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Sam Di Iorio reviews The Red Years of Cahiers du Cinéma

Daniel Fairfax. The Red Years of Cahiers du Cinéma (1968–1973), vol. 1: Ideology and Politics, 412 pp., and vol. 2: Aesthetics and Ontology, 395 pp. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021.

Review by Sam Di Iorio

In The Red Years, Daniel Fairfax explores how Cahiers du Cinéma’s successive engagement with Marxism, the Communist Party, and Maoism fed its increasingly radical attempts to forge a theory and a politics of representation. This might seem like familiar territory at first, especially given the fog of received ideas that surrounds this storied journal. Yet if standard accounts hold that the Cahiers’ left turn involves renouncing their past, abandoning Bazinian idealism for apparatus theory, or advocating for an antirealist aesthetic called political modernism, Fairfax’s magisterial analysis thoroughly recasts this narrative. Drawing on new interviews and extensive archival sourcework, it pushes beyond poor translations and old legends, first, to anchor the writing within the context of French cultural history and second, to uproot it from the past and consider its relevance now.

Although Fairfax builds this two-volume study around ten critics—Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre, Jacques Aumont, Serge Daney, Bernard Eisenschitz, Jean-Pierre Oudart, Pascal Bonitzer, Pascal Kané, and Pierre Baudry—he frames the Cahiers as a group project above all, one whose most canonical essays (“Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism” and “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln”) were collectively written and jointly signed. His analysis of the journal’s Marxist phase starts from earlier work by Antoine de Baecque and Bérénice Reynaud, yet it transcends precedent by widening its scope and following its protagonists into the present. Working outward from the Cahiers’ early seventies peak, Fairfax explores the theory, criticism, and intellectual biography that these ten figures went on to produce as well as their subsequent engagements with filmmaking, screenwriting, publishing and programming, their activity in the academy, and later efforts at seminal journals like Cinéma and Trafic. In essence, this account of a journal is the intellectual history of a generation of writers: what comes into focus is the impact of its brutal, emancipatory militant period on everything that followed.

How to structure this mountain of information? Fairfax sets out a timeline but sidesteps chronology fairly quickly. This is for the best since it leaves him freer to follow ideas. Each volume is organized around a pair of themes—ideology and politics, aesthetics and ontology—that shapes their analysis of a set of topics: the review’s engagement with Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser; the ways structuralist and post-structuralist theory fed its approach to cinematic form; its understandings of realism and notions of the real; its attention to the social impact of television and new media; its influence on Gilles Deleuze; its engagement with films and filmmakers too numerous to list, though the book’s pages on Othon, Sylvia Scarlett, and L’Olivier struck me as especially useful, as did the chapters on classical cinema and globally-defined modernisms in the 1970s.

As Fairfax explores these subjects, he redistributes the breaks and continuities within the Cahiers’ history. Initially, this means dismantling the frame Anglo-American narratives have placed around this engaged moment, especially as it concerns terms like apparatus theory, which had little purchase in France. It also means distancing the review’s approach from the more puritanical iconoclasm of peers like Cinéthique in France and Screen in the UK, as well as showing how its interests stretch beyond the narrowly-defined Brechtian style the latter tended to defend. Most surprisingly, it involves drawing the Cahiers closer to André Bazin, the figure who is often understood as its quasi-oedipal nemesis at this time. Although Althusser’s structural reinterpretation of Marx is a primary inspiration for the review in the late sixties, The Red Years carefully and convincingly argues that the Marxist Cahiers also maintained a commitment to Bazin and to realism more broadly. While their engagement with his ideas was often critical, Fairfax shows how the challenges were offset by a deeper desire to return to his work and broaden its questioning of the cinema’s relationship to the world.

Bazin’s ontological understanding of the moving image seems impossible to reconcile with the review’s Althusserian questioning of art’s relationship to ideology. And this is precisely Fairfax’s point: that the specificity of the Cahiers at this time, the distinctive factor that distinguishes it from its rivals, lies in its stubborn refusal to abandon either of these positions, in a “convulsive dialectic” generated by the impossible desire to fuse Althusser with Bazin (1:26). His argument has clear implications for film history. First, in setting aside distinctions between realism and modernism, it provincializes aesthetic categories adopted by Screen and other English-language journals, clearing a path for its alternative theoretical lineage and for a constellation of films. Drawing Althusser and Bazin together also reinforces the coherence of a Cahiers line dedicated to the idea that cinema must involve what Daney (and later Dudley Andrew) called a “relationship with the real,” revealing a current of Bazinian materialism that runs through classical, modern, and contemporary aesthetics and that, as recent work by Pedro Costa, Kelly Reichardt, or Jia Zhang-Ke suggests, remains central to film culture.[1] Finally, re-establishing these connections changes our understanding of the late-sixties Cahiers as a whole. Rather than approach the ’68–73 period as a Marxist museum piece or a second, aberrant act to a heroic 1950s, the book recognizes it as equal partner and driving force in this longer theoretical trajectory.

Partisan but not credulous, The Red Years’ critical analysis of this moment allows us to learn from its blind spots as well as its insights, implicitly inviting us to measure both against our own. By recovering the wealth of ideas the Cahiers forged or adapted at this time—not just ideological critique, but also suture, spectatorial disavowal, the hors-champ and the fiction de gauche—Fairfax opens them to rediscovery and debate. It’s not simply the reconstruction of a discourse that’s at stake, it’s the dissemination of concepts formulated to overcome the separation between aesthetics, political theory, and cultural practice. In this regard, this return to an international and internationalist repressed functions less as a history than as a sourcebook. Since its appearance, in light of Jean-Louis Comolli’s passing and Trafic’s move to annual publication, this fragile sort of undertaking seems all the more necessary. To its tremendous credit, The Red Years restores urgency to the ideas it explores, showing how they can function as a horizon for a present which continues to grapple with art’s place and representation’s political charge.


[1] Serge Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur. (Paris, 1993), p. 301.