Photo of Rivette by Moune Jamet

To see a film by Mauritz Stiller, F. W. Murnau, or D. W. Griffith today is striking, and revealing also of the exceptional importance that every human gesture—indeed, the functioning of the entire sensible universe—assumes in their films: an act as simple as drinking, walking or dying possesses a density—the plenitude of meaning and the confused evidence of the sign—that always transcends interpretations and limitations, and that we would be fain to find in films today. Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir are perhaps the only ones who still suggest an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perennial, calm, and sure creation of the world. Silence explains nothing.

The problems begin with the followers of the ‘pioneers’, with the reflections on the miracle. Every reflection implies analysis, and analysis evidently must begin with the basics: we make synthetic films, still clumsy and naïve, from which all life and vigour has fled. The awkward systematization of the language and syntax Griffith had to elaborate, more or less confusedly, in order to be able to express himself, and that were only a superficial consequence of his specific universe, introduced the worm into the fruit that, from then on, with increasingly silent and subtle forms, has not stopped literally devitilizing cinema. The slow creation of a rhetoric, always more refined and nuanced, but also always more mercilessly analytical.

Every discovery, starting from the single shot or the early ‘tableaux’, almost invariably meant another step towards analysis and, more specifically, towards spatio-temporal ellipsis (a close-up is an ellipsis of the spatial context); in the name of the eminent superiority of suggestion, the refusal, soon to be systematically adopted, to show anything except for the bloodless and inoffensive, the alarmed flight away from the living gesture, placed, with its quiet shamelessness, in a concrete space, commanded a fatal and obstinate desiccation of the real. Filmic space—‘cut up’, parceled out, soon enough disoriented in the accumulation of unusual and divergent angles and camera movements—lost all reality, all existence, even. We wound up with a cinema of time, where nothing exists except for the pure duration of successive acts without density or reality: the birth of the dangerous, and entirely gratuitous, notion of rhythm and speed—trying to throw us off track by replacing existence and presence by accumulation, hoping to create a prey from the frenzied multiplication of fleeing shadows.

A cinema of rhetorical discourse, where everything has to conform to formulas—ordinary, polyvalent, and stereotyped for every usage: the universe is captured and destroyed by the trap of formal conventions.

Cinematographically, these correspond to the conventions of reason, and hence of being: a universe struck by superficiality, unreality, atony, inefficiency, insignificance, one that cannot but engender the most complete mistrust because of the formal conventions through which it appears; much less than before, there is here no separation between form and content: the whole object is in the act of appearing; premeditation and routine condemn it, automatically and irrevocably. The great error, then, seems to be the error of an everyday language, indifferent to its object, that of having a ‘grammar’ valid to any and all narratives, instead of a necessary style, a style needed by the narrative—indeed, gradually created by it in the course of its expression. Realism cannot be a solution if we understand the term only as synonymous with the substitution—within preexisting, interchangeable, and immutable frameworks—for conventional signs (entirely adapted to their function and context); with the substitution for other signs that derive all their value from their reference to other worlds, worlds that share no common measure with the world of the screen. The true realist refuses to analyze and dissect his vision a priori, following the usual schemas and employing the usual scalpels, and instead transcribes it, as it is and without intermediary, onto celluloid by putting the camera in direct contact with the reality of his vision.

‘Content’, in its natural effort to express itself, becomes form and language: the living organism is not formless (only the artificially animated is). An act of faith is demanded: in natural power, in the vital force of the interior universe to be born to the sensible world and to express itself, naively: the fact of passing into being, into appearance, shapes it automatically—at least, if no ‘regret’, no prejudice, no complex, no (paralyzing) stench of the ancient rhetoric throws off the game, the magnetic field of the natural miracle, and if no apprehension, no impatience, no lack of faith causes the hand guiding the camera to tremble. We’re suffering from suffocation, from rhetorical intoxication: we have to go back to another cinema—transcription onto celluloid, simple ‘writing’, the establishment of a universe and its concrete realities, without personally interfering with the machinery (…). Simply to inscribe onto film the manifestations, the mode of life and being, the tiny individual cosmos; to film coolly, documentarily; to let the universe live, while the camera is reduced to the role of witness, of the eye. Jean Cocteau was right to introduce the notion of indiscretion: it could not be better said. One must become a ‘voyeur’. When we stop looking for them (‘You wouldn’t have found me if you had looked for me’), visual discoveries follow one another non-stop, in the link that successively observed phenomena have between them, and in their relationship to a gaze they don’t suspect: they are not acting for this gaze. They are in their natural state.

The personality of the creator manifests itself, of course, in his ‘choice’ of angles and in the way he plays with the conventional rhetoric, insofar as what he wants to show differs from an anonymous spectacle and requires, if it is to appear in full, a new gaze, one more curious and devoid of prejudices, for it alone can be fully commensurate with the spectacle. The universe commands this gaze, and yet the gaze itself both imposes and creates this universe; the universe of the creator is but the manifestation, the concrete efflorescence of his gaze and mode of appearing —of this gaze that is nothing other than the appearance of a universe.

This is worth recalling at the end of an analysis whose internal necessities have led us to an artificial division of the real, whose very existence, absurd and contradictory, could not be directly treated as the object, but must materialize at the end of our examination, as that which naturally crowns our examination—as its proof. Universe and gaze, one and the other are the same and only reality: reality only exists through the gaze we direct at it, and the gaze, conversely, depends entirely on its relationship to reality. Indissociable reality, where appearance and appearing are confused, where vision can seem to create matter (Renoir’s travelling shots), and matter can seem implicated in vision—without anteriority, or causal relation. One sole and selfsame reality with two faces, confused and fused in the created work.

Everything else is spectacle.

Post-scriptum: common places and first truths.

Film certainly is a language, and a profoundly signifying one. But it is a language composed, precisely, of concrete signs, which resist being reduced to formulas. It seems unnecessary to recall the unity of the frame, of the take: irremediable record of the instant. There lies the mistake of every literary approximation (grammars, syntaxes, morphologies) no matter how well intentioned. Invariably, systematization neglects, a priori, the complexity of sensible reality as it mounts its theoretical edifice. In this medium, it cannot have grammars, or rule-bound syntaxes, but only empirical routines, hasty generalizations. No shot can be fit to a formula that misses its rich complexity, the virtuality and power that, in their very confusion, are the reality of the shot’s existence. If we attend to this, we can discern some of the lines of force that orient by dint of following the direction taken by the sensible particulars (which remain imponderable) of the magnetic ‘field’. This is nothing at all like words, like abstract and conventional signs, which are organized according to stable rules. A shot always remains on the side of the accidental, of a momentary success that cannot be repeated. A sentence, conversely, can be rewritten at will. Syntactical and rhetorical conventions are consubstantial with the word, and have to participate in the same social convention if they are to allow mutual understanding: Jean Paulhan’s crusade against literary ‘terror’ finds its justification in these facts.(1) But syntax and rhetoric, in film, are an artificial veneer thrown over the living, which escapes them, or which they paralyze, freeze, and kill: no Paulhan is conceivable here, where Terror alone is the law. Natural expression, which, in a conventional and artificial language, must conform to its conventions and artifices, demands a lawless language, always improvised, created, always tentatively adventurous: a continuous improvisation, a perpetual creation.

This English translation by Emiliano Battista was first published – together with a German translation and the original text – in the artist’s book Reisestipendiumsvideo (Travel Stipend Video) by Peter Müller in 2011. Reprinted with the kind permission of Peter Müller and Emiliano Battista.

The photograph of Rivette by Moune Jomet used courtesy of Collection Cinémathèque Française.

Editor’s note

  1. Jean Paulhan (1884-1968), a famous French writer, literary critic and publisher. Rivette is most likely alluding to his noted work of literary criticism The Flowers of Tarbes, or Terror in Literature, published in 1941.