THE TINKERERS

BY BILL KROHN

In 1951 Andre Bazin founded the CAHIERS DU CINEMA and gathered into it a group of writers - Eric Rohmer, Jacques-Daniel Vacroze, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard - who collectively rewrote the history of film, in more ways than one. This all happened a long time ago. The old CAHIERS is no more, but you can still see it - being brandished, read and blatantly peddled, sometimes just pinned to the wall (looking strangely at home amid the period decor of JULES AND JIM) - in the early films of the New Wave.

La nouvelle vague, la politique des auteurs: these catch-phrases and what they represent, are still with us. The auteur theory is solidly entrenched in the pages of our film magazines, and attempts at overthrowing it have usually paid it the compliment of imitation, with more filmographies, hierarchies, biographies, interviews and retrospectives: the screenwriter, the cameraman, the editor, the producer as auteur, as hero, as sage. Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli are taught in our universities. And whenever a hand-held camera wobbles unsteadily towards its target and dialogue is overwhelmed by street noises, wherever improvisation (or its outward signs, which are easy enough to fake) suggests that what we are watching is not a movie, but life caught in the raw, the influence of the New Wave on filmmakers is still in evidence. Perhaps too much.

When they finally came, the changes which occurred in the magazine in the late sixties were long overdue. These changes were a response to two events that profoundly affected the Parisian intellectual circles where the CAHIERS is produced and read: the advent of structuralism and the thwarted revolt of students and workers which began in May 1968. After 1968 the CAHIERS became politicized (Marxist), and harder to read, because of the influx of structuralist and post-structuralist ideas.

But even though the magazine is less widely read today than it was in the early sixties, when I imbibed its influence through the intermediary of my college film society, the theories and values put forward by the new CAHIERS (there have been at least three since 1968) have had an impact here. Today, structuralist and Marxist film magazines abound. Some of them have published articles from the CAHIERS, and a few are completely written in a weird language which is also beginning to turn up in the pages of respectable academic journals: Frenchlish, a compound of structuralist jargon, high-mindedness and English words used as if they meant the same thing as their French cognates. Most specialists have read the translation of the CAHIERS collective text on YOUNG MR. LINCOLN published in SCREEN (Autumn, 1972), and even Robin Wood, who was once content to talk about Howard Hawks' "vision of the world" and adolescent moral code as F.R. Leavis before him had talked of Donne or Lawrence, has recently been writing sensibly about the ideology of free enterprise in Capra and Hitchcok and nervously about the respective virtues of "closed"and "open" form in films by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Louis Comolli.1

It would be impossible to say how much of this is direct influence. Other French film magazines - CINETHIQUE and CA, for example - have developed along similar lines, and the influences which affected the CAHIERS (political upheaval in the late sixties and structuralism) have been widely felt in America as well during the last ten years. But between the old and the new, it would be safe to say that most film criticism written in this country bears the mark, conscious or unconscious, of some relationship to what the CAHIERS has been and is today.

So it seemed like a good idea, on the occasion of the upcoming SEMAINE DES CAHIERS at the Bleecker Street Theater, to publish something about what has been happening to the CAHIERS in recent years, and the simplest way to get the story was to interview one of the editors, Serge Daney, who has been with the magazine since 1964 and is now, with Serge Toubiana, Redacteur en chef. The interview was conducted - appropriately, for reasons that will soon become apparent - in writing, and translated from the French.

There is little I can add to it. Daney's thoughtful and forthright replies to my questions are an insider's account of the stormy years during which the CAHIERS almost cased, for a short time, to be a film magazine, nearly extinguishing itself in the process, and then evolved to the point it has reached today: more open, more eclectic, more readable, but permanently marked by the commitments and struggles of the last decade. The interview emphasizes continuities; particularly toward the end, moral questions which can only be called Bazinian, coupled with the word auteur, insistently turn up. In retrospect it is easier to see why this magazine, when its passion for films like BABY FACE NELSON and RANCHO NOTORIOUS had finally played out, turned its attention to films made in factories, ghettos and armed camps all over the world. And why today they are more obsessed than ever with the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, and with Jean-Luc Godard.

