Scénario du Film Passion: Writing Video at the End of Cinema

By Duncan White

scenario-du-film-passion-jean-luc-godard.jpgScénario du film Passion (1982)

You find yourself faced with the invisible. A vast white surface like Mallarmé's blank page. A beach in a blinding sun. All is white. No trace of anything. It's an odd feeling like finding a gap in your memory. There you are in the very furthermost corner of your memory. You have a writer's job to do. You could write: "I go to bed early." Or like Rimbaud: "A black. E white. I red." Or: "Love and kisses from Marseilles." Or: "I Love you. I love you". Or: "Where's my ten francs?" But no. You want to see. You want to re-cei-ve. A blank page confronts you. – Jean Luc-Godard

Go straight to the cinematograph, whose unreeling will replace, images and text, many a volume, advantageously. – Stéphane Mallarmé

Soon after making Passion (1981), a film which marked yet another transitional period in his filmmaking, Jean Luc Godard made a shorter work called Scénario du Film Passion (1982) which is best described as a "video poem". It begins with Godard addressing the audience directly, from what appears to be his workplace, the editing suite. Employing a tongue-in-cheek intimacy, Godard is about to talk us through a Lewis Carroll-like riddle: how to make a film without a script, for a film that is already made? It is "a writer's job" that Godard has to do and here he sits faced with the "vast white page" – the blank screen – hoping to write the film into existence as we watch, or is it read? Here we are at "degree zero". Godard has taken on the role of author setting out not to narrate us through the film as such but to narrate us into its making.

For Godard it was the technologies of video and the industry's movement away from film editing and toward "image-mixing" that made a seemingly obvious question pressing and complex for a filmmaker working at cinema's end: how to write a film? By writing Godard may well mean inscription, the set of conditions, the assumptions and relations already inscribed within the filmic codes of its appearance. With video, these drift in and out of view, in "real time" and at the push of a button. "A blank page confronts you," Godard continues in his voice over. "Like a dazzling beach. But there is no sea. So you invent waves. You imagine a wave… a faint disturbance which in the film will make a storm. It comes it goes. Just an echo." The metaphor of water and of uncertain thresholds is telling. Video has an immediacy to it that offers Godard the fluidity and gestural possibilities of a writer faced with the vertiginous promise of the infinite possibilities of language. Not just thought but its processes can be mapped on the screen as if it were the poet's blank page. It is no longer a question of the spaces between two or more images which define the language of editing, but with video any number of images could be mixed into the same frame so that the transitions, the cuts, the spaces between, become integral to the image material itself.

Godard is no doubt conscious of an historical shift. In early cinema this space between cuts was reserved for writing. Inter-titles were spliced into films signposting key moments in the narrative with lesser or greater recourse to poetic effect. D.W. Griffiths famously championed a more decorative use of the title embellishing profoundly on the visual information already available to the audience in the images he produced. See for instance Broken Blossoms (1919), where the erotic is both ingeniously covered up and revealed by titles such as: "Blue and Yellow Silk Caressing White Skin – her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem." As Jim Hillier points out, "the film could not be read in the way Griffith intends without them."[1]

Griffiths used titles to govern the meaning of his images for fear they would be misread or improperly imagined in the popular consciousness of the movie audiences of the time, undermining the high moral imperatives of his project. Of course they often were. If not literally by promoters who spliced in their own titles or cut the originals out (to help speed up the show, anxious that punters would lose interest in over-wordy pictures) then in the accidental and frequent double-entendres that littered early cinema. But, as Godard discovered, with the increased sophistication of video at the end of the 20th Century this space of reading and misreading could be fully combined with the image as an anarchic challenge to cinema's inclination toward governing the meaning it creates.

Godard is not alone in this. A host of filmmakers have collapsed the pictorial properties of word and image; and certainly this includes filmmakers who superimpose text and image within non-video practices (see for example Peter Gidal's Upside Down Feature or George Landow's Remedial Reading). But, for me, the filmmaker whose work Scénario du Film Passion is most resonant with is Harun Farocki who frequently cites Godard's filmmaking as having informed his own practices.

