A Cinema Haunted By Writing
Film criticism has been often been drawn to the metaphor of cinema as writing.
1. One of my favorite interviews with a film critic is the one conducted with Serge Daney by Bill Krohn, originally published in the zine The Thousand Eyes in 1977. In it Daney says: "...the cinema loved by the Cahiers--from the beginning--is a cinema haunted by writing. This is the key which makes it possible to understand successive tastes and choices. This is also explained by the fact that the best French filmmakers have always been--at the same time--writers (Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Pagnol, Sacha Guitry, Jean Epstein, etc.)"
Daney is referring here not only literally to film artists who were gifted writers but also in a broader sense to writing as an act of "personal utterance" (this is how Susan Sontag translates Roland Barthes' notion of écriture).
2. The figurative heart of auteurism was that of the author who inscribes his [sic] personal vision into a film often made in a collaborative fashion within an industrial context. Alexandre Astruc, in "The Birth of a New Avant-garde" (1948), one of the most famous essays in French film history, used the figure of the caméra-stylo, or camera-pen, to symbolize the means of expression for future film artists. Jean Douchet wrote that Astruc "dared to claim that like literature and philosophy, film could tackle any subject, that the subject was part of the writing, and the camera the pen of modern times."
But Astruc was not only a critic. According to Richard Neupert, he was the earliest model of critic-turned-filmmaker for the young Jean-Luc Godard. Such a dual vocation was not uncommon in an earlier era of French cinema (the 1920s) in the work of Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein. (Astruc himself was once dubbed the "Louis Delluc of the sound cinema.") Godard, in turn, considered criticism and filmmaking to be common, closely allied, expressive activities.
3. Robert Stam points out that the graphological trope of film-as-writing has been especially dominant in France since the fifties. The New Wave films contain a surfeit of writing imagery: "From Truffaut's Les Mistons (1958) through Godard's 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (1967) we encounter people writing: on walls (Jules et Jim), on cars (Masculin, Feminin), in dairies (Pierrot le Fou), on advertisements (Le Gai Savoir), and in notebooks (2 ou 3 choses)."
Stam shows how Truffaut's 400 Blows prefigures this obsession. In the credit sequence, the director's name is superimposed on an image of the cinémathèque. The first shot following the credits shows a student writing at a desk. Antoine writes a poem on a wall, and is punished by having to conjugate a sentence. He forges a note from his mother, and later steals a typewriter to avoid having his handwriting recognized. And so on.
4. Auteurism has traditionally been a male-dominated movement but one of the key pre-New Wave films was La Pointe Courte (1954), made by Agnès Varda after she had established her reputation as a photographer. The activity she often refers to when she describes her cinema isn't still or motion-picture photography but writing. She calls her work "cinécriture" (cine-writing):
I am so fed up with hearing: "It's a well-written film," when I know that the compliment is meant for the scenario and the dialogue. A well-written film is also well-filmed, the actors are well-chosen, so are the locations. The cutting, the movement, the points-of-view, the rhythm of filming and editing have been felt and considered in the way a writer chooses the depth and meaning of sentences, the type of words, number of adverbs, paragraphs, asides, chapters which advance the story or break its flow, etc. In writing, it's called style. In the cinema, style is cinécriture.
5. In the new translation of Andre Bazin's What is Cinema? (see this previous post for an extensive discussion), Timothy Barnard has a translator's note on découpage. For Bazin, "the essence of cinema was situated in the act of writing the film visually through découpage." Similarly (Barnard writes), Astruc believed that when the silent era gave way to sound, montage
was replaced by a process of ‘picturising’ the script through mise en scène and camerawork, a form of narrative writing distinct from and prior to editing. For Astruc, sound cinema did not just adopt a style of editing different from silent montage cinema: it introduced a different way of conceiving and creating films, one which opened the door to ‘writing’ films with a caméra‐stylo.
6. Returning to where we started, to Daney in 1977:
In American cinema I think that it is easier to see, as it recedes, what interested us: always the excess of writing over ideology, and not the reverse (Huston, Delmer Daves, William Wyler, today Altman.) It's clearly a paradox: because this led us to take an interest in filmmakers who were not exactly left-wing. This excess of writing over ideology is only possible in the framework of a prosperous industry and a real consensus. This occurred in Hollywood until some time in the fifties; a little in France before the war; In Italy; in Egypt and India, no doubt; in Germany and England before the war. Outside this industrial framework (industry+craftsmanship), it's the reverse that happens: excess of ideology over writing. Look at the countries of the Third World, including China. This cinephilia is historically dated: the terrain from which it sprang is this mixture of industry and craftsmanship. It's not possible to revive it. But in the precision of the writing of Tourneur, Lang or de Mille, there is an exigency which continues with Godard, Straub, Robert Kramer, Wim Wenders, Akerman, Jean-Claude Biette, Benoit Jacquot.
A couple of questions I'm curious to pose to you: (1) Other examples (there are surely many) of critics or theorists employing the writing metaphor for cinema?; and (2) Favorite examples of films that depict the act of writing or instances of the written?
Also, any comments on the Daney passages and interview? Please feel free to share.
Good news: six more pieces are up at Rouge including Adrian's festival diary from Las Palmas. Which reminds me: his new column is online at Filmkrant. Finally: there's a new issue of Screening the Past.
The image above: Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows" writing what will be condemned as Balzac plagiarism. Resources for this post included: Richard Neupert's "A History of the French New Wave Cinema" (2002), Alison Smith's "Agnès Varda" (1998), and Robert Stam's "Reflexivity in Film and Literature from Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard" (1985).