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À propos de Nice and the Extremely Necessary, Permanent Invention of the Cinematic Pamphlet

Nicole Brenez

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Art is the highest expression of liberty.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, ‘The Principle of Art and its Social Destiny’ (1865)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930) shows how social injustice is inscribed within flesh itself, on walls, within the very fabric of urban organisation, in the concrete occupation of space (rich beaches/poor quarters) and time (leisure/work). It describes injustice’s physical dimension, reconstitutes its symbolic function, demonstrates its violence.

In order to achieve this, a way of organising images must be invented that will join the powers of syntax (what can be shown as a relation, in a conflictual form: class struggle) and parataxis (what refuses relation, generating caesurae, cracks, breaks: for instance, the workers’ smiles). Thus establishing that cinema can elucidate phenomena by removing appearances and recovering social logics.

On this level – the level of a biopolitical cinema – the legacy of À propos de Nice is indeed prolific and magisterial: Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kinji Fukasaku, Koji Wakamatsu ... Within the more specific aesthetic framework of the documentary pamphlet, what Vigo did on the scale of a city, René Vautier did again, but transposed to the scale of an entire continent in Africa 50 (France, 1951) – as did Fernando Solanas for South America in Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina, 1967), or Bruno Muel for a Peugeot factory in With the Blood of Others (France, 1974), or Al Razutis for the United States in Amerika (Canada, 1972-83), or the Cinéthique Group for the medical institution (Bon pied bon śil et toute sa tête, France, 1978), or Rui Simoès for the event of the Carnation Revolution (To the Good People of Portugal, 1980) ... to cite only some of the most crucial pamphlet-poems in cinema history.

If one sticks with the particular entity treated by Vigo and Boris Kaufman – the city of Nice – there are, of course, two direct, explicit descendants of À propos de Nice: Manoel de Oliveira’s melancholic study, Nice à propos de Jean Vigo (France, 1984), and the anthology film À propos de Nice, la suite (France, 1995), juxtaposing sketches by Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, Raymond Depardon, Raúl Ruiz, Catherine Breillat, Pavel Lounguine and Costa-Gavras. It is a fine thing when a film matters so much that people feel compelled to return to it ceaselessly, whether as a reference-point, a model ... or a question.

 

 

 

 

1. Cf. Alain Weber, Cinéma(s) français 1900-1939. Pour un monde différent (Paris: Atlantica/ Séguier, 2002), pp. 24-28.





 

The filmic essays listed below entertain an entirely different relation to Vigo’s work. Deliberately or not, they are the À propos de Nice of each filmmaker’s own city, meaning that they update the same structural traits: polemical essay, urban analysis, stylistic innovation, biopolitical axiom. On this level, they refer not only to Vigo’s film but also those works that preceded or even inspired it: L’Hiver plaisir des riches, souffrances des pauvres (Winter: Pleasure of the Rich, Suffering of the Poor, France, 1913) by the People’s Cinema collective, which Vigo’s father Miguel Almareyda appears to have seen (1); the first of the ‘city symphonies’ (of which Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera [1929] remains the best-known), namely Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (France, 1926); Dimitri Kirsanov’s Ménilmontant (France, 1926), an ultra-modern documentary-fiction on cruelty and hunger; and Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s Marseille Vieux-Port (France, 1929) which shows, side by side, the geometric splendour of the trans-border bridge and the misery of blacks in the popular quarters.

Like these radical works, some almost entirely lost (People’s Cinema) or still criminally misunderstood (the seminal Rien que les heures), À propos de Nice and the films which follow share the common ground of being produced outside the commercial circuit, in an artisanal context familiar from the Third World – where artistic initiatives flower, but prints often vanish. Thus it is all the more urgent to trace their history, to broadcast their invaluable but fragile echo. Here are some pointers for this eminently internationalist history.

Aubervilliers (Élie Lotar, France, 1945, 35mm, 25')
An empathetic description of the misery in an inner Parisian suburb, by a photographer who was also the camerman for Joris Ivens, Pierre Prévert and Luis Buñuel.

On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, USA, 1956, 16mm, 65’)
Here, only misery is at work.

