Bludgeoning Process: On Serge Daney’s “The Cinema House and the World”

By Greg GerkeJanuary 22, 2023

Bludgeoning Process: On Serge Daney’s “The Cinema House and the World”

The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981 by Serge Daney

FRENCH FILM CRITIC Serge Daney, on par with André Bazin and the leading critic-directors of the French New Wave, died in 1992 at the early age of 48. But he is back in the news, as Semiotext(e) has recently issued a new collection of his work, The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981, translated by Christie Pichini, which is the first of four planned Daney-authored volumes. Daney viewed cinema as a great living-giving tree, branching off in many directions. By turns Marxist and Lacanian, he explicated the rapture of cinema, how it acted on him as a breathing presence, a companion. In a videotaped dialogue with Jean-Luc Godard (a portion consequently used in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma), Daney says, “In cinema, one belonged to the world […] I was taken in a bit like an orphan deprived of social contact. I was given some contact but some contact was taken from me first, it was the film that took it, using techniques specific to cinema.” This he contrasted with watching TV news and being “engaged as a powerless adult, with a vague feeling of compassion produced by modern communication.”

I’m not sure Daney’s view of cinema easily translates into today’s milieu, where the mood is tense, the atmosphere choleric, art adrift in space, cast away — too capitalized upon and too diluted by the retardant of capitalism to push people into another realm. Cinema’s scope, literally and figuratively, has changed, because the world changes; there are too many alerts, passwords, and asinine breaking-news interruptions we struggle to ignore.

Daney — like Gilles Deleuze, whose two cinema books Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989) remain vast totems; the two men frequently cited one another’s work — wrote about the broken-up spaces and multiple perspectives in the act of viewing. Writing of the auteur film (wonderfully translated by Pichini), Daney explains:

Alongside the luminous beam that carries the images, there is the glass eye of the projector, the (absent) eye of the camera, the actual eye of the spectator and the (absent) eye of the auteur […] Four projections, at least, in one. One could claim for the spectator, the only actual character in play, a sort of hysteria: that the discourse of the Other taking place for him depends on him. That if he leaves, everything will go just fine without him.

There is a little of Walter Pater’s observation — that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake” — in Daney’s quasi-psychoanalytic house of mirrors. He echoed Félix Guattari’s view that cinema was the 20th-century’s psychoanalysis, as well as Deleuze’s interest in filmic time and duration. In a series of interviews in the documentary Serge Daney: Itinéraire d’un ciné-fils (Serge Daney: Journey of a Cine-Son), completed just before his death, Daney describes his cinephilia further:

The day I realized that what I had expected from the cinema, what I had loved in cinema and what it gave me, was the invention of time, starting with me. Inventing a time, in which I might live, but which is also someone else’s time and not the image.

These concepts and beliefs offered stimulating correlations to my latest thoughts about the state of cinema and how we regard it.

What is cinema, now, for the world, for me? I see it via a high-angle shot of our living room; someone’s on a platform where our ceiling might be, capturing our positions at right-angles to one another — my wife on the couch, me on a chair, for better back support. We face the white wall where the image is projected. It’s Kenji Mizoguchi, The Life of Oharu, a film, like so much of Mizoguchi, made of so many diagonals within its often lateral motion. This setup is a metaphor for the real thing. Cinema is someone watching us watching — a Watcher, a shadow self, one a little surly and judgmental about art until convinced otherwise.

This is cinema today, not the content: it is more about how we watch it, at what incredible angles to our rapidly shrinking screens or in what uncomfortable positions, with food or drink — fuck the collective experience, every ego for itself. The process goes on everywhere: somewhere someone else is watching a Fassbinder in France on a laptop; another in Australia finds Cassavetes on a flat screen while his children parade about the room, chanting, “We don’t talk about Bruno.” Because a very high percentage of cinema is now received outside of the temple of the movie theater — not in a “cinema,” as the very trappings of the word timestamp the landscape — in half-light, daylight, or even phone-light. It comes to us deformed, caricatured, and much more personal for being less beautiful, less tied to a medium that still — in a movie theater — casts its images digitally and sometimes in actual film 20 feet wide by 12 high.

We’ve heard for years of people assembling their personal home theaters, alongside the collecting of films — “owning” a copy, as someone or some institution might have once owned a 16 mm of The Grand Illusion, like the grainy mutilated print I saw in film school. Sentences remembered and restored or caged carry a peculiar meaning, but cinema, whose frames twin our daily seeing, serves up a dueling life form for us to comfort, wobble after, or reject. For many initiates, cinema plays in the mind while we go about our everydays; it inflicts itself on our dreams; it appears and then is given over to the imagination’s churnings and the unconscious meat grinder that makes of everything an exact copy and then another just like it, but a shade meaner and slimier. Out of one film, we retain two others, two paths: one for us, so we can marvel that there was a film we experienced, and one for the circumspect Watcher of our watching.

Codependent on a good day and violently envious on his worst, the Watcher takes an inventory or maybe an unscientific temperature of things. He sees us seeing Oharu moving, stop-action–like, as if in space, but she’s on earth, ready to endure more. He wants to fight against images presented, because Mizoguchi mostly won’t judge his characters — he’ll let us do that. The dominant Watcher shrugs at such a responsibility. This Watcher doesn’t want to work and must be fed, entertained, as much as any intruding presence, any Geist. I fear social media can make someone question their experience of an artwork to a neurotic degree: Am I enjoying this? Am I enjoying this now? How about now? Am I still really enjoying this, really? A more Daneyian response to Oharu would be beginning to feel, not discriminate — a trace of emotion loops in from far off, and it doesn’t matter if the couch is uncomfortable or that we need a drink of water. We are there with Oharu, beside her, as the Watcher melts into near-participant.

