Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Stella, ethics and existence

‘What do films become when on television?’ 
‘They become what they are of course.’ 
‘But what if they are nothing?’ 
‘If they are nothing, they might be television.’ 
 ‘But is television really nothing?’ 
We could go on like this for hours but it wouldn’t stop us from spitting this out: Stella by Laurent Heynemann is almost nothing. Stella (1983) is skeletal. 
Merely existing as a film, Stella is a tele-film with ethics. Reduced to its core, without the matter and thickness that make a film, unsteady with the image and wobbly with the sound, it is perfect to introduce a television debate. In the same way human beings can donate their body for science or medicine, films can recycle their old reels on television. To best introduce a debate on television, better be skeletal and talk about ethics*. 
Nicole Garcia (Stella) is not quite skeletal when she leaves a concentration camp at the beginning of the film. She loves Yvon (Thierry Lhermitte) who joined the Gestapo to save her, and as long as she loves him, she will turn a blind eye to what others say or think. But from the pale rogues with no hope to the impeccable resistance fighters, all of them – even the most repulsive ones – have this in common: ethics. And since nothing is really happening to them (more than an action film, Stella is a film where the concept of an event is unknown), they have nothing else to do but to expose him, with such literary words disguised in sober sentences and such monochord tones that it’s embarrassing. 
Stella forces us to take on earlier than planned this difficult question: does television exist, and if yes, how do we know? That an increasing number of ‘films’ are accidentally released in theatres (where they usually don’t last) is now a phenomenon unanimously accepted (and even faded). That there was an entire dispositif which was only made possible because of the theatres (with spectators and their identification, with time and distances, the whole and the details, the light and the shadows) will eventually become obvious. That these films will be (slightly) better off on television goes without saying. For television doesn't need this dispositif (it has its own) and calls upon something totally different: the goodwill of the TV citizens and its ability to judge – and even to condemn. Hence its need for skeletal products to trigger debates (between guests) or verdicts (with questions from the audience). 
Where’s the disaster? With the actors of course. There’s nothing more depressing for an actor than to offer their character to the tribunal of History without having a chance to defend** it, even if the character is indefensible. There’s nothing more sinister than Lanoux, once again spineless, than Brialy, losing even more of his panache, than Lhermitte, playing another monster, than Denner acting as the clever one and Nicole Garcia as the lucid but tormented soul. But what else can they do other than underplay their roles or cast on everything around them the detached gaze of the one that judges? As if on television, characters mimicked the way they know they will be watched: like easy allegories. 
Some will say that Heynemann avoids Manicheism and belongs a new generation of (left-wing) film makers who – finally! – accept that those stories of collaboration, resistance and ethnic cleansing are not so simple. The problem is that he makes them complex instead of revealing their complexity and that the necessity to abandon all-white resistant fighters and all-black collaborators comes with a lack of interest in anyone. It’s probably why all the characters talk in the same way, as if actors’ style had become obscene when all we need are a few well-known extras. 
We should be worried for this type of products. They no longer belong to the menu of cinemas and they are only listed on television for their roles as starters. Sometimes, we feel an incredible cruelty making us think that a few commercial breaks would really help Stella. We would then have the feeling of a secret rhythm and scansion, of a thread often lost but always rediscovered. One more step and we might change channel. 

* All of those who didn’t like the debates in political cine-clubs have now been avenged by Nanni Moretti in Sogni d’oro
** Conversely, I remember how much I was touched by the actor Yves Alfonso who, at the release of Doubles Messieurs, had defended so well ‘his’ character, and only the character. 
First published in Libération on 19 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Patrick Brion isn’t just a TV voice, he’s an educator. By following Sunday night’s transmission of Marie-Antoinette with King Without A Crown, he showed us why it was in all seriousness that the American cinema of the thirties felt the obligation to also take on the legacy of Europe and the Old Regime (queens, kings, courts and other fripperies). Marie-Antoinette (1938) is a lazy hotchpotch directed by Van Dyke, decorated by Gibbons and with Shearer mincing about in the lead, and King Without A Crown (1937) is an educational short film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and probably concocted on the basis of Jack Conway’s Tale of Two Cities (1935). 
It’s the ending of Tourneur’s little film (as elliptical and convoluted as a mock Raoul Ruiz in search of mock TV) which provides the key to the gross piece that preceded it. King Without A Crown relates the story of Eleazar Williams, one of the innumerable possible Louis XVII’s, an American clergyman by profession. The film closes on an image of a cinema audience and a voice-off thundering: ‘Could there be a descendent of the Dauphin among you!?’ One realises that in these conditions, Barrymore’s Louis XV in Marie-Antoinette is particularly ill-advised when he proclaims the famous ‘After me . . . the deluge!’. This imbecile should have said: ‘After me . . . MGM’. 
It is in the name of this putative American Louis XVII that in 1938 (a year after Thalberg’s death) the smart, upstart Hollywood of MGM takes on the wife of Louis XVI. You only have to have Marie-Antoinette played by Norma Shearer, the Thalberg widow out of a comic strip drawn by Greuze, to leave the audience not knowing which way to turn between the (supposedly sublime) concept of the queen and the (decidedly shopgirlish) bearing of an actress’s body. This rather Brechtian trick is well known. While the petty bourgeoisie of in-house stars gets the king and queen parts, the proletariat of in-house extras plays the grimacing part of the French people (that is to say, the vilest sort of plebs there is). An improbable aristocracy and an unspeakable people are thereby subsumed into the otherwise crude hierarchy of the Hollywood star system. 
Marie-Antoinette is one of those films where the American dream (the middle-class one) is clothed in the old noble garments of European history. The charm of these films is also their limitation, for if you can manage to believe that Tyrone Power is Axel Fersen, it’s still better that he doesn’t have too many scenes to play. 
One TV magazine recommended to watch this film with a curious glance, as a kitsch item. For all those wearied of this smarty-pants approach, Marie-Antoinette remains in 1988 the toshy film is was in 1938 (and the savoir-faire of Van Dyke – who at the time became known as the man for working wonders with the impossible – changes nothing). In 1988 it has merely become a neo-tosh item, and what’s more, difficult to watch. One minute (like a good little Frenchman) it’s a matter of being a stickler for historical truth and raising eyebrows at the frivolities of the script. The next, it’s like watching an unwitting documentary on the unpalatable Norma Shearer with her way of acting for the camera and never with her co-stars. 
In cinema, a good film is a film that can yield up perhaps two or three readings, depending on different periods and audiences. A bad film yields only one: the first. And since, forty years on, there is nobody in the audience who is imbecilic enough to read the film as its original audience did, all that’s left is recourse to the ‘kitsch’, that mock second reading whose byword could be ‘bring your own sandwiches’. 
This doesn’t stop Marie-Antoinette from having the average qualities of American film-making and for these characteristics to function in such a void that they’re in plain sight for everyone. For example, the way of making anything follow on from anything, willy-nilly, as if was just simplistic cause and simplified effect and there was nothing more important than hysterically joining up the links in an endless chain, of no interest to anyone anyway, with neither start nor finish. One character alone, though, suspects that this story is scarcely worth the trouble of being lived and divulged, and this is the worthy Louis XVI, played by Robert Morley, all pouts and whites of eyes. There’s a moment when Van Dyke (whose specialty is more the adventure film) gives way and films the future Louis XVI nearly beating up Louis XV-Barrymore as he sits there, pox-ridden in his armchair. An unexpected bit of body contact. We can breathe. 

