Work in Progress
What kind of common point can there be among the principal forms of resistance in the current audiovisual scene? I think – basically – the answer is memory. Facing television – which bases itself, in an irrational way, upon imitation – the cinema weighs in with more than one hundred years of memory. Therefore, it possesses the awareness of a medium and a language. To me this distinction is important; it has almost nothing to do with technology, but rather with a way of thinking. I am sick of watching television on cinema screens. Sometimes, rarely, I’ve seen a true cinematic form on television. It is not the kind of memory created by homages or remakes – the most despicable part of having to relate to the media – which has driven cinema to a dead end consisting of copies and stereotypes. I am talking more about a dialogue with History. I think of something very normal that truly amazes me – namely: if a filmmaker decides to make a movie about senior citizens, how can he or she ignore what others made before on the same subject? The least you can do, if only out of curiosity, is study how Bergman did it so supremely well in Wild Strawberries (1959), or Chaplin in Limelight (1952), or De Sica in Umberto D (1952), among others. This is something pretty normal if we are talking about writers. But if we are talking about cinema, this dialogue with one’s own media is considered outlandish. See how the videographic language of Godard in Histórie(s) du cinema owes nothing to the cinematic syntax of Griffith, and yet it is one of his most beautiful works in video – probably because it bears that memory, and is aware of it.
In my case – thinking about the title that has been proposed to me, ‘work in progress’, referring to my En Construcción (2001) – I remember that this is what I wanted to call the film at the outset. I thought that it would be the best choice. En Construcción could be interpreted as something material, the construction of a building. But that construction is nothing but a temporary and physical framework where stories take place. However, ‘work in progress’ had that sense, on one hand, of something that is moving, something that is being made. It can be either a neighborhood or the whole society. En Construcción is also a fin-de-siècle film, from the end of a century and the beginning of another one. I thought that, by capturing a small transformation in that part of the city, I could capture some small part of the world’s movement, and search for this world’s echoes. On the other hand, the words ‘work in progress’ can refer to the film itself. I think that the onlooker becomes aware, while watching it, of something that is being built, the film per se. It is the challenge of opening up a kind of cinema that is usually seen as the execution of a plan, absolutely predicted and closed in advance. We want to free cinema for the sake of a new experience.
Cinema usually works like that, in compartments. First a screenplay has to be written; after that, filming is a more or less cold execution of that pre-set plan. Then the editing is another phase of the performance. The production of En Construcción lasted three years. The first year we didn’t shoot a single image, not one frame. It consisted only of meetings between the students comprising the film crew and me, to chat and watch films together. However, without this experience of the first year, the rest of the process couldn’t have been possible – the production of the film over the following two years. I had come with some films made according to the same spirit as Work in Progress, in order to discuss them during that stage of preparation, to chat and search for a common language.
Scriptwriting is something that comes, as we understand it nowadays, from Griffith, who brought cinematic narrative to a highpoint of sophistication. But it is a double-edged sword. Because, on one hand, it permitted cinema to achieve this high level of sophistication, and from that stems a great many ambitious works – from the ironclad script comes Hitchcock, Dreyer, Ozu, etc. But it is has also turned out to be, especially nowadays, a means of control. I mean, why did Griffith invent the screenplay? On one hand, because there is a syntactic requirement; on the other hand, because his films are very expensive and therefore the investors want to see where are they putting their money. This thing called cinema costs a lot of money, so they want to have control over the ideas and the cinematic format.
I think that this second aspect, the screenplay as controller of the filmmaker, has become more powerful than the first aspect. When we write a screenplay, we often find ourselves wondering whether we are really building a work tool to make a film, or if we are more worried about how to seduce television, a Ministry committee, etc.
