Daney Finally Arrives

Any translation of Serge Daney is already late. Late owing to the numerous failed attempts to publish him in English; late in providing ideas which we have needed for so long. Rumour has it that the British Film Institute came close to issuing a collection thirty years ago, even circulating a manuscript with copyright logos and editors’ names attached (it began with a letter to Deleuze; no wonder the book never appeared). The fact a collection has now finally been published by Semiotext(e), a publisher better known for French theory and experimental literature, tells us something about the reason for this protracted absence, and the parochialism of those responsible for film and its histories. Yet as much as Daney’s arrival in English is late, his writing is – perhaps more than any other European film critic of the twentieth century – almost self-admonishingly up to date. It is writing that addresses the present violently, to use Gramsci’s famous phrase, in a field which is more than happy to go on pretending as if nothing has changed.

Snatches of Daney’s output have appeared infrequently in English over the years. One text will crop up in an anthology; another in a book on media or in an artist’s zine. These sightings have been recorded by Laurent Kretzschmar at sergedaney.blogspot.com, a monumental effort. There has also been one slim book-length translation, which consists of an extended interview with Daney by his former Cahiers du Cinéma co-editor Serge Toubiana, and one of his last essays, ‘The Tracking Shot in Kapo’ (envisaged as the first chapter of a planned autobiography of sorts). Many of his aphorisms have therefore already found their way into the Anglosphere, appearing like candles lighting a path to a different kind of visual history and criticism: ‘Cinema as a house for images that no longer have a home’; ‘Cinema as haunted by writing’; television as either ‘democratic project… or Police operation’. With The Cinema House & the World, 1962-1981 – the first of four volumes which will together collect the majority of his writing – English-language readers can now finally read these enigmatic lines in context. 

This first volume, translated by Christine Pichini, covers Daney’s formative period as a disciple of the nouvelle vague, his editorship of Cahiers du Cinéma from 1973, as well as his first texts for Libération, for which he left Cahiers to write full-time in 1981. Unlike his older colleagues – Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette – Daney never turned to producing films. Instead, he led an advance of criticism beyond the theatre and the auteur onto new terrain. The political and cultural landmarks of the volume are the Algerian Revolution; the high point and subsequent split of the nouvelle vague; the failure of ’68; the ‘Red Years’ of Cahiers; the rise of New Hollywood; and Vietnam, the first televised war. The book, however, departs from strict chronology, with texts grouped loosely by theme – ‘In Film’s Wake’, ‘Elaborations’, ‘Auteur Theory’. Yet as much as these headings present Daney as a theorist, he was a critic in the best sense of the word, attentive to films in their concreteness. The collected articles typically follow the pace of new releases and festivals, with ideas evolving out of reviews, intermingled with observations about the problems of the day, and presented not as completed theorem but as the imprints of ongoing thinking. Hollywood and what Daney called ‘the Auteur Marketplace’ are treated concurrently and as imbricated phenomena; Daney’s critical attention ranges from B movies to militant documentaries to studio films, and onto televised political debates and tennis matches, without the object of inquiry ever becoming incongruent to wider problems of form and politics.

Over the course of the book, television begins to emerge as Daney’s central concern (one which will no doubt be even more extensively treated in later volumes). We await the complete set of columns from Le salaire du zappeur (‘The Wage of the Channel Hopper’), for example, during which Daney chronicled the daily output of French television. But from the earliest texts, the enduring themes of Daney’s oeuvre are present in incipient form. Apparatus (Althusser), codes (Barthes), realism (Bazin), spectacle (Debord): these are the building blocks for his mode of enquiry. Even his very first review of Hawks’s Rio Bravo, written at the age of 18 for his own short-lived magazine Visages du cinema, evinces his awareness of Hollywood’s ideological function, its synthetic imaginaries and its codes: ‘Every effort is made to show us that the Wild West is not as we imagine it to be: no longer is it a wasteland where adventurers duke it out but a calm and bourgeois town where adventurers no longer belong. The age of the pioneer has passed.’ But what age are we in now? This first text appears to us as far away in time as the Lumières were to Daney. It is reasonable to ask what reading them today might offer. We might ask: are we still the children of Coca-Cola and Marx?

For a reader who has absorbed more of film history via Pirate Bay than in the theatre, Daney offers an approach which is almost irresistible. It is a method that charts cinema, video and television as they evolve and mutate into new, intertwined forms; he responds to cinema’s end not through elegy but zealous reappraisal. Replace some of the dated terms and we’re close to what a contemporary film criticism should read like, I think: one that adapts to the changing systems of image-making (technical, but also ideological and political). Daney is a historian of the medium as it unfolds, tracing its changes and conversions as much as dispensing judgement on its products. Likely influenced by the Althusserian current of Cahiers under the editorship of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, countless reviews return to problems of ideology. As heavy-going as this period of criticism can be to read today – Daney even joked at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1977 that he was criticised for being insufficiently Althusserian and Marxist-Leninist – Daney always interlaced this inquiry with aesthetic questions of mise en scène or camera movement, mapping political transformations onto developments of style and technique.

