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Phantom Europe:
A Mosaic

  Almodovar filming Cruz


Any kind of nationalism is a fiction in the worst sense of the word. I believe in some kind of cultural identity; that is, in the variety of identities. You do not need only one identity; you need many if you want to become yourself.

            - Raúl Ruiz, 1992

1.
Phantom Ladies Over Paris

Twenty-five years ago, in Sydney, Australia, I acted in a short experimental film, shot on Super-8 and completed on video. Its director, John Conomos, is a Greek-Australian – in fact, his family comes from the same region in Greece where Giorgos Miliotis (better known as George Miller, director of Mad Max) was born.

 

Conomos wanted to make a film, forty minutes long, inspired by the work of the great French director Jacques Rivette. It is called Waiting in the Wings. It takes enchanted motifs from Rivette – entrancing libraries full of secrets, ‘phantom ladies over Paris’, skating in the streets, hidden conspiracies, disco dance clubs, handsome conjurers, etc – and spins them into a free-form, dreamlike fiction.

 

I spent much of the shoot (which was as prolonged as Michael Cimino’s Heaven's Gate, spreading over two years, until the very day I had to leave Sydney) wearing a smart pair of pink pajamas embroidered with a skull icon derived from Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1961). Where are those pajamas now, I wonder? I played a film critic (typecasting!) obsessed with Rivette, to the point of literally entering his imaginary world. John and his collaborator, architectural philosopher Mark Jackson, essentially mixed elements from the plot of Céline and Julie Go Boating (1975) with quotations from classic Surrealist texts.

 

Several months into this gruelling process – John had put up his own home (containing several small children at the time) in order to raise the money to hire and maintain a large set/studio, far outrunning the roughly one-thousand dollars gifted to the production by the Australian Film Commission as part of its No Frills Fund – I realised something odd. John had, in fact, only ever seen two Rivette films, those I have already mentioned. Two out of, by then, at least a dozen. The obsession of my character was also, of course, his own, personal obsession … but what was it based on, exactly?

 

I have seen many more Rivette films in the two decades since, and (I imagine) so has John. Rivette has changed – from improvisation, wild sound directly recorded, sprawling modernist narrative structures – into something more serene and classical, though no less achieved or rich. And all of us involved in Waiting in the Wings have changed, too, in one way or another. But when I look back on the experience of that chaotic amateur-artistic film in Sydney, I am struck by the realisation (which nagged at me even at the time) that what animated its maker was not so much a direct, analytical engagement with the work of Rivette, but rather an absorption or investment in a fantasy of Rivette: an enticing myth, woven together by many hands around the world, over the course of many years.

 

Fantasy or myth: sometimes, at some particular moment in some particular part of the world, that is all we have of the culture (or the cinema) that we love, that we desire, that we aspire to emulate: like John wanting to give form to his dream of Jacques Rivette, no matter how lopsided, how lacking of the actual adored object, that dream was – as dreams perhaps often are. This essay is about one specific fantasy cinema, which I call Phantom Europe; I conjure it through a mosaic in four layers.

 

The outsider’s perspective is not often one that is respected within film pedagogy, particularly with the explosion of multicultural studies – often keenly and instructively political – within academic and critical circles today. Haven’t we had enough of phantom cinemas - the Orientalist East, darkest Africa, exotic Eastern Europe, mythic America, down under Australia, ancient Japan, and all the rest? Haven’t we had enough of all those Primitives or Sophisticates, these timeless traditions or avant-garde metropolises, these centres and margins? Just so many useless, sedimented, tired clichés. After all, this is supposed to be an age of pervasive exile and disapora, the ceaseless movement and exchange between cultures and nations, the time of hybrid identities.

 

In fact, this is what my Rivette story is also about. The collective Australian identity that comprised the production team of that zany little film was many things at once: Greek, Anglo, Spanish, Asian … And our mental space was, likewise, an amalgam of ideas from France, America, England, Japan. Everything inside and outside us was re-routed through a map of the world; our supposed outsider, non-European vantage-point was already impure, contaminated, porous. And, anyhow, is it really such a crime to embark on a practical, creative love of cinema on the basis of a fantasy of otherness, another country, another culture, another world?

 

In any such fantasy of otherness, as Bérénice Reynaud once suggested, there is something enabling (not to mention exciting): the de-familiarising mirror of the Other. And better that there is this spark of desire for the Other – which feeds and leads back to new thoughts and experiments in the place where one lives – than either a bland reduction of all cultures to the Same, or the hands-off, excessive respect for the Other. As Slavoj Zizek often tells us, such an exaggerated code of politically correct tolerance leads to nothing good, and often hides a brutal, murderous kind of envy.

