Histoire(s) du cinéma {Chapter 2(a): Seul le cinéma} [1989]

So here we go again.

They told Beethoven it was a horrible way to begin his 5th Symphony.

With a rest.

It’s unheard.

Of.

Unheard.

Only the players see it.

Only the conductor pays it much mind.

So the first “note” (beat) is silent.

The conductor must give it.

But there are at least two schools of thought on how this is to be done.

First, a conductor might do as they always do and swiftly move their baton downwards to indicate visually that the first (silent) beat is occurring.

The only problem with this is that the symphony players must then abruptly jump onto the very next beat (which is an “upbeat”).

They happen in very quick succession.

Nothing/Everything.

The whole orchestra.

Tutti.

And they get one shot.

To come in together.

Like an attack.

[rest] da da da daaaaaaaaaa

[rest] da da da daaaaaaaaaa

The second school of thought is more practical.

It advises that, in this particular situation, a conductor giving a downbeat is not particularly helpful to the orchestra (because no sounds occur on that downbeat).

Therefore, the conductor motions the orchestra that the UPBEAT is happening.

When the baton (or hand(s)) come down, that is the precise time to make noise.

It is not hard to see why this might lead to a more successful outcome.

For the goal is to have the orchestra stick together.

An orchestra of individuals who are a mere microsecond off from one another creates a sound which is generally not highly-valued in Western music (at least not in the performance of Beethoven).

But this STILL leaves a problem.

The conductor of this second school, whose job it is to try and lead his orchestra to a faithful rendition of this masterwork, is thereby IGNORING what Beethoven wrote (or, more precisely, HOW Beethoven wrote it).

The beginning.

Godard comes back more fit and trim in this episode of his greatest work.

1a is probably the nuke.

1b is a psychological warfare manual (perhaps)

2a returns us to kinetic warfare.

More or less.

With some lulls.

But there is genuine artistry within these 26 minutes.

Like a symphony by Beethoven or Bruckner.

The beginning is weighted heavily.

1a = 51 mins. (the longest of all eight parts)

1b = 42 mins. (the second longest “movement” of the bunch)

The entire first section is, therefore (carry the zero), 1 hour and 33 minutes.

That’s the first quarter of this “ring cycle”.

And it is truly operatic.

So now we are into a bit of a scherzo.

26 minutes.

Now you can see the influence of television.

The “producers” of this film.

Canal+ (French TV channel)

CNC (part of the French Ministry of Culture [and Godard is Swiss!])

France 3 (a French TV channel)

Gaumont (a French film studio)

La Sept (a defunct French TV channel)

Télévision Suisse Romande (a defunct, French-language Swiss TV network)

Vega Films (Godard’s production company at the time)

26 minutes.

Enough time for eight 30-second commercials.

Arriving precisely at a sum total of 30 minutes’ programming.

It’s generous (no doubt owing to the fact that this was educational programming).

If you look at the true running time of an American half-hour sitcom these days, it is roughly 21 minutes of what you want to see.

The other 9 minutes are reserved for at least 18 30-second commercials.

In the tradition of James Joyce.

The pun.

Which Hitchcock so admired.

…and the Oscar goes to.

Oscar Wilde.

Irishmen in France.

The recurring scene from Salò…

Julius Kelp.

Literary history vs. cinematic history.

Godard has a curious frame which reads, “Your breasts are the only shells I love.”

It is a line from the poet Apollinaire.

[tes seins sont les seuls obus que j’aime]

But I must say, the exciting parts here are the “booms”!

The fighter jet exploding in midair.

Bernard Herrmann’s music from Psycho juxtaposed with scenes from Disney’s Snow White…(1937).

The agitation of Stravinsky.

Cluster chords on the piano.

Godard’s voice fed through an Echoplex.

And, just as in 1a, world-class editing!

Let me be clear.

EDITING is what makes Histoire(s) du cinéma the greatest film ever made.

It’s what makes F for Fake the second-greatest film ever made.

And what makes Dog Star Man the third-greatest film ever made.

It is more pronounced in Histoire(s) and Dog Star Man.

Orson Welles’ “editing” (montage) in F for Fake is done more at the story level.

It is a juxtaposition of content.

