On Imagination
Jacques Rivette
translated by Liz Heron

Without any doubt, the most constant privilege of the masters is that of seeing everything, including the most simple mistakes, turn out to their advantage rather than diminishing their stature. If you are now surprised to see me give the benefit of this law to Nicholas Ray's latest film it means you are ill-prepared to appreciate a work which is disconcerting and asks for, not indulgence, but a little love. Far from wishing to excuse it, you must love this lack of artifice, this very pleasing indifference to decors, plasticity, evenness of light, the rightness of a supporting role, and you must recognize even in the clumsiness of this verve, not the caricature, but the youthful exaggeration of a cinema that is dear to us, where all is sacrificed to expression, to efficacity, to the sharpness of a reflex or a look. I find no fault with exaggerations of this kind, and the auteur's own enjoyment, which I feel coming through some of the time, is consolation for many films which only communicate the director's boredom.

But I now want to talk about the real seriousness of this business: a work of verve it may be, but because Nicholas Ray is lavish with ideas -- which are sometimes channelled into a single great theme, and I am not forgetting the wonderful progression of On Dangerous Ground -- ideas -- which in this film are scattered everywhere by the accidents of imagination. But it is precisely this imagination which strikes me with its constant surprises. Certainly Ray is not someone who is unaware of the aesthetic value of surprise, nor is he unaware that beauty has a duty to astonish; but if the imagination is sovereign over all the other faculties, its kingdom certainly seems to be shrinking daily everywhere; and saying that imagination should first consist in the simple pleasure of filming, just like the creative freedom of the brush on the canvas, has not the slightest chance of being taken seriously here. And when I talk about ideas, I really mean ideas of mise en scene or -- if I were to be shocking about it -- of framing or the way shots are put together, which these days are the only ideas whose profundity I wish to recognize, and the only ones which can reach the secret form which is the goal of every work of art. When Francois Truffaut compares Nicholas Ray with Bresson, I really do see two film-makers who are obsessed with the abstract and whose sole concern is always to reach this ideal countenance by the shortest road, and let clumsiness be the road -- if it is the shortest one. In The Lusty Men you can see how the idea of a role, or a scene, hurriedly sketched, can sometimes prevail over its realization, whether good or bad (but will you understand how much I admire Nicholas Ray if I call him a metteur en scene, not a director?), how the imagination of each moment is only the concern to reveal, with each fresh blow of the chisel, the one and only hidden statue.

Perhaps it is clear that beauty is not without importance for him. But where does he seek it (a fundamental question, after all)? I observe a certain dilation of expressive detail, which ceases to be detail so that it may became part of the plot -- hence the taste far dramatic close-ups, unexpected within the movement of the scene -- and especially the search for a certain breadth of modern gesture and an anxiety about life, a perpetual disquiet that is paralleled in the characters; and lastly his taste or paroxysm, which imparts something of the feverish and impermanent to the mast tranquil of moments.

A few more words. Nicholas Ray is one of those who fight it out to the finish, and can exhaust the possibilities of a development. Everything always proceeds from a simple situation where two or three people encounter some elementary and fundamental concepts of life. And the real struggle takes place in only one of them, against the interior demon of violence, or of a more secret sin, which seems linked to man and his solitude. It may happen sometimes that a woman saves him; it even seems that she alone can have the power to do so; we are a long way from misogyny.

Nicholas Ray has always offered us the story of a moral dilemma where man emerges as either victor or vanquished, but ultimately lucid: the futility of violence, of all that is not happiness and which diverts man from his innermost purpose.

If art must reveal 'the heroism of modern life', there are few works that better accomplish this purpose. We note, however, that the characters quickly withdraw, that, when all is said and done, the world hardly interferes at all, or if it does, it is only to harm them. Salvation is a private affair. Perhaps we will be sorry to see these heroes withdraw to their tents with so little ceremony; we can also suppose that it is not without bequeathing their fate to the world, or sometimes prolonging the ordeal necessarily. But for modern society is not solitude, if not scorn, often the most fitting homage?

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema 27 (October 1953); p. 59-60. Reprinted from Cahiers du cinema: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard, 1985). Translated by Liz Heron.