Maverick, punk gladiator, guerrilla poet, musician, chanteur and filmmaker, FJ Ossang (France, 1956) is one of France’s best coveted secrets, a wonderful talent whose intellect and work in several disciplines of art has given many cinephiles and intellectuals the pleasure of meeting a compromised work of heart. Ossang, a prophet of the apocalypse, met Desistfilm in a parisian coffee shop, where he was thoroughly scrutinized about his work, his influences and life. We bring you the complete transcription what of was our “punk intervention”: an hour (and more) of stimulating, intense conversation.
In Lima: Mónica Delgado
In Paris: Michèle Collery and Mina Blumenfield
June 15th, 2013.Café Le Chantefable, Paris.
Mónica Delgado: In Le Trésor des Iles Chiennes (1990) there’s a correspondence between men and a subtle imaginary of the “great feminine” (a term I want to use because of the name of the film and the only female character). The island appears as this great woman who devours each team member and the story finally comes to an end with the death of the female character, or her disappearance in a vacant lot. How did you establish these relations between open and closed spaces, between men and the female character (the island, the woman) between the climate and the road to extinction?
F.J Ossang : It is difficult to get engaged in over-interpretation. Self over-interpretation is always bad! I think Hobbes said that in general, “It is sad, it sterilizes people.” Directors actually! He said that at the end of a career, of course, having never engaged in this dangerous operation himself.
I do not remember my films by heart!
For Le Trésor des Iles Chiennes I had the desire to make a kind of adventure movie. Which has become an inner adventure movie. And this kind of fantastic minimalism which is still at work…
Then The Treasure… The Bitches Islands! Bitches… Cerberus being bitches, the guardian of underworld… So it’s a bit of a descent into hell. And in the mean time Pachamama, as the Indians call the Mother sometimes, Mother Earth, which is also found in the Babylonian legends, coming after Leviathan. At first there is the female principle, unanimous, then Marduk appears, the male principle, and gets in conflict with Tiamat. Single combat, and from there emerges the differentiated universe. But Marduk thinks it’s not finished, self-immolates and creates the Human Beings! And he said, “I’ll make my blood harden and make bone of it. ”
And then, in my youth, I was very influenced by all those metallurgist mythologies. There is a very fine book by Mircea Eliade called The Forge and the Crucible where he speaks of the two principles of stone: a male stone, which is hard and surfaced and a female stone, soft and… Well all this was a little bit confused…
Finally, the film describes pretty finely something that is, unpretentiously, a kind of conquest of the negative, which seems to be to me the sign of the times. The more they move, the more the expedition moves forward in its conquest, the more it is divided, dented… Which is a little like our own history! At least the history of the West that the more it moves forward… No more food, no more capital… The Earth… Panic on board!
And considering that I’m obsessed with time, we find time, yet. Time discrepancies, as they happen in life, some of those accelerations. And the sleep, haunted, watching out…
I shot the film in the Azores, where Paul Branco, the producer, especially did not want me to go. But I’m so obsessed that I ended up going on! I was obsessed with this small part of the world, which is a volcanic archipelago of nine islands (indeed, the western and eastern islands tend to move away from the other), which is the pressure cooker of the Atlantic Ocean, well one of them. It regularly explodes, this is a very seismically active area, the meeting point of American, European and African plates, so it rubs all the time. It fascinated me because I had the impression of being at the center of the world and that there was a sort of mission, not to make a “movie world” but something like that…
Then we also find all these organic problems, of organicity in music. The group, while I was over there, had prepared some music but it was quite a bit exotic, what was not good at all. So I pulled on things like Tibetan music patterns, a kind of Tibetan-industrial.
During the location recce, I found this area which was the youngest ground of Europe: the Capelinhos. During the eruption of 1959 (1958 Actually), at Faial, 10 km of soil emerged from the ocean. At the same time, all the inhabited part of the island was covered with ashes to the second floor. It lasted two or three months, a local tragedy. And so we trod upon, as it’s a Portuguese area, the youngest land of Europe.
But on the other hand, as it is also a film about confinement, they were areas that were very difficult to use, as we had to descend into the volcano. Actually, in the Black Area. Dragging the military truck, which had to be climbed up every evening -the bureaucratic side of the army! So it had to be tow every night with machines, etc… It was not easy.
