Saturday, December 16, 2023

In Praise of Tati

This month (December 2023) sees the release of a second book of translations of Serge Daney by the team at Semiotext(e) (Footlights). It's a translation of La Rampe, Daney's first book. I'll write more about it once I get my hands on it (it's high on the Christmas list!), but in the meantime, an extract has been published by the New Left Review.

In Praise of Tati, translated by Nicolas Elliott, appears in Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970-1982, published this month by Semiotext(e). The text was originally published in book form as ‘Éloge de Tati’ in La Rampe: Cahiers critique 1970-1982 published by Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard in 1983. 

And for those fascinated by the translation in English of Serge Daney, you can even do a like-for-like comparison of Elliott's translation with the one Andy Rector and I published here a little while ago.  

Sunday, November 19, 2023

When Serge Daney Met Ogawa Shinsuke

Finding new translations will never end. Here's yet another one that I've missed over the years. It's a fine transcription in English of one of the episodes of Microfilms (Daney's radio show). There are so many other episodes that are just as wonderful and could benefit from a translation. 

When Serge Daney Met Ogawa Shinsuke

Transcription of Microfilms with Ogawa Shinsuke. November 5th, 1989. France Culture. Translation by Sis Matthé.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Love for the Thugs

Balthazar, the Danish film journal, has just published a dossier on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet which includes two pieces by Serge Daney written at the occasion of advanced screenings of their films in Paris.

The Straubs

Published on Oct 3rd, 1984 in Libération after the screening of Class Relations. This piece is already on line on Kinoslang. 

Love for the Thugs

An excerpt of “Journal de l’an present”, Daney's introduction to the 3rd edition of Trafic (August 1992), on a screening of Antigone. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde 4: Le Moment Trafic 1991-1992 (2015, Éditions P.O.L).

Saturday, June 17, 2023

In Praise of Tati

I recently went through old files and found this translation of Serge Daney's Praise of Tati which Andy Rector and I completed a while back. This text from La Rampe means the whole book has somewhat been translated through a patchwork of various efforts over the years. A good teaser for the real thing: Nicholas Eliot's new translation of the book to be published by Semiotext(e) later this year.

In Praise of Tati 

1. Each film by Tati marks at the same time (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati, (b) a moment in the history of French cinema and society, and (c) a moment in film history. The six films he has realised since 1948 are among those that have punctuated our history best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of a few films (all of them good by the way), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period in Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon Oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ‘68). There is hardly anybody else barring Chaplin who, since the sound era, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he is not filming, and, when filming, to be precisely up to the moment – that is, just a little bit ahead. Tati: a witness first and last. 

2. A demanding witness, so an awkward one. Early on, Tati refuses easy options. He doesn’t exploit his brand-image; he doesn’t manage the characters he created: the postman in Jour de fête disappears and even Hulot disperses himself – fake Hulots are everywhere criss-crossing Playtime. He takes a comedian’s biggest risk: to lose one’s audience by leading it too far. But where? Admirable as it is, his conscience as an artist would move us less if it were mere aristocratic loftiness or the haughty retreat of a man at odds with his time and with cinema. But it is something else altogether. If we put into perspective the six films that Tati has realised since Jour de fête (1948), we find that they draw a line of convergence which is that of all post-war French cinema. Perhaps because, even though a comedian enjoys fewer permissions than anyone else to distance himself from the present, especially to be critical, with Tati we best perceive, film after film, the typical fluctuation of French cinema between populism and modern art. Who is capable today of capturing and miming the most ordinary gestures (a waiter serving a drink, a police officer directing traffic) while at the same time integrating these gestures into a construction as abstract as a Mondrian painting? Tati of course, the last mime-theoretician. Thus, each one of his films is a witness-milestone of the “how is it going?” of French cinema. This has been the case for thirty years. Jour de fête is the witness of post-war euphoria, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle testify the longevity of a very French genre (social satire) in the Tradition of Quality, and Playtime, this great emancipatory film, builds La Défense* even before the existence of La Défense, but it already says that French cinema can no longer deal with the gigantism of French reality, that it is no longer – if I may say so – “up to the task”, and that it is going to degrade with internationalisation, meaning the Americanisation which was already threatening the postman in Jour de fête. Effectively, his next two films are no longer entirely French (Traffic is a co-production, a very European film) nor entirely cinema (Parade is a commission for Swedish television).  

