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Serge Daney:
Two Legs to Walk On

 


The first year of the existence of the journal Trafic (issue 1, Winter 1991) was also the last year of Serge Daney’s life (he died from AIDS-related illness in June 1992). In his lifetime (born 1944), four major collections of Daney’s essays appeared: La Rampe (Gallimard/Cahiers du cinéma, 1983), texts from Cahiers du cinéma, the magazine he co-edited between 1973 and 1981; Ciné journal (Cahiers du cinéma, 1986), texts from his period as film critic for the newspaper Libération; La Salaire du zappeur (P.O.L, 1988), a project in television criticism; and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main (Aléas, 1991) – the title is derived from the warning given to French cinema patrons to “watch their bags” – gathering short pieces on film and media (especially the TV coverage of the Gulf War).

 

Posthumously, more appeared: L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur (P.O.L, 1993), his film diaries from Trafic; L’amateur de tennis (P.O.L, 1994), a collection of sports journalism; the extraordinary Persérvérance (P.O.L, 1994), transcribed and edited from Daney’s discussions with Serge Toubiana (another former Cahiers editor) in February 1992, available in English as Postcards from the Cinema (Berg 2007); and L’Itinéraire d’un ciné-fils (J-M Place, 2000), another interview-based text.

 

The final period of his life yielded, in fact, many urgent, in-depth interviews and transcriptions of public talks, printed in journals including Cahiers and the moderately Catholic Esprit, as well as a TV documentary made by his old Cahiers compatriot, Pascal Kané. The massive editorial enterprise of collecting Daney’s previously unanthologised work began in 2001 with the first volume of La Maison cinéma et le monde (P.O.L); the fourth and final volume appeared in 2015. The ongoing English translation of that project as The Cinema House & The World has been announced by Semiotext(e) for April 2022 – I hope it succeeds (and continues) where several previous translation plans have run aground before even seeing the light of day.

 

Despite the best efforts of magazines including Rouge (www.rouge.com.au, 2003-2009), and Laurent Kretzschmar’s sterling Internet resource Serge Daney in English (http://sergedaney.blogspot.com/) begun in November 2005, there are still relatively few purely English-speaking cinephiles in 2021 who have a proper sense of Daney’s central, significant place in European criticism – even if they might be faintly aware that he is a name often cited enthusiastically by luminaries such as Jean-Luc Godard and several generations of critic-fans.

 

In 1985, Raymond Bellour described Daney as France’s “most scrupulous and inspired film critic”. (1) His sensibility permeates virtually every page of Gilles Deleuze’s two-volume work on cinema. He was constantly invoked by filmmakers (including Raúl Ruiz, Philippe Garrel, Wim Wenders and Robert Kramer) on the same level as Roland Barthes or André Bazin. Indeed, many of the thoughts and formulations in Godard’s video series Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) are closely anticipated by passages in Daney’s critical writing: there is a now-familiar ring, for instance, to:

 

In those crazy times, there was still something called “cinema history”, which, before our very eyes, would weave the most paradoxical alliances. Glauber Rocha could discuss Eisensteinian montage with Godard, say what made Faulkner a cinematic writer, or why one should, paradoxically, regard Buñuel as a “Tricontinental” filmmaker. (2)

 

A student of modernism and Chinese culture, Daney joined Cahiers as a writer in his early 20s (his very first published piece, for the small magazine Visages du cinéma [faces of cinema] edited with longtime collaborator Louis Skorecki [aka Jean-Louis Noames], was on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo [1959]). He embodied, in his texts, all the subsequent sea-changes of Cahiers: in the mid to late ‘60s, the self-critical and politicised jettisoning of the proud auteurist legacy from the ‘50s; the time of (as he called it) the “savage application” of Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan from the late ‘60s to the mid ‘70s; the return of cinephilia by the end of the ‘70s (involving an attention to films which, according to Bill Krohn, “display the erotic paradoxes of classical cinema […] and reflect its extinguished brilliance at quirky angles, and with a lunar pallor”) (3); and the early ‘80s stirrings of a radically transformed, postmodern, audiovisual culture of media simulacra (which Cahiers liked, at the time, to describe as mannerist or baroque).

 

As Daney and his comrades got older, their sense of cinema’s history deepened into a mature reflection on the medium’s great forms and artists – just as their consciousness of the rapidly changing dilemmas of its political meanings and effects, as well its technical mutation into the electronic-then-digital age, became more acute.

 

La Rampe shows Daney’s evolution from one Cahiers contributor among many (a Jerry Lewis, Godard and Hitchcock fan) into a distinctive, racy, illuminating, furiously engaged critic. His taste virtually defined Cahiers culture in its various phases and levels: Rossellini, Lang, Renoir, Ozu, Buñuel, Satyajit Ray; Godard, Rocha, Oshima, Moretti; Minnelli, Tourneur, Dwan, Nicholas Ray; and fervently promoted discoveries from countries and regions previously under-represented on the international film culture circuit at the time.

