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Into the zone: Guyotat & film

By Stephen Barber.

Pierre Guyotat’s work has an intricate rapport with cinema, from its origins: an intensive, sensorial, experiential rapport. Guyotat’s work, in many ways, is an experience of cinema – the space of cinema, the history of cinema, and the history that exists around and in tension with cinema – that infiltrates both that work and also his corporeal presence in relation to the film image. Guyotat has also made a number of films, notably in the course of his journeys of the 1960s and 70s, and at moments of transition and transit in his work. His links with cinema are profound ones, and the power of images – together with the power of the experience of cinematic space – often inflects his work’s trajectory.

The preoccupation with cinema is a ‘lived’ one for Guyotat: an inhabitation of images of cinema and the history that is instilled in cinema, together with the gestures and faces and traces of cities shown in films. At the same time, that preoccupation with film also forms a perpetual transformation from image to language, and from language back to the film image. Since the 1960s, Guyotat has been concerned incessantly with the question of accomplishing impossibilities in language, and it has been cinema – with its impossible images, time and space, and movements – that has often irresistibly presented a model, or a set of revelations, to him, for his work, whether he wanted that model or not.

The first filmic site for Guyotat, in the 1940s, was the cinema in his home village, the ‘Foyer’ cinema, whose name indicates the intimacy mediated by cinemas of that era, especially in the context of life in the mountainous regions of southern France where images appeared primarily through the medium either of photography or film. Many of the images which marked Guyotat most deeply in the late 1940s postwar period were photographic images of concentration camps and lines of refugees crossing destroyed European wastelands; photography possessed its own time, while film images – especially in newsreels – went too fast for perception, mixing everything at full speed, during an era when it was essential to examine all images for the duration they deserved, since they held otherwise unseizable, unbearable history. By contrast, film directly incited sensations, and those sensations then multiplied themselves to infinity.

Guyotat remembered that: ‘As a child, in the newsreels, a boxing match between women violently stirred me.’ His book Coma also contains a memory from his time watching films in the Foyer cinema: a memory from 1947, when he was seven years old, of a film without a title, partially re-imagined in his account (but recognisable as John Huston’s film of that year, Let There Be Light), about traumatised prisoners of war. Guyotat evokes the return to life of a totally amnesiac soldier who is corporeally seized by that furious moment of reactivation, which operates simultaneously through memory and the body.

The Cinémathèque Française in Paris was the seminal filmic site for Guyotat’s experience of the city, in the early 1960s, following his return from the Algerian War. In his notebooks from November 1962, when he was about to arrive in Paris from Algeria, he imagines that arrival as an inhabitation of the Cinémathèque, where he would soon be watching three screenings each day (as many cinema-crazed people of his age did, in that era), joyfully obsessed by film, constantly reading books of film history, and seeing celebrated directors introducing their films there; for Guyotat’s memory of the time, the most important of those near-magical contacts were his sightings of Dreyer and Chaplin.

Buñuel’s film Los Olvidados was a crucial inspiration for Guyotat’s first major novel, Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers. That caustic, hallucinatory film, dissecting conflicts between young inhabitants of Mexico City’s peripheral zones, formed one of the vital sources of the novel. In a newspaper interview from the beginning of 1965, Guyotat asserted that the idea for the novel had come to him after repeated viewings of the film. The book’s origins are impossible to reduce to only one source, and form a vast, multiple archive of images and texts, but at the time of the novel’s writing, Guyotat was actively searching out films which would provide examples of combinations and editing techniques which he could apply to his sequences of all-engulfing combat and massacre in the novel.

In his notebooks of the era, the English word ‘like’ often appears, designating a rapport of parallel conception which linked his creative process to films such as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky; in those films, spectacular battles always transmutated into catastrophes. He also searched films for the presences of noise: the sounds of fires, and the cries of animals distinctly heard even within filmic sequences of battles and massacres. At the time when he was writing Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, Guyotat also watched more austere and mysterious films, in order to refine a transparent form of language within which to insert a dark content, often transected with delirium, and articulated through repetition. That form of language would be one intimately close to film, and capable of containing contrary and irreconcilable elements, to project them towards his reader.

