Saturday, August 26, 2017

That’s cinema

Talking about A Strange Place to Meet, a person whose opinions count* recently declared two things. One: it’s very good. Two: that’s cinema. But the latter statement wasn’t made with the vengeful admiration that was once held for exhilarating shows (‘Now, at least, that’s cinema!’) but as a simple observation. It seems that we know better today what resembles ‘a film of cinema’. Not a telefilm, or a televisual prowess, but, more and more, ‘a strange place to meet’.  
Witness by Peter Weir is therefore a film of cinema. A beautiful film by the way, as if dreamt by an Australian in the United States. With a strange place and enough human beings to be able to meet. Since Witness, everybody knows the place: this Amish country that lives in another century (the 19th), with its own beliefs (religious, rigid, egalitarian and pacifist), close to Philadelphia and yet aside from the industrial world (no cars, no phones, no television). The Amish in Peter Weir’s film come straight out of a costumed Ford’s film** or, because of their Nordic language, of an elegiac Dreyer’s. Yet, we are in 1984.  
Rachel and Samuel, the mother and the child, leave the Amish country to go – they believe – to Baltimore. That’s forgetting the script which makes the child the witness of a murder and the detective in charge of the investigation (Harrison Ford) their obligatory partner for the rest of the film. But the investigation takes a different turn and the film with it. Having discovered that the criminals were crooked policemen who had ‘lost their (moral) bearings’ (including his boss), the injured detective takes refuge where no one can find him: in the Amish country. He’s safe there (for a while) because this (strange) place is outside time. Follows a long digression – the film -  where he meets the Amish community, the works and days, and of course Rachel (the beautiful Kelly McGillis). 
A film starts in one direction, forks, changes its mind, takes a deviation and comes back – wise to the world – to its starting point. This freedom to digress, usually accepted for writers, so cruelly lacks filmmakers that we’re grateful to Peter Weir to have, even modestly, found it back. All roads of a film inevitably lead to the words ‘The end’, yet nothing becomes more sinister over time than the ‘simulated’ driving along the highways of cast-iron scripts and high-growth concepts. It’s what happens along the way that makes the charm of traveling. It’s the way things pretend not to happen that makes them actually happen.  
Today, a film ‘of cinema’ is perhaps this: to leave the beaten tracks of the highways and to follow again the paths that fork, even those that lead nowhere or bring you back to square one. To lose time in order to gain time, to invent lost time. That’s what we tell ourselves when we fall under the charm of Witness because the film has this rare quality to progress everything at the same time, without excessive haste.  
Whoever digresses will end up coming back, that’s for sure. But at the right time. There are many scenes in Witness that have this strange freshness of the old cinema, when you had to wait for the beginning of a new scene before being sure that nothing more would happen in the previous one. Of this way of hosting an event in the last third of a scene, of this art of fluid and fatal rebound, Ford (John) was the greatest filmmaker. There is a little bit of all this in Witness and, watching the film on television, you suddenly measure how much television had deprived us of this wait for an always possible event and always more beautiful – even minimal ones – that it finds us sufficiently awake to see it happen.  
Ford wanted to be modest and modesty is a fundamental value of the Amish. Also Ford (Harrison) is the most modest of stars and you can’t imagine the film without him. He belongs to this very precious species of American stars who are as distant from the Actor’s Studio and its psychological playacting as the Amish country is from the rest of America. He plays a bit like John Wayne, with a body always more flexible than it seems and a very quick way to judge, in a blink of an eye, the space that belongs to him. This film is decidedly Fordian.   

* The Capricorn Serge July, director of Libération.  
** This was before the deplorable Dead Poets Society. Let’s observe that if that film had been made by Ford, it’s Robin William’s character that would be ‘causing problem’, not the students. 
First published in Libération on 24 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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