The striking feature of recent Cinema is the scattering, disappearance even, of human presence, or at least the suppression of the individual, his dilution, his erosion, his erasure, his atomization, I don’t know what the right word is. In order not to compromise myself too much, I’ll speak of “rarefaction”.
The situation manifests itself in many forms.
Firstly, there is human erasure to the advantage of the animal. We have in this category some of our successful documentaries, Winged Migration, Microcosmos. But the phenomenon has expanded: the contagion also impacts fiction (The Bear, The Big Blue and its dolphin, Two Brothers and its tigers, Roselyne and the Lions¸ The Fox and the Child). We sense here a desire to seek “nature” in general, rather precious in an era marked by technology. Moreover, Jacques Perrin, the producer of the two aforenamed documentaries has also produced Himalaya, which shows life in a current-day society, but one untouched by civilization. Annaud, the man behind The Bear, also tackled Quest for Fire and His Majesty Minor, a prehistoric super-production, a nostalgia for barbarism that paradoxically requires the most sophisticated technical means.
The predominance of the animal over man already existed in Hollywood cinema in a more specific way through Rin Tin Tin, King Kong, the Disney factory and the products of MGM, which glorified the dog Lassie, the cervid of The Yearling, the nag of National Velvet, the MGM that was, by far, the most reactionary company in Hollywood.
We find a similar equation in France.
Brigitte Bardot, who admirably campaigns for seals, reveals herself through her Mémoires to be rather close to certain racist stances. It’s also true that there still exist canine competitions based on… the purity of breed. Love for animals and racist or right-wing behaviour (cf. François Nourissier) are often interrelated, just like how the love for sport or nature frequently coincides with a reactionary or pro-government ideology.
This massive animal intrusion in cinema is enabled by the very principle of the Film exhibition system. Children often go to cinema with their loved ones, which makes for a large viewership. It’s thus a very, very profitable market, much more than that of children’s books, which only children read.
And what the child likes is animals. Many animals are of kids’ size, or even smaller (canaries, dogs, cats). The child can hence dominate them, whereas he is at the mercy of adults. He can even tame a large animal (there are ten-year old mahouts), generally and logically more stupid than the kid.
The infantilization of the entire cinema audience is hence a given, even though most animal films are made specifically for kids. The cream of the crop would be to make films for children that are not too stupid and which even adults can appreciate (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Demy’s Donkey Skin). Mind you, adults love showing their parental love by going to idiotic movies with their kids. It allows for quid pro quos like this: “You forced me to go see 101 Dalmatians. Now, you’ll help me by staying out of trouble.”
Animal and children’s movies have the advantage of lasting forever: a ten-year old child will go see Snow White in 2009 or in 2039 as much as in 1939. No need for expensive remakes, necessary on the other hand for fiction films, dependent as they are on new stars and modern costumes. Hence, colossal profits.
We see then that man’s erasure to the advantage of the animal, if it’s increasingly frequent in cinema, doesn’t offer much of interest. It’s pretty low-brow stuff.
On the other hand, there exists a temporary distancing of man, a distancing that I’d call “tactical”, which can turn out to be very productive. We find it in classical American cinema. It’s not a distancing of man in general, but an obscuration, a withholding of the hero, specifically at the beginning of a film. The hero doesn’t appear until several minutes, sometimes half-an-hour, into the film, and we find it hard to spot him. A good example would be the beginning of Sergeant York, where we don’t immediately recognize Gary Cooper, who appears at the end of the second reel, deep in the frame, somewhat hidden. The beginning of the film helps depict the ambiance. The other characters of the film, always blended into the story, seem to have been picked up on the spot, played as they are by less-known actors. The viewer hence has an impression of reality unfolding. A while later, there is the sudden entrance of the hero, who is not only the beloved star, but apparently also someone like the others whom we’ll have the pleasure of recognizing (we had paid to see him, we aren’t conned, phew!), someone who is close to you and anchored in the reality of a quasi-documentary. It’s the same device we find in Raoul Walsh, notably in A Lion is in the Streets.
This also corresponds to the structure of the classical novel: twenty or thirty pages of presenting the place, the milieu, the era, the secondary characters, before coming to the protagonists. It is, for example, Balzac’s approach in The Duchess of Langeais, whose main action starts very late.
We find this tactic in Tavernier’s films such as Captain Conan or Safe Conduct. The device doesn’t work as well in Conan given it’s not Gary Cooper, but less-famous actors, like Philippe Torreton or Didier Bezace, whom we don’t necessarily recognize. When it’s Gary Cooper, we at least understand right away that he’s the hero…
In every sequence of Safe Conduct, thanks to a colossal effort, Tavernier succeeds in making his hero, Gamblin, emerge after a few seconds in an ambiance that’s already carefully developed. Gamblin becomes part of the reality. His character becomes incontestable, irrefutable.
