Interview with Tim Palmer, Author of Brutal Intimacy
By Leo Collis.
Brutal Intimacy is the first full-length publication from Dr. Tim Palmer. The book focuses on modern French cinema, its recent exports and the French film ecosystem. It also researches the impact of young filmmakers, women filmmakers, French film education and the variety of French film genres in regards to the nation’s film culture and France’s position on the international film stage. I met with Dr. Palmer to discuss the book, the recent success of The Artist (2011), and the current golden age of cinema.
Leo Collis: Tell me about Brutal Intimacy and your intentions for the book.
Tim Palmer: I just gradually became interested in French cinema. I wrote my PhD on French cinema in the 1950s, and Jean-Pierre Melville in particular. After my PhD I wanted to look at something different and I wanted to start work on something completely anew. I started getting interested in contemporary French cinema. Initially I was watching the fairly well-known films – for example films by Claire Denis and François Ozon – and getting up to speed with the well-known auteurs.
I have to say that one of the pieces in the puzzle was seeing Gaspar Noé’s film Irreversible (2002), which ended up being on the cover of the book. I can’t say now that I like it especially – liking or disliking it is not really the issue – but I was just stunned by it. I saw it at the Curzon in Soho in London, which is an amazing cinema, technically. Irreversible is a film that is brilliant at the level of its soundtrack and its sound design and it was one of those moments where I felt like I had to write something about this film to make sense of my responses to seeing it. I’d never really had that reaction before. That was the first step, to write on that film and its contemporaries, what I call the cinéma du corps – films about corporeal processes that aren’t really designed to please us, or beguile us. This is virtually what all world cinema tries to do, to charm us or engage us. These films [cinéma du corps] want to assault us in some ways. So I tried to research that.
I did a conference presentation in Atlanta, Georgia, and a woman called Leigh Gibson approached me from what was then a new film series line at Wesleyan University Press and she asked if I would write a book for that series. At that point it was going to be quite specific, on what eventually became just a chapter. Frankly, it was just one of these lovely pieces of serendipity, I suppose, in that the more I saw, the more connections I made with other things and my interest just grew. I was always very conscious that I wanted to try and do justice to what I thought this landscape of cinema was doing. I didn’t want to just update the record; I really wanted to start over and come up with methodologies and approaches that looked at the films and not the other way round. A lot of what I have problems with in journalism and academia alike is that people cherry-pick and go looking for what they want to talk about and pick examples that furnish their thesis or prove their hypothesis.
The scope of the book just grew and grew and I started to look at the other things. It just struck me, for example, that French cinema in the 21st century had fostered this really large, burgeoning population of women filmmakers. Also, there is the fact is that France now has a thriving popular film situation. Look at Thomas Langmann, who as producer has just picked up the Oscar for Best Picture for The Artist; he’s the most high-profile figurehead in this area.
In the book I ended up calling it an ecosystem and the only comparable time I could think of in French cinema history is the 1920s. A pitch I make to my students when I teach contemporary French films is that whatever you like about cinema, there is something going on in French cinema that will interest you: documentaries, shorts, animations – France is the third highest producer of animation on planet Earth – films by veterans, the New Wave generation is still going strong. France also has this extraordinarily high debutant filmmaker population. Forty percent of French films each year are made by first timers; shorts, experimental works, hybrids – what I call pop-art films – and crossovers: Films that use certain devices of popular mainstream cinema and some features we associate with intellectual, high-art filmmaking and combined in weird ways.
So my interest in writing the book was to try and do justice to this. French cinema today is a lot of combinations, hybrids, reinventions and juxtapositions, hence the title Brutal Intimacy. It is just a wonderfully dynamic field. You can’t really call it just an industry, it’s a culture, it’s an epicentre, it’s a source of national pride and it’s a tool for export. Again, it’s like France in the 1920s where this critical mass had been reached of all these different approaches to film going on at once.
LC: This is the first full-length book that you’ve done. When you went into the process did you have a certain expectation about how it would go? Did the finished product change your expectations at all?
TP: It did, actually. I’d just written my dissertation, which was a book-length work, and I’ve published things from it but not as a book; I’m going to come back to it and revise it quite extensively. But from there I took a big step back, recharged my batteries, and then this interest in contemporary French cinema came along.
