16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance
InterviewNoël Burch Biography
with Noël Burch, Mai 2002
What do those Old Films Mean?
Rome is burning (Portrait of Shirley Clarke)
CR: What was driving you to become both author/theorist and filmmaker?
NB: I first began studying to make films, because my vocation was to be a film maker. For this reason, when I was nineteen and I went to school, I was already developing the idea that basically cinema is a kind of music, and this idea is formulated in my first book, which is called, Theory of Film Practice in English. It is basically about this idea that what counts in film is the mis-en-scène, and that narrative is a kind of convenient support that has no importance whatsoever.
I wrote that book and published it, and I became radicalized in ’68, so there was a kind of tension developing between this formalism and the beginning of my radical politics. But at that times, in France, it was easy to reconcile these two because there was this thing which is called ‘revolutionary formalism’ which is an old story, which is the idea basically that art accomplishes a revolution in form. So there was a lot of stuff like Tel Quel and all these magazines, and lectures and so on. This was a way for me to go on being a formalist and still be a communist, which I was for many years – I still am, but I am not member of the party anymore. So then I decided the second stage of this, I had already discovered the Japanese cinema, and I saw a lot of Japanese films at the Cinematheque Française, and so I went to Japan, and wrote this book, To the Distant Observer, and I looked at practically all the films that were around at that time. Others have been discovered since back then, and so I developed this whole theory about basically how Japan was this sort of formalist culture; which of course in a certain sense is true. I came to show how this cinema which is a radical cinema, at least that is how I saw it, in regard to the West, and Hollywood, and the Western Cinema, which is primarily narrativist. It became a kind of a Utopia, and the third Utopia, because all these things overlapped, before I finished that book I began another one which took about fifteen years to write, which was about the Primitive Cinema, because the primitive was this other Utopia, the early and pre-Griffith Cinema, and that was a cinema which existed before the language was formulated. There was this space in which they were doing things, which resembled certain avant garde practices, which I was really interested in at that time, like in the Western avantgarde and the Japanese cinema.
CR: How was To the Distant Observer received in Japan upon its publication?
NB: Well, scholars know it. It has never been published in Japanese. To be frank, the dialogue with Japan is very very difficult, I mean, the book is about that a little bit… there is such fundamental cultural misunderstandings in terms of the philosophical and the ideological and so on, between Japan and the West. I guess Japanese film intellctuals largely had their own mystical vision of their country, like Oshima, or rather some down-to-earth realism, which none of this is necessarily true, but they lived within this system of signs, as Barthes called it …Between Japan and the West, the intellectual barrier is absolutely enormous … for me. Maybe in terms of science, it’s not, it changes, but in terms of actual cultural exchange, there can be none … I don’t think there ever will be … and its fascinating in a way. It has to do with language, it has to do with the very structure of language. In the West, there has been a lot of criticism of the book precisely because of this culturalism.
But to be frank, I believe this is true not just with Japan. I feel there the gulf between this country and the United States for instance, which is something I know very well, because I am bi-cultural, is enormous. For example in this country, there is no real understanding of a Hollywood Cinema, and in the United States, there is actually no understanding at all, of French Culture and French Cinema. I am not talking about people who actually live here, but if you are just looking at it from far, … there is an illusion, you know, one world and all the Internet stuff, that is just illusions. Which is interesting, but it is a problem too.
Since about 1980, and partly even more so today, at least in Europe, there is a retreat from meaning, and that is what I find very difficult to view, as in my old age… and consequently, things like these, those ideas get fashionable … At the time it was published, To the Distant Observer was quite heavily attacked, quite rightly so actually, there was a fifty page article attacking it in Les Temps Modernes. Those were the days when basically I was out of synch, I was not really political, so I did not have any understanding of what I was doing. Indeed that book was attacked heavily, and then in 1981, I spent a couple of years in the States to see if I could stand it and I could not, and I came back here and I was getting my offer to reprint the first book, Theory of Film Practice, and this was just after the Japanese book had come out, that year I think, it came out in America in 1979, and in France in 1981, and I was asked at that point if I would like to reissue my Theory of Film Practice, and I said, Jesus Christ, and then I said, of course I realized why, because there had been this very basic ideological swing in 1980, 81 to the right, the French Intelligentsia all if a sudden was deeply into Formalism, it was a radical swing really.
