:: Article

The Judgment of Paris*

By Steve Light.

Scene from Paris Blues, Martin Ritt, director; Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Joanne Woodward, Louis Armstrong, cast principals; 1961.

*{—Paris, prince of Troy, son of Priam, was asked by the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to choose the most beautiful among them.  He chose Aphrodite and, thereby, earned the enmity of Hera and Athena.  But he subsequently also earned—it had been the bribe and promise of Aphrodite—the love of Helen of Sparta…}

                                                          “…too late…it’s too late, too late…”

When I was a kid I liked watching old movies on TV.  There was an international production, Helen of Troy, starring Rossana Podesta as Helen and Jacques Sernas as Paris (and Brigitte Bardot as Helen’s hand-maiden).  Did it seem dated? Perhaps. No matter, I watched it many times.  I dug John Garfield, Louis Hayward (think of Son of Monte Cristo!), Gene Kelly (as D’Artagnan!), Burt Lancaster (The Crimson Pirate!)—and the Nicholas Brothers!—and Lana Turner, Hedy Lamar, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pam Grier too.   But there would come a day—after graduate school—when I stopped watching or going to the movies.  I had never been a “film fan”.  But in high school I had begun to familiarize myself with the history of cinema.  Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Renoir, Kurosawa, Vertov, Eisenstein, Jansco, Bunuel, Clair, Micheaux, etc.  And what about this New Wave (which by then was already quite old)?  I did not like Truffaut.  Chabrol could be interesting, but only intermittently.  Rohmer was tedious.  I would have liked to have liked Godard, but his first film, Breathless, beyond the undoubted charm of Jean Seberg  (and certainly enhanced by my understanding of her courageous and admirable personal and political trajectory and the severe persecution she suffered for it, alas…), gave way quickly to a pastiche of inconsequence and misdirection that its parodistic and mannerist motifs only made worse.  I did, however, like Godard’s compatriot, Alain Tanner.  And Ousmane Sembene and Istvan Szabo even more.

In college I began to appreciate the Americans, or, at least, some American films.  Is Ninotchka an American film?  Yes it is and it is charming on every viewing.  But where did Hitchcock’s reputation come from?  Doubtless, he was a master at making the first half of a film.  But he could not find a way of finishing his films (one could, of course, say this about many film makers, i.e. that they do not know how to make the second-half of a film, but Hitchcock was supposed to be a “master”).  North by Northwest dissolves into complete inanity in its second half.  And in the one or two films of his in which he managed a certain unity and coherence throughout (Marnie, for example, with its prefabricated psychoanalytic scaffolding) he simply utilized formats already employed by Fritz Lang.

The Italians were another matter.  The neo-realists, while not as profound or innovative as all that (and the Letterists  were not altogether wrong to say that it was simply a question of a lack of funds….), did hold my attention.  Fellini, however, less so.  Bertolucci  had a certain lyrical gift and Antonioni a lyrical gift still greater, but their films made scarcely any sense at all…..

I liked Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, but  Last Year at Marienbad  only underlined my antipathy to Robbe-Grillet’s novels.  It is only apparently surprising that the Situationists and Guy Debord praised  Hiroshima Mon Amour, because Debord’s denigration of Resnais’ subsequent films was clearly  generated by his intuition that Resnais’ sensibility was, among all the New Wave film makers,  closest, in aesthetico-existential terms at least,  to that of Debord himself.  Even at eighteen years of age I understood that Debord’s charge that Resnais had received his inspiration—his model—from Debord was not at all accurate.

