From Film Quarterly Winter 2009-10, Vol. 63, No. 2
Ne change rien (Pedro Costa)
The Pedro Costa retrospective (September 25-October 4) at London’s Tate Modern was admirably curated. In addition to eight films by this brilliant Portuguese director, other works were screened to provide context, background, or food for thought, including Sicilia! by Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet; Routine Pleasures by Jean-Pierre Gorin; and The Pig, Jean Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol’s stunning account of open-air village butchery. Costa personally introduced In Vanda’s Room and Ne change rien, his new film, and took part in two on-stage discussions with Gorin. An accompanying color booklet included “The Politics of Pedro Costa,” a superb analysis by the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière.
Costa’s style is elliptical. In Colossal Youth, which James Naremore selected as his film of the year in the summer 2008 issue, much of the world is blocked off. No Lisbon skyline, shop, or urban bustle is glimpsed; with the exception of the climactic shot, we never see streets and traffic. As Rancière notes, Costa omits to “inscribe the slums into the landscape of capitalism.” Which is not to say that Colossal Youth avoids politics, but its characters—played by local nonprofessionals—cannot be solely defined in terms of a downtrodden position in the hierarchy of wealth and power. Their looming presence and in particular their ceremonious speech are too challenging and cryptic to be thought of as subaltern. Rancière refers to an “exercise in approximating the secret of the other,” for what is at stake is the manner in which “people relegated to the margins of economic circulations and social trajectories try to be ciphered in new figures.”
A music documentary, Ne change rien is unlike the Lisbon films in crucial respects, but it is also a chamber piece. It follows the actress Jeanne Balibar in her other career as pop chanteuse and opera singer. Ne change rien began as an act of friendship, a diaristic gift, until one day Costa adjusted the color setting of his video playback and saw the images differently: “something appeared in black-and-white that was not there in color,” he tells James Hansen. “The veins, the nerves—it was more sensual, more physical. Even her skin began to show things.” So an enigmatic expressiveness connects this film to Colossal Youth. Ne change rien is furthermore a sequel to Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Costa’s sketch of Huillet and Straub editing Sicilia! In this low-key take on the “making of” genre, the camera is often placed in a corner of the tiny work-room. We hardly ever discern the faces of the filmmakers and when we do they are shrouded in shadow, peripheral objects in relation to the inset actors on the bright monitor. Taciturn Huillet mostly has her back to the camera, concentrating on the screen or handling film, while Straub paces in and out of the open door, always chattering. Her compact stillness, his flibbertigibbet mobility; her curtness and reticence, his long-winded ruminations. The couple’s working method emerges through sound and in the almost abstract configuration of his wandering and her fixity. At one point, Straub settles down next to the camera, off-screen, but his hands flutter in and out of the frame like a flag in the wind.
In Ne change rien, by contrast, there are extended close-ups of Balibar, most memorably as she practices an aria from Offenbach’s La Périchole, stopping and starting—rather like Huillet at the editing table—as her out-of-sight teacher warmly coaxes and corrects. At other times Balibar is offscreen, though audible, and instead we see fellow musicians, especially the guitarist and songwriter Rodolphe Burger, who watches her protectively. During Offenbach rehearsals, the view is restricted to the birdlike accompanist staring out of frame, mesmerized by the singers. Separating Balibar from her collaborators like this, Costa represents musical performance as a paradoxically dislocated kind of intimacy. It is a fascinating variant on, even a deconstruction of, the conventional concert film. In keeping with the suggestion that music is a kind of depersonalizing magnetism, the performers speak politely to one another. Balibar mentions near the end that she once worked as a waitress. That this banal revelation should be notable is due to the absence of the familiar backstage bantering and tantrums.
