PrologueTranslation and transcript by "nletore & newland @ KG" with only minor edits by me.
Regis Debray: Serge Daney, you were born in 1944. We know you as a moralist of images, or a sociologist of the times, I believe one of the best. But we don’t know you yourself, i.e. you don’t talk about yourself in your articles, the times narrate themselves through you. Once you called yourself a cine-son, cinéphile / cine-son, as if the image had been your ancestry, your family. Can you tell us something about the images that looked at you when you were a child, and the way you looked at them, as a child and a teenager?
Serge Daney: I think the first image that counted for me, almost the definitive image, wasn’t a cinema image, it was the geography atlas. I thought about it recently and I realized that it was the image that looked at my childhood, literally, in the sense that at home there was a map which was the map of the world. Or the maps from school, still very colonial, all multi-colored, with the idea that each country is a different colour and that the more names on the map, the better. I very quickly had an extraordinary propensity to memorize names, I think I’ve always known the capitals of the world, I’ve always known Honduras’ was Tegucigalpa, always. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. All this to say that it was the enigma of the map that was the first image that gazed at my childhood. There were no images at home, there was no culture, very few books. The other formative space was radio. I am a child of the radio, since there was no TV, and still, cinema came in third, cinema was my mother and my aunt, especially my mother, who would say, “Oh, let’s not wash the dishes, we’ll do it later, let’s go to the cinema and we’ll take the child”. And so very quickly I was dragged along, happily, in the neighborhood cinemas of the 11ème. There were loads of those cinemas, a good dozen. And I went to see the films that adults went to see. The only favor they would do me was to go and see swashbucklers, I loved swashbucklers. I didn’t even realize they were Italian then, for me they were my favorite, and my mother of course preferred melodramas. Actually, it was always Italy, I realized later, much, much later. So the formative, in terms of images, I think it’s a fundamental image, is the atlas. So it’s not a face, it’s not a portrait, but it works as any true image, like a face or a portrait. Because any true image, in the final analysis, is a face, and any face, in the final analysis, is a gaze. So something gazed at me from the geography maps. I think it’s very important, I’m happy I thought about it recently, because it’s one of those questions people often ask and every one comes up with their list of the ten childhood unforgettable emotions… No, I think the first image was the map in so far as it was a promise. It’s a promise that I, grandson of poor people, born at the boundary between the 11ème and the 12ème, where I live now, so really a Paris kid, 1944, in a terribly impoverished and disqualified France, profoundly disqualified, where the Algerian war will soon happen, I have the feeling – so obviously maybe now I’m reconstructing a lot – to have been the child of those times (obviously I’m not the only one), and to have developed very slowly my relationship to what we call images, especially cinema, under the auspices of an image more important than all others, the geography map, the small Larousse atlas. And then later the bigger atlases, and when I could buy the most beautiful atlases, well, I bought them. And for me no map was ever complete enough, and as soon as I found a mistake it was discarded, and so on. It’s a child’s thing, it’s a visual thing, because the map isn’t the territory, as Korzibsky says, but still, from a certain point of view, the territory looks an awful lot like the map. When you take the plane for the first time, you realize that maybe what you see is the map. And I think that gaze of the map upon me is programmatic. Because it was always the map of the world. I wasn’t chauvinistic. Really not, from birth. So the far-away countries, the weird and complicated names, the strange drawings made by borders, the names that changed, when Urga becomes Ulan-Bataar, I had the feeling that something happened that wasn’t talked about, I was rather furious. So for me cinema is the same, it’s a promise, a promise to be one day a citizen of the world.
RD: It’s a travel that continues?
SD: It’s a travel that continues, but it’s mostly the promise of travel. I’ve travelled a lot, thanks to cinema in fact, film critics travel. I also travelled of my own free will, out of fancy, out of some kind of mystique of the walker, very fashionable during the 70s. But I get the feeling that this promise was mostly kept, because I’ve lived from it. I’ve lived from that world map, it’s only now that it’s fracturing, that it’s becoming politically obsolete. It’s only now that I look at the map of my childhood, which in fact was Yalta but I didn’t realize-
RD: Now you have to take the pre-1914 maps.
RD: Grand-father’s maps are very good.
SD: Exactly. And my map has run its course. Today, I’m not interested in geography, except by… And that’s where I see that there’s a life of the past, because whether Croatians are independent or not, whether they’re drunk on their Croatianness leaves me absolutely cold. That there’s a new country with a new color called Croatia or Slovenia leaves me stone-cold, whereas when I was small, really small, a new country was like someone being born. Whence the fact that it was pretty easy for me, as a kid, to be for the independence of Algeria. I didn’t have the slightest trace of a political idea. It seemed obvious. It was like… the more, the merrier, and the more images there will be. And anyway it doesn’t change a thing since we’re citizens of the world.
RD: And you can escape society with images. I.e. to find the world you have to run away from home. How does it happen, this flight, is cinema a refuge, a uterus, a protection for the adolescent?
SD: It’s well before adolescence, it’s childhood, cinema. It’s not adolescence. It’s childhood. I.e., it’s a much more intense, much more care-free feeling, and much more serious, of not being part of the world. Or to only just be tolerated by the world as it is. And you know by the age of five, like Duras quoting Queneau saying that a writer knows he is one by the age of seven. If he hasn’t written by the age of seven it’s not worth pushing it. It’s excessive, but true. It means you know from the first time you go into the courtyard, on the first day of primary school, that there are people with whom you won’t be friends, and that there’ll be a group of three or four in a corner, the introverts, maybe later, as for me, the homosexuals. In any case the cinephiles, obviously, and they won’t share their treasure, they know they belong to another version of the world, or of humanity.