First published in Libération on 18 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Translator’s note: the French title is ‘néo-cruche’. ‘Cruche’ is a derogatory name for a stupid person. I've kept the translation 'neo-tosh' (from Cinema in transit) which isn't ideal but difficult to replace.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Three years after the Dragon

What is near and what is far? There are questions which may well not survive the art of cinema. How do things go about reaching us from the ends of the earth? And how are we to see them coming? Populations, news and drugs are a part of these things. They are at the heart of Year of the Dragon (1985) and of Michael Cimino’s films. Seeing again Year of the Dragon, on Canal Plus, three years on, makes us realise just how much this question will never be one for television. On television, what is far is always-already-there, an ‘old faithful’, with neither aura or fripperies. TV’s real exoticism is what happens ‘at home’, when by chance something happens which we were far from suspecting. With cinema, things went quite differently and it wasn’t unusual for great directors (Cimino is sometimes one) to take on journalists’ issues. Funny kinds of journalists, convinced that ‘everything is meshed’ and you only have to pull a thread to bring – why not? – the whole world to you. A world they would be crazy enough (paranoia is the word) to fit into one film. 
‘This goes back a long way’ is the leitmotiv of captain White, the furious hero disguised as Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon. This what? This everything. The activities of the Chinatown gangs, which go back to the Sino-American mafia, which goes back to the Hong Kong triads, which goes back several thousand years in China and to the historical presence of Chinese in the United States. Not to speak of the drugs arriving from Bangkok on a Polish ship, the Kazimierz Pulawski, a quirk of fate when you think that White also comes from a long way away – from Poland to be precise – with a painful detour via Vietnam. Resentment too goes a long way back, like anger which is better tasted cold and grudges which push back the limits of the world. 
We remember the ‘controversy’ that greeted the film on its release: was it racist or not? On TV you can see more clearly how much the racism is only a petty rationalisation of what Cimino still has it in him to film with the voraciousness and folly which any director worthy of the name can’t but possess, and which always exceeds his ideological limits. 
Year of the Dragon has to be seen as a (sometimes futile) exercise in style on this question of what’s close and what’s a long way away. This is the effect TV has on the film. What has to be seen is how Cimino tries everything before getting to the only confrontation which could tie up every loose end in the film. What has to be seen is the way Cimino builds up his scenes from big camera movements, within which there’s a proliferation of actions which aren’t simultaneous (as on TV), but parallel (as in the cinema). Once, the crucial question was how to get close to things. But where the zoom has replaced the actors’ movements with the movements of our eyes, Cimino thrusts Rourke like a living zoom into the thick of what suddenly shifts from ‘too far’ to ‘too near’, from jealousy to phobia. 
So, for Cimino, it’s also necessary that what’s far recedes as what is near gets closer*. About halfway through Year of the Dragon there are some extraordinary scenes. Criticised by all the other characters in the film, analysed and completely exposed, Stanley White collapses under the strain and becomes a wreck for several scenes. That’s when Cimino abandons him without warning and follows his enemy, the seductive Joey Tai, the young Chinese mafia leader, on a ‘business’ trip into the Thai (or Burmese?) forests. An incredible episode where we are compelled to ‘identify’ with this character, who is after all the villain of the film. Cimino succumbs to a very strange temptation, that of replacing his deadbeat lawman with his sworn enemy and granting him a nice piece of adventure movie. 
The result is that when we return to New York and the Polish choir at the funeral of White’s wife, we get something like a poignant illustration of the kind of movies Cimino’s unconscious dreams about. Movies with ever-wider concentric circles, where the threads connecting what’s close and what’s far are woven before our eyes, where the whole world communicates with itself. This was, incidentally, his stroke of genius in The Deer Hunter, moving without warning from Vietnam to Pennsylvania, and it’s this kind of thing that made Cimino (up until The Sicilian) so special a director. 
This is only a temptation though. Whether to enlarge the circles to infinity or to plunge into the target’s heart, where only one of the two men can survive? Year of the Dragon opts for the second solution, the one more in keeping with its stale moralism, but against the nature of Cimino’s talent. 

* The ultimate image of the double phobic movement: the vertical shot down the clock tower staircase in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
First published in Libération on 14 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television

In the autumn of 1988, Serge Daney started to write about films on French television in a column called 'Ghosts of permanence' for the newspaper Libération. A large selection of these texts featured in Daney's fourth book Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting translations of many of these texts, quite rapidly and in chronological order, attempting to match the rhythm of the column (every other day or so). Keep checking the blog. Here's the intro he wrote in Recrudescence.
Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television 
To Jean-Claude Biette * 
This daily chronicle of ‘films on television’ came about from an irritation. For years, I’ve heard my old fellow cinephiles saying that a film on TV ‘is not the same thing’. Something, it was suggested, was irremediably lost. ‘Something’ which, in the event, nobody would venture to describe. To all of them it seemed certain that, on television, all that would be left of a film like The Ten Commandements would be a multi-coloured genocide, while India Song would be a triumph on the small screen. As if the passage from projection to broadcasting, from big to small screen, from chemical optics to electronic was solely about the opposition between intimacy and spectacle. 
I’ve always had the feeling it was nothing of the sort and that if, in the passage from the auditorium to the living room, there was, if not a metamorphosis, at least an anamorphosis, it would be a more subtle and less expected one. That in this passage of films under the X-rays of TV, something was lost (in terms of embodiment, seduction, of a certain captivating brilliance), but that something else at times was preserved, indeed gained (in terms of the nervous system, the skeleton, a certain head-on violence). In short, one had to take a closer look, and in person, with the certitude that, whatever the case, future generations will discover cinema with its loss
A daily column was the best tool of enquiry. For one thing because French television is – France oblige – very cinephile and day in day out there were all kinds of films to choose from – some of them, a rarity, in the original version. For another thing because, from rare late night cine-club items to obscure filler films and the eighties top grossers that could now be seen with hindsight, one could rediscover in this column the charm and flavour of old-school criticism, for whom a film, before being targeted or labelled, was only a film (one film one vote). Plunged into the trivial promiscuity of television, films ‘breathe’ better than on the lone pedestals of cinematheques. 
The other reason for this column was the somewhat disenchanted verdict I had reached by the end of my previous column (Le salaire du zappeur). My Lumière-Rossellini-Bazin-Godard hypothesis, which held out some hope of seeing on television the eventual continuation of one strand of cinema (the strand concerned with, not to say obsessed by, the concept of ‘information’), seemed to me more and more refuted by the way in which the power of the media was evolving. Looking at the mechanisms of run-of-the-mill French television ‘as a cinephile’, I had been struck by the triumph of parochial values and their enactment, to the detriment of what I saw more and more as the posthumous beauty of cinema: nothing less than a relation to the ‘world’. Television was not a continuation of cinema, for the good reason that it was not a machine for creating, nor even for producing, but instead for racketeering (at worst) or (at best) for showing
A film on television is neither cinema nor television, it’s a ‘reproduction’ or else an ‘information’ about a prior state in the coexistence between men and images, the images that nourish them and the images that give them life.
* The column 'Ghosts of permanence' was created in the early 80s by Daney's fellow film critic (and future filmmaker) Jean-Claude Biette.

Notes on the translation: For most of the texts, I've re-worked the translations from the manuscript Cinema in transit, an unpublished English-language anthology which I got from Steve Erickson. In practice, this has meant correcting typos, adjusting the style and tackling mistranslations (there were quite a few) which I've checked against the original text. I've also translated some other texts from scratch with the invaluable help of Otis Wheeler.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Serge Daney in Portuguese

While an anthology of Daney in English remains a distant dream, the rest of the speaking world continues to publish translations. After books in Spanish, German, Dutch, Japanese, Italian and others, the Portuguese publisher Angelus Novus released last year a selection of Daney's writings: O Cinema Que Faz Escrever: textos críticos. The translators have sent over the table of contents which you can read below with links to existing (English) translations.

Choosing these 26 texts must have presented the obvious headache (the French edition of Daney's complete writings run into nearly 3,000 pages) but this small selection hits the spot in many ways. The book opens with 'The tracking shot in Kapo' - Daney's last and most encompassing text, covering his life as a cinephile in relation to modern cinema - and ends with 'Montage Obligatory' - one of the key texts written while watching the first Gulf War on TV and which made Daney abandon "traditional" criticism and found the more literary review Trafic.

In-between are the best known theoretical texts from the 70s (most of them already translated in English), a few great film reviews of international authors (e.g. Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Paradjanov), and a pretty perfect selection of Daney's key texts from the late 80s and early 90s where he developed his opposition between the image and the visual (including "The last image" from the landmark exhibition "Passages du cinéma"). I particularly like the short section called "The Portuguese pole" with three reviews of films by Reis/Cordeiro, Oliveira and Rocha, as if Daney's many travels and writings on international cinema allowed any country in the world to create a small Daney collection of their own.

