Serge Daney's The Cinema House & The World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years, 1962-1981—translated by Christine Pichini, and with an introduction by A.S. Hamrah—is available now from Semiotext(e).
Critics, writers, or essayists: the modern world has made us bring our most intimate existences right into the light of day, into the world of intellection. A critical oeuvre these days can only be personal, and whatever its aesthetic qualities it’s bound to be poetically unique.
— Jean Louis Schefer1
In 1962, Serge Daney, under the intellectual mist of the French New Wave, began publishing criticism at the age of 20. As a loyal Bazinian, he wrote about Hawks and Preminger and Jerry Lewis, railed against conclusions published in Positif, and beat the drum for auteurism. To some, film criticism of this era, say from Bazin to the late ’60s, should remain the model; something to be reproduced and circulated like gift-shop imitations. The world, however, kept rotating. The Algerian Revolution, the Vietnam War, May ’68, all of these added to a long century of atrocities—two World Wars, extermination camps, atomic weaponry. Only the critic who saw cinema as an instrument to inscribe these events could be salient.
Daney’s approach to cinema as a global art, his protean set of interests, his applications of philosophical concepts, and his autobiographical bent made him particularly equipped to be the critic in the age of images. His project evolved through golden-age auteurist in-fighting toward issues of politics, perception, and the image. And so his critical oeuvre offers, along with a compendium of distinct ideas on cinema, something like a diachronic analysis of the image.
Someone as prolific as Daney presents numerous difficulties: shifting foci, new theoretical footings, and contradicting statements. Thirty years of writing (1962-1992) is too long to spend saying the same things. The central problem is this: how does one trace a mainline through the matted skein of paradoxical and gilt-edged ideas that is Daney’s career? An answer: by understanding Daney primarily as a creator of concepts—the pinnacle for a thinker. For creating effective concepts, which can be taken up by others, gives one’s work a future.
To provide some shape to such an expansive corpus, I’ve broken it down into three categories, roughly: workaday criticism, political thinking, and film theory. Each of these modes of critical entry are perceptible in Semiotext(e)’s new translation of Daney’s first two decades of criticism, The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962-1981. Daney himself would never give into such rigidity (dividing lines tend to bow, politics and aesthetics interweave, and intellectual trends change with the season’s style). But what lingers in every essay, and should be apparent in each section, is Daney’s dedication to conceptualizing the moving image’s place in our relation to a shifting world.
Even in his early writings, Daney lays the intellectual track that leads towards his pathbreaking work on the image. In this time, he cultivated personal and idiosyncratic definitions of common concepts: mise-en-scène, off-screen space (hors-champs), the off.
Like Bazin’s dedication to deep-focus photography, Daney felt that mise-en-scène was the way a filmmaker determined their relation to the world and how a film defined the limits of its realism. His mise-en-scène is a subversion of the simple definition of what is put into the scene or frame. It is, rather, “the expression of a lack—to create around the characters, mired in their solitude, victims of their indifference, the space of their common prison: an architecture of emptiness.”2 His definition puts forth a more poetic understanding of how frames relate to one another, how they relate to the spectator. The litany of objects, roaming actors, and spatial constellations across a film is no mere linkage of stylistic flourishes, but an aesthetic technique to alchemize the real into film form. The art of mise-en-scène is not the what is placed there, but “articulating that space that invariably creeps in between two people, two moments in a film.”3
This formulation allows Daney to move away from a MacMahonian tradition of classical mise-en-scène, where a synthesis of sound and image dictates fine filmmaking. Embracing dissonance between sound and image, between discordant frames, allows Daney to later articulate and valorize the artistic projects of people he held in high regard: Jean-Luc Godard and Straub-Huillet. It is a dual movement: away from conventional cinema, away from established notions of cinematographic terminology—a mise-en-scène for a changing world.
The off forms the other key concept.4 For Daney, a film’s underlying political and aesthetic questions can be approached through considering what is in the shot and what is not, which is to say the relation between everything and almost everything. Daney explicates this idea using the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall (1977). McLuhan’s sudden appearance in the shot (literally pulled into frame by the director) invokes a question: “what outside of the frame, guarantees the frame?”5 The ability of the off to generate anything within the image at any moment provides film its sense of the aleatory. The structures of cinema (the camera, the screen) guarantee the frame and, in turn, the frame guarantees a poetic relationship, connecting and separating simultaneously, between the image and the world.