In his notebooks, he wrote: ‘Take the example of The Eclipse by Antonioni for the taking-forward of a number of scenes. Scenes that will be naked, that will exact delirium, dramatically. That will give delirium an order and a necessity.’ Films also accompanied Guyotat in his engagement of the 1960s with the question of how to end a text or novel: a pressing question, in the context of a body of work in which almost nothing can ever end, and in which the movement of narration is almost always torn out of its ostensible moment of finishing, and propelled towards infinity. In the work of the Czech filmmaker, Jan Němec, Guyotat saw examples in which a film’s deep layering of time and memory could explode, as he wrote, ‘on the ending with the final image’.

After that intensive engagement with film during the writing of Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, Guyotat’s rapport with film (as well as with other art forms) changed. It became rarer, more accidental, but also more concentrated, as well as being surrounded by his social engagements of the end of the 1960s, and their aftermath. That rapport continued throughout the period of journeys which led to Guyotat’s state of coma in 1981.

For Guyotat, a pivotal topographical and corporeal correspondence with cinema’s history was that the clinic in which he was treated in the months following that coma – the Clinique Jeanne d’Arc in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Mandé – was the same clinic in which Dreyer had convalesced in the 1920s following the exhausting film-shoot for The Passion of Joan of Arc in Paris: a film very closely tied, in many ways, with Guyotat’s book Coma.

In Coma, Guyotat recounts his experience, in July 1981, several months before his fall into a state of coma, of joining a group of friends in the town of Montauban to watch the film The Clash of the Titans (an English film based on Greek mythology). Guyotat’s separation from the rest of the cinema audience is total and determining. He writes: ‘This film which made its spectators roar with ironic laughter: I entered into it as though into my future coma.’

The experience of a film – in extreme solitude – can be so strong and engulfing that it accords with the experience of a coma. And the screen on which the film is projected forms the aperture which offers liberation, or leads directly into death. Guyotat describes the figure in the film of Andromeda, who is split in two, against her will, existing simultaneously in the world and in death. In Coma, her figure is no longer that of Andromeda, but instead that of a creature who has been reinvented, half-human, half-goddess, and engaged in an act of tightrope-walking, between the corporeal and the void. But the cinematic space also possesses its corporeal presence in Coma, and during the film’s screening, Guyotat descends a set of stairs beneath the auditorium, to vomit his pills in the toilets, but continues to hear, from that infernal subterranea of the cinema, the overhead voices of the gods battling over his future.

In the context of a reading and exhibition of his work in Marseilles, Guyotat compiled a list of the films which had been most important for his work and life, including Japanese films by Kurosawa and Ozu, a film by Léos Carax, and Godard’s 1962 film, Vivre sa Vie. And it was Godard, almost forty years after Vivre sa Vie, who incorporated Guyotat’s voice into his film The Origin of the Twenty-First Century, commissioned for the Cannes Film Festival of 2000. Guyotat’s voice appears in the film with an almost visual and corporeal presence, in fragments and bursts: a voice which becomes a tangible layer of sound, above the layer of Godard’s film-images, entirely taken from archives and newsreels, and showing, in part, the massacres and revolutionary acts of the twentieth century, alongside extracts, each of several seconds, from fiction films, including Los Olvidados.

That strange amalgam, of images of massacres and filmic nostalgia, appears necessary in order to mark, in a permanent way, the existence of film as a medium of history, violence and imagination, before film’s total abandonment and vanishing, in the digital era. Guyotat’s vocal reading, from his book Progenitors, also forms an incantation about images, and at the heart of images – and recalls his stated desire, at the time in the late 1960s of his writing of his novel Eden, Eden, Eden and his alliance with the journal ‘Tel Quel‘, to make his texts actively create and generate images, as an act directed against abstraction.

In The Origin of the Twenty-First Century, Godard often stalls his film’s movement, in order simply to show dates: the key dates of the twentieth century, and simultaneously, the dates of an individual history. Among those dates are 1940, that of the Fall of France to the German army, and also the year of Guyotat’s birth; 1960, the year of Guyotat’s attachment to the films of Bergman and Bresson (especially Pickpocket), and of his decision to leave France for the war in Algeria; and 1975, the year of the publication of Guyotat’s novel Prostitution and of the murder of a close friend in Marseilles. Even against its will, the filmic image cannot prevent itself from telling multiple histories.

