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Entries in jean-luc godard (5)


In Which Nothing Is Here But Everything Is Permitted

Versus Godard


Is everything permitted to the one who loves? For example to spy through the slats of the blinds, or to seek in the beloved's garments the signs of his intimacy, or to rummage in his pockets to touch all the objects that, proofs of his betrayals, become proofs of his existence...

Strong in the love that I have for the cinema of Godard, I fish here in troubled waters, and I discover, precious as only the "real" can be, the "vulgarity” of Godard.

I am speaking of Godard‘s two most recent films, which I saw recently in Paris, their sound mixing scarcely finished, in the following order: Deux on trait chases que ie suit d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her); five minutes of recreation (those are Godard’s words, or as, laughing, he said to me "fine del prime tempo”—end of the first part); then, Made in USA.

I think Godard expects a single judgment on these two films; he finished filming Made in USA one summer Friday and began Two or Three Things the following Monday. He edited the two films at the same time, probably in two connecting cutting rooms, like two hotel rooms for an illicit couple. Another prosaic observation — the order in which Godard showed these two films lets one suppose that he prefers Made in USA projected last. (Dulcis in fundo.)

Godard must be a great devourer of newsprint; one can find the origin of his two films in last months' newspapers. The idea for Two or Three Things: comes from a news item read in Le Nouvel Observateur: a married woman (about thirty years old), mother of two children, living in some housing development, prostitutes herself each time the desire seizes her to transform herself from mother of a family to consumer of all those products that neo-capitalism offers to Frechwomen — Paco Rabane dresses, sunglasses, Polaroid cameras, and so on, all things whose acquisition her husband, an auto mechanic and radio ham, cannot guarantee her.

As for Made in USA, it is the Ben Barka affair, revised and corrected by Dashiell Hammett and Apollinaire, with Anna Karina in the role of Humphrey Bogart and Godard in the role of Howard Hawks. Comes the dreaded moment, the instant of the choice that Godard — not without masochism - imposed on us to make when he decided to shoot two films at the same time and to show them one after the other. Thus his victory will be his defeat and his defeat his victory. While Two or Three Things is at its origin a news item, Made in USA is drawn from a political assassination. Let us call to our aid Roland Barthes, who enlightens us on the difference between these two terms; the political assassination is always by definition a partial fact that refers necessarily to a situation existing outside it, before it, and around it: politics. The current event, on the contrary, is a total, or more exactly, an immanent piece of information. It refers formally to nothing other than itself.

But here is Godard reversing this rule scandalously; Made in USA keeps a structure tragically closed, while the current event of Two or Three Things, which ought to have derived its beauty and its meaning—an immanent entity resolving itself into its immediate données— from itself, opens like one of those strange and ineffable flowers of dreams or of hallucinations, which never stop blooming, disclosing in their petals new existences, new vegetal contexts, unpredictable as the resonance that they were brooding over, the things it signifies and their dream duration is unforeseeable.

Now, Made in USA, a political film, a traitor to politics, paralyzed in its great freedom by an ideological conformity, its colors fading from the very fact of the magnificence of their enamels — never in cinema have reds, blues, greens, been so red, so blue, so green, and everything seems true to Atlantic City — which, like Alphaville, should have resembled Paris and on the contrary resembles Atlantic City really too much, just as the “toughs” who should have made one think of Franco-Moroccan gorillas are, more or less in spite of Godard, too "tough” and in the end are only "toughs" — and yet, Made in USA, — the one that I like the less of these two films because it is too Godardian to be able to be really good Godard, here it does have unexpected events, very violent starts, that shake its entire armature; then, its structure recomposes itself, strengthens itself again, becomes enclosed, anti-Godardian. I was alluding to the deaths of the minor characters whom Godard has Anna Karina kill, and which are the sublime moments of the film.

It is as if the old man with the odd Eastern accent, or the writer who is Belmondo's double or the parallel policeman, existed first of all thanks to the bullets that they encounter. Thanks to their blood, and thanks to Karina, who, after having fired, addresses long looks of comfort to them. Godard makes them live in making them die, one by one, and, to end with, we are encircled by these poetic deaths of minor characters.

But it was with Two or Three Things I Know About Her — "her," this is the moment to say it, is not Marina Vlady, but Paris — that I really felt the pleasure of Godard’s "vulgarity." I call “vulgarity" his capacity, his aptitude, to live from day to day, close to things, of living in the world as do journalists, who know how to arrive on events at the right time, and pay for this punctuality by necessarily undergoing the effects even of the most trivial, like the duration of a match flame. This "vulgarity" is to be a little too attentive to everything, and for that we are deeply grateful to Godard. It is for us that he risks that, because it is to us and for us that he speaks directly, to help us, men existing around him, and that is why it seems that he addresses himself always to someone who is very near him and not to eternity. Thus a monolithic current event, like that of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which could be extinguished in itself, becomes "means," "vehicle,” of a discourse that concerns us all. The prostitution of the women of the housing developments is only the pale reflection of the prostitution to which we have all, more or less differently, adapted ourselves, but with less innocence than Marina Vlady with her animal, peasant gentleness.

This new Godard full of anger and pity at the same time makes a single gesture and embraces innumerable souls, who are behind innumerable windows of suburban buildings and whom no one would mourn if floods or the bomb were to cross them out of the world forever. The light becomes pink and blue on the resonant partitions of the low-rent apartments; It is a light that we know already, and that resonates familiarly in us; it is the sun of work days, Wednesday or Thursday, in colonies that do not know that they are colonies (in Made in USA, I had forgotten to Say so, everything seems to happen between ten o'clock in the morning and six o’clock in the afternoon one Sunday in July, the bistros almost deserted, boredom for whoever remains in the city).

During this time someone speaks alone in the next room, and the walls are so thin, that everything that he says reaches us distinctly, like the words of the priest behind the grating of the confessional. It is Godard who speaks a monologue in a low voice. like a speaker operated on for cancer of the throat, and who says the rosary of his reflections on cinema and cinematographic style, questions himself and answers himself, protests, suggests, speaks ironies, explains to us that the shots, whether they are fixed, panoramic or dollied, are autonomous, with an autonomous resonance and an autonomous beauty, and that one must not preoccupy oneself too much with foreseeing a montage, for in every way the order is born automatically starting from the moment when we put one shot after the other, and that ultimately one shot is worth as much as another (Rossellini knows that), that if they are charged with poetry, the relationship will be born in spite of everything... and when his extraordinary moral discourse is seized with a slight shaking — and that often happens — it is as if the presentiment of a tragedy were assailing us; the characters of Two or Three Things I Know About Her will end their day with death, or by turning off the lamps by their beds, either ending not making much difference.

May 1967


In Which There Is An Expression Robert Bresson No Longer Used

The Most of Myself

The following conversation between Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard took place at the end of 1966. Bresson was about to embark on the production for his film Mouchette, just a few months after completing his previous film.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: I have the impression that this film, Au hasard Balthazar, speaks to something very old in you, something you've been thinking about for at least fifteen years, and that all the films you've made during that time have anticipated this one. That's why it seems as if all of your other films can be found in Balthazar. In fact, it's your other films that prefigured this one, as if they were fragments of it.

ROBERT BRESSON: I have thought about it for a long time, but without working on it; that is to say, I worked on it in spurts. I would tire quickly. It was very difficult from the point of view of composition. Because I didn't want to make a film out of sketches, and I wanted this donkey to cross paths with specific groups of humanity that represent its vices. So it was necessary for the groups of people to become involved with one another.

It was also necessary, given that the life of a donkey is a very stable, serene life, to find a movement, a dramatic arc. I had to find a character whose life could parallel the donkey's life, someone who would create this movement, who would give the film the dramatic arc it required. That's when I thought of a girl, a lost little girl. Or rather, the girl who loses herself, and whom I named Marie.