This initial erasure of the protagonist is a brilliant dramatic trick that glorifies his future presence all the more.
We find an even more modern approach that begins with Purple Noon (Réné Clément, 1959), where, in the middle of a police plot, the camera loses track of the story and lazily shows various stalls of a fish market—a nice diversion that Pierre Kast will repeat in 1978 with Le Soleil en face.
The principle will be amplified in Antonioni. In L’Avventura (1959), the heroine, Lea Massari, mysteriously disappears from a small island. The other characters will spend a good part of the film looking for her in vain (there will be a similar disappearance of the heroine mid-film in Hitchcock’s Psycho, made three months later, but it turns out better: we see right away that she is murdered).
And there’s the astounding ending of L’Éclipse (1961): Antonioni leaves the star couple Alain Delon-Monica Vitti once and for all to linger for about ten minutes on urban still life, roads, buildings, cars, trees etc., forgetting human beings altogether.
I confess that I don’t appreciate most of Antonioni’s films; they are boring, but I must acknowledge that he set a precedent, that he started something. He’s a precursor. In my opinion, he paid the price. But his influence, as well will see later, seems incontestable. He is singlehandedly responsible for the existence of more elaborate works his colleagues and imitators will produce.
Godard’s entire career seems to constitute a quest towards an increasingly provocative and radical erasure of man, of the individual, of the actor. Starting from the omnipresence of Anna Karina or Belmondo, he’ll proceed, step by step, to diminish the human being, to exclude him, forget him, to deny his identity. For a start, the dubbing of Belmondo by Godard himself in Charlotte et son Jules (1958) was prophetic. And later, there were the long theoretical speeches made by an invisible actor over the image of a silent worker in the middle of Week-end (1967). And even more drastically, the non-performance of the two superstars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, often filmed from behind, in Tout va bien (1973): the presence of stars and their vacuity for the sake of the form; their fall from the pedestal… we can also wonder whether it’s the imposture of the star system or the minimalism proper to each human being, a simple atom lost in the world, that the film expresses. Or maybe both at once.
Godard will go farther with Nouvelle Vague (1990), where Alain Delon—decidedly destined for the suppression his personality seems to cry out for—occupies an insignificant place compared to the invasive trees, who will be the only stars of Germany Year Zero (1991).
Long live oaks, down with penguins. Such is the lesson of modern cinema1.
These films by Godard belong to his Maoist or post-Mao period, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to find a very similar perspective of man in Asian or Chinese filmmakers2.
To simplify things, I’ll take three examples (but there are many more): Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1996), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006) and Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006). I’m certainly a little embarrassed to put in the same Asian bag filmmakers from distant places separated by three-thousand kilometres, different languages and belief systems. It reminds me of my guide in Peru, who clubbed the Spanish and the Finnish under the same word: “Europa” … But as we will see, there is nevertheless a number of commonalities.
Hou’s film certainly shows us human beings throughout its runtime. But our perspective of them is seriously disturbed by the mise en scène, which makes sure that we only see very little of them. They frequently remain in the shadows, they are filmed from behind, women’s faces remaining covered by their hair. And all this in vast, static group shots, in which humans appear lost. Characters have an important and animated discussion in the background, somewhat concealed and hardly visible, while in the foreground we clearly see a dog and a man who are simply eating. A while later, we see a rather dramatic scuffle deep in the frame. And there’s absolutely nothing in the foreground. Sequence-shots are often filmed from up high, which allows to pack more people into the frame and reduces human beings to puppets. Long sequences interrupt the story to show us a car or a motorbike in transit (line in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours) or to present the city’s neon lights.
The image of the broken-down car with the protagonists in it is reduced to nothing by the darkness of the night. The petty intrigues of the principal characters are all the more diminished, minimized, revealed to be Lilliputian compared to the grand fresco of life, often centred on the car or the motorbike.