It is possible to be instructive, talking about En Construcción, to start from the very beginning, with La Sortie des usines Lumière (1895) by the Lumière brothers. I have at home some of the previous shoots of this film. Maybe you know that he filmed a lot of takes across several months. He started filming the first versions of La Sortie in winter. The one we know, the one recorded as the first film in cinema history, is a version that takes place in summer. It is rather beautiful, because in the earlier versions you notice the shadow of the bare branches of the trees, and in the final one we see their crowns and shadows. Watching those different versions, you can understand the concept of variations on the same theme. Because the Lumière film is always the same: the door opens, the workers go out of the factory, and the film ends with the closing of the doors. Then there is a series of variations: a dog, a cyclist, a carriage, elements with a photogenic potential that reveal movement. At any rate, the filmmaker feeds upon his own images, analyses them and then returns, returning to the same place, corrects the distance, the angle, sets patterns for the workers that are leaving. We even know now that the Lumière brothers personally oversaw the clothing of some of the workers and that, already in this first film, they also told them not to look at the camera in the last shot, the good one. That set of takes would be a first, superb draft for En Construcción. No script, no tyranny resulting from it ... Cinema is born free, and it achieves this, partly, by feeding upon itself, reflecting on its own pictures.
There is a kind of beauty in the Lumière films that captivates me in a very special way. It comes from the friction between the desire for control, and chance. He creates a mechanism and calculates several things, but then needs something random that escapes them. And he counts on that, on the accidental things. The mechanism and chance. There are two ways of looking at it: either he himself triggers a situation, the workers leaving the factory; or the capturing of the event is made without his intercession. But in both there is that stress, that friction, between the calculus of the mechanism and chance. To refer to one of the more ambitious filmmakers still living, Eric Rohmer made a piece about Lumière for television, where he films a dialogue between Henri Langlois and Jean Renoir. And in it, Langlois reflects on the beauty of those films with a risky appearance, filmed by Lumière’s camera operators. Perhaps they film an avenue in Lyon, and the film, a single reel, a single take, opens with a tramway crossing in foreground from left to right; then, in the depth of field, a carriage, some pedestrians, some kids, cross the road. And just before the film ends, another train comes in the opposite direction, creating a beautiful sense of symmetry. And you wonder: how is so much beauty possible? That modulation of the internal rhythms of the take. It is without a doubt the result of chance. Reality does not allow itself to be captured just like that, by anyone. Lumière’s operators, when they arrived at the locations for the film, spent a lot of time studying the situation, the movements, the light in different hours of the day – their emulsions were not very sensitive, so they needed plenty of light for filming. As a result of that study of location and movement they could choose the angle, the distance, and the moment to start and end filming. What results is never just pure chance, but there is a way to play with chance and make it work for you. Like making a pact with chance.
This is funny, because one of the films that captured the attention of me and my student team was, precisely, one which, without any doubt, I consider the first film about house building in cinema history. It is a film by Lumière called Démolition D’un Mur (1896), and it is only about that: workers tearing down a wall. But, in this case, the camera operator, who quite often was also the projectionist (‘cranking’ is a rather intimate action), sped up or slowed down according to the nature of the material itself. In that film, the Lumière brothers discover that it is both amusing and intriguing to run back and forward through the film, seeing how it is re-built, or torn down. And that feature of reversibility in nature contained in a film about house building gave us the key as to how to approach our film En construcción, which had to include the same ambiguity and two-edgedness. It could be named either way, Under Construction or Under Destruction.
