Friday, July 7, 2017

The Politics of Mourning at Cahiers du Cinema: Obituaries, AIDS and Politics

This essay will examine how Cahiers du Cinéma responded to the AIDS crisis throughout the eighties and nineties. This will be done through archival research of the journal from 1984 to 1996 in search for references to AIDS and with a particular focus on eulogy dossiers and obituaries. The aim would be to discover how the journal, under its two different chief editors Serge Toubiana and Thierry Jousse, mourned and mourned people with AIDS. The important issue of Cahiers for this project is the one from July-August 1992 that featured an extensive dossier on its previous chief editor Serge Daney. Some of the research questions that will be asked include: How would Cahiers mourn? Who would it mourn? And to what end? From the findings of this research I hope to illustrate what was Cahiers engagement with the AIDS crisis.

Serge Daney
If it could be said that the AIDS crisis had a major impact on Cahiers it is through the toll of the death of Serge Daney. He had been an important critic and theorist at the magazine since the sixties, was the chief editor between 1973 to 1981, before he would go on to Libération and host a radio-show Micro-films on France Culture. Even when he left Cahiers he would use his public platform to discuss and promote the Cahiers project. When Serge Daney died of AIDS on June 12th, 1992 it marked the end of an era in French film culture. But his legacy would live on through his new journal Trafic, the relationships and influences that he formed, and the large body of work that he wrote (which since then has regularly been published in new editions) that provides an example of how to seriously study cinema. For one example of his renown is his inclusion by Jean-Luc Godard in the small pantheon of important theorist and contributors at the end of Deux fois cinquante ans de cinéma français (1995). [The full list includes Denis Diderot, Eugène Fromentin, Elie Faure, Georges Sadoul, Jean Epstein, Jean Georges Auriol, André Malraux, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, André Bazin, Maurice Schérer, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Marguerite Duras, and Serge Daney.]
       At Cahiers du Cinéma, where he was the chief editor from 1973 to 1981, Daney was able to transition the magazine away from its theoretical Marxist period, which was sparked by the May 1968 student protest in Paris, to return the magazine to having cinema as its focus. When Daney would leave for Libération to become a working journalist and film critic, he would leave the chief editor position to Serge Toubiana, who would bring to the magazine his own interests but which many fundamentals were already put into place my Daney. As well many of the film critics that Daney recruited would still write at the magazine for throughout the eighties. Daney himself would also return to Cahiers to write articles, participate in interviews and contribute when needed. Toubiana even published a book-long interview with Daney after his death Perseverance as a debt to his mentor.
       In the sixty-five year history of Cahiers there has only been twice that a film critic was given an entire issue after their death: to Andé Bazin (January 1959, N.91) and to Serge Daney (July-August 1992, N.458). Just as the magazine can be said to be rooted in Bazin’s ideas, and especially that of an ontological realism, the looming presence and intellectual standard of Daney continues after his death.
       Here are some of the eulogies to Daney from the special issue dedicated to him. It starts with an editorial by Toubiana,

Serge Daney left us the night of June 12th. He had just turned 48 years old. He was sick with AIDS, and he wanted this to be said, so we don’t get used to it… The idea to reunite his friends in an issue that would be dedicated to him came about naturally, in the wake of all the emotions. Cahiers was for him like a mother house. He arrived here really young, because it was clear, he would leave his mark as if it was a requirement. Here are traces of his thought in the form of a compass. This issue is a sign of our loyal friendship and our admiration.

       One of the film critics that he mentored at Libération, Olivier Séguret would write about him in Pour l’amour de Sergio,

It’s nice: I’m being encouraged, I’m being asked to write about you, Sergio, about Serge, but I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to no longer always have for myself you. I would know one day I will because that’s how life works, that we get used to things, that life is maybe a night full of dear dead friends.

       Olivier Assayas, who Daney brought into Cahiers early on in his career as film critic and who he would encourage as a filmmaker, would write about him in Juste une chose,

When I sent to Serge my book-length interview with Bergman, I already knew that he was sick. So I had to accompany it with a letter, to let him know the most simply as possible that whenever I’m directing that I think a lot about him, more so than any other person.

