Postcards from the Cinema

Serge Daney,
Postcards from the Cinema.
Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.
(Translated by Paul Grant, First published in France, 1994, P.O.L.)
ISBN: 978 1 84520 651 2
£12.00 (pb)
368 pp
(Review copy supplied by Berg publishers)

If you belong to any critical tradition, it’s to that of Bazin and Cahiers, along with Bonitzer, Narboni and Schefer. You’re still looking for a fundamental link between cinema and thought, and you still see film criticism as a poetic and aesthetic activity.
(Gilles Deleuze, ‘Letter to Serge Daney’, 70)

Postcards from the Cinema is a book that many film scholars and cinephiles have been waiting for. This is because it is the first English translation of a book by the great film critic Serge Daney. Daney’s motivation for this book was ‘to take the material of his life as a cinephile and finally tell his story’ (Toubiana, 11). He does this through a combination of his own writing and a lengthy interview in which he shares his thoughts, memories and analytical reflections with his co-editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma, Serge Toubiana. Sadly, Daney died several months after the interview took place and the book was published posthumously. However, the book stays true to Daney’s original conception and that is to begin with his last essay for Trafic ‘The tracking shot in Kapo’, and then to be followed by the interview where he speaks of his life lived in, and alongside, the cinema.

Daney was a prolific writer and this is only one of his many books. He started writing for Cahiers du cinema when he was in his early 20s and he went on to become editor-in-chief of Cahiers, together with Serge Toubiana, from 1974-1981. He left Cahiers to write a regular column on film and television for the daily newspaper Libération. He was also the visionary founder of the journal Trafic. During his lifetime a number of books of his writings were published. There was La Rampe (1982), CinéJournal (1986), La salaire du zappeur(1988), and Devant la recrudescence des vols de sac a main (1992). Reflecting on this remarkable body of work, Adrian Martin characterized Daney’s writing as being distinguished by an ‘interplay of the specific and the general – the fugitive, unsystematised search for a theory or a cultural aesthetic of cinema across a scrupulous attention to each material moment of it presented to the writer’. (Martin, 4) It is an approach that Martin says has been influenced by Barthes’ Mythologies and its particular ‘alternation between ‘extreme close-up descriptions and general meditations’ (Martin, 5).

Postcards from the Cinema was originally published as Persévérance in French in 1994. The translation that we have here also includes an essay by the translator Paul Grant, with the telling title ‘The history of an absence’. In this useful essay Grant provides a brief introduction to Daney’s work and describes some of the problems and obstacles that have hindered the anglophone appreciation of Daney’s writing. It is testament to the craft and eloquence of Daney as a writer, that both Toubiana and Grant expressed certain anxieties about bringing this book to publication. In the preface to the French edition, Toubiana explains that he originally hesitated about publishing the manuscript because Daney had only reviewed the first part of the interview. Toubiana reviewed the second part himself, acknowledging Daney’s ‘concision, sense of story and style’ (14) and stressing that he was ‘trying to be as faithful to his words as possible.’ (14) Paul Grant also expressed some concerns about his translation in an online interview where he said that ‘Bill Krohn’s caveat that only someone who translated Proust could translate Daney has loomed over me’. Both Toubiana and Grant overcame some of these anxieties. For Toubiana it was a commitment to a colleague and friend, to publish his last words. For Grant it was an overwhelming felt need to get writing by Daney out there into the cultural conversation.

For those who might feel reluctant to start reading Daney at the end of his life, be assured that this book is a useful and engaging introduction that will take you inside Daney’s thought processes at a particularly reflective juncture, and will certainly create a desire for more of his writing. This is, in part, because of the way it weaves together elements of biography, theoretical and critical ideas about the cinema, as well as Daney’s own experiences as a writer and editor. And, even though this is not an anthology of Daney’s writing, the essay that the book begins with, ‘The tracking shot in Kapo’, is an important essay and one in which we can see many of Daney’s themes and writing strategies. The book is worth buying for this essay alone.

The essay is vintage Daney, as he moves mercurially from the specific to the general, from the detail to its cultural consequences, and links these back to questions about the cinema. He begins the essay with an image, the tracking shot in a film about concentration camps that was made by Gillo Pontecorvo. It is a shot in a film that he says that he has read about, but never seen. It is, however, a film that he tells us he hasn’t forgotten. It is important to note that he read about it in an essay written by Jacques Rivette for the June 1961 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, the journal that played such a big role in his life. The thing that interests Daney straight away about this tracking shot is the aesthetic choice involved, and the position it places us in as spectators. It is something that starts him asking questions about the ethics of the image, one of his key concerns. It is also something that leads this essay into a discussion of a number of things, one of which is his recruitment into cinephilia in 1959. Daney talks about the way his literature teacher Henri Agel would show the class films like Franju’s Le sang des bêtes (1949) and Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (1955), and these films would make him think differently about images, representation and concentration camps. The tracking shot in Kapo eventually leads Daney to a more recent set of images that he watches on television. It is the music video of ‘We are the world’ in which he sees ‘the rich singers were mixing their image with the image of the starving’ (34). The essay ends with Daney once again asking questions about the ethics of images and whether very much has changed. He also goes on to say that he sees his entire history in the space between the tracking shot discussed in the Rivette essay and the ‘dissolve (that) makes the dying and the famous dance together’ (34). This is a complex and challenging analysis framed by a tracking shot and a dissolve.

The essay is followed by the interview, and this order is important because the issues and ideas discussed in the essay spill over into the interview, and they are replayed in different ways. This allows us to see the way in which Daney’s critical writing and his life intertwine. In the first part of the interview, titled ‘Cine-Biography’, we find out many details about Daney’s early life: his maternal upbringing, his absent father and a childhood that was impoverished but rich in other ways. He saw himself as being responsible for the cultural life of his family and there are some charming descriptions of his visits to the cinema with his mother and grandmother:

I would go arm in arm with my mother and grandmother to see Mizoguchi’s films at the defunct Studio Bertrand. I had total confidence in Cahiers, which wrote that these films were great, and I can see us arriving late on a Sunday, our day to go out, getting totally lost transferring in the subway, and the credits for Tales of Ugetsu already scrolling on the screen. (108)

While Daney’s time spent in the cinema with his mother and grandmother provides one kind of story of origins, it was his absent father who seemed to have more of an impact on his future involvement in thinking and writing about the cinema. In the first instance, it was simply to try and see or hear his father, who was an actor. His father was also Jewish so there are suggestive connections between the tracking shot in Kapo and the Jewish question. Daney explains that there is a sense that he always knew the images in Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard were about him – that they watched him. But possibly the way that Daney’s absent father is important for his development as a film critic is because the absent father appears to be replaced by the paternal family of film critics at Cahiers.

The book is quite informative about the culture of Cahiers and the shifts and changes of policy that Daney was part of, and observed from the inside. This includes the yellow cover period, the political stage, and then the ‘return to cinephilia’ period. We also find out about some of the more personal struggles and betrayals that Daney experienced, including a falling out with Toubiana. His passion for the cinema also involved him in various travels, such as his trip to Hollywood in 1964 to conduct a series of interviews with Leo McCarey, Jacques Tourneur, Jerry Lewis, Sam Fuller and George Cukor. And then there is May ‘68. These are stories that are fascinating to read because they are told by someone who was a participant, as well as a commentator, in events that shaped film history and film culture.

But they are also fascinating to read because they give us greater insights into the life of a true cinephile, a life that was lived in the cinema, with the cinema and through the cinema. Daney even described himself as being born ‘at the same time as what I call modern cinema, grown-up cinema, the cinema of Rossellini, when he made Rome, Open City.’ (40) Poignantly, because he was aware that he was gravely ill, Daney says that he’s ‘the same age as modern cinema – a little less than 50 years old.’ (50)

Berg is to be congratulated on their impressive publishing initiatives, which also include translations of Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour, Film Fables by Jacques Ranciere and now this book of Daney’s. Hopefully they will be interested in publishing more of Daney’s writings so that a more complete appreciation of his work will be possible for English speaking readers.

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.

Works cited
Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Letter to Serge Daney: Optimism, pessimism, and travel’ negotiations, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 68-79.
Martin, Adrian, ‘Serge Daney (1944-1992)’ Continuum, The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol 5 No 2, 1992. 4-5.

Created on: Thursday, 19 July 2007 | Last Updated: 19-July-07

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →