By John A. Riley
“I knew I must extend myself until the molecules parted and I was spliced into the image.”
Don De Lillo, Americana, p. 13.
Perhaps you’ve heard the rumours about CS Leigh, the filmmaker whose work remains barely seen despite him having worked with Beatrice Dalle, Marianne Faithful, Cat Power, John Cale and Humbert Balsan? The rumours that he is notoriously difficult, a fraud or a recluse, or that he vanished without trace for several years after abandoning a successful career as an art curator?
But when I met Leigh this summer, in a secluded corner of the bar at London’s National Theatre, the impression was of anything but a recluse, instead he spoke openly and enthusiastically about his career, and about films, art and music he admires.
Leigh dismisses the claims that he disappeared for several years as “utter rubbish”; he simply was out of media contact in a pre-web 2.0, pre-smartphone era. He admits that it makes a good story though. And as to his films lack of exposure, he attributes that to a “refusal to play the festival game.”
There is, however, something that remains elusive and recondite about CS Leigh, which makes his films all the more precious in an age of instant gratification and streamed information. An article about him on British newspaper The Times’s website no longer exists, while the website of his Leigh’s own Syntax Editions (for his magazine/book projects) contains nothing but articles about home security and e-cigarettes. Internet searches reveal indignant character assassinations and forum posts from curious cinephiles asking if certain of his films even exist. A wordpress site consists of a brief filmography and the single sentence “people often ask me when a film I’m working on is going to be released and the only answer I have is when it’s ready.”
Naturally reticent to pin his art down to one overriding idea, but there does seem to be a palpable philosophy of concealment, scarcity and Leigh’s work. This seemingly wilful obscurity is far easier to understand if you read his unofficial manifesto “Contemplating The New Physicality of Cinema.” In it, Leigh explains that “for a particular type of cinephile from my generation … the physical act of seeking out and consuming great or hallowed or mythical films was as obsessive as our need to experience these films, when and if we found them.”[i]
Shooting “Process” (2004)
Much of this fervent cinephilia has now moved online, to torrent sites where people obsess over hard-to-track down movies and attempt to keep a satisfactory ratio of upload to download. But Leigh believes in the experience of physically tracking down films and seeing them on the big screen in 35mm wherever possible.
“Sometimes you walked up three flights to get to these theaters but they still felt subterranean. You could buy candy and drinks and there was always a smoking section. It was a fetid, human experience”[ii], he says, echoing Manny Farber’s description of “murky, congested theatres, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near busterminals in big cities”, in which he notes the “nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience and prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, soundtracks infected with hiccups.”[iii] Leigh’s highly uncommercial cinema is increasingly seeming a hiccup or anomaly all of its own.
“Individual works of art must not simply coexist on white walls and polished wooden floors within my exhibitions. They must commingle and converse (loudly). They must argue and commiserate and incite us to yell back at them, even rudely.”
CS Leigh, from the catalogue of his exhibition “I Am the Enunciator”
Although many of Leigh’s films are feature length with well-known performers such as Beatrice Dalle, in his reference points and background he seems more a product of the contemporary art world than the film world. He curated “The Silent Baroque”, a 1989 group exhibition at Salzburg that won considerable acclaim. He’s also stage several exhibitions about Alfred Hitchcock, borne of “twenty five years of collecting Hitchcock memorabilia.” Vertigo (1958), he tells me, is “the most extraordinary film. It encapsulates what was going on in the art world.”
But, Leigh says, something in the art world had begun to change by the early 1990s; Leigh found himself mired in an increasingly corporate business that left him cold. He became reviews editor for Artforum magazine, which he now regrets because his plan was to always make films and “those years could have meant more films.”
Leigh’s first three features are hard to see even by the recondite standards of his later films. His first work Sentimental Education (1998) returns to Leigh’s first love, couture, to tell a fashion industry story, while Far From China (2001) makes use of split screen to tell four simultaneous stories. It’s rarely shown because it requires four separate projectors to screen it.
Process (2004), starring Beatrice Dalle, is Leigh’s best known film, and eschews the maxmalism of Far From China in favour of a near dialogue free series of achingly long takes in which a traumatised actress increasingly self-destructive behaviour. It’s a deeply disturbing work whose own production is fraught with tragedy; the original star Katrin Cartlidge died just as production was about to begin.
