The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Serge Daney The Cinema House and the World: The Cahiers du Cinema Years, 1962–1981 (2022)

 

‘In 1962, Serge Daney, under the intellectual mist of the French New Wave, began publishing criticism at the age of 20. As a loyal Bazinian, he wrote about Hawks and Preminger and Jerry Lewis, railed against conclusions published in Positif, and beat the drum for auteurism. To some, film criticism of this era, say from Bazin to the late ’60s, should remain the model; something to be reproduced and circulated like gift-shop imitations. The world, however, kept rotating. The Algerian Revolution, the Vietnam War, May ’68, all of these added to a long century of atrocities—two World Wars, extermination camps, atomic weaponry. Only the critic who saw cinema as an instrument to inscribe these events could be salient.

‘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. His project evolved through golden-age auteurist in-fighting toward issues of politics, perception, and the image. And so his critical oeuvre offers, along with a compendium of distinct ideas on cinema, something like a diachronic analysis of the image.

‘Someone as prolific as Daney presents numerous difficulties: shifting foci, new theoretical footings, and contradicting statements. Thirty years of writing (1962-1992) is too long to spend saying the same things. The central problem is this: how does one trace a mainline through the matted skein of paradoxical and gilt-edged ideas that is Daney’s career? An answer: by understanding Daney primarily as a creator of concepts—the pinnacle for a thinker. For creating effective concepts, which can be taken up by others, gives one’s work a future. …

‘Even in his early writings, Daney lays the intellectual track that leads towards his pathbreaking work on the image. In this time, he cultivated personal and idiosyncratic definitions of common concepts: mise-en-scène, off-screen space (hors-champs), the off.

‘Like Bazin’s dedication to deep-focus photography, Daney felt that mise-en-scène was the way a filmmaker determined their relation to the world and how a film defined the limits of its realism. His mise-en-scène is a subversion of the simple definition of what is put into the scene or frame. It is, rather, “the expression of a lack—to create around the characters, mired in their solitude, victims of their indifference, the space of their common prison: an architecture of emptiness.” His definition puts forth a more poetic understanding of how frames relate to one another, how they relate to the spectator. The litany of objects, roaming actors, and spatial constellations across a film is no mere linkage of stylistic flourishes, but an aesthetic technique to alchemize the real into film form. The art of mise-en-scène is not the what is placed there, but “articulating that space that invariably creeps in between two people, two moments in a film.”

This formulation allows Daney to move away from a MacMahonian tradition of classical mise-en-scène, where a synthesis of sound and image dictates fine filmmaking. Embracing dissonance between sound and image, between discordant frames, allows Daney to later articulate and valorize the artistic projects of people he held in high regard: Jean-Luc Godard and Straub-Huillet. It is a dual movement: away from conventional cinema, away from established notions of cinematographic terminology—a mise-en-scène for a changing world.

‘The off forms the other key concept. For Daney, a film’s underlying political and aesthetic questions can be approached through considering what is in the shot and what is not, which is to say the relation between everything and almost everything. Daney explicates this idea using the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall (1977). McLuhan’s sudden appearance in the shot (literally pulled into frame by the director) invokes a question: “what outside of the frame, guarantees the frame?” The ability of the off to generate anything within the image at any moment provides film its sense of the aleatory. The structures of cinema (the camera, the screen) guarantee the frame and, in turn, the frame guarantees a poetic relationship, connecting and separating simultaneously, between the image and the world.

‘The densest concepts conjure Daney’s greatest writing. I can think of few passages more invigorating than his digressions into the off during his review of António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s Trás-os-Montes (1976): “Everything that passes through the limbo of off is susceptible to returning as other. As narrative and representative as they were, people such as Lang or Tourneur (continued today by Jacquot or Biette) only filmed because that other, that doubt at the heart of the same, was possible.” Take cinema’s famous double, Kim Novak as Judy and Madeleine in Vertigo (1958). Her absence in a scene, even in a shot-reverse-shot, provokes doubt at her presence—a doubt that forms a fugue-like continuity across the viewing experience. It is difficult not to think of Vertigo, and all other films that utilize the proto-cinematic theme of the double, when Daney writes, “and if you do come back, how will I know it’s still you?” The paradox of the off, of the other, is what turns the wheel of cinema.

