The Missing Image

While re-searching for »Missing Images« a text by JONATHAN ROSENBAUM crossed my attention which appeared in New Left Review: »The Missing Image - From Cinephilia to the World - The Trajectory of Serge Daney«. We were referring to Serge Daney and his notion of the »the missing image« again and again and Rosenbaum just seemed to echo our sentiments - even though his review is from 2005. However, here is a full version - since Daney's writing is far from being outdated.

»One of the more staggering anomalies about the two most recent compilations of pieces by film critic Serge Daney (1942-1994) is their sizes relative to the years they cover. The volume devoted to uncollected pieces published during Daney’s twenty years at Cahiers du cinéma (not including his many collective, anonymous, pseudonymous, and/or more ephemeral pieces, as well as his interviews with others) weighs in at 574 pages, which is already fairly hefty. But the volume devoted to uncollected pieces written during his first five years at Libération, almost twice as big, is 1040 pages.*

Of course there’s a world of difference between editing Cahiers du cinéma, a monthly magazine for hardcore cinéphiles--as Daney did between 1973 and 1981, undoubtedly limiting the time he could devote to writing--and working as a chronicler of film, television, and tennis for a daily mainstream newspaper, a job which also involved a few more modest editorial duties. (Founded in early 1973 by a group of former leftist militants headed by Serge July, Libération has a style of its own even more distinctive than that of the Cahiers, which has been through a good many more cataclysmic upheavals since its launching in 1951.) Furthermore, the aforementioned excluded matter from Daney’s Cahiers period is considerable—-including, for instance, not only many important collective pieces, but also his 265-page book »Procés à Baby Doc Duvalier Père et fils«, a 1973 polemic against the Duvalier regime in Haiti written under the pseudonym Raymond Sapene. It’s also worth acknowledging that some late pieces written for Cahiers du cinéma can be found in the earlier pages of Les Années Libé, complicating any sense of neat divisions. But whatever the cause and circumstances, the quantum leap in productivity and readership is difficult to deny, and had a great deal to do with Daney becoming--by the time he died of AIDS in 1992, and shortly after he founded the quarterly magazine Trafic--the most respected French film critic since André Bazin.

The first collection of Bazin essays in English appeared nine years after his death. Eleven years after the death of Daney, some recent interest has been shown in bringing out Daney in English, though the first book selected for translation, far from characteristic and even farther from comprehensive, is the posthumously published volume »Persévérance« (1994)—-most of it consisting of Serge Toubiana’s 1991 interview with Daney, conducted once Daney realized that he was already too ill to write the book on his own. (Happily, the autobiographical Daney essay included in the same volume, a major position paper, is already available online in English: The Tracking Shot in Kapo And for more uncollected material by Daney in English, the American film critic Steve Erickson has usefully archived much of this material on his web site Chronicle of a Passion. Having already speculated in print about why the prospect of Daney in English hasn’t been welcomed more by film academics, as Daney in English: A Letter to Trafic, I don’t want to repeat myself here, but some recapitulation seems in order. Briefly, the institutionalizing of cinema that came with the Anglo-American establishment of ›cinema studies‹ in the 60s seized upon Bazin as a theorist but downplayed his significance as a journalist, while the fact that Daney was more of a journalist than Bazin but also less of a theorist has placed him in a separate zone—-too theoretical for Anglo-American film journalism yet also too journalistic for the academy. Furthermore, what made him both global and literary in his outlook—-accounting for much of the contribution of Trafic to international film culture over its fifty-odd issues to date–-has also paradoxically made him more hors de concors in relation to territorialized global markets outside France, whether the currency involved happens to be intellectual or economic. Neither of the new volumes--both brought out by P.O.L., the publisher of Trafic--is even remotely close to exhaustive, having been preceded by the separate Daney texts included in La rampe, Cahier critique 1970-1982 (1983), Ciné journal (1986, devoted to columns he wrote during his first five years at Libération), »La Salaire du zappeur« (1993, with texts published in Libé between September and December 1987), »Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main« (1992, with Libé texts published between 1988 and 1991), and another volume devoted to a decade of his writing about tennis (»L’Amateur de tennis«, 1994). Still to come is another volume of Libé pieces that is expected to add close to a thousand more pages. And finally, after factoring in Persévérance, there’s another relatively slim Daney volume in the works devoted to his late, uncollected pieces for Trafic.

*** One way of gauging the main distinction between the two latest volumes is to postulate three separate eras of 20th century film criticism in relation to the self-conscious historicizing of film culture brought about by the French New Wave—-specifically, before, during, and after. Bazin epitomized and summarized the first era, and the young Turks he nurtured at Cahiers du Cinéma such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, and the somewhat younger Luc Moullet, mainly defined the second. Daney started out as a disciple of the New Wave crowd--ultimately following Godard through his own post-1968, neo-Maoist phase (a trajectory charted through portions of Les Temps des Cahiers) and beyond, eventually culminating in Daney’s dialogue with Godard in Chapter 2a of the latter’s »Histoire(s) du cinéma«)--and then helped to usher in the third, represented more thoroughly in Les Années Libé. This latter phase is marked especially by an increasing preoccupation with the televisual—-in combination with as well as in contrast to the filmic--and a broader definition of world cinema that would eventually take in such previously overlooked outposts as Iran and Taiwan, among many others. Broadly speaking, Daney’s turf expanded from that of specialised cinephilia to that of history (principally that of the 20th century) and the world, particularly as television and cinema help us to understand it.

There are many significant overlaps, of course. Daney remained something of a closet auteurist even when he was decrying bourgeois individualism as a post-’68 militant. And, as Bérénice Reynaud has aptly noted in her Introduction to the fourth and apparently final anthology of Cahiers du cinema in English (1973-1978: »History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle«, edited by David Wilson, Routledge, 2000), the difference between this Maoist period and what preceded it `was not the lack of strong individualities but the near impossibility within the tenets of Maoism of saying “I,” of writing a text in the first person. Hence the convenient ploy of writing texts collectively, in order to be able to say “we”.’ And because Daney was as much of an ‘intellectual diarist’ (Reynaud’s term) as Godard and Barthes, two of his mentors, the shift to ‘I,’ when it came, seemed long overdue. (The same contradictions between personal quirk and tribal aspiration are apparent throughout Godard’s 1967 film »La chinoise«—-which look much less dated today than those of the 1966 »Masculin-Féminin« by virtue of being more objectified and less complicated by Godard’s sexual hang-ups. These contradictions even seem prescient in many specific details, e.g. the Maoist cell’s ejection of a PCF member [Michel Semeniako] for ‘revisionism’ anticipate the Maoist Cahiers’ ejection of the only PCF member on its editorial staff, Bernard Eisenschitz, a few years later.) Another overlap between periods #2 and #3: Daney was already sending out dispatches from festivals and other film events in Hong Kong, India, Syria, and Tunisia and starting to consider television and advertising in some detail while still writing for the Cahiers. Furthermore, a flair for witty, epigrammatic encapsulations of certain filmmakers and philosophical positions can also be found in both periods. (From Libération in late 1981: »Altman looks at human beings with disgust. He finds them artificial. Today he looks at an artificial character without disgust. The difficulty of Popeye being Popeye inspires him.«)

Yet spurred by the examples of such writers as Barthes and Deleuze, he was empowered by the broader cultural reach of Libé to think as well as speculate on a much broader canvas. To cite a couple of topics already explored in »Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main«, he started to become preoccupied with what it meant to resee classics ranging from D.W. Griffith’s »Orphans of the Storm« to Vincente Minnelli’s »The Pirate« on television, and the intricate relationships between TV commercials and popular studio releases like »Out of Africa« and »The Lover«. He also had a great deal to say about the first Gulf war and its TV coverage, which I’ll be quoting from later.

Daney’s expanded sense of world cinema can be sharply distinguished from Godard’s if one places it alongside the perspectives found in »Histoire(s) du cinéma«, completed four years after Daney’s death. In terms of that monumental video’s overall myth, cinema and the 20th Century are characterized by two key countries (France and the U.S.), two emblematic studio chiefs (Irving Thalberg, Howard Hughes), and two emblematic world leaders (Lenin, Hitler); two decisive falls from cinematic innocence—-the end of silent film that came with the talkies and the end of talkies that came with video—-and two decisive falls from worldly innocence (the two great wars). Missing from this highly skewed view of the world is practically all of Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa—-despite Godard’s sympathetic involvements with North Vietnamese and Palestinian militants and the Mozambique government during the 60s and 70s. At least two major Japanese filmmakers, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, are given some recognition, and a still from Souleymane Cissé’s »Yeelen« is glimpsed, but the latter is the only fleeting allusion offered to African cinema, and the cinemas of Iran, India, the Chinese-speaking world, and Australia (for instance) can’t be said to exist at all in this schema—-even though, years earlier, Godard was one of the first Europeans who recognized and heralded the importance of both Abbas Kiarostami and Samira Makhmalbaf’s »The Apple«. Worst of all, adding a faint whiff of complacent and (in some respects) neocolonialist insult are references to Fritz Lang’s »The Indian Tomb«, George Cukor’s »Bhowani Junction«, and Marguerite Duras’s »India Song« that seemingly “replace” Indian cinema (three great films, to be sure—-but hardly adequate substitutes) and an even more dubious evocation of other “darker” cultures in which Philippe Garrel’s »Marie pour mémoire«, Jean Gremillon’s »Lumière d’été«, John Coltrane’s jazz piece »Africa«, »White Shadows«, »Captain Blood«, Glauber Rocha’s »Antonio das Mortes«, and Jean Rouch’s »Moi, un noir« are invited to rub shoulders with »Yeelen«.

So it seems both suggestive and emblematic that the photo of Daney stretching across the front and back jacket of Persévérance shows him resting in a Japanese domestic setting. And it’s no less significant that both Le Temps des Cahiers and Les Années Libé have sections entitled »Ici et ailleurs« (»Here and Elsewhere«)—-a clear reference to Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s 1976 film (arguably the most politically lucid of their works)—-alluding to Daney’s globetrotting behavior and interests. The eighteen outposts in the earlier volume include Carthage, New Delhi, Nantes (where »Ici et ailleurs« premiered), Edinburgh, Damas, Berlin, Rotterdam, New York, Gdansk, and Hong Kong. And the corresponding section in the latter volume, which has about seven times as many pieces, includes such cities as Budapest, Jakarta, Venice, Calcutta, Osaka, and São Paolo. Without ever succumbing to exoticism for its own sake, Daney was in effect broadening the terrain of cinema for other critics as well as himself.

*** One reason in particular why Daney’s perspectives are solely needed today is the current/ongoing transformation of cinema from the realm of the analog to the realm of the digital—-a transformation that entails everything from the disappearance of film, the proliferation of DVDs, and new functions for TV and computer screens to new paradigms involving the material capacity of ordinary consumers both to ‘make cinema’ (which now encompasses both film and video) and to access the history of cinema (which nowadays is increasingly being preserved thanks to video). In a confusing transitional period when it is suddenly easier and cheaper than ever before to make a film/video, but correspondingly more difficult and expensive to reach the public with it (when it has to compete with the multinational muscle of global blockbusters and their massive promotional campaigns), the necessity of coping with this new state of affairs critically has left most of the public defenseless as well as clueless. It’s entirely symptomatic of the new situation that most of what formerly understood as critical speculation about film, prior to its institutionalizing by academic film studies, now qualifies chiefly as consumer advice.

Similarly, it is now possible for the first time to access the history of cinema from anywhere in the world and not only from a few cities such as New York, Paris, London, or Tokyo, thanks to such inventions as DVDs and region-free DVD players. Yet this multiplication of potential choices and opportunities has still meant nothing or next to nothing for the majority of viewers, whose sense of the cultural terrain is becoming narrower rather than wider due to the “planned culture” of the highly territorialised media monopolies and their control of the press.

These phenomena are far too multifaceted and wide-reaching to be simply applauded or deplored. Above all, they oblige us to adopt a fresh set of vantage points and paradigms, and it is here that the theoretical models offered by Bazin and even such post-Bazinian figures as Christian Metz seem inadequate to the tasks at hand.

Without being in any way systematic about it, Daney offers a few suggestive notions about where we might start. In his writing for Libé, a few samples of which I’d like to quote, one catches a few inklings of where and how we could begin to rethink some of our present positions—-and not simply about cinema, but also about the mise en scène and découpage of what we call current events.

From »Like Old Couples, Movies and TV Have Wound Up Looking Alike« (18 January 1982): »The feud between the seventh art and the weird and wonderful window on the world, with its missed opportunities and cumulative resentments, is far from over. Is the cinema coming back? Yes, but in what condition? Can we still talk about cinema and television in all seriousness as discrete entities? Nowadays we know that cinema’s survival depends to a large extent on television. That the cinema is at once TV’s income, its concubine, and its hostage. What isn’t so clear is that aesthetically as well, the cinema has lost its fine autonomy. This hasn’t been TV’s gain. The winner has been a hybrid, the telefilm.«

From »Obligatory Montage: The War, the Gulf, and the Small Screen« (April 1991): TELEVISION IS AS REAL AS POSSIBLE. »Why then, though watched by everyone, is it so little respected? It could be that the answer is simple. TV is watched because it’s as real as possible. It tells the truth and informs absolutely. It’s the true pollution of our mental oxygen. We can no more rebel against TV than we can stop breathing for the sake of ecology. Except for one thing, however: the only world it gives us non-stop news about (as precise and overheated as the stock exchange rates or the Top 50) is the world seen from the viewpoint of power (just as one says ‘the earth seen from the moon’). That’s its only reality. Without it, how would we know who has power and who doesn’t? Who’s worth what and who’s worth nothing? If the power men wield over one another is always to be found at the intersection between economics and the sacred, television is a generalised stock market quotation turned into a liturgy (which is itself quoted). That’s really why we watch it, for about that, at least, it keeps us informed. About that, yes, but nothing else. About the stock exchange, but not about life. That’s why, for all that, we don’t respect it.«

»...It seems to me that throughout this war there has been a real missing image, that of Baghdad under the bombs. An image whose absence has even obliged everyone to “imagine” something, in spite of their opinions, their fantasies, or their memories of war movies. This mental image gradually became “truer” than the others, and I suppose that some people must have wanted to see Baghdad in ruins, if only to invalidate the thesis of surgical strikes. The furious energy involved in imagining what neither Bush nor Saddam wanted to show is one of the first effects of this “imageless” war on the guinea pigs that we were. The more the video-game took over, the more the growing abstraction of the targets filled us with dread. Was this out of compassion for the Iraqi people or because the cinema bequeathed those reflexes to us? And what if it’s the same thing?«

In the first extract, Daney is suggesting one of the many ways in which we might start looking at film and television (and, by extension, video) more interactively and less as separate enterprises—-a process that could lead us away from the alienated habit if discussing films seen in cinemas and films seen on TV monitors as if they were interchangeable. And in the final two extracts, he’s proposing a simple yet radical reformulation of film criticism in order to address a world much wider than that of film. All in all, these are relatively modest as well as obvious endeavours. But in an era when discussion of film is often expected to serve the exclusive interests of consumerism, they none the less suggest a refreshing shift in agenda and focus.

*Serge Daney: La Maison cinéma et le monde, 1. Le Temps des Cahiers, 1962-1981, P.O.L., Paris, 2001;
Serge Daney: La Maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les Années Libé, 1981-1985, P.O.L., Paris, 2002.