And there were also problems with memory… I remember that I said in the press book “Write it down and you’ll live it.” And it’s true that we must pay attention to what we write because the movie is a real setting. Or a real shot of reality. We literally descended into hell. For example, the shooting area was very hard because of an aggressive dust, places where we sank, I still have shoes that are all warped because the soles are burned! There really was the earth central fire, which began in some places to almost emerge straight from the ground, this kind of clinker and black reverberation -not the usual white reverb but a kind of reflection of black- that it was almost hard to even remember…
This movie had been the subject of a reflection, when I speak of an ancient solar expression, one that didn’t come from the Western cinema expression, but as we found it in modern architecture, with this glass stuff, there must have something of an earlier cult of light, that arose in the world …
So then interior/exterior… Many things are elements of decoration, the scenery has always been very important to me. We visited the places where we were going to film but it has nothing to do. Cinema is about putting reality into two dimensions. So, now they have boring 3D, extreme long shot, etc… but to be able to bring reality into two dimensions in a framework, that is still a big problem. This is the first question. Thus, that’s actually sometimes just a piece of setting – even if it was it was very large sets, shot in studios which were reffited barns, it wasn’t even soundproofed. There was a wall that I used but what actually was a piece of farm in Portugal, so the indoor / outdoor, outside/inside…
Mina Blumenfield : I’m surprised that the settings are false because there’s this feeling of… Everything seems so organic, it sticks, it catches, it takes. So it’s surprising to learn that it’s fake backdrops!
FJO: Yes, and then actually, in the other hand, I’m lagging one or two generations behind, but it’s maybe because I was raised by my grandfather, thus I’ve been strangely affected by all the stories of the First World War, during which he was a doctor, and so, for him, it was the end of the world. Only medicine meant something for him, all the human activities were negative, predatory and usurious: at least, medicine is basic, you relieve people, you help as you can. He had this medicine man side… a curious guy, who was very clever with his hands, who drew, spoke Latin… And everything gets lost with me… I found all the activities, all the archetypal activism may I say, that existed a little before and during the war, such as Futurism, Dadaism, Vorticism, and this is, I think, at first in cinema it’s huge, in literature too… and after, everything is late, everything goes wrong, more and more wrong, and the world pays the consequences because it hasn’t been able to adjust its time viewfinder, considering that it gets worse with the Second World War!
Mina Blumenfield: It is true that since this moment, there was no longer this outpouring of novelties, discoveries. Everything resumes to fill the blank with what has already been made…
FJO: Yes, I wrote about it in the book. Silent film immediately finds an autonomous language, to a staggering speed. I remembered not that far, I watched Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) from Fritz Lang, part I and II, 155 and 115 minutes, that I hadn’t seen since I was very young, in a damaged version, not restored. Toulouse retains many German and Soviet films from before 1933, so this certainly marked me. Whether it be Dziga Vertov, Eisenstein, Murnau, Fritz Lang or Dovzhenko…
So with Darius (Khondji) we tried hard to study how to render this on film, we flooded all the time with smoke to mattify elements of the set that were still made of pasteboard, as the old ones were. At the same time, the softness of shooting conditions were stymied, because at that time people only had 25 ASA film, very hard ones, then we developed on dark film roll, to thwart, to erase this lightness. So there was still an opposition… Soften a lot with smoke, and in the same time, the hardness of negative (or positive), what was the photographic reality of this time, and in the meantime, using the iris in scope, and it becomes an oval iris because of the anamorphic scope -which is actually 35mm – and is deformed at the shooting, is re-deformed during the projection, in the way to keep the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that Fritz Lang used and appreciated, considering that “cinemascope, is not a format for men, it’s a format for snakes”. But at the same time it was very interesting, because with the scope, you got all the first floor, but only the first floor, so if you wanted to shoot a building. It was also problematic because I love close-ups – I’ve been very beaten by those close-ups which shook the world when the Soviets started to use them, as it was forbidden before the Revolution, and exist only in 1.33:1. This means that all of a sudden, you got the mask, the face, and this really is the relationship between the human being and the cosmos. And it only existed in 1.33:1, that’s the reason why some of the sequences match so nicely.
At the opposite, for the sequences with the truck, there were three faces. It becomes enthralling at this moment because you got two faces, then a third one enters the field, you cannot have that in 1.33:1, however the iris countered it and I got my close-up back.
Ok so we have finished ! (laughs) I don’t remember why we were speaking about that… Well, finally, all of that, the organicity… What was the question ? Does the recording work ?
Mónica Delgado: In this film, it’s inevitable to think of Eastern Bloc science fiction literature, Stanislav Lem, for example: The weight of science over humanity. How did you built this metaphor of the toxic wasteland? How is it that, inside the canon of science fiction in cinema, you build a film with a particular crescendo, with this latent threat that pours from the same worn down nature of the island, her vengeful nature?
