Editor of Cahiers du cinéma between 1965 and 1973, Jean-Louis Comolli’s foundational place in the history of film theory will be assured by several key texts – among them “Technique and Ideology”, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” and “Young Mr Lincoln” – and his central role in the development of a Marxist theoretical approach towards the cinema in the aftermath of May 1968, along with fellow writers at Cahiers such as Jean Narboni, Serge Daney, Pascal Bonitzer and Jean-Pierre Oudart. But his activity in the cinema extends far beyond this period. Having steadily made films over the last 40 years – including the magisterial series on the French electoral machine, Marseille contre Marseille (1996) – Comolli has also pursued a prolonged theoretical pre-occupation with the cinema, which, in various ways, is profoundly defined by his earlier participation in Cahiers. Refreshingly, he has never sought to repudiate his radical past, but, rather, he still lives and works with the achievements and contradictions that marked this period. Together with Narboni, he has recently completed a documentary on their time at Cahiers, while a second collection of his recent writings on the cinema, Corps et cadre, has been published by Éditions Verdier. This two-part interview will concentrate firstly on the period of his involvement with Cahiers, and subsequently on his activity since leaving the magazine.

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In 1961, you arrived in Paris from Algeria.

In Paris I went to the Sorbonne a few times, I attended some lectures, which have still left an impression on me. But, in fact, I spent most of the time in the Cinémathèque. Towards the end of 1961 I began frequenting the Cinémathèque assiduously, where I formed a trio of friends with Jean-André Fieschi and Jean Eustache.

And then one day a gentleman – Jean Douchet – having noticed how often we went to the Cinémathèque, came up to Jean-André and me and proposed that we join Cahiers as writers. My first article appeared in 1962, less than a year after arriving in Paris, an article on Sergeant York [1941] by Howard Hawks. I was astonished, enchanted and very nervous about writing my first article for Cahiers.

Had you already written for other publications?

No. I had written some poetry, but no criticism. At this time the magazine’s contributors were Jean Domarchi, Fereydoun Hoveyda, and a few others, apart from Douchet and Eric Rohmer.

Was Jacques Rivette still there at that stage?

Rivette was still there, but not on the magazine. He wrote very rarely, but he still played a role on the logistical side. What prompted Jean Douchet to scout us out was the desire to bring in young blood. Jean-André and I were very quickly promoted by Rohmer to the position of editorial secretaries, so we played a more active role in the magazine. This period of apprenticeship lasted several months.

Cahiers had a rather classical outlook at the time.

There was a philosophical divergence. Rohmer, in his major articles, such as “Celluloid and Marble,” (1) thought that the work achieved by Cahiers had given an innate strength to the cinema. The cinema was not merely the seventh art, but an art which both contained all the others, and rose above them. It was thus absurd to continue to speak about the cinema in terms of literature or music. The idea was that the cinema had a certain autarky, and that its complexity and richness were not referable to the other arts, which had found their accomplishment in the cinema. With this logic, Rohmer found himself close to the theses of Présence du cinéma, which was Michel Mourlet’s magazine.

The magazine of the Macmahoniens. (2)

Exactly. Rohmer thus found himself in the company of people with a right-wing, even openly fascist, ideological standpoint. Jean-André were rather opposed to this, for cultural reasons above all.

In the end, Rohmer was booted out, and an editorial committee led by Rivette took his place. We had to choose: either side with Rohmer and leave with him, or side with Rivette, which is what we did. There was infinitely more cultural and intellectual common ground between us and Rivette, we were more or less in the same camp. So, we went along with Rivette’s takeover of Cahiers and Jean-André and I continued as editorial secretaries when he became editor.

Some of the older members left at this time, and we recruited people like Jacques Bontemps and André Téchiné, as well as Jean Narboni, who had just arrived from Algeria. So that was the first great crisis which necessitated a choice: a choice of camps, of ideologies, of a way of thinking about the cinema. We were in phase with the ideas Rivette had for the magazine, and felt close to him when he conducted interviews with Boulez, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, which were all more or less disappointing, but nonetheless extremely symbolic of a true opening out towards contemporary thought.

The interview with Barthes led to a long-term collaboration.

It was the point of departure for a relationship which was pursued more deeply with Barthes than any of the others. Rivette did not stay long as editor. He had led the transition from Rohmer and one year later left us to steer the ship. This was in 1965, and when Rivette left, I took his place. This period is very important given how rich it was on the level of theory: the textual work of Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser, and his pupils Rancière and Balibar. We read these people, of course. Douchet was actually the first of us to read Deleuze: he came to me one day and said, “I have just read a great book called Proust and Signs, by this guy called Deleuze.” (3)

With the emergence of the new cinema of the 1960s, Cahiers found a new field of combat. The banning of Rivette’s La Religieuse [1965] scandalised us, and we found ourselves on the frontline of the battle. Cahiers became an organ of struggle against the film’s banning: we organised various protests, wrote an incredibly violent editorial, we were “activists”, we really mobilised for this case.

And the first friction with Daniel Filipacchi (4) occurred at this point, because the banning of La Religieuse prompted Godard to write an editorial (which he did not complete, I had to finish it).

It’s a famous text, targeting André Malraux, the then Minister of Cultural Affairs.

When Filipacchi read it, it was too much for him, so he halted the distribution of this particular issue and told us to write another, less violent editorial, which I accepted, and he re-printed a new edition with the toned-down editorial. This was the first clash with Filipacchi, and it was then that we realised that a newspaper tycoon has the means with which to impose his will.

So, this brings us to 1966, when there were the first festivals highlighting the “young cinema.”