       The German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who they had shared a long friendship with, in his contribution Un Guide wrote, “I have nothing to say about the death of Serge, except that it makes me furious.” [Wenders would guest edit the special 400th issue of Cahiers in October 1987 where he would get a variety of filmmakers to contribute one page about one of their unrealized projects.] The venerable Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira in his contribution Secret, “Serge Daney was one of those people who gave his entire spirit and heart to cinema.” The Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine in Serge le vaillant discussed Daney’s failing health, “He had been getting skinnier every time that I saw him… I would ask myself if it was an illusion or if each time I saw him he was getting even skinnier?” Finally the French filmmaker, and former student of Daney, Xavier Beauvois in Points de suspension wrote,

It’s true that it’s hard to talk about Serge without talking about cinema but the truth is I couldn’t care less about cinema because Serge just died of AIDS, just like Béna, Fernando and now I have to put an ellipsis on my relationship to them. Goddamnit these ellipses on people’s lives especially as it becomes normal for others to die of AIDS. While the politicians are more attentive to the stupidities of Philippe de Villiers instead of being attentive to the corpses that are accumulating, because we are all under the weight of all of this awfulness.

       Even philosophers contributed to this special issue. Jacques Rancière in Le lieu ‘commun’ wrote, “Serge wanted us to collaborate in a ‘common’ place. It was as if there was a community between us that would naturally lead to this collaboration, which had yet to take place.” [Rancière would go on to be part of the council of Trafic.] While Jean Louis Schefer in Les enfants wrote,

We had worked together out of necessity, I think: just like children who come together to invent themselves a game to play: to create new worlds where through the body and invisible actions they start to communicate with one another, slowly they become brothers and remain children together for their entire life.

       These contributions are examples of the kind of responses Daney’s death had in the film community at the time. What comes out is his passion for cinema and how it impressed and encouraged others. Fellow film critics imagined him as someone to relate to, test their ideas against, lean against. And they would be saddened at the lost that he would no longer be there for them. Filmmakers would see in him an ideal and thoughtful viewer, able to understand film as an art, an appreciator and supporter of the jubilant experimentation of French and world cinema. And philosophers saw in him a peer, or equal, who was able to raise the occupation of a film critic into something more than just its marketing and promotional dimension, and who was at the height/nobility to carry the torch of a magazine like Cahiers. All of the contributions had a strong affective dimension.