I would just like to fill in at a couple of points where I think Daney risks being misunderstood. First of all, the word bricoleur. Speaking of the period when theory reigned supreme (1969-1972), Daney says that was happening then was a "savage application" of theories produced elsewhere, in particular by the Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan;2 and he adds that "None of us was a high-ranking academic - more like tinkerers (bricoleurs)." The word bricoleur has its own history in structuralist thought, beginning with Claude Levi-Strauss' comparison, in THE SAVAGE MIND, of the tinkerer and the engineer, by way of illustrating the difference between primitive myth-making and modern science:

"The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand, because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage'...Like 'bricolage' on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane." (THE SAVAGE MIND, p. 17.)

Perhaps Daney did not have this passage in mind, but his colleague Jean-Pierre Oudart did, in 1969, when he described Luc Moullet's films as works of bricolage which resemble the films of the other moderns (the New Wave, etc.) as "a bicycle assembled, from mismatched parts, by a savage who was ignorant of its function" might resemble a real bicycle (217).3 This is a peculiar compliment, but it is a compliment nonetheless. (When I brought up the bricoleur business recently during an abortive interview with Luc Moullet, he gave me a funny look and replied that this brother had made a musical instrument, called a "percophone," out of old bicycle brakes, which "gives a very interesting sound.") Elsewhere, in the pages of the CAHIERS, Jean Rouch, one of the technical and spiritual fathers of the New Wave, has also been called a bricoleur; so has Godard, the mad scientist of the group.

And I can't think of a better word to describe the speculations published in the CAHIERS during the period when wildly original thinkers like Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida were being enlisted in the service of film theory. Working with what was at hand, the CAHIERS writers knocked together eclectic assemblages out of the most heterogeneous elements imaginable: Lacan and Fritz Lang; Bataille and Jerry Lewis; Levi-Strauss and Jacques Demy; Lacan, his student Serge Leclaire, Derrida (it took three of them) and Howard Hawks. The Hawks article, "RIO LOBO: Viellesse de Meme," was written by Daney in 1971 (230.) It is a Bugs Bunny cartoon boinging onto the screen after one of Lacan's famous "seminars," and, like many of the Bugs Bunny cartoons, it is a work of concentrated brilliance.

What it does, among other things, is to propose a new definition of auteur: an auteur is an obsessional neurotic. "Who would ever want to write with images?," Daney had asked in an earlier article:

"It is time to understand that such a wish, often formulated, was only formulated by those (from Eistenstein to Bresson) for whom it was uninteresting to have ideas, unless they were idees fixes, on the order of obsessions (sexual, no doubt) and phantasms, so that only a unique, terrorist discourse could take them in hand." (222)

It is not a bad hypothesis. What other kind of personality would it take, after all, to put together everything it takes to put together a thousand pieces of film with any kind of consistent tone or purpose, particularly when the end-product has to have the illusory qualities of "continuity and transparency" (as if the camera weren't there) which characterized classical cinema? And to do it time and again, in spite of scripts, budgets, producers and changing fashions, so as to leave one's mark, even thought it might be invisible to the naked eye?

So in the RIO LOBO piece Daney treated Hawks as he deserved to be treated, at least once in his career: as a good subject for a case history, where all the "tics and obsessions" dear to the auteurist (the fascination with closed spaces, the boy-scout skills of the Hawks hero, the unnerving jokes about castration and gender confusion, the ritual exchanges of hostages, the urge to repeat, the refusal to grow old, or to look death in the face) come together in a new configuration and begin to make a lurid kind of sense. Perhaps he was inspired by reading Dr. Leclaire's account of one of his own patients, a former military man named "Jerome" whose favorite fantasy - that he was a mummy, incorruptible and beautiful in his sarcophagus, safe behind a maze of walls and armored doors - throws new light on LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, the film Hawks had to make, and the great commercial bomb of his career. Unless, of course, "Jerome" was just someone who had seen LAND OF THE PHARAOHS one time too many.

Apparently he did see a sensational documentary called L'AFRIQUE VOUS PARLE, and it made quite an impression on him:

"Then he remembered a documentary film: in it one sees a crocodile that seems to be asleep, floating like a dead tree trunk, then suddenly he open his mouth and gobbles a Negro in less time than it takes to tell it...No, of course, he had not seen this scene of incorporation, it had been cut; but he knows that by an exceptional stroke of luck the filmmaker, cold-bloodedly confronting this scene, had devoured everything with his eye of glass without losing a crumb." (DEMASQUER LE REEL, p. 124.)