Like Godard, Farocki's work is often itself a reflection on cinema. Moreover, Farocki's films and videos offer, as with Godard's later phase, a reflexive media theory in which Farocki, as Thomas Elsassear puts it, acts as "a writer of images." It is this writerly approach to image-construction that is perhaps the first of a number of ways in which Farocki's work can be related to Godard's. In Schnittstelle (Section Interface) 1995 Farocki's first video installation and the piece that bears the strongest comparison with Scénario du Film Passion, Farocki's voiceover declares: "nowadays I can barely write a word unless an image is visible on the screen at the same time. Or rather, on both screens." Schnittstelle which refers to the cut and interfacing of film editing, like Godard's Scenario, shows the filmmaker at his workplace – the video editing suite – trying to write as he re-mixes a series of image sequences from previous works. Memory and production collide as Farocki combines and then recombines existing images, attempting to write a way through the processes of manufacture that define "cinema".

schnittstelle-harun-farocki.jpgSchnittstelle (Section/Interface), 1995

Like Godard, Farocki's editor-artist has a writer's job to do. It is no accident that his re-reading or rewriting of his previous work includes a shot from Zwischen Zwei Kriegen (Between Two Wars, 1977/78), "in which one can see the figure of the author with paper and pen at his writing desk, symbolically arriving at new combinations for a filmic montage."[2] And, as with Godard, this exercise in scripting from the already scripted, of tracing codes from the already coded, "his re-working of images so that they become new", is made imperative by the increasingly instant editing technologies of video and digital media.[3] But to what extent can we consider Godard a video artist?

Most of his "films" since Histoire(s) du Cinéma have been made using video and digital-video rather than film (or in combination with film). Indeed, Histoire(s) du Cinéma as well as being made for TV as an episodic biopic of cinema post-film, even post-cinema, has been installed in galleries and museums as if Godard were a regular video artist making art for the rarefied halls of the art market rather than the "people's halls" of the movie theatre. His most recent work, Film Socialisme, is a study in hybrid media formats. But it is in Scénario du film Passion that Godard perhaps gets closest to the figure of "video artist". Here we find the visual clues and formal arrangements more familiar to avant-garde video than European Cinema.

Godard the silhouetted figure is positioned between the viewer and the screen creating the box-like quality of the video monitor. He assumes the role of mediated and mediator, the "talking head", as the immediate and its mediation are folded into one another. "Quite a story: love and labour. You're between the finite and the infinite. You're between black and white," Godard muses as he phases the contrast on the video recording of his image from black to white. As with early video art he explores the troubling positions of simultaneously seeing and being seen; "fusing temporal moments": "the (past tense of the) original take (destined to become a future filmic element) joins the (present tense of the) act of rereading, i.e. reviewing," all tactics previously employed by video artists such as Vito Acconci, David Hall and Takahiko Iimura.[4]

Yet it is the particular form of poetics offered by video that I am most interested in pursuing in these comparisons. While simultaneously pondering the degree zero of cinema – the blank screen, the blank page – and equating a textuality with the process of editing, Godard acts as semiotician of his own work and quite literally identifies the "betweeness" of his "story" with the betweeness of the black and white of print on paper. Farocki works in a similar way. Here, for instance, Christa Blumlinger describes Farocki's work but it could equally be a description of Godard's Scenario:

He analyses and dismembers the image so as to usher the spectator into a mental space between these images. In all of the films, this inbetween space has value in itself, where the cut is not – as in linear narratives – part of one or another image, of one or another sequence of images, which it separates and divides. Instead, the cut now "liberates" itself, as Deleuze puts it. Such a form of montage, insisting as it does on the interval, no longer creates (linear) sequences but (parallel) series.[5]

To go further, it may be that, for these filmmakers, video is more akin to writing than film. Godard no longer needs to begin with a text (script) in the traditional form of filmmkaing, instead the video becomes a text through the reading and re-reading of the editor. Indeed, editor, reader, writer and viewer may well be the same person in Godard's schema; each viewer reads, writes and edits their own "film" – that is where it is made (factory and studio run into one another in both Godard and Farocki's work). With video this process is not only heightened it becomes integral:

In the video editing studio, the different possibilities of mounting a sequence can be achieved with the press of a button. The process is quite different at a 16mm editing table – Farocki demonstrates both in Schnittstelle – where each new edit has to be materially and physically prepared, such that the editor touches the ends to be cut or pasted with his fingertips. What we see is not, as with the case of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, a professional cutter on the job, but an author who manipulates his film in solitary and ruminating fashion, surrounded only by machines and a notebook.[6]

