Godard As Curator Programme Notes

These are the programme notes printed in the TATE handout for the premiere of Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd’s ‘Le Désordre Exposé’ (2012) and Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mièville’s ‘Reportage Amateur (Maquette Expo)’ (2006).

Godard as Curator

– John Bloomfield

We don’t remember why Ferdinand and Marianne head to the south of France or why Odile decides to help Franz and Arthur. We forget why Bruno Forestier hesitates before killing Palivoda or why Nana leaves her husband. Instead, we remember Belmondo squaring up to Bogey, and Karina in tears before Dreyer’s Joan. We remember Fritz Lang quoting Brecht to Bardot, and a single still of Jane Fonda held for nearly an hour. Finally we remember a history of cinema told with Griffith, Hitchcock and Rossellini, but also shards of Hindemith and flashes of pornography. Then there are the quotes, references, allusions and pastiches that pass us by before we can take them in, as if we too are being raced breathlessly through the Louvre. What we remember in Godard’s films, is Godard remembering films. Each one is a just image…just not his image.

An auteurist super-curator, instrumentalising the work of poets, painters, historians, filmmakers, friends and foes alike… Or a bookish custodian, doggedly preserving a history of cinema. From the beginning, Godard’s work has been characterised by ‘a play of allusion within and between texts[1]’. Is this simply a modernist tactic or is there a more conservative, classical imperative at its heart? In 2006, the curatorial tendency in Godard’s work manifested itself in a more traditional context. A much-anticipated exhibition at Le Centre Pompidou was prefaced with the following notice:-

‘The Pompidou Centre decided not to carry out the exhibition project entitled “Collage(s) de France. Archaeology of the Cinema”, because of artistic, technical and financial difficulties that it presented, and to replace it by another project entitled “Travel(s) in Utopia, JLG, 1946–2006, In Search of a Lost Theorem”.

Consisting of collages, sculptures and moving image installations drawing on films from People on Sunday to Black Hawk Down, Voyage(s) en Utopie blurred the lines between a filmmaking, artistic and curatorial practice, while also foregrounding the problems of collaborating with a huge and complex government funded organisation. Transposing the concerns of a film like Le Mépris to the medium of the exhibition, it announced itself as an act of institutional critique: an exhibition about a failed exhibition and the difficulties of exhibition making.

[1] Peter Wollen, ‘The Two Avant-gardes,’ in Readings and Writings (London: Verso, 1982), p. 102.

Godard As Curator: Le Désordre Exposé

7 December 2014, 15.00 -19.00

Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium

UK premiere screening of Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé 2012 & discussion

Godard As Curator: Le Désordre Exposé

Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd’s essay film Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé / Disorder Exposed 2012 retraces Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious exhibition at the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris between 11 May – 14 August 2006. The film and following discussion will reflect on the exhibition Voyage(s) en Utopie, Jean-Luc Godard 1946-2006 in the context of Godard’s work, and reconsider his films in the framework and history of curatorial practice.

Reportage Amateur (Maquette Expo) / Home Movie (Exhibition Maquette)

Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Mièville, France/ Switzerland 2006, colour, sound, 46 min

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 09.25.12

In the first room of Voyage(s) en Utopie, visitors were greeted with a maquette for an earlier, more ambitious exhibition concept, Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema. In this intimate home movie, filmed some months before, Godard leads a tour of the maquette for the soon-to-be abandoned Collage(s) de France exhibition, giving a valuable insight into an exhibition that never was.

Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé / Jean-Luc Godard, Disorder Exposed Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd, France / Switzerland 2012, colour and black & white, sound, 65 min

ASL 02

The film retraces Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious exhibition at the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris between 11 May – 14 August 2006. The film and following discussion will reflect on the exhibition Voyage(s) en Utopie, Jean-Luc Godard 1946-2006 in the context of Godard’s work, and reconsider his films in the framework and history of curatorial practice. In the film we are led by André S. Labarthe, former Cahiers du Cinéma critic and actor in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie 1962, who guides us through archival footage, television interviews and partial reconstructions of the Pompidou exhibition. Bohler and Gailleurd’s film proposes a new approach to Godard’s work as an attempt to curate a history of cinema through literature, art and politics.

Programme duration: 111 min


Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd are both from the south of France. Bohler studied Greek and Latin, before teaching history of cinema and film analysis at Aix-en-Provence University. In 2000 he completed his PhD Thesis on the director Jean-Pierre Melville, and is also known as a specialist on Pier Paolo Pasolini. Gailleurd studied cinema and completed her PhD Thesis on early Italian cinema and its links with nineteenth century painting. She also was an assistant to Agnès Varda. In 2007, Bohler co-founded Nocturnes Productions with Raphaël Millet, which produces documentaries about the history of cinema and short films. In 2008 he directed the film Codename Melville. Since then, he has co-directed three documentaries with Céline Gailleurd: André S. Labarthe, Du Chat au Chapeau 2010, Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé 2012 and Edgar Morin, Chronique d’un Regard 2014. They have written numerous articles on cinema in books and magazines.

