The Resurgence of Serge Daney

Serge Daney in 1984

A couple of weeks ago, word began to get around that Trafic, the cinema journal founded in 1991 by Serge Daney and Jean-Claude Biette, is coming back. The 120th issue, published late last year, was to have been the final one, but, responding to popular demand, publisher Editions P.O.L announced that Trafic would return as the annual Almanach de cinéma. The 2023 edition, slated for release in December, will feature new writing on Radu Jude, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Joanna Hogg, and Alain Resnais as well as four recently discovered essays by Daney, who died in the summer of 1992.

Just as news of Trafic’s return was whizzing through social media, Semiotext(e) published The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981, a collection of Daney’s writing that starts with a review of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) that ran in Visages du cinéma—a short-lived magazine he’d cofounded with two high school friends—and ends with his columns for Libération. The bulk of the nearly 600 pages translated by Christine Pichini is, of course, taken up by his work for Cahiers, which he coedited with Serge Toubiana from 1973 to 1981.

Daney was “perhaps the magazine’s last great editor,” suggests A. S. Hamrah in the introduction to this first of four volumes gathering Daney’s writing. “While he was there, Cahiers maintained its opposition to commercial cinema without abandoning its analysis of it. Feminism and nascent queer theory came to the surface in his work along with anticolonialism, already present in Cahiers at the time. There was a difference with Daney, maybe because he was gay, maybe because he was also a popularizer, maybe because he was used to corralling so many other writers as an editor. He put it all together like no one else.”

Daney may have been a popularizer, but as Nick Pinkerton has pointed out in 4Columns, he could also “make passing references to the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Guy Debord, with confidence that he’s addressing a sharp-minded readership that can either (a) understand the allusion or (b) do the necessary homework to catch up.” Reviewing The Cinema House for Bookforum, Beatrice Loayza writes: “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.”

“Above all,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “Daney was a formidable coiner of concepts who, as Patrice Rollet writes in the book’s preface, ‘was greatly affected by not being recognized as the cinematic philosopher that he truly was.’ Where most critics appear to formulate responses to the movies they see, Daney formulates ideas so powerful that the movies he sees seem made to embody them.”

In his first piece for Film Comment, Ed Halter observes that “Daney’s writing travels far and wide, covering Hollywood films, the new European cinema of his era, and film festivals around the globe, in articles that range from a few paragraphs to thousands upon thousands of words, testifying to a young writer under the spell of not just cinephilia but cinephagia. Taken together, sinuous rhythms and elevated abstractions unify fragments written years apart, with Daney’s incantatory powers and philosophical insights nearly taking precedence over, yet never entirely losing their grasp on, the films themselves.”

For Thomas Quist, writing in the Notebook, “Daney’s approach to cinema as a global art, his protean set of interests, his applications of philosophical concepts, and his autobiographical bent made him particularly equipped to be the critic in the age of images . . . The vitality of Daney’s criticism is in his desire not to get down a definition of cinema, to pin its wings up and dissect it, but rather to catch it alive.”

The Notebook is also running a piece from the book, a 1979 column for Libération in which Daney writes about tennis as “one of the richest spectacles that can be seen today.” MIT Press has posted an essay on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and the Metrograph Journal has an excerpt from a 1980 piece for Cahiers on Nicholas Ray, “the only filmmaker of his generation to bear witness in vivo to what youth and the cinema were becoming.”

In the meantime, Laurent Kretzschmar, occasionally collaborating with Srikanth Srinivasan, carries on posting new translations of Daney’s work at his blog, Serge Daney in English. Last year, when the pandemic kicked the Cannes Film Festival down the calendar from May to July, Kretzschmar and Srinivasan ran Daney’s coverage of the 1984 edition, with each text appearing on the day in May that it was originally published in Libération. Finally, a reminder that, as a tribute to the late Jean-Luc Godard, the Cinémathèque française has made Daney’s two-hour 1988 interview with the director freely available with English subtitles.

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