I believe that the most important figure for you at the time was Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Even more than Pasolini, as far as filmmakers were concerned, the one we liked and supported the most was Garrel, with Marie pour mémoire [1967] and Anémone [1966]. Pasolini was important as a thinker, as a film theorist. At the Pesaro festival there was a notable roundtable with Pasolini, Christian Metz, Luc Moullet and a few others, where Pasolini read out his communiqué on “The Cinema of Poetry” (5), which I still have great difficulty in understanding. It’s true that we were on very good terms with Pasolini. But in addition to that there was the emergence of a new cinema: Bertolucci, Bellocchio, Skolimowski, Jancsó, Rocha, Straub, the Quebecois filmmakers.

So in 1967 Cahiers’ forces were highly mobilised in defence of the young cinema. And I think the first “Semaine des Cahiers” [“Cahiers Week”] took place in 1967. We experienced the birth, the effervescence of this new cinema; we wrote about it, conducted interviews with the filmmakers, while not losing sight of the classical American cinema. But it struck us that these films we were writing about were not receiving theatrical distribution. So, we felt the need to become a parallel distributor. For several years we functioned as a sort of travelling salesman for the new cinema, because these films were totally unknown.

Even in 1967 a whole series of positions can be read in the pages of the magazine, as the defence of the new cinema led us to focus more closely on questions of distribution and the conditions of production. We widened the scope of reflection, to take in the economics of the cinema. Embryonic traces of the idea that cinematic forms carry within them political dimensions began to appear.

If there is a link which connects you to your predecessors at Cahiers, it is the idea that there is a moral dimension to form, to technique.

The principal act of faith of the magazine is that forms bear a tremendous ethical correlation. Aesthetics can not be separated from ethics. There is the famous article by Rivette on the tracking shot in Kapò [Gillo Pontecorvo, 1959]. (6) I must admit that we were very Bazinian, but Bazin is more complex than people take him for. He wrote things which, if not contradictory, at least tended to be open. Bazin interested me much more as a theorist than as a critic. He is an excellent critic, probably the best there has ever been, but at the same time, for me what is interesting about him is his theory more than his criticism.

There is more of an affinity between you and Bazin than an opposition. You are by no means “Anti-Bazinian”, as many would have it.

It is an affinity which comes from an opposition, that is what is interesting. In trying to critique Bazin I ended up very close to him. But the epithet “idealist”, which was a kind of bogeyman for us, took precedence. When we said, “Bazin is an idealist,” it was an overly simplistic manner of distancing ourselves from his thought, of course. I am very critical about this.

His mode of thinking was also very dialectical.

Absolutely. He thought about things in both negative and positive terms.

Let’s move on to 1968. There was the Langlois affair…

The Langlois affair broke out, and once again Cahiers became the headquarters for the struggle to prevent Henri Langlois’ dismissal. We mobilised hundreds of filmmakers around the world. It took a lot of our time, a lot of our energy, and quite a few international phone calls (paid for by Filipacchi). This battle was very tough, because we were in direct confrontation with the government, with state power. Given that Malraux was the minister of culture, it was an absurd situation. There were tough demonstrations, clashes, riots, it was a violent crisis. And Cahiers played a key role in it. It was very difficult for the state to accept Langlois’ re-instatement.

This greatly contributed to the politicisation of the magazine. We were in a head-on clash – which we were familiar with from the time of La Religieuse, but this time it was an entire cinematic practice under fire. For us, Langlois was an absolute genius. Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma come directly from Langlois.

We questioned the interests both of state power and of commerce. We were very aware of the commercial character of the state’s attempt to wrest control of the Cinémathèque. And then, two months later, the events of May began. Because we were maniacal activists during the Langlois affair, which we won, we very quickly understood the significance of these events. We rang the CGT-aligned federation of film technicians and workers, (7) who proposed to us that we organise the “États généraux du cinéma” in the École Louis Lumière. The whole team at Cahiers – including former members – mobilised for this, and filming ceased for four or five weeks, ceding to interminable debates and confrontations lasting days on end. We demanded that Cannes, which was taking place at the time, stop the festival, and in the end it actually was stopped.

The “États généraux” were practically a permanent forum for discussion, and then, when there was a demonstration, we filed out from the École Louis Lumière in a contingent.

So you directly participated in the protests?

Yes, with banners and everything!

And the barricades at night?

Yes, we took part in the barricades, of course, like everyone else. In those wanderings which were typical for us, I once ended up in the École normale supérieur, in a corner of which the Situationists had their meetings. I spoke with them, and we were very close, but at the same time there was a firm distinction, because, after all, we did not share the positions adopted by the Situationists.

This is something which was very covert at the time, but later it has become clear that the Situationists have had a major impact your theories.

In fact, when Society of the Spectacle came out, I read it a bit later, not right away. We felt a little bit caught out by this book, whose principal point is to liquidate the entirety of artistic production. In contrast, we always tried to prove that, even from within alienation, there was the possibility of a distancing, of a reflection, of making things more dialectical – this was all rejected by Debord in an extremely violent fashion. I believe that the text on Young Mr Lincoln responds to this. From Debord’s point of view, this film is inevitably a major example of ideological alienation, whereas we tried to show that it is more complicated than that. So I think that it is a way of responding to him.