Michael Witt is Reader in Cinema Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures at the University of Roehampton. He is the author of Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (Indiana University Press, 2013), and the co-editor of For Ever Godard (Black Dog, 2004), The French Cinema Book (BFI, 2004), and Jean-Luc Godard: Documents (Centre Pompidou, 2006). He recently contributed an introductory essay to the first publication in English of the lectures on cinema history that Godard delivered in Montreal in 1978: Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, ed. and trans. Timothy Barnard (Caboose, 2014).


Godard as Curator

Godard as Curator
14th November–7th December
Birkbeck and TATE Modern

Birkbeck University and The Screen Shadows Group invite you to a series of workshops considering Godard’s practice as a form of curation.

From the beginning Godard’s work has been characterised by ‘a play of allusion within and between texts ’. Is this simply a modernist tactic or is there a more conservative, classical imperative at its heart? At different times Godard might reference or quote films, books, paintings and pieces of music in order to build arguments, reform canons or to simply make tastes. Beginning with the ultra dense montage of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, these workshops will consider at what point quotation and citation become curation, and what the stakes might be for such a shift.

Participants are not required to prepare material. The workshops are intended to be informal and speculative.

To RSVP to the 14th November workshop please visit: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/godard-as-curator-presented-by-birkbeck-institute-for-the-moving-image-the-screen-shadows-group-and-tickets-13729040931

Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998)
Friday 14th November – 2.30pm-4.30pm – Birkbeck

In episode 3b: Une Vague Nouvelle, Godard recalls how one evening ‘nous nous rendîmes chez Henri Langlois… et alors la lumière fut’. This sequence references Langlois’s famous stewardship of the Cinémathèque Française and mythologises his programming method. Just as Eisenstein montaged attractions, Langlois montaged whole films. In Histoire(s), the double or triple bill, the building block of any repertory cinema’s programming, is also the building block of Godard’s discursive method as quotations are montaged dialectically. Langlois is privileged alongside Eisenstein, as Godard recognises the antecedents of his video-enabled dialectical montage in curatorial method as much as soviet montage aesthetics.


Pierrot Le Fou (1965)
Friday 28th November – 2.30pm-4.30pm – Birkbeck

In the realm of sound, Pierrot Le Fou begins with the pointedly authoritative reading of a passage from Elie Faure’s critical analysis of the treatment of objects and light in the painting of Velázquez. From this moment onwards, Godard suffuses the visual realm of this transitional film with a critique of cinematic and genre conventions that, for the first time in his cinema, is wholly anchored in just such an exhibitive, art-historical discourse as this first-quoted text. From diverse literary (re)citations to intercut shots of paintings and illustrations, as well as the associative colour schemes that permeate the film, this early example of a multi-format curatorial impulse in Godard’s practice sets the romanticism of a reflexive narrative framework against a personal and political strategy for the deconstruction of ideological images in art. Through the film’s embedding of art objects in its diegesis and the foregrounded performativity of its literary references, Godard challenges us to ask how cinema works to sublimate, contaminate and reshape the constructions of meaning that have become attached to pre-existing artistic forms.

To RSVP to the 28th November workshop please visit: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/godard-as-curator-presented-by-the-birkbeck-institute-for-the-moving-image-the-screen-shadows-group-tickets-13729133207

Voyage(s) en utopie, Jean-Luc Godard, 1946-2006 (2006)
Saturday 6th December – 2.30pm-4.30pm – Birkbeck

In 2006 a much-anticipated exhibition at Le Centre Pompidou was prefaced with the following notice.

‘The Pompidou Centre decided not to carry out the exhibition project entitled “Collage(s) de France. Archaeology of the Cinema”, because of artistic, technical and financial difficulties that it presented, and to replace it by another project entitled “Travel(s) in Utopia, JLG, 1946–2006, In Search of a Lost Theorem”.

Consisting of collages, sculptures and moving image installations drawing on films from People on Sunday to Black Hawk Down,
Voyage(s) en Utopie blurred the lines between a filmmaking, artistic and curatorial practice, while also foregrounding the problems of collaborating with a huge and complex government funded organisation. Transposing the concerns of a film like Le Mepris to the medium of the exhibition, it announced itself as an act of institutional critique: an exhibition about a failed exhibition and the difficulties of exhibition making.

For this session we will be joined by Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd, ahead of a screening of their film about the exhibition, Le Désordre Exposé, at TATE Modern the following day.