It started out as a very small-scale thing, focusing on people like Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont, these cinéma du corps filmmakers. One thing led to another and it did adapt and became very big and very difficult because of that. I felt like sometimes I was juggling a lot of balls, but I wanted to strike a balance, to write a study of a thing – ten years of cinema, that is an awful lot of material. On the one hand I wanted to single out individuals, but I also wanted to talk about tendencies and the things that get neglected in studies of cinema. Academics, journalists or, indeed, cinephiles talking about cinema, often neglect the conversational dynamics of cinema. This was one of the motivations for the book and how I think about successful centres of cinema, whatever you’re interested in.
People want to talk about cinema as either auteurs, individual artists, or they want to talk about it as a symptom of culture, a cultural unconsciousness or a very large-scale theory. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with those approaches, but I felt like that wasn’t appropriate for this country in this time. So that was my motivation, my hunch to begin with and a hunch I hope I backed up with the book. It meant a lot of work. I really wanted to be committed to this idea that I would do this ecosystem of cinema justice. I didn’t want to grind an axe, I didn’t want to come in and say it’s about politics or it’s about such-and-such an issue, I wanted to do an anatomy, a taxonomy I suppose of this wonderful system that is going on there right now.
LC: You discuss cinema du corps quite extensively in the book. It has quite intense subject matter, it is dark and brutal and difficult to watch. Did you find it difficult to continually watch these films for the purposes of writing the book?
TP: Very much so. Some of these films are genuinely difficult to watch. Twentynine Palms (2003) by Bruno Dumont, for example, which I would say is a very close neighbour to Irreversible. Trouble Every Day (2001) [Claire Denis] is another one, but I think of this anew when I now teach contemporary French cinema. I recently screened Irreversible to my students for the first time, which I’d always balked at a little bit. I ended up doing it, but for the first time in my career I said beforehand that “I’m not going to think any the lesser of you if you walk out of this screening. I’m not going to judge you if you feel like you genuinely can’t get through this.” But it was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had teaching film. The students were really excited about it and the students actually shared my profound ambivalence about it, even now.
It is very difficult to talk about things we don’t like. A lot of film, taking its cues from Hollywood which has done this the most successfully since the late teens, is designed to charm us, to thrive off conventions, to give us answers to problems, to be coherent. We have this drummed into us since childhood that good works of art are organic – that if someone talks about their motivation, that motivation will then be rationalised, or if they have a problem then they’ll solve that problem. Structured ritual forms, especially in cinema, are the norm. Part of my interest in those films is not just the material – which obviously is very graphic, very transgressive and very dispassionate – but to me it was a very brilliant avant-garde philosophy in these films. Stylistically they are bravura and the more I study them and come back to them – much as I recoil sometimes, as I do with the audiences that I watch them with – there is something very fascinating about this and there is something, I think, meaningful about these films, which stay with you.
François Truffaut once said of Stanley Kubrick, “You don’t just watch a Stanley Kubrick film, you invite it into your life.” I thought that was a very lovely quote – the notion that a film stays with you or becomes indelible in certain ways. I felt the need to write, to study and try to understand that because people are very resistant to that. Critics and scholars alike often want to dismiss films that are transgressive and difficult to watch. While avant-gardes have flourished in cinema, mainly in the twenties, sixties and maybe seventies, they are still going with a minority interest. The cinéma du corps revives a lot of these notions. It takes us back to things like Un Chien Andalou (1929), where the form and materials are unapologetically confrontational. To me there is something very vibrant and fascinating about that, because they are so uncompromising. I admire that. I admire filmmakers who are uncompromising, because there are very few of them and a lot of them are in France, in my opinion.
LC: I’m guessing that you submitted the book before the release of The Artist. Was it frustrating that you couldn’t include it in your discussion of popular French cinema?
TP: Yes and no. I was very happy about The Artist’s success, just because it put French cinema on a lot of North American peoples’ radar for the first time. A lot of my motivation as a European working in the U.S. is to try and be an ambassador in my own way. I go to French film festivals, I regularly introduce and program films and I’ve been invited to do festival talks and lectures. I’m trying to put these films out there and expose Americans to what I believe is this very diverse centre. It was good in that sense.
