One of Assayas’s most ferocious articles he ever wrote (and also one of the most theoretical) attacks le cinéma publicitaire – a film aesthetic (associated in France with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson) brazenly derived from commercials, in thrall to advertising. Commenting on the mediating use of recycled old-Hollywood images, he writes that cinephilia “used to be a taste for the old, born of a creative search for the new”; it meant studying the filmmakers of the past “in order to confront the problems they had faced – and the solutions they had devised – with modern interrogations.” Advertising, on the other hand, treats film history merely as an accessories store; it is only interested in looting that store – emptying the old images of their meaning, reducing “the history of cinema to a succession of mannerisms.”
* * *
Olivier Assayas joined the Cahiers du cinéma in 1980 (the year he turned 25) and left at the end of 1985 (his first feature as a writer-director, Disorder, came out the following year). In his 2009 collection Présences: Écrits sur le cinéma, the section gathering some of the pieces he wrote during that period is called “En marge des Cahiers” – in other words, he sees himself as mostly having pursued concerns that were somewhat peripheral to the magazine. Still, he wrote a lot – usually several pieces per issue. (During that time he also contributed to Métal Hurlant and Rock et Folk.) And he was part of the small teams that put together two legendary issues of Cahiers – “Made in U.S.A.” (which came out in 1982, with Raymond Depardon contributing some photo-journalism) and “Made in Hong Kong” (1984).
As Assayas would later put it, he joined the magazine at a time when it was working hard, under the leadership of Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, “to rebuild its bond with the cinema of the world” (a bond broken by Cahiers during their radically politicized late ’60s-early ’70s phase, when they had almost stopped writing about new films), to reclaim for itself a “precious and legitimate territory,” questioning it “not in the name of political dogma, but in the name of the era itself and in the name of the specific energies that an era carries.”1 Among many other things, this meant going back to the American cinema and trying to keep up with its post-New Hollywood – or post-Star Wars – developments. It meant bringing news of technological innovation, as it was spearheaded at the time by people like Lucas and Coppola, and trying to delineate the shape of future changes in modes of production and consumption, in the nature of the image. It also meant keeping an eye on lowbrow genres like graphically violent horror cinema – which Assayas himself associated with “one of the last important developments touching on the history of cinematic form.”2 It meant keeping up with the current leading lights of art cinema (Akerman, Oliveira, Ruiz), with the continuing relevance of the French New Wave, with Eastern European oracles like Wajda and Tarkovsky. It also meant introducing new film cultures – those of Taiwan and Hong Kong (both of which became specialties of Assayas’s), but also Indonesian cinema or Philippine cinema – to French (and Western) cinephilia. In order to accomplish all that, the Cahiers became more journalistic, doing a lot of interviews, reporting, and travel writing. (During that time, each issue used to include the “Journal des Cahiers” – a more straightforwardly journalistic section printed on paper of a more yellowish, rough-textured, newspaper-like sort.)
Before joining Cahiers, Assayas had been an intern in the editing rooms of Pinewood Studios, doing some work (numbering rushes) on the first Superman movie. (Other experience with commercial filmmaking included helping his father, screenwriter Jacques Rémy, adapt Maigret novels for French televison.) The four-part series on special-effects cinema that he published in Cahiers in 19803 clearly benefitted from his Pinewood contacts. It’s packed with interviews (Moebius, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Derek Meddings, John Dark, Zoran Perisic) and lucid explanations of techniques. But what makes it truly remarkable is that, beyond its journalistic commitment to immediate usefulness, it shows Assayas’s adeptness at reading the signs of momentous future developments. The reason he takes so seriously all those late ’70s and early ’80s sci-fi and fantasy films is that he recognizes them as “laboratories for tomorrow’s cinema.”4 He describes recent sci-fi films as being akin to animation (Cahiers no. 317, 25) and pointing at the imminent CGI breakthrough that will allow filmmakers to go “beyond the Méliès hybrid of theatre and cinema, with its built sets and miniatures,” and “into a purely pictorial vision, practically limitless.” (Reviewing the 1982 Tron in Cahiers no. 3425, Assayas would stress that it’s a film ahead of its time.) A discussion of the centrality of the storyboard in this kind of filmmaking leads him to comment on the natural kinship between films and comic books, an affinity – he further notes – that films have only recently