O cinema que faz escrever: textos críticos
Serge Daney


The Tracking Shot in Kapo
Trafic n.º 4, Autumn 1992


Amphisbetesis (François Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 222, July 1970

The screen of fantasy (Bazin and animals)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 236-237, March-April 1972

A tomb for the eye (Straubian pedagogy)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 258-259, July-August 1975

The t(h)errorized (Godardian pedagogy) AKA The therrorized (Godardian pedagogy)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 262-263, January 1976

The organ and the vacuum cleaner (Bresson, the devil, the voice-over and other things)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 279-280, August-September 1977

Éloge d'Emma Thiers (Réalisme de Jean-Claude Biette)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 285, February 1978

The cruel radiance of what is (Johan Van der Keuken)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 290-291, July-August 1978

D’une rosière à l’autre" (Jean Eustache, La Rosière de Pessac I et II)
Cahiers du cinema n.º 306, December 1979

Wim’s movie (Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 318, December 1980


Loin des lois (António Reis et Margarida Cordeiro, Trás-os-Montes)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 276, May 1977

Que peut un cœur? (Manoel de Oliveira, Francisca)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 330, December 1981

Exil, amour et tatami portugais (Paulo Rocha, L'Île des amours)
Libération, 20 May 1982


Jacques Rivette, Le Pont du Nord
Libération, 26 March 1982

Not reconciled (Jerry Lewis' Smörgasbord)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 347, May 1983

Exil en Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovski, Nostalghia)
Libération, 4 June 1985

Paradjanov remonte au créneau (Sergueï Paradjanov,  Legenda o surasmoj kreposti)
Libération, 4 December 1986

Rohmer côté court (Éric Rohmer, Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle)
Libération, 4 February 1987


L'œil était dans la tombe et regardait Franju (Georges Franju, Les yeux sans visage)
Libération, 25 September 1986

Mizoguchi, la bonne distance (Kenji Mizoguchi, Akasen chitai)
Libération, 10 April 1987

La première fois (Roberto Rossellini, Francesco, giullare di Dio)
Cahiers du cinéma, Hors-série Roberto Rossellini, 1989


Le mot de la fin
L’Âne, n.º 7, Winter 1982

From movies to Moving AKA From projector do parade AKA From defilement to filing past
La Recherche photographique n.º 7, 1989

Le cinéma et la memoire de l'eau
Libération, 29 December 1989

La dernière image
Passages de l’image Catalogue, dir. Raymond Bellour, Catherine David, Christine van Assche, Centre Georges-Pompidou, 1990

Montage obligatory (The war, the gulf and the small screen)
Cahiers du cinéma n.º 442, April 1991

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Serge Daney in 2016

Time for the annual round-up. Not a big year, so let's keep it short.

Two new translations: Daney's reviews of Fellini's Ginger and Fred (one for the cinema release and one for the TV broadcast).

  • An anthology of Daney's writings was published in Portuguese (O Cinema Que Faz Escrever). I'm trying to track down the table of contents.
  • Trafic, the film review founded by Daney a year before his passing, reached its 100th issue. An evening of celebration at the French Cinémathèque will include the showing of one of Daney's rarest video work, La preuve par Prince
Happy New Year everyone.

Monday, August 01, 2016

What Out of Africa produces

I've been chasing this one for a long time but I've finally got my hands on a copy of the Summer 2011 edition of the Dutch journal F.R. DAVID which contains a translation of Serge Daney's review of Out of Africa when shown on French television in 1988. A savage little text nailing the "aesthetics of advertising" and a disastrous use of soundtrack (substituting Mozart with John Barry).

What Out of Africa produces
Originally published in Libération, 11 October 1988. Reprinted in F.R.DAVID "spin cycle", Summer 2011, de Appel, Amsterdam, 2011, pp. 185-188. Translation by John Kelsey. Fist published in English in Made in USA.

You can find an alternative translation on Steve Erickson's website. I'll dropped the publisher a note to ask if I can post the text on the blog.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Marguerite Duras

The Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema lastest issue contains a transcript of Serge Daney's conversation with Marguerite Duras for his radio show Microfilm.

Cinema on Television - Marguerite Duras, Serge Daney
Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema, issue 7, 2015, conversation transcribed and translated by Valentín Vía.

The radio programme (or bits of it) is on YouTube

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fellini double bill

Serge Daney wrote two reviews of Federico Fellini's 1986 Ginger and Fred: for the theatre release in 1986, and when the film was first shown on French television two years later. Here are both, in chronological order. Enjoy.
Ginger and Fred
He was the first to have understood the quid pro quo between cinema and television. Now that the quid pro quo has turned bad, his latest film has a real sadness. 
Ginger and Fred is not Fellini’s latest film but rather the new last film by Fellini. It is different. Apparently, the next one will be nothing less than an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika for 20th Century Fox. If we spoke English, we would not confuse last and latest. But in French (and in Italian) we only have one word at our disposal: dernier (ultimo). And we always pronounce it with a mix of funereal dignity and voyeuristic voracity. Thus, celebrating the latest (or last) Fellini is a ritual we must observe, for the same reasons that any tale starts with “once upon a time.” 
For a quarter of a century, this ritual has meant that Fellini’s films are of a different nature, out of the ordinary. The ritual is wearing out though. In the latest “last Fellini films”, there is the nostalgia of the hunger before we gorged ourselves (hunger for pasta, then hunger for images), as we realise we are sated. As if we should still expect everything from Fellini, when we already expect too little from cinema. This is the way cinema is going (and Fellini as a cinema symbol). Flops and ships are sailing on (E la nave va). 
Worn out, the ritual is somewhat creaking. The première of Ginger and Fred took place at the French Cinémathèque, but without Fellini. The film was almost released in Paris before Rome where a very private première took place at the Quirinal Palace for the Italian political VIPs (the sound, we are told, was atrocious). At odds with the producer, Grimaldi (something about lots of lire), the three leading actors are snubbing the promotion of the film. Upset with French subtitles, Fellini demands that they be rewritten, delaying the release of the film. There is around Ginger and Fred a lingering odour of unsaid polemics, which is spoiling the ritual. 
There are good reasons for this. Whoever wishes to study the current “disruptions in the audiovisual landscape” should focus on the Franco-Italian axis. A few years ago, it was Toscan du Plantier himself who went to see Fellini in Rome, so that Gaumont, even at the risk of ruin, would be proud one day to have allowed the Master to make City of Women. Victory of cinema. Today, it is Berlusconi who comes to Paris asking French television to stop being pretentious and come back to basics. Invasion of television, this giant amoeba. And we then realise that Fellini - not that lost in the labyrinth of his personal visions - is absolutely capable of getting upset and intervening in the debate over Channel 5 (1). We forget that Fellini has always been a contemporary witness and there always was something of a journalist in him. This is why Ginger and Fred is received as the statement of a witness, a prosecution witness. Instead of the usual reactions (from “the old magician got me, once again” to “this time, I didn’t fall for it”), there is the almost scholarly formulation of a question: Fellini and television. 
Everybody knows the “once upon a time” of Ginger and Fred. AFP is summing it up very accurately: “It is not just a pamphlet against private television networks, it is a story full of tenderness which recounts the reunion after 30 years of separation of a couple of variety artists (Giuletta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni) as well as a sensitive and melancholic reflection on old age.” In the ‘40s, Ginger and Fred had a tap-dancing act, imitating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Ginger dumped Fred to marry a bourgeois. They are re-united for a gigantic variety show (Ed ecco a voi) where, on the set of a private TV network, they must perform again their act. Ginger still has it, Fred not so much. He is the one who has aged the most. He probably has failed in many ways. 
Fellini’s movies are overpopulated thoroughfares where nothing much happens. There to perform again their tap dancing routine, as best they can, Ginger and Fred will do their usual act (despite an electricity blackout, cramps and the desire to flee). Then they will separate, probably forever. Of course, there are between them secrets which would like to be known, tears wanting to flow, masks willing to fall, and anger and resentment which would happily explode. But none of this happens. Fellini is one of the first filmmakers to have not only stopped believing in miracles but also in so-called events. In a world where television simulates events as on an assembly line, his wisdom consists in treating everything as a possibility. It would be futile, naive and even impolite to make this probable world in which we live absolutely real. The gain would be minimal. 
The excited crowds, cramming into the vast pedestrian zones that Fellini’s false closed spaces have become, are composed of improbable beings: a little more than extras, a little less than characters. It is this uncertainty, rather than their appearance, which makes them monstrous. Who would Ginger and Fred be if, by convention, they were not the heroes of the film? What more do they have than the admiral, the prisoner, the Mafioso, the son and the mother of the ghost, the dwarfs, the intellectual, the sailor, the look-alikes, the flying priest or the chief exec of the TV network? Nothing. It only requires the spectator to believe (naively) or to hope (for a moment only) that something is going to happen to Ginger and Fred. Our expectations are raised, before being gently reminded that we are unreasonable. 
So we arrive at the heart of the subject. The essential Fellinian subject is: the spectacle becomes universal and never ceases to grow. It grows well beyond the old divisions between stage and backstage, actors and audience (we can see how in The Clowns – this too little known movie – the divisions were themselves becoming spectacular). The heart of this subject, in 1986, is television, of which Ginger and Fred gives a damning and absolutely documentary account (“Let’s say that I have tried to reproduce it but with no intentions of parody. It’s not possible to go beyond what television already is.”) You can immediately see the objection: If television represents the triumph of the spectacle, why is Fellini after it, since he wants to know nothing of what is below or beyond the spectacle? Why so much hate, those vociferous words and the offended virtue? And besides, as we used to say, from which place does he speak? 
It would be easy to answer if – as the opponents of “Italian-style” private television networks wished – Fellini played cinema against television, the magic of the large screen against the small domestic window of the television set, the purgatory of passions against the laxative image. This is not how television is shown in Ginger and Fred, which, by the way, is not a movie about cinema either. It would be the same if Fellini, elitist for once, opposed high and low culture, dignity and vulgarity, elevation and inanity. But this is forgetting that Fellini, an amateur of comic books and women with big breasts, is in complete solidarity with the Italian mass culture.  And even if he reminisced with nostalgia the quality of the old varietà against its current caricature on television, the latter is the direct continuation of the former. 
So let’s avoid (before it’s too late) the easy paradoxes of Fellini being both judge and party, a sprinkler sprinkled, already caught in what he is pretending to condemn - as if it was not the peculiarity of any satire! To understand why Ginger and Fred moves us when Berlusconi is depressing us, it is not unhelpful to call upon history (of cinema). Like all the important post-war filmmakers, Fellini has had a filmmaker’s intuition of the media which at some point would shake up cinema: television. Not the whole of television, but its mass culture side, made of games and attractions, halfway between the old carnival culture and its mass petit-bourgeois gentrification. From La Dolce Vita, it is perfectly possible to see in Fellini’s work something of an ironic, perhaps cynical, anticipation of what television programming will be. His work is already like a TV network, “Fellini Uno”. 
There are countless examples. Fellini refuses more and more linear scenarios to prefer a free – sometimes loose – succession of moments which are all bravura pieces. But this refined art of complicity and interruption, alternating strong and weak moments, pretend seriousness and forced joy, isn’t this already the concern of the program director? Fellini’s camera always arrives too late, when the action has started and the bodies are already in motion. But isn’t this the television treatment of the spectator, caught between a beginning which is always missed and a denouement of no importance, destined to accompany with one’s gaze the filmed rags of the world, quickly forgotten or offered to an indecipherable mix of indifference and compassion? Rome in Ginger and Fred, unlike in Fellini Roma, is filmed like a totally abstract space where nothing separates the near from the far anymore, where everything is neighbourhood and where nothing communicates. But isn’t this the de-urbanised space, the universal suburb created by television? And isn’t Fellini’s wisdom (the waltz of the puppets is less disappointing than laying bare one character) the polite, a tad sorry, form of what television and advertising have transformed into a categorical imperative: nothing exists which is already an image
I am not saying that Fellini and television are the same. I only suppose that television brings about the soulless caricature of a – virtual – world sensed before by Fellini. And I did say “soulless”, because in the final analysis, the difference between cinema and television is that great filmmakers are necessarily moralists where television, at best, wonders about issues of deontology. Increasingly, we feel that what is left of cinema (and what gives it its value, in the strictest sense) is the critical gaze that filmmakers throw upon what couldn’t care less about criticism: television. Even Fellini, who has always done everything not to appear as someone who teaches lessons, recently declared in L’Express: “Sometimes, looking at a face randomly on television, it seems to me one could do better. The eye looks destitute. I think it wouldn’t be without merit to give it a certain conscience.” 
Leafing through a book entitled The Time-Image recently, I found on page 14 a sentence in parenthesis full of justness: “(embrace even that decadence which means that one loves only in dreams or in recollection, be an accomplice of decadence, and even provoke it, in order to save something, perhaps, as far as is possible)”. It was Deleuze talking about Fellini. If there is a Fellinian morality, it is to be found on this side, and if it has often gone unnoticed, it is because it is modest. Today, it seems to have found refuge in the formidable character of Ginger (Masina is superb). But one only has to unfold a few memories (each one its own) to find it again. For example in La Dolce Vita, when the paparazzi stalk Steiner’s wife, who does not know yet she is a widow, and take her picture even before they break the news to her. Or in that scene of Amarcord where the pater familias, summoned to the fascist cops who make him drink castor oil, slowly walks back home. 
When bravura pieces are over, Fellini seems to say, there is no other bravura than picking up the pieces, “to save something” as Deleuze says. To be present at the moment when it will be too hard for the character, when they will fall from their height (and, especially, from not very high) and risk hurting themselves. Cinema is also the art of walking everyone back home, and Fellinian elegance – or rather his politeness – has increasingly consisted in never levying any tax, any soul supplement, over what is only about simple humanity. 
This is why I do not think that Ginger and Fred plays cinema against television, or even the charm of old-style music hall against the botch job of television variety. All that, broadly, is the same. There is in human beings such a passion to be another that even in the world of Lombardini-Berlusconi there will always be thirty seconds of innocence rediscovered, of act re-performed, of re-suspended time, even without preparation, without illusions, without audience. The only problem is that thirty seconds go quickly. And that, unlike music hall and even cinema (cruel but pathetic arts), television – because it has the power to organise the competition of all against all – no longer has to take care of the scrapyard. 
(1) Channel Five (“La Cinq”) was France's first privately-owned free terrestrial television network. Created by politician Jérôme Seydoux and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the network broadcasted from 1986 to 1992. [Translator's note]. 
The French version of this text was originally published in Liberation, 24 January 1986 and can be found in Serge Daney, Ciné Journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986, pp. 308-312. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.