To RSVP to the 6th December workshop please visit: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/godard-as-curator-presented-by-the-birkbeck-institute-for-the-moving-image-the-screen-shadows-group-tickets-13729183357

Screening of Le Désordre Exposé (2012)
Sunday 7th December – 3pm – TATE Modern

The UK premiere of Olivier Bohler and Céline Gailleurd’s essay film Jean-Luc Godard, Le Désordre Exposé / Disorder Exposed. The film retraces Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious exhibition at the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou in Paris between 11 May – 14 August 2006. The film and following discussion will reflect on the exhibition Voyage(s) en utopie, Jean-Luc Godard 1946–2006 in the context of Godard’s work, and reconsider his films in the framework and history of curatorial practice. In the film we are led by André S. Labarthe, former Cahiers du Cinéma critic and actor in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, who guides us through archival footage, television interviews and partial reconstructions of the Pompidou exhibition. Bohler and Gailleurd’s film proposes a new approach to Godard’s work as an attempt to curate a history of cinema through literature, art and politics.

Followed by a discussion between the filmmakers and Michael Witt, author of Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (Indiana University Press, 2013), Reader in Cinema Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures at the University of Roehampton.

For more information on the 7th December TATE Modern event please visit: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/film/godard-curator-le-desordre-expose

The Watching Community #2

This is Alex Graham’s introduction to Dziga Vertov’s Sixth Part of the Worldwhich was screened on Sunday 4 May among Star Lager’s Beer at Its Best, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Paul Strand’s Native Landon the evening dedicated to observing the reconfigurations of community across state, nation and empire.

As with all of his contemporaries in Soviet cinema whose practice can be described as avant-garde, Dziga Vertov’s journey in cinema is one that began in earnest after the Bolshevik revolution. The years between 1918 and 1922 saw the newsreel editor who was born David Kaufman, contribute to the production of Kino-Hedelia or Cine-week, a series of actuality compilation reels commissioned by Moscow’s first ever ‘cinema committee’ and which were destined for exhibition both in urban cinemas and as part of the travelling agit-prop train circuit that was active in disseminating cinema and theatre during the volatile period of Civil War mobilisation. As Vertov’s career progresses towards ever more complex formal experiments, we may be able to trace the formative influence of the darting movements of the agit-prop train on the filmmaker’s conception of geographic space and also on the immediacy, the urgency of his camera’s engagement with the new Soviet citizens whom he encountered on his cine-travels across Russia. But let’s return to 1922. From here, a group comprising Vertov, his brother and camera operator Mikhail Kaufman and his fellow editor and future wife Elizaveta Svilova began to publish theoretical tracts and manifestos in the influential critical cultural journal LEF. As the Kinoki, or Kino-Eyes, this ‘council of three’ as they were known would spend the next three years producing the Kino-Pravda series of newsreels that were distinguished by an episodic, vignette structure and a fluid blend of ‘straight’ reportage footage and formal experiments. This tendency towards experimentation and aesthetic complexity intensified as the series continued, taking Vertov to the point where his prominence as a very vocal revolutionary theorist and filmmaker would bring about special commissions for stand-alone projects at Sovkino, the central cinema production unit at the time. The first of these was to be A Sixth-part of the World, a film initially conceived of and pitched as a feature-length advertisement for the export arm of GOSTORG, which was the Soviet Union’s centrally run state trade commission. The film that we’re about to see marks the beginning of a new stage in the development of Vertov’s cinematic style. Of the films to come over the four years following its release in 1926, it is also arguably the most humane and culturally focused of Vertov’s major works, insofar as it addresses the idea of the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic space with a hugely diverse and disparate production force to be empowered through labour and liberated by a sensitive and accommodating Soviet modernity. Much more so than the heavily foregrounded formal self-consciousness of Man with a Movie Camera, and more so than the celebratory politics and temporal leaping back and forward through history in The Eleventh Year, A Sixth-part of the World is a film of human potential to be harnessed through spatial expansion, labour solidarity and a cultural awareness of the ‘Other’ within the revolutionary social configuration. At the time of the film’s production, this new society found itself in the flux of unprecedentedly rapid political and infrastructural change. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe A Sixth-part of the World as one of the most significant and nuanced texts that we have from this historical moment, during which the ultimate direction of Soviet communism was still very ambiguously framed by its cultural output and was entirely obscure to all beyond the ruling Bolshevik elite.  As we will see in the film, despite not having an especially privileged position within this political framework, Vertov’s project is endowed with the power of an analytical sight that draws attention to the inconsistencies of the emerging political doctrine, all while appropriating its rhetoric in the service of the filmmaker’s own revolutionary cultural agenda. vertov4

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

The doctrine in question, of course, is that of Stalinism in its earliest, most aggressively economic guise, and the engine of this doctrine is the turbo-accelerated industrialisation of the land-mass inherited by the Bolsheviks from the backward, agrarian Russian Empire. This is such an interesting time for Vertov’s film to appear at because here we find ourselves in the moment between the birth of Stalin’s modernising industrial drive in 1925 and the beginnings of agricultural collectivisation in 1929, by which time all internal political opposition in the Party has been eradicated and Stalin’s consolidation of executive power is complete. This four-year period is therefore one of intense social change and startling ideological contradictions, as Lenin’s New Economic Policy is replaced by centralised planning and gargantuan production quotas, and official advocacy of a world Marxist revolution quietly gives way to the policy of ‘Socialism in One Country.’ Now, this last idea is crucial to giving us an inroad into understanding the levels on which the title, A Sixth-part of the World, is operating. In one sense, the entrenchment and self-contained enclosure of a new Soviet empire, as proposed by Stalin, makes this a title of impending limits and demarcation as much as one of vast spatial ambition to grow and to modernise, this being the aim that Vertov charts and constructs as a system with international trade significance. Although Vertov in no way isolates this one-sixth from the other five-sixths of the world in his montage and associative imagery, we will be able to return after the screening to the ways in which Stalinist politics and Vertov’s spatial operations complicate any reductive reading of ideological coherence in this film. vertov1

