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).


Self-portrait of an unknown

I stumbled upon this documentary about Jean Cocteau (dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1985) several months ago, and saved it to my bookmarks. Last weekend I re-discovered the link, and spent part of Tuesday’s April Central New York snow flurries watching it.

Nothing special, but I took pleasure in Cocteau’s repeated insistence on two contradictory artistic impulses: his ambition to know himself and become known, and his desire to keep himself hidden and obscure to himself and all others, as an unmappable and untappable source of creativity.

Some of Cocteau’s bon mots from the film:

We are the workers of a darkness that belongs to us, but eludes us. This profound man–we don’t know him well at all–is our true self. He is hidden in the shadows. He commands us. I decided to plunge down into myself, into this formidable hole, into this unknown mine, at the risk of running into explosive gas.


Honors–one must envision them as a sort of transcendent punishment.


We are the very humble servants of a force that lives in us. We are led–we are led by a force that isn’t external to us–it’s internal. We are led by this night that is our true self.

For Auld Lang Syne

A few nights ago I watched Eberhard Fechner’s sublime and shattering Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck (60 minutes, 1969).

I first heard of the film in the context of its monteuse, Brigitte Kirsche. She was one of the interviewees on the double DVD that the Deutsche Filmmuseum has released on the art of editing, Schnitte in Raum und Zeit (2006). Her insights on weaving together still photograph documentation and diverse sources of interview testimony were profound. It seems her long film partnership with Fechner was truly rich.

Fechner’s 1969 TV-commissioned documentary investigates the life of a 72-year-old, single German woman who was born just before the 20th century and took her own life in 1968.

The film sets out to answer the question, “Who was Klara Heydebreck?”, collecting and displaying for us her personal belongings, official records, correspondance and snapshots. These materials are the base support for the memories of the interviewees who knew Heydebreck: her surviving family, from whom she had become estranged, the policemen assigned to her suicide case, the neighbors in her apartment building whom she anxiously avoided, and her closest friend from childhood.

Interspersed with these interviews are the unsentimental and studied findings of Fechner himself. In voiceover, he attempts to reckon together her passion for the arts, her failure to thrive after the death of her mother, her unknown suffering in the aftermath of World War Two and her pauperism, reclusivity and loneliness after middle age.

What traces do we leave on life? Can others see and comprehend the traces it leaves on us? These are the more fundamental questions that Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck asks without answering. The film leaves us with a resonant sense of how expansive and yet how negligible every human soul can be–or more accurately, how expansively or negligibly it can be treated by its fellow human souls and the socio-economic systems in which all human souls exist.

This is one of the finest, most moving and most sparing documentaries I have ever seen; it is a terrible shame that it isn’t available with foreign language subtitles. Translator friends: a project for the new year? We’ll take a cup of kindness yet…