Great film criticism sometimes comes in small, concentrated doses. This is the case with a text written for Film Comment in 2004 by the filmmaker and teacher Jean-Pierre Gorin on Maurice Pialat, and specifically his 1968 debut feature L'Enfance-nue. The piece reflects, in a distilled form, many rich influences that Gorin has channelled and made his own, from Jean-Luc Godard in Paris to the artist-critics Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson in San Diego.
Gorin's article appeared at a time when Pialat's oeuvre had not yet re-entered full public circulation on respectful DVD editions, whether from Gaumont, Masters of Cinema or Criterion. He probably wrote his tribute to this great, intractable, thoroughly unsentimental film about a delinquent boy with notes derived both from memories of its first release, and various screenings in diverse formats since then. This mix of subjective impressionism and objective materialism matters, as we shall see.
The piece offers a model of how to analyse a film: by taking little fragments of it and winding it back and forth, always looking for a new 'angle', a new entry point into the material. Specifically, Gorin selects two interconnected scenes. The first is the opening: a march down the main street by a large group of striking, disgruntled workers (May '68 didn't only happen in Paris). The second is a domestic scene, one of the loveliest in the film: an elderly couple (she is sitting on his lap) tell the boys in their care, across the kitchen table, about their lives together.
The question is: how do the two scenes connect? Meaning: what's the link between 'Big P' political questions of labour or class, and the everyday life of families, children, the aged? And how do you forge and explore that link cinematically? Gorin focuses on how Pialat was able to both catch events while the camera rolled, and then re-work that material extensively in post-production, "extracting the surplus". So what Gorin finds — as, in his literary rhetoric, he winds back for another inspection — is that the sound of the second scene (the kitchen dialogue) has been, with maximum unreality, included during the street march. An incredible effect!
Literally incredible, as it turns out. Preparing a class on L'Enfance-nue, I watched that opening scene ten times, straining to hear the mixed-in dialogue. But it is not there! Did Gorin imagine it, misremember it? Maybe he saw, and precisely recalls, an earlier, now lost, original print back in '68? An Internet search on the Criterion colour restoration indicates, beyond doubt, that what we are all seeing today is Pialat's version. What's going in this fine critic's brain?
My hypothesis is that Gorin's creative memory in fact unconsciously displaced, condensed and reassembled several elements of the film. What his mind re-processed was a different kind of juxtaposition materially engineered by Pialat in this inaugural sequence: he cuts from the march to the boy and his guardian in a clothes shop — with the sound of the protest conspicuously (and a little surreally, since no other contiguous 'spatial overlap' of actions is established) carrying over on the soundtrack for most of this vignette.
Here is the thing: Gorin misremembered the film, but I do not mind. His 'mistake' can still take us — if we are alert students — to the heart of the movie. Indeed, many famous critics of bygone decades — Farber, André Bazin, Raymond Durgnat — frequently committed their faulty recollections of filmic details to posterity. We might wish they had 'got it right' always — but they were working in a time before DVD or even VHS, and so they learnt to trust, and constructively use, their impressions.
In the 1973 English edition of Theory of Film Practice, Noël Burch even defends his wild constructions of spotty memory by rightly asserting: if we can imagine it, then one day we can actually film it! An attitude which points film criticism, for a change, towards the future — not just the present or the past.