Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Serge Daney in 2019

Annual round-up of the blog (it was its 15th year of existence).

The highlights were nine new translations, including a number of "forgotten" texts (i.e. which didn't feature in Daney's published books including the edition of his "complete" writings).

On the maintenance side, this blog had to republish the translations that were hosted on Steve Erickson's website. Steve was the first person to make Daney available in English online but his website disappeared abruptly after his internet provider shut it down - a reminder of the ephemeral nature of content on the internet. 

Fear not. I and a small contingent of online volunteers have a few more translations pencilled in for 2020. 

So here's to 2020. Happy new year. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019


Published in Libération on May 3rd, 1982, next to the review of Douglas Sirk's Imitations of Life

The Two-Headed Star

Despite the 2015 publication of his "complete" writings, new forgotten texts by Serge Daney keep emerging. This one from a 1988 special edition of Le Nouvel Observateur on "The new language of love". Thank you to Pierre Eugène and Gaspard Nectoux for unearthing it.

The Two-Headed Star  
Who remembers how seriously we talked about the crisis of the couple in the early ‘60s? Couples have been around forever but we seemed to discover their existence. Better (or worse): the couple became the favourite subject of modern filmmakers, those who, after the war, challenged the traditional ways of telling stories and of filming. This is how a word as hideous as “incommunicability” gained success, and how scenes of domestic quarrels moved from comedy to being at the very core of modern cinema. There no irony whatsoever to this: from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together along with Godard’s Contempt, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore or Rivette’s Mad Love, many great films focused on exploring this new character: the couple. A novel object, a rough two-headed star, a war à deux.  
Until then, filmmakers were more interested in how, after the happy ending, a man and a woman would begin to live happily ever after and have many children, off the camera screen. The interest wasn’t the couple but how it was formed. How men conquer women (the sex wars) or how men get castrated by beings destined to a sort of sacred prostitution: the stars. Couples were merely improbable conventions and the details of their private life not deemed worthy of cinema. It required the war – the real one – so that, over the ruins of collective myths (superman, new man) and in the ruins of bombed cities (in Europe therefore), something like an interest for the human being, in the shape of a couple, came to light. This interest had a name, the one who got a jump on everybody else and cleared the way for others: Roberto Rossellini. 
In the mid ‘50s, instead of simply managing his image as a neorealist, Rossellini pulls off a coup. He steals a star from Hollywood, makes her his wife and model, and with her tells the first adventures of the modern couple. Ingrid Bergman is at the centre of a few great films, from Journey to Italy to Stromboli, via Europe ‘51 and the curious Joan of Arc at the Stake. In order to film her, Rossellini is forced to dynamite traditional cinema. He is like a painter who, faced with a new object, must start again from zero. Story, duration, character evolution, the whole and the detail, dead times and high points, etc. The couple – this modern but ungrateful object – forces to rethink cinema. Even Lelouch, ten years later, will understand – albeit confusedly – that A Man and a Woman is a complex affair. 
Ingrid Bergman, Monica Vitti and Anna Karina 
At what point did the crisis of the couple ceased re-inventing cinema? In the end, the answer is simple: when the filmmakers (in the ‘70s) stopped being madly in love with their actresses. The story between Rossellini and Bergman was all over the tabloid press before ending badly, but when we see Joan of Arc at the Stake, we know that it was a real story. In the same way, Antonioni doesn’t make the same films with or without Monica Vitti (L’Avventura, La Notte). The same goes for Godard after Anna Karina (Vivre sa vie, Bande à part) who will work on a true theory of the Other, as voluntarist as unavoidable. Except that this Other will regularly not be at the place Godard allocates for him. This seat that we refuse to everybody because it’s already taken.  The same again for Rossellini: exasperated by the navel-gazing of cinema, he will work toward the dream of a didactic television where everything is done for an Other that we no longer need to know: the TV audience. 
There is of course a more trivial way to discuss all this, with sociology. Post-war European countries went through waves of economic growth. The middle-classes emerged as cultural agents, consumers, actors and desiring-machines. This didn’t happen without problems. As soon as it was born, the New Wave was accused of a major crime: being petit-bourgeois. Admittedly, but the New Wave had talent and its enemies were rancid. And when 1968 arrives, this Wave has already trailed the way that leads naturally to the avatars of the liberation. Liberation of oneself and of the old crisis of the couple, the almost always heterosexual, sad and so depressingly normal couple. We no longer talk about incommunicability and the word “desire” takes over. 
