click to buy “Postcards from the Cinema” at Amazon.comIn Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre says

a grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Etiquette requires that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as a soldier at attention makes himself a soldier thing with a look straight in front of him, which does not see at all… (1)

Serge Daney was, if you like, a grocer who dreams, someone who always insisted upon being something more than the job he did, the profession he practised. He was a film critic who, in the mid-sixties, went off to the States to interview various key film directors from Hollywood’s past, and then edited les Cahiers du cinéma during its austere structuralist period in the early seventies, when love of Hollywood cinema was secondary to examining its ideological function. Then, at the beginning of the eighties, he took a job with Libération, and increasingly wrote on television before, into the nineties and at the end of his short life, founding the decidedly cinephilic journal Trafic. Throughout his career Daney would also travel: going to Mexico, India, Morocco and Iran amongst many other countries, and not from festival to festival, but simply to explore other cultures. Isn’t there a sense here of a critic not quite playing his role as a critic, but constantly trying to expand the boundaries of consciousness even if it meant going beyond the notion of a film professional?

All this is by way of an introduction to Postcards from the Cinema, the first book of Daney’s to be published in English, and a strange choice if we insist on seeing Daney as a critic rather than someone who wrote on film. After all, this is basically a series of interviews with Serge Toubiana, accompanying an essay called “The Tracking Shot in Kapo”, where Daney expands upon an observation by Jacques Rivette on the Gillo Pontecorvo film (1959). Even in this essay – the closest the book comes to conventional criticism – Daney opens by talking about films he hasn’t seen, including the very one he’s writing on. There is this sense in his work of constantly defying the professional for the personal, and that any expertise comes out of love rather than rigorously adhering to a discipline. In one of the interviews, Toubiana asks Daney how he survived financially, since it wasn’t till he was in his late twenties that he started to make a living. Daney explains that he received grants and that he lived at home with his mother.

I got my clothes from the flea market…The whole cinemathèque period was one outside the economy: subways, cheap tickets, and cafés. Returning home at 4 in the morning, I always found some can of stew that my mother had left for me. (p. 110)

Even when talking about les Cahiers, Daney points up not its immense influence on world cinema, but rather its immediate ineffectiveness:

You can say what you want about Cahiers. You can say all the bad things you like, but if there’s a point in common with those whom it profoundly affected and those who created it, it’s a complete or partial lack of social know-how and ambition. (p. 53)

At one stage in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Serge Daney, published in 2001 in Senses of Cinema, Rosenbaum says “it’s…worth stressing that from an American perspective, Serge never truly belonged to this [Academic world], and to make him a lecturing professor even now may take a bit of doing.” (2) This was Rosenbaum trying to make sense of the absence of any Daney books in English, but it also helps makes sense of the one that has now been published. Another of Daney’s admirers, Jonathan Romney, reviewed Postcards from the Cinema recently in Sight and Sound, and reckoned that “the interviews are studded with suggestive insights but some of the material, such as Daney’s thoughts on travel and his sex life, may not seem of obvious interest from a strictly cinematic point of view.” (3) This is generally true, but what is a strictly cinematic point of view anyway? Is much of the best criticism – from André Bazin to Gilles Deleuze, from Manny Farber to Gilberto Perez – not studded with extra-cinematic information? We might think of Bazin’s undeniable spiritual angle that makes sense of his cinematic vision, and Deleuze’s philosophical interests completely permeating his cinematic books. Then there is Farber’s instinctual, painterly observations resembling his own work as an artist, and Perez’s leisurely autobiographical passages at the beginning of The Material Ghost (4). One might even claim all great critics transcend the form in which they’re working, and one of the interesting things about Daney is that he did this on so fundamental a level as his own life: he was the grocer who dreams.

But of course Romney has a point. To what degree are we interested to know that “even when in Harrar, the city of Rimbaud, I meet little Abddullahi, a 15-year-old boy, who is as clever as a monkey, I consider him to be a friend as well, that is to say, an equal. Otherwise it’s simply prostitution.” (pp. 50-51) Do we really need to know about a film critic’s sexual antics? Not really, and yet the above comment comes surrounded by observations on the idea of friendship. “I never imagined that I could have any other sort of relationship with people other than one based on friendship” (p. 50), an interesting observation when of course many of our contacts are expected to be based on work and love, the meta-narratives of our lives that somehow leave friendship decidedly subordinate. Yet friendship, with its non-contractualness, perhaps resembles Daney’s attitude to work. In his book Short Orders, Romney talks about Daney’s often subjective and wilful approach to his work. Romney, paraphrasing Daney, believed that for Daney the critic’s work “should be a carnet de route, a sort of traveller’s diary, recording chance encounters, rather than simply the obligatory ones imposed by the contingencies of release schedules and the demands of prevailing good sense.” (5) There is this sense, then, with Daney, that his comments in Postcards from the Cinema aren’t just off-the-cuff remarks about life concerning friendship, but just as readily to-the-point observations relevant to film criticism. If we take into account Romney’s comment, we can say that the lines between cinema, life and art aren’t easily drawn – nor would Daney want them to be.