The Kuleshov effect with ideas rather than images.

[more or less]

Godard’s camera-pen makes some of its boldest strokes in this episode.

It rivals the 1a excerpt involving Irving Thalberg.

Which brings us to a very important point.

Godard CHOSE to use the concept of “double exposure” (two images–one on top of the other–but both seen to a greater or lesser extent) to ILLUSTRATE the subject and title of his greatest film.

Though it runs 266 minutes, that amount of time STILL wasn’t enough in which to lay out the history of cinema.

So images needed to be doubled up.

Tripled up.

Simultaneous to that, words needed to be spoken.

And furthermore, DIFFERENT words than those being spoken NEEDED TO BE WRITTEN ON THE SCREEN.

If you are not a native French speaker, you will probably need to have the subtitles on when viewing this film.

Which gives you A-N-O-T-H-E-R visual stimulus which must be taken into account.

Yes.

This film should be mandatory viewing for fighter pilots.

Practice your OODA loop here.

Observe.

Orient.

Decide.

Act.

Constantly looping.

If you want to survive in this jungle of meaning.

Night of the hunter…

Klimt.

Fred Astaire.

James Dean.

Burt Lancaster.

It’s all true.

That weary look.

From Hollywood.

It’s all true.

Which brings us to value (that thing which capitalism so gloriously creates…far more efficiently and in much greater abundance than with any other economic system).

“What is the value of knowing how to read this film,” you ask?

Just this.

It allows you to know how to read the complexity of the world.

It is a brain teaser.

With an infinite layering of meaning.

Like Finnegans Wake.

Joyce’s masterpiece should be the only required reading for a codebreaker.

Or a codemaker.

Take heed, National Security Agency.

Your curriculum needs adjusting.

Assign only Finnegan.

And reap your gains.

And what of Histoire(s)?

Its most direct application would be for analysts.

Whether they be Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, or  INSCOM.

Know how to read the image.

Know how to analyze the video.

You must think outside the box.

Sudoku the fuck out of your employees.

And thereby fight crime and keep hostile actors in check.

Which is where we musicians come in.

To analyze the phone call.

To make sense of the audio…from the video.

It cannot be taught in a bootcamp.

It has to be loved.

Nurtured.

If you had one analyst like Godard, you would have a super-soldier equal to an entire special forces unit.

The trial of Joan of Arc.

Not to be confused with her passion.

Laurel and Hardy.

Gustave Courbet.

Marcel Duchamp.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Which brings us to a very delicate situation.

What is the President planning this weekend?

And with whom is he planning it?

If Ronald Reagan was an actor (and he was), then how much more talented is Donald Trump in getting a reaction with his lines…and his gestures?

HIS lines.

HIS gestures.

Accordion music.

Munch’s vampire.

A President who has been attacked from ALL sides UNRELENTINGLY for nearly four years.

And now finds himself in the midst of the hottest biological/psychological/economic war in recorded history.

Where complexity reigns.

As globalization magnifies each twitch of activity.

And this same President STILL finds himself under attack from the same “bad actors” who have unremittingly assailed him.

As in peacetime, so in war.

These enemies of the state.

Masquerading as journalists.

And their masters above them.

Straight from the latest conclave.

“…two if by sea.”

 

-PD

 

Chuck Norris vs Communism [2015)

Dear Ilinca Călugăreanu,

You have made a beautiful film.

Which the world needed to see.

And the title made me think it would be imperialist propaganda directed at North Korea.

But I could not have been more wrong.

Because Romania has touched my heart so many times.

And so I am glad to add another name to the list of auteurs.

Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Cristian Mungiu…

And now Ilinca Călugăreanu.

Yes, it is only right that a young female director should bring us this story.

This documentary.

Ms. Călugăreanu, born in 1981.

Because this film is very much about the 1980s.

VHS.

Videocassettes.

And the situation in Romania.

Chuck Norris is merely a placeholder.

A meme which has undergone a certain détournement.

But there is no substitute for communism in this tale.

Perhaps, authoritarianism.

You see…

if you tell people to do one thing…and you’re really heavy-handed about it,

they will almost certainly do the opposite.

At some point.

And Ms. Călugăreanu’s very persuasive hypothesis is that videocassettes brought down the Ceaușescu regime.

