We could postulate three periods for the extraordinary flourishing of film culture brought about by the French New Wave: Before, During and After. André Bazin, of course, epitomized the first, as a founding editor of the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, a crucial contributor to auteur theory, and champion of postwar American films and Italian neo-realism against a stale French ‘quality cinema’. The Young Turks whom Bazin nurtured at the Cahiers—Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and the somewhat younger Luc Moullet—mainly defined the second period: teenage iconoclasts who picked up the camera to become the stellar practitioners of the following decades.
Serge Daney (1944–92), who started out as a disciple of the New Wave crowd and described himself as a Bazinian early on, stands as the most original commentator of the third period, which he helped to usher in and continued to redefine up until his death from aids in 1992. This stage, the Post-New Wave, was marked 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: Iran, Taiwan, India, the Maghreb and Latin America were now part of film criticism’s ‘cinema-home’. As editor of the Cahiers in the 1970s, then film critic for Libération from 1981 and founder of the eclectic Trafic in 1991, the year before his death, Daney’s turf had expanded from specialized cinephilia to the world and its history, particularly as television and cinema help us to understand it. And the fact that he considered the passage between cinema and television as a kind of physical voyage, one that could even induce jetlag, made that journey another part of his itinerary as a world traveller.
These two French volumes of his uncollected pieces, though incomplete, help us to trace some crucial aspects of the transition between Periods Two and Three. The form is roughly similar in both cases: a substantial interview with Daney (the first from 1977, the second 1983), followed by a bulky selection of film reviews, then further sections on auteurs and critical theory, reflections on actors, television, and a ‘Home and Abroad’ section (‘Ici et ailleurs’) of dispatches from film festivals around the world. The range of films reviewed is a joy. From the 18-year-old cinephile’s account of Hawks’s Rio Bravo in 1962 (‘an “a-Western”’—the frontier ‘is not what we imagine’—whose ‘realism answers not to a need for the picturesque but to the necessity of a psychological order’), to Pasolini’s Theorem in 1968 (as a film that ‘lays bare the process not only of its own genesis but also that of its projection, its relation to the audience . . . you and me’), to Hagman’s The Blob in 1976 (‘A gelatinous red mass that swallows everything in its path . . . one has little difficulty in recognizing Capital’) to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 (the hard art of making cinema do the work of a comic strip: ‘to attain this strange goal requires immense labour, diabolical precision and much reflection on cinema’) to Diego Risquez’s Orinoco in 1985: a young Venezuelan’s epic history of his country, filmed in Super-8, which Daney evokes with ‘an ear still gurgling with the noise of water and a mouth tasting of yapo smoke’.
He had an inimitable flair for epigrammatic encapsulations, both of filmmakers and of philosophical positions. ‘Altman used to look at human beings with disgust’, he wrote of Popeye in 1981. ‘He found them artificial. Today he looks at an artificial character without disgust. Popeye’s difficulty in being Popeye inspires him.’ Or of the us cinema and American auteurs:
When it’s in good health, American cinema doesn’t produce auteurs but producers . . . or, more precisely, businessmen of the spectacle. Health for America is Disney, not Welles (which is why illness, in America, is so much more interesting). As entrepreneurs of the spectacle, Coppola and Lucas conduct their ventures with a mixture of megalomaniacal madness and business sense. Their madness is deployed in creating their production machines, their empires, without which there is little chance of success in fighting the studio system, Hollywood, agents, lawyers and empty professionalism.
One striking anomaly between these two volumes is their number of pages, relative to the number of years they cover. Volume i, Le Temps des Cahiers, 1962–1981, spanning Daney’s decades as a contributor and then editor at the Cahiers, weighs in at 574 pages, which is already fairly hefty. But the volume devoted to his first five years at Libération is almost twice as big: 1,040 pages. One reason for this is the incompletion of the collection, already referred to. The excluded matter from Daney’s Cahiers period is considerable—not only many important collective pieces, but also his 265-page Procès à Baby Doc, Duvalier père et fils, a 1973 polemic against the Duvalier regime in Haiti written under the pseudonym Raymond Sapène. (And, complicating any neat divisions, some late pieces written for the Cahiers are included in the early pages of Volume 2, Les Années Libé, 1981–1985.) There is also, of course, a world of difference between editing a monthly magazine for hardcore cinephiles, which undoubtedly limited the time Daney could devote to writing, and working as a chronicler of film, tv and tennis for a daily mainstream newspaper. Nevertheless, the quantum leap in productivity after 1981 is difficult to deny, and was one of the main reasons for Daney’s increasing stature as France’s leading film critic.
The broader cultural reach of Libé enabled Daney, spurred on by examples such as Barthes and Deleuze, to speculate on a much wider canvas. He started thinking about what it means to re-see classics on tv, ranging from Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm to Minnelli’s The Pirate; and about the intricate relationships between tv commercials and popular studio releases such as Out of Africa or The Lover. Television did not make cinema less important—on the contrary, ‘it gives cinema a place it didn’t have before: it’s no longer a witness of the world, but a witness of the images of the world’, as he put it in 1983. The question thus becomes: ‘Does cinema have the means to mount a critique of television? Can such a critique interest a wide public?’