Paris Correspondence (April-May 2022): Springtime at the French Cinematheque
A material by Victor Morozov about what a „capital of cinephilia ” means anymore and about the pleasure of „travelled cinema”, as critic Serge Daney called it. A Parisian correspondence which proposed to relive freshly-seen films, telling the story of fugitive impressions that do not have the pretense of being exact, but that might yet have something to say about a passion. The format will be free, personal, and will only abide by one cardinal point: cinema.
13th of APRIL
Saw a masterpiece at the Cinematheque today: Le Pornographe. Introduction à l’antrhopologie (1966), by Shohei Imamura, part of a retrospective that I somehow missed most of until today: that is, everything. I saw Imamura’s films in a rather unsystematic way up until now, I have a lot of blind spots , and I am glad that I got to restart my timer with this precise title – what a daring story, what a demented sort of freedom, what a complex drama! It’s a cinema practiced at the very peak of intensity, borne of the perverse pleasure of moral questioning that vehemently appropriates, then slyly reaffirms the necessity of pudicity in a well-run society. A great film about madness, seeking out the trails of this petty (in every sense of the word) pron dealer (an ignored artist and a manager belittled by everyone), who is trapped in a marriage to a woman who loves another, and who leaves him with two children that simply turn his life into a nightmare. There’s no wonder that the man ends up going insane, and the film goes insane along with him, losing any sort of grounding and entering the terrain of a contingency-less lyricism – quite literally so, because the final shots, resplendent, depict a small house floating on the water, marooned on a sea which is crisscrossed by boats that barely manage to miss it. Our main man is in that house, completely estranged from the world, enveloped in his grief, remembering a woman that he wouldn’t want to admit that he loved, but to whom he sacrifices him self now, in an absurd yet necessary gesture. A wonderful hat trick, resembling this impressive carp, a reincarnation of the ex-husband who, from within the netherworld, is handling this fragile bouquet of destinies. To paraphrase Abel Gance: “Cinema means to put a carp fish in every shot”. A social commentary, a cautionary tale of love, a sexual satire – this film is simply inexhaustible.
14th of APRIL
Once more at the Cinematheque, which seems to be my favorite spot in Paris, after all, which I started to return to in a frenzy once I found out that my membership card is going to expire in two more weeks. All the nights that I ended up here, under the strange streetlights that illuminate its entrance and the slippery pavement that borders this plot of grass that wishes it could be a park, the very ugliest of them all. I don’t know why the Cinematheque is in Bercy; I know why the Accor Arena is here, where they play tennis (I’ve been there once) and rap music. But no matter the reason, due to it, I will have known this piece of the neighborhood in detail, these hundred meters that separate the Cinematheque from the metro station, back-and-forth. Today I saw Adolfas Mekas’ (the lesser-known brother of Jonas) Hallelujah the Hills there, and thank god that the screening didn’t overlap with anything else that I might have been interested in, because I definitely would have regretted it. Not that the film is a disaster or anything, it’s just that the libertine gusto (technical, formal and ideological alike) that it sets upon the stage – in 1962 – has lost its radical edge in the meantime, and runs the risk of only eliciting a “meh” or a meek chuckle out of its audience. There are many images in this film – such as the one of the man running through the snow, butt-nakes –, there are some gestures too – the idea of tying a car to a pole with a rope, like in a western –, but all in all, the glue that would stick all of this together is missing, that would justify the waste of film stock. Of course, it’s a beautiful, even gracious tale of friendship, of the capacity of placing oneself in the virgin lands of the forest without coming across as a stranger – and it’s quite probable that, in the suffocating and dank milieu of the film industry, all of this sounded quite different, maybe like the signal of a freer era. Tomorrow I’ll start watching the films of Jonas Mekas for real – I couldn’t do it yesterday, because of some responsibilities that I had over at the dorm, so I missed out. I’ll “fatten the pig on Christmas Eve”, as they say, but the good part about it is that I am feeling driven to go to the cinema once more, even under forced circumstances.