Many people coming of age today can’t suture themselves into cinema, not only because the tyranny of screens has lessened its impact, but also because their Watcher won’t let them. The necessary angel of the imagination has been branded a counterfeit figure — a view emboldened by intellectuals across political orientation. Hence, we have, instead, the schizoid megalomania promoted by social media, where clips, GIFs, and so on are the thrust of one’s aesthetic booty, these markers the simple brand signifying or supplanting cinephilia.

The dominant Watcher is a reaper waiting to thresh out any perplexities or negative capabilities about art, and it makes careful cuts so that there are black sides and white sides to every moment. This Watcher is groomed by TV, which Daney calls “a cool medium from which people expect no kind of truth. Its main impact resides in the fact that it has become background noise that prevents us from hearing anything else.” This why the Watcher can only see Mizoguchi’s frames askance — can’t place himself inside the frame, or feel the wood of the Genroku Era in 17th-century Japan, or find an emotional concussion in seeing an older, broken Oharu stumble into the cold winter light that casts long tree shadows just before she finally sees, for the first time in eight years, the royal son she bore as a courtesan. Mizoguchi further accommodates the viewer’s imagination by having a largely soundless soundtrack to grind and filigree the moment, since film music has a propensity to cheat and disempower the image. These experiences might be too intimate for some, as they require doubting the dominant group that feeds our ego.

Can the dominant Watcher separate the experience of water-cooler talk of TV from the living-in-time that Daney outlines? To keep watching and replaying is the essence of cinephilia. It’s the same with people who give themselves over to books or paintings — you keep reading or keep looking, maybe not as intensely as the artist, but endowed with the same vaunted reversibility of writing and reading — reading being a virtual writing and writing a way of reading. According to Paul Valéry, we are given a lifelong gift when we are given art: “All the arts have been created to perpetuate and change, each according to its essence, an ephemeral moment of delight into the certainty of an infinity of delightful moments.” Further on in Journey of a Cine-Son, Daney explains the apotheosis of cinephilia when speaking of a Fritz Lang film:

I know I am there in this mesh of spaces in time, in this time […] I know where I am, I can only be where Lang put me […] You’ll see this scene from a place that is your own and this place will be built through mise en scene […] You’re a specific height and you’re with the camera there, the space is vectorized […] from a single position in the world.

This is a difficult demand for those who are used to being given the chaotic, meaningless camera movements of Succession. Cinema insists, No, you the viewer will be there with the camera, taking on that vector of time; you won’t be anywhere else, you will be there.

So-called prestige TV has no strictures, even invites one to look away — binging was for junk food, now it’s for TV shows — and the “images” it mostly presents look exactly as if someone walked on the set and said, Let’s just do a Steadicam shot for this scene. (Kent Jones describes cinema versus TV as concision versus sprawl.) Space and time. Many men, and particularly young men, can “get” the trick of being in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, but they are nonetheless sequestered in the “single position” of Stanley Kubrick’s world (the “maze,” as critic Thomas Allen Nelson called it), or in the landscapes of Ireland and England in Barry Lyndon or on the sets of Manhattan in Eyes Wide Shut. Their Watcher watches them in these landscapes, as they make The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut artwork as ode to the idea of this “other” world that they want to possess, though all the time they are the possessed.

The debasement of cinema comes down to too few people who highly value art (Henry James: “Art makes life”) and too many who designate it an entertainment, something you endure to get through school so you can become a wage earner and purchase a movie ticket or subscribe to a streaming service and eat food while “watching” or even “binging” — a weekend soirée for the normal work-week crowd. But cinema still exists, maybe more in the imaginations of a select group than in popular culture, and even as the novelty has let off. It was a relatively young art when Italian neorealism and then the Nouvelle Vague changed it forever, and its high point in our country probably came on December 20, 1974, when The Godfather Part II was released. Exactly six months later, Jaws, a perfectly solid film in the vein of Hitchcock, premiered on June 20, and the market-based decisions around finding the next blockbuster would spell US cinema’s drawn-out death spiral.

Daney didn’t like Jaws — calling Spielberg’s long-reviled dud, 1941, his best film to that point — and there is an intriguing 11-page section in the middle of The Cinema House and the World where he composes short texts next to pictures, the first being “The Smile of Richard Dreyfuss, The Star.” Daney rattles off the falling ticket sales in Paris for Jaws, conceding that seeing the film is irrelevant, after the large advertising campaign, which he calls a “bludgeoning process.” The set photo of Dreyfuss in the shark cage is not in the film; its function then was to be put in movie magazines, which the internet today has made superfluous. Daney writes: “The set photograph is Hollywood’s way of revealing not a working process (behind-the-scenes) but the reality of what will be wasted for the film, and, via this waste, of the power to waste that is the final word of the imperialist metropolis when it comes to sounds and images.”

Sad, but prescient in many ways. As Hollywood dies, its “premium content,” stars in special effects, is the only cost it will dare to recoup. This “power to waste” is something too many of our Watchers respect above all.


Greg Gerke has published See What I See (Zerogram Press, 2021), a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things (Splice, 2019), a book of stories. He edits the journal Socrates on the Beach.

LARB Contributor

Greg Gerke has published See What I See (Zerogram Press, 2021), a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things (Splice, 2019), a book of stories. He edits the journal Socrates on the Beach.


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