Debord overestimated his own cinematic talent or at least misstated, willingly or unwillingly, its essential nature.   And his commentators overestimate him even more.  Agamben’s deference in relation to Debord’s films is unbefitting a first-rate intelligence.  But certainly there are several discerning and sweetly lucent—and lucid—moments to be found in Debord’s middle-period films, Sur le passage de quelques personnes a travers une assez courte unite de temps [On the passage of several people through a rather brief unit of time] and Critique de la separation [Critique of separation] and in his last film, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni.  But in these instances it is the textual narration and voice-over and not the cinematic diction itself that saves the films from being simple artifacts of Situationist  or essayistic or even experimental film history.  Despite Debord’s claims and the claims of Agamben and all the other submissive commentators, the cinematic diction of Debord’s films, formed as this diction is by a method of re-utilized, diverted, detourned images and film footage, remains within the ordinary, if not at times even the banal and in any case, pace Debord’s commentators, did not at all originate with him.  The Soviet film maker, Esfir Shub, as but one example, already in the 1920s abundantly utilized found footage in her essayistic films.   And in Debord’s case, in too many instances, the assemblage of images and footage remains exterior to both film text and film, constitutes but an additional and an external, as opposed to an immanent and unified relation.  And in the case of the long-sequence usages of footage from films such as Johnny Guitar, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Mr. Arkadin, For Whom the Bell Tolls,, etc. sequences whose usages are everywhere uncritically lauded and praised by Debord’s commentators, the footage completely arrests by virtue of an unavoidable unilateral and hypertrophic optico-existential domination not only the cinematic diction and voice-over but the engaged unity of the viewer’s possible reception as well.  This diverted footage, these inserted scenes, these detourned scenes, are actually qualitative distractions.  They are intrusions and in this sense obfuscations.  No matter how well disposed one might be to Debord’s texts, to the text of his voice-over, to Debord himself, one cannot absorb at the same time the content of his voice-over, the “narration”, and the visual content, and, in fact, one is willingly or unwillingly absorbed in the scene, in the [Light Brigade’s] charge. In this valence Debord’s film becomes absorbed in the “charge” too, and thereby Debord’s diversions divert him, his film, his art.  Debord’s notion that in these usages he “expropriates the expropriators” (“The spectacle has deported real life behind the screen. I have tried [with found footage] to ‘expropriate the expropriators’”) cannot at all be supported by any and all analyses of the immanent experientiality that arises in the viewing of his films.   Indeed here the viewer cannot but be constituted not even as the ever-to-be avoided spectator, but more precisely, alas, as no longer a viewer or spectator of Debord’s films at all, but rather as a viewer and spectator of the films of Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, and Michael Curtiz!

Debord has forgotten that he himself is actually far more interesting than the scenes he  has interspersed.  It is Debord’s “charge” and charges which should have filled the screen.  Debord claimed that the “charge” of the Light Brigade, the use of its  footage, in his last film, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni “was intended to crudely and eulogistically ‘represent’ a dozen years of  the Situationist International’s actions”.  But Debord would have done far better here if he had simply shown a sequence of photos of himself, his friends, and their exterior Parisian haunts, streets, and horizons (but not their favorite bar interiors as done in his middle period films).  Yet, in one of the lone instances where Debord has ostensibly (hopefully) shot some original footage, the 360 degree panning shot of Les Halles in Critique of Separation, a very beautiful immanence and diction is achieved.

But in this perspective also, it must be said that the initial scenes/images of the actress, Caroline Rittener, in Critique of Separation (also original footage) cannot escape producing for the viewer a reminiscence of Jean Seberg in Breathless, a film that appeared a year before Debord’s film.  Debord’s unrelenting and vehement denunciations of Godard cannot refute Godard’s precedence here.  Debord simply failed to employ his cinematic desire often enough and free of the impositions his critique of art placed upon his own art.  The project of overturning  and destruction he sought within and against the cinematic form and cinema itself could never be realized immanently—and by definition.  Debord and the Situationists (and the Letterists) never understood that poeisis and praxis while constituting a possible mutual exclusivity at the level of socio-existential structures are not at all mutually exclusive at the level of an individual’s existential and socio-existential projects and projections.  One can very well be both a creator—a poet, a painter, a maker of films—in the morning and a creator of situations, if not of revolutions, in the afternoon or evening if one see’s fit (“…I’ve flown around the world in a plane/ I’ve [participated in anarchist]] revolutions in Spain/ The North Pole I have charted—[and for the Northwest Passage departed…]….”).   Singularity is in no way annulled by, indeed, can and is quite often very much sustained by multiplicity—and precisely as the sole possibility of its own singular claim.

