Raphaël Bassan has worked as a freelance critic for many journals and magazines in France including Écran, Cinéma différent, La Revue du cinéma, and for the fine arts magazines Canal, L’art vivant and the French national daily Libération. He is also one of the co-founders of the Collectif Jeune Cinéma, the first filmmakers coop created in France in 1971. Bassan’s latest book,Experimental cinema: Abécédaire pour une contre-culture (Crisnée: Yellow Now, Belgium, 2014) gathers an extensive set of texts, interviews and articles on some of the key figures and movements that contributed to the emergence of experimental and different cinema (or Other cinema). The following interview with Bassan was originally conducted in French and translated by Julia Gouin and Jayne Amara Ross.
Julia Gouin: Since your latest publication, Cinéma experimental: Abécédaire pour une contre-culture is organised as an A to Z guide to experimental film, I suggest we borrow this system for this interview using these eight words: ABC, cinephilia, contrapuntal, aesthetic trends, lettering, the West, projection and publishing.
Raphaël Bassan: Perfect.
J.G: Your book is full of references and mostly organised alphabetically with the names of some of the “great priests” of experimental cinema, as you ironically call them. One may even accuse you of name-dropping. Yet the architecture of the book is arranged following a principle of communicating vessels. You focus on a network of practitioners and their mutual influences rather than on the films and their techniques. Both journalistic and biographical, your writings contributed greatly in France to creating an anthropology of experimental cinema practices, unveiling their findings and mutations. How did you reach the decision to organise your book in this way and what were you striving for?
R.B: Those are fair points. When I first met Guy Jungblut, the director of Yellow Now Editions, in 2010, we decided to create an encyclopaedia. He really liked this idea. Une encyclopédie du nu au cinema as well as Une encyclopédie du court métrage français had already been published in 1993 and 2004 respectively. Despite that, I wanted to build a non-exhaustive yet coherent overview of alternative filmmaking, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Besides, my writing had already been published in various publications for which I wrote for on request. I mostly focused on French and North American filmmakers because it is their work that is most often screened in France. I spent a year gathering texts on these filmmakers and yet I did not see an overview emerge in the process. Then I told Guy that I couldn’t work this way and that I would rather organise the book by following thematic and historical guidelines. I also wanted to incorporate essay films (Godard, Marker) and other visual art that I discovered whilst writing for the newspaper Libération towards the end of the 1980s.
He agreed and I started working on this project that we called “Experimenting with Cinema”. One year later we found ourselves with more than six hundred pages, including general notices on filmmakers organised according to their respective countries, critiques and papers on essay films and new media art. The book was too dense and the editor feared that the way in which it was structured would be lost on the reader.
Since I read and contribute to many encyclopaedias, I decided to tag each entry, enabling the reader to navigate easily between different articles. This new way of organising the material allowed for different reading habits, and established new connections between the articles. Repetition was unavoidable because I often felt the need to repeat several basic points (such as the difference between avant-garde and experimental cinema or the birth of filmmakers coops for example) in different articles for different journals, and at different times, and keep the reader up to date with the basic principles.
In 2012, Jungblut suggested we drop the encyclopaedia-like structure and adopt instead an A to Z format. According to him this had the benefit of being less constraining. I agreed. Space was scarce and I had to reduce the number of articles. I got rid of almost all the entries on film critics. One year was spent on assembling it all. We had to make a coherent and organic structure. I wanted the reader to have an overview of the topic and the project from the first pages.
I had an article entitled “Cinema and Abstraction” (a part of which had already been published in translation in Senses of Cinema in 2011) but I thought it best to include the paper I wrote for the Encyclopædia Universalis on avant-garde cinemas. I changed its title to “ABC of the Fundamentals”. Many people from the experimental milieu such as Dominique Païni (in charge of this collection), Nicole Brenez, Stéfani de Loppinot and Théo Deliyannis greatly contributed to making it all clearer, as well as establishing extensive bibliographies.
So yes, it became anthropology of experimental cinema: I tried to shed some light on the history of the medium, by focusing on the connections between filmmakers, which was not an easy task. Most of the pioneers from the 20s and 30s are referred to: Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, Germaine Dulac, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, the French Lettrists, Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître. I insisted on associating them with more contemporary filmmakers from the 2000s including many French filmmakers that were largely ignored by international cinema publications. There are indeed few texts on technique, with the exception of interviews with filmmakers such as Carole Arcega, Patrick Bokanowski, Robert Cahen and few others. I must mention that there aren’t many publications on the technical aspects of experimental cinema. This led Éric Thouvenel and Carole Contant to publish 350 pages of interviews with nine filmmakers (Paris, Experimental Editions). In English, you may refer to Scott MacDonald’s series of volumes under the title A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, published by the University of California Press over the years.