Part I: The Cahiers period
SD: It’s not escaping. I’ve never escaped, I have no imagination. So people who escaped, teen-agers, kids – there are lots of ways of escaping: in fantasy, in science-fiction, in a better world: utopias. Political utopias, or religious. It never interested me much because I have no imagination. I always find the world as it is wonderful, and I find it wonderful that I was able to inhabit it, in the end, and without losing too many feathers since I more or less did what I wanted. But the idea was: we will have this world, but we will inhabit it at last. That’s, for me, the essence of my cinephilia: we will inhabit it at last, and it will be the world, never society. Only horrible things are to be expected from society. Well, that is something that may come back, because I think about it a lot at the moment, and I think the situation in France at the moment, this Vichy-like climate which is with us again, gives me a strange feeling. I suddenly have the feeling of living through what existed before I was born, really just before, the feeling that I, who was born in 1944, am closing the loop with 1940-44, i.e. with an already familiar feeling of French spinelessness, to which all of the French 20th century is more or less…
France, nothing to write home about, is not the greatest country of the century. Am I exaggerating now, after the facts? Have I ever had the feeling, as a child might, that I will never be a part of this world that wants to make me believe that Pierre Fresnais is the absolute ideal of masculinity, of heroism, of moral grandeur, with which a ten-year-old child might identify? For that’s what was going on, in the 1950s: Gabin, Fresnay or Fernandel, they were the ones who were offered as monsters of humanity, of complexity, of Frenchness, of great actors. Still, they were very reactionary, violently anti-youth: French society in the 50s, when you see the films – I don’t quite know about literature, but it can’t have been that much better – it stank. It stank for a long time, and there were things that had become unbearable: a certain entombment in French as a language, which carried on in the cinema of “French quality”, very literary, i.e. full of admiration for literature but not sufficiently admiring of cinema. A cinema that I didn’t like very much, because what’s more, I had my childhood interests.
I would have preferred, like any child, to identify with attractive people. So yes, attractive people existed, they were called Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda. They were all American. And they were attractive. Even today, even having lived a lot, when I see North-by-Northwest, I think that Gary Grant is still an ideal for the Ego. It’s a beautiful story, Gary Grant. You’d rather look like Gary Grant than Raimu, even if you think Raimu is a monument, or Michel Simon, who is a breath-taking actor.
As children, not yet cinephiles but children of cinema, we were presented with monsters with which to identify. I’m not talking about the "auteurs", I’m talking about the actors, it’s much more interesting. To say, at the age of ten, “Michel Simon is a great actor!” – are you nuts?! At the age of ten, you say “How I’d like to look like James Stewart! He is tall and thin like me, but he knows how to use his fists, and he can dance, so he’s better than me in every way.” Jimmy Stewart was American! I didn’t even see that he was of the people, that he was a very popular character. I loved these people, without, for all that, loving America. America is something else. I was fine with being in France.
It wasn’t that. I haven’t had a miserable childhood. I was poor, but loved, so protected. I’m trying to see the implicit landscape that was in me as a child. I think that children think a lot, they understand everything. The problem is, they don’t yet have the structures, and nobody listens to them.
And I’m trying to rebuild what must have happened then, when I wasn’t particularly cinephile, rather I’d read an incredible amount of books, as all children do at that age. And literature has always seemed to me greater than everything, even now. And I realize that somehow, it’s not possible to tremble, as a child, in front of Danielle Darrieux. Now, I like her a lot, Danielle Darrieux, because I’m old enough. But Danielle Darrieux had already terrified us when she did Marie-Octobre. And we could sense that she’d made film with the Germans, that there was something fishy, that they didn’t tell us.
And that poor Harry Baur, whom nobody talked about after the war, even though he was a hugely popular actor, who ended up in a camp. Harry Baur, when you see his films today – unfortunately he didn’t work with the great "auteurs" – he’s a deeply moving actor.
So I think that a child always knows everything, always. That’s why I liked psycho-analysis, later, because psycho-analysis supposes that you always know everything there is to know. The problem is that you don’t know how to say it, that’s something else.
So yes, there is a moment when you become a cinephile. We can go forward a bit, it was in 1959, you can put a date on it, it’s an important moment of my life. And maybe, at that moment, France really entered its economic boom. De Gaulle, whatever you may say, it’s not the Fourth Republic. Maybe the modern world is arriving. After all, the country’s getting richer, even if we don’t realize. All that probably played a part. And there was the New Wave. The New Wave appears to be a young movement, whereas in fact it’s made by people who are “oldies”: from a psychological standpoint, they’re not yé-yés. Nevertheless, they have this utterly simple idea: we’ll film our friends, and we’ll film Paris as it is. And filming Paris as it is, when your name is Godard in 1960, gives you Breathless: he saw that there were glass doors, and that a lot of things were white, and that you shouldn’t go for a dark picture just because art is dark. So obviously, everyone yelled about “the bad editing”, all of that. But what he was aiming for was realism. Cinema is a realistic art or it is nothing. It is an art destined for realism, and which will have the limits of realism.
So at some point, these people, from the generation just before mine, who wrote for the Cahiers, only yesterday they were writing there, they make their first film. They’re against all the idiots – who are those we have always identified– and they simply film their generation. For all that, they don’t become politicized. They don’t become what people hoped: not only good film-makers, but sublime political and social consciences. Those consciences exist, but they had no talent for cinema. They existed next door, at Positif. That’s how it happened: I was completely synchronous with it. It’s now that I wonder again about the cinema I imagined with the normal films I saw as a child, and with the image of France it carried, and I realize that I didn’t really know what to do with the image of France. I’m someone who talks softly, I hate people who shout. So I’ve spent my life avoiding them or trying to beat them in some way or another so that they wouldn’t make a din. I was very sensitive to that. That’s the fear of society. The world is a rumor, it’s a rustling, it’s a symphony. The music of the times also promised the world.