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

What’s more, we can also read this title as an indication both of a new stage in the world’s historical development and of the concordant structuring principle that Vertov will give to the film’s movement. This is possible when we take the Russian, Shestaia chast’ mira, and consider its semantics. Chast’ is indeed ‘part’ in space, but it is also ‘part’ in sequential time, and here we can take our lead from a recent paper on Vertov by the film scholar Devin Fore when he insists on the importance of time and succession in Vertov’s work, as well as what Fore calls those “eccentric and ecstatic spatial constructions” that are evident in the vaulting performance of his montage. If on one hand this film is a non-linear travelogue of cultures and production techniques, it is also an historical exploration of the distinct modes of production practised by different communities, as they coexist, diverge and come into contact with other in Vertov’s vision of contemporary Soviet reality. Devin Fore’s analysis follows Lenin and then Trotskii in attesting to no-less-than five fully elaborated modes of production to be found operating in Russia when the Bolsheviks come to power in 1917. From Asiatic trade routes to primitive agrarianism, from feudal land management to advanced capitalism and revolutionary communism, these five stages and spheres of economic development exist within a film that is destined to perform the sixth stage, the sixth chapter, in a Soviet, or indeed perhaps still even in a global, context: that of an advanced, industrial Communism that is projected as being somehow both bent on self-sufficiency and yet integrated in a network of differing labour practices, which it must either mitigate or modernise in order to reap benefit from. What we have in A Sixth-part of the World is not a depiction or a description, but a performance of this mitigation, an example of how cinema can orientate citizens participating in economic growth, transporting them across cultural divides and training their sights on the phenomena that link them through a circular chain of horizontal, democratised labour relations. Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 16.40.39

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

Six parts to the world, then, and also six chapters to the film: the first is kind of a filmic cartography of place that penetrates new and exotic customs to arrive at the universality of labour; the second develops a strategy of personal address to these new participants in the Soviet project, bringing them into the collective sphere of Vertov’s USSR. The third expands on these cultural specificities with a non-linear, political-economic geography of the Union’s expanses, and the fourth uses these parameters to conduct a formal exploration of Soviet export routes, which was the initial subject of the GOSTORG commission. Chapter Five examines those things that are not yet Soviet, whether through backwardness or orthodoxies that are rooted in the pre-Soviet and the pre-Modern, before the final ‘coming to consciousness’ of Chapter Six, in which the diversity of the local subjects addressed in Chapters One and Two is unified by cultural interaction through labour and the shared experience of the film’s training for a new regime of visuality. To insist upon the idea of training is also to acknowledge the ways in which Vertov’s film tries to challenge the notion of linear historical progress towards modernity and the colonial narrative of unidirectional eastward expansion in the Russian imperial consciousness. To capture the phenomena of “life caught unawares” of “Life as it is” (zhizn’ kak ona est’), these are the two core principles of the Kino-Eye manifesto that are displayed in a performance that is as much about establishing newly democratised ways of seeing through cinema as it is about demystifying the cultural ‘otherness’ of the furthest-flung Soviet subjects. After the screening, we will be better placed to attempt to square this approach with the other much more orthodox Soviet strand in Vertov’s thinking, that of holding cultural difference less as a difference to be respected, and more a certain “not-as-yet-sameness” to be overcome in time. Despite this, it must be said that the horizontal and democratising agenda of this film is framed by a political philosophy that is thoroughly un-Bolshevik in character. However, in this ambiguous and uneasy period between the aftershock of revolution and the dawn of the totalitarian Thirties, the opposing strategies and agendas of the Kino-Eyes and the Bolsheviks can converge on the centrality of the machine and a shared fervour for the red-hot acceleration of productive futurism in both culture and industry. Now, the Russian postcolonial scholar Irina Sandomirskaia has argued that it is grotesque to conflate the internationalist, exploratory agenda of the Leftist Soviet avant-garde with the surveillance bureaucracy and prurient, puritanical culture of early Stalinist orthodoxy, and the key culture texts of the period certainly bear this out. Nonetheless, in the same breath Sandomirskaia goes on to assert that it is equally naïve to say that the avant-garde, and especially its filmmakers, are innocent vis-à-vis the kind of hegemony pursued by the agents of the State. What’s at stake here, however, is the difference between a cultural hegemony of “the seeing”, the “collective subjectivity” that Vertov strives to engender through the perceptual training of the citizens on one hand, and the stifling containment of collectivisation and imperial hegemony on the other. The danger here is where Vertov’s horizontal mutualism might be read along the same lines as Stalinism’s “indifference to difference”: although these positions exist at opposite ends of the revolutionary spectrum, they must be reconciled to one another as a result of their coexistence in this film, which is ultimately the deformation by Vertov of an anodyne trade-film commission and its transformation into a radical linkage of working communities across the Soviet Union. Among film scholars, much ink has been spilled over the formal and philosophical density of Vertov’s importance to cinema, and also over the ultimate failure and collapse of his utilitarian revolutionary platform for a new film visuality that would reject narrative structures and devices. Critical perspectives on the integrity and coherence of this agenda differ significantly between West and East, between those who identify Vertov with the ‘virtues’ of a Soviet project that in the end was hijacked and distorted, and those who read his close political affiliation with the future-building Soviet state as the main principle that underpins his manipulative approach to actuality filmmaking. Where there is agreement, though, is on the difficulties of interpretation posed by the formal virtuosity and the non-linear structure of Vertov’s work. We are about to watch a film that challenges us to a kind of perceptual training session, and that asks us to make associative leaps as huge and as abrupt as those made through space and time by the film’s camera. vertov3