It's here, I think, that Godard's reference to Stéphane Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés (A Throw of the Dice, 1897) is important. Not just because Mallarmé created a poetry of "betweenness", that prioritised the role of the reader, famously describing the space between words, "the blanks" of the page itself, as possessing equal importance to the words on the page, but because of the way in which his conception of the poem anticipates video and the "expanded technologies" of cinema that would come to the fore eighty years after he composed it. See for instance Mallarmé's preface to the long poem:

This copied distance, which mentally separates words or groups of words from one another, has the literary advantage, if I may say so, of seeming to speed up and slow down the movement, of scanning it, and even of intimating it through a simultaneous vision of the Page…[7]

The sense of a "copied distance" (distance copiée), the mental separation or the "mental space" of elements isolated or in series, the "speeding up and slowing down", the "scanning"and the "simultaneity of vision" all bizarrely describe what would become the poetics of video in Godard's work. Un Coup de Dés was written and published as cinema was invented and Mallarmé was well aware of and intrigued by the new technologies of mediation and vision beginning to determine the popular imagination of his age. Christophe Wall-Romana, describes (somewhat heroically) Mallarmé's "Cinepoetics": the way in which cinema may well have influenced the "new dimension of multiplicity and virtuality" in Mallarmé's poetry.[8] Mallarmé refers to the unfolding of the new cinematic technology that would in his mind come to transform the writers' understanding of the text and the performance of its reading (the poem is literally conceived as a score for diverse readings in Mallarmé's "Préface"). But it is the broader sense of the cinematic – beyond the filmic – and toward the potentially expanded technologies of projection and "live presence" (such as video) in Mallarmé's work that is fascinating and renders Godard's reference to Mallarmé's blank page more suggestive than Godard perhaps intended.

For the final years of his life Mallarmé worked on an eventually aborted project that combined live performance, back-screen projection and audience participation as a new form of "book", "Le Livre", that brought the text to life as a stage act of "mobile words" and "luminous projection." This "electrical arabesque" combined type projected onto illuminated, "mobile veils used as screens" described by Mallarmé as a "dioramic curtain", with dance and pantomime performance. To some extent, Mallarmé's endeavour was to make writing "visible". As Sean Cubitt notes, "one of the beauties of writing is that it is, in a sense, invisible. We read all day long: we see street signs, hoardings and the names of shops, registering what they say without being aware of the fact that we are reading."[9] In contrast, Mallarmé intended to illuminate the apparatus of reading, to make visible the invisibility of printed language. This is similar to the critique of the cinematic apparatus at the heart of Farocki and Godrad's work: as with words on the page "cinema is understood as a machine of the visible that is itself largely invisible."[10] It was with the new forms of technology, including video with which artists would expand cinema beyond the movie theatre in order to critique or make visible the systems of production and consumption that condition cinematic experience.[11] Certainly Farocki's textual video critique of image construction, which we should remember was made as a double screen video installation, is part of this expanded appropriation of new forms of space, context and spectacle.

But there is still another way in which Mallarmé's "cinepoetics" make this a fascinating comparison. Here I'm referring to the manner in which Mallarmé's hybrid bookwork was to be economically organised. Seemingly intending to replicate not just the showmanship and popular attraction of cinema but also its financial success, Mallarmé envisaged the revolutionary book project in entrepreneurial terms. The "séances", or screenings, would be highly profitable, commercial ventures, replete with advertisements, and so taking their place within the signs and illuminations of the new electrified commodity culture. Indeed, (unlike the Lumières) Mallarmé immediately conceived of cinema as an economy, something Godard foregrounds in the riddle of his Scénario du Film Passion. Godard is very clear: in the absence of a "story" the organising principle for the film's "narrative" is financial:

Each day cost money. The accountant wondered where the money went. So he wrote: "Bathing beauty 100 francs. Cop: 50 francs. Sweetheart: 3 dollars." Then gradually this became. "A cop falls for a bathing beauty, being chased by her sweetheart." Book keeping gave rise to the script.

