Corps à coeur (Vecchiali)

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Predator or A-Violence

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A new translation, published on The Vulgar Cinema blog, of Martin Barnier's piece on John McTiernan's Predator. The first in a series of translations from the 1996 action cinema issue of French journal Admiranda/Restricted.


Renoir: The Grandeur of Primitives

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The Grandeur of Primitives
by Jean Renoir


I often admire recent films but it's an admiration within reason. I rarely lose it and I remain sensible. I think: "My God, what a beautiful photographic effect…;" "That actor's performance is great…," "This dialogue is perfect…," "Great direction…," etc., and I bore myself to death.

Every art that isn't purely individual goes through this. They are only great—really great—in their primitive state… Low-warp tapestry is fascinating; Beauvais' and Gobelins' are, of course, amazing, but good for official receptions. Ceramics from Urbino are adorable and, with just one of those little, awkward vases on your table, you enrich your life. Look at what the art of ceramics became with Sèvres and Meissen. I can watch a film by Méliès, a Griffith, an early Tourneur or a Max Linder ten times in a row. I can only endure a screening of our latest masterpieces once.

For as long as they've existed, men have confused art with the imitation of reality. In primitive periods, either the limitations of the technical means or certain religious rules created by well-advised prophets prevent artists from following this bad tendency. In our time, that of so-called progress, no more limitations, no more rules; and we are witnessing a kind of debauchery. Individual artists—painters, writers, sculptures, musicians—can still pull through. Nothing prevents them from taking in nature as they understand it and rendering it for us in the most unexpected forms. But to make a film, tons of people are put together, and even if one of them vaguely has the idea that one of the characteristics of art is to be artificial, even if this person manages to communicate this point of view to his co-workers, the odious voice of reason quickly makes itself heard. By "reason," I mean the need to make a commercial work and to not shock audiences who are supposedly connoisseurs of that famous "reality." They are, anyway, and how could they not be after twenty-five years of the idiotic perfection of photographic reproduction? Out of this come today's ideals. An actor becomes a star because he looks like lots of people we see in the street. This way, it is believed, people will be happy to see themselves on screen, with just a few, minor improvements: better fitting costumes, smoother skin, and no hairs in their nose. From time to time, a film director looks innovative by keeping the nose hair or by showing a young beginner with rotten teeth. For my part, if I'm shown, in a movie, the same people I can meet at a cafe, I don't see why I wouldn't go to the cafe instead of the movie. It's more comfortable and I can drink there.

Those who came before us were really lucky: orthochromatic film that didn't allow for any nuance and forced the most timid cameramen to accept violent contrasts; no sound, which forced the least imaginative actors and the must pedestrian directors to use involuntarily simplified means of expression.

Happy were the Etruscan potters who, for decorating their vases, only knew two colors.

Happy was Queen Matilda who, for Bayeux's masterpiece, ignored the perfected craft of high-warp tapestry and aniline dye.

Happy were the filmmakers who still believed themselves to be carnies. But the golden age is over. And we must either become "true auteurs" in the classical sense of the word, with all the responsibilities it entails, or let the already wavering flame of our marvelous magic lantern die.

Originally published in Ciné-Club, no. 7, May 1948
Re-published in Jean Renoir: écrits 1926-1971


LOLA 4

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There's a new issue of LOLA with several articles on Brian De Palma including my translation of Alain Bergala's piece on Obsession: Time Denied: An Apotheosis of the Imaginary. Check it out.

Carpenter/Wellman

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Positif: We've noticed an evolution in your work. At the time of Halloween, you didn't let yourself express any messages. But, since Escape From New York, your films clearly reflect a stand on the world we're living in.

John Carpenter: I don't think I express a message. The word "position" is more appropriate. Message films, they're like The Next Voice You Hear..., where God talks to people on the radio! That never works, that's not my style. But themes, yeah. A theme in a film is like a theme in music. It evolves, develops and underpins the emotions. That's not a political commentary. It's more of a poetic thread.

-Positif, no. 409, 1995
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Mack Sennett: Liberator of Cinema
Robert Desnos



Admiral Dumont d’Urville, the same person who discovered the Venus de Milo, met death in the first railway accident.

The Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in the Bastille, having made a megaphone out of a gutter, stirred up the crowd at the beginning of July by announcing that prisoners were being massacred. On July 4th, he was transferred to Charenton; on July 14th, the Bastille was taken. He died in 1814, having spent almost all his life in prison.

Trelawney, who was lieutenant of De Ruyter’s privateer, lit with his own hand the log that consumed Shelley’s corpse. He was witness to Byron’s last days, married two daughters of barbarous kings, was the first to swim across the Niagara and Missouri and, at the age of 90, died in England in a calm rose garden.

All exemplary lives participate in this tragic slapstick, this lyrical humor, to the point that comedy is, definitively, only the most disconcerting form of lyricism.

Enemies of all poetry are not mistaken, in cinema as well.

The average critic, in general, listened to and respected, has only contempt for slapstick films and this qualifier is an insult from his pen.

This is why it is appropriate to place very high, on the same plane as Charlie Chaplin, this creator of lyrical and sensual slapstick: Mack Sennett.

Bathing beauties running along sandy beaches, lost sirens, tender lovers, mad inventions—he introduced a new element in cinema that is neither comedy nor tragedy but, to be precise, the most elevated form of cinema, on the plane of ethics, love, poetry and freedom.

The madness presiding over his scripts, we well know, is that of fairy tales and of those dreamers who the world despises and to whom the world owes the delights of life.

Without him, what would have become of Fatty Arbuckle (so admirable, moreover, and so unjustly forgotten, the incarnation of ferocity and hopelessness), Buster Keaton, Larry Semon or Al St. John?

The importance of the Mack Sennett Comedies in the evolution of cinema is immense. But must we not once again suspect American hypocrisy for having hindered his free development?

It is again Mack Sennett’s stunning influence that gives Harry Langdon—recently arriving on French screens—that inexpressible charm that, via a different route than Chaplin, knows how to deeply move us: Fatty Arbuckle, Larry Semon, Al St. John, Harry Langdon, as much as they remain poets, easily obtain an elevated ethics of life and passions, image and imagination powerfully serving their designs. As soon as they want to evolve on a purely moral plane, they are overburdened by psychology, which is the peak of horror.

While, in the suspended world in which he lives, Mack Sennett presides over the sensational encounter of love and sensuality, fairies—those inseparable sisters of both poetry and freedom, dead and deeply buried under twenty centuries of Christianity in the crypts of churches—are reborn and appear with their true faces and their pompous costumes. And we recognize seductive modern women, enigmatic smiles that delight us, eyes that make our own droop and, above all, love—our love—tormented by dreams, freedom, revolt and fear.

Originally published in Le Soir, April 15, 1927
Reprinted in Robert Desnos, Les Rayons et les ombres: cinema (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1992), 97-99.   
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Hallelujah!

Allan Dwan: A Dossier

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A new dossier on Allan Dwan, edited by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, was published last week. Currently available for free download here is the original language version with essays in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese by the likes of Dave Kehr, Bill Krohn, Zach Campbell, Gina Telaroli, David Phelps, Daniel Kasman, Marie-Pierre Duhmal, Serge Bozon, Andy Rector, Mathieu Macheret, Carlos Losilla and many more.

An all English language version will be published soon with a number of my translations in it.

Don't know who Allan Dwan is? Here's an obituary for him written by Serge Daney. For more information check out the dossier and if you're in New York right now go see Dwan's films at MoMA.

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DEATH OF THE WORLD'S OLDEST FILMMAKER: ALLAN DWAN (1885-1981)
Serge Daney


Joseph Aloysius Dwan died last Monday. Hollywood’s “conscience,” people called him. Then its remorse. Then the oldest of the dinosaurs. But also an important, secret and underknown filmmaker.

“Who’s been able to see 2% of his films?” a film historian asked one day. Not I. Nor he. Or anyone. If it existed, Allan Dwan’s complete filmography would take up an entire page in Libération, typos included. At least. Born in 1885 in Toronto, Canada, and under the dynamic sign of Aries, Dwan encountered cinema in 1909 and never gave it up: it’s cinema that gave him up in 1961 (his last film, unreleased in France like so many others: Most Dangerous Man Alive). Then he lived for twenty more years. I don’t believe he complained or that he lost his cold blood. That wasn’t his way of doing things. His way was to film several hundred films (how many hundreds is the mystery: between 1911 and 1913 alone, more than two hundred one-reelers). At first he was known and respected, marginalized little by little and then entirely forgotten, believed dead, and became (like Gance) a kind of dinosaur.

