Desire is All: Vale Jean-Pierre Coursodon
By Adrian Martin
At the very dawn of 2021, the world of film criticism has lost another of its greats, and I have lost another friend.
To me, Jean-Pierre Coursodon (born 1935) was a giant; his monumental 50 ans de cinéma américain (most recent update 1995) co-written with Bertrand Tavernier is one of the two reference books closest to my writing desk at all times. Jean-Pierre was (alongside Jean-Luc Godard and Luc Moullet) one of the last survivors of those French cinephiles who began their writing life in the 1950s (1957, in his case); he could tell great tales of the various groups & magazines (Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, the surrealists – “Ado Kyrou was hysterically homophobic” – the auteurists, etc), but he abhorred all chapels, sects and cults, flitting in and out of them as he wished, remaining fiercely independent. (I recall his rage at the way his friend Tavernier was considered a pariah in certain ‘hip’ circles of French film culture until Serge Daney’s Trafic magazine happened to embrace one of his films!)
As far as I know, Jean-Pierre spent most or all of his life as a freelancer (he lived in the USA from 1965); his probably very modest lifestyle was supported by his work as an English-to-French translator, and he was among the best. Among his other book publications there’s a superb studio-history of Warner Bros in French, and the English-language 2-volume American Directors that he edited and wrote a good deal of (the credited co-editor, as Jean-Pierre would eagerly divulge, did less than his share of the work). Some of today’s cinephiles know him mainly through his involvement with the feisty, long-defunct online discussion group “A Film By” (where he often expressed his impatience with emigrants to English-speaking countries who had not mastered the language as well as he!).
In my case, his major mid 1970s Film Comment essay on Jerry Lewis (highly critical of the ‘French cult’ around Lewis), splendidly titled “No Laughing Matter?”, was among the very first serious pieces I read and re-read as a cinephile teenager; and virtually on my first day at Teachers College at age 17, Tom Ryan handed us his piece translated in a 1968 Melbourne Film Bulletindefining “The Gag” in cinema – a mere snippet from Jean-Pierre’s lifelong appreciation of film comedy (Buster Keaton, especially). With Brad Stevens and Dan Sallitt, Jean-Pierre participated in an extraordinary email-round-table on Keaton masterminded by Craig Keller for a DVD release in 2006 (https://keatonroundtable.wordpress.com/).
It wasn’t much longer after that time in 2006 that I started hearing less from Jean-Pierre, and then not at all; possibly his last published piece is an essay on Arthur Penn in a Positif issue of 2011. Alzheimer’s took him away from us in this past decade. I have heard rumours of an updated new edition of 50 ans in the pipeline; I don’t know how much Jean-Pierre was able to be involved in it. But I well recall how pleased he was when, back in the days of Rouge magazine, I told him how much I admired his text in Cinéma 84 on Hitchcock’s Rope, “Desire Roped In” – which he promptly translated and rewrote for me to publish (http://www.rouge.com.au/4/rope.html). He also translated for me his piece on Altman’s Tanner on Tanner (2004) in 2008 (http://www.rouge.com.au/12/tanner.html) – Altman was someone he remained faithful to, right to the end of that director’s career.
In general, Jean-Pierre is someone who could be blunt while remaining entirely civil. When I sent him my very positive review of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), he responded: “Thank you for the piece. Now I know why I hate the film so much”. One thing on which we saw 100% eye-to-eye was a point he regularly fulminated about on “A Film By”: he couldn’t stand the Cahiers line (consistent from the ‘50s to the 2010s) that preached ‘a director must love their characters, not hate them or act superior to them’ – thus downgrading many forms of narrative cinema, including the grotesque, cartoonish, caricatural, etc (J-P always defended the Coens on this plane, for instance). He often exclaimed (I am paraphrasing): “But these are not people you met on the street, they are characters on screen! Directors can take any attitude they like toward them!” Likewise, his sense of mise en scène as, first and foremost, a matter of spectacle wielded a big influence on my own work.