The densest concepts conjure Daney’s greatest writing. I can think of few passages more invigorating than his digressions into the off during his review of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s Trás-os-Montes (1976): “Everything that passes through the limbo of off is susceptible to returning as other. As narrative and representative as they were, people such as Lang or Tourneur (continued today by Jacquot or Biette) only filmed because that other, that doubt at the heart of the same, was possible.”6 Take cinema’s famous double, Kim Novak as Judy and Madeleine in Vertigo (1958). Her absence in a scene, even in a shot-reverse-shot, provokes doubt at her presence—a doubt that forms a fugue-like continuity across the viewing experience. It is difficult not to think of Vertigo, and all other films that utilize the proto-cinematic theme of the double, when Daney writes, “and if you do come back, how will I know it’s still you?”7 The paradox of the off, of the other, is what turns the wheel of cinema.
These early, formative concepts were often deployed to elucidate the liveliness of certain auteurs. In an evaluation of Otto Preminger (whom Daney declares, in 1962, to be America’s greatest living filmmaker), he highlights the director’s use of mise-en-scène to evoke the play between freedom and confinement. This is why Preminger’s films often include courtrooms which are, for Daney, “by definition a mise-en-scène devoted to eliminating personal initiative.”8 The harmonizing of visual ideas with space (is that not one definition of good mise-en-scène?) slips something of reality into a film, even if that something real is a lack, or a confinement in the case of Preminger. But spatial relations and politics evolve over time (think of the barricades of May 1968—themselves mirroring the barricades of the French Revolution—which disrupted the accustomed flow of spatial order). Thus, our understanding of how space is inscribed into celluloid must also evolve. The vitality of Daney’s criticism is in his desire not to get down a definition of cinema, to pin its wings up and dissect it, but rather to catch it alive.
May ’68 had, as it did for many, a great effect on Daney. “It seemed impossible,” he stated, reflecting on the period, “to make or write about films as we had before.”9 Continuing the style of yellow-period Cahiers criticism would have felt out-of-step with the state of things. And that shift is palpable within The Cinema House and the World. The essays published before May ’68 possess a different air than the first essay, on Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), published after.10 The reviews preceding the Pasolini are by no means lightweight. They include writings on Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow), Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood, and a beautiful piece on Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (“a bit of celluloid —named Cluny Brown”). All show Daney’s skill at auteurist evaluation and his career-long occupation with ideology; with Brooks’ film Daney writes about American cinema’s tendency to reinforce the system it’s critiquing: “militaristic films against war, racist films against racism.”11 However, the work that followed displays what might be called a mature style: the same insightful criticism through an auteurist lens, only with an added political and theoretical commitment.
The critical weathervane, which had been pointed toward seeing for so long, switched in late ’68 with a heavy wind: toward interpretation, signs, semiology—the early approaches of academic film studies that ended up defining the era. Cinema was no longer solely a site of aesthetic pleasures, but taken as a linguistic system that could produce ideological and political meanings. This new approach of rigorous ideological and theoretical attention was borne out by the critics of Cahiers after May ’68, Daney among them. His first essay published after the failed revolution, on Teorema, uses continual parenthetical asides to articulate how the film functions, beneath its narrative surface, as a metaphorical account of its own viewership: “the visitor (T. Stamp) = the film (Teorema), the family = the audience (you, me, etc.).”12 The essay helps inaugurate a new era: away with cinephilia, away with pleasure, both replaced by a string of -isms: Maoism, Marxism, Althusserianism, Lacanianism.
