Greetings from Ottawa, I thought the below might be of interest to
nettimers. Sample quote: ' Daney’s radical rapprochement with commercial
cinema may seem paradoxical, but in the best Cahiers tradition, he was
concerned with a film’s form rather than its ideological wrapping paper
and, like his colleague Moullet, was perfectly at ease with contradiction,
just as anyone discussing an “industrial artform” ought to be—see Daney’s
perplexing declaration that Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) is “a
hollow (deep) and empty (remarkable) film.” '

The Cinema House & the World

Nick Pinkerton

The first in a series to be published by Semiotext(e) showcases the
striking ruminations of French film critic Serge Daney from *1962* to *1981*

The Cinema House & the World: 1. The Cahiers du Cinéma Years,
1962–1981, by Serge Daney, edited by Patrice Rollet, with Jean-Claude
Biette and Christophe Manon, translated by Christine Pichini, Semiotext(e),
*597* pages, $*34.95*

•   •   •

To all but a small but tenacious cabal of connoisseurs, the term “film
criticism” suggests—if it suggests anything at all—the consumer-guide style
typified by the writing of Roger Ebert: brisk, demotic plot summary
requiring no breaks to decipher unfamiliar vocabulary; pat value judgments
reflected in stars, letter grades, or some other merit-reflecting token; a
few asides to extol or condemn the cinematography, ideally “luminous,” and
the performances, ideally “pitch-perfect.”

A reader whose acquaintance with film criticism was limited to instances of
the above would encounter few recognizable landmarks in Serge Daney’s The
Cinema House & the World: The Cahiers du Cinéma Years, *1962–1981*. This is
the first of four volumes of Daney’s collected writings from Semiotext(e)
previously issued in their original French by P.O.L. Éditeur, also the
publisher of the journal, Trafic: Revue de cinema, that Daney cofounded in
1991, the year before his death from AIDS-related complications. Daney
keeps plot synopsis to a bare minimum, if he bothers with it at all. While
he can be blunt in his valuations—George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935) is
“one of the most beautiful films ever shot”; Barbet Schroeder’s General Idi
Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974) and Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972) are
both given a thorough stropping—more often you have to cling tightly to the
winding turns of his writing in order to extract anything resembling a
“conclusion.” The pieces in The Cinema House include many drawn from a
period at Cahiers that began under the editorship of Jacques Rivette and
continued under that of Jean-Louis Comolli and Daney himself, when the
magazine adopted a radical-left political identity and opened an active
engagement with contemporary theory. In many of them, Daney will make
passing references to the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Guy
Debord, with confidence that he’s addressing a sharp-minded readership that
can either (a) understand the allusion or (b) do the necessary homework to
catch up.

Daney describes the particularities of the period in French intellectual
history during which much of the material in The Cinema House was published
in a 1977 interview with Bill Krohn, the onetime Hollywood correspondent
for Cahiers, which gives some sense of Daney’s quicksilver off-the-cuff
acumen. (Further evidence of this can be found in Jacques Rivette, le
veilleur, a 1990 documentary codirected by Daney and Claire Denis, in which
the coruscating writer is as much the star as Rivette, no slouch himself.)
The preoccupations that Daney outlines in the interview are pursued in the
pages ahead, among these an acute attention to the moral position implied
by a filmmaker’s decisions regarding what to film and how to film it, a
shared concern among Cahiers writers since the publication’s inception,
e.g., Luc Moullet’s maxim “Morality is a question of tracking shots.” Daney
notes in particular the inspiration provided by Rivette’s denunciation, in
the magazine’s pages, of one dolly move in Gillo Pontecorvo’s
Holocaust-themed Kapo (1960) that he deemed singularly unforgivable.

