Monday, October 8, 2012

Serge Daney: early Cahiers du Cinéma writing

Nous aurons été les dernier à vénéré Serge Daney…

There is a lot going on regarding the French film-critic Serge Daney: his life was recently celebrated by the Cinémathèque française with a series Serge Daney: 20 Ans Après. There was the publication by Edition P.O.L. of a new book of his collected writing: the third in the series La Maison cinéma et le monde - Les années Libé II (1986-1991). In Cahiers du Cinéma, where Daney played an important role as a writer between 1964 to 1981, - he left the monthly magazine, to have a more direct, daily relationship with his readers at Libération – the magazine ran a feature Hommage: Serge Daney (N.679). In a recent issue of Trafic (N.82), a journal that Daney co-founded, they published three essays by and/or about him: Marché de l’individu et disparition de l’experience by Serge Daney, a critique of publicity and television regarding the corruption of images; Appartions de Serge Daney by Pierre Eugène, which is a really clever essay – perhaps as reflexive as the En Couverture series over at Nightswimming – where Eugène takes the subject of so many Daney analysis, the image, and interrogates Daney’s manifestations on them (in documentaries, and such); and Serge Daney pour mémoire by Marcos Uzal, who describes an emotional and intellectual ciné-filitation that he has towards Daney, while also addressing this phenomenons larger social impact.

In the world of English-language film criticism, Daney is most readily associated with Jonathan Rosenbaum, who regularly brings up his old French friend (I’ve seen Jonathan talk twice on panels, and on both times he brought him up). It’s unfortunate that his only translated book, Postcards from the Cinema, is out-of-print. But to make up for the lack of official translations of his work, the internet has spoken: a few film-blogs – some of the best ones out there, in my opinion – have picked up the slack and their writers have taken up the role as unofficial Daney translators: these websites are Serge Daney in English, Steve Erickson’s website, Kino Slang, Diagonal Thoughts and My Gleanings.

Here is my attempt to contribute to this conversation: the following are my translations of Daney’s first three contributions to Cahiers, which I think are insightful to better understand the spirit of Cahiers and his legacy which lives on in the world of film-criticism.
Petit Journal du Cinema: Retrospective Donskoy (Cahiers, April 1964, N.154)

The cinema of Mark Donskoy - as it was revealed at the retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française - affects us by its singular love for life. This tenderness which affects, this attachment towards everything alive, this predilection for kids: this is what separates him from the truisms of Soviet cinema. Donskoy, likewise for any great director, wouldn't mean anything to us if his tenderness didn't arise from cruelty, the tragedy of the pursuit of happiness alongside the suffocation of life.

Because he believes in the fatality of life, Donskoy shows what restrains and suffocates. Existence, feverish and precarious, always menaced, which is seized by a look of incomprehension on a child's face, brings us closer to Griffith then any other Russian filmmaker. He has a way to portray growing up by showings its contradictions and what prevents it - doing the subject justice - in regards to: political constraints (Mother, 1955), describing a stifling world (the Gorky Trilogy, 1938-39) and the condemned (Thomas Gordejev, 1959), a village of martyrs (Rainbow, 1943), the tragic tales of separated lovers, the injustice of man (The Horse That Cried, 1958). A thematic link between the films, but especially a major preoccupation for the filmmaker: it's when something is lost or when it's being fought for that it's truly there: hence, joy.

The same intention presides in the films form. If the constraint prides blossoming, only with discontinuity will we find any equilibrium. This is an art that affects us by its modernity: founded on oppositions, with ruptures of tone, a complexity of construction, and all of this without even mentioning the music. The cineaste goes as far as punctuating his films with interior rhythms, of camera-movements that respond to no other necessity then to establish a network of musical correspondences (Mother). An art whose effect, goes through breaks and dissonance, where one note, one melody, can cause a fervor: the final triumph of life: ultimate cavalcade (How The Steel Was Tempered, 1942), the rain on the tracts in Mother, the liberating combat that finishes Rainbow.

If sometimes this approach works to the detriment of Donskoy, in the less good films, misery that leads to boredom, this shouldn't take away from the merits of the filmmaker, but only should prove that for him, like with all inspired cineastes, beauty only stems from what’s going on in addition, independent of formulas. It is then in between an elegy and cruelty, between The Horse That Cried and Rainbow, where we need to place Mark Donskoy. If it's true, according to the cineaste, one must hate before one can love. - S.D.
Petit Journal du Cinema: Sirk A Munich (Cahiers, June 1964, N.156)

After Imitation of Life we hardly ever heard from Douglas Sirk. What had happened to him? A long illness forced him to abandon two cinematographic projects, Lady X and Streets of Montmartre (about the life of d'Utrillo and Suzanne Valdon, supposedly starring Lana Turner). He then left Hollywood and the New World, to return to the Old World (Switzerland, where he would relax) but where he couldn't help returning to his first love: the theater. For Residenz-theater (the national theater) in Munich, his first mise-en-scène was Cyrano de Bergerac, which was unanimously praised by the critics (they spoke of a "literal opera of speeches"). Afterwards, he would take on Exit the King by Ionesco, in a version very faithful to the original text.

It's then under the green and pink sun in Munich, eating sausages with sauerkraut and drinking two giant beers, that we had a chance to assist one of these plays. Even though Sirk was still in recovery, he seemed absorbed in his work, with his eyes on the lookout, hiding in the shadows of the empty hall to better survey, then sliding out on the stage, to mime actions to the actors, demanding them to put more of themselves into their roles, pointing to the French text before stampeding off of the stage. The stage set is fantastique (it reminds us of the house in Written on the Wind) full of unreal purple tints; the actors (of reputation in Germany) that we certainly know in France, like Kurt Meisel (who has appeared on the screen numerous times, particularly good in A Time to Love and a Time to Die) brings to his role of the king his unsettling presence and conviction.