Cinema didn’t benefit from 1968, not in an artistic way. This is logical since 1968 was all about theatre (and this very French genre: political theatre). But subsequently, in the aftermath of the events, the language of love and the way to make films with it began to change. Mainly because of what we used to call – hypocritically – the specific movements. As soon as the homosexuals and women began to claim their autonomy, the old couple stories imploded. The Other was clearly present, but in unexpected and often marginal ways. The Other could be another man, a child, an animal or an object. Scenes of domestic quarrels appeared obsolete; we focused on the experience of limits. An experience à deux, far from society’s rules of good conduct, an experience where we no longer know who goes along with whom, and toward which abyss. 
Good filmmakers of that time (mid ‘70s) are called Pasolini, Fassbinder, Oshima, Ferreri, Wenders. They are more like logicians, hard ironists. They are not French. They don’t observe couples but show how the couple is everywhere. In Theorem, Pasolini sends an angel to seduce one by one all the members of a bourgeois family. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder shows that things work out neither better nor worse between an old German lady and her young Moroccan lover than with a so-called ordinary couple. In Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, a woman begins by following a man in his sexual cravings before the man, exhausted, ends up following the woman in her quest for the absolute. But sex is only a manifestation of desire. It sometimes hinders it: in Ferreri’s The Last Woman, Depardieu eventually cuts it off. It sometimes is completely or partially sublimed: in Alice in the Cities, a floating hippie and a little girl form an alliance, and therefore a couple. 
The moralising French cinema 
This is why it’s not surprising that some of the most beautiful films of that time were made by Luis Buñuel. From Belle du jour to That Obscure Object of Desire, this man who never compromised with the strength of desire and the bizarre logic of its metamorphoses was like a fish in the ocean. This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that French filmmakers are less inventive, less adventurous that the foreign ones named above. French cinema, even at its best, is made by moralists. This means it is more interested in the point of view than in the things viewed. It has never ceased – through an incredible flow of words and speeches – to mark out the paths for adventures that it doesn’t necessarily wants to live. Putting aside Vecchiali (Women Women), French cinema in the ‘70s tries – with real violence – to draw out the morality of what happened elsewhere. In other words, there are no French filmmaker that compare to Fassbinder in this decade. 
From the ‘80s, nothing is obvious anymore. Until then, each great mutation of the language of love forced the filmmakers to work at the mutation of their tool – the cinematographic language – even if it meant breaking taboos. Rossellini broke the Hollywood convention of useful time and freed up the notion of dead times. Godard made a joke of the dogma of continuity. Others, later, integrated nakedness with representation. And each time, there were people that felt shocked. And each time, the gap grew wider between cinema and its audience. The liberated audience accepted the worst of audacities while the old audience, the captive audience, chose television without regrets since it offered the continuation of the old cinema, academic and conventional. As a result, cinema lost more and more of its power to shock. Society and the language of love keep evolving but cinema is ever less likely to be used as their echo chamber or the place of controversy. In other words, cinema becomes a minority in a media-based world. 
Cinema in the age of “personalised communication” 
The proof? After the shocks of the great films of the ‘70s (we remember the scandal that accompanied the 1973 Cannes festival selection of The Mother and the Whore and The Big Feast!), came the time for appraisals. It was time to see whether and how behaviours had changed, as well as their representation, to see how a whole generation had lived alongside the idea of liberation, and to see what the actors of that generation looked like. In France, things were simple. A whole generation of the so called “café-théâtre” (people like Coluche, Lavanant, Jugnot, Blanc, Dewaere, Balasko, etc) was the natural heir of post-1968. The problem is that when cinema took interest in them, there were no filmmakers with as much talent as them. A serious disjunction between the talent of the actors and the mediocrity of filmmakers. And if films like Viens chez moi, j’habite chez une copine made a mark, it wasn’t as an adventure with and in cinema, but as a testimony in the capacity of actors to act as the mirror of their time (but not to reveal it). 