And the second absolute revelation is that yes, cinema is something extraordinary, it can film things, it can bear witness. The only trouble is that it bore witness between 1914-1918 – great testimony, unforgettable, the beginnings of cinema – and the Second World War. I’m afraid that it doesn’t bear witness to anything much after that, we’ll come back to that. As for the Second World War and its true metaphysical accident, which wasn’t the war itself, there have always been wars, but it’s the history of the camps. Seeing Night and Fog at the Lycée Voltaire ciné-club at the age of ten, is not falling under the charm of “So, Mr Cinema, you were a little cinephile and you jacked off to Ava Gardner!”. Yes, but afterwards! And not in the same world! More now, in fact, I find Ava Gardner more moving now than I did then. I chanced upon the capacity that cinema has to say, this happened. And it’s so monstrous, that in a way, we’re fine: “It can’t happen again”. I don’t think so anymore at all. I think it will happen again.
A lot of people have always thought so. Brecht’s phrase, we would recite it stupidly like a catechism, “the bitch that bore him” and bla-dee-bla, actually Brecht had seen nothing, he would have done better to shut up, it’s not the best example. And secondly we said it, we didn’t believe it. Just as when we cried “Fascism will not pass!” in the 60s and 70s, it didn’t pass anywhere, there wasn’t any. It only existed somewhat in China, where we thought that it was good. Today, it’s everywhere, but no-one is demonstrating anymore.
So I have the feeling, indeed, that an old map of the world is coming back, that maybe I miss cinema and that we will miss cinema because cinema promised a world. Whereas the world wasn’t complete. It was 70% American. But America was world-wide, America was… It was quite a hodge-podge, in terms of peoples and immigration. It was the cinema of Hollywood, the American cinema, that made us. For what other cinema could have made us, after the war, if not American cinema, which was at its peak of happiness, of the capacity for happiness, of grace. Of grace in that boorish culture that ended up producing Dallas fifteen years later.
But at the time, in the films of Douglas Sirk, America is beautiful to behold. When Fred Astaire dances, it’s beautiful. And they only danced over there, they didn’t dance in Europe. All this, we knew it with certainty. It was a promise of a world, even if the world was very Americanised.
For America has been the only country that, for a very long time, used the mythologies of other peoples, told stories that weren’t theirs – King Arthur, the French Revolution – with their ideological interests and their American bumpkin idiocy. But they did what nobody else did. No-one’s ever seen a French Western: it would be a cultural parody, instantly. So Americans, at the time, had – thankfully or not, I can’t decide – have always had an absolutely unique place in the world. The problem is that they don’t have the means to keep that promise anymore, or to keep the promise of the promise of the world. So much so that today they are, after all, quite despised, while all the time being totally dominant culturally. Which is a very, very bad… A very, very unhealthy situation.
But, at the time, in the 50s, Americans had all the reasons they needed to have finally decided to liberate the free world – they didn’t understand that much about Nazism –, they gave chocolate to everybody and poured out their films. The studio system was on its last legs, and still it produced magnificent films. Our great naivety was that we took terminal things, which were called Rio Bravo, North-by-Northwest or Anatomy of a Murder – these are formative films for me, founding films – we took these for the normal routine of cinema – of cinema, not of American cinema – when in fact it was the end.
RD: To come back to you, Serge Daney, you studied literature. How does one become a film critic? I suppose you weren’t happy with texts, with literature, you wanted something else…
SD: As for that… Well, to answer the most concrete question, let’s say: you don’t become a film critic. It can’t be a vocation, it’s barely a job. I’ve managed to live off it but without wanting to. Apart from the fact that it’s dead, according to me, the question’s not worth asking. When there really were film critics, the few who counted had a funny pathway: as if, I don’t know, they had forgotten to do something else and they found themselves enjoying their position as mediators, or transmitters of something. So there was something to transmit. Bazin had something to transmit, Jean-Louis Bory had something to transmit, or even, for a while, Michel Cournot. They weren’t people with sure taste, but they were borne by the times. And in film criticism, like all mediation, there is the love of cinema, but you can’t explain it. You see billions of films, and so you have a certain culture. There are those who keep it all to themselves, they exist, even among the most serious cinephiles. There are those who make films, who transfer. And there are those who end up like me, having to tell the story of someone who spent his life watching what others had done. So what the others had done at the time had to have some value and it must have been worth it to use it and produce little written objects – still, quite well written – or to belong to the turbulent but in the end unique existence of that thing called the Cahiers du Cinéma, still one of the greatest periodicals of the century, even though I’m in a good position to know that it’s also only a poor little magazine. There was something to transmit. For me, the choice wasn’t between literature and cinema; I think that the choice of cinema, was maybe, as you suggested earlier, a way still to live in society, still, because you can’t exist outside of it. That way, if you’re going to be part of society, you might as well be part of the base, and the base goes to the cinema.
Luckily, it so happens that cinema – I found out later – was born on two legs, a popular leg, basic, trivial, imaginary, and a cultivated leg, complicated, philosophical, elitist, that called for criticism. And so choosing cinema was, without realizing, from an intellectual, theoretical point of view, choosing a culture, a house with two doors: a door that everyone uses – and that you have to use, or else you understand nothing about cinema - and a hidden door, through which people, from the beginning, asked absolutely extravagant things of cinema. All you need to do is read the texts Abel Gance wrote as a young man. He was, after all, an intellectual.