come to acknowledge by starting to adapt comics like Popeye and Flash Gordon.6 His interest in sword-and-sorcery films is also prescient. Even before the release of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), he notes that the genre, with its “particularly crass sub-Tolkienism” and its “horrible visuals inspired by artists like Frank Frazetta, [Wojciech] Siudmak, the Brothers Hildebrandt or Boris Vallejo” (Assayas, too, had studied to become an artist), could prove itself to be more than marginal, at least renewing the institution of the B movie.7 He would go on to review both Conan the Barbarian and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). Other writings of his on technological change – for instance, the article “L’esprit de Belize,” published in the Cahiers’ special “Made in U.S.A.” issue – read like formulations of much more recent dilemmas. That 1982 article is about the advance of home cinema: should cinema try to fight it by raising the pyrotechnical stakes with IMAX screens, etc., or should it surrender – accept to “dissolve its specificity into the big melting pot of the media upheaval”? Assayas interviews technological visionaries like Douglas Trumbull (whom he calls not only “the most inspired creator in the cinema of special effects,” but also “that cinema’s only theorist”), who are confident that movie theaters will close in the near future. The young French critic concludes: “Images are certainly necessary, but to the extent that film as an autonomous object seems to have been largely pushed aside by the playful use of the individual screen (which according to all technical estimates will quickly grow big), it is difficult not to think that all the structures now at our disposal belong to another era – one fighting a losing battle for survival.”8
He regards George Lucas, whom he profiles in Cahiers,9 as an empire-builder who is also something of an experimental filmmaker, in that he is in the course of building a huge system “which, paradoxically, has something in common with the micro-systems developed by the avant-garde: the fact that its goal is not so much to produce cinematic works as to delimit a space of survival.” As Assayas notes, Lucas “despises the Hollywood studios for reasons both good and bad,” not caring that the corollary of the old-school flaws he so despises – the studios’ “lumbering, fatuous inefficiency” – was to create cracks where, in the past, great artists could nest and produce fulfilling work. Assayas concludes that Lucas’s own system – efficiently producing machines, objects, forms as smooth as they are impersonal – is “sinisterly lacking in such cracks.”
One of the questions pursued by Assayas at the time in his many writings on the reorganization of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is the question of the chances of survival for auteurs. For instance, he is fond of Richard Lester, interviewing him,10 then reviewing both Superman II and Superman III. He is sympathetic to his talent (“rare in cinema”) “for the quick pencil stroke”: a supporting character, a situation developing in the background, a double-bottomed line of dialogue – these are the things that interest Lester, tending to subvert the foreground. However, Assayas finds that, by the time of Superman III, blockbuster filmmaking has reduced the auteur in Lester to the condition of a parasite who only survives by feeding on the marginal, the peripheral, the accessory.11
Assayas is very interested in producer-artisans who, working in Hollywood, manage to control their own product at all stages of fabrication. The directors whose films he most consistently reviews during his Cahiers years are John Carpenter and Clint Eastwood. Reviewing The Thing,12, he writes that Carpenter “belongs to a generation traumatized by the collapse of the old studios and preoccupied with building its own autonomous machine to confront the system”; his project, beginning with Assault on Precinct 13, was to single-handedly recreate for himself the autonomous conditions of an old production unit making financially viable B movies. In his review of The Fog,13 Assayas notes Carpenter’s “almost puritanical classicism.” On the other hand, he champions Carpenter as an experimental filmmaker. His purism – Assayas further writes in a profile of the director14 – is that of “any system built on poverty.” (For Assayas, Carpenter’s filmmaking brilliance peaks with The Fog; then it is partially stifled by the bigger budgets of Escape from New York and The Thing.) As with a non-narrative filmmaker, dramatic development in Carpenter’s films is only worth talking about in rhythmic terms. And, speaking of music, Assayas correctly recognizes as avant-garde Carpenter’s way of scoring a film – homogeneously mixing ambient sounds with electronic effects and music to “create a purely sensorial rapport with the audience.”15 He contrasts this with what he calls the pompous, archaic aspect of sci-fi sound (a special bête noire of his), which makes it mandatory for “every flying saucer to take off in the presence of a symphonic orchestra.”16