J.G: Did you mean to assemble this book’s entries following your subjective opinions of them or did you arrange them in order to provide the best understanding of these, sometimes obtuse, film practices? How did you work around the issues of objectivity and cataloguing? Serge Daney, a well-known critic in France, once defined cinephilia not as the films we like to watch but the “films that watch over you”. This reversal conveys well this impression of being a product of the films that we encounter: cinema here becomes this vicarious experience of living by proxy. Could you go back a moment to some of the films that particularly moved/made a mark on you during the course of your career as a film journalist? Which films had the biggest impact on you?
R.B: My book is certainly a subjective enterprise yet it does give an account of various practices and schools of thought. Since I am a voracious and hybrid audience member and film critic, I would not be able to answer this question truthfully by limiting my answer to experimental film. There are indeed many films that “watch over me” from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (1963) and Philippe Garrel’s Le lit de la vierge (1969), Jean-Pierre Lajournade’s Le joueur de quills (1968), Zorns Lemma (1970)by Hollis Frampton and Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son by Ken Jacobs (1969-1971). The mosaic-like portrait that these films draw in me, and of me, would be too dense to unfold here. I did however capture some elements from those films that I used in my three short films. Its quite strange, I was aware of Godard and Resnais’s influence on my latest film, Lucy en miroir (2004). Then I saw Marguerite Duras 1975’s film India Song again and it turns out that it is this film that remains the biggest influence on Lucy. And I had completely forgotten about it.
As it turns out, the films that guided/shaped me the most made me a non-radical critic in the field of experimental cinema. Hence the difficulty I had in positioning myself in this rather enclosed milieu, which it was at least until the 2000s.
In the mid 60s, I went to an exhibition of Bruce Conner’s object-sculptures. And in one corner of the gallery, they were screening a 16mm print of A Movie (1958), which is a fascinating film, entirely made out of “stock shots” and blank leader. This was what we refer to as “found footage” now. I really liked that film and as a cinephile I tried to defend in the future against the most traditional cinephiles (I was not writing yet back then). I wondered whether it was even a film and on what criteria one should decide whether a visual work is a film, or not.
I have always proceeded like that: I need any cinematic experience to provide an enclosed entity, an “object” that I could defend as a film. For me, experimental cinema is not only a kind of cinema made in opposition, but one that challenges established codes. The famous notion of ‘tabula rasa’ that is often called upon as soon as one touches on the avant-garde was never an aim in itself for me, but rather a means to access a new sensitivity. Following on the sapping/sabotaging of the moral values as orchestrated by the Dadaist movement at the beginning of the 20th century, these works and manifestos opened up a new artistic landscape that we would almost find classical today. Today it’s impossible to imagine an artistic landscape without ready-mades.
I was attracted to underground films that had both transgressive characters and narrative elements in them, films such as those of Kenneth Anger, Ron Rice, Jonas Mekas, Etienne O’ Leary, Frans Zwartjes, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, Stephen Dwoskin or Gregory Markopoulos. It is for this reason that I only kept material written after 1977 in the book and that most of this material focuses almost essentially on underground cinema. It is only from the 80s onwards that I started to attend abstract film festivals and that I realised the importance of this cinematic practice.
I can be found throughout this book, which is a journey that interweaves elements from my biography with films that I came across during my life. Most of my fellow travellers on this journey in France during the 1970s are included: Adolfo Arrieta, Marcel Hanoun, Teo Hernández, Patrick Bokanowski, Raymonde Carasco, Stéphane Marti, Frédérique Devaux, Christian Lebrat, Gérard Courant, Joseph Morder, Jean-Paul Dupuis, Maria Klonaris & Katerina Thomadaki. And also the younger ones such as Carole Arcega, Johanna Vaude or Nicolas Rey. It is impossible to create an exhaustive portrait of any medium. I merely strive to articulate a coherent ensemble.