 

 

2.
The Glocal and the Lobal

 

Sometimes it seems as if no single article, conference or café discussion on contemporary European cinema can even begin without an agonising disquisition on definitions and limits: what is Europe? What is a European film? The disaporic, hybrid trend begun by Michelangelo Antonioni with Blow Up in 1966 – Italian director, British location, American money – has caused a growing headache for critics and commentators ever since. I once heard a cultural studies scholar make a hilariously convoluted attempt to capture these complexities in a few magic keywords: alongside what we think of as the global and the local (he explained), we must also grasp the glocal and the lobal, in other words, the global that is inside the local, and the local that is inside the global …

 

The headache continues.  Now, many attention-grabbing films flaunt their multinational, multicultural status: whether Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), with its plot and cast moving around Europe and Asia; or the intriguing case of Sofia Coppola’s largely European-financed (but still very American in sensibility) Marie Antoinette (2006), with its wild cast-list from all corners of the globe.

 

In a way, what we are seeing is the retread of an older, even venerable form of fiction: the international crime-spy-underworld story (to which the plot of Boarding Gate returns), in which money is the lingua franca, and there exists a fluid parallel globe for low-key gangsters, dealers, mercenaries and terrorists to appear, intermingle and disappear. This is not only a form of popular fiction (James Bond, The Third Man, etc), but also a vision of cosmopolitan identity romanticised in the music of John Cale (songs like ‘Córdoba’), and radicalised in the cinema and writing of Robert Kramer (Guns, 1980): Antonioni’s later The Passenger (1975) is, in this sense, the harbinger of our current pan-European cinema.

 

This cinema comes to us today not just with its own look (courtesy of cinematographers such as Chris Doyle), but even its own rotating cast of indie stars: Asia Argento, Vincent Gallo, Béatrice Dalle, Mathieu Almaric, Jeanne Balibar, Maggie Cheung, or (from a slightly earlier era) Patrick Bauchau. 2006 gave us the weirdest imaginable appropriation of this cosmopolitan style (again in its criminal-terrorist variant): Spielberg’s globe-crossing Munich, with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Hanns Zischler and several Australian actors.

 

For a long time, the greatest contemporary Asian filmmakers seemed to remain structurally aloof from this dizzy pan-European cosmopolitan cinema: “As long as he can’t speak English”, one Taiwanese cultural expert said to me of Hou Hsaio-hsien, “then he’s safe … “; and one could say the same (at least so far) of Jia Zhang-ke. But even Hou, or Tsai Ming-liang, have been drawn in recent years into European co-productions, like Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) with Juliette Binoche. This continues the line of unlikely cultural conversions we have seen in international cinema over the past twenty years, like Krzysztof Kieslowski swapping his Polish realism for European fantasy-mysticism, or the seemingly intractable Suwa Nobuhiro becoming a highly French, intimist filmmaker in A Perfect Couple (2005), or – strangest path of all – Michael Haneke transforming himself, after his hard-edge Austrian beginnings, first into a chronicler of French bourgeois malaise (in The Piano Teacher and Caché) and then remaking his own Funny Games in the US in 2007.

 

Against the powerful and alluring forces of globalisation (not always a bad thing!) sit the gestures of localisation – cinemas that are regional rather than national. In Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, critic and Austrian Filmmuseum director Alex Howarth remarked: “I am much more interested in filmmakers who speak in concrete words and voices, from a concrete place, about concrete places and characters” – making works which, as Howarth expresses, have dialects that are “way too specific to fit into the global commerce of goods”. He takes the example of the Dardenne brothers: “I like the image of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, standing somewhere in the middle of industrial Belgian suburbia, looking around and saying, ‘All these landscapes make up our language’.” (1) And in Howarth’s distaste (typical among today’s progressive critics) for the ‘European Union’ or Pan-Asian visions of Zhang Yimou, Tom Tykwer, Pedro Almodóvar, Ang Lee or the latter-day Kieslowski, a long debate is being replayed.

 

 

3.

What Can Travel?

 

Stepping sharply back now from this kind of giddy cinematic (or cinephilic) Utopia – truly a worldly vision – I will explore another way to grasp how European cinema is seen and understood outside Europe. This way is to ask: just what films are distributed and screened? What travels, in all sense of this word: what moves, what translates? Of course, under this, the real question is one of power within the cultural industry: who gets to decide what translates and, hence, what will be chosen to travel?

