The Cinema House and the World: The ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ Years, 1962-81 
by Serge Daney, translated by Christine Pichini.
Semiotext(e), 600 pp., £28, September 2022, 978 1 63590 161 0
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Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970-82 
by Serge Daney, translated by Nicholas Elliott.
Semiotext(e), 212 pp., £16.99, December 2023, 978 1 63590 198 6
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Reading with Jean-Luc Godard 
edited by Timothy Barnard and Kevin J. Hayes.
Caboose, 423 pp., £35, November 2023, 978 1 927852 46 0
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‘When I wrote film criticism,’ Jean-Luc Godard said in 1978, ‘I never saw the difference between talking about a film and making one.’ There was a serious difference, as he well knew, since at the time of most of this writing he had not made a film of his own. The claim is interesting, though, because Godard always liked to mix modes, and never really wanted to separate criticism from creation. His early film Bande à part (1964) combines a discursive voiceover – Godard’s own voice, as it happens – with filmed action and internal literary allusions. His late Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-99) is a lengthy visual and aural collage, a sort of television series trying to forget about television. Richard Brody describes the result as ‘a kind of working through on screen of the network of associations that formed in Godard’s movie-colonised unconscious’.

The key idea here, which appears again and again in French thinking about cinema, is writing, and talk as a form of writing. In The Cinema House and the World, Serge Daney, whose career at Cahiers du cinéma began in 1964, insists that he and his colleagues ‘always did love … a cinema that is haunted by writing’. Robert Bresson said much the same thing: ‘Cinema is not a spectacle. It’s a kind of writing.’ There is a wonderful, casual-seeming evocation of this thought in Daney’s essay from 1969 on Pasolini’s Teorema. He says we know what the desert at the end of the film means. ‘God has withdrawn and started writing, that infinite movement, without end and without guarantee of interpretation.’

Writing means something slightly different in each of these cases, but they all point to the language of cinema, or to cinema as language, a bundle of aural and visual materials waiting to be read. Roland Barthes’s concept of écriture hovers in the background, along with his distinction between texts that are lisible (‘We call any readerly text a classic text’) and scriptible (‘The writerly text is ourselves writing’). A lot of writers don’t write in this sense and those who do gain a special privilege. The writer in the cinema is the person who creates the art, whether it’s the director or the producer or an actor. Or even a writer. There is also an element of liberation, of refusing a cultural supremacy. ‘When we saw some movies,’ Godard wrote, ‘we were finally delivered from the terror of writing. We were no longer crushed by the spectre of the great writers.’

For Daney the ‘specificity of French cinema can be summed up in a word: it’s an auteur cinema, rich with all the literary connotations of the word.’ Characteristically, he ends his paragraph with a joke against himself: ‘As a result, we don’t exactly know what auteur means any more.’ ‘French cinema’ here mainly means French films but also the work of directors favoured by French critics of a certain persuasion. Howard Hawks, for instance, who ‘does not distort the real: he chooses from it the gestures, the moments and places that will be most revelatory’; and John Ford, for whom ‘creation is only that unique and decisive gesture – giving things a name.’ Antonioni is admired for his ‘establishment of distance’ and Woody Allen for the ‘rarefaction of images and particularly of angles … theorised in Annie Hall’. What Charlie Chaplin’s little barber is saying in The Great Dictator comes from somewhere that might be nowhere. Daney’s summary of the speech is: ‘Whatever I may say to you, I speak from a place I’ll never be again, a place you haven’t yet reached.’

Daney left Cahiers in 1981 to write columns for Libération; he died of Aids ten years later at the age of 48. He was remembered earlier this year in New York at the Lincoln Centre, which showed some of his favourite films (including Tati’s Trafic, Pasolini’s Saló, Godard and Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs, Bresson’s Le Diable probablement and Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala), seeking, in the words of the programme, ‘to bring his thought into the present and ask what it means to those working and thinking in film today’. This is just what the new translations of his writings achieve.

