Studies in Verticality #4

West Highgate Cemetery, earlier today


There are better reasons for going here than to look at the grave of Karl Marx. This is the creepiest place in London; no Dickensian stretch of the river can match this calculated exercise in stucco horror, now itself decomposing. The entrance is well downhill in Swain's Lane, and at first the landscape is ordinary. But as you wind up the hill it becomes more and more overgrown, choked in winter by dead fronds with an unnerving resemblance to Spanish moss. The landscape looks less and less like London, more and more like Louisiana. Then, with a shock like a bloodcurdling scream, the Egyptian entrance shows up. Beyond it, the Catacombs, a sunken rotunda lined with stucco-faced vaults, gently deliquescent, crumbling away. Inside them, coffins on ledges. A familiar name like Carl Rosa on one of the vaults seems to accentuate the terror. Nothing seems real but death at its greyest and clammiest. The cemetery closes well before dark, and a good job too.

--Ian Nairn, Nairn's London (Penguin, 1966), p. 212.


An aside, or: utopia

Fox Hill, Upper Norwood - Camille Pissarro, 1870, oil on canvas

England, like France, is rotten to the core. She knows only one art, the art of throwing sand in your eyes.

--Camille Pissarro, 1883; quoted in Patrick Keiller's Norwood, 1983.

When Apollinaire arrives in London in 1901, his description of the South London suburbs, seen from the train, is of 'wounds bleeding in the fog...'

--Patrick Keiller, in conversation with John House, 2005.

Nocturne in Grey & Gold: Chelsea Snow - J. A. M. Whistler, 1876, oil on canvas


No comment #2

Vent d'est - Dziga Vertov Group, 1970


Everything or nothing #2

Histoire(s) du cinéma 4A: Contrôle de l'univers - JLG, 1998, video

Jean-Luc Godard was interviewed by Christian Jungen for NZZ on Sunday last week. The original interview is here, and what follows is an edited translation very kindly provided by Frederik Lang. The byline to the interview reads: 'Next week in Hollywood, Jean-Luc Godard will be honored with an Honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement. He thinks it’s pointless that one insinuates he is an anti-Semite.' Many thanks to Frederik and Andy Rector, to whom this should be credited, for their work and assistance.


NZZ on Sunday: Monsieur Godard, next Saturday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will award you an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. What does this mean to you?

Jean-Luc Godard: Nothing. If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it. But I think it’s strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films? The award is called The Governor’s Award. Does this mean that Schwarzenegger gives me the award?

I beg your pardon? The most important film award means nothing to you?

No, it really doesn’t. Maybe it is a late acknowledgement that I – like Lafayette in the American War of Independence, in the uprising against the English – supported the beginning of a revolution.

Which revolution?

In the 1950s, when I was a critic with Cahiers du Cinéma, we loved independent films. We discovered that directors like Hitchcock, Welles and Hawks fought for artistic independence within the big studio machinery. After the war, we praised this – back then, a sacrilege for French film criticism. They sniffed at directors like Hitchcock and said: He’s just making commercial films. But for that alone, the Academy could have given the award to someone else.

Now you are being modest. You and your colleagues developed the auteur theory that today structures the canon as works of directors.

The phrase la politique des auteurs was made up by journalists. When François Truffaut wrote his first articles, he only said: The auteur of a film is not the screenplay writer it is not the one who gets the story on paper who is important, but the one who stages it.

In 1980, you revoked the auteur theory with a mea culpa. Why?

I suffered severely from the consequences, that they talked more about the author and not his works. That’s why I didn’t go to Cannes for the world premiere of my latest work Film socialisme: they would have only talked about me. But it was already like this during the Nouvelle Vague: we were no more than ten critics who spoke of films and not directors. By the way, this was a mistake: with Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, we only talked about cinema and not about ourselves. We didn’t know one another.

[…] Later on, you fell out with François Truffaut. What was the reason?

Over time I realized that he made exactly the kind of films that we attacked: screenplay-films! Truffaut’s works were not shaped by the camera but by the pen. The camera imitated what his pen had written.

[...] Back to the Oscar: Why don’t you attend the award ceremony?

I don’t have a visa for the US and I don’t want to apply for one. And I don’t want to fly for that long.

Once again, there is a debate in Jewish newspapers about whether or not you are an anti-Semite. Does this hurt you?

That’s nonsense! What does ‘anti-Semite’ mean? All peoples of the Mediterranean were Semites. So anti-Semite means anti-Mediterranean. The expression was only applied to Jews after the Holocaust and WWII. It is inexact and means nothing.

You once said you were a ‘Jew of cinema’. What does this mean?

I want to be together with everyone else, but stay lonely. I wanted to express this contradiction.

The Jews have inhabited your intellectual universe since the late sixties. Is there a certain reason for this?

