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Cinema Is Never on Time

On film critic Serge Daney

Today, Semiotext(e) publishes Serge Daney’s The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years, 1962-1981, originally published in France in 2001, in a new translation by Christine Pichini. Here is A. S. Hamrah’s introduction to this collection of Daney’s writing.

Serge Daney has existed in English mostly in a kind of samizdat, translated and published online by dedicated cinephiles with blogs, whose valiant work for two decades has tried to remedy this essential critic’s absence. While a short hybrid interview book, Postcards from the Cinema, did appear in 2007, in Paul Douglas Grant’s excellent translation, the majority of Daney’s writing has been unavailable in English in book form.

As Grant points out in his introduction to Postcards from the Cinema, by that year a “proper introduction” to Daney was already “so overdue that the very mention of this deficiency is itself becoming something of a cliché.” That was and is the case, that it is long overdue. It had been the case since before Daney’s death in 1992, from complications resulting from AIDS.

Grant traces “The History of an Absence” in the Postcards introduction, explaining why the work of this important French critic and editor has been so resistant to publication in English. Or, I mean, it’s the other way around. Before Semiotext(e), no U.S. publisher dared to do it. It’s a known fact that American publishers consider books of film criticism non-sellers, despite evidence to the contrary that there are many dedicated readers. The cinephiles who translated Daney and put him online knew that, first among them Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

An engagement with Serge Daney means a rejection of America and its hollow film reviewing sector.

Parallel to that, it also sometimes seems as if everyone who has translated Daney into English, even just to quote him in an article, a review, or an essay, at some point left the United States to go live someplace else. Some of them came back, some move back and forth, but they have been wise enough, unlike those of us who can’t translate from the French, to understand how on some level an engagement with Daney means a rejection of America and its hollow film reviewing sector. Better to watch all that devolve across an ocean.

At this point we are so distant from Daney that mentioning his absence can no longer be called a cliché. Bill Krohn and Jonathan Rosenbaum have kept Daney’s name alive in English for two generations, but the cinephiles of the new Letterboxd era didn’t learn they were supposed to miss him. Daney’s prescient, fundamental engagement with the same issues facing us now can therefore come as news.

Christine Pichini took on a monumental task in her extraordinary translation of La Maison cinéma et le monde I: Le temps des Cahiers (1962–1981) into The Cinema House & the World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years, 1962–1981, the first volume of Daney’s collected work, and not just because the book is six hundred pages long. Daney loved the American cinema but he resisted where it comes from. He inscribed that resistance into everything he wrote. His resistance as a writer is also a resistance to translation.

That’s true right on the cover. Daney’s title refers to Bengali cinema, specifically to Satyajit Ray’s late masterpiece, Ghare Baire, from Rabindrinath Tagore’s 1916 novel of the same name. Ray’s film came out in the United States in the summer of 1985 as The Home and the World and in France as La Maison et le monde, the same way the Tagore’s novel had appeared in the late 1910s.

In the movie, Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) must choose between her husband, Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee), and a revolutionary, Sandip, played by Ray’s great actor, Soumitra Chatterjee, from Apur Sansar (1959, originally called The World of Apu in the United States).

Bimala’s choice is in some ways one between Western culture and her own, and between the radical and the commercial, just as Daney’s was a choice between the West and the Third World (as the Global South was called while Daney was writing), between the radical and bourgeois, between Satyajit Ray and his film and Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1976), the last pairing mentioned by Patrice Rollet in his original preface.

But to call this book The Cinema Home and the World risked proving American publishers right. Though that is the more literal title, it is also awkward in English, and we already have the term “movie house” to describe the place that was Daney’s true home. If the new title renders Daney homeless, such is the fate of the film critic in the age of streaming and the pandemic. Being forced out of his real home and relocated in front of the TV screen or computer was a trajectory Daney knew well, long before the existence of Netflix.

In 1988 Daney published his collected newspaper columns about watching television as a book called Le Salaire du zappeur, another hard-to-translate title based on a movie, in this case a pun combining Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur, 1953) with a French word for someone clicking between TV channels using a remote control, “zapping” between them. The device and the person using it are the same thing, a “zapper.”

In addition to everything else he accomplished as a writer, Daney was the best and earliest film critic to describe the differences between film and television. He knew that to understand the second required full knowledge of the first. He had a politics of television, something television critics do not seem to have in this new age of peak TV, which thinks it has performed the magic act of making the medium disappear.

Wherever and however this full knowledge began, it took form in 1962, as you will discover in The Cinema House & the World, in a zine that lasted two issues, Visages du Cinéma, where the equally original and equally neglected-in-English Louis Skorecki was the publisher, editor, and only other writer. Daney’s first pieces were on films by Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger, Hollywood giants from overlapping eras of film history, one all-American, the other an émigré, a refugee from Hitler.

Daney and Skorecki then went to Hollywood to interview other American auteurs, including Leo McCarey, Jacques Tourneur, George Cukor, Samuel Fuller, and Jerry Lewis. There they experienced what Daney called “the cruelty of Hollywood,” witnessing McCarey’s bitter senility and Cukor’s contemptuous dismissal of Nicholas Ray. (Lewis and Fuller treated them nice.) These encounters with “madmen” directors, Daney wrote, explained how he was “able to learn to breathe outside polluted France in American cinema, and at the same time I had no problem being furious in the 1970s with American imperialism.”

