The recent publication of Serge Daney’s last two years of writing, La Maison Cinéma et le Monde – 4. Le moment Trafic 1991-1992 (Éditions P.O.L.), reveals many of his major ideas and how they culminated at the end of his life. The book primarily deals with the launch of his new journal Trafic, through his original three articles for it Journal de l’an passé, Journal de l’an nouveau, and Journal de l’an present; interviews about it and his philosophy, and some of his last few essays and public conferences.
The book is important for bringing together many of these texts that have long been unavailable or difficult to find. The many interviews – fundamental in his role as a passeur – offer a more casual, anecdotal and richer portrait of Daney, which shows a different side of him then that of Perseverance. Through a close attention to these texts, many of his views become clearer, sometimes even in opposition to his earlier writing, and a more precise picture of Daney finally emerges.
Many of the points in the book are just statements, but which have a lot of meaning for Daney, and he does not necessarily unpack them, so they must be taken at face value. The following is a selection of translations of some of these key points and quotations which represent some of the major ideas of one of the greatest film critics of the twentieth century. - D.D.
A list of some of Daney’s favorite filmmakers would include the classical carré d'as American directors of the Cinéma Mac Mahon (on Jacques Lourcelles, “the commitment to his tone and being assured in his Mac-Mahoniens taste are intact, and we feel the author being proud of never changing his mind on what’s essential”), the French and nouvelle vague directors of Alain Resnais, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Claude Brisseau (‘Céline is a film of our time’), Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax (more on them below); the more challenging avant-garde films of Guy Debord, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Akira Kurosawa (the book includes a review of his autobiography), Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates, particularly), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Johan van der Keuken, Raúl Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira; and Stanley Kubrick (‘the only visionary of contemporary cinema’).
It is interesting to hear Daney discuss many emerging directors, who would never really receive full critiques, and revisit older ones, both which are quite perceptive in how they would evolve throughout the nineties.
Daney, “Actually, the most important director is certainly Manoel de Oliveira… Eighty-five-years-old. He’ll never be for the majority. But he continues making films in a way that is absolutely stupefying, which is both anarchic and completely insolent.”
Daney really likes Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (“au charme absolu”). Daney wrote “There are some really good things in Spielberg.” Luc Besson’s Le Grand Bleu is “the most important film of the eighties,” a lot better than Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’Ours.
According to Daney, La belle noiseuse, “I don’t think it really interested Rivette,” while Le Pont du Nord is his chef-d’oeuvre.
On François Truffaut’s Le Dernier Métro “one of his worsts,” but L'amour en fuite is “magnificent.” For Daney, Truffaut’s Paris, “is by a director of the 19th century, who esteems it, it takes place in Walter Benjamin’s passages.” And, “But either way, I find, in myself and with those around me, that the figure of Truffaut has been growing in esteem since his death. All of his ‘minor’ films are great, and only some ‘serious subject’ films are sometimes shallow. The Truffaut voice, neutral, a little high pitched, is unforgettable. I think that we’ll miss it.”
Daney really likes Van Gogh by Pialat.
On Nanni Moretti, “I for one, I need Moretti. We’re the same age, he’s one of those rare directors who speaks about the world as it is. There are maybe only five or six directors like this today, not enough.”
“Jean-Pierre Oudart once said (or wrote) that what was surprising about Mon oncle d'Amérique, was that the film would be the same if America didn’t even exist. This was a real intuition.”
On Wenders’ newest film at the time, “There’s a lot in it which doesn’t work. The whole last section, for example, isn’t convincing.”
Talks about the introduction of race and European style in some eighties American directors, for Daney, “Spike Lee is interesting because it’s someone who, against all expectations, has never renounced his political conviction. Jarmusch’s is a European cinema… Soderbergh, we don’t know yet. Sex, Lies, and Videotape was malin. But I don’t know how far he can take his project.”
“I saw Drugstore Cowboy, an unknown little film by Gus van Sant with Matt Dillon and the old Burroughs, and I found it formidable. In my usual fashion, I told myself that I needed to follow this director. Two years later, I realize that all of Paris, or at least all of the serious cinephiles in it, were praising My Own Private Idaho. One must no longer ‘fight for’ Gus van Sant.”
“Abbas Kiarostami, a magnificent Iranian director, makes us think a lot, but at the same time, it’s really strange since it’s the same as Rossellini. We ask ourselves through what alchemy does an Iranian all by himself discovers, or rediscovers or continues, this hypothesis of Rossellini and certain other Italian directors.”
Bertrand Tavernier, for Daney, is “an efficient type, cultivated, who really knows a lot, and who really likes cinema. Because of this, today, he complains a lot against those who don’t like his films.”
Some films that he hated: Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society and Lars von Trier’s Europa.
“One night, it’s been a few year already, there were two of us, S.T. and I, and we were spending time with a director. Everyone loved Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Everyone except for our host, who got really upset when S.T. awkwardly described its characters as ‘formidable’.”
