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Forever Young:
Jackie Raynal

 


The faces of the stars don’t interest me at all. I get them all confused, and forget them very quickly. But I can remember the beautiful, decisive face of Jackie Raynal looking into the camera at the start of her film Deux fois(1)

 

Beginnings

A text in nine points by Michael O’Pray on the legendary American avant-gardist Maya Deren offers this as its second key observation.

 

Not a small part of the myth of Maya Deren is her beauty. To ignore this on sexist grounds would be a distortion. The fact that she appears as the protagonist in the early films has made her physical presence an important factor in any study of her films, and has been a prime element in the uncanny fascination they have held for generations of viewers. (2)

 

It is likewise hard to begin an appreciation of the work of Jackie Raynal (born Poilhes near Montpellier, 1940) without paying tribute to her beauty. Like Deren, she has made herself the star of her best work. And again like Deren, her personality helped galvanise several lively cultural scenes around the globe, from the Zanzibar group of experimental filmmakers in France in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to the radical cinephilia nurtured by the Carnegie Hall and Bleecker Street Cinemas in late ‘70s New York (where Raynal extensively programmed and promoted the Nouvelle Vague, Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, etc.). In more recent years, Raynal has been a regular presence at events such as the Rotterdam Film Festival. In a 1980 profile, Amy Taubin paid fond tribute to Raynal’s “loveliness”, judging it as “much more than a matter of her strikingly delicate looks and charming French accent. Raynal is generous, enthusiastic and dedicated to film”. (3)

 

Raynal’s trail through cinema as a passeur (the term comes from her friend Serge Daney) is indeed remarkable. Her early experience was as a stills photographer, assistant editor on Jean Renoir’s Le Caporal épinglé (1962), then as editor for Éric Rohmer (the shorts La Boulangère de Monceau [1962], La Carrière de Suzanne [1963], Nadja à Paris [1964] and the feature La Collectionneuse [1966]). Her hands-on encounter with experimental cinema began with the editing of Jean-Daniel Pollet’s highly influential classic Méditerranée (1963), which taught her that “editing is like a film’s second breath”.

 

I worked for seven months on the film, and he’d already been working for a year before I started! It was an ideal film for an editor, because it’s a film about editing – voice, music, sound. And it wasn’t always clear what was narrative and what was non-narrative.

 

Raynal’s first credited work as director is Merce Cunningham (1965). As a documentary about an artist it anticipates her 21st century work, and in its connection with experimental dance it prefigures her ‘80s collaboration with cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who frequently worked with Yvonne Rainer during the ‘70s and beyond. Co-directed by Étienne Becker and Patrice Wyers, Merce Cunningham is a film which, although it has circulated widely, triggers an unhappy memory for Raynal.

 

We did the film with no money at all; then, when we had a $2,000 bill at the lab, a producer came along and took over the control of the film entirely – I’ll never make that mistake again, I was very inexperienced.

 

Seen today, Merce Cunningham is a striking work for more than simply historic reasons. The editing of image and sound, in relation to Cunningham’s choreography of simple, rhythmic gestures, makes it a major example in the broad (and today burgeoning) genre of the dance film. Beginning from simple shooting procedures – observational glimpses, performance documentation – it finds its form in the montage.

 

Despair and Ecstasy

The cultural scene of the Zanzibar group was an assemblage of artists who shook up a potent cocktail of influences including hippie mysticism, “erotism”, radical politics, Artaud-style psycho-theatrics, Situationism, multiculturalism and hyper-formalist avant-gardism. (4) (Raynal herself spent a night in prison after police arrest during the street riots of May ‘68.) Its key members included Serge Bard, Caroline de Bendern, Pierre Clémenti, Olivier Mosset (who had passed a year in Warhol’s Factory), Daniel Pommereulle and Patrick Deval (Raynal’s companion of the time). Today, Philippe Garrel is undoubtedly the best known and most acclaimed artist to have been associated with Zanzibar. Peter Wollen has pointedly criticised the historical occlusion that Garrel’s cult fame has generated: “Historians and theorists at present speak a lot about Philippe Garrel, who is certainly important. But they neglect to discuss the true pioneer of the epoch, Jackie Raynal”. (5)

 

Sally Shafto stresses the dandy lineage, the Wilde-Baudelaire, bohemian side of Zanzibar – “a fine name discovered by Serge Bard in a Rimbaud poem”, as Raynal recalls – because glamour and style were central to its code of ethics and aesthetics. As well, the group was founded on a splendidly bourgeois contradiction: for avant-gardists they were handsomely funded, due to the inherited largesse of their self-appointed patron, Sylvina Boissonnas (later to become a key figure in ‘70s French feminism, especially its publishing wing). Raynal recalls her, “cheque book often open on the table” at the Coupole; “anyone could present themselves, anyone at all, with a project in painting, photography, film, music, publishing – and they would receive a cheque from this unbelievably grand, curious and eccentric woman.”

