Serge Daney’s Cinema of Life and Death

Serge Daney’s Cinema of Life and Death

Fear and Trembling

Serge Daney’s militant film criticism.


In 1962, a new Paris-based ciné-club hosted preview screenings for Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7. After each screening, according to the scholar Kelley Conway, the hosts handed out a questionnaire. Among the respondents was the future film critic and Cahiers du Cinéma editor Serge Daney, then a precocious cinephile of 17. He loved it. The feature, which follows an actress in close to real time as she meanders around Paris awaiting her biopsy results, plays out in anticipation of a catastrophic diagnosis. “And so everything,” Daney wrote, “takes on a new value and relief, opening out onto a kind of lucidity, and onto love.”

Between that year—when he also published his first piece of film criticism—and his early death from AIDS-related causes three decades later, Daney kept returning to the thought that a film was something like a life: finite, haunted by its own termination, and for that reason saturated with choices that defined its moral compass and political commitments. “It is because we could die at any moment that art becomes possible,” he wrote in a 1967 review for Cahiers of Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript, a playful assemblage of nested-doll narratives set during the Napoleonic Wars. “Death bestows gravity and importance upon the thing it surrounds (life), and the camera’s frame operates much in the same way on the shot it contains.” Discussing the work of the director Jean-Daniel Pollet in the magazine’s next issue, Daney wrote that “the filmmaker becomes someone who renders the weight of life through the certainty of death.”

These are two of the many essays gathered in Christine Pichini’s essential new translation of the first volume of The Cinema House and the World, a four-part collection of Daney’s work assembled between 2001 and 2014 by his colleagues Patrice Rollet, Jean-Claude Biette, and Christophe Manon. The first volume covers the whole of his years at Cahiers, the magazine that did the most to shape his politics and cinephilia, from the early essays that paved his way into its pages through his departure for the left-aligned daily Libération in 1981.

Throughout his Cahiers writings, Daney stressed not only that films resembled lives burdened by the certainty of death—with their rigid enframements and fixed durations—but also that they literally recorded bodies aging in real time. The American director Blake Edwards, Daney wrote in 1966, “ultimately dreams of a world that has lost all substance, of weightless characters, eluding gravity.” But that dream was doomed: The camera could never help revealing that the actors were “encumbered by the body, that entropic life, which remains the cinema’s primary material.” More than 10 years later, Daney praised the Dutch documentarian Johan van der Keuken for not letting his audiences forget that they were watching a filmed encounter between two bodies: the subject’s and the filmmaker’s own. Conventional wisdom, he wrote then, dictated that “the right place” for the camera was “the one where we forget our bodies,” the one that let viewers identify their perspective with a free-floating voyeurism. But the job of “the moralist” was to put the camera in “the wrong place,” namely “the one where we remember our bodies.” And how could a filmmaker—or a critic—not be a moralist, if cinema was a matter of life and death?

To moralize about cinema, Daney wrote in the same essay, was to admit “the possibility that a film could be abject.” The reference was to Jacques Rivette’s influential 1961 Cahiers article “On Abjection,” in which he condemned the director Gillo Pontecorvo for tracking his camera dramatically, in his Holocaust drama Kapo (1960), toward the lifeless body of the film’s heroine after she hurls herself against an electrified fence. Daney read that piece at 17, and it never left him. “Over the years,” he later wrote in an extraordinary essay for his film journal Trafic, “‘the tracking shot in Kapo’ would become my portable dogma, the axiom that wasn’t up for discussion, the breaking point of any debate.” He juxtaposed Pontecorvo’s shamefully “embellished glance” with the one the director Kenji Mizoguchi used in Ugetsu (1953) to film a bandit impaling a young mother on a spear: “This event seems so accidental that the camera almost misses it, and I’m convinced that all spectators of Ugetsu have the same crazy, almost superstitious idea that if the camera hadn’t been so slow the event would have happened “out of frame,” or who knows, it might not have happened at all.”

It was a question not only of ethics but also of politics. Pontecorvo, Daney went on, was a man of the left, “a courageous filmmaker with whom I share by and large the same political beliefs.” And yet his treatment of the concentration camps betrays for Daney that they “only revolt him ideologically” rather than on the level of visceral feeling. It was Mizoguchi, “a political opportunist,” who approached death with the requisite “fear and trembling,” a “desire to vomit and flee,” a horror at “little men hacking each other apart for some feudal virility.” There, for Daney, was where a film’s politics lay: in the countless decisions that betrayed how much weight it gave bodies and how seriously it took the disasters that befell them. “Politics, in a film, is not only political discourse,” he argued in a review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo—Cina (1972) for Libération. “It is also and especially the choice of what is shown,” not to mention “the order in which it is shown (montage)” and “the relation between what is shown (the image) and spoken (the sound).”

