siren songs of 1958

This is a short film made in 1958 by Alain Resnais, who would later become famous as the director of the short film Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) and the feature film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I have always admired the way his films use counterpoints of sound to show us what we, in fact, do not see–or what is no longer there to be seen, and has paid a price, usually of life and lives.

In this 13-minute pipeline to the past, I love the gap between the regal intoning, usually reserved for scarce luxuries in CMs and from old times, and the massive glut of plastic flow that comes from the factory, and is traced back to its origins in rocks and geological time. It’s a song of eternal nature and how to regard it as a human product, one that fits just right for our age.

This film, as opposed to others of Resnais and his crews, is full, and then some. I am riveted by it, to start, because of its mock-heroic narration. (This tone is preserved in a few English terms like “captains of industry,” but maybe the new world has not yet processed enough of its past deeds to have narrated its distance with such a full voice.) The script is an epic poem composed by Raymond Queneau, the alchemical poet of Oulipo who invented new words based on old forms for this script, to tell the epic story of The Origin of Plastics (plural, for the possibilities). This flexible medium also enabled the torsion of words into new forms, some kinetic, some just vividly imagistic, in the medieval and oral tone of alexandrine verse, the “leading measure of French poetry,” says 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. A formidable explication of the film is found in Edward Dimendberg’s “These Are Not Exercises in Style,” originally published in October. Here is a rewarding passage from this exceptionally rewarding article (worth reading in its entirety for its close attention to form vis-ā-vis the experience of consumer ideology and ubiquity).

Already in its title Le Chant du styrène introduces intertextual allusion, manifesting what Michel Riffaterre calls the dual sign, the first of many in both poem and film.7 For as any speaker of French notices, styrène rhymes with sirène and proposes the collaboration of Resnais and Queneau as a contemporary song of the sirens. Its mermaids—the consumer products and industrial objects in the newly emerging culture of plastics in 1950s France—beckoned to both men with irresistible charm. Apprehending and granting them voice with ironic bemusement, Resnais and Queneau’s film simultaneously grasps the deeper stakes implied by the turn to synthetic materials. At once advertisement and public relations effort, a primer on the manufacture of plastic compounds that had begun to transform postwar French life, The Song of Styrene is also…an allegory of material and semiotic production. It provides a revealing window onto the French political and global economy of the late 1950s, rewarding close reading with a veritable return of repressed geopolitical relations.

Evoking the chansons de geste, epic poems of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that celebrated Charlemagne and recounted illustrious heroic deeds, Queneau’s narration for the film, his chant, basks in the incongruity between its style and subject matter (65).

This film came out in 1958, also something like the annus mirabilis of Japanese cinema–the year with the highest number of movie-goers, soon to cede slowly, if not epically, into the more home-bound realm of TV viewers. At present I am watching many science films from 1958 Japan, sponsored, like this one, by large industries, with bricolaged crews of artists, scientists, doc film people, and bureaucrats (or their business-like and educational equivalents). Many of these films, known as 科学映画 (kagaku eiga)、are now preserved on line at the Science Film Museum, where you may see them.