Source: La Petite Illustration Cinématographique. Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, 1995. pp. 15-8.
Silent Movie. To give an installation the name of something that never existed is probably less innocent than the average cat may infer. There was never anything like silent cinema, except at the very beginning, or in film libraries, or when the pianist had caught a bad flu. There ever was at least a pianist, and soon an orchestra, next the Wurlitzer, and what contraptions did they use, in the day of my childhood, to play regularly the same tunes to accompany the same films? I’m probably one of the last earthlings – the “last,” says the cat – to remember what themes came with what films: A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Wings (the dogfights), Liszt’s The Preludes on Ben Hur. A touch of humour noir here, to think that the saga of the young Hebrew prince was adorned by Hitler’s favourite music, which in turn explains why you hear it more often than Wagner on the German war newsreels – but I get carried away…
Ah, yes, the pianist. The tapeur as we Russians say, from the French taper (to hit, to strike), thus coining a word that, interestingly enough, doesn’t exist in pure French, only in slang, where it means a moocher. So you see, already two non-existences listed. As if everything connected with that strange “silent movie” concept was struck, not be a tapeur, but by some sort of cinematographic antimatter. Silent movie, silent era… There was considerably less silence in a movie house of the Twenties than, say, in a vintage Antonioni. People already needed music to fix their emotions (music doesn’t create emotions, it fixes them, like you fix colour), and the pianist was busy fixing emotions, and people whose emotions had been improperly fixed (a wrong chord, for one) reacted by shooting at him: I remember Jouvet, with his unmistakable staccato, “le pianiste sur lequel on était prié de ne pas tirer, c’était moi.” Perhaps we Frenchmen are closer to the point by using “cinéma muet”: mute, meaning simply that people didn’t speak, which left the music question open. But even that wasn’t true. They were talking, they were talking a lot (those interminable captions in Wings precisely… Not so farfetched to me to herald my imaginary Remembrance of Things Past with the advertising line: “The first movie where the captions take more space than the image”), they were articulating sentence after sentence, the only difference was that you didn’t hear them and that, finally, it was less a case of mute movies than of deaf audiences.
To be true, playing music wasn’t the only way to prevent the silent films from being silent: when they public simply didn’t understand the captions – be they illiterate, or foreigners – then appeared the character we Japanese call the benshi, “the narrator,” who stood beside the screen to translate, or arrange, or interpret the printed text. Kurosawa’s brother was one of these narrators, and the prestige of his function did play a part in the Master’s early fascination with movies. For, as he puts it in his autobiography, these benshi “not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing the evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen.” You’d swear you’re listening to the Chorus at the beginning of Henry V – and you dream of having seen Way Down East narrated that way…
(I had a similar experience in Mexico in the Fifties: an English-speaking, subtitled version of a US movie was sort of cryptic for the ordinary peasant who didn’t speak English, nor could read the subtitles. So every Saturday night the only member of the community reputed literate would stand and comment on the screening, more or less the benshi way. Their mastery of the Hollywood lingo being debatable, they “worked on their imaginary forces” not to lose face in front of the audience. More than often, the result was quite refreshing.)
Wings is certainly not the first picture I saw: it’s the first I remember – quite vividly. When I saw it again, after a lapse of some fifty years, I was struck by the crystal-clear memory I had kept of certain sequences. With a difference: as I had no doubt, really not, about the leading lady (Clara Bow), on the men’s side I remembered Gary Cooper as the start. Yet I discovered young Gary had just one scene and was killed at the end of Reel One. I suppose this is what makes a star: one gesture, one smile, and it’s him you remember, not the vague young man who was then in charge to get the girl.
Next came Gastyne’s Joan of Arc and the close-ups of Simone Genevoix. It was probably the first time I saw a dame’s face enlarged on a 44 x 33-ft screen (even Clara Bow didn’t attain such proportions) but I don’t think this quantitative phenomenon explains by itself the state of exhilaration I found myself in. I couldn’t describe it otherwise that with comic-strip onomatopoeias like “Wham!,” “Thud-thud!,” “Bump-bump!,” “Shudder!” – another way to put sound on film, mostly indecipherable for a seven-year-old boy, but which I identified clearly, later on, as the true symptoms of Romance. And when some years ago the French Cinémathèque issued a beautifully restored copy of La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc, I found myself sitting not far from a charming old lady, who didn’t suspect for one minute she had been, literally, my first love.
Such memories obviously account for one’s fascination with the so-called silent era. But even before these precise, identified filmic flashes, there is, like any self-respecting cosmogony, a period of chaos, vague images of gods and goddesses, united, disorderly, full of gaps and black holes, that shadowy period that always comes before the structured mythology. I find in my early childhood memory such shadows. I couldn’t imagine they were real people (how could I comprehend the process of filmmaking?) but some sorts of machines, a complex organization of cranks and wheels aimed at animating these shapes of Indians and Cowboys (the usual stuff these memories are made of) – by which, mind you, I was simply inventing the concept of animated synthetic images of today; some foresight for a toddle.
