Thursday, June 11, 2020

Statues Also Die aka Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Chris Marker & Alain Resnais, 1953)

As comprehensive analysis of the institutional mechanisms of museologics, Les statues meurent aussi’s (Statues Also Die, 1953) prime contention is, in effect, that anthropology and ethnology have their Schroedinger’s Cat; that the removal of an object from its spiritual context-in-community, it’s enslavement and caging in the museum and it’s sacrifice to the white deity of Art, cannot but change it’s state. The black cat, once its museum-box is opened, is always found dead. Astoundingly, in what is only his second film, Marker starts with a cogent and prescient discourse, a formulation of race politics before the days of the civil rights movement, before the rise of post-colonial “third world” studies, and well before semiology and cultural studies established themselves as recognised academic disciplines.

Where could such an unprecedented assemblage have arisen from? Les statues was not the first “anti-colonial” film, though undoubtedly a very early example. France at the time was still a major colonial power, with a history of colonisation throughout the world on most every continent, stretching back to the 17th century and encompassing, at various times, over a hundred colonies of various sizes. The colonial “possessions” were the pride of the nation, celebrated in major exhibitions, the most famous of which was held in Paris in 1931 and attracted 33 million visitors from around the world. This is not to say there was never any opposition to this state of affairs. The Communist Party mounted a small counter-exhibition to the 1931 “Exposition Colonial Internationale”, entitled “The Truth on the Colonies”. Alas, it attracted but 5,000 visitors. Clearly, any countering of the status quo was an extreme minority viewpoint.

French interest in the culture of their colonies stretched further back, and the Musee D’Homme, whose collection features prominently in the film, had its roots in the Musee d’Ethnographie du Trocadero, established in 1878. The influence of the colonies’ cultures and artefacts on the French avant-garde through time was also considerable, the championing of what was considered ‘primitive’ art by the Fauves and Cubists being but the best known. The “Africa” of the avant-garde, however, was largely a fanciful exoticised ‘other’, as exemplified in the work of Raymond Roussel in the 1910’s. Andre Breton and the Surrealists’ lionisation of African art is also fairly well known, but even their seeming espousal can be seen to be but an extension of the negrophilia which came to prominence in Parisian life in the initial decades of the 20th century. Nevertheless, one can easily conceive of an evolutionary line that can be traced through the strata of various artistic practices, from painting and decorative arts to literature and poetry, and even to theatre and dance, as well as, of course, to film, marking a contagion of one culture by the other(s), and resulting in an irreversible hybridization.

Where then are the precedents of Marker’s approach, which seeks, in a sense, to resituate the Musee D’Homme’s collection within its milieu, to reinvigorate, to reanimate it? Perhaps the more appropriate though lesser known lineage can be traced to the interests of the breakaways from the Surrealist group, Michel Leiris and George Bataille, who went on to form the short lived but influential College of Sociology. Leiris, in particular, had an abiding and continuing interest in anthropology and ethnography, and his approach was distinguished by his refusal to take a stance which pretended in any way to be neutral, uninvolved. His 1934 text, L’Afrique Fantôme (to date untranslated into English), incorporated biographical elements, including self-examination and commentary on his relation to both the process of ethnographic study and to the people and culture which were being observed. Such an approach would seem remarkably close to what Marker would develop in his own oeuvre so many years later.

What was the contemporaneous context that produced Les statues? The journal Presence Africaine, which had only come into existence three years earlier, commissioned the film, whose tone certainly fits in with the direction the journal would take in its questioning of France’s colonial presence, the outlining of the effects on the peoples and cultures an occupational force exerts, and the validation of African artistic output. Yet Marker’s text, after presenting the argument of the cultural fixing in formalin of the museum display, then immediately plunges the viewer into the cosmology in which the statues exist in vivo, the fabric of the African universe they came from. Where does this remarkable narrative of, to use a Deleuzeian term, “becoming black” come from? Certainly, the cult of the search for authenticity was on the rise in a post-war France that had lost (at the very least, some of) its self-confidence during its occupation by the Nazis. For, ironically, it had become, effectively, during a short period, a colony itself, of the German Third Reich. Even Sartre’s existentialism might be cast simplistically by a cynical observer as an attempt (if only partially) to regain an intellectual and moral higher ground by an intelligentsia wracked with a collective sense of guilt. Yet the authenticity proposed in Les statues is one which eschews the individual, positing a universe suffused with an inasunderable fabric of interconnected meanings, where “all of creation moves in formation”. This is a world at once profane and profoundly sacred: “Hence, every object is sacred because every creation is sacred;” a Markerian universe which was again invoked so powerfully in Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983). The formulation is all the more remarkable in its precession to so many, very much later, conceptions that would achieve currency in structuralism and post-structuralism, which primarily derived from the linguist Ferdinand De Saussure’s view of language (at the time little known) as being a fabric of interconnected terms which depend on each other to determine their meanings, each term being meaningless in isolation, the very ‘death’ suffered by the statues.

The milieu of the statues Marker presents is a poetic treatise on immanence, a world of multiple becomings where every element conspires to increase the powers and capacities of every other. A conception imbued with notions remarkably similar to Henri Bergson’s “creative evolution” and “elan vital”, and a sense of Spinoza’s formulation of an universe suffused with divinity, Marker would seem to have been proposing an alternative to the increasingly alienated lives that post-war France, and indeed the world, was beginning to pursue, to try and find an archaeology of the tribal underlying the veneer of everyday life, its vernacular of supposed civility, to try and find hope again. It is a conduit through which to connect to an animistic, archaic, Arcadian ancestral memory, a place where “all of creation moves in formation”. It proposes an anti-transcendentalism, a non-static, anti-essentialism that speaks of a chaotic world of inseparable becomings and inter-connectedness where “the broadest activity connects with the world as a whole”.