Realist Fellini
Film characters sometimes have great moments of lucidity. To Ginger, who manages to keep herself together, Fred confides sotto voce that he feels like a ghost, not knowing where he comes from or where he is going. He only knows that something ought be done. To dance, speak, or cause a scandal. There is choice. To dance because that’s the reason he came, to speak to Ginger because he also came for this, to make a scene on television because he came for this. A triple program that he will – and this is the sadness of the movie – almost accomplish. He falls halfway through his tap-dancing act but carries on well enough to finish with dignity (albeit exhausted). He says two or three things to Ginger the he had meant to say for several years. It’s only in the third part of the program that he gives up: having come to shout at the spectators for being clots and Panurge’s sheep, his courage abandons him and he finds himself wriggling about as best he can, in the midst of general condescension. Worse: doing so, he salvages a bit of his dignity. It’s terrible.
Fellini has always liked the dialectic of the show-off. In Ginger and Fred, he enriches it with a new chapter on the strangeness of our relationship to television. Contrary to what has been said too quickly, Ginger and Fred is not an attack on television. It also questions without illusions the way we live with it. Hasn’t television made all of us household braggarts, always ready to criticize it from afar, to dream to cause a scandal on air and to have answers to everything, to behave badly in the middle of soothing liturgies and sheepish audience, in a word to make a scream heard, a real one? And aren’t we surprised, if we find ourselves one day in a television debate, to find everybody rather nice, to answer questions with a shaky voice, to play the game, and, very quietly, to slip back into the ranks? Fellini also talks about that, and this is why Ginger and Fred is much more than a satire or a game of destruction. It’s about the spectator as much as it’s about the show.
And this is why this beautiful movie about television, when shown on television – by some sort of dark humour –, is just a movie and nothing else, and is more about the feeling of time that it generates. Why is the beginning of the movie, Ginger’s arrival at Rome train station, her journey to the hotel and the few adventurous steps she takes outside, so beautiful? Is it because Fellini is a great filmmaker with a very sharp eye? Of course, but on television, this beauty is no longer quite the same. We see less Fellini the great visionary filmmaker and we suddenly realise that he is above all a great realist. Without him we would perhaps definitely forget what it looks like, Rome and its traffic jams, rainfall on advertising boards, a hotel appearing out of nowhere, fake daylight falling on the noisy and vaguely efficient human activities. This isn’t a vision, these are things we almost no longer see in movies and never see at all on television.
And if we see these things so well with Fellini, it’s because there is nothing in the film that measures in advance the time allocated to the action. It’s because things must be accepted as they come, and because lots of them, always too many, come round anyway. If we made an effort, we would realise that when it comes to television, we know in advance all the durations, and that this know-how is discouraging our desire to see – even before it kicks in. The most extraordinary example is the peculiar tone that newsreaders adopt when announcing that what they’re saying will be immediately followed by a report in images. The spoken words make the link (or give a leg up) to what is shown, under the  surveillance of the viewer who, in turn, spends less time watching what is inside the duration than actually verifying how long it is.
It’s in relation to this pre-emptive right of the useful time over the useless image that any work by a filmmaker increasingly seems to be the fruit of an extraordinary freedom. We mustn’t call (Fellini’s) genius or vision what is after all only the normal exercise of freedom by a filmmaker who wants, like everyone else, to be applauded, but who finds a little bit disgusting this image of the eighth assistant bending down and going around the studio making vile movements with his hands to make a public of ghosts applaud in advance. We can’t really hold this against him. 
This text was first published in Libération, 23 December 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

In passing

When I turned 10, my mother bought me a small microscope, entirely black, with a magnification of x100. It came in a red box, with ready-made slides and preparations. It was probably one of the great moments of my life. But I was never able to make the preparations myself and always had to rely on others.  Five years later, I had no problems preferring filmmakers who are about seeing, those that one watches in the action of seeing, the filmmakers of the frame and adventures: Bresson, Lang, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock or Hawks. It was much harder with filmmakers for whom the frame wasn't as important, the frontal filmmakers: Walsh, Bunuel, Rossellini, McCarey. And it took me even longer with the filmmakers who were primarily about showing, exhibiting something, often themselves: from Chaplin to Fassbinder. That being said, I think that cinema can be reduced to two fundamental scenarios: to see and/or to show. With all possible intermediary cases: Langlois as a shower, Godard as a seeer. 
- To see.
- To see what one shows.
- To see that one shows. 
- To show what one sees.
- To show that one sees.
- To show.

