In Comparison So there I was, my dear reader, about to come back to Paris after several peripatetic weeks, ready to settle into my new flat and wondering what I was going to do with myself upon my rentrée. Clearly the thought of actually doing some work on my thesis, its due date rapidly approaching, filled me with inherent repulsion. What relief it was, then, to receive an email on the eve of my return, asking if I was available to cover the Rencontres Internationales: nouveau cinéma et art contemporain, which would begin in Paris the following day for its French leg, before, in the manner of an itinerant circus troupe, decamping to Madrid in April and Berlin next June. Hopping off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, dropping my bags off in my 9th arrondissement garret, I traipsed down to the Théâtre du Châtelet to pick up my press accreditation and, barely hours after finding out about the event, it was chose faite.

The program on offer looked intriguing, the opening night’s surprise screening presented us with a smattering of the delights to come, and the macaroons afterwards were delicious – so what could possibly go wrong? Ah, you who are familiar with generic conventions will have divined that disaster did indeed strike, along with the security guards at the Pompidou Centre, where most of the scheduled screenings were to take place. I wondered how much solidarity I should have for a group of workers who have so often been such a hassle whenever I have attempted to get into or out of Beaubourg, but upon doing some light research (well, Google), I discovered that the reason for their grève illimitée was a government plan to reduce the centre’s already stretched workforce by up to 40% over the coming years. Clearly drastic action was required. Of course, while most of us contented ourselves with hilarious “Pompidon’t” jokes, this left the organisers of the Rencontres in an unenviable position, as they scrambled to find replacement venues at the last minute to ensure that, in whatever way, the announced films could be shown.

In the end their Herculean efforts meant that almost the entire program took place, and more or less at the times scheduled, thanks to the helping hand of a number of cultural institutes scattered around Paris. The main victims were two screenings on the Saturday (including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s A Letter to Uncle Boonmee), Straub/Huillet’s 1978 work Dalla Nubia alla Resistenza, and, most tragically, a series of roundtables entitled “Where is the cinema headed?”, which were to prominently feature Jacques Rancière. What cinematographic fables would the ignorant master have imparted to us, the budding emancipated spectators? What destiny of the image, at a time of malaise in the aesthetic, would he have proclaimed from the shores of the political? Alas, we will never know, for he was unable to give flesh to his words, unable to share that to which he was sensitive; his speech was to remain mute. All the worse for the tired people!

This aside, the logistical problems were compounded by the fact that replacement venues were often unequipped with the requisite technical facilities. A number of films and video works were shown in unsuitable formats, there were often problems with sound, and interruptions were frequent. Some venues were simply inappropriate for cinematic screenings. The Théâtre du Châtelet, for example, is a marvellous edifice, located on the banks of the Seine, but the screenings in its Grand Foyer were hampered by rattling speakers, a seating layout depriving all those not sitting in the front three rows from being able to read subtitled works, and an inability to shut out the light streaming in through the room’s imposing windows (how it pains me when form and function are so tragically divorced!).

Furthermore, the impromptu nature of the venue locations gave the festival experience a surreal element. In the manner of a warehouse rave or an anarchist street action, potential attendees would find out where the day’s screenings were to take place immediately beforehand, either on the Internet or through flyers handed out at the previous night’s séance, and endeavour to trek down to some uncharted corner of the city, in order to find an unheralded screening room tucked away inside the Swedish Cultural Institute or the École des Beaux-Arts. This clearly impacted on the potential size of the viewing public, and while some screenings garnered healthy audiences, others were not so fortunate. At one point, indeed, the number of guest filmmakers in attendance almost outnumbered the other members of the audience. And while I enjoyed my Parisian peregrinations, I admit myself to becoming incontrovertibly lost when trying to find the Cervantes Institute for a Sunday screening, thereby missing Avi Mograbi’s Details 11, 12, 13.

So, to the films themselves! The festival’s program guide boasted more than 150 works to be screened, and in an unexpected bout of cinephilic Stakhanovism I managed to attend the vast majority of those that actually were shown over the event’s ten days (excepting the screenings dedicated to animation, to which I have a preternatural aversion). Bringing together the two discrete worlds of cinema and contemporary visual art, divided by a common medium, was always going to be a perilous endeavour, and what shone through from their juxtaposition was that, even when the cinema is at its most radically daring, and art at its most “cinematic”, there still exists a gaping chasm between the two. What divides them is not a matter of format or dispositif – video artists are readily using film, while filmmakers are turning more and more towards digital video – so much as the respective cultural environments they find themselves in: funding sources, educational backgrounds, intended viewing conditions. (1) But the greatest difference is that filmmakers are invigorated by operating in a world where there is still a recognisable enemy to overcome – the stultifying economic and aesthetic conventions of the mainstream cinema – whereas video art, having no more dragons to slay, is suffering from a certain torpor and disorientation. Thus, on the basis of the evidence for viewing during the Rencontres: between “new cinema” and “contemporary art”, it is the former which is winning out aesthetically.

