Green Eyes and Cinephile Loathing – About some thoughts by Marguerite Duras

This text is an edited and translated mail I have written to a friend a day after having read Les Yeux Verts by Marguerite Duras and without being able to re-read it or check certain passages. During the last couple of days I was confronted with the book again, so I decided to publish this.

When Marguerite Duras was given Carte Blanche by Cahiers du Cinéma in 1980, out came a somehow incoherent, somehow beautiful and always vibrant collection of texts called Les Yeux Verts. In it many things are discussed such as politics, the ideas of writing and cinema („My relationship with cinema is one of murder. I began to make movies in order to reach the creative mastery which allows the destruction of the text. Now it’s the image I want to affect, to diminish . . .“) the Soviet Union, Chaplin or a big interview with Elia Kazan. In a great, fearless essay Duras differs between what she calls a primary viewer of a film (meaning: the masses manipulated by capitalism who go to cinema to forget) and the small percentage of people who are not part of that kind of audience. Some might refer to such a view as snobbish but Duras arguments that she and the primary viewer will never understand each other. There is question about what comes first: The author/filmmaker or the critic/viewer. Both at the same time, one is tempted to say. In an interview given in Cannes 2012 Carlos Reygadas was shrugging his shoulders when confronted with viewers who did not understand what his Post Tenebras Lux was all about. He said: „Well, some will never understand. You cannot fight it.“

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Is this the story of a difference? A misunderstanding? Cinema, as always between the industry and the art, lost and impure. Most cinephiles I know would deny such demarcations. They have their point. You can find greatness in mainstream entertainment, in so-called trash, in art, in art house, whatever. I have always liked the texts by Alexandre Astruc on Howard Hawks, I think you have read them. The way he connects fascism to cinematic greatness with and without sarcasm at the same time beats at the very core of this conflict. Cinema is and has always been both: The money and the soul. The industry and the art. The fascist and the liberal. Nevertheless Duras is right when she says that primary viewers will not be interested in her work. It is the primary viewer that is limited, not the one who makes demarcations. The primary viewer, she says, is also among critics and filmmakers. They account for 90 percent. While she would be happy with her 10%, the filmmaker for the primary viewer would be unhappy with his 90%. He always wants to take away the 10%. He will fail forever, she writes. Duras also states that one is not condemned to be a primary viewer forever. Yet, a primary viewer will not be changed by force. He will have to see something, to maybe fall in love.

Another point Duras discusses in her texts is the idea of curiosity. Maybe this is linked to the primary viewer. Despite writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma Duras stresses her ambivalent relation with the “guys of Les Cahiers“ more than once, thus her relation to film criticism is a big topic. She finds a lack of curiosity in film criticism. She claims that critics are writing only about big budget films, that there is a lack of choice and freedom in film culture. Of course, like in her best texts, out of her speaks the fever of personal frustration. It seems that cinephilia, for Duras, is a sickness connected to a love that loses the ability to see. Cinephilia might be a blindness then. One of those paradoxes but as you know, we have seen this blindness. People ignoring cinema in order to have an opinion. People judging before seeing, without seeing. People watching and watching without reflecting. Is it more important to know what we want from cinema or to not know what we want from cinema?

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While thinking about her own films Duras writes that they are vibrating, floating. More than once she flirts with the idea of a black screen. Destroy cinema, she said. I have always thought that her inability to destroy cinema (or her words) has been the cause of those floating vibrations in Duras. It is a cinema of impossibility. When her camera looks at the ocean and she thinks about destruction there will always arrive a creation or suggestion. Moreover her women, I can only call them that, seem to live in the same world as the camera, that is between self-destruction, forgetting, loving and so on. She is very much about the not-representation, the gap between the presence of light and the stories that might or might not have happened. Thinking about cinema this way will always lead to the idea of destruction. When she says that primary viewers visit cinema to forget we should not suppress that this is exactly what bothers her protagonists: Either the forgetting or the memory that does not vanish. Once written down or spoken out, her words transform those memories. When you then confront them to forget you will not get anything from it. Carol Hoffman has written: “It is a remembering that destroys memory and leads to a new memory, which can replace the last only fleetingly and without substance “ Without curiosity and desire, how could you possibly bare such a work?