At any rate, this is the best clinical example I've seen of the obsessional pattern which Daney and Pascal Bonitzer discovered (236-7) in the articles Andre Bazin wrote on the limits of montage, where the need to film this kind of thing in a single take is illustrated with fantasies of death and incorporation:

"Difference, rupture, discontinuity are not absent from Bazin's discourse, or from the cinema he defends; in fact they are always present, almost to the point of shattering the screen. The cinema of continuity is also a cinema which dreams of filming discontinuity, difference...Not cutting up the screen, but representing cutting up on it." ("In L'AFRQIUE VOUS PARLE a Negro is eaten by a crocodile,"WHAT IS CINEMA? I, p. 155.)

For anyone who has immersed himself in film, the aptness of the examples that start turning up when you read through the literature of psychoanalysis is a little spooky, particularly when, in the recent literature, the patient is almost as likely to be talking about a film he saw as about a dream he had.

The application of structural psychoanalytic theory to the study of the film was one of the most successful pieces of sustained tinkering produced by the CAHIERS during this period, and Lacanian terms still turn up throughout Daney's interview. One which calls for a brief comment, because of the special way it is being used, is imaginary, which is one of the three orders of human experience described by Lacan: the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. According to a French dictionary of psychoanalytic terms, imaginary relations include

"a)from the intrasubjective standpoint: the fundamental, narcissistic relationship of the subject to his ego; b)from the intersubjective standpoint: the so-called dual relationship based on - and enthralled by - the image of a similar being (erotic attraction, aggressive tension). For Lacan, a fellow being - an other who is me - exists only because the ego is originally an other." 4

The face in the mirror, in other words, isn't you; it is your other self, your alter ego, and the model for all the "other selves" with whom you enter into imaginary relationships when you use other people as mirrors to see your own face. Archetypally, the origin of this enthrallment is the game a child plays ("Now I see me, now I don't") when he is learning to identify with his image in a mirror, a movement in which Oudart ("La Suture," 211-212) saw the underlying logic of the champ-contrechamp sequence ("Now I see me, now I see what me sees") in film. But when Daney speaks of an imaginary, he means something like a stock of images in which a particular social group recognizes itself and rejects what isn't it. Today most of these would be film images from the little "portable cinematheques" we all carry around in our heads.5

Think of FARENHEIT 451, which can be read as a description of a pre-symbolic world (the world of infancy), or of a society enthralled by an imaginary perpetually reproduced on its wall-screens (an imaginary "family" to which everyone belongs, except traitors) or simply of the phenomenology of a classical film by, say, Alfred Hitchcock. In the Farenheit-world people are interchangeable, Doppelgangers abound, sexuality is narcissistic and obsessive, disembodied heads seem to address you from the wall (they are really addressing the Void), movements are parallel, fluid and continuous. Beyond the city walls is a world of crisscrossing and divergent movements, autonomy, solitude and aimless wandering: the order of the symbolic, in which the child is enrolled when he acquires the use of language. The land of the "book-people."

Which brings up the only thing in the interview that is actually a little confusing: Daney's use of the word writing. When he says that the cinema defended by the CAHIERS has always been a cinema haunted by "writing," Daney does not mean scripts. In fact he means just the opposite. Here is a slice of polemic from an earlier period, when Fereydoun Hoveyda, who is now ambassador to the UN from Iran, was entrusted with a humbler task, in the service of a very different politique: the defense of Nicholas Ray's PARTY GIRL against its detractors.

"The subject of PARTY GIRL is idiotic. What does this prove? If the intricacies of the plot which unfolds on the screen constituted the essence of the cinematic work, the best thing to do would be to annex the Seventh Art to Literature, let the directors content themselves with illustrating novels and short stories (which is in fact the case with a number of directors whom we do not esteem) and abandon the pages of the CAHIERS to the literary critics. I don't wish to open an old debate, but, with clock-like regularity, certain critics continue to insist on the importance of scripts, acting and the system of production. While we are at it, why not take into account the influence of the heavenly spheres?" (107)

The interview should make it clear that the CAHIERS critics are no longer contemptuous of subject matter, or indifferent to the influence of the production system on filmmaking. But the taste for films in which the "writing" is in excess of the ideology is a constant; it accounts for the fact that Daney still dismisses a director like John Huston for illustrating the script, instead of "writing with images," like an auteur. This idea, too, has undergone some modifications.