Serge Daney, L'Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur, POL, Paris, 1993, p.280.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Serge Daney in 2015

Time for the annual round-up. A small crop of translations in 2015. Only two spotted on this blog:
  • The market of individuals, one of Daney's last text, dissecting what reality TV says about the evolution of the image and society.
  • A true fake Bruce, a review of The Game of Death with Bruce Lee in the form of a dialogue with the film. 
Elsewhere, the final volume of Daney's complete writings, La maison cinéma et le monde 4 - Le moment Trafic, was released in November. It focuses on Daney's output shortly before his death (late 1991 to June 1992) and the texts written as he was launching the review Trafic (including the one above). The book also contains a number of interviews where Daney expand on his view of the state of cinema, the image (and even society) along similar lines as the already published long interview Journey of a cine-son.  

This year, I also spotted a curiosity on YouTube, the short 1986 film made by Maria Koleva featuring Serge Daney: Letter from Paris to the Swiss friend number 7: When a film critic and an independent film director meet in Paris. 

Finally, 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of this blog (yes, ten years of tracking, referencing and writing English translations of Daney). A quick count shows 96 texts. You can all find them on the right-hand column of this page. Which ones have you not read?

Happy new year to all!


Monday, September 28, 2015

A true fake Bruce

A true fake Bruce 
“What I can’t understand,” said the film, “is that you actually chose me. My reputation is rubbish and, between you and me, I’m not worth much at all.” 
“You’re the only Bruce Lee film I haven’t seen. In a way, I’ve always missed you (*).” 
“Nobody ever misses me, believe me. I barely exist. I’m indefensible. Let me be. Or rather, watch me and you’ll understand. 
This is how I entered, walking backward, into The Game of Death (1973). I was immediately in my depth. A nervous young man named Billy Lo, a star of martial arts, fights alone and with bare hands against the brutes of the Syndicate, a powerful international organisation based in Hong Kong and racketing show business and gambling. Strangely, we see less often the good Lo than the bad guys of the Syndicate who, as often in these films, are the only ones endlessly divulging their cruel plans to the camera. The good guy is content to merely hit them courageously once in a while. His fiancée and a journalist - both white - are the only ones he speaks to, in the French dubbed version, with few essential and plain words. Fights happen at night, in back alleys, against petty and masked hitmen riding mopeds. There are very few close ups and, to be honest, a certain unease.  
“Can’t you spot something?” said the film in a sad and sour tone.  
“What I can’t understand,” I thought outloud, “is how a star so concerned with his own image as Bruce Lee chose to act so introvertly, almost in a Bressonian style.” 
“You said it,” sneed the film.  
The rest of the film confirmed my suspicions. In the middle of Game of Death, Billy Lo gets shot in the cheek and is left for dead by the Syndicate. A grandiose burial takes place and the face of the star believed to be dead can be seen in the white coffin. In fact, after a trip to the physio, Billy Lo re-appears, groomed and unrecognisable, and patiently eliminates one by one the Syndicate members. Compared to the others, the last fights are especially spectacular and the final face off between Billy-Bruce and the 2m20 black giant Karem Abdul-Jabeer, a basketball player wearing white shorts and sunglasses, very much looks like a classic.  
“You’re still not getting it?” said impatiently the film which I sensed was ready to reveal its secret. “You do remember which year Bruce Lee died.” 
“July 1973, in Betty Ting Pei’s bed, in circumstances never fully explained. Why do you ask?” 
“Well,” said the film who couldn’t contain itself any longer, “he was already dead when the producers decided to ask the mercenary Robert Clouse to direct Game of Death nonetheless!  What you just saw is a fake or - if you prefer a Baudrillardian word - a simulacrum. Any kid from Barbès or Kowloon knows this but you don’t. You disappoint me.” 
“But if it wasn’t Bruce Lee that I saw with my own eyes, who else was gesticulating instead of him?” 
“Lee Shao Lung, or Ho Chung Tao, or Bruce Li, who cares? A clone among many others.”

“Still,” I insisted, upset, “I had the feeling that it sometimes was the real Bruce Lee. I wouldn’t bet on it now but I thought I recognised his intense gaze and his wild caterwaul.” 
“So you’re not totally hopeless,” answered the film, “and you deserve to know all the truth. Raymond Chow (the producer) used twelve minutes of rushes shot before the film, even before Enter the Dragon, Lee’s penultimate film. Twelve minutes of fighting to be honest.” 
“Those at the end?” 
“Those with the yellow tracksuit?” 
“I see.” 
“You’re seeing absolutely nothing since I kept the best part hidden from you.” (Here the film let go a sardonic laughter). “You remember the shot of Billy Lo’s fake burial with the crowd in tears in the streets of Hong Kong and the face of the dead in the white coffin? It’s from Bruce Lee’s true burial!” 
“You’re saying that they took an image of the truly dead star to play the fictitious role of the falsely dead star? It’s incredible. It’s cynical. It’s great.” 
“You now understand what a myth is about?” 
“Sorry, I didn’t know.
“Go, let me be.”

(*) To be frank, while one cannot avoid Bruce Lee, one can find more charm in Wang Yu or Alexander Fu Sheng.

First published in Libération, 24 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas éditeur, 1991.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The market of individuals

Apologies for not posting recently. I hope to make it up with this text, written a few months before Daney passed away, and perhaps the best example of how his film criticism, applied to TV, ended up branching to social criticism.

It's one of my favourites and seems even more relevant today when looking at the evolution of the Internet. I urge you to read it in conjunction with Daney's comments on the evolution of television in the documentary Journey of a cine-son, especially the bit about how Gérard d'Aboville behaved on television after his solitary crossing of the Atlantic.

