Written for Moving Image Source and posted online November 6, 2009. — J.R.
It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that the essential film oeuvres of both Alain Resnais and Chris Marker commence with the same remarkable, rarely seen essay film from 1953 — a film whose direction is co-signed in the credits by Resnais (also credited for editing), Marker (script and conception), and Ghislain Cloquet (cinematography). (Cloquet [1924-1981], who went on to shoot most of Resnais’s other major films until his own camera assistant, Sacha Vierny, basically replaced him, also subsequently shot major films by Jacques Becker, Robert Bresson, André Delvaux, Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Louis Malle, and Roman Polanski.) And it’s no less fascinating (and significant) to ponder the implications of the fact that the only Oscar-winning film of Resnais’s career came five years before this neglected early peak. The film in question was the 1948 documentary Van Gogh, and in keeping with the Academy’s procedures, the Oscar went not to Resnais, again the director and editor, but to the producer, Pierre Braunberger. Largely because I prefer to look at paintings from static vantage points and with my own itineraries, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with Resnais’s exploratory camera movements here and in Paul Gauguin and Guernica (both 1950). Unlike his tracking shots past or around various sculptures in Statues Also Die, former concentration camps in Night and Fog (1955), and various portions of the Bibliothèque Nationale in All the Memory of the World (1956) and a plastics factory in The Song of Styrene (1958), Resnais’s other major early shorts, there’s a tinge of academicism here, making it all the more unfortunate that these three films have influenced so many other documentaries about painters and paintings, including many otherwise good ones (e.g., Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1986 Routine Pleasures) that track or pan across canvases in a similar fashion. From this standpoint, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Cézanne (1989) and A Visit to the Louvre (2004) are exemplary (and relatively purist) examples of how to show paintings respectfully on film without superimposing particular trajectories across and around their surfaces. The American reception of Resnais’s work seems to have been a protracted series of misunderstandings and foreshortenings, beginning with Statues Also Die 56 years ago, when one might say that he made a decisive transition from films about art to films that can be described as literature (or, later, theater) by another means. More generally, one could maintain that the great undiscovered continent in Resnais’s work consists of at least five of these aforementioned eight short documentaries that he made over the span of a decade, from 1948 to 1958, only one of which, Night and Fog, is very well known today. That film, I should add, remains for me and many others the greatest of all documentaries to date about the Nazi extermination camps, not only surpassing Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah but also establishing the existential as well as formal terms — the use of the present both to evoke the past and to respect the degree to which that past is irretrievable — that made Shoah both possible and thinkable. If Shoah can be described as a kind of shotgun marriage between existentialism (associated with the present) and Judaism (associated with the past), Night and Fog can be seen as already providing an embryonic version of that forced encounter. Discounting another art documentary that followed Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Guernica, Le mystère de l’atelier quinze (1957), co-directed by André Heinrich and also written by Marker — which I’ve never been able to see, and which is seldom cited, much less discussed, in the criticism about Resnais that I’m familiar with — I think Resnais’s stature as one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema is already firmly established in the remaining three shorts, each of which to my mind is as great in its own way as Night and Fog. And from the documentation we have about the production of these films, it appears that most or all of them required at least as much preparatory work as Resnais’s subsequent features did. All the Memory in the World is a kind of creepy and morbid sequel to Night and Fog in which sequestered books in the Bibliothèque Nationale are perceived as if they were prisoners, squirreled away in a Borgesian labyrinth. The Song of Styrene, in color and CinemaScope (apparently Resnais’s first encounter with each), is a quasi-abstract celebration of what appears to be sprouting buds of plastic, accompanied by a brilliant poetic narration by Raymond Queneau so rich in puns and literary references that English subtitles can offer only pale approximations. (Even though this may come closer to formalism than Resnais’s other shorts, the vibrancy of the colors actually calls to mind some of the gusto of a Frank Tashlin.) Both of these treasures are bonuses in Criterion’s Last Year at Marienbad box set, and Night and Fog is available