To come back to the “´États généraux”…

The idea that it was necessary to transform the functioning of the cinema, the cinematic order, was correct and essential. And a lot of technicians began to question their own practice, their way of doing things. The idea arose that, from within the spectacle, as alienation, there was the possibility of struggling, and of understanding how to use one’s tools in order to resist being caught up in the most alienating spectacle. We came to an important conclusion: film practice puts forces into play which are not totally convergent with the surrounding ideology. This is an idea which was lost in the later ideological development of Cahiers, but for me it is something which is absolutely central. What I hold onto from this politicised, leftist period of the magazine is the emphasis placed on practice. The crucial question is: “How does it happen?” You can not focus ideological critique on the explicit discourse of the film, the énoncés, nor even on the personal history of the filmmaker, but, on the contrary, it must be based on practice. Back then, Serge Daney would say: “When I meet a filmmaker, I ask him: what are you doing today? How do you spend your time? Who do you see? Where do you go?” This aspect of the leftist critic of institutions has been eradicated. When you interrogate people about their real practice, you try to understand the implications of their thoughts on the cinema. Even if someone thinks that they are left-wing, they can end up making films that aren’t, and all of a sudden there is a contradiction between the manner of filmmaking and the thoughts about the world you might have.

My friendship with André S. Labarthe was renewed at this time. A whole series of factors led us to have the same sentiment of swirling around in the void. We took a collective decision not to film ’68 – which was a decision both absurd and logical, because we thought that everything that was going on was too important, that it would be betrayed if we filmed it. I agree with Blanchot, who said that he could not figure out how to write about it, that what was happening exceeded the capacity of a writer to do something without sacrificing it, without losing the essential spirit of improvisation, of struggle, and so on. So, every day Labarthe and I went to the École des Beaux-arts – at one point we had closer connections to visual artists making posters than we did with filmmakers! – and it was very clear that strong tensions existed.

French cinema is not a family, or if it is a family, it is a family whose members loathe each other. Hatred is what holds it together. And at this point hatred surfaced. Every day, we were in discussion with people who we didn’t like, who we even, sometimes, detested, who we considered to be genuine enemies. This was the ambiguity of these “États généraux”. The winds of revolution were not enough to sweep away all these contradictions. The sentiment of being cut off, of being at a distance from everyone else – for better and for worse – appeared very strongly.

It was thus at the very end that we decided to film Les deux Marseillaises.

This was after the end of May?

It was right afterwards. One of the first sequences of the film was De Gaulle’s speech, which put an end, in a way, to the events of May. We filmed over the course of several weeks, but already the decision to hold elections had been taken. So we were already in the logic of “election = betrayal”. The libertarian spirit, which was already very much present for me, as well as for other people, in the preceding years, had ripened. Paradoxically, my close friend Jean-André Fieschi did not accept this anti-authoritarian turn. Our rupture took place during one of the last marches of May ’68. On the street he said to me, “You are petty-bourgeois, we must participate in the movements,” whereas for us ’68 was an anti-authoritarian experience. We organised the États généraux with the filmmaking unions but very quickly we arrived at anti-CGT, anti-PCF positions.

Curiously, you allied yourselves with the PCF soon afterwards.

The magazine became politicised, even radicalised across the board during the course of May. Issue number 199 reported on the “États généraux”, while issue number 200 covered the Langlois affair and what took place during May. From this point on we were in a very divergent trajectory with regards to our ownership group. In 1968 relations between us quickly deteriorated and the process of purchasing the magazine was initiated. We had to buy the magazine from Filipacchi, who, it has to be said, was very upstanding about the matter, he did not insist on an exorbitant price. A group of older figures associated with Cahiers – Truffaut, Godard and a few others – managed to purchase the magazine.

This took place later, in 1969, after the editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” came out. (8)

Yes, precisely. Narboni and I had begun to write texts with Marxist references, which made a divorce with Filipacchi inevitable. So, we had re-conquered our independence, and it was a time when the team was at its strongest, at its most cohesive, and when we worked the most. It was the great period of Cahiers’ theoretical work.

How did your adherence to Marxism develop?

Althusser’s role was decisive. We were Althusserians. Let’s say that among the different currents which took shape in the course of May ’68, we felt close to the Althusserians. Why? Because they were theorists. Later, we would still remain within this line – we did not end up orienting ourselves towards the Gauche prolétarienne, the “Mao-Spontex” currents. (9) We remained, in the end, neo-Althusserians or post-Althusserians. I believe that it was in 1969 when an article by Althusser which was extremely important for us – “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” – appeared in the Marxist journal Pensée. (10)

Althusser was a member of the Communist Party, and the influence of Althusser alone explains our “rapprochement” with the Communist Party, but it was not with the Communist Party per se. It was with La Nouvelle Critique, which is not exactly the same thing. La Nouvelle Critique was a journal put out by the central committee of the PCF, so its line was perfectly orthodox, except that it had been re-launched with the express goal of bringing the PCF closer to intellectuals, to reconstitute a bridge, a passage-way. The PCF was aware of being left behind by the revolutionary fringes of the radical left in ’68, and La Nouvelle Critique represented the desire to rebuild links with them. Jean-André Fieschi, our old comrade, had entered La Nouvelle Critique. Bernard Eisenschitz turned towards the PCF a littler later, but he was already writing for La Nouvelle Critique. So, the passage-way for us was already there. We met people from La Nouvelle Critique on numerous occasions, we came to a better understanding with them, to the extent that they were extremely open and sensitive to all the various currents of modernism. La Nouvelle Critique published reams on Othon [Danièle Huillet/Jean-Marie Straub, 1970], for example, with Narboni, Fieschi, etc. And we wrote reams on Ice [1970] by Robert Kramer. There, however, we noticed a divergence with Fieschi, who – albeit with much more subtleness and nuance – espoused the thesis of the institutional communist critics, which was that it was a film about rich kids playing at revolution.

So this rapprochement took place before we asked ourselves, “Do we join the party, or not?” We decided not to join, but for a while, we met with avant-garde intellectuals in the PCF. This turn was prepared by the work carried out on Eisenstein and Vertov, in the “Russia in the 20s” special issue. (11) We were among the first to publish Eisenstein’s texts, so there was a real possibility of working together.