(Still from Sixth Part of the World)

So what is it that makes Vertov ‘difficult’? As well as the complexity of his montage and visual poetics, we are faced with a cyclically repeating rhythm of sequences that play out at a relentless pace, both in terms of the cutting and of the dynamism of movement within and across the frame. This film is a forceful indication that the new cinema of the Soviet Union (or what with Vertov, we might more accurately call the new Soviet Union of cinema) is not a space in which a spectator can ever be usefully immersed in contemplation, but must instead be a participant who confronts ‘reception in a state of distraction’ (to borrow another term from Walter Benjamin) as a form of perceptual training for a new life of labour in a new, technologically connected society. For as we’ll see, Vertov’s real project with A Sixth-part of the World is to train all Soviet citizens to appropriate the ‘I see’ (Vizhu) of his intertitle as a collective subjectivity that experiences cinema as a space of ‘virtual belonging’. This belonging is to a community united through labour across cultural boundaries, and empowered by two interrelated revolutions, one in industry and another in sight. With this aim in mind, here is one of Vertov’s own characteristically provocative statements on A Sixth-part of the World in the run-up to the film’s release: “A Sith-part of the World is more than a film, than what we usually understand by the word “film” (…) A Sixth-part of the World is somewhere beyond the boundaries of these definitions; it is already the next stage after the concept of “cinema” itself (…) This film has, strictly speaking, no viewers, since all the working people of the USSR, 130 to 140 million of them, are not viewers but participants in this film. The very concept of this film and its whole construction are now resolving in practice the most difficult theoretical question of the eradication of the boundary between viewers and spectacle. A Sixth-part of the World cannot have critical opponents or critical supporters within the borders of the USSR, since both the opponents and supporters are also participants in the film (…) Our slogan is: All citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 10 to 100 years old must see this work. By the tenth anniversary of October there must not be a single Tungus who has not seen A Sixth-part of the World.”

The Watching Community #1

This is a transcript from Sunday 27 April of John Bloomfield and Alex Symons Sutcliffe’s introduction to the first event in their ‘The Watching Community’ series at Cinema6. They screened Dimitri Kirsanoff’s ‘Ménilmontant’ with a new score from Circuit Breaker and Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘Sweet Smell of Success’.

John: I’m going to start with some suicides. So we’ve got the younger sister in ‘Ménilmontant’. She’s just given birth and we infer that she’s about to throw her baby, and possibly herself in the river.


(Still from ‘Ménilmontant’) 

George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is about to jump off a bridge. itsawonderful

(Still from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’)

Anna from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’, a Nazi era melodrama, is about to jump off the King Charles bridge in Prague,

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.33.06

(Still from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’)

and finally Susan, in the film you’re about to watch, is thinking about –I’m not going to say one way or another– jumping out of her balcony.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.32.49

(Still from ‘Sweet Smells of Success’)

Alex: The motif of the suicidal man or woman links these otherwise quite different films. The trauma these characters experience are the mundane traumas of Modern life: debt or pregnancy, for examples, rather than war. We’re not given the impression that any of them are mentally ill or have any other kind of illness – alcoholism, drug addiction etc. Rather, they are all victims of circumstance.

John: Each of these films show their characters in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Perhaps that’s not exceptional: in fiction everything is always either in flux or stasis. It’s made up after all. It’s either a background that doesn’t move except when it’s changed for a new one, or it’s a plane of action that moves according to conventions of plot. Still, each of their presents – different moments in the 20th century– were at once, more different than the present, or presents, of, say, characters from the 18th century, and perceptively different, thanks to the arrival of a new medium with an unequalled power to record everyday life. We want to try to trace that a bit.