‘These early, formative concepts were often deployed to elucidate the liveliness of certain auteurs. In an evaluation of Otto Preminger (whom Daney declares, in 1962, to be America’s greatest living filmmaker), he highlights the director’s use of mise-en-scène to evoke the play between freedom and confinement. This is why Preminger’s films often include courtrooms which are, for Daney, “by definition a mise-en-scène devoted to eliminating personal initiative.” The harmonizing of visual ideas with space (is that not one definition of good mise-en-scène?) slips something of reality into a film, even if that something real is a lack, or a confinement in the case of Preminger. But spatial relations and politics evolve over time (think of the barricades of May 1968—themselves mirroring the barricades of the French Revolution—which disrupted the accustomed flow of spatial order). Thus, our understanding of how space is inscribed into celluloid must also evolve. 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.’ — Thomas Quist, MUBI Notebook

 

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Further

SERGE DANEY IN ENGLISH
The Image Book: Serge Daney’s “The Cinema House & The World”
Nick Pinkerton on ‘The Cinema House & the World’
‘The Cinema House and the World’ @ goodreads
THE ONLY FILM CRITIC OF REAL VALUE IN FRANCE
A Visionary French Film Critic Finally Arrives in English
Cinema Was Everything
Cinema Is Never on Time
The Resurgence of Serge Daney
SERGE DANEY’S FAVOURITE MOVIES FROM HIS DIARIES
THE MISSING IMAGE [on Serge Daney]
Serge Daney interviews Eric Rohmer
Serge Daney, testament permanent
L’âme Daney
Serge Daney, une expérience critique du deuil
Buy ‘The Cinema House and the World’

 

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Extras


SERGE DANEY – Terminator & mythologie


Serge Daney (1979) by Gérard Courant


Entretien entre Serge Daney et Jean-Luc Godard
Watch it here

Trafic : 20 ans, 20 films – Serge Daney au Jeu de Paume

Serge Daney

 

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Interview (1986)
by François Margolin

 

This year, you have not been to Cannes. On the other hand, you are going to follow the World Cup…

I had had enough of Cannes. In fact, it’s not my cup of tea. And like us, in Libé, we invented the idea of ​​making a huge treatment out of it, I find that less funny. Especially when we know how to do it. The only thing that really amused me was having my back to the wall all the time. Even if we are a day late. To be in a quasi-fiction. We do as for the World Cup: if we haven’t seen the film, we can’t talk about behind the scenes, nor about the film, of course! And “doing Cannes” from Paris is almost as hard as working on site. For me, Cannes is tiring, and you feel like you’re getting older from being in Cannes every year. And it is not a place of great pleasure. Even if I like the sporting side: twelve or thirteen days of stress, and then rest. The pleasure of the challenge. I also know that one can purr…

Do you have more fun going to Cannes, the Mondial or Roland-Garros?

Roland-Garros is not the same. It’s almost no work. Instead of talking over a beer, with someone, about what we saw, we write. Without draft. We phone the newspaper, we dictate and we go home. It’s almost a sham to be a sports journalist at Roland-Garros. There is no investigative work, we are parked in a special stand… We see the matches too well, the players are obliged to come in a sweat to explain themselves at a press conference, and to be accountable . Everything is served on a platter. It’s not heroism. Which is not the case with the Tour de France. It’s almost scandalous, tennis!

There is no “sports environment”?

Yes, but I only play tennis. The other sports journalists behave like schoolboys, jaded, who have seen others, it’s unpleasant. Their stands are the only ones where we chat. Until the semi-finals.

Is it a show, in the same sense as a film?

There are a lot of commonalities. It is designed as in a dialogue: we count the points. Many things look alike. First, time: it must end but we don’t know when. Then, thanks to TV, we got used to seeing people’s faces in close-up, like in the cinema. Like with actors. Before, players had to make hieroglyphs with their bodies. Noah’s ravaged face becomes the only interest of a pointless match. There is a dramaturgy of faces. And then there’s the idea of ​​limits, like off-screen in the cinema. As in all ball games, there is room for the imagination, because the ball that is passed from one to the other is like conversation. “Getting the ball rolling” is like “taking you at your word”.

As I like to talk, I’m comfortable in tennis because it’s a dialogue, and it’s also a show. Like in the movies. It’s akin to dance, performance, and it stages moral values: courage, despair… But above all, the fundamental common point – for which I still persist in seeing the films – is is that nothing is given in advance and that everything is built over time. To be touched by a film is not to be touched from the start by a musical score, it is to be touched by the feelings that the film promises, but at unforeseen and random moments. Same for tennis. There are always two or three possible scenarios, but the course of the match – which has nothing to do with the disappointed hope, very often, that there will be something

This sets the record straight. And that puts you in a relationship of quasi-innocence with what is happening. Not just sharpness. Because it forces you to give up the initial scenarios and go through standard emotions. Either you rediscover them, or you had to adapt others. It is this idea that everything is always possible that interests me. For the cinema, as for tennis. This is also true for the public, especially when there are matches in five sets. When the public has imagined several hypotheses that turn out to be inaccurate and they end up adopting another. When the favorite plays badly, then we go with his opponent. But this one does not manage to conclude, so we go back to the side of the favorite.

There is always a moment of justice. We see things as they happen and as they are because we have eliminated scenarios that are too easy. But it takes time, and we don’t have too much of that in tennis. It’s like cinema, there are only major tournaments in three winning sets – those of the Grand Slam – which differ from matches in two winning sets, which are exhibitions – where tennis is a performance, like music videos or the ads where it’s pure rhetoric, which has no time to fill with human feelings.