In this field of significations, even death assumes the role of an active principle. Here, the dead are kept “nearby to honour and benefit from their power, in a basket overflowing with bones.” They are the source of another fecundity. “They are the roots of the living.” The generative force of the universe arises even from the dead, it pervades. “The roots flourish.” The poet/sorcerer, Magic Marker, encircles the elements in even such a fallow field (to European eyes) to find the rhizomes which generate further enunciations. The statues and masks are the liminal, the point through which the elements which constituted and expressed the world of the dead regenerate, reconfigure, are reanimated and enter the world of the living. Marker may as well be speaking of himself when he says “the sorcerer captures in his mirror the images of this country of death, where one goes by losing one’s memory.” For “These masks fight against death. They unveil that which it wants to hide.” And what death wants to hide is the underlying generative force for, “winner of the body, death cannot do anything against the vital strength spread through every being and which composes its double.” The force is free from the assemblage in the physical milieu it inhabited, and “It wanders. It will torment the living until it has taken on its former appearance.” Where does this appearance reside in the meantime? In the statues and masks now imprisoned in the museum: “And it is this appearance which is fixed in these legendary metamorphoses in order to appease it until these winning faces are done repairing the fabric of the world.”

Yet the colonisers’ society has lost this facility, this network of becomings which allows the dead to pass through to the living again: “We put stones over our dead in order to prevent them from escaping.” And so these statues, these portals, must be “Classifed, labelled, conserved in the ice of showcases and collections” and no longer take up their vital strategies. Not only are these arteries of the lifeblood of civilization cauterised, their very fabric is reconfigured so they become nothing but a postcard of the exotic other; “In the country where every form had its signification, where the gracefulness of a curve was a declaration of love to the world, one becomes accustomed to an art of the bazaar.” The imperatives of an art of becoming are replaced by an art of commerce, where the speed of production and the law of supply and demand replace the free movement of spirit. “Into this country of gift and exchange, we have introduced money.” The entire economy of the signifying regime is shifted and changed. It is “Also an art of portraits. Henceforth incapable of expressing the essential, the sculptor seeks resemblance.” The line it traces is no longer the line of flight, the line which can allow escape from the totalising territorialisation of the state machine. It is no longer a search for provisional encodings that can allow for movement in a smooth space outside of the controlling stratifications of the culture police. The entire plane of consistence has shifted and changed. That some of the same elements may still be part of the assemblage no longer matters. The black art thenceforth made is mortified.

The line of contagion which had energised the Western avant-garde, travelling in the opposite direction, Marker seems to argue, resulted in a moribund African machine. The colonising state mechanism of striation sought to contain any exuberance: “All that was pretext for works of art is replaced, be it clothing, symbolic gestures, intrigues, or talking.” What then remained as a plane of expression for the African? What Marker proposes is a form of ‘technique of the body’. There may no longer be any instruments, any opportunities for what would be considered a disruption of colonial rule, but in the midst of the coloniser’s milieu, the negrophilia that the Europeans themselves have paradoxically embraced gives the African line of flight a fillip. The signifying regime of statues and masks may have been contained and adulterated, the movements of dance made merely a spectacle of exoticism. “But a moving black is still black art.” So the black athlete is celebrated while giving rise to a new form of enunciation in this alien milieu in which s/he can again thrive, while at times even threatening the dominant discourse. As is the musician, particularly in the forms of jazz and blues, which originated in their forcefully transplanted homes in the new world, and came from their painful experience, the singers and musicians map out a new field of signifiers.

The image of a jazz drummer’s improvisation, while an underlying drum solo on the soundtrack accompanies, is intercut with a sequence which shows what this new form of oppositional art confronts, “the world of loneliness and the machine”, where any form of protest is met with batons and machineguns. In a formulation which harks forward to Godard’s style more than a decade later (the famous description ‘the children of Marx and Coca Cola’), what we now find, he says, is “the rhythm of the factory confronting the rhythm of nature: Ford meets Tarzan.” The description of the plight of the colonial subject can equally apply to the lot of the colonizer: “His work is able to provide neither spiritual nor social sustenance, he works for nothing, his reward is nothing but a derisory salary.” But the rupture to this assemblage (if only provisional and temporary) would have to wait a decade and a half til the month of May ’68.

But Marker’s response is one of hope, a vision of a “new community”. He finds everywhere the vestiges of the tribal, communal organisation, even in the field of medical science. In a montage using only three shots showing the collection of blood, and the subsequent work of producing a vaccine, the voiceover asks us to “Look well at this technique, which frees mankind from magic. It presents sometimes with magic a strange relationship of gestures.” Sorcery is reborn as science, and shares some of the same gestures. “Science, as magic, admits the necessity of the sacrifice of the animal. The virtue of blood. The harnessing of malevolent forces.” Death, the death of stasis of the Western world, is again transformed into the generative death of the archaic mode of signification. For what is needed is to pass through the liminal of death to arrive again into the world of the living. For “death is always a country where one goes forth at the cost of one’s memories.” And for Marker, the zone of memory is the generative field of all signification. So he concludes with a program for a restitution of what has been lost to our ‘modernity’:

“There would be nothing to prevent us from being, together, the inheritors of two pasts if that equality could be recovered in the present. Less remarked, it is prefigured by the only equality denied to no one, that of repression. Because there is no rupture between African civilization and ours. The faces of black art fell off from the same human face, like the serpent’s skin. Beyond their dead forms, we recognize this promise, common to all the great cultures, of a man who is victorious over the world. And, white or black our future is made of this promise.”

Surely had it known of this tract, the Black Panther would have smiled, lifting a sole paw in solidarity. --Senses of Cinema