His Master’s Voice

A free copy of DOX Magazine that I picked up at this summer’s Flaherty Film Seminar reintroduced me to the work of Nicolas Philibert. I had seen and enjoyed To Be and To Have (2002) without knowing anything more about the director’s work.

In the interview DOX ran, Philibert stresses that the category of “documentary” filmmaking doesn’t mean anything for him. He strives to make films whose philosophical purview becomes much more expansive than either the film’s initial subject or his subjective process of learning about the topic at hand.

In the print interview, Philibert references the first feature-length documentary he made with Gérard Mordillat–His Master’s Voice (1978)–and criticizes their over-usage of “talking heads” style framing. Despite this critique, the film’s description was intriguing to me. His Master’s Voice is a montage of interviews with twelve French CEOs that constitute a bourgeoning managerial discourse on global corporate multinationalism.

The internet’s magical video treasure trove offers it to us at the Youtube link above, complete with English subtitles. It doesn’t disappoint, especially the wry and self-reflexive first ten minutes in which the CEOs unhappily try to rebrand the film that has been produced about them.

The framing is indeed quite basic, but the historical insights the film reveals are not. Philibert and Mordillat intercut the forecasting, tactical defense and careful posturing of each CEO with several minutes of actual work accomplished on the factory floor–working bodies and machines that are the foundation of each manager’s long-winded dialogues, yet somehow never directly described or addressed.

The film demonstrates how exquisitely formed these men were in the humanist canon as well as in the strategies and economic theory of their chosen business. They seem to be the last of a certain breed of carefully-groomed French grand écolier. In their statements, they repeatedly try to couch their increasingly ravenous market share acquisition in the terminology of some sort of civic project. This is markedly different from the “proferential speech” that so many contemporary business school visionaries employ, a way of talking cribbed from motivational coaching and used to promote their company as product.

As old-fashioned as their citation of literary classics seem, the actual changes in global business that the French CEOs describe are totally prescient and reflect the transformation since then in worldwide business. It’s highly instructive to hear how completely they misunderstand workers’ rationale behind organization and unionization. On this issue and a host of others, Philibert and Mordillat don’t provoke or antagonize their interviewees, but rather patiently give them enough rope to hang themselves (or at least get uncomfortably knotted up).

More info on the documentary can be found in French, English and Spanish on Philibert’s website.

Maurizio Lazzarato has argued that the separation between enterprise and factory of which Philibert’s and Mordillat’s film documents the beginning is now complete. It is “emblematic of a deep transformation within the capitalist mode of production” (188), he writes. This transformation is one from capitalism as a mode of production to capitalism as a production of modes, from productive labor to immaterial labor. His Master’s Voice for 2014 would be a found footage film, compiling the TED talk rhetoric of twenty-first century CEOs as a way of demonstrating the managerial discourse of immaterial labor (with Benjamin Bratton’s bracing, clear and efficient throwdown of the TED model as a chaser).

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Harun Farocki, 1944-2014

Gif from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

GIF from “Images of the World and the Inscription of War” (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

What a loss for militant filmmaking, for art and for critical thought that Harun Farocki has died.

His fluency in working across so many different kinds of artistic media–in the art gallery and on the silver screen–was inspirational. His devotion to understanding the histories and the ideologies behind scientific and technological development was equally laudable. His insistence that sight lines and their documentation from any era must always be examined as vectors of power was unwavering.

He was a crucially important twentieth-century figure whose work consistently sought to teach its audience without pedantry. His films braid together historical materialism and media archeology without wasteful political rancor or snobby exclusivity. The cold comfort in his death is simply the numerous contemporary artists and theorists whose lives and ideas his touched.

Last night’s Farocki screening thoughtfully organized by the Experimental Response Cinema was a wonderful way to bid farewell; it contrasted the absurd humor and the mercilessness of An Image (1983) with the dense, intricate logic of Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988).

Re-viewing Images of the World, I thought of Nora M. Alter’s explication of the “political anamorphosis” Harocki performs only very fleetingly at the very end of the film. He draws an explicit but easily-missed parallel between the Allied failure to bombard the railways leading to Auschwitz in the 1940s and the need to protest nuclear power as well as nuclear stockpiling in Germany in the 1980s.

Alter suggests that the repeated use of footage taken from within a wave machine in Hannover is a further example of political anamorphosis, alluding to the potential of green energy as an alternative to nuclear energy. How easy it is (and how self-defeating) to view these sequences as representing instead the inexorable, amoral, dialectic translation of measurement to image and image to measurement over the centuries. Knowing Farocki, he clearly intended both meanings.

Here’s hoping that a pair of scholars compile a series of warm and genial conversations on Farocki’s films in the same manner that Farocki and Kaja Silverman did on Godard’s films. That would be a really fitting goodbye.