 

 

  Pestilent City (Peter Emanuel Goldman, USA, 1965, 16mm, 16’)  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Giordano Bruno, The Heroic Frenzies (1585), First Part, Dialogue 4, http://www.esotericarchives.com

 

 

 

 

In 1964, Goldman made two shorts, each four minutes long: Recommended by Duncan Hines, ‘a silent comedy about a very formal dinner held under the subway lights’ – Duncan Hines being the name of a celebrated pastry label; and Night Crawlers (sometimes called Night Life), a film entirely in negative, like the pioneering works of Eugène Deslaw in 1930. Goldman then edited the rushes of Night Crawlers into the introduction and conclusion of Pestilent City, a sixteen-minute Dante-esque elegy. The critical portrait of New York thus constituted by Recommended by Duncan Hines, Night Crawlers and Pestilent City is then perfected in the feature fiction shot between 1962 and 1965, Echoes of Silence. Goldman’s Saturnine films describe the world’s unlivable nature. They represent so many treatises on despair – a despair that is at once documentary, reflective and impulsive in character. Night Crawlers is filmed at the place which emblematises luxury and entertainment for the rest of the world; Broadway becomes, in Goldman, Dante’s Second Circle of Hell, ‘a place I come where nothing shines’, finding the thousands of lost souls roaming in ‘a place mute of all light’, like Goldman’s White Slaves moving, in slow-motion, within an asphixiating negativity. Pestilent City covers Manhattan from South to North, from Times Square to Harlem, finding along the way ever more poverty, violence, rage and tragic drunkenness. In this world solitude is absolute, cruelty ordinary, and misery the only common posession. The rough black and white, the silence, the hynotic, pointillistic rendering of bodies, the looks and gestures incapable of making contact with another body – all this elaborates a heroism of immanence. But Goldman’s cinema takes us beyond even the darkest melancholy, because nothing is either lost or given, except for appetite. Such a furious sensualism returns us to the most shadowy conceptions of the perceptible world, particularly Giordano Bruno’s: ‘Oh, dogs of Actaeon, oh ungrateful beasts, whom I had directed to the refuge of my goddess, you return to me devoid of hope’. (2)

Black Liberation (aka Silent Revolution, Edouard de Laurot, USA, 1967, 16mm, 40’) and Listen, America! (de Laurot, USA, 1969, 16mm, 40’)
In contrast to Moholoy Nagy, Vigo and Goldman, Edouard de Laurot, one of the greatest theoreticians and practitioners of cinéma engagé (the term he himself chose to baptise his group), does not offer an urban study. But his two pamphlets transform New York into a city besieged by revolt, a field of manśuvres belonging to the urban guerilla, a training camp for the Black Panthers (Black Liberation) and then all revolutionary forces in the United States (Listen, America!). Here, cinema places its descriptive and analytic powers at the service of a fighting Utopia, exactly as Robert Kramer did within a fictional format in the same period with The Edge (1967) and Ice (1969). But the utterances from Kramer’s characters prove less eloquent than the percussive rhythms invented by de Laurot’s musical montage, clearly inspired by the jazz sequence in Marker’s and Resnais’ Les Statues meurent aussi (1953). Black Liberation is devoted exclusively to black combat; Listen, America! represents one of the first great visual essays on the society of control, opening the way to films by Ange Leccia in France, and by Michael Klier and Harun Farocki in Germany.


Robert Kramer was among the founders of the Newsreel movement, a network of counter-information groups which, in the mid ‘60s, organised themselves in major American cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago) in order to document social and political struggles. Some of the Newsreel films involve themselves in a polemical description of the structures of urbanism, especially in New York. Let us cite some titles, representing so many ‘case studies’ taking off from the fundamental research carried out by Moholy Nagy, Dziga Vertov and Vigo.

 

 

 

 

 

The Case against Lincoln Center / El Caso Contra Lincoln Center (Newsreel, USA, 1968, 16mm, 12')
On the unhousing of thirty-five thousand Latin-American families for the sake of the construction of the Lincoln Center.

Garbage (Newsreel, USA, 1968, 16mm, 10')
A spectacular event staged by the group known as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.

Mill-In (Newsreel, USA, 1968, 16mm, 12')
In order to raise the consciousness of New Yorkers, anti-war demonstrators took to the streets of fashionable Fifth Avenue on Christmas Eve.

El Pueblo se Levanta / The Young Lords Film (Newsreel, USA, 1971, 16mm, 50')
On the political struggles of the Puerto Rican community in New York.

Allée des signes (Gisèle Rapp-Meichler & Luc Meichler, France, 1976, 16mm, 21’) and Dédale (Gisèle Rapp-Meichler & Luc Meichler, France, 1993, video, 18’)
In order to describe the metamorphoses undergone by the city of Paris, Gisèle Rapp-Meichler et Luc Meichler began from Guy Debord’s texts on psychogeography to make Allée des signes, the last Situationist film-essay. Seventeen years later, they use Piotr Kowalski’s texts to construct the most exhaustive and radical pamphlet ever on the topic of dehumanisation in cities, starting from a precise phenomenon: the building of entire suburbs as ugly 'concrete boxes'. Concrete slabs, ersatz meeting places, the desert of urban arrangements, the labyrinthine, painful nature of the networks linking streets and homes ... One might have hoped that Dédale would constitute only the first visual treatise in architectural criticism – but alas, there have been no others. All we have is their incomparable essay.

