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Louis Louie

Adrian Martin and Guillaume Ollendorff

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  A movie exists only once. Then basta. Seeing it again for pleasure – OK, why not? But the idea of ‘re-evaluating’ a movie is a nonsense, a heresy, a horror. Ban this ‘re-evaluation’ business from your life. If the movie seems not so good the second or the third time around, then tell yourself that you are the one who's wrong.  


  You can read Louis Skorecki on-line, but that’s nothing like reading him in the newspaper, each day, several days a week. There are people who text each other, over breakfast, with the most outrageous things that Skorecki has just said in his column in the French newspaper Libération, which he has been writing for years. It is literally a column: one long column, hard to cut out successfully, with one small photo always in the same spot in the middle. The page is devoted to television; and Skorecki’s section is titled ‘Le Film’, meaning the film-of-the-day on TV – free-to-air or cable TV. But Skorecki makes a point of returning to certain films, and certain filmmakers again and again, and even recycling his own texts, with only slight changes.  


  Moullet is the only director of the past thirty years, apart from Jean-Claude Brisseau, worthy of this designation of ‘director’. And who does the designating? Me.  


  The changes are usually in the insults. Skorecki is an intemperate, unreasonable writer – albeit with a perfect elegance. He is a constant headache to more moderate French scholars and critics: a kind of disgrace, a cultural shame, if not simply a waste of space. In each of Skorecki’s pieces (just a couple of hundred words), he usually invents an imaginary figure: his reader. He berates this reader mercilessly. The reader is usually quite a bit younger than the author. He or she gets to talk back (frequently) – but, ultimately, s/he she knows nothing, appreciates nothing. Skorecki mocks all those who, today, discover the great films of Murnau or Ford or Renoir on DVD box sets. ‘For 80 Euros’, he sneers in one column, ‘it’s all yours.’  


  How do I know? You have to believe what I say, that's all there is to it. You annoy me, Skorecki, you annoy me. Are you going to talk about the movie or not?  


  Skorecki is all shameless assertion. He has his pantheon of the unassailable greats, and he sticks to it. He also has his hit-list of culture heroes who are, in his opinion, just zeroes: ‘Sautet and Visconti’, he announces in a typical aside, ‘are talentless filmmakers.’ All these loves and hates are simply the Truth for Skorecki, and as far as he is concerned, if you don’t agree with him – if you don’t see that blinding truth – you can just shove off. It’s what Jacques Rivette once made famous, in another context, as argument by sheer evidence.  


  Is Mankiewicz a cinéaste? If he did sign a few great movies between Dragonwyck (1946) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) – The Ghost and Mrs Muir, A Letter to Three Wives, People Will Talk, Five Fingers, The Barefoot Contessa, The Quiet American – that’s not exactly the same as being a cinéaste.  


  Skorecki holds his public podium but, in the finest dandy style, he makes out as if he is writing for no one but himself and his own amusement. In a column on Alain Tanner’s The Salamander (1971), he begins by saying that it had, in its time, a ‘sociological’ significance – just like that, with quotation marks. Then he goes into the familiar fantasy-dialogue mode:  


  OK, Skorecki, you did it. You used those pathetic quotation marks, just like everybody else. Are you so ashamed of your own words that you have to put them at a distance like that? Do they feel so bad to you? – No way, you little cretins. If I put ‘sociological’ between quotation marks, it’s purely my business. It’s between me and me, so get lost.  


  By the end of this particular column, he exacts his imaginary revenge: he ponders whether the lead actor of The Salamander, Bulle Ogier, is ‘a fairy? A witch? A princess? Choose whichever word you want. And hold the quotation marks.’  


  Between Ford and me there is a pact that is set to last. But, unlike my agreement with Mizoguchi or Tourneur, the love pact I have signed with Ford is recent. The idea of Ford as a ‘born artist’ is a fiction, anyhow. He was admitted late into the pantheon of the ‘greats’ (note that I do not write ‘auteurs’), years after Hitchcock or Fellini, who don't even come up to his ankles.  


  Skorecki – nicknamed Loulou by his friends – believes there is only one cinephilia: his cinephilia. If you weren’t around when he was around, on the spot, seeing those particular films at those particular theatres, meeting and interviewing certain already very old filmmakers – then you’ve missed the boat, and you may as well give up. You know nothing. Already, in 1977, Skorecki was able to write a wild, raging manifesto called ‘Against the New Cinephilia’. For Skorecki, new cinephilia is any cinephilia that comes after his cinephilia, and it’s a bad cinephilia. Compromised, faddish, try-hard cinephilia.  