The most important review given by Assayas to a Clint Eastwood film was written on the occasion of Honkytonk Man. Here is the most important sentence in it: “Clint Eastwood films the South of the Unites States as a regional filmmaker would film it, and as if Hollywood never existed.” Assayas’s insight into Eastwood as a true American regionalist – an artist attuned to rural values that are the real thing, not Hollywood ersatz – is a significant contribution to the growth of Eastwood’s critical reputation during the 1980s. (It’s also interestingly reminiscent of Norman Mailer’s almost simultaneous description of Eastwood as “the most important small-town artist in America.” Mailer’s article, from Parade magazine, had come out on October 21, 1983. Could Assayas have had time to read it? His own article on the Eastwood of Honkytonk Man appeared in the November issue of Cahiers – no. 353). Honkytonk Man would clearly remain important for Assayas – and in more ways than one: 25 years later, he would cast Honkytonk actor Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son) in his own Summer Hours. But, during his tenure at Cahiers, Assayas’s support for Eastwood extended even to a commercial effort like the neo-Cold War techno-thriller Firefox (1982), which a lot of other critics at the time (and since) had found mostly lumbering. Assayas, too, notes that the first 85 minutes are essentially filler – preparation for Eastwood stealing the Soviet plane after which the film is named; it’s only after he has stolen it that Firefox the movie gets off the ground. Still, Assayas finds that Eastwood’s direction is not far from redeeming the tiresome table-setting; in any case, everything is “impeccably shot” and the last 50 minutes are anthologizable.
As a critic, Olivier Assayas tends to tune in very early to a new phenomenon. He is the critic as seismograph, always looking to delineate the shape of things to come. Much later, writing now as a filmmaker, he would come to stress the value of chasing the spirit of your own time – or, better still, of letting the current of the contemporary run through you with “its anxieties, its doubts, its errings, its aspirations”17 – in increasingly militant terms: “To know how to question the new, how to capture its flows, is to keep questioning yourself, to remain aware at all moments that you’re always a vector of the old.”18 In these more autobiographical later writings, he would come to preach the importance of breaking with yourself, of destabilizing your own system. But as a Cahiers critic he was already deep in pursuit of the contemporary. Even when writing about the oeuvre of a classic director like Michael Powell (Cahiers no. 321, March 1981), his angle on it is that its rediscovery was made possible by its being in harmony with “the deepest contemporary aesthetic currents” – especially with the comeback (with Syberberg, with Coppola, with Lucas, with the Scorsese of New York, New York) of a cinema of painted backdrops, of worlds constructed on soundstages, of the poetry of artificial sets.
Still, given Assayas’s Situationism-inspired “libertarian leftism,” his interest in the contemporary could hardly be complacent. Sometimes it was polemical. One of the most ferocious articles he ever wrote (and also one of the most theoretical) attacks le cinéma publicitaire – a film aesthetic (associated in France with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson) brazenly derived from commercials, in thrall to advertising. Commenting on the mediating use of recycled old-Hollywood images, he writes that cinephilia “used to be a taste for the old, born of a creative search for the new”; it meant studying the filmmakers of the past “in order to confront the problems they had faced – and the solutions they had devised – with modern interrogations.” Advertising, on the other hand, treats film history merely as an accessories store; it is only interested in looting that store – emptying the old images of their meaning, reducing “the history of cinema to a succession of mannerisms.” British and French practitioners of le cinéma publicitaire see themselves as building enclaves of Hollywood quality in the midst of their national film industries. Their ideology is technique-fetishizing; its relation to Hollywood is based on envy and inferiority complex. Le cinéma publicitaire has spawned a new kind of mannerist – a filmmaker devoid of a personal manner, but possessed with the ambition to master all of them. The British practitioners (Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne) have successfully adapted to Hollywood because Hollywood still has movie subjects, stories to tell, and it doesn’t see any inconvenience in using mannerists to illustrate them; on the contrary, mannerists make good decorators of genre films (Assayas’s supreme example is Ridley Scott) because their auteurist ambitions don’t extend beyond the gloss they can give to the images – they wouldn’t seriously try to hijack or subvert the Hollywood subjects entrusted to them. The situation is different in France: the system there still encourages the singularity of personal expression, so someone like Beineix is left with decorating hot air – that’s all his “art of the look” amounts to. Assayas’s scalpel-sharp autopsy concludes with a description of Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter as “an apotheosis of glossy packaging put in the service of packaging itself, as nothing is being packaged.”19