3. Tati isn’t just the exemplary and apologetic witness of the retreat of French cinema and the deterioration of the profession, he takes the cinema in its current technological state. And strangely, for someone so often accused of being backward-looking, he just wants to innovate. It’s now a known fact that Tati didn’t wait for anyone to start revamping film soundtracks, as early as Jour de fête. Thirty years later, we’re less aware that Parade is an extraordinary foray into the world of video. In fact, the big subject of Tati’s films is what we today call the media. Not in the limited sense of “the great methods of communication” but in the sense intended by MacLuhan: “the specialised extensions of the mental and psychic capacities of man”, the extensions of our bodies, in sum or in part. Jour de fête is already the story of a postman who, by fussing over the delivery of the message, ends up losing it. A child will end up with the message (a simple letter), but, distracted by a travelling circus, won’t transmit it – a beautiful metaphor for the intransitivity of modern art. But at that stage, the audience has understood that the real message is the medium, the postman, Tati. The media are the fireworks launched too early and by mistake at the end of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot that transformed Hulot in an illuminated scarecrow, prefiguring the brilliant ending of Parade where everybody – meaning anyone – becomes the illuminated trace of a colour in an electronic landscape. And the media are also present in Mon Oncle, in this very surprising stance at the time not to make the audience laugh in ridicule at the programmes shown on the TV set bought by the “modern” couple, but to reduce television to the abstract and almost experimental spectacle of sudden changes in intensity of the pale light illuminating the ridiculous garden. The list is endless. Another hundred examples could be mentioned. The essential being that at any moment and for anyone (in a kind of generalisation-democratisation of comedy that is at the great gamble of Tati’s last three films, and perhaps the recognition that we have all become comedians), there is the possibility to become media. From the doorman in Playtime who, because the glass door has been shattered, becomes the door himself, to the maid who is terrorised by the idea of going through the electronic ray that opens the garage door where her bosses have stupidly locked themselves (Mon Oncle), there is for the human body the (threatening and comic) possibility to become itself a limit, a threshold (and not like in Burlesque, scatological depth). Modern art by definition.

4. Tati doesn’t condemn the modern world (shoddy and wasteful) by proving that the old world (thriftiness and human warmth) is better. Apart from Mon Oncle, there is no praise of the old world: we could even say, without too many paradoxes, that he is only interested in one thing: how the world is modernising. And if there is such a thing as a logic in his films, from the country roads of Jour de fête to the highways of Traffic, it is the logic that continues to irreversibly lead men from the countryside to the cities. Tati tends to show that, in accordance with recent (schizoanalytic) descriptions of capitalism, this media future of the human body works very well in as much as it doesn’t function. There are no burlesque catastrophes with Tati (of the type we can still find with the Americans: The Party by Blake Edwards) but rather a fatality in success that evokes Keaton. Everything that is attempted, planned, programmed works, and any comic element comes precisely from the fact that it works. Watching Playtime, we tend to forget that all the attempted actions are reasonably crowned with success: Hulot ends up meeting the man with  the bandaged nose that he had an appointment with, he fixes the lamp post, makes up with the manufacturer of silent doors, he even manages, in extremis, to get a small gift to the young American woman. On the same token, the opening of the Royal Garden is a success: the large majority of guests dine, dance and pay. Nothing really fails in Playtime, but nothing works either. 

5. The cinema has so accustomed us to laugh at failure, to enjoy mockery, that we end up believing that, watching Playtime, we are still laughing against something even though it is nothing of the sort. No “punchline” [chute] with Tati. The gags are always amputated of their punchline, of the moment for laughs. Or it’s the opposite: there is a punchline but we haven’t seen the gag being set up. This is not a crafty and elegant way to generate laughter by playing with ellipses, it’s something deeper: we are in a world where the less it works the more it works, so in a world where a punchline does not have the demystifying or awakening effect that it would have had if failure was still a possibility. The same goes with the other meaning of the word chute [fall]. We are dealing with bodies that are not made comical because they can fall. This is the non-humanist side of Tati’s cinema. What has always been “human” in comedy is to laugh at the one who falls. Laughter is only unique to man (to the spectator) if falling is unique to the human body (on spectacle). Chaplin is the archetype of the one who falls, who gets back up and who makes others fall, the king of tripping. In Tati’s film, one rarely falls because there is nothing “uniquely human” anymore. For me, one of the most beautiful moments of Playtime is when a client of Royal Garden, thinking that a waiter is offering a chair, sits down without looking back (she’s a snob) and falls in slow motion. Funny gag, very beautiful fall, but what are we exactly laughing about? And what are we laughing about in Parade when the audience is asked to mount an uncontrollable mule? Or when the clowns keep falling on top of each other after jumping over a pommel horse? Falling in these instances is merely a movement of the body like any other. As a non-humanist filmmaker, Tati is logically fascinated by the human species, this animal described by Giraudoux as standing upright “to receive less rain and pin more medals to his chest”. What is comical for Tati, is that it stands upright and that it works, and that it can work. Infinite surprise, inexhaustible spectacle. 

To the dialectics of the up and down, of what is erected or collapses (the carnivalesque tradition, a situation illustrated by Buñuel: from the insect-level camera to Simon of the desert on top of his column), Tati would be substituting another comedy where it is the act of standing upright which is funny and the act of wobbling (how Hulot walks) which is human.   

* La Defense:  Europe's largest purpose-built business district, located on the outskirts of Paris. 