15th of APRIL
And here I am, continuing the Mekas retrospective with Walden (1968): three hours of pulsating, irrupting images, which run around and mix together, flashes, old news, fireworks, a testament to a world that used to be. A film that is much too fast for me: my eyes hurt. When the flashback from “seven years ago” arrives, the image (in black-and-white) slows down and breathes – and then the frenzy starts anew. Walden is much rather a speck of color, a trace of light – imagination matters just as much as perception does, juggling with intelligible fragments of shots, and filling in the gaps whenever it needs to. Some extraordinarily beautiful shots of snow storms: in New York and in the countryside, in Vermont. Like in the film I saw yesterday, the seasons pass and leave a mark, almost-tangible beings that are hosted by Mekas’ melancholy camera (“I thought of home”, says the Lithuanian twice, and his voice needs no nostalgic music on the background.) It’s a bustling world, filled with cheer, friendship and tension, but it’s likely that the phenomenal destiny of this man who wrapped everything in an extra layer of meaning and who is stark in his contrast to the usual image of this creative melting pot that the New York of yesteryear used to be. Surprisingly enough, Walden doesn’t make me feel nostalgic – images of other places and times, especially those from Europe, are much more evocative to me. But it’s clear that these films, beyond their methods that are imposing and impressive to this very day, were banking in on the fact that the people that it portrayed – or, rather, glimpsed at – in this audiovisual mosaic (from Andy Warhol to Stan Brakhage or P. Adams Sitney) turned from poor and Bohemian artists to unparalleled stars of the equally Bohemian underground, then broke the barrier and became names that one cannot ignore if they’re even vaguely interested in this topic. The screening was introduced by Pip Chodorov, the American who founded Re:Voir, a company which issues experimental cinema on DVD (and, if I am not mistaken, this is where Diana Vidrașcu used to work), who came armed with a Bolex that is quite similar to the one Mekas used to work with. He had a beautiful speech, with his quite charming American accent, in a clean French, about the materials gathered in this film (1964-68) and on the filmmaker’s becoming, as if he were talking about a distant friend, whom one recalls fondly. I wonder if this diary-film structure, which agglutinates archives in a frenzy becomes passé quite easily, or if, on the contrary, it’s more far-reaching and infinitely closer. I’ll find out next week, when I’ll be back at the Cinematheque. Time feels increasingly short.
18th of APRIL
An evening at Reflet Médicis, doubtlessly the last one I will ever spend there. A screening organized by the cinema department of Paris 8 in support of Ukraine. The presenters were Eugénie Zvonkine and Olga Kobryn, with the shadow participation of my teacher, Dork Zabunyan, whom I’m not quite sure if he saw me, but he will present a conference there tomorrow on the same topic. Immelmann Turn was screened, a black and white Ukrainian film directed last year by Vera Yarovenko, who I couldn’t find much about on the internet (she doesn’t even have her own MUBI page). The director attended the event dressed in a long babushka skirt, and wrapped in a Ukrainian flag. She had a somber speech on the fact that the film’s actors are now on the frontline, and about her belief in victory. Then she “gave the floor” to the film’s scriptwriter, who had sent in a pre-recorded message from Kyiv. The message was shot on a tripod, and depicted the lady who, on a flawless formal tone, started to say that she published 40 books and wrote god-knows-how-many scripts, then evoked her love of Kyiv, which was similar, she claimed, to our love of Paris, then spoke some about Mariupol, while the video showed a few “happy” photos of the town how it was like before the war, and then a few of the destroyed city, with a Moviemaker-style transition… A pretty depressing affair, with this nationalistic message that I have been hearing over and over again (but then again, is there any other kind of message possible in these times), plus this unforgivable, to me, regression in terms of form and content. Which is equally available for the film, a modest, choral story about the daily travails in the region of Donbas, somewhat hard to swallow with its clear-cut difference between the good and the bad, the victims and the perpetrators, an option the significantly reduces the sensible richness of the lives of those in the region and of the terrible situation in which they’re finding themselves in. It’s perfectly legitimate to seek out and support the cinema that has been made in Ukraine in the past few years, but I’m afraid that they won’t be that easy to find, and thus, we risk finding ourselves in the dead end of impoverished works, mere works of propaganda that function by easily recognizing “the thing” that they’re describing. “war”, “suffering”, “death”, who are there just because they’re put in the service of the right cause. It’s not about not showing these things; since they must be shown, but not like this. This is such a complicated age, the one that we are living in, full of moral conundrums that one can hardly escape.