In this vein, the first public screening in Paris of Pedro Costa’s new work Ne change rien, taking place with the director in attendance at the Nouveau Latina cinema, was one of the most anticipated moments of the program. Call me frivolous, but for me it was not least because of the chance, after six days of sitting on wooden chairs in front of digital projections, to plunge into a padded cinema seat and bathe in the stately glory of 35mm. The film is a sensorial exaltation: for 100 minutes the viewer can feast on the liquescent black and white cinematography, while Jeanne Balibar purrs her way through the recording and performing of an ensemble of musical pieces stretching from Offenbach to the synth-pop present day. Those aware of Costa’s influences may point to Straub/Huillet’s Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) as a predecessor for the work, but for me, if anything – and maybe it was the predominant style of music which caused me to make the connection – the film owes more to the Rita Mitsouko sequences of Godard’s Soigne ta droite (1987). This was seemingly confirmed, when, in the film’s most surreal moment, the Old Man’s gravelly voice itself surfaced over an electro backing track, with the sampling of the reverberating opening to Episode 1A of Histoire(s) du cinéma, as he quotes (in slightly reworded fashion) Bresson’s Notes du cinématographe: “Ne change rien, pour que tout soit différent” (“Don’t change a thing, so that everything’s different”).

Winter SoldiersAnother titan of European cinema, Werner Schroeter, made a personal appearance in spite of health problems. Striding into the Palais de Tokyo, ostentatiously bedecked in jewellery and a broad-rimmed hat, he presented the harrowing documentary Winter Soldiers, made by a US filmmakers collective in 1972 and featuring remorseful Vietnam veterans recounting in grisly detail the atrocities they committed while on duty: the torching of villages, the raping of girls, the disembowelling of children. The actress Carole Bouquet expressed the shattering impact the film had on most of the audience in a spontaneous, tearful response directly after the screening. As if to further whip up the maelstrom of sentiments, Schroeter accompanied the film with a surprise extract of his own Poussières d’amour (1996), showing the visceral response of Italian soprano Anita Cerquetti (who had tragically lost the ability to sing) when listening to her own performances decades after retirement.

Let us also rhapsodise over Harun Farocki’s new work, Zum Vergleich (In Comparison), a taciturn rumination on brick-making techniques in different parts of the world. While the premise sounds rather like the result of a drunken bet (Come on Harun, try and make something interesting about bricks!), the outcome is fascinating. Striking is, above all, the comparison between the teeming presence of humanity in the labour intensive process in Gabon, with what seems like an entire village collaborating on the construction project, and the stark absence of humanity in the roboticised factory in Germany, as a solitary worker bemusedly oversees the flurry of soulless mechanical activity surrounding him.

Against these triumphs, the contemporary art section of the program had its work cut out. Johan Grimonprez (Double Take), Christian Merlhiot (Le Procès d’Oscar Wilde) and Tsai Ming-liang (Madame Butterfly) delivered the closest things the program had to cross-over works. Grimonprez’s paranoiac fusing of fiction and documentation, with a Cold War-era plot involving Alfred Hitchcock beset with doppelgänger versions of himself while the US and the Soviet Union lock horns, haunts me still. Tsai’s entry, however, a modern version of the Puccini opera set in a Malaysian bus station, was uninspired and failed to reach the heights scaled by his best work.

Thomas Köner’s performance of the “digital opera” Le Manifest du Futurisme was synaesthetically mesmerising: the digital sound recording was accompanied by the plucking of piano chords and a female vocalist susurrating quotes from Marinetti, while visually, a sinewy man, looking like a proletarian from an Eisenstein film, contorted himself against a black screen, with footage of parades, demonstrations and industrial plants projected onto his body. Similarly, continuing decades worth of work, Ken Jacobs featured with two films, The Day was a Scorcher and excerpt from The Sky Socialist stratified, which through rapid cutting and stroboscopic effects pushed the boundaries of what is physically acceptable to the spectator so much that the organisers felt compelled to grant the audience an ocular repose of a few minutes afterwards before continuing to the following films.