One way of refusing to see the difference between making a movie and talking about one is to remember that films often talk, literally and obliquely, about film. Cinema becomes the home of certain theories about the form, and this is very much Daney’s terrain. His evocations of individual films are precise and concrete, but they are also critical scene-setters, invitations to inquiry. He wants to know what is happening on the screen and in the soundtrack, and in the minds of viewers. Patrice Rollet, in his preface to The Cinema House and the World, calls him a ‘cinematic philosopher’. Daney himself relates this approach to the interest at Cahiers in ‘an extremely theoretical way of talking about cinema’, and mentions Foucault, Lacan, Althusser and Lévi-Strauss before adding, in a sort of historical epigram, that Cahiers ‘introduced theory into cinema and cinema into academia’.

Footlights, which brings together critical essays written between 1970 and 1982, was first published in France in 1983 as La Rampe. ‘Footlights’ conveys the word’s primary meaning, as the translator, Nicholas Elliott, says: ‘the row of spotlights that line the front of a theatre stage’. But the French also means ‘ramp’ and, in its verb form, ‘to crawl’. Daney offers an intriguing usage at the bottom of his second page. The lights failed to hold back the ‘grey ghosts’ who would ‘come out of the screen and crawl towards me’. He is recalling the cinema trips of his childhood, when the theatre itself was the real presence and there were live performers between the films who would leave the stage after their act t0 collect money from the audience. He ignored them and felt bad about it. Cinephilia was a way of both remembering and forgetting. ‘The shame of having seen and said nothing comes with a challenge to see everything, to never look away from anything.’

In Footlights Daney shares what he takes to be André Bazin’s view of the long-term fate of film: ‘What lies on the horizon … is the disappearance of cinema.’ There’s a lot to watch while it’s going, though. Every film by Tati, for instance, ‘marks at once … a moment in (his) oeuvre … a moment in the history of French cinema and society, and … a moment in the history of cinema’. Tati shows us a world ‘where the less things work, the more they work’ and where ‘bodies … aren’t made comical by the fact that they can fall.’ They do fall, like the woman in Playtime who tries to sit on a chair that isn’t there and collapses to the floor in slow motion. ‘A very funny gag,’ Daney says, ‘but what exactly are we laughing at?’ Partly at a denial of what Daney, speaking for Cahiers, says is the object of ‘our distrust’: ‘naturalism’. ‘A shot isn’t entirely determined by the cause it serves. The image resists. The little bit of real life it encloses doesn’t let itself be reduced so easily. There’s always a remnant.’ Or as Daney expresses it elsewhere, ‘if there is a witness, there is a performance.’ This is why the movie theatre remains what it was for Daney as a child: a ‘bad place’, ‘a place of crime and magic’, which directors like Godard turn into a school. A special school, of course, where we are late learners and everything has already been said. For Godard, Daney says, this means paying attention to ‘quotations, slogans, posters, jokes, funny stories, lessons, headlines and so on’. We seem almost to have arrived at Timothy Barnard and Kevin Hayes’s book, Reading with Jean-Luc Godard. Or perhaps just at the work of Fellini, who, ‘better than all the others, never stops proving to you … that you are seeing just one thing, which is that when you see, it’s too late.’

Rollet, in his preface to The Cinema House and the World, recalls a story Daney told about getting lost and finding his way again in Spain, and sees in it ‘an unexpected, almost miraculous accord between abandon to the world and confidence in its power’. This phrase illuminates the role of ‘the world’ in the book’s title and the allusion to one of Satyajit Ray’s best-known films, The Home and the World. Daney is at his brilliant best when writing about Orson Welles, whose films ‘begin where others end; when all has been won, the only thing left to do is unlearn everything … yesterday Quinlan, today Falstaff.’ ‘Everywhere, always, power is in the wrong hands. Those who possess it don’t know enough… or know far too much … each acting in vain in an excess of naivety or intelligence.’

The book contains, among many other pieces, fine articles on Sturges, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Losey, what’s wrong with Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, what’s right (some of the time) in Apocalypse Now, and several brilliant essays on television and tennis. When French TV started revisiting the Second World War, Daney suggested that Pétain had become a name for what was still being hidden or denied – a saint, a puppet, ‘only a signifier’. In an endless match against Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe was the bearer of a fable: ‘The winner won’t be the one who can return every shot, it won’t be the one able to stave off exhaustion, it will be the one who wants it to be over.’