All this would be clearer if he had been less modest in his account of the period of theoretical bricolage. He should have added, "And thanks to Daney (SUR SALADOR, etc.) there was a savage application of Derrida." Jacques Derrida is a philosopher who has been exploring the implications of Ferdinand de Saussure's famous assertion, in his COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS, that "in language there are only differences," by tracing the theme of writing in the history of Western thought. According to Derrida, writing, since Socrates condemned it as a deceitful and dangerous "ghost" of the spoken word, has been the object of a scapegoat ritual in which it is made to embody qualities in language which are alien to traditional religious and metaphysical conceptions of the logos. In this sense "writing" is the play of differences which constitutes the linguistic sign and perpetually defers access to the thing signified. To sum all this up Derrida coined the word differance ("differment" would be a near equivalent in English), which can be used more or less interchangeably with writing, in the special sense he has given it.6

Crudely put, what Daney did was graft this philosophical idea of writing onto the old idea of writing with images. In this sense, "writing with images," as he explains in the interview, would imply "spacing" (another Derridean term), and in film the space between images is the off-space. What the cinema of the champ-contrechamp shows us is "that images do not articulate first with one another - that instead the filmic field (champ)) articulates with the absent field, the imaginary field of the film" (Oudart, 211). So between the look (champ) and what is seen (contrechamp), between Gloria Grahame's last moment of happiness and Glenn Ford's realization that she is dead (THE BIG HEAT), falls the off-space, the void on the other side of the screen. This is a problem which "each important filmmaker resolves" in his own way.

Writing as differance also implies deferment, as opposed to a simple meshing of the sign and what it signifies, because something written in a phonetic alphabet is merely the sign of a sign. And in film deferment means the effect of deja vu. What falls between the image and whatever it is supposed to represent is another image, all the other images one has seen of the same thing. Especially if one has seen all those other images. "What is death," Daney asks in his article on SALADOR (222), "for this generation of film-freaks who have buried themselves in the cinematheques, if not the effect produced by bodies toppling over in films?" This presents special problems to filmmakers who started out as film-freaks - Godard, for example, at the point in his life when he finally realized his dream of doing a big-budget movie with real stars:

"What happens in CONTEMPT? Always the same story: one comes too late, one inherits a game that has already been played...Homer writes THE ODYSSEY and Moravia, GHOST AT NOON; Prokosch wants to put it into images and Ponti, to bring it to the screen. They summon famous 'artists' (Lang, Godard)...Each new player in this game of Capital and Culture must respect (but not reflect) in his work the traces left by whoever preceded him, which he must undo."

The conclusion: "Every film is a palimpset," a text written over another text. And this is also a problem that each important filmmaker must now resolve.

Daney's Derridean speculations are in the background of the article which we are printing with his interview: "The T(h)errorized" (the h is silent in French). It is about Godard, the enfant terrible of the New Wave, who recently did a series of shows for French television during which he apparently would write messages from time to time on the inside of the TV screen, like Winky Dink in reverse. What Daney seems to be saying in this piece is that Godard has joined Truffaut's "book-people" in that curious wintry landscape, and that his voice (his soundtrack) has taken on all the qualities which Socrates distrusted in writing (PHAEDRUS, 176). Orphaned, cut off from its father (its author), it wanders around talking to whoever will listen, not knowing whom to address and whom to avoid. And when you question it, it can't answer you; all it can do is repeat what has already been said. It encourages confusion between words and things, and turns words into things - a petrified discourse, dangerously close to nonsense, like the orange electronic letters which appear and disappear on a black screen in NUMERO DEUX, making and unmaking sense.

The equivocal meditation on "Godardian pedagogy" is a good companion-piece to Daney's interview because it concerns a filmmaker whose evolution since 1968 has closely paralleled that of the CAHIERS, particularly during the period of Marxist-Leninist dogmatism (1973-4), when the magazine began to read like the soundtrack of LA CHINOISE and speculation was temporarily suspended while anonymous voices posed soul-harrowing questions about the social function of educators: teachers (Daney, incidentally, is a school-teacher), social workers, film-club programmers, semioticians, editors, film critics. And perhaps one virtue of the films of the "Dziga Vertov Group" was to demonstrate, "as always, by the absurd," through a happy combination of morality and perversity, how the militant cinema which was a touchstone for the CAHIERS during this period actually functioned. In psychoanalytic terms, the "T(h)errorized" is someone who terrorizes others by theorizing about them, because he is himself "theorized" and terrorized, by what Lacan calls the Discourse of the Other. Which means, I suppose, that he has become a theorem, a word in somebody else's language.

