What Out of Africa produces

By Serge Daney

With cinema and advertising now being as close as chicken and egg, there is only one question: which is the egg and which is the hen? This question arises when encountering, at daybreak on a Monday morning, this multi-Oscars thing: Out of Africa (1985). The thing, of course, has become lengthy and deflated, and on television it loses a bit of the bit of aura we once conceded to it. Out of Africa belongs to a true “genre”: the movie-that-advertises-cinema, a genre suitable for the Oscars and running on professionalism and nostalgic polishing (1). The problem is that on television this genre doesn’t hold together. Or rather, it returns to its starting point: advertising.
This has already been said. We have already listed with cruelty the products “sold” by the movie (from the tropical cocktail to the airline company). But cruelty is no longer enough and it must be possible to go further (it is one of the reasons for this newspaper column). It is no longer enough to acknowledge the incest between cinema and commercials; one should ask at which point this incest is actually consummated. And especially one should attempt the description of what the aesthetics of advertising are like and of this world that commercials have immersed us into for a long time.
Out of Africa is one of these movies that spends an hour just to set the decor and another hour to fit in this decor a story so intimate and beautiful that it makes us “forget about the decor”. What was typical of academic cinema has become the essence of advertising. A television commercial fails if it has not been able to set the decor. And because a commercial doesn’t last very long, it must set up the decor quickly. As a monotonous succession of “privileged moments”, Out of Africaah looks remotely like a movie, but look closer and all its moments are built like commercials.
And there are only two kinds of commercials. Either there is a character knowing more than another and signifying it to him (the trivial logic of washing powder ads) or there are several characters uniting into a third element, usually represented by music (the stylish logic based on couples of surreal beauty). There are countless commercials of the first kind in the first hour of Out of Africa. Discovering Kenya, Baroness Blixen keeps meeting characters only there to help her “get an idea”, judge by herself the quality of the product “Africa”. Every scene therefore obeys one poor and monotonous pattern where the one who knows demonstrates (or reveals) something to the one who doesn’t. These are only power struggles - loosely filmed - and there isn’t one scene which ends without a gain (of knowledge) for one and only one character. At the beginning, Baroness Streep gets a lesson, then, because she is feisty, she goes on to surprise everyone. In any case, it is always unilateral.
In the second part of the movie, the commercials of the second kind, more modern, are dominating. The decor is set and it is now about the burning love story linking the two stars and the unforgettable moments they share. There, things become more languid. The stars are supposed to merge with the greater whole of Africa, something that would be totally impossible (one doesn’t “merge” with a decor, one “stands out” from it) if it was not for the invention of soundtrack and the birth of John Barry who composed this one. The proof? When Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) shows a sort of old record player (“they have finally invented a useful machine”) by playing Mozart in the bush, Pollack, instead of letting Mozart’s music continue, covers it immediately with John Barry’s sound soup. What is the point of soundtrack at this moment? Not to maintain the emotion of the scene (Mozart would have been enough) but to signify (2) to the spectator that there has been a moving moment.
It is not surprising then that the things that are difficult to film are purely and simply avoided. When a director - even an estimable one like Pollack - has digested so many advertising procedures, there are shots he no longer knows how to direct. And when the Baroness kills a lion, we need at least one slow motion to understand what happened. Sometimes a little bit of “cinema” emerges, haphazardly. An angry lioness roars but then goes away. A group of Masai soldiers cross the image without even looking at the terrified white men. Friendly Masai, likeable lion and useless extras: some beautiful shots.

(1) Jean-Claude Biette has found an unbeatable expression to qualify this film genre: “filmed cinema”. Havana by Pollack is the most recent example of this genre. It is horrible.

(2) “Signaling” would have been a better term.

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Originally published in Libération, 11 October 1988. Reprinted in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.