23rd of APRIL
I’m in Wiesbaden at the goEast film festival. I’ve mostly seen good movies – no disappointments up to now –, but I’m a bit bored otherwise. It’s a very correct little town: the paving is correct, and unremarkable, the streets are just as correct and airy, the people here don’t wear eccentric clothes, the buildings are either new or well-kept, even the rockers that were gathering at the edge of town to drink beer amongst the graffitied walls and grocery carts, in the empty plot around the Murnau Filmtheater, where I saw a nice little docufiction by Zelimir Zilnik, Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time, from the nineties, on a buzzing VHS cassette that did its job quite well, and, as I was saying, even those rockers seemed to be a part of this tempered vision, that only needs a few vaguely agitating elements in order to bestow itself with the hope of a real life. By living here for a little one, one gets a greater sense of appreciation for a city like Paris that, for all of its flaws, is certainly not a correct city: where are its cramped streets, where countless bicyclists, couriers, and cars are trying to fit in at the same time? A rather bland old man with an American accent is presenting way too many of the classical films that I chose to see here. A revelation – or rather, confirmation – yesterday evening with Godard’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, who understood and felt many things in relation to the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Finis Germaniae, as an intertitle puts it. There are some very simple things that one can find here (a man placing a bouquet of flowers on a fallen sign that reads “Karl Marx Alee”), some more complex, like Eddie Constantine walking around through the foggy and humid milieu of the rusted factories in the East, citing Goethe as he goes along. Then I saw The Kids Play Russian, a rather more conventional video-essay (but still very rare), where Godard appears dressed in a kitschy T-shirt bearing the word “CCCP”. At the end, we see two sumptuously-dressed women who bid is to enter a theater, with the words “Good day, mister Eisenstein!”, or “How do you do, mister Barnet!”. Chronologically, the last names were: Paradjanov, Pelechian, Tarkovski and Muratova, and I hope that I’m not missing anything. I’ll rent a bike today and try to move around a bit. For the last three days, I’ve been under the impression that I haven’t been doing anything but to drag myself from chair to armchair to bed and back.
Quite some time after the 25th of APRIL
So, back at the Mekas retrospective, celebrating 100 years since his birth. Today’s schedule: Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man, directed by Jonas in 2012 from reels that he hadn’t used on other films. A lot of snow – felt a nervous and anxious nostalgia at the thought that we will no longer experience such a sight, only as an anomaly –, a few diaphanous female presences. The same heartrending intertitles, the same sensation that this man, an island of melancholia lost in the midst of a vital, Warhol-esque torrent, and lived through it all. After the screening, a debate between the ever present Bernard Benoliel and Patrice Rollet, the coordinator of the essential P.O.L. cinema collection, in which, of course, they published the complete writings of Daney, Trafic and Raymond Bellour, along with Mekas’ very touching diary, I Had Nowhere to Go. A relatively modest discussion; even so, it lasts for almost an hour, in which Benoliel is in better shape – he really did his homework –, he’s asking the questions that he ends up answering, as well. Rollet, sinking in his chair, is much less interested than Chodorov. I remember the warm evocation of Mekas’ arrival at the Cinematheque – a clash of two worlds –, when he recited poems written in Lithuanian. He looks beautiful in my imagination, just as he should. Other than that, only platitudes.
