Sunday, May 03, 2009

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).


Blogger David said...

There's a favorite idea that runs through a lot of Godard's criticism: "you could see the idea in the image." As if the image expressed an idea, as words do; of course Godard's films work as illustrations with the objects and people and situations as symbolic shorthand (Sauve qui peut (la vie), the only Godard film I've hated, I've hated because it only worked on a symbolic level).

Compare to the American avant-garde. If I'm remembering correctly, Maya Deren offered a script-cum-commentary to explain what she was illustrating, and the structuralists start with a formal concept the camera and editing carry out to see how the actual substance is altered in perception (very different from Godard). But the Brakhage school--perhaps why there's a mini-history of Brakhage lovers hating Godard (including P. Adams Sitney)--seems like the opposite of Godard. Images are captured for their texture, their beauty, then rigorously, later put into a structure, with rhymes and echoes and recurring themes and building colors and rhythms, that gives them some meaning, formal or otherwise. A fire and flood at the end of Sincerity almost seem to precipitate the film's own dissolution, as the editing flies off the wall; in The Weir-Falcon Saga Brakhage's kids playing with a ball start to seem like Gods juggling with the world (or Chaplin with the globe). But these meanings aren't intrinsic: Brakhage just filmed a fire that was happening, his kids playing one day, and called himself a documentarian.

Is Brakhage writing?

First writing example that came into my head is the list of writers on the wall in La Chinoise, as Leaud crosses them off to just leave Brecht. There's the major epiphany/cliffhanger as Leaud writes in Out 1. Did a post on images of writing in Made in U.S.A. (among other things), here: Lots of letters in Bresson (yes?) and Oliveira (definitely). More recently, the opening of In the City of Sylvia, and the love letters of Frontier of Dawn. If I remember correctly, Blaise Pascal, with Pascal tormented and trying to write. Anyway, since then I've been imagining a Rossellini short of Joyce writing Ulysses, where he sits at his chair, taps the back of his pen hard against the desk a few times, gets a glass of water, changes chairs, writes a few sentences, just as Rossellini's zoomed into his face, then goes to the back of the room so the zoom has to continue, makes a sandwich from his small cupboard, looks out the window while the bread toasts, comes back to his desk (zoom retreats), and crosses out a couple lines. Sort of like that first episode of L'Amore.

May 03, 2009 4:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

Should add, that's a deliberately reductive reading of Godard (what isn't?) and didn't mean to indicate he doesn't use editing, etc. to find meaning in the image. One of Godard's favorite tricks, as it is for Brakhage, is to repeat images in new contexts, to resituate the and any meaning that could be taken from it among new or different images (but in Brakhage one image seems to summon another and anyway flows into it, while in Godard the images clash like overlapping themes in Mahler, or dialectically opposed scenes in La Nuit du Carrefour. To try it another way, Brakhage's editing is like Griffith's editing within the sections of Intolerance while Godard's is like the editing between sections of Intolerance. Curious if that works).

Not to lose the point, Godard uses these images and near still-lives as basic units or building blocks--it's like sentences which could be repeated in different paragraphs to entirely different effect. Like "There we are" comes back with slightly different connotations throughout The Ambassadors; any sestina might be a better, more comparable example, with the same words ending the lines in each of the stanzas. They don't necessarily change meaning--those clouds (the same?) in Soigne ta Droite and Helas Pour Moi will always be divine, as a cat will always be a cat--but they can still change connotation. Cats can do a lot of things.

Posing this all hypothetically, as usual.

May 03, 2009 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Rick said...

The work of Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier on 'cinécriture', which draws brilliantly on Godard and Eisenstein (and certain concepts in Freud and Derrida) is crucial to any consideration of cinema and writing, or writing in cinema. For her "writing" figures as both intertextual citation and as a radical, hieroglyphic form of montage that overwhelms both mimetic depiction and narrative progression. Tom Conley, David Rodowick and Mikhail Iampolski among others have taken up her theoretical project. I'd suggest reading her essay “The Graphic in Filmic Writing: A bout de souffle, or the Erratic Alphabet,” Enclitic 5-6 (1982): 147-161. And there are two interesting pieces of hers translated into English in Rouge:

Raymond Bellour and Thierry Kuntzel also deserve mention here, I believe.

May 03, 2009 11:06 PM  
Blogger Max said...

A few stray thoughts brought on by this most fertile post:

1. I wonder if a useful corollary to this francophilic discussion of caméro-stylos & cinécriture might be found in the many significant African filmmakers who have taken up the mantle of griot. Yet another palimpsest for cinematic form.

2. Doesn’t it seem as though documentaries have a special claim on film text, as they could even hypothetically serve as legal evidence in certain cases? Documentaries of course make active use of expository text—the intertitles in Nanook, anticipating voice-over—and there are those special instances in which such text signals a lively mind. An Injury to One and Tarnation spring right to mind, though there must be many other instances in documentary of text serving an important graphic role.

3. Finally, when I think of writing in film, I think of letters. The way letters figure into narratives of expatriation and exile (Solanas’ Tangos: The Exile of Gardel, for instance) or the idea of the “video letter.”

May 04, 2009 1:21 AM  
Anonymous Rick said...