Well, I didn’t realize it then, but I think it was the right choice. Because choosing literature, or another art, but for me it would have been literature, that was obvious – maybe I didn’t have the courage.
I was a man of communication, like many people from my generation, and I preferred communication in society – which is quite something for someone asocial – to isolation and maybe to the courage needed to produce a work by yourself. Producing a work in painting, literature, music, from 1945 onwards, it’s choosing either a chic deception, or a somewhat intransitive true solitude, which I’m not sure I wanted. That’s what I tell myself now. All this to say that it was wonderful and that I don’t regret having chosen cinema, since you could go in with everyone else or by yourself.
RD: I’m wondering if you haven’t defined the Cahiers du Cinéma as much as cinema by talking of elitism and populism, that bizarre mixture, let’s say elitism, the respect of writing, and populism, the American B movie aspect. Would you agree to say Chateaubriand plus Samuel Fuller equals New Wave, or equals Cahiers du Cinéma? How would you now define the Cahiers du Cinéma from that era?
SD: The Cahiers that I started reading, I started reading the Cahiers du Cinéma like a bible, in 1959. But I didn’t understand a thing that was going on. I’ve reconstituted the history well enough by reading the recent books that were written on the history of the Cahiers. It was much more complicated and interesting than what I imagined at the time. I wasn’t a child any more then, so I had less of an excuse, I was a teen-ager, and what didn’t interest me… I wasn’t curious. The fetish of the yellow Cahiers, those sorts of bold statements that the Cahiers would produce with phenomenal nerve, and at the time I didn’t realize, but you could sense that it was problematic. I started reading the Cahiers when they almost became right-wing, and even far right, because of Rohmer and the people he’d let into the editorial staff, that famous Mac-Mahonian school, which we’re talking about again a bit now. Who were people who were all on the far right politically, even though none of them had a political career. And none of them was a creator, either. But they gave us a few quite strong texts, that had a great impact on me, and part of which, I would still say, is correct.
For example, cinema is realist. Cinema is of a realist essence. Every time we realized that a film-maker we took to be a visionary, a creator of lyrical spaces etc, and we saw twenty years later that his films held fast, we realized that his films were an absolutely banal description of what he was faced with at the time but that only he saw. Today, when you see Fellini’s films, to take a film-maker who was often credited with a sort of imaginary baroque and a gut vision etc. It’s not true! And his films that were made that way are the bad ones. On the other hand, Ginger and Fred, magnificent film, slightly under-rated I would say, deeply moving film on media, and television… That’s Rome as it is today. It’s very inferior to what Berlusconi’s Italy is today. In realism. So I think that cinema is realist. The difference is that when I started reading the Cahiers, there were people who wrote in it and who weren’t Cahiers, fundamentally, but who occupied the space and said, for example: “Fellini films Giulietta Masina: she’s ugly! So…” So they had a racial conception of that, which was… Even I reacted, I thought, we’re not going to discredit someone just because they’re ugly. I thought that wasn’t nice. I’m talking of the precise moment when I started reading the Cahiers, 59-60. In 1961 it was already less – I can now reconstitute it because we know the whole story – for sure there was a putsch and some pushed for modernity, for avant-garde, for openness, for what was simmering in French culture, in that France of the 1960s which was also coming out of its post-war period. It was the first texts of Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Boulez, and Roland Barthes. Rivette said “I don’t understand a thing, but let’s go, we’ll talk about cinema to Boulez or Barthes!” They didn’t say anything interesting, because it wasn’t their thing, but they started making us more world-wise. I followed all of this passively. I had a relationship of love with that yellow thing that was the Cahiers, which I could feel they were already an institution, already a long story. I saw, with satisfaction, the old critics becoming good film-makers: two of them at least, well three with Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard, who were a hit, were successful. And two others had more problems, Rivette and Rohmer. I found that absolutely normal: it’s extraordinary how adolescence is not at all curious, whereas childhood is curious. It lasted until 1964, years which for me were absolutely stupefying, where I can’t remember what I thought or lived through at the time. I’ve got a black hole of a few years in my life. I know that my day started at the rue d’Ulm cinémathèque, at six. We would watch films one after the other, and since we didn’t have a penny to spare, we would go and eat sandwiches. We would miss the last metro and we would cross Paris talking about the films with three or four friends, alter egos. We lived as absolute zombies. And then the idea of going into the Cahiers made its way, but it came slowly, very slowly. I think now that I was so certain it was my magazine that I didn’t hurry.
RD: There’s a man who counted for a lot, who died in 58, with whom you’ve sometimes been compared, who was André Bazin. André Bazin was a Catholic. And by the way, someone should tell why so many Catholics got involved in cinema. But anyway, who is André Bazin, for you, today?
SD: It’s strange, because Bazin, one, I never knew him because he died in 1958. Two, it was first a name and there was a lot of respect and emotion surrounding him, and he was good-looking. Bazin’s texts, I read them very late, I didn’t read them as a young cinéphile, even though it was part of a sort of household cannon. I could feel he wasn’t like the others. Firstly, he was a bit older. There was also that thing with religion that was bothering us more than anything – yes, but he was a left-wing Catholic. And then strangely, I read Bazin – seriously, as you read to study or write – much later, in the 70s, when we’d become very politicized and we wanted to wring the neck of idealist conceptions of cinema, which at heart were Bazin’s. That was when we unearthed, in the Cahiers, after 68, a sort of very violent theoreticism, that we unearthed that other aspect of the Cahiers du Cinéma culture – which wasn’t mine either, which is the other fellow aspect, I would say – the Russians: Eisenstein, Vertov. It was Godard who forced us to watch Vertov, who for us was only a name in Sadoul’s history of cinema, and like everything Sadoul-ized, was slightly suspicious. And Eisenstein, yes, he was overwhelming, but apart from that, he didn’t speak to us that much.