Continuing chronologically, the first person that comes to my mind is Charlot – Chaplin, perhaps the filmmaker I love most. All those comedians shot, of course, without a screenplay. However, their first screenplay was architecture. This is something I want to ponder. When cinema and architecture are discussed, the topic is generally understood as films on architecture. However, there is a quite profound relation, one I am rather interested in: architecture as the genesis of directing. One thing was extremely clear to Louis Lumière from the first take he shot: it’s that a film is inaugurated by a door being opened, and it finishes with a door being closed. So, when Chaplin filmed his short films, he didn’t have anything. He hadn’t written anything down, he simply commanded that something be built, a small construction. He said: ‘If if I have a door and a window, I can do several things. If there is a door and a window, a policeman can go in the door and I can creep out the window; I can play with the street lamp, and I can hit the policeman over the head with a frying pan.’ Therefore, directing arises from an architectural basis. When I first pondered this notion of work in progress, I thought of Chaplin. His entire filmography is nothing but a continual work in progress. Reflecting on the film just made to obtain new ideas for the next, new developments – he was the one who went furthest with that principle. He was the only one who, at the end of his career, could develop this principle all the way. The filming of City Lights (1931) would be the prime example, a great production where the filmmaker can lead the way, stray from the path, pick up where he left off, repeat a good many takes with a different actor, and halt the shoot in order to think. Thinking is the most expensive luxury where filmmaking is concerned. Chaplin paid the whole cast and crew and left them there on the set, waiting, while he thought, giving himself time to rebuild and edit the script. That’s why I think of him as the greatest filmmaker in cinema history.
It was mentioned in the newspaper recently that a myriad of articles on Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) are currently appearing. Everyone stresses the fact that it is really a great film – but almost miraculously so, since there were a great many accidents and chance occurrences involved. Not even the policies of the big studios escaped the concept of work in progress. And, of course, the idea of a closed screenplay does not mean that the attitude of filmmakers is homogeneous. Hitchcock is acknowledged to have had a mania on this point: any incident disturbing his peaceful routine was a disaster. Everything was already depicted on his storyboards, any intrusion of, let’s say, reality or chance was a catastrophe. And yet Leo McCarey, another studio filmmaker, dealt with such incidents in a completely different way.
In a screenplay we find the indication: ‘Exterior – Day – Sunny’. So we go out filming, and we find clouds in the sky. What do we do with those clouds? There is a very intriguing attitude that would lead some filmmakers to say: ‘Let’s go inside and film there. Let’s change the work plan for today.’ Another might think: ‘What can these clouds add to the sequence we have laid out?’ At least they would stop to consider this. Or if the main actress turns up with dark circles under her eyes – do we combat that with make-up, or wonder for a moment, can we use it? Could those unforeseen circles add something? In other words, this very same question has been posed even within the practices of the big studios. But has the concept of work in progress, and this attitude towards chance, been erased? There are no traces of it in the finished product of a classical film.
It is terrible but true that it is impossible nowadays to talk about modern cinema without repeatedly quoting Godard. I’ve tried avoiding it, but it’s impossible. I am thinking of a text by Godard on Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), in which he saw one of the unique features of modern cinema: the visibility of the kind of traces we are considering. In other words, the film itself stands for the very experience of filming. I was thinking about the relationship between Rossellini and his actress Ingrid Bergman, and how that story palpitates between the images. You can see those traces appearing, so suddenly. And, in that sense, documentary cinema brings us quickly to modernism. A story that begins with a formative film, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).
Have you ever discussed Nanook of the North? No? My God, we always overlook what is most essential! I watch this film quite often, because it emphasises something that has regularly been remarked upon: those films that bring you back to an original state, to the excitement of seeing something for the very first time. There are films that bring you back to this first contact with things. Indeed, that happens to me with Nanook: when I see his face, especially his smile, it seems to me that I have never seen a human being in cinema before. I say to myself that this is the first time I have ever seen a human being portrayed on a cinema screen. And I forget everything – it amazes me to such an incredible extent, and surprises me all over again. The way he films the children, Nanook’s wife, Nanook himself. Whenever I feel fed up with my daily dose of cinema, I retrieve these images that reconcile me with cinema.
In that film, the characters look straight at the camera and smile. I think, after watching and rewatching it, that the film’s theme is those smiles, that shared gaze. This film truly speaks to me about a relationship, a friendship between two people, between two men: one in front of the camera, and the other behind. The director is not on-screen, but he is revealed through those images, those smiles, those looks of the characters. And you can see, between the lines, the meaning of this relationship. Beyond the ethnographic document, and whatever multiple perspectives I have on it, the film I end up watching is this: the account of a friendship that builds up all through the filming.
