Salute Your Shorts: Alain Resnais’ Documentaries

Movies Features Alain Resnais

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Packaged with Criterion’s release of Last Year at Marienbad were two shorter works from Alain Resnais’ earlier years as a documentary filmmaker, “Toute la mémoire du monde and “Le chant du styrene.” This probably comes as a surprise for most casual fans of Resnais. After his breakthrough feature, Hiroshima mon amour, in 1959, Resnais has worked almost exclusively on fictional feature films. His works are noted for their cryptic style, a sort of transplantation of literary high modernism into film that leaves many cold, some in awe and almost everyone at times a little baffled.

Resnais’ documentaries are extremely related to his features, though, in some ways offering a cipher for understanding his later work (something Robert Altman’s sports documentaries teach us isn’t always the case). Always interested in filmmaking, Resnais spent the later part of his youth shooting friends in small movies made with just an 8mm camera he was given by his father. Most of his early works are completely lost, and anything he made before transitioning to 35mm is, if not completely lost, then certainly not distributed in any fashion. He directed a number of shorts and even a feature-length film, Ouvert pour cause d’Inventaire, which was described by Agnes Varda as, “A succession of pure sensations which never really reach the state of consciousness. “ No one really knows much else about these lost works, but the feeling Resnais himself gives during interviews is that there wasn’t all that much to them, so that were they to exist they’d be little more than a historical curiosity today.

Following several years of schooling in editing and cinematography, Resnais moved on to work as a documentary filmmaker. His focus during these years was on paintings, using film to compose worlds or narratives within a painting or set of paintings that developed them in ways that couldn’t be seen by just looking at an exhibit. His early success, “Van Gogh,” was powerful and avant-garde, though in some ways it seems like just a buildup for the more passionate “Guernica” short he made several years later. Ultimately, Resnais was a storyteller, though, weaned on both comic books and modernist literature—not a journalist.

There’s an attempt to something more ambitious in his early works that leads up to “Night and Fog,” Resnais’ controversial breakthrough. A meditation on memory and the fortune of events that go forgotten, it stirred up quite a ruckus at its release for both its implications of French involvement in the holocaust (which was ultimately censored) and by bluntly refusing to ignore history for the sake of German consciences. Despite its 32-minute length, it gained theatrical distribution and went on to be something of an international success. Today, it’s regarded as a landmark documentary by any standard, one of the few shorts out there to be released individually on a DVD.

Between this and his first feature length movie, Resnais actually directed two lesser-known documentaries that were in their own ways nearly as groundbreaking. The first of these is “Toute la mémoire du monde,” which roughly translates in to “All the World’s Memory.” It takes “Night and Fog”’s concerns about memory and leads them to a surprising twist with its oddly foreboding voiceover. The film is a documentary about France’s Bibliotheque Nationale and was commissioned in order to give a romantic image of the library. It does so, but it also questions the gain of collecting all the memory in the world, despite ultimately valorizing the pursuit of knowledge.

The short begins with a tour of the library, visiting departments until a specific book is requested, at which point it follows this book back out and into the hands of a waiting reader. This sounds pretty dull. In fact, it’s hard to think of any documentary about a library being anything but dull. Regardless, it’s a surprisingly memorable and in fact striking film. Although the quality of Resnsais’ works is frequently debated, his level of craft is generally beyond reproach, featuring mise-en-scene and camera movements as controlled as Welles or Kubrick (and in fact, Kubrick’s The Shining clearly owes a large debt to Last Year At Marienbad). “Tout la memoire du monde” first developed Resnais’ love for long zooms and stunning tracking shots. This creates that rarity: a documentary with spectacle, which keeps things interesting despite the subject.

As impressive as the rest of the film is, with its heavy-handed-yet-effective metaphor of a library for the human brain, the most striking part of the work is its strange introduction. Like a lost scene from Alphaville, its unexplained microphone and cavernous setting creates a creepy and claustrophobic feeling. Since Resnais is actually emphasizing the importance of the library, this is a subtly ironic joke, but only one of many. An avid comic reader, Resnais was forced to smuggle in copies from his own collection in order to film them as valuable works of art in the future, regardless of their contemporary reputation.

Resnais’ last short of the period was focused on plastics. It’s an odd subject for one of the fathers of modern documentaries to focus on and seems at first to be less ambitious than his last two works. In its own way it’s just as subversive, though. Asked by the Pechiney organization to “simply…show that it [polystyrene] was a noble material since its manufacturer was very complex, demanding a great deal of knowledge, because it was entirely created by man,” Resnais turned in exactly what its title, “Le chant du styrene,” would suggest: a song for polystyrene, IE: plastic. Needless to say, once again those who commissioned the work were a bit annoyed.

“Le chant du styrene” begins with an abstract set of images demonstrating the possibilities of plastic before launching into its central narrative of following a bowl back through its creation. Once again, this sounds mind-numbingly boring, but Resnais manages to capture interest this time through the use of color and the transposition made possible through editing. Focusing on such an inhuman substance, despite what its PR people want us to believe, allows Resnais to again comment ironically on the whole process as alien and mechanical whilst filming the short as lyrically as possible. Originally the narration was in fact going to be sung, and while Resnais abandoned this concept he left the narration in alexandrines (verses made up of 12 syllables) and had it read by the over-the-top voice of Pierre Dux.

The contrast between “Le chant du styrene” and Resnais’ other documentaries is that for once he clearly didn’t care about the subject. The experiment with narration is just one example—Resnais took this opportunity to put his style first because ultimately there was no substance to be found. Again, we have the tracking shots, but here they’re more punctuated with editing. In a way, the short works like a music video for Resnais, enabling him to let his style go wild with a visual emphasis on shapes and patterns, not to mention the wide assortment of colors that plastics afforded him. Most often described as a coldly intellectual filmmaker, the documentary finds Resnais at his most playful. The intellectual side is still there, as it takes a certain type of person to use iambic hexameter as any sort of joke, but it also hints at how much this subtle irony and play, whether through form or content, is almost always a central feature of his filmmaking.

Resnais’ shorts aren’t a good gateway into his filmmaking for the uninitiated, and neither is Last Year at Marienbad, for that matter. But they offer a valuable tool for figuring out his arthouse classic, not to mention being pretty damn good regardless of their context. If nothing else, they offer a lesson that in the right hands even libraries and plastics can be worth watching onscreen.

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