That Exit the King responds to specific Sirkian preoccupation is without a doubt: the mise-en-scène insists (and the play wonderfully lends itself) that there should be the the collapse of the palace, on the deterioration of the decor, that it be constricting and hostile all the way to the end, up until the king is literately dead, until it closes in on itself. We then understand the importance of this work for Sirk, a prolongation of his cinema oeuvre, and where he could finally emphasize a tragic dimension, that he couldn't put in his films (he confided this to us) due to commercial reasons. But, finally, he doesn't plan on giving it all up for the theatre, as Sirk confesses to us, Hollywood still attracts him: it's likely that he'll make Lady X, and certainly Streets of Montmartre, which seems to hold a strong place in his heart, with the first of these films for Universal, and the second for a smaller, less important company. But, especially, he hopes to film in Europe. - S.D. and J.-L. N.
Frank Tashlin's Who's Minding The Store? : Frank and Jerry (Cahiers, June 1964, N.156)

Because cruelty and dryness always arises - a recurring Tashlin thematic - it's appropriate to imagine him differently: while he betrays more than when he liberates. Lets talk less about America, and talk more about Tashlin. It's true that America is always the subject of his films. Even more so than that, they are its foundation: the cineaste needs to put back in place what he has seen, which is the condition for a new movie. Also, the last one in a series (and the best one in a while) isn't an exception to the rule: it's exemplary of its aim, rigorous in its manner, disturbing in what escapes it.

Tashlin was never tender when he looked upon an inhuman world; when he wanted to denounce artifice, he resorted - in all sincerity - to satire and caricature.  Between when he started his career to his days with animation, his detachment was thin and the ambiguity was immense: if the "American way of life" is a caricature of real life, as far as the genre of satire is concerned: both of them only exist in relation to something which is preexisting. In that case, Tashlin exist because of, and for, the monsters that he plans on destroying.

Because he goes to war with false arms, his successes are always conditional. This vision of a mechanical world where humanity is slowly devoured and overrun with quarrels about differences, and where a complicity (like the jaded world of the comics in Artists and Models) is no longer possible. Between the man and the machine, the inventor and the invention, the relations are no longer about submission but of uncertainty: when the machines win their freedom, the men loose their maturity. It is this relation that Tashlin pursues and highlights with an unflagging precision, which makes his cinema a cinema of cranks and wheels and where all that matters is social climbing.

Betrayed by his mise-en-scène, Tashlin falls prey to the traps of all mechanisms (similar, to the cause and effect laws of animation). And what happens to the systems? They crash and destroy themselves by the same rhythm and movements that make them up and which they assimilate. They have their own laws, which one can follow, and are a creation of the human spirit: but what is created by man can also be destroyed by man. And the only way out of this infernal cycle, which traps, would be then to specifically include the uncontrollable: life, itself. An anarchistic behavior, externalizing itself at each instant; in short, everything in Tashlin's oeuvre with Jerry Lewis.

The role and the importance of Jerry Lewis got stronger as the two of them evolved, which is now in parallel to one another. Between their own films and their reunions, like this one, we have reached a point where Lewis started to reign over Tashlin. The moment where the director gave the star carte blanche is also the one where he reached the limit of his art: life itself, in its most anarchistic form, can’t be created, just like you can’t really direct Jerry Lewis. This is what is achieved in this film.

Here, in the framework of a scenario that authorizes everything and excludes nothing (a superstore), the register is that of a joyous feeling: Tashlin disposes of his tools, Lewis drops the ball. When everything drops, this disorder is that of poetry and the fantastique. It is in all innocence that Lewis no longer recognizes the mechanism of a world where – despite himself – he can only provoke catastrophe. An object of curiosity (here, the whims of Jill St. John), he is embarrassed by a world where he reflects its faults (and also its strengths) - a humanity descended into mimicry, where grimaces reflect a scandalous fading of energy.

Unflappable and indestructible because he isn’t a creation, but an incarnation of nature, the force unleashed by Tashlin is to exercise his personal demons: the worry of the fate of being submissive and condemned. Therefore the only possible positive movement belongs to Tashlin and that is of being a destructor. This paradox is the best explication of Tashlin's drama which is that of being able to grasp man by certifying that there is a disappearing progression or by evoking animalistic and monsterous forms (Jerry Lewis).  Always by failing or exceeding his objectives (jaded episodes even in the warm films like Artists and Models), he is now closer to the object and closer to the animal, which forces Tashlin to show what really alienates man: what really makes him a caricature and an animated drawing.

With a bitterness and precision, this is the triumph of their latest film. All that is left is the purity of the drawing with its relentless movements, which precipitates each sequence towards its natural outburst. Behind this exasperation, what is also brought to light, is that it shows a worry that might admit to that sterility which exists (Charles MacGivern). This is what gives this light-hearted film it's grave tone. – Serge DANEY


steevee said...

Thanks for translating and posting these, as well as the mention of my website.

David D. said...

Steve, Thanks! Thought I really need to thank you for all the post that you did. Translating Daney was tough, he's such a dense and thoughtful writer.

steevee said...

I'm excited to see the new collection of his work from LIBERATION, but I have to admit that my French has grown a bit rusty in the decade since the last one was published.

David D. said...

I actually have never seen any of these books in person. Edition P.O.L. books are hard to come by in Toronto, no stores sell them. The best place to look for these in Canada is in Montreal...

steevee said...

They're impossible to buy in stores in New York, although the city has one French-language bookstore. I think I ordered them through Amazon Canada.