If I were to see it now, would I like and admire Tomas Guitterez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment just as much as when I first saw it?  Youthful enthusiasm need not at all belong solely to one’s youth.  And then there was Pasolini.  His cinematic language and diction, won my admiration, at least as found in his early films.  And my valuation was enhanced by my great admiration for his poetry and his graceful, wise, and incisive critico-theoretical formulations on cinematic art, and, of course, the beautiful multiplicities of his intelligence and spirit.

My film-going existence did not slacken in my first years of graduate school.  I did become an aficionado—of sorts—of a number of various national cinemas.  Is there a better film maker than Ozu?  I could say Naruse but why create a needless hierarchy?  But then I stopped going to the movies or at least I only ventured on rare occasions.  I wanted above all to publish a book as soon as possible and, then, too a heap of novels (which always carry their own emphatic and cinematic pleasures) remained to be read and, above all, I had to attend to my basketball career.  Apart from the time taken by these various reveries, wanderings, joys, and exultations—as well as by philosophical and literary expenditures—the rest of my time could not be wasted in the observance of images fashioned by others.  After all, it is so much the better to create in actuality one’s own adventures and enduring encounters and episodes.  Did I miss the cinema? Perhaps I did, but its song was not that of the sirens.

 *      *      *

But a time would come when I was obliged to attend a little retrospective film festival. Luckily, one of the films seemed like it might have a certain interest (Comment je me suis dispute…[How I Got into an Argument…], Arnauld Desplechin, director, 192 minutes).  I had seen a notice of it previously which spoke of a film about French intellectuals, indeed, about a young professor of philosophy and his friends and their amorous entanglements.  The subject matter was something about which I immediately and intimately knew a few things, certainly “two or three things.”  But if the film held my interest—at least enough that I watched it all the way through—it nonetheless lacked sparkle, charm;  it felt cloistered, enclosed.  And among other faults  it was impossible to imagine that the main character (certainly in the characterization given by the chosen actor) belonged to the milieu he was supposed to represent.  Had the director picked the wrong actor…or the wrong character?

There is nothing inherently problematic about a film of three hours of uninterrupted conversations, indeed, it could very well be quite interesting.  But these conversations must be embodied in characters themselves, embodied in an emphatic living, in a duration of palpable experience.  Otherwise very little happens and still less in the conversations themselves.  Certain directors and actors  whose films were featured at this festival were in attendance for questions.  But not the director of the film in question.  Had he been there I might have tried to ask him about all this.  But would he have been convinced and even persuaded by the things I would have had to say to him?  There-in lies a conceit for another film, if also for another of fate’s endless, fate’s oft comedic, ironies….

Several weeks later and in a completely different context and place, my gaze was elsewhere.  I did not know upon seeing her that she was in cinema, or to be more precise, “in the movies”.  She was known—at least to some degree—but I didn’t know this because I didn’t go to the movies!  But my attention had been captured. What should I say to her?  Should one ever say anything other than, i.e. “I’m taken with you and I would like to make your acquaintance”?  Yet, in this very instant in which I impelled myself towards her, I saw another, equally alluring.  However, I knew the proper caution, which in this case meant telling myself that I ought not hesitate. I had already been attracted by the one and I would only give the greater fillip, if I hesitated before this other allurement, to the phenomenon and law of the alternative, of indecision and choice.

But this law would not give way.  The second woman, stopping at the end of an aisle (we were in a trendy food market) glanced in my direction and I glanced at her.  And I stopped because I was no longer certain.  Was it a sign?  Even if more often than not such “signs” are indeed signs, invitations, the burgeoning instant of a smile and an encounter, there nevertheless are instances when they are not, when we have merely imbued them, wrongly, with all our previous moments of happiness.  Had I seen her first I surely would have endowed her glance with every possible happy sign and meaning.  But on this day I resolved my hesitation, I annulled the dilemma of choice, by invoking the externality of ordinal numeration.  Since she was the second-seen, I would simply follow my initial path.

