Monday, March 05, 2007

Review of Postcards from the cinema

I’ve just finished Postcards from the cinema. It really is a strange book, bringing the same mixed feelings I had when reading it in French 13 years ago. Daney talks intimately of his life as the absolute cinephile but almost does not do the one thing which made him famous: film and image criticism.

First, let’s celebrate: this is the first book by Serge Daney published in English. A small event in the film world. Better late than never you might say: Serge Daney died 15 years ago, and although he is still influential in France where the publication of his complete works has yet to be finished, elsewhere he is more talked about than read. So, credit where credit is due: a big thank you to Paul Grant (the translator whose interview was published on this blog in December) and Berg Publishers for this effort.

But it is a strange cunning of history that the first book by Daney that English-speakers will discover is the posthumously published auto-biography of a film critic they know little of and whose writings are mostly unavailable. Probably a sign that the proliferation of quotes and mentions have generated a stronger desire for finding out who this mysterious French film critic is than for the slow assessment of his work. But that still leaves the English-speaking cinephile with a question: Is this book so good that it’s worth reading even though you don’t know Daney? How interesting can be the life of someone who spent his time watching movies? Or, to say it differently, can you really be someone if you are a cinephile?

For Daney, the answer is yes of course. And what a life that was! For the rest of us, aspiring cinephiles, it sets the bar rather high. Have we had shocks as strong as his reading of Rivette’s article on the tracking shot in Kapo – a movie he didn’t even see? Have we explored what makes us watch so many movies as deeply as he has when realising he was searching for his father whose voice may be registered on a reel somewhere? Are we ready to claim that we were born and we will die with the only truly radical art: modern cinema? To see how much one can live through cinema, the book is absolutely fascinating. For Daney, cinema (and other images such as postcards or maps) determined everything: how he saw himself in the world, what politics he would adopt, which jobs he would get, where he would travel… And everything in his life seems to retrospectively make perfect sense: from his first years as a schoolboy to his travels or his tenure at Cahiers or Libération. You can definitely sense that the book was compiled together (Daney only wrote the first chapter, the rest is an interview partly amended by him) with a sense that these were his last words

My mixed feelings come from parts of the book which make me feel uncomfortable (the egotism of the one who knows he will die soon and the arrogance of the intellectual) and from my sense that this book doesn’t quite show Daney at his best. For all the fascination generated by this unique text, I find his short pieces of film or television criticism far better. There’s little trace here of the humour and the creativity of some of his writing. And some of the comments are disapointingly ordinary in comparison to the visionary aphorisms he used about the evolution of the image in the latter part of his career.

Nevertheless, the translation of any work by Daney is worth celebrating. Enjoy the book, test how true a cinephile your are, discover Daney and know that he is even better than that. So keep asking for more translations!

Note: Steve Erickson – the original promoter of Daney on the internet – will do a proper review of Postcards from the cinema in the Winter 2007 edition of Cineaste.

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