 

 

  About a Theological Situation in the Society of Spectacle (Masayuki Kawai, Japan, 2001, video, 7’) & Yamato-Takeru (Masayuki Kawai, Japan/Israel, 2005, video, 60’)  

 

 

In the advertising signs and graphic madness of Tokyo, Masayuki Kawai reconstitutes the trajectory of surplus-value, i.e., the Symbolic. In Jerusalem and its outlying areas, he tracks the customary signs of the sacred. But the minute precision of his description, and the duration of the sequence-shots leave only the filmic material and its memory. Masayuki Kawai has gently established the sacrilegious power of digital recording.

Untitled part 3b: (as if) beauty never ends ... (Jayce Salloum, Lebanon-Canada, 2002, video, 11’)
Imagine a Niçois exiled from his own city, whose inhabitants have been rounded up in a camp – and then this camp is turned into a slaughterhouse. The man recounts to himself, in snatches, the story of this interminable fraud, stumbling into a search for traces. But the inhabitants have themselves burnt to ashes, and can never return. Jayce Salloum: ‘Abdel Majid Fadl Ali Hassan, a refugee since 1948 in the Lebanese camp of Bourg El Barajneh, evokes, in the midst of the ruins of his Palestinian home, a frank, elegiac, visceral and metaphoric echo of the dispossession of the Palestinian people.’ Over images of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, Salloum places the speech of this Palestinian who no longer has a city, a place or a country, and whose chopped words resonate in the emptiness of the shots and the over-fullness of the dead bodies. (as if) beauty never ends ... is an anatomy of dispossession.

 

 

  Cap Esterel (Antoine Page, France, 2002, video, 20’)  

 

 

 

 

 

3. Dominique Païni, ‘Les images font toujours penser au cinéma (Journal, suite)’, Cinéma, no. 08 (Autumn 2004), pp. 122-125.

 

Like James Schneider’s Oasis (1995, USA, video, 10’), Cap Esterel offers an account of the emergence, at the end of the twentieth century, of a new type of population enclave: ghettos for the rich. Dominique Païni has given the first detailed analysis of this film:

‘Something is happening in Cap Esterel between a description of the world and the organisation of perception. Something on the order of a supplement (or a critical remainder) emanates mysteriously from the silence, due to the suppression of any commentary ... Deliberately choosing to efface himself behind a raw image, Page offers an incredible vision of the social organisation of holidays: the holiday village seems like a concentration-camp universe. A particular sequence is, in this regard, significant: at the end of the film’s first part, the camera (surveillance video-style) films the checkpoints at the village’s gates, these barriers which close the village in and selectively authorise entry. The shot suddenly multiplies to infinity on the screen, becoming a mosaic; then the flag advertising the Pierres et Vacances company, seemingly inoffensive, takes on a clearly militaristic meaning.’ (3)

I Live in a Bush World (Lionel Soukaz, France, 2002, Super-8, 5'30)
Part One: the Champs-Elysées seen in terms of signs of commercial takeover and political repression. Part Two: between République et Nation, a march against the war on Irak. Over both parts: an Iggy Pop song reduced to its opening and looped (‘I live in a bush’), monpolising the soundtrack in the same way that America monopolises the Third World.

 

 

 

Le Brame du cerf (Bernard Cerf, France, 2002, video, 4’)
Paris: an extreme-right march and, over these images, a deluge of invective addressed to those who vote for fascist parties – a torrent of insults of the kind that the mass media will not allow. As necessary and salubrious as an adrenalin rush.

Minarets (Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Algéria, 2003, video, 2’)
Of the city, Mecca, Saudi Arabia and religion, there remains only the commonest architectural symbol, reduced to the laughter that it elicits. Bouabdellah points her camera at a minaret and shakes it, making the fixture dance disrespectfully before her, to the tune of a bawdy popular song. The patriarchal system trembles, and Zoulikha gets free.

Manipulations (Mounir Fatmi, Morocco, 2004, video, 7’)
Of the city, Mecca, Saudi Arabia and religion, there remains only the most unique architectural symbol, the cubic shrine of the Kaaba, reduced to the terror that it inspires. Manipulations is an anti-clerical pamphlet, at once economical and madly audacious. Fatmi’s essay works on visual relationships, building the form from pointed insertions which can be as fleeting as a shot (its appearance and duration) or as monumental as a motif (its symbolic charge). In close-up, male hands work a Rubik’s Cube; instead of falling into the usual patterns of green, blue, red and yellow, it becomes entirely black: suddenly, an image of the Kaaba around which a huge crowd of pilgrims gathers, slipped in-between the shots. The hands spread a dark substance which seems to liquify the cube (as in Rubik, and also as in the French translation of kaaba); they cover themselves with this opaque blackness, which soils even the wall, like the oil which traps birds on beaches, or the Gulf in its politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Ask (Massroom Project, Indonesia, 2004, Super-8, 6’)
Jakarta, megalopolis of the Third World: in order to adequately treat it, there needs to be a collective (the Massroom Project) and a serial production of films, numbering twelve to date. The subjects and styles are as diverse as the urban phenomena: humble travels by scooter, the number 24 in billboards and neon signs, a hairdresser, trains ... Among these short films that feel sorry for nothing, there is Andy Ask: small annoucements stuck all over the city trace a line connecting the poor quarters and rich areas; the workforce is sold for a song, auctioned off randomly, traded during telephone hours.