There is still a huge difference with the cinema: in tennis, there are only two characters, and of the same sex, except of course in mixed doubles…

It’s true.

The other difference is that you can only see tennis live…

Yet it exists: people rewatch the Roland-Garros final with Noah. But, for me, it’s unthinkable to replay a match, even a sublime one. I don’t have a VCR because the idea of ​​collecting my own emotions horrifies me. But, conversely, I like to see a film on television, but I have to see it when it’s on.

You have two types of attitude of a religious type in relation to the image: I would say that one apes the rite, and the other is mystical. Mine is mystical. Films are like the stars: it passes, it passes again, it passes away, it comes back, it hallucinates, it is forgotten, it speaks. Movies don’t have their only screened film existence, and that’s fine. Canal+, for example – because I watch at night – I see things there that I was not ready to see again but they are there, and I say to myself: “Here, let’s see them! It’s like finding a friend again. We say to ourselves: “How are you? And it can be much better than we thought, or, on the contrary, we realize that we have nothing more to say to each other.

I saw like that, the other day, The Purple Rose of Cairo which I had not seen. I found it extremely weak, but it doesn’t make much sense that I am now shouting it from the rooftops. It’s like a delayed date with something I shouldn’t have seen. But that I didn’t see… As everyone said the same thing about the film – that it was a masterpiece – it’s as if I hadn’t seen it. And I realize that it is not as good as it was said, and that at the limit, today, I could write on it.

But it’s my relationship to the encounter and the unknown. It is increasingly difficult to maintain this relationship. The other relationship is the ritual relationship, which television symbolizes well, because it works in grids, and someone can very well organize their personal rituals, which also worked in the cinema, which has always had a “programming” aspect. which was very weak. When I was a kid, I went to the cinema next door with my mother and all I wanted was for the movie to start. But people came and wanted the whole ritual: the entrance, the cashier, the usher, the advertisement, the short film, the Gaumont news, the attractions, the intermission…

I already hated that. I am not someone who walks to the ritual but to the encounter. You are obliged to put yourself in a situation where the meeting is always possible. In France, we are very helped because the films circulate. Terribly. The old ones, the new ones… If I was in a country where the cinema has almost disappeared, I would have to reserve emotions. I would say to myself: I can’t afford not to record the John Ford, in original version, which is on TV tonight, in a restored copy. But it’s like the books I have here. I haven’t read the tenth, and I don’t like the idea that a book is meant to be read, and is only there as remorse.

If I had ten thousand VHS tapes, I wouldn’t enjoy the idea that I’m going to cry again at Mizoguchi’s Intendant Sansho . I would be ashamed of myself, but I know that I am marginal and “dinosaur”. But that’s what makes you write: when you’re in the ritual, you don’t write, you write the text of the mass. When you’re in a mystical experience (that’s a big word), where you can change your mind and be taken the wrong way, you write.

Today, the other critics are in the ritual or in the mystical?

There is a question of wear. After a certain age, it no longer means anything to be surprised. You can’t, except it’s your livelihood, or your character – we won’t name names but there are! –, you can’t come every week saying: “I was overwhelmed by a film, returned, speak to me with respect, I will no longer see things as before. »

I believe that everyone has had a dozen films in their life which have contributed to making us who we are, to forming us. Who have mixed with what we are. And these films, we will always see them with a special, close emotion. And then, one day, the list is made, since the temperament is made, and the culture is closed. At this point, we start to deal with it, pretending to be so moved, or we double-lock and say: “Cinema doesn’t exist anymore”, and we calmly go back to the old Von Stroheims. And why not, by the way?

It’s like with classical music: if someone likes Bach and not Schönberg, you don’t blame him. He can spend his whole life The Passion according to Saint Matthew , he will not be wrong. But it’s new for the cinema: either do what I do, me, by intellectual eclecticism, which consists in saying, the things of my life that I owe to the same formative tricks, by saying Pickpocket , that changed me, or Hiroshima, my love – I take films from 1959, when I started going to the cinema – that’s one thing, and now what I’d like to see is the truth that these films carried, not only compared to me.

So, what is the Bresson adventure, beyond Bresson? What is the Godard shock, beyond Godard? What is Renoir, beyond Renoir? We are forced to make assumptions and take things in a more peripheral way, saying: “In tennis, there are sometimes things that…, or on TV…” We are all there. To want to extend something that we owe to the cinema. Some want to extend it inside the cinema, in which case it very quickly becomes rancid or ritual, or in the best case it becomes Woody Allen, a little master cinephile.