Assayas’s Cahiers criticism is often a matter of bold, clean lines, wasting no time in tracing the shape of an oeuvre, the trajectory of a filmmaker. His powerfully harsh review-essay of Fellini’s E la nave va20 is a case in point. As is typical for Assayas, he immediately cuts to the chase, opening with a confident statement: “In Fellini’s filmography there exists a breaking point which determines everything.” Assayas follows with another clear stroke, grouping Fellini not with Rossellini and Antonioni, who were preoccupied to define themselves as artists “in relation to the aesthetic and intellectual currents with which their work was contemporary,” but with Scola, Comencini, Lattuada, or Risi, whose work (a cinéma des artisans) is representative of postwar commercial cinema in Italy. Mid-career, following the outbreak of the French New Wave, Fellini finds himself anointed auteur. Assayas locates the breaking point between La dolce vita (which he praises as “an unsurpassed portrait of its era . . . beyond Antonioni, perhaps even beyond the French New Wave”) and 8 ½ (which Assayas finds “monstrously unsatisfactory”). In fact, Fellini has nothing in common with the French New Wave; he has none of its self-reflexivity, none of its sophisticated concern with the place of the cinema within a history of artistic forms. His embrace of a domesticated or petit-bourgeois surrealism (“the last avant-garde to have been massively assimilated to the mainstream and the only one to have produced an imagery that can be transplanted on the cinema screen exactly as it is, providing added value”) amounts to a regressive sentimentality about the faculty of imagination, the freedom of inner life, the shedding of individual inhibitions, etc. Rooted not in serious theoretical reflection, but in its opposite – in what Assayas calls a “phobic hatred of exegesis” – Fellini’s cinema, dedicated to the celebration of unconstrained inner life, becomes essentially a cinema of evasion. Assayas provocatively adds that it also becomes non-cinematic – to the extent that, unlike the French New Wave directors, who see cinema as an art, Fellini sees it only as a tool to make art with. It’s no wonder – Assayas adds cruelly – that he tends to attract his epigones from the ranks of those who don’t understand anything about the cinema: “At first, nobody follows him when he loses his way thus. The young Italian cinema of the 60s – the cinema of Bertolucci, Bellocchio and a few others – ignores Fellini, taking Visconti and Pasolini as its models. But the 70s give Fellini his revenge. The erosion of what was called ‘modern cinema’ and its suicidal dissolution in leftist political adventure leave the field open to Fellini, who, having sealed his filmmaking off from any contemporary influence, suddenly finds himself fêted by a whole generation as the prophet of interior exploration. Indeed, the blind drive to personal satisfaction which is characteristic of this era, and which is rooted in the rejection of the real, is analogous in more than one way to Fellini’s horror of reflection or ideas.” All of this may be unfair to Fellini, but Assayas’s confidently offered, sharply drawn, politically pointed historical overviews, his vertiginous aerial perspectives on the clashes of intellectual currents and artistic values which define eras, make it genuinely provocative.
In a lot of Assayas’s criticism, the enemy is academicism. In an essay on Ingmar Bergman (published as a postface to Conversation avec Bergman, the short interview book he co-authored in 1990 with Swedish critic and filmmaker Stig Björkman), he associates academicism with “the frontality of meaning, with closure and roundedness and formal finish.” (Assayas loves Bergman as fervently as he seems to dislike Fellini, but he describes the late ’50s Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries era as an academic phase – making Bergman’s 1960s breakthroughs all the more exhilarating. In his writing on Bergman, all of which he did after he left Cahiers and became a filmmaker, Assayas is at his most eloquent on the drama of salutary self-destabilization, of having to break with yourself in order to survive. His discussions of The Magician and Through a Glass Darkly as transitional works are especially fascinating.) It is all the more pleasing to go back to Assayas’s sympathetic description of A Passage to India (1985) as the successful encounter between David Lean’s academic, even “archaic cinematic style,” and E. M. Forster’s much more modern (though technically older) novel. Assayas’s university studies had been in literature (after abandoning painting), and his A Passage to India review, consistently generous to the virtues of Lean’s old-fashioned adaptation, is one the several articles in which he shows himself a subtle literary critic.
