“Some strange destiny”, John Thompson claims in The Cinema Book, “seems to have determined that the cinema is written about in France with superior perceptiveness and intelligence than elsewhere.” (1) Part of this strange destiny surely resides in the freedom the writer possesses over the material. While it is certainly true that there was a period when French criticism paid a great deal of attention to the subjugated viewer, evident in the work of Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli and Christian Metz, they were hardly themselves slaves to the material to hand. When looking at Baudry’s essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” (1970), one notices no more than a passing mention to Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929): no other films are referenced. In Metz’s book The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (1977), only 18 films are mentioned, and mainly in passing. The image may have been seen to tyrannise the viewer, but the theorists certainly were clearly not at the mercy of those same images. This can often have its problems, but at least the theorist escapes the slavish obligation of close readings that so often gives the writer little space for expression.
In Marc Augé’s Casablanca: Movies and Memory, Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film is apparent more as pretext than text, as an object instigating contemplation rather than analysis. Augé is, of course, a major cultural theorist, perhaps best known for his book Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992) – commenting on hotels, airports, shopping malls etc. – but it isn’t ostensibly the culturally theoretical that he brings to bear on Casablanca: it is much more the autobiographical that the film provokes, yet an autobiography not of memories recalled, but of thoughts opened up. Perhaps certain spaces and places seem more likely to invoke this, and Augé utilises Casablanca, and the Left Bank Parisian cinema in which he sees it, as an opportunity for meditating upon life and cinema.
In one early passage, though, Augé insists that he isn’t what most people would call a movie lover: “No, I am not what is called a true cinephile. My memory is lacking; I’ve seen all the movies, and I can see them over and over again without being bored, precisely because I remember them only in rediscovering them.” (p. 2) He says,
Cinema – I mean the old movies of the Latin Quarter – inspires in me a feeling of “déjà vu” or of having already lived, déjà vécu that doubly rekindles my joy because two ordinarily incompatible pleasures get inextricably mixed: anticipation and memory. (pp. 2-3)
We may wonder whether the difference between a true cinephile as Augé might define it, and the sort of viewer Augé happens to be, is that the cinephile subordinates his own memories to cinema’s, while the non-cinephile allows the thoughts of life and cinema to commingle.
A more useful distinction might be between the cinephile and the film buff, with the cinephile’s love of cinema trying to make sense of life through and with the aid of film, and the buff simply lost in the minutiae of film detail, as though life and their own memories are very much secondary to the business of making sense of film fact and form. If at the other extreme from the buff we have cinephobes, the sort of writers that see cinema as a necessary evil and who analyse it from an analytically aloof position representationally, sociologically, ideologically (indeed, Metz and others could sometimes seem to be doing exactly that), Augé is still a cinephile, allowing the passion of film to imbue his writing on it. We certainly feel the love when he comments on “the lady of the Champo [cinema], whose first duty it is to sell tickets but who sometimes leaves her glass cage to gossip with old clients about the weather or passing time.” (p. 1) And, again, when he says, “sometimes the idea strikes me that perhaps there is no greater happiness than sitting at the end of the day in the Latin Quarter to see once again an old American movie” (p. 1).
However, where many other great cinephile writers from André Bazin to Gilles Deleuze sublimate memory into deep analysis, Augé wants the two to intermingle to create the memoir: “As soon as I set off on the road west I have the vague impression of fleeing. Among other reasons, that explains why I love an actor like [Jean-Louis] Trintignant. When he was younger he was always fleeing in his movies.” (p. 19) Another writer would absorb the observation into critique, with the confessional aspect removed, and the evidential fore-grounded. Augé gives no examples of Trintignant films in which this fleeing is the case, as if the fragility of observation might be damaged by the robustness of the evidence. When later he says, “[a]ctors age with impunity because they are always the age of their role” (p. 42), this is less an argument made than a feeling observed, as though that is the actor’s ontological miracle, denied the rest of us.
