Category Archives: Essay Form

L’essai : vues d’Allemagne, la fabrique documentaire

L'essai : vues d'Allemagne from la fabrique documentaire on Vimeo.

This essay film on ‘views’ of the essay film in Germany begins with the unmistakable, raspy and wise voice of Gilles Deleuze, and quickly launches into a rapid montage of moments of meta, showing and letting the showing speak, while adding voices but not an authorial voice per se, rather quoted voices – just as cinematic citation pulls clips out of context so does the audio editing. But everything was de-contextualized already, and perhaps it is not a loss of context we see in the meta-cinema movement, but a constant churning of recontextualization, never complete but less prone to the voice of the deus ex machina. The auteur recedes like the tide, and the collective works like ants or bees, collectively of course, behind the scenes. How refreshing not to have a central figure to lionize or demonize, to put on a pedestal. And yet, there is nostalgia for the total statement, the touch of genius, the auteur herself nonetheless. An ambivalence creeps in to the plethora of video essays we have been witness to of late, emerging like California wildfires as cinema wraps around itself and the pedagogic impulse, from professorial to journalistic, learns the tools of montage. The caméra-stylo triumphant, but awash too in a potential sea of banality. Who will emerge as the master of this new wave of essay film/video, if anyone? Do we need heros anymore? Do we need genius? Perhaps these questions are beside the point, and the real thesis is that now we can treat the film as text, something that Bellour always argued against. Not in a book, but in another film can this stratagem succeed, perhaps. Gutenberg slumbers on… The thesis can be lost as the particulars, the instances of speech and moving image as signs accumulate. Have we fallen out of the temptation of the essay to have a thesis at all, as taught relentlessly to students globally, or are we merely acceding to the impulses of the essai sauvage – the wild essay form, beginning in media res and spiraling around its ultimate thematic monads, unrushed, expansive – as born in the tower of Montaigne?

Chateau de Montaigne

La fabrique documentiare

Depuis 2005, la fabrique documentaire* produit, réalise, programme et diffuse des œuvres documentaires (audio, vidéo, livre, web, exposition…), en explorant de nouvelles façons d’écrire et de partager.

Nos productions, initiatives personnelles ou travaux de commande, engagent des points de vue d’auteurs. La fabrique documentaire privilégie les projets qui lui semblent de nature à nourrir la pensée, voire à infléchir le réel.

* En 2015, Radiofonies Europe devient la fabrique documentaire.
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You Only Live Twice Set at La Jetée’s Orly Airport

You Only Live Twice: Sex, Death and Transition

By Chase Joynt and Mike Hoolboom

Coach House, 152 pages, $14.95

On the day of French director Chris Marker’s death, two movie artists meet at the Orly Airport. It’s a place of professional interest, since Marker, a favourite New Wave cineaste, set a pivotal scene in his 1962 film, La Jetée, here. The film involves time travel such that in this particular scene the protagonist witnesses his own death, and so for trans writer and media artist Chase Joynt and HIV-positive movie artist Mike Hoolboom, this location is also a place of personal resonance: Both men share a sense of having lived twice. In the series of vignettes that follow, Joynt and Hoolboom enter into a free-flowing correspondence on multifarious topics – love, sex, art, death, the public and the private – that brings to mind Maggie Nelson’s work of autotheory from last year. The reflexive format allows for what John Berger would call a “real likeness”: a portrait from both sides of the camera. An intellectually expansive, emotional gut-punch of a memoir.TheGlobeandMail.com

André Bazin on Chris Marker (1958)

lettre-de-siberie-bazin

Trans. Dave Kehr, © Cahiers du Cinéma, published in Film Comment, 2003.

Chris Marker, as you may remember, wrote the narration for Bibliothèque Nationale (Toute la mémoire du monde) and Statues Also Die (which the public still has only been able to see in a version cut to half its length by the censorship board). These incisive, powerful texts, in which cutting irony plays hide and seek with poetry, would be enough to secure their author a privileged place in the field of short filmmaking, currently the liveliest fringe of the French cinema. As the writer of the narrations for these films by his friend Resnais, with whom he shares a marvelous understanding, Chris Marker has already profoundly altered the visual relationship between text and image. But his ambition was obviously even more radical, and it became necessary for him to make his own films.