The two sisters in ‘Ménilmontant’ are forced out of their small village by a violent act. Close framing; quick editing; a shot of an axe; bodies fragmented by the cut.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.41.31

(Still from the murder scene in ‘Ménilmontant’)

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 17.00.23 (Sisters walking down the road and first impressions of Paris)

Alex: A different kind of violence greets them in Paris: close framing; a swaying camera; a shot of a clock at 5 minutes to the hour; bodies, vehicles and a city fragmented by the cut. In the film they’re driven out by a grisly murder, but they would have left anyway. The population of Paris swelled by two thirds between the time of the Commune in 1871 and the early teens. The city’s population hit its all time peak in 1921.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 22.34.59

(Still from F.W. Munrau’s Sunrise)

John: The same everywhere else: industrialisation and migration to the city. In Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’, released a year later, ‘the city’ is not even named. A man is seduced by an urban vamp into attempting to murder his wife…she survives and runs away to the city. In this scene he follows her and they both have their first experience of the city. Again, the violence of the plot device  is unnecessary, as is the sex: what’s more violent than the decline of agrarianism? What plot device could possibly be sexier than emerging metropolitan labour markets?

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 17.02.48

(Crossing the street, ‘Sunrise’)

Alex: As with ‘Ménilmontant’, the new migrants’ first impressions are of disorientation. In his 1903 text ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ Georg Simmel discussed new psychological states that life in the metropolis created. The modern city was made up of proliferating stimuli from crowds, traffic, billboards, street signs, window displays and advertisements. Simmel proposed one reaction as a blasé attitude or ‘incapacity to react to new sensations with appropriate energy’. Later, theorists like Anthony Vidler would link this barrage of stimuli to metropolitan illnesses like claustrophobia or agoraphobia, when the ‘heimlich’ or ‘homely’ becomes unheimlich or uncanny– the panning camera, the close framing. But this kind of spatial estrangement is more than a brief and unpleasant sensation: the rent payer and the commuter are just two types who are spatially estranged.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 17.06.03

(map of Paris)

John: ‘Ménilmontant’ is an area about 4 and a half kilometres outside of the centre of the city where the sisters work. Formerly a hamlet, the area expanded enormously as a result both of the migration we see in the film and of Baron Haussman’s displacement of the working class from the centre to the peripheries during the second republic (1850-1870). The 21 transitions in the film between shots of the busy centre and shots of the deserted working class quarter are cruel reminders of this expulsion. The sisters in ‘Ménilmontant’ are not just estranged as new city dwellers, but as part of a relatively new generation of workers forced to live outside of the city they work in.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 16.46.41 Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 17.07.35

(Stills depicting the sisters’ commute in Ménilmontant’)

The commute home: Clocks, watches, wheels, legs, train tracks and, when we’re back in Ménilmontant, just so we know we’re not near the Seine, a piddling stream of drainage. This twice-daily experience is treated the same as their once-in-a-lifetime arrival in the city: close framing, quick editing; claustrophobia and disorientation. There’s is a limited experience of the city, one without agency and one regimented by the working day: they are not flaneurs enjoying the sights of the new boulevards, or bourgeois picnickers enjoying a Sunday in the bois de boulogne, but people forced out into the city’s peripheries at 6pm each day.

Alex: There’s a lot that might have made Paris so alienating, so unhomely: the circumstances of their migration, precarious employment and renting, real and imagined threats of urban crime (of which the 19th century press was obsessed) or a regimented working life (all the clocks), but we want to focus on just one for now.

Of all the urban stimuli mentioned earlier, the key one for us is the crowd. A rapid succession of faces we don’t recognise and may never see again. What is a crowd but a group of strangers? A synecdoche of the city in general. In Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, the narrator sits at a London coffee house watching the street as people stream home from work. After spending a few moments looking at the crowd as a mass, he begins to notice details.

They seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around.

The quote opening the story hammers the point home: “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir eyre seul.” This great sadness, to never be alone.

John: Gustav Le Bon, for one, saw the crowd as a step backwards: “the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is, a creature acting by instinct…An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.”

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(Stills from King Vidor’s 1928 film ‘The Crowd’)

Engels, in ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ said:

A city like London, where one can roam about for hours without reaching the beginning of an end, without seeing the slightest indication that open country is nearby, is really something very special. This colossal centralization, this agglomeration of three and a half million people…But the price that has been paid is not discovered until later. Only when one has tramped the pavements of the main streets for a few days does one notice that these Londoners have had to sacrifice what is best in human nature in order to create all the wonders of civilisation with which their city teems…there is something distasteful about the very bustle of the streets, something that is abhorrent to human nature itself. Hundreds of thousands of people of all classes and ranks of society jostle past one another; are they not all human beings with the same characteristics and potentialities, equally interested in the pursuit of happiness? And yet they rush past one another as if they had nothing in common…

Alex: The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies opposed these new kinds of urban social relations – living, working, shopping, commuting and walking amongst strangers – with what had come before: face-to-face interactions in a common locality among people who have generally had common experiences. For Tonnies, Gemeinschaft had given way to Gesselschaft; The community of village or small town life was replaced by the society of urban life. A paradise had been lost. How attempts have been made to regain this paradise, is one of the main questions of this season of films.

