The Song of Styrene
France, 1959, DVD, 19 min.
The film will be introduced by Thomas Beard.
In 1958, the young French director Alain Resnais was commissioned by the Pechiney company to show off the magic of plastic. It was to be a regular industrial film, although that kind of thinking became null and void the moment Resnais started to make it. He hired Raymond Queneau, the least likely to write it straight, and the cinematographer Sacha Vierny, to give the film enough visual recourse to outlive its settled use. Everything the three of them did made the factory such a far-off and unknowable place. To begin with, the film is shot in 35mm cinemascope, a wasteful luxury Jean-Luc Godard praised to the moon, and is so signally—if perforce, esoterically—celebrated and exploited that it becomes comic.
There are other extreme deviations. Virtually no people man the production line, mostly machines, polished new, spitting back the unnatural light these scenes are filmed under. There is no dirt. No factory sound. No determinate time. No management. No informatively thick narration. What impresses is not just these absences but what has taken there place. Instead of dirt there is idealized light, instead of diagetic sound there is big orchestrated music, instead of management, there is automation, and instead of great declarations of industry, there is Queneau’s mock gravitas and alexandrine verse, “O time, suspend your bowl. O plastic, where do you come from? Who are you? And what explains your rare qualities? So what are you made of? And where did you come from?”
In its self-conscious intensity, The Song of Styrene is such a made thing, not like life at all; it is a piece of nearly abstract artistic construction calculated to produce almost giddy-ironic-pleasure and anxiety. Resnais put on a blatant display of what a film could do in terms of artifice.
Alain Resnais was born in 1922. A contemporary of the French New Wave, Resnais’ relationship to that group was always tangential, with his structurally formalist films standing apart from the looser early work of the New Wave. Often collaborating with writers, Resnais has made films with Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprún, and Chris Marker.
Thom Andersen said, “machines are what make movies. The institution of film, the cinema, is itself a machine, a process of production whose product is none other than its audience, us.” As such, we have invited Thomas Beard, who runs a cinema, and a good one at that, to give a talk about The Song of Styrene, Slow Glass, and the larger program. Thomas co-directs LIGHT INDUSTRY, a non-profit cinema in Brooklyn with Ed Halter. Together they curated the film program for the 2012 Whitney Biennial.