 

In the same memoir, Raynal describes the dream of Zanzibar to be “an ideal production house”, mixing all gauges (Super 8, 16 and 35mm) and even almost branching into the running of a cinema, the Luxembourg. But the group recoiled from this ultimate step in self-sufficiency, leading Raynal to drolly speculate: “Maybe that’s why, unconsciously, I agreed to program cinemas in New York?” (6) Raynal worked on many Zanzibar productions in various capacities, including Bard’s Détruisez-vous (1968), Deval’s Acéphale (1968) and two of Garrel’s celebrated silent works, Le Révélateur (1968) and La Concentration (1968) – both filmed in elaborate sequence-shots “while everyone (actors, cameraman, assistant and me, the editor) was on LSD.” (7) From Garrel, Raynal has said, “I was learning … how much you could change a scene through the lighting”.

 

Deux fois (1971) – roughly, “twice upon a time” – is Raynal’s remarkable Zanzibar feature. Wollen rightly regards it as “one of the most astonishing films of the period”. (8) Raynal began it as “a filmed diary of my encounter with a stranger in Barcelona, in the company of a cameraman-accomplice, André Weinfeld, the camera operator on Garrel’s Marie pour mémoire [1967]”. (9) Deux fois spontaneously draws into itself many influences, histories and traditions. It has been analysed as a deconstructive film and a feminist essay on “woman as sign”, but Raynal also uses less modish sources, such as the Surrealism of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, as well as a theatricality inspired by Jacques Rivette. The film is not only a formalist tour de force, but also mytho-poetic, ritualistic, incantatory – not to mention ironic, performative and mocking (its Warholian side).

 

Beyond what we will never know or understand about this often deliberately cryptic film, the core, phantasmal logic which holds it together is built from various motifs – storytelling, theatre, the couple, dreams and fantasy, the figure of the child – that suggest a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A woman enters into a perpetual metamorphosis, in which she becomes a child. She steps into this self-perpetuating, auto-erotic ritual via all the masks and motions of artifice. However, such regressive liberation into the imaginary realm is always threatened by instability and danger: the woman is constantly drawn back to the public, societal scene of adult sexuality, with its threatening, mysterious, alluring masculine others, its set roles and burdens. Deux fois is about the difficult trials and passages of the “single woman”, woman alone – her absorption into herself and her relations with others, both modes of being viewed as equally impossible. (10)

 

Deux Fois was, for many years of its existence, virtually unseeable – more legend than reality. However, the resurgence of avant-garde cinema culture in France in the late 1990s, and a subsequent, rolling, international tour of Zanzibar films, has brought the film back into circulation, and Pip Chodorov’s DVD label Re:voir in France has since made it widely available.

 

Perhaps the last gasp of the Zanzibar adventure – Raynal dates the group’s dissolution at 1973 – was her lost and unfinished project Shiva Puri (1975). Like several of the group’s major efforts (including Deux fois), it was filmed across several countries, as an exploratory exercise in a sort of visionary anthropology or ethnography: “It was like Lawrence of Arabia, and I was Lawrence! I wanted to film a sort of ceremony in each country, and to participate in the ceremony in each case. It was a mixture of autobiography and fantasy.” America beckoned to her because “Paris rejected me. Every director except Rohmer and Godard had forgotten me, or considered me a little crazy” – and also because “it’s easier to be accepted penniless in New York than in Paris”. (11)

 

New York Shuffle

Raynal: “When I made Deux fois I didn’t really know what I was doing. It took me years to be able to talk about it.” She adds that, for a long time, she never thought of herself as a real filmmaker, “only a specialised worker”. (12) In the period years following Deux fois, she travelled, relocated to America, married Sid Geffen (owner of the Carnegie and Bleecker Street Cinemas), and worked on a script (still unrealised) about the experiences of her parents as Communists active in the French Resistance. A new filmmaking adventure began in 1980 with the project New York Story (1980), a 29 minute short which became, in a very different form, the short feature Hotel New York (1984).

 

The films begin from an autobiographical basis: Loulou (Raynal) moves to America, has to scratch out a living by editing a porno film (in reality, “an atrocious commercial feature, Saturday Night at the Baths [1975]” directed by David Buckley), and falls in love with an entrepreneur (Geffen). Like all Raynal’s films, there is a generous sense of a community of friends: the dialogue was partly written by novelist-essayist Gary Indiana (who also appears) and, in a hilarious post-screening discussion where Loulou defends a film that is surely Deux fois, we hear a thundering pastiche of ‘70s film-theory-speak.