It may seem somewhat contradictory – because May ’68 was an anti-authoritarian experience – to have considered a rapprochement with the PCF, which was very much discomfited during this period, and the CGT, which was hostile to the movement, to the 68ers. But it was not that contradictory inasmuch as there was an attempt at openness and, even while we criticised Althusser’s logic, we had integrated it into our thinking. Althusser had written an article in Le Monde called “The Besieged Fortress” where he described his own relationship to the PCF. (12) His thesis was: “Do not believe that the PCF has actually turned its back on the revolution. If we join the party, if we carry out entryism, we can push it towards more openness.” This was his logic: reform the party. We were not entirely dupes, and we increasingly felt that it was something different – but still, La Nouvelle Critique was not the party. So it was a sort of halfway measure where we could act as if the party was not the party and La Nouvelle Critique was the vanguard of a new party to come, in which case we were in the right place.

It must also be said that the end of May – I don’t mean the failure of ‘68, because it was not a failure – the objective end of 1968 left everyone in a great state of disarray. The Communist Party too, by the way. The question of knowing how to re-launch, how to respond, how to continue the spirit of May, this question was really on the agenda. The least obvious response was to head towards the Communist Party, but we saw the need to draw links with the masses present during May. Certainly, these masses were very divided by ‘68: there were enormous contradictions between different workers parties, and between the union movement and the working masses, and these contradictions came out in the open. So, for us, to join the masses at the level of the party was not obvious, it was a direction we could not accept.

Of course, ‘68 must be understood as a mass movement. It was not a little revolution limited to groups of intellectuals from the Rue d’Ulm. (13) It was a mass movement, which did not emerge with a concrete revolutionary perspective, but which foretold of things to come. So there was a possibility of exiting ‘68 by moving towards the far left and critiquing the PCF, a possibility which was stymied by La Nouvelle Critique.

At the same time, what we called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution broke out in China. All we had from China were texts, such as Pékin-Information (which features in La Chinoise [1967]), which we bought from Félix Maspero’s bookshop on the Boulevard de Sébastopol. So we had a textual knowledge of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and I am not at all embarrassed to say that Mao’s writings have always greatly interested me. I’m thinking above all of his On Contradiction, (14) which is both a very rich, deep text, as well as almost too beautiful to be true. He arrived at a perfect casuistry. There is an element of casuistry in Mao: in his fine-grained analysis of contradictions and his understanding that every contradiction is composed of a primary part and a secondary part, and that each of these parts is itself composed of a primary part and a secondary part, from which one can derive the primary aspect of the secondary contradiction, or the secondary aspect of the primary contradiction. This was fascinating to think about, because it had the merit of departing from the rather poor schematisations of Leninism, of, let us say, Marxism in combat. Marx was infinitely more subtle than this. Marxism suffered a real reduction into a catechism for combatants, whereas Mao rediscovered a deployment of thought, and I found it incredibly useful. So there was already an interest in China.

During the whole post-68 period we were close to Tel Quel, (15) we saw them regularly, we shared articles with each other, and Tel Quel had themselves come closer to La Nouvelle Critique. So we were following the same line. And then, when the Chinese question seemed to truly become important, the contradiction broke out. It was due to this question that all possibility of collaborating with La Nouvelle Critique was halted. It was a particular moment in the intellectual history of France, when the last embers of the PCF’s brand of communism had momentarily attracted us, but this convergence revealed itself to have no future, given that for us what was important was what was happening in China. We didn’t really know what was happening in China. We had not read Simon Leys’ book, Les Habits neufs du Président Mao, which in our eyes was a work of propaganda. (16)

The cultural revolution is still a great mystery.

Everything we knew about China came from a book by Maria-Antonia Macciochi, La Chine, which was enthusiastic about what was happening there. (17) It took us a long time to get out of this mindset. I am still interested in the contradictory nature of this history. Why? Because we were close to La Nouvelle Critique, but we continued to criticise the Communist Party. So there was an element of manifest duality there. We distanced ourselves from La Nouvelle Critique, and we adhered very vaguely to a Maoist programme, or at least to Maoist slogans, without accepting what the other, directly political, Maoist groups thought about the cinema. So, we entered into a system of double contradiction, where ideologically we could be in agreement with Vive la révolution! or with the UJCM-L, the Althusserians, without giving any ground when it came to the cinema. (18) We ferociously critiqued militant films at the time, which we did not like at all. By the way, I recently re-watched some of them in the DVD boxset put out by Éditions Montparnasse, (19) and, unfortunately, they are woefully bad. Films such as Oser lutter, oser vaincre [Jean-Pierre Thorn, 1969] are calamities, they are very bad films.

One militant film which left a great impression on you was La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder[Jacques Willemont, 1968].

We liked that one. It is a film which, without intending it and probably beyond what the filmmakers had in mind, harboured contradictions. Everybody played their roles. This, indeed, was our version of the cinema, where the cinema intervenes in order for everyone to appear in their true social and ideological situation, playing their proper roles, and doing so, as is often the case, to utter perfection.

As with Brecht’s concept of the “Gestus”.

Absolutely. Something takes place there, and I think it’s because it is filmed, because the presence of the crew plays a role, that the girl shouts, screams… Maybe she would not have done so without the camera, we will never know, it doesn’t matter. In any case, a scene was constituted in which the cinema is present. It is apt to speak of a “present cinema” rather than the “direct cinema”. The presence of the cinema induces a field of attraction, a magnetic field in which things appear as they really are. It’s tremendous. The same scene played by actors, I think, would come across as schematic and boring. Does the cinema bring about an inscription of the real? Well, there is an inscription of the real here. This is what the cinema produces and only the cinema is capable of producing it. None of the other forms of expression can attain this state. It is raw cinema, naked cinema, and a magnetic field is produced which makes the body shudder.

I believe that if the direct cinema is produced from an inscription of the real, then, fine – but it’s not the direct method which produces it, it is the fact that the cinema is there. For me it is a matter of the co-presence of the filming body on the one hand and the filmed body on the other hand. This type of cinematic situation is not only unrepeatable, it is not even capable of being prolonged. Nor is it constituted by an entire cinematic corpus. It does not make for a film, but only for a fragment, it is a different logic. This is what I like, I am very much in this other logic. What interests me is the moment when the cinema is inside the film, that is to say, the moment either of a specific configuration of an inscription of the real, or, on the contrary, of the magic of mise en scène creating something which had not existed beforehand.

We were in a very difficult, fraught situation. We had politicised in the magazine, we had radicalised in a Maoist direction, but we still rejected the well-intentioned films of the militant cinema, including Maoist films. This was also when we elaborated the notion of the “left-wing fiction”. We took a position in the ideological combat against what can be characterised as a cinema of left consensus. It was an untenable situation, because we were critiqued from the left, by Cinéthique, most notably, and at the same time we did not take refuge on the right. Quite the opposite, we went on the attack.

In 1970 a fight with Cinéthique broke out: we literally engaged in ideological combat with them, because on the level of theory we were obviously extremely sensitive to what they were developing – notably with “The Base Apparatus”, the text by Jean-Louis Baudry, (20) as well as Marcelin Pleynet, among others. This hit us hard, because we had not come that far in our own theoretical reflection.

Baudry’s text is rather remote from the editorial line of Cinéthique.

Yes, but they made a lot of use of it, and we were attacked by these ultra-leftists. They were to the left of us and they considered us to be rather right-wing, which truly annoyed us. Pascal Bonitzer’s hypothesis is that Tel Quel, irritated by the manner in which Cahiers was radicalising, literally tried to hurl a missile at us in the form of Cinéthique. I don’t think that Cinéthique was a creation of Tel Quel, even if Tel Quel played a certain role in its establishment, but nonetheless, Cinéthique weighed on us greatly. A result of this was the great text “D’une critique à son point critique” (21) where we discussed with them, analysed their political stance, and took it apart, so there was a struggle between the two magazines. At this time I wrote “Technique and Ideology,” propelled by the same concern – Lebel’s book was more of a pretext. (22) Let’s say that through Lebel I attacked, or at least countered, Cinéthique. The divorce with Cinéthique was radical. With the exception of Méditerranée [1963] by Jean-Daniel Pollet [co-director Volker Schlöndorff], we did not like the same cinema.

One can discern in Cinéthique a similar attitude toward the cinema as Debord, a certain aesthetics of negation.

They distinguished themselves by radically rejecting practically the entire cinema. Personally, I have always been concerned with saving the cinema, including the most ideological films. The idea behind “Young Mr Lincoln” was to save Hollywood. (23)

The mission was to find the critical point in these texts, in these films, their ideological fault-lines.

We proceeded from the idea that, if forms have a meaning, it could be – and this is the case with the great Hollywood directors – that this meaning is not that of the characters, or the story the film tells. It could be that this meaning comes from the mise en scène, and there, all of a sudden, forms take on a meaning at odds with the énoncés of the film’s logic. In the end, Young Mister Lincoln is particularly striking because it is a film which, if you read it rapidly, tells us of the Lincoln myth, of bourgeois, mercantile America. Everything is there, justice, absolutely everything. But as soon as you dismantle it, as soon as you deconstruct it, you perceive that it is infinitely more perverse than that, and that the filmmaker manages, on the basis of his work, or his own genius, to endanger, and even squarely overturn, the énoncés which are in the film. This can lead to a much more subtle reading, which in the end shows the film as fiercely critical of Lincoln’s position. This is what is interesting: Lincoln is there, like a statue, and at the same time he is something much more problematic, none of his weaknesses are concealed.

I am very happy with this work. Moreover, it was a collective effort. It was therefore something which was not practised but which was desired, both for the very poor reason of doing away with the personal signature, of overcoming the question of the signature, which was terribly naïve, but also because we believed – and I still believe – in the collective intellectual. I still believe in it because ideas are developed in discussion, in the confrontation that comes with collective work. This text was based on putting these ideas into practice, on asking: can we work as a group? We can! And we did it all the time, because Cahiers in this whole period, and even before 1968, was based on people seeing each other every day, seeing the same films and talking about them. There was something like a circulation of reflection, whoever said something knew that they were being listened to. Everything was listened to and forged anew in this collective. This is why I still have very powerful emotions in relation to this period.

This is not the attitude of everyone from this period. Serge Daney, for example, has spoken of the era in rather scathing terms.

It’s true there was something naïve, of course, something utopian in the simplistic sense of the term. On the other hand, our practice was incredibly rich. The only problem was that it took a lot of work, we had to work like madmen for weeks on end to come out with these 20-page texts. And the contradiction between the magazine format and the work in question was unfortunately flagrant. You can not work like that in a magazine all the time. In the end, we had a rather apocalyptic debate: either we should stop being a monthly, and become a quarterly, like Tel Quel, in order to work more deeply on the films in question. Or, if we remain a monthly, we can not keep working like that.

There was a great difficulty in remaining between the format of a monthly organ and engaging in a work which demanded a lot of time, and which was extremely difficult. We suffered. It so happens, however, that we ended up choosing the films that we should have. I don’t know if we could have done the same thing with many other films.