This, for many, is a dark time in cinematographic inquiry. And as much as Daney was bound up in the trends of the rigorously gauchiste era of Cahiers, it was ill-suited to his particular style. He bristled at the publication’s collective attitude toward writing and at the dogmatisms of the ideology. He later disavowed his Marxism but held tight to its positions that overlapped with the project of cinema: the ability to conjure a lived and tragic history and a sense of romanticism.13
Daney’s political orientation is not reducible to one doctrine or one theorist, rather there are recurring ideas, culled from various sources, that outline his incisive application of leftist thought to cinema. A set of essays, titled “The Critical Function,” is illustrative of Daney’s fiercest attitudes. Moreover, they were written at a significant juncture for both Daney and Cahiers du Cinéma. After years of alienating readers and diminishing profits, Daney and Serge Toubiana were instated as editors of Cahiers in 1973. The new administrative regime was entrusted with a theoretical volte-face: a slackening of political dogmas and a return to cinema. These essays are not perfect emblems of Daney’s ever-sharpening political thoughts; however, they do possess something that he valued highly in cinema: they inscribe a moment when something is passing. Here, it is a new era of criticism (for Daney, for Cahiers) that moves with a new era of cinema.
The “Critical Function” essays take aim at two dogmas that plague Cahiers specifically and criticism more broadly: an equivalence between aesthetic and political criteria (golden-age auteurism), and the placement of “the political at the center” (Maoist-Marxist era).14 For Daney, there’s space between the two poles, between the “it’s all pleasure” and the “all cinema is a tool of bourgeois ideology.” Articulating that in-between is vital. Inhabiting it, issuing ideas from that region, is the point of critical intervention.
The key relation, one that both the above perspectives fail to keep in dialogue, is between a film’s utterance (what is said) and its enunciation (when it is said and by whom). “The nature of the relationship between the utterance [énoncé] and its enunciation [énonciation] establishes the film’s positivity (whom does it serve?).”15 A film always possesses both; the most objective documentary has enunciations (who points the camera at what and when), just as a work from an experimental filmmaker still delivers a discourse.
The dichotomy still smacks of semiotics, but it’s employed in search of moral and political function rather than a pure classification of film language. Avoiding these categories would mean understanding a film—its sounds, its images, its advertisements—on a purely cosmetic level. A film’s enunciation is, for Daney, its political mise-en-scène.16 Matching his theory of aesthetic mise-en-scène (what of the material world that seeps into a shot), his political mise-en-scène (what of the director’s class, gender, race, et cetera that seeps into a shot) allows for the viewer to disinter a dominant ideology through the configuration of images.
Filmmakers like Louis Malle or Elia Kazan, despite their liberal and progressive topics, are often reinforcing bourgeois ideologies because their utterances (what is said, often very liberal: racism is cruel, Nazism is abhorrent) are undermined by their enunciations.This is how a film can conspire against itself, how its political mise-en-scène can suppurate and rot the surface. Consider Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974). The film, in Daney’s view, is nostalgic for the old Nazism, the sort with legible factions, and has little to say about present day Nazism. “Fascism is far from dead,” he writes, “there will be other Lacombe Luciens, equally ‘inexplicable,’ and we cannot always invoke a ‘twist of fate’ in their defense.”17 Lucien is recruited by the Gestapo after an ill-timed flat tire puts him squarely in their path. The film seems to ask if simple bad timing can make a Nazi. Someone like Malle only fortifies bourgeois ideologies by creating a bourgeois discourse (can one accidentally become a fascist?) on issues indispensable to the masses (what does fascism look like today?).
One of Daney’s points here (they come too fast and snarled to catch them all) is that the traditional work of finding meaning, through seeing and reading a film, is still vital. Yet “that reading, that search for ‘discrete elements’ here, ‘bits’ of information there, is not very useful (apart from nurturing academic rumination and feeding semiologists) if we don’t know what’s happening on the receiving end,” if one doesn’t understand how a mass audience arrives at a meaning.18 A function of the critic is, then, to illuminate the hollowness of an utterance by exposing the sincerity of a filmmaker’s enunciations. Another way of saying this: the critic must survey both the political and aesthetic mise-en-scène.
His difficult style, inclination toward ambiguousness, and occasional pirouettes on the heel of reigning political theories make it difficult to say anything conclusive about Daney’s political “system.” (Perhaps the greatest testament to his refined political thought is that Daney survived multiple political regime changes during his two decades at Cahiers.) Obscure and difficult? Perhaps, but always resolute in his beliefs. In reading the work, one finds the same general aesthetic and political timbre throughout: a dedication to class struggle, to the moral education of criticism, and to charting the fraught pleasures of the image.