 

These two films belong to a unique and largely forgotten period in cinema – the brief but glorious era in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of the experimental narrative feature, which was eventually both capped and eclipsed by the success of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and the rise of so-called independent distributor-producers like Miramax. Raynal’s work of this time joins with many extraordinary features, such as Mark Rappaport’s The Scenic Route (1978), Michael Oblowitz’s King Blank (1982) and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983). As an Australian, I can testify to the direct influence of this body of work on a generation of critics, cinephiles and artistically inclined Super-8 filmmakers: New York Story won an award at the Melbourne Film Festival in 1981, inspired the title for an unforgettable season of films at the National Film Theatre of Australia called “New York Stories”, and finally Hotel New York itself achieved a brief theatrical release. (It had similar runs in France and the UK.)

 

In that period, smallness of budget – New York Story was made for $11,000 and Hotel New York for $33,000 – accorded, paradoxically, with grand dreams of commercial takeover: “I thought when I made Hotel New York”, says Raynal, “that it was a very commercial film!” (13) This was a time when guerrilla filmmakers like Bette Gordon and her Australian compatriot of the time, Tim Burns, spoke seriously of the prospect of collaborating with Oliver Stone, and Taubin was encouraging Raynal to pitch her Resistance script to Coppola. This Utopia did not eventuate, alas, but the works of the period capture a zany form of populist experimentation that is still inspiring: deliberately Warholian amateurism and daring formal structures co-exist with loopy comedy interludes and mangy thriller plots. Raynal’s own performing presence, which is once again central to the effect of her ‘80s films, “manages to be deadpan and madcap at the same time”. (14)

 

Raynal refers to Hotel New York as “like a ‘mobile’ of New York Story – they can be seen together or separately”. (15) As with Deux fois, Re:voir has now made both films available. New York Story is a more concentrated poetic piece, offering itself as a mock tourist-guide to a luxury hotel in which strange things happen. Its magical and surreal effects, in their intoxicating and haunting simplicity, look back to Cocteau and forward to Raúl Ruiz. There is less story (obviously) than in Hotel New York, but more elaboration of a splendid sequence in which the characters enter a Buster Keaton-Sherlock, Jr (1924) fantasy. Hotel New York develops the comic and sociological side of the project, adding more characters and vignettes of New York life. Together, the films add up to a rich tribute to a lost spirit of ‘80s cinema.

 

Rebeginnings

Raynal programmed the Bleecker Street and Carnegie Hall Cinemas until 1991, and then from 1994 to 1998 did the same for the Angelika Film Center. After the death of Geffen, she remarried; Joseph J.M. Saleh was a real estate businessman who produced three James Ivory films in the ‘70s and ‘80s. According to Libération, Saleh had proposed buying the Bleecker Street cinema from Raynal; “She refused to sell, but agreed to marry him”. (16) Raynal and Saleh published Shafto’s booklet under the label of Zanzibar USA. Later, Raynal became (alongside Susan Sontag) the curator-at-large for the YWCA-NYC Cine-Club. Eventually, she and Saleh figured out a way to live part of each year in Paris, and the other part in New York. Saleh died in April 2007.

 

Raynal’s film work since the ‘80s has been relatively modest. Documentaries made for French television – Bandes à part (2001), Cinéastes de notre temps: Jonas Mekas (2001) and Autour de Baratier (2002) – revisit, like some of Robert Kramer’s later films, the diverse artistic communities she has experienced, showing the effects of time and history on figures such as Bard – now Abdullah Siradj, “an international businessman living in Paris and Mecca” (17) – and the filmmaker Jacques Baratier. A subsequent chronicle of Mekas was assembled in 2015, Reminiscences of Jonas Mekas. Shooting digitally, Raynal discovered a lighter touch; these films have a sense of wandering, chronicling (in the Mekas style) and random encounters, as in the appearance of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Autour de Baratier. Some of her short digital pieces would be appear to be research notes (particularly in the form of interviews) for larger projects.

