For a cine-demography
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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,
(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?
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.”
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
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.