In a doleful, ruminative essay written for Trafic in his final days, Daney
revisits Rivette’s jeremiad, and his brief description of the piece—it “did
not tell the story of the movie . . . merely described one shot in one
sentence”—could apply to several essays in The Cinema House, in which Daney
so often pounces on a telltale choice in a film that seems to reveal its
essence, the loose thread that unravels the garment. These details become
springboards, points from which Daney can launch himself into speculations
on qualities particular to the phantasmagoric medium of cinema as a
whole—for his Cinema House is unquestionably haunted. The first piece in
the volume, on Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), published in Daney’s
short-lived magazine Faces of Cinema, when the author was all of eighteen
years old, dates from 1962; the last, from 1981, the year he turned
thirty-seven. In the first and by far longest of the book’s eight sections,
consisting of reviews of individual films, the pieces are arranged with an
eye to connecting developing lines of thought—on off-screen space, on the
relation of sound and image, on the eternal tardiness of cinema addressed
to a moment in history—rather than following strict chronology.

While Daney was a committed leftist writing for a magazine that was run for
a time by a Maoist editorial collective, as Cahiers was in the mid-1970s,
his interest in moral quandaries that exist outside of superficial labels
leads him to aversions and affinities that are anything but doctrinaire.
Daney takes to task ostensibly sympathetic activist films like Bruno
Muel’s With
the Blood of Others (1974) for their absence of formal rigor and reserves
his flung bouquets for the directorial efforts of Jerry Lewis, not a figure
especially associated with radical politics. (An analysis of Lewis’s 1965 The
Family Jewels is particularly illuminating.) Elsewhere, a discussion of
Johan van der Keuken’s Springtime (1976) opens the door to an indictment of
tracking shots “gliding along [a] factory’s open, empty spaces,” which
“occur in industrial films as often as in leftist narratives,” an approach
condemned because it grafts the spectator’s point of view onto that of the
factory overseer.

Daney’s radical rapprochement with commercial cinema may seem paradoxical,
but in the best Cahiers tradition, he was concerned with a film’s form
rather than its ideological wrapping paper and, like his colleague Moullet,
was perfectly at ease with contradiction, just as anyone discussing an
“industrial artform” ought to be—see Daney’s perplexing declaration that
Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) is “a hollow (deep) and empty
(remarkable) film.” The ardency of Daney’s criticism, which even at its
most mournful gives off the satisfying whir of a first-rate mind operating
in real time, makes him eternally vital, though the world that provided a
somewhat prominent platform for his talents, those of the “public
intellectual,” now seems more remote than the era of working-class, popular
cinema he can be found eulogizing throughout The Cinema House.

In addition to his qualities as a writer, Daney could be a chillingly
accurate prognosticator. In later years, addressing a broad audience in the
Socialist daily newspaper Libération alongside the equally idiosyncratic
Louis Skorecki, Daney wrote with increasing frequency about
television—material to follow in the forthcoming Semiotext(e) translations,
though an interest in the medium is already evident in this first volume of The
Cinema House. One column on early reality TV, marked by his long engagement
with Debord, lucidly foresees (in 1992—and therefore outside the scope of
this first volume) not only the central place that this new genre would
assume in popular culture but also the self-marketing debasement of
then-distant social media. With this in mind, a passage in the Krohn
interview—“Academic discourse increasingly holds a monopoly over cinema and
the next generation of ‘cinephiles’ will be created in universities more
than in cinematheques”—is particularly chilling. While it’s difficult to
say how the trudging prose style and wariness of the pleasure principle
prevalent in film-studies departments relate to cinephilia in its classic
sense, it’s true that the products of academia dominate what remains of any
discourse around cinema that goes beyond the pebble-dash thinking of the
consumer review. It’s also true that the handful of high-circulation
outlets dedicated to serious thinking about cinema continue to conduct a
lemming-like march off the cliff of Populist Outreach, and the middle
ground that Daney once occupied with such flair, combining amateur avidity
and intellectual adventurousness, has disappeared almost entirely. Thirty
years after his death, Daney’s revenant presence offers a most welcome


Nick Pinkerton <> is the author
of the book Goodbye, Dragon Inn, available from Fireflies Press as part of
its Decadent Editions series. His writing on cinematic esoterica can be
found at, among other venues.

Michael Benson
*Kinetikon Pictures *
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