Time and territory emerge as central preoccupations in the collection. Timing: editing, action, history. Territory: mise en scène, empire, the state, ‘the concrete territory’ where film ‘performs its intervention’. The visual field – and its conditions of production and consumption – as described by Daney is marked by transformation and metamorphosis. From projection to broadcasting; from rebellion to institutionalisation. Daney scrutinizes such changes, tracking formal and thematic correspondences in the films he writes about: in Ici et ailleurs and Histoires d’A as much as The Blob and Jaws 2. These reviews are underwritten by a larger concern: what kind of subjects are produced or given ballast, what kind of political consciousness is enabled or foreclosed? ‘All films are militant films’ he writes bluntly at one point, a declaration that would be alien to contemporary discussion of Imperial superheroes and Monarchy dramas. For as much as he is open to the creations of studios and auteurs alike, Daney’s political commitment is never in doubt. The stakes are clear – especially during his writing in the 1970s – and there is only so much that can be brooked: ‘sometimes, the very project of a film is entirely structured by bourgeois ideology, that it never emerges from it, that it marks a territory that is entirely in the enemy’s hands from the start.’

Daney’s most arresting remarks typically arrive in unexpected asides and interjections. A review of a Roger Pic film takes a break in the second paragraph to ask of music played over the phone whilst on hold: ‘Isn’t it time we ask ourselves what we are being told with this music?’ Daney is as likely to stop to consider how cartoons effect montage (The Great Race) as he is the history of the French Communist Party (With the Blood of Others). He wonders if there is any need for, or interest in, in the production of films from military or petit-bourgeois states when ‘American soap operas or karate films seem sufficient to address the people’s imaginary’. A new favourite text of mine argues that Fassbinder can only be considered ‘the slightest bit political as a filmmaker’, not due to the widespread notion that his work is about alienation, but because he made ‘social climbing a cinematic subject worthy of attention’.

Today, the cinema of collective dreaming – a Saturday night of Modern Times and Pickpocket, sitting in an audience laughing and crying in the dark – is increasingly a specialist hobby. Daney foresaw this. In a late interview, he mentions his sadness at laughing alone in an empty theatre (‘To laugh alone, what anguish!’). I can’t help but wonder what he might have thought of online streaming; of the young falling asleep to American sitcoms. For today, Hollywood stares back at us. Attention economics and cinematography hold hands. Screens track our eyes and wrap our imaginaries in dazzling new codecs. Reading the young Daney we find the pre-history of this transformation as viewed by a critic of formidable intelligence, negotiating the admixture of technical procedures and dream-worlds we still inhabit. ‘His living room is a box in the theatre of the world’, Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935. But it was Daney who explored its implications.

While many contemporary critics retreat to ‘Bazinian’ questions, Daney offers a way to confront our present of endless slogans, crises and visual stimuli. He takes up the task of understanding what ideologies and visions are sustained, and what could be fashioned in opposition. But those moments, as Daney is quick to warn ­– to dream or gather our strength – are always too late in appearing. Writing of Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bela and Gudie Lawaetz’s May 68, Daney describes the problem of witnessing – of presenting imagery ‘as if we were there’ – and how filmmaking relates to questions of struggle: ‘the film, by its very existence, suggests that History, perhaps, has been settled, and contributes to creating a new doxa, actual conformism and the stereotypes of tomorrow.’ At Daney’s most melancholic, this is presented as a kind of tragedy: a ‘perverse dialectic of belief and exhaustion is currently the last word of the “documentary” film’. Godard, Luc Moullet and Shinsuke Ogawa are differing examples of this ‘cinema of intervention’: films always too late in arriving, always ready to provide retrospective explanations for defeat. Yet such a problem is presented as something to be constantly questioned and re-examined, so as to refuse futile daydreaming.

Daney’s arrival may be late, but his work might help us to think through such problems of history and struggle, or at least to shrug off our fantasies of permanent defeat and missed victory. ‘What are the best vectors today of righteous violence, of this power to say no, of being radical?’ By reading Daney, we might perhaps begin to recover the belief that image-making can meaningfully contribute to answering such a question. It is to this end, I hope, for which Daney has finally arrived.

Read on: Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘The Missing Image’, NLR 34.