A mark of this time is the phrase “To be continued”.

That was my mark, my signature.

Not just you, but the writings of Oudart or Bonitzer always finished with the phrase “To be continued”.

We did not want to finish an article before the deadline, so they remained “to be continued.” This “to be continued”, of course, should be taken literally, but also as a kind of metaphor for our global situation. “To be continued”: we could not stop, this is a work in progress. In a way, we could say that a lot of what appeared in this period could constitute the fragments of a single text. There is a coherence, there are explicit or implicit references, quotations. These texts cross paths again and again; in a certain manner, they are one “text” in its essential plurality.

To return to this history: we were left-wing, but we did not like left-wing cinema. I remember in 1970, Serge Daney and I went to Damascus to hold a “Semaine des Cahiers” there. We were hosted by a Syrian filmmaker, Omar Amiralay, an avid reader of Cahiers who had the utterly delirious idea to organise a “Semaine des Cahiers” in Damascus. It was an enormous success, but exactly the opposite of what we wanted happened. We showed Z as a counter-example, but when Daney and I critiqued it we were thrown out of the theatre. They wouldn’t have a bar of it: for them Z [Costa-Gavras, 1969] was a truly progressive film, which denounced the Colonels’ dictatorship, etc. Unfortunately our message did not get across. It was an important test, because, without seeking a provocation, the positions we defended were unacceptable for the great majority of the audience, even those with an interest in the cinema. The audience, let’s say, was aligned with Positif.

So you felt marginalised both in terms of politics and the cinema.

We felt we were in struggle about everything

On two fronts…

We struggled for the “right” cause. For example, we showed Othon to a group of revolutionaries, and it was an utter catastrophe! This is what is interesting to analyse, both in relation to the history of Cahiers as well as in relation to the problem itself, which still prevails today. It is evident that there is a fundamental misunderstanding, which makes us prefer the ideology which flatters us over the forms through which this ideology passes. Deep down, the attitude is: what does the cinema matter, as long as it makes sense! Whereas for us it was the opposite, for us the cinema was absolutely central. It is a position which even today remains in the tiny minority, by definition.

In the early 1970s the politicisation of the magazine reached its most extreme point.

The beginning of the 1970s was not only the moment of the magazine’s political radicalisation, it was also the moment where the attempt to sketch out a theory of the cinema reached its greatest importance. It was very ambitious, very phantasmal, but nonetheless we worked on it. Our little group was functioning. This was when Serge Daney joined the magazine. Pascal Bonitzer joined too; he began to write for us in 1969. We did not dispense with criticism, but we pushed it to the point where it brushed against theory.

Our complicity with Tel Quel gravitated around this question. We had a global stance on the cinema – not a line, it was more open than that, but in any case we were concerned with thinking of the cinema in its entirety: forms, structures, dispositifs, machines, production and distribution, even the place of the spectator. It was the first time, it seems to me, in the history of thinking on the cinema, that this ambition to open the field of questions was manifested. We had points of reference, of course (Bazin, some writers from the 1920s), but at the same time we needed to construct an entire critical approach.

Virtually the only reference point on a practical level was the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, which combined Marxism with film practice.

Evidently, with Dziga Vertov on the one hand, and Eisenstein on the other hand, there was an extraordinary conjunction of filmmakers making tremendous films, and, at the same time, people reflecting theoretically on the cinema, writing on the cinema, who put a planetary conception of the cinema into practice – I’m thinking of Vertov. What characterised his thinking was the idea that the cinema can lead us to discover the principal links between the different regions of a country, or between different countries. The cinema is what unites the disparity, or the variety, of a situation. This thinking fascinated us. We saw, with Vertov and Eisenstein, the possibility of uniting the aesthetic dimension with the theoretical dimension.

In the early 1970s there was also the importance of theories which were not related to the cinema. At this time there were Foucault and Deleuze, who we talked about with each other, but also Lacan. We transformed Lacan’s thought into film theory. I believe the first volume of his Séminaires came out in 1970, which focussed precisely on the gaze. And so there were a certain number of notions which we borrowed, which we used. The Lacanian notion of the “field of the other” [champ de l’autre], for example, was proposed in the first Séminaire.

So, there was this work: to develop a theory of the systems, of the dispositifs of the cinema, through the thinking of Lacan, the Marxism of Althusser, the thinking of Foucault, and then the emergence of Deleuze, who greatly influenced us.

In short, there was a lot of agitation, a lot of theoretical work, and we nonetheless continued our job as missionaries, assisting in getting films out to the audience. The “Semaines des Cahiers” not only continued, but branched out, especially in university towns. There was a new wave of cinephilia, which, for us, replaced the old cinephilia, which seemed to us to have been defeated by history.

Our central problem was how to articulate a reflection on film form with political questions. In my opinion there is a very strong link between the political scope of a film and its form. The form does not have to absolutely be in the avant-garde, but the film must intervene in a cultural field, an ideological field, and this intervention must have political meaning. This was our problem, and this was notably translated into a ferocious critique of a certain number of “left-wing fictions”. I’m thinking of Z, of L’aveu [1970], also by Costa-Gavras…

There was also Karmitz’s film, Coup pour coup [1972].

JLC: There was an issue of Cahiers which confronted, in a hostile manner, Coup pour coup by Marin Karmitz with Godard’s Tout va bien [1972, c0-director Jean-Pierre Gorin]. We placed these films side by side in order to explain why Coup pour coup was not merely a bad film, but also politically dangerous.

In retrospect, perhaps you were too harsh towards Karmitz. With Costa-Gavras, the problems with his films are more flagrant, with their spectacular, thriller aspects. But in the case of Karmitz there was a certain degree of authenticity.

