Television and its Shadow

Where nothing is less sure than that there will be one day a "history of television".

During a mass debate about the future of cinema, a clever chap raised the following argument: melancholic cinephiles, you who flatter yourself that you have rehabilitated the popular (especially American) cinema of yesteryear, who is to say that there will not be - in thirty years or more - people who will rehabilitate present-day television, which today we find so difficult not to despise just a little bit? At first glance, the argument seems full of common sense and we begin to imagine the 21st century zapper, sincerely moved by "Maguy," "Rue Carnot" or "Miami Vice." What will these people be like? On second though, however, the argument merely seems clever, and nothing is more misleading than the glib habit of placing cinema and television in total opposition. For it does not help thought, and only produces false symmetries.

That is what we say to ourselves as we consume here and there the minor subjects offered by "VIVE LA TELE" (on channel 5). Pre-zapped subjects that we watch with the conspiratorial eye of one who has already seen them in a previous life, who is surprised by his own amnesia (who sang with "Les problemes"? Antoine?) as by his capacity to recall (Ah yes, the painter Fujita, that was his moment of glory, now dead and forgotten.) We identify what we do not recognize and no longer recognize what we know. In this smiling game that we play with ourselves, everything sways towards the déja-vu and the second level. And, since there is no question of allowing these inserts any more weight than the load of their insignificance, the director Gerards Jourd'hui makes it a point to invent the "outdated" (discolored) disguise of what was innocently nude and in vogue twenty or more years ago.Of course, we realize that, up to the mid sixties, the voices of journalists in the wings were peremptory, nasal tones, with the low humor of the forties or fifties. In black and white the very images that were meant to be pure entertainment assume great dignity (fashion show reports, advance clips of the yé-yé culture, Princess Margaret all smiles, Cocteau, etc.) But these images suddenly swing en bloc into the category (duly filed and classified in the archives of the INA or the Gaumont Cinematheque) of images of the past that are also past images. The recent past remains undecidable as long as it does not definitively fall into the overall phenomenon of belonging to the past.

Which is why the hypothesis of a future aesthetic rediscovery of television is not certain. It will of course always be possible to find in these images innumerable items of objective information on an era, useful for the historians (for a Marc Ferro yet unborn) or the sociologist. Certainly, those who have actually lived through these events the first time around will feel gelatinously sentimental when watching these retro images that, in Jean-Louis Schefer's superb phrase, "have looked at our childhood." But this does not mean that television will be posthumously avenged for the mild contempt in which it has been held by those who watched it (and, too often, by those who worked in it.)

Existing figures show the cinema/television parallel in a poor light. Television has existed for at least 40 years, and we still do not have anything like "A history of television," a little Sadoul {French critic who wrote a proto-Maltin film guide in the 60s--Steve} for future telephiles, with explanations, sagas and filmographies. No sentimental reference to television's past consists of anything more than a litany of 2-3 mythic titles ("Cinq colonnes a la une", "Trente-six chandelles...") As if this could suffice to produce the illusion of a history as rich as that of cinema.

For, if we look at cinema, we see clearly that in the space of 40 years (say from 1910-1950, from the first Griffith films to the first Fellinis), this burgeoning art produced an incredible number of monuments of masterly creative folly, masterpieces with international audiences, known to succeeding generations (from the "nickelodeons" to the cine-clubs). So much so, it may be contended, without paradox, that its Golden Age was in its beginnings, and that the last few decades, however interesting they might have been, are already much less in the nature of an adventure. The cinema adventure did not have to wait 40 years to breed crazy theoreticians and incomplete historians: a glance at the texts of Eisenstein or the articles of Delluc (from the twenties) is enough to realize that wild theories and piercing criticism had found their tone at the very outset.

It is clear then that television is not "like" cinema: the times are different. It is perhaps the end and completion of cinema (its "realization"), just as it is, sometimes, a trailer of something to come. Moreover - and this is its greatness - as it is the slave of a pure present, with no depth, it is only normal that television should know nothing of itself, that, knowing nothing, it is no more capable of generating its history than its historians.

Originally published in LIBERATION November 13, 1987. I've polished the translation slightly.