Saturday, June 15, 2019

Back to the Future

This text was written as the concluding chapter of the book The Wage of the Channel Hopper published in 1988. The book is a collection of daily columns Daney wrote between September and December 1987 in the newspaper Libération.
Back to the Future 
When Nanni Moretti gave his last film the title La Messe est Finie (The Mass is Ended), he did not realise how apt his words would be. Since when has a film critic been like a priest whom people go to see from time to time so that he may baptise, with a little help from his pen, increasingly inferior audio-visual products as "films"? Since when has there no longer been either mass or sermon? Since when has the audience - finally grown up - only gone by the dictates of its own mind? And since when has the Cannes “Fete” become a cathodic butchery? Be that as it may, now, in 1987, faced with the “cinema crisis” (which is primarily a crisis of the film theatre), the small fry amongst the “professionals of the profession” have begun to lose hope, a sense of direction. I have, for the first time, started asking myself the most hackneyed question: what does it mean today to be a film critic? 
I used to like television. I liked it all the more because to me it did not count. I, already very much a cinephile, used to watch it late at night, and, being a trifle perverse, I had immediately applied to it the inadequate criteria of cinema. Thus, to me television was, even by absurdity, an extension of emotions and habits acquired at the cinematheque in the sixties. I came from a journal – Cahiers du Cinema – that had always put cinema on a pedestal and considered the real “impossible”. It was at Cahiers, working alongside Jean Douchet, that I learned to look closely at films, in “close-up”, as Eisenstein used to say, as if my head were the ultimate projection room. Which is why I had always been suspicious of those to whom nothing remained of a film the moment it passed from the large to the small screen. 
However, as time went by, it became clear that “love for cinema” could mean a number of different things. Those who perhaps had greater affection for the film theatre than for the film they watched, were right now to talk of nostalgia and treason. But others – including myself – had undoubtedly preferred the film to the theatre. The former loved the Saturday evening social ritual, while the latter preferred to invent all kinds of personal rites for themselves in the dark anonymity of the nonstop cinema. The former were still attached to the theatre and its rituals, while the latter were already very much involved in the audio-visual flow of images. The former would never get over their lost object – say Casablanca or Les Enfants du Paradis – while the latter would follow their object to the end of the world, and even beyond, up to television. 
Which is why comparisons, whether exalted or Manichean, between cinema and television did not, to my mind, yield anything worthwhile. It prevented thought on what had transmitted from cinema to TV. So I concocted a pro domo theory for myself, a theory of cine-TV incest. By and large, it was enough to note that all the filmmakers who have to some extent or another revolutionised the way films are made seemed to reason more in terms of a “history of communications” than in relation to a hypothetical “history of cinema”. The real impact of filmmakers such as Vertov, Rossellini, Bresson, Tati, Welles, Godard or Straub (among others) rose from their unstable position between the poetic requirements of cinema and the progress of mass mediatisation of the world. Most of them, moreover, did not despise television (Rossellini even opted for it with much ado at the end of the sixties), and they might even have worked for television had it not rushed into making sickly-sweet melodramas or educational films in keeping with the Autant-Laras or the Delannoys of the fifties. The exchange of good and bad was total, and the circle complete. 
It was after these ruminations that I started, from September 15, 1987, to watch television regularly. To observe, to describe, not to giggle – this was the only rule I set, the other being to write every day. A hundred days later, the outlook seemed clearer, even simplified. Like a return to common sense after fruitless complications. Like the terra firma of first principles. 
It appeared to me, first and foremost, that all that was hateful on TV had one thing in common. Those dispensing “culture” and talk show hosts trying to be funny all behaved in the same ultra-sweet fashion, pitying us for having to fall back upon them to fill the tragic gaps in our supposedly barren lives. They made us feel that without them we would amount to nothing. They whispered to us that real life was not “elsewhere”, that there was nothing more lovable or loving than a cosy corner in a well-lit studio. They tried to pass off the built-in monopoly television has on the solitude of its viewers as magnanimity, as the greatness of their soul. My first (mental) cry of revolt was: “TV compensates nothing”. 
Thereafter, I realised that my old theory about cine-TV incest (another way of describing the adventure of “modern cinema”, from Rossellini to Godard) was no longer true. The art of cinema had undoubtedly consisted of answering in advance questions that no one knew how to ask. But in 1987 there was no longer any reason to hesitate. At best, television - and adult TV - would perhaps again take up these questions. Cinema, however, had no choice but to ask new questions. It was no longer the trailer announcing the all-powerful myth of effective and happy communication. It was what remained of communication, before or after it had passed. 
From that moment, it became possible not to reproach television for not giving what it did not have. Like he always does, Godard, full of punch after the launch of Keep Your Right Up, made two or three provocative and pertinent remarks full of common sense. That culture is TV because culture is transmitted and TV can only transmit. That cinema had transmitted itself, which is why it sometimes became an art. But then it became equally possible to criticise television every time it moved away from its function, which could be best described as “ecological”. Television would accompany our lives without replacing them; it would give us “news” about the world, it would be the least polluting of all landscapes. 
Had I zapped only to discover these primary truths? Ought I to get used to an effortless dissociation of cinema from television? Had there been a new deal, where each actor could take his pickings afresh? It was enough to listen to the “noise” made about recent films to realise that an era was truly coming to a close. I, who had become used to fighting Straub's cause, was not surprised to find myself “defending” the latest Fellini films. Not that they were being criticised, but because they had incited the same worn and indifferent reactions in their admirers and detractors. 
Definitely in the minority, cinema did not any longer have to be “auteur” based since the auteur was one who responded personally to constraints and orders. This was untraceable in present-day cinema: whoever made a film, small or big, French or American, traditional or daring, would now do so at a personal level. 
Defunct as an industry, cinema will once more become an artisanal art, poor or affluent, and will talk of everything that remains in shot(s) once the compressing rollers of mediated communication have gone by. Any resistance? 
I thus de-zapped on an optimistic note. Things actually seemed simple and the physical separation of cinema and television could at last be envisaged. TV was a matter of ecology because it spoke to the responsible citizen in us, that it to say, to the adult. It is the adult whose role it is to say "no" to the permanent risk of being puerile. But cinema had derived its strength and longevity (one century!) from its childlike aspect - an aspect it could lose, but not do without (an "adult audience" is utopia). If “to give what we do not have” is love, and if television is fuelled by love (that is to say, in Lacan's words, by "miam-miam"), it is clear that cinema is powered by desire. If television is a vehicle of culture, cinema transmits experience. If TV must have its own de-ontology, the tracking shots of cinema have been “moral” questions. If TV programming can reveal talent, nothing will ever release cinema from the desire to produce. Finally, if TV is our prose (and we will never talk well enough), cinema no longer stands a chance except as poetry.

Originally published in Le Salaire du zappeur, Ramsey, 1988. Published in English in the anthology Cinema and Television: Fifty years of Reflection in France, edited by Jacques Kermabon and Kumar Shahani, Samgam Books, 1991. With minor edits by Steve Erickson and me.

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