Monday, September 6, 2010

The Dynamics of the Image, or Civeyrac Matters

[A sort of companion to "Films and Feelings" (which appears in a revised version here), this post appeared at the now-defunct Tisch Film Review website on September 23, 2009; unlike that text, this one has undergone minimal revisions. Since this was written, Civeyrac has completed another feature Young Girls in Black.]

À travers la forêt (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, 2005)

Jean-Paul Civeyrac made À travers la forêt in 2005; it’s his most recent feature to date. It played a few festivals, but, like every Civeyrac film, no US distributor has seen it fit (or thought it would make a good enough return) to either put it in a theater or on a DVD. It’s a small film and a big one, both in the old-fashioned sense. Small, meaning that it’s barely over an hour long and was shot on just a few sets in less than two weeks, the sort of schedule Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar Ulmer used to work with back in the day. Big, in that it’s larger than its production budget, that its images are worth more than the money spent on making them. Maybe Civeyrac hasn’t made a feature since À travers la forêt because it is the ultimate Jean-Paul Civeyrac film: he would have to think long and hard to express himself more fully. But who knows — people are capable of a lot of things; to watch movies is to intend to be surprised. But, anyway, that it’s the “ultimate” Civeyrac — an auteurist honorific of the lowest order — isn’t what makes it important. Just because Defiance is the ultimate Edward Zwick movie (and it is) doesn’t mean you should see it. No, the reason that a film being the ultimate Civeyrac matters is that Civeyrac himself matters, whether we know it or not.

Civeyrac was born in the last week of 1964. That makes him 44 now — not a young man, but still a “young director,” because, after all, there isn’t a profession that requires as much living (or fewer qualifications) as directing films. But he’s also a “young director” in the sense that he will always remain one — he’s one of those people like Nagisa Oshima, Manoel de Oliveira, Aleksandr Sokurov or George A. Romero, one of those for whom a hundred and fifteen years isn’t quite a history. There are older things (de Oliveira and Sokurov), newer ones (Oshima) or modern ones (Romero) to worry about. There are no people alive now who were around before people shot movies, yet, at the same time, there’s still a lot to discover, a lot of ideas to work out. Cinema only appears old because there are old movies, but the two things are as separate as art is from paintings or literature is from novels.

The opening shot of À travers la forêt is seven minutes long. Actually, every shot in À travers la forêt is about seven minutes long: there are ten of them in a 65 minute film. But Civeyrac’s technique isn’t fetish and it isn’t a question of “prolonging” or some conceptual take on duration: his films move rapidly, faster than almost anyone else’s, and in one of his long takes there are more distinct and original ideas and feelings than in many of the most complicated (which isn’t to say complex) editing schemes. Civeyrac is no virtuoso; he has nothing to prove about himself, only about the image and its capabilities. There’s a basic truth that forms the basis for his style: a simple picture can show you light or it can show you darkness, but only a movie can show the light changing, clouds suddenly appearing on the horizon or the Sun coming out after a storm. It’s in moving from one thing to the next that a certain sensation impossible in anything else occurs.

The idea behind the opening shot of À travers la forêt, on a basic level, seems to be to construct a long take — the camera shifting from wide-shot to close-up, circling around and moving forward— out of a parade of ordinary pleasures: flowers, mirrors, a woman’s hair, hands, breasts, a man’s ass. Yet the shot is not about any of those things; if I had to describe "Civeyrac," I'd say that he’s what happens in the movement between those objects. He’s not the framing, but what occurs within the take when the camera moves from one framing to the next, the moment of the dissolve and not the image dissolved from or into, what occurs in the camera’s movement forward rather than the framing that results from its arrival at the end of the dolly track, the pan rather than what’s being panned between. His cinema is the transition, the dynamic, and also the blur. That transition is also a sort of tension, like in his 2000 film Les Solitaires, where the domestic tension of the plot is rivaled by the director’s own tension, a high-wire act between the traditions of naturalism and his own impulse towards truth (the solution, apparently, is theater — the theater of the image, you could call it, and that’s probably how Miklós Jancsó thinks of it, too).

The other key Civeyrac idea is that a person can die in a moving image. While painting or photography can show a moment of death, cinema can portray the transition. This raises a good question: is death Civeyrac’s great subject because of the nature of cinema, or was he drawn to cinema because of death? Either answer seems likely; it’s probably a combination of the two. He’s not haunted by death like, say, Philippe Garrel (for whom death has always been a sort of failure and life, by extension, the road to failure); no, death for him isn’t something final, but a sort of transition in and of itself, maybe into memory or into history. A ghost haunts every grainy image of Les Solitaires. Civeyrac's pre-Raphaelite short Tristesse Beau Visage tells the story of how Orpheus seduced Eurydice, in color and black & white (or is it how Eurydice seduced Orpheus? You’re never really sure — all these turns).

And it’s the turn, and the uncertainity that comes with it, that makes Civeyrac important — a director of small films working with one of the greatest tools available to an extent that’s unrivaled, like some unknown who discovers a secret to painting and toils in obscurity. He is against the definitive and for an image that shows what exists between things instead of the things themselves, what we feel between emotions. And we should be with him.

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