Both these meticulous documentaries dwell on the painstaking process of creative collaboration. Huillet reproaches her garrulous colleague and lover at one moment: “all this time we’ve been editing films together,” she says, “you still don’t have the discipline!” It is an arduous business. It makes great demands on its participants. Doubt and fatigue creep in. All through Ne change rien, Balibar struggles with the tempo of songs. Ultimately, she falters a little. “Maybe I shouldn’t even focus on the rhythm,” she says to Burger. Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? closes with Straub sitting down on the staircase outside a cinema auditorium where he has been addressing the audience. Quiet for once, he obscures his face with his hand. Suddenly his presence is statuesque and mysterious—conveying again a sense, however approximate, of “the secret of the other.”
The new DVD edition of A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l’air est rouge, released in 1978, re-edited in 1993), Chris Marker’s chronicle of the New Left, is a cause for celebration and the occasion for essays by Nina Power and Mark Sinker. The English title comes from chapter 6 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, after the Cheshire Cat vanishes: “‘I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice, ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!’” Marker uses the phrase in the film to describe an identity crisis that beset the 1960s Latin American revolutionary Left after the Communist Party of Venezuela’s 1965 decision not to support Douglas Bravo’s guerilla tactics. Vanguard groups increasingly became isolated, “a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat.”
In “Sixties,” a 2008 text published with the DVD, Marker links the problem of disunity both to Che Guevara’s tenet that revolutionaries be “violent, selective and cold killing machines,” and to the fancies of intellectuals out of harm’s way. “I remember my last conversation with [Louis] Althusser. He was back from Portugal in full ‘Carnation Revolution’”—so the meeting must have occurred in 1974—“and this time, that was it! After many failed outbursts, including our month of May, Portugal was about to carry out the first socialist revolution since 1917, consolidate it and from there spread it to the whole of Europe. I listened to him as in zero-gravity. Facing me was not a likeable young leftist nut, but one of the greatest French intellectuals of his time. For him, as for others, Revolution was in the air, and had to be, like the Grin of the Cheshire Cat. He would always see that grin. And he wouldn’t (nor would anyone) ever see the Cat.”
The Lewis Carroll citation is not frivolous, but its nursery-rhyme phrasing puts a sideways swerve on radical history. Marker’s use of literary language to couch cautionary sentiments is comparable to the street poetry of a dissenting statement made by a Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, in 1968 (included in the 2002 documentary, The Weather Underground): “We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic. It’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic and that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take the people into situations where the people can be massacred and they call that revolution. It’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly,” he says. “We think these people may be sincere, but they’re misguided, they’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.” In both instances, the serious teasing subverts the imperiousness of militant manifestoes without repudiating their premises.
A Grin Without a Cat has a voiceover written by Marker, but spoken by different narrators (including Régis Debray, Yves Montand, and Simone Signoret in the French version), which emphasizes its will-o’-the-wisp essayistic fluidity, by turns factual and metaphorical, witty and bitter. The film needs several viewings because it is hard to pin down, peripatetic and unruly rather than didactic—although it was not always characterized in this way. When it was first shown in France, some found the film high-handed, doctrinaire. In its January 1978 issue, Cahiers du Cinéma published a round table on A Grin Without a Cat (translated in Cahiers du Cinéma, Volume 4: 1973–1978, edited by David Wilson), in which Jean Narboni voices a discontented majority opinion: “the film of a spiritual adviser, a morose instructor of the Communists and the traditional left.” He reserves special scorn for the sequence showing how Fidel Castro’s habit of adjusting microphones during speeches was confounded in front of a Soviet audience because, to the Cuban prime minister’s discomfort, the objects on this occasion would not budge. The often-cited sequence is very funny, but it follows on from shaky footage of Castro endorsing the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Narboni is annoyed: “Well, of course, we see this awfulness in the film and that’s good. But then at the end it’s all made up for, blurred, forgotten, because in the USSR Castro bumps into microphones that won’t bend. Everyone laughs, and we’re on Castro’s side against those naughty, stiff Soviet microphones.”