Here the poetic principle that Godard takes from Mallarmé of making the invisible visible ("The script creates a probability: the camera makes it possible… to see what might be seen if the invisible were visible") is adjunct to the economic realities of filmmaking. Thus the beseeching: "But no, you want to see; you want to re-cei-ve," contains in fact a double meaning**. The transformative qualities of cinema are not simply to turn an anonymous woman into a character in a story but to turn a cost ("Bathing Beauty" = 500 francs) into a return – thus, perhaps, the real meaning of "receive" in this "scenario". And it may be, here, in this economic critique of narrative, where money determines cinema's inscription, that Godard is most like Farocki. But, I would argue, it is precisely here that Farocki goes further.

In Scénario du Film Passion Godard continues to appeal to a mystique of cinema. Cinema exists for Godard as an inherently mysterious process of illusion and transformation; mystification is an inevitable aspect of filmmaking and film viewing rather than an ideologically determined condition of cinematic illusionism. Hence Godard's appeal to the mysterious, spiritual, almost shamanistic aspects of Mallarmé's work, rather than to what Jacques Rancière identifies as the secular politics of Mallarmé's radical aesthetics.[12]

In contrast, Farocki endeavours to fully demystify the apparatus of cinema and in particular the commodification of the image that determines its economy. In Interface, Farocki, like Godard and Mallarmé before him, also signals the economic organisation of cinema; money is the key metaphor of video's invisibility and dematerialisation. As Farocki observes in his voiceover: "With a banknote it becomes especially clear how little the essence and the appearance coincide." In video there is no photographic essence, but, as with the written word, only a symbolic code for what is not on the page or apparent on the tape. As Friedrich Kittler observes: "According to Mallarmé's instant insight, literature is made up of no more and no less than twenty six letters."[13] Writing like filmmaking in the modern era of video and post-video technologies (as with modern eras previously) is a question of recombining forms taken from a set of pre-existing characters, an alphabet of forms; note the appearance of the available characters typed across the screen in Scénario du Film Passion (see above).

In video there is no photographic likeness – only material to be read either by a human reader or a machine reader, it's the same. Like writing, video turns on the invisibility of its material base and "appearance" in turn becomes a question of commercial value as the insatiable demand for the continued production of images, for cultural consumption, is further facilitated by the new electronic media into which cinema has dissolved. Hence there is the need in Farocki and Godard's work for appropriation and re-appropriation; for re-scripting in order to resist the false demands of production and to make new poetic combinations out of the existing and seemingly infinite circulation of images. Indeed, for "recognising the visible in the invisible or for detecting the code by which the visible is programmed."[14]


** The double meaning comes from the pun in French "re-ce-voir" which, lost in translation, includes "see this". [editor's note]
[1] Jim Hillier (1982), Writing, Cinema and the Avant-Garde: Michael Snow and So is This , in ed. Jonathan Bignell, Writing and CinemaNew York: Pierson Education Inc., 1999, p. 75
[2] Christa Blümlinger, Incisive DiviDés and Revolving Images: On the Installation Schnittstelle, in ed. Thomas Elsaesser, Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004, p. 65
[3] Jorg Becker, Images and Thoughts / People and Things / Material and Methods, in Harun Farocki: A RetrospectiveCatalogue Goethe Institute, New York: 1991, p. 16
[4] Blümlinger, Ibid., p. 65
[5] Ibid., p. 65
[6] Ibid., p. 63
[7] Mallarmé’s "Préface" to Un Coup de Dés, in Stéphane MallarméCollected Poems, ed. and trans. Henry Weinfield, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, p. 121
[8] See Christophe Wall-Romana, Mallarmé's Cinepoetics: The Poem Uncoiled by the Cinematographe 1893-98, PMLA, Vol. 120, No. 1, Special Topic: On Poetry, Jan. 2005, pp. 128-147
[9] Sean Cubitt, Preliminaries for a Taxonomy and Rhetoric of On-Screen Writing, in ed. Bignell, p. 60
[10] Thomas Elsaesser, Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist, in ed. Elsaesser, Ibid., p. 11
[11] For recent work on Expanded Cinema see Expanded Cinema: Art Performance Film, eds. by Duncan White, Al Rees, David Curtis, Steven Ball, London: Tate Publishing 2011 
[12] See Jacques Rancière, Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren, trans. Steven Corcoran, London: Continuum, 2011 
[14] Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 14
[15] Thomas Elsaesser, Ibid., p. 11

Duncan White is a writer and research fellow at Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design. He co-edited and co-authored Expanded Cinema: Art, Performance, Film, Tate Publishing, 2011