“It’s at this moment that the hypothesis of a resistant-cinema which obliges us to take into consideration the resistance of the characters moving towards their death. It’s without a doubt why, after our incursion, that S.T. decided to return to the subject in Cahiers (N.450) on that annoying question. And when he asks why Olivier Assayas centers all of his film (Paris s'éveille) on a character that, finally, ‘has no chance of escaping their faith’, it’s a question that I could not help but be too familiar with. Didn’t I feel obligated to side myself more with Louise at the end of Assayas’ film? No, because I wasn’t close to the character nor was she sympathetic. No, because throughout the film, through time passing and cinema making it dialectic, I still did not become attached to her. No, because the vitality of Louise did not carry the project… I felt the need to detach myself from the auteur…”
On Philippe Garrel and Leos Carax:
“For my generation at Cahiers, we’ve never really become directors. [On film sets, for example, I get bored too quickly. It exasperated me.] The most important director of my generation, was Garrel, a compagnon de route for Cahiers. Though perhaps less so now. Carax, on the other hand, wastes too much energy trying to decide his projects, though he doesn’t have a problem with desire. But I really like Leos, he’s a really gifted boy, but what he’s interested in isn’t always interesting.”
“I left Les Amants du Pont-Neuf just as I did Mauvais Sang: perplexed and affected. Is it because I re-see Leos, an auditor in the cinema class I was teaching, already anachronistic, fiercely listening and intensely quiet, which makes me ask myself, with each new film, what are his ‘references’?”
“I was giving these courses with Danièle Dubroux, and this young boy intrigued us. He seemed a lot more intelligent than the others, he also looked like he was only twelve. He wasn’t even enrolled in the course, and would just sit at the back of the class, and wouldn’t say anything. But he had this gaze, always extraordinary for someone out in public, who was benefiting from our course, this intrigued us. We took the risk and we proposed to him to write for us. One day, I asked him to write about young French filmmakers. He was so young himself. He first said yes, but withdrew by saying this magnificent phrase, ‘There’s only I that could fulfill it, but I’m not going to.’… Leos, it’s like Rivette. When we run into each other on the streets, we get a coffee together. There, we get into pure emotion. But, for the most part, the cinema that I defended, which I represented, including Leos, though not entirely, but a lot, is constituted by people that now don’t even give a damn to even call me. It’s a life choice. A little sad. But I know that if I was friends with Tavernier, he would take care of me.”
On meeting Chris Marker,
“I remember also, this time in Hong Kong, of my only encounter with the hard to find Chris Marker. It was on such a hot day and we imagined (perhaps to jauntily, I think) the pure and simple disappearance of cinema, its content diluting, its lack of vitriol. As if it was the dream of the 20th century wasn’t going to survive the disenchantment of the awakening of the turn of the 21st century. Here we were.”
On the role of festivals,
“The good ones, those that are a medium-sized ones. Not too large, like the Cannes machines, or too insignificant, like some smaller ones. But more so the friendly ones like Rotterdam or Locarno. There there can sometimes have real cinematographic events.”
Surprisingly, a few positive comments on Michel Ciment and Positif,
“The era of regular film magazine publishing is over – I think of the courageous little magazine Positif with the elegant Michel Ciment – where you could accompany an unknown Wim Wenders up to the point where the bourgeois from Cannes could no longer ignore him. This was in the seventies.”
“The situation today in France is confusing. I wouldn’t know how to fix it. They should get several of us to brainstorm potential solutions. Even people like Michel Ciment know there’s something wrong.”
On the original Cahiers project and his relation to it,
“Oh, the Cahiers jaunes years, those were the bible. It was the absolute truth, without a doubt. You would follow it with your life to death. I started reading it in 1959, the N.97 issue, which had Hiroshima Mon Amour on the cover. Then we started going to the Cinémathèque with peers from the lycée. There we met Douchet, the only one that kind-of spoke to us. We quickly realized that a long saga has just reached its conclusion in front of our eyes. That of the nouvelle vague – they won. I loved Cahiers for reasons that might not have been too pure deep down. First, for its writing. After for its independent spirit. A magazine capable of taking down in two lines The Bridge on the River Kwai, this film that was immensely popular and that all of France loved. I told myself: ‘Such bold writers do need really strong arguments.’ But I wasn’t wrong. Because these guys who wrote only two lines on River Kwai would also devote ten pages to Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb. I was taken over by a fury: Cahiers was always right. In fact, I had the impression of discovering a world that wasn’t official.”
“Such a pleasure to like Lang when my cleaning person also watched his films. Even when I was reading Plato, I was also seeing Lang. Such a pleasure for a kid like me.”