Like Jean-Marie Straub and to a certain degree Brian De Palma, Duras is very concerned with the lie that is part of the word spoken but also part of the images made. These three filmmakers offer three interpretations of the lie in cinema. Straub does everything to get rid of it, De Palma does everything to make the lie the truth (or vice versa) and Duras tears down the difference between lie and truth. Maybe Godard would have a say here too. In one of her texts Duras recounts an episode in which Godard was inviting her and she travelled a long way to meet him. When she arrived he wanted to sit down below the staircase of a school entrance while all the children were leaving school. They talked a bit until Godard said: „Isn‘t it funny. I let you come such a long way to sit down at this place.“ Apart from that Duras felt that both of them were thinking a lot about the relation of text and image with Godard coming from the other side (the image) as Duras (the text). There are also those filmmakers claiming that the word is a lie and the image is not. I always liked how Jean-Luc Nancy linked this thought with the importance of a doubt. Only in doubting the image it can become a truth again. He said that about Kiarostami but it is also true for Duras.

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In her texts I can also feel what we have once referred to as the “cinephile loathing“. I don‘t know if you remember. This idea of having had too much while still watching. It is a thirst for something else that ultimately leads us back to cinema. I sense in her writings a desire to not like cinema while being madly in love with it. Especially in her text about Woody Allen that becomes apparent. In interviews she has often said that she does only watch a handful of films a year. I don‘t believe her. We have this tendency with contemporary filmmakers, too. I have heard them say: I haven‘t been too cinema for a decade. I only watch old films. I only watch documentaries. I don‘t watch anything. There is a desire to not be influenced. Jacques Rivette teaches us the opposite. With us, as we discussed, this cinephile loathing might be something else and I somehow felt it mirrored in Duras. The idea that our generation has been betrayed by cinema too often. A silly thought, but still a thought. It is as hard to believe in excitement as it is to believe in doubt. As a result, everything stucks and floats just like the black wall that Duras describes which is between her words and images, makes them vanish. Still, others have told us that it has always been like this and maybe we love and doubt too much to state those things. The cinema writers we read and the filmmakers we love are either embracing the death of cinema or fighting death with knowledge and a suffocating enthusiasm. Both kinds seem to be descendants of Serge Daney of whom we all dream at night. Cinema was always beautiful when it was something else. With Duras it certainly is. I will have to re-watch her films. To not forget.

Echo and Narcissus: Visita ou memórias e confissões by Manoel de Oliveira

If there was ever a film that was Echo and Narcissus in one and the same gesture it is Visita ou memórias e confissões by Manoel de Oliveira. A film so precious that it had to be a secret. Filmed in 1981 right after the director, then 73, had completed his tetralogy of frustrated loves with a heart that is no danger anymore because it has stopped, Oliveira  had allowed screenings of the film only on two occasions during his lifetime. The first was a screening for the crew and cast and the second was during a retrospective held in Lisbon. Now the film has been freed due to a death, Oliveira‘s death at the age of 106 (every year in prison for the film was a year of life for its director). Rather than a memory or a confession, it is a testimony of a man who we can feel as much in the sensibility of his sounds, images and cuts as in his story. After all, this is a work of fiction, a fiction of the eternal we all can touch. But can we be sure of that?

