Jazz and Cinema: An Interview with Gilles Mouëllic

Translated by Adrian Martin

Jean-Baptiste Thoret: Your book title (Jazz et cinéma, Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2000) suggests almost an opposition in kind – as if there was jazz on one side, cinema on the other. But, all through the book, you never cease demonstrating the symbolic link between the two …

Gilles Mouëllic: Effectively, the book could have been called Jazz-Cinema, but this title didn’t fit the first part, which mainly deals with Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959). You know, this is the first book devoted to this subject in France. So the title needed to be a little pedagogical, neutral and comprehensible to general readers. All the same, it is not meant to be an encyclopedia treating all those films in which jazz is used. It is an essay attempting to discern, more than simply the points of contact between cinema and jazz, the very ‘jazz nature’ of cinema.

J-B T: Did you have in mind a preconceived idea about the relations between jazz and cinema that you wanted to contest?

GM: Yes, the idea that cinema and jazz have never truly met. This false idea has for ages lodged itself in the minds of cinephiles, and in texts on cinema. When one thinks of jazz in relation to cinema, one immediately evokes the example of Ascenseur pour l’echaffaud (1957) or, worse, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986). So, there have always been such encounters, but they pose certain problems, contain ambiguities. Certain of these matches are dishonest but, most of the time, they have produced some beautiful things.

J-B T: You show that cinema and jazz experienced modernity at the same time. John Cassavetes on one side, Charlie Parker on the other. How do you explain this contemporaneity?

GM: If, after bebop, jazz spread across Europe, that’s because it was an epoch in which America fascinated many people. Jazz thus came to be considered, against all the messy realities, as the music of America. There are many reasons for this contemporaneity, but one of the most important obviously concerns technology. All at once, the camera freed itself, celluloid became more sensitive, and soon one could put editing mismatches in a film without it shocking anybody. We see also a play on syncopation, rhythm, variations of speed.

So something crucial happened in cinema history. Subtly, by an effect of historical coincidence, consciously or not, cinema begins to take jazz as its model, even if it uses jazz in a very distorted way. One can’t say, for example, that when Godard shot À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), he was making a film directly drawn from jazz. But the work on syncopation, editing and, above all, Belmondo’s body – they’re all elements one finds in jazz. But, in this period, Godard knew nothing about jazz music.

J-B T: You establish a distinction between physical cinema (the physical frame) and cerebral cinema (the geometrical frame), and you reach the conclusion that cerebral cinema is incompatible with jazz. Why?

GM: It’s only partly incompatible. When one watches the films of Cassavetes and Godard or Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988), one always has the impression that the bodies want to get out of the frame. There are constant deframings, as if the characters are trying to flee a frame that is too confining for them. In Cassavetes, for example, there’s always this impression that the camera operator is chasing after the actors’ bodies in order to keep them in frame. So we have a sense here of a cinema built on the physical frame and bodily energy. The agenda of cerebral cinema doesn’t leave enough freedom to the body to come off the rails that the mise en scène has laid for it.

J-B T: From this viewpoint, does jazz have a strong, strict relation with experimental cinema? Don’t certain of Norman McLaren’s shorts, for instance, correspond perfectly to the criteria of jazz-cinema?

GM: That’s essentially true. To my mind, the most beautiful short on jazz is truly McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949). It’s an extraordinary jazz-film. In it, McLaren understands very well that jazz-cinema is whatever ‘happens’ on screen. He worked a lot on a form of movement which is drawn out over the entire duration of the piece. There are flashes, breaks and splits in the drawing as well as, simultaneously, a continuous rhythm, a necessary pulse. I don’t think it would be hard to show that there is a physical frame in Begone Dull Care. It suffices to note the constant disordering of the colour fields.

But it’s important to distinguish physical cinema from bodily cinema. If you freeze the image near the start of Shadows, you’ll see that it’s really an abstract film.

J-B T: You often refer to Gilles Deleuze. How would you link his notion of the time-image, with its loosening of the sensory-motor connection, to the jazz-image?

GM: Jazz contains in itself this opposition and reversal of time and movement. Two important things happened in the ‘50s. First of all, Miles Davis’ trumpet in Ascenseur pour l’echaffaud. It subordinates space and framing to its long ‘ballads’ (using Deleuze’s term) and gives us the physical sensation of a poetry of space. When Davis plays, time is subtly suspended. We see here a certain economy of the image.

The other way of thinking about jazz is through Coltrane and Parker. With them, one passes through something which feels too full, an extremely dense movement. But there, too, we end up with suspended or arrested movement. You know, there’s a lot of jazz in Cassavetes’ cinema, above all in the editing – and in Philippe Garrel, too. In one, a too-full effect; in the other, too-empty. But in both cases, there is at play this same conversion of time into movement.

J-B T: You don’t talk much about Woody Allen …

GM: That’s true, because Allen, despite his use of jazz music, is fundamentally a filmmaker into mastery.

J-B T: What is the political dimension of jazz-cinema?

GM: Jazz contains within itself – I’m thinking for example of Shadows – the experience of the black people, the nostalgia for Africa. In jazz there’s no words, only experience and memory. Jazz expresses this sadness, and at the same time an irrepressible faith in the future. When Cassavetes shot Shadows, he made a film that confronted racism by using the jazz form. That’s the politics of jazz-cinema, right there. One also finds this combination of jazz and politics in many blaxploitation films, especially those by Melvin Van Peebles.

J-B T: Jazz cinema has had an equally large influence on genre cinema. I’m thinking of most of the crime films of the ‘60s, and Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1972) in particular.

GM: Yes, because, in that period, jazz came to the attention of many filmmakers. That’s why it fills most of the American genre films of the ‘70s. All crime fiction has, in one way or another, been affected by the jazz form. It’s even used in many American TV series of the time, like The Persuaders and Mission: Impossible.

J-B T: For you today, which filmmakers continue to carry the flame of jazz cinema?

GM: I think of course of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999), with its gestural and choreographic work. But also of Wong Kar-wai, who in Chungking Express (1995) experiments brilliantly with a radical form: a taste for polyphony, dissonance, breaks, loss of speed. Moreover, he has admitted that, for him, making films is a matter of applying jazz principles.


Reprinted with permission from Simulacres 3 (Summer 2000), pp. 140-1.


Original French text © Jean-Baptiste Thoret, 2000. Revised English translation © Adrian Martin 2013.

About the Author

Jean-Baptiste Thoret

About the Author

Jean-Baptiste Thoret

Jean-Baptiste Thoret is a film critic and historian, and lectures on cinema. He is the author of several works on American and Italian cinema, including books on American movies from the 1970s, on film directors Dario Argento and Sergio Leone, and on the impact of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on American cinema.View all posts by Jean-Baptiste Thoret →