Last Thoughts; Birth of a Journal

By Serge Daney

Translated by Tom Milne

Last year witnessed the death of Serge Daney, France’s greatest film critic. The event passed almost entirely unremarked in Britain. Daney had edited Cahiers du Cinéma, and was also the cinema editor of Libération. In the year before he died he helped to found, and edited, a new French film magazine: Trafic. The following extracts from his diary are taken from the first issue. Daney died of AIDS, a fact which, characteristically, he wished to be reported.

So, the rather cosy questions it seems we’d never be asked again recur once more. For instance: is the cinema an art? Will it survive in its entirety or in part? And what will become of what we loved about it? Or of us, who through it loved so unduly? Or of the world it promised us, and whose citizens we were to be?

Day by day, I take notes and I note my takes. But now it is Cinema in general I talk about, and talk to myself about, to the point of weariness at talking too much. ‘Were we dreaming?’ might be my theme song, and whenever I meet someone, I wonder if he belongs to that ‘we’, to that oral tradition which love of the cinema comprised. Of this, at least, I am sure: the cinema can no more weather the societies to come than Africa can find its place on the map of the world that is disappearing.

During our ritual lunch on the ‘Blue Train’, S.J. told me that Kevin Costner was working on a new version of Robin Hood, the powers-that-be in Hollywood having decreed the old Errol Flynn one unsuitable for today’s kids.

That one of the most limpid swashbuckling adventures of my childhood should be stamped out-of-date like this left me bemused. I could hear the voice of sound common sense telling me that a time always comes when toys must be neatly put away in the order in which one grew out of them. That old ‘classical construction’ [découpaqe classique], the same voice went on, must seem like Latin to kids bottle-fed on TV and commercials. While the wrinkles apparent on Flynn’s Robin Hood on the small screen, without either Dolby or special effects, are seen not as the patina of mellowness, a distinct plus in cult charm, but rather as a minus, a crippling defect, a matter for shame. But has the cinema, for Hollywood, ever been anything other than a fabulous factory for turning out mythologies? And in this sense, wasn’t Walt Disney the greatest film-maker of them all? Someone, in other words, so clearly of no concern to me that I never wrote a line about him (except once, on Dumbo). All of which suggest a serious need to clear the decks.

Because if a work of art is by definition something that endures, I suppose a mythology,  on the contrary, never stops renewing and recycling itself to suit the mood of the times and the state of the technology. So rather than colorising old Huston films, it profits the industry more to simply remake the ‘legendary’ films, and only these films. Only what can be remade will be retained: mostly, in other words, films whose success was legendary, so true is it that, even posthumously, money makes money and success makes success. Even Europe is going to get into the act: are there not rumours that Kieslowski is to be entrusted with a remake of Citizen Kane?

So the Errol Flynn version is just a movie moment (1937) of a myth which will run another century or two. Now, I’m just as fond as anybody else of the Robin Hood myth, but I can’t forget the form under which it materialised for me for the first time, in the impeccable geometry of the Hungarian immigrant Mihaly Kertesz, who became Michael Curtiz. Film buff egoism: basically, I value my childhood more than the myths which nurtured it. It is unique, whereas they are merely immortal.

With Silence Of The Lambs in prospect, S.P., J.C.B. and I find ourselves wary at the idea of being scared. J.-C.B. buys some pralines in Place Montparnasse, and we decide to eat them as an exorcism against fear. Anti-terror pralines, we call them, but since fear failed to materialise, the pralines were eaten with a sense of defiant relief. We left the cinema a little too inexhaustible on the film’s defects: a sign, as they say in cases like this, that the film exists (besides, everyone is talking about it). One proposition made us laugh anyway: faced with this fireworks display of bric-a-brac that includes corpses, moths, cannibalism, trans-sexualism, doors, a well, a plane, cages, blood and mincemeat, one wants to cry: ‘There was a camera, too!

The audience, for its part, seemed to enjoy seeing the film, and protested about the noise made by our bag of pralines. Jonathan Demme seemed to enjoy greeting the irruption of the slightest ‘thing’ on the screen with a flourish. Reality, you felt, had become so distant that it was no longer possible to see it in its everyday aspects. Hitchcock was scary because he filmed, especially when dealing with psychopaths, gestures that remained ordinary, everyday, functional. Demme films everything along the lines of a wild audiovisual happening, a drug-induced sensation. A car starting up, an extra walking past, a match being struck, a two-second red herring, are climaxes in themselves.

‘Making a film’ and ‘film-making’ become two different, indeed incompatible things. This is the paradox of current cinema. Just as too many young aspirants don’t so much want to ‘make a film’ as to ‘be a film-maker’ at least once in their lives, it is possible that the audience for Silence Of The Lambs is more anxious to ‘see cinema’ (and state-of-the-art cinema at that; in other words, obviously non-televisual) than to go on really takes place, all the balls having been lost, weighted, or good for only one shot. The audience’s role as partner/target/spectator, along with the onus of perception assigned to it, is no longer adopted by anyone in the auditorium. Starting out from a film-buff knowledge of past masteries, this ‘postcinema’ oscillates between academicism and Son et Lumière.