Why Echo and Narcissus? Well, as the film is largely concerned with its director (who even doubts if it is a good idea to make a film about himself while speaking the credits out loud in a way that could make Godard jealous) it acts like the eternal beauty of the mirror Narcissus is in love with. The film is like an album of selfies of Angélica where every image becomes a saved memory of things otherwise forgotten. Visita ou memórias e confissões is a mother who gives birth to herself (after she has died). While one might find this obsession with images and their immortality beautiful, one might encounter some difficulties with applying it to a self-portrait. But we can relax because firstly, this is not really a film about Oliveira. It is a fiction made of memories and confessions of the director, certainly personal, autobiographical but still made with the colours of numerous flowers and the smile of Mona Lisa, who is looking at us in almost every shot in which Oliveira himself appears as well as with a sense of time that brings this Narcissus closer to Echo. Anticipating his own self-importance, the director decided for the film to become something else, to not-be Narcissus but to be the Echo of his own Narcissus. He locked it away and opened a time in-between the mirror and the projection of the mirror. In this time he didn‘t give birth to his own life after his death, but to cinema, the fiction, the time itself. We can also speak of a time-image of timelessness or this first tear we all would have loved to save in a tiny box to remind us forever of whatever we think about. Yes, the film is the love story of Echo and Narcissus, past and present, images and voices and therefore it is a again a story of frustrated loves. It has to end in disappearance like the story of Echo and Narcissus. But there is something else here. Oliveira has tricked this disappearance when he locked the film away. We have heard about detailed notes some directors gave projectionists, but never before have the acts of distribution and projection been as much an artistic choice as in the case of Visita ou memórias e confissões. For those believing in miracles cinema is finally a magic lantern again. Oliveira will disappear for ever. As we know, the whole idea of Echo‘s love is also buried in repetition. Jacques Derrida has written a great deal about it. While repeating Echo manages to find her own voice. The same is true for the film. It gets its own life until it is not about what it is showing or whose time-image we are seeing but about the presence of cinema as such. It‘s a miracle.


Large parts of the film are not only concerned with Oliveira but also with the house he has been living in for 40 years, a house which he calls a labyrinth in another film, Porto da Minha Infância. It is visited by a shy camera movement and two voices (Teresa Madruga and Diogo Dória), images and voices. They enter the seemingly empty place and look at unspoken memories and confessions. It becomes quite clear that the house is as much the soul of Oliveira as it is the film. Not only does the lover of architecture project images of the past on the walls of the house later in the film and show us photographs that watch from silent cupboards, he also gives the film its structure by means of architecture. The question is always what is behind the next corner, what is above and under, what is the time of this room? The structure of the house is that of a film. Architecture is Narcissus, Cinema is Echo. A frame is an object, a shot is a memory of what has happened there and what is the madeleine (call it plot-point if you are one of those Hollywood dudes…) there. Rainer Werner Fassbinder once stated that he wanted to build a house with his films. Oliveira builded a film with his houses. Not only does he save the history of this special house that was designed by José Porto, he saves his own story in the house as if it was a museum.

There are three figures of time in Visita ou memórias e confissões. The first is the time of the house (its history). We can see it in the materiality while the two voices slowly pass through it and we can hear and see it when the director tells us about it and screens little scenes playing around the house. Moments of re-enactments switch with found footage, the shy camera moving through the house and Oliveira talking about his life. The second time is the fiction of the visit and the truth of the memories and confessions which we can call the story. The story circles around Oliveira‘s life and films. There are more places to visit than just the house where the voices catch glimpses of the past. For example, there is the house of his wife Maria Isabel, about whom the director talks with deep respect (not with passion) and there is Portugal‘s last film studio. All these places are full of vanishing life but the only thing that tells us about it is their emptiness (one may be reminded of Elia Kazan‘s The Last Tycoon). The third time is, as we already pointed out, the time the film was in the shadows of the heartbeat of the director. Then, it couldn‘t do any damage. Now that the heart stopped beating, the film begins again, it hurts, it enriches.


Maybe this is really one of the first realistic science-fiction films in which time travelling is made possible not as a matter of story but as a matter of fact. So, is Visita ou memórias e confissões really a work of fiction? As always this is not really a question. It is a film at the core of cinema and, like cinema, it was hidden in order to be born again in the presence of every look in the mirror, of every voice we fall in love with and of every frustration about not being able to love, to kill, to live and to die. But the film seems more simple than that.