This link between criticism and friendship is especially pertinent if we think of what is at the heart of the book. A year or so before the collection of interviews with Toubiana, Daney had written an article in Libération on the director Claude Berri, a tough critique of Berri’s film Uranus (1990). Berri subpoenaed the newspaper, and obtained a “right to response” which was, according to Toubiana, “weak in content and mediocre in form, and which ended with a vulgar, ‘See you later, princess.’” (p. 12) This was supposedly the first time a filmmaker managed to obtain a right to respond to a non-defamatory article, and Daney was hurt that his friends had not come to his defence at that key moment. He expected this to be, it would seem, a rallying call, where a writer who took a mediocre filmmaker to task would have the backing of the critical world. This didn’t prove to be the case, and Daney was disappointed that his colleagues didn’t stand by him. “Eventually”, Toubiana says, “we made up, but this episode left its scars. Serge never missed an opportunity to come back to it.” (p. 12) Toubiana’s attempt to win back Daney’s friendship was basically to do the series of interviews that became this very book.

Yet there is perhaps a paradox at work here: Daney expected no great attachments but a pragmatic sense of loyalty. But is that not the very definition of most friendships, if we take into account a remark from Aristotle quoted by Michel de Montaigne in his essay on friendship: “O my friends, there is no friend”? (6) What is this thing friendship, and what did Daney generally expect from it? Daney was interested in friendships as intense affiliations. There was something in Daney’s work that seemed to have come from a different time and different era. Bertrand Tavernier, in a diary entry, compared his articles to “Calvinist firebrands”, while also insisting that in his film writing there was “too much clannishness, too many shadows, rejections” (7). But was Daney not a critic who wanted, through his pugnacious, prejudicial style, to create friends and enemies? Was he not a critic who wanted to avoid “neither-norism” (to borrow Roland Barthes’ term), and is this not what Postcards from the Cinema tries to explore: the place from whence Daney’s often intense subjectivity came? When Toubiana asks Daney about how he survived financially, or when Toubiana says “the word clandestine allows us to come back to cinema: there is evidently clandestinity in cinephilia itself, the cinephilia that you lay claim to” (p. 98), we’re aware of the degree to which the book wants to embody Daney, wants to place him as a body and mind in front of the cinema screen. One of the things that Daney’s friend or foe criticism generates is the need for alliances, positions, friendships. When Daney says, for example, touching upon theatre, “it’s also the reason why I like Gus Van Sant’s films (My Own Private Idaho [1991]), that this kid comes from the theatre and in only ten shots succeeds at what [Franco] Zeffirelli has tried to create his whole life” (p. 99), it’s the type of criticism that refuses to find a friend without at the same time making a much more deadly enemy. Van Sant enters the inner circle and Zeffirelli gets booted into outer space.

Now of course there is a context for this book that shouldn’t be ignored. This is also the last will and testament of a dying man. Daney died five months after the interview, on 12 June, 1992: he knew throughout the discussion that he didn’t have long to live. As Toubiana says, “it was a stage in his life when he was settling scores, with extreme clarity, without lenience towards himself or others.” (p. 12) But we might be reminded of Tavernier, who was talking of Daney’s career more generally when he said “Daney was a brilliant but fallacious thinker, a victim of his prejudices, sarcastic and dictatorial…” (8). It chimes with Daney’s own comments in an interview with Bill Krohn in the seventies: “the hatred of naturalism is as deep as the taste for writing, because it is exactly the converse”. (9) Stances and positions always mattered to Daney, perhaps as much for the taking of the stance as the stance taken. Almost as if part of his raison d’être was about making friends or enemies. Some would claim this stance-taking led to the irresponsible. Even today he’s still making enemies. A recent letter in Sight and Sound took Daney and Romney to task for the latter’s reiterating of Daney’s take on the tracking shot in Kapo: “…the shot as described by Rivette doesn’t exist, and that notoriously contemptible camera pan is the result of malignant and amateurish hallucination on the Cahiers critic’s part.” (10)

