The Long Road of Contradiction

Serge Daney, trans. Nicholas Elliott, Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970–1982

Semiotext(e), 224pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781635901986

reviewed by Sam Warren Miell

After his premature death in 1992, aged 48, Serge Daney’s unpublished notes were collected in a volume entitled L’exercise a été profitable, monsieur, after the French translation of a line repeated in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet: ‘The exercise was beneficial, sir.’ Daney, who was at his death the most important writer on cinema in France, had explained that it was this film, beloved in France and more or less ignored everywhere else, that best allegorised the trajectory of the cinephile, ‘an orphan who chooses to be kidnapped by a rather special passer-by who launches him, but not just any old way, on his apprenticeship in the world’.

For a long time, Anglophone readers had access to vanishingly little of Daney’s work in print. In 2022, Semiotext(e) published an English translation of the first volume of The Cinema House and the World, a series which collects articles that had not already appeared in the books published in Daney’s lifetime. Since those books naturally contained many of the articles Daney considered his most significant, readers were left in the strange position of having been provided a large chunk of the discography without the greatest hits.

The appearance of Footlights, in a translation by Nicholas Elliott, begins to remedy this situation. Daney’s first book (published as La rampe in 1983), it collects essays and reviews from 1970-1982, arranging them into five chronological-thematic sections that take stock of a period Daney mostly spent as the editor of Cahiers du cinéma.

Daney, who called himself a ‘ciné-fils’, was a child of the gung-ho ‘Macmahonist’ cinephilia of the fifties and sixties, a loose grouping of young critics and programmers named for a legendary Parisian cinema. The Macmahonians championed the value of spectatorial absorption in a ‘transparent’ cinema whose patron saints were the Hollywood directors Lang, Losey, Walsh and Preminger. Yet the political events of the sixties, and above all May 68, threw the status of film into question; as Daney puts it in his present-tense narration, ‘a self-evidence collapses, a way of life cracks’. Movies became one of the targets of ideology critique, as young leftists sought to denaturalise filmic representation alongside every other apparent ‘given’ of modern life.

Footlights begins with Daney swept up in the debunking of ‘classical filmic representation’ and its ‘cinephile cult’ — a critique fuelled by his reading of Lacan, Althusser and Derrida, and sharpened by self-application. Here, he is somewhere close to the positions that would come to define the new field of film studies over the course of the seventies. ‘On Salador’, from 1970, is a psychoanalytically-informed exposition of how the referent of cinema’s images ‘is no longer a “reality” we might have experienced, but the imaginary experience we have of them because we’ve seen them in film’; ‘The Screen of Fantasy’ (1972) returns to the work of Cahiers founder André Bazin to argue that ‘the attachment to representation, the taste for simulacrum, and a certain love of cinema (cinephilia) are not so much related to ontology as they are to obsessional neurosis’. But though these articles are fine examples of their genre, they don’t represent Daney’s critical style in full flower. As he would later put it,

Undoubtedly we believed in cinema, which is to say we did everything not to believe it. […] It was a laudable effort to be on the side of the non-duped, laudable and, in my case, in vain. There always comes a moment when you have to pay your debt to the cash box of sincere belief and dare to believe in what you see.

In one sense, Footlights is a book about learning how to believe in what you see again, after the loss of innocence – your own, and that of cinema.

How does this work in practice? Daney doesn’t return to a more stridently humanist form of criticism — indeed, for him, the ‘truth’ of ‘Western humanism’ remains ‘custody, reservation and the zoo’. Rather, the structuralist toolbox, so adept for smoking out the latent in every text, is repurposed for a renewed appraisal of the enigmas of film that had animated the original cinephilia: ‘There’s always an excess in cinema, due to the entanglement of decoupage and enunciation. […O]nce filmed, the “thing itself” starts to function as a sign, which brings nothing to a close, but revives everything in an additional eternal roll of the dice.’ What he says about ‘the most inventive filmmakers of the 1970s’ is reflected in the direction of Daney’s own criticism: ‘They show its mechanism, not to demystify cinema but to restore the complexity it lost with the arrival of the talkie.’

