I am writing to you from the distant future, from 2014. You don’t exist anymore—maybe you never really existed the way you were imagined and described by one of your brainfathers, Jean-Luc Godard. But even today, you remain the dream of the independent filmmaker, and of the artist filmmaker, called forth when we see those images from the time you were first tested. The slim, silver metal body with hard edges—you were not painted yet, and the magazine was still missing. The lens and the viewfinder in contrasting black, made of different materials. In the image: JLG, lifting you up with one hand—unthinkable for a 35mm camera before—holding you to his cheek. You look like a silver beast sitting on his shoulder. Your inventor, Jean-Pierre Beauviala, had already been responsible for a series of inventions that resulted in “the cat,” a nickname for the Aaton 16mm camera. And now this!
They later found out you were a failure. But before this happened, expectations were high: You would be a “director’s camera”—lightweight, easy to handle, maybe very noisy, but producing images that were meant to be as good as those coming out of the huge, heavy Arri or Mitchell cameras. In contrast to them, you would “fit into the glove box of a Toyota,” as JLG is often quoted as saying; or into the basket of a bike. You would still be able to produce footage that would match that of large cinematic productions—all the while being shot by just a single person, no tripod necessary, no crew.
The idea of creating a new film camera came up in the late 1970s, long after the invention of portable video technology. Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville were on their way back to filmmaking, having spent some years experimenting with television. In moving to TV, they had tried to find different modes of production to realize their ideas. Just before that, JLG had left Paris, and his Maoist epoch, the Groupe Dziga Vertov, and the film world as such. Anne-Marie Miéville and him founded the production company Sonimage; they moved to Role in Switzerland and introduced a video-editing studio into their life. They would not need the big budgets for filmmaking anymore, so they hoped. Smaller teams would be able to do the work. New distribution channels would make it possible to communicate with a completely different audience: that of television.
This move underlined their wish to be independent from methods and money of the film world, even if JLG had tried to use the industry’s budget against itself in the preceding years, openly revealing such methods in the famous opening sequence to Tout va bien from 1972, for example, his last project with Groupe Dziga Vertov-co-founder Jean-Pierre Gorin. Here, we see checks being signed and counted, as the love-story-background for the workers struggle is introduced. A step beyond that phase, in 1976 came Ici et ailleurs, a montage of footage from Palestine conceived by Godard and Miéville, which constituted an un-doing of the ideology of the Dziga Vertov period. Right after it, Miéville and Godard produced two TV series: in 1976, Six fois deux / Sur et sous la communication, consisting of 2 × 6 chapters each 50 minutes long, and in 1977 France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, made of 12 “movements,” totaling 312 minutes. Already since 1968 Godard’s connection to television had also been a financial one, as Colin MacCabe points out: “All but one of the Groupe Dziga Vertov-films were financed by television, and Sonimage has received its major commission from French and Mozambique Television.”1 Television channels from France and Germany had also financed Le Gai Savoir in 1968, which was supposed to be screened on French national television, but refused upon completion and released in cinemas.
We see the directors trying to scale down the process to include only actual filmmaking, cutting down on the technology, the team, the budget. And still there is an apparatus, an industry with ideas how TV should be made. The assumption we take from the commentators looking back at the invention of the Aaton 35-8, is that it was meant to be a director’s camera: a direct, individualized instrument of expression in the hands of the person with the idea. For Godard, this meant movie-making with small crew, small money, since that was the only way he could see himself not being condemned to making “big pictures.” The challenge for the light-weight camera would be to make it possible to be somewhere other than the places normally prescribed by traditional cinema. Otherwise, the mise-en-scène would always be determined by equipment and by the crew and all the habits these people bring from their usual work: routines that serve film production well, but which here were in the way of a search for new images, new angles, different stories. This routine would also be changed in the studio, on the film set, transforming the nature of work in these places too. In a conversation between JLG and Jean-Pierre Beauviala in Cahiers du cinéma2 some of the most interesting arguments are about how crew-life influences filmmaking, the use of the available technology, and how a new small camera would alter this scheme.
In the context of this discussion, Godard delineates the differences between the camera types through drawings. In the first of them, a chaos of lines describes the way a film team operates in the space between camera and actors for a shot with a Panavison camera. The same shot (13/1 from Prenom Carmen) looks much less strenuous when using an Arri BL. And finally, with only 4 lines, Godard demonstrates the effortless moves of the crew working with an Aaton 35-8.)