So there are two traditions: that of Bazin, but problematic, because of the religion, which we weren’t at all ready to take up, and the heritage of the Russians. Bazin already had his tug-of-war with that. It was a good period, intellectually, now that I think of it, the debate about depth of field and continuity on the one hand, montage and heterogeneity on the other. When you see the smartest people of the century, like Godard, he didn’t reconcile the two. He’s always going to and fro. He’s a marvelous editor, and also a marvelous musician, because he’s a true artist. Now I can live with the idea that both exist. But still, we didn’t start with the montage aspect, because otherwise we would have ended up with semiology and advertising. We would have been dead. When we talk about the procedures of mastering, and the smart-alec aspect of things, and Eisenstein was more than a smart-alec, he was a genius at manipulation, i.e. he was only interested in manipulation. Eisenstein died relatively young and castrated, i.e. broken. “Eisensteinism”, if it had existed, and it did exist, in cinema, it gives masters, little masters. And there’s nothing worse in cinema than mastery. Cinema is something which obviously needs a bit of mastery, but not too much. In which sense it’s not the other arts, where I think, in other arts, maybe in painting, mastery has a meaning. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t say it of cinema. Which is to say just how much cinema is an art from below. It’s an art of life.
I hated theatre as soon as I went. I think I was taken to the Comédie Française, and I ended up on the top floor, or on the contrary on the front row at children matinees, all of a sudden seeing the starlets arriving from the back of the… and who howled, like mad-men, supposedly natural dialogue that was supposed to make us laugh, Molière’s comedies which already didn’t make us laugh that much anymore, I have a real panic, and the noise of the boards, the noise of people on the boards is a traumatic sound for me. Even today, I’m reconciled with the idea of theatre, the idea of theatre is deeply moving – and a good deal of cinema is endlessly paying homage to theatre – but the praxis of theatre, maybe because the theatres hadn’t been rebuilt for a new generation of French, who were slightly taller than the others, so it’s unbelievable how uncomfortable the theatre was. For me it was society, theatre was society. Well I didn’t see it that clearly, now I see it, theatre was society, cinema was the world. Well I belong to these people and I’m probably not the only one, maybe I was more conscious of it than others and I was very determined, I said no to theatre equals no to society.
Which by the way wasn’t smart because when society re-claimed me through… When society cornered me, in 68, of course I was part of the group that took the Odeon. I, who didn’t give a damn about the Odeon, I never went, these Italian-style theatres frightened me, and I even occupied the Odeon, so we even went through being trapped in a claustrophobic place. It’s not my fault, and in 68 it was an absolutely theatrical even, absolutely not filmic. But keeping 68 for later, so now let’s say in 58, cinema is my home because people don’t yell. The music yells, but we’re used to that, the music… The people don’t yell, you can murmur at the cinema, and there’s no recitation. It’s a popular art, an art from below.
RD: On popular myth level, cinema is America. So I suppose that you then went to America. How did your discovery of Hollywood happen, of the New World? When was it, and what for?
SD: It was in 1964. I was twenty. I left with someone who at the time was very close, who is called Louis Skorecki. We really left like neophytes, penniless ragged kids, on a charter that took twenty hours to cross the Atlantic, that nobody wanted to insure, and we ended up in Hollywood in the home of the Cahiers correspondent, Axel Madsen, who kindly hosted us – he wasn’t that rich either. And – now that I think of it, I find it quite moving – we had a list of people to see, with the idea that some of them had never been approached, that there was no interviews of them, and that that was a good way to bargain our way into the Cahiers, to go and publish in the Cahiers – that was the idea. I was very shy, my English was bad. Skorecki was more outgoing, he wanted a piece of the action. He was the motor, I was slightly zombie-like, I think. I was twenty. What is amazing is that we were carried by our certainties. Our certainties were that – which came from a very deep immaturity – we thought that what we had loved in American cinema in the last five, six years was part of an eternal essence. We didn’t see that Hitchcock, Hawks were old. So we’d say: “they’re going to make their last film, which is going to be as beautiful as Beethoven’s last quartets or the Titian’s last paintings.” We admired old people. It was a slightly strange period. And we were certain that they were, of course, enchanted to see us. So actually it was still a period when the studio system was still there. Each had its Foreign Press department where there’d be someone saying: “Listen, there are two completely weird people who’ve just arrived from the Cahiers du Cinéma.” It had made its way to Hollywood that there was an impossible group of French who had twisted tastes and who preferred Samuel Fuller to Robert Wise – which of course they were right to, but at the time it was scandalous. So the Americans did their job, they’d say, “No skin off our back”. They had the means to ask this or that film-maker if he would kindly receive two young French journalists for an hour. Everybody said yes. So that we ended up all proud, with our completely misplaced questions, completely intellectual, completely foundational, seeing Howard Hawks.
Hawks was the guy who had made Rio Bravo, it was the first film I’d written about and it’s stayed an essential film all my life. It’s a film I could talk about for hours because that film has accompanied me. There is a film that looked at me, which saw me as I was, I, as a teen-ager, and which knew a lot about me, much more than I thought I knew about it. So Howard Hawks was for me my favorite film-maker.