FJO : The answer is almost in the question itself ! Questions are very interesting but almost deserve their own development, I don’t know if I’m up to… Yes, as I’ve been marked by all the Soviet movies of the 20s, strangely, people often speak to me of sci fi although I’m not that learned about it. I am much more about comics (Belgian ones), I’m a huge fan of Hergé for example.
But the fact is that silent film has almost found it’s descendants in comics -but that is something else, it’s almost considering the question on its opposite. I mean there is no descendant of silent films except in the relatively new time of the 70’s, 80’s when, suddenly, everything surfaces, mostly through music. People haunted by that are rock’n roll people, whether it be industrial music, Bela Lugosi’s dead, Bauhaus… in one go, there is a come back in the 80s fantasy, which certainly comes from Punk. I remember Punk, we dreamed of the tabula rasa, all the aesthetic of the covers is wildly marked by Dadaist aesthetic, and then, one thing leading to another, Dada, vortex, etc.
Michèle Collery: As you’re speaking about Hergé, there is this image, in Dharma Guns (2011), which looks exactly like a Tintin strip.
FJO: Well, this is interpretation… I was a huge fan of James Bond when I was young. Well, everything explodes in the end but I was such a fan of Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962) which was still, for me, a great movie.
After that, oddly, for example I knew pretty badly Tarkovsky. There are things that became almost obligatory countercultural classics, but that were hardly accessible. I didn’t see the film when it was first released but there were three people to watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979)! However, there were 50 people to watch The Bunker of the Last Gunshots (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1981) in the 90s. But the actual loser, in this case, in terms of audience, was Tarkovsky!
However, Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972) is one of my fetish movies. When I went to Chile, I took two video tapes : Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951) -I have a huge admiration for him- and Solaris, which is an unexplainable film, though I watched it at least 20 times ! It’s a sensual experience, which has an inexplicable form I find, with regards to the stupidity of 99% of contemporary cinema, where we have already understood where they came from, where they go… While this film, I don’t know… I don’t know how it’s done, it’s an astounding film. So I was thinking that if I was lost, I would watch it at the hotel and I never could! It was NTSC so I could not see my videos (my copies were PAL), I took them in vain. But that was later on, in 1996…
I can’t remember what the question was… Oh yes, sci fi.
That is the problematic of the science attacking humans,Witold Gombrowicz also speaks about that -I’m a huge fan of Gombrowicz’s diary. He constantly brings art against science, to overly-scientific litterature, to overly-scientific critic, over-psychoanalysed, the critic of the critic, etc… (with a strong Polish accent) “Anyway, art is the prince of blood from head to toe”. I re-read all the time, when I return in the South of France, The Diary: years of Argentina, which is absolutely amazing. I recommend it, it’s really amazing, especially as it is the story of loser who will win, and who’s the builder of his own victory, which is important in this diary. First he wrote it as a “weekend writer”, because he didn’t have time, he had to work, he was lost in Argentina… But this is, I think, actually his magnus opus. He is in a war against the world, first because to be translated from Polish when you’re in deepest Argentina, then because he’s in a break with the dominant literary world in Argentina and at the end it will finally be French who call and that will bring him to Paris “in this (cultural) breeding ground”. Attacking Borges, he attacks everything that is sublime… Next question please.
Mina Blumenfield: I’d like to come back to the second part of the question, on this world of Bitches Islands you have built, this idea of an emptiness that oozes horror, acid, poison…
FJO : Organic, magentic, this magnetic sexuality, sexual mineralogy, mineralogic sexuality, I don’t know… Everything interacts.
Michèle Collery: But hell, actually…
FJO: Yes. Well, hell is complicated… Finally hell is already behind them. I don’t know how to say that… Hell, it’s like the Apocalypse, they are both revelations… At this moment I had the feeling that the Apocalypse had already happened, but the worst was that we had spent the Apocalypse, the Revelation, and we didn’t see anything! We didn’t understand! So it goes on and on, like another “as it continues, it will be fine” but it will not last as long as taxes and debt.
Because I was haunted by this thing of wasted opportunities: when you see the state of the world at the nineteenth and what happened in two centuries. I think it already begins to degenerate in the sixteenth, the Renaissance is in many ways a seizure…
Michèle Collery: The fact is, at the time of the Renaissance, we find, when you work a little over the devil and all, that those who burned witches were in fact the administration. Finally, in the Middle Ages, witches were more tolerated than the Renaissance.
FJO: Yes, and what’s call Hermetism or esotericism, mean what’s not exoteric, ie overdraft, religion etc… But there were people who had knowledge and there was a passage between the different cultures. Thus I do not know if this is true or false, we can always dream…
Mina Blumenfield : There were very important cultural exchanges.