27th of APRIL
At the Cinematheque – where else? Today they screened Shohei Imamura’s 1970 documentary, History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. The same fascination for an artist that knew to take his achievements to the very conclusions of the phantasms of a restrained society dreaming of going rampant, then stopped his camera from rolling the very moment that they were threatening to spill over. The freedom in his tone is incredible: the likes of Kore-eda, Hamaguchi, even Kiyoshi Kurosawa would have a lesson or two to learn from the irreverence of this predecessor, who sprinkle his projects with a daring that is completely foreign to contemporary Japanese cinema (and I must say that I haven’t seen any of Sion Sono’s films, but I highly doubt that he has the same finesse in his radical gestures). Here, one can find a truly political perspective on this polite narrative, with events such as Hiroshima, the communist bomb attacks and workers’ strikes interrupting the individual story of this libertine woman, who is of a delicious sort of cynicism, who sleeps around in order to blossom. All sorts of things come into the mix, from the traditionalist family milieu to the excesses of young society, and the violent macho-ism of the American occupation, seen here in the figure of the soldiers that pass through our main woman’s bed. In the end, she gets married (for a second time) to one of the Americans, a random one, then leaves for the United States. She is under no illusions when it comes to her new life: she knows all too well that it’s a blood sport, in a clear race for the most pleasure and the least suffering. I really regret that this is all that I can manage to see from the oeuvre of this grand filmmaker, who is only now revealing himself to me in all of his majesty. I’ll have to catch up over the summer, at home.
5th of MAY
Back at the MK2 Beaubourg after god knows how many weeks (I’m always saying this, time really passes by differently here) to see The Passengers of the Night by Mikhaël Hers. I know his filmography quite well (including his first medium-lengths, like Primrose Hill) and I was one of the most vehement supporters of his previous film, Amanda, which was distributed in Romania by Bad Unicorn. But, meanwhile, I’ve started to have my doubts about the film, which now seems to lighten the burden of its plot a bit too much, and whereas his earlier features – Memory Lane (2011) and This Summer Feeling (2015) – manages to subtly devastate its spectators through its slow-burning melancholia, obtained from just a few exchanges in glances – an art of concision and subtraction –, Amanda is kind of melodramatic in contrast: too much music that wraps itself around a rather infantile ideology, of the “everything will work out in the end” sort. The first hours of The Passengers of the Night reproduces these risks: Hers has never seemed more captivated by banal emotions, with the eighties – where the story is set – becoming the perfect decor for all sorts of clichés, from the pretty aesthetic romanticism of the night, to the drug-addled dangers lurking around the corner of the street. But the film’s second half seems to redress these things. Of course, this doesn’t have the force of Rohmer’s films, cited again and again in various scenes of cinema-going, not even – I am afraid – that of a retrospective gaze in the vein of Christophe Honoré or Robin Campillo, but it does manage to nail something of the calm, little emotion that made Memory Lane one of the best films about the peripheries of the present. And, even so, the acting of Charlotte Gainsbourg, which is simply perfect, would have filled in some gaps: I haven’t been so fascinated with a visage in ages, by an empty presence that doesn’t need anything more. She is sublime when the script asks of her to pass, in an instant, from silent weeping to a shy smile. She is genial when she has to perform tenderness towards her children. And she is magical all-around. Hers creates an Olympian character here: the vulnerable mother of two children, recently relocated in a new apartment building on the edge of town, wrought apart by the separation from her husband and finding herself forced to pick up the pieces of her own life. A posture that is typical of a “Hersian” character (slightly hunched over, in need of learning how to cheer up), which Gainsbourg carries with a phenomenal intensity (in comparison, Noee Abita, whom I admire for the voluptuousness with which she stains her cinematic youth with roles of girls that are either sexual deviants or drug fiends, is a half-tone or two lower than her: her character, already “prefabricated”, is less bidding, easy to forget, whereas this mother delicately leads up to a generous type of emotion which follows one around long after the credits have stopped rolling.)