I headed to the next aisle into which the “first-seen” had just turned and in the midst of addressing her—because I had succeeded in giving myself to the aforementioned and “initial fate”—she turned and pointed to a woman who had just come walking up to us.  “This is my friend” she said.  And her friend?  It was precisely the woman with whom I had just exchanged glances!  And now she looked familiar to me—and not just because (“O, fate extreme/ love’s lightest whisper heard…” [Rilke]) she had, but a moment ago, emanated that scarcely perceptible sign, that ambiguous unambiguity—but I could not place her elsewhere in my past.  It turned out that she too was in cinema, in the movies.  But in the instant at hand, her vague familiarity was not the primary question for me, rather what struck me above all was the quizzical look which she directed at me and at her friend, the woman to whom I had just tried to introduce myself.  Certainly now her look carried more than just the merely quizzical.  Was she bemused or did she feel consternation, which consternation would have made me feel an even greater consternation?  Because now I knew already before I constituted these questions that I was clearly in the presence of a definitive sign.  What to do?  I felt hedged in and, at the same time, I felt a certain confusion, a very certain distress, as if a path not taken were in fact the only path that should have been taken, as if the path not taken had been, in fact, the destined path.

And the first woman, the woman I had approached?  She had not responded with enthusiasm to my introduction.  In fact, at the moment of her friend’s arrival she had directed to me a counter-question in response to my invitation to acquaintance: “What is it that you really want?”  Perhaps her beauty (about which I did know) and her celebrity (about which I did not yet know) had led her to affect this kind of cynicism even if it was only the outer covering of despair at always being encumbered.  Still I could not help but think the question lacked grace.  Want?  I had told her.  Certainly attraction always constitutes the fulfillment of desire at its horizon else it would not be attraction.  But desire without the desire for a duration of discovery, while being no less a desire, is certainly a less desirable one.  She had erred in trying to reduce proper tautegory to improper mythology, in trying to reduce the desire for acquaintance—which certainly does invoke the promise of happiness, the horizon of intimacy—to merely a desire for an immediate intimacy.  Doubtless, one can never definitively insist upon one’s own sincerity, i.e. in this case, to converse, to meet in a cafe, to stroll, to discover her possible charm beyond her immediate allure.  But her counter, her cynicism—which I preferred to think of as a not altogether necessary form of defense and deflection—nonetheless did not in that moment endear her sensibility to me.

Yet from the “second-seen” came a different counter and a different sensibility.   Taking a couple of packages of pastries from a shelf, she turned to me and asked: “Which one should we get?” Sign, ubiquity, insistence of the law of alternative: was it now my turn for the quizzical?  No,  because now I was enveloped in precisely that certainty which had already seized hold of me moments before and retrospectively from the very start, and certainty too about her sensibility already emerging, engaging, enticing.

“Choose?”  “Which one should we choose?” she had just said.  But couldn’t she see that in that instant I had in fact chosen, that my affection was already for her—and (it is what is paramount in this story) in all sincerity.  Yet, how to withdraw the invitation from the one in order to offer it to the other?

Yes, she was vaguely familiar to me.  Why and from where?  The film she mentioned to me when I asked about her career I had, obviously, not seen.  But in actuality I had a year or so prior seen her in another film, her first, but without knowing what film it was (I had come upon it already commenced on television and had not bothered to read the credits at its conclusion or thereafter try and determine what the title of the film had been).  But as I stood speaking with her I was not able to place her—and certainly not in this first film of hers which in the present instant did not come into my consciousness and remained, thereby, unconnected to anything that transpired in her presence that day.  And within a year of this encounter her star would rise further but neither of us knew that then.

No, I could not think of a way of withdrawing the invitation to the one—even though she had already declined it—and offering it to the other.  In the situation as it stood it seemed indecorous to me, although here my thoughts simply conformed to a social convention that in actuality I do not think ought to hold in most instances.  Because it would not have been indecorous and would not even needed to have seemed so.  Simply, I had seen her friend first.  And in any case her friend had declined my invitation.  I was held fast by nothing and had not at all chosen her friend over her.  But such thoughts did not come to me in that instant and so the social convention held me in sway.  I imagined (in line with convention) that the sudden turn would be misperceived, the density (and destiny!) of my sincerity and of the affective duration which had just transpired would escape discernment.  I resigned myself (although hardly in myself….) to making a graceful exit, if it were possible.  I wished them luck…

But a few minutes later, coming around a corner in the same establishment—O, cinematic locale, this market was not only trendy but well situated—I again ran into the one who had won my affection.  Yet, I resisted—with effort—extending an invitation.  I feared—foolish thought again—she might think I turned to her merely as a second choice.  She would have been wrong in this, but I was not quick enough to think of a way to explain.