FJO: There was this tenth century pope, who had rubbed along with Jewish world, the world of Islam through Spain, so he was not that appreciated, it was said he was devil’s pope… And the Middle Ages is very long, thus it means nothing. To call it The Dark Ages is absurd.
So it’s true that there is this “negative cathedral” side this of the film, at certain times in the light. I had this intuition, I can’t remember when, I went into Notre Dame des Victoires, the lights of the church were completely turned off and there was this light that penetrated in, it was like, “I think I’ve found the light for the film!”
There is, in all of my films, this flow of elements. We shot in a water tank of the eighteenth century in Lisbon, the Mae d’Agua. Thus it’s much more adjusting the settings of reality I’ve made, as I had a very little spending limit, it was to deterritorialize, because that what cinema is: to deterritorialize, to appropriate, this is where setting is not used that much in cinema. It’s the occupation, the possession of space. Anyway, light revisits spaces. At the blue hour everything looks fine, even a rubbish tip, even the Defense are becomes something cosmic. So it is true that the light…
Mónica Delgado: Docteur Chance (1997)is your only color film. It’s a stylized film noir, but also a post-punk revelation, a strange and lysergic trip. How did you define that style between the film noir limbo and the road movie?
FJO: Here I was forced to shot in color. We were shooting in Chile, the film’s financing was precarious and the producer wanted us to turned color so we may have a chance to have funds from Canal +, which was apparently very allergic to black and white at that moment. Also in Chile, that laboratories there developed only in color, using French treatment in a small photo laboratory that provided advice for development. At this time, I think it was the only film that was shot in color without bleaching, i.e. while keeping the silver, just to keep the graphic structure. So the colors went crazy, which made ?me very happy. I actually really love color!
All the colors are there, the shades between color and black and white. So I tried my best for with the shot because it was shot at night, either inside, in a room, or in the desert. As John Ford said “God is the director of photography”. It is the sun, the Sun God, we can only raise or lower the f-stop.
At the same time, I think it have to be light, although for the Docteur Chance project, the idea was to make a film noir, a road movie and both a kind of tomb of, or monument to, the twentieth century: painting, poetry, fast cars, fast girls, fast plays… And in this area too, as with the Bitches, Paul didn’t want me to go in the north. Well, it’s true that the Atacama is still a guaranteed Satori! At first I was terrified when I was scouting in the desert, when I was stuck at Mamina, where I finally shot. The local guy cheated me on dates, so we didn’t have a buck in and still had to manage 15 days in this area, which is behind Iquique but at 3000 meters above sea level -and it was amazing. I speak about it in a book called The 59 days.
Then when the Chileans finally allowed me to get in, it was no longer possible because there were great sceneries, but every 500 km or almost! The area it is very large, on Baquedano, to Arica, the last town to the north… And finally, the set designer told me “You just do as you feel” because San Pedro was definitively too expensive for us. So we still shot in a bit complicated areas: Mamina, Santiago, a little in south of Santiago, Cauquenes and then, when editing, I mixed everything… Thus it is a kind of a perfect South America, fictitious, metaphorical and emotional for an European, where there may be some truth, I do not know …
And there is also, as always, this story of time travel that I like – because there is also a question, later, about settings, so I melt everything now then I will have already answer to the last questions!
It’s also true that I’ve always kept this concept I had in The Bitches that, if you look closely, you see that all the characters are dressed in different times. One is nineteenth century, the other is in 1940s, the other is the 1970s and, in The Bitches, it’s all rather equalized with black and white but in fact, if you examine they are all dressed very differently, with for some a little east side like the Turkish doctor, Bormane is really 40s, Rubio is completely 60s/70s… It’s almost a child thing as, I loved Hannibal for example. When I was a child I was mad about Hannibal, and “This is Hannibal’s light!” or the idea of ??saying “This pavement in Toulouse is a pavement in Buenos Aires!” But actually, that what cinema is, a journey through time. As I said once, cinema travels.
As in the book, as Mercury told, because for me this that’s what silver film is, the insolent mercury, especially in black and white but also with color, because Docteur Chance was a kind of black and white in color, mutations between salt and mercury. It’s chemical, it’s a real chemical process because it is the sun that corrupts, like acid does, the chemical mixture of the roll, prints it, engraves it. It all comes from black, as with icons, the opposite of Western painting.
