Du côté de la côte
There is still much to be mined and developed from Raymond Durgnat’s notes from the 1970s and ‘80s on changing forms of montage. (1) In particular, how diverse filmmakers learned to “cut on the flicker of an association”, favouring “brevity, swift change” for the purposes of “process and transformation”:
As [Sergei] Eisenstein argued, montage expedites abstraction, concepts; juxtaposition becomes interaction; images, colliding, “extract” aspects from, and explore new connections for, each other. […] Richly textured (“realistic”) images don’t clog this speed; on the contrary, they propose more aspects for this abstracting process. (2)
Among Durgnat’s favourite examples of such montage practice was the so-called Left Bank group (the name is a bit of a misnomer, or critical projection) in France, particularly during the 1950s: Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, William Klein and Alain Resnais. Their short works, if not exactly constituting a coherent “movement” beyond links of friendly collaboration, were certainly part of a vibrant and global ciné-club/film society viewing culture in many parts of the world, as well as an expanded production field for “small” films of all kinds (educational, industrial, as festival fare, as TV filler, etc).
Montage was already fully audiovisual among the members of this filmmaking scene: as Durgnat and (before him) Roger Tailleur theorised, and indeed as André Bazin had already noted of Marker in the late ‘50s, the play of image/word juxtapositions is especially rich, creating (to use Maya Deren’s terms) both horizontal and vertical complexities. (3) When we look back at the nominal documentaries made by these artists, we find strikingly creative and experimental hybrids of industrial commission (such as the “tourist film”), sociological reportage, and the lyrical essay.
Varda’s 1958 witty short Du côté de la côte – situated between her first (La Pointe Courte, 1955) and second (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962) features – is, on many accounts, a
remarkable film, and it is one that has been under-analysed. It constantly puns (in the best possible way!) in both
its specific images and wider associations of elements, creating incongruous
hybrids of bodies and objects.
The film is especially notable as report or essay on a modern, 20th century, mass leisure-time phenomenon: holiday beach tourism.
It is also fully a montage film (and a summit of the Left Bank mode), using an editing technique that is not only quite fleet and rapid, but also works as a constant switching-device, following sudden, new associations that arise from the material – literally every few seconds. Here, for instance, the swift digression into the subject of Picasso (and his connection to the geographic region) picks up a “sun” (soleil) theme as a way to switch over into a montage of shop fronts.
The entirety of Du côté de la côte is built upon the idea of seriality – a concept bridging aesthetics and political theory, and one that Jean-Paul Sartre immortalised in a few pages of his 1960 Critique of Dialectical Reason. (4) On a first level of Varda’s film, seriality is something depicted – a pattern that is noticed and brought out from observation of the teeming detail of this beachside reality. Same or similar-looking people do the same or similar things; and, this sense, they mimic the mass-produced, serialised objects of the commercial-industrial touristic milieu.
Notice, again, the montage hinge (animal statues) that connects the previous frame to this one:
But Varda’s film does not only show or investigate a
culture of seriality. Equally, its own formal organisation is serial –
something that the modernist invention of montage is especially suited for, as
Dziga Vertov had extensively showed in Man
with a Movie Camera (1929 – and, after him in Hollywood musicals, Busby
Berkeley). This is clear in its visual framing (“montage within the shot”) of
multiple bodies, hats, animals …
The montage – now taken in its more common understanding as linear (horizontal) editing or cutting – often swiftly lines up a set of “matching duplicates” across shot and reverse-shot. (Also note the uncanny Nicole Kidman lookalike in the second frame!)
More complexly still, the film creates compounding “semantic leaps” or chains by mining variations and associations of particular visual motifs. Observe here how, firstly, hats are compared to or rhymed (within an image) with boat sails:
This connection triggers an elaborate montage-set of extrapolations (worthy of Vilém Flusser!) on the idea of hats – sometimes rather surreal-looking – as covering or protection: for people, dogs and statues.
In a brilliant essay on Chris Marker (5), Ross Gibson made use of a special definition of wit: the ability to metaphorise well. Where “well” also means ever-changing, on the move, always adapting to changes in the subject observed, as well as directions and energies suggested by the process of creation itself. From Du côté de la côte to The Beaches of Agnès (2008), was there ever a filmmaker – even from the Left Bank – who filled this bill as consistently and prodigiously as Agnès Varda?
This text is derived from the expanded presentation in May 2018, at the Eisenstein for the 21st Century conference in Prato, Italy, of our audiovisual essay The Idea of a Series: Energy Vectors in Montage. See this video, with further accompanying documentation, at [in]Transition, Vol 6 No 4: http://mediacommons.org/intransition/idea-series-energy-vectors-montage
MORE Varda: Varda by Agnès
2. Durgnat, “Resnais & Co.: Back to the Avant-Garde”, in The Essential Raymond Durgnat, p. 211. back
3. See Durgnat, ibid.; Roger Tailleur (trans. A. Martin), “Markeriana”, Rouge, no. 11 (2007); and André Bazin (1958), “On Chris Marker”. Another recently reprinted piece of great interest is Claude Ollier’s 1959 review of Lettre de Sibérie, in his posthumous collection assembled by Christian Rosset, Ce soir à Marienbad et autres chroniques cinématographiques (Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2020). back
4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 256-269. back
5. Ross Gibson, “‘What Do I Know?’: The ‘Alien’
Subject in the Fugitive Films of Chris Marker”, in his South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of
Australia (Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 42-62. back
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin May 2018