
Loin d'effacer le texte et d'imager par le cinéma tout ce que les mots nous laissent imaginer (ainsi, Wells tordant les perspectives à n'en plus finir dans le noir et blanc charbonneux du Procès pour imaginer l'atmosphère d'étouffement labyrinthique qui règne dans le roman de Kafka), c'est le texte tel quel, le texte même qui fait l'image ici. C'est la matérialité du texte au moment où son lecteur le dit qui est mise en scène. Un peu comme dans La pianiste, où Haneke filme longtemps le visage des musiciens en train d'écouter de la musique, recueillant ainsi d'infimes mouvements qui témoignent de leurs emportements, de leurs émotions intérieures, Ouvriers, Paysans, filme longtemps le visage de ceux qui disent le texte de Vittorini.

Et, à voir ainsi le texte naître en elles, c'est comme s'il nous était donné de porter sur chacune des personnes à l'écran un regard qui a l'intensité et la perspicacité d'un regard amoureux, ou bien d'une amitié profonde. Ce type de regard qui fait, par exemple, qu'on peut dire qu'on aime quelqu'un pour la façon qu'il a de lever ou de baisser les yeux, de tenir ses mains nouées devant son ventre, de tourner la tête ou, et aussi, pour la façon qu'il a de s'offrir à notre regard.
Car la générosité de ce qui se laisse voir, la préciosité de ce qui est vu, la délicatesse de cet échange, est une dimension qui accompagne chaque plan, chaque mouvement. Depuis le texte de Vittorini où il est question de la solidarité entre les gens, jusqu'à la pose des acteurs, elle est incluse de telle sorte qu'il arrive au cours du film quelque chose comme de la politesse. Quelque chose d'une extrême civilité des êtres en présence qui diraient à la caméra, et donc un peu à nous : "Votre regard me touche, je veux me prêter à lui, à son attention et à sa contrainte, autant que possible", et quelque chose aussi de l'opulence de la nature environnante qui se laisse voir et entendre, qui laisse sur elle se faire le travail du film.

Ainsi le texte devient presque un chant. Du moins le chant de l'italien et celui des voix se font-ils entendre avec le chant des oiseaux, dans le sous-bois où se passe le film. Il est rythmé de pauses, de respirations, de phrases dévalées ou bien égrenées plus lentement, de changements de plans. Le texte est une partition pour des personnages qui ne sont pas des comédiens, mais des hommes et des femmes dont l'interprétation est d'autant mieux réussie qu'elle en est une lecture rigoureuse et rigoureusement personnelle, c'est-à-dire incarnée. Il est aussi une partition pour les mouvements et le découpage du film. Cette structure de l'interprétation est fondamentale dans le cinéma de Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet. Leur premier projet, qui ne fut pas leur premier film réalisé, Chronique d'Anna Magdalena Bach, lie, dans sa continuité, deux données distinctes : d'une part l'interprétation, justement, des pièces musicales de Bach par Gustav Leonhardt, et d'autre part les lettres du compositeur lues par une femme, sa femme Anna Magdalena, en voix off. Il y a là une sorte de représentation à deux faces du travail et de la création avec, d'un côté l'œuvre achevée, interprétée, la musique rayonnante à l'image et sur la bande son, et de l'autre l'exposition d'une vie assez dure, des contraintes, des conditions bonnes ou mauvaises dans lesquelles le travail du compositeur arrive à se faire. Dans Ouvriers, Paysans, ce principe de l'interprétation, qui est aussi une façon de parler de la transmission des œuvres et de leur puissance génératrice, change un peu de place puisqu'il est maintenant confondu avec le travail. Le moment de l'interprétation qui fait rayonner l'œuvre de Vittorini est confondu avec celui de l'énonciation, par le texte, des événements de la vie des ouvriers et des paysans confrontés au problème de leur communauté à organiser : « Je ne sais pas si on comprend ce que cela signifiait. Il faut penser à comment on s'était mis ensemble. Cette réunion de gens pouvait devenir une bonne chose ou la pire chose. Chacun d'eux pouvait, en combinaison avec les autres, la faire devenir bonne ou la faire devenir mauvaise. Chacun était prêt pour les deux combinaisons… », dit Ventura (Aldo Fruttuosi). Il apparaît donc dans ce film que le travail (quotidien) et l'œuvre (rayonnante) confondus c'est la combinaison, bonne ou mauvaise, dont parle Ventura. Le fait de "se mettre ensemble" est un travail avec ses contingences (les saisons, l'argent, les amours, les jalousies…) et, la communauté qui s'organise est une œuvre.

De tels films font que le cinéma aujourd'hui est riche de possibilités, d'audaces, de terres inexplorées. Ils inventent cette marge qui balaie les sombres discours sur sa mort, sa fin, son apocalypse. Le cinéma ne meurt qu'à mesure que disparaît sa diversité et, avec elle, la contradiction de ses formes différentes entre elles. Le cinéma est un art dialectique, Jurassic Parc et La Planète des Singes ne peuvent, hélas, que se raconter des histoires de superproduction, c'est-à-dire des histoires de calcul. Quand, là-dedans, arrive une Pianiste, c'est déjà comme une note nouvelle qui dit, par exemple, que l'addition aurait besoin d'harmonie. Et quand quelque chose de délicat et de généreux comme Ouvriers, Paysans arrive, il a pour lui l'autorité des choses qui se sont voulues sans concession, l'autorité des choses souveraines. Il peut taper sur la table sans rien perdre de sa délicatesse, faire voler les chiffres de l'addition et dire, par exemple, que ce qui compte c'est le rythme et la respiration des gens. Vous voyez que le dialogue s'anime !

Ouvriers, Paysans
De Danièle Huillet et Jean-Marie Straub
Avec Angela Nugara, Giampaolo Cassarino, Martina Gionfriddo
Frace / Italie, 2000, 2h03.