The non-legendary period of Cahiers


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘La période non légendaire des “Cahiers”. Pour préparer la cinquantième anniversaire’. In ‘L’exercice a été profitable’ (Paris: POL).

1. For a long time I kept a bundle of “internal texts”, as were common, until the mid 1970’s, among militant groups, circles or cells – such as Cahiers du Cinéma which at one time wanted to “organize” itself in a revolutionary cultural front. It was a poor bundle of critical pieces, auto-criticism, assessments and quotes, responses and resolutions, in between theory and practice, a bit along the lines of the Chinese model of “individual perfecting” (line of Liu Shaoqi*).
I had skimmed through them so much that it was hard not to find these texts silly; the kind of silliness you can also find in the films of Godard and Gorin from that period (the Dziga Vertov group*). I kept them with a vague idea of making them into a comedy one day. Indeed, what comedy is more beautiful than that of the ideal? What failure is more pathetic than that of the Militant, this frail being which finds itself regularly inept and duped and often has blood on its hands? Which groups of actors are more hilarious, because of their seriousness, than those filmed by Oshima, the Taviani brothers, Kramer and, of course, Moretti? And what a silly group, this Cahiers of the 1970’s: “deranged” enough to form a splinter group, but also clever enough to work together, which allowed each of its members to smother their own distress in that of the last Parisian avatars of the communist idea. Haven’t we decided, one day at Cahiers, to pay ourselves according to the principles of the Da Zhai model, that is to say “according to merit”*? I even remember being granted 900 francs (in those days).

2. Time passed and I lost the bundle. Who would have laughed at those excesses anyway? Not us, who saved our skin, one by one, without laughter. Not those who, after us, have and would make the Cahiers. It was before that we should have laughed, even hollow, even alone. The truth is that the priceless seriousness of the French political theater, with its revolutionary and/or snobbish draping, certainly was not a subject for comedy. I should have know, me who was part of the comity who “took over” the Odéon (which was open anyways) in 1968, even if I didn’t like theater. Also true was that this Cahiers generation was not really a generation of filmmakers and that in a more general way the stars of ’68 wouldn’t create much except for communicative know-how.
The truth, finally, is that we didn’t do anything but reliving, in extremis and in vitro, the intimate remake of the rancid great passions that the PCF (French Communist Party) had conducted for fifty years (so the PCF grew tired and we blamed them for it). From guilty delights of bad faith to the utopia of the counter society already realized in the group, from rites of exclusion to homegrown doublespeak: we haven’t invented a thing. It didn’t last long (’72-’74) and didn’t cause many deaths. It even hardened us (“The heart has to break or to gild”, according to Corneille)

3. When I was asked, at the occasion of the 40th birthday of the old magazine, to write a text about these years – the “non-legendary years” (not to say “shameful”) of the Cahiers, I said yes, then no, then yes, then I diagonally read eighty editions and decided to make what one always makes in such cases: a witty and elliptic dictionary. I had a go at it and didn’t find it funny at all. It’s not easy to answer a question that isn’t posed anywhere (that of the heritage of the seventies) and even less easy, twenty years later, to continue to say “us” and to continue to say it as “me”. The history of these fifteen individuals who, for ten years, have made Cahiers into their beacon, scalpel and anguish: it’s up to the historian – Antoine de Baecque* – to tell it, if he wants. For me, if this text is still written under the sign of an unobtainable “us”, you can rather consider it as my farewell to the first person in the plural.

4. And then there’s the spirit of the era. Observing the way in which the despicable BHL (Bernard-Henri Lévy*) recently buried a century of thinkers of the French intelligentsia on television, I was appalled by the way in which, once more, the mediatized forty-somethings of my generation behave badly when they have to hold up in public a certain image of them “thinking”. That the baby gets thrown out with the bath water is one thing but perching on the bathtub, posing on television to say that there was no thinking at all: that is too much. From Lacan to Barthes, from Bataille to Foucault via Althusser: the Cahiers’ “non-legendary” years carry their signature and it seems to me that this theoretical theater, with its seductions and its terror, hasn’t been replaced by another, more normal and smart, but has rather become gradually disused.
That’s why, when I reread the Cahiers from the seventies, I’m less struck by the jargon, the arrogance, the ukazes, the dubious mockup, the lack of photos and the overflow of quotation marks, bolds and italics, than by the certainty we felt (and that I miss now) that cinema was worthwhile thinking about – thinking hard about. So, I don’t feel like apologizing anymore because once, fifteen years ago, we lacked the good manners of some bourgeois wanna-bees. For the first time, I rather feel like pleading pro domo.

5. Why is this era so hard to apprehend? In 1970 we published a long series of hard-wrought articles on Jancso’s film The Confrontation (aka Sparkling Winds, ‘Fényes szelek’, 1969). But it’s not so much these texts that have disappeared than the film itself, which served as collective pre-text. Who remembers Jancso’s films anyway? Do they even exist outside of the encyclopedias of cinema? The question is obviously more general: the liberty of tone, the crazy rhythm of storytelling, the polite but total indifference for the “taste” of the audience and the box office, the desire to mark out, willingly or not, a road for cinema that diverges from the route held in place by the American model: it wasn’t only Jansco, it was all those global “new cinemas” from the post-Nouvelle Vague years (’65-’75), a continent that by now has almost vanished. That’s why the seventies are in purgatory: most of the film that made us write are no longer part of the collective memory, nor part of the video libraries or the dominant discourses. We thought of everything except this: that these films could disappear.