J-LG: When you were creating this donkey character, did you think about the characters from your other films? Because in watching Balthazar today, we get the impression that he has been in all of your films, that he passed through them all. I mean that with him, we also encounter Pickpocket, and Chantal from Diary of a Country Priest, and that makes this seem the most complete of your films. It's the total film "in itself", and with respect to you. Do you agree?

RB: I did not have this feeling while making the film, even though I'd been thinking about it for ten or twelve years. Not continuously. There were off-moments of absolute not-thinking, which might last two or three years. I took up the film, left it, took it up again. . . . At times, I found it too difficult, and I thought I would never make it. So it's true that I thought about it for a long time. And it's possible that what it was, or what it was going to be, can be found in my other films. It seems to me that it's also the freest film I've made, the one to which I've given the most of myself.

You know, it's difficult, usually, to put something of yourself in a film that has to be approved by a producer. But I believe it's good, that it's indispensable even, for films to be made from our experience. I mean, that they not be "set pieces" or merely the execution of a plan (and by plan I also mean project). So a film must not be the pure and simple execution of a plan, even a plan that is personal to you, and even less a plan that is someone else's.

J-LG: Do you feel that your other films were more "set-pieces" than this one? I don't get that impression.

RB: That's not what I meant to say. But for example, when I work with Diary of a Country Priest, which is a book by Bernanos, or with Devigny's story that was the inspiration for A Man Escaped, I'm choosing to work with a subject that hasn't come from me, one that's been approved by a producer; and given that, I try as much as possible to put myself into it. Now, I don't think it's a terrible thing to start from an idea that comes from elsewhere, but in the case of Balthazar, it's possible that the fact that it came from a personal idea, one I had worked on enormously in my mind, even before I started to work on it on paper, it's possible that this is responsible for the impression you have — which gives me a lot of pleasure — that I really put myself into this film, even more than into my other films.

J-LG: I ran into you once, while you were filming, and you said to me, "It's very difficult, I'm improvising a bit." What did you mean by that?

RB: For me, improvisation is fundamental to the creation of cinema. But it's also true that, for a fairly complex work, you need a foundation, a solid foundation. In order to modify something, the point of departure of the thing needs to be very clean and strong. Because without not only a very clean vision of things, but also something written down on paper, you risk getting lost in it. You risk getting lost in a labyrinth of extremely complex givens. You sense, on the contrary, so much more liberty with respect to the structure of a film you've forced yourself to outline, to build that strong foundation.

J-LG: To give you an example: I get the sense that the scene with the sheep at the end is one of the elements that's more improvised than others. Maybe in the beginning you imagined only three or four sheep?

RB: You're right about the improvisation, but not about the number. In fact, I had imagined three or four thousand sheep. I just didn't have them. That's where improvisation came in. I had to pen them together so the group didn't seem too thin (it's like trying to create the impression of a forest with three or four trees), but it always seems to me that what comes quickly, without reflection, is the best work one does. I've done my best work when I've found myself solving problems with the camera that I couldn't fix on paper, that I'd left blank. The vision of things that you discover in an instant behind the camera, that you couldn't have gotten to with words and ideas on paper; you discover or rediscover it in the most cinematographic way that exists, meaning the most creative, the most powerful.

J-LG: I think we might say that for the first time you're describing, or narrating, several things at once (I don't mean that in a pejorative way, not at all) whereas up to now (in Pickpocket, for example), everything happened as if you were following a thread, as if you were exploring a single thread. Here, there are several threads at once.

RB: I agree that the storylines of my other films are quite simple, quite obvious, whereas that of Balthazar is made up of many lines that intersect. And it was the contact between them, even when it was accidental, that sparked my most creative work, at the same time forcing me, perhaps unconsciously, to put more of myself into this film. I believe very strongly in working intuitively. But only after a long period of reflection. Specifically, reflection regarding composition. It seems to me that composition is very important, that perhaps composition is even the point of origin of a film.

That said, the composition can be spontaneous, can spring from improvisation. In any case: it's the composition that makes the film. Because we're taking elements that already exist: what matters is the connections between things, their proximity, and in the end, their composition. Sometimes it's precisely in the relations — which can be very intuitive — that we establish between things that we are able to find ourselves. And I'm thinking of another fact: It's also by way of intuition that we discover another person. In any case, more so by intuition than by reflection.

In Balthazar, the abundance of variables and the difficulties caused by them forced me to expend an extraordinary amount of effort: first, during the writing on paper, and then during the shooting, everything was extremely difficult to accomplish. So I didn't realize that three-quarters of my shots were exteriors! Now, if you think about the rainfall we had last year, you understand what that meant in terms of additional difficulties. Even more so since I wanted all of my shots to take place in sunlight. And I did, in the end, shoot only beneath sunlight.

J-LG: Why were you so committed to sunlight?

RB: It's very simple, really. I have seen too many films where it's gray or dark outside — which can create a very beautiful effect, of course — but then the next shot suddenly shifts into a sunny room. I've always found that unacceptable. But it happens so often when we move between interiors and exteriors because there's always additional lighting inside, artificial light, and when we go outside this disappears. Which causes a completely false disconnect. Now, you are aware — and surely you're like me in this respect — that I'm obsessed with the real. Down to the smallest detail. Fake lighting is as treacherous as fake dialogue, fake gestures. Which is where my concern for an equilibrium of light comes from, so that when we enter a house there will be less sunlight than there was outside. Am I being clear?

J-LG: Yes, yes. Very clear.

RB: There's another reason that may be more correct, more profound. You know that I lean toward the side — not intentionally, mind you — of simplification. And let me clarify right away: I believe that simplification is something one must never seek. If you've worked hard enough, simplification should arrive of its own accord. But you must not look for simplification, or simplicity, too soon, for that's what leads to bad painting, bad literature, bad poetry. . . . So I lean toward simplification — and I barely realize it — but this simplification requires, from the point of view of the photographic shot, a certain force, a certain vigor. If I simplify my plot and at the same time my image fails (because the contours aren't well enough defined, the contrast isn't strong enough), I risk falling into mere sequence. I, like you, believe that the camera is a dangerous thing; meaning it's too easy, too convenient, we have to almost forgive ourselves for it: but we have to know how to use it.

J-LG: Yes, you have to, if I can say it like this, desecrate the technology of the camera, push it to its . . . But for me, I do that differently as I'm more, let's say, impulsive. In any case, you can't take it for what it is. Like the fact that you wanted sunshine so that the shot wouldn't collapse. You forced it that way, to keep its dignity, its rigor . . . which three-quarters of the rest don't do.

RB: That's to say that you have to know exactly what you want in terms of aesthetics, and do what you need to do to realize it. The image you have in your mind, you have to see it in advance, literally see it on the screen (understanding that there will be a distinction, even a total difference between what you see and what you end up with), and this image. You have to make it exactly the way you desire it, the way you see it when you close your eyes.

J-LG: You've been called the cineaste of ellipses. I imagine that for people who watch your films with this idea in mind, you've outdone yourself with Balthazar. I'll give you an example: In the scene with the two car accidents (if we can say two, since we see only one of them), do you feel as if you're creating an ellipsis by showing just the first one? I don't think you thought of this as withholding a shot, but as placing one shot after another shot. Is this true?

RB: Concerning the two skidding cars, I think because we've already seen the first, it's pointless to show the second. I prefer to let people imagine it. If I had made people imagine the first one, then there would have been something lacking. And I like seeing it: I find it pretty, a car spinning around on the road. But after that, I'd rather make the next image out of sound. Any chance I can replace an image with a sound, I do. And I do it more and more.

J-LG: And if you were able to replace all of the images with sounds? I mean . . . I'm thinking about a kind of inversion of the functions of image and sound. We could have images, sure, but it would be the sound that would be the important element.