We had hierarchies, lists, we’d tear each other to shreds as soon as the lists didn’t match. We had all the defects of party members, even if we weren’t part of any party. So we ended up in front of Howard Hawks who completely recited his lesson, what he had always said in interviews with the French – in particular the one with Jacques Becker and Jacques Rivette, where their microphone didn’t work, so you see, they weren’t that much better than us, even ten years earlier. He said “I handle comedy scenes as drama, and drama scenes as comedy, that’s my secret”. And we’d say “Say it once more!”, whereas it had been published dozens of times. But it was Howard Hawks. And I even remember our little tape recorder, they didn’t have transistors yet, and it broke down half-way through. We could have cried. Hawks tried to repair it, he knocked himself, it didn’t work, we had to get a big machine from the studios so that the people from the Foreign Press could get their interview with Howard Hawks.
But we saw Buster Keaton. We didn’t think, “Keaton is old, he’s going to die, nobody wants him.” We said “Keaton is a genius! Genius? Genius! One of the greatest auteurs of cinema.” We went to see him on a scorching hot day in the Californian valley, and he was going to die two years later. He was having a ball of a time – he had a governess taking care of him – and didn’t understand the first thing about our questions. We’d say, “And solitude?”. “Ahhhh,” he’d answer. We’d ask him to tell us about a joke in a 1910 film with Fatty. He remembered everything. He remembered the joke. He could have drawn it. We were silly, but we had the strength of silliness: we really thought that those people were brilliant – and I still do. We had stupid questions but they were kind, because there was still a certain professionalism – a real one, not what it became afterwards – and they let us do our thing. Only Sternberg said “Tell me your questions on the phone, if they’re worthless, I’m not accepting you.” We ask some stupid questions on the phone: the theme of the woman, miserable things about Sternberg. Sternberg answers “Not that brilliant, but come over anyway.” He must have wanted to talk. We go to his place. He says “No tape recorder!” and gives us a whole lesson about how he’s brilliant, and only he is brilliant. We rush to the drugstore and write everything down from memory, and we publish it in the Cahiers, thinking “he treated us like dogs, let’s have our revenge.” That’s how we saw people who all died later. We were even the only ones to have seen McCarey, for example, and Leo McCarey, he’s not very famous, but he’s one of the greatest American film-makers, one of the greatest inventors in cinema.
And we went through all that absolutely like zombies. We could feel that we weren’t adequate, that it wasn’t quite right, but it worked. But that’s maybe the surprising aspect of that period, more than maybe our youth, it was that between Hollywood, which after all is sinking, well, which is beginning to have a fair amount of problems, because it’s the end of the B movie, television is going to really take power… There are people we went to see over there, like Samuel Fuller, who never made any films in America again, we find them again here, twenty years later, we become friends. So we didn’t see that, we didn’t understand it. But that’s what was happening, objectively. And when I think of that again, when I see us, when I imagine us, arriving on Sunset Boulevard, we didn’t have a car, we didn’t drive, in Los Angeles we took the bus, completely ridiculous, I tell myself that we were extraordinarily naïve.
RD: 68? The revolution, the confusion, the commotion let us say, starts at the Cinémathèque.
RD: The Langlois case. Where are you, at that point? Because before Cohn-Bendit, there was this curious file, Truffaut versus DeGaulle. How did you experience that?
SD: It’s Truffaut-DeGaulle, and rather it’s Godard against Malraux. For Godard had written a very beautiful letter to Malraux, whom he admired a lot, and whom he still admires a lot.
RD: After La Religieuse was banned?
SD: After Rivette’s La Religieuse was banned. The first time we got politicized was the story with Rivette’s La Religieuse. And we entered into a state of wrath, on top of it all it was a household product. We didn’t have much power, but all of a sudden the people from the Cahiers woke up, in 64 or 65. In the same way, the Langlois case was for us a trailer for 1968.I haven’t mentioned Langlois earlier because I think the myth is complete, I have nothing to add, other than I consider myself one of his children, if we remember that he was a pelican-mother-like figure, crazy, but it was unforgettable, of course, for those who lived it. Even if with hindsight we can say that in the Langlois case itself, there was a case, also, for the anti-Langlois side, but it was out of the question, considering the way he had been educated. And I don’t know, maybe also the climate, the fact that there were so many of Langlois’s children. The whole New Wave was there.
So we marched off to war, but as absolute neophytes. And I remember, because it was very funny, that in Courcelles Street, at a demonstration, we did a sit-in. It was the first one in my life. We sat down on the ground. We were very, very excited at the idea that we were doing what the others did, that we were capable of doing what the others did, the things you saw in films: demonstrations, shouting. I was incapable of shouting in a demonstration, it seemed to me the most vulgar thing, but I was incapable, due to shyness. And we realized that no, we could. So that was the Langlois case, that was our case, that was the cinephiles’ case.
And we did this sit-in and there was a guy who was always taking the stand, who monopolized everything and who visibly was good at organizing things: it was Cohn-Bendit. I remember we hated him for half-an-hour: “Who’s this guy? We don’t know him, he doesn’t come every night. He’s not part of such and such a group. He hasn’t seen Murnau’s films.” There was an element of that. “Who is this efficient red-head?” And pretty soon we understood. We also understood that it was a mass movement, that there were people who were very good at that, whereas we were rather very bad, but completely devoted. There, so the Langlois case, we didn’t at all worry about the actual contents of the case, it was settled: “No one touches Langlois.” Earlier I said that Godard, who had always admired Malraux, but had already attacked him about La Religieuse, by writing this beautiful letter that ends with “I write to you from an occupied country, France” He started again with the Langlois case. It was quite painful to him, because when you know Godard quite well, you realize he’s really a direct heir to the conception of Art that Malraux had. And so are all of us, I would say. All of us, me first. But without being very honest with him, because the De Gaulle minister figure got on our nerves, and he’d become quite erratic and cocaine-addicted, we didn’t know that yet, but we realized.
SD: That’s why we were able to pass from a sort of completely apolitical zombie-ness, which was often held against us – well, not against me, but the people who were at the Cahiers before me – to an absolutely demented politicization. So to answer your question a little late, about Bazin. Bazin was the man of that node.