Making a politically responsible film was never so simple a matter as stripping away artifice and letting reality shine through. Acting as if “the camera just happens to be there” meant denying what was always lost—or introduced—when one person chose to enclose another in a specific frame, at a particular time, with interests of their own. “What every filmmaker worthy of the name does,” Daney argued, was expose and interrogate those choices precisely at the point where they produced the most tension between the filmmaker and the subject: “to confront what, within the material itself, resists him.” Or, as he put it elsewhere, to “keep contradictions alive and not try to bribe us with the show of their disappearance.”

As A.S. Hamrah notes in his perceptive introduction to this volume, Daney returned again and again to Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Here and Elsewhere (1976). In 1970, at the height of his political militancy, Godard had gone to Jordan to film the Palestinian revolutionaries based there. Just months later, many of his subjects were killed by Jordanian forces during Black September. Back in Paris, Godard and Miéville studied the footage and saw that some conversations among the fighters had never been translated. The work of the film “then amounts,” Daney wrote, “quite simply, to translating the soundtrack, making sure one can hear what is said, or better, that one listens to it.” The fighters turn out to be talking candidly about their strategic shortcomings. “They’re talking about their own death, but no one said that,” Godard says on the soundtrack. “No,” Miéville replies, “because it was up to you to.”

Throughout his work, Daney revisited his early encounters with cinema as a “fearful child” alongside his mother in Paris. In the introduction to the first collection of essays he published in his lifetime, La Rampe (1983), he remembered his boyhood terror of the live performers who opened each screening with their “meager repertory of old songs (‘Etoile des neiges’), of easy magic tricks, of bawdy hypnotisms.” The performers would leave the stage and walk through the crowd requesting donations, and the bodies that would then appear on-screen were from the start haunted by the presence of these other bodies and their practical material needs, “so horribly real.” Daney and his mother never gave much themselves because, he noted in passing, “we too were poor.” (Meant originally to gather his uncollected writings, The Cinema House and the World excludes the essential, contemporaneous pieces in La Rampe; these we have in English online thanks to a community of Daney experts, organized by Laurent Kretzschmar, who have long been posting translations of his writings for free.)

In a book-length interview conducted in the last year of his life—translated into English in 2007 by Paul Douglas Grant as Postcards from the Cinema—Daney told his friend, the critic Serge Toubiana, that his Viennese father, “a sort of adventurer,” had been “arrested by the French police near the end of the war” and was never seen again. (Only “much later” did Daney learn from his mother that his father was Jewish.) In a recent essay, the critic Beatrice Loayza rightly stresses what a central part his father’s disappearance had in shaping Daney’s investment in “articulating an ethics of the image.” His father had done some dubbing and acting work before his arrest. “I had to spend part of my life,” Daney told Toubiana, “knowing that he was etched, embedded, embalmed (how could I have been anything other than Bazinian?) in black and white films between the wars, and afraid of one day stumbling upon his celluloid face, beneath his dead eyes staring at me.”

Movie love hit Daney hard as a teenager at the end of the ’50s, eight years after the founding of Cahiers. “The world of cinema was still an enchanted one,” he remembered. The “wars between magazines” were by then “almost over and we were certainly arriving a little late, but not so late that we couldn’t nourish the tacit project of making this whole history, which wasn’t even as old as the century, our own.” On the questionnaire he filled out after seeing Cléo From 5 to 7, he listed his profession as “student but above all cinephile.”

Daney dove into the ongoing debates among French critics over American cinema: His early pieces include assessments of Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Allan Dwan, Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis. In 1964 he flew to Hollywood with his fellow critic Louis Skorecki to interview the old masters. He told Toubiana that they found Leo McCarey “eating yogurt and spilling it all over the place, while singing the praises of his first film in a somewhat sour voice.” They visited George Cukor on “a hot summer day in an amazing villa, among his courtiers and minions, and everyone there seemed to be blossoming, except for us, drenched in sweat.” They told him they loved Nicholas Ray’s drama of wildlife poaching in turn-of-the-century Florida, Wind Across the Everglades (1958).

Hearing this, Cukor started howling, the laugh of a mean and sour old lady, crying to the others, “Come here, come here! You know which film they like? Wind Across the Everglades! The film that Jack Warner didn’t even dare release!” I can still see us irritated but unshaken, persuaded that we were right, and in fact we were.

Daney started contributing to Cahiers soon after, and it would be his home for the next 17 years. It was not always a comfortable one. He and his older colleague Jean Douchet were among the few gay critics in its pages. “It seems to me,” he reflected in Postcards From the Cinema, “that the New Wave remained decidedly homophobic.” During the convulsions of May 1968, he told Toubiana, he found himself aligned not with Cahiers but with the “vociferous anarcho-dandies” of the Zanzibar Group, a bohemian collective whose members, including Phillipe Garrel and Jackie Raynal, made wildly experimental features on 35mm under the patronage of the heiress Sylvina Boissonnas. Of all the major critics associated with Cahiers during its half-decade of Marxist-Leninist militancy after 1968, the scholar Daniel Fairfax writes in his recent history of those “red years,” Daney’s connection “was the most tenuous and intermittent,” broken up by illnesses and travel.