  There’s no need to invoke the Beyond when talking about Dreyer. Neither God, nor master. Just soul, that’s all. A gospel of images, that’s all. That the images happen to be sharp, ultra-sharp, is a plus – a ‘bonus’, as people say these days. The essential thing in Dreyer (as in Fassbinder, the master of cinema after cinema, which obviously needs a master) is what he tells, not how he tells it. What he sings, if you like. Oh, you don't like, you want your short-order review of Ordet. And what does Ordet even mean? It means ‘the word’. And that means there is speech, and that this speech matters. Is that too complicated for you? Tough luck.  



Skorecki constantly mythologises his own origins, his own history as a cinephile. In 1957, as he tells us in his little book Raoul Walsh and Me (which collects his newspaper columns on this director), as a very young teenager, he was in a class taught by Henri Agel, one of the great historians and critics of cinema in the Bazin-Sadoul era in France. Unforgivingly, Agel would set his young charges essay topics such as this: ‘Discuss the relation between the cinema of Raoul Walsh and the sense of the sacred, viewed from the perspective of Shakespearian tragedy and the notion of potlatch.’ (And we believe Skorecki on this.) Who of us had a secondary school education like that? Skorecki goes on: his best schoolmate, at the adjacent desk in 1957, was the equally young Serge Daney, who is today, fourteen years after his death, a fully mythic film-critic figure; and according to Skorecki, ‘Daney already knew it all. He even knew by heart the lessons that Agel had not yet given.’ (And this we believe, too.)

By 1963, Skorecki (who often went under a fake name) and Daney had their own little magazine going, Faces of Cinema. Skorecki collected autographs from famous people (such as his revered movie stars) at the time, but he is quick to distinguish this from the grubby pack signature-hunting of our time: it was, he tells us, ‘a more solitary and clandestine activity than it is today’. Skorecki and Daney travelled to America as intrepid cinephile explorers and interviewed Sam Fuller, Raoul Walsh, George Cukor and other greats of the classic era. Fifteen years after that period, when Daney was the editor of Cahiers du cinéma, he recalled a kind of nightmarish primal scene from those years:



  I remember in 1964 we saw Cukor and confided in him that [Nicholas Ray’s] Wind Across the Everglades was one of the most beautiful American films. He broke out in a peal of laughter where all the contempt he had for this little film could be read. We were very wounded, but we have never changed our minds.  


  Skorecki considers himself to have belonged to, to have been formed within, a special historic moment: the eclipse of the Grand Hollywood of the studio years, and the birth of the New Waves, not only in France but elsewhere too: Italy, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Japan. It was a time of changeover, a time of crisis, a time of drama – a time for taking sides. He rehearses this history, and its significance, over and over for us in his writing. In his text ‘Against the New Cinephilia’ he even gives himself, and his gang of the ‘60s, a special label: advanced cinephiles.  


  Moullet is finishing up a new feature. In it, he evokes the death of Godard. Because he who cannot laugh is dead. Hey you, up the back of the class, you’re not laughing? OK then - you’re dead.  


  Louis Skorecki, Loulou, Louis Louie. He’s also a filmmaker, a kind of artisanal, amateur filmmaker, who has been making, for twenty years, a long, serial narrative about a group of callow people who psychologically and sexually manipulate each other relentlessly, ruthlessly. This serial is called The Cinephiles.  


Adrian Martin



When I was a kid, I had a severe grandfather. He had two phalanx missing from a work accident, and his white hair was cut very straight. He was the kind of good man who terrorises the brats running through his house, by his manners and his principles. My grandfather was the last of an old race. A man of ground and earth, who fought in World War I and was exempted from WWII because he was a father of seven. More than this, he was a religious man; his whole life was built upon a world now gone. God and duty.

My grandfather, in this way, is (was) Louis Skorecki. Skorecki has no God to believe in, but he has Cinema. And he is a man of duty. Skorecki does much more than simply write about cinema. He weeps it.



  ‘Don't you think I'm right, Alfred’? He doesn’t answer. So I decide to insist. I say, ‘Talk to me, Alfred.’ Dead silence. Have movies and directors decided to freeze me out, to cease their dialogue with me? ‘Surely you have not forsaken me, God of cinephiles?’ But God does not answer.  



Does he know too much? Because he knows more about ‘cinema’ (the quotes are there out of respect to how he writes the word) than anybody I know. He is the Jiminy Cricket, the consciousness of a Cinema that – they say, he says – once existed. He is the last man to think about this pure Cinema that we – we who are born somewhat later, who are drowned in the mass marketing society of new capitalism – have trouble imagining. What the hell is this ‘cinema’?

You could answer, ‘Just go and watch those movies he talks about’. But I know, I know very well, and Skorecki knows all too well (this is why he weeps and wails), that I will never see the same movie as he. It is not the movies that are gone, it is far, far worse than that: we have lost the ability to read them, to see them, to ‘get’ them. At least, that is what I read Skorecki saying, between his lines.

We, the brats that run through his legs as he reads in his big armchair: we respect Skorecki, we gaze upon him with frightened eyes when he speaks with his grave voice. We are a little ashamed that we did love The School of Rock, Starship Troopers, even Herzog and Terrence Malick. But can we say that we understand him? And worse, that we dare intend to follow any of the old man’s groanings? What did you do when your old man told you not to smoke?



  ‘That's it’, says the film [Un Flic], ‘Melville is the Bresson of thrillers.’ ‘You’re better than that’, I say. ‘You have beautiful manners.’ ‘You please me when you say that’, the film answers, with wet eyes. ‘Are you crying?’, I ask. The film does not answer. ‘I am the last Melville, I was insulted when I was released. You are giving me back my dignity.’  



Skorecki writes only this tiny TV column. That is the only way for him to give you, every day or so, a real tour of his universe. TV is the cinema’s gravedigger, but also its archaeologist. This TV chronicle of the film-of-the-day helps him to write, bitch, weep, get angry about ‘his’ great movies. What is this ‘pure’ cinema, these ‘great’ movies or directors, this pure Platonic idea of an ideal ‘cinema’? Did it ever exist? Any more than the Platonic idea of a washing machine? Is it all just an invention out of the desperate brain of the Last Mohican?

In every diner in town, it's the same old story. He goes on and on about his war stories. Or rather, his guerrilla stories. Because ‘cinema’ died in 1955 (the year of Moonfleet) – he knows it, don't even bother arguing – and those who fight for him now are like those Japanese soldiers they forgot on an island somewhere, who never heard about the peace agreement. They keep the faith overtime. Aren't they pathetic? But more than that: aren't they beautiful?



  In 1955 it was already broken, smashed into pieces, crashed. It's not by chance if, this very same year, Hitchcock passed over to TV, with his unbreakable black-and-white miniatures.  


  But Skorecki is much more than this longtime resistant. He is not really a movie critic. Skorecki has a gift. A gift of cinema-omniscience. It's a rare, probably unique, disease. Apparently, he has been bit by a celluloid snake that gave him this superpower. Now, he just has to dress as Louis and come as a rescue for the long-dead cinema. The zombie of cinema. People say his strengths are declining, his fight is already lost - but he has never let go. His extraordinary gift allows him to talk not only to directors (all reported dead long ago) he loves but also to the movies themselves.  


  To go back to DeMille is to go back to the source of cinema, this naive Nile whose source we lost a long time ago. ‘You're talking about me?’ says a little voice. ‘Who are you?’, I say. ‘I am DeMille’, says the voice. ‘I am Skorecki’, I answer.  


  A lot of movies have talked to me, and taught me great and enlightning things – but I never knew what to tell them back. Maybe it was a great monologue, but it was still a monologue. Skorecki talks with every movie that has ever caught his heart. And that's why he always says ‘I know it, and that's all there is to it’, stopping right there any attempt at opposing views. Because in Love you never have to justify anything. And because, like everybody that has such superpower, Skorecki has gone a little crazy. In one dialogue he confronts the film The Servant with the words of a harsh critic:  


  ‘He says that rhetoric replaces the spontaneous poetry of the first Loseys’. ‘Is that so?’ ‘He says you’re nothing, and your European success signalled Losey’s demise.’ The film remains silent. ‘Are you crying?’, I ask. ‘Yes’, answers the film.  


  He dialogues with everything, his reader (a lot!), himself (even more!), directors, movies and the ‘cinema’ entity itself. That is also why he never talks about the movie he writes ‘about’ – only about the cinema itself. He tells us all the secret words of this lost world. We love him because, when most of the others talk like they were scientists of a human ‘discipline’, he talks about the past, memories, family. About Love.  


  ‘You talkin' about me?’, says a voice? ‘Who are you?’, I ask. ‘I am Ford’, says the voice. ‘Me, I'm Skorecki.’ ‘And your first name?’, asks Ford. ‘Louis’, I say. ‘What do you think of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?’ ‘I love it; it inaugurates the more modern part of your filmography. ‘What is a filmography?’, asks Ford. ‘A list of your works’, I reply. ‘What is a work?’, he asks. ‘A movie worthy of an Old Master’s painting’, I reply. ‘I don't want to be in the museum!’, he protests. ‘Too late. You’re already there.’ Suddenly I hear a watery sound. From the eye of John Ford, that one good eye, runs a tear. ‘Are you crying, master?’, I ask. ‘Fool’, he says, ‘go away.’  


Guillaume Ollendorff


  All unattributed quotations (translated by Adrian Martin and Guillaume Ollendorff) are from Louis Skorecki’s column in Libération during 2006.  

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© Adrian Martin, Guillaume Ollendorff and Rouge January 2007. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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