Thus, all of this tarentulated me… And in the same time, Mercury being the god of travelers, messengers and thieves: this is cinema! Insolent Mercury is cinema. A machine to transform time, a motionless travel, a psychotropic travel… Cinema is a very strong psychoactive drug. I remember in my youth, when I went to theaters, cinema comes to excitement. This is what I kind of try to explain in Insolent Mercury, but I remember that when I was quite depressed, I have seen three or four times the same movie, drinking two gin and tonics between each, and I came back in.
Michèle Collery: But when you were a little boy, did you watch a lot of silent movies or did you discover them later?
FJO: No, I didn’t have a television when I was a child.
Michèle Collery: You went to theaters?
FJO : No, not that much because I lived in a nowhere land … Thus I discovered it pretty late, finally. What I watched were the 5pm movies at my grandfather’s house, where there was a television. Those are films which impressed me very strongly. There’s one I searched for years, I believed it was called “Maximilien” but it is actually Juarez (William Dieterle, 1939) which was written by John Huston and is a movie that made me cry so much. It’s the story of Maximilian (Archduke of Austria) who gets left behind by the Europeans. He’s the Emperor of Mexico, placed there for tactical reasons and abandoned when things go wrong, denied by Americans who refuse this character. But he’s also the first Westerner to get interested in pre-Columbian culture, who promotes mixed-race people, starts investigations in pre-Columbian sites. This guy is made an idiot in most American films, except this one where he’s curious. So, he adopts the daughter of the first emperor, who was a Spanish conspirator, who had made a putsch against Spain. It is a curious in regards to today’s idiots, he refuses to withdraw, is shot, his wife gets crazy, almost went to the European courts begging for help…
So this was one of those movies that I saw in black and white at the television. But I got interested in them later, along with poetry. Then, it became the arms race, as I said. It was all very controlled, very cultural, almost a bit schizophrenic, there are only poets who read poetry. And rock and roll, so it was a dilution, a contamination of (social) classes, because we were a minority in the beginning. There were punk, proletarian, prolétarial, beheaded aristocrats. It was good and dangerous, everyone hated us. We were “the men you will love to hate.” Someone I also really like is Eric von Stroheim, a great actor but also a great director. And Josef von Stenberg, but these are the Viennese, Hollywood’s Viennese: Jews who added “von” for the sake of doing more true than truth, more germanic than Germans and austrian than Austrians, more aristocratic than aristocrats. some real punks!
Michèle Collery: Especially Eric von Stroheim!
FJO: Yes! He had been completely taken off by Joseph Kennedy. He was more or less produced by Golria Swanson and Kennedy’s father, who said “who’s this insane guy?” and stopped Stroheim’s movie Queen Kelly(1928) – and was actually a Nazi. They completely took out Stroheim who made six huge movies and then became an actor… With Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), which I may have seen something like 28 times, that was the kind of film I saw at 5pm on TV when I was 12 or 13 years old …
Mónica Delgado: In Docteur Chance you can clearly perceive the circular narrative construction; it ends where it begins, and the characters mention once in a while “the need to finish what has been started”. In Dharma Guns, the trip of the lead character is elliptic, labyrinth-like, and sort of chaotic. However, there are similarities, because both lead characters are in transit throughout the film, but with different narrative codes. Were you aware of that association between those characters in the making of Dharma Guns, which is a later film?
FJO: Well, so… I can’t remember the beginning of the question…
Ah, the beginning is the end, I liked this idea. The end is the beginning, you have to finish what you’ve started, that’s the big problem currently, people really don’t know how to finish what they started, so they all work. And also the idea that destruction generates a creation that generates a destruction, there is no creation that doesn’t generate destruction. It is in literature, to want to destroy literature, people wish they could destroy literature, punks wanted to destroy rock and roll, they resurrected the dead body of rock and roll… And then I like to summon something different -it is pretty usual in writing- different modes of narration, etc… I like to have the ability to get from something that is rather fashionable in the 20s, the 30s to the 60s in the cinema… It seems quite natural to me.
Michèle Collery: But the other common point between the two films, is the love story at the crux. This love story is not incidental, it is important.
FJO: Yes… And all the Orphic way of the link between them… There is a question about Romanticism latter, but Romanticism is the exaltation of the senses. It begins with the return to antiquity -for example, the first time I went to South America, I had fun, rightly or wrongly, trying to find common things between the old Celtic peoples, Gallic people (from whom almost everything has disappeared, because they apparently did not like to reveal their stuff, and thus there’s nothing written down), the multiple tribes… So Romanticism started with Chateaubriand wondering about druid women, etc… And finally sex. The disenchantment of history, the disillusionment of revolution, that’s what actually led to Romanticism, kind of pantheism of the exaltation of the senses, which follows the ends of politics and the helplessness of expectations: Revolution, empire, either from the German or French side… Everything always repeats but differently, whatever it been in the eighteenth or twentieth century… And whether it be love or sex, it’s still interesting. Even if many people do their best to be disgusted by it, it’s still a good stuff.
