Genesis of a Meal
France, 1979, DVD, 115 min.
In a television interview from 1972, Luc Moullet’s close friend, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, “Despite our good intentions, we think we’re making a film in the service of ___ but it risks being to the detriment of ___ . We don’t fully realize this. […] I think our challenge is not to make films in the name of ___. Rather than speaking in the name of ___we should first speak in our own name. […] The exploiter never tells the exploited how he’s exploiting them. So we tell. The cinema tells. Those of us in this field should find a new way to tell, so that we may finally say something else.”
Luc Moullet’s way  was to deny himself the luxury of remaining outside the picture. When Genesis of a Meal starts, there he is with his wife having a stagey breakfast. Eggs. Bananas. Tuna. He doesn’t know how any of it got there. To want to know sends him all over France, Africa, and South America with a camera. He recovers from his ignorance , but ever so slightly, and never does he fatten the film with reliability. To let himself be carried on passively into an over-reliable tone is unthinkable for Moullet. He does not say this is the way it objectively was from any possible point of view. He says this is the way it looked to someone with my beliefs and colonial background. “I think everyone is a little bit of an impostor when it comes to making movies,” Moullet has said. “We take the place of God, but we’re not God.”
Moullet gives the viewer some help with the problem of finding the author’s sense of culpability when he steps himself and his crew into the last section of the film. We see their plush hotel. We learn French interview subjects are paid more than African interview subjects, and that to choose his shots, Moullet found himself “in the same position as supervisors in the canning factory as if knowledge itself was just a subtle form of exploitation.” This sequence is a model of intellect for me. The lesson all good teachers teach is themselves, and here Moullet reminds us that the moral and material expenditure of exporting ideas is not weightless.
I don’t love Moullet because his film is so perfect but because he is so willing to be flawed in it. I esteem the film for its ability to transport moral and political depth into form, but I also esteem it for the way Moullet articulates his misgivings about his experience becoming information. The film’s self awareness pulls us out of line and implicates us in its concerns, so that one can find the film politically faulty or not, or unfeeling or not, but one cannot find oneself outside the ethical and political situations it comes to bear.
This may sound like nothing but a lump of obvious, but films differ from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, wheras a film instructs us to notice. Film can make us more astute observers of life; which in turn can make us more astute observers of detail in film, which in turn can make us more astute observers of life.
Luc Moullet was born in 1937. He grew up in the French sticks, the son of a mail sorter and a typist, started writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s when he was in his teens, and he’s still a critic today. Only a fraction of his writing has been collected, and even less is available to those of us trapped in the English language. He began making films in the 1960s, of which he said, “I won’t go on about the advantages that the richness of a budget can bring, these generally being well known. What are recognized less are the advantages of poverty. I think for instance that if The Smugglers (1967) had cost twenty percent less, the result would have been better because there would have been something in the film that emphasized this austerity…. One of the great advantages of poverty is to develop a sense of responsibility on the part of the director.” [“Interview with Luc Moullet,” Cahiers du Cinéma, October 1968.]
An Interview with Janet Malcolm
Interviewer: It seems to me that for a journalist you use yourself, or the persona of “Janet Malcolm” anyway, more than most journalists. You use and analyze your own reaction to and relationship with many of your subjects, and often insert yourself into the drama. How is this “safer” than a more straightforward or autobiographical portrayal of self?
JM: This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, and actually once wrote about—in the afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer. Here’s what I said:
The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
It occurs to me now that the presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. Compared to this wise and good person the other characters in the story—even the “good” ones—pale. The radiant persona of Joseph Mitchell, the great master of the journalistic “I,” shines out of his works as perhaps no other journalist’s does. In the old days at The New Yorker, every nonfiction writer tried to write like him, and, of course, none of us came anywhere near to doing so. This whole subject may be a good deal more complicated than I made it seem in the afterword. For one thing, Superman is connected to Clark Kent in a rather fundamental, if curious, way.
I: I think that passage is lovely and convincing, but I wonder if that “I” as overreliable narrator is true of your journalism, or journalism in general. It seems to me that you very deliberately present yourself as something other than “the dispassionate observer.” You often give yourself (or the character of Janet Malcolm in your work) flaws and vanities, and interrogate your own motives and reactions as fiercely as you interrogate other people’s. I make no presumptions, of course, as to how close to you is the Janet Malcolm in your work—who envied Anne Stevenson at college, who is disappointed in Ingrid Sischy. But it does seem to me that the “I” in your work is very deliberately more Clark Kent than Superman.
JM: You’re right that “dispassionate observer” doesn’t properly describe the character I assume in my nonfiction writing—especially in the writing of recent years. When I first started doing long fact pieces, as they were called at The New Yorker, I modeled my “I” on the stock, civilized, and humane figure that was the New Yorker “I,” but as I went along, I began to tinker with her and make changes in her personality. Yes, I gave her flaws and vanities and, perhaps most significantly, strong opinions. I had her take sides. I was influenced by this thing that was in the air called deconstruction. The idea I took from it was precisely the idea that there is no such thing as a dispassionate observer, that every narrative is inflected by the narrator’s bias. Edward Said’s Orientalism made a great impression on me. And yes, probably this did add to the character’s authority.
I: Is it possible that your construction of an “I,” and your method in general, is also influenced by psychoanalysis? You have chosen psychoanalysis as the subject of several of your books. How has it informed your voice and general approach?
JM: Although psychoanalysis has influenced me personally, it has had curiously little influence on my writing. This may be because writers learn from other writers, not from theories. But there are parallels between journalism and clinical psychoanalysis. Both the journalist and the psychoanalyst are connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life. Both pan the surface—yes, surface—for the gold of insight. The metaphor of depth—as in depth psychology—is wrong, as the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer helpfully pointed out. The unconscious is right there on the surface, as in “The Purloined Letter.” Journalism, with its mandate to notice small things, was always congenial to me. I might also have liked being an analyst. But I never would have gotten into medical school, because I couldn’t do math, so it wasn’t an option. I never went to journalism school, either. When I started doing journalism, a degree from a journalism school wasn’t considered necessary. In fact, it was considered a little tacky.
I: Interesting. I do wonder, though, if psychoanalysis might be somehow involved in your unearthing of the hidden aggressions involved in the writing process. One of the most striking elements of your work is the preoccupation with the relationship between the writer and her subject. In a recent New Yorker piece, you say of journalism that “malice remains its animating impulse.” This type of motive searching seems to me to be somehow connected to the habits of mind we associate with psychoanalysis.
JM: think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America. In Henry James’s satiric novel The Reverberator, a wonderful rascally journalist named George M. Flack appears. I am only one of many contributors to this critique. I am also not the only journalist contributor. Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for instance, have written on the subject. Of course, being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.
I: I wonder if you are subtly separating yourself from the herd of journalists who don’t examine or reflect on the matter, as Didion does with that line that suggests that talking to journalists runs counter to one’s best interests. When you admit to your rascality, it certainly creates the impression that you are being honest in a way that readers are not accustomed to in their journalists and critics.
JM: When I wrote The Journalist and the Murderer, I guess I was (not all that subtly) separating myself from the herd of journalists, and a lot of them got mad at me for breaking ranks. There was something deeply irritating about this woman who set herself up as being more honest and clear-sighted than anyone else. My analysis of journalistic betrayal was seen as a betrayal of journalism itself as well as a piece of royal chutzpah. Today, my critique seems obvious, even banal. No one argues with it, and, yes, it has degenerated—as critiques do—into a sort of lame excuse.