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 303, September 1979. Re-printed in La rampe, cahiers critiques 1970-1982, Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Upcoming Translation of La Rampe (The Footlights)

Thanks to @(yknmb77) for being the first to spot that Nicholas Elliott's translation of La Rampe for Semiotext(e) has appeared on the internet. There is very little detail about the book so far and you can ignore the announced publication date (it certainly wasn't published last December; I know that Nicholas was still working on it at the time). 

But it's fantastic news to see Semiotext(e) continuing to publish Daney in English. If you want to know more about La Rampe, Daney's first book, head here. A lot of its content has been published online over the years.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Balls so heavily loaded...

© Christian Poulin 2023
Daney loved tennis, and wrote about it with the same inventivity as his film criticism.

Balls so heavily loaded...
Have you ever watched a tennis match on mute, switching off the sound of your TV? Yes, in all likelihood. You must have observed the extent to which it is no longer the same thing: of course, it’s still very beautiful to watch, very choreographic and all that, but there is suddenly a strong feeling of unreality, of gratuitousness, a somewhat boring prettiness. The sound is missing: the murmurs of the crowd, the referee’s announcements in English, Connors’ grunts etc. But what is missing above all is the sound of the ball, the regular cadence of this noise that may reasonably be compared to heartbeats. If you have played tennis and have become blind (an admittedly absurd hypothesis, but a useful one for my demonstration), you would know how to identify the types of shots from their sound: a first and a second serve don’t produce the same music, an ace produces a specific sound, a topspin lob and a high volley are not the same. And if, blind or not, you have never played tennis in your life, it’s no different: the sound of the ball is what keeps you in the match, what allows you to stay focused and avoid being distracted by thousand different incidents in the image. This sound allows you to not see everything; it regulates your vision.
Have you ever seen a tennis ball? Yes, in all likelihood. At least one of those old tennis balls that one throws against the wall in the schoolyard, deflated, hairy, dead. And what about those balls, yellow at Roland-Garros and white at Wimbledon, that, over a few games, are hit with a great violence before ending up in the hands of the children that collect them? The tennis ball is seamless, its weight must not exceed 58.47 grams and its diameter would cause a scandal if it were smaller than 0.0635 metre. A tennis ball is a very concrete object.
Have you ever thought about what a tennis ball represents? For example, if you are watching tennis on television, it represents your gaze. This is why the cameras are always located high up, so that you don’t miss an inch of the ball’s trajectories, so that you don’t lose sight of your gaze, and so that, from your armchair, you can distinguish between the awful balls that are out and the flawless ones that are in. And because it’s flattering to be placed in the position of the umpire, you don’t ask yourself if, perhaps, tennis might be filmed differently. Ignoring the ball, if I may say so, losing sight of it for an instant? But that’s a different story.
For minor players, even for the good ones, the ball is an object to get rid of at any cost, and get rid of properly, if they want to play well. But it’s completely different for great players. There must surely be a moment when this concrete, hairy and regulated object becomes abstract, ideal and phantasmal. The ball, constantly racing to either side of the net, embodies many things: hatred, phobia, self-assertion, fear of winning, desire to lose or to punish. In any case, each player rushes toward it, enacting a sort of choreographic enigma. And who can say that it’s not a part of their body or even of their soul that they are sending away when returning  the ball? 
Take Connors. He “leans into the ball”, as they say, grunting even. He goes even further:  he wraps his body around the ball like a pelota player in a large court. If he could follow the ball to the opposite side, he would do so. Sometimes, no longer able to contain himself, he breaks a taboo and jumps over the net (which is forbidden), trying to make us understand that he and the ball are one and  the same thing. He’s a formidable fighter who wants to be everywhere, and when he returns the ball, it’s himself that he propels forward, to the great satisfaction of the audience who intuitively understand the generosity inherent in the way that Connors is the ball.  
Take Borg now. He’s not a very talkative player, dispiritingly lucid and modest. Yet, he always says the same thing: I am the best because I play each point as if it were the match point. For him, no minor balls, only major ones. If he played against you, not only would he win (6-0, 6-0, 6-0), he would also find a way to play each point  as if his life depended on it. He’s overdoing it, you would say once defeated. But no. Borg’s supremacy these last few years has only been about that: for him, the ball is just the ball, it doesn’t mean anything, it carries no affect, no hate, no desire to please or to be loved. As Gertrude Stein might say “a ball is a ball is a ball is…” 
There remains the McEnroe mystery. Observe him between volleys, he’s the opposite of Borg. Borg is a moving object that must never stop: his legwork, his way of shuffling back to the baseline, of constantly moving, his presence are impressive to all his opponents. Except for McEnroe. Between two shots, in a time window that might be infinitesimal, the American unwinds, disassembles himself, withdraws. I’m not talking about his mind, which is sharper than a fox, I’m talking about his body and this bit of the subconscious that courses through his body. He is so proud and big-headed that he always seems a bit surprised to see the ball coming back at  him. For him, the ball is the other, less the adversary than adversity itself, forcing him, to the joy of everyone, to face up.  

First published in Libération, 7 July 1981. Reprinted in Ciné journal, 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.