But the real value of events such as this is not to confirm the greatness of a Jacobs or a Grimonprez, let alone a Costa or a Schroeter. Rather, it is the discovery of hitherto unknown artists, the unearthing of gems which would otherwise have passed us by unnoticed. Two works by young artists stood out for me: David Yon’s Les Oiseaux d’Arabie and Quimu Casalprim’s Zeitriss. The first, a debut film, was a work of particular poise and maturity: following the correspondence between Simone Weil and a Spanish prisoner of war in the early 1940s, Yon combined documentation of the letters and accompanying photographs with a poetic visual collage of the locations in their present state. Zeitriss, meanwhile, unnerved with its portrayal of a couple on the verge of breakdown: at the point at which it becomes clear that their relationship has definitively fallen apart, the film itself disintegrates into splintered shards of image and sound.

We could also extol Gregg Smith’s Underexposed, in which a narrative of the development of a piece of South African wilderness into a sterile resort is subverted by the characters frequently breaking into dance; Reynold Reynolds’ Letzter Tag der Republik, in which the destruction of the former parliament building of the GDR is shown in freeze-frame photography, such that the wrecking machines appear as insects chewing away at the ruins; or Rä di Martino’s August 2008, in which BBC headlines from that month are sung in a romantic duet. But a mere enumeration of the highlights would dissemble the fact that much of the program was unsatisfying, that many of the works felt unaccomplished or lightweight, relying too heavily on gimmicky techniques or the art-world’s equivalent of “high-concept” ideas.

The organisers frequently emphasised the political angle of the program, which Nathalie Hénon clarified as being to showcase works that were “not so much engaged, but critical, in the broad sense”. So as to avoid the cliché that “every film/artwork is political”, I take it that by “political” they mean contributing, in whatever small way, to the forces of human emancipation. But I often ended up feeling like Gogol’s illiterate peasant woman, who reads books for the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of the letters printed on the page, without any understanding of what the words signify. Many works simply seemed devoid of meaning, relying on the artist’s own interpretation or background story for them to finally acquire a sense. Here I don’t mean that, in order to be considered as political, a work needs to include speeches by Lenin or a rousing rendition of the Internationale – quite the opposite, in fact. Film is political to the extent that it radically alters our way of perceiving the world, and precious little of what was on offer managed to achieve this.

But perhaps my view has been coloured by what was unambiguously the towering highlight of the entire event, which I have heretofore concealed from you, my dear reader. You see, I was spoilt by the carte blanche extended to Artavazd Pelechian. My heart skipped a beat upon merely finding out that the filmmaker who entranced Daney, who bowled over Godard, was to be included in the program, that Zemlja ljudej (The Land of Men, 1966), Nacalo ou Skisb (In the Beginning, 1967), Menk (We, 1969) and Nach Vek (Our Century, 1982) – films I had previously only viewed through the impoverished format of pirated Internet copies or YouTube clips – were to be shown on the big screen, in a cinema, and – what was this? – on 35mm! Sadly, this last promise was not maintained, and we were shown betacam dupes instead. Apparently this is at Pelechian’s own behest; prints of his films are rare and the risk of damage to them is great. His work is not even available on DVD, save for a semi-mythical Portuguese release (in the realm of apocryphal releases of otherwise unavailable titles, Portugal, it seems, has become the new Japan). I can’t help but suspect that Pelechian’s plan is to immure the films in a remote Siberian nuclear bunker, such that in millions of years time, when civilisation has crumbled, they will be the only testimonies to the human race’s time on this planet. Frankly, I have my doubts that we, as a species, deserve that much.

For very few film experiences in my life have led me to contracting Stendhal’s famous syndrome, in which the writer, overcome with emotion in the galleries of Florence by the “celestial sensations given by the Fine Arts”, felt “a palpitation of the heart, my life was exhausted, I walked with the fear of falling”. Perhaps, as with Badiou, only three Murnaus, one Lang, two Eisensteins and four Griffiths have managed to do this to me. But every single one of the Pelechian films shown that night left me with tears welling in my eyes, lumps forming in my throat, my head spinning, my entire body trembling through their sheer aesthetic impact.