First there was Sunday in Peking, which justly won a prize at the 1956 Festival of Tours, and now, at last, there is the extraordinary Letter from Siberia. Admirable as Sunday in Peking was, it was also slightly disappointing, in that the restrictions of the short format seemed inadequate for such a big subject. And it also has to be said that the images, while often very beautiful, did not supply sufficient documentary material in the end. It left us wanting more. But the seed of the dialectic between word and image that Marker would go on to sow in Letter from Siberia was already there. In the new film, it grows to the dimensions appropriate to a feature film, and takes the weight.

“A Documentary Point of View”

How to describe Letter from Siberia? Negatively, at first, in pointing out that it resembles absolutely nothing that we have ever seen before in films with a documentary basis – films with “a subject.” But then it becomes necessary to say what it is. Flatly and objectively, it is a film report from a Frenchman given the rare privilege of traveling freely in Siberia, covering several thousand kilometers. Although in the last three years we have seen several film reports from French travelers in Russia. Letter from Siberia resembles none of them. So. We must take a closer look. I would propose the following approximate description: Letter from Siberia is an essay on the reality of Siberia past and present in the form of a filmed report. Or. perhaps, to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (“a documentary point of view”), I would say, an essay documented by film. The important word is “essay,” understood in the same sense that it has in literature — an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.

Generally, even in politically engaged documentaries or those with a specific point to make, the image (which is to say, the uniquely cinematic element) effectively constitutes the primary material of the film. The orientation of the work is expressed through the choices made by the filmmaker in the montage, with the commentary completing the organization of the sense thus conferred on the document. With Marker it works quite differently. I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence. The usual process is reversed. I will risk another metaphor: Chris Marker brings to his films an absolutely new notion of montage that I wall call “horizontal,” as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot. Here, a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.

From the Ear to the Eye

Better, it might be said that the basic element is the beauty of what is said and heard, that intelligence flows from the audio element to the visual. The montage has been forged from ear to eye. Because of space limitations, I will describe only a single example, which is also the film’s most successful moment. Marker presents us with a documentary image that is at once full of significance and completely neutral: a street in Irkutsk. We see a bus going by and workers repairing the roadway, and then at the end of the shot a fellow with a somewhat strange face (or at least, little blessed by nature) who happens to pass in front of the camera. Marker then comments on these rather banal images from two opposed points of view: first, that of the Communist party line, in the light of which the unknown pedestrian becomes “‘a picturesque representative of the north country,” and then in that of the reactionary perspective, in which he becomes “a troubling Asiatic.”

This single, thought-provoking antithesis is a brilliant stroke of inspiration in itself, but its wit remains rather facile. Its then that the author offers a third commentary, impartial and minutely detailed, that objectively describes the unhappy Mongol as ‘”a cross-eyed Yakout.” And this time we are way beyond cleverness and irony, because what Marker has just demonstrated is that objectivity is even more false than the two opposed partisan points of view: that, at least in relation to certain realities, impartiality is an illusion. The operation we have observed is thus precisely dialectic, consisting of placing the same image in three different intellectual contexts and following the results.

Intelligence and Talent

In order to give the reader a complete sense of this unprecedented enterprise, it remains for me to point out that Chris Marker does not restrict himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but uses any and all filmic material that might help his case—including still images (engravings and photos), of course, but also animated cartoons. Like McLaren, he does not hesitate to say the most serious things in the most comic way (as in the sequence with the mammoths). There is only one common denominator in this firework display of technique: intelligence. Intelligence and talent. It is only just to also point out that the photography is by Sacha Viemy. the music the work of Pierre Barbaud. and that the narration is excellently read by Georges Rouquier.

Andre Bazin, 1958

Further Reading:  Chris Darke, “Chris Marker Eyesight,” Film Comment, 2003.

Johan van der Keuken on Free Composition

Johan van der Keuken

An excellent article on Johan van der Keuken’s The White Castle has been published on sabzian.be. The author is Gerard-Jan Claes, and the article In Search of the White Castle. Claes writes:

Rather than talking about film as a language, van der Keuken understands it as a condition, an état or a state of being, as something which defies easy definition and which can rather be approached in terms of becoming and movement. It’s a space of experience, a way of standing within the world. Maybe that also explains the appeal of his films. His films are all spaces in which you can wander, which envelop you, which stick with you and are hard to shake off.

