This year’s topic and exercises were revealed in Paris on Friday and Saturday 30 Sept/ 1st Oct. ‘The part that the real plays in the fiction film’ at first sight is a more philosophical angle than the familiar ‘film language’ themes we’ve been used to, but like ‘montrer/ cacher’ it gives us opportunities to look afresh at cinema.
Alain Bergala, of Cahiers du Cinema, again was our pilot. He chose 4 ‘films clefs’: Boudu Saved from Drowning; the Little Fugitive; L’Enfance Nu; and Du côté d’Orouët. Of the four I’d only seen Boudu, a 1930s slapstick fish-out-of water-comedy (except the clown tramp Boudu, played by Michel Simon, spends a lot of time in the water).
When I first met the Cinematheque in 2009, they were raving about Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive – set in Coney Island in the early 1950s, a young boy is cast adrift from his older brother. Bergala quoted Truffaut: ‘without le Petit Fugitif there would have been no 400 Blows or A Bout de Souffle’, and you can see it in the film’s free-ranging documentary style.
Bergala eschewed his usual ‘typologie’ approach – I remember the Camera Movement event looking at about 17 different functions of camera movement. Instead he riffed on half a dozen different ways of looking at the ‘real’ in film under headings like objects; places; people.
At times he strayed into the realms of the existential: when does a thing in the world (a cup, a table, a boat, a bicycle) become a prop in a story? Engel’s Little Fugitive finds empty soda bottles in the Coney Island sand; when he lights on them, and collects them to sell, they become story elements. People, who become characters in stories, somehow immerse themselves back in the ‘real’ when they get on bicycles, or in rowing boats, or on roller skates. Something about surrendering yourself to forward motion, and relinquishing control, puts you half in and half out of fiction.
Characters doing real things has become the basis of one of the exercises in this year’s project. The characters in Jacques Rozier’s Du Cote d’Orouët (teenage girls mostly), carry suitcases over sand dunes, hoik sails and bale water in a small dinghy, and play with unfeigned disgust and fear at the sight of live eels slithering around their kitchen. Being immersed in real actions is a way of mobilising a reality effect to serve a story.
Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film has a great moment early on when he says ‘DW Griffith wanted to show us this: the wind in the trees’, and weather plays a big part in the part of the real in the film story, the part of a setting which isn’t susceptible to direction, storyboarding, performance. Bergala called light ‘the purest form of the real’; maybe this is why film-makers have always tried to mobilise or accommodate it to their scenarios. Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, just re-released, is often cited as an example of a film built around the almost mystical ‘magic hour’ of twilight: a film that incorporates the purest ‘real’ of light into its story.