A Close Examination of Serge Daney May Leave One Pondering: Are Intellectuals Capable of Having Fun?

The French critic is being remembered by Film at Lincoln Center with a run of movies prompted by the new English-language translation of his book of critical essays.

Via Film at Lincon Center
Robert Mitchum in 'The Lusty Men. Via Film at Lincon Center

Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1970s’
Film at Lincoln Center
January 26-February 24

‘Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970-1982’
By Serge Daney

In a sensible world, the names Robert Mitchum and Jacques Derrida would never appear in the same sentence. What could be the commonality the sloe-eyed actor of menacing mien and shambling charm shared with the constructor of Deconstructivism, the nihilistic philosophe who never met an idea he couldn’t turn into a jumble of impenetrable prose? 

The answer is Serge Daney (1944-92), a French critic who is being remembered by Film at Lincoln Center with a run of movies prompted by the new English-language translation of his “La Rampe,” recently published by Semiotext(e) under the title “Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970-1982.” Among the movies that will be on view is Nicholas Ray’s “The Lusty Men” (1952), a bronco-busting tale of financial ambition and marital fidelity in which Mitchum can be seen in his prime.

“Never Look Away: Serge Daney’s Radical 1970s” begins on January 27 with a panel of critics and filmmakers discussing Daney’s “politically driven analysis and radical enthusiasms.” The program ends on February 4 with a screening of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s “Hitler, a Film From Germany” (1977), an opus that runs seven hours — yes, you read that right. In between, you’ll find an array of films that reflects a critic of distinctive and idiosyncratic tastes. 

First published in 1983, “Footlights” is a compilation of writings from Cahiers du Cinéma, the influential French film journal for which Daney was co-editor between 1973 and 1981.

Unlike 2022’s “The Cinema House and the World,” another Daney compilation published by Semiotext(e), “Footlights” was specifically organized by its author as a book with essays grouped around specific themes: “Violence and Representation,” say, or “Enigma Bodies.” Within the latter category, you’ll find an appreciation of a French comic filmmaker, Jacques Tati; a takedown of “Jaws” (1975); and an article on a cult auteur, Samuel Fuller.

Another difference between the new volume and the earlier text is its length. “Footlights,” which clocks in at a little more than 200 pages, is 400 pages skinnier than its predecessor. “The Cinema and the World” was heralded in many quarters, with the New Yorker praising Daney as a critic who “formulates ideas so powerful that the movies he sees seem made to embody them.” Yet sometimes brevity is more than the soul of wit; it can also be all that a casual reader needs.  

Movie-goers who prefer entertainments that prompt temporary losses of self rather than conscious validations of it will likely keep Daney’s heady theorizing at arm’s length. The prose is slow-going. Not only was Derrida an influence on Daney’s writing but so, too, were such convoluted litterateurs as Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Rancière. Jean-Luc Godard described Daney as “the end of criticism.” Somewhere in that commendation is an insult waiting to happen.

“Footlights” doesn’t start in the deep end. The introduction, written in 1982, is vivid and direct. Daney recounts going to the movies with his mother as a child. Likening the cinema to a supernatural force, he recounts how “the ghosts appeared in the audience, furtively passing between the rows, calling on our generosity.” A paragraph or two later, Daney remarks how he, his mother, and the audience would ultimately “be saved, irremediably.”

Kind of hokey, right? Still, sentimentality is better than obfuscation. A man, Daney later goes on to explain, is “the bearer of something more that is not only more wrinkles or more paunch but that we must dare to refer to as the rot-resistant corpse, like the indivisible phallus which Serge Leclaire has said is also the copula ….” 

Before you run to Wikipedia to get a handle on these references, be aware that the subject under discussion is a John Wayne flick, “Rio Lobo” (1970). Then ponder whether intellectuals are at all capable of having fun.

The films included in “Never Look Away” are less tethered to “the ebullient revolutionary spirit of the ’60s” typical of Daney’s writing and will, on the whole, prove more provocative. Among the movies lined up at Lincoln Center are out-of-left-field features like Ousmane Sembène’s “Ceddo” (1977), Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” (1975), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975), and Jean-Claude Biette’s “Le Théâtre des Matières” (1977). 

A grab-bag, in other words. Take some consideration in picking your poison and you’re likely to find something worth your time at “Never Look Away.”

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use