Cette ville me tue (This City Kills Me, Hélène Deschamps, France, 2004, Super-8, 20’)
Paris kills her, with its way of pretending to stay a popular city, all the while pushing its poorest inhabitants further and further out. Hélène Deschamps crosses the great Vigoan tradition with the historicising perspective that Pasolini explored in his essays on destruction and acculturation, The Walls of Sana’a (Italy, made 1971, released 1974) and Pasolini e ... La Forma della città (co-director Paolo Brunatto, Italy, 1973). But suddenly the critical film halts; Deschamps replaces it, sublimely, with a silent, sequence-shot portrait of her lover, Pierre. Because it is in the name of love that critique can do its work; because love represents the angriest, most intransigent, most irresistible force to bend and break injustice ... Then, in Paris, squats burn along with their dwellers (as always, black); Hélène and Pierre have had a child.

Ça sera beau. From Beyrouth With Love (Waël Noureddine, France/Lebanon, 2005, Super-16, 30’)
À propos de Nice reloaded – except that it is no longer a question of tranquil Nice and the class struggle of 1930, but Beirut in 2005, hence seventy-five times more violent. Vigo’s burlesque is replaced by Johnny Rotten’s ‘No Future’ (the tradition to which the explosive final fragment by the Messageros Killer Boys – the band led by punk filmmaker F.J. Ossang – belongs); sped-up religious burials are replaced by the bloody ritual of Ashura (a Shiite ritual which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed); the neo-classical tombstones of Nice are replaced by a city which resembles a vast cemetery forever lined with mines; the parades and ships of war are replaced by the unbearable military occupation of a city that is supposed to be in peacetime.

Beirut – or maybe any city, anywhere, which is at war with itself. Here, no conflict is ever resolved, no wall is ever repaired. In this city full of holes, the explosions resonate better. Those who live there have a choice between army and religion – or between religion and army. The filmmaker pays a visit to some friends; he smokes and takes drugs with them, gathers their suicidal testaments. No one goes anywhere. Noureddine crosses his city in every possible way, day and night, in long tracking shots that serve as subjectiles for his poems; he always end up running into a military patrol, like a drunkard falling on his face.

 

 



 

Noureddine constructs his shots like frenetic postcards; he edits and throws them onto the screen one after another, with short, violent interruptions, and he hurls them at the spectator like grenades. Along the way we learn that, here, a dose of heroin costs ten dollars. Why? In this divided, broken, haunted city, the explosions that occur during political attacks are transformed into drug hits, and these hits are transformed into explosions of images of explosion. How, when one is twenty years old, after a childhood entirely devoured by war, with ‘no future’, can somebody bear to look reality directly in the face? There has to be camera, a plane (itself stolen from the army), and the poetic energy thanks to which Noureddine metamorphoses a political disaster which has gone on for thirty years (he was twenty-five when he shot it) into a demonstration of the way in which the psyche is shot through with historical violence. Instead of Guy Debord’s psychogeography, this is a geography of the psyche.

Lumière d’avril / Light in April (Justine Malle, USA/France, 2005, 25’, video)
April: Justine Malle (daughter of Louis Malle, French translator of Greil Marcus, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dana Polan) discovers New Orleans. She films the inhabitants of the black quarter; they tell her how they dare not leave their ghetto because, if they do, they immediately appear suspect in the eyes of whites. If they go anywhere, it is to jail, before returning, ineluctably, to the same ghetto. One of these subjects, still very young, already has a little daughter; it is very hard for him to remember her name. Malle films the wide streets and the trees; she confesses, in all simplicity and with her whole heart, that she feels like she belongs to this place, that she recognises it, that everything is familiar to her. September: two cyclones destroy everything.

 

Images from Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice
Images from Waël Noureddine's Ça sera beau. From Beyrouth With Love

  This essay was commissioned by Angél Quintana for publication in the Archivos de la Filmoteca, to accompany a ‘Homage to Jean Vigo’ at the Filmoteca de la Generalitat Valenciana in February 2006. Translated from the French by Adrian Martin.  

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© Nicole Brenez 2005. English translation © Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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