6. That cinema is not longer where we found it, that is to say “in the middle of the world”, is not necessarily a sad thing but it’s all the same quite something. Rereading the non-legendary Cahiers, I have the impression that we were like students of Latin who were not able to accept – like grumpy buffoons, always first-in-class – that it had become a dead language, something from the past. Cinema is the art of the present, that’s what Bazin used to say, and there are axioms that we recognize, in this period of ten years, in all styles and forms, in all theoretical bindings, in every editorial, under every guise, be it in the rags of militant cinema or the unisex uniforms of today’s television. And Cahiers’ axiom was that cinema has a fundamental rapport with the real and that the real is not what is represented – and that’s final.
And that the real doesn’t wait. And that time is not given, that it has to be invented, created, earned. Even the wavering time of the magazine, when Serge Toubiana and me asked ourselves in all seriousness if we had enough “of ourselves” to quickly make a simple issue or if we had to wait a month so we could make a double. And at the same time, as soon as there was an unforeseen film that we liked, we started from scratch, we remade the theory, the grammar, we launched new ukazes and established new gateways, because we needed to have Straub, Godard, Syberberg or Kramer on one side and always Lang, Hitchcock, Eisenstein and Rossellini on the other. That gives way to a chaotic functioning, a not very gracious shuttle where the revelations were always staggering, the new line immediately impaired by receding lines, the time to calm down regularly lacking and impatience the common lot.

7. Looking back, obviously, we see how the decade, at Cahiers as well, is divided in two parts: before and after 1975. Up to 1975, we felt like we had to answer “present” to politics. But afterwards? Politics passed, the present stayed. I don’t find unworthy, certainly not after the Golf War, our special issue about “Images de marque” (76), nor the first texts about television (that we amiably called “answering machines”), about films shown on television, nor the texts written by Rancière about the spirit of the “communal programme” in cinema, nor the reflections on cinephilia. Always this idea of the present and finally of journalism. That’s undoubtedly why I’m not able to write this text “in the past”. Because, me too, I had to answer present when, at the end of ’73, the magazine was left to whoever wanted to pick it up. For seven year, I felt like one of those mock-heroes who try to land with the whole cargo, without loosing or forgetting anything, even without owning a license to fly.

8. But there were some good sides too: we didn’t believe much in the division of work, we knew that the great directors had written often and we were happy to transform Duras, Godard and Syberberg into Cahiers’ “chief editors” for one issue each. The alliances were tough but the one tougher than all the others was the alliance between the image and the word, our raison d’être, nothing less. The non-legendary Cahiers wanted to be written, and often they were.

9. Finally one has to imagine that the era was harsh. The sixties had grace, the eighties grease, the seventies were nasty and meager. Everywhere we sensed a dry fury and a relentlessness which nobody found therapeutic. In France, the golden age of the Nouvelle Vage was behind us and weighed heavily on us. Elsewhere, it was intractable and atrocious: Fassbinder doesn’t get off, Pasolini is murdered, Oshima excites and astonishes, Cassavetes resits in some corner, Ferreri makes some teeth grind, Syberberg provokes crudely, Godard continues recto tono and Ici et Ailleurs must be the film I have shown the most (from New York to Damas, from Porto to Brussels).

10. It isn’t very hard to put a date, between ’73 and ’75, on the caesura of the decade. Petroleum crisis, beginning of unemployment, end of the ORTF*, return of consensus (not yet “weak”) and, in cinema, of the “Qualité Française”, of its professionals and their palinodic césars*: objectively it wasn’t cheerful, objectively there was “rage”.
Cinema too had to run into a limit, like a boat scraping the bottom of the river and, in our proper jargon, we felt it. Afterwards, under surveillance of the media, cinema has remade itself into a body of legend and has turned to the supplement of soul*. It’s the history of the eighties. In 1970, we were those (we called it materialism then) who claimed that this soul had a body and that we knew it. In this sense, the non-legendary Cahiers resemble their time, which still couldn’t care less about the legend.

Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translation).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts

translator’s notes
* Liu Shaoqi: Soviet-educated Communist organizer and theorist, author of How to be a Good Communist (1898-1969).
* The Dziga Vertov group was formed in 1968 by politically active filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. The group, named after 1920s-’30s Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, was dissolved soon after the completion of 1972’s Letter to Jane.
* Dazhai: the name of a mountainous North China village of several hundred farmers in Xiyang, Shanxi, in the People’s Republic of China. Dazhai had been an ordinary village until the 1960s, when Mao Zedong published his Supreme Directive, “Learn from Dazhai in agriculture” and set up Dazhai as a national agricultural model for all the farmers across the country.
* Bernard-Henri Lévy: French public intellectual, philosopher and journalist. Often referred to, in France, simply as BHL, he was one of the leaders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement in 1976, hated by Cahiers du Cinéma.
* ORTF: The Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française was the national agency charged, between 1964 and 1974, with providing public radio and television in France.
* césars: the national film award of France, first given out in 1976.
* The expression “supplément d’âme” is taken from Henri Bergson’s ‘Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion’ (1932). Bergson’s thesis was that mankind, enlarged in its scope of action by technology, needs to achieve a corresponding spiritual growth: “In this body, disproportionately enlarged, the soul remains as it was, too small to fill it, too weak to direct it. Hence the gap between them. Hence the daunting social, political, and international problems… Let us add that the swollen body needs a supplement of soul, and the mechanical demands a mystique.” The expression is fairly well known in French intellectual discourse – the theme having been taken up by Derrida (who appropriated the notion of ‘supplement’) and others.