Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Cinema House and the World (review)

Could the lack of English translations of Serge Daney be finally over? The publication by Semiotext(e) of the first volume of Daney's "complete" writings, The Cinema House and the World, as well as their appetite for more (They are thinking about the three other volumes and La Rampe is in-progress) certainly feels like a pivotal moment. 

Until now, English readers had few options to ready any of Daney's 1,742 written texts (estimated from Pierre Eugène's Daney.net). They could contend with reading him in French (I know many of you do) or work from translations gleaned online (all hopefully listed on this blog). The only book published in English, Postcards from the Cinema, was an odd one: it wasn't written by Daney (apart from the first chapter "The Tracking Shot in Kapo") and takes the form of a long interview conducted by Cahiers du cinéma comrade Serge Toubiana (partly reviewed by Daney who died before completing the project).

So it's a key moment and fantastic news. Let's hope it's sufficiently successful to encourage future attempts. 

What to make of this new translation? 

If you're looking for a review, check out those: Richard Brody's or Beatrice Layza's, but also Thomas Quist's, Nick Pickerton's and Ed Halter's

If you need a taster, several texts are free online: A. S. Hamrah's introduction, Daney's reviews of Rio Bravo (1962), Night of the Living Dead (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), We Can't Go Home Again (1980), Elephant Man (1981) as well as a coverage of a tennis game (1979).

To learn more about the book contents and its 200 entries, see this blog post.

Below are simply my notes about the book, mostly from a translator's point of view. Full confession: I am nowhere near finishing it (has anyone read it in full?). I'm slow, the book is more conducive to "dip in and out" reading, like an encyclopaedia, and, despite having received the digital galleys ahead of the publication, I could only brave these 600 pages in paper.

1. First delight: A. S. Hamrah's reference to the cinephiles who for decades translated Daney bit by bit, in the form of "samizdats" (about 200 texts, check out the right-hand column of this blog). It reminded me how many people went about it, sustaining the interest for Daney and laying the ground for a proper book. I've tried to list of all the translators I could find. Credit to them all (and to their editors / publishers).

  • Andy Rector
  • Adrian Martin
  • Annwyl William
  • Arindam Sen & Ivana Miloš
  • Bill Krohn
  • Brian Holmes
  • Charles Cameron Bal
  • Charles Fairbanks
  • Chloé Galibert-Laîné 
  • Chris Darke
  • Craig Keller
  • Daniel Fairfax
  • David Davidson
  • Fergus Daly
  • Frank Matcha
  • Hemlata Agarwal Beck
  • Jack Siebert
  • John Barrett
  • John Kelsey
  • Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • K. Chandrasekhar
  • Liz Heron
  • Mark A. Cohen
  • Michael Temple
  • James S. Williams 
  • Kurt Walker
  • Michael Witt
  • Moritz Pfeifer
  • nletore & newland
  • Otis Wheeler
  • Paul Chouchana
  • Paul Grant
  • Seth Price
  • Sonja Bertucci
  • Steve Erickson
  • Srikanth Srinivasan
  • Stoffel Debuysere
  • Ted Fendt
  • Tom Mes
  • Tom Milne 

(If you spot someone I missed, let me know the reference and I'll add them to the list).

2. Take a bow to Christine Pichini for her fabulous work on the 200 or so articles in this first volume. Her translation is a genuine attempt to live up to the tone, directness and simplicity of Daney while avoiding any form of academic translation (elucidation over style, anti-Daney), especially with the sometimes “heavy” texts from the 1970s. Most texts read fluidly (Daney nearly always does, even when cryptic) and some really reflect Daney’s great ease of style, even in this early Cahiers period (e.g. the review of Annie Hall). I enjoyed how she plays with alternative syntax to Daney's sentences (a bold but necessary move, reforming all these long sentences in passive voice - she does this superbly). She also rightly ignores some untranslatable wordplays, something that will become harder in future volumes covering the Libération era (wordplays are a trademark style of the newspaper). I have found some very minor errors and omissions (a couple of instances of missing parentheses or short expressions here and there) but none of them really alter the text and I have been guilty of these myself. In the end, it's both the biggest translation effort and a great one too.

3.  A slight (very personal) frustration of not being able to spot clear choices in translating key Daneyian concepts. This is mainly because there are few over this period or that they present no difficulty in translating (e.g. the hated "progressive films"). Daney is both too precise to come up with easy formulas and too inventive to simply work with a small set of ideas. A lot of the ideas in this book are also in their infancy, evolve over time and tend to draw inspiration from the 1960s and 1970s French thinkers heavily used by Cahiers (Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Legendre, Althusser, etc) which Semiotext(e) are expert in translating. We'll come to this with late Daney ("the visual", "the image", "the films that watched our childhood", "the art of showing", etc).

4. A great regret that the publication of Pierre Eugène's wonderful study of Daney's writings between 1962 and 1982 (almost an exact time match with this book, plus La Rampe) appeared to be delayed again. It will be the essential guide to better understand Daney over this period.

5. A small point, this English edition inherit the problems of the original French one. This was the first volume of Daney's complete writings and over the years, its editorial choices and omissions became clear: not only it does not include texts from books published during Daney's lifetime (La Rampe for the period), but also interviews, collaborative and unsigned texts (the latter is particularly important as Cahiers, during the militant phase, in the spirit of collective responsibility, published many unsigned and unattributed articles, some surely written or co-written by Daney, see Daniel Fairfax's excellent The Red Years of Cahiers du Cinéma). Jonathan Rosenbaum spotted these gaps at the time of the publication of the first volumes in French and Pierre Eugene has since sourced multiple texts not included in the book. Such a large edition is also, perhaps inevitably, not error-proof with some small errors (one example: "Lemon Popsicle" and "Jaws 2" incorrectly dated 1976 instead of 1979).

6. This book and possible future ones sort of raise an existential question for this blog. Its raison d'être was the lack of (official) translations. What to do if translations abound? No need to duplicate and I have had a long-standing personal policy of not undermining genuine, official and affordable translation efforts. If Semiotext(e) is on track to translate the whole of Daney, so be it. It will take time though (the volume two of The Cinema House and the World is nearly twice the size with just over a thousand pages in French), so I may keep indulging readers of this blog with a few more samizdats.

P.S.: I will be in New York (city) Dec 4th - 9th for work and hope to find somewhere to meet readers or anyone interested. Let me know if interested (Twitter DM). Suggestions of format / locations welcome.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Night of the Living Dead

Yet another translation from The Cinema House and the World. Thanks to Caligari Press.

Night of the Living Dead

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 219, April 1970. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, Volume 1, P.O.L., 2011. Translation by Christine Pichini

Saturday, October 08, 2022

The Off-Screen Discourse

A great text by Daney. With thanks to Sri for the translation and Pierre Eugène's expertise for helping make sense of the text.


The off-screen discourse – Illumination, Krzysztof Zanussi 

Illumination, or the crisis of an expert in Gierek’s communist Poland. Will he hold on to his place, that of an elite scientist at the heart of the knowledge and power apparatuses that he was destined for? Frantisek navigates a crisis as well as several strata of Polish society. Sidelined, proletarianised, hastily married, made a beggar, he gazes myopically at the world and its inhabitants.  

In addition to marking the character as an intellectual, the glasses equipping this gaze that can only see so far constitute a screen behind the screen. Through these glasses, the myopic and gifted intellectual immediately introduces some connotation (and therefore some desire): we do not know what he sees. Denotation is suspended. To denote is to encounter something that he can name and that, in return, can call him by his name, anchor him, make him fit into the apparatus. From a cinematic perspective, Frantisek’s crisis comes from his myopia. From this principle, and in accordance with a structure typical to “modernist” cinema, the carrier of this myopic gaze can function as a pivot or a pointer, the only one endowed with desire in a world where there is none, the privileged and mute carrier of questions, welcoming answers with fluctuating attention. Hysteria in East European countries can simply be the scientist ill at ease in the system, the one embarrassed by power.  

Frantisek’s gaze just doesn’t fit. His glasses get constantly foggy, snowy or wet. Behind the gaze, it is the brain, not the eye, that emerges, live, like a new depth, the fifth side of the camera, the eroticising signifier of an inner self, of a retreat into oneself, the fetish of a new genre. This new and profound space cannot escape the eye that sees it, the science that names it, nor the power that, if needed, can wash it. The skull opened, tumour removed, brain broken with its jar. Zanussi’s film is impressive in the way it foregrounds the end of the interiority of filmed bodies, the end of the opacity that made them obstacles. This is the era of photo-scintigraphy, spark chambers, thermography, shadowless lamps. The issue of interiority is aesthetically the order of the day, in the spotlight.  

Between the myopic gaze that shifts (the fiction) into gear and connotes (for the audience) and the brain, underneath this gaze, controlling the eye but over which the eye retains a right to examine, there is – paradoxically – the last bastion of depth: the surface, the epidermis, the line where the quest, the life or the subject are at play. We can mention – jokingly – the label applied a few years ago to new East European film waves: intimist. This ground level, skin deep intimism, this superficial film-making (Czech films especially) only existed because of a major prohibition: that of filming power. There are no films from East European countries, except for Jancsó’s slippery metaphors, where power has been named or incarnated, where the question of its featurability has even been considered. Or rather, the only power featured was scientific power, the power to name, of the metalanguage, the voice of science that doesn’t have to justify its off-screen presence. Remember Makavejev’s Love Affair where the most banal news item (a pest exterminator commits a crime of passion) occasions all kinds of talkative and out-of-place sexologists and criminologists. Makavejev’s humour stood in between these two poles: naturalist experience on one side, metalanguage about the living on the other. The essential was that the apparatus itself, inasmuch as it generates knowledge and experts obedient to political power, must never been filmed as such, and therefore questioned. This is the truth of revisionism in power: it is the cause of everything, but never questioned, filmed.  

Zanussi proceeds in the same way, more daringly but with less humour. A discourse (dropped) from above, and a (myopic) gaze below. Metalanguage and stickiness, career strategy and daily life. Above, discourses that can be delivered any time on any topic, discourses with no clear source of enunciation and recognisable by their tone: no possible reply. Below, the wandering gaze. Between the two, the nothing where Zanussi (an ex-scientist and artist) locates his film. Any image from below (“life”, “naturalism”, “glue”) is susceptible, liable, at any point to become the object of a discourse, the origin of which doesn’t have to be mentioned or even shown. Between the not-yet-seen of the myopic gaze and the always-already-known of the knowledge apparatus begins a race where the shots themselves, the images are at stake.  

One example: Frantisek, at the height of dispossession and on the verge of mysticism, visits a monastery where doddery monks live in seclusion. The camera wanders with him behind the kneeling monks and lingers on the shaven nape of one of them. A double interiority: that of Frantisek’s gaze and that of the mystic’s brain, redoubled by two screens: the glasses and the scalp. Exactly at that moment, a cut away to a cross-section of a brain drawn on a black board in some university: an off-screen voice highlights and comments on areas of the brain where mystic states occur. A double cut, of the body and of the shot, showing that there are no corners from which the off-screen discourse cannot emerge.  

In a surprising scene at the start of the film, students wonder about their career, their role, their profession and their responsibility as scientists. Only one dares speak of their desire. If we wanted money and fame, he says, we would all go into exile in the West. If we stay, it must be because we want something else: privileges, fragments of power. Zanussi’s film is an exceptional documentary on this question: what specific ideology do scientists need in the East? More abruptly, what does, for example, the psychiatric hospital employee, or of the one “treating” Leonid Plyushch, believe in?   

The answer of course is not to be found in scientism. What happens in the film? Frantisek returns to his place, that of a scientist who is still young despite the wasted time, despite the crisis. At the end of the film, he will learn that, overworked, he will die young. This sacrifice, which he consents to, takes him into a sphere of humanism and neurosis; it allows him to join the system, to end his wandering. In the last shot, we see him at a beach with his feet in murky and polluted water, his eyes (and his glasses) turned toward the sky. In other words, he too needs an above and a below, meaning faith.  

Religion is necessary, it will be necessary. A mix of scientism (which still enables, in the name of science, the worst) and of religiosity (catholic Poland, holy Russia). Not too much religion though: mysticism is a mess. It’s all a matter of balance and this film is the story of a bitter balance. It is not even any longer about a policy of outreach, “the crisis of the modern world” or the difficult relations between science and morality. It is something like: “Subjects, one more effort (and if needed, a bit of religion) if you want to suitably fit into the system.” 

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 256, February-March 1975. Reprinted in La Rampe, Cahiers du Cinéma Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.