Against Interest: Pierre Clémenti, Filmmaker

By Phil Coldiron.

“I love cinema because its images are traces of something forgotten, a lost part of you. Suddenly, in a flash, you are reacquainted with your past…” This, from Pierre Clémenti in his A Few Personal Messages, a collection of essayistic journal entries written over the course of the 18 months he spent in a pair of Italian prisons, articulates the Bazinian party line in its sentimental dimension. We are moved by films because, briefly, deeply, they convince us that the past isn’t irretrievable, that life isn’t forever slipping away. But in his usual manner, Clémenti immediately complicates this, narrowing the perspective to an actor’s: “And at the very moment you’re playing the part, you become the person who will one day look back at yourself.” To be an actor, to be in front of the camera, is to occupy a space, weird and uncanny, in which past, present, and future braid into an inextricable whole. To state the obvious, 50 years on from when Clémenti wrote these words, the role of actor, understood as such, now seems all but unavoidable. It’s nothing more or less than the texture of modern self-consciousness. 

Perhaps we enjoy this, perhaps we don’t. In either case, taking up the camera oneself offers a kind of control—deepening the pleasure, or providing relief. And so this is what Clémenti did. In good hippie fashion, he put his irresistible face behind the viewfinder, filming as much as he was filmed, trading mise en scène for mise en abyme, losing himself to find his way. I suspect that, to a sophisticated contemporary sensibility, such an approach to art must seem, if not insufferable, at least hopelessly naïve. But then, this is precisely what Clémenti desired: “I must always be a beginner who is open to all discoveries, and never let myself be locked into a style, a system of habits, or the old collection of ticks that is considered to be a sign of maturity.” Or, again: “I painted like a child…And with each naïve image, I made a window through the walls.” His belief, finally, was in the freedom to create.

The films which emerged from this belief are resolutely minor by design. His body of work consists largely of psychedelic diary films, on-the-wing images of his bohemian circle, family, street life, protests, film shoots, all seen through the fast, jagged, handheld rhythms first elaborated by the American avant garde. His own face appears often, indicating the communal nature of their creation. The later films begin to incorporate substantial volumes of found footage, both directly and by recording television screens. Shots rarely run past a few seconds, mattes and irises abound, as do superimpositions, both in-camera and out. Filters regularly render the images in harsh, acidic limes and magentas; to modify a line from John Berger on one of Clémenti’s countrymen, he clashed his colours together like cymbals, but the effect is surely not that of a lullaby. Rather, they have the look of their soundtracks: odd, cobbled-together quilts of the folky and the far-out, the analogue and the synthetic. Leisure becomes a source of nervy, primal energy.

That these films should be the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, as they recently were on the occasion of Claire Foster’s new translation of A Few Personal Messages, owes entirely to Clémenti’s standing as one of the most alluring actors of the second half of the 20th century. He was, like Jonas Mekas on this side of the Atlantic, a figure capable of willing a coherent alternative to the dominant modes of culture into being through sheer presence, whether by torquing otherwise conventional films into strange shapes, facilitating the creation of work by a number of the key young directors of his era, or serving as the centre of gravity around which a social scene could orbit. As such, the question of the films’ own formal achievement seems, if not irrelevant, then secondary to their standing as evidence of a particular way of life. They are, undoubtedly, interesting, a word which might worry us, as it did their maker. 

On July 24, 1971, Clémenti was arrested by Italian police on drug possession charges which were, he was certain, trumped up on account of his status as highly visible figure of the counterculture, and he spent the rest of that year, and much of the following one, in prison as a grindingly slow process of trial and appeal played out. A Few Personal Messages moves freely between his account of that period—the tedium and media spectacle of his trial, including the appearance of Fellini as a character witness; the lessons in grace and conviction he learned from his fellow prisoners; silent protests and communal revolt, leading to days in solitary confinement; the instruction in painting he received from one “more or less insane” neighbour on his cell block, the brutal suicide of another—and reflections on his life in art, all of which is shot through with a revolutionary perspective which continually links the repression of prison to that of capitalist society as a whole. A typical sentence: “I accepted this period of time and together, with my brothers, we created.” 

As I’ve said, creation, understood as a virtue in itself, was his watchword; his conviction here was absolute. And so, at even the bleakest moments, he maintains the serenity that only the deeply committed can achieve. It is, I think, impossible to untangle the dynamic between this belief and his equally deep, though more obliquely articulated, anti-capitalism. For him, capitalism is a social order that forecloses the possibility of creativity for its own sake, yoking it eternally to profit, accumulation, exploitation. But so too was creativity the thing which, when realized, could “make something click in the human consciousness,” as he once said during a roundtable discussion with a group of leading leftist filmmakers of his era, including Straub and Rocha. 

Seen from this angle, what Clémenti agitated for, and what his films instantiate, is a kind of folk cinema, one freed from the demands of investment and box-office returns, and made available by the proliferation of cheap, small-gauge materials. He took group inspiration from the cooperative ventures that sprung up across the New American Cinema, seeing in them a vision for the manner in which the working class, whether in the factory or the university, could be brought into contact with films that would inspire their own creative expression. The failure of this model, like many of the attempts to overcome the strictures of capitalism that emerged across the ’60s and ’70s, should be mourned, but only because much can be learned through mourning. Indeed, much has been learned, even as the dominance of corporate culture can seem at a glance to be more stifling than ever. It would be wrong, for example, to follow Clémenti in saying that Straub’s films “will always be made for a privileged audience of intellectuals”: the internet has made them freely available for anyone with interest and initiative enough to look. Our problem, today, is to find avenues by which to inspire that curious energy.

It’s worth considering, then, how this dynamic of inspiration might be manifested through these films. They are, with the exception of La révolution n’est qu’un début, continuons le combat (1968), which includes substantial footage from the street fighting of May ’68, and the prologue he made for Eduardo Bruno’s La sua giornata di Gloria the following year, quite far from any of the standard modes of political filmmaking: neither didactic nor discursive, only fleetingly concerned with documentary images of revolutionary action. Rather, they consist largely of images of individuals from Clémenti’s social circle, either at leisure or playing out obscure mystical narratives, very much in line with the contemporaneous work of his friend and collaborator Philippe Garrel. Occasionally, as in Visa de censure n° X (1967-75), he will overlay revolutionary slogans in text atop jumbles of unrelated images: in the centre of a frame heavily irised in magenta, a superimposition of a brunette woman in a cape running across a field towards the camera and a close-up of a hand opening and closing, when suddenly, as a fluttering red revolutionary flag adds a third layer to the image, there appears in bold, flashing typeface: “POUVOIR A IMAGINATION,” “RÉVOLUTION PERMANENTE.” 

Regular readers of this magazine will, perhaps, notice that I’ve spent much less time than usual on this sort of close description. This is largely because I don’t find that these films reward the kind of interpretive unpacking that their montage style might typically be taken to demand: while the example offered above somewhat clearly brings together three signs of “freedom,” in a general sense, it doesn’t seem to me to be the case that their specific combination conveys a meaning which is absent from any of its components. Instead, Clémenti’s films exist as wholes, compendiums of often illegible images—both literally, given their speed, and as signs which refuse to settle down into any meaning that might be articulated—that congeal into what, in modern terms, we might call a vibe. I want to say that they are attempts at making the energy of his life, drawn from his rejection of the standard social norms and disdain for the bourgeois society of mid-century Europe, as compelling as his own face. 

Judged against this high standard, the films are failures. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they fail as discrete objects, as films, but taken as a whole, his filmmaking comes closer to success. While I recognize that this may simply sound like an avoidance of criticism, a case of being overly charitable in the name of admirable intentions, I say “more accurate,” rather than “more fair” or “more just,” for a couple reasons. For one, it’s unclear that Clémenti himself ever had much concern with the idea of a film as a unique, coherent object: not only is their content often so similar as to make it impossible to separate them in memory—“Which one is it again where Nico is among the group of bohemians on the boat?”, etc.—but he also routinely reuses images across films, a move which has the effect of tying his work into a single constellation. 

The second, more foundational, reason is that Clémenti seems to have little concern with the standard criteria for artistic success in the first place: “When people see an underground film, they suddenly realise that they could do the same, or better. And this is the stimulus they need to buy a small camera.” In contrast to certain major American filmmakers who were plainly working to place themselves at not only the centre of modern cinema, but also of modern art or poetics as a whole—it’s surely not a coincidence, for example, that Brakhage places his famous wandering baby in a field full of leaves of grass—Clémenti’s aim was more modest, more practical: to facilitate the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers inspired not by his films, but by the fact of their existence. “This is possible,” he says. But what that “this” entails is up to you. 

All of this makes the sudden turn in his last two films, the feature-length À l’ombre de la canaille bleue (1985) and the short Soleil (1988), towards relatively overt narratives both stranger and more troubling. The former is a sustained dystopian narrative, a kind of silent film with sound (it was originally performed live, with actors and musicians on stage providing the dialogue and soundtrack), complete with traditionally drawn characters, which charts the descent of a North African immigrant into a series of vicious, sexualized murders, a taste for blood sparked by his violent response to finding his girlfriend being raped by a pair of thuggish cops. As a brutal, immoral social parable, it unexpectedly brings out Zola, rather than Rimbaud, Baudelaire, or the symbolist painters, as the key 19th-century figure guiding his work. Soleil, which seems to take place in the same miserable city as the longer film, returns to the montage style of the earlier films—indeed, much of its footage could again be confused with any of them (and again, much is recycled)—but inflects it with both scenes obliquely recounting his arrest and relatively more forthright voiceover narration spoken by Clémenti himself, which together shape its associative imagery into a clear expression of the lasting psychic and emotional weight of his imprisonment. 

“Je crains que ma douleur ne vous intéresse.” This line, spoken by Clémenti near the end of Soleil, returns us to the matter of the merely interesting. (It’s also, as it happens, been borrowed by the writer Stephanie LaCava, whose Small Press published the translation of A Few Personal Messages, for the title of her new novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You.) While, in its local context, this is simple, obvious worry regarding the danger of making one’s worst days into art, it applies more broadly to the animating idea behind Clémenti’s work as a whole: that an entire life might be filmed, and shaped into a vehicle for inspiration. If it fails, landing only at the level of interest, of cold and detached reflection, then what has one lived for? In this regard, criticism has no purchase on these films. All that matters is whether, having seen them, one picks up a camera of their own and ventures out into the streets.