Bazin was the man who wrote every day for Le Parisien Libéré, so really for the consumers of film, who wrote for Esprit and for the Cahiers, who didn’t stop. But who, at the same time, had absolutely no populism, no smutty sentiment, of those anti-elitist or anti-intellectual feelings that drape themselves in a so-called love of the people, just to finally set everyone against each other. That’s what I hated so much with the Autant-Laras, the Duviviers, the Clouzots, and finally it was, and it’s coming back, it’s coming back now with the Claude Berris, all of that, it’s coming back. It was a way of saying “We’re smart, we’ve got no illusions, we’re professionals. No-one pulls a quick one on us. We’ll shed a tear for poor childhood, trampled underfoot, the poor illusions, trampled underfoot. Yeah, that’s funny, that makes us laugh.” I’ve always hated that. I was never cynical. And I think, without taking too big a risk, it’s something deep in order to understand the longevity of the Cahiers, with the ups and downs, no cynicism! There was never any cynicism at the Cahiers. The cynics quickly went over somewhere else, or they found themselves a career.
RD: Why didn’t you take the step of directing? Like the others, at the Cahiers. Why didn’t you make a film?
SD: Like the others, let’s not be too hasty. There’s one absolutely extraordinary generation at the Cahiers, which weighed on us terribly heavily, which definitely inhibited us a lot – that’s to answer about “Ciné-son”, because that’s what “ciné-son” is, we are “ciné-sons”. That generation is absolutely exceptional in the history of cinema. Apart from a few German film-makers ten years later, and the people from the Popular Front in the thirties… The studio system didn’t allow that kind of group, so Hollywood: out. Maybe the Russians in the twenties… There must have been, five or six times in the history of cinema a pack, with all the flaws and the qualities of a pack – and a pack, mind you, not a clique, not a group, not a school. It so happened – which caused a bit of trouble – that just before us, there had been Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer. At least those four, plus the fellow travelers, who counted for a lot: Demy, Resnais, Rouch, Franju. Uncles: Melville… A lot of brilliant uncles, very marginal. That’s a lot. Those people stepped into action after having written, which was already exceptional. In general, it was frowned upon, and considered impossible that a good critic could become a good film-maker. But the New Wave proved that that wasn’t the case. Truffaut was a good film-maker from the outset, and he was a very good critic.
We came just after that, and I think that firstly, we were inhibited by that, secondly, in my generation, my generation of people from the Cahiers, it’s not true that everyone went on to directing. Or, I won’t give any names, with results that weren’t very convincing. No great film-makers in my generation. No, in my generation, one great film-maker, Philippe Garrel. Distant fellow traveler, but the Cahiers’ little brother, because we’re the ones who discovered him in 1968. To my mind the only great film-maker, who made works that someone can today study in a university, study as you would study a serious artistic work. A lot of good film-makers – I won’t give any names, they’re people who are too close to me – but nothing comparable to Godard, even to Truffaut, who is a film-maker, I think, who with time is taking on an importance which people didn’t grant him when he was alive. Those are the vagaries of history.
The second reason for which the people of my generation became film-makers less often, and less good film-makers, is that it befell us to re-politicize, i.e. to take up this rather thankless thing – which had already happened before in cinema, but at the time cinema was stronger – of the relations between cinema and politics, therefore of commitment. Can cinema be useful? This question is ridiculous again now, but at the time it was very strong, and we found ourselves quite helpless. Which is why we became interested in Eisenstein and people like that, we started reading Brecht and we discovered Benjamin. We were great late beginners. It took us a lot of energy, because we had to manage the magazine as you would manage a bulletin that gives regular news from the frontline. And even if all this is derisory, it’s not an energy that went towards cinema. Another reason, is that in the meantime, cinema had become somewhat obsolete. I now think that the people from the New Wave – not only in France, the new waves in the whole world, there were some everywhere, for about ten years, but it started in France – they certainly were, not the iconoclasts that we believed, but the first and last generation to have remained film critics and film historians, to watch films by others, and to, strangely, still have the ability to make them themselves. I think that after them, we didn’t have enough energy to maintain that balance and besides, the social demand was weaker.
That’s important. Television had already grown very strong, and actually it’s not so much television as advertising. Advertising became, in the seventies and eighties, the great aesthetic matrix for everything, that cut through all the forms and a fair share of cinema. As arrogant as it thought itself and sold itself, it was in fact applied television. We howled like madmen against that. The whole story of the Cahiers is “let’s not mix up advertising procedures in, I don’t know, Louis Malle or Bertolucci, to take examples that aren’t worthless, and cinema.”
