Cinema Was Everything

The Cinema House & the World: The Cahiers du CinÉma Years, 1962–1981 by Serge Daney, translated from French by Christine Pichini. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 616 pages. $35.

The cover of The Cinema House & the World: The Cahiers du CinÉma Years, 1962–1981

AS A CHILD, SERGE DANEY KNEW his father only through the stories his mother told him. According to legend, Pierre Smolensky was a worldly, well-to-do gentleman involved in the business of cinema; throughout the interwar years, he dubbed films and perhaps even appeared in some under the stage name Pierre Sky. Only seventeen when Pierre took her under his wing, Daney’s mother claimed that he spoke all the languages in the world. For a while, the memory of Pierre was preserved in mythological amber, not unlike the images of Cary Grant and James Stewart, those beautiful American stars whom the fledgling cinephile idealized. 

Daney was born in 1944, two days before the Allied forces invaded Normandy, and not too long after Pierre, a Jewish immigrant, was arrested. His mother avoided talking about Pierre’s fate, but it was unspoken knowledge that he had likely perished in a concentration camp. Daney was fifteen when he first saw—really saw—the camps where his father disappeared. It was during a class screening of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956), a film then shown in French schools. Daney’s childhood ended with the pointed recognition that these images were real and that his father might emerge as a corpse among the film’s black-and-white imagery, its “famous piles of dead bodies, hair, glasses, and teeth.” 

“It took me a while to develop this idea that ‘modern’ cinema, born the same time as I was, was the cinema of a kind of knowledge of the camps, a knowledge that changed the ways of making cinema,” wrote Daney in “The Tracking Shot in Kapo.” The essay was first published in Trafic—Daney founded the cinema journal—in 1992, the same year that he died of aids at the age of forty-eight. Cinema, and its orchestration of desire, had its origins in spectacle. But after the war, a new kind of relationship between spectator and screen emerged. Daney entered a world in which the most seemingly distant and alien events—and the most heinous crimes—could be touched with the gaze and felt in  the viewer’s bones. This revelation was central to Daney’s lifelong critical project: articulating an ethics of the image rooted in our responses to it. 

Daney was the most significant writer to emerge from the generational milieu that gave rise to the French New Wave. Like several of its key filmmakers—François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette—he began writing criticism inspired by the auteurist principles of André Bazin, the renowned theorist and cofounder of Cahiers du Cinéma, contributing to the magazine and eventually serving as its co-editor-in-chief, from 1973 to 1981. 

Cover of Cahiers du Cinéma, January 1965.
Cover of Cahiers du Cinéma, January 1965.

The Cinema House & the World—the first in a planned four-volume collection dedicated to Daney’s work—begins in 1962 with his essay on Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, the writer’s first piece of published writing. It then unravels an entire intellectual history that eludes any fixed definition of film criticism. The book passes through the New Wave, when Cahiers began to move away from impassioned readings of Hollywood filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, to the magazine’s theoretical turn in the mid-to-late-’60s, when structuralists like Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser reigned supreme. Coinciding with the upheavals of May 1968, Cahiers adopted an explicitly Marxist orientation until, in 1973, Daney began his nearly decade-long tenure at the helm, initiating a return to the journal’s cinephile origins without abandoning its commitment to leftist causes. The collection closes in 1981, when Daney left Cahiers to join Jean-Paul Sartre’s daily newspaper, Libération, where he had already begun to expand his practice with a handful of articles about televised tennis—articles that comprise the final section of the book. 

Daney worked in an era of heady theory and intellectual criticism, but he could already see where film culture was headed. In a 1977 interview with Bill Krohn, Daney anticipated the standardized, promotional nature of contemporary movie reviews: “There is an entire machinery of language surrounding films (critiques, publicity, press kits, academia) which means there is no longer any freshness in how they are received.” Daney eventually wrote about disparate subjects like bullfighting and the media coverage of the Gulf War. His film writings—many of them brief, one- or two-paragraph jottings devoid of an obvious structure—were an early expression of this itinerant spirit. 

Take, for instance, a 1979 review of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which Daney interprets as a “mini-meditation on the immortality of stars” without bothering to address the film’s finer details (he calls it a mediocre film that regrettably has little in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s superior comedy of the same name). There’s his missive on George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film he uses to discuss Hollywood’s fascination with apocalyptic scenarios and heavy-handed political metaphors, and on Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo and its roots in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, a connection that Daney cites as an example of American culture’s capacity to “appropriate everything” and “empty out forms of all content.” A film, for Daney, is always more than the sum of its parts; the cinema is a privileged site of reflection and exploration. 

As A. S. Hamrah points out in the collection’s introduction, Daney remains largely unknown to English-language readers, despite his centrality to postwar film culture and the immense influence he has had on younger generations of cinephiles. One can perceive the long shadow of Daney in the films of Olivier Assayas and Leos Carax, which in different ways put forth Daney’s idea of the cinema as a phantom realm, an experience that is immaterial yet undeniably true. 

Despite the efforts of independent scholars, Daney’s work remains on the fringes of cinephilia. Dense with theoretical tangents, promiscuously associative, and characterized by a prose that shifts constantly between the poeticism of Continental philosophers like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida and the casual tempos of first-person journalism, Daney’s writing isn’t “clean” or easily digestible—there is no easy transmission of facts and ideas, but rather a kind of intellectual grazing. Much like Daney himself—who, often penniless, traveled to places like India, Hong Kong, and Africa, covering film festivals, familiarizing himself with the local film culture, finding tour guides in the young men he took as fleeting lovers—his writing wanders in unpredictable directions. It resists translation and has an unsettling, conflicted quality, best embodied in Hamrah’s observation that Daney “loved the American cinema” but “resisted where it comes from.” 

The Cinema House & the World—a Herculean undertaking by translator Christine Pichini—represents a sizable response to years of editorial resistance from unwilling publishers. It is the second book-length translation of Daney’s writings into English, the first being Postcards from the Cinema, a hybrid work of criticism and personal memoir that consists almost entirely of an extended conversation between Daney and his Cahiers du Cinéma coeditor Serge Toubiana. That relatively slim 2007 translation by Paul Grant is, perhaps, a more accessible introduction to Daney’s school of thought, though it lacks the scope, curiosity, and sense of play of Pichini’s tome, in which you will read about films you have never heard of, consider classics through a new lens, and see the world, as Daney did, as a film bustling with latent meanings, infinitely interconnected. It should come as no surprise that, toward the end of the book, Daney begins to reckon with the implications of small-screen spectatorship and the politics of television—televised debates, sports events, and news broadcasts, those simulations that purport to be reality. 

The difficulty of translating Daney’s prose, the lack of interest in film criticism as an art, and the perception that his work has only hyper-niche appeal: all these things have contributed to the absence of Daney’s work in the United States. But I wonder, too, if our relationship to images in a country—and an era—inundated with them, where the blurred boundaries of reality have nurtured resignation and indifference, discourages the kind of critical project that Daney spent his life developing. Toward the end, his body ravaged by sickness, he saw in himself that haunting image of his father in the camps—mediated as such, his own emaciated body became an extension of his primal encounter with Night and Fog. Our own era is eager to beautify or sensationalize suffering, but Daney offers a different vision, best exemplified by his active gaze. He insists that we take the image seriously as not just a productive way of looking at art, but as a way of better understanding our own place in life. 

Beatrice Loayza is an associate editor at the Criterion Collection.