The curious thing is how the traces of that relationship are left inscribed in the film, and how, through Flaherty’s evolution as a filmmaker, these keys are gradually erased, thus developing the documentary form that will become canonical. Flaherty will go on to create a beautiful cinematic calligraphy, but Nanook remains something exceptional, for many reasons. Another point: Flaherty opens up an experience of working in time. Flaherty’s work takes place over a three year period. He needs first to live – to live with his subject – and then shoot. In other words, first the vital experience; before shooting a single take, Flaherty wants to know the people he is going to record and, as a result of this knowledge of the people, a film arises. Just the opposite to television, isn’t it? Land a chopper with a camera and shoot. First living, then filming. And this is, for me, a truly important and unrepeatable legacy, one that almost led Flaherty to break all ties with the cinema industry or, at least, avoid making contracts with it. The few contracts he did get were quite traumatic. Look, Nanook was funded by a fur company. He would rather work with that sort of firm than with a film company, since the latter rudely intruded into his work. After all, if you propose to a producer, ‘I want three years simply to film people’, that can give him quite a shock.
But it is not only a matter of spending a lot of time, knowing each other and feeding on their experience. It is also – and for me this is the most important thing about Nanook – about having respect for the time each person takes. When I see Nanook lying on the ice with his harpoon, fishing, I always visualise an image of Flaherty, lying as Nanook does, only with his camera. And I see that image, the tête-à-tête of two human beings, each with his tool, both waiting. Waiting as a moral position, as a period of time that cannot be forced. One with the harpoon, the other with the camera – but neither tool is worthier. ‘If there are no fish, then there are no fish. We go back home, in that case, without film and without fish.’ Another filmmaker might have said: ‘We’ve spent a reasonable amount of time waiting, two hours, three. My time is really precious, I have a job to do ... So let’s cut it, and use a prop.’ But not Flaherty. He doesn’t consider that his time is worthier than the time of the person in front of him. I think that this principle – especially nowadays, when time is the golden calf that TV requires – is the most brutal transgression that cinema can prompt. Because such an attitude towards time, in my opinion, is the great taboo. In every scale – even the shortest time for contemplation is a transgression today. That time of living experience, looking at the other person, seems to me the most extreme, and the least emulated, aspect of Flaherty’s legacy.
I want to talk about Jean Rouch as an example of the kind of imprints that films leave, and the function such traces play in modern cinema. He is an ethnologist, and started filming in the ‘40s, using his camera as a tool in his ethnological researches. Take for instance his Chasse à l’hippopotame (Hunting the Hippopotamus, 1950). It is a silent movie, filmed without a crew. Of course, during the shooting, refilming was out of the question. Some natives approach the hippopotamus who, suddenly, leaps at them; they run away, close in again, hurl their spears, run away, the hippopotamus is left with a number of spears in it; they attempt a second approach, start over ... In other words, Chasse à l’hippopotame is a rite, thus for Rouch it was a vital exercise of work in progress at the moment of filming, a film where there can neither be editing nor the possibility of repeating any of the shots. Neither the natives nor the hippopotamus were in a mood to repeat any of the shots! So, with the wisdom and the awkwardness of the amateur, Rouch has to search for the most expressive angle to make the action comprehensible; and moreover, to anticipate, while filming, where to run for the next camera placement, so that the film could be sequentially understood, in order to create the narrative of the scene. Because of that, his are very beautiful films because they can remind you of a drawing consisting of only one pencil stroke, those drawings made without separating the pencil from the sheet of paper. Matisse or Chinese painting displays a very great knowledge in this area. So, films of just one stroke: without the possibility of repetition, of editing tricks, and no postproduction. And there you have it.