He quotes van der Keuken on the tightrope walk of free composition, a method that creates associative rhizomes between heterogenous materials in an essay film. Editing creates a kind of connective tissue and prismatic relationship between places, topics, images, words. The inner connections are joined by the film’s outer connection, its placement within a triptych focusing on North-South political & economic disparities, within the system of production/labor that van der Keuken calls ‘the conveyor belt’. Van der Keuken’s White Castle forms the second part of his North-South triptych: Dagboek / Diary, 1972; Het witte kasteel / The White Castle, 1973; and De nieuwe ijstijd / The New Ice Age, 1974.

I think it’s fascinating to build within a free form, but a classical form needs to underlie it. The paradox is that if you want to make a free composition, you have to proceed in a stricter way than you would in a conventional film. You namely have to make it plausible to implicate certain things which don’t seem to have anything to do with each other at a first glance. It is my task to prove that, for the duration of the film, they do have something to do with one another. I propose that everything goes with everything, but everything doesn’t go with everything beforehand, but only after modification. Everything only goes with everything if you think about it carefully.
Johan van der Keuken, quoted Gerard-Jan Claes, In Search of the White Castle, sabzian.be

van der Keuken collage

Image courtesy Sabzian

Battle of the Images by Raymond Bellour

First published in French and English “La querelle des dispositifs / Battle of the Images”, in art press no. 262, November 2000, pp.48-52. Translated from the French by L-S.Torgoff.

Les statues meurent aussi

Battle of the Images

Raymond Bellour

If there were an open polemic between today’s competing image delivery systems, some light might at last be shed. As it is, all we have is incertitudes – slip-sliding, straddling, flickering, hybridization, metamorphosing, transition and passages between what is still called cinema and the thousand and one ways to show moving images in the vague and misnomered domain known as Art because it is what art school graduates do.

The convergence about to smack us in the face will mean you can use the same appliance to trade stock, watch a movie, e-mail or make toast. The bottom line is that from now on Intel’s inside everything and our souls are networked, just as for so long “live” meant real-time television as opposed to real life. This means it’s time to reconsider cinema with reference to the only thing that can really distinguish it both from what is now overtaking it and may succeed it and from that which existed before it was born. As Godard put it so succinctly in Histoire{s} du cinema, cinema is film plus project ion, i.e. a recorded image shown on a screen in a dark room. Barthes, not exactly a movie buff, was attracted by the movie house ambience, with its “anonymous, populated, dense darkness” and “the dancing cone cutting a hole in the dark like a laser beam.”

Daney, who did truly love motion pictures, was struck by the motionless silence in which viewers must sit, a state of “frozen vision” with its own history. All this would suggest that movies became what we know today with the advent of the talkies, i.e. the loss of the subtitles and inter-titles that linked them to the theater and the novel, and of the pianist, not to mention the barker,a relic of still more ancient forms of entertainment. It took the first “death of cinema” twenty or thirty years ago to bring back and sanctify silent movies, and for the occasional orchestra or pianist to transform the movie theater into a museum. But above all, as Chris Marker, following Godard, said so well in his CD-ROM Immemory, where a second “death of cinema” is foretold, “Cinema is that which is bigger than we are, what you have to look up at. When a movie is shown small and you have to look down at it,it loses its essence … What you see on TV is the shadow of a film, nostalgia for a film, the echo of a film, never a real film.” Movies were unrivaled and never anything but movies for only a generation or two, depending on when TV started in your local time zone.But since then, despite being surrounded, cinema has continually reinvented itself. And because film continues to be a mirror of the world, as the Lumiere brothers and the first nineteenth-century moving picture machinery in­ tended, a critic’s job is not just to distinguish between good and bad movies but also to diagnose in certain symptomatic films whatever it is that remains of that intended essence and thus evaluate the state of the movies in relation to all the other image systems from which it is under siege.

This was what Daney was doing when he pointed out the degree to which today’s movies are cheating on cinema historically by unabashedly incorporating advertising iconography and hi-tech images. Thus Gladiator mixes whatever remains of Spartacus these days with synthetic dream sequences produced by Imagina software. But on the other hand, there also persists a stubbornly determined effort to make movies in the movie-making tradition, as if film were still alone in the world (the two extremes of this trend are marked by Straub-Huillet and Kiarostami). There are also those who bear ferociously despairing but joyful wit­ness to the new deal, as noted by Daney, observing in Fellini and Godard a passage from “natural” motion pictures to motionless pictures, as the cinema expe­rience becomes one of the spectator’s virtual activity when faced with new, more or less immobile images.