It is intriguing to imagine that a new camera could change filmmaking so dramatically. You were not only a mobile camera, an instrument to shoot immediately in situ, but you would have made new films possible; not least through a hitherto unthinkable option: a camera that can change hands. And this certainly was another aspect, if a theoretical one, of Godard and Miéville’s TV work, if we follow Colin MacCabe and his analysis. They tried to give the camera away. Since after four hundred years the struggle for free speech has created awareness of what it means to speak for oneself, MacCabe attests that “the existence of TV professionals denies that there is any question whether we should be able to use our own images.” Consequently, the protagonists within Six fois deux find the request odd, to “provide images to express their thoughts or positions.”3
We find Godard addressing the question of sharing the camera in MacCabe’s book, in the interview parts. He recalls, “when I began to make movies, only the camera-operator and the director were authorized to look in the viewfinder. The other members of the crew couldn’t. It was like the middle ages.”4 Already in 1967, he had tried to use one of the first video equipment in La Chinoise: “I wanted the characters to shoot themselves and then use the footage for self-criticism but it was too new as equipment then (…) It was movie equipment and there was no law.” No law, self-implied, or through tradition, how a camera should be used. Godard’s interest in video technology came about through similar interests, mainly of how to “free yourself from the photographer as the sorcerer who knows the magic that you don’t know” and how to expand that freedom to the whole crew, so that all “can learn, can begin to learn” by sharing the equipment and “all the social things.”5
All this concerns shooting with actors. I am also interested in your use “on the go.” Again I see JLG and his small crew parking the Toyota on the highway during the shoot for Lettre à Freddy Buache, and trying to shoot the clouds in that very light there and then, being forced by police to leave the spot. This could have been realized with video, but the video-image was poor, compared even to the most undersized film material. In the mentioned discussion with Beauviala, Godard had outlined what you would be used for: “You’re in Holland, out in the country, and you see a windmill that is completely motionless… You take the camera out of the glove compartment, you shoot, and you get a 35mm image with the highest resolution possible in cinema or television. Suddenly you think of Foreign Correspondent (the sequence when the windmill turns the wrong way). Or something else. Because you already have an image, once you have an image, you do something else with it. And if Ingrid Bergman’s there, I shoot Ingrid Bergman. That’s the idea; that’s why this camera was made.”6
Godard could have been wrong here, as he was before, according to Peter Wollen in his famous essay, The Two Avant-Gardes: “In Le Gai Savoir, Juliet Berto says towards the end that half the shots are missing from the film, and Jean Pierre Léaud replies that they will be shot by other film-makers: Bertolucci, Straub, Glauber-Rocha. We can see now how wrong Godard was in some of his judgments—the shots missing from his film could be supplied by the other avant-garde—and its not clear that he has ever realized this.”7 Wollen saw in Le Gai Savoir Godard’s “most revolutionary work” and still, he insinuated that it held a certain blindness towards the other avant-garde that he places next to the auteurs: the artists making film. Or was it a reciprocal ignorance? “At the extreme, each would tend to deny the others the status of avant-garde at all. Books like Steve Dwoskin’s Film Is or David Curtis’ Experimental Film do not discuss the crucial post-1968 work of Godard and Gorin, for example. And supporters of Godard—and Godard himself—have often denounced the ‘Co-op avant-garde’ as hopelessly involved with the established bourgeois art world and its values.” Since these days artists go out and make movies that win Oscars (even if these are movies that earlier might not have been conceived as “avant-garde”) one no longer thinks of this as an eternal conflict. But there used to be a schism between auteur filmmaker and the people that entered moving image making from the art side.
It was the German experimental filmmaker Birgit Hein who introduced me to Peter Wollen’s text. Before doing this, and after my lecture, she had pulled up a chair, turned it around and set it down in the middle of the seating rows, stating: She always disliked Godard. She had invited me to her class at Braunschweig Art Academy for a presentation of the book I said I love. That is the promise. The TVideo-politics of Jean-Luc Godard that I had edited together with Gareth James. The reason for her disapproval lay partly in the images of Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s TV-series that I used to illustrate my presentation: They were third generation VHS copies resembling something like “video impressionism,” since the source material was already in pretty bad shape to begin with.
Back in 1977, Birgit Hein’s criticism was much more fundamental, and she had worked it out in relation to Godard’s use of video in Numéro Deux, his and Miéville’s film from 1975. She argued that Godard’s use of form, and the way he offers us information about the sources of his images, is only symbolic. “Godard misses the essential: that the mode of information transmission is part of its information.”8 She judges that in this movie, and film in general, the methods and the use of various aesthetic forms are never really analyzed, never compared with the work of other contemporary artists using moving image. “In this form-content combination of the films of Godard, Straub or Eisenstein, the formal work is degraded to a supporting function. It provides forms, which only become concrete when they are filled with narrative content. Furthermore, it is exactly the formalism of the works of Godard, Straub, and Eisenstein which becomes problematic, if you believe that a broad understanding of information is also necessary in political work.” Referring to the assumed elitism of artfilm, she does not waste much energy defending her own radically formal approach; rather she states that the other side is not that different: “Straub as well as Godard have only a very limited audience which in comparison to a real mass audience is only marginally different from the elitist art public which is interested in the formal avant-garde.”
We might think that Straub or Godard were never even close to the synergies that Peter Wollen imagined. At least not on a form-content level. But they were on the level of technology! You, Aaton 35-8, were actually made for the artist-auteur, or so I imagine; for those who wanted to close the gap. It was just that your inventors did not know that. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen might have wanted to have a camera like the Aaton 35-8. In their most famous film from 1977, Riddles of the Sphinx, we see a shot towards the end, where the ever-spinning camera is caught in a mirror, together with the camera-women. What we see is a huge 35mm.
