The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

World Picture Journal: Olivier Assayas

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Olivier Assayas

While meandering alone in the outer precincts of the World Wide Web, surveying long stretches of benighted digital landscape like one of W.G. Sebald’s history-haunted narrators, I happened across an unusual new biannual publication: World Picture Journal.  The editors are Brian Price and Meghan Sutherland, professors at Oklahoma State University, and John David Rhodes, based at the University of Sussex. I’m not familiar with their work, but a few names on the editorial board immediately popped out at me: Marxist theorist Ernesto Laclau, Homeland novelist Sam Lipsyte, and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essayist Laura Mulvey all play an advisory role at WPJ. Apart from that, details are hard to come by. There’s no mission statement on the Web site (although a conference announcement mentions the journal’s interest in “the intersection of political and aesthetic questions concerning cinema, visual art, and visual theory”), nor is there any indication whether this is a print or online-only review. Thanks to a link at Film-Philosophy, though, I learned that it is a free, open-access digital digest.

Why do I bring this to your attention? Because the quality and range of the essays on the site are impressive.

In the latest issue, from Autumn 2008 (“Obvious”), Christian Keathley writes on “Otto Preminger and the Surface of Cinema,” Scott Durham contributes a politically-oriented piece on Bamako, and Lipsyte lets us glimpse a humorous short fantasy he wrote at the invitation of a London fashion magazine which was devoting an entire issue to Drew Barrymore. The title? “A Pimple on the Ass of Drew Barrymore Speaks.” Naturally, the piece was never printed.

All the articles are available as PDFs, or you can read them online. You’ll have to visit the site first, then click to find the archive. (Apparently, the editors wish their labors to remain obscure.)

The jewel in the crown, though, is the miraculously candid interview with Olivier Assayas published in the Spring 2008 issue (“Jargon”). Never before do I recall Assayas having so much to say about post–May ’68 French politics and intellectual history, his remarkable family, or his early years as a filmmaker and critic. The putative topic of discussion is Situationist figurehead Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle), an idol of Assayas’s who was treated to a posthumous six-film mini-retrospective at Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this year, but the conversation ranges far and wide, encompassing personal history as well as a trove of rich insights into his creative-writing process.

Here, for instance, is an excerpt in which Assayas discusses his initially conflicted relationship to Cahiers du cinéma, where he was invited to contribute in 1980 by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana:

“It’s one of the reasons I had not read Cahiers du cinéma before, because to me they were boring, post-post Leftist, post-Stalinian. I had absolutely no intellectual affinity with them. How could I?  They were translating things from Maoist publications. I opened the magazine and it just freaked me out. Jean Narboni is the nicest guy and a very smart man. But at that time he would write editorials discussing the cultural issues addressed by the leader of the French Communist Party, who was a real creep. Why are they wasting their time talking about this bullshit? They were publishing pieces by Pascal Bonitzer saying that Le Maman et la putain [The Mother and the Whore] was a perfect example of petit bourgeois individualism, or whatever. Junk! Junk! Just to go back a little. It’s also one of the reasons that when I first started to go into making films I didn’t go into abstraction, because I felt that abstraction in cinema was mostly Godardian. Everything around was half-baked Godardism, in one way or another. It became artistically and culturally suffocating. Somehow, the one thing that had been happening in those years, punk rock—The Clash, The Sex Pistols—gave you the notion that you just pick up whatever tools and make something on your own and just get rid of the past. In that sense, I felt that cinema hadn’t had its punk rock revolution. That French film culture was too much what I thought I had left behind via the punk rock event. The only way to be radical in cinema at the time was not to be abstract. It was by being figurative. It was by saying fuck you: I’m going to make a real movie with real characters, a real story, and ultimately I can say things through that medium that are stronger than whatever you are not even trying anymore to deal with.”

There’s much, much more in the 4,600-word interview. Highly recommended!

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Written by eyemaster

August 6, 2009 at 4:37 pm

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