In Smoking No Smoking, Resnais gave us a fictional parallel of wired multiple reality and a narrative that mimics the possibilities of interactivity. With Level Five, Marker invented not the first movie to integrate IT (such firsts are necessarily American) but the first to integrate all the various levels of mutation brought about by the computer in terms of historical memory, subjective destiny and filmmaking. Like Astruc with his “camera-pen,” Marker evokes as lucidly as ever a “possible cinema” enabled by today’s new tools, a “cinema of intimacy, solitude, a cinema worked out face-to-face with yourself, like a painter or a writer.” But “you can’t shoot Lawrence of Arabia like that, or Andrei Roublev or Vertigo.” In other words, it rules out the best Hollywood-style block­ buster tradition, great Russian cinema and the finest auteur movies. All of this may be doomed, because Marker’s concept of “possible cinema” goes along with three gestures of acceptance, on his part, of the “honorable destiny” of the “death of cinema.” The first is his commentator-filmmaker who acts as a guide to this death in the perspicacious and moving homage to Tarkovsky (A Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich), in contrast to Godard’s approach in Histoire(s). The second is Marker’s long-term interest in video instal­lations from Zapping Zone (for Passages de /’Image) to his homage to the Silent Movie. The third is his CD­ ROM Immemory, a new genre of self-portrait, both installed in museums and sold like a book.

Or take Chantal Akerman. Twice now she has given in to some felt need to submit her films to the test of installation. With O’Est(au bord de la Fiction) , she has done exactly the right thing, transforming this movie three times in order to create an installation that compares the three un-movie-like display systems through which nearly all films today are shown:museum pseudo-movie theaters, multiple video screens, and television at its best, as a box for experimentation and thought. Projection, circulation, mediation; viewer, stroller-visitor, contemplator — all these physical and mental positions at the service of a single content. Technically lighter but no less significant is her installation now on view in Paris at the “Voila” exhibition, after Boston, New York, London and Brussels; Self-portrait/Autobiography : a Work in Progress. Here there are three monitors in front of which visitors station themselves – the O’Est principle again,but three monitors instead of the eight-times-three. Visitors can sit down in front of two screens to see Jeanne Dielman and the effect is decidedly un-movie-like – each screen shows a dif­ferent parallel narrative; and a single set-back moni­tor offers excerpts from Toute une nuit and Hotel Monterey. A voice-over accompanies the whole thing, Akerman reading excerpts from her book Une Famille a Bruxelles. This is a sort of a documentary about movies, as seen by the filmmaker herself, delivered up in space and transformable in keeping with place and time. This is all the more exciting when at the same time Akerman is presenting La Captive. her most pure and complete work of fiction, one of those films that seem increasingly unlikely these days, and in which cin­ ema achieves a sovereign brilliance.

Such is the un-demarcated tension that calls for a response. When filmmakers give in to the temptation of installation, what is it that they are surrendering to? Raul Ruiz, Peter Greenaway, Atom Egoyan, Harun Farocki, Alexandr Sokurov and Raymond Depardon (I am deliberately skipping the already-classic installation films of seasoned experimental cineastes such as Snow, Sharits, etc.) – they all have their own unique form of spatialization, settings, objects and simulta­neous projections with no time constraints. In a word, they invent one-off setups where, no matter how unique their films may be, each of them puts a little of the movies in the overall mechanism. Further, in the course of their exhibitions, their work is necessarily compared and contrasted with artworks of a differ­ ent order, from photos to installations and all of the innumerable varieties of media and form now fully appropriated by the fine arts. Clearly filmmakers often give in to the wishes of curators. But that hardly alters the question and does nothing to solve the mystery of the mutating works themselves.

Auto-biography of a man whose memory was in his eyes is one of the innumerable versions of Jonas Mekas’ endless diary. But instead of seeing it in one of its possible continuous versions during a structured movie theater showing, in the exhibition at the Paris municipal modern art museum we see it redistributed in three small screening cabins organized around three elements as if this were a CD-ROM. Even more CD-like, outside these non-projection rooms stands a vitrine stuffed with documentation.