Or else, we try to hypothesize that it is a broader adventure that concerns the whole century. So it’s not by chance that Gilles Deleuze wrote the preface to this book: I asked him. It reassures me that a philosopher says: “But, you know, there are perhaps things that we can take from the world, stricto sensu , of cinema. Especially at a time when the culture of cinema is terribly dominant: it has never been so studied, used, loved and at the same time it has never been so random to make films. This is not at all the opposite of that.

We are making the mausoleum of the cinema, what is inside we are not sure… As I am a religious spirit but not a believer, that there is a way of working in a temple horrifies and frightens me. And I see it as a denial that films were anything other than films for me. Out of sheer selfishness.

In the criticism at Libé , we speak more of emotion. Lefort, for example. You talk about theoretical emotion. Not yours. For Paris, Texas for example?

No way. I’m trying here, in this review, to describe the scene and to say why it touched me, and from there, I’m going to pull the thread of emotion to arrive at something intellectually discible. This is the tradition of Bazin. It’s like that. We start from something that really touched us, there is an emotion, we can manage this emotion, say that it is immeasurable, say that we feel it, we can say to ourselves that the starting point is necessarily subjective but that if we work hard enough, through writing, we will arrive at something less subjective. It’s not completely irrational. It’s true that a while ago, on Wenders, for example, an extremely emotional filmmaker, it’s worth knowing what his emotion is made of and then saying to yourself that

Does the emotion pass more when you talk about a session in Mogadishu than here, as if there were a need to travel, to go elsewhere, to talk about the emotion?

In Mogadishu, you see black high school students in front of a canvas in the open air and the emotion comes from the fact that you have absolutely no idea what they are seeing, and you, you are seeing the same thing as them. The emotion comes from the fact that at some point it becomes very tangible, very concrete. There is emotion of which nothing can be said. Just as they wouldn’t understand mine. This one I cannot communicate, only indicate, and you are touching here on the limit of film criticism, on its outer edge, when it is totally obliged to admit that cultural differences create different perceptions .

But when I talk about what you see in the Latin Quarter, I can’t portray the emotion of going to Studio Logos. I talk to people who have seen films, who have read books, we are no longer in awe of L’Arrivée du train en gare de La Ciotat , or even Citizen Kane or Breathless. Perhaps also that I wrote, during these five years, at a time when the cinema began to quote itself a lot, and to recycle itself. So the emotion is second degree. Of course, when people go to see a melody by Douglas Sirk and they say: “Fantastic, this melody is so grotesque in the first degree but in the second, it’s really brilliant”, I take it literally , I’m unhappy. However, it is to this public that I write…

A critic must have collusion with his public?

No, but, there, no need to decide. It’s real. It is a broad social belonging to the same world. But you have to go to Mogadishu to take the measure of my own belonging to this culture, and put the differences into perspective with the people who read me. It is minimal with Mogadishu, or with other Festivals at the end of the world. But it is still the hypothesis that cinema images are not perceived the same everywhere but can pass everywhere.

Cinema’s penetrating force is even stronger than its cultural relativity. Whereas if you go from Webern to Mogadishu, you don’t even create an effect of ambiguity, you don’t create anything at all. That’s the strength of cinema, because it’s still somewhat popular. And that one can be fascinated by the question: What do they see? Why are they screaming at such a time? Why aren’t they moved at the same time as me? It’s when it touches on perception itself.

 

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Book

Serge Daney The Cinema House & The World
Semiotext(e)

‘One of the greatest film critics of his generation on topics ranging from the auteur approach of the French New Wave to a more structural examination of film.

‘One of the greatest film critics of his generation, Serge Daney wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma before becoming a journalist for the daily newspaper Libération. The writings collected in this volume reflect Daney’s evolving interests, from the auteur approach of the French New Wave to a more structural examination of film, psychoanalysis, and popular culture.

‘Openly gay throughout his lifetime, Daney rarely wrote explicitly about homosexuality but his writings reflect a queer sensibility that would influence future generations. In regular intellectual exchanges with Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Roland Barthes, Daney wrote about cinema autobiographically, while lyrically analyzing the transition from modern cinema to postmodern media. A noted polymath, Daney also published books about tennis and Haiti’s notorious Duvalier regime. His criticism is open and challenging, polyvocal and compulsively readable.’ — Semiotext(e)

Excerpts

Grey matter: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

Jaws obeys the rules of how a typical disaster film is set on its course.

1. Opening scene. At night, on a beach, a group of youths sing, drink and smoke. Tipsy (stoned?), two of them go take a skinny-dip expecting much pleasure. Offended, the sea dispatches its shark with its teeth*. The girl who “was the first one,” and who swims elegantly on the film poster, will be reduced to a disgusting pile of flesh in the morning. From then on, all sexual relations are suspended. In a grotesque scene, the cop’s (Roy Scheider) wife suggests to her husband “to get drunk and fool around”. The cop feels queasy and the audience laughs: doesn’t she know, the fool, that she could be “the second one”? So sexual relations are suspended until the clever but abject beast (grey matter, nothing but grey matter) explodes into a reddish powder. The shark is a paper tiger.