And so there is very little way around this impasse without talking political economy.

First, let us address the very astute current Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky.

The esteemed Mr. Medinsky has famously (?) called Netflix “U.S. government…mind control”.

Or at least that’s how The Washington Times (who needs the Post?) framed it.

But let’s investigate.

Let’s have Mr. Medinsky’s words and not just a CliffsNotes, elevator-pitch summation of them.

He says [translated],

“And, what, you thought these gigantic startups emerge by themselves? One schoolboy sat down, thought for a bit, and then billions of dollars rained down from above?”

That is pursuant to the funding which helped birth Netflix (and, presumably, other American companies with what Mr. Medinsky feels is a global, insidious reach).

He continues [translated],

“It turns out that that our ideological friends [the U.S. government] understand perfectly well that this is the art form that is the most important…”

Ahh, cinema…

And Vladimir Lenin himself knew it!

Mr. Medinsky then seems to evoke the Leonard Cohen of “Tower of Song” when he says [translated],

“They understand how to enter everyone’s homes by getting into every television with the help of Netflix…”

Leonard Cohen (God rest his soul) said it thus:

“Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”

Ah!

What a lyric!!

And that was in 1988!!!

So our director, Ilinca Călugăreanu, knows that of which she speaks.

Because the grip of Ceaușescu was beginning to slip.

But let’s give Mr. Medinsky one more say [translated],

“And through this television, [they get into] the heads of everyone on Earth. But [Russians] don’t grasp this.”

Ok.

Now why was Mr. Medinsky so upset?

Well, because Netflix undertook a vast expansion this past summer.

Indeed, the article from which I’m pirating these quotes (yes, translations are intellectual property) dates from June 23, 2016.

The same article notes pointedly that Netflix’s expansion into Russia, plus a vast number of new territories, means that the streaming service is now available in 190 countries worldwide.

Wait a minute…

How many countries are there, you might ask?  196.  Or 195.

Poor Taiwan, they just can’t catch a break.

So then you might say, well…what the fuck?!?

What countries is Netflix NOT in???

It appears those countries are China, North Korea, Syria, and…Crimea?

Suffice it to say, the international “community” is not unanimous in their appraisal of Crimean statehood.

Is it part of Russia?

Is it part of Ukraine?

What do the words Republic of Crimea even mean if its not an independent country?

Which brings up the specter of “frozen conflict zones”.

I’m guessing that Netflix might be unavailable in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

But I digress…

Because we are on to more specific matters.

There are at least two major ways in which Americans can view the Romanian communist period as it has been depicted in motion pictures.

First, Americans can sympathize with the repression of the Romanian people.

Any doubters should do a little digging on the PATRIOT Act.

Indeed, the psychosis of surveillance (which is mentioned in Chuck Norris vs Communism) could not field a more forbidding bogeyman than the National Security Agency.

And so, dear peoples of the world, would you feel more or less safe living in the same country in which the NSA is headquartered?

Exactly.

Second, Americans could extrapolate Ms. Călugăreanu’s hypothesis to mean that countries such as China will eventually implode as a result of the fulminating combination of repression and technology (even, perhaps, with a starring role for entertainment).

All of that is to say that movies COULD bring down China or North Korea or even Iran.

[Notice the non-Netflix countries…Syria is without, but apparently Iran does have the service.]

Which is to ultimately say, Mr. Medinsky’s fear is completely warranted.

What is at stake in Russia?

The fall of Putin.

A sea change in leadership.

And I will be quite frank.

There is no doubt that Netflix’s catalog is heavily biased towards globalist propaganda.

One of the most glaring areas is India.

I can’t tell you how many watery, transparent premises there are on Netflix which are some permutation of a young person rebelling against a repressive culture.

It’s almost like they’re churning these formulaic films out in a factory.

Boy marries girl from lower caste.  Mayhem follows.

Girl goes to human rights court.  Happily ever after…

Boy rebels against father’s traditional ways [read:  religion].

I mean, at a certain point it’s just pathetic.

But we must hand it to Netflix for some (SOME) of their selections.

Actually, I have found a good many gems on the site.

But it is a very biased (and historically-uninformed collection).