The market of individuals and the disappearance of experience 
The success of reality TV may point to a double phenomenon: the taking over of television by society and the moulding of the compliant individual. The price to pay is high: nothing less than fading out the idea of human experience. 
Like any boat that has suddenly realised it can sink, television is becoming interesting, and real questions finally appear on the horizon of our impassioned cathode-ray tube. Some of these questions are massive. For instance, how TV channels, in order to produce tomorrow’s audience (you, me, but in a more docile and less moaning version), are already exploring new forms of social caretaking? What role will television have played in the great theme of ultramodern societies: the setting up of a true market of individuals (which might only be the friendly version of a slave market)? 
For if television started by conquering the market, this conquest wasn’t enough to produce the merchandise adapted to the market: the professional individual of today. For a long time now, we’ve witnessed the shaping of this new hero of our time: ever more personalised, tagged, labelled, i.e. reduced to the gaudy folklore of the smallest differences. Of course, no one consciously thought through this process, but it has been possible, for the last few years, to follow its development. And the author of these lines, for example, has often felt alone following it. 
Let’s not go back too much over the well-known phases of development: the recasting of Public Relations towards a progressive de-legitimisation of its members (1). The old reasons which granted a certain right to intervene in the public sphere (passion, pedagogy, expertise, talent, beauty, rarity) have given way to the bad manners of no-fuss, friendly but meaningless mercenaries. It has become embarrassing to be a Mr. know-it-all in a medium whose power is founded on the equitable sharing of average ignorance and indifference. 
This de-legitimisation has hit hard politicians who, used to watch themselves so beautiful in regular and established TV shows, naively didn’t see that they were fuelling National Lepenism. Hence the fierce debates: democratisation or consensus? Consensus or demagogy? Demagogy or (soft) fascism? This de-legitimisation spared no sectors of social representation, including journalists. 
Broadly, the bourgeois society has stopped paying well-wishing bards in order to showcase its own values to itself, preferring the looping images of consensual silence to the old theatre of loud dissension. It can only astonish anyone who lived through the crisis of the idea of representation, theoretically mistreated in the 1960s and eventually slashed in 1968. Did we exaggerate? Who will re-think all this? 
Television was where this tipping point recently happened. The capricious and rubbish policies of the French Socialist government helped the good people understand that television was eventually escaping from the authorities, the sharks, the educators and could finally become the people’s thing, meaning comfortably frivolous and destitute. This explains the popular support to Channel 5 in its struggle for commercial survival, having become something between Justine and a Saint, as it was, very humanly, reporting on itself and complaining (with reason) on its troubles and the misfortunes of its virtue. 
Television finally handed back to the people? Why not? This is, at least, what the young sharp things at the celebrity media agency Sygma-TV are thinking. But one must not think that such an operation could happen by itself. Television will be handed back to the people only if the people becomes at the same time a TV-people, and that implies, as is always the case, technicians to work toward (and profit from) this mutation. For this is a big piece: the re-shaping of the people, who is now asked to play its own part, but no longer simply as an inanimate mass, an audience rating upholder of justice, as silly game show contenders or applauding cattle, but truly as personalised heroes. 
Hence programs like The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives (2) – titles in which one can clearly reads the idea of the emergence from obscurity or the return into the light. For these shows are not just about any form of heroism (there are some controversial ones), but only about small-scale events leading to the unique (and familial) mythology of redemption and second birth. In a new age era, one must accept that such a myth could be, in final analysis, the only horizon of a television which, by the way, has renounced to nearly everything else. 
Is it good or is it bad? One thing is sure, the result is, aesthetically, not watchable. So if it has so much success, it’s not because it concerns the gaze (for there is in the gaze the possibility of critical distance, ethical resistance or aesthetic judgement) but clearly because of something else: nothing less than the collective learning of the gestures by which a large mass of outcasts will learn to play its role in personalised scenarios which it is assured are – finally – its own. Why not? 
If that’s so, this mutation is certainly threatening the existence of other mythologies, that of the artist of course, but of the actor as well. For what is an actor if not the man or woman with an immemorial passion: the passion to be another, which predisposes some among us to take it upon themselves to re-act the experience of others. 
This is obviously the meaning behind Patrick Sébastien’s attacks against The Night of the Heroes. When we are all invited in advance to be one by one the heroes of our own lives (lives that now belong to us and whose copyright we will eventually learn to monetise), how can the actor-impressionist not feel his own existence threatened? He has a horrible suspicion: his particular talent may be of less interest than the non-talent (or even the depressing worthlessness) of these heroes who emerge from the night and, in a Wharolian way, quickly return to it! 
Will the passion to be oneself eventually replace the passion to be another? Are we simply witnessing a mere moment – extremely mediocre but transitory – of the great human emancipation which, even jagged, has secularised beliefs and individualised man for centuries? Will it be enough to redraw, every time, the boundaries between the secular market and the desecrated human, meaning the sacred and non-negotiable share (let’s call it the Other) which will always remain at the heart of the human animal? One can think so, but with no joy. 
Because, with this market of the individual, of which the American reality-TV shows are but the latest symptom, we can spot what must be lost and the price that must be paid. The idea of human experience is definitely lost. It’s as if television had suddenly sat down a whole people on the couch of a psychoanalyst who would work on an assembly line and who would, instead of listening silently to the too beautiful rants of the legendary Self, applaud the patient at the first session and tell him: you are sublime, everything you have said is exactly what you have lived, re-enact it in our home-TV-style (which is your home by the way) and you will be cured. 
Can we so readily throw the baby of human experience with the bathwater (even used) of a few past centuries? This doesn’t seem reasonable. Until a recent date, the person who, by desire or by profession, asked questions to fellow human beings, knew that nothing is less easily communicable than experience. It’s even because of this difficulty that we can recognise experience. “It went very fast, I didn’t feel (see, understand) anything... It’s after that... It’s very difficult to explain… Today still…” are the sentences that millions of tapes and cameras have recorded for ages. 
And it’s because experience escapes us – especially when it’s strong –, that we needed mediators (from the saint to the charlatan, from the friend to the traitor) to help find the words to say it, actors to lend their bodies, artists to explore every possible ways, and writers to conclude, sadly, like Virginia Woolf, that “life experiences are incommunicable, and this is the cause of solitude”. 
Any experience that can be easily reduced to the show of its reality is not an experience. Or rather, it’s not the experience of the person who said he lived it, but the experience of a group with no ideals which will always prefer the adjusted and repeatable spectacle of the re-enactment to the intimate anti-spectacle of the already-performed. At stake is the very possibility of the social fabric, and one mustn’t believe that Hollywood, in its golden age, was doing anything else (just look at Sirk’s films). 
So it’s possible that the great market of the individual, based on disposable heroes and proper scenarios, has decided, in agreement with the interested parties, to move on to the counteroffensive. This is why the idea of subjective truth is skipped everywhere on television or appears as an elitist and definitely unbearable luxury. It is even possible that the cathode-ray tube finally finds a mission matching the political and mythological interests of the France group: the interests of catechism
Why catechism? Because it’s something serious, not very cynical and that, like advertising, has to do with Good. And, once the evil (communist) empire has evaporated, the future actors of the economic war will really need to believe in some Good to give meaning to their actions. That being said, catechism is neither blind faith nor science of the theologian, it’s a tangible ensemble of silly procedures which transform the flock in puppets willing to accept a belief that they no longer have had to experience - at least not for a long time. 
In this sense, the catechism of The Night of the Heroes or Missing Lives is the well-wishing and emotionally quivering realisation of what was announced by the 1970s porn cinema. On one hand, X-rated films got stuck on the depiction of the sexual experience (believing stupidly that it only needed to do a live monitoring of the organs and watch for the birdie). But on the other hand, it is true that these films reconstituted for their audience the idealised and reassuring show of continuous sex as a clear fantasy and an imperishable, male and monotonous myth.

In the same vein, American reality TV (and let’s remember that any TV is always American) replaces the patchy and indescribable experience of what has been with the sleek and uninterrupted show of what will have been. What will have been is the aesthetic summary and the humanitarian catechism that any market of the individual will need. This future perfect (which I believe to be the essential tense of audiovisual media) is both a correction of reality and a visualisation of corrected reality.

Our heroes are finally able to see and know what they should have been like when they come on TV to share their biographical bits. And, alas!, we’ve seen it too: they must resemble bad TV, bad cinema, bad theatre. The price seems high: to be on the side of the collective Good (because the group wishes to be in communion with its TV from the comfort of his own home), they must be terribly bad (and terribly humble). 
Some will say that catechism is no great mass, requires no fear or trembling, not even a return to religiosity. However catechism wishes that we, clones allegedly dressed up as unique individuals, renounce forever to having our own memories of what we have lived, unless it can be re-lived with the help of Pascale Breugnot (3) holding our hands – meaning in a very bad way, but in front of our grateful and tearful eyes (what wouldn’t we do to be loved?). 
Eventually, behind the fairy dust of the myth that television is handed back to the people and the individual comes out of the night, it’s still about – even in France – the village demanding its share.

First published in Libération on 20 January 1992.

(1) The recent misfortunes of Patrick Poivre d’Arvor’s fake interview of Fidel Castro can only rejoice us. 
(2) La nuit des héros and Perdue de vue: 1990s French TV shows idealising real rescues by ordinary people and searching for missing people to reunite them with their families [translator’s note]. 
(3) French TV star presenter of the reality TV shows era [translator’s note].

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Serge Daney in 2014

Phnom Penh, 1989
Time for the annual round up of Serge Daney in English.
Blog news:
  • 2014 saw 4,500 "visitors" but as always most of these "users" only stay on the site for a few seconds and I'm fearing they are crawling robots. I reckon we're around 1,000-1,500 actual people who read something on the website (i.e. spent more than 1 minute on a page). This is a big number. Thanks all.
  • Google analytics tell me that c.50% of you were English speaking, and that, although 95% of you read this on your laptop (as opposed to a tablet or smartphone), only 5% of you used Internet Explorer (you alternative bunch).
  • And you seem to have preferred the 2013 posts written with Otie Wheeler as Mannerism and La Rampe remain quite popular. 
2015 will see the tenth anniversary of this blog (no kidding). Don't expect too many big surprises though, I'm currently struggling to make the time to post (blame it on the need for paid work).

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with Eric Rohmer

From 1985 to 1990, Serge Daney hosted a weekly radio broadcast called Microfilms on French public radio "France Culture". It took the form of discussions on films and cinema with all kinds of guests. The May 1990 broadcast with Eric Rohmer just appeared with an English translation on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Rector for spotting it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Averty for ever

It's amazing how some pioneers of video art such as Jean-Christophe Averty can be so little known. For anybody who watched television in France between the 50s and 80s, his work is almost familiar and yet, it was extremely inventive and daring. Here's Serge Daney's reaction to viewing one of Averty's work on television in 1987.