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(Still from ‘Ménilmontant’)

John: The younger sister in ‘Ménilmontant’ is abandoned by her lover, loses her job and falls out with her sister. Life in the city is precarious and without the support networks of Gemeinschaften or village life.

An ellipsis. She gives birth. Shots back and forth between her, the seine and her baby as she considers the unthinkable. Then shots of Paris and its people. Wild panning, quick cutting. She is superimposed over the shots of the crowd; the film pushes its formal capabilities to their limits to try to insert her into city life through these double exposures, but she remains distant from Paris and its anonymous bodies. She is apart from the crowd, never mind community.

With daily experiences of the sort recounted by Engels and Poe or that we’ve seen in ‘Ménilmontant’, a spatial definition of community no longer seemed to make sense. Regardless of whether or not a golden age of community had actually ever existed before being swept away by modernity, the idea of community remains a powerful one. Whether, it’s a question of recovering it or achieving it for the first time–regaining paradise or just finding it–, its pull is the common theme for each of the films in this season. It can be both nostalgic and forward looking: a utopian cultural imaginary that exists as an ideal state.

Alex: Over the century following ‘Ménilmontant’, ‘community’ would be invoked and redefined periodically: community as nationhood, communities around political causes, globalisation, communes and kibutzen, virtual communities, diasporic communities and so on. Part of what this season will do is map some of these reconfigurations.

The notion of community is a mobile category and has been invoked by conflicting ideologues of socialism, nazism and neoliberalism, to give but a few examples.  Yet, the ambiguity of the term allows one to remain invested in it. Even when the coalition government’s policy is to outsource its responsibility to “local councils, communities and neighbourhoods“, and when community-run projects appear at risk of capitulating to the big society, there is still the potential and need for new and radical versions of community. An interrogation of the meaning, history and future of the term, is the first step towards this.

John: Cinema as the dominant medium of the twentieth century, captures this history, marks these changes and records each dissonant voice. It is one instrument that can be used in our inquiry, but it also has its own history, codes, ideologies and bad habits.

The dominant mode of cinema –classical Hollywood – which is the model for most narrative film, participates in its own re-imagining of community. That’s what I want to think about for the rest of this. If we’re about to use cinema as our guide to these reconfigurations of community, we need to understand its own compromised positions and investment in showing community’s dissolution or endurance.

Other films from around the time of ‘Ménilmontant’  are much more ambivalent about the same social changes.

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(Still from ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Great City’.)

Berlin Symphony of a great city, made the same year, shows the endless visual possibility of the new modern city. A parade of unknown people and things is a parade of unknown people and things to be looked at and enjoyed.

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(Stills from ‘People on Sunday’)

In ‘People on Sunday’, which we watched as part of the Lessons in Heterosexuality programme at Arcadia last year, strangers are just people you haven’t picked up yet.

Alex: In crime films, huge populations mean narrative possibility.

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(Still from ‘The Naked City’)

At its close the 1948 film ‘The Naked City’ claims ‘there are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them’. 8 million anonymous people not tied by communal bonds calls for a detection narrative to tie them together: x is linked to y because of a motive, a chance sighting or a grisly incident. Film enjoys the possibilities that a dissolution of community presents, but there are times when strangers and anonymity get in the way. When it suits, everyone knows everyone.

John: As an English speaking expat, Gene Kelly’s character in ‘An American in Paris’ should be even more estranged than the sisters in Menilmontant. He seems to be doing fine however. He knows everyone on the street and they all know him.

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(Still from ‘An American In Paris’)

London. 1950. A Population of 8 million, and a chaotic and fluid post-war population of migrants and survivors. In the Jules Dassin Film night and the city Harry Fabian is some kind of soho hustler. He steps out of Shaftesbury avenue into Soho, where he knows everybody.

szalaieva (Still from ‘Night and the City’)

50s Paris. 3 million people. At the beginning of Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, US sailors are still hanging around; we see a lone young girl newly arrived in the city: a 50s version of the sister from ‘Ménilmontant’. It’s dawn and the protagonist, Bob, has been up all night losing at cards. Even at this early hour he can barely walk home without being recognised by everyone.

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(Still from ‘Bob Le Flambeur’)

Alex: In these films Soho and Montmartre are urban villages and the heroes – Harry and Bob – are charismatic men about town. Their importance –socially and narratively– gives them a hold on the city that allows them to enjoy Gemeinschaft communal relations. A similar thing is at work in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, but there’s also the thematisation of community on a national level.

Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, an all powerful columnist and broadcaster. Mediated by the syndicated press and radio, his word unites a nation in opinion.

James Stewart’s George Bailey in ‘It’s a wonderful life’  is a more benign presence holding a town together.

