MARCH/APRIL 2009
C.S. LEIGH

CONTEMPLATING THE NEW PHYSICALITY OF CINEMA

MOURNING THE DEATH OF THE FETID, HUMAN WAY WE USED TO INTERACT WITH MOVIES

DISCUSSED: Black-Market Videotape, The Despised Anglo-American Market, Terrence Malick’s Bedroom, Dank Basement Cinemas, The Cinema Village, The Carnegie Hall Cinema, The Notting Hill, The Accatone in Paris, The Old Cinémathèque Française in Paris, Steenbecks, Le Havre
Image from Jean-Luc Godard’s <em>La Chinoise</em> (France, 1967)

“I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.”
—Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire

1.

For a particular type of cinephile from my generation—those of us born in the early ’60s and raised on a strict diet of left-leaning, somewhat Eurocentric art and culture—the physical act of seeking out and consuming great or hallowed or mythical films was as obsessive as our need to experience these films, when and if we found them.

When I say physical, I’m talking about the rumors traded among cinephiles, the stories and the clues. We wrote letters to long-forgotten crew members of neglected masterpieces and arranged meetings in difficult-to-pronounce European cities still shrouded behind the Iron Curtain. We sent money orders or contraband to shady PO boxes in hopes of hitting the mother lode. (That’s how I got my hands on Bergman’s Merry Widow script, crafted as a showcase for Barbra Streisand and set aside when it could not be financed.) Did Jacques Rivette’s twelve-hour-and-forty-minute version of Out 1, noli me tangere, supposedly screened at Le Havre in 1971, really exist? Could sequences from the abandoned version of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the one starring Jason Robards and Mick Jagger (before Robards had a massive heart attack and Klaus Kinski replaced him), be bought on black-market videotape? Where could we find films of the Marxist couple Straub-Huillet with English subtitles when the filmmakers themselves had sought to keep their work free of the textual residue of the despised Anglo-American market? And where was Terrence Malick sleeping?

I’m also talking about dark and damp basement cinemas in New York, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Berlin, and London, places like the Carnegie Hall Cinema, the Cinema Village, and the Notting Hill, where double features were the order of the day. They were cheap and they were brilliantly programmed and we flocked to them in droves. Sometimes you walked up three flights to get to these theaters but they still felt subterranean. You could buy candy and drinks and there was always a smoking section. It was a fetid, human experience.

You could also have a very different relationship with a film depending on where and with whom you watched it. An audience at a university cinema in L.A. had a solemn, nearly funereal reaction to Pasolini’s Salò, based on Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (they seemed uncertain whether they had just witnessed a film or a crime); later, I watched the same film at the Accattone in Paris with an audience that couldn’t stop laughing.

I watched my first Philippe Garrel film, Les Hautes solitudes, starring Jean Seberg and largely based on her turbulent life story, at the old Cinémathèque Française near Trocadéro. It’s a silent film with an amazing lexicon of bohemian costars, including Nico, Tina Aumont, and Laurent Terzieff, in its cast. What I remember most clearly is the look of sheer terror washing over Seberg’s face in one of those endless black-and-white close-ups on which Garrel built his reputation, and, equally, the mildewy smell of the underground cinema. It had yet to decay to the point where it would become uninhabitable, even for the faithful. When I watched the film there again in 2004 it was pretty much raining inside.

I traveled to Belgium and Holland to watch Garrel’s films on Steenbecks, the now-antiquated editing tables used to cut pretty much every film of the later part of the twentieth century, in the archives of museums so cold I could see my breath. I worried that the prints would be damaged, and once or twice they were. I also remember that the films had their own specific tactility. Touching them was like running my hands along the surface of shattered glass.

But I don’t much value nostalgia. What I am interested in is the possibility that we are passing through a period that portends a death of cinema. I say “a death” and not “the death” because movies will still exist. It’s the way we’re physically interacting with them that may become extinct. The chasing and the yearning and the never-knowing and the suffering in a broken, smelly, damp-cushioned seat. As cinema becomes more portable, more easily created, and less difficult to acquire, it also runs the risk of forfeiting one of its greatest attributes—its physicality. Its necessary exertions.

2.

But the “physical aspect” of cinema, the death of which I’m mourning slightly (only slightly) in advance, doesn’t only refer to the physical act of seeking and watching. This death will necessarily impact the kind of films we make and how we make them.

One can physically crave what the director leaves out or denies his audience. Pedro Costa’s refusal to move a camera for twenty minutes at a time, or to place his speaking subjects anywhere near the center of the frame, creates an intense frisson between the screen and the viewer. Nothing that happens (and very little does happen) in his 2006 film Colossal Youth can account for the visceral response it provokes from audiences. Several lengthy sequences feature the main character sitting on what might be a bed or sofa, talking to an unseen person or persons offscreen about things that are never explained. What we do somehow “get,” almost by osmosis, is the oppressive location of the “action,” the housing projects of Lisbon’s poorest neighborhoods without the use of any classical establishing shots. Costa shows us nearly nothing and tell us less. And yet the result isn’t that we’re bored or disinterested; rather than having all our curiosities passively satisfied, we’re forced to physically desire what we don’t (or can’t) know.

The same can be said of James Benning’s recent films Ten Skies and 13 Lakes. In 13 Lakes, Benning places a camera in front of thirteen different lakes and records each lake for ten minutes. His films deliver a scrim of unmediated authenticity, intensified by the discomforting sense that nothing is accidental—and nothing is. The placement of the camera, the frame, and the duration of the shot are perfectly calibrated by Benning. The physical experience of watching 13 Lakes is in fact nothing like sitting in front of any of those lakes. It is more like watching Benning watching the lakes; the “content”—the plot, if you will—is provided by the oxymoronic presence of this absent figure.

Derek Jarman’s final feature film, Blue, explores the physicality of consciousness. Jarman made Blue when he’d lost his sight, a side-effect of drugs he was taking to combat AIDS. The film uses a pervasive monochromatic blue screen as the “backdrop” over which a sound track of impressions, events, ideas, and reactions to Jarman’s situation is narrated by different “characters” in the film—Jarman, members of his cinematic family, friends. Experiencing the film, the spectator feels he is firmly standing in the geography of Jarman’s mind; the physical sense of being enclosed is both claustrophobic and intimate.

3.

In recent years there has been a tendency by both critics and audiences to dismiss the kind of psychological films (i.e., those that tackle what auterist film critic Robin Wood calls the “Big Issues”) I grew up on, like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. (Lars von Trier is the exception that proves the rule.) A film like Bergman’s last, Saraband, which reprised his warring couple from 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage some thirty years later, was largely ignored. A young woman who watched the film with me told me she thought those people who talked about their feelings and inner turmoil endlessly were “losers.”

Bernardo Bertolucci calls what some directors are making today post-cinematic cinema, and cites Harmony Korine as a major exemplar of this tendency. Bertolucci stresses the importance for filmmakers of freeing themselves from the pressures of the great cinematic canon; rather than grappling with the anxiety of influence ad infinitum, he believes that practitioners of post-cinematic cinema should avoid it altogether. Korine—who still lists among his heroes Godard and Antonioni—expresses his ideas in a way that probably owes more to music video than to cinema.

Post-cinematic cinema, in other words, more or less takes its cues from reactions to and defenses against distraction and boredom. I’m thinking about the films of Michel Gondry, Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and, to a lesser extent, Sofia Coppola. They deal with the notion of offhandedness in a cool but structured way. Viewed through the prism of YouTube, it’s a cinema told from the left and right of the page and via footnotes, as if the essential documents telling the story have been lost, and someone is trying to re-create it. These directors make films you can watch while doing the many other things we do while watching movies now, but that still command our attention.

This may well be the cinema of the future, and it will create a new brand of cinephile, of the sort depicted in Atom Egoyan’s 2007 short called Artaud Double Bill. In it, a woman sits inside a cinema and, using her cell-phone camera, photographs images of Antonin Artaud in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as it is projected on the screen. She then texts them to a friend, adding the message “He is hot.” Her friend sends a text back saying that she agrees. Artaud’s “hotness” is made all the more resonant by a cut to Joan burning at the stake, a clever footnote on montage that recalls Bazin’s thesis on the essential dishonesty of editing and the ease with which one can manipulate the “idealistic phenomenon” that is cinema.

In his way, Egoyan is saying that there will be a future for cinema love and it will be propagated, if not in the same ways we came to love it. It’s an optimistic missive from the old-school cinephile to the new.

C.S. Leigh is a writer and filmmaker.

Image from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (France, 1967)

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