CR: Then your third book was published, Life to those Shadows ...
NB: Life to those Shadows, for me it is not a book I totally approve of, but because of that book I became more and more aware that there was something wrong with this whole idea of the primacy of form, and the fact that for example somehow this pre-cinema was a good object for an academic questioning of the dominant mode of representation – I think I called it Institutional Mode of Representation, and as I worked on that book it got turned about, so the book is very bizarre.
CR: What is your view on the development and relation of film studies in England and the USA, and what is your specific field of interest as author and filmmaker operating between France and the USA?
NB:One of the things that I am aware of is that is very hard for me to deal with it, for a number of reasons. There is a paradox also: the real paradox is, in fact, that in the United States, the Film Studies developed after 1980 basically not particularly under the participation of women – and most of my references are to women, not only in Film Studies, but also in Art History, practically in every intellectual subject of concern to me. And because of the way in which society is divided between a tiny group of progressives and this vast mass of disinformed people … in the United States, there is a more congenial atmosphere in this regard to – I went there – I have stopped now, but I went there a few times to teach in the past few years. There is more interest in the issues I deal with, there are many issues – but nevertheless, they are all obviously issues of gender, representation, orientalism – I gave a course this last year in Los Angeles, on the representation of Arabs in the American Cinema, I did a course on that, so anyhow, that is a paradox, because the United States is for me the enemy, and I have a very hard time when I go there, I find it so difficult to deal with. But, at the same time, and right here, I am at home, I have close relations to the civil society of this country and it is a country where politics are still alive, there is a lot of things going on, and an awareness of what is going on. And on the other hand, I am in a state of total alienation in regard to issues of culture here which in general can be called a formalist modernism. Formalist modernism is the official ideology of this country… the government spends large amounts of money every year for things like Beaubourg and so on, so obviously, it as a very contradictory and sometimes difficult situation.
CR: What is in your opinion, the specific approach you take not only as theorist but as filmmaker as well, to film history? You did a series called What Do Those Old Films Mean?, dealing with issues of early cinema and the development of film language in six different countries ...
NB: Oh well, I was a filmmaker. I started with all this because I could not make films – the first book was really somebody sitting down and writing a book about the films you wanted to make. In 1967 when I wrote the articles which became that book I had graduated from film school 13 years before, and had only – well I had been assisting for a while and I made a few shorts, but I was not really going anywhere. So I then started teaching a little bit, and somehow earlier I got involved in theory. At the same time I made a lot of television programs, I worked on some television projects, and films. And in fact, most of my filmmaking, I would say the majority of my filmmaking has been about film. The first film that was I guess significant – the programs for Cinema de Notre Temps ... well, we all had those ideas that we are going to make these experimental things, sort of essays, sort of collage films, the ideas contained in a certain film practice – I was trying to put them into practice in some of these films, and then the first successful film I made – successful as a work, not making money – is a film called Correction, Please which is actually a sort of a condensed version of my third book (Life to those Shadows). It is about the emergence of film language, but it is also a sort of avantgarde film, involving different kinds of materials, scripts, sets, and it is an unusual film, it is didactic in a certain sense and goes with the book.
I made several other films. There is a film called The Year of the Bodyguard ...These are all films made in England, I did not live there but I was in England off and on between 1979 and 1986 and I made three major films – these three films were all collage films. There were these three films and they were all really spin offs of that book, in a sense that they were trying to apply these things. Two of these films I made are very political and personal, too, the second film deals with the suffragettes from 1911. It is about women’s violence, how they were going to fight the police … It is called The Year of the Bodyguard. It was the first film commissioned by the Eleventh Hour, when Channel 4 began, in fact it was the very beginning of Channel 4, and they were doing very arty stuff. They commissioned the film which is mixing all sorts of things, comic strips and staging and false documentary, and archive, and so on – it was a very ambitious thing.
