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Tom Gunning developed the influential concept of “the cinema of attractions” and is Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, and Cinema and Media Studies, at the University of Chicago. He recently visited the Walker to present the film Coeur Fidele, part of the continuing series, Jean Epstein: The Intelligence Cinema. What first drew you to the work […]
Well, I went to NYU for my graduate degree in Film Studies in the ’70s, and there was a moment there that passed where Epstein was getting a lot of attention. There was this very exciting theater—in fact, it’s still there but in a new location—called Anthology Film Archives. It was dedicated to more avant-garde films, and in my first or second year in graduate school they had a retrospective of Epstein, with films from the Cinémathèque Française. I had already seen all of The Fall of the House of Usher, and I knew that he was interesting… but then, seeing more than a dozen films was very exciting, and I was sold.
Did any one film in particular leave an impression on you?
Well certainly the one I’ve gone back to most is Les Chutes de Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). That’s the one that I’m continuously amazed by. Coeur Fidele, also fascinates me, along with his next to last film, La Tempestaire—it’s a sound film.
You say in your introduction to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations that, despite being written almost a century ago, Epstein’s film theory has the potential to revolutionize current American media studies. In what ways do you think this emerging scholarship on Epstein might have an impact?
There’s a certain way that when a medium is new—and when Epstein was writing in the 1920s cinema was still very new—that all types of possibilities emerge in an almost utopian kind of way. But as cinema became more mainstream and a greater part of everyday life, it got commercialized and industrialized and so on, and these things in effect get shut down. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many interesting films being made after Epstein, but the idea that this is an experimental genre becomes limited, and more limited to the sort of avant-garde artists that reach very small audiences. I feel that particularly in the contemporary era when so many new media are being brought to the table of everyday life, that many of his ideas about how cinema interacts with the brain are quite relevant to people who are dealing with computers, video imagery, and the recombination. In that way it’s kind of like he had a vision that was very revolutionary but got shut down, and it’s now more relevant than ever.
Epstein wrote about Couer Fidele that “the turns of sleight-of-hand of the fête foraine (carousel) have very much unbalanced the way I would wish that the film be understood. If this abstract cinema enchants some, let them buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for a second childhood, in which a very simple device can give a speed of rotation, regular and variable at will. As for me, I believe that the age of the cinema-kaleidoscope has passed.” How would you read the famous carousel scene in this film, given what Epstein says here?
Well, the ideas of the kaleidoscope and of motion were particularly important to Epstein, so I think he’s partially being ironic here. He felt like a lot of other film makers and film critics and so on had picked up on these ideas and that they’d become sort of cliché. One of the things about Coeur Fidele is that there’s a narrative that he’s really trying to get at, there’s emotions he’s trying to get at, and there’s dramatic situations.
There’s also a kind of tension in Epstein that I think is very productive; the visual stimulus that the cinematograph made possible. It’s really interesting to me that he really wasn’t interested purely in abstraction; he felt in some way that film was about the world and although it had this abstract element, to focus on that alone would be somewhat infantile, just looking at pretty shapes.
In the tone there he’s aware of how much he’s already advocated for the cinema as a kaleidoscope or a kind of mobile vision, and that’s the irony.
Wasn’t the carousel a common motif in films of this era?
Primarily I think the films that have carousels are partly seeing an affinity between it and the cinema. It’s a machine that gives you a sensation, a kind of vertigo, a kind of excitement, and also transforms your type of vision. You get it not only here, in 1923, but also in 1929 in The Man with the Movie Camera, in which Vertov has a long sequence with a carousel. I think it’s usually a positive image, but in the narrative of Coeur Fidele it’s ambivalent. I remember a friend of mine seeing it and saying, “When you’re on a carousel it’s uplifting, and yet here they are looking so depressed.” He’s using it against the grain, but I don’t think he’s using it exactly as a negative image because he’s very excited about the idea of the carnival. At the time one of the main claims about cinema, usually a negative one, was that it was a fairground attraction. In European fairgrounds, and in France in particular, it really took as an attraction because they did not have the nickelodeons that they had in the United States. The first generation that went to the movies probably saw them in fairgrounds. It was an idea with many filmmakers to get away from that, but Epstein I think wanted to keep that energy, and I’ve always felt that is a reflection in the fairground sequence here; there’s an ambivalence in the story but because he thinks it’s vital. It’s the wheel of fortune.
Do you see any major difference between Epstein’s melodramas and other films in the genre made by his contemporaries?
There are a lot of different things that his contemporaries were doing and most of the group that’s called the French Impressionists, the experimental filmmakers of the 1920s, saw themselves as a kind of mainstream of cinema, and the way that they would articulate that is that the mainstream films were basically filmed theater.
Certainly, one of the main genres in the theater was melodrama. But, there’s a 19th century form of melodrama, particularly in France, which is very filled with blood and thunder and sensations. It was very popular and, again, carnivalesque. And part of what Epstein felt was that there was something there to be tapped in to; he felt that the sort of boulevard theater pieces were watered down, and at the same time in melodrama there’s a theme of triumph of virtue over vice and a clear confrontation between villains and heroes. He plays with that them but he totally obscures it so that you can’t read it in that way. I think he returned to this more popular form, but could not restore the simplicity of morality. If we think of the melodrama as the exaggeration of emotion, he was interested in that, even though at points in Coeur Fidele you have these very unemotional moments; you would think you know what they’re feeling and yet they’re not quite expressing it. It’s melodrama askew.