J.G: You use this adjective to describe the techniques employed in your first film, which you explain in your article “Le karma du cinéma expérimental”, also published in the book. This use of counterpoint and overlapping techniques are also widely used by many of the filmmakers that you mention. We can sense your love for this technique that enables you to slip sound beneath image, and vice versa, in order to shake up the traditional methods of making sense of a visual piece. This attention to abstract processes, widely used in this cinematic field, perpetuates the idea that experimental cinema can be reduced to idiosyncratic technical experiments. Forms are given precedence over content, which is reduced to a mere pretext. And yet, films that became canonical works in this field, such as Unsere Afrikareise (1966) by Peter Kubelka, demonstrate clearly the role of editing in liberating the content. Do you think there are specific subjects that recur in the loose field of experimental cinema? Are there some subjects or topics that a more traditional type of cinema, more inclined to operate via emotional manipulation, does not manage to provide an eloquent form for?
R.B: Let me go back to where I left off in my last answer, since I have already touched on some of these points a few minutes ago. In the past few decades, important philosophical trends (Deleuze, Guattari) have advocated the coring and the unravelling of various categories of thought, sexuality, meaning and representation. I was both seduced and suspicious of those precepts. Let me go back to A Movie by Bruce Conner: I started to appreciate the cinematic gesture of this short film as soon as I was convinced that it was not simply a destructive work but also a constructive one. I know this film by heart, its tentacular use of montage and mixing: this work could not have been conceived otherwise. Let me be more precise by giving you a concrete example: I just finished reading Les Formes du montage dans le cinéma d’avant-garde by Vincent Deville who constantly refers to Adorno’s writings on music. For this philosopher, dislocation and dissonance in art are proof of its modernity. Let’s take the analysis that is done in Deville’s book on Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma.
This film is a conceptual piece in which a series of images include words that follow each other in alphabetical order. (E.g. Candy for C, Rice for R) so that they end up constituting an alphabet reduced to 24 letters (an old American alphabet). After awhile, figures (such as a tree, fire…), actions (a jar is filled with dried peas, a man is painting the wall of his room) and animals (a rhinoceros, an ibis) start to replace the previous shots. There are no connections between the chosen actions and motifs and the letters provided from billboard images, illuminated signs, graffiti and drawings. For Deville, “the system put in place here by Frampton, advances that the slow and relentless destruction of the alphabet is the foundation of our language and means of communication”. It is true that, seeing the film only once, the audience may be disorientated. But if you go back to it (and films are meant to be seen several times on different occasions like musical pieces), the substituted images and the acts of diversion become familiar. We are almost expecting them. Here, also, these films could not have been done differently. It is important to me that there is a closure on the meaning of the film. As I said, ‘tabula rasa’ is not an end in itself.
J.G: You are known in France for being a cinephile able to appreciate a large spectrum of cinematic practices that you refuse to reduce to an assigned genre or economy. Paradoxically, the structure of you book, organised around entries, and names, testifies to your often repeated intention to reach the nerve of “experimental cinema”. You do also constantly advocate a broader recognition of those practices that, according to you, should not remain in the margins. But isn’t that an antinomy to try to define irreverent, free and provocative practices that are constantly mutating and whose boundaries with other identified cinematic genres are constantly transgressed? Is it possible or even desirable to set such definition? After more than a century of film history, these protean practices are eventually collected in museums, filmmakers’ coops and distribution organisations, as you mention in your book. Their relative marginality is largely being co-opted now to feed back into mainstream industry iconography. Would you not agree that their recognition also contributes to reinforce a tradition of experimental cinema, which may be starting to be rather conventional nowadays? I have in mind a cautionary quote from Walter Benjamin, which is as follows, from his essay on the concept of history: “In every epoch, an attempt must be made to free tradition from the conformism that is on the verge of overwhelming it.”
R.B: Strictly speaking, experimental cinema unfolds from the fine art, avant-garde tradition of the early 1920s. It reaches its autonomy in the 1960s as filmmakers being to create coops in order to ensure better distribution of their films. Any other innovative, heretical and transgressive endeavours, from the Dada movement to punk, eventually fed back into to the general philosophical or artistic context of our societies. One may remember Guy Debord’s discomfort and fear of being ‘co-opted’. But this is inevitable. Artistic innovation enriches society. And sooner or later, those artistic breaches end up not being breaches at all!