from Criterion as a separate release. But many decades of neglect have so far kept Statues Also Die from receiving any equivalent treatment. Indeed, its screenings with English subtitles have been so rare that if you come across it in any venue that’s showing a Resnais retrospective, you should drop everything to go and see it. So regardless of whether or not one happens to revere such Resnais features as Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Marienbad (1961), Muriel (1963), Providence (1976), Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), Mélo (1986), Not on the Lips (2003), and Wild Grass (2009) — to cite only my own current favorites — his qualifications as a consummate film master can’t rest simply or solely on these and other feature-length contenders. In many ways those short films are every bit as provocative, especially in their uncanny capacity to fuse literature and cinema. Marker begins his two-volume collection of offscreen commentaries, Commentaires (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961 and 1967) — filmed as well as unfilmed, and long out of print — with his dense, haunting, and blistering text for Statues Also Die, recited in the film by Jean Négroni. Here is how it begins, the words spoken over darkness: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” And then, as if to prove his point, the film’s image lights up to show us the ruins of a few outdoor sculptures, speckled with sunlight and wizened by age and corrosion — strange botanical specimens. What follows, over a striking montage of indoor specimens and some of their strolling museum spectators (first white ones, then a single black woman), is a kind of existential poetics of both art and history: “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum.” Resnais’s Eisensteinian editing meanwhile peaks as an accelerating succession of graphic images reaches a gorgeous crescendo and epiphany in a cut to the head of an African swimmer rising from underwater to the surface of a river. (Resnais’s best work abounds in ecstatic cuts of this kind, nearly always tied to sudden, unexpected human gestures and movements.) This gradually turns into a remarkable duet between Marker’s literary fervor and a detailed as well as despairing political vision — a combination of speculative art history, precise journalism, and a grim meditation on the various places and functions Africa and its separate cultures have assumed within white civilization — and Resnais’s musically and rhythmically orchestrated illustration of and counterpoint to this extraordinary text. Both of these strains can be said to embody, empower, and enhance as well as accompany the other, but it would be pointless to try to synopsize either Marker’s multifaceted argument or Resnais’s elaborately composed and articulated assembly of images, much less attempt to describe how effectively they complement one another. It appears that this film took years to put together, but it moves with a fluency and directness that is never labored. It was the final third of this half-hour film that eventually led to the film’s suppression by the French government. Marker’s passionate and angry polemic builds an indictment not merely of white colonialism but of the suppression, degradation, and in some cases irreversible extermination of black culture, taking on such ancillary topics as black athletes (including boxers as well as basketball players) and black musicians in the U.S. “Resnais might have been thinking of Howard Roark [the uncompromising architect hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead] when he blocked for eight years the release of Statues Also Die in a form that was mutilated by the [French] censors,” Luc Moullet recently remarked in his book-length study of King Vidor’s 1949 film adaptation of that novel (Le Rebelle de King Vidor, Crisnée, France: Éditions Yellow Now, 2009). “Many of us haven’t had the courage or even the occasion to confront [such a] problem.” This was a principled stand that cost Resnais a good deal, because even after the film finally became sporadically available at a few venues, it was still apparently the truncated version, missing the final reel, that most people saw. But it’s this reel that includes one of the most powerful and sustained antiracist statements that exists in cinema, even though its eloquence and moral force remain scarcely known, even in France. I can still recall coming across a story by Jean-Michel Frodon in the August 6, 1995, issue of Le Monde about the film’s belated release once it was finally passed by the French censor, and pace Luc Moullet, this was not eight years after it was made but 42 years, practically half a century. I also recall how disheartened I was to discover afterward that even though this event was deemed newsworthy in Le Monde, it was ignored completely in Cahiers du cinéma. In effect, the film’s lengthy suppression had ultimately turned it into a key missing object in the careers of both Resnais and Marker. In fact, it’s a monument that can’t be said to have ever died because a diabolical combination of avoidance, ignorance, and indifference has never given it a proper chance to live.