À propos de Jean and Boris

On Film / Essays — Aug 31, 2011

City symphony or spa burlesque? Polemic or caprice? From the outset, even in his manifesto lecture “Towards a Social Cinema,” delivered to the Groupement des Spectateurs d’Avant-Garde at Paris’s Le Vieux-Colombier before what was only the second public screening of À propos de Nice, Jean Vigo wouldn’t resolve whether the métier of his debut film was public or personal. À propos de Nice is an instance of the “social documentary,” he proposed in that June 14, 1930, address—and then, in the guise of approaching closer, he walked the category back a counterstep: “Or, to be more precise, the documented point of view.” One strain of Vigo’s musings on what he had accomplished wryly reflected the 1920s revolutionary Soviet documentary tradition, notably the Kino-Eye “life caught unawares” mode of Dziga Vertov, the older brother of Boris Kaufman, Vigo’s collaborator on À propos de Nice, as well as his cameraman for Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante:

The gentleman making a social documentary is the fellow who is thin enough to slip through a keyhole to film Prince Carol in his nightshirt as he gets out of bed, if, that is, the sight can be considered interesting in any way. The gentleman making a social documentary is the fellow who is small enough to slip into the high priest’s throne at Monte Carlo, in other words the croupier’s chair, which is no easy matter, believe me.

As for the other strain—well, that Paris afternoon, Vigo couldn’t stop talking about Un chien andalou (1929), the hallucinatory Luis Buñuel–Salvador Dalí film he had seen the previous day, according to Kaufman, “so when he got up to present À propos de Nice, he was so happy about Un chien andalou that he forgot about his own film.” During Vigo’s lecture, Kino-Eye morphed into slicing an eye. His wily designations of “social documentary” and “the documented point of view” insinuated visual-phenomena experiments, such as Man with a Movie Camera (1929), inside surrealist convulsions of the interior life:

I wanted Un chien andalou to be projected here today because, although it describes an internal drama in poetic terms, I still think it has all the qualities of true social cinema . . . Un chien andalou is a very important work for all kinds of reasons. The directing is meticulous, the lighting skillful, the images and visual associations perfectly coherent, the dreams impeccably logical. It is a marvelous confrontation between the rational world and the subconscious.

For his beautiful essay on Vigo in Film Biographies, Stan Brakhage styled the first strain—call it the Vertov strain—of À propos de Nice “realism,” and the second—call it the Buñuel-Dalí strain—“fantasy.” Even more provocatively, Brakhage apportioned the contrary qualities across the Vigo and Kaufman partnership: “Vigo and Kaufman acted catalyst to each other . . . The ‘split’ in their personalities—Boris’s ‘fix’ on scenes of Nice rock-steady, as if he himself were a tripod . . . Jean’s selection-of-scene and cutting creating the whole sense of Nice erupting—a schizophrenic perspective on everything they put their four entangled eyes to depict . . . accomplishing the visual ‘marriage’ of ‘fantasy’ and ‘realism’ as never before.”

Kaufman, who would go on to shoot On the Waterfront (1954) and Baby Doll (1956) for Elia Kazan and 12 Angry Men (1957) and The Pawnbroker (1964) for Sidney Lumet, recalled no such intrinsic personality opposition. “Looking back at that period, it was collaboration at its best, when respective efforts fused together for the good of the picture. I can hardly remember filmmaking as free of wasted motions and words . . . The period ‘Vigo’ in life was the most daring, unrestrained, and creative.” Still, the wonder of À propos de Nice is that Vigo and Kaufman discovered subtle and persuasive cinematic strategies to render the fantastic as if it were the everyday, and the everyday as though it comprised a vision of the end of the world.

When Vigo and Kaufman came together to start filming around Nice early in 1930, Kaufman was living in Paris, after a stint at the Sorbonne, and already had worked on at least four movies—among them Eugene Deslaw’s La marche des machines (1927) and Jean Lods’s city symphony 24 heures en 30 minutes (1928). Like so many of the lounging rich they would observe with Kaufman’s concealed Kinamo camera along the Promenade des Anglais, Vigo was in the Mediterranean resort city for his health, following a stay at the Espérance sanatorium at Font-Romeu, where he’d met his also ailing wife, Elisabeth “Lydou” Lozinska. Prior to encountering Kaufman through Lods in the autumn of 1929, Vigo likely would have served just a few weeks as an assistant studio cameraman, and probably shot some zoo footage with the Debrie Parvo he purchased with a wedding gift from his father-in-law. But Vigo impressed the impeccably pedigreed youngest brother of Vertov (born Denis Kaufman) and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman with his “miraculous” filmic savvy. As Kaufman noted to Edouard L. de Laurot and Jonas Mekas:

He came to Paris, called me up, and asked me to show him some of my films. Then he invited me to come down to Nice with him to make a satire on the futility of idle existence . . . This was Vigo’s first experience in the movie field. Yet he was intuitively so well prepared for the cinema that his grasp of the medium seemed to be miraculous. His maturity of understanding, which confirmed itself a couple of years later in Zéro de conduite, made him capable of directing actors—both amateur and professional—without any difficulty at all. He had a perfect ear, a perfect sense of the dramatic.

Kaufman memorialized the film here as “quite carefully planned ahead of time.” During other interviews, however, he dismissed any hint that À propos de Nice was the outcome of premeditation, instead rooting the vitality of the film in their alertness to chance and accident:

The structure of the film evolved from the shooting itself. We would often improvise and would sometimes let ourselves be surprised by the screen when the rushes came to us. The ideas continually developed. It was very much improvised. Let me give you an example. The focal point of Nice is of course the Promenade des Anglais, where you can be pushed along to take tea. When I used the chair for invalids—the wheelchair—to hold the movie camera as Jean was pushing me, while I was shooting cracks in the ground, [those around us] were talking about Russia. It was very amusing . . .

. . . Many inspirations were dictated by what we actually found. We didn’t set up anything, you know. We took the life as it was. One of the most amazing things to us was the cemetery of Nice, which was in a very rococo style. It permitted us to film the statuary, which was very expressive. In the case of where a child was buried, there was a statue of a mother tearing her hair and breasts. And we actually found a way of using parallel montage to relate the people on the Promenade des Anglais with the statuary in the cemetery.

The dynamic “parallel montage” editing they used was a signature of 1920s city symphonies, whether Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1930), Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), or Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Because of Vigo’s accent on individual point of view—“The fellow who makes a social documentary clearly states his personal point of view and commits himself one way or another,” he continued in “Towards a Social Cinema”—À propos de Nice managed an improbable advancement: a city symphony that resisted any modernist celebration of the city. Over and over, Vigo and Kaufman summoned the illustrative gestures and tropes of the city symphony—motion, machinery, work, sports, and leisure—only to deflate or negate them. Here, the familiar dawn preparation-for-the-day actions, such as sweeping gutters, picking up papers, and wiping down restaurant tables, soon tip into absurdity as workers beautify trees, braid palm leaves, and refurbish grotesque masks. The typical mighty vehicles of locomotion are either toys—the train that deposits the miniature tourists on a casino gaming table at the start of the film—or enervated, as parodied by the ancient newspaper vendor propelling his invalid carriage. The accelerating, often frantic movement exhibits impetus interruptus—amphibious planes struggle to lift off from the Mediterranean like insects stuck in honey; tennis players and bowlers play peppy, one-sided games; sailboats and race cars never cross a finish line; limousines drop the fashionable on carpeted runways that lead nowhere. Few among the crowds are dashing to work; they only stroll vacantly along the Promenade des Anglais. The old Nice, domain of the poor who sustain the hotels, casinos, and dance halls of the seaside retreat, may as well be a remote, if teeming, isolation ward. For Cavalcanti, Ruttmann, and Vertov, factory or park, laborer or tycoon, industry or holiday, all differences melded into a single, organic urban flow; for Vigo and Kaufman, each undertaking they witnessed through their cameras exhibited the stutter steps of an isolate.

Instead of celebrating Nice and modernity, then, À propos de Nice disposes a mordant clarification, a caustic reduction to elementals—the effect William Burroughs named “naked lunch,” “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of every fork.” Vigo recurrently referenced the stripping away at the crux of his film during his lecture at the Vieux-Colombier:

The aim of the social documentary is achieved when it succeeds in revealing the hidden meaning of a gesture, when it shows up the hidden beauty or the grotesqueness of an ordinary-looking individual. The social documentary must lay bare the mechanism of society by showing it to us in its purely physical manifestations.

And it must do this so forcefully that the world we once looked at with such indifference now appears to us in its essence, stripped of its falsehoods. The social documentary must rip the blinkers from our eyes.

“Hidden,” “lay bare,” “stripped,” “rip the blinkers”—sly visual jokes abound regarding this cinematic exposure, especially the trick transformations of the bootblack who rubs away a shoe to disclose the naked foot, and the elegant woman whose sparkling clothes “dissolve” through rapid costume changes until she is nude. But resourcefully, mercilessly, Vigo and Kaufman indicate that there is a city inside the city that the city will not acknowledge. Some of this revelation of secrets is economic—what looks like playful pleasure at the carnival turns out to be big business, as they jump-cut from the stylized Battle of the Flowers to the working women doggedly harvesting the blossoms, and then to the crushed, soiled blooms on the streets. The Nice of the poor within the tourist rendezvous is at once antipode and mirror. By turns, warships in the harbor and giant blackface minstrel heads in the procession intimate the militarism and racism backing the city’s fortune. The darkest secrets, however, prove more existential. People reduce to animals—an ostrich, dogs, alligators, and flocks of birds. Humans also tilt toward the inanimate—dolls, masks, and hollow or freakish cemetery statues—much as Nice itself is full of cracks and inevitably will revert to rocks and sea.

Little in À propos de Nice is as it appears, and impulses partake of their opposite. If that pre-Lenten carnival signals the annual explosion of the city’s repressed libidinous energy, the frenzy also emerges as a furious manifestation of a collective suicide hysteria, “the last gasps of a society in its death throes,” as Vigo concluded in “Towards a Social Cinema.” If those menacing smokestacks at the denouement embody the “revolutionary symbols” (Kaufman’s nostalgic Soviet phrase) of a future apocalyptic democracy, they’re also the furnaces where, on Shrove Tuesday, King Carnival will be raucously burned—and also perhaps the fires of everlasting damnation.

The original feat of À propos de Nice remains this nuanced, complex, and elusive tone—as T. S. Eliot once defined wit, as a “recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible,” it is a witty work of art. For all that, Vigo and Kaufman’s documented point of view rarely is as distant as those initial heavenly fireworks and sensational aerial shots of the Nice coastline promise. By the time of L’Atalante, just four years later, Vigo’s skills would embrace a radical empathy that surpassed friendship and love, but now his gifts are for implication, his own human entanglement in the situations he is unmasking. For isn’t that carnival clown among the gyrating, leggy dancers Vigo? And always I’m struck by the brisk frames of a seaside man cranking his movie camera. Occasionally, he is mistaken for Kaufman, yet he could be almost anyone who in 1930 happened to be shooting on the Promenade des Anglais. What did he film that sunny winter day in Nice?