Here is another memory of mine: as I was visiting the exhibition on Dadaism at the Centre Pompidou in Paris few years ago, I overheard some naive visitors saying, “if only Man Ray and Duchamp could see this, all these snobs here…” Duchamp and all the rest of them did know what they were doing. They wanted to shake up art and society. They knew perfectly well that they would be contributing to the birth of a new art market like the one we know today. Maybe not as a reaction to the tragedies of the First World War, in1916, but certainly from the 1920s. This is also a function of the avant-garde: to create art but also to foster an audience likely to appreciate this new art and buy it. For some historians, the avant-garde was born in the early 19th Century as monarchies were falling apart, to finally disappear, renouncing their function of artistic sponsor. A new audience had to be found.
I do not see any major break, I am the same individual that goes and watches Abdellatif Kechiche’s films or Michael Snow’s, Stéphane Marti’s, Jonas Mekas’s, Frans Zwartjes’s, Maria Klonaris & Katerina Thomadaki’s. My book does offer another history of cinema (which is still a history amongst others) where films are no longer categorised according to genre or theme but where a close attention is being directed to their form, such as the diverse use of photomontage, the evolution of found footage, various trends such as abstract cinema or flicker films… It is not about replacing the history of cinema, as we know it by my own “counterhistory”. Rather, it is about establishing porosities and links whilst also suggesting the construction of an enlarged history of cinema – which would include experimental cinema – expounded over dozens of chapters.
J.G: Before even writing on cinema, you wrote poetry and even published a collection (Rites et rituels, 2001). You reflect back on this period in your “Lexique” article that was originally published in 2001 by Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat in a key book (Jeune, pure et dure!), which greatly contributed to people rediscovering the history of French experimental cinema. How did your desire for poetic writing transfer or influence your journalistic practice? This leads me back to a question you raised yourself recently at the round-table talk you organised at the Festival des Cinémas Différents et Expérimentaux de Paris: is there something specific about the act of writing about experimental cinema? Does it need to be experimental itself to address this kind of filmmaking?
R.B: When I gave up writing poetry I found it really hard to move on to critical writing. I needed to start from scratch. I was often told “but where are the films you are supposed to analyse? You only speak about yourself!” For this article in particular, I rewrote whatwas originally published in Jeune, dure et pure! I write about poetry really, I just mention, in that text, having been a poet; and I suppose this fact has influenced some of the articles that I have written about Jean Genet and Pierre Moliner, which were included in this book.
I do not think there is one way to address experimental cinema. One needs, however, to know about its history, engage in formal analysis and pay attention to the thematics that relate to particular schools of thought (abstraction, structural films, underground, cinéma pur, etc.). Some of the more abstract films are difficult to address with a normative approach. One can either place the work within its broader context (such as philosophy to refer back to Deville’s proposition) but it can also be history (as for Jean Mitry, Le Cinéma expérimental. Histoire et perspectives, 1974), or poetry as some journals attempt to do, étoilements is an example of this. Some members of the Collectif Jeune Cinéma edited this journal. It ventured to recreate with words, the mingling slipperiness of images. Unfortunately the journal no longer exists. Others, like Jayne Amara Ross, come to the field of cinema in order to express philosophical queries. Nothing is forbidden, everything is possible.
J.G: Avant-garde, underground, different cinema, “other cinema”, is still mostly forged and distributed in Northern America and Europe. Your book bears witness to this western centrism. There is hardly any mention of Asian, African or Middle Eastern filmmakers. This may also be a product of the uneven circulation of prints. Have you come across curatorial research on experimental practices in the medium of moving images that attempt to compensate for this absence?
R.B: Not really, I have to make first a reference book, and I accept that there may be gaps. But this is indeed very true. The avant-garde is mostly a western phenomenon with the exception of Japan where a strong Dadaist movement took place in the 1910s. In 1947, Hans Richter notes the presence of avant-gardists movements in eleven countries: Australia, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Soviet Union, and United States. To be more precise, the avant-garde and experimental movements developed essentially in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South American countries. It was only with the appearance of analogue and digital video at a time of globalisation (70s) that modernist movements emerged in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. Filmmakers such as Len Lye with his film Tusavala (1929) referred to the Maori arts, but for their own research. This could also be explained by the fact that many countries were under colonial occupation until only sixty years ago, and in many cases this prohibited any form of artistic freedom. To give you an example, we only saw the first Korean experimental film, Kim Ku-lim’s The Meanings of 1/24 second (1969), last September, at Light Cone Preview shows.
The French-Korean filmmaker and critic Daphné Le Sergent wrote (in the journal L’Art même, n°42, 2009) about the development of non western experimental movements: “With its minimal or pop declinations, style appears to be inherited from history rather than a formal interpretation, a heritage taken from western arts. From which perspective can we appreciate the use of these radical, abstract or readymade forms as used by non-western artists who did not integrate those forms as the result of the slow social, economical and political process?” These deliberations are ongoing.