Michèle Collery: A solid value.
FJO: No, because it’s fleeting, perishable.
Michèle Collery: Yes, but it keeps in good condition! Imagine a world with no love.
FJO: Likewise, for example, all those medieval amour courtois things. I really like the troubadours. I discovered them, surprisingly, through Ezra Pound! Because these people are great poets, acclaimed by Dantes, and completely forgotten by official French culture. People like Arnaut Daniel, Bertrand de Broc, etc… They are in the Divine Comedy – for example Arnaut Daniel who invented the Canzone style. Finally, all the modern Europe comes up with southern Europe, with Arthurian literature. This book is exciting, it’s called The Spirit of Romance by Ezra Pound, and then in his Cantos, he goes from China to Greece… It’s a particular point of the Xxth century to pick up everything, just as before the final liquidation. One can find that in Ezra Pound’s work, with Joyce. One must go faster… But I can not rationalize everything ..
Mina Blumenfield: It is true that, with this interview, we are dealing with passionate researchers…
FJO: With fascinating questions, but they’re, especially orally, pretty difficult…
There are three theoretical books that probably left a mark on me. The first one is The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche, which, oddly, was written to encourage Wagner’s artistic putsch, with hidden musicians, turned off lights, outrageous scenery. In this book Nietzsche tries to rely on (rightly or wrongly, because there are historically researchers who say that there are things which are not quite valid today) linking the Dionysian to the Apollonian, on the origins of tragedy, what tragedy was, and it’s actually an extremely inspirational book for cinema, which is still haunted, like opera, by tragedy. Tragedy grows on three generations, I speak about it in the book, and was played regarding to the sun, there were deliveries on stage, it was, apparently, an incredible thing. So it finally lasted three generations, then moved to a widespread theatrical variety, which may happen to cinema which may be diluted into a very small amount of things.
Another book is Sergei Eisenstein’s Nonindifferent Nature and the third, very interesting one, which is almost dictated by Cocteau to Fraigneau from his deathbed, is called Entretiens Sur Le Cinématographe where he conceptualized the topic that was later resumed by Robert Bresson. I think that Cocteau was intuitively a founder guy of the French cinema of those years, because he still gives substance to Melville and Bresson: what we are missing in today’s cinema. He explains that chance can open new ways of thinking and creating, especially when you have, such as a European or a South American director, small budgets. But we still shot with traditional cinematographic tools, because cinema is still like alchemy, a hyper-materialistic spirituality, because actually, cinema has more to do with the building trade – you still need bricks, etc – than with otherworldly things, even if we spare spaced out states of actors, then see if it works, put together the elements that will comes to consumption. Set on fire or extinguish.
Mónica Delgado: It would seem natural that a character like F.J. Ossang called an icon of punk culture like Joe Strummer. How did he become involved in Docteur Chance, in addition of having a character that almost seem like an extension of his celebrity status?
FJO: Another difficult question… I try to work as an archeologist of my memories and obsessions, but it’s not that easy…
I’ve always been a big fan of Vince Taylor, who has always been the beautiful loser of Franco-British rock and roll -considering he was an Englishman who emigrated to the Unites States and almost became a kind of superstar in France -it was a really bad tactical choice- because rock could still work here, whereas in England, it already turned into cheesy pop. At the time, in the early 60s, it rocked, he was dressed all in black leather, and he was cursed while he became a superstar: at a concert in Paris at Parc des Princes, every chair was destroyed, there was a riot, people were injured… He’s the one who wrote “Brand New Cadillac.” He’s a figure who had never done anything but comes back, I saw him in the late 70s, he could get on stage completely drunk and his voice was still perfect. Thus I contacted him, he was very interested but, he didn’t know how ill he was. He died in 1991, while I was still writing the script. That’s the moment his fan-club asked me to write a small text about him, so I wrote two pages where I speak, notably, of how he inspired Bowie to create the character of Ziggy Stardust and of The Clash who covered “Brand new Cadillac”, and from there grew the idea of Joe Strummer.