We must get used to it. The history of cinema is like a long forward tracking shot. At the start, there are crowds, people and wars. Then we make out smaller units, couples, normal or disparate. Eventually, we see the individual appearing in his singularity, alone and with all his connections. Individualism is becoming a theme in France. Rather late. The individual that consumes the social but also does not cease to snatch spans of autonomy from it. The Other was hell, then it was a challenge: now it has become – as Gilles Lipovestky says – a nice “gag”. Rich countries digest their liberations and turn away more and more from others (poor countries or poor people in their country). A county like Italy which had the chance of having a real South within its borders could tell for a long time the comedy of social classes and invent the actors it needed to that end. One day, not so long ago, Italy found itself rich, without cinema, Berlusconised, and nevertheless very much alive. No one knows what cinema (the art of the obscure theatre and of the anonymous audience) will/would look like in the age of personalised communication
As for the language of love, it has changed. Filmmakers initially observed that communication is rare and difficult, then they understood that it is easy and regular, and they realised there is no reason to be screaming for joy. In the meantime, television and the media had conquered the monopoly of social communication, leaving to cinema the used-up pathos of the couple, the dreams of universal and mystical communication, and the ironic realisation of the disappointment that is successful communication. In France, someone had understood everything very early: Tati. Tati taught us to laugh at something that is functioning. But Tati wasn’t interested at all in the languages of love. His Hulot-hero is a man full of goodwill and whims but already without desire. 
In the ‘80s, a filmmaker eventually obtains a lot of success: Rohmer. Why? Because he is quintessentially the filmmaker that closes the loop between tradition and modernity. He takes contemporary characters and traps them. Without realising, he had us move from the theme of the liberated woman to the theme of the free woman, from post-feminism to pre-feminism. As a moralist, Rohmer obviously requires his guinea pigs-actors to work at their own image. Otherwise, where would be the pleasure in being a moralist? Here is a man interested in individuals but who keeps whispering to them that they need a good master, a god, an auteur or a green ray. 
We remember that The Green Ray was released simultaneously on television and in cinemas, and that it didn’t suffer from this competition. This is a precious clue. To follow the avatars of the new language of love at the age of declared individualism, one should perhaps turn toward the small screen. And what can we see on it? Pascale Breugnot’s programmes for instance which staged all kinds of volunteers playing all kinds of psychological games, from Psy-show to Sexy-folies and Moi je. The boundary between private and public life that Rossellini had begun to destabilise is now floating. Representation can no longer be scandalous and the Minitel – invented and successful in France – clearly shows that the languages of love keep evolving, off images. 
This is why cinema looks so weakened. To continue to understand current times, it must hark back on the ancient mode of the comedy, take up Tati’s idea, explore it. Next to the French marivaudage (Rohmer) tinged with ever more inoffensive social games (from Deville to Chatillez), there are isolated satirical auteurs like Woody Allen or Nanni Moretti. In Europe Moretti is alone in knowing how to tell us that we are prodigiously individual, conscious of our subconscious, available without passion, very humorous but strangely alone. Long ago, when we were in love, we were courageous, headstrong, today, we are merely funny. Like in television sit-coms or in the games at the Club Med. 
There will always be angels 
All this lacks grandeur? Quite. This is perhaps why cinema – who wants nothing less than be like television – seems to hark back, aesthetically, on the old themes of passion and love. On one side, the Minitel and the sex chatlines, on the other aesthetically beautiful films to dream à deux. There is a lot of mushiness in this return of the couple-in-love-despite-society-hardships. There is some Lelouch in Beinex, and even some Carné-Prévert in Wenders-Handke. The logic of the desire is long gone and sex is no longer a moment of truth. The individual is searching for partners that are no threat to his ego. He finds them in heaven, in the shape of guardian angels in “the sky above Berlin” (Wenders). This angelism may be a path to allow whatever art is left in cinema to survive for a time the amusing hell of the televised others
Published in Documents Observateur, n° 2, juillet 1988.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Film criticism - Before / After

Stoffel Debuysere from Diagonal Thoughts has unearthed and translated a little known text by Daney written in the review Cinémarabe in 1978. It's all about the evolution of the film critic after the arrival of television and the transformation of cinema. I don't remember coming across that text before. Great find.

Before / After 
Cinémarabe, issue 7/8, Jan-Apr 1978 


Thursday, December 05, 2019

The Colour of Pomegranates

There is a whole story to be written about Serge Daney and Soviet cinema. He was proud that critics of his generations helped with the recognition of filmmakers like Boris Barnet, spent a lot of time writing on Soviet filmmakers during the Cold War and even "discovered" Artavazd Peleshian. Sergei Parajanov's The Colours of Pomegranates must have meant something special for Daney. He put a picture from the film on the front cover of his second book, Ciné-journal. The back cover has a picture of Daney's hands, assembling the page with his review of the film for Libération.

The Colour of Pomegranates*  
It’s a shame that Parajanov is now an “ex-filmmaker”. He should have been allowed to continue. By whom? You guessed it. All we have left is the discovery, thirteen years later, of this dazzling meteorite: The Colour of Pomegranates.  
In 1924, when he is born of Armenian parents in Tbilisi (Georgia), his name is Sarkis Paradjaniants. In 1965, known as Sergei Parajanov, he becomes famous with a single film: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. On December 17th, 1973, when he is arrested by the Soviet authorities, he becomes the “Parajanov case”. Incarcerated in a hard-labour camp (in Dnipropetrovsk), we know he is vulnerable, sick, at risk of blindness, some say he has committed suicide, we believe him to be dead. In the Western world, “Parajanov committees” are formed. At the turn of the 80s, we learn that he has been freed. Parajanov is, for the authorities of his country, an ex-filmmaker, a status that condemns him to the near-mendicity of a “social parasite”. Little by little, Parajanov has become nobody. One of the most talented Soviet filmmaker of his generation (the generation of Tarkovsky and Iosseliani) is a “noble cause” over here and an “ex-filmmaker” over there. Oblivion threatens. We forget that he is also a filmmaker, one of the most complete auteur (painter, poet, musician, director) of his films.  
It's a good thing therefore that thirteen years later, Cosmos Films release Parajanov’s other film, The Colour of Pomegranates, his second and last full-length feature. Not such a long feature by the way since the version shown in Paris is not the one edited in the USSR in 1969 (and quickly removed from the screens) but the one re-edited in 1971 by the witness-of-all-trade of Soviet cinema: Sergei Yutkevich. Result: cut down by 20 minutes.  
Parajanov’s crimes? Innumerable: “trafficking of icons and art objects”, “currency trafficking”, “homosexuality”, “spreading venereal diseases”, “incitement to suicide”. I’m not making this up. Parajanov likes beautiful things, art works, and is an expert: a crime. He knows how to place them in front of the camera in such a way that this beauty becomes dazzling: a crime. Parajanov is the least Russian filmmakers: he has worked for a long time in Kiev on Ukrainian-language films and The Colours of Pomegranates is at a historical crossing between Georgia and Armenia: a crime. His film craft has nothing to do with the folkloric productions from the Soviet provinces designed for fairs and festivals. His films superbly ignore (to say the least) everything else and the capital city of this everything else: Moscow and the great Russian pompous art: a crime. The auteur of The Colour of Pomegranates is clearly Paradjaniants.  
The Colour of Pomegranates is one of these increasingly rare films that are unlike anything else. Parajanov is one of these even rarer filmmakers who act as if no one had ever filmed before them. Hence this fortunate impression of “first time” that is a true sign of great film-making.  Gutsy and precious. This is why the first thing not to do with The Colour of Pomegranates is to offer a user guide. We should let it unfold, let us be affected and drop our desire to understand everything instantly, discourage a lecture that tries to decipher and those that always want to put everything into context. There will always be time after to show off as the one who knows everything about 18th century Armenia or the ashik art, to pretend a long familiarity with what we ignored seventy-three minutes earlier (the actual duration of The Colours of Pomegranates). Some films are turnkey, some are not. So one must become a locksmith.  
And we can start with: this is a poet’s film, which, like poetry, cannot be summed up. Take it or leave it. Let’s take two “scenes” (or shall we say shots, paintings, images, icons? No word fits): the first and the last. Three pomegranates on a white bed sheet and a light red liquid that slowly oozes. We are told that in the first version, the stain created took the shape of the ancient and unified Armenia: the pomegranate juice “became” a blood map. A man dies, lying on the floor of an empty church. On the floor, around him, a forest of burning candles, and then, catapulted from off-screen, a white flock of decapitated chickens who in their agony knock off and extinguish the candles. Death of the poet and end of the film. Isn’t not seeing anymore the same as death?  