I talk about Thomas Langmann in the book and his work with Vincent Cassel in the Mesrine series, and I talk about him as this new exponent of French cinema. It must export, it must borrow genres, it must cite other world cinemas – such as North America’s – it should be designed, exhibited, produced and distributed for foreign audiences. The Artist was a culmination of what had been going on and what I was writing about.
In certain ways it was a shame not to have the opportunity for that. That was the “slam-dunk moment” in a sense, but I did feel like I had traced out that part of what was going on, the trajectory that led to The Artist. What was gratifying about it was that students of mine who had graduated and gone on to other things were emailing me when The Artist was getting a lot of interest. They were saying they’d seen Jean Dujardin on Saturday Night Live and that they felt like they were in on the joke, that they had been enjoying this for years previously and now everyone else was enjoying it. For me it was just good that it raised the profile of French cinema.
LC: You discuss the teaching of film, production of film, funding, female filmmakers and the emphasis on youth cinema in France. Do you think these practices should be imitated by other countries, or is it something you like being inherently French?
TP: Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, what I think is neglected in discussions of cinema is the conversational dynamic, that innovation begets innovation. The other thing that I think is neglected is mentoring in film schools and film students becoming practicing professionals. I think it’s overlooked all the time. Look at Sergei Eisenstein, famous for many things: montage, political filmmaking, Potemkin; but he was also a teacher for many years and his work is studied at La fémis, France’s most famous film school. For me, that was a way in, adapting my approach based on what I discovered. I tried to be scientific about it. What I saw was the generative mechanisms of French cinema, and I tried to figure out what they were and why these films were so deft, cineliterate, skilful and diverse. In part, it’s instruction, it’s film classes, young directors being pushed into the industry and being celebrated and fêted, being given rapid exposure to industry protocols and given intellectual and historical stimulation.
I was also interested in how filmmakers self-promote – another neglected part of the profession. Here, a norm of French cinema is that, especially for young directors, you get a lot of space for interviews, a lot of column inches in newspapers and magazines. Even in non-specialised publications, like an average daily like Le Monde, you as a filmmaker are required to go on the record and talk about your art and craft and practices, your influences, your dialogue with the past. For me, this comes from film school and that conversational dynamic that is in part instilled by professors. Jean Paul Civeyrac models this because he goes back and teaches in Le fémis. He sees himself as a practitioner, a professional, an interviewee and filmmaker, but also as a teacher. He’s giving people readings, he’s lecturing on filmmakers from the past, he’s showing films from Mizoguchi and Hitchcock for example.
So there’s this continuum, and for me it raises the bar across the board. I see the films themselves becoming more interesting. Marina de Van’s In My Skin, (Dans ma peau, 2002), for example, is a first time feature and I was astonished, and I still am when I screen it for my students, about how mature it is, even though it may sound patronising to say that. This was made by someone who had never made a feature before and on a shoestring budget. Marina de Van, whom I interviewed and had some interesting conversations with, had come through the film school system and had this level of sophistication which I don’t think you see very often in film centres outside France these days. This type of filmmaker is versed in film history, adept in technique, able to work quickly with very limited resources, a tiny budget, a tiny shooting schedule and yet able to create something extraordinary, vivid, challenging, even exacting sometimes, but really cinematic to me. And that was a prod for me – how does someone get to produce a film like that for their first film? Where do they come from? How is this industry buoyed by lots of people like Marina de Van?
The film industry is also very feminised. About twenty to twenty-four percent, on average, of films made in France are by women and this has become a norm now. So I had to find out – why are there so many women? Why are they able to make such progress in an industry that is historically and scandalously almost exclusively male? It was almost that this question had gotten stale, but quietly France has made the most progress of anyone, anywhere in the history of cinema. This, to me, was another question that motivated the book. One of the reasons, I found out, was French film schools actively recruiting women, trying to encourage – although belatedly – giving women access to a profession that of course they should feel to be their own. Most countries don’t do this.
It is certainly a lesson. It is something to be learnt. I talk about applied cinephilia in the book and most people think that cinephilia is the domain of the critic – that it’s about passionate film fans, who sometimes become directors, and people think that the New Wave filmmakers left that behind as they became mature directors rather than filmmakers. For me, though, cinephilia in France today is a working principle, part of what makes the craft there richer, and its absence elsewhere is what I think is impoverishing other countries. There is a lot to learn from this, I think. Film schools that do critical studies and production – I think that can be a very good thing, when the two disciplines speak to each other. One of my disappointments with this academic discipline is that there isn’t this conflation. It’s very difficult to achieve; film students tend to gravitate to one or the other, but it can be done. It is somewhat of a juggling act. I try to encourage this among my more production-minded students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where I teach – to try and think of what they are looking at. Films from the past and the present are tools for them to adapt, to refine, to make their own and then become better filmmakers. It’s not just about nuts and bolts and setting lights and staging shots and blocking actors. It is this intellectual rigor, the best of both worlds. That facet of French cinema is one aspect that more centres of film structure should be doing.
LC: So is this going to be the first book of a series or do you have any other projects in the works?
TP: I find myself endlessly fascinated with French cinema. I find it to be such a rich, baffling, bewildering, but stunningly inspiring centre of cinema and I feel there has always been great strength in whatever area you are looking at. I have a new book coming out, Directory of World Cinema: France, that I am co-editing, but have also written things for, that will be the first in a series. For example, for this first volume I have written a history of female filmmakers in France. In general this Directory series will become a revisionist, historical encyclopedia, where we have gotten experts from various areas – like the avant-garde or documentary or popular cinema –and they contribute a historical framing essay of the history of French cinema through their particular train of thought. Colin Burnett has written a lovely piece on the “Tradition of Quality” but he re-cast it as “Traditions of Quality”. People have often looked down on this notion. François Truffaut famously dismissed this in the 1950s as “Cinéma de Papa” or “Daddy’s Cinema”, but it turns out there have been lots of them and often venerated ones as early as the 1930s. So that book is trying to open up new ways of conceiving French history. We have lots of essays on individual films within that. That’s coming out in the autumn, but it’s up for pre-order now. (see http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/D/bo13174119.html)
I have also been asked by Palgrave Macmillan to write a study of Irreversible for their “Controversies” series, so that’s what I’m up to right now. I really like the idea, though, of writing a period-by-period history of French cinema. I have a few other areas I would like to look at. There are so many areas begging for attention. French cinema has been so buoyant and so vigorous for so long and yet a lot of it is so unknown. Filmmakers have disappeared from view – even people who were well known in their lifespan have just vanished. So I want to try and come back and shed some light on those rather forgotten filmmakers from the past. There is a lot ready for rediscovery. One area in particular I’m researching right now is the period between the Liberation and the New Wave, the postwar era, which has been probably the most historically overlooked, even despised, yet is actually a catalytic and very diversely rewarding period. Much of the groundwork for what French cinema has become today was laid back then, and there are many icons and institutions whose careers need to be revived.
LC: Any last thoughts on this discussion and the book?
TP: People talk these days about the death of cinema – that the medium has had its day, that the DVD era means that nobody cares about movie-going anymore and that the golden era of cinema or cinephilia is behind us. I find this to be completely wrong. To me, this is the greatest period that we are in, right now. This is in terms of access, availability and exposure to a wide range of films. We can go and get a Criterion DVD and study it with scholarly accompaniment and restored image. Archive reels are accessible, often online. Looking backwards, there are so many films available. My students show me this – they find ways of getting to things and then make their own connections. As they read Brutal Intimacy or take classes, they then go off on their own trains of thought, and do their own research, and come up with their own interests, and their own filmmakers, making it their own. This is something I want to encourage. I think we are living in a golden era of film study and access to these kinds of films. If my work encourages people to follow their own paths and to bounce their ideas off and have meaningful interactions with this wonderful generation of French filmmaking going on right now, then hopefully I’ve made a contribution.
Leo Collis is a Film, Media and Journalism graduate from The University of Stirling. Now an aspiring film writer, Leo is looking for projects that will challenge him and further increase his love of film.
Read Leo Collis’s review of Brutal Intimacy here.