J.G: From your own perspective and with your long standing fidelity to different types of cinema and your “stubborn” assignment to capture them as they appear on the screen, how do you see the evolution of experimental cinema practices? Do you find that the younger generation of filmmakers have the tendency to be too respectful and reverent towards the underground cinema of the 60s and 70s, perpetuating the idea of a golden age of cinema? Did this field of cinema not also fall into the process of being sanctified within museum collections thirsty for pixel-enthusiasts and analogue-fetishists? There are more than 96 hours of footage uploaded online every minute; do we still need to be producing more images? Would you agree to say that what is experimental today is not taking place on the cinema screen anymore?
R.B: Yes, the new generation, like your colleague Victor Gresard, is very keen on underground films. In the present decade, production in different media can converge. I remember my despair when I interviewed Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki in 1990 about their vision for the international meeting Rencontres internationales art cinema, art video, art ordinateur (this text is republished in my book under the title “Écologie des medias”). I thought cinema (and experimental cinema of course) was dead. Everyone was obsessed with video art. This format was immediately well received by intellectuals because it came from a medium other than cinema. It was something else, something new, and something that classical cinephiles can adopt. So everyone became interested in it. And then came a new generation of filmmakers towards the end of the 90s that brought it back to life (in fact it was never dead) by creating film labs in order to develop their films themselves.
To answer your question in a different way, I remember an anecdote. Before having dinner with my editor back in November 2010, I saw a rare film by the Swiss filmmaker Claude Goretta. The cinema did not have a 35mm print of the film so they put up a big sign apologizing for screening the digital version. But now, the vast majority of cinemas only screen digital prints. The digital format is not a new medium (as it once was considered in the 90s) but rather an intermediate, just as it is for all kinds of methods of communication, from art to politics.
Communication today is largely done on digital devices. The use of digital cinema by revered film directors such as Philippe Garrel or Nuri Bilge Ceylan didn’t radically transform their creative method or their subjects. Recently, the filmmaker Patrice Kirchhofer said that the new digital medium enables us to retrieve (or rediscover) a definition very close to the quality of celluloid. It is impossible not to be aware of these changes. I think it is now possible to screen films pretty much anywhere, but the experience of the cinema as a unique space shouldn’t disappear, and I don’t think it will. In France, cinemas are often busy.
J.G: Your book gathers an impressive amount of articles that were originally written for various journals (Zeuxis, Cinéma différent, Écran, CinémAction, Passage d’encres or Bref) but also for exhibition catalogues, special screenings, the Encyclopædia Universalis. It does also include two unpublished texts. How did you manage to make a living with your journalistic writing whilst reporting on experimental cinema? How do you see this journalistic, historical and critical practice developing at a time where paper is disappearing and where writing must adapt to the Internet, and where one can have access to, thanks to torrent sharing, more and more experimental and rare films (karagarga.net, surrealmoviez.info)? One of your articles, republished here, is taken from an interview with Érik Bullot in 2010, an active member of the online editorial platform pointligneplan. Together you spoke about your divergent point-of-view regarding experimental cinema. He reckons that experimental cinema should move on to the sphere of contemporary art while you still choose to defend its specificities and peculiar history. In this context, how do you anticipate the evolution of film criticism?
R.B: Both Bullot and I were right; it’s all a problem of synthesis. As for the rest and as far as I am concerned, I managed to get by thanks to my journalistic writing. It was the same fee for an article on experimental cinema as for one on John Ford. I wrote extensively on experimental cinema because I was familiar with all the places where it was screened, and this made me valuable to editors. Many aspire to write only on experimental cinema but this remains impossible in non-specialised journals.
I do not belong to any peculiar group. I am a collaborator and I like to contribute whenever possible to webzines. In the 2000s, I wrote regularly for the online magazine Objectif Cinéma (which is where my interview with Carole Arcega was published), at the time when Cécile Giraud was the chief editor.
Webzines or journals, there isn’t really that much difference. They are only tools. There are webzines specialising in cinema, like Critikat, which focuses on the films that come out every week and webzines like Culturopoing is about all forms of cultures now. Most of today’s journals have an online presence. If I was twenty today, maybe I would seek to collaborate more closely with online journals. But for now, I’d rather focus on working with people I know and not looking too much further.