There's a rich and deep-seated German tradition to add here as well (tracing as far back as CALIGARI?). Has anyone explored the possibilities of writing "in" cinema more thoroughly, more inventively than Fritz Lang? And as for cinema "as" writing, more recently Harun Farocki, who always seems to be addressing us from the editing suite, in the throes of his creative labor, as he does in his multi-screen video installation INTERFACE, says that he needs to write (with a pencil on ruled paper) at the same time that he works with sounds and images. "Nowadays," he says, "I can barely write a word unless an image is visible on the screen at the same time. Or rather, on both screens." Farocki also belongs in the critic/filmmaker category with those whom Girish mentions, Godard, Astruc, Epstein, etc.

All this brings me to the point that "writing" is what practitioners of the essay-film commonly put forward as their pursuit or working method.

In fact, the essay-film spans the geographical coordinates of this discussion, from "second" to "third" cinemas, with the tropes of writing and letter-writing in place everywhere.

Marker: "I’m writing you this letter from the edge of the world."

A useful survey of "epistolary" forms of cinema around the globe, which includes a section on TANGOS, is Hamid Naficy's AN ACCENTED CINEMA.

Somehow I'd like to bring this back to Brakhage, but it's more difficult (though not impossible) to speak of "writing" in the absence of spoken commentary or graphic writing within the image -- we do have his scratched-in signatures, of course ...

May 04, 2009 9:22 AM  
Blogger Ted Fendt said...

The last shot of Costa's Tarrafal.

The many shots of documents in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and, for that matter, in many other Huillet-Straub films.

The strange written passages of narration in Hawks' Red River.

May 04, 2009 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Jake said...

From Martin's film diary:

"but I bathed in the French/Canadian Martyrs..."

He has got a strong stomach!

May 04, 2009 4:49 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I'll second the Lang reference - The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is particularly rife with writing imagery: Mabuse, mad, scribbling away at his testament of crime; Lohmann the cop tracing a name on the window glass... The way the series of Mabuse's - Mabuse, his testament, Baum, and all his letters - act like writing, almost in a deconstructive sense: Baum as a supplement to Mabuse and so on... that aspect of writing, writing as differance - chains of signifiers - is an interesting element....

Another striking bit of writing in German film: Kaspar Hauser writing his name in grass seed in Herzog's film... and his memoires... Posed against the scribe and his beautiful reports...

May 04, 2009 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Bharath said...

What is fascinating to me is how Godard uses text in both a diegetic and mimetic way in his films: the big blocks of letters that fill the screen (as in 'Masculin Feminin') as opposed to the text in the journal in 'Pierrot Le Fou.'

May 05, 2009 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

It’s worth remembering that the cinema/writing connection is not just metaphorical. The cornerstone statement of Cahiers auteurism – Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency” – is about the issue of cinematic adaptations of literary works. Here, FT celebrates Bresson’s adaptation of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest over the unfilmed script adaptation he filched from Pierre Bost. In the process, he disparages the way that Aurenche & Bost (and others) betray, both in spirit and in letter, great authors and their great literary works. The cinema/writing link continued to preoccupy Truffaut – many of his best films are adaptations that foreground their status as emerging from and firmly linked to literature.

Truffaut’s ideas about adapting literature to the screen were, of course, shaped by Bazin, whose review of Diary of a Country Priest makes similar claims about Bresson’s fidelity to Bernanos. Bazin had already been making arguments about the relationship of his cinema of preference – Welles, Wyler, neo-realism – to literature that, he believed, had itself been shaped by the existence of cinema. See, for example, Bazin’s claims that the best neo-realism resembled Hemingway in that it amounted to a kind of “reconstituted reportage.” See also his essay, “Adapation, or The Cinema as Digest.” B’s ideas had in turn been influenced by Claude-Edmonde Magny’s 1948 study, The Age of the American Novel: The Film Aesthetic of Fiction Between the Two Wars.

May 06, 2009 11:21 AM  
Blogger breathinc said...

One other point, on the literal matter of this post and the commentators.

Bordwell's magnificent now out of print monograph on Dreyer has a lengthy discussion of the ways the imagery of printed text play key and very complex roles in his major work.

May 07, 2009 1:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's probably worth remembering that the Lumiere brothers called their invention the "cinematographe", the writing of movement (as opposed to Edison's kinetoscope, vision of movement).

May 08, 2009 9:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello, all, and thank you for all these great ideas! I've enjoyed reading (and taking notes).

Exam week has just concluded, and the next few days will be spent grading non-stop...

Just up: the new issue of UNDERCURRENT, with a special section on John Ford, Chris Fujiwara's report from the Jeonju festival, and an interview with Gerald Peary.

May 10, 2009 9:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Our friend and cinephile comrade Andy Rector has posted Adrian's review of the Richard Brody biography of Jean-Luc Godard at Kinoslang. Also: Andy's follow-up post upon reading Adrian's review.

May 10, 2009 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

I've been reading a book by an Australian film studies academic, Steven Maras, entitled Screenwriting: History, Theory, Practice, which I think you'd be interested in, Girish. Not only does Maras trace the development of the modern screenplay as both a technical-poetic written form and an (often political) discursive idea, but he also discusses screen writing, with that all-important space between the words, expanding the concept of writing out to take in various alternative practices. It's a fascinating study.

May 29, 2009 3:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Matthew! I've just requested it from the library.

May 29, 2009 6:28 AM  

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