It is entirely possible many a reader will see Augé’s short book as self-indulgent, and one could usefully unpack the term in relation to one’s expectation of what criticism ought to be. Film buffery and cinephobia appear to serve a depersonalised end. The former, some broader notion of cinema; the latter, often some general idea of society which film is supposed to illustrate. But what if one thinks of cinema as an encounter? This is exactly what Augé calls it: “Cinema must remain the occasion of a meeting or encounter. That is the other reason why I am not a lover of DVDs.” (p. 49) Augé’s comments here resemble Deleuze’s observations on the encounter in the ABC series he made for French television, L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (Pierre-André Boutang, 1996). There, Deleuze insisted he didn’t believe in culture but did believe in the encounter, insisting that encounters don’t exist between people, but between people and things: a painting, a piece of music, a film. What Augé does, like Deleuze (if in very different ways), is give us a sense of this encountering, an encounter that isn’t human, but at the same time contains the love of a human meeting. In this sense, cinephilia is the love of encountering cinema. Whether one can have this only with films viewed in a cinema, rather than on video, DVD or whatever, is for each cinephile to decide, but the great writers on film manage to convey, however directly or indirectly, the urgency of the encounter.
Yet Augé’s problem with DVD is an important one: “To have a film in one’s hand, like a book, is tantamount to eradicating the chance of a meeting, of creating an excessive familiarity, of running the risk of repetition and of saturation.” (pp. 49-50) There are many fine and detailed studies of film, so attentive to the specifics of each shot, of each narrative turn and character gesture, yet at the same time they lack any spirit: have they exhausted the encounter between viewer and film?
In Augé’s book, Casablanca often disappears from the page, with other memories flooding in and taking precedence. Even when Casablanca is the subject of discussion, Augé often leaves it in memory: “It’s because we need to believe in love, in heroism, and in self-denial that we instinctively adhere to the most romantic version of the story”, Augé reckons, “and, in the secrecy of our memory, give way to the intimate and personal montage of our film” (p. 30). Such an approach to criticism doesn’t demand endless reviewings of the work; more a return to the memory of the film, the reediting of the film in one’s mind.
Of course, just as some would regard the personal tone as self-indulgent, would they not add that this approach to film is recklessness personified? Augé’s writing is clearly antithetical to the sort of criticism practised by, for example, the often perceptive and significant critic Robin Wood, let alone obsessive formalists, whose diligent multiple viewings of a film would sometimes drain the energy out of it, rather than insert subjective dynamism into it. Now to question whether Wood’s approach is the best way to do critical analysis isn’t quite the same thing as admiring Pauline Kael’s habit of watching a film only once, but it is to muse over how best to keep the film an object of passion as readily as one of scrutiny.
Augé’s way of making sense of cinema shares similarities with his way of making sense of life. Shortly after the passage on Casablanca as personal montage, he writes: “Two or three years ago, some hours of insomnia became the occasion for a special kind of investigation. I threw myself headlong into the recovery of my earliest memories, those before 1940.” (p. 31) He says the next day he rushed to his mother and encouraged her to talk: “to establish a few crosschecks that would allow me to date them.” (p. 31) As she talks, Augé notes that “she was an essential witness in this enterprise, but her memory was weakening or rather drifting away, and it was exploring only those areas of which I myself had no experience.” (p. 31) As Augé gets frustrated with his mother for remembering her own past rather than his also, he “understood well that the worst solitude was that of memories, and that my mother was suffering because those who had borne witness to what she had lived were gone.” (p. 31)
There happens to be a similarity here and a fundamental difference between life and fiction film. After all, the life memory can only be recollected through mutual memory: even if there are pictures or home-movie footage, these would be no more than aides-mémoire of an event. A fiction film, though, is the event itself: to understand the event we need simply return to the film, whereas we cannot return to the event of life, be that a wedding, a party, a first love. Central to the loneliness Augé sees in his mother is the problem of solitude in recollection: remembering alone. Cinema would seem to avoid this problem by virtue of the event being unto-itself. It returns us to Augé’s point concerning the actor and the role, and his further comment concerning the actor’s image: “This image is not that of the star but that of the roles she played. Each role is autonomous and evades the law of time.” (p. 42)
Yet it is also the actor present within the role – the feeling one has returning to a film and watching an actor in a part is different from that of returning to a novel where a character remains eternally the same age: in film, there is an uncanny mix of time standing still and inexorably moving forward. Many a commentator has drawn the comparison between cinema and death, from Jean Cocteau to Bazin, while Bernardo Bertolucci, who worked with both Trintignant and Marlon Brando (whom Augé also mentions), believed that “when you show the face of an actor, the time can be ten seconds or three minutes – but time passes in his face. ‘Time is death at work.’” (2) Even in the viewing experience, let alone the gap between Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), we know that death is working upon the actor on screen. It is the flipside of the ontological miracle, and partly why just as Augé can talk of his mother’s solitude as she has no one to share her past with, so our memories of actors cannot readily be shared, as though their mortality is part of our own. Chris Petit notes in a recent Guardian review of Peter Biskind’s Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty (2010) that “[t]he author admits to being besotted with his subject while acknowledging that no one under 40 has any idea who Beatty is, being both a prescient and dated figure” (3). Our admiration of a role is often also our response to the actor that plays it, and while having a great fondness for Darcy as a Jane Austen character is one thing, to identify with Colin Firth in particular is to say rather more about one’s own time.