Obituaries at Cahiers
The opening editorial of the special Serge Daney issue (which is dedicated to Daney’s mother) begins, “Serge Daney left us the night of June 12th. He just turned 48 years old. He was sick with AIDS, and he wanted for this to be said, so that we don’t get used to it.” This is the catalyst for me to want to look at how AIDS was received at Cahiers, which as it turns out includes some strong moments but also many omissions and avoidances.
       Just some general context: In Nicolas Mauriac’s Le mal entendu: le sida et les médias (Plon, 1990) he brings up how the discussion of AIDS, known in France as SIDA (syndrome d’immuno-déficience acquise) was not really discussed in popular French press until 1987 when it was confirmed that heterosexuals could get infected. Even though it was initially brought up in the media as early as 1985 but it was marginalized due to the obscure nature of the disease. This started to change with a better understanding of it, acquired from more studies and research, through the slow process of institutionalization.
       We could look at the deaths of some memorable figures of the eighties and nineties to see how Cahiers mourned. Some examples include Michel Foucault, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy and Serge Daney among others.
       When Michel Foucault died in June of 1984 he would not receive an obituary at Cahiers. This is surprising as Serge Toubiana, the chief-editor for the time, along with Pascal Bonitzer had a lengthy interview with him in 1974, and whose book Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma sœur et mon frère... they helped to adapt into a film for René Allio in 1976. But when Foucault would die there would be no mention that he would have died of AIDS and no obituary for him in general at Cahiers. But even the New York Times, would not reveal that his was an AIDS related death. For example, Peter Kerr would write about the cause of death, “Mr. Foucault was hospitalized earlier this month for a neurological disorder, but the cause of his death was not immediately disclosed.” The cause of his death was only later revealed. Instead of writing a Foucault obituary, in the Summer June/July 1984 Cahiers issue, they focused on a Special issue dedicated to the Cannes film festival, which they would have been published before the news. And in their following issue, they had another special issue ‘Made in Hong-Kong’ that focused entirely on Chinese cinema. And after that in their October issue in the journal there is an emphasis on their coverage of the Venice film festival. My interpretation of this oversight is that they didn’t have the chance to write about Foucault for the two issues that coincided with his death due to special features that the magazine was publishing and then afterwards it was already too late, that it was no longer news. But it is still surprising that there was no obituary for Foucault as his views and theory were heavily relied upon in the seventies and he was still an important French philosopher. A more critical perspective would be that their omission was a disavowal of their earlier period, but I don’t think that this takes into considerations the realities of magazine publishing.
       The year 1984 offers a few different examples of how Cahiers mourned and how they placed different emphasis on the deaths of different people. The major death for 1984 was that of François Truffaut who was one of the major figures of the Cahiers jaune years, the nouvelle vague and a patron of the magazine. In the same issue that announced Truffaut’s death that had a full page that opens the Le Journal, and a note on the table of contents – before they would produce an Hors-Séries dedicated to him – another previous Cahiers critic, Pierre Kast, who died of a cardiac arrest, would only receive one small paragraph at the back of Le Journal. About Truffaut they wrote, “The death of François Truffaut hit Cahiers du Cinéma hard. As if our family had lost an older brother,” and in the Le Journal, signed Les Cahiers they wrote “With the disappearance of François Truffaut, we have just lost, here at Cahiers where our history is undeniably tied to his, a friend and a fraternal presence, always warm and well-meaning, which nothing and nobody will be able to replace… We will continue for a long time to owe him a lot.” This grand homage is in contrast to Kast who would only receive one small paragraph at the back of Le Journal. This difference shows how the closer to the magazine, more valued, and important, then the more place will be received in terms of mourning. Truffaut who had a more central role at the magazine in his period, having written some of its earlier important polemics and texts, before becoming and important French filmmaker and ambassador to cinephilia, and whose films are still an important reference point for the magazine still to this day, would receive a lengthy eulogy, while Kast, though still included, a smaller one.
       It is also interesting to note, in regards to Truffaut’s declining health. Antoine de Baecque and Toubiana in their biography Truffaut, in a discussion of the operation to remove a brain tumor on his frontal cortex, brings up the shyness and reluctance of the French press to directly address new viruses. De Baecque and Toubiana wrote, “In the eighties, in France, cancer was still poorly understood, the word itself was still taboo, and obituaries usually made use of a conventional phrase, ‘died after a long illness.’”
       In the following December 1984 issue there would be another large obituary, for Pacale Ogier who died at the age of 24 of a cardiac arrest caused by supposed drug use. Ogier would receive a full-page obituary by Toubiana, un elfe a disparu that includes a lovely photograph of her. Toubiana wrote, “She was part of a genealogy of women, that were all tied to acting. It was a talent that was transmitted through love. Pascale will be missed by cinema, also to those who were close to her, which we felt we were.”
       When Rock Hudson died on October 2nd 1985 it made the news for publicizing the death of AIDS, that a Hollywood icon of masculinity could get the virus, breaking the rule of silence of medias to discuss the taboo subject. Douglas Crimp in Melancholia and Moralism described it in relation to taboo and shame, just as much as it helped spread information and create more public awareness. The New York Times, in Joseph Berger’s obituary, Rock Hudson, Screen Idol, Dies at 59 acknowledges the death from AIDS that would become historic in publicizing the virus and create more public awareness. But at Cahiers in the November 1985 issue they had a eulogy dossier on someone who they thought was the greater artist, Orson Welles, who they had recently featured in special Hors Séries issue in 1982. In this eulogy dossier they had 19 pages dedicated to Welles that were full of illustrations and multiple articles. Toubiana wrote,

The death of Orson Welles, that took place on October 10th, definitively closes one chapter in the history of cinema. This death really saddens us, obviously, but there’s something abstract about it, as if the human event, the sadness had been blurred by the legendary image of his character.