RB: As far as that goes, it's true that the ear is much more creative than the eye. The eye is lazy. The ear, on the contrary, is inventive: it's much more attentive, whereas the eye is content to receive, other than in exceptional cases when it, too, invents, but through fantasy. The ear is, in some sense, far more evocative and profound. The whistle of a train, for example, can call to mind the image of an entire station: sometimes of a precise station you know, sometimes of the atmosphere of a station, or of tracks with a stopped train. The possible evocations are innumerable. What's good about this, this function of sound, is that it leaves the viewer free. And that's what we must strive toward: leaving viewers as free as possible. And at the same time, you have to make them learn to love this freedom. You have to make them love the way you render things. That is, show them things in the order and in the way in which you want them seen and felt; make others see those things, by presenting them in the way you see them and feel them yourself; and do all of this while leaving them great liberty, while making them free. Now, sound evokes this freedom in greater measure than does imagery.

J-LG: Why focus on vice? For me, humanity is not only about vice.

RB: The film takes two ideas, two schemes, if you like, as its points of departure. First scheme: The donkey takes the same steps in his life that man does. That is to say: childhood (caresses); maturity (work, talent, the genius/brilliance of mid-life); and then the mystical period that comes before death. Second scheme, which overlaps with this one and becomes a part of it: the trajectory of this donkey that happens upon different groups representing the vices of humanity, from which they suffer and die. So those are the two schemes, and that's why I mentioned the vices of humanity. Because the donkey itself can't suffer from beauty, nor from charity, nor from intelligence . . . It's obliged to suffer from what makes us suffer.

J-LG: And Marie is, if I dare say it, another donkey.

RB: She's the character parallel to the donkey, who ends up suffering the way it suffers. So, for instance, with avarice. She's denied food (she's even forced to steal a jar of jam), just as the donkey is refused oats. She is subjected to the same things as he is. She is subjected to lust as well. She is subjected . . . not exactly to rape, maybe, but something close to it. So you see what I was trying to do. And it was very difficult, because the two schemes that I just described to you couldn't be only the effect of a system, they couldn't appear to be systematic. And also, the donkey couldn't simply return as a leitmotif with its judicious eye, observing what humanity does. That was the danger. I had to achieve something fairly regulated but that wouldn't seem so, in the same way that these vices shouldn't give the sense of existing just as vices that disturb the donkey. If I said "vices" it's because in the beginning these really were vices, ones from which the donkey was made to suffer; but I softened the systematic quality of this in order to refine the construction, the composition.

J-LG: And the character of Arnold? If we had to define him . . . Not that I want to define him necessarily, but if we had to, if we were forced to give clues to his character, or to make him represent certain things rather than other things, what would we say? What would you say?

RB: He represents, to a degree, intoxication — in other words, gluttony — but he also represents grandeur, a kind of freedom among men.

J-LG: Yes. Because when you see him, you're forced to think about some very particular things . . . Also, he looks a bit like Christ.

RB: Yes, but that wasn't on purpose. Not at all. He represented intoxication above all; because when he hasn't drunk, he's sweet, and when he has drunk, he fights with the donkey, revealing one of the things that must be the most incomprehensible for an animal — the way the same person can be modified by the consumption of a bottle of liquid. And that — it's something that must stupefy animals, that must make them suffer dearly. At the same time, I immediately sensed the grandeur of his character. And maybe also a parallelism with the donkey: they share a particular sensibility about things. Something we find, maybe, in certain animals that are very sensitive to objects. You know how animals can falter, can swerve from an object when they see it. I take this to mean that objects count a lot for animals; more, maybe, than they do for us, who are used to them and who, unfortunately, don't always pay attention to them. So there is parallelism there too. I intuited it, but I wasn't going after it. All of this happened spontaneously. I didn't want to be too systematic. But as soon as there was grandeur, of course I sensed it and didn't push it away, I let it happen. It's interesting to start with a fairly strict outline, and then to discover the ways in which we might manipulate it, how we end up with something suppler, and yet, at the same time, intuitive.

J-LG: I'm suddenly reminded that you're a person who deeply loves painting.

RB: I am a painter. And maybe that's a way to return to your idea. Because I'm not really a writer. I write, yes, but I force myself to write and so I write, I'm aware of this, a bit the way I paint (or, to be more accurate, painted, because I no longer paint, but I will paint again), that is to say that I'm not capable of typing until the ribbon runs out; I am capable of writing from left to right, and of aligning a few words in this way, but I can't do it for a long time, not continuously. For me, when I write, I write the way I apply color: I put a bit to the left, and a bit to the right, a bit in the middle; I stop, I start again . . . and it's only after something has been written and I'm no longer annihilated by the blank page that I can start to fill in the holes. So, not a whole ribbon at once. And that's how the film was made. I mean that I placed some things at the beginning, some things at the end, and some other things in the middle; I took notes when I thought of it — every year, every other year — and then it was in the act of reassembling all of this that the film was made, much the way the final arrangement of colors in a painting expresses the relations between things. But the risk of this film was a lack of unity. Fortunately, I was well aware of the danger dispersion poses to a film (it's the biggest danger, the trap almost every film falls into). I had a serious fear that mine wouldn't become unified. I knew that unity, in this case, would be hard won. Maybe it is less unified than my other films: but maybe, as you said a moment ago, this is an advantage.

J-LG: I only wanted to say that your other films followed straight lines, and that this one is made more of concentric circles — if I had to come up with an image for comparison's sake — concentric circles that intersect each other.

RB: I know this film has less unity than the others, but I've done what I can for it by presenting it as one thing, thinking that because of the donkey it would wind up forming a kind of unity on its own. I couldn't have done otherwise. The film also has, perhaps, a unity of vision, a unity of angle, a unity in the way I cut the scenes and shots together . . . Because anything can bestow unity. Even a way of speaking. In fact, that's what I'm always looking for. Almost all the people in the film talk in the same way; unity is, essentially, revealed through form.

J-LG: And how do you see questions of form? I know we don't think about it much, at least not during the making of a film, but we do think about it after. For example, when we're editing, we aren't thinking about it. At the same time, I always ask myself afterward: Why did I cut there instead of there? And for others, too, it's the only thing I can never understand: Why they cut, why they don't cut.

RB: Like you, I think it's something that has to become purely intuitive. If it isn't intuitive, it's going to be bad. In any case, for me that's the most important thing.

J-LG: And yet it must be possible to analyze it . . .

RB: Well, I see my film only through the lens of form. It's strange: When I watch it again, I see only the shots. I have no idea whether the film is emotionally effective or not.

J-LG: I think it takes a very long time to be able to watch one of your own films. One day, you'll find yourself in a small village, in Japan or somewhere, and then you'll be able to re-watch your film. At that moment, you'll be able to encounter it as an unknown object, the way a normal viewer would. But I think it really takes a very long time. Also, you can't be expecting to see it.

RB: To return for a moment: in my own work I attach a great importance to form. An enormous importance. And I believe that form generates rhythm. And that rhythm is all-powerful. It's the primary thing. Even when you add a voice-over, this voice-over is initially seen, is felt, as a rhythm. Next, there's color: it can be warm or cold. And then there's meaning. But the meaning arrives last. Now, I believe the question of accessibility to the public is above all one of rhythm. I'm convinced of it. So in the composition of a shot, of a sequence, rhythm comes first. But this composition can't be premeditated, it has to be purely intuited. It happens, for example, when we're shooting outside, and we're faced with an absolutely unknown setting the night before. When confronted with the unknown, we're forced to improvise. And this is a good thing: the obligation to find, and to find quickly, a new equilibrium for the shot we're creating. So even then, I don't believe in thinking too much. Overthinking reduces everything to the mere execution of a plan. Things need to happen impulsively.

J-LG: Your ideas about cinema — if you have any — have they evolved, and in what way? How do you film now, compared to yesterday or the day before yesterday? And how do you think about cinema after your last film? For me, I now realize that I did have, three or four years ago, ideas about cinema. But I don't have any now. And to change that, I need to continue to make films, so I can generate some new ideas for myself. Let me ask you, then: How do you see yourself in relation to cinema? I don't mean in relation to the kind of cinema that exists, but in relation to the art of cinema?

