Les États généraux du film documentaire 2006 Rossellini and television

Rossellini and television

« Despair is really the sign of the world. And cinema is one of the more serious symptoms of universal despair. We just have to see the way that it has been transformed into a university of theft and murder, manufacturing if not criminels, which would have emerged anyway, at least the techniques of crime. We only have to examine the economic structures of cinema. They are structures of anxiety. Each individual works under a kind of crushing conviction that in any case the whole thing will finish badly and we have to take advantage of it as long as it lasts. Each day won on the impending catastrophe is a gift of God. Let’s exhaust its pleasures while keeping in the corner of our eye that little sulphur coloured cloud on the horizon. So much so that cinema no longer belongs to the capitalist system, whose concern is to invest money to make a patrimony of capital productive and pay dividends over a certain duration. Cinema has bounced straight into the system of speculation which is only the exaltation of the instant. The producer is a horse trainer who is also a gambler. He dreams up combinations based on his date of birth and his car’s licence plate number. And on Wednesday at 5 p.m. he consults his box office like a better examining the horse race results, to know whether the film which came out at 2 p.m. will make him a million or lose him as much, falling into the world of grandstand economics and with, in any case, the desire riven to his body to fraudulently get around the tax laws by declaring losses. The world of show business, of which cinema is only one, albeit fundamental, aspect, is a world of intermediaries, a world of brokers who build nothing durable either in cultural or financial terms but who scramble their way between two banks, trying to pick up a few crumbs on the way. Anyway, everyone knows that in cinema, there is no difference between money borrowed and money earned. How could there be? In any case the debt will disappear by itself because the debtor will die before the due date, shot down by the woman he has just left, or by the husband of the one he would like to possess, unless he succumbs to a heart attack in the location’s infirmary… In the end, cinema’s only horizon is anxiety, and this anxiety is just as familiar and necessary as a drug. Producers, who know that they are condemned to lose money and who are afraid of the prospect, are even more frightened when they happen to make some! It is true that they win essentially by trickery and hold-up. Cinematic hold-ups of course, but what is the difference? We should be able to build a general project not only of cinema but of the audiovisual. This would mean that we stop looking exclusively for financial profit and that at least a part of the investment be made with the idea of producing, in the medium or long term, social benefits. Unfortunately cinema is incapable of such an effort. As for television, there we are faced with the double problem of consumer society and state monopoly, with the latter often acting as the objective ally of the former…”
Roberto Rossellini (extracted from Fragments d’une autobiographie, Éditions Ramsay, 1987)

More than the celebration of an anniversary, the aim of this two day seminar is to invite the audience to an encounter with a corpus of works and an approach deeply rooted in modernity. On his sudden death a few days after the closure of the Cannes Festival whose jury he presided, Roberto Rossellini was a man in full activity, full of projects and ideas. He was preparing to shoot his Karl Marx for which he had chosen the emblematic title Work for Humanity. While this was the title that the young Marx had given to his thesis, it could just as well apply to the work Roberto Rossellini ceaselessly had carried out since his beginnings as a cineast and especially, of course, to the final period of his life which he devoted – in an extremely willful and conscious way — to his encyclopaedic project of a history of humanity. While true that he wasn’t able to complete the project — but who could have? —, he nonetheless managed to shoot nearly thirty hours, coproduced and broadcast in their majority by Italian television, but also by French television and to a lesser extent by other European television companies.

Although this adventure — in all respects exceptional in the history of cinema and television — could be dubbed utopian, we must not let this judgement obscure the essential point: Rossellini did not just dream or theorize another form of television or even practice brilliant but short lived “incursions” into the medium; he constantly strived to muster the resources — both economic and artistic — necessary to make his dream come true, and he managed this over a period of fifteen years, even as he faced the incomprehension of the “profession’s professionals” as well as by the critics, barring a few rare exceptions.

In this respect Rossellini’s production is like no other. The attempts at creating for television, as successful and brilliant as they might be, by Renoir (Le Testament du docteur Cordelier and Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir) or Godard (Six fois deux : sur et sous la communication, France Tour Détour deux enfants) are in no way comparable.

For Renoir and Godard, television was above all an invitation to re-examine their methods of shooting and production; it also expressed — particularly for Godard — the desire to take into account all the peculiarities of a new medium which inherited as much from radio as it did from cinema. Godard wanted to stimulate a new reflection on the relations between (tele)viewers and the images and sounds they were being offered. On the contrary, it does not seem that working for — and with — television rather than for the cinema made much difference to Rossellini’s practice of the art, and it would be hard to distinguish aesthetically the films directed “for” television. Rossellini repeated the statement numerous times — and again during the 1977 Cannes Festival in the symposia he organised: cinema and television are only two of the means which can (must) be used to reach the same public. What he violently rejected in cinema is exactly what he denounced during his last years in television: a temptation toward the spectacular, the medium’s irresponsibility towards its audience. The evolution of television programming over thirty years — which Rossellini had clearly observed (note on this point the first pages of his Fragments of an Autobiography) — could in no way invalidate his project. On the contrary, it was made each day more necessary, even as the enterprise was becoming more difficult. (Re)discovering some of these films today will no doubt stimulate discussion at a time when thematic and educational television stations are sprouting up all over and when the question of “education of the image” has become an important issue for the future.

Gérald Collas

Coordination : Gérald Collas

Guests : Programmation élaborée en partenariat avec l'Ina.
Invités : Alain Bergala et Jean-Louis Comolli