       In contrast to Welles’ death, Olivier Assayas in his article Lettre d’Amerique: Octobre a New York, while covering the New York Film Festival, complains that the American media did a poor job at covering Welles’ passing. He is especially critical of Vincent Canby in The New York Times who would not take Welles seriously as an artist. So Assayas brings up the news of the death of Rock Hudson in a glib way to critique how the American media did not pay enough attention to Welles. Assayas writes, “And let’s not talk about Rock Hudson whose death had become a veritable national event. For example, to announce it The New York Post discarded its typical first page and filled it in larger letters: ROCK HUDSON DEAD.” It’s the only mention of Hudson’s death at the journal (no specific obituary) and it doesn’t look good. It shows them as having a different perspective from the majority of mainstream press, that of cinephilia and Cahiers’ rich history at their center. For example, in the same Le Journal Toubiana has a nice obituary on Jean Riboud, un ami du cinema, who was responsible for helping Cahiers re-start its activity and pay off its debts in the late seventies. Toubiana cites a letter that Riboud sent him reflecting on a letter that Truffaut sent him, “’Isn’t it true, Truffaut wrote, Jean, that there are some questions that one must really not ask their doctors?’ I finally understand him today…” Toubiana then writes, “We salute the memory of this man of exception, and we present to his family, those who are close to him and his collaborators, our respectful thoughts.”
       Here are some other examples of eulogy dossiers: There was a special John Cassavetes issue with 28 pages dedicated to him through multiple articles and nice illustrations. Toubiana in its editorial wrote,

Why in front of this sad news, for this filmmaker more so than others, do we feel such a sentiment of injustice? Most likely because John Cassavetes leaves behind him such an unfinished oeuvre… Maybe also because this unfinished quality is the mark of a real fissure that is intrinsic to Cassavetes’ cinema as if it was part of the form that he wanted to give to his films.

There is not much of difference between the eulogy dossier on Welles then that of Jacques Demy’s who passed away on October 27th 1990. The dossier of 25 pages would include a touching eulogy from his spouse Agnès Varda. None of which indicates that he would have died of AIDS, except for one reference to being sick and how it weakened him. Toubiana in the opening of the dossier Jacque Demy ou le Monde en manège wrote,

With the disappearance of Jacques Demy, there is the sentiment that takes over that is original to his cinema, so tied to an enchantment and the cruelty of fairy tales – that for thirty some years this man from Bretagne made softly and with a conviction, invented and turned into cinema – that this man could disappear. We won’t forget him, since we all have in our memories something from Jacques Demy – a rhyme, an image, a color, a pain – but also something of the French cinematographic landscape.

       It is worth noting the these eulogies, of Welles, Cassavetes along with other figures that I didn’t mention, like Sergio Leone and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze are some of Toubiana’s best articles of the time. They contextualize the figures in film history, are affective, as they discuss the respective figure’s importance to the magazine, and the changing times.

AIDS Obituaries
In the nineties, Cahiers got better at addressing the issue. Jacques Morice in the January 1994 issue has an article in documentary section of Le Journal, Dire le sida, on the documentary Sida, paroles de l’un a l’autre, that played on French television and got a release. It shows that the writers at Cahiers were adapting to the language to discuss the issue and placed AIDS-related films into the magazine. This has slowly been the case at the magazine since the early nineties as they were starting to better support an AIDS-conscious queer cinema. Morice wrote,

The first thing that one notices – and that we keep in our spirit – in this documentary Sida, paoles de l’un a l’autre are the smiles. Brief, unexpected, anxious to relativize death as much as life. The smiles are sometimes ironic, accompany a voice that is never sure of itself or others, but that imposes itself anyways, usually with calm serenity… These people whom are seropositive. They appear at first not really there but also solidly present, with a mixture of pride and discretion. We quickly guess that this documentary offers them a possibility: that to have fun together, to reflect on their life and to resist it too.