Where, on the landscape mapped out by The Two Avant-Gardes, did Peter Wollen see himself and Laura Mulvey? I imagine closer to the auteur filmmakers. Like them, they too are writers. But the strict concept of Riddles shows a structural approach that constructs a trail leading to artist filmmakers. The film starts like a book, showing actual book pages being turned, then a table of contents appears, followed by an introduction. It ends with a summary, maybe the toughest part: to see Mulvey replay parts of her introduction on a small tape recorder. Rewind, play, rewind, play, listening, as if she was considering whether the film had reached the thesis outlined in the beginning, reflecting on the process. Between introduction and postscript, each chapter, each movement of the film is defined by the camera’s 360-degree pan. In the beginning somewhere close to the bodies, later more generous, always playful, not least when the camera rotates within a car, which at the same time is driving through a roundabout, doubling the circular movement, until the image catches the protagonists in a car passing the one transporting the camera.
Would Godard/Miéville have used such a structural composition? Does it conform to Birgit Hein’s standards of formal use? Riddles’ theme is similar to what drove JLG and AMM: The role of a woman in society, left by her man, post-family, challenging her employers with the demand for child care, seeking a new job, finding support in the women’s movement. And somewhere during the film’s narration/documentation, the protagonists are at an opening of an art exhibition: It is Mary Kelly’s work, and the show features her Post Partum Document, a landmark piece, a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship. When it was first shown at the ICA in London in 1976—and the shots might have been taken there—the work provoked tabloid outrage because it incorporated stained nappy liners: a form-content provocation. Riddles of the Sphinx could be a manifestation of the coming collaboration between the competing avant-gardes.
You, Aaton 35-8, could have been another one. Big cinema insists on a general homogeneity of production, reception and representation. Both avant-gardes wanted to break this homogeneity, and both sides were always in need of smallness, of accessibility and methods that would adapt to a given situation. That’s where you would have come in. Lettre à Freddy Buache could have been shot using the 35-8. But you were not finished then. And when you were finished, you just did not look or work the way JLG had expected.
He had invested a considerable part of the budget of three of his films on the development of the Aaton 35-8. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of this budget, as he says in the conversation with Beauviala mentioned above. During Sauve qui peut (la vie), shot in 1979, a prototype was tested, but could not be used in the end. Passion, from 1982—only this film contains images that were shot with the prototype. They are the images right at the start, showing clouds and condensation trails in a blue sky. But it is Prénom: Carmen (1983), where a discussion about its failure emerges. “Sauve qui peut could still be made with the Arri. Passion could be made with any old camera. Prénom: Carmen couldn’t. The film changed!” we read Godard shouting at Beauviala. And we remember his drawings of the team moving between camera and actors, and imagine how radical that change might have been.
Beauviala responds that Godard should have stayed with his ideas, instead of listening to his team, since it was his DOPs that talked him out of using the 35-8. The focus… the shutter…
the noise of the camera… The whole encounter is mainly about the failure of this camera—and who is to blame. It is a complex discussion, and one gets the impression that both of them failed to support the idea behind the camera at different moments.
By then, there existed a functioning Aaton 35, but this camera turned out to be too big, for many reasons. The discussion between her inventors—its first part, a second followed in the next Cahiers—concludes with a collage Godard made of a man looking through a camera on the left and a donkey to the right, with typewritten text where he mourns the misconception of his brainchild-camera:
Dear Aaton 35-8, you did not make it, neither to Jean-Luc Godard, nor to the other avant-garde. The minor films, the minor stories, you would have been the perfect tool for them.
Today, our cameras have a similar metal look to yours. Some of these cameras transmit a retro feeling when we look at them, even without us having seen you. They look like time machines. They do what you were supposed to do: deliver next-to-perfect images. But not without additional attachments, gadgets, cables, so in the end they are not that very small anymore. They are available to all artists and filmmakers who make a little effort. Well, a budget is needed, after all.
Nowadays, the images artists produce get ever cleaner, the productions ever more expensive. Huge budgets seem to become a value in and of themselves. Not always does the content, or the amount of visible reflection and formal discussion match the monetary input. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Godard’s films get cheaper and dirtier; he includes video images of the poorest quality, as in Film Socialisme from 2010, and uses home-made-3D in Adieu au langage (2014) in order to splice up frame and story. We may read this as a gesture of distinction.
2 “Génèse d’une caméra (1er épisode),” in: Cahiers du cinéma, 348 / 349 (June/July 1983) and 350 (August 1983), reprinted in “Godard par Godard,” p. 519-557. An English translation of the first part was printed in Camera Obscura, Vol. 5, No. 13 / 14 (Spring-Summer 1985), p. 163–193.
3 MacCabe, p. 144–145.
4 Jean-Luc Godard interviewed by Colin MacCabe, ibid., p. 133.
5 MacCabe, p. 134.
6 Cited in the introduction to “Genesis of a camera,” Camera Obscura, Vol. 5, No. 13 / 14 (Spring–Summer 1985),
7 This and the following quotes: Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes, ” Studio International vol. 190, no. 978 (November / December 1975),
8 All quotes from: Birgit Hein, “The Avant-Garde,” presented 1977 in
Edinburgh and published 1978 in Millennium Film Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 23.