Rouch’s very filmography, like Chaplin’s, has been a continuous work in progress, a continual reflection and discovery of the taste for cinema. That is, until around 1961 when Rouch films a crucial, truly important film. I urge you to watch it: La Pyramide Humaine. This film is offered as an experience. It is filmed on the Ivory Coast, in a high school where pupils from Europe and Africa study together. Rouch wants to film the relationships between the boys and girls, between black and white people, their sentimental, amorous relations. It is a film of an exceptional modernism. He starts by filming discussions among, on the one hand, European students, and then, on the other hand, Africans. He creates a modest situation, filming the discussions within these groups. The white students talk about the blacks, and the black students about the whites. From all these dialogues certain ‘compositional’ possibilities arise as a result of chance; different registers are combined. There is a breaking of homogeneity, like we find in Rohmer – a very interesting topic in modern cinema that, for me, finds its beginnings in Rossellini, who questions such registers within the film itself. Above all, these directors give us a sense that the film is being built on the run. In other words, the director relinquishes a very important part of his power, and hands it over by stirring up, and by legitimising, chance. The discussions of the students trigger the illusion of a love story, a story of jealousy, and so on … And that leads the direction. Then that direction is noticed by the characters, so it generates another discussion, and that new discussion generates another level. So, we can see how the movie is being made.
In other words, instead of a script-driven criterion – the execution of a previously conceived plan – the images per se are generating the path of the subsequent filming. In short, three registers can be found here: live recording; what I would call ‘getting into the situation’; and directing. These could stand for three different sorts of documentaries. ‘Getting into the situation’ would be akin to directing, but different in its nuances. The director confronts a great many choices, such as which of the characters he wishes to film; he creates a layout, a set-up, he positions the camera, and waits to see what will happen. At the end, the movie leaves you with a very strong feeling that the important thing is what goes on around the images, not the images themselves. The experiences lived while those images were being filmed. It is rather difficult to explain, because it turns out to be a little abstract – nonetheless, viewing the film leaves no doubt at all. The film gives us the aftertaste of a very profound, very important living experience going on between the frames of the film.
In any case, we find ourselves faced with what I find so interesting: a filmmaker confronting a process that he does not know in advance. The reason I agreed to make a project like En Construcción was because it offered me the chance to shoot a film without a screenplay. To find out what kind of film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to know what the film would be beforehand; I wanted to find it. Every filmmaker should have a revelation about his film while he is making it. And of course, he should try to convey that revelation to the spectator. Because of that, my film is also the reminder of the search it involved. I would like to stress that, contrary to the absolute power of the classical filmmaker who controls everything, there is this notion of the modern filmmaker – who hands himself over to randomness, triggers the accident, forges a new contract with reality. The filmmaker invokes chance by relinquishing some of his power.
To illustrate this, I will evoke an image by Maurice Pialat which I remember vividly. Like Rouch, Pialat also died recently; French cinema has been orphaned. Recall an image of Sandrine Bonaire. Before she became a professional actress, she first appeared in Pialat’s film Á nos amours (1983); the director decided to take the part of her father. He realised that he couldn’t hand over this character to another actor, since doing so would have meant handing over the direction of Sandrine to that actor. More than a filmmaker directing an actor, I see here a sculptor working with a model. The moment I want you to consider is an argument, a discussion between father and daughter. A moment where Pialat strays from the script. Sandrine is waiting for the line written in the script, which she has learnt by heart. And then we see how he smiles and says ‘Come over here, come over here’ – we have a beautiful moment of real perplexity within Sandrine. The mask of the actress and her acting breaks down. It is a moment of what Rossellini called the plus of the truth. It is a very emotional tension that we can revisit all along cinema history. Rossellini often forced Ingrid Bergman’s mask to fall, in order to extract that something – that plus of truth.
|Delivered as part of the colloquium ‘Cinema and Thought: The Filmic Essay’, Madrid, 28 August 2003, organised by Doménech Font. Thanks to Fermin Martínez.|
|Reprinted with the author's permission. Transcribed by Manuel Yáñez and first published in Tren de Sombras (no. 0, January 2004, www.trendesombras.com). Translation from the Spanish by Cristina López and David Flórez, revised and edited by Rouge.|
© José Luis Guerin and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.