What are some traces that Jean Epstein has left on the films of today?
That would be hard to say, because I’m not sure there are many contemporary filmmakers that are aware of him. I can’t immediately think of more than a couple. The avant-garde filmmakers at places like Anthology Film Archives—where as I mentioned, I first saw Epstein—gathered and viewed films, so they were aware of him but in a more general way than they were aware of the Soviet filmmakers, Vertov and Eisenstein. With Guy Maddin, who often references and has even made some silent films, there’s something in his work that really seems to recall the fluidity of Epstein. But for the most part I think that, apart from filmmakers who areunconsciously pursuing some of the same ideas, my feeling is still that this is an undiscovered country. Epstein is a major resource that hopefully people will become more and more aware of
I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein In addition to talking about […]
I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein
In addition to talking about the archives we spoke at length about Marie Epstein, Jean’s sister and collaborator, whose work has preserved Epstein’s legacy. As part of The Intelligence of Cinema, The Walker has screened two films with scripts written by Marie Epstein, Faithful Heart and Double Love.
You have made films across a wide range of genres, everything from sci-fi to documentary and experimental films. What are some common themes that tie Young Oceans of Cinema into your body of work?
One thing that is consistent throughout my works is that, whether it be a documentary or fiction, any of the work I’ve done I always approach from a standpoint of what is intrinsic to the material (or the place, or the atmosphere) and try to work from the inside out of whatever it is. This is something that has always been important to me; to zero in on some essence and then bring it forth. I was particularly interested years ago in the work of Tatlin, for example, who has very simple statements on material and material possibilities. I’m really interested in this process of going through large amounts of stuff and letting it filter itself out—which is also what editing is—but I think what interests me in particular is really having each part speak on its own.
In your documentary you use several clips from an interview with Marie Epstein. She is constantly speaking for Jean Epstein and his estate, both in this documentary and in what I have seen elsewhere. This is very interesting to me because she was a filmmaker and writer herself, but she doesn’t get much credit for her own work. What do you think Jean would have said about her and her work?
Not much work has been done on Marie Epstein, unfortunately, although she wrote maybe a dozen of his movies…They’re actually fantastic Rocambolesque scripts; L’auberge rouge, L’Affiche, and Le lion des Mogols.
Jean and Marie were more than just brother and sister, they were collaborators, and they were self-sufficient in a lot of ways because neither of them had any significant other, at least that I know of, and they were also both completely dedicated completely to Epstein’s cinema.
Whenever there’s a mention of her role in his films she would not only deny it, she would say she didn’t go with him, she didn’t help him, even though there’s photos of her on the set with a notepad. She really did everything she could to elevate him and his work.
She was also involved in the founding of the Cinémathèque Française, and created most of the archives on Epstein. It’s thanks to her organization that I had materials to work with, for example. Numerous people have worked with and been inspired by these archives. Many scholarly works done by students and others. I know personally that having this archive was like having a mentor in a way. I’d never worked with any filmmaker as to any great degree under any sort of mentorship, but I then realized while making this film that Epstein had become my mentor. Because I had spent so much time at the archives, and they’re so well organized so that you can get a really thorough picture of his working process and thinking process…but not a lot about his personal life. According to some people that knew her personally, before Marie came in a lot of that material was completely trashed. I have no idea what that might have been there before.
Marie Epstein worked with a number of other filmmakers, Benoit-Lévy and others. She was prolific, intelligent, well spoken, and pretty much had memorized Epstein’s quotes. She knew Epstein’s sayings way better than he did. If you look at the draft of the biography that she was working on it very quickly degrades into a series of quotations. So she was definitely working from her brother’s knowledge to a great degree, but she on her own was an incredible force in cinema. A lot of the things named after Jean Epstein should be Jean and Mary Epstein, the theatre at the Cinémathèque and things like that. It would probably be more appropriate, but I think she would have rejected that.
How did the materials from archive tie in to your film? Were there any immaterial but still essential aspects of his filmmaking that you used in your work?
Well, I felt particularly drawn to Epstein’s work to begin with because I was interested in a lot of things that he had explored and thought about, and obviously meditated on immensely. It nourished my thinking of the film. So going into this project having read a certain amount of Epstein, but not as much as I would read in the process, I knew that in my approach I wouldn’t be making a film about my filmmaking, I would be making a film about Epstein’s filmmaking. So how would I do that? Well, first of all I had to choose a somewhat stately approach to camerawork where I’m not competing with his approach to camerawork. So I’m doing more of these tableau-type takes that I let his stuff pop out more. So it was more that I was reacting to his work than being inspired by it. I wasn’t going to make a film that was based on his theories, it was more of a film that was based on exploring his theories and trying to erase, in a way, my presence as a filmmaker. I guess that sort of parallels Marie. I wanted to let his thoughts rise to the surface, by using scans that were of the actual writing that he did, or the correspondence, or the films. Whatever the material may be. With the idea that you would feel these things coming out of the film. There’s a lot of me in there but it’s not up front or what comes to the surface.
To come back to the material presence, I literally scanned things in newspapers and wanted to use the thing itself because I think there’s a time, and a place, and a perspective, that are important that are in the actual physical materials themselves, like the shroud of Turin or whatever it might be. It’s a mysterious concept that’s not easily quantifiable, but I think that by even just believing in it already does something.
You can in a way give an object its own perspective. Each thing has its own thing that it wants to say.