Everybody is going to say “The Colours of Pomegranates is a jungle of symbols: beautiful but not for us; we’re getting lost in it”. So what? What’s interesting in cinema is never the symbol, but how it’s made, the symbolic potential of any object. How do pomegranate juice, headless chickens, a stained bed sheet or an extinguished candle become symbols? Or a vase, a red fabric, a colour, public baths, sheep or belly-dancing? And how long does it take for the audience to derive pleasure from these symbols?  
Nothing stranger than the dispositif in The Colour of Pomegranates. Nothing more unsettling. In this suite of “icon-sequences”, an image doesn’t succeed another, it replaces it. No camera movements whatsoever in this film. No continuity between the images. Their unique commonality is us. Using tennis as metaphor, I would say that The Colour of Pomegranates is to be stuck on the baseline of our visual field and, from there, to be returning images like tennis balls, one after another. The image becomes a fetish (Parajanov is the ultimate fetishist) and very quickly we are experiencing the boomerang-gaze. The film “characters” seem to be serving images (like in tennis) while vaguely worried about double faults. Beautiful and made-up, they look at us fixedly, often at a distance, with an enduring slowness, revealing object-symbols with short and repetitive gestures or a stroboscopic clumsiness. As if they were demonstrating that the image in which they feature was really an animated image. They are living rebuses, charades in the flesh.  
The effects of this dispositif are either strange, hypnotic, comic, boring or lousy. And a bit of all that. It’s as if cinema had just been invented and the actors, wearing their best clothes, were still learning how to move in this unknown element of the filmed space - the camera field -, economical with gestures, but generous with gazes. Of course, all this is coming from elsewhere and from a long time ago: from the art of icons and from a conception of religion where an image has to be offered, to God, to the audience, to both. Strangely, although Parajanov had assembled many Armenian art treasures, to the point of making The Colours of the Pomegranates a real museum in celluloid, he does the opposite of what all worldly nouveaux-riches do (to zoom, to devour): he exhibits these treasures in ascetic fixed shots, he restores them as fetishes whose fate is to shine from a distance.  
It’s a real shame that Parajanov/Paradjaniants stopped making films, that he was so discouraged, abused, beaten. Because in this film made as an ex-filmmaker there is perhaps something that has only ever existed in Soviet cinema (and that one can find again today in a film like Stalker): a material imaginary. The art of staying as close as possible to the elements, to matter, to textures and colours. There is, for example, a peculiar presence of water in The Colours of Pomegranates, not Tarkovsky’s black and stagnating water but a light red household water, the water of the dyer or from the butcher’s stall, water that drips (the film is shot silent with surges of music and rough sound effects).  
How could one forget the image of the child Sayat Nova, no taller than the giant books mysteriously filled with water that dry on a roof and whose pages are turned by the wind?  
This material imaginary (probably linked to a religious tradition from the Orthodox dogma) is a path that cinema is seemingly abandoning. Cinema is no longer diverse enough. The global triumph of the model of the American tele-film has left few opportunities for other dispositifs of sounds and images. The American have pushed very far the study of continuous movement, speed and the convergence line. It’s the movement that empties the image of its weight, of its matter, the movement of a weightless body. Kubrick is the one that best told this story. By going through the scanner that is television, cinema has lost a layer of matter, a coat of paint. In Europe, even in the USSR, at the risk of marginalising themselves into inexistence, some are taking the luxury of questioning movement from its other side: slow and discontinuous. Parajanov, Tarkovsky (and before them Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Barnet) watched matter accumulate and congest, a geology of the elements, of rubbish or treasures, in slow motion. They are making the cinema of the Soviet ice age, this immobile empire, whether it likes it or not.  
I must say a couple of words of the story of The Colour of the Pomegranates or people will get upset. The film tells the story in a few scenes of the life of a famous (akish) minstrel called Sayat Nova. We see him as a child, then as a young poet at the court of the king of Georgia, and then as a monk retired in a convent. He dies during the ransacking of Tbilisi. The story takes place in 1795.  
* The French title of the film and of the article is Sayat Nova, the 18th century Armenian poet whose life is the topic of the film. [Translator's note]

First published in Libération, 29 January 1982. Also found in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.