RB: Yes, but I should first tell you how I see myself in relation to what's being made. Just yesterday someone asked me (it's a reproach that's made of me sometimes, perhaps without meaning to be one but nevertheless . . .): "Why don't you ever go see films?" And it's true: I don't go to see them. It's because they frighten me. That's the only reason. Because I sense I'm moving away from them, from contemporary films, more and more each day. And this frightens me because I see that these films are being embraced by the public, and I don't foresee that happening with my films. So I'm afraid. Afraid to propose something to a public with a sensibility for another thing, a public that will be insensitive to what I'm doing. But also, it's good for me see a contemporary film from time to time. To see just how big the difference is. So I'm realizing that without meaning to, I've distanced myself more and more from a kind of cinema I feel is moving in the wrong direction — that's settling deeper into music-hall, into filmed theater, that's losing its interest (not only its interest, but its power) — and heading for catastrophe. It isn't that the films are too expensive, or that television poses a threat, but simply that that kind of cinema isn't an art, though it pretends to be one; it's a false art, trying to express itself using the form of another art. There's nothing worse or more ineffectual than that kind of art. As for what I'm trying to do myself, with these images and sounds, of course I feel I'm right and they're wrong. But I also get the sense that I have access to too many means, which I try to pare down, reduce (for what also kills cinema is the profusion of means, the abundance; abundance can never bring anything to art). That moreover, I'm in possession of extraordinary means all my own.

J-LG: You were speaking a moment ago of actors . . .

RB: There's an unbridgeable gap between an actor — even one who is trying to forget himself, to not control himself — and a person who has no experience being on film, no experience with the theater, a person used as brute material, who doesn't know what he is and who ends up giving what he never intended to give to anyone.

The way you capture emotion is through practicing scales, through playing in the most regular, mechanical way. Not by trying to force emotion, the way a virtuoso does. That's what I'm trying to say: an actor is a virtuoso. Instead of giving you the exact thing that you can feel, actors force their emotion on top of it, as if to tell you, "Here's how you should feel things!"

J-LG: It's as if a painter hired an actor instead of a model. As if he said to himself: instead of using this washerwoman, let's hire a great actress who will pose much better than this woman. It that sense, I completely understand you.

RB: And I want to be clear that this is not at all to diminish the work of actors. To the contrary, I have an enormous amount of admiration for great actors. I think theater is marvelous! And I think it's extraordinary, to learn how to create with your body. But let's not confuse things! People have said to me, "You don't use actors because you're proud." But what does that mean? I reply: "Do you think it's fun for me not to use actors?" Not only is it not fun, it's an incredible amount of work. And I've only made six or seven films. . . . Do you think I like being stalled all the time? Not working? I don't like it at all! I want to work, I would much prefer to be working all the time. And why haven't I been able to make more films? Because I don't use actors! Because by making that choice, I have separated myself from the commercial aspect of cinema, which is based on movie stars. So to say a thing like that: It's absurd!

J-LG: It must be said that the theater is older. It's existed for so long, we have a hard time not referring to it.

RB: Yes, and to think that it still exists. And those people who think, who sometimes write (I've even read this recently) that silent films are the only pure cinema! Imagine!

J-LG: They say that, yes, but that doesn't change the fact that when they watch a silent film they can't stand it!

RB: And what I was saying goes a lot further: There was never such a thing as silent film! It never existed! Because people still spoke, they just spoke into the void, we didn't hear what they were saying. So please don't say that we created a silent style! It's absurd. There were a few, like Chaplin and Keaton, who did create a style, a marvelous style of gestures and mimicry, but the style they gave their films was not a "silent style." I will address this too in my book. I do believe it's the time for it. But to work any more on it: it won't be quick. And whenever I try, I fail. Because a film, for me, it isn't just the work on the film, but it's being inside the film. I think about it. Everything I experience, everything I see, is from inside the film, gets processed through the film. To leave it is to travel to a different country. So I'm not getting anywhere with the book. And yet, I need to. I'm very impatient to write it. I believe now is the time. Because cinema is collapsing!! And what a fall it will be.

Yesterday I went to the Cinerama. Because, you know, you can get there by way of Studiorama. And often I'll sit in the balcony, where it's empty, and from where you can see the immense screen that covers every surface. It has quite an effect! . . . And the trains that leave from one end and come straight toward you! It's magnificent, this invention! People leave from your right pocket and return to your left pocket! And when it's a train . . . it's marvelous! So, yesterday, in the balcony — and there was a pair of lovers who, by the way, weren't watching the film at all — yesterday I was in this room where a certain kind of cinema takes place, and I was stupefied!

J-LG: The same thing happened to me four days ago at Studiorama. I went to the restrooms, which are on the same floor of the Cinerama balcony, and I went in and took a seat there. And it's true: You enter the theater. . . . I saw a few frames of the film: madmen writhing around. That's when you realize that cinema is not the same thing as cinematography.

RB: Absolutely! That's what it is now, the cinema.

RB: Terrible feelings! Feelings of absolute falsehood, as if falsehood had been captured by a miraculous machine, and then amplified. For what you have is the deliberate amplification of the false, so that it will really get into the audience's head. And when they have that in their head, I guarantee it will be hard to make them leave!

I think the disparity really comes down to this: the cinema copies life (or photography), whereas I recreate life from elements that are as crude as possible.

J-LG: We could further specify what was just said about cinematography, as opposed to cinema: that it is more moralistic.

RB: Or, if you like, that it's more like the system of poetry. Take the most disparate elements in the world, and bring them together in a certain order that is not the usual order but your own order. The elements must be raw. The cinema, in contrast, recopies life using actors and films this copy of life. So we are absolutely not on the same terrain. When you talk about the contemporary, or contemporaneity: I don't think about it at all. And if reference to the era comes up, well then maybe I think about it, in the sense that I might say to myself, in fact, that I'd rather be outside of the era. From the moment when I'm trying to go deeply into the interior of a living being, this becomes one of the dangers I need to avoid. Here, I'm adding another thing that I've never said and that's important: the biggest difficulty with what I'm trying to do by penetrating into the unknown essence of ourselves . . . the greatest difficulty is that my means are exterior means and thus function in relation to appearances, all appearances: the appearance of the person himself, and the appearance of what surrounds him. The great difficulty is, then, to remain in the interior, without moving to the exterior; it's to avoid producing a sudden, terrible sundering. And that's what happens to me sometimes; and when it does, I try to repair my mistake.

I'll take an example from my film: the misbehaving boys. When they throw oil on the road and the cars skid, at that moment I'm completely exterior. And it's a great danger. So I correct myself as well as I can to refocus on what's going on inside these boys.

J-LG: There are two tendencies that you have, and I don't know which one you would think corresponds most to who you are: You are, on the one hand, a humanist, and on the other hand, an inquisitor. Are these two things reconcilable, or is there a . . . ?

RB: An inquisitor? In what sense? Not in the sense of . . .

J-LG: Ah, not in the sense of the Gestapo, of course! But in a sense, let us say . . .

RB: Ah! No. No.

J-LG: Or, let's say instead: Jansenist.

RB: Jansenist? Well, in the sense of the starkness . . . You can also find Jansenism — and this is an impression I have myself — in the idea that our life is made both of predestination (Jansenism, in effect) and of chance. Chance was perhaps, without my realizing it, the point of departure for the film.

To be precise, the point of departure was a sudden vision of a film in which the donkey is the main character.

J-LG: Like Dostoevsky — whom you quote in the film — who saw a donkey and had a sudden revelation. And that little passage, in just a few words, says so much . . .

RB: Yes, It's marvelous. You think I should have used it as an epigraph?

J-LG: No . . . No. But it's good to have put it inside . . .

RB: Yes. I was awestruck when I read that. But I read it after thinking about the donkey, you know. In fact . . . the truth is I had read The Idiot, but I hadn't paid much attention. And then, two or three years ago, while rereading The Idiot, I said to myself: this passage! What an incredible idea!

J-LG: That's it: you came to the idea just as Myshkin did . . .