“I think that the two last great films where there was something real in terms of an aesthetic and spiritual work, which was provocative, scandalous, and also really innocent. Films that tried to say: ‘With cinema, we are retaking up this dirty story, but if we didn’t, we would always stay within it and we would reproduce it.’ Between 1975 and 1980, there was one film that we ‘missed’ at Cahiers, and that was Salò by Pasolini, and then he died shortly after, and inversely, there’s a film that we spoke highly of, Syberberg’s Hitler, in 1978, that none of you have probably seen, due to the fact that it was never shown again. I think that this was one of the last times that a director that we were not really close with ideologically, Syberberg, thought the cinema in terms of an art-form. This meant a material practice, that of manipulations, language, could displace the field, stop things from becoming fixed, stir up a dialectic, include some humor, to change the perspective: this little Hitler is not like the adult, a spiritual ideological practice.”
And on the early impact of his generation,
“We believed that we could still fight for the cinema, while in fact it was almost entirely constituted, with its great directors. But regardless, I think I was part of the last generation to define the canon, to specify who was a great director and who wasn’t. For the American cinema, the nouvelle vague already did everything earlier. But Jacques Tourneur, for example, was us. If one day Boris Barnet is recognized, one of the greatest Russian directors, it would be without a doubt because of us.”
“One must return to the origins. The image of man has changed, but through Barthes, with his formulas, he was able to diagnose it. Notably through: ‘structuralism, intelligent commentary around the object’. This marked an entire generation, especially those at Cahiers, who started reflecting, reading and writing. In this structuralist ambiance, the cinephiles were like second-class citizens, the most arrogant. They benefited from a sector, that of cinema, which wasn’t too developed intellectually, but through it we were able to do whatever we wanted. After the Barthes of Mythologies, they were able to rediscover things that seemed entirely natural but that, in fact, reflected an ideology. Therefore we prioritized liking an American cinema, with a conviction in taste that I still won’t ever discredit, which we call these days ‘B films’. Well, it wasn’t, in the most strict sense B films, but lets just say these really minor or failed films, which had a personality due to the fact that they were less supervised projects. Where Cukor was trying to get away with anything under Selznick, Nicholas Ray received everything he wanted from the president of Republic Pictures to make Johnny Guitar, a magnificent film, which was made in absolutely incredible conditions. We then had the tendency to be the first petits malins – I don’t know if there were some before us, to such an extent – perhaps even miscalculating the directors themselves, as they turned out to be not as intellectual as we thought. It was fun to bring these objects into a more classic culture, thought, philosophy, critical program, while in fact they were all starting to slowly become for the majority: products… After this pioneering moment, we eventually became more adventurous, arrogant. We started watching pornos, peplums – I still think today, that Cottafavi, the director of Les Légions de Cléopâtre, is a vastly superior director, in principal, to Peter Greenaway.”
On the death of cinema,
“I never heard this discourse on the death of cinema in the intellectual milieu. I talked about it with Wim Wenders at a certain period. It was always frowned upon. I was always forbidden to tell him too much, I was put back in my place. It’s been ten years that I’ve been feeling this way. So it has to become the dominant discourse.”
“By the end I was getting tired of being reproached by others for what they described as my ‘pessimism’. To provoke, I would tell people that the cinema was dead – maybe since Rossellini! But it didn’t provoke anyone, it just made everyone sad.”
“But Carax, he’s not going to be able to do as he likes! He’s going to go to America and get destroyed! No, no! I don’t know why there’s something inadmissible in the fact that the cinema is going to die. Look at the numbers if you don’t want to believe me. And if you don’t want to believe me, who will you believe? I thought that I was partially credible! I’ve heard enough people telling me: ‘Your article is magnificent, but I’m not going to see the film, it’s not my thing.’ As if my review was an end in itself. Or others: ‘You’re acting in bad faith. Cinema is not going to die. Even though I don’t go anymore, I stay home and watch VHS tapes with my children…”
“No, but really, I couldn’t care less about seeing films in movie theaters. I saw some films all by myself in theaters, and to be honest, it was embarrassing. Especially for comedies, such anxiety!”
Daney offers some fascinating answers to what is cinema?: “I always thought that cinema wasn’t actually wonder in front of a moving image, but the reverberation of sound, the sentiment of time, waiting for something, something fatal.”
The need to write, “For me – it’s really personnel –, I never understood how for some they could watch all of these films without talking about them… I think there should always be a need to discuss, write, with interruptions sometimes where the film can speak back. It’s like a tennis match: the roles go back and forth. And for me, as a cinephile, I call this the oral tradition, it’s an ensemble of social practices.”
A fascinating book, La Maison Cinéma et le Monde – 4. Le moment Trafic 1991-1992, is an essential read for more on Daney’s thought later in his life. If only now his radio show Microfilms can be made more widely accessible and also his many printed interviews (a blind spot of these compilations)! There’s still a lot to learn from Daney and these texts still offer a great compass to navigate cinema today. It might sometimes be a bleak perspective, but it's the truth, for those who even care.