Sunday, January 24, 2016

Serge Daney’s Last Texts

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
    Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
            - Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI

Daney’s life was coming to an end. He contracted AIDS and in this period it was a fatal disease since the international medical community did not know yet how to respond it. Toubiana described Daney’s state of mind in this period as, “It was a stage in his life when he was settling scores, with extreme clarity, without lenience towards himself or others. That is the way it was, and the only demonstration of friendship was to be there.” An example of this settling of scores was a letter he sent to Cahiers. The film The Sheltering Sky at first glance would appear to be made as if it was for Daney. It is by Bernardo Bertolucci and it is about this world travelling couple that decided to go on an epic hike through the North African desert; there the man would catch a fatal STD. But Daney’s letter to Cahiers was an angry rant against Bertolucci and how with The Sheltering Sky that he was now corrupted by these prestigious international productions. 
 Daney’s last major essays continued this settling of scores. They appeared in his new journal Trafic which he created in 1990 with Raymond Bellour, Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre and Patrice Rollet. It was a journal of intense theoretical reflection on cinema, culture and politics. Its text-only pictureless design recalled the Cahiers of the Seventies years. The Ezra Pound quotation that opened the first issue contributed to the final and melancholic tone of his last essays there. For example, in the issue with his last contribution when he was alive, it was dedicated to his mother Huguette Daney. They were diary entries of his last two years alive. They comprised of an intense theoretical reflection, settling of scores, and revelations of personal secrets. These traits combined gave these final essays a Rivettian conspiracy quality.
These essays were also similar to Bazin’s late writing as they were both near-death theoretical reflections. In the essays Daney analyzed Bazin’s concept of a transcendent realism in an increasing televisual society. Daney asked what it meant to be human in a media-pervasive world of corrupt politics. The last of these essays also ended rather abstractly with an analysis of humanity as illustrated by an animal documentary, a Bazinian predilection par excellence, that he watched on television. They were also full of references to thinkers and directors such as Roland Barthes, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub.
“Cinema was dying,” Daney proposed… At this late period the directors that Daney admired now disappointed him. These directors included Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Olivier Assayas and even Jacques Rivette. (Daney shortly before even made a documentary with Claire Denis on Rivette for the Cinéma, de notre temps series, Jacques Rivette - Le veilleur.) Daney returned to Cahiers in this period as he was no longer getting along with the staff at Libération. He helped organize an impressive issue on the political activity in the U.S.S.R. and the fall of communism in Romania. Antoine de Baecque would spend a lot of time to interview him as a major resource for his Cahiers history books. But still the fast-approaching 40th anniversary of Cahiers would leave him ambivalent. Daney wrote in his Journal de l’an passé, “The 25th of May. Cahiers is now forty. Its televisual commemorative celebration is something sad.”
The publication of the Cahiers history books and its 40th anniversary motivated Daney to write one of his most famous essays – The Tracking Shot in Kapo – which was published posthumously in the Fall 1992 issue of Trafic. This essay discussed his relationship with Cahiers by psychoanalyzing his own life and how it intersected with Cahiers when he was a teenager. (Daney wrote, “Rivette was 33 and I was 17…”) Through Cahiers Daney discovered Rivette’s critique of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Kapo, On Abjection. Daney had never actually ‘seen’ the film but he described that he had ‘seen’ it through Rivette’s critique. [Paul Louis Thirard criticized Daney for not bothering to see the film for himself since he argued that Kapo might not have even included an abject tracking shot... (Positif, N.543)] In the essay Daney wrote,

Rivette never recounted the film’s narrative in his article. Instead he was content to describe one shot in a single sentence. This sentence, now engraved in my memory, read “Just look at the shot in Kapo where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbed wire; the man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final frame – deserves only the most profound contempt.” Henceforward a simple camera movement must be the one movement not to make. The movement one must — obviously — be abject to make. As soon as I read those lines I knew the author was absolutely right… Over the years “the tracking shot in Kapo” would become my portable dogma, the axiom that was not up for discussion, the breaking point of any debate. I would definitely have nothing to do or share with anyone who did not immediately feel the abjection of “the tracking shot in Kapo.

Daney’s memory of Rivette’s critique was very precise. What stood out for Daney in this Cahiers critique of Kapo is Rivette’s moral perspective on the film and his strength of conviction. (It may also be worth mentioning that Truffaut was not once mentioned in Daney’s article on Kapo. Toubiana would make up for this in a few issues later of Trafic when he would publish his essay Truffaut, domaine public.) At the heart of Daney’s conception of Cahiers was a strong belief in the courage to denounce something that was wrong. The same idea was seen in Libération when in 1987 Daney switched sections from the cinema pages to Rebonds where he could then address the problems that were going on in French society. Between the years 1987 to 1990, in this ‘post-cinema’ period, Daney wrote mostly about cultural products that he strongly disliked

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