The angel Clemence shows a suicidal George Bailey what Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

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(Stills from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’)

Now named Pottersville, the town we see is a noir-like strip of neon, booze and immorality. Without George, the town is a Gesellschaft hell with no communal bonds and with everyone in bondage to the banker Potter.

John: Pointing out that films aren’t lifelike… It’s not even a particularly enjoyable form of pedantry. What’s important in all of this, is recognising a compromised position of progressiveness and conservatism. Change fits the capitalist logic of mainstream cinema –new urban populations, new audiences, new urban spectacles, new forms of relations: 8 million stories in the naked city–, but too much change is chaos that can’t be shaped into 90 minutes. The modern city doesn’t have a beginning middle and end. You can’t  actually have a cast of 8 million.

Alex: As an idea of what’s potentially at stake in grafting community onto a place and time that has left it behind, let’s look at ‘Die Goldene Stadt’. Made in Nazi Germany in 1941, the film is set in exactly the kind of paradise said to have been lost as man fell to industrialisation and urbanisation. Anna, a Sudentan German dreams of going to Prague, the golden city of the title. Once there, she is seduced and abandoned by a Czech man. She eventually goes home to kill herself, but first considers it here on the Charles bridge.

veg (Still from ‘Die Goldene Stadt’)

In a much more banal way, this shot is the same as the sister in ‘Ménilmontant’  looking into the Seine with her baby. Both oppose the anonymity of the modern city with the help offered by the communal bonds of village or small town life.

John: Goebbels’s propaganda ministry had a hand in the making of the film, insisting that the daughter commit suicide rather than the father (as it is in the book). In the context of the War and National Socialism, the familiar town vs. city/ old vs. new/ Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft binaries are more than a twee mourning for an old way of living, but an argument for a doctrine of Volkgemeinschaft and ‘blood and soil’, where the old sense of community – such as in village life– is extended and reimagined on a national scale. The German Volk was imagined as transcending class, while its racialization paradoxically allowed it to seem inclusive from a certain perspective, welcoming ethnic Germans from across national barriers, such as in Czechoslovakia for instance. This idea that Hitler could reinstate a sense of community, was a crucial part of their appeal from the beginning.

This isn’t a million miles away from ‘It’s a wonderful life’: on bigger scale than Bedford Falls and a different kind of charisma to Jimmy Stewart. But Hitler in his bunker and George Bailey on his bridge, like the other suicides, have all been let down by a belief in community.

Let’s play Sweet Smell of Success.

‘Imagining a Revolutionary Community’ Event Outline

Ahead of this Sunday’s Screen Shadow presentation ,on the film culture of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, which  will focus specifically on the film making and distribution of Maha Maamoun and the Mosireen Collective, we would like to share some clips and questions. The event is an open discussion and all contributions are welcome.

Introduction. Broadly, this sessions aims to unpack how the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 has been framed by the media we received it through, and asks how that frame has selected revolutionary subjects and conditioned our understanding of the revolutionary event. Speaking from a context of political defeat where the revolutionary community of Egypt has disappeared from visibility, what strategies of representation will allow us to continue to access that recent history of protest and project forward to future action, and in what spaces can this ambition be actualized?

Part 1:  Mosireen Films. What were the conditions of representation of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and how do they function three years after the event?



Don’t Mess with The People

The People Demand

The Maspero Maspero Massacre

Part 2: Silvia Mollicchi on the Tahrir Cinema initiative. Which cultures of image making and presentation have resisted transmission to an international audience, and what can be gained by investigating them?


Part 3: Maha Maamoun ‘2026.’ How is it possible to identify and give representational space to the homogeneous and temporally sensitive revolutionary public?


Part 4: Basia Cummings on pad.ma and the Mosireen’s use of the archive. We have many images of protest, but we do not yet have an image of change, what gestures can we make towards an image of change?


Part 5: Sherief Gaber’s proposition for a Peckham Cinema, in the model of the Tahrir Cinema. How does the Cinema6 initiative relate to the social praxis of a group like the Mosireen, how and why might we try to find common ground?

Sherief is a member of the Mosireen; he can be seen in the Maspero video. His question for this event was “why not do a Tahrir Cinema in Peckham?” Is this a viable or productive proposition?

Cinema6 – April 24th – June 12th


Cinema6 is a new neighbourhood cinema for Peckham that will run for six weeks this spring. Transforming a railway arch into a 40 seat screen, Cinema6 will show films four times a week, from classic blockbusters and family films to world cinema and the work of local artists. It will be a place to watch, discuss and learn about film and film making. We’re inviting everyone from the area to be involved in choosing which films to show and to bring ideas for creative uses of the cinema space.

Cinema6 is being hosted by Arcadia Missa, and will be located in the railway arches between Lyndhurst Way and Bellenden Road.

Cinema6 will open on 24 April but there are lots of ways to be involved in the planning before then. The first public meeting will be held at 7pm on Monday 31 March at Arcadia Missa, Unit 6, Bellendend Road Business Centre, SE15 4RF and is open to everyone.

For more information contact info@cinema6.co.uk