Daney became a world traveler on the cheap, covering film festivals in the Third World and behind the Iron Curtain as a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma in Paris. By 1973 he and the other Serge, Serge Toubiana, became the editors of the magazine. They evolved it from its revolutionary, Marxist-Lacanian phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, returning it to more regular film coverage without sacrificing its political orientation.

Daney was perhaps the magazine’s last great editor. While he was there, Cahiers maintained its opposition to commercial cinema without abandoning its analysis of it. Feminism and nascent queer theory came to the surface in his work along with anticolonialism, already present in Cahiers at the time. There was a difference with Daney, maybe because he was gay, maybe because he was also a popularizer, maybe because he was used to corralling so many other writers as an editor. He put it all together like no one else.

The question is whether Daney in translation comes to us too late. 

That led to a gig at Sartre’s post-1968 leftist newspaper Libération. Daney comes to us as a critic who wrote more than his peers but who never dropped his standards or changed his interests for bigger publications or for his TV and radio appearances. He died too young, at forty-eight in 1992, the year Éric Rohmer’s Tale of Winter came out. To put that in perspective, Rohmer had been an editor at Cahiers, too, was twenty-eight years older than Daney, and outlived him by almost twenty years. A year before he died, Daney founded a new film journal, Trafic, that promised a return to committed film writing without commercial considerations. It was the beginning of a new period in the history of cinema, different than the televisual era he had described so well in the 1980s, with a different look and feel, defined elsewhere: Iran, Taiwan, D’Est, David Lynch, Basic Instinct. . . . He did write a startling piece on The Elephant Man, collected in Semiotext(e)’s volume.

Here and Elsewhere (1976) seems to be the most important of Jean-Luc Godard’s films for Daney. He mentions it many times, even more often than Mizoguchi’s Taira Clan Saga (1955). He makes sure to emphasize the and in the title. Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s difficult attempt to analyze Godard’s failure to join filmmaking in the West with revolutionary struggle in Palestine opened a door for Daney. A door we can walk through now.

The question is whether Daney in translation comes to us too late. Finally having him in English in this form must not lead us to believe something has been fixed or repaired, even though it has at last appeared. Because it is so late, like this piece I’m writing, it cannot be a validation. Daney must remain an open question. “Cinema is never on time,” he writes in one piece, then answers later that when it is good that doesn’t matter, because then it is both “very slow and incredibly fast.”

Daney is the same way. He was fortunate to arrive on the scene in the 1960s, but not too early in the 1960s, at the twilight of the classic auteurs, when they were still making films but they were their last films. Their kind of cinema was dissolving, what appeared then was in low tide of the 1970s, when everything left behind was revealed and the cinema was “skidding toward a new world.”

So much, then, in Daney’s search for a new world, was not good enough for him—not Joseph Losey, Jiri Menzel, Glauber Rocha. He found the future in spaghetti westerns instead. He despised Louis Malle, Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (he should have seen Wanda), The Night Porter, and The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob. Like many at Cahiers at the time, he couldn’t really accept the American and German film directors (the new Hollywood and the new German Cinema) who were his peers, though he was blown away by Francis Ford Coppola, so much so that he compared Apocalypse Now to Wind Across the Everglades. Ditto Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, perhaps the German filmmaker most like Coppola, whose work was equally controversial. Daney admitted there were people who didn’t like Warren Beatty, predicted Paul Schrader’s interest in porn, and identified Diane Keaton as the co-creator of Annie Hall.

He did all this while keeping one of his eyes (he identifies four) on the militant, stopping along the way at various stations that certain American readers, no matter how young, may recognize from grad school: the carnivalesque, the cloacal, potluck, the territory and the map, and hic et nunc (like in Gide’s Marshlands, the product of another French scene).

Some stations only Daney knew about. Those ones are called aesthetic minimum wage, desquamation, and my favorite: blobbing. Let’s stop at that one ourselves. It comes from Daney’s short 1976 review of a forgotten horror movie called Beware! The Blob, a too-late sequel to the original Blob from 1958. This belated follow-up came out in the U.S. in 1972, reached Paris in 1976, and was directed by Larry Hagman, the star of TV’s I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas. Daney calls it “the anti-Jaws” and describes the end of each scene, in which characters are eliminated by the lumpy globule, with the phrase “they are blobbed.”

Here is a key. Months later, at a film festival in Tunisia, Daney sees a documentary he doesn’t much like. The film is normalizing certain political issues that should be dealt with by the cinema in a more meaningful and complex way. “French cinema is starting to ‘blob’ immigration,” he writes, “to ‘naturalize’ it, to make it a theme like any other.” Apart from what may have been a reference to Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1968 Dziga Vertov group A Film Like Any Other (Un Film comme les autres), here we see Daney opening the door, he is showing us the and. From Beware! The Blob Daney takes something he can use, directly from an image, and applies it in a political context to another, totally different kind of film.

There are many filmmakers and films to discover in The Cinema House & the World that have not yet been blobbed (Criterionized). Not translating Daney in book form has heretofore saved them from that fate. Since the only worthwhile things are the ones that no one cares about, let’s try not to blob them. I won’t even name them. They are inside. Daney let them in.