Or take another small but perverse displacement, Visione de/deserto conceived by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi for the “Deserts” show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. A row of seats in the back mimics the movies, but in accord with the exhibition visitors’ trajectory, light comes in from the hall, spoiling the movie experi­ence. To avoid it visitors can sit on the cushions piled up along the wall and watch the film sideways. At the entrance, show times have been posted,just like at the movies. The film is the same and yet not really the same as one would see projected in a real movie house, or, for better or worse, recycled on TV.

On the other hand, there are some installations that could not exist without the movies. Revisited, remade, reworked and reduced to slivers,in these pieces film is taken hostage by someone else’s craving for art. Such works comprise a real fantasy of what is being lost, above all because of television, in both art and the movies. But there are also enterprises that evince a twisted and ridiculous desire to pump new life into exhausted art by infusing it with movies in an unsuccessful act of vampirization, a vain attempt at mouth-to- mouth resuscitation between art forms.

Witness David Reed’s insertion of one of his canvases into a sequence form Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as analyzed by Arthur Oanto in After the End of Art. There are also works that through an insanely exaggerated fascination end up teaching us something about both art and cinema – for instance, Douglas Gordon’s take on Hitchcock, from Empire to Feature Film. Between filmmakers drawn to installation art and “artists” for whom movies are raw material,there pulsates an enormous and protean mass of all kinds of installations (from Beat Streuli’s photographic dioramas to James Turrell’s rooms of pure light). For a long time they were dependent on the ideological effects of television and the inherent nature of video itself. Using the most diverse approaches, many of them gradually drew closer to cinema, reappropri­ating certain elements of the machinery of the movies as well as cinematic modes of Figuration and narrative postures — so much so that we can vaguely hypothesize the existence of an alternative cinema.

Two noteworthy examples of this at the 1999 Venice Biennale were the pieces by Doug Aitken and Shirin Neshat. The latter’s new work, Rapture, a more complex piece using the same principle of one monitor for each gender, was a hit at the Lyon Biennale. Faced with these shifts and media straddling, what is a poor critic to do? It would seem incumbent upon us to evaluate these works, in cases where that is worth the effort, from the point of view of dueling image delivery systems, at least in the implicit sense.

For example, it is important to note that so far this year we have already seen two films where the sound track is designed to be created live during the projection, like certain experimental efforts of the 1920s. Manuela Morgaine’s Va, about Casanova, comprises two shorts, one a talkie and the other silent,with the latter’s sound effects added live in Front of the screen (Morgaine defines this as “a kind of theater meant to take place in the Front of a movie theater”). Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s ipanema Theory, a very long documentary about the urban environment, is accompanied by invasive music improvised in a sound booth by two new-genre DJs. It was astonish­ing, during the brief discussion that followed the screening, to hear Gonzalez-Foerster tell a theater full of people who had been sitting for two hours that her “film” would be equally suitable for an open-air night-time showing. This is a fascinating indecisiveness that indicates the degree to which things are slipping out of control.

Anyone who attends exhibitions and showings cannot fail to notice the migrations big and small resulting from various mixes of media and presentation systems. It seems a bit premature – you never know – to theorize this phenomenon. Certainly we could see a cautionary tale in the sorry Fate of art theory since World War II, especially in the U.S., where the irresistible urge to concoct canons and labels in the name of painting or the so-called visual arts, of modernism or postmodernism, drew its self-justifi­cation from art history as if the latter were its own private reserve.It would seem wiser to stick to what Foucault called “the basic tasks of description.” That means, today, more than ever, grasping all the arts as part of one single ensemble and analyzing each work in terms of its mix of different art forms, particularly in terms of media, or the artist’s choice of confining oneself to one mechanism alone. What exactly, for example, is Moments de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Louis Boissier ‘s interactive CD-ROM? A film? A book? A picture album?

This is an unmistakable sign of an aesthetics of confusion about which we still know very little. It seems that computers have gone way beyond the TV that they are about to subsume and are the first machines able to make use of all modes of language and expression, and to transform one into another and modulate them any way anyone wants. They can even simulate installations and play movies.Thus cinema — an impure art, as Bazin said, because it draws its inspiration from all the others and has nothing of its own to offer except reality – is, paradoxically, becoming gradually more pure insofar as its most active verity is becoming that of its mode of display. Cinema will forever be unique, in relation to all the modes that previously seemed similar and also to those that imitate it and parody it today. The most twentieth-century form of art, it is at once more crowded-in now than ever and more alone in its splendor.