2. If there is such a thing as a link between violence and pornography, it is that they exclude one another in the logic of disaster films (which is also the logic of US imperialism: the politics of “the worse, the better”). If there is violence, there cannot be pornography, since it is the threat of pornography that violence is warding off. Already, in the stupid The Towering Inferno, it is because a (slightly effeminate) rich kid engages in careless flirting that he commits the criminal negligence causing the disaster. He will die as a result (not before proving his incurable spinelessness), as will an illegitimate couple secretly making love even though the fire was already raging and the audience had understood that it wasn’t dealing with a logic of fooling around anymore, but with an escalation of violence.

Not any violence though. Fire, jaws, quaking grounds help bind the community together again. Not sex (which only binds two people) but paranoid sublimation (which scares a lot of people). In other words – and this is not the least worrying bit of the story – children sin and parents pay the price.

3. The suspended sexual relations make way for a “three men in a boat” setup bordering on homosexual comradeship, with noble ends and tough guy violence. We know that, in American cinema, this comradeship is defined by the exclusion of two despised groups: women and politicians (thought to have access to suspicious pleasures, in the view of real men). It’s also a question of sealing a triple alliance between the hunter, the scientist and the cop. And this alliance has a class dimension: Quint, the working-class man ill-suited to society (played by the Shakespearian actor Robert Shaw), and two figures of middle class (the modest and idealistic academic – Richard Dreyfus – and an almost failed cop), fight against the rot of money: profit-hungry property developers, irresponsible mass swimmers, a corrupt mayor. And it’s also about binding the audience in the film theatre, to transform it into a petrified collective, bombarded by an advertising campaign that makes them as incapable of escaping Jaws (the film) as the film extras are of escaping the jaws of the shark.

4. This “Boo! Scare me!” is therefore heavily loaded with the question of “How to reassure the masses?” and “What is the price to pay?”. A misplaced desire (the youths that smoked on the beach and that the fiction will quickly get rid of) will be substituted by a more socialising desire, a desire to end the horror and to return to normality. That is the function of disaster films. But it is not the only one: for what is to be desired, by the same token, is the norm. It is in this regard that this cinema borders on fascism.

What scared more than three hundred thousand spectators in one week? And what are they getting reassured about? About the staging of a violence that – as Alain Bergala says quite rightly – “guarantees the very conditions of the spectator’s pleasure and his future support for every form of counter-violence”.

It’s the perennial cry of the sergeant major saying: “I only want to see one head!” Nothing must stand out: a sleek, full and homogenous body (military or social). A body that can be compared to a loop that closes itself except in one place where it gapes. This is where the shark shows up: it is what Lacan defines as the model of the fish trap, the obturator, the object a. Who is the shark? Nothing more than the actualisation – arriving like a hallucination from outside the fish trap – of the fact that something is rotten inside and attracting the fish. This something is the enemy within, meaning anything capable of pleasure. The supposed pleasure of the youths at the beginning, the real pleasure of the asocial duovidual composed of the hunter and the scientist. For nothing compels Quint to persevere with the hunt except the fatal outcome that he surmises: to be incorporated by the great white. Nothing compels the scientist to make a copy of the Quattrocento cube (the cage) underwater, right under the shark’s nose. He must be a cinephile. Neither he nor Quint will kill the beast.

5. A normative fantasy must be organised with a mise en scene. Quite simply, it consists in filming everything (events, extras) from two – and only two – points of views: that of the hunter and that of the hunted. There is no other point of view (spatial, moral or political), no other place for the camera, and therefore for the spectator, than this double position. Some talk lightly about “identification” in the cinema. They haven’t noticed that in this kind of film, the identification is with the couple hunter/hunted, with its specular oscillation, a short-circuit between knowledge and point of view, a loss of any point of reference, getting under the other’s grey skin, in summary everything leading to a complete removal of any responsibility. In the pulsation of this double point of view, the camera is with the child who swims and for whom the shark is only this black rectangle speeding by, and it is, in the next shot, with the shark for whom the leg of the child is just what sticks out below the water surface.

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George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead

Not enough attention has been paid to American cinema’s persistent, underground love for the apocalypse. As if too much self-righteousness could only be extended by evoking the most definitive horrors, horrors accompanied by a certain kind of pleasure, as we had previously seen in the films of DeMille (or in King’s In Old Chicago, Van Dyke’s San Francisco), a filmmaker of catastrophe and disaster, themes whose remarkable severity cannot be overlooked and whose yield is not insignificant, as the photogeneity of total destruction is complemented by the secondary benefits of the characters’ rehabilitation (those characters who survive it, at least), characters who, after having been broken, are more sublime and human than they ever were before. Major natural disasters and the crucibles that a shallow society deserves: such was the case with DeMille, as it was later with Hitchcock, or with the low-budget sci-fi films suddenly made possible, towards 1950, by the idea of an atomic end, the abrupt mutations of nature in revolt, aberrant and monstrous, the always possible eradication of mankind, etc. (Five, Them!, Body Snatchers, etc.). And yet, here as elsewhere, the apocalypse was a disappointment because mankind, having been stupid enough to deserve it, was also smart enough to stop it, opposing it with a united front from which, all differences having been temporarily erased, an overwhelming sense of humanity emerged. Humanity per se, meaning not monstrous.

If it is true that Romero intends to keep his distance from that cinematic tradition, we must acknowledge that he begins by respecting it. The script contains no surprises: as an unanticipated aftereffect of a botched space probe, the brains of the most recent dead are reactivated, and the cadavers take advantage of their return to life to feed on living flesh. Appropriately, the generality of the phenomenon is rendered by the choice of an exclusive space—an isolated house that is attacked by the monsters overnight and eventually invaded—that is connected to the outside world only by a television set. After a brutal night, while the living dead die again, the film’s hero and sole survivor, a Black man (Ben), the director and heart of the resistance, is mistaken for a zombie and is killed. This would simply be a ludicrous joke if the following shots didn’t contain photos of his corpse on the front page of the newspapers, photos of a model zombie.

Here, then, we have a simplistic, tacked-on ending that does little to convince us. Because of it, we are suddenly miles away from the pleasant feelings we had anticipated, and forced to question the real subject of the film, which clearly is not zombies, but racism. Because of it, a retrospective reading of the film seems legitimate. And yet, such a reading, if we were to attempt it, would have nothing to draw upon, wouldn’t mitigate the film’s heterogeneity, heterogeneity that is the force of a film whose conclusion serves as an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked, the denunciation of a problem that was poorly stated. For not only is there no mention of racism in the film, but during the most violent clashes between Ben and Cooper (white and despicable), it is frankly unbelievable that Cooper wouldn’t resort to using racist slurs. Instead, it is as if throughout the film the characters and the filmmakers consider Ben as simply a man, nothing more, without his skin color causing any problems for even a second. The problem is assumed to be resolved, even transcended. And it is assumed that the spectator will blindly follow, thrilled that he may enjoy his tolerance and generosity of spirit at such a low cost. Everything seems to allow for a humanizing reading of the film that Romero absolutely facilitates before he parasitizes it and calls it what it is: a way to invoke the monstrous in order to avoid speaking about the simple differences that exist between men, to obscure them by confronting them to a difference as enormous as it is imaginary.

One might say that this gives too much credit to Romero, whose film is clumsily shot, awkwardly acted and as for being scary, completely ineffective; it is enough for us that the film produces this call to order.

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It’s the Monster Who Is Afraid: David Lynch’s Elephant Man

This film is strange in so many ways. Beginning with what David Lynch does with fear. That of the spectator (ours) and that of his characters, including John Merrick (the elephant-man). In this way the first section of the film, up until the move to the hospital, operates a little like a trap. The spectator becomes accustomed to the idea that he must sooner or later endure the unendurable and look the monster in the face. A coarse burlap sack, pierced with a single eyehole is all that separates him from the horror he suspects. The spectator entered the film, following Treves, through voyeurism. He paid (just like Treves) to see a freak: this elephant-man alternately exhibited and prohibited, rescued and beaten, glimpsed in a cellar, “presented” to savants, taken in and hidden at the royal Hospital of London. And when the spectator finally does see him, he is all the more disappointed that Lynch then pretends to play the classic horror film game: night, deserted hospital corridors, the witching hour, the rapid flight of clouds beneath a leaden sky and suddenly a shot of John Merrick bolt upright in bed, in the throes of a nightmare. He sees him—truly—for the first time, but he also sees that this monster who is supposed to terrify him is himself terrified. It’s at that moment that Lynch liberates his spectator from the trap that he initially set (the trap of “more-to-see”), as if he were saying, “it’s not you who matters, it’s the elephant-man; it’s not your fear that interests me, it’s his; it’s not your fear of being afraid that I want to manipulate, it’s his fear of inspiring fear, the fear he has of seeing himself in the other’s eyes.” Vertigo switches sides.

The Psalm Is a Mirror

The Elephant Man is a series of dramatic turns, some funny (the princess’s visit to the hospital, as a “deus ex machina”), others more troubling. We never know how a scene might end. When Treves wants to convince Carr Gomm, the director of the hospital (played magnificently by John Gielgud), that John Merrick is not incurable, he asks Merrick to memorize and recite the beginning of a psalm: barely have the two doctors left the room when they hear Merrick recite the end of the psalm. Shock, dramatic turn: this man that Treves himself believed to be a cretin knows the Bible by heart. Later, when Treves introduces him to his wife, Merrick continues to surprise them by showing them a portrait of his own mother (who is very beautiful) and by being first to extend a handkerchief to Treves’s wife, who has suddenly burst into tears. There is a lot of comedy in the way that the elephant man is inscribed as the one who always completes the tableau he is a part of, signs it. It is also a very literal way, not at all psychological, of moving the story forward: by leaps and bounds, by a signifying logic. That is how John Merrick finds his place within the portrait of (high) English society, Victorian and puritan, for which he becomes a sort of touristic must. He is something that society needs, something without which it is incomplete. But what exactly? The end of the psalm, the portrait, the handkerchief, what are they, ultimately? As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that for those surrounding him, the elephant-man is a mirror: they see him less and less, but they see themselves more and more in his eyes.

The Three Gazes

Throughout the film, John Merrick is the object of three gazes. Three gazes, three cinematic eras: burlesque, modern, classical. Or: the carnival, the hospital, the theater. There is first the gaze from the bottom, of the lower classes and Lynch’s gaze (hard, precise, abrasive) upon that gaze. There are bits of carnival, in the scene where Merrick is made drunk and is kidnapped. In the carnivalesque, there is no human essence to embody (even in monster form), there is a body to laugh at. next there is the modern gaze, the gaze of the fascinated doctor, Treves (Anthony Hopkins, remarkable): respect for the other and bad conscience, morbid eroticism and epistemophilia. By caring for the elephant-man, Treves saves himself: it’s the fight of the humanist (à la Kurosawa). Lastly, there is a third gaze. The more well-known and celebrated the elephant-man becomes, the more time those who visit him have to make a mask for themselves, a mask of politeness that conceals what they feel at the sight of him. They go to see John Merrick to test this mask: if they show their fear, they will see its reflection in Merrick’s eyes. That is how the elephant-man is their mirror: not a mirror in which they can see, recognize themselves, but a mirror to learn how to perform, to dissimulate, to lie even more. At the beginning of the film, there was the abject promis- cuity between the freak and the showman (Bytes), then there was the silent, ecstatic horror of Treves in the cellar. At the end, it’s Mrs. Kendal, star of the London theater, who decides, while reading the newspaper, to become the elephant-man’s friend. In an unnerving scene, Anne Bancroft, guest-star, wins the bet: nary a muscle in her face trembles when she is introduced to Merrick, whom she speaks to as if he were an old friend, going even so far as to kiss him. The circle is complete; Merrick can die and the film can end. On the one hand, the social mask is entirely reconstructed; on the other, Merrick has finally seen in the other’s gaze something entirely different than the reflection of the disgust he inspires. What? He cannot say. He takes the height of artifice as truth and, of course, he is not wrong, considering we are at the theater.

For the elephant-man nourishes two dreams: to sleep on his back and to go to the theater. He will realize both on the same night, just before he dies. The end of the film is very moving. At the theater, when Merrick stands up in his loge so the people who are applauding him can see him more clearly, we don’t really know what’s in their eyes any longer, we no longer know what they see. And so Lynch has managed to redeem one by the other, dialectically, the monster and society. But only at the theater, only for one night. There will be no other performance.

 

 

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p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi!!! My Tuesday joins your and my Mondays. French (and Hungarian) winter. Ooh, very exciting that the body arrived and that you’re thrilled with it! I can not wait to see its evidence. My Monday? I visited Michael ‘Kiddiepunk’ Salerno in his far flung (16th arr) apartment for a bit. I arranged bunch of film-related Zoom meetings for tonight, Thursday, and Friday. I Zoomed with our LA ‘on the ground’ producers about production stuff. So mostly arranging and doing things far afield and not a lot of physical Parisian activities. But it was productive. Other than savoring your headless BJD, what did your Tuesday offer up? I hereby accept your love’s invitation! I haven’t had popcorn in nearly a billion years or at least days. Love winning the first annual International Wincing Competition, G. ** Charalampos Tzanakis, Hi. I hope it fascinated you as you had hoped. I guess it must finally be cold everywhere now to one degree or another. I’ll go find Expat 5. That’s not hard. Big luck on a smooth move today. The ‘Jerk’ film was playing in Paris in one theater for months. I’m not sure if still is. I doubt it’ll still be doing that in January, sadly, but you never know. I am pumped for you! I’m hoping that I’ll be in Paris for the ‘TIHYWD’ shows, but I suspect I’ll working on the film in LA then. But I hope against hope. Love back from love’s daddy city Paris. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I was, of course, very happy to have found and imbedded your Tosh Talks supplement. It is odd that she hasn’t had a rediscovery/art world thing happen for her yet. And a bio pic makes ultra-sense and will surely be in the works if it isn’t already. Thank you, sir. ** Bill, Hi. That Balenciaga hoo-hah was so stupid and hysterical. What a world. No, I have basically zero contact with American TV, but I know people who are quite into ‘Wednesday’. I’ll try to taste it. When I was in LA I caught bits of a few of the buzz shows du jour. I thought this season of ‘White Lotus’ was a total letdown based on what I saw. The first season was so sharp. ** Steve Erickson, I guess there are people who still read Spin since it still exists, but yeah. Everyone, Go read Steve’s review of Raw Poetic’s SPACE BEYOND THE SOLAR SYSTEM for Slant Magazine aka here. Having strongly disliked every film by Darren Aronofsky so far, I am not surprised. ** _Black_Acrylic, I’m glad you’re glad. Yeah, boo-hoo about Japan. And now it’s us against you guys over there. I’m afraid I’m going to have to access my hometown spirit and hope we beat you. Btw, no surprise, but Mbappe is currently a synonym for God over here. ** tomk, Thanks a lot, Tom! How are you, man? What’s happening? ** Juan, Hi, Juan! No prob, lateness is a relative concept when it comes to the blog. Okay, hold on. I just sent you a quick email with my mailing address. Thank you so much! I can’t wait! Thrilled that the post can contribute to your work. The blog’s job is done. Have an awesome day, sir! ** Right. Today the blog spotlights this recently released collection of earlyish writings by the great, great French film critic Serge Daney. I dare to say that no one has ever written so fantastically about film before or since, and, thus, I so hugely recommend that you investigate the post and buy the book if you’re interested in such things. See you tomorrow.

