By Claudia Siefen
In 1920, the film production company that would later be known as “Albatros” moved into the old Pathé studio in the Paris suburb of Montreuil. It consisted of a group of Russians who had fled their native country via Constantinople in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution and the protracted civil war that followed. One can imagine the talent and energy gathered in Montreuil: Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandre Volkoff, Nathalie Lissenko, Ivan Lochakoff, Viatcheslav Tourjansky. They competed successfully with the American cinema in a Europe still reeling from the war. Alexandre Kamenka assumed the manager’s reins in 1922, and by 1924, as many of the principals were lured away, he began hiring major French directors like Jean Epstein, René Clair and Jacques Feyder.
René Clair and his films; that means funny animals in charge of vehicles or clothing, crowds as group characters in funeral processions, our beloved street singers and workers at a factory. Singing street crowds in general, but also people escaping sleep, getting away again from work and, very handy, some beautiful folded paper. Ships or hats… Not to forget about the sleeping time, stopping rays and title cards turning into a part of the story while magicians make people disappear. The rhythm is set by an overhead camera and vertical camera movements. Rows of objects, huge buildings and facades, not to forget everything that moves fast, moving in circles like roller coasters or the records in a record store. Clair not only felt close to rhythm of language but also to music, bringing it up also in his silent work. He felt the shockwaves of upcoming of sound movies, and he worked with it.
Entr’acte (1924) today is seen a classic of the French avant-garde cinema. It was made as an intermission piece for the Ballets Suédois production of “Relâche”, a Dada theater work that premiered in Paris in December of 1924. The ballet’s director, Francis Picabia, handed Clair a scenario to start his work with, and Erik Satie composed an original score to accompany it, the shots and the connections between them resulting in what Clair liked to describe later as “visual babblings.” Some key figures of the contemporary Parisian art world like Jean Borlin, Georges Auric, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Picabia, and Clair himself appear in this film in amusing cameos.
René Clair owned none of his films. This surprisingly diffident attitude towards his own work was entirely consistent with his general view of the cinema. Clair was sure that the same process that preserves every gesture and outward sign on film also freezes it into a quickly overtaken moment in time. He valued preserved film artifacts less than the ongoing film enterprise, at its best a symbiotic process where new films are continually shown to contemporary audiences. So ”cinema“ happens here and now with the audience. Something that can be easily doubted today.
Clair loved his writing and was sure about the fact that a film starts with the first word written on paper and he obviously loved to get lost in the question: “What is cinema?” You can answer that question heavily and say, Clair positioned himself between Delluc’s mysticism and Bazin’s metaphysics. Clair loved to define cinema next to literature and theatre, to isolate its specificity as an autonomous language. The cinema is not necessarily a means of understanding all aspects of reality. It is sufficient that it should be a mode of writing in its own right, but conforming to a novelistic ideal. So Clair carries on the battle for the emancipation of the seventh art by attacking the inter-titles of silent screen, the imitation of literature or the invasion of filmed theatre. On the other hand, he recognizes the dignity of the new art starting from a rigorously literary model, and also from a certain idea of the written and as far as cinematic writing is limited by technological constraints, it is protected from rhetorical inflation. After the war the fatigue of an incredulous generation and maybe its fetishistic effort to reconstitute its own innocence. Rhythm and movement. It is still Clair and his work today letting us return to this source of a stabilized “cinema”.
Paris Qui Dort (1924)
A cinema in movement while celebrating a golden age in which the camera was fixed! In the same way Paris Qui Dort (1924) brings out the evolution of creatures by locking at them in an immobile city, but re-establishing a situation in which movement is still possible. We measure all the ambivalence in Clair’s thoughts, and this makes us think about a scene, no less famous, from Les Deux Timides (1928), in which the illustrated defense speech begins again and again and interrupts itself at the same fateful moment, a perpetual freeze-frame, underlined again by recourse to writing. For Clair, it matters less to say what cinema is than what it ought to be – in a spirit that is at the same time emancipatory and conservative. If the new art is credited with unpredictable and almost infinite potential, it is precisely because of its extreme youth, that leaves it open to all possibilities. What is identified is not then the nature of a cinema that remains in search of an author and critics. It perhaps only is the adversary, in front of which it is a question of positioning oneself in order to oppose – especially when the conquest of silent art is seemingly threatened by the return of the thespians and a facile commercial expansion. However, we must understand it in the context of the European 1920s that remains associated with the pre-war years.
”I direct very slowly, especially comedy, because one has to capture the public at every moment in a comedy. It takes me about 10 months to do a script. I write in longhand and revise; so it works out that I usually write a script twice.”
We can see a duality that haunts all of Clair’s work. He never claims to be a writer-filmmaker like Jean Cocteau but a filmmaker, frustrated in his vocation as a writer including all possible artistic consequences. This is why we can really speak about an “inverted auteurism” here. Clair, born as René Chomette in 1898, the son of middle-class merchants, was conventionally educated and after serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, he got a job as a reporter on the Paris paper “L’Intransigeant”. He suffered problems with strict schedules so he started acting. This was the beginning of motion pictures so no one cared he was not trained as an actor. But he continued acting to earn money and to have free time for writing, studying screening techniques and to be finally given a chance to direct. There was no money and only little equipment. Clair wrote the script himself. Fantastic and experimental, the short film, Paris Qui Dort, appealed at once to the French public when it was issued in 1924. The absurdities of human behavior were also reflected in Sous les Toits de Paris (1929).