Trafic and Serge Daney by Raymond Bellour

Published here: sergedaney.blogspot.co.uk

Trafic and Serge Daney

Raymond Bellour

When Serge Daney decided to found Trafic, a ‘cinema review’, at the start of the 1990s, he began from the ‘realisation that the intellectual landscape in which cinema exists has changed a great deal. Changed to the extent that the traditional ways of writing about cinema do not “bite” anymore in relation to the reality of classic literary cinephilic consumption’. (1) Daney aimed thus at the way that we can live the cinema according to its current state, but at the same time attending to it in its largest possible sense. Undetermined, in the first instance, by the appearance of films as they are released in cinemas or at Film Festivals. Rather, a far more multiple ‘currency’, relating as much to the increasingly diverse evolutions of cinema around the world as to all the various modes of reflecting upon films, and to the life that is lived in their company.

For someone like Daney, who in the 1970s had directed the most prestigious monthly in the history of cinephilia (namely, Cahiers du cinéma), then worked for the ‘cinema’ section of a daily newspaper open (like few others) to current events in culture (namely, Libération), it was a matter, above all, with Trafic (a quarterly publication), of finding a different tempo. A time that is essentially free and vagabond, where it was as much a question of re-seeing as of seeing, and above all of composing an unexpected kind of ‘currency’, defined by the ongoing experiences of each Committee member of the journal, and of every author invited to contribute to it. So this presumes that, in Trafic, the desire to write always takes precedence. ‘Which is a way of saying’, according to Daney, ‘that the intrinsic quality of the texts will always win out over the relative opportunity of their subjects’. Thus it is that this ‘cinema review’ becomes – doubtless alone in the entire world of publications of comparable ambition – a magazine bereft of images, apart from a modest vignette on the cover. Because, in Trafic, it is above all a matter of showing how it is possible to think and write images.

In his programmatic text, Daney enumerated eight types of text destined to co-exist in the magazine. ‘1. Highly personal “chronicles” following, from day to day, what is current in cinema. 2. “Letters From …”, written in a deliberately epistolary style, coming from isolated, faraway friends at the ends of the earth. 3. Texts belonging to cinema’s past (whether French or otherwise) that have become unavailable. 4. Texts by filmmakers, of a “work in progress” nature, moments of assessment, stages or elements in the working process. 5. Texts more precisely dedicated to the “image” in general, and to the way in which such images illuminate, or are illuminated by, the cinema. 6. Free interventions by philosophers, writers, novelists. 7. Regular essays, cinephilic but gregarious’. Daney could also have specified that the magazine also pursues, as part of its vocation, the translation of many foreign texts – in order to reverse the dominant tendency in France, especially in approaches to cinema, towards national self-sufficiency. But the presence in the first issue of Trafic, out of fourteen texts, of Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Rossellini (presented by Adriano Aprà), Joao Cesar Monteiro, Robert Kramer and Bill Krohn was enough to make that point. And the ratio, since then, has only increased.

Already consumed by AIDS at the moment of this first issue, Daney only lived long enough to see the first three instalments of this adventure of a magazine which meant more to him than anything else. But a drive had been initiated, which would then be continued, strengthened, developed and varied, thanks to the energy of an Editorial Committee formed as a collective, comprising Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Patrice Rollet and myself. After Biette’s sudden death in 2003, and the realisation of an enormous 50th issue, both a celebration and a retrospective, the idea of which (titled ‘What is Cinema?’) we had conceived with him, we added an Advisory Committee comprising close friends of the magazine since its inception, people who stood for its many vocations: writer Leslie Kaplan, filmmaker Pierre Léon, philosopher Jacques Rancière, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, art historian and writer Jean Louis Schefer. Each one helps us, in their own way, to fashion the image of a singular cinema magazine.