 

In his Trafic diaries at the end of ‘91, Daney was fortunate to reflect on an especially rich moment of vitality in post Nouvelle Vague French cinema: Garrel’s J’entends plus la guitare, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, Danièle Dubroux’s Borderline and Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-neuf. But he also never lost sight of the sometimes tawdry ironies of film culture – as when, also in the diaries, he notes finding himself the only customer at a Paris screening of Kira Muratova’s masterpiece The Asthenic Syndrome (1989).

 

Despite his centrality in the history of Cahiers, Daney’s real fame came from his long stint at Libération (often abbreviated as Libé) as resident film and TV commentator. Fervently embracing journalism – he had, in his Cahiers years, pioneered a newspaper section prescient of much to come in the magazine’s history – Daney became a true chronicler. He admired Barthes’ Mythologies for the way it alternated between “extreme close-up descriptions” and general meditations. (4) It was this same interplay of the specific and the general – the fugitive, unsystematised search for a theory or cultural aesthetic of cinema across a scrupulous attention to each material moment of it represented to the writer – which was so beloved by his faithful readers.

 

As Bellour remarked, Daney perpetually reconciled the “charming lightness” of journalism with the “exacting duties of rationality”, and it is “from this tension … that poetry is born”. (5) The insights sparked from such poésie critique (to borrow Jean Cocteau’s term) were often breathtaking and profound; on Valeria Sarmiento’s Notre mariage (1984), for instance, he mused:

 

Without families (to hate or create), there would be no domestic scenes – hence no modern cinema. No Antonioni, Bergman, Pialat. But without the family there would have been no melodrama – hence no “classical” cinema. No Ford, Pagnol, or so many others who drew our tears. It is through the aesthetic of the domestic scene that we have became modern (thus full of resentment), but it is through the cold logic of the mélo that we remain, despite everything, archaic (and thus a little frail) […] Without families, there would be no film. (6)

 

Daney was a figure at the forefront of criticism. As Thomas Elsaesser observed, Daney was the first well-known, high-profile critic to radically turn around his own sense of cinephilia and cinema culture in order to self-critically pursue the newer audiovisual world of ads, rock clips, TV and various media events; he was, in this sense, one of the few writers of his time to attempt the reinterpretation and renewal of Guy Debord’s Situationist account of the society of the spectacle. (7)

 

Among Daney’s key recurring themes was the ethics of the image – and the politics of our response to it – positioned between cinema and these new cultural-technological mutations. The sad fact that at least one major publisher judged a translated selection of Daney’s texts to be outmoded (not much he could have done to ameliorate that, dying and all), and therefore not worth the bother, has as its brutal corollary the simple fact that the changes which Daney began to diagnose are still the very same ones we are struggling to articulate and understand now.

 

Like Godard, Daney always had a skill for a finely turned, thought-provoking aphorism, a sudden condensation of sensibility, idea and passion. In 1977, he ended a dialogue with Bill Krohn about a forthcoming “Cahiers presents” season in New York by remarking: “We probably won’t be bringing an old Mizoguchi. But precisely after all that has happened, it’s an old Mizoguchi that should be brought: he is almost the only filmmaker to have made Marxist films”. (8) And, in his final public appearance (to launch an issue of Trafic), he remarked that the cinephile-critic needs two strong legs to walk on: a Ruiz leg and a Manoel de Oliveira leg. (9) Global film culture today badly needs the wit, strength and wisdom of Serge Daney.

 

 

  NOTES

1. Raymond Bellour, “Analysis in Flames”, Diacritics (Spring 1985), p. 55. Reprinted in Bellour, Between-the-Images (JRP/Ringier, 2012). back

 

  2. Serge Daney, Ciné journal, Vol. 1 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998 edition), p. 56. back

 

  3. Bill Krohn, “Translator’s Note”, Film Reader, no. 4 (1979), p. 119. back

 

  4. Frédéric Sabouraud and Serge Toubiana, “Zappeur et cinéphile. Entretien avec Serge Daney”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 406 (April 1988), p. 54. back

 

5. Bellour, “Le Voyage absolu”, Magazine littéraire, no. 232 (July/August 1986), p. 79. back

 

  6. Daney, Ciné journal Vol. 2 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998 edition), pp. 213-214. back

 

  7. Thomas Elsaesser, “Rivette and the End of Cinema”, Sight and Sound (April 1992), pp. 20-23. This was subsequently reprinted in a longer version as “Around Painting and the ‘End of Cinema’: À Propos Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse” in Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), pp. 165-177 (the passage cited is on pp. 170-171). back

 

  8. T. L. French [Bill Krohn], “Les Cahiers du cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney”, The Thousand Eyes no. 2 (1977), p. 31. The reprinted version of this text in Krohn’s invaluable collection Letters from Hollywood 1977-2017 (SUNY, 2020) drops the final “advertisement” (alas), but the book contains other, priceless material on Daney. back

 

  9. See the Daney tribute issue of Cahiers du cinéma, no. 458 (July/August 1992), reprinted in Vol. 4 of La Maison cinéma et le monde (P.O.L, 2015); also, the special Trafic issue (no. 37, Spring 2001), “Serge Daney: après, avec”. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin July 1992 / March 2001 / March 2007 (with bibliographic updates November 2021)


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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