When Foucault va au cinéma came out in 2011, I immediately got hold of a copy. It was a collection of excerpts from Foucault’s interviews about and discussions of films, prefaced by two new introductory essays by Patrice Maniglier and Dork Zabunyan. The texts by Foucault, though, were all taken from Dits et écrits, and they were not reprinted in whole, only in short excerpts. In the French, 126 pages were taken up by the essays; less than 40 pages of excerpts from Foucault. So, there was no newly rediscovered Foucault, what there was was torn from context, and the introductory essays, while interesting enough, were not especially helpful to my own concerns.
I was pleased to hear that Clare O’Farrell was translating the book for Columbia University Press though, not least because Clare has a long-standing interest in both Foucault and film. She’s the author of the book Michel Foucault: Historian or Philosopher? (1989), which I read during my PhD, and also of Michel Foucault (2005), which I still think is the best introductory book on Foucault. Along with Alan Rosenberg and me, she was one of the founding editors of Foucault Studies, as well as behind the invaluable Foucault News blog.
A translation of this book would be useful, I thought, because a couple of the texts in it had not previously been translated. While the French Dits et écrits collects nearly all of Foucault’s shorter writings, the English Essential Works is only a selection. Many other collections – Power/Knowledge, Politics, Philosophy, Culture and Foucault: Live among them – have other essays, but all are part-superseded by Essential Works. Some texts have been translated a few different times, some reprinted with variations, many are not translated at all. Richard Lynch’s bibliography of English translations is invaluable, but finding English translations can be very time-consuming – obscure journals, out of print books and so on. Frankly it’s a bit of a mess. Any new translations, especially if thematically linked, are therefore to be welcomed.
What Foucault at the Movies does is to reprint the whole of each of the texts, rather than the abbreviated versions in Foucault va au cinema. It also includes one relevant piece that was not in Foucault va au cinema, and was not in English before at all. They are all new translations, which is a massive improvement for the ones in Foucault: Live, and a smaller one for the two in Essential Works Volume II.
The texts included are Dits et écrits numbers 140, 159, 162, 164, 171, 180, 185, 201, 284, 308. If you check Lynch’s really helpful bibliography you’ll see that texts 159, 162 and 185 are unique, but I think all the ones here supersede previously published ones, especially the ones in Foucault: Live.
Given the dates of the material, which all come from the last decade of Foucault’s life, I didn’t think it would be much use for my early Foucault work, but there are some useful comments, especially the two pieces on the Histoire de Paul film which are revealing of Foucault’s time working in the asylum and the visits to the fête des fous in Münsterlingen. There are also lots of things said which speak to wider issues – political, historical, literary or other – not just to cinema.
The English also includes the programme for a film festival accompanying the original book, which gives readers a sense of the range of films discussed or otherwise related. It has full and very helpful notes, and a bibliography. Little of that is in the French. In summary, Foucault at the Movies is not just an excellent translation, it is a better book than the French original.