SERGE DANEY (1948-1992):
BY ADRIAN MARTIN
The death from AIDS of French film and TV critic Serge Daney is unlikely to receive much notice in English language media journals. Sadly, very little of his work has ever been translated, and even that is hard to find: early reviews from the mid '60s in CAHIERS DU CINEMA IN ENGLISH; several collaborative contributions in CAHIERS DU CINEMA VOL. 3:1969-1972; an invaluable interview with Bill Krohn and a piece on Godard in THE THOUSAND EYES 2, 1977; two articles from the '80s in FRAMEWORK 32/33; and a brilliant essay written shortly before his death on THE LOVER (SIGHT AND SOUND, July 1992, usefully introduced by Malcolm Imrie). Only the keenest francophile would have recognised Daney lurking silently in the background of Godard's contribution to the ART OF VIDEO series shown on SBS (a snippet from the HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA project).
Few purely English-speaking readers would have a sense of Daney's central, significant place in European criticism. Raymond Bellour in 1985 called him "our most scrupulous and inspired film critic"; his sensibility permeates every page of Deleuze's two volumes on cinema; he was constantly invoked by filmmakers and other writers on the same level as Barthes and Bazin. The period leading up to his death was enormously prolific: lengthy interviews for print and video, two books, and the launch of his remarkable publishing project TRAFIC, which gathered together his closest colleagues in criticism (Pascal Bonitzer, Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, Bellour, Krohn), filmmaking (Godard, Robert Kramer) and the other arts.
A student of modernism and Chinese culture, Daney joined Cahiers as a writer in his early 20s. He embodied in his writing all the subsequent sea-changes of that magazine, from the end of auteurism, through the time of (as he called it) the "savage application" of Althusser, Foucault and Lacan, to the return of cinephilia, and finally the mature reflection on the cinema's great forms and artists. His first book LA RAMPE (1982), collecting his essays from 1970 to 1982, shows his evolution from one CAHIERS writer among many into a distinctive, racy, vital, illuminating critic. His taste virtually defined contemporary CAHIERS culture: Rossellini, Lang, Renoir, Ozu; Godard, Garrel, Moretti, Wenders; Minnelli, Ray, Tourneur, Dwan; and fervently promoted discoveries from filmmaking countries and regions previously under-represented on the international film culture circuit.
Daney was Cahiers editor-in-chief from 1974 to 1981, but his real fame came from his long stint at the newspaper LIBERATION as resident film and TV critic. His later books are compiled from these pieces: CINE-JOURNAL (1986, introduced by Deleuze), LA SALAIRE DU ZAPPEUR(1988), and the final, two-volume DEVANT LA RECRUDESCENCE DES VOLS DE SAC A MAIN(1992). Embracing journalism with a furious passion, Daney became a true chronicler. He admired Barthes' MYTHOLOGIES for the way it alternated between "extreme close-up descriptions" and general meditations. It was this same interplay of the specific and the general - the fugitive, unsystematised search for a theory or cultural aesthetic of cinema across a scrupulous attention to each material moment of it presented to the writer - which was so beloved by his readers. As Bellour remarked, Daney perpetually reconciled the "charming lightness" of daily journalism with the "exacting duties of rationality", and it is "from this tension ... that poetry is born" (MAGAZINE LITTERAIRE 232, 1986).
Daney was a figure at the forefront of criticism. As Thomas Elsaesser observed in SIGHT AND SOUND (April 1992), Daney was the first well-known critic to radically turn around his own cinema culture in order to pursue the newer audiovisual world of ads, rock clips, TV and various media spectacles; his last book is devoted to issues arising from the coverage of the Gulf War. One of Daney's key, recurring themes was the 'ethic of the image' positioned between cinema and these new audiovisual forms; both this concern and his gifts as a writer are demonstrated in a passage from the LIBERATION review of Coppola's ONE FROM THE HEART(1982):
"Cinéphiles, however, those fortune-tellers who have not given up trying to guess the future of cinema, cannot remain indifferent to ONE FROM THE HEART. Of course Coppola invents machines in which, when the time comes, he has nothing to put. Of course, the exaggeration, the ugliness, the failure, are often intense and their poetic effects often stale. But can we begrudge the builder of the cage if, at the crucial moment, he only has an old cat to exhibit in it? Isn't this lack of proportion, this "much ado about nothing," the most sympathetic aspect of the film? Coppola testifies to the abyss that separates the things we no longer know how to do (as they did before) and those we don1t know how to do yet (as they will do after). But he is a bridge-builder all the same."
© Adrian Martin September 1992
Originally published in CONTINUUM.