This is what surfaces from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film as well. Shots of green nature or of modern buildings break the fragile story containing two plots. The female character is only a stray reflection within the general image of the meadow. The unsettling, surrealist, round orifice of the airduct robs the actors of their star status. Perhaps to prevent the risk of our identification with the actor, the film changes its story midway, as is always the case with Weerasethakul. There are two vague centres of interest, one after the other. The relationship between them remains rather feeble, as in Still Life, which I’ll come back to. This predilection for the diptych or the triptych format is affirmed even more evidently in Hou’s Three Times, and the Singaporean Khoo’s Be with Me and Twelve Storeys. A single story would give too much importance to the individual, who must always be embedded in a collective fresco encompassing other humans and the universe.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find this importance of the collective and of unanimity in the China of Still Life, but it could seem more surprising in a Thai filmmaker and in the Taiwanese Hou, who, it is true, was born in continental China. It’s perhaps that communism has established itself all the more easily in these lands because the mental and religious ambiance of the Asian continent is inherently predisposed to facilitate this galloping collectivism. The suppression of man seen in films from the Far East can also be explained by the fact that Asian religions endure better than Christianity, torpedoed by triumphant individualism.
In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, we find not only this scattering of the individual within the shot or the film (like in Hou), but also the increasing importance of the natural, temporal element, which make us forget about man a little. Syndromes is firstly the story of natural or artificial landscape, of the sun and the moon, just like how Blissfully Yours was the story of the Edenic forest and river, of their repetitive and haunting sonic ambiance. In Blissfully, characters exist through a part of their body—like in Bresson—and not through their face or their thoughts, rather mysteriously for us.
What counts especially is “time”. We might see an immobile character for eternity. What’s important is not the character, but the time that flows—a sprawl alien to the norms of film production.
Still Life makes this constant of Asian cinema even more evident. It involves, first and foremost, showing the relationship of man to the world3, his real, miniscule place within the universe. The two plots narrated here, which are finally the same despite their surface inversion (the search for the lost spouse is undertaken, in the first part, by a man and, in the second, by a woman), are a pretext to a quasi-documentary revelation of exterior world.
The word “pretext” is perhaps excessive since these plots are not uninteresting, nor devoid of meaning. But it’s that this expansion of romantic problems doesn’t last long since we feel that, beyond the temporal limits Jia sets them, it’s all likely to collapse into soap opera or melodrama.
Jia can thus end up, thanks to a discreet common thread represented by one character or another, with a “smooth-flowing” presentation, like the Yangtze River, of a cosmic whole that includes, among other things, light effects (the illumination on the bridge), the fascination of a new spectacle provided by the destruction and submersion of a city (a theme that Villier’s and Giono’s Girl and the River, Kazan’s Wild River and even Dovzhenko’s Poem of the Sea could exploit well), the customary plots, schemes and fights in contemporary China, a certain natural and artificial fantasy based on an astounding dialectic. I’m thinking of the building that collapses without warning in the background to the discussion between two protagonists and of the rocket that takes off while, in the same frame, a woman hangs her laundry on a cord. We have here, in the same shot, neorealism and Star Wars at once.
And the mutation of the city (thanks to a destruction that’s a nice change for us from the interminable, gigantic constructions offered by industrial, super-spectacular cinema) only reinforces the feeling of mutation of the characters during the time that has passed before the beginning of the film and which is invoked here.
Finally, in Jia’s work, the erasure of man, of the protagonist, is part of a general, cosmic plan for the film that requires that no single element—psychological, thematic, visual or aesthetic—be preponderant.
Of course, this rarefaction of the individual remains somewhat theoretical since each image is filmed by a team of invisible human beings, since the landscape of cities and fields has been elaborated by man. But let’s remember, on the other hand, that the films where we only see heroes talking in tight shots are often lazy and empty of humanity.
It’s clear that this insertion of the individual bit by bit into the film’s body, an uncommon sprinkling, is likely to unsettle western audience, used as it is to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end, to whose eyes all shots without the protagonists or without humans are “longueurs”.
But our excessive glorification of individualism, beyond all ideological positions, opens up only limited and beaten paths in cinema in 2007, compared to all the perspectives that this new insertion into the filmic work offers: fragmentary, implicit and in outlines. The fixation on the individual has nothing do with a purported cinematic ontology, it was already brilliantly broached by some of our occidental filmmakers and by the loss, which I’d label Bressonian, of the fundamental role of the actor, doomed by Hollywood to cover up the shortcomings of a false, unbelievable and conventional American script through his art, his body language, his facial expression, his phrasing and his rhythm.
1Note the importance of trees in Straub and Serreau (Saint Jacques… La Mecque). Trees that outlive man.
2Antonioni was to make a long documentary on China himself. This new Sinophilia (cf. Ivens or Bertolucci) succeeds a return to India started from 1950 onwards by Renoir, Rossellini, Malle, even Lang and Cukor.
3Jia’s cinema, and Far Eastern cinema in general, make a more pertinent use of stereoscopy than Hollywood, too preoccupied with easy effects: man in the middle and, on the right and left of the screen, the rest of the world.
[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]
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