For a cine-demography
Serge Daney

“There must have been a sense of belonging to the world when you went to the cinema”, someone said almost ten years ago. The screen was then very densely populated. With stars and supporting roles, extras and bit-players. With crowds, mobs, classes in struggle and nations at war. This heyday of cinema can be summed up in one formula: a lot of people in a lot of movie theatres watched films with a lot of people in them. Cecil B. De Mille had a dream: that there would be as many people on the screen as in the theatre. That entering the (dark) auditorium and the (lit up) camera frame would be but one and the same thing.
We talk today (with dread) of a desertification of the stock of movie theatres. But it has been at least ten years that the theme of the desert feeds a melancholic mood of the cinephile soul. Wenders is the man who has negotiated, in the most honest way possible, this transition toward a world suddenly depopulated. He was the man of geography (the famous State of Things) when history started to be in short supply. There was still some melancholy in Wenders, but that’s not to say that it won’t fade further away as time goes on.
The science that ought to be applied to cinema today is no longer psychoanalysis or semiotics but the study of movie-populations. What’s needed is a demography of filmed beings (1). Film critics should start by indicating how many characters a filmmaker can “hold together” before losing any knowledge of how to film. One, two, three, not many. To the extent that it isn’t just the movie theatres which are fewer and emptier, it’s the films which are more depopulated. Goodbye to the professional extra. A whole hierarchy of actors is abandoned in favour of an orphan star system which, without a backdrop of ‘supporting roles’, no longer works.
The history of cinema can very easily be told through this isomorphism of entrances (into the auditorium and into the frame). We know that from the middle of the century (post-war, television), fewer and fewer people in already too many movie theatres saw films with fewer and fewer people in them. This slimmed down spectacle has been called modern cinema. And the story of L’Aventurra tells nothing else but this symptomatic minor event: from a small group of characters, one quite simply disappears. Modern cinema, particularly in Europe, was the real mirror of economic booms and of nascent individualism. The ‘auteur’ is the hero – romantic for a time – of this birth. The auteur will inevitably tend to film – one by one – people he knows and who are like him. What counts isn’t the number of extras but the authenticity of the gaze of a single person. Rossellini, whose several classics have just been re-released, is the man through whom scandal comes. Which scandal? That nothing is more ‘serious’ or more complex than a couple. And a couple, it’s only two (2).
In over-sized movie theatres, the (smaller) audience of the 60s and 70s watched unforgettable scenes of couples having a row. Some talked about anti-spectacle and ‘intimist’ cinema. In France the pleasure would last a bit longer: the multi-screen complex postponed by some twenty years an inevitable death knell. And the death knell sounds on the day when individualism, no longer in its ‘artist’ period (the auteur against the system), has become the economic support of cultural consumption and of programming industries. “Belonging to the world” is but the dated dream of the pure cinephile, “belonging to society and its phenomena” is quite enough.  
The crisis of movie theatres becomes incontestable the day a limit is reached: as few people in the theatre as there are characters in the film. For a long time, the most lucid filmmakers (they’re usually the best) pointed ironically to the too loose attire inside which they were beginning to float dangerously. There’s an echo effect in a film like India Song: it isn’t made for television, it’s made for a large and almost empty movie theatre (3). And then, eventually, comes the dreaded spectre well known to the professional critic: the projection “for him alone” of a film about loneliness with the filmmaker waiting for him outside. The involution is reaching its limit. One way or another, one must think big again. ‘Big’ is the order of the day.
This is where a cine-demographer would be welcome. To say that a vanished population cannot be resuscitated and that no miracle will bring back Cecil B. De Mille’s extras. To say that we are in a different era, something like a post-cinema (which is also post-television and post-advertising) characterised by this novel situation: many people in just a few (large) theatres want to see films with just a few characters. A period somewhat summed up by something like the giant-screen Géode auditorium. Filmed cinema. Cinema as event. Cinema as sound-and-light-show. A cinema with high mythological content whose hero is no longer the crowd (finally pacified) nor the individual (rather calmed down) but something else altogether.
For it’s enough to look at the recent films which have had real success to observe a thing or two. Firstly that they never rely on stars or rock-solid scenarios (to the great lament of the poor profession which, disoriented by too many silly award ceremonies, thinks that old recipes from the 50s are the key to today’s crisis!). Secondly that these are always fundamentally intimist films. To take two indisputable successes, let’s say that there are very few characters in Le Grand Bleu and that Chinese masses aren’t exactly the subject of The Last Emperor.
