HENRI, GEORGES AND SOME MASTERS
The past year has at least taught me this: when lockdown strikes, images become virtual. Without adding a useless grain of salt to the prophecies multiplied hither and thither, it is obvious that the revolution that so many critics had seen coming with digital filming— which had, by and large, left cinema intact—is now being accomplished. The great winner of the crisis will be Netflix, which will have benefited from a tremendous boost. And why not: I don’t think it’s the most exciting aspect of current production, but there are many, and sometimes even little gems. Slow West (John McLean, 2014) and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020) are off-the-wall, glib, not stupid, and even downright clever. It is just that, as with the bulk of the platform’s catalogue, we remain in one universe and one only, that of “international”, i.e. American, cinema (the inventiveness of which is mainly a matter of screenplays).
So I wisely devoted some time during this month locked down to finally explore an old resource, that of the various documents offered by major film institutions. I shall mention only the two most visible in France: the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Cinémathèque française—the experimental online branch of which has been named Henri, in homage to Saint Langlois (1). On the CiFran site you can go to the market and come back with a bouquet garni: restored films, lectures, round tables, various tributes, film posters, press reviews, drawings, and of course interviews, most of them conducted in the presence of the public, at the inauguration of major retrospectives. The interview is a tried and tested formula; in public, and vocal, it has the advantage of taking place “in person”; it has the disadvantage of not being editable, while the written interview allows rereading, amending, completing, and above all avoiding digression. I therefore took these interviews for what they are: little shows, with good, hard-working students (Jia Zhang-ke), nonchalant intellectuals (James Ivory), and reclusive fairground attractions (Jerzy Skolimowski), each one imposing their own style. All in all, a decent evening. The CGP website is a little less colourful. In any case, a male or female film maker (here as elsewhere, more and more girls, so much the better) occupies centre stage. He or she may be absent from two or three “round tables on” (which look like round-tables-on), but in general they are present, and speak for themselves. In public or in front of the camera alone, the interview, long or short, is always terribly revealing. Speaking about Shoah for an hour and a half without being interrupted, Claude Lanzmann performs a perfect obsessional act (although, in 2009, already heard from a lot). Barbet Schroeder doesn’t let go of the charming smile that he is known for; so he claims to have never done anything but for pleasure (you have to see him, as if licking his lips, talking about his “trilogy of Evil” or recounting his drunken encounter with Bukowski). Naomi Kawase in her talk mixes, exactly as in her films, fiction and fact; in a quarter of an hour we come to understand that her entire filmmaking activity was determined by the ups and downs of her childhood. Jafar Panahi recounts with verve his condition of eternal lockdown, and the marvelous means he has found to escape from it a little. As for Sharunas Bartas, in the role of the man who never smiles and whose tone never varies, he is perfect (and he too is consistent with his films). The discourse is a little different when the institution retrospectively added an installation. Agnès Varda, alert and scintillating, comments with virtuosity on her comings and goings between photography and cinema (in Cuba in 1962), while Bertrand Bonello, before his small exhibition, speaks in the second degree about his work. Wondering aloud why he makes films, he finds two answers: “so as not to kill people” and “I don’t want to know”. It’s difficult to push dandyism or sprezzatura any further: here is an artist who knows how to pose.
Evening after evening I learned certain things (often not the ones that were intended); I met celebrities, warm, friendly or cold fish, convincing or indifferent; above all, I had the reassuring feeling that somewhere there was a bath of film culture where, on nostalgic days, I could take a dip. The only thing that really puzzled me was the obstinacy with which Henri, Georges and their zealous servants insisted on baptising so many of these performances with the title masterclass. A masterclass, in English, is a class given by a master, in front of people who are there to learn and benefit personally, even professionally. The first to give these masterclasses (as we say with reason in Quebec) is said to have been Franz Liszt: we have seen the results.Today, the slogan of the masterclass.com website is: “Learn from the world’s best minds” (read: best U.S. minds, of course). It features pell-mell Scorsese, Lynch, Herzog with Itzhak Perlman and Herbie Hancock, Margaret Atwood and Diane von Fürstenberg, Frank Gehry and RuPaul, and a wonderfulTexas BBQ style teacher. You can learn everything about everything, in twenty ten-minute sessions from the mouths of super pros. The events broadcast by the two Parisian sites are far from being like this. I can’t imagine who could learn to film like James Ivory, Richard Linklater or Jia Zhang-ke by listening to them develop their spontaneous philosophy. Why this unnatural attachment to the term masterclass? The answer is, I think, very simple. First of all, it’s chic, by not presenting these encounters as the umpteenth interview with the person in question (who sometimes repeats what they have already said elsewhere). Maybe it also flatters a certain desire of the public, not to go out for nothing: from a masterclass I will come out educated, when an interview will have just allowed me to see an interview. But, since it must be noted that there is no training in all this, since the class is imaginary, what remains? The master, of course. What this label means is that you have masters in front of you. Stars. Celebrities also: Isabella Rossellini, Michel Piccoli… Not going so far as to train your mind, but offering you, on a tray, a little bit of what these important, well-known (not always by everyone) characters have to say, consecrated by the fact of making films. In short, it is one of the ultimate manifestations of the cult of the creator, in its French variant of the policy of the authors. In the next lockdown I think I’ll program myself the complete Cinéastes de notre temps by Janine Bazin & André S. Labarthe, there you go.
Respectively https://www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/videos/rubrique/cinema and https://www.cinematheque.fr/decouvrir.html.