In general, history doesn’t exist for Netflix.

Unless that history is the Holocaust.

Then, of course, there are a plethora of scenarios to “inform” you about the Nazis.

Make no mistake (my best Obama voice), the Nazis were bad.

Really bad.

But do we need 10 fucking films about the Holocaust?

And if Schindler’s List is the zenith of the genre, God help us…

But I digress again…

Chuck Norris vs Communism is a very beautiful film.

It’s about rebellion.

It’s about the little things we do to assert our existence.

And in this case, it’s about a translator (a voiceover dubbing artist) who reached the hearts of innumerable Romanians.

Irina Nistor.

Whether it was Chuck Norris, or Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Sylvester Stallone, Irina’s voice made the dialogue come alive in Romanian.

But it was a subversive activity.

“Imperialist” films were not allowed in Romania.

But Romania was falling apart.

To take the interviewees of our documentary at their word, their lives sucked…without “video” night.

But we must be clear.

Everything (EVERYTHING) about this enterprise was illegal in Romania.

First, the videos had to be smuggled across the border.

Then they had to be copied and dubbed (voiceover).

Then they had to be distributed.

Then some brave schmucks took the risk of screening these films on their TV sets (for a few lei, of course).

But it was dangerous business.

Especially if you were the kingpin.

So it is then strange to meet this kingpin of video piracy face to face.

Zamfir.

Not the guy with the panpipes.

No, this was Teodor Zamfir.

Made a pretty penny.

But the fascinating thing (by Călugăreanu’s hypothesis) is that he completely changed Romanian culture.

The seeds of revolution were sown by Dirty Dancing, Last Tango in Paris, The King of Comedy

And especially by the action films.

Rocky, Rambo, Lone Wolf McQuade…

And so, if you want to piss off a communist (or socialist, or whatever they’re going by these days), you can go with the familiar tack,

“Didn’t they already try that?  Wasn’t it an immense failure?”

I don’t know.

But I don’t doubt the faces of those who lived through Ceaușescu.

No national cinema has been nearly as effective as the Romanian in communicating to the West just what life under communism was like.

And so Romania becomes our lens into the Soviet Union and its satellite states.

I know there are Russians who fondly remember communism.

Let’s be clear:  capitalism can also suck.

Change and upheaval can be deadly.

They say, “Watch the price of eggs” (to demonstrate how a free market dictates prices).

But we see a very similar discontent in the Middle East.

Is this democracy?

Fuck this!

Yes, America has made some mistakes.

And so we should watch everything with a critical eye.

Be your own critic.

Be like Emerson.

Be bold.

And then double back.

Waffle.

Live by palimpsest.

Because you are the ultimate philosopher.

For your life.

I can’t tell you.

And you can’t tell me.

We have to learn.

It must be the right time.

To receive a particular lesson.

I draw courage from Irina Margareta Nistor.

But most of all, I draw courage from the Romanian people.

Perhaps my country’s Hollywood crap (the stuff I took for granted) was just the stuff necessary in the dark times.

Entertainment.  Ass kicking.  Escape.

But the Romanian cinema of today inspires me beyond words.

And so let us remember, whether we are capitalists or socialists, the price paid by the people of Romania in December 1989.

Was it 1,100 people?

11,000 people?

110,000 people?

It’s troubling that nobody knows for sure.

But even if it was a thousand people.

They didn’t just get trampled by goats or run over by garbage trucks.

It wasn’t a bloodless revolution.

At least 1000 people.

They saw their moment.

They seized on a moment.

They capitalized on their opportunity.

There was something which impelled them not to just sit at home and listen.

I salute these brave souls who went out into the streets.

For a thousand people to have died, it seems rather inconceivable that there wasn’t an attempt made by the government to “restore order”.

That’s the line which can’t be crossed.

That’s when a government has lost its legitimacy.

Some stories are twisted.

And full-blown civil wars do erupt.

But it appears, in the end, that repression lost.

And repression, censorship, and heavy-handed tactics (whether adopted by socialists or capitalists) should, by historical lesson, be most strictly avoided.

It is human nature.

The people will not tolerate being treated like livestock.

And something as seemingly inconsequential as VHS tapes can tip the balance.

-PD