RB: Absolutely admirable to make an idiot be informed by an animal, to make him see life through an animal — one that passes for an idiot, but has such intelligence! And to compare this idiot (but you know what he is: you know he is actually more intelligent and refined than anyone), to compare him to the animal that passes for idiotic and that is in fact the most intelligent and refined of all. It's magnificent! Magnificent: this idea to create an idiot after seeing a donkey and hearing him bray, say: "I understand now!" That is extraordinary, it's genius. But that isn't the idea of my film. The idea may have arrived by way of aesthetics. Because I'm a painter. The head of a donkey seems, to me, to be worth admiring. Yes, aesthetics, without a doubt. But suddenly I envisioned the film. Then I lost it, and the next morning, when I tried to get back to it. . . . Later, I found it again.

J-LG: But when you were young, you hadn't seen . . .

RB: Yes! I had seen tons of donkeys. Yes, of course, I had seen them . . . And childhood plays an important role too, of course.

J-LG: Roger Leenhardt also saw plenty of donkeys in his youth . . .

RB: But you know, the donkey is a marvelous animal. And there's another thing I can tell you: I had a serious fear, not only in writing, but in shooting the film, that the donkey would not become a character like the others, that it would read as a trained donkey, a trick donkey. So I chose to use a donkey that knew how to do exactly nothing. Not even how to pull a wagon. In fact, I had a very difficult time training it to pull a wagon for the film. Everything I thought it would do for me it refused to do, and all that I thought it would refuse it accomplished. To pull a wagon, for example. We think donkeys do that. But it isn't true! And I also asked myself: When will I need to train it for the circus? At some point I stopped the film and gave the idiot donkey back to the trainer so that we could shoot the circus scenes. I had to wait two months to shoot those scenes!

J-LG: Yes, in the circus scene he really had to know how to click his heels!

RB: So I waited two months for the donkey to be ready. In fact, that's why the film was a bit late. But at the beginning I was very worried. I had wanted for this animal, though just an animal, to be raw material as well. And maybe the donkey's expressions at certain moments, when he's looking at the other animals for example, or at the characters, maybe they would have been different if he'd been a trained, fully tame donkey. But I discovered, or verified rather, something that contradicts everything we think we know about donkeys (and even though this didn't surprise me, it did impress me): the donkey is not a stubborn animal. Or if it is, it's only because it's so much more sensitive than others. When a donkey is brutalized, it will freeze and stop reacting. The trainer (an intelligent man and an excellent trainer) told me when I asked if donkeys are harder to train than horses: It's exactly the opposite: horses, which are stupid, are fairly hard to train, but donkeys, as soon as you tell them something, as long as you don't make the wrong gesture, they know exactly what they're supposed to do.

J-LG: I'm thinking now of a different point of view, a formal one: the angle, or the width, you had to use to film the donkey's expressions so that we can see them.

RB: Of course.

J-LG: The donkey looks to the side, while our eyes face front.

RB: Yes, of course.

J-LG: And you had to be certain . . . You couldn't be a millimeter too far to the left or the right . . .

RB: There's another thing too: With this animal I didn't experience the obstacles I expected, but did experience other obstacles of an entirely different order. For example, when I shot the exteriors in the mountains or around Paris, I was using a small camera that made some noise. As soon as the camera came too close to the donkey, the noise prevented it from doing anything at all. You can imagine how much of a challenge this presented! So I had to distract the donkey in order to capture his expression. But I was also able, at times, to make use of his attention to the noise to capture other expressions. In any case, this kind of challenge, plus the rain, it all made the filming very difficult and I was forced to improvise. I was constantly having to change my plan. I couldn't do this thing at that location; I had to do some other thing at some other location. For the whole final scene, the death of the donkey, I was terribly worried that I wouldn't get what I wanted. I had such trouble getting the donkey to do what he was supposed to do, what I needed him to do. And he did it only once, but at least he did it. And sometimes I had to provoke him using strategies that weren't the ones I'd planned. This occurs at the moment in the film when the donkey hears the bells and perks up his ears. It only worked because I caught something at the last minute, when he gave me the reaction I needed. He did it only once, but it was wonderful. That's a kind of joy that filming can sometimes deliver. You're in deep trouble, and then a miracle happens.

And I love the title. Someone said to me, "I don't like the rhyme in the title." I replied, "But it's marvelous, a rhymed title."

J-LG: Yes, a title like that is a marvelous thing.

RB: And, on top of that, how appropriate it is for the film: By chance Balthazar . . .Which brings us back to Jansenism, because I really do believe that our life is made up of both predestination and chance. When we study the lives of individuals, especially of exceptional individuals, it's something we see very clearly. I'm thinking of the life of Saint Ignatius, for example, about whom I once thought I would make a film (I won't). Well, in studying the curious life of this man who founded the greatest religious order (the most popular, in any case, and one that spread all over the world). In studying his life, you get the sense that he was predestined for it, and yet all along his path to founding the order there are these chance events, chance encounters, through which you can see how, little by little, he came to understand what he had to do.

It's also the case, to some degree, with the escapee in A Man Escaped. He's heading toward a certain point. He has absolutely no idea what awaits him on the other side. He gets there. And once there, he has to choose. He chooses. And he arrives at another point. And there, again, chance makes him choose something else.

Because essentially, if you pay enough attention you see that things resemble each other in life. Even the simplest life, the most mundane, resembles another life, another human being. But with accidents, with different strokes of luck . . . In the case of great men, it's clear because we talk about them, because we know the details of their lives, but I am persuaded that all of our lives are made in exactly the same way: out of predestination and chance. We're well aware that the essence of who we are is already formed by the age of five or six. By that point it's more or less finished. At twelve or thirteen, it starts to become visible. And after that we continue to be what we've been, taking advantage of different opportunities. We use them to cultivate what was already in us, what — if we don't get the chance to cultivate it — might not be visible about us. I'm convinced that we're surrounded by people with talent and genius, I'm certain of it, but the chances that life give us . . . it takes so many coincidences for a man to be able to make use of his genius.

I have a feeling that people are much more intelligent, much more gifted; but that life crushes them. Immediately. They get crushed because nothing is more frightening than talent or genius. It makes us uneasy. Parents fear it. So they squash it. And in animals, there must be some very smart ones that we destroy with training, by beating them. . . .

J-LG: As far as your projects go, are you still thinking about Lancelot?

RB: Yes, I hope to make that film. But in two languages. In French, of course, and in English. It's exactly the type of film that should be made in two languages (and I should really also make it in German), because the same legend exists in our mythology and in the Anglo-Saxon. Plus those stories were originally written in the two languages. We have the transcription of Chevalier de la charrette. Then there came Perceval le Gallois, and also Tristan . . . So these are the first poems, sung and recited, that emerged from the legend of the Grail; later written down by scribes and by monks who added elements from their religious orders. What interests me is this: to revive an old legend that is known all over Europe. And if I can make the film in English, I'll have a little more money in the beginning, which is important since I can't make this film with exclusively French money . . . unless I hire movie stars. French movie stars. And I don't want to. But I do hope I'll be able to make it in the two languages.

However, I won't be emphasizing the fairy-tale aspect of the legend — I mean the actual fairies, Merlin etc. Instead I will try to transpose that element into the domain of emotion: to show the ways in which emotion modifies the very air we breathe. In any case, I think we wouldn't believe in fairies of that kind today; and in film, belief is crucial. So I'll try to transpose the fairy side of things into emotion and make it so that the emotions have an effect on the incidents that occur in the film. So if I can inspire somebody's confidence, I'll get to work.

And I would also like — as an exercise — to make La Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette. It's a difficult one, of course.

J-LG: The character of Marie in Au hasard Balthazar resembles Chantal in Bernanos's other novel, La Joie, which at one point I wanted to make into a film myself.

RB: Yes, perhaps. I'm sure I've read La Joie, but you know I don't read many novels . . . But I must have read at least some passages from it. The ending, maybe . . . And the novel ends, if I remember correctly, with the death of a priest.

J-LG: Yes, that's right.