       There would be a critique of Michel Béna’s Le ciel de Paris, La confusion des sentiments, by Camille Taboulay. Béna, the previous assistant director to André Téchiné, died of AIDS after having completed the film. Taboulay wrote about the film,

The originality of Béna’s film is to hold on to the drama obstinately with a sadness and tenderness, without any hysterics, filming lost, active and gracious movements as if the back and forth of the bodies could reveal the characters’ secrets.

There was an obituary on the French filmmaker Gérard Frot-Coutaz by Thierry Jousse in the ‘Nouvelles du Monde’ section of Le Journal. In Hier, Gérard Frot Goutaz, Jousse wrote, “If I had to keep one image of a film by Frot-Coutaz, it would the one from the end of Beau temps mais orageux en fin de journée, where we see Micheline Presle, bathed in the dusk light, as if she was a Virginia Woolf character, just about to attain her vision.”

There was a small eulogy dossier on Nestor Almedros when he died of AIDS. This one by Eric Rohmer and Fabrice Revault d’Allonnes. Rohmer wrote about him in regards to his work on his own films,

What characterized the modern aesthetic of the Nouvelle Vague, it was first off the mimesis, what Nestor called logic: that light wouldn’t come from any other point except for a window, that there wouldn’t be a show if the light was coming from a different direction… With Almendros, we had an ontological, Bazinien system: to respect nature, and express its beauty… Nestor kept searching: to find the privileged instant where the natural light was just as favorable as the photography of the best artificial lighting.

       An obituary on the independent producer Alain Dahan who had worked on some important recent French films (such as those by Leos Carax). And then later a eulogy dossier on Cyril Collar who had recently died of AIDS. Frédéric Strauss in his article Cyril Collard, un art neuf, wrote,

Cyril Collard was a director of débordement, of excess and surely of reverberations, of this movement that bangs up against others, that of actors and their bodies and also the gaze of the spectator, it upsets it, unsettles it, it makes people react… That Collard was a person with AIDS only made these stakes in a belief in dialogue towards others and everyone more essential. And the more that he pushed it, that of creating reactions, and the more he examined the transmission of a virus, it was Collard’s way to keep talking about communication.”

These examples show the reception of mourning and mourning people with AIDS at Cahiers and how it changed over time. What can we learn from this? Since they did not have a regular obituary section, they had to be casually mentioned elsewhere, such as smaller obituary texts in the Le Journal. More important filmmakers would receive a eulogy dossier or for the case of Daney an entire issue. These texts were times for the Cahiers critics, usually the chief editor, to properly evoke the importance and value of the figure and share an emotional or personal memory of their work. They would bring up the diseased role in film history and discuss their importance. Daney’s death and their mourning had a big role in changing their views on discussing AIDS, which coincided with Jousse becoming the chief editor of the magazine. As AIDS became better understood in France and the media started to discuss it more accurately did Cahiers too become better to address it. Though Cahiers mostly only wrote obituaries of French film professionals and ‘friends of Cahiers’. Cahiers was a little awkward and shy at first to discuss AIDS, though this is part of larger problem with immediate news relating to deaths in print in general (e.g. it involves what the deceased or their families want to reveal, etiquette in journalism etc.). Cahiers got better at talking about AIDS with time and it was through these obituaries that they engaged with the crisis. To be included in these Cahiers obituaries the respective person had to be have had an impact on film history or be important to French cinema or how Cahiers perceived it. These eulogy dossiers and obituaries were their way to respect and celebrate the lives of those that contributed a lot too cinema. It put their life into the news and at the time the collective consciousness of the period, which now they can be found in the archive.

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