If I had to define Trafic in terms of its refusals, they would be positioned at two extremes: on the one hand, the facilities that are far too common in journalistic criticism, and on the other hand the closures of traditional university writing. But both film critics and university teachers write, of course, for Trafic, provided they are carried away by a project of thought and style in which they are deeply engaged, and closely wedded to their choice of object as well as their personal sensibility. Parallel to a continuous reflection on the great works of cinema, whether classical or modern (Mizoguchi, Walsh, Antonioni, Fassbinder, Ozu, Syberberg, Minnelli, Hitchcock, Lang, Ford … with two special issues devoted to these last three names), we have always chosen to support – by asking them to participate, whenever possible, in the life of the magazine – a certain group of filmmakers, as diverse as possible, including (naturally) experimental filmmakers: for example, Manoel de Oliveira, Chris Marker, Stephen Dwoskin, Chantal Akerman, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Ken Jacobs, Pedro Costa, Jonas Mekas, Philippe Garrel, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Robert Kramer, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Abbas Kiarostami, Harun Farocki, and Philippe Grandrieux.

Extract from an essay published in the Masterclass booklet of the Jeonju International Film Festival, Korea, 2009.

NOTE
1. These words by Daney, like those that follow, are extracted from the short programmatic text which accompanied publication of the first issue of Trafic in Winter 1991.
© Raymond Bellour March 2009. English Translation © Adrian Martin March 2009.

Wunderkammer

The essayist’s aesthetic is that of the collector, or the ‘amateur’ in an archaic sense: such works seem destined for the writerly equivalent of the Wunderkammer – the essayist thrives on miscellanea. Except to say: the discrete essay may itself be an omnium-gatherum; there’s no duty to thematic unity, and because the notion that the essay is necessarily a short text is just a convenient rule easily broken, none to concision either: in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton starts composing an essay about a single affliction and ends up writing a book about everything – but everything – he can think of.
frieze, “Energy & Rue”, Issue 151 (November-December 2012)

Anatomy of Melancholy

Afrique 50 by René Vautier

René Vautier was a part of Chris Marker’s Groupe Medvedkine and a famous/infamous director whose film Afrique 50 prefigured in some ways Marker and Resnais’ Les Statues meurent aussi, and offered a convex mirror in other ways to the work of Jean Rouch.

Vautier just passed away. This film was banned for many years, many of its reels held by customs and Vautier even sentenced to a year of prison for violations against the state for its depiction of colonialism.

I learned of his passing via a post to the Facebook Chris Marker group by another great filmmaker, John Burgan, earlier today.

I know very little of Vautier and am kicking myself for that (how can this happen!), but I’ll let this film speak for itself, with a little help from a wonderful article Burgan points us to by Sara Thelle: News from Paris: René Vautier 1928-2015, published by filmkommentaren.dk.

Grand old man and enfant terrible of French militant cinema René Vautier died Sunday January 4th in his home in Cancale, Brittany, at the age of 86. Originally from Brittany, René Vautier fought the Germans as a very young member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, at 16 he was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and honoured by de Gaulle. After the war he wanted to pursue the combat but not with arms and his friends then encourage him to take up a new weapon: the camera. His battle was to last a life long.

Vautier graduated in 1948 from the film school IDHEC in Paris. In 1949 he gets a command to make a film for the Ligue de l’enseignement about the benefits of the French educational mission in the West African colonies. The result, Afrique 50, became, on the contrary, a violent critique of the French colonial system. Vautier’s first film was also the first anticolonial film ever to be made in France and the reaction was violent in return: Vautier was faced with 13 charges and sentenced to one year of prison!

The film has an incredible story. To escape the limitations of the 1934 decree of the Minister of the Colonies Pierre Laval (forbidding any filming in the colonies without the presence of a an administration official) Vautier went on to film in secret. He almost got his film rolls confiscated for destruction in Africa but managed to get his work back to France where he finally had to illegally retrieve the reels kept under seizure by the board of censors (he got 17 of 50 reels). The film was finished in secret and stayed censured in France for over 40 years though it was awarded as one of the best documentaries of the year at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw in 1955 (with Joris Ivens as president of the jury). In 1996, a copy of the film was finally handed over to Vautier by the Foreign Ministry during the first official screening in France and only in 2003 the film was broadcasted on French television. The Cinémathèque française has recently made new copies of the film as part of their effort to safeguard the entire oeuvre of René Vautier initiated in 2007.