RB: But the character in La nouvelle histoire de Mouchette is quite wonderful, in that it's still about childhood — that period between childhood and adolescence — shown in all its difficulty. Which is not to say inanity, but really something like catastrophe. And that's admirable, and it's what I would try to do. And rather than spreading out (I've always tried not to spread myself too thin) among a proliferation of lives and people, I'll try to remain constantly, devotedly, on one face — the face of this young girl — to observe her reactions. And, yes, I'll choose the girl who is most awkward, the least like an actress, the least like a performer (which children, especially girls, so often are, and incorrigibly so). Basically I'll take the most awkward girl I can find and try to get from her everything that she'll think I can't. That's why this interests me. And why, obviously, the camera won't stray from her.

J-LG: Would you consider giving her an accent? Bernanos talks about her horrible Picardie accent.

RB: No. Absolutely not. I don't like accents . . . Bernanos has wonderful flashes of brilliance. There are two or three things that he discovers, that he says about the girl, that are extraordinary. Not having to do with psychology . . .

J-LG: Yes, I remember. He says that just as they're talking to her about death, it's as if they've told her that she gets to be a grand dame under Louis XIV . . . I mean, there's a fabulous elision there. And it's true, it's not psychology, but it's something so profound.

RB: It's not psychology, but I think that's the point (and we will return to what interests us so much about that). Psychology is something we know well now, it's accepted, familiar; but there could be a whole psychology to extract from the kind of cinematography I imagine, in which the unknown happens to us all the time, in which this unknown is recorded, and this happens because a mechanical structure has caused it to appear. And not because we wanted to find it (this unknown thing) in advance; which is impossible, because the unknown reveals itself rather than being revealed. But I think we shouldn't be making psychological analyses; and psychology is too a priori. You have to paint. It's through painting that things will happen.

J-LG: There's an old expression we no longer use: the painting of feelings. That's what you're doing.

RB: Painting, or writing (in this case, it's the same thing). And in any case, yes, more than psychology, I think it's painting.



In Which Yvonne Rainer Envied No One

Yvonne's Corridor

Out of the world of dance came Yvonne Rainer like a rocket. From 1971 to 1996 she would make only seven films, all of which operated by discarding old cinematic principles and forging new ones in the gaps they created. Born in San Francisco, Rainer spent much of her upbringing in foster homes, and although she would drop out of Berkeley, she is of a kind with academic feminists breaking ground in their own disciplines. A trip to India in 1971 gave her the perspective on American culture she was seeking. Her feature films began with 1971's Lives of Performers, continued with the groundbreaking collages Film About a Woman Who... and Kristina Talking Pictures, and ended with more mature and colorful efforts like 1986's prefiguring of American Psycho, The Man Who Envied Women and her paean to menopause, 1990's Privilege. In this 1986 interview with the critic Mitchell Rosenbaum, she laughs off comparisons to Godard and Woody Allen, and places her work in its proper context.

MITCHELL ROSENBAUM: You disbanded your dance company, The Grand Union, in 1971...

YVONNE RAINER: I never really had a dance company they were people I worked with who were also choreographers who had come out of the Cunningham/Cage milieu, and I never considered them my company. I didn't like that proprietary, careerist kind of structure, and this led to making it into an improvisatory group, The Grand Union. That was the beginning of the end of my work with this group. Democratizing it was a way of easing myself out of it, although I wasn't conscious of this until later.

MR: You found that was oppressive as well.

YR: I found that I couldn't do my own work and I couldn't stand the pressures and rigors of improvisatory work.

MR: You said at that point that not having a boss creates new problems.

YR:  Right. Also, having to be creative on the spot, which is what that group became. They did incredible work, but I only lasted about two years. By 1972 I was out of it, and my first film was madeaat that time.

MR: Now, after five features, how do you feel about the potentially oppressive role of the director, a theme which you dealt with in your first feature, Lives of Performers?

YR: Well, I guess I've changed my attitude about that. But also the hierarchies of filmmaking are at this point so ordered according to skills that you couldn't make a movie without this kind of hierarchy, unless you do it all yourself, as some people do.

MR: So you've made peace with all that.

YR: Yeah. I mean not that I like it any better, but I like the end product. I don't like production probably for that reason. I like the editing, and I like the scripting. But I don't like the actual shooting, I think, partly because the pressures of low-budget shooting are so extreme. You're on a murderous schedule and always going over budget. So there are those pressures that make it unpleasant in Some ways. I just don't like to work under that kind of pressure. Some people thrive on it.

MR: Lately, some critics have been comparing your work to that of Woody Allen. How do you feel about that?

YR: It's not very accurate. Maybe superficially. The Man Who Envied Women is a very New York-based film with a lot of funny intellectual repartee which is of course Allen's forte. But the rest of the film is so different from anything he would do that I'm kind of put off by that comparison. It doesn't go very far.

J. Hoberman pointed out that the New York I show in this film with dilapidated lofts and slums is very different from Woody Allen's sleek New York of Hannah and Her Sisters, with its beautiful people and Upper West Side apartments. I have to admit I wanted a fancy apartment for the party sequence, but by the time I was shooting, that scene was consigned to just the hallway outside of a closed door through which you heard voices. If I had had more money, I might have used some kind of luxury space. But in a way I'm glad I didn't because that really wasn't the point. The constricted space of the corridor was a much richer metaphor.

Yvonne and Ivan Rainer in "Kristina Talking Pictures"MR: How do you feel about Jean-Luc Godard's recent work?

YR: Oh. I don't like his recent work. I don't like his obsession with nubile maidens and exploiting their sexuality. I think Godard can still do things that are just plain daring. Those last shots in Hail Mary of nature are just so astounding. I keep up with what he is doing and he still does things in his own way; I admire all that, but I think his really meaningful work was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He's an amazing, creative genius. I hate to use that term, but it may still be useful in talking about a kind of prolific and politically incisive imagination.

MR: Would you say films like Numero Deux and Wind from the East moved and inspired you?

YR: I can't say they inspired me. I have been slow as a filmmaker to appreciate Godard, or I came to him sideways through his writing. I just appreciated him as a force. People have compared the way I make movies to his, but my way of making movies came out of my particular modernist art-world milieu and not from the French New Wave.

MR: I must have misunderstood something you once said about Godard.

YR: Perhaps in a film. You can't believe anything I say in the first person in my films. I set up the heroine in Kristina Talking Pictures as someone who was inspired by Martha Graham, Godard, and Virginia Woolf. I can't say any of these were prime movers for me at the time I started making film. The statement was for its rhetorical and theatrical effect. I would say Andy Warhol was more influential on my ideas on film than Godard at that moment when I ventured into narrative film.

MR: What do you think of Jacques Rivette?

YR: The only film of Rivette's I like is L'Amour fou. He gives much too much permission to actors, and I don't find what actors do on their own very interesting. But the layering in L'Amour fou with the 16-mm and the 35-mm and the Racine play and the director's life I found utterly fascinating and beautiful.

MR: But for you acting is secondary to language and structure and you prefer actors to be completely flat oracles of the word.

YR: Not necessarily. What you see in L'Amour fou is the actors going about their task of rehearsal for a classic; you see them at work, and the director directing them. But when the illusion of a Rivette film is that the actors are creating the film or you actually sense that he's given over a lot of his directorial control to them in some kind of utopian gesture, it doesn't work. I mean Godard did that in Wind from the East but with a totally different effect.

during her dance career
MR: Some people have a problem with the flatness of the acting in your films. For example, the narrators of your films are quite monotone and without affect. However, this can be seen as a very natural kind of acting because it's the way people talk in ordinary conversation, or as non-acting.

YR: Well, that's a style I have cultivated.

MR: Of course some people take that for inexperienced or bad acting.

YR: I have trouble with so-called "bad acting" where nothing in the film tells you that the artifice of the illusion is supposed to be revealed. That's where bad acting interferes. In Journeys from Berlin, where the text is very non-naturalistic and it's obviously a surreal kind of recitation, then Annette Michelson's non-naturalistic performance is totally appropriate. The setting tells you this is not a realistic film so you are going for something other than totally credible, believable acting.