 

The largest audience for European cinema in Australia attends ‘event’ festivals that tour the country and appear in the arthouse chains that organise them. These events are mainly devoted to national cinemas – Greek, French, Russian, German, Spanish (the list sometimes feels as big as the world itself, except that places like Netherlands and Switzerland are always missing). They are the main source, in many countries, of what constitute the general image of what European cinema is today, and they immediately feed into the selection of the handful of films (usually only one or two from each of the countries highlighted) which get further, individual distribution.

 

Let us be brutally to the point here. What kind of European cinema are we talking about? Brides (2004) from Greece (advertised with Martin Scorsese’s name as Executive Producer), The Lives of Others (2006) from Germany, Volver (2006) from Spain, The Singer (2006) from France, the almost-complete works of François Ozon … Films that win American Oscars, films with the few non-Anglo transnational stars that exist today (like Gérard Depardieu or Penélope Cruz); domestic or romantic comedies, social-issue or big-history dramas, epic humanist tearjerkers (the model being Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso), perhaps an adaptation of an international best-seller (the model being Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate). Sometimes the system bends enough to include a Cœurs (2006) by Alain Resnais or a Il Caimano (2006) by Nanni Moretti. But the essential flavour of this type of selection is always clear: it is appallingly conservative, and will likely never make room for a José Luis Guerín or a Philippe Grandrieux, a Werner Schroeter or a Stephen Dwoskin, an Amos Gitai or a Harun Farocki, a Nanouk Leopold (Wolfsbergen, Netherlands, 2007) or a Kornél Mundruczó (Johanna, Hungary, 2005).

 

Indeed, now more than over, the Film Festivals proper are regarded as a kind of ghetto in which what are uncharitably called Festival Films – meaning difficult, challenging, innovative films – can be relegated, to be watched by the very few people who actively seek them out. The smaller, nationally-slanted, event festivals, on the other hand, aim to be crowd pleasers, with all the condescension, opportunism and lack of aesthetic ambition that phrase suggests.

 

Is it any wonder, in this context, that conventional, mainstream film critics/reviewers – the kind who do not attend real Film Festivals, let alone conferences on European cinema – often make world-weary pronouncements, in their year-end surveys of the cinematic globe, that ‘nothing much is happening in Italy’ or that ‘Greek cinema is moribund’? They make this judgement on the basis on one or two often safe, banal films! This is truly – but in a completely different sense to those already described – a Phantom Europe.

 

I will now tell another Australian story, about a specific incident: the Spanish Film Festival. Whenever there is an event devoted to a national cinema, local audiences simply have to take on trust that they are getting a representative selection of the best and most interesting work available. In the case of the Spanish survey, I decided to test this assumption. In 2005, I contacted a group of top Spanish critics associated with the most progressive film magazines – publications with which I regularly collaborate – and showed them the screening list of this local festival-event. Their responses were eye-opening.

 

José Manuel López of Tren de sombras stated that “flat comedies and prefabricated dramas” are the norm in Spain today, and that these dominated the Melbourne event. Álvaro Arroba of Letras de cine commented: “There have been several good Spanish films over the past two years, and none of them are in the list.” Fermin Martínez, also of Tren de Sombras, admitted: “I don’t watch many Spanish movies, because they just make the same, silly thing over and over again.” And Carlos Losilla, who sent me his eight-thousand word manifesto “Against This Spanish Cinema” published in the Archivos de la Filmoteca de Valencia, summed up: “The Melbourne selection is very conventional but representative, because Spanish cinema is poor, very poor”.

 

What is happening here? The truth is a sad, awful business: how European cinema is seen abroad is determined by sales agents and national promotional bodies. The locally-based programmers, in Australia as elsewhere, who quickly want to gather their representative sample of marketable foreign films, get their access to – as well as their knowledge of – national cinemas filtered, frankly determined by these promoters and agents. And trips to the actual nation, when sponsored by these same interest-groups, reinforce rather than complicate the situation.

 

We might, on a good day, believe that we live in a time when World Cinema truly travels the world. But look at the scary facts of arthouse distribution in Australia: two films apiece by Godard and Hou have achieved slim arthouse distribution in Australia over a course of a quarter of a century! And, in recent years, even the most progressive television channel, the explicitly multicultural SBS (now with its cable spin-off World Movies), has retreated to largely recycling the popular fare that appears first in the touring national cinema events. It no longer screens, as a policy, the films of Edward Yang, Sergei Paradjanov, Miklos Jancsó or Youssef Chahine; instead, we get the latest confections of Cedric Klapisch or Gabriele Muccino, with only an occasional blast from Emir Kusturica or Tony Gatlif to break the monotony – but mainly because their films foreground exotic music and dance styles, not for their provocative politics or aesthetic innovation.