He knew it all: bounding cape and sword films, early silents, personal westerns, comedies, opera films, historical vignettes, island adventures, everything. All kinds of monsters paraded before his camera. To begin with, the saints. Eight films with Douglas Fairbanks (including Robin Hood in 1922 and the ambitious The Iron Mask in 1929). Eight films with Gloria Swanson (including Stage Struck, in 1925, and What a Widow!, 1930). And then child stars (Shirley Temple, already seasoned in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1938), slapstick stars (the Ritz Brothers, hacks who tried to rival the Marx Brothers: The Three Musketeers and The Gorilla in 1939), rising celebrities (Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, a great war film, 1949), and dimming stars (Ray Milland in Enchanted Island, 1958). And, lastly, poor B movie stars (Reagan, of course, as an idealist fool, and especially the unforgettable bad guy John Payne, not to mention the more intoxicating Rhonda Fleming), including the ugliest of them (I remember, and still shiver at, the terrifying Vera Ralston, imposed by the producers of Surrender (1950), a beautiful film nonetheless). In short, he practiced his metier. He practiced it like everyone of his generation. He encountered the cinema unintentionally and never left it (this has changed a lot). He was a math and physics teacher, a mechanical engineer, and coached a football team. Then came California. Four names help map out this unmappable career: Griffith (who he met in 1911), Fairbanks, with whom he teamed up, Swanson, for whom he was at one time the director, and last but not least, Benedict Bogeaus. He’s the least known. But without this independent producer, Dwan would undoubtedly not have signed, between 1954 and 1961, his most beautiful films, the rare ones that we know a little and that we remember the most vividly. Those who recently saw or saw again Tennessee’s Partner and Slightly Scarlet on TV know that I’m not making anything up. May everyone else demand that one of these amazing films be rebroadcast.

Dwan had a strange trajectory. He descended down all the ranks of Hollywood society, from Triangle and Fox to Republic, without ever stopping, all in all, to make good films. Without ceasing to be himself when he directed Fairbanks, but he is even more himself when, forty years later, freed from the star system and Hollywood mythology, he directs the great John Payne. Something within him resisted everything, was in no way eroded.

Dwan had one motto: it’s the story that counts. He divides films into two types: on the hand, those where the star counts (so the story must be adapted to the star) and those where the story counts (so it has to be told, its pace followed, it must be respected). The small 1% of Dwan’s opus that we’ve seen authorizes us to say this: Dwan is never more alive, precise and surprising than when he is telling a story.

Take the Bogeaus period, no doubt his best. For several years, there is a common tone, favorite actors, the work of a major photographer (John Alton), and stories that have a familial air about them. It’s the period of the personal westerns. We understand that this filmmaker who often filmed violence, doesn’t really believe in it, in violence. He always considers it a madness or a misunderstanding, always a thing outside of the character. What he loves is a situation that becomes violent because there are words to not say, friends to not expose, secrets to not reveal.

For Dwan, a story is always about a secret. About friendship as a secret. The friendship of one man for another, of a woman for another (the two redheads), the friendship of a man for what surrounds him, for the landscape in which he is plunged. Casualness is rather exceptional in American films. Dwan’s heros want to live on good terms with the world. They ask for nothing more, but in this respect they will be intolerable, obsessed by the lynching in the very beautiful Silver Lode (1954).

A hypothesis: it is this talent for protecting his characters that Dwan was able to maintain all throughout his long career. To do this, he never forgot Griffith’s lesson (he worked on Intolerance). His direction is at once archaic and refined. He brings his characters into the landscape of his shots, without any decorative showiness. He takes them out and reinserts them. He remained faithful to the silent era—perhaps why he was unable to follow the cinema in its modern turns (modern cinema loves indiscretion, Dwan does not). This is also why rarely in his films is a landscape just a landscape.  Neither an idea or a set, but the familiar and indifferent presence of the surroundings. The place where the characters return when they’ve managed to free themselves (the word is Goimard’s, the historian I cited at the beginning of this article) from everything that exposed their freedom.