Still, a character is built. That is the amazing thing about film. Just the framing and focus on a person speaking creates this bond with the spectator, and it's that illusion that builds the character. I mean it's a two-way thing: the audience in identifying is already constructing the character. It's a much more immediate process than the stage, which always requires the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is there a priori in the cinema, with the dark room. It's this very atavistic kind of relationship to an image which some theorists liken to the earliest experience of the infant at the mother's breast watching shadows on the surface of the mother's skin.

MR: Or as in a dream. But given the over-determined quality of your images, don't you agree that you've taken the work out for those same theorists who might examine your films? As opposed to a more intuitive filmmaker, you are probably the best analyst of your own work.

YR: But I don't necessarily know the end effect. That is one by-product of collage. Ambiguity is something that is my stock in trade, and sometimes I'm sure of what an interpretation should be; sometimes I'm not and yet retain a particular configuration because I'm fascinated by the ambiguity of it. I like the Stonehenge image in Journeys from Berlin. I can't say definitively what I intended. I accepted the ambiguity and the possibility for multiple readings that it offered and let it remain. I knew there was no way, without forcing, to push that metaphor or direct it, so I left it open-ended.

"The Man Who Envied Women"
MR: Sure. You could say that about Journeys from Berlin, but not necessarily about this last film, The Man Who Envied Women.

YR: Right. That is the result of having much more politicized intentions.

MR: In this film you seem to have confronted the problem facing political filmmakers: that is, you don't so much preach to the converted, as scold them.

YR: Harangue them.

MR: Nobody on the Left gets away without a jab. In particular, artists a group you're certainly counted among take quite a beating.

YR: Artists are seen as being in very compromised positions in the urban setting and yet, in other areas, are trying to work in a progressive way. Which I think is the true state of things with New York-based artists today. I had to approach this problem from many different angles: political activism, housing and feminism.

MR: So what about feminism at this point? In this last film you seem to both praise and lampoon the current state of feminism. This is exemplified by the Jackie Raynal character a femme fatale whose dialogue consists of post structuralist feminist text.

YR: Well, there again it's hard. You are expressing this question about what my position is on some of that material which is very multifaceted. Nothing is resolved.

I follow the debates on sexual difference and Women Against Pornography. I am personally committed to the abortion rights movement. What is expressed in The Man Who Envied Women is exactly what Jackie recites, this Meaghan Morris essay which points out where feminism makes these confusions between right-to-life and abortion rights. It's very complicated. I deliberately make the male character a feminist to show how a seemingly progressive position can be used for aggrandizement all over again. Just as I'm now reading about the history of the medical and scientific attitudes about women's orgasm and reproduction, how social theorists used to view women's organs as simply a version of the man's, like an inverted penis.

Then when this was disputed around the tum of the century, and people like Havelock Ellis began to say women were biologically different, this recognition was used simply to say that women's place was in the home and to reproduce. So, theoretical debates are all very well but can be used in repressive ways. Maybe that's reactionary. I've been called a combat-liberal by Maoists at some point but I thought it was pertinent to these current debates which rage on in this academic realm and are very pertinent to problems of representation. Who in the film is uttering these kinds of doubts? It is a woman who is presented as a femme fatale. It seemed very appropriate that these debates, whatever they are, be keyed to these notions of imaging and sexual difference, or projections of male castration-fear, to open up one of the most pervasive and pernicious examples of female stereotyping in cinema history.

1974's "Film About a Woman Who..."

MR: At a screening of a Peter Gidal film in the 1970s, which opened with an unendurably long shot of a corner of a room, you remarked to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum that the filmmaker had backed himself into a corner. Do you think that kind of pure structuralist film has reached its limit?

YR: I think there's still a need for what in some quarters is called optical research, and it's very valuable this playing with the photographic optical materiality of film. Probably it's an avenue that's been exhausted by now. Unless you go into video, and then you get a whole other kind of imagery that's possible with electronics.

MR: Can you talk about the way in which you used footage from other filmmakers, including structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow?

YR: I think I've shown another use for images that other people have made, including 1940s movies, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton. Snow was quite pleased with the way I used his footage. Annette Michelson wrote an essay on Wavelength many years ago that talked about the subtext of the film that is this abandoned piece of real estate that the film refers to and takes place in. So here I was talking about the change in use and exploitation by the real estate market and this classic piece of footage seemed eminently appropriate to use along with the other kinds of footage that I specifically shot to demonstrate this problem. So I'm interested in a certain kind of documentary that can incorporate previous treatments of the same material that originally had an aesthetically transgressive purpose. There's one part of me that will always have my roots in this approach to art-making. But it's become one possibility among more important ones, such as social implications in terms of domination and mystification that attend an image. But I like very much the idea of combining in one shot different levels of meaning, and references that are both aesthetically and socially historical. So I was very excited to explore this use of the Snow material in a new context.

"Kristina Talking Pictures"
MR: How do you respond to those critics of the New American Cinema who have pointed out that this new kind of narrative form, which turns to the filmmaker for its text, merely relocates many of the central aspects of traditional narrative filmmaking and its form of identification to a different plane?

YR: Feminist theorists like Mulvey and Kaplan have pointed out that melodrama, even soap opera, is a place where women's dilemmas are played out in a very visible way. So this offers the avant-garde filmmaker a formal arena in which to make the tensions and dilemmas of women living in a patriarchy accessible and visible. That's the way I pretty much feel about these forms now. It's not very productive to dismiss them outright. Gidal had fenced himself into a corner as of the mid-70s in some kind of material purity and didn't say much to anyone but a small coterie of filmmakers.

This business of something being narrative or not very much depends on what angle of entry you're coming from. For a Hollywood director I'm not making narrative. For me it doesn't matter if it's narrative or not. What matters is how you engage the audience and then lead them to participate in some other way than narrative melodrama usually demands of them, rather than making a narrative with a closure so people can have some sort of Aristotelian response of completeness and life goes on despite the murder and destruction and everything returns to order. I think narrative film conventions offer a way to engage people or give them entry into this familiar realm of identification and recognition, but then, I don't feel I have to be bound to it. So as far as I'm concerned, I can only get better at narrative forms. I'm constantly amazed at how little it takes to hook the audience. Like the way people responded to Annette Michelson's character in Journeys from Berlin. I thought I had made something so obviously artificial and constructed no one could possibly identify with or be repelled by her. It just didn't operate that way. People talk about her as though she is a real person.

I worked a little harder, or differently, to establish my "man who envied women" as a semblance of a "real person." The first scene in the film is the one where you follow a chronology of events. Most other scenes involved simply setting up a situation dominated by the camera or by extra-diegetic material, or an "idea," in locations that could be infused, at least initially, with fictive credibility, such as the "lecture hall," the "therapist's office," the "coffee shop," etc. As far as narrative goes, it's very static. There's one plot element and it's not to develop or consummate a series of events, but to expose him and the audience to different kinds of arguments and information.

Cynthia Beatt in "Journeys from Berlin"

MR: Can you talk about what you do with the gaze in this last film? You seem to have taken care of the problem of the male gaze in a twist on Buñuel's dual actresses in That Obscure Object of Desire.

YR: In the Buñuel, the female objects are interchangeable for the male protagonist. In The Man Who Envied Women, the male objects are interchangeable for the audience because there's no internal female character visualized. This seemed to me taking quite literally the problematic of the image of the woman as the object of the controlling gaze. Here, I removed her physical resence totally and doubled the man as an object by having two men play the same role. But it then becoms unclear how the gaze operates. The strategy removes it from narrative convention and there's somelfimg-going on here that disproves a lot of this gaze stuff. The overheard heroine, because she is unseen, cannot be said to be the object of a controlling gaze internal to the film, but then neither is Jack Deller, though both of them are objects of identification for the audience.