The final reason, and here I speak personally, is that I’ve been on some film shoots, for little roles, or for a report, but it’s a type of energy I don’t have at all. That’s why I’d say that I protested a little against the word “image”, at the beginning. Because if, in the scenario in which you try and fit people, my passion had been images, nobody would understand that I didn’t want to make any. Well my passion is, I don’t know, also speaking, writing a little, it’s the fact that in cinema there’s something to listen to and to watch at the same time. It’s lots of impure things in relation to the idea of image, of pure image, but the idea of pure image comes from advertising. Advertising has created, especially in young people, the idea that there’s a sphere, a realm, called that of the images, that it’s a question of technique, of creativity – what a horrible word – of invention, of money, and that there are people who pay for that. It’s a worthy conception; in fact, it exists throughout the history of the West: there are images that are sold and sold into prostitution, and there are some sublime ones. Only there’s not only that in cinema, painting or the other arts, there has also been something else. There are film-makers who make images that don’t sell anything. When you see a film by Rivette, maybe not the last one, which is a bit… But let’s say the Rivette films no-one has seen. Rivette, it’s beyond his control, he’s a guy who lives outside of consumerism, he lives as a sort of peripheral saint. He’s a guy who observes, with an intense curiosity, the life of his contemporaries. He’s not angry at all. He’s a pure cinéphile, what I said at the beginning, “we’ll never be part of…”, Rivette is the purest example. When you see Le Pont du Nord, to take one of Rivette’s most beautiful films, there isn’t a single shot in the film that could sell anything: that could sell the actress who plays in it, the quality of the sun. Nothing, because it’s used for something else, it’s used for building what: for building time. I was very, very liberated, very, very personally liberated, the day I realized that what I had expected from cinema, what I had loved in cinema, and what cinema had given, was the invention of time, starting with mine. Inventing a time in which I might live, but which is also somebody else’s time, and not the image, very much. In fact, I’m not very good with images. For example, the thing I see last in a film is the Director of Photography. For me, there are people who say “Le Rayon Vert, it’s wonderful, but what’s he doing with 16mm, Rohmer’s crazy, it’s not professional!” I want to slap them. I tell them, “Go back home. Cinema isn’t that, cinema is time. If you’re not sensitive to the fact that Rohmer invents times that only he invents…” Obviously, he also does it with images, and he’s got a rather good imaginary. I have nothing to say! All right. But it took me thirty years to understand that. So the simplest things in life are the ones you take longest to understand. The film-makers who are pure image-makers, pure imagists – there are some great ones – bore me to tears, everything that is decorative in cinema bores me to tears.
All of this to say, there’s a type of energy that’s very linked to speech, I speak a lot, to writing, I like to write quite quickly, which for me became a reality, for example, quite strangely because I’d never thought about it, to anticipate on the Libé chapter, in journalism. To write quickly, under the impulse of images and sounds, but together, images and sounds together. I’ve always liked that, it makes me make time, life time, often survival time. It’s got little to do with procedures of how to make a professional image. So I leave that to television, and you can see what it does with it. If there’s no money it doesn’t make it. So it’s an image worth… I watch music videos a lot on TV, it gives me a sociological information. I switch off the music, that doesn’t interest me, but I look at the bodies a lot, the eroticism – that’s all there is. On television, it’s only in music videos that there’s any eroticism, otherwise, it’s compulsory ugliness. We can wonder why by the way. But I say, all right, now I’m looking at visuals, I’m looking at images. We’ll come back to it, all this to say that I don’t have the patience you need to make an image, to make images you need an angelic patience. When you’re on a shoot, there are people, there’s a little man who sometimes talks to no-one and looks as if he’s drowning, it’s the director. He has the time to give birth to an image. With the others, with the others’ work, with their presence, with the vagaries etc. When I went on a shoot, to write a report for the paper, I wasn’t a good observer, because I said that on a shoot you don’t see a thing, or only anecdotal stuff, or funny stuff, but on such and such a technician, or such and such an actor, but which tell you nothing about what the film will look like later. And I was bored. It was a chore for me, to go on a shoot. I was bored, because I thought that firstly, you shouldn’t bother people who are working, secondly, you see nothing, thirdly, all the papers, all the reports on the film shoot are the same, it’s not going well. If something happens, we don’t see it. It’s between the actor, the director, it’s a tiny thing and that’s what you go and see. I’m used to seeing it when it’s done. It doesn’t bother me to see the fait accompli, I can see it quite well. When it’s finished, when it’s up to me. I don’t like coming in on top. Whereas, according to me, to make films, you have to like it. You have to like that wasted time on the film set, you have to like that thing that looks enormous but is actually, tiny, or let’s shoot lots of scenes and then scrap them when editing, because… Even though we went to such pains. It doesn’t correspond to me. Yes, sometimes I’ve told myself, but don’t you have the energy, everyone’s making films, why not you?
But it’s not my thing, my thing is to watch the images that others have made and say “There, there’s a true time, there it doesn’t work”, because I’m a good topographer. It’s like tennis, which I like a lot, I write about it. I can see straight away what’s going on on a court. What I mean to say is that in a film, I see what’s going on straight away. In a Lang film, I straight away see the empty space, behind, which calls on the shot. I see it since I was small, that space, I was born like that, but I’m not capable of making it. To make it, that space, you need time, an extraordinary patience: which Lang had.
And something else, is that my hatred of anything social turns against me. To make films, is to deal with things social. It’s to deal with others. And I’m in a situation that’s absolutely… A bit hypocritical. One of the reasons, but I’ve known it very early, for which I loved cinema, was that it also protected me from, let us say, modern art, well modern art in the sense that you end up four of you in a chapel, and which still maintained for me a connection with my contemporaries. And for that, I found wonderful that cinema, which might be an art, not sure, and that dealt with money, with narcissism, with betrayal, with time, delays, shooting. All those basic things of humankind, all those basic things of society. It’s not because I’m not very good with society that I haven’t read Flaubert or I haven’t read Balzac. I know that great films are based on stories of sex, not necessarily, but also, incredible love stories, and that it shook up all the rest, and thank god that it came through. And I was saying, cinema, you need a crazy energy, you need to be young. It’s an art for young people. It’s a young art and it’s an art for young people, you need lots and lots of physical energy. You can’t doze off. There are things that you don’t do, past a certain age. You film.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Journey of a Cine-Son - Part 1 (with transcript)
As mentioned a few days ago, here's the translated transcript of the video interview with Serge Daney which has just been published on Vimeo. Prologue and Part 1 (The Cahiers Period) only. I'll publich the rest of the transcript later.
Posted by LK at 9:51 am