écrivains à l’écran

On the first floor of the Pessoa Museum in Lisbon, we can contemplate the glasses of the writer who nevertheless said he was nobody or perhaps a ”many-faced mask, varied people”. In Casa Keats, Rome, the walker is invited to meditate on a fair lock of the hair of the young poet, who died at the age of twenty five, and who asked expressly that there would be only this on his grave: «Here lies someone whose name was written on water». The taste for relics was finally stronger than the desire for oblivion. We could laugh quietly, but, there is really no reason to do so. The emotion felt by someone watching Sacha Guitry’s Ceux de chez nous (1915) on seeing Degas or Rilke walking, or listening to Rodin, is finally no different. Sacha Guitry was clearly aware of this when he said that he made Ceux de chez nous not for his today, but for tomorrow, which is our today. Very quickly, he understood (as a man of theater that he initially was) that the cinema’s most beautiful potential was its ghostly power.
In Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951), Isidore Isou shows that he is also aware of this, slowly erasing, scratching and whitening writers’ faces that he films, as if in a rite of disappearance. If, as Godard complained, we usually say “an old film“, and rarely an “old novel”, it is that the cinema is the test of time, an art for after death, a sort of embalming. Every film contains an emotion which does not depend primarily on the directing but simply on gap that is made. If, furthermore, it is Pasolini who meets the aged Ezra Pound in front of Vanni Ronsisvalle’s camera (in Une heure avec Ezra Pound, 1968), the emotion is amplified by yet another, perhaps artless faith, that the body (or a sign of the body, an image of the body) bears its own other truth, and why not superior to the truth contained in other more conscious expressions of the individual, such as his writings.
That a body could be the very principle of writing, for example, is indeed what Kafka often repeated. For him, every absence of writing was also a missing body: “Slow pace, little blood” (Diary, May 25th, 1912); “Without weight, without bones, without body” (June 6th, 1912); whereas the assaults of writing, on the contrary, tightened his chest and inflamed his head: “So many things I lost yesterday, as the blood rushed in my narrow head, in my head capable of anything” (November 15th, 1910). What is regrettable is that there was no more Guitry to film these bodies in which so much great writing was born. We would have liked to see moving pictures of Kafka, Proust, Pessoa, Joyce, or Woolf. We could have been able to, but the cinema was not often up to this task. Although we possess living images of André Gide or Paul Valéry (in Marc Allégret’s Avec André Gide, a montage of different films made in 1952, one year after the death of Gide), the cinema’s role of “embalmer” was driven by something other than itself, such as love, affection, or friendship.
Friendship is also the subject of Glauber Rocha’s later film on Jorge Amado (Jorge Amado no Cinema, 1979). Or sometimes just national pride, as in the footage that Satyajit Ray uses to compose his portrait of Rabindranath Tagore (1961), the leading poet of independent India. It is the development of the early television first version, both an educational and democratic moment, that marks the reproduction of films about writers. The stream of words could then begin and has not stopped since then. The constant simplification of technical equipment, the generalization of the heritage conservation ideology continually inflated the concern for storing archives: faces, words, acts, places. In a way, the image is devalued: it is henceforth the opposite that makes sense – the strategies of invisibility (Blanchot, Pynchon, Salinger) or of invisibilisation (Beckett, Deleuze). The law of supply and demand also has its truth here: a single image of Pynchon is worth hours of X or Y that are broadcast in the media.
It is from this new legitimacy of the disappearance that João César Monteiro worked in his second last film, Blanche-Neige (2000). Adapted from a text of the Austrian writer Robert Walser, the film is absolutely and radically faithful to Walser’s impulse of shrinking and bleaching . Just as the writer began writing with a lead pencil, with minute writing, because all other means caused «a collapse of the hand» and confronted one head-on with the sacred figure of writing, so Monteiro escapes the obligation of representation specific to the cinema, and he films only the darkness, a few clouds and photos of Walser dead in the snow, finally having joined the nothingness. In their way, the Straubs had noted this act of bodily disappearance that haunts modern writing. Their Toute révolution est un coup de dés (1977), an adaptation of Mallarmé’s forgotten poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, was filmed at the Mur des Fédérés [a memorial to the dead of the Paris Commune] a body literarily absent on really present corpses.
Once the images abound, the question thus reverses itself. We are no longer in search of rare archives, we want images that have a meaning, that are not just filmed radio, or, if they are, that are explicitly so. We would like to see this ideal scene: the birth of writing, how it emerges from a body, and not simply by looking at the writer sitting artificially at his desk, with intense eyes aimed at a page or a computer screen, the hand writing, deleting or erasing. All the recent films that tried this approach were mercilessly rejected for this programme. We preferred to choose films that offered solutions.
La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais (Benoît Jacquot, 1993) is a solution: sitting in her room, Duras tells the history of the young airman while the camera moves around the Normandy landscapes. It is both an oral improvisation and writing. The indecision is supreme, as if the writer was only repeating the nth draft of a text that she was soon going to really write. It is a solution whose power is that it is perfectly adapted to the «Pythic» modalities of Duras’s late writing. It is obviously possible, and even necessary, to invent other solutions for every style of writing, for every writer. In his Ateliers d’écriture, portraits of rarely-filmed contemporary poets, Pascale Bouhénic chooses to sit his models on chairs, armchairs and benches, a sign of a technique and an attitude to writing: the (proven) theory is that seated bodies already say something. There is a certain way of occupying space (which choreographers would call «marking out one’s kinesphere») that is also a way filling a page. The vocal dimension was preferred by Arnaud Des Pallières in Portrait incomplet de Gertrude Stein (1999) or Viatcheslav Amirkhanian in his portrait of the poet Arseni Tarkovski (Arseny Tarkovski, Eternal Presence, 2002), father of the film-maker Andrei Tarkovski. Choosing to film the voice of Gertrude Stein, for example, or to multiply it in the voices of actors (Micheline Dax, Michael Lonsdale) is in fact being closer to the Steinian literary approach that consisted in trying to create a «language which understands the vital difference between spoken language and written language», so that Stein finally wrote against the spoken language, not to distance herself, but to find the oral, the voice, the essential and endless.
Stéphane Bouquet

Coda: It is still very rare (for the moment?) to see films where the writers themselves represent themselves, showing themselves as they would like to be seen, directing themselves. Of course, there is the already mentioned Traité de bave… by the Lettriste Isou who films himself in Saint-Germain des Prés, which was then a real writing district. But there is not much else: that is why it is a pity that we are still prohibited from screening Yokuko (1965), the film in which the Japanese writer Mishima prepares his fake suicide as a sort of trailer some years before committing his real suicide.

Marc Allégret
France, 1951, 45’

Benoît Jacquot
France, 1993, 36’

Pascale Bouhénic
France, 2003, 40’

Satyajit Ray
INDIA, 1961, 54’

Arnaud des Pallières
France, 1999, 45’

Isidore Isou
France, 1951, 120’

Un ora con Ezra Pound

Vanuni Ronsisvalle (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Italy, 1968, 50’


























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