This is a case where the traditional axes of gaze, power, identification have been skewed somewhat, allowing the female spectator a less ambivalent access to the image through the voice of the heroine. The male protagonist is not, however, objectified through a simple reversal of codes. His "imaging" is constantly tempered by his powerful "discourses" and by his monitoring and mastering behavior, in the metaphor of the headphones, for instance. He becomes an emblem and agent of patriarchal abuse. His case, from a narrative standpoint, remains unsolved, unresolved. He is never brought "under control" as his cinematic "wild-woman" counterpart has traditionally been. That would be too utopian for my tastes.

"Lives of Performers"
MR: Your approach to narrative has changed since you made Lives of Performers.

YR: At that time I was doing a kind of parody of narrative. The performers read self-consciously from a script. It was a very distanciated kind of narrative. Then I would set up these tableaux of minimal situations all in that barren space that could be dressed with a chair or a suitcase to refer to a history of melodramatic objects and usage. So it was very stagey and artificial. When I talk about narrative now, I'm talking about the way it's done.

MR: One of the most difficult sequences to read in The Man Who Envied Women is the lecture sequence. In part because of the sheer length of it and partly because the significance of the space in which the lecture takes place is unclear.

YR: I made some strategic errors or one, anyway. The subtext of the space of the lecture as being this loft up for sale can only be recognized as such at the end when you see the new kitchen and bathroom. I should have either started in the kitchen, or put in more clues like a realtor's sign or something. I could have handled it differently by putting in some additional clues to make you focus in on that space and its particular New York significance. It's especially opaque to a European audience.

MR: It does elicit the most antagonistic responses from people.

YR: Well, the trouble people have is they have so much trouble with that lecture that at that point they dismiss him. Later they dismiss him when he's talking to his shrink about women, doing that self-pitying, imperial rap. After that they want to hit him around a little bit. So they don't know how to take it when he starts speaking this Foucault stuff. Is this just some more bullshit? Is it being used for bullshit purposes, or what? I can justify that in terms of the complexity of the character. He's not totally bad, not a total schmuck, and he has some intellectual progressive things that are quite clear. Like, I have voices respond to those images on the wall. He talks about the cigar and cheap labor in Central America.

Yvonne and William Raymond

MR: I must admit I didn't realize you had any sympathy for him at all.

YR: Yeah, I do. There are women who find him vulnerable and appealing. Men are much harder on him, and men really object to him for that reason or to my creating that kind of character. They see him as utterly reprehensible and ludicrous, and they can't take anything he says seriously. But he says a lot of right-on things, including the Foucault stuff. Of course, the irony in the corridor scene is in what they're both doing. You see, I wanted to make a very complicated situation. I didn't want to make a very simple agit-prop sort of film. We see this all the time in the progressive and leftist documentary. In a way he's right when he says, "I'm a mass of contradictions, and what else can you expect under capitalism?" We get it right in some areas and in other areas we have these emotional needs and desires for autonomy and power that take various forms that may be injurious to those around us.

MR: Still, for people who see him as all schmuck, he is simply an agit-prop character.

YR: I think it is obvious that he is a pastiche and a construction. His speech is recitation from a collage of different things including real life. I think I make a calculating kind of film in which you can only go so far in identifying coherent positions either on my part or the characters' before you pull back and say, "Hey, who is this person? How is he made? He's full of conflicting information what does that mean?" And then you have to deal with the information and not just with him. Like, can you dismiss everything he says because he's a schmuck? I don't think you can read this kind of film in this way. The fact that so many people do, makes me realize how these habits of reading films die very hard, and it continues to be challenging to make films where these viewing habits are constantly interfered with and questioned.

MR: I showed this film to several men, most of whom denied any identification with this character, particularly those for whom such identification should have been appropriate.

YR: I've been surprised at people I had in mind who did not recognize themselves. You can lead a horse to water... I don't know if this person exists, but as I said, the characters are drawn from many different people, texts, and experiences. It may seem unlikely in this day and age that a progressive leftist would talk like Raymond Chandler. All those remarks about women made to the shrink are taken from Chandler's letters. That stuff is definitely dated, like when he says, "I never loved cheap women."

You don't hear that expression anymore, but beyond the anachronisms of usage, there is this obsession and anxiety about knowing and controlling women. He cannot know women well enough. He constantly obsesses over this knowledge by which he assuages his anxiety. This, I think, is something that has taken a new form. The feminist man. Feminism as it is used by certain kinds of womanizing men. So it's plausible and perhaps is meant as some kind of object lesson ... a warning. Women recognize him instantly. Especially those from the academic community. They hoot and holler in recognition.

Jackie Raynal and William Raymond in "The Man Who Envied Women"
MR: Do you have any of the same ambivalence towards the Jackie Raynal character?

YR: No, because Jackie is even more obviously a construction. She appears in only one scene and speaks, or recites from a single source, "The Pirate's Fiancee," an essay by the Australian journalist, theorist, feminist, Foucaultian, Meaghan Morris. Jackie too is using language for seduction, cast in the guise of the femme fatale. Now the hitherto repressed female image returns with a masterful voice. That whole scene is so full or irony and excess and tension that it works: the constriction of the space; the way they can move only a couple of steps at a time; the problematizing of the feminist space for feminist intellectuals; the railing against Lacan which goes on, the dream in the middle of it with its eruption of mistaken identities and roles son/husband exchange by the collapsed mother/daughter the Oedipal circus turned on its head.

MR: So what about your next project. Anything you can talk about?

YR: Very preliminary work. This is very different and suggests a story, which of course has problems. I'll have to think about that as the story materializes.

MR: But in the past you've gone about the task of starting a project in a similar way?

YR: Always in bits and pieces of things: a title, The Man Who Envied Women, came very early to me, as did the housing thing, which I was involved in. The character of Jack was one of the last things. I knew I wanted him to be talking to a shrink and giving a lecture. And of course I always like to layer different realities wherever possible, even if it doesn't make sense at the moment. So I had him lecture in a condo which is on the market, which, as I said, I did not make clear enough. Of course this refers directly to the way universities buy up poor neighborhoods. That could have been made clearer also. What he would say to the shrink, I tried to write, and it was maudlin and Psychology Today-ish. Then I came upon these letters of Raymond Chandler and that clinched it. I looked up women in the index and all this stuff fell out.

MR: But when you apply for money to the various sources, how do you relate that kind of disjointed treatment?

YR: When I started applying for money, I wrote a pretty coherent treatment which could have been a "real" film. That's what you have to do these days to make it sound plausible.

1990's "Privilege"

MR: So the actual film resembled the treatment only vaguely?

YR: Somewhat. The lecture I thought would be on economics. I thought the film would deal more with menopause than it does. It just sounds, of course, more coherent. It had a thesis that had to do with the contradictions of the main character. Those things were mapped out. Whether or not the film elucidates all of them I don't know. But I certainly had a treatment that sounded convincing. The toughest thing was the male character and how to develop or not develop him. I had some preconceptions about who he was and how to get that across. Someone who knows fictional technique and dialogue and all that would have had an easier time, but I had to wait until these things sort of materialized for me. I'm not really a fiction writer. That has its drawbacks when you have a plan. I'm going to run into the same thing again, but I'll deal with it in a different way this time even to the point of asking a writer to come in on the project.

MR: How is the money situation for you as an avant-garde filmmaker in the age of Reagan?

YR: For me it doesn't look good. If I want to make a film with locations and this length, I can't do it again. I can't raise enough money in this country and it's drying up in Europe too.

MR: Do the returns on a film like The Man Who Envied Women have any effect on possible grant money or backing from other sources for future projects?

YR: No, I don't think that's going to be an issue for me. I think it is an issue in the case of someone like Spike Lee, who now has access to other than public money. When I think about the films that are successful, I can't imagine moving towards that kind of filmmaking.

MR: So, I guess for your next project you'll just have to cut back on the Star-Warsian special effects.

YR: Special effects? A freeze-frame of a door... for me that's a special effect!


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Kate Parker in "Kristina Talking Pictures"