However, for someone who so insistently practised friend or foe criticism, Daney wasn’t only interested in dualities. “Why three so often, in so many forms, in the analyses of your book?” Deleuze once asked (11). “Perhaps”, Deleuze goes on to say, “because three sometimes serves to close everything up, taking two back to one, but sometimes, on the other hand, takes up duality and carries it far away from unity, opening it up and sustaining it.” For, as Deleuze says, “you [Daney] still see film criticism as a poetic and aesthetic activity” – not just as an opportunity for taste-making, with Van Sant in and Zeffirelli out. Daney seemed much more interested in eating than tasting, and maybe what comes through most strongly in the book is this idea of the critic given the mythological gusto of the artist. Somehow we don’t usually see the critic as a participator in life, we see him as the arbitrator at two removes: not just is he potentially removed from life through art, he’s also removed from art by commenting upon it. No doubt this remains true of many critics (and perhaps especially so of academic commentators), but it hardly seems to apply to Daney, which could be why Rosenbaum couldn’t see him fitting into English-speaking film studies even if his work were translated: “Maybe this is because the questions Serge was broaching finally had too much currency and too many political consequences to enter the academy without raising a few hackles.” (12) But maybe it resides less in Daney’s political angle than almost his mode of being, in his insistent singularity, both of his personality – which would make its way into his writing – and his opinions in that very writing. “…via my body and this experience of walking I’m happy to be the passeur…” Daney says, before adding, “the walker is the one who accepts that the show has always already begun. His slowness insists upon it, like the fact that everything he will discover happens according to its own rhythm…” (p. 103). He links this to Federico Fellini: “he thinks his films out according to the logic of the walker.” (p. 103) This is nothing if not impressionistic criticism, and we have to understand the body of the one for whom such impressions have been made. This is something academic criticism tends to have little interest in. Such criticism seems an act of disembodiment where we don’t so much empathise with the thinker – try to comprehend the place from whence the thinking comes – as understand the thinker. We disembody the thinker from the thought. Of course there are always wayward thinkers absorbed into the academic stream – Walter Benjamin and Hélène Cixous come to mind, and so why not Daney? – yet aren’t their discourses containing their distinctiveness: the Frankfurt School, Benjamin and feminism, Cixous?

Yet Daney “is a popular writer, and perhaps too popular to interest an academic readership and press; on the other [hand], his writing may not be sufficiently popular.” (p. 2) So says the book’s translator Paul Douglas Grant in his introduction. Perhaps Daney just happens to be one of those writers who, quite aptly, require friends to help them become better known; whether that is achieved through Toubiana’s interview here, Rosenbaum’s lengthy, first-person appraisal in Senses of Cinema quoted above, or, for example, the impressive work Steve Erickson has done over the years in making Daney’s work available on-line in English (through Chronicle of a Passion: the Homepage of Steve Erickson, a number of Daney’s articles are perusable). Perhaps one of the risks of being a grocer who dreams is that you don’t sell so many groceries; yet those who buy do so with love. To purchase this slim volume, Postcards from the Cinema, is part of that very process of friendship. Let’s hope there is more “useful” Daney work to come; but let’s be happy that there is anything at all.

Postcards from the Cinema, by Serge Daney, trans. Paul Grant, Berg Publishers, Oxford, 2007.

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  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Denoon Cumming (ed.), Methuen, London, 1968, p. 152.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Jonathan Rosenbaum on Serge Daney”, Senses of Cinema, 13, 2001.
  3. Jonathan Romney, review of Postcards from the Cinema, Sight and Sound, May, 2007, p. 101.
  4. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2000.
  5. Jonathan Romney, Short Orders, Serpent’s Tale, London, 1997, p. xiii.
  6. Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1958, p. 99.
  7. Bertrand Tavernier, Projections 2, Faber, London, 1993, p. 356.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Bill Krohn [originally published under the pseudonym T.L. French], “Les Cahiers du cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2, 1977, p. 31. Reprinted on Steve Erickson’s website.
  10. Jan Aghed, “Panning the critics”, Letters, Sight and Sound, June, 2007, p. 96.
  11. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, p. 79.
  12. Rosenbaum, op. cit.