Averty for ever
Where one despairs that Jean-Christophe Averty will have been alone in the world to believe that television could be used for artistic purposes.
There are two reasons to complain when one is Jean-Christophe Averty. The first is well known, the second less so. The first one says it’s a scandal that French television has so stubbornly focused on inheriting from (and rivalling) cinema, instead of cultivating its own garden. The second one follows on from the first. Averty has been so alone in cultivating this TV-garden, in being its only tireless champion – and for such a long time –, that it has become difficult to assess his work. How can one criticises someone who is alone in following a particular direction, alone in discovering a field with its dead ends and difficulties? How can we say that we like his principles but don’t always share his tastes? A question that will always be asked of inventors.
Averty has dreamt for a while of making something of the little-known play by Henri Rousseau (also known as the Douanier): A Russian Orphan’s Revenge. Averty has always claimed that “one can perfectly make TV from a garage.” Since 6:45pm yesterday (on Channel 3), we’ve been able to watch the first of ten episodes of this TV-garage (60 square meters, according to the author). The episode lasted thirteen minutes and has the charm of what lasts thirteen minutes. A Russian orphan is seduced by the young German that returned her lost canary. She loves him and we guess that he will betray her.
The story really isn’t what counts most in this Revenge. It’s the way it’s dealt with. It’s this very Avertyan oscillation between loving respect (the image never shines too bright that it overshadows the subject) and plastic freedom (allowed by the video medium). On one side, the Russian girls put on all kinds of airs and roll their R’s, the background is made of izbas and details form the author’s paintings, love is expressed through hearts and thoughts via medallions. The things that we see and the things that are talked about trade places. The soundtrack (a violin) is a character, on the same level as the voice-over that tells the story. The words are said as well as written (in Russian and in French). In a word, everything functions like a visual rebus whose permanent solution would be the story.
Averty is obviously interested in early cinema and the era when cinema began (very early in the 20th century). His imagination treats the popular images of that beginning as absolute equals to any other images. Punch and Judy shows, puppet theatre, open-air theatre, primitive films, children’s games and postcards. These images are always frontal, ingenuously provoking the spectator, removing any desire to look elsewhere than in the middle of the frame. They always claim their poverty: in effects, in musical accompaniment, in suspense. The most sophisticated image functions like a tapestry and superimpositions are like a waking dream. 
This is the Averty paradox. He didn’t claim the video image (and its thousand gags) to impress but to realise, with it, the real television. And real television, until further notice, is about images as small as the screen that broadcasts them. And if television had been truer to itself, it would have explored – following Averty’s path – this fundamental smallness that is, in a sense, its greatness. By making bodies that have become figurines without psychology dance on the spot, Averty has opened up a path that hasn’t been developed, an eventually scandalous path where there is still the desire to dance but no longer the bodies or space to do it, as if the disappearance of the body under the video bombardment didn’t bother him in any way, and that he found it more touching to see the animation of a tableau vivant, a small tableau fitting for the small screen (shall we talk of “screenlet”?).
It’s his fondness for this miniaturisation of the world (of bodies but also of feelings) that led Averty to stick closely to an artistic television. Yet, thinking about it, it is not evident that television can be an artistic instrument. If it was – or if it had been – such an instrument, it would have been ashamed to have derived its power solely from the monopoly to film reality (let’s not forget what can be beautiful in live broadcasting: reality itself) or from the looting of cinema (let’s not forget what can be beautiful with film reruns: their fiction content).
The question is evermore relevant. The state of the French audiovisual landscape in this 1987 autumn, along with its reminders (the rather sordid failure of Channel 5, the crisis of the look, etc), shows that we’ve confused two things. Television is not just cinema’s small sister (it isn’t great and perhaps never will be). What can happen to it, what has happened to it before our eyes, is to become big, bulimic, inflated with hormones and enzymes. Each time it has been decent recently, it was perfecting small dispositifs (short films, spots or flashes, useful summaries). Every time it’s tried to be an ox, it’s lost its dignity as a frog. 
Sunday evening (Channel 2, 22h15), in a program that was actually interesting (and we should only apply this overused adjective to these types of programs), Jean-Luc Godard, in great form, reminded us that if television produces oblivion, cinema produced memories. And if, in the era of opinion polls, what is forgotten cannot be polled, memories remain great. Averty’s dream – and he’s the only one with that dream – will have been to use television anyway to keep amnesia at bay (just as he did on radio with his programs on music hall). When, instead of putting him up on a pedestal, television will have absorbed Averty’s message, it will be ready to leave traces in memory. But when?

First published in Libération on 22 December 1987. Republished in The wage of the channel hopper, POL, 1993. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otie Wheeler.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The last temptation of the Toons

October surprise: a new translation of Serge Daney is published in the book accompanying the exhibition for the re-opening of New York's SculptureCentre. It's a great text, and as usual with Daney, it's full of ideas: for example the opposition between Spielberg's central question "Why not me?" and Scorsese's "Why me?".

The last temptation of the Toons - Robert Zemeckis, Who framed Roger Rabbit?
Puddle, Pothole, Portal, edited by Camille Henrot and Ruba Katrib, published by SculptureCenter, Long Island City, NY. "The last temptation of the Toons," by Serge Daney translated by Emily Nathan. First printed as "La derniere tentation des Toons" in Libération, 1st of November, 1988, Paris.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On paper

Here's another translation from the recently published book Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme - Point of View thanks to the generosity of the book editor Tobias Hering and translator John Barrett. It's a brand new translation. Enjoy.