9 Comments

  1. David Ehrenstein

    A very great film critic and theorist, Daney had a lot to say about the art form but nothing about himself. A closet case he died of AIDS.

    • hedi

      Hi David, he wasn’t a closet case. He talks about his homosexuality at length in some interviews i read and also in some reviews.

  2. Dominik

    Hi!!

    Ah, sounds like you’re busy with film preparations! How’s everything shaping up? You’re planning to go back to L.A. sometime this month, right?

    My Tuesday is pretty boring, I guess. I’ve just finished working. Admiring a BJD body feels a bit sick and spooky, but I love things sick and spooky, so… I’m doing a little of that as well, haha.

    For some reason, I just really, really love the sound of an international wincing competition. Congrats to love! Love whose hair smells like cigarettes and cheap shower gel, Od.

  3. NLK

    Hey Dennis,
    Been enjoying all the film posts on here lately. I watched Clémenti’s Visa de censure no. X last week and loved it. It’s like a mashup of Anger and Mekas but doing its own thing, where the everyday, documentary setting grounds the psychedelic freakout and they both enhance each other. Experimental film has an impressive amount of actor-directors that are both brilliant and incredibly gorgeous, just another piece of the magic.

    I saw the film of Jerk in Paris on the day of Halloween, which I thought you’d enjoy. Good stuff. It gave the day the right vibe, though most of the city celebrations were pretty flat otherwise–plastic devil horns and lame Stranger Things(?) zombies and all that. Oh and, it’s been a while since it came out, but I think I Wished belongs right up there with your best work. My mind was kind of blown by how you were able to do all the fiction-nonfiction-essay-structuralism all at once.

  4. Jack Skelley

    Dennis Cooper — Maybe we should do a Serge Daney movie. Loved his take on Jaws and Romero. Lawndale played the punk rock BBQ 36 hours ago. Highlight of the bill, however, was Santa Sabbath! That is the REAL Santa. All the others are imposters. In other newz, I’m coordinating multiple components of FOKA as dedlines loom. Bro, wait till you see the psychotic map. Youre in it (sort of)! OKay, singing off… your friend, Werner Herzog

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    Serge Daney is a new name to me and I love his reviews here. I do wonder if there’s any equivalent genius posting on Letterboxd these days?

  6. CAUTIVOS

    Hello. as always good post Dennis. I just found out that in 2019 Kevin Killian died. Let’s see if they publish something of theirs in Spanish. in Spain they have not yet published the pentalogy and I had to buy Period in English. That’s as far as my impatience goes. Let’s see if they also publish something by Doddie Bellamy that I also want to read.

  7. Steve Erickson

    I’m thrilled that Semiotext(e) is publishing Daney’s complete works a volume at a time over the next few years, but despite the following he has in the Anglosphere, it took 30 years from his death. Academic presses are probably the only ones who are interested in serious film writing, and the cost of translation makes taking chances prohibitive. (I never learned exactly why the BFI rejected the English-language Daney manuscript I used to give out through my website.) In a conversation between Olaf Moller and Alexander Horwath, the latter said “an important film critic such as Frieda Grafe, one of the great critics in the history of the medium, is still a more or less unknown figure on an international level, whereas Serge Daney is not. And I’m sure there are similar cases in the Spanish speaking world that I have never heard of. ”

    Hedi already pointed this out, but Daney was quite open about being gay.

    I saw my neurologist today, and I need to schedule an appointment for physical therapy exercises for my ear in January.

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