After their collaboration on The Origin of the Twenty-First Century, a period of discussion between Godard and Guyotat followed on the possibility of making a jointly conceived film; the project was abandoned. Alongside his contacts with Godard, other intersections – often brief, but intensive – with directors and actors have marked Guyotat’s work, notably that with Lillian Gish, from whom Guyotat receives an affectionate kiss in his book Coma (whose filmic and photographic illustrations finish with a still of Gish in the film The Wind). Guyotat also had encounters with producers seeking to film his books, including a calamitous meeting with Claude Nedjar whose memory proved so unbearable to Guyotat that, in Coma, it is transposed into an encounter with the artist Michel Nedjar.

The films which Guyotat has made himself began at the moment when he arrived in Paris for the first time, at the age of nineteen, in 1959 – three years before his second arrival in Paris following his time in Algeria. That process of filmmaking was conceived by Guyotat as a means to research and visually seize gestures and acts, and to make spaces and objects materialise. They were films with their own existence and autonomy, but at the same time formed an element in the assembly of his texts and novels. In Coma, Guyotat evokes his filming in the Parc Saint-Cloud, to the west of Paris: ‘I film statues, flora, animals, insects, birds, I wait for long periods of time, at the far side of the park from its entrance, beside burrows and holes, for the emergence of the rabbit, the mole, the snake, I wait.’

During his two journeys through postwar Algeria, each of several months, in early 1967 and early 1968, Guyotat filmed mountains and villagers. In his notebooks, he used an English word for those films: his ‘rushes’, as though that word aimed to capture, with rapidity, and even after a long wait, the gestures and landscapes he was looking for, just as he had previously aimed to seize, in film, the animals of the Parc Saint-Cloud. While writing Eden, Eden, Eden, in December 1968, in his apartment in the Parisian suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, he projected those films of Algeria for himself, in order to activate and sustain his writing process, and to infiltrate it with film-images; those ‘rushes’ contained images of flowers and animals, but also, as he noted, that of ‘a lorry-driver, jeans covered in semen’.

In 1998, while Guyotat was preparing Progenitors, I sometimes accompanied him to cafes in the Belleville district, in which he filmed, with a hidden video-camera, transactions and chance gestures. All of Guyotat’s own films, over a period of five decades, form a layer of images which, in its rapport with his texts, resonates with his voice’s presence in Godard’s The Origin of the Twenty-First Century. Guyotat’s own films constitute an intermittent presence, above his texts: film as an unforeseen and volatile illumination, in the form of fragments.

I visited the spaces of cinemas with Guyotat on two occasions. The first was in July 1991, at the site of the concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, to the north of Berlin, where his uncle, Hubert Vianney, had been killed in 1943 after being deported for resistance activities from France. During the recently-vanished era of the East German state, one of the camp’s wooden barracks had been adapted into a cinema space, where a single, twenty-minute film, the celluloid worn-out and the Russian-language soundtrack disintegrating into cacophony, was projected repeatedly.

The film showed the camp’s liberation by the Soviet army in 1945. Even in summer, the concentration-camp cinema was frozen, and empty, with only Guyotat and I, and the decrepit old projectionist, positioned menacingly behind us, at the back of the room. With extreme concentration, Guyotat entered into the images and the sounds of the film. Afterwards, there was a jarringly immediate transition, from the film images in darkness, to the execution terrains and experimentation blocks of the camp outside. The film image, with its unique space and time, can launch such moments of outlandish transition – that can never be repeated, that can not even be lived, except in the form of a text. Shortly afterwards, the camp’s topography abruptly changed, and the cinema-barracks was demolished.

The second visit to a cinema space with Guyotat, around seven years later, was in Paris, at the Forum des Images. We were watching a film Guyotat was deeply attached to: Georges Lacombe’s The Zone, from 1928, shot on the impoverished peripheries of Paris, and showing the faces and gestures of that wasteland’s inhabitants, especially those of children.

During the screening, Guyotat kept up a whispered vocal commentary on the film’s images, as though his voice were that of the figure in silent Japanese cinema – the ‘benshi’ – who stood beside the screen and deployed his voice to accentuate and isolate those special elements of the images that it was vital to keep in memory, and never consign to oblivion: those elements that would irresistibly come to possess another existence, in a space beyond that of cinema.

Stephen Barber is currently an Invited Fellow at the Freie Universitat, Berlin. His next book is Muybridge: The Eye in Motion, to be published in December 2012 (Solar/Chicago University Press).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 14th, 2012.