Thursday, August 17, 2017

Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television

In the autumn of 1988, Serge Daney started to write about films on French television in a column called 'Ghosts of permanence' for the newspaper Libération. A large selection of these texts featured in Daney's fourth book Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting translations of many of these texts, quite rapidly and in chronological order, attempting to match the rhythm of the column (every other day or so). Keep checking the blog. Here's the intro he wrote in Recrudescence.
Ghosts of permanence: from cinema to television 
To Jean-Claude Biette * 
This daily chronicle of ‘films on television’ came about from an irritation. For years, I’ve heard my old fellow cinephiles saying that a film on TV ‘is not the same thing’. Something, it was suggested, was irremediably lost. ‘Something’ which, in the event, nobody would venture to describe. To all of them it seemed certain that, on television, all that would be left of a film like The Ten Commandements would be a multi-coloured genocide, while India Song would be a triumph on the small screen. As if the passage from projection to broadcasting, from big to small screen, from chemical optics to electronic was solely about the opposition between intimacy and spectacle. 
I’ve always had the feeling it was nothing of the sort and that if, in the passage from the auditorium to the living room, there was, if not a metamorphosis, at least an anamorphosis, it would be a more subtle and less expected one. That in this passage of films under the X-rays of TV, something was lost (in terms of embodiment, seduction, of a certain captivating brilliance), but that something else at times was preserved, indeed gained (in terms of the nervous system, the skeleton, a certain head-on violence). In short, one had to take a closer look, and in person, with the certitude that, whatever the case, future generations will discover cinema with its loss
A daily column was the best tool of enquiry. For one thing because French television is – France oblige – very cinephile and day in day out there were all kinds of films to choose from – some of them, a rarity, in the original version. For another thing because, from rare late night cine-club items to obscure filler films and the eighties top grossers that could now be seen with hindsight, one could rediscover in this column the charm and flavour of old-school criticism, for whom a film, before being targeted or labelled, was only a film (one film one vote). Plunged into the trivial promiscuity of television, films ‘breathe’ better than on the lone pedestals of cinematheques. 
The other reason for this column was the somewhat disenchanted verdict I had reached by the end of my previous column (Le salaire du zappeur). My Lumière-Rossellini-Bazin-Godard hypothesis, which held out some hope of seeing on television the eventual continuation of one strand of cinema (the strand concerned with, not to say obsessed by, the concept of ‘information’), seemed to me more and more refuted by the way in which the power of the media was evolving. Looking at the mechanisms of run-of-the-mill French television ‘as a cinephile’, I had been struck by the triumph of parochial values and their enactment, to the detriment of what I saw more and more as the posthumous beauty of cinema: nothing less than a relation to the ‘world’. Television was not a continuation of cinema, for the good reason that it was not a machine for creating, nor even for producing, but instead for racketeering (at worst) or (at best) for showing
A film on television is neither cinema nor television, it’s a ‘reproduction’ or else an ‘information’ about a prior state in the coexistence between men and images, the images that nourish them and the images that give them life.
* The column 'Ghosts of permanence' was created in the early 80s by Daney's fellow film critic (and future filmmaker) Jean-Claude Biette.

Notes on the translation: For most of the texts, I've re-worked the translations from the manuscript Cinema in transit, an unpublished English-language anthology which I got from Steve Erickson. In practice, this has meant correcting typos, adjusting the style and tackling mistranslations (there were quite a few) which I've checked against the original text. I've also translated some other texts from scratch with the invaluable help of Otis Wheeler.

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