Docteur Chance was kind of a film to bury youth, the last film of youth, as I’ve learned, through a stupid survey whose internet is overflowed that the age of reason of a man was 43 years old. I wasn’t this age yet, but it was the movie of my 40s, thus Beckman, Egon Schiele are in the film – quite a fate from my subconscious – then ones say it’s a tribute to the last lights of Austrian Empire, comes Georg Trakl, great Austrian poet, who diedd in 1914 of a cocaine overdose, which actually was a suicide, Egon Schiele, Beckman, everything…
And getting back to the question, the stupid idea came to write Joe Strummer because Vince Taylor was dead, so I sent him a 10 page fax, explaining the project and so saying “I’d like you to give me a PO Box address so I can send you the scenario”. I sent the script. Three days later he replied “I love the script! I can give you some cash, but I think it’s better for actors” Thus I replied, actually, that’s perfect, I’ll be in London next week. He accepted the appointment, we start talking.
Only rockers love poetry and literature – sometimes you wonder! We spoke about rock and roll, I told him that I want to make a film of the classic punk age, haunted by Arthur Craven, the boxer, who traumatized Breton, who was also Oscar Wilde’s nephew . And it all melt between The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Vince Taylor, Arthur Cravan: it all enchanted Strummer. We drank champagne in a pizzeria and I don’t know what and then he said “Now, we go to the pub.” So here we are, the producer drinking vodka on the rocks, I was on gin and tonic, 3 or 4, I don’t remember what he took -we had to order fast because it was nearly last orders – thus, we each had our 3 or 4 glasses, we played darts and he says “Ok Ossang, I’ll do your movie!”
So after that, it took a long time for the film to be made, and at one point, he wrote “We dreamt too much, we will not do the movie… “ and somehow he was right because I saw that the budget was very tight… I’m a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and someday I came across a special edition a literary magazine, and there was a photo from the “gin times”, where Fitzgerald was a little puffed up by gin, a very nice picture, with quite melancholic eyes and a short story, called in French “Sans Daux Départ”. I sent it and he wrote me back “So long, Joe. Maybe you’re right… ” At 5 o’clock in the morning I got a fax – the way we were in touch- traumatized by Scott Fitzgerald, Strummer wrotes” You’re right Osang! Yeah we go! Take on Chile!”And so we made the film.
So it is true that Strummer was a guy with a huge bunch of energy and sensitivity. And then there was the whole pan-Celtic thing , you know, there was this song on the soundtrack about Indians, the Incas, pyramids and fast cars… On the other hand, it’s true that I like to choose… Actually, there is the landscape and the face, and as I didn’t have that much budget nor ties of casting, I could take the opportunity to choose to photograph a person who fascinates me, whether it is a writter, a film maker or a rocker. Well then, of course, it creates a dialogue, as someone said… And then he really played along, even if his presence was relatively short as he stayed only 15 days, but we really got on well.
What often offends Anglo-Saxon by the way! Australians say “How? An Englishman! A British!!” But he was Scottish, what is actually quite different. He was born in Turkey, raised in Cairo, Mexico City, so he wasn’t still the classic Rosbif (Translator’s note: colloquial French term for British people). And it is true that there was a kind of back and forth when he came to Paris. After the concerts, we began to speak from 11pm until morning we talked, we talked…
Thus Autralians say “No, no, this is not possible” but I say “Yes, I did! I made a film with Joe Strummer.” So they answer “You bloody French motherfucker, are you kidding us? There’s no way this happens! Joe Strummer shooting with fucking frenchies! Impossible!” We almost got in a fight! It was with a kind of punk in Auckland, in New Zealand. We got on well then, after I don’t know what, The Clash appear on TV, we speak about it and then… But it is true that in movies, there are often British but they are mostly Scottish!
Mónica Delgado: Dharma Guns appears to be a Dantesque epic poem. It’s a descent into the circles of hell. Someone dies, so we go from color to a stylized chiaroscuro. The black and white allows for the expressivity of the lead character, but not only the perspective which the filmmaker wants us to perceive through an Epstein or Murnau-style expressionism but also an impediment of color. The spectator is banned for color, not just for a stylistic resource but as means to find that transit to death. How is this process of reincarnation that you wanted to show under that visual concept?
FJO: It is true that this is an Orphic film, there is an Orphic element to many of my films. And in this one, there is a flow of elements in the film between water, air, fire than can also be found in the series of short films.
Thus, in this one, I kind of reversed certain things: usually in films, the flashbacks are in black and white and here, in the same way, I tried to avoid reverse angle shots, the arrivals of color are almost a questioning of reality. The film is marked by color appearances, whether by real colors or by monochromatic sweeps, what is almost like a wondering about “Is it true? Is it the character’s fantasy?” That was the more the less the idea, but it’s also true that silent movies were often tinted. That is, there was a code: blue for night, red, yellow… Thus I kind of played with those, in a sort of minimal way. And the black and white is the perfect tool for faces. It means that, in one go, it’s the look of the actor, the dominance of the eyes. We really have the very substance of it. There is so much more meaning in a black and white portrait, and at the same time, it gives me the opportunity to de-territorialize the landscapes, because there’s still a sort of symphony of shades.