How can one make something big with intimacy? New question. Or again: what kind of intimacy are we talking about? One thing is certain: we have left the era of modern cinema (from Rossellini to Godard) with the individual as its heroic hypothesis, the others as hell nearby and relations between humans as the only subject worth dealing with. But we haven’t returned to the cluttered ‘grand spectacle’ of cinema at its origins. There’s certainly a ‘starting from scratch’ side to it, but it’s a bit empty. Today’s ‘heroes’ float in an image too big for them and the only question that carries them is whether or not they still ‘belong’ to this world.
The great subject of today’s cinema – what it questions and its aesthetic concern – is undoubtedly this disproportion between man and his environment, the loss of a common measure and the giving up of any hope to use others in order to orient oneself. In this respect, as seductive as powerless, Besson’s deep sea diver and Bertolucci’s Chinese emperor are brothers in that they only know one thing, tautological by its nature: “I am me…” Nothing happens to them because nothing can happen to them. Because they stand once for all at a frontier between human and non-human. Sterile, between man and beast, between man and gods. To tell their story is showing to which extent they have no history.
It’s because the disproportion (in passions, figures, spaces and time) is at the heart of today’s cinema that it’s no longer essential for the number of characters to be proportional to the numbers of spectators. There can be very many spectators looking at how the world has become too big a scene for too short actions (diving). They are doing it exactly the same way they would leaf through the Club Med ‘tailor-made’ and ready-to-fly travel catalogues. Travels where one is more at risk to meet the Other (non-human) than the other (human). Travels from which we expect to bring back some great moments, ‘clips’ of individual experience drowned in an ocean of clichés. Spiritual tourism can begin (4).
This is where we are. To be honest, great filmmakers have been revolving around this issue for a while. The disproportion of things inside an uninhabitable brain is what makes Kubrick’s 2001 a piece of genius (1968!), the crossing of ruins or desert is at the heart of Tarkovski (Stalker) or Cissé (Yeleen), etc. For a long time now filmmakers haven’t assumed the fabric of the world to be known or granted and each one has been pushing forward his own personal cosmogony. What has changed is that this question has become clear enough to finally generate mass-market movies. What these movies do with this question is, as one can suspect, another matter.

(1) It would be interesting to tell the story of the last ten years of French cinema from the sole and biased angle of women’s age. Since Romy Schneider and Simone Signoret passed away and since Annie Girardot’s eclipse, movies based on the popular image of the strong mature woman have but disappeared. A disappearance all the more strange that in France post-feminism has affirmed the status of women and has delayed the moment, formerly fateful, of old age. Is it that French society – contrarily to the American one – doesn’t want to see anything of what changes in this area? Is it that no fifty year old woman makes a character fit to occupy the centre of a film?
(2) Here’s a very beautiful formula by Godard while editing his Histoire(s) du cinéma et de la télévision: “I think there has been this feeling of freedom: a man and a woman in a car. Once I saw Voyage in Italy, even if I wasn’t making any movies, I knew I could do it and, even though I wasn’t even an equal of the greatest directors, the fact that it could be done gave you access to some sort of dignity or something.”
(3) I remember with emotion this usherette at the Cinéphone Saint-Antoine theatre which is now replaced by a convenience store. The theatre was so big that she refused to direct cinephiles towards the (cheaper) front rows using the pretext that she had often been attacked on the way and that despite her screams and stolen tips, nobody ever came to the rescue. It’s true that the cavernous sound of the pepla of the time (some great Cottafavis from the sixties) was already creating a disreputable desert.
4) Today, a ‘great’ film often only exhibits the vitrified or dull remains of a crazy project or of a heroic film shooting. This is true of movies as different as Fitzcarraldo (Herzog) or L’ours (Annaud). The spectator thinks that the making of these movies must have been a true adventure which these movies do not reflect as finished products. The proof is that Les Blank’s movie on the filming of Fitzcarraldo is more interesting than the actual movie. We arrive here at the frontier between art and tourism and it’s not forbidden to think that one day some winners of a contest would be allowed to witness a particularly difficult shooting, at the other end of the world.
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Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar, November 2008. The French version of this text was originally published in Liberation, 13 September 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas ( HYPERLINK "http://www.aleas.fr/" http://www.aleas.fr/), 1997.