Across the course of the militant seventies, Daney shared his fellow Cahiers critics’ disdain for the use of cinema as an ‘insubstantial intermediary for the popularization of ideas developed elsewhere’. In these articles it is form, not surface content, that provides the key to the politics and morality of a film. So, for example, the radical politics of an apparently traditional film like Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala consists in how the director films the two protagonists — an Imperial Russian surveyor and a Goldi hunter — in such a way as to preserve their respective ways of seeing, all the while maintaining a ‘third position […] which consists in disappointing and ignoring the desire to see more (beyond or below the frame) that drives his characters’. Kurosawa refuses a ‘shot/countershot’ grammar that would promise an illusory ‘trading of places’ through the manoeuvres dishonest films use to try to melt real differences into a fondue of sentimental humanism. For Daney, this is a signal lesson in how ‘cinema must keep the contradictions alive and not buy us off with the show of conjuring them away’.

Meanwhile, a film like Jaws, which pursues a cinematic regime of ‘normalization’ that ‘borders on the fascistizing’, also operates through primarily formal means. The ‘normalizing imagination’ involves ‘filming everything […] from two – and only two – points of view: those of the hunter and the hunted’. Here, there is ‘no point of view (spatial, moral, political), no place for the camera, and therefore the spectator, other than this double position’. The difference between a critical cinema and a fascistising cinema is the difference between the long road of contradiction and the ‘short circuits of knowledge and point of view’; between three and two perspectives.

Daney sees each film as not only an intervention in the history of cinema but a proposition about what cinema should be and do at this particular moment, bearing on every other film; each filmmaker puts forward a global, contentious notion of film. A diagnostic, contestatory quality separates Daney’s criticism from more familiar approaches, which tend to treat individual films as autonomous citizens of a pluralist liberal democracy called Cinema. Often he will reduce filmmakers, quite brutally, to formulae, rules and precepts. We read that ‘in Tati there are no pratfalls or punchlines’; in Sembène, ‘speech always commits the speaker in an absolute manner’; in Straub, ‘anything filmed and framed might also be something else’; in Fuller, ‘the narrative will prevail over everything’.

These statements have a speculative valence – they aren’t reasoned out, exactly, but rather erected as the posts across which intricate expositions, invariably resistant to paraphrase, are stretched. It’s a move Daney extends beyond individual filmmakers: American cinema proceeds ‘by disturbance, excess, waste’, while French cinema ‘is the story of a word-for-word approach that quickly turns into hand-to-hand combat’. There is something deeply invigorating about the Gallic brazenness of these gestures, something that offsets Daney’s intellectuality and is indeed often shaded with a sly humour: ‘Modernity’, we are told, ‘has translated into a great number of bodies filmed from the back’.

Elliot does a good job of rendering Daney’s occasionally knotty, often very beautiful French into English, but there are a few noticeable clams in the translation of technical terms adopted from Deleuze, Nietzsche and Freud. In general, a reader unfamiliar with French theory and history is given little editorial help, and even natives of l’Hexagone may need a reminder of what the Fontanet-Marcellin circulars were. Nevertheless, it seems certain that this translation will expand the modest but growing contingent of young cinephiles who have begun to take Daney as a kind of role model. It’s not hard to see how a film-obsessed twenty-something might see themselves in someone who described his life as ‘completely banal’ and sardonically referred to his ‘pitiful salary’ and ‘complete lack of social know-how and ambition’; someone who by his own account ‘wanted to be taken care of by the cinema’. But Daney also looked forward to the birth of ‘a new spectator, who wouldn’t be (only) a cultural consumer’, ‘one who is able to be interested in a story and, at the same time, to take nothing at face value’ – as opposed to the current spectator, ‘who has become cultured, clever, crafty, and lazy’. He would not want his work to be taken as a mere blueprint, but reading it makes it easier to believe that one could become that kind of spectator, or at least something closer to it.

In the last article included in Footlights, Daney suggests, in one of his trademark proclamations, that the only two great themes of cinema may be ‘alliance and filiation’. Perhaps these are also the great themes of cinephilia. Those unsatisfied with a desultory, ahistorical, anti-intellectual critical landscape will discover in these pages just what film criticism can do when it is powered by a set of questions we have virtually forgotten how to ask. They may take many bends and cross some rocky terrain, but it is worth following Daney along his critical paths. If nothing else, the exercise will be beneficial.

Sam Warren Miell lives in Homerton and writes about movies.