On Paper
Those who supported, assisted and at times organized the immigrant workers' struggles between 1972 and 1975, the two dates that encompass the making of Nationalité: Immigré (1) [Nationality: Immigrant], embarked on the venture by filling out paperwork. Thanks to their constantly explaining the Fontanet-Marcellin directive (2), to their losing themselves in a maze of absurd legislation (residence permits and work permits); thanks to their efforts to eliminate illiteracy through printing and translating flyers and posters and by disseminating campaign literature the French far-left de facto sealed an alliance with those who surfaced in their ranks during the struggles in the post 1968 period: the immigrants. Whatever subjective reasons lay behind this alliance (love of one's fellow human being, be it the Christian or the MRAP [Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples] type, a juncture in the left-wing strategy towards broadening the struggle's popular front), it was by helping the immigrants navigate this sea of paperwork, in which their lives would be submerged, that the activists obtained an opportunity, while winning their confidence, to press ahead with them towards self-awareness, towards mobilization and political organization. First and foremost, however, they had to be of use with the pen.
The paradox was this: On one hand, far-left activists differentiated themselves from meek reformists and the P.C.F. [French Communist Party] by distinguishing legality from legitimacy (according to the analyses in La Cause du peuple (3) from that period). They strove to give widespread appeal and a sense of real-life to slogans such as: “We are right to rise up.” “Dare to fight, dare to win.” Conversely, however, when it came to the immigrants' struggles with the authorities they found themselves way out of their depth regarding the written word, pre-coded norms, bourgeois employment legislation and legal terminology (for leftist ideology distinctly incorporated the notion of precluding the legal system). They were to be confronted by the bourgeoisie's cynical negligence of their own laws. Moreover, there was outrage regarding the blatant disparity between that which appeared on paper and what was to be seen in reality.
As for the militant dream, it was altogether different. It wasn't through being useful with the pen that the activists asserted themselves in the immigrants' struggles; rather, they acted as fomenters, instigators, teachers, bearers of the good word and cogent theory. For them, the written word, while their unscripted domain, was nothing more than a tactical tool designed to win trust, and moreover to prove that one is worthy of it.  
Here was a case of twofold neglect. On one hand, the activists failed to grasp the legal system as an authoritative body where something actually takes place (intrinsically coupled with domination, legal agreement, symbolic import). Furthermore, it didn't dawn upon them that immigrants retained concrete ties with such authority, ties that could have been surmised as strong all the same. In (White and particularly Black) Africa, ritual tagging, agreements, one's word are all serious and binding matters. We can be sure that this neglect of the legal dimension is the crux of Sokhona's film, Nationalité: Immigré
At the core of this militant dream one found instead a sort of ideal scenario, within the realm of inevitable exposure of problems and their resolution. The essential element in this scenario was time, both linear and teleological. The immigrant, the ideal proletarian with only a mattress in a slum to lose, found himself burdened with embodying, through his individual life experiences, the various phases of a thoroughgoing ‘crash course’ in self-awareness, as already recognized and indexed by Western Marxism. This process took a swifter than usual turn. The exploitation and oppression endured by immigrants could only but engender their resistance (albeit initially muted and covert), which led to talk of their revolt. And this, in turn, soon bolstered by a few kind words, could only but invent its specific forms of action and organization. In the end, these were to lead, both short- and long-term, to this alliance, to the shoulder-to-shoulder stance with French workers. This scenario at once steered and pandered to the leftist imagination. 
By no means did Sidney Sokhona cater to the leftist's crash course as the form of exposition for his film. That is not to suggest that Sokhona himself doesn't value such a course of action, or doesn't regard it as revealing any truths. It's quite the reverse. Nationalité: Immigré does not in any way lack in what one is entitled to expect in terms of general truths: numbers, statistics, bleak outlook, explicit discourse where the commentary insists on the necessity to deepen awareness, for education, on the need to go beyond partial and wildcat strikes to economic-political struggles alongside the French working class and so on. It is therefore impossible to categorize this work among those pathetic and humanizing films, (Mektoub? and its ilk) (*) with their regrettable lack of a political dimension, but which one nonetheless grudgingly recommends so as to fuel debate about support structures. And why should anyone complain?
Let us return to our point of departure: paper. Sydney Sokhona's film is a voyage to the country in which everything can take place on paper. Paper as a place in which the powers that be demand their dues in concrete terms, (Your papers, please!); paper on which an another authority claims and braces up (flyers, posters, books); paper on which an authority fantasizes (paper as utopia, just as one remarks: ‘it looks beautiful on paper, but...’).  His film touches upon that which the leftists precisely eschew (the necessity of legal agreement.)  That's why the film is frowned upon, also in left-wing circles. 
The film opens in a non-place, a cycling track where the French capital's lackeys, the racist supervisors, call out each immigrant by name, put their name on a list, giving each and every one a sign to clench between their teeth, a sign with which to pin them down, to pinpoint them and to pin onto them. shelter, slum, transit estate. Not only do they insist that the immigrants comply with what has been written; they insist that they interiorize it, that they gobble it up. The immigrants will need to dash it off.
Towards the end of the film there is a noteworthy scene at the market in which two immigrants from the shelter on the Rue Riquet suddenly speak their mind about their condition and their sense of outrage. It isn't a case of them hysterically acting-out. It's more in the line of ‘bitter tale,’ like those told by the Chinese peasantry, a stirring recitation, a reading aloud rather than a speaking out. The scene's emotion derives from that scrap of paper they hold and which they themselves wrote, of that language they speak which isn't theirs. They shout out tirelessly, they read angrily.
Between these two scenes, the opening and the closing, Sokhona films only incidents involving scraps of paper. Clear, precise and edifying incidents. The newspapers an immigrant reads in the morning in search of work are those that another immigrant sweeps up in the evening. It's by perforating betting slips that we truly encounter French daily reality. If the Sidi's parents write from Mauritania, the letter will be read using a voiceover. The links to the various intermediaries are sanctioned by paper: the village wise man derives his power from his obtrusive recitation of the Koran and the cash that he extorts for it. In a Bressonian-like shot, with a white sheet as the background, we are witness to a scene of hand-to-hand, of the barter of paper banknotes for legal papers, in which the immigrants finally obtain their ID papers. The manager of the shelter on the Rue Riquet is not just a smooth-talker; he keeps a list of his tenants in his drawer, on which he ticks off the names of the ringleaders.   
Sokhona only films that which could be a source of information. But instead of imposing outside commentary, he makes subject matter even of his images. Political filmmakers never really knew how to avoid inserting  ‘title cards’ (inevitably dogmatic) in the midst of  ‘true-life footage’ (inevitably jinxed). The fact is they never truly asked themselves the question: ‘How can we film the discourse?’ Sokhona does indeed film cardboard bearing slogans but within the shot itself.  He anchors his characters, somewhat like Godard did in Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere] where those filmed literally wear their images. Hence the hallucinatory dimension that permeates the film at times. In seeking out as much information as possible, we deny ourselves (as well as deny the spectators) that which gives such pleasure in cinema: the implicit meaning a spectator is supposed to know. 
This accounts for why the lazy and the romantic dislike this voyage to the land where everything is written out. The process of denoting spells things out, it inflicts itself. For the act of denotation (that of giving a name, and only one, to things and human beings alike) steers us towards the question of racism (for example, in that scene in which a racist shouts at an immigrant sweeping up too close to him: “Hey, jerk, it's you I'm talking to!”) Confronted with powers to be that unremittingly demand that they identify themselves (your papers?), the immigrants need to start summoning the strength to stand up and be counted. In Sokhona's film, their struggles focus exactly on this point:  On the number of people that have to be re-housed together.
It is, moreover, pointless to expect of them an all-embracing discourse. The victims don't only describe themselves as people just like the others; they also keep count of themselves. This is underpinned by the image of two corpses fished from the water, each draped in a flag, on a bank of the Canal Saint-Martin. 
(*) Mektoub? (1970) was directed by Ali Ghalem, who was also the author of L'Autre France (1975). 
Editor's notes: 
(1) Nationalité : Immigré (1975) by Sidney Sokhona is a fiction film about a group of mostly African (male) migrant workers in Paris and their awakening political activism. A central location of the narrative is the migrant workers' shelter in Rue Riquet whose residents began a rent strike during the shooting of the film in protest against their exploitation by employers and landlords as well as the degrading living conditions in the shelter. Shot with virtually no budget, the film took several years to be finished, which allowed for frequent inclusion of actual events and the prolonged rent strike to become a central dramatic element. With Sokhona himself and actual tenants of Rue Riquet appearing on camera, the film is a genuine product of those acting in it; a rare example of self-organized auto-representation of African migrants on screen. Sidney Sokhona is of Mauritanian decent and went back to his country of origin soon after finishing his second and better known feature film, Safrana ou le droit à la parole (Safrana or Freedom of Speech, 1978). After working as a documentary and newsreel film-maker for several years, he started a second career as a government official and still holds high ranking positions in Mauritanian politics. Nationalité : Immigré and Safrana remain his only feature-length fiction films.
(2) The Fontanet-Marcellin directive was a set of legal decrees concerning immigrants' rights in France issued in January and February 1972. The name is derived from the two ministers who fathered it under the presidency of Georges Pompidou: Raymond Marcellin (minister for the interior) and Joseph Fontanet (minister for labor). The new decrees severely curtailed immigrants' rights, made resident permits dependant on formal labor contracts and put the legal affairs of immigrants under the control and authority of the police. 
"These decrees came into force a few weeks before the campaign against deportations on 15 September 1972. The Marcellin decree of 24 January 1972 limited the granting of work and residence permits to the police. From now on, the only point of contact for immigrants was the police authority (alternatively, the town council) and a central file on them was set up at the Ministry of the Interior. The Fontanet decree of February 1972 made a labour contract for at least one year the precondition for a residence permit, as well as a document issued by the employer certifying 'appropriate housing'. In this way, new forms of control were placed in the hands of police and employers for control of the living conditions and mobility of immigrant workers. The renewal of papers became an arduous process and the authorities reserved the right to refuse the extension of permits on the basis of the 'national labour market' or on political grounds. Any migrant worker who lost his job had to hand in his work permit and produce evidence of a new job within one month. All these regulations were not yet applicable to the so-called 'privileged' nationalities (EC countries, Algerians, francophone black Africans, refugees and asylum seekers, but to the 'non-privileged' (Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks, Portuguese, Yugoslavians)." (http://www.noborder.org/without/france.html#five [last accessed November 2013])
As they spelled immediate precarisation for a large segment of France's migrant community, the Marcellin-Fontanet decrees were met with fierce protests, including a series of hunger strikes, which were prominently supported by French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault. 
(3) "La Cause du Peuple" [The People's Cause] was a radical left newspaper published between 1968 and 1978. Within the contemporary political landscape it represented the "Proletarian Left" (GP - Gauche prolétarienne) and drew from a Maoist background. The name "La Cause du Peuple" was a direct reference to a newspaper co-founded by George Sand in 1848. From the "Cause du Peuple" sprang today's weekly newspaper "Libération", founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre who had also been the editor of "La Cause du Peuple" from May 1970 until September 1973. 

The original essay, "Sur le papier", by Serge Daney was first published in Cahiers du Cinema No. 265 (March/April 1976) as part of a dossier dedicated to Sidney Sokhona's film Nationalité: Immigré (see note no. 1). The dossier further included essays by Jean-Pierre Oudart and Serge Le Péron as well as a long interview with Sidney Sokhona conducted by the same three authors. When "Sur le papier" was reprinted in Serge Daney's essay collection "La Rampe" (Collection Cahiers du Cinéma-Gallimard, 1983), the text was revised and slightly modified. The English translation commissioned for this volume is based on the text version in "La Rampe". Translated by John Barrett.