There is a history to the relationship between show and spectator. Spectators by status, we then became so by contract. But today? It is as though something else has intervened. Our rendezvous is not with the films, but with the sociological ‘happening’ constituted by the encounter between product and consumer. If that happening fails to materialise (most of the time, in other words), the question of a contract has no valid foundation, irrespective of services rendered.

A way of writing that takes these proceedings into account will have to be invented. A magazine is needed which would conduct traffic, as it were, among these singular figures and alien landscapes, unfilmed before, engines of war and wildernesses too ‘full of an inner life of their own’.

That contract again. In Russia, when we did the special issue of Cahiers three years ago, I was astonished to realise the absence of any contract between spectator and film. The brutality of social relationships there is such that the dimension of seduction, playfulness, charm simply doesn’t exist. No space is carefully contrived for the spectator within the mise-en-scène, for the very good reason that this space in the West is a paying proposition for the spectator, in both senses of the term. For Russians, the imagery remains eternally edifying, the icons stand firm. To them, our ‘point of view’ is a luxury peculiar to democracy. Who, living in such servitude can afford a ‘point of view’, especially in that mysterious Russian and Communist servitude that is willed as much as suffered? And which Russians may well now claim as their spiritual ‘plus’ in opposition to our material ‘plus’.

Because I hardly think they are going to start studying or imitating a kind of cinema so wildly different from theirs; Hitchcock movies, for instance. Our way of gambling at the box-office – with the ‘suckers’ money’ – will always remain anathema to them. Hopefully, then, they will not waste too much time looking to America, and instead recall that they had their own film theories, often inspired and systematically abandoned, from Eisenstein to Paradjanov, and from Vertov to Pelechian.

The question posed by these torpid times is, in fact, what can resist? What can withstand the market, the media, fear, cynicism, stupidity, indignity? At present the reply, the romantic reply, seems once again to be: art. I note two things, however. First, that what this involves is not so much art in general as the artist in particular. Not to mention the portrait of the artist, and the artist as a character (frequently sounding off). Secondly, the representation is no longer so concerned with the figure of the film-maker. The navel-gazing days of self-reflexive movies (from 8 1/2 to The State Of Things by way of Le Mépris and La Nuit Américaine) seem – finally – to be behind us. No. The artist who ‘resists’ best is the one who has access to the symbolic treasure-trove of our civilisation: writing or painting. Especially painting. We are in a time when Berri poses alongside Castelli.

There again, though, there are painters and painters. When I reconsider La Belle Noiseuse, for example, I persist in seeing it as a film neither about art, nor about an artist. I don’t think that interested Rivette very much. What interests him about art is the creative effort inasmuch as it has an extent in time, and the possibility of capturing that extent as such. In the old opposition between ‘the romantic lie and fictional truth’ [mensonge romantique – vérité romaesque], Rivette is firmly on the side of fiction. The artist, the pick of them all, is neither saint, hero nor child, but someone who awakens or maintains in his public a certain quality of perception. Therein, probably, lies the only ‘progressist’ aspect of the artist’s work. In Rivette’s films, it is this work that resists.

In the case of Godard or Garrel, we are closer to the romantic side, for reasons neatly summed up by Garrel when he says he was born into ‘the world of art’, and never had anything to prove on that score. In Garrel’s work, it is the fact that he experienced this world that resists. As for Godard, although he dreamed of replacing the image of the artist with that of the militant or the scientist, his questions never concerned the artist, always the cinema. What still resists, what should have resisted more strongly against the barbarism of being not seen or not made, is the cinema.

But where Straub and Rivette claim no more than ‘this is the creative effort!’, Godard still tacks on an admiring, despairing salute to the artist. Romantic gloom on the part of the first and last historian of his art form: since the cinema did not manage to redeem the world, all that remains is to settle the cinema’s accounts, and to compile things seen, fully seen, not seen, half seen. This is the beauty of Allemagne Neuf Zéro, a film truly pervaded by its theme.

The more one has to do with young film makers, the more one finds the romantic theme of the artist (even at work) taking over from the fictional theme of work (even artistic). As we embark on the 90s, this is no doubt inevitable. This teen-ecofreak romanticism, P.R.B. tells me, is the spontaneous language of youth: there is no other.

Thus Beineix, talking recently on radio, even more flayed alive than usual, claimed to see himself as a ‘resistant’ [sic], seemingly quite unaware that the ‘pure artist against an impure world’ opposition on which he prides himself is merely the cosy reverse on the ‘middlebrow-ism’ he thinks he is denouncing. Romanticism, at all events, has always been rife among wily poets full of menacing indictments and fruitful anxieties. What resists in them, they think, is their artistic ego. And we all know how often such poses end up in smoke.

Which leaves Wenders and Carax. What resists in them? Not the work, not the cinema, not the artist, but an idea common to all of these, the idea of an image. A single image. An image that is just, finally becoming ‘just an image’. Wenders, of course, no longer really believes in this, but Carax continues to subscribe. His lovers of the Pont-Neuf will be saved if the girl has time to offer the boy an image of himself which will reverse their  common destiny. The girl’s destiny is to lose her sight, his to become as mineral as the Pont-Neuf. It is this sketch, seen at the very beginning of the film – seconded by other blazing and burning images (from the nocturnal Rembrandt to the poster in the Métro) – which must become the ‘hero of our time’ image: the one which can redeem its model.

For more information on Serge Daney see the Daney in English blog.