Daney became the guiding editorial force at Cahiers around the end of 1973. Under his tenure, he believed he helped the publication rediscover “what had always nourished the magazine: the morality of shooting, the effacement of the notion of actor, the emergence of the auteur.” Part of his achievement was to reconcile the magazine’s older moralism with its more recent militancy. But it was an achievement only made possible by the fact that, as he put it, “the storm had passed.” The cinema he came to champion—one built to confront its own ethical dilemmas and contradictions—was suited less to the churn of active revolution than to a time of withdrawal and defeat. It was the cinema exemplified by Here and Elsewhere, less a militant film than a second-order reflection on what it meant to make one. As Daney wrote in a blurb about that film, “We are in the middle of the decade: militant cinema will win no more victories.”

The more he despaired over French cinema’s political impasses and commercial consolidations, the more energy he seemed to put into developments abroad. And yet wherever he went, Daney found the same limitations. At the 10th Carthage Film Festival, he looked askance at the influence of commercial Egyptian cinema and wondered how radical films could “outwit” its conventions; in Gdansk, he found himself drawn not to the Polish features, “wrought by the aesthetic of the soap opera or the televised drama,” but to the documentaries; in Hong Kong, he decided that kung fu cinema is about “the horror of body against body and its erotic ambiguity”; in Damascus, he arranged a “Semaine des Cahiers” only to see four of the films banned—three of them, including Here and Elsewhere, about Palestine. It dawned on him that Syrian cinephilia was its own terrain of political struggle: “If any place exists where censors or future censors can learn how to recognize a dangerous film, it is indeed there, in the ciné-club.”

These dispatches can be sketchy, tentative, drawn in broad and even clumsy strokes. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested that “Daney’s early forays to Asia, the Middle East, India, and North Africa were path-clearing ventures that ultimately provided some of the West’s initial routes towards the cinemas of those regions,” and Daney knew it: In the travel and festival reports, his voice loosens into a kind of first-person reportage, his usual confidence humbled in the face of cinemas about which he couldn’t see or know enough.

Fairfax notes that Daney’s mood about the future of filmmaking darkened even as “his critical profile rose.” In La Rampe, he speculated presciently about “the computer-generated image,” which threatened his foundational assumption that “cinema’s primary material” was the entropic life of physical bodies inscribed on film. The modern equivalent of the tracking shot in Kapo, he wrote late in his life, was USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” broadcast. But “in 1961 a tracking shot still meant rails, a crew, and physical effort,” whereas “the movements of the person responsible for the electronic dissolve of ‘We Are the World’” were more attenuated and obscure: “I imagine him pushing buttons on a console, with the images at his fingertips, definitely cut off from what or whom they represent.”

Daney was destined to hate “We Are the World.” He had long argued, as he put it in 1977, that “the famous articulation between artistic experimentation and ideological struggle, obstinately sought by every past and future Cultural Front, happens, in film, in the soundtrack, in sound work.” The self-reflexive radicalism of Here and Elsewhere depended on the relationship between the untranslated, ambiguous initial footage and Godard and Miéville’s rueful narration. “We need films today,” Daney wrote, “that turn down the volume. That demand that we prick up our ears as much as our eyes.”

Shortly after this translation of The Cinema House and the World was published, the New York Film Festival showed a restoration by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium of the late Lebanese filmmaker Borhane Alaouié’s feature Beirut the Encounter (1981). Like Cléo From 5 to 7, it doubles as a fiction and a documentary portrait of a city, aerated by memorable one-off episodes and haunted by death. Set in 1977, during a brief pause in the Lebanese Civil War, the film narrates a pair of missed encounters between two would-be lovers, a Shiite man displaced from the countryside and a Christian woman about to leave for the US. After their first failed rendezvous across the city’s dividing line, she proposes that they both spend the night speaking into their tape recorders and then exchange tapes the next morning. There follows an exhilarating half-hour sequence during which their voices trade off on the soundtrack while the camera breaks free from their respective rooms and travels around the city: its streets, trash, buildings, ports. At one point the woman describes coming across a horribly mutilated body on the street. A passerby, she says, called out the dead man’s name, as if to prove that someone, if only briefly, still remembered it. No tracking shot of the corpse: We hear the story and the name over shots of an empty street. Watching that scene, I thought of what Daney wrote about Here and Elsewhere. “Images and sounds” in that film, he suggested, “are rendered as honors are rendered: to the dead.”

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