Saturday, September 12, 2009

Silence is Golden: Gerard Courant’s “Cinématon” portraits

Yeah, go ahead and blame Andy Warhol again. Warhol’s various conceptual practices have lived on in a number of different ways, and his "screen test" idea seemingly was given new life by the French film artist Gerard Courant in the 1980s. Courant has been making avant-garde/"underground" films from 1976 to the present day. I have to confess my ignorance of his work until I encountered this odd silent study of our hero Uncle Jean:

The YouTube posting links back to Courant’s site, which has a full filmography and biography of the gentleman, plus a few dozen more of these “Cinématon” shorts, as he calls them. The films are silent studies of various folks associated with the film industry and, to my mind, they succeed best in doing one thing: offsetting the awful profusion of Entertainment Tonight/E! Channel/DVD "supplement" interviews in which the filmmaker or performer is asked to summarize his/her role in the movie, or retell the damned plot of the picture.

I’m not certain if Courant got these studies under the auspices of press junkets or a film festival — it looks to be the latter — but what he did was to conduct an experiment that will delight some and bore others, but which does bear a relation to the press-junket phenomenon, in which a TV reporter/journalist/hack (pick yer poison, folks) comes into a room with a person representing a film and gets 5-10 minutes time to barrage them with questions, most of which they’ve been answering all day. Courant’s studies cut out the Q&A aspect out entirely, and what you’re left with is the person’s face, and gestures (if they chose to make any). The filmmakers seem awkward on camera (unless they chose to, no surprise, keep talking, as if the study was still an interview), but it’s interesting to note that even some of the performers — as with the lovely and talented Sandrine Bonnaire — seem awkward in front of Courant’s camera.

Courant’s “Cinématon” call to mind portrait photography and silent cinema, but they also serve another purpose: to commemorate the Deceased Artistes he encountered, including the New Wave queen of the pout, the sacred actress who starred in several Godard and Rivette films, Juliet Berto. Also, since time doth move on, Courant also has recorded the fashion “choices” folks made, as with Wim Wenders’ early Eighties “new wave” hairdo (Wenders chooses not to address Courant’s camera, but to ignore it instead — perhaps as a result of his own work as a still photographer).

And last, we learn a very obvious lesson: that comedians can’t be still and “studied” — especially not by a serious-minded art filmmaker. I highly recommend the “Cinématon” of one of my faves, Roberto Benigni (I love Benigni deeply, and think Americans have to just to forget his wacky behavior at the Oscars a decade ago, and that awful, way-too-often-shown Blake Edwards pic he made….). True to his nature, Roberto continues to talk in his film portrait, but what he’s saying is instantly “readable” to those who know elementary French: he was “pas payé” (not paid) for what he’s doing, thus the Gainsbourg-ian destruction of money. Benigni experiments at one point with leaving frame entirely, which becomes the keynote of another comic performer/artist’s portrait, Terry Gilliam. Terry “eats” money rather than tearing it, futzes around with the frame, and actually questions the time factor by counting down until his “disappearance”:

Having done a number of press junkets, I have to say that, while you can indeed get some very good answers from the “strapped-in” participants if you ask them different questions (and don’t have them recite the fucking plot or reflect on their characters!), perhaps Courant’s approach is the proper one: get rid of words entirely….

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