The first in a series to be published by Semiotext(e) showcases the striking ruminations of French film critic Serge Daney from 1962 to 1981.
The Cinema House & the World: 1. The Cahiers du Cinéma Years,
1962–1981, by Serge Daney, edited by Patrice Rollet, with Jean-Claude Biette and Christophe Manon, translated by Christine Pichini, Semiotext(e), 597 pages, $34.95
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To all but a small but tenacious cabal of connoisseurs, the term “film criticism” suggests—if it suggests anything at all—the consumer-guide style typified by the writing of Roger Ebert: brisk, demotic plot summary requiring no breaks to decipher unfamiliar vocabulary; pat value judgments reflected in stars, letter grades, or some other merit-reflecting token; a few asides to extol or condemn the cinematography, ideally “luminous,” and the performances, ideally “pitch-perfect.”
A reader whose acquaintance with film criticism was limited to instances of the above would encounter few recognizable landmarks in Serge Daney’s The Cinema House & the World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years, 1962–1981. This is the first of four volumes of Daney’s collected writings from Semiotext(e) previously issued in their original French by P.O.L. Éditeur, also the publisher of the journal, Trafic: Revue de cinema, that Daney cofounded in 1991, the year before his death from AIDS-related complications. Daney keeps plot synopsis to a bare minimum, if he bothers with it at all. While he can be blunt in his valuations—George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935) is “one of the most beautiful films ever shot”; Barbet Schroeder’s General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974) and Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972) are both given a thorough stropping—more often you have to cling tightly to the winding turns of his writing in order to extract anything resembling a “conclusion.” The pieces in The Cinema House include many drawn from a period at Cahiers that began under the editorship of Jacques Rivette and continued under that of Jean-Louis Comolli and Daney himself, when the magazine adopted a radical-left political identity and opened an active engagement with contemporary theory. In many of them, Daney will make passing references to the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Guy Debord, with confidence that he’s addressing a sharp-minded readership that can either (a) understand the allusion or (b) do the necessary homework to catch up.
Daney describes the particularities of the period in French intellectual history during which much of the material in The Cinema House was published in a 1977 interview with Bill Krohn, the onetime Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers, which gives some sense of Daney’s quicksilver off-the-cuff acumen. (Further evidence of this can be found in Jacques Rivette, le veilleur, a 1990 documentary codirected by Daney and Claire Denis, in which the coruscating writer is as much the star as Rivette, no slouch himself.) The preoccupations that Daney outlines in the interview are pursued in the pages ahead, among these an acute attention to the moral position implied by a filmmaker’s decisions regarding what to film and how to film it, a shared concern among Cahiers writers since the publication’s inception, e.g., Luc Moullet’s maxim “Morality is a question of tracking shots.” Daney notes in particular the inspiration provided by Rivette’s denunciation, in the magazine’s pages, of one dolly move in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Holocaust-themed Kapo (1960) that he deemed singularly unforgivable.
In a doleful, ruminative essay written for Trafic in his final days, Daney revisits Rivette’s jeremiad, and his brief description of the piece—it “did not tell the story of the movie . . . merely described one shot in one sentence”—could apply to several essays in The Cinema House, in which Daney so often pounces on a telltale choice in a film that seems to reveal its essence, the loose thread that unravels the garment. These details become springboards, points from which Daney can launch himself into speculations on qualities particular to the phantasmagoric medium of cinema as a whole—for his Cinema House is unquestionably haunted. The first piece in the volume, on Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), published in Daney’s short-lived magazine Faces of Cinema, when the author was all of eighteen years old, dates from 1962; the last, from 1981, the year he turned thirty-seven. In the first and by far longest of the book’s eight sections, consisting of reviews of individual films, the pieces are arranged with an eye to connecting developing lines of thought—on off-screen space, on the relation of sound and image, on the eternal tardiness of cinema addressed to a moment in history—rather than following strict chronology.
While Daney was a committed leftist writing for a magazine that was run for a time by a Maoist editorial collective, as Cahiers was in the mid-1970s, his interest in moral quandaries that exist outside of superficial labels leads him to aversions and affinities that are anything but doctrinaire. Daney takes to task ostensibly sympathetic activist films like Bruno Muel’s With the Blood of Others (1974) for their absence of formal rigor and reserves his flung bouquets for the directorial efforts of Jerry Lewis, not a figure especially associated with radical politics. (An analysis of Lewis’s 1965 The Family Jewels is particularly illuminating.) Elsewhere, a discussion of Johan van der Keuken’s Springtime (1976) opens the door to an indictment of tracking shots “gliding along [a] factory’s open, empty spaces,” which “occur in industrial films as often as in leftist narratives,” an approach condemned because it grafts the spectator’s point of view onto that of the factory overseer.
Daney’s radical rapprochement with commercial cinema may seem paradoxical, but in the best Cahiers tradition, he was concerned with a film’s form rather than its ideological wrapping paper and, like his colleague Moullet, was perfectly at ease with contradiction, just as anyone discussing an “industrial artform” ought to be—see Daney’s perplexing declaration that Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) is “a hollow (deep) and empty (remarkable) film.” The ardency of Daney’s criticism, which even at its most mournful gives off the satisfying whir of a first-rate mind operating in real time, makes him eternally vital, though the world that provided a somewhat prominent platform for his talents, those of the “public intellectual,” now seems more remote than the era of working-class, popular cinema he can be found eulogizing throughout The Cinema House.
In addition to his qualities as a writer, Daney could be a chillingly accurate prognosticator. In later years, addressing a broad audience in the Socialist daily newspaper Libération alongside the equally idiosyncratic Louis Skorecki, Daney wrote with increasing frequency about television—material to follow in the forthcoming Semiotext(e) translations, though an interest in the medium is already evident in this first volume of The Cinema House. One column on early reality TV, marked by his long engagement with Debord, lucidly foresees (in 1992—and therefore outside the scope of this first volume) not only the central place that this new genre would assume in popular culture but also the self-marketing debasement of then-distant social media. With this in mind, a passage in the Krohn interview—“Academic discourse increasingly holds a monopoly over cinema and the next generation of ‘cinephiles’ will be created in universities more than in cinematheques”—is particularly chilling. While it’s difficult to say how the trudging prose style and wariness of the pleasure principle prevalent in film-studies departments relate to cinephilia in its classic sense, it’s true that the products of academia dominate what remains of any discourse around cinema that goes beyond the pebble-dash thinking of the consumer review. It’s also true that the handful of high-circulation outlets dedicated to serious thinking about cinema continue to conduct a lemming-like march off the cliff of Populist Outreach, and the middle ground that Daney once occupied with such flair, combining amateur avidity and intellectual adventurousness, has disappeared almost entirely. Thirty years after his death, Daney’s revenant presence offers a most welcome disquietude.
Nick Pinkerton is the author of the book Goodbye, Dragon Inn, available from Fireflies Press as part of its Decadent Editions series. His writing on cinematic esoterica can be found at nickpinkerton.substack.com, among other venues.