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An Interview with Blaise Cendrars on the Cinema
Francois and André Berge
Film Culture, No. 63-64, 1976, pp. 87-94.
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Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
Monday, October 25, 1925
On my way through Paris...Unfortunately I do not have the time to write the article you asked me... ; however, if you were to come interview me, you could write the article yourself...I am leaving Thursday...
Clearly then, the first thing that we had to do was to meet Cendrars, recognize him, make him talk. The first two conditions were not difficult to satisfy. But the third one troubled us a bit, since we had no faith in our capacities as interviewers. Nevertheless, after having met the author of Gold, the three of us decided to go and have lunch in a little restaurant that Apollinaire had liked; and there, in the intimate atmosphere created by the kitchen smells and the noise of the dishes, all hesitations disappeared, and we had no difficulty in having our victim speak; there was nothing left for us to do but to listen.
— The questions you're asking interest me too much for me to answer them in a few words, as I have done in the past to such inquiries. You first ask me if I believe that Cinema brings forth a new emotion, but as far as I am concerned, there isn't a shadow of a doubt! Cinema is a fantastic inventionl But if I have been influenced by it, it was especially by the early films which were idiotic, but marvellous. That was the moment of true discovery, of something really new: I'll never forget a film called A Voyage to the Moon that played a few years before the war; imagine a bunch of fellows climbing aboard to get to the moon in the mIddIe of the ballets at the Châtelet Music-Hall. And what did they find on the moon? A corps de ballet. Now! That was really great! Today, in Europe, people think they're making discoveries, transforming cinema by using all possible technical means available: but that's not it at all. First of all, film scripts must take into account the technical perfections around: otherwise, it's as if you were to cook up an Irish Stew using the delicate measurements required by a cocktail. French film-makers, with intelligence and feeling, borrowed American procedures, but it is true, procedures that in America had not been consciously developed. For, in matters pertaining to Cinema, everything comes from America, and the best that movies have got to offer reveals itself when you least expect it. You might say that there is a movie alphabet and that at the present time we only know very few of its minor letters.
One of them, for example, is the "close-up." Griffith discovered it and it was truly a revolution for which, by the way, he lost his job in the movie company for which he worked at the time. One shouldn't assume that he tried the close-up to test out a theory. Not at all; in recent interviews, Griffith speaks only of his material life, only of his commercial efforts. He doesn't bother to justify what he's doing, and yet he did discover one of the letters of the cinematographic alphabet. There are many more, and chance makes us anticipate them some of the time. Thus, in an old film that I remember, there was a crowd, and in that crowd there was a kid with his cap tucked under his arm. And all of a sudden, that cap which was like any other cap, began — without moving — to take on an intense life of its own; I felt it was about to leap, just like a leopard! Why? I don't know. Was it a question of light, electrical discharges or something else? There are times when such mysterious effects seem to indicate that the film can be sensitive to impressions that escape our senses and even our knowledge. In a dramatic scene, an Indian girl was caught tryIng. As the film was being developed, in the middle of those images where the Indian girl had her eyes painfully closed, one image, a single one, showed her with her eyes wide open. But. at the speed of the shooting, it was materially, scientifically, impossible for the eye to have been open only for the duration of an image. It seemed that a sort of psychic electrical discharge had occurred, emanating from that Indian girl who, because of her race and the emotion of the scene she was interpreting, was, unquestIonably more likely to produce such a spiritual emanation than another person. I am usually sceptical about this type of explanation, but films constantly provide us with such cause for astonishment that I am rather forced to make hypotheses that depart from the ordinary. Only film can make a thousand men live like a single human being; or a fragment of a human being, whereas, in reality, this profound unity does not appear, like a total being. When the same scene can be shot either on the MontBlanc or in a studio, it is evident that the scene shot on the mountain possesses something more; here again, luminous electrical discharges or other discharges act on the film to give it its soul.
(Cendrars stopped for a moment to let his white dog finish what was left in his plate.)
But, as one of us inquired, shouldn't rhythm be considered as part of that cinematographic alphabet, given the fact that rhythm plays such an important part in recent films, and especzally in those of L'Herbier's?
— Yes, but I prefer above all others, the rhythm of some of the American film comedies, otherwise absolutely stupid. L'Herbier's rhythm seems to me to be rather musical than specifically cinematographic. Everything that other arts bring to movies, shouldn't be considered as movies. I don't think it avant-garde to use cubic sets or other types of sets, etc. Sets are one thing, movies are another. Modifications of the one do not assure the progress of the other; they are independent of each other. Neither are movies, specifically speaking, dependent on an actor's talents. One day, I suggested to the director of an important movie company that I could provide him with an exceptional actress, the most extraordinary star: the Moon! He thought I was kidding, and yet it is extraordinary what one mIght have done with the Moon — Have you ever seen the sun rise over Tycho's crater? Had it been really necessary, I might have even woven a little story around the event: the daughter of an old astronomer in love with a young astronomer, her father's competitor ... etc. I knew that I could have placed a camera on the telescope at the Observatory. And indeed, just at that time, there seemed to have been a splendid opportunity. . .
—How about now! We have heard that you were sometimes involved in making films. Are you doing something now?
— Absolutely! Making a film is a passion similar to shooting morphine. Once you've tasted it, you can't give it up: I'm leaving in a couple of weeks for South Amenca where I'm going to film a sort of epic: the history of Brazil.
Who are your main characters?
— Rivers, the Forest: all quite incredible characters. The whole history of Brazil is in the life of that forest.
(He stopped once again to see if his dog had enough food left; our conversation undoubtedly was not substantial enough. We then picked up where we had left off:)
— But, given your passion for movies, can you fail to recognize their influence on your books? Besides, it's perfectly evident in every page of Gold and The End of the World.
—Do you really think so? I'm not so sure about Gold! As for The End of the World, it's almost a scenario, minus the indications concerning the procedures to be used. In general, I do not believe in the specific influence of the cinema, but rather of all of modern life: the automobiles, the plumber who fixes your bath heater, steamship lines, etc.... Everything acts upon us: Thus ...
Thus, in point of fact, the conversation had been sidetracked and continued first in front of the empty glasses and the empty plates, and then in front of the table that had been cleared. And then, little by little, without our noticing it, the time had come for each one of us to go back to work.
Tr. Serge Gavronsky
"Interview de Blaise Cendrars sur le Cinema " Les Cahiers du mois, 16/17, Cinéma, 1925, pp. 138-142.
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