 

Raynal (who turned 80 in 2021) has revisited her past also in Zanzibar (2006), produced as an extra on the French DVD (from Ad Vitam/mk2) of Garrel’s magisterial Les amants réguliers (2005), itself a novelistic recreation of the events of 1968. Zanzibar is a modest collage of photos, interviews (conducted by film critic Philippe Azoury), (18) and charming footage of Raynal and Deval socialising on a set – although, apart from the strange bleach-out effect superimposed on the whole, it is a little hard to see Raynal’s true artistic touch in this intriguing, informative but seemingly swiftly-produced piece. Even more off-the cuff, but no less precious to view, is the video interview Raynal and Noël Simsolo conducted with Jean Rouch in a café that the trio frequented, edited in 2004 as Une brève histoire de cinéma (viewable here). Also in this vein is the touching “last interview” that Raynal conducted with Éric Rohmer in 2009, not long before his death in early 2010. Her long-nurtured project for a “family film” based on memories of her parents and other relatives has popped back up in various incarnations: Raynal offered an archival image and some words on this project perpetually in-progress for the online journal Rouge in 2004, (19) and a 2008 video Gougnette gathers some audiovisual materials recorded between 1979 and 2005.

 

Another project that Raynal nurtured over a long period is a free adaptation of Lokis (1869) by Prosper Mérimée – the strange tale of a man who is half-human and half-bear, and enjoys feasting on human flesh. In 2004 she completed a short, La nuit de l’ours, which was also a kind of trailer to help raise funding for this feature project: like the other shorts of recent years, it moves, elegantly and drolly, between test scenes from Lokis (staged in period-costume style) and the behind-the-scenes interplay of the present-day cast and crew, with its small intrigues and quizzical, ephemeral incidents and sights. This short – another exercise in a form that Raynal has more-or-less made her own – looks forward to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s fully conceptual version of a behind-the-scenes conceit in his splendid video Worldly Desires (2005).

 

Fragmented glimpses of other Raynal projects, still in play or long abandoned, can be found scattered across several potentially ephemeral web pages, such as the Vimeo collection of one “Tristan63”, and another titled “Jackie Raynal Blog”. The best and most authoritative survey of this entire later period of Raynal’s work has been gathered by Re:voir in France under the title Portraits and Documentaries, and is now included among their VOD offerings (see here). A website containing rich textual documentation of her career once appeared, but has since vanished. Her accumulated film, video and digital materials are now stored by the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

 

In the early 2000s, Raynal worked on a portrait (an edited version of it is dated 2003) of a one-hundred-year-old man from a famous banking dynasty, Simon Lazard, who financed the project as a gift to his family. Filming him, Raynal says, made her feel youthful. And the richly-deserved attention at last paid to her work has helped her to “finally rediscover” her vocation as a director. The best filmmakers are forever young …

 

 

NOTES

1. Christian Lebrat interviewed by Françoise De Paepe (25 May 2001) for the website Cinérivage, which was withdrawn from the Internet after De Paepe’s death in 2003. back

 

2. Michael O’Pray, “Meshes, Trances and Meditations: Maya Deren 9 Times a Life”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 653 (June 1988), pp. 183-4. back

 

3. Amy Taubin, “Jackie Raynal”, The Soho News (24 September 1980), p. 31. back

 

4. See Sally Shafto, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968 (New York: Zanzibar USA, 2000); reprinted in February 2007 (in a French version) by Éditions Paris Expérimental. back

 

5. Quoted in Jackie Raynal, “Le Groupe Zanzibar”, in Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat (eds.), Jeune, dure et pure! Une histoire de cinema d’avant-garde et experimental en France (Paris: Mazzotta, 2001), p. 300. (All translations from French are mine.) back

 

6. Ibid., p. 299. back

     

7. Raynal, “Le Groupe Zanzibar”, first draft (unpublished). back

 

8. Wollen quoted in Raynal, “Le Groupe Zanzibar”, p. 300. back

 

9. Ibid., p. 299. back

 

10. This is a condensation of my analysis developed here. For other accounts of this film, see Editorial Collective, “An Interrogation of the Cinematic Sign: Woman as Sexual Signifier in Jackie Raynal’s Deux Fois”, Camera Obscura, no. 1 (Fall 1976); and Louis Skorecki, “Deux fois”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 276 (May 1977). back

 

11. Raynal, “Le Groupe Zanzibar”, p. 300. back

 

12. Jackie Raynal, personal correspondence with the author (March 2002). A screenplay has been published: Jackie Raynal and Gary Indiana, “New York Story”, Framework, no. 18 (1982). back

 

13. Ibid. back

 

14. Taubin, “Jackie Raynal”. back

 

15. Personal correspondence (2002). back

 

16. Richard Dumas, “Tout en Carlton”, Libération (11 May 2000). back

 

17. Shafto, The Zanzibar Films, p. 42. back

 

18. See Azoury, “Un Zeste de Zanzibar”, Libération (6 June 2001); and his book Philippe Garrel en substance (Capricci, 2013). back

 

19. See “The Image Issue”, Rouge, no. 5 (2004), http://www.rouge.com.au/5/raynal.html. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin September 2002 / February 2007 / September 2021


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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