So there were these three films which were indeed spinoffs of my modernist period, whereas it was winding down in terms of my writing … And then I made this series which I think is one of the things I am most proud of actually. It is a series on cinema, and that was the real turning point. I should say that my main “Aufklärung” came in the States when I was there between 1979 and 1981, where I met Allen (Sekula) in particular, and Thom Andersen, and became aware of them as very politicized people. At that time, there was still some political activity in the United States. And I became suddenly aware where I had gone wrong basically. I began teaching, well I was still teaching this formalist crap but beginning to find it more and more ridiculous and for example, one day I was showing Dreyers Joan of Arc, and I went into this Spiel about the space, and so on, and then I went out, and went into my office, and some kid comes out of the screening room, and he says, Hey, that film is a wonderful movie, just wonderful wonderful, but tell me one thing – what does she want, that woman? So then I went back afterwards and I said, Hey, whoever has heard of Joan of Arc here, and from eighty students there were two raising their hands, just because they had gone to a Catholic School.
So that was a big point, and I then I came back to Europe and there was Channel4, I had some good relationship with Channel4, they did that film I mentioned, but I also started a project with these six programs, that were six sort of essays, they were shown on television. It was about six different aspects, well basically six subjects on different national cinemas – Denmark, France, but early, most of it pre-first world war … Twenties Russia, and just particular subjects like for example, sexuality in Danish Cinema, Class positions in English Cinema and so on. That was a very successful thing. Very paradoxically today, there are some people here in France, who are now trying to do a series on film for a television program adapted from Life to those Shadows, but they are on the formalist side, they want to do the form, they don’t understand it besides that, it is a bit of a problem.
CR: Do you see the practice of filmmaking as a critical instrument and political tool?
NB: My films, for 20 years, now, have been essentially political, whereever they were shown ... they were shown on Arte mostly, and so people like me look at these films and programs, and they think, Wow, that’s great, there is somebody who can make films like that which is encouraging, reassuring. It is like going to a Demo, you are going to a Demo and you are meeting people out there who feel the same way you do, and this is very good, and this is why you go to a Demo, to charge one’s batteries, ideologically. But I have never been converted by television films or by the movies. You acquire political consciousness in struggle, being in a strike, occupying a factory, the kids going out in the streets, like the 21st of April, there was a demonstration against Le Pen, that is how you become politicized, not by watching things on television – you are not going to be politicized by that. One becomes politicized by some kind of collective activity. In the Seventies, we used to make , you know, I worked for the party a number of years, in the film section of the Communist Party, so that was obviously … used within a political framework. But film itself, art itself has absolutely no political effect that is in any sense measurable. Art does other things, whatever, fine, I don’t know. That is one of the big alibis, if you like …
Obviously, for example, films from other countries for example shown in Europe were a kind of encouragement to militant activism, to resistance to whatever else was going on … yes, it is very hard to judge. Let me put it this way. There was a film called Z, by Costa Gavras, a film about fascism in Greece. It is a film which tells about what has happened in Greece. I remember a friend of mine, and American radical friend of mine, this is in the Seventies, who was among other things, active in getting money for Cuba and things like that, and she one day, I remember told me, ”We were showing Z, ... believe me, it gets the guilt money out”, and of course, in other words, that is fine, that is perhaps one particular version of this thing… A person goes to the movies and comes out going, Wow, isn’t it terrible what it means to, so what …but on the other hand, if there is someone there collecting money, if there is a discussion, like, Now you join the party, OK, cinema can be useful in that sense. But it is certainly also true, for example today, for the past year or so, there has been an amazingly large number of documentaries on television in this country, critical of what is called Globalisation and so on, the present state of capitalism. Now these films are simply part of a larger discourse, they are picking up from Seattle in general, they are the signs as much as anything else of the fact that it is now possible to put forward these criticisms. Le Pen’s victory is in part connected with that because a lot of people did become aware of the fact that there is something going on out there which is messing up their lives, and obviously some people don’t understand which way one has to go and a lot of people think it is enough to throw out the immigrants and vote Le Pen – so all of these factors are interrelated, they are part of a discourse in a society – and this will in some way or other contribute to this general discourse, and on its most sophistiscated level which is the Arte level it is not necessarily touching the people who need to be reached. I mean, who sees the television programs of Michael Moore in America? Obviously he is fantastic, he is absolutely outspoken, he understands everything, Michael Moore is great but – his book is much better known – I mean, books? Who reads books? – it is on the top of the best seller list in the New York Times for ten weeks now – extraordinary – but nonetheless, his television stuff, I don’t know anybody who has ever seen it, though for years he has his TV stuff out there and they show it here, in some cable channel even.
If you really look at those programs seriously, as an American, you understand everything is wrong with America, everything what America does to the rest of the world, but obviously no one understands that.