I had not come to the store for many items, but I wandered, so as to give them time to depart—I didn’t want to run into them again and again.  Finally, resolved to leave, I approached the checkout counters.  However, only two were open, and they were at one, the counter of a checker I knew.  When they left I went to this counter and lingered there talking to this checker who was always friendly to me.  Signs and signs, an inundation of signs.  But on this day the signs hadn’t concluded.  I began to depart, but several steps from the exit the “second-seen” came running back into the store to grab some plastic forks and knives at the checkout counter nearest the exit.  O, destiny, how importunate, how grievous you were that day!  But, uncharacteristically—more: clumsily!—I spoke only indirectly.  “I keep running into you; I should have asked you and not your friend….”  Her reply was instantaneous, quick, sharp: “…Too late…it’s too late, too late!”

Everything in me, everything that I knew, could easily have provided the means of an explanation, for example, that these few words, “it’s too late”, should never be invoked there where time itself has not yet spoken.  Because time shall always—if it wants—have its say.  I knew intimately as do all of us the wisdom of the most compelling of all truths, carpe diem, and ever the more beautifully pronounced formulation by Vladimir Jankelevitch: “Do not miss your one springtime in all eternity!”  But in this moment the sting of her remark was the more potent.  I was left not only without eloquence but without elocution.  I should have tried to explain, but in this instance despair and resignation got the best of me. She repeated her words, “…it’s too late, sorry, but it’s too late!” and was off to her friend’s waiting car…..

She had failed to see that I had not auditioned for the role of Paris and that the ire of Hera or Athena did not suit her at all. No, I would not play the role of Paris nor did I, even on this day—at least not by choice(!)  Yes, I did know that her invocation of the dictum, trop tard et jamais plus, too-late and never-more,  might not necessarily mean that an affirmation would have been forthcoming had I but chosen her first.  She might have intended the invocation simply as a means to express indignation and not as the positing of an anterior reality, knowing as we all do the lapidary power of the words: Too late.

Yes, I did know that she might have intended nothing more than to wound someone who would so easily transfer a rejected invitation from one to another.  And I did know that she might not have meant that I would have received an affirmation had I but chosen her first.  But I knew even more that she, in turn, could have chosen so many other figures of speech, so many other ways of expressing indignation, certainly if indignation were all she meant to express.  Certainly,  she could have chosen so many figures other than the one in question, this one, which, positing all the weight of anteriority at its signifying core, as its primary meaning, surely must, indeed, surely did point to the actuality of an affirmative feeling and impulse, i.e. “I would have said yes had you but chosen me first….”, because otherwise this choice of figures could only create a scarcely resolvable dilemma of meaning and interpretation.

It was both a verbal implement meant to wound and the declaration of an anterior actuality, “I would have said yes”.  For all my ideational care, for all my resistance to self-flattery, I knew her choice was not one but both, because in this case her verbal implement would wound all the more—and it did.

“…The winds of March which made my heart a dancer/ A telephone that rings but whose to answer…” sing Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, and Clyde McPhatter.  And many other lyrics ran through my head as well.  The Situationists had scorned both Godard and Resnais and I had renounced the movies.  But what use would there be in explaining to Arnauld Desplechin that he had chosen the wrong actor, if even the wrong character, when I found myself characterized wrongly, tangled, foolishly self-tangled, in the most ridiculous of cinematic formulas, in the most wrong of all “movies”, comedic or otherwise.  But, then, it was not at all to Arnauld Desplechin that I needed to explain or pitch some other denouement….

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset-—and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet. His most recent books are: The Emergence of Happiness (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Against Middle Passages (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2017). He is the translator of Jean Grenier’s Islands: Lyrical Essays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005) and his writings and translations have appeared in many countries.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 4th, 2019.