When the Holocaust happened, I was 15 years old. My parents kept it a secret from me, despite belonging to the Red Cross. I only found out about it much later. Even today I still feel guilty, because I was an ignoramus between the age of 15 and 25. I am sorry I couldn’t stand up for them. Today, in my own thoughts, I would like to have a critical look at them. I am generally interested in the ‘other’. It’s the same thing with blacks. First, they were colonised, and later everyone acted as if they were just as we are. Of course, a black person can wear glasses and a watch, but this doesn’t make us the same.

In Film socialisme it is said that although Hollywood was founded by Jews, everyone is looking in the same direction. Do Jews stand for diversity?

For commerce. The big studios were founded by Jews from central Europe, especially from Germany. Why did they go to Hollywood? Because they could get access to the American financial sector. The Jews were neither authorized to be bankers or doctors, nor lawyers or professors. That’s why they concentrated on something new: cinema. The Jews also came to an arrangement with the mafia quite quickly. But if you say this, immediately you are accused of being an anti-Semite, even though this is not true. People don’t see the images one should have a closer look at the people who founded Las Vegas.

[...] You deconstruct texts and images, and are regarded as 'the Picasso of cinema'.

I don’t like the comparison, he painted too many plates.

Where do you see yourself in the history of cinema?

Next door.

Le Gai savoir - JLG, 1969, 35mm


Distance(s) #19, or: the rhetoric of defamation

Deux fois cinquante ans de cinéma français - JLG & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1995, video



'I am not writing this letter with the intention to make you reconsider your criticism — nothing is farther from my mind. I am merely writing this letter to point out to you that several times in your criticism you resort to what one calls in sports circles a "foul."'

Brody again skips over the gist of this densely argued article [Towards a Political Cinema, 1950] to get to what interests him: “We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time art is born of constraint.” And he concludes that Godard “took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.”

Sliced and diced like a package of subprime mortgages, Godard’s questing thought becomes what Brody needs it to be, and in the process we may not even notice that the person who’s equating communism and fascism politically, by calling them both “fanaticisms,” is Brody. That’s ideological simplification with a vengeance.


Richard Brody's recent biography is clearly still providing ammunition for those who wish to indict Godard as an anti-Semite, and the (ceejay) model for which they like to attack. The rest of Bill Krohn's article quoted above remains the most rigorous and forceful rebuttal to such unthinking, often malicious, slurs, and David EhrensteinAndy Rector have added their voice too. One more — Godard in Deux fois cinquante ans, 'I make film (hi)story by being a small part of it, no-one has ever told me what I was doing there...', final words to André Malraux:

Histoire(s) du cinéma 4A: Contrôle de l'univers - JLG, 1998, video

L'espoir - André Malraux, 1945, 35mm


Forests #10

The Grounds of the Château Noir - Paul Cézanne, c. 1900-04, oil on canvas


Cézanne: You can never be too scrupulous, too sincere, or too submissive to nature, while still remaining more or less in control of your subject and especially of your means of expression. You must adapt these to your motif. Not bending it your way but bowing to it. Allowing it to be born, to germinate within you. Painting what is in front of you and persevering in expressing yourself as logically as possible, but a natural logic, of course; I have never done anything else. You have no idea what discoveries await you then. You see, it's only through nature that you can make progress, and the eye educates itself by contact with nature. By dint of looking and working, it becomes concentric.

Myself: How do you mean, concentric?

Cézanne: I mean that on this orange I’m peeling or, indeed, on an apple, a ball, or a head, there is a culminating point, and despite tremendous effects – light, shade, colour sensations – this point is always the one nearest our eye. The edges of objects recede towards another placed on your horizon. Once you've understood that...

He smiled.

Oh well, you'd have to be a painter to understand. Good heavens, I've invented enough theories about it!

He took a piece of crumpled paper out of his pocket.

I’ve written to a painter who came to see me, someone you don't know, who does a bit of theorizing himself. I’ll sum up what I said to him in my letter.

He read in a drawling, timid but dogmatic voice:

'Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, the whole put into perspective so that each side of an object, or of a plane, leads toward a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, whether a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the spectacle which Pater omnipotens aeterne Deus unfolds before your eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, nature, for us human beings, has more to do with depth than with surfaces, hence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quality of blue tints to create the impression of air.'

Yes... I make a better job of painting than writing, don't I? I'm not going to outdo Fromentin yet.

He crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it away. When I picked it up, he shrugged his shoulders.

--Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne, A Memoir with Conversations (written 1912-13, pub. 1921), trans. Christopher Pemberton (Thames & Hudson, 1991), p.162-164. [Note -- I haven't seen Jean Marie-Straub & Danièle Huillet's 1989 film yet, so will possibly return to this book...]


Des animaux #4

Skagafjördur - Peter Hutton, 2004, 16mm