‘The history of film slowly becomes History itself.’ This opening of a sentence from Fredric Jameson’s preface to Reading with Jean-Luc Godard, a collection of essays by fifty writers, could easily refer to Daney’s work. But it continues: ‘and Godard could cease to make standard “filmed” films and begin to “write” Histoire(s) du cinéma.’ It’s good to see the trope of writing living its new/old life. We shouldn’t be surprised to find Godard’s video project looming so large in this volume – mentions of it occupy half a page in the index. And there is a touching meta-moment in the editors’ ‘Note on the Text’ when the book we are about to read becomes a sort of freeze-frame picture of Godard, if not a movie about him. He died in 2022, as the book was being proofread and indexed. ‘It was decided at that time not to go through the entire volume and modify the countless references to its subject in order to speak of him in the past tense.’

Jameson suggests that this ‘quite astonishing book’ represents ‘a new form, a new genre’. Its essays are not about references or influences, they are not explications or commentaries, but they touch on the business of those topics or practices. They take us alphabetically from Henri Alleg’s The Question to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, pausing on the way at stations called Beckett, Darwish, Levinas, Weil, Wittgenstein and many others. They are all short, all interesting, but they differ significantly in their tones and angles. Jameson thinks they might ‘perhaps’ be described as ‘thumbnail biographies of intellectual instants’, but he is also willing to settle for something more ephemeral: the chance ‘to live a moment inside one of (Godard’s) thoughts’.

Several of the essays evoke a literal textual presence in the films. ‘Histoire(s) du cinéma ends with Godard reading a series of quotations which are introduced visually as the names of their authors appear on the screen in block letters.’ Texts live a ‘double life’ as ‘fragmented texts that are read and quoted’, or ‘as concrete material objects’. Books are not just ‘sources’ but ‘significant objects in the mise-en-scène’. And when we read the essays we aren’t only notionally inside Godard’s thoughts as if present during the filming, but also learning about the cited authors, registering novelties and/ or finding memories in our own heads.

It’s great to see (or see again) the collision of Jorge Luis Borges and T.S. Eliot on the topic of tradition. Both writers get entries (by John Parris Springer, Rick Warner, Timothy Barnard and Lindsey O’Connor) and they had already met in Borges’s essay on Kafka, where he cites Eliot as the source of the idea that ‘each writer creates his precursors’. All the more reason, then, to enjoy their reunion in Bande à part, when the main characters take a parodic English class where the new orthodoxy is that ‘classic = modern’. There’s a real pleasure in remembering that Eliot says the past – and not just our picture of the past – is ‘altered by the present’. Or rather he says we should not find the thought ‘preposterous’.

We see a new Rimbaud and a new Descartes through the pictures offered by Mateus Araújo and Julien d’Abrigeon. Famous slogans about the self are repeated by Godard. ‘I think therefore I am’ becomes a way of ‘deciphering the world, but on the basis of an attentive inspection of its own representations’. ‘Je est un autre’ becomes ‘a recurring quotation’, even if Godard ‘virtually never mentions Rimbaud’s name’. Particularly striking is the thought, in an essay by Jonathan Strauss, that the long-dead Georges Bataille, who is quoted and rebuked by Godard in Week-end, could actually fight back from within his text. Bataille’s writings ‘operate independently within the film, influencing its reception and undermining its general argument about universal equivalence’.

Proust and Godard, in Anna Shechtman’s words, become ‘the memory-writers of their respective generations’. Paul Valéry, to Ludovic Cortade, seems to have been eavesdropping on conversations in the Cahiers office when he asks (in 1928): ‘What should we be without the help of that which does not exist?’ And we may all be writing along with Godard when he asks Anne-Marie Miéville to read the following phrases from Charles Péguy’s Clio, evoked for us by Daniel Fairfax and subtitled ‘dialogue between history and the pagan soul’:

I need a day to write the history of a second. I need a year to write the history of a minute. I need a lifetime to write the history of an hour. I need an eternity to write the history of a day. One can do everything, except the history of what one does.

Godard’s addition of an optional ‘s’ to his title Histoire(s) du cinéma suggests he is multiplying impossibilities as well as hinting at alternatives.

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