It takes a fair amount of assembly to put forth any cohesive image of Daney’s film theoretical contributions. There are the territories already discussed: his modernizing of careworn terms like mise-en-scène and the off; his interweaving of leftist politics through cinema’s movement between the social and the self; and his endless string of one-off superlative theories that brim out of his daily reviews, travelogues, festival reportage, and even his writings on tennis. Then there are the ideas and structures he kept returning to, the ones he kept repeating: new stylistic modes in cinema, the rise of television, and the history of the image. These form the scaffolds over which the film theory of Serge Daney can be erected. “Repetition is, ultimately,” he wrote, “the most radical critique.”19
One concept that occurs with more frequency in his years at Libération (1981-1991) is filmed cinema. The idea was originally developed by his friend and fellow critic Jean-Claude Biette, but Daney deploys it frequently. It is the academicization of cinema, evinced most clearly in the New Hollywood: Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma, Scorsese; those auteurs who studied film, whose first inclination for an image is not the world but an image of the world (which is to say cinema). Coppola specifically, writes Daney, “is a filmmaker of our times (and one of the most stimulating), and we live in the time of filmed cinema. One no longer captures reality, one embellishes it with another coat of additional ‘cinema-effects.’”20 Daney doesn’t always mark filmed cinema as a pejorative category, rather as a historical progression, as the creation of a new mode of the image, one that, like language, doesn’t leave the world once it enters. Filmed cinema: “Cinema as event. Cinema as sound and light show. A cinema highly mythic in tone.”21
Here we start to converge on Daney’s years-long conceptual project that, to my mind, earns him a reputation as both a film and media theorist: his history of the image. Toward the end of his career (which is also the end of his life), Daney ditched the use of “classical” (as in classical cinema) in favor of new eras of filmmakers: pioneering, modern, and mannerist. It makes good sense. The first half-century of cinema can be understood, from the perspective of the image, as an era of expansion, of experimentation, of pioneering. Notably in the book at hand, the word “pioneer” only appears alongside the names Hawks and Ford—two directors who influenced the modern image—and only in reference to their Westerns. Modern cinema (a topic too large for these pages) begins, for Daney, after World War II, with Rossellini, Resnais, the knowledge of the camps, Rome, Open City (1945), Night and Fog (1956). The image at the modernist turn becomes compromised by its inborn pathogen: propagandistic materials are furtively passed through the pleasure of moving pictures. Propaganda haunts the modern image, attenuating its innocence while it works its way behind the eye.
“The cinema of today,” writes Daney in the late ’70s, “follows the cinema of yesterday just as the era of advertising follows the era of propaganda. We do not entirely know what a great advertising filmmaker will look like.”22 The introduction of advertising, mass television, and filmed cinema brings about an era of mannerism. What is mannerist cinema? “Nothing happens to human beings, everything happens to images—to Images,” writes Daney in a review of Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982).23 Or as Gilles Deleuze writes, affirming Daney’s third era of the image, the mannerist image is “when there’s nothing to see behind it, not much to see in it or on the surface, but just an image constantly slipping across preexisting, presupposed images, when ‘the background in any image is always another image,’ and so on endlessly, and that’s what we have to see.”24
Deleuze is essential to understanding the importance and philosophical depth of Daney’s morphology of the image. His cinema books, published in 1983 and 1985 in France, are landmark works of film theory and divisive for their presentation of historical periods of the image. According to D.N. Rodowick, however, his claims seem much less controversial when read alongside the contemporary work of Pascal Bonitzer, Jean Louis Schefer, and Daney.25 As Daniel Fairfax notes in his books on the red years of Cahiers du Cinéma, the greatest sustained treatment of Daney’s ideas published in English, “the dividing point cleaving Cinéma into two—the ‘breakdown in the sensori-motor schema’ brought about by World War II—shows clear parallels with ideas developed by Daney in the years leading up to the publication of Deleuze’s books. This influence remained mostly unacknowledged in the relevant chapters of the Cinéma books but was affirmed by Deleuze in later texts.”26
The shale-like history of cinema’s images still draws criticism in Deleuze’s cinema books; too stratified and too rigid. Readers of both Deleuze and Daney will no doubt see the overlap but the same arc in Deleuze that seems both too little and too much feels agile and perspicacious in Daney. Along with Deleuze, he deserves recognition for aiding the shift in theoretical stance away from semiotics and language and towards sensation and experience. Why? Formulating from the frontlines of the image lends Daney’s project an intimacy that is always already present in one’s relation to the image. It’s an everyday encounter.