Solitude, Augé believes, is part of cinema, whether or not it is exacerbated by the feeling that there is no one around any more to share one’s love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman: “Cinema is an art of solitude, not because some of its major works have as their principal character a solitary individual, but because all its technical resources concur in ‘figuring solitude.’”(p. 46). One of the ways in which film figures solitude is cinematic identification, and here Augé differentiates between identification in film and in the novel:
In the movies the image precedes the stage of identification. And it is the image of a real body; it has none of the blur of a mental image that, however insistent or charged it may be, has gone through the double filter of writing and reading. (p. 47)
There is unavoidable immediacy to cinema, a voyeurism that the written word does not possess, and how can one not be aware of our solitude in the looking?
At the same time, as Augé later notes, “I sometimes happen to associate the film with emotions, faces and landscapes that, although they belong to fiction, survive in me as memories.” (p. 56) Cinema both exacerbates our solitude and strangely dilutes it. Sometimes a gesture from an actor can remind us of a loved one; a voice can recall that of a friend; a film’s setting a location that we may know well. Film is a memory as well as a narrative machine, and Augé’s book has almost no interest in telling the story of Casablanca, as though to do so would be to impose the film on his own memories, when its purpose is to facilitate them, and somehow console him.
Near the beginning of Peter Handke’s beautiful memoir about his recently deceased mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, he notes that
the worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathizer short, because I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. (4)
What Handke seeks instead of a person’s seriousness is to be teased about something; he explains, “in his latest movie someone asks James Bond whether his enemy, whom he has just thrown over a stair rail, is dead. His answer – ‘let’s hope so!’ – made me laugh with relief.” (5) Nobody quite offers Handke the solace in life that cinema so fortuitously throws to him at that moment – who might have the audacity in Handke’s own life to crack the joke the film provides?
Augé might claim his fine book is the work of someone who is not a cinephile. But more than many a book claiming to be written by someone who has seen thousands of films and knows names and dates, directors and cameramen, composers and character players, Augé’s helps pinpoint why cinema is loved. Cinema activates memory, assuages loss, channels feelings, invents solitude, makes us laugh at a time when friends wouldn’t dare, and feeds our need for the paradoxical: the desire to be alone and yet in the company of others on the screen. Obviously all art forms to varying degrees offer some of the above. Yet Augé’s short volume, little more than an essay, seems to find cinema a singular medium.
In his piece on Augé at the end of the book, translator Tom Conley observes that, generally, scholarship “produced in the name of film studies is based on a masked law by which a viewer’s relation with a film often remains tacit, implied” (p. 79). Augé’s book does the opposite: it makes the viewer’s relation categorical and confessional. Partly what makes French criticism so often better than criticism from anywhere else is that, whatever the degree of actual autobiography at work, there is often, at least, a perceptually confessional bias: seeing in the film what makes the work the writer’s own, and not a text to be explicated.
Augé pushes this relationship further than most. In reading his latest book we may be reminded of Stanley Cavell’s nicely titled opening chapter of The World Viewed, “An Autobiography of Companions”: “The importance of memory,” he says, “goes beyond its housing of knowledge. It arises also in the way movies are remembered or misremembered.” Cavell isn’t interested in scholarly correctness, believing instead “my business is to think out the causes of my consciousness of film as it stands.” (6) This is surely at the heart of cinephilia, and Augé’s book is a contribution it. It may be a minor work but it feels part of a grand project – a book that contributes to the idea that going to the cinema isn’t simply a viewing experience. It is nothing less than an encounter.
Casablanca: Movies and Memory, by Marc Augé, translated and with an Afterword by Tom Conley, The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009.
- John Thompson, “Deleuze”, in Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (eds), The Cinema Book, second edition, bfi Publishing, London, 1999, p. 340.
- Bernardo Bertolucci in Elena Oumano (ed.), Film Forum: Thirty-Five Top Filmmakers Discuss Their Craft, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1985, p. 181.
- Christopher Petit, “Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty by Peter Biskind”, book review, The Guardian, 23 January 2010.
- Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story, Souvenir Press, London, 1974, p. 4.
- Handke, p. 4.
- Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London, 1979, p. 12.