Working with only brief snatches of dialogue and a number of intricately designed long takes, Leigh employed a unique method, hiring stand-ins to block the actors movements. The real actors spent a day watching the movements of stand-ins, and once they learned their parts Leigh then shot multiple complete takes, even if the desired effect is captured on the first. The short sequence in which Dalle’s final fate is determined took over a day to perfect. Given the brutal nature of certain scenes this must have been a harrowing ordeal for all participants to relive these scenes, again and again, in unbroken sequence.
Asked about these exacting methods, and the toll this might take on his actors, Leigh, with a barely perceptible smile crossing his lips, remarks “I always have a great relationship with my actors before shooting. But I know not to get used to that.”
Leigh is fascinated by the aesthetic properties of 35mm, and wants films shot in that way to be experienced in that way. Demand for Process, and an abortive DVD release by Tartan, caused Leigh to create something called “the ultimate youtube cut”, made by pointing the state-of-the-art red eye camera at a timecoded vhs of the film. Seen in this format, it has the eerie quality of found footage, with only on-screen quotations from Don De Lillo and Elaine Scarry breaking the spell of excruciating long-take realism.
See you at Regis Debray (2005)
See you at Regis Debray (2005) depicts German militant Andreas Baader on the run in Paris, seeking shelter at his friend Regis Debray’s apartment and hunkering down, waiting. It begins with about nine minutes of Baader’s face with a ticking sound and a sound uncannily like the 1000 HZ audio test tone. This time the camera is mostly immobile, as is Baader. He lounges on a mattress, cooks breakfast, watches TV, falls asleep clutching an out-of-tune radio, smokes, reads, takes Polaroid “selfies” and, ash from his cigarette falling onto his bare chest, masturbates. He finally dances like a maniac and urinates into a bucket.
There’s this close-up focus on process again; this is in no way a biopic, even less so than Aleksandr Sokurov’s series of films about political figures. The influence of Andy Warhol is also present, in that this is a film purposefully about boredom. However, Warhol’s impish love of camp is nowhere to be found in Leigh’s melancholic films, which can also be classified as part of “the New Extremism” of French filmmakers like Catherine Breillat and Philippe Grandrieux.
With a title that sounds almost like a 1950s Herman Cohen horror, 2009’s I Was Jack Goldstein is a short piece commemorates Leigh’s friend, the painter and performance artist Jack Goldstein, who committed suicide in 2003. For the piece, Leigh was photographed reconstructing some of Goldstein’s behaviour such as standing perilously close to the edge of subway platforms as trains approach. “Let me tell you, no-one stops you when they see you doing it.” Leigh claims. The still photographs, mostly monochrome close-ups of Leigh’s pained face, are broken up by intertitles such as “FUCK CALARTS” and “FUCK ARTFORUM” and soundtracked by a piercing, abrading soundtrack of guitar feedback by Thurston Moore. It’s sixteen minutes long because Goldstein once told Leigh the longest he could wait for a delivery of heroin was sixteen minutes. Here, with the stillness of the photographs and the alternately churning low notes and piercing sustained high end, it’s a small eternity.
American Widow (2005 – )
American Widow is classed a work in progress that has been underway since 2005. Shot in multiple countries, it began as a work based on the true story of a woman who concocted a lie that her husband had been killed in the 9/11 attacks. Leigh’s vision for the project continued to expand, becoming a panorama of the first decade of the new century; a critique of the post-American imperialist world encompassing Hurricaine Katrina and managing to capture on celluloid Leigh’s beloved Berlin architecture shortly before much of it was demolished.
Leigh says that all of the material has been shot for the film, but that it’s a question of assemblage. Each story tells a refracted, abstracted version of that same central story, a structure appropriate for the theme of lying, since each time a liar tells the story, elements of it seem to change, shift, become embellished.
There are reels of 35mm for American Widow in various different countries (“there are dozens of reels all over the place”) where scenes were shot. The film, on rare occasion when it is shown, is never shown “complete”, rather, reels and sequences are selected and combined into a format appropriate for the occasion.