Afrique 50 is a short powerful outburst, a rhythmic pamphlet, swiftly edited with an attacking voice-over. Playing with the genre of educational state propaganda documentary but turning it against the government, the film pinpoints, with humour and great seriousness, the link between capitalism and racism. Film historian Nicole Brenez, specialist of avant-garde cinema at la Cinémathèque française, has called it the greatest film in the history of cinema. Go see it, it’s on YouTube!
Sara Thelle, filmkommentaren.dk

Duncan Campbell – Essay Film Homage to Marker & Resnais Wins 2014 Turner Prize

From the New York Times, 1 December 2014:

Inspired by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s 1953 film, “Statues Also Die,” which was shown alongside “It for Others,” Mr. Campbell mixed images of African artifacts, consumer items and a dance work by the British choreographer Michael Clark in which the performers trace words and equations from Marx’s “Das Kapital” with their bodies. Mr. Campbell’s film, like “Statues Also Die,” tackles cultural imperialism: the appropriation of African artifacts by Western institutions. But the film, about an hour long, also suggests, in a section on an uprising during the Irish Troubles in the early 1970s, that the ownership and manipulation of images are not confined to the art world.Roslyn Sulcas, Innovative Filmmaker Wins Turner Prize for Art, nytimes.com

From The Guardian, 1 December 2014:

Turner prize 2014: Duncan Campbell wins Britain’s prestigious art award

Irish favourite takes prize for ‘essay film’ It for Others, which uses dance, the IRA and Marxism to explore the value of art

The judges called Duncan Campbell’s work ‘an ambitious and complex film which rewards repeated viewing’.

A 54-minute “essay film” that refers to IRA martyrdom, Marxist theory and anthropomorphic ketchup dispensers as it explores the value of art won its maker Duncan Campbell the 2014 Turner prize.

It was by no means a surprise. Campbell, aged 42 and probably the best known of the four artists shortlisted, had been the bookmakers’ favourite all along to take a prize created 30 years ago to “promote discussion of new developments in contemporary British art”.

His film, It for Others, was first seen at the Scottish pavilion of the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2013.

The Turner prize judges called it “an ambitious and complex film which rewards repeated viewing”. They also “admired his exceptional dedication to making a work which speaks about the construction of value and meaning in ways that are topical and compelling”.

The film was inspired by a 1953 work by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker called Statues Also Die, which explored and lamented the colonial commercialisation of African art.Mark Brown, Turner prize 2014: Duncan Campbell wins Britain’s prestigious art award, theguardian.com

CNN, seemingly unfamiliar with Chris Marker, contributes this take and goes on to discuss a controversy surrounding the reception; as Marker and Resnais’ film was banned upon release, the controversial nature of Campbell’s work is fitting.

His film, It For Others, which was described by the panel as “an ambitious and complex film which rewards repeated viewing”, is a response to a “film essay” from 1953 about African art and colonialism.

This archive footage is interspersed with new material, including a dance routine based on the equations in Karl Marx’s seminal work, “Das Kapital,” created by the choreographer Michael Clark.

All of this is overlaid with a voiceover that imitates the style of a lecture.

[…]

Digby Warde-Aldam, the art critic for the UK’s Spectator magazine, said: “Surely no arbiter in their right mind could have let such hectoring, cultural studies-sanctioned guff slip through the net?”

“If you’re serious about the rubbish on show this year, you are insulting every artist working in Britain today,” he said.

Jake Wallis Simons, Turner Prize 2014 won by Irish film artist Duncan Campbell, cnn.com

About Duncan Campbell

Campbell, who lives in Scotland, is a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art. He is the fourth alumni of the school to have won the prize in the last 10 years. For more on Campbell and the GSoA, see scotlandnow.dailyrecord.co.uk.

Filming Das Kapital

Karl Marx’ seminal work has been back in the spotlight of late, due of course to the success of French scholar Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century [orig. Le capital au XXIe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2013). Campbell’s work is not the first attempt to draw Marx’ masterwork into filmic expression. Eisenstein worked on a version of the book as film in 1927-1928, after the completion of October and while working on The General Line (1929).

Eighty years later, Alexander Kluge – the wunderkind polymath pupil of T.W. Adorno, a political philosopher, filmmaker, television producer and prolific short story writer – produced a monumental 9 1/2 hour film entitled Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike – Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital (News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Capital. For more on Kluge’s production, see Julia Vassilieva, “Capital and Co.: Kluge/Eisenstein/Marx”, Screening the Past.

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