The new era of the image—mannerist, premeditated, redolent with the musk of capitalism—is increasingly invaded by the televisual, a preoccupation of the last decade of Daney’s writing. Daney was one of the first major film critics to study television and one of the first to reckon with the changes it enacted on cinema, on the image, and, consequently, the viewer. An early effort occurs in The Cinema House when Daney imagines, in a 1978 Cahiers piece, what is possible if one watches Bergman’s Autumn Sonata on TV followed by a mother-daughter talk show on the same channel: then “everything that makes it an antiquated and dull film would then start to ‘function.’”27 It would enliven the film’s starched aspects (silent reaction shots, hazy photography, simple symbolism) by placing them within a form (television) that converts platitudes into melodrama.
The flattening of the hierarchy of the image, which abrades cinema’s power on one side, can also give it a potential new function (added intimacy, fresh configurations, a new montage). This is at least some consolation, albeit only temporary. In a trajectory that would be echoed by the evolution of the Internet years later, the utopic potential of being a zapper (Daney’s word for channel-changing)—the ability to program and edit your own images through the remote—was dulled by the privatization and Americanization of television programming.28
The outcome of television is, for Daney, the flattening of one hierarchy (cinematic and televisual images) and the creation of another: the establishment of the visual (clichés, stereotypes, banalities, meant to be read more than seen) as an opposition to the image (the in-between of visual experience—between aesthetics, between ideas, between moments of time).29 He concluded this in 1991, a year before his death, but this new order of vision has only been substantiated by three interceding decades of social and aesthetic development. The shunting of cinematic images to the edges of social life was and is not entirely hopeless. A constant through his diachronic analysis is that the auteur, however marginalized, can still articulate with images. And cinema’s languishment as a popular art can mark a “second life as a minoritarian, artisanal practice.” If, as Daney thought, television had become the prose of the world, then this allowed cinema to become its poetry.30
THE EXTRAORDINARY MAN OF CINEMA
Through all these glinty concepts—the off, the critical function, filmed cinema, and, above all, the history of the image—Daney’s thoughts on cinema are unveiled through his own experiences. It is that very mix of subjective exploration and critical theory that sometimes gave Kent Jones the “heebie-jeebies” toward Daney’s writing.31 Myself: I think it enriches the strength of his project and, what’s more, I admire the nerve-stuff it takes to theorize from his deathbed, as Daney did, that his birth and death overlapped with the birth and death of modern cinema. He made the two synonymous. Serge Daney and modern cinema: they defined each other.
The reorientation toward the experience of the image necessitates some subjective criticism. In his position as a workaday critic, particularly during his Libération tenure where he was allowed to use “I”, Daney could fashion critical concepts while also preserving his cinephilia. That fraught term, now sort of passé, was never far from Daney’s mind. His belief in it coils around his entire career. In the interview that opens this book, he says, “Cinephilia is not only a particular relationship to cinema, it is a relationship to the world through cinema.”32
Let’s leave with something I’ve always found very touching about Daney’s life, which bends back to an element important to his belief in cinephilia, his childhood. He was born to an absent father, a man twice the age of his mother: Pierre Smolensky, well-heeled and a bit of a beau according to family stories, was also, under the surname Sky, a voice dubber and actor with some small roles in French cinema. Picture a young Daney dutifully surveying the image to catch sight of his father, someone who was both dead and alive on the screen. “I had to spend part of my life,” he wrote, “knowing that he was etched, embedded, embalmed (how could I be 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.”33 It makes sense that Daney, a fatherless attendant of the cinemathèque, would warp his cinephilia around a new term, ciné-fils: a child of cinema. There’s something theoretically and emotionally resonant (perhaps even common) about Daney, at the cinema, in alternative fits of fear and curiosity, looking for a lost parent but only finding himself.
Thanks are owed to all those who keep the English-language flame of Serge Daney’s work lit, in particular to Jonathan Rosenbaum for his writing on Daney and for some helpful notes with this essay and to Laurent Kretzschmar for the invaluable sergedaney.blogspot.com, which has been something like a bible for me.