Discussing the complexities of mounting such a project, and his use of the red eye camera in recreating Process, I suggest that is fascinated by the technology of cinema. “You might think that, but I’m really only interested in the effects”, Leigh comments. That statement would appear to be contradicted by That First Camera No Longer Exists (2013), one of Leigh’s most recent pieces of work, a performance piece staged at Tate Modern in May 2013. It’s a reconstruction of a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and the camera manufacturer Jean-Pierre Beauviala, about a failed project. Godard tried to commission a handheld, easily operable 35mm movie camera small enough to be kept in his car’s glove compartment, and therefore suited to spotenaeity, mobility and the film diary form. The project failed, but Beauvalia agreed to discuss it in a conversation that would be printed in Cahiers du Cinema, and in which Godard took every opportunity to complain about the frustrations of filmmaking. Leigh’s performance simply re-stages the conversation as a dialogue between two actors.
“What’s missing nowadays is major ambition in work. I don’t mean ambition to be famous. I mean ambition to do something that can’t be done or that no one sane would do.”
I was Jack Goldstein (2009)
Leigh evinces a mistrust of most producers and sometimes even crews that is echoed by Godard’s words in the performance, commenting “you’re a hostage to the crew; most directors will agree with me.” One producer Leigh definitely has no antipathy towards is Humbert Balsan, who died in 2005, acted as producer in the early part of Leigh’s career. From Leigh’s voice and facial expressions when talking about Balsan, you can tell he idolised the man, unsurprisingly since he helped many of Leigh’s most ambitious projects come to fruition. Leigh perceives “a distance between myself and the Paris film world.” But the American and British film industries are pretty distant too. While the BFI used to put money into films that otherwise wouldn’t get made, there’s not a lot of faith in the possibilities cinema offers. They now only want to invest in films that recuperate.”
Leigh’s other frequent collaborator is John Cale; the two have worked together on three films. Soundtrack-wise, Leigh found Cale to be extremely helpful, cutting and extending the music according to the director’s exacting requests. Cale and Leigh then planned an ambitious film project based on the Warhol factory years, trying to enlist A-list Hollywood stars such as Johnny Depp to portray Cale (“who wouldn’t want Depp to play them in the movie of their lives?” Leigh asks with a smile ) and Uma Thurman and Reese Witherspoon as Nico and Edie Sedgwick respectively.
Not as used to the frustrations and circumlocutions of the movie business as Leigh, Cale found it hard to accept the difficult business of agents and hard-to-pin-down stars, plus the budget and logistics needed for such a project. The film of course never materialised, but Leigh did channel his palpable interest in the Warhol/Velvet Underground scene into a short film called Nobody Fucks Nico (2011-12).
Next, Leigh intends to work on a film set in the world of international finance. I ask if Ask if this is intended as a foray into topical commentary, and Leigh responds by hinting at a much more ambitious project that draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.
A committed cinephile for whom commitment is the key to cinephilia, Leigh tells me that he regularly attends screenings of avant-garde film in London and Paris, but when I press him to name favourite avant-garde films or filmmakers he capriciously changes tack, confessing “I would trade all of that in for five minutes of Ingrid Bergman’s face.”
As Leigh and I shuffle away from each other, becoming absorbed by the crowds that throng London’s South Bank, I reflect that, despite the anomalous nature of Leigh’s career, and his straddling of both arthouse and experimental films, along with the worlds of publishing and conceptual art, he is in many ways a traditional cinephile; one or two of his remarks seemed tinged with a Bazinian love of cinema and reality. As I’m standing on the train platform, I remember something Leigh said in another interview :“what’s missing nowadays is major ambition in work. I don’t mean ambition to be famous. I mean ambition to do something that can’t be done or that no-one sane would do.”[iv] Then I remember those images of Leigh standing on a platform himself, an anonymous figure, soundtracked by shrieking feedback.
[i] See CS Leigh, “Contemplating The New Physicality of Cinema” http://www.believermag.com/issues/200903/?read=article_leigh
[iii] Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (Da Capo: New York, 1998)
[iv] Interview with C.S. Leigh at http://qompendium.com/index.php?page=12&id=924