Perhaps it’s that, strictly speaking, pre-historic state of film memory that carried me toward this evocation, even more than my amours enfantines with Clara Bow and Simone Genevoix. The idea of a state of perception anterior to understanding, anterior to conscience, anterior by millenniums to film critics and analysis. A kind of Ur-Kino, the cinema of origins, closer to Aphrodite than to Garbo. And whose main feature was certainly not silence – I guess I proved it – but that other kind of mutism, the muffling of another kind of signal, much more meaningful than the words: the erasing of colors, the Black-and-White.
Everybody knows color was there too, like music. Color systems were ready, and sometimes used for prestige. Some sequences of Fred Niblo’s aforementioned Ben Hur were painted. Moszhukhin’s Casanova was tinted. Night scenes were often wrapped in blue and period sequences in sepia. Yet for half a century cinema remained true to black-and-white, and I’m not marxist enough to explain it solely by economic factors. It’s as if the industry’s collective unconscious had held its breath, suspended its step, like Angelopoulos’s stork, to enjoy a privileged stage of perception before joining the mainstream of realistic representation, like a child who tries to refrain from growing up too fast in order to retain the privileges of childhood. Like photography, where color was immediately available by the unexpected virtues of a potato slice, cinema decided to remain for a while in this happy new colorless world. In a trade carried on by people who were everything but ascetical, suddenly we meet a choice that had all the characteristics of pure ascesis, where less is more, and where loss is gain. Abandoning the futile prestiges of a colorized universe, cinema and photography began to draw the map of a new empire where shades of grey where there to detail the various scales of humankindness. (The Kingdom of Shadows Gorky was describing after his first view of the Lumière Cinematograph in Nizhy Novgorod, 1896.) And people started to dream in black-and-white. Everybody has heard the sentence: “do you dream in colors?” And why, pray thee, should I dream the world otherwise than I see it, if cinema hadn’t been there to substitute a new way to look at dreams? I am convinced that until year 1900 or so, people dreamt in colors, and I’m afraid that after year 2000 they shall do so again. In the meantime, managers have won over the unconscious. All that this awful twentieth century will have brought us, between genocides, AIDS, and sitcoms, will have been one century of fine grain, high-contrast, panchromatic B and W personal dreams. (There a question arises: does Ted Turner dream in black-and-white? Jane, if you read this, gimme a call.)
In fact, this refusal of color goes far deeper than the Ur-Kino itself. It’s simply a refusal of nature’s original system of seduction. If we believe with Claude Gudin that “around three billion years ago, with Chance and Necessity getting things going, a seduction process using colors and perfumes got under way amongst some micro-organisms who, by nibbling away at the sunshine, invented Photosynthesis,” the choice of black-and-white is nothing less than a haughty denial of our biological heritage, a way to assert man’s inner resources against nature’s consoling paraphernalia. But if Gudin goes as far as saying (I summarize) “color is sex,” does that imply that black-and-white is sexless or rather that this sudden apparition of a world completely deprived of our usual (and basic) systems of references draws us to the necessity of finding of these systems within ourselves – just as music forces us to invent an inner space where painting provides the outer space too easily? The panchromatic film would then be the music of our plastic souls, a way to reinvent seduction with our bare, black-and-white hands. When I began to play with B and W film clips, and to film in B and W myself for this experiment, I just wanted it to be a light, unpretentious way to celebrate in my manner one hundred years of cinematography, and God forbid that I theorize all this in a solemn way: only the pleasure, or is it sweet sorrow, to part with the already doomed glory of that era. But to put it more simply, wasn’t it fun to free oneself from a three-billion-year-long addiction?
In Mexico, I didn’t discover only the persistence of the benshi tradition. In these pre-television days, radio itself was a rarity, and what I discovered was the altar-like status of some technical tools, the total discrepancy between a medium’s avowed aims and its real function. In every house of the little village I lived in, radio screamed at full blast, all day, while the owner went to the fields. It was there simply to be, not to be listened to, like a fire whose sole purpose is to burn, not to light or to warm. Perhaps this installation aims to be just that kind of altar: the sheer exposure to film magic, free from anecdote or direct emotions, where the viewer may hang around, pick something of the perpetual flame, brood over these adventures of black-and-white, change perhaps my images against his or hers, replace Catherine Belkhodja’s beautiful face by a closer and dearer face, and go away with an imaginary picture unrolling within his/her deep inner screening room with that untranslatable feeling we Germans call Sehnsucht, and we Brazilians saudade, and the rest is silence.