I wonder. Are such things so easily erased? In his own fashion—with a feline jump rather than dogmatic table-thumping—Marker moves away from the chilling oratory, leaving to hang not a grin, but Castro’s uncharacteristically perplexed and timid expression as he fails to twist the mikes. The technological digression is not played just for laughs; if we smile, it does not mean we avoid judging the extent to which Castro’s expression may encapsulate betrayal more concisely than the complicit words. “The devil of history,” Power writes, “lies in the details.” Marker’s editing jogs us into thinking carefully. We are not lulled or dragged along. The director’s own account of A Grin Without a Cat (quoted by Sarah Cooper in her 2008 book on Marker) seems to me to be fully justified: “I am not boasting that I have succeeded in making a dialectical film. But I have tried for once (having in my time frequently abused the power of the directive commentary) to give back to the spectator, through montage, ‘his’ commentary, that is, his power.”
The “first generation” terrorist campaign conducted in the early 1970s by the Red Army Faction (often initially called the Baader-Meinhof Gang after two of its members, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof) has been the subject of numerous German films. (It crops up elsewhere as well. In the recent French true-crime thriller, Mesrine: Public Enemy, the eponymous bank robber is surrounded by police. “I’m with the Baader-Meinhof Gang,” he shouts facetiously from inside the apartment, “long live the revolution!”) The latest, Long Shadows and The Baader Meinhof Complex, are discussed by Christina Gerhardt. As she observes, The Baader Meinhof Complex recreates various incidents that are well-known from photographs, notably the killing of demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman during the 1967 Berlin street protest against the state visit of the Shah of Iran. As if to emphasize his film’s impartial detachment, director Uli Edel shows a camera operator standing over the dying man. Likewise, at other times Edel cuts between reenactments of monumental events and shots of photographers. A young girl with an Instamatic looks down on the garage where Baader and Holger Meins are besieged; a whole press pack records the funeral of Meins.
Yet consider what happens to one photo of Meinhof. After she goes on the run, having assisted in Baader’s successful prison break, an eyes-downcast snapshot of her is seen on a TV set watched by her former colleagues at the office of Konkret magazine. The same image reappears first as a printed byline portrait, then on a wanted-for-attempted-murder poster being pasted onto a wall. (The poster is iconic, featuring in A Grin Without a Cat and as the centerpiece of Astrid Proll’s book, Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run, 6777. Edel has reconstructed it too: the red lettering is bright, the paper unfoxed, and Meinhof’s face has been replaced with a subtly similar likeness of actress Martina Gedeck.) The series concludes later with side-by-side most-wanted photos of Baader and Meinhof filling the screen unobstructed, no onlooker present in the scene. And there is a further development: a pen has crossed through each image. The framing of the mugshots now implies the point of view of a law-enforcement official whose “X” stands for capture. A comparison is invited with Fritz Lang’s M—where a murder poster scrutinized by a crowd is a prelude to close-up imagery from the manhunt (fingerprint, handwriting sample, street map).
Another useful reference point is the most famous treatment of the “German Autumn,” Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series of pictures. The monochrome sequence consists of copies of photos that have been “overpainted” so it appears as if the originals had been deep-frozen. “All the pictures are dull, grey, mostly very blurred, diffuse,” as Richter puts it. “Their presence is the horror and the hard-to-bear refusal to answer, to explain, to give an opinion” (“Notes for a Press Conference, November-December 1989,” in Gerhard Richter—Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961–2007, edited by Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist). His refashioning of archival images entails distancing, an impairment of photographic immediacy. It is antithetical to the approach taken by The Baader Meinhof Complex, which seeks to intensify and supplement the impact of the visual record. The movie “delivers the images between the images that one already knows,” according to Edel, and it is interesting that his strategy of recuperation and proliferation should lock down the narrative viewpoint so that it seems aligned not with civilian observation, but with a cold and purposeful bureaucratic gaze.