Jean-Pierre could be wary of ‘theories’ – to him, they often came with a sect-like, exclusionary, irrational faith in their own absolute truth – but he knew well their content, and his own 1976 essay “A Ritual of Frustration: Notes on the Star as Merchandise” (published in Cinéma d’aujord’hui) is a crucial theoretical intervention. It also provides a glimpse into his own experiences with sadomasochism, a topic he (like Noël Burch) was happy to discuss with anybody sincerely interested. Here is a small passage from that piece:
[Bazin did not realise] the extent to which frustration is a condition of the star system, nor how much it tends toward a situation of generalised masochism. Indeed, the supreme (and no doubt most crucial) masochistic pleasure is the ability (or action) of refusing orgasm … That’s what happens at the very heart of this enigmatic ‘deviance’: there is profound wisdom and logic in this awareness that desire is all, added to the drive to preserve it against the fulfilment that dissipates it. On this level, all classical cinema is masochistic; or, to be more precise (because in this area we are always mired in ambiguity), this cinema imposes sadistically on the spectator – through the treatment of the star, the character, the storyline – an expectation that we know will never reach its conclusion, and that we enjoy precisely for that reason.
Essentially, and throughout all changes in intellectual fashion, Jean-Pierre remained a superb critic: fixed on the details of a film or a comparative group of films, drawing on the most pertinent factors of social and historical context, bringing out the special tone, mood and inflection of a director’s style or treatment of material. I will miss him, and his distinct critical voice. I will also miss his wisdom: in an exchange where Brad Stevens asserted that “to die without illusions” would be the supreme achievement of a human life, Jean-Pierre responded that, when it’s his turn to shuffle off the mortal coil, what he wants most of all, at that moment, is to retain his illusions! Not a bad way to go. R.I.P., J-P.
© Adrian Martin, 2 January 2021
Brad Stevens has just reported the recent death of Jean-Pierre Coursodon.
The first punch back from reality for the new year. I tenderly keep a first edition of the first version of "Cinquante Ans du Cinéma Américain" in my major major film writers bookcase. As well as the Masters of Cinema round table on Keaton which added immeasurably to their boxset of Keaton shorts.
Jean-Pierre mostly wrote for Positif, not being of comparably doctrinaire correctness for Cahiers. Despite which his position was infinitely more flexible than anyone else writing for the former journal. As an example, he loved I Love Melvin far more than Fritz Lang’s last two American films, and made no bones about finding so much more pleasure in Don Weis’ mise-en-scene than he did from Lang’s.
I learnt an awful lot from him, as I also did from Tag Gallagher. He was a regular face at a_film_by and davekehr’s old blog, which is where we “met”. He was a friend and a great encouragement to me there and still “what would Coursodon think” is always on my mind when I’m really wrestling with something.
Here is a Facebook sample of Coursodon and Tavernier’s writing on Yolanda and the Thief.
“Car ce sont, finalement, les collaborations de Minnelli avec Astaire qui domine son oeuvre dans la domain de musical. Yolanda occupe une place unique dans l’histoire de genre par la trés grande complexité de son atmosphère (elle déroula complètement public et critique à l’epoque) où s’équilibrent miraculeusement comique et mélancolie, innocence et cynicisme, inquiétude et joie de vivre. Ce conte naïf (une riche orpheline qui sort du couvent prend un escroc pour son ange gardien) se nourrit en fait de craintes, d’ambiguités, de tensions que l’on retrouvera modulées à travers toute l’oeuvre ultérieur de Minnelli. La tentation de rêve, l’hésitation entre le monde du fantasme et celui de la réalité trouvent ici leur première expression dans un film de Minnelli. Le ballet rêvé non seulement transpose choréographiquement les données de l’anecdote, en concrétise, sous formes d’images et de métaphores, tous les thèmes sous-jacent.”
In the end it’s the collaborations Minnelli made with Astaire that dominate his work in the musical genre. Yolanda holds a unique place in the history of musicals for the extraordinary complexity of its atmosphere.(It was panned totally by the public and the critics at the time of its release.) Here is a miraculous balance between comedy and melancholy, innocence and cynicism, disturbance and joy. This simple, naive tale (a rich orphan girl leaving the convent and adopting a crook as her guardian angel) enriches itself with fears, ambiguities and tensions which one finds all through the textures of Minnelli’s work. The temptation of the dream, this hesitation between the fantasy world and what is found to be “Reality” finds its first clear expression here in MInnelli’s work. The dream ballet (“Marry Me”) not only transposes choreographically the points of the narrative, in concrete forms, but with images as metaphors, and the subtexts are subservient to them.
Who else for so long would sing the praises of all these glories: Minnelli's crane, Lourié's 5/4 choreography, the Technicolor, Conrad Salinger's swooning celli and ringing brass. Click on the link below.