We were not so much targeting Karmitz per se, but rather, a certain logic behind militant cinema: the logic of the live recording of actions, strikes, sequestrations of bosses. I think we were still convinced of the Brechtian notion that to think through social and political problems, one must pass through abstraction, and that nothing occurs in the “direct”. We wagered that the militant cinema could rediscover the essence of Vertov and Eisenstein, that it could go beyond the tradition of journalistic reportage, and push form to the foreground, which is a scandalous notion for the majority of militants, but, in my opinion, it is necessary. It is very important that the question of form – above all in the militant cinema – is brought back to the foreground.

In contrast with the direct cinema, there was Godard’s work at this time, which was a totally different project. I wonder if his trajectory towards Maoism, which pre-dated yours, might have been a catalyst for you, given that he began to attack you for being “revisionists”.

I felt very close to Godard’s ideas, in fundamental solidarity with them, and I believe that Cahiers is the only film journal – or the only journal of any kind – which spoke about Godard’s films of the period from 1968 to 1972, the period of the Groupe Dziga Vertov.

There was Cinéthique, of course, but aside from them you’re right.

I still think that Cinéthique was not interested in the cinema.

Besides Godard.

Besides Godard, and a few others.

In this period, the political radicalisation of the magazine was not without problems, one of which was that our critique of the left-wing fiction and of the militant cinema cut us off from our own base, the radical, militant left. Of course, when we arrived in a theatre for a screening organised by social or cultural activists, we were doomed to failure. We were attacked for being like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Our vision of the cinema, of the place of cinema in society, and the political functioning of the cinema did not coincide with that of the majority of activists, including activists in the cultural field.

It was very problematic. The fringe of militants interested in culture, interested in the cinema, to whom we addressed ourselves, overwhelmingly had a utilitarian vision of the cinema. They screened films purely because the subject coincided with the pressing themes of the moment, and the films merely served to illustrate the problem and kick off discussion. We tried to react against this, with varying degrees of success. Our manner of proceeding did attract the sympathy of some cultural organisers. Alain Bergala, for example, joined Cahiers at the end of this period, in 1972. He contacted us because he led an exemplary cultural organisation in a small town near Paris, and he was precisely one of the cultural organisers who incarnated the possibility of a revolutionary cultural front.

The other figure who joined us at this point was Serge Toubiana. Toubiana was working for a sociological institute. We joined him up because he was a social activist engaged in reflection on the social struggle, while also being interested in the cinema. So for us he was a great recruit, due to the fact that he did not come from a cinephilic background, and we really needed this type of activist.

Could you speak about the group dynamic within Cahiers, your collaborative efforts? How did this function? What were relations between you like?

This is an important question because – without us particularly intending for it to happen, or even being aware of it – a genuine group was formed, in the modern sense of the term, like the Surrealists or the Situationists. This group was not founded on a charismatic personality – we did not have an André Breton among us! The group was formed by itself, it was forged in practice. We had the same interests, refracted through a series of more specific subjects. We were quite different from one another, none of us had a common history, apart from Narboni and I, who had known each in Algeria. Everyone else got to know each other through Cahiers. And this had an important consequence. What tied us together was the emergence of a mode of thinking, which arose collectively, because there was collective work, even if it was not very well organised. I profoundly believe in the collectivisation of ideas. It was the most important experience of my life. It definitively marked me. Posing questions communally is something which has enormously affected me, and my way of life.

For me, the disappearance of this group at the end of 1973 was almost unreal. I took heed of it, I lived through it, I suffered from it. In a way, I continue to refer to this group. After the collapse of the group in 1973, I almost lost the capacity to write. The possibility of writing on the cinema came back to me slowly – fortunately – and each time that I have picked up my pen in order to write in recent years, it is almost as if I am writing from within this group, even though several of its members are now dead.

Could you say more about the contradictions, the tensions, which were present in the theoretical work of the magazine?

Obviously, our group had an extremely elitist character. This was how we distinguished ourselves from other critics. This elitism had two aspects: on the one hand, we liked films which the others did not like. Many of the films we defended were simply never noticed, while others were savagely critiqued. The other thing which differentiated us was the fact that we wanted written texts. This demand for writing was essential for us, above all to radically distinguish ourselves from Positif. They always had a manner of writing which we did not like. The great thinkers I cited before (Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, Barthes) cared about writing, they thought about writing. We laboured on this: our texts had to be written. “Written” means that we took on board the possibility that they would be read, and that the reader could be awoken by what he was reading.

In the period of the end of 1972, and the year 1973, when there were only three or four issues of the journal, there was not a lot of work on films themselves. Instead, there were pleas in favour of our “Revolutionary Cultural Front”, and we had dubbed ourselves the “Lou Sin Group of Ideological Intervention.” And it was at this moment that our ambitions were shattered. Our history and activity over the course of several years were renounced. We made a sacrifice of our great collective adventure.

Would you say that this evolution during the years 1972-1973, this distancing of yourselves from any work on the cinema, was the reflection of a certain frustration with your environment, with the political environment in France? There was a certain time lag between your own political evolution and that of the country, of the working-class, of its radicalised layers.

Indisputably. The adventure of Cahiers between 1968 and 1973 repeated a number of historical attempts. I’m thinking, above all, of the theoretical flowering which took place around the October revolution. It was a moment where, for several months, even a couple of years, there was a junction between avant-garde thought and the revolutionary turn of the country. This junction did not last. Very quickly, the formalists found themselves in prison. We needed to accept this terrible idea that revolution in the arts and revolution among the people did not march to the same drumbeat, and that sometimes they marched at cross-purposes. This was something which we repudiated.

Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am. Being utopian means believing in an interdependence between experiments in form, in language, in style, on the one hand, and revolutionary action on the other hand. Very often, there is an interpenetration between them, various conjunctions, various influences, and it is extremely important that this be maintained.

I am rather convinced that it is through a work on forms, through bringing forms into play, making them work, that we can advance towards revolutionary aims, and that what, in a cyclical manner, suffocates revolutionary ideas is the fact that they pass through old, overly familiar forms, which are too dependent on the adversary. Today, I think it is absurd to talk about the destruction of capital in forms which are those of global private television. This is an enormous contradiction. I think that the work on language is a work which in itself bears revolutionary implications, and that it is necessary to ceaselessly revise, re-work the language of revolution.

How did your exit from the magazine occur?

We emerged from the failure of the Revolutionary Cultural Front bruised and bloodied. Afterwards, we met in a bar one evening, we looked at each other, and without needing to say much at all, we all profoundly understood that our will to continue this project had been broken.

It was not a violent, acrimonious parting?

No, not at all. The collapse of the group took place in 1973, and Jean Narboni and I felt that, even if we were not the editors-in-chief, even if the role was shared with the others, we were morally and politically responsible for the situation, and so Narboni and I effectively withdrew from the magazine. Narboni’s departure consisted in heading off for I don’t know where, whereas I started work on my first fiction film. In August 1973, the group collapsed, and one year later shooting started on La Cecilia [1977]. Thus, I radically distanced myself from the magazine, and I would only return 10 years later, when Serge Daney was editor-in-chief, to write on a couple of things which especially interested me. But I held back from participating in collective discussions. Narboni had returned, but I did not. In a certain manner, this history ended for me at that moment. However, as I said earlier: it has ended, but it will never be over.

Endnotes

  1. Rohmer’s article “Le celluloïd et le marbre” appeared in five instalments, as follows: Part I: “Le bandit philosophe”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 44 (February 1955), pp. 32-37; Part II: “Le Siècle des peintres”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 49 (July 1955), pp. 10-15; Part III: “De la métaphore”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 51 (October 1955), pp. 2-9; Part IV: “Beau comme la musique”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 52 (November 1955), pp. 4-12; Part V: “Architecture d’apocalypse”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 53 (December 1955), pp. 22-30.
  2. The MacMahoniens were named after the MacMahon cinema in Paris, which regularly showed the films of the directors favoured by this critical tendency, in particular, the “four aces” of Walsh, Losey, Lang and Preminger.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Proust et les signes (Paris: PUF, 1964).
  4. Daniel Filipacchi, a prominent media tycoon in France at the time, assumed ownership over Cahiers soon after Rivette’s takeover, before being bought out in 1969.
  5. Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Cinema of Poetry”, in: Movies and Methods vol. I (ed. Bill Nicholas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 542-558.
  6. Jacques Rivette, “De l’abjection (Kapò)”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 120 (June 1961), pp. 54-55.
  7. The Confédération générale de travail was the dominant trade union in France, and was closely aligned with the PCF (the French Communist Party).
  8. Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinéma/Idéologie/Critique”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 216 (October 1969), pp. 11-15.
  9. The Gauche proléterienne (Proletarian Left) was a short-lived but relatively prominent Maoist group in the early 1970s, which espoused a “Spontex” form of Maoism, critical of more strictly hierarchical forms of Leninism.
  10. Louis Althusser, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État”, in: La Pensée no. 151 (June 1970), p. 3-38.
  11. See: Cahier du cinéma no. 220-221 (May-June 1970), numéro spécial: Russie années 20.
  12. Louis Althusser, “La forteresse assiégée,” in: Le Monde.
  13. The Rue d’Ulm was the site of the École normale supérieure, an elite higher education institution where Althusser taught. Many of its students formed the nuclei for the Maoist organisations of this period.
  14. See: Mao Tse-Tung, “On Contradiction” (1937), in: Idem., Mao: On Practice and Contradiction, ed. by Slavoj Zizek, (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 67-102.
  15. The literary journal Tel Quel, under the stewardship of Philippe Sollers, was one of the earliest intellectual organs in France to turn to Maoism, and was a major influence on Cahiers’ own radicalisation.
  16. Simon Leys, Les Habits neufs du Président Mao (Paris: Éditions Champ Libre, 1971)
  17. Maria-Antonia Macciochi, La Chine (Paris: Maspero, 1970.
  18. Vive la révolution! and the UJCM-L (Union of Marxist-Leninist Communist Youth) were two Maoist groupings with heavy Althusserian influences.
  19. .Le cinéma de Mai 68: une histoire, vol. I (DVD, Éditions Montparnasse, 2008).
  20. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Cinéma: effets idéologiques produits par l’appareil de base,” in: Cinéthique no. 7-8 (1970), pp. 1-8.
  21. Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “D’une critique à son point critique”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 217 (November 1969), pp. 7-13.
  22. Comolli’s “Technique et idéologie” appeared over the course of six instalments, as follows: Part I: “Caméra, perspective, profondeur de champ”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 229 (May 1971), pp. 4-21; Part II: “Pour une histoire matérialiste du cinéma”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 230 (July 1971), pp. 51-57; Part III: “Pour la première fois”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 231 (August-September 1971), pp. 42-50; Part IV: “La profondeur du champ ‘primitive’”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 233 (November 1971), pp. 39-45; Part V: “Effacement de la profondeur/avènement de la parole”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 234-235 (December 1971-February 1972), pp. 94-100; Part VI: “Quelle parole?”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 241 (September-October 1972), pp. 20-24.
  23. [collective text], “‘Young Mr Lincoln’ de John Ford”, in: Cahiers du cinéma no. 223 (August 1970), pp. 29-47.

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