 

What is to be done about any of this? In large part, cinephilia here wages a perpetual, losing war against the changing face of capitalism and its ruthless shaping of consumer desires in ever-smaller, micro-managed niches of the marketplace. The middle-class middlebrow is everywhere triumphant. Has it ever been any different? The battle will continue only as long as we believe in its high stakes.

 

 

4.
… And a Little Bit of Theory

 

Film theory and criticism find themselves at a crossroads today, poised between two paths, two approaches. The noblest path presents itself as the legacy of the great French critic André Bazin. This is a criticism which argues in favour of the ethics of the image and against the culture of the (audio)visual. The Bazinian legacy stresses ‘real presence’, the importance of recording, registering and imprinting something real (even if it is only a tree, or a gesture, or the physicality of an actor); it valorises the modesty, the rightness, the moral compassion of the auteur-camera’s gaze or regard upon the world; it defends the continuing practice of a holistic mise en scène over the manipulative fragmentations of montage.

 

This forms a major debate in European cinema today: the champions of the holistic regard alight on masters like Victor Erice or protégés like Mercedes Álvarez (The Sky Turns, 2005); or on the messy, complex rawness of post-Pialat, post-Cassavetes figures like Abel Ferrara and Xavier Beauvois – and they reject all in cinema that is slick, glossy, pre-programmed or pre-visualised, dragging all such artifice down to the level of Baz Luhrmann, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alejandro Amenábar or Luc Besson. Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, because of what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes as the evidence of film in his work, constitutes the veritable Godhead of this widespread Bazinian gesture in contemporary theory/criticism.

 

Yet much of the proselytising in this area today has an aura of nostalgia, a once-upon-a-time longing for things lost or passing away: disappearing from the world itself, as well as from cinema. The digital audiovisual age  – and a renewed artificialism that finds its historic inspiration not in Roberto Rossellini or Jean Renoir and documentary, but in Michael Powell or Jean Epstein and animation – does not necessarily have to go the way of the Hollywood special-effects blockbuster. Raúl Ruiz (who jokingly calls himself “the only anti-Bazinian in France”) is a stirring example of a mixed-realm artist who sits outside our tidy critical systems and options.

 

The challenge today, as Nicole Brenez put it in her prophetic 1993 essay “The Ultimate Journey”, is to maintain a “Bazinian exigency … in the heart of a type of non-Bazinian analysis that no longer takes the real as second nature or as the second nature of film and which, in every way, does not have the same conception of the real: to find the way the cinema discovers human experience […] and the way the cinema sets that experience forth naked, in its radical strangeness, in that which is unnameable in it.” (2)

 

I end with another theoretical/critical citation from an influential recent book: Thomas Elsaesser’s European Cinema: Face to face with Hollywood. It navigates dexterously between the currently circulating, rather ominous image of a Fortress Europe and another new Europe which, in every respect, seems scattered to every end of the globe, involved and entangled with every imaginable cultural Other. Elsaesser, like Brenez, comes to reject the idea that the most appropriate gesture for cinema today is to simply film or present (however eloquently) the evidence of reality.

 

In the digital filming of Heddy Honigman’s A Good Husband, A Dear Son (2001), a documentary about survivors in Bosnia, Elsaesser finds a new possibility for cinematic evidence, and its redefinition in a medium of ghostly artifice – in the context of a post-postmodern reality that has created another kind of Phantom Europe, shifting in and out of focus and solidity right before our eyes and under our feet:

 

This is what the future of the past, the future of memory, is going to be all about: to mark the sites, but now no longer in their pristineness, but precisely in their layeredness – only sites that are ‘archaeological’ will be perceived as authentic, remediated sites if you like, multiply inscribed, like video-overlay, or multiply occupied, like land claimed by several owners. An authentic historical building will be seen as a fake, where a ruin, with bullet-holes and shot to pieces will strike us as authentic, because it is a material representation of its multiple existences, its realities as well as its virtualities. (3)

 

That’s what Jean-Luc Godard discovered, too, among the buildings and streets and people of Sarajevo, waiting in the wings: Notre musique (the title of his 2005 film), our music, or the ‘material representation of its multiple existences’ – within Europe and beyond it.

 


NOTES


1.         Alexander Horwath, “Movie Mutations: Letters from (and to) Some Children of 1960” , in Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds.), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003), p. 13. back

 

2.         Nicole Brenez, “The Ultimate Journey: Remarks on Contemporary Theory”, Screening the Past, no. 2 (1997). back

 

3.         Thomas Elsaesser, “Our Balkanist Gaze: About Memory’s No Man’s Land”, in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), p. 368. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin May 2011


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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