That is to say that all of a sudden it is the cross of light, it really has a lot of substance. It has a lot more sense, a portrait in black and white, and at the same time it allows for deterritorialized landscapes, because it is still a kind of symphony of contrasts …
And the use of filters is much more subtle with black and white than with color. It’s still the ideal tool. I think it’s Julien Gracq who spoke about it and said that the ideal tool of the cinema had immediately been invented: it is black and white and silence. And in the late 70s, incredible movies such as Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) or Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) emerge,
which give the feeling of silent–soundly films due to an incredible technical sound progress, like a 4 centuries jump. When I started to plan make films, the sound-skill had become so much easier (the technique itself was always the same, but with a very lightweight material) that we finally did less interesting/less good cinematography than our predecessors did with harder technical conditions. Actually, the more the technique gets simplified is not the reason why the rhetoric becomes more subtle. Therefore the idea of ??making sound-silent films…
MC: and what do you think of Philippe Dubois? He is a university lecturer at Paris III, and has written extensively on cinematography. He said that black and white is a track of reality, actually the photographic reallity, while the color comes more from the pictorial.
FJO: Yes, well, no… There are all the colors between the black and the white, first technically, but also in imagination. In the proceedings of gray, all the colors are there, between the black and the white, so very quickly, if you’re not in the best photographic conditions, there appears an unrealistic filter, and as I said with fun, in the early 80s, you got this absurd cinema, more sexual than sex, more stupid than stupidity, flatter than flat, and so you got the feeling to ever stay in the mall after the film.
I’ve been raised in the countryside and thus, photographically, these are obvious things to me. But still today, when you watch all the shades of gray and contrast in black and white, from the the time of perestroika to today, and you think “Fuck, it’s not so bad!”
But it also comes from my culture. Under the Soviets, cinema and photography were glorified. No chance for democracy, or rather bad luck for the cinema, because democracy does not like cinematography, so one virtualizes everything, clear off, closed!
Then the pictorial… I love sculpture and printmaking more than painting. I really love the painting of certain artists, even the painters of second, fourth, eighteenth degree, but today, there’s no really true painters anymore. I was talking with a guy who made ??incredible wash drawings -I like today’s outdated painters- about Nicolas de Stael, I loved him, or guys like Klein. It’s crazy how Klein’s painting is young. But actually in the book, what makes mind bounces are rather poets, while for film theorists or even filmmakers, there are plenty of people who make movies and do not know what they say. Then it is demiurgy! Cinema is still an imperishable vocation but, just as for opera, it’s the story of the elephant giving birth to a fly. Cinema turns easily this way, it can be so infernal, you really have to take care. Even if you don’t have to be afraid to move on!
Mina Blumenfield: It’s a stage which is not that easy to overcome anyway…
FJO: That’s why it’s so funny to come back at the beginning, for the evidence becomes obvious. The close up was forbidden in Russia before the Revolution, because it traumatized people. And it’s true that a face can be of an incredible obscenity, spread over a 30 meters long screen! 25 wide, 4:3… 1,33:1! At least 130 meters long on 100 meters high! Close up is a crazy stuff! Now everything is dull…
But poetry… It can seems weird but in the golden age of cinema, almost every great poet became passionate about cinema, even to spit on it by the way, saying “what the fuck have they done of it! What are they do with it! This is bullshit!” when novelists completely freak out about it, it’s a rival for their cash register! Alain Duhamel is afraid of it, when it’s incredible to see how it fits to the texts of Artaud, Lecmte, Desnos or Cocteau. Everybody is interested in this punk instrument because it is borne from triviality: whether it is from the pornographic use of cinema from the beginning, or in brothels or of zoophilia, or the circus… It’s almost never art one’s interested in. But it becomes, with time, something that enters the culture.
MC: We can see a lot of boats on your films, we follow them more or less faster, very close or far behind, from speedboats to cruise ship. Why?
Yes, because there are cars, lot of stuff. Genres of cinema has always interested me, and I think genres are vehicles, and genres interest me. So it is true that the void, the emptiness of the desert, the emptiness of the plains, the true plain, as we do not know it… I found it in Argentina, I did not like the plain before… And then boats, yes, it’s vehicles… and then the idea of speed which is now virtualized and emptied of itself.
Cruise ships are floating council flats, led by captains without honour.