His article on Alain Robbe-Grillet21 also stands out in this regard. Assayas considers Robbe-Grillet primarily as a filmmaker – more specifically, as possible precursor to a cinematic era dominated by mannerism. (This is defined by Assayas as the play with the stylistic and thematic tropes of dead film genres, tropes frozen into icons and fetishes: what others – not Assayas himself – were already calling “postmodernism.”) Assayas’s argument is that Robbe-Grillet didn’t try to develop in his films a specifically cinematic mannerist art; he just imported his literary themes – the dissolution of meaning, the construction without a center, the play with the exhausted conventions of the moribund realist novel.
After splitting with Cahiers du cinéma (his last piece written for them as a staffer appeared in no. 377, November 1985), Assayas spent several years writing nothing but screenplays. As he would later put it, writing about film had helped him not only in finding a path to filmmaking – it had also helped him “dig a tunnel to himself.”22 Still, giving up writing about the cinema in favor of making it – and seeing filmmaking as “incarnated writing” – he went through a phase in which, as he would later confess, he disavowed his former identity as a cinema writer. It was only with his short book on Kenneth Anger – which he wrote right after he filmed Irma Vep (1996), experiencing its writing as an extension of making Irma – that he again accepted that part of himself.23 His writing was now more autobiographical, more lyrical, less bound by worries about critical, theoretical, or scholarly decorum; it rapturously asserted itself as – above anything else – writing. Actually, this new freedom was already manifest in Conversation avec Bergman24, with its concluding essay, although, as he recounts it in his foreword to Kenneth Anger, the breakthrough had to wait until Irma Vep, which he groups with HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (his 1997 documentary), and the Anger book itself, in what he calls a tripyich – three moments in the same movement of reflection on the cinema.
In any case, the Anger book is a beautiful achievement in this lyrical later vein. Feverish with hyperbole (“Anger’s mystical quest took him to some of the highest peaks reached by contemporary American cinema”), its prose constantly palpitating with the pressure of private feeling, it feels written in a single burst of energy. Assayas locates Anger’s cinema in the tradition of literary Symbolism (the Symbolist movement’s pursuit of the derangement of the senses) and in that of Georges Méliès (the Méliès who showed that “the cinema, a tool for capturing the visible, ontologically tied to the representation of the real as it appears, is also an instrument of destabilization”; a Méliès whose real lesson was not about tricks, but about the interrogation of the invisible through the visible). Railing against the industry of the music video (in whose product he sees nothing but a bastardization of Scorpio Rising’s film poetry), opposing Anger’s underground practice to “the new world order of images,” Assayas’s passionate little book earnestly argues the cause of the poet as explorer of dangerous territories and the cause of the cinema as tool of (occult) knowledge. In passing, Assayas’s long-standing obsession with the artist as medium through which the new passes and crystallizes, his commitment to being the first who sees a new phenomenon in a defining way, the first to catch an undercurrent in the culture and recognize its beauty, get restated in memorable forms.
- Présences: Écrits sur le cinéma, Paris: Gallimard, 2009, 229. [↩]
- Cahiers du cinéma no. 326, July-August 1981, 21. [↩]
- Issues 315-318, September-December. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 315, 19. [↩]
- Pages 58-59. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 316, 40. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 318, 37. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 334-334, April 1982, 97-107. [↩]
- No. 328, October 1981. [↩]
- In Cahiers no. 318 [↩]
- Cahiers no. 351, September 1983, 65-66. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 341, November 1982, 52. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 310, April 1980, 43. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 339, September 1982, 15-23. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 318, 36-37. [↩]
- Review of Carpenter’s Dark Star, Cahiers no. 314, July-August 1980, 53. [↩]
- Présences, 379. [↩]
- Présences, 378. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 351, September 1983, 19-26. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 355, January 1984, 21-25. [↩]
- Cahiers no. 370, April 1985, 32-34. [↩]
- Présences, 264. [↩]
- Kenneth Anger: Vraie et fausse magie au cinéma, Éditions de l’Étoile/Cahiers du cinéma, 1999, 6. [↩]
- Cahiers du cinéma, 1990. [↩]