In describing the films, I would fear a reductionism equivalent to saying that Joyce’s Ulysses was about a day in the life of a guy from Dublin, so I’ll restrict myself to affirming that I defy anyone not to feel the urge to storm their local Winter Palace when watching In the Beginning – made in 1967 to show the previous half-century of Russian history, and infused with the plangent Sviridrov composition “Time, forward!”, later used for both the Soviet news broadcasts and Guy Maddin’s Heart of the World. And, if you insist, I’ll add a quote from Pelechian’s own article “Contrapuntal montage”, in which he describes his method thus: “resting on complex forms of reciprocal action of various distant processes, [it] breaks through the limits beyond which our conceptions and laws determining space and time are outmoded, and beyond which some, upon being born, are unaware whom they kill, while others, upon dying, are unaware to whom they give birth.” (2) By all rights, his text should be plastered dazibao-style on the walls of film schools everywhere.

That Pelechian himself should also be in attendance, and that he should answer questions after the screening, only heightened the intensity of that magical night. (3) Characteristically, I was too timid to ask him a question myself, but I am not exaggerating when I say that hearing the man speak was akin to being in the presence of a Dziga Vertov, a Mallarmé or a Bartok. Leaving the Palais de Tokyo, I committed the same error as Stendhal when in Florence, who tried to calm his nerves by reading poetry, which, however, only exacerbated his symptoms. Similarly, as I strolled along the right bank of the Seine during a misty Parisian night, the beauty of the scene, combined with images careening through my head of the films that I had just seen, meant that the physical devastation provoked by the screening continued unabated. Yes, that night, I, jaded and cynical spectator that I had become, fell in love once more with the cinema.

Or at least with what the cinema can be. For the pinnacles of the cinematographic art reached by Pelechian served only to highlight the deficiencies of much of the rest of the program. Maybe it is unfair to compare the work of someone freshly graduated from a Fine Arts College to that of the Armenian master – except when you consider that many of Pelechian’s great works were themselves made directly after finishing his studies at Moscow’s VGIK, when he was not yet 30. And the domain in which he has made the most prominent strides forward – his revolutionising of montage techniques – is precisely the area which seemed most lacking in the Rencontres, and, inasmuch as its selection was representative of global trends, in the contemporary art world as a whole. Paradoxically, at a time when digital editing would have seemingly opened up a vast world of innovation in montage, artists seem to be relying mostly on the plan-séquence or more staid, even rather classical, forms of montage. The great exception here came during the Cinema Revisited stream, where Vivian Ostrovsky (The Title was Shot), Volker Schreiner (Grid) and Antoni Pinent (Film Quartet/Polyframe) all made exhilarating post-Histoire(s) montage clips reappropriating and reassembling cinematic works from the past, and these were among the best new works of the Rencontres. What irony, then, that the future of art seems to lie in the past of the cinema!

De Volta ao Quarto 666And what irony too, that the most groundbreaking, the most contemporary works I saw dated from forty years ago! To think that In the Beginning was made for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, when we are now nearing its 100th anniversary (dare we wish for a sequel?), gives me the same sensation of time lost as when I realise that a decade that I still consider as barely having begun is already nearly over, and will have been consigned to history by the time you read these words. And yet, while my views on the future of the moving image may not be as unbridledly optimistic as those that Wim Wenders expressed in De Volta ao Quarto 666 (Spolidoro’s revisiting of Wenders’ own Room 666), for whom digital media appears as a messianic saviour of the cinema, there were enough glimmers of artistic accomplishment in this year’s program to instill hope in me that, whatever technological developments take place, whatever cultural and political environments artists operate in, great works will continue to be made in this fragile medium of ours, and I look forward to future Rencontres with them. And so I echo (in slightly reworded fashion) the cry of Zola’s heroine at the end of Nana: “À Madrid! À Berlin!”

Endnotes

  1. Many of the video artworks suffered from being screened in a “cinematic”, linear manner, with the spectator given the choice only to remain pinned to their seat or to embarrassingly exit the theatre, when they were far more suited to looped gallery screenings where the viewer can saunter in and out at will.
  2. Artavazd Pelechian, “Le montage à contrepoint, ou la théorie de la distance”, Trafic, No. 2 (spring 1992), p. 105. Own translation from Barbara Balmer-Stutz’s French translation of the original Russian (from 1972).
  3. Embarassingly, technical problems also occurred during this screening. Midway through In the Beginning the sound suddenly cut out. As audience members asked themselves whether this was a bold stylistic technique or merely equipment malfunction, an irritated grumbling could be heard from the auditorium. It was Pelechian himself, seated among the public, as he stood up and humphed off to the projection booth, in order to locate the problem and recommence the screening.

Rencontres Internationales: nouveau cinéma et art contemporain
Paris
30 November – 9 December, 2009
Festival website: http://www.art-action.org/

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University and book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema