Jean-Louis Comolli, cinema against the digital “desert”

As an epigraph to his latest book haunted by the reason for the disappearance, Play the game ?, released – fatal coincidence – on the very day of his death at the age of 80, on May 19, Jean-Louis Comolli quoted a sentence from Jeans Baudrillard : “Behind virtual reality in all its forms (telematics, IT, digital), the real has disappeared – and that is what fascinates the world. »

The disappearance of the real, the commodified spectacle, the simulacrum, the digitization of our existences…: so many motifs that Comolli questioned throughout his life, dedicated to reflection on images and the acceleration of their modes of circulation. “It is in the chain that the digital manufactures the virtual, the mirage, the monkey money. In this hologram-world, there is no longer either body or flesh, the hands no longer caress anything, the wounds themselves are artificial. This cloud of images robs us of reality and gradually imposes the desert of men and things.he writes in Cinema, digital, survival. The Art of Time (ENS Editions, 2019).

A life of service ethics visible

Born in 1941, became a jazz critic, film thinker, former editor of Cinema notebooks (1966-1971) in the theoretical-political phase of the newspaper in full Maoist effervescence, director of outstanding documentaries (in particular on the rise of the National Front, on theSofri case or on political life in Marseille, in a long collection co-produced with Michael Samson), Jean-Louis Comolli leaves an imposing body of work, without which reflection on contemporary images would be a little too dry and empty, a little too innocent too.

Generations of film students, at the University of Paris 8 in particular, have been nourished by his interventions, his analyzes in the journals Traffic and Documentary images. The strength of his aesthetic and political commitments, which naturally intertwined with him, have accompanied young filmmakers (Rithy Panhfor example), but also the generation of the most audacious documentarians of the last decades (Nicholas Philibert, Claire Simon, Denis Gheerbrant, Richard Copans, Johan van der Keuken…).

Admittedly, the prevailing zeitgeist put it a little out of the game of current trends. Logic: he was one of its most acidic despisers, inhabited by a certain vision of cinema and an ethic of the visible that was completely out of step with the triumphant contemporary codes. At the Cannes festival, his disappearance probably did not move many people; it comes from an elsewhere in the cinema, lodged nevertheless in its very world. The contemporary filmmakers important to him (Kiarostami, Monteiro, Oliveira, Gitai, Godard, Straub), as well as his original favorite filmmakers (Ford, Renoir, Vertov, Flaherty, Pasolini) populate an increasingly marginal cinephile.

Cinema against the all-image

Jean-Louis Comolli did not separate cinema from reality and fiction: Film, cut, edit, it obviously means manipulating, directing, choosing, determining, in short, interpreting a reality that never presents itself as “innocent” or “pure”. » It’s all just a question of staging, as we talk about putting into words. “All films are fiction films, including documentaries […] I think fiction is all around us. We are full of stories that we know, that we don’t know yet, that we can discover. Cinema is made to give resonance, perhaps even more powerfully, to our emotions, our fears, our tremors. » Far from erasing reality from our lives, the cinematographic image precisely helps us not to make it disappear from our lives, to make it more visible and sensitive.

A certain trend of documentary cinema (Verdier, 2021), Cinema, digital, survival. The Art of Time (ENS Editions, 2019), Daesh, cinema and death (Verdier, 2016), Cinema against spectacle (Verdier, 2009), see and power (Verdier, 2004)… All his essays have attempted to translate what the history of images yielded to the present (to its political injunctions, to the appearance of digital), less to express a form of nostalgia with regard to an illusory golden age of images only to try to understand how the reign of hyper-visibility profoundly affected the aesthetic experience and moral cinema, and beyond that, our civilization itself.

Against the permanent show

defending the “cinema versus spectacle”, Comolli conferred on 7and art a function of resistance to ambient dehumanization, proceeding from the hyper-presence of images in our lives: “In the infinite and infamous dance of images around us, we must save the image […] because it is, from our old memory, our means of still believing in what we inhabit of this world. » However, entertainment, and the way in which it contaminates the world of images, including that of information, not to mention reality TV, led him to alert us, discreetly, to the confusion of our eyes and our understanding of reality. . The “clouds of images, the clouds of sound that form our atmosphere and through which we breathe, we see and hear the world”worried him in that they made us blind to our own blindness.

In the scattering of images, screens, mirrors, the subject is lost; “He lost sight of himself. » This acceleration of the world has given rise to a news thatbedridden man, the electronic, plugged-in, connected man, who is not a spectator but rather a modern warrior, and who, although locked into social representations, is no longer in a position to learn from ar representationstics ».

Find direct access to the world

Under the layer of his thoughtful observations, he was basically asking a deeply philosophical question, adjusted to the ways of our time: in a world covered with screens and pixels, the essential issue is that of the desire for direct access to the world or, failing that, a direct relationship to the spectacle. The proliferation of screens and filming machines among our contemporaries means that the spectacle is now everywhere and permanent. We wander in the labyrinth of spectacle confused with reality. It is a reversal of perspective: if nos realities include the spectacle, the contrary is not certain and remains a playful hypothesis: the spectacle can, and perhaps wants, to exclude all that resembles a reality”he writes in Play the game ?

Fervent believer in cinema, whose vitality he would have liked to protect in the face of the attacks to which he is subjected, Jean-Louis Comolli questioned himself all his life, even in his last words, about what, in him, resisted general specularity, this which in him pushed him not to accommodate and not to adapt, not to play the game to the end. Art is a gracethis, mora implicationthe a condition”he writes in his latest book, as a way of summing up an existence of aesthetic and political commitments to which we will refer for a long time to find landmarks in the labyrinth of images, if we are not already lost, if we are not have not yet decided to stop playing the game.

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Jean-Louis Comolli, cinema against the digital “desert”

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