Anyway, it took a new kind of open-mindedness about the real complexities in the relationship of art to politics to acknowledge that Godard, indispensable as he is, has not exactly been making propaganda films. In this respect, "The T(h)errorized" also marks the beginning of a new phase in the magazine's development, during which the restrictions on play have gradually been lifted.In an article on Jean-Louis Comolli's film about a nineteenth-century anarchist commune, LA CECILIA, Pascal Kane compares the anarchism portrayed in the film to the games of childhood and observes that

"Childhood can be...an age of intense activity: it is a time for exploring knowledge, experimenting with discourses. It is the age when the intellectual life is all-powerful, when ideas reign without opposition, and where desires find an appropriate scene for satisfaction...A childhood which it is difficult to see that we can dispense with 'revisiting,' if we wish to question the origin of our own ideas, our own desires." (265)

"Art," he had noted earlier, is also "a game played in the margins of the Law, filming is also playing the child: following one's idea, letting one's speech rule, sheltered from the real." This was a valuable rediscovery, which has occasioned a certain number of revaluations. Jean Rouch, for example: dismissed, respectfully, in 1971 as a petit-bourgeois ideologue who had turned ethnographic cinema into a glass-bead game without serious political consequences (234-5, 236-7), he can be acknowledged today as a tinkerer of genius who was one of the first to explore the possibilities of infra-cinema: "the new cinemas of the Third World, experimental cinema, militant cinema, amateur cinema, video groups, independent filmmakers... (275)" Play, in other words, can have serious consequences, and tinkerers may achieve "brilliant unforeseen results" beyond the reach of mere engineers.

"So the link to cinema, after the detour through militancy, was reaffirmed." The last few years have been a period of great activity, not all of it theoretical: besides Comolli, several of the CAHIERS editors have been involved, in one capacity or another, in making films. Like the recent Godard films, recent issues of the CAHIERS have made room in the ongoing meditation on film for investigations of other media: photography, painting, television and radio. The politique governing all this does not seem to have changed fundamentally. Daney, at least, shows no sign of having forgotten those painfully-acquired political ABC's. One constant has been the opposition to the French Communist Party, which is escalating now that "Eurocommunism" is getting a piece of power in France and Italy. Another is the preference for filmmakers who have chosen esthetic options corresponding to the most marginal forms of political activity: terrorism and utopia-building. There has also been, however, a rediscovery of "the liberty of eclecticism"; recent issues have embraced films as ideologically diverse as PEOPLE'S WAR, LE CAMION ("Karl Marx, c'est fini"), THE DEVIL, PROBABLY and KING KONG. Phrases like "a cinema which militates as cinema" can stretch a long way, and where the CAHIERS will go from here is anyone's guess. But an aesthetic which demands at least as much attention to "writing" as to ideology, coupled with a moral concern for one's human writing materials, has always been a good place to begin.

1. FILM COMMENT, January-February and May-June, 1977.

2. For the application of Althussers, see the SCREEN translation of a manifesto by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni: "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" (Autumn, 1971). Oudart's seminal Lacanian article, "La suture," has not been translated, but it has been described by Daniel Dayan in "The Tutor Code of Classical Cinema" (FILM QUARTERLY, Autumn 1974) and applied by Nick Browne in his analysis of a scene from STAGECOCACH (FILM QUARTERLY, Spring 1974).

3. References to the CAHIERS will be indicated by giving in parentheses just the number of the issue cited.

4. YALE FRENCH STUDIES No. 48 ("French Freud"), p. 191 (translated from Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, VOCABULAIRE DE LA PSYCHANALYSE). This issue of YFS contains a translation of Lacan's seminar on "The Purloined Letter"; other Lacan essays have been translated in STRUCUTRALISM (ed. Jacques Ehrmann) and Anthony Wilden's THE LANGUGAGE OF SELF.

5. Cf. CDC 257, pp. 6-21; 262-3; pp. 60-61 and 265, p. 267.

6. Derrida's most important book, ON GRAMMATOLOGY ("cited" by Godard in LE GAI SAVOIR, 1968), is available now in English.