The strength of filmed bodies



The essays of a disciple by the critic André Bazin

Jean-Louis Comolli was one of the key figures in French thinking about cinema in the 1960s. He wrote long theoretical texts in the Cahiers du Cinema, which occupied several issues of the magazine. Under his direction, closed conceptual developments became part of the repertoire of a publication initially created for the cinephile public. Comolli is part of the third generation of critics who directed the Notebooks, after the founding group of 1951 (André Bazin, Lo Duca and Doniol-Volcroze) and the “young Turks” of new wave (Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, mostly). He took over editorial leadership in the delicate period from 1966 to 1971. At the turn of the 60s, the magazine became declaredly Maoist and began to publish theory texts, even abolishing the use of photos.

Despite being linked to directing since the 60s, it was in the 80s that Comolli established himself as a filmmaker, mainly in the documentary field. See and Power. Innocence lost: cinema, television, fiction and documentary escapes the dominant thinking about cinema in Brazil. It bypasses the methodological dilemmas of the humanities, dear to historians and anthropologists. Comolli tells us about cinema, having experienced its reality from within. It is a pleasure to feel the breath of the cinematographic image in the critic's writing and the agility with which he traverses the filmography.

The mediation of the machine

Among all the narrative and dramatic arts, cinema bears the hallmark of machine mediation. This brand has led part of the critics to think of it as a medium, with an emphasis on technological evolution. Cinema would be a 19th century machine, with a tendency to disappear in the evolution towards new convergent digital media. But, contrary to the evolutionary view, it endures and maintains a fairly stable narrative form. In the centenary period, he developed mature stylistic procedures, using sounds and moving images as material, predominantly formatted by the machine we call “camera”.

When writing about cinema, how can we ignore stylistics, authors, cinema history, contemporary cinema? To work with cinema, familiarity with the films of yesterday and today is essential. Talking about cinema without knowing cinema, that is the danger of using cinema as a methodological tool in the humanities. The descriptive cut film analysis serves as the measure for this risky movement. Once the plan/sequence description network reaches a certain level of detail, everything gets caught up in the analysis drag. The film necessarily serves as an example of the concept that is already in the analyst's pocket beforehand.

This is not the case with Comolli's critique. In it, we breathe the ideological context of its time, feeling the experience of cinema that preceded it. Several excerpts from the book remind us of André Bazin's sensibility. In the company of Serge Daney, it would not be far-fetched to consider Comolli a closeted Bazinian. And why hidden? There are two antagonistic movements in the book, so to speak. In Comolli, two movements come together in their contradictions: first, an out-of-date Bazinism, which seems to compose the deepest layer of the critic's taste; second, an attempt to tie, with contemporary dyes, this first movement. The author says about the flesh of the shot, with Bazinian eyes: “the materiality of the machine has always needed the corporeality of bodies. The filmed body is the pillar of cinema”. It is in the first movement that Comolli moves with agility and gives vent to cinephilia, in tune with the founding presence of the body in the shot and its epiphanic manifestation in style.

The Power of Deconstruction

The second movement is the one that focuses the eyes and ears of contemporary critics. It is the moment that allows Comolli to be digested and become (a little poorer) author of our time. In reality, his Bazinian sensibility feels the need to be made more flexible by the force that today turns the wheel of history: deconstruction. The operation runs through a good part of the writings and it is for it that Brazilian commentators have eyes. A movement in part by the author himself, which forces the marriage, displacing the solar dimension of Bazin's “presence” in the shot from its “ontological” origin.

But, interestingly, Comolli's short circuit takes place on the horizon of the body and the shot as Bazin sees it, without feeling the need to leave the circle and criticize it from the outside. The sensibility to the image is Bazin's realist sensibility, and the toll it owes to mainstream contemporary thought is paid in instalments. The digital fascination is also left behind, trampled by the critic's emphasis on the melee of the shot, open to indeterminacy and intensity. The clichés surrounding the overlap between fiction and documentary are absent. Where is the “beauty of the documentary”? - question. And he responds, still close to post-war realism: “in the absolute availability of the cinematographic machine to register the strength of the filmed bodies; and, concomitantly, in the absolute resistance of real bodies to letting themselves be dispossessed by a machine. There will then be no virtual or synthetic documentary”.

To say that fiction is the same as documentary is to deny this core and place the contemporary deconstructive movement at the center of the analysis. It is a poor movement, which believes it is possible to reduce the whole history of cinema to it, making tabula rasa of the rich stylistics of the documentary tradition. By assuming that the documentary does not exist, because it is construction or staging, we equate enunciation with fiction and realistic transparency with documentary. But, for that, we start from the affirmation of a degree zero of the writing that we know in advance does not exist – and from there we deny the documentary specificity. The dog turns and bites its own tail. The fallacy asserts itself from an assumption that no one sustains.

The realist movement, and even the epiphany of the transfiguration by the camera, are highlighted in Comolli's critique, leaving the deconstructive “homework” in the background. Homework that is far from moving the critic, as it moves others: if the first moment of revelation (the moment of the nature of the documentary) is ontological, the second exists to satisfy the demands of contemporary ethics. If Comolli is a closeted Bazinian, he is one beyond himself. After the period of mourning, he rediscovers a sensitivity he had left behind. Perhaps his intense work as a documentary filmmaker, in the 90s, was essential for the reunion. Anyway, See and Power it bears witness to a path where we feel contradictory forces move. A journey that shows the maturity of one of the main contemporary critics and who still has an instigating vision of cinema in its documentary tradition.

*Fernão Pessoa Ramos, a sociologist, is a professor at the Institute of Arts at UNICAMP. Author of But after all… what exactly is a documentary? (Senac).


Jean-Louis Comolli
Selection and organization: César Guimarães and Ruben Caixeta
Translation: Augustin de Tugny, Oswaldo Teixeira and Ruben Caixeta
374 p., BRL 61,00

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