Our Moving Image staff surveys the world of film and video from classic to global, experimental to digital.
Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinema—shadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, […]
Tim Sutton’s Dark Night—screening April 14–16 in the Walker Cinema—shadows the lives of six people prior to a mass shooting in a cinema in order to open space for a critique of the culture from which mass shooting and violence is born. How does American culture encourage violence? Aiming to look beyond an overly simplistic investigation of gun culture, Sutton observes the underlying effects of isolation and desensitization, and the longstanding media and entertainment bend toward violence. In a recent interview, he discussed how the film avoids politics to simply offer an observation, of “people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.”
Kelsey Bosch: What about the set of personalities portrayed in Dark Night interests you in regards to mass shooting?
Tim Sutton: The film watches people I felt made psychic sense in the landscape of a vague American suburbia. While they all add their dramatic part to the film’s story, they are archetypes of what makes up much of that environment right now—a Vet, a young immigrant, a troubled teen, skate punks, a social media addict, and an angry and confused young man who clearly should not have access to a gun. It’s a group of people connected only by their sense of disconnection to a greater community, and to a single and somewhat random event.
Bosch: One commonality between Dark Night‘s characters is the suggestion of mental instability. Is the lack of mental healthcare access a bigger problem in the United States than gun control?
Sutton: I’m not an expert on mental health issues—micro or macro—in America. I’m not an expert on gun control. The film’s essential concept is to offer a dark, observational lens on a specific corner of the culture we live in right now as an attempt to evoke in the viewer first a sense of deep dread followed by deep meditation.
Bosch: Is there any danger in typecasting your actors, who largely play a version of themselves, as potential mass shooters?
Sutton: These are real people more or less playing dramatic or nightmarish versions of themselves—the shooter included. They don’t risk typecasting because they’re just people. That’s a real mother/son relationship we’re seeing. That’s a real vet making his way back from war… Their reality feeds a greater fiction which—to me, at least—creates layers and textures of complexity, rather than any cookie cutter or stereotypical results.
Bosch: Is the kind of boredom portrayed particular to the United States? What about our culture perpetuates boredom? Is boredom dangerous?
Sutton: Idle hands… No, to me the film is not about boredom. It’s about isolation, a lack of purpose or connection, and how we as individuals and as a society are filling that void.
Bosch: There isn’t mention of hunting culture in Dark Night. Why did you stray from that sect of gun culture?
Sutton: The people who go into public places and start shooting aren’t usually hunters. They are often disturbed people looking to make their mark on the world. Hunters, or sportsman as they are often called, quite often maintain legal usage and maintenance of their firearms. The film isn’t about that subset or the political platform they might support. The film is purposefully devoid of politics. It simply observes people, the suburban landscape, and the intense power of the tools to which we all have access.
Bosch: Why focus on the lives of the characters (potential victims and shooter) prior to the mass shooting?
Sutton: Most media on this topic is about aftermath—about grief and shock and then investigation and finger-pointing and punditry. Dark Night is about the lives we lead.
Bosch: Suburbs were developed out of a desire for comfort and safety—a refuge from the violence and chaos of the inner city—how has the utopic suburb atrophied?
Sutton: I think there are likely a great many people in the suburbs living incredibly satisfying, engaging, creative lives on a number of levels. I hate to generalize. I do think that America is a culture—be it urban, suburban, or rural—that glorifies and promotes violence, that glorifies and promotes technology, and that glorifies and promotes generic urban and suburban design and development. And with all of this grand promotion comes an infinite amount of serious ramifications. Dark Night illustrates just one.
From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage […]
From shattered landscape to hospital bed to the ghost towns of paradise, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth, is a complex reflection on the cost of industrialization. Led into the iron mines of Mongolia by the poetry of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Zhao confronts viewers with the empirical realization of industrial-capitalist idealism. The imbalances are vast. Through this passage emerge questions: for whom is this empty paradise built? Is the human and environmental price worth the pursuit of the ideal? Thus begins our own journey of reflection and self-examination.
Zhao’s work has been exhibited at a number of Walker events, including the 2010 Expanding the Frame series, the 2009 exhibition Zhao Liang: Heavy Sleepers, 2003’s How Latitudes Become Forms, and as part of the 2002 Dig.It Festival of Digital Media. In advance of Behemoth’s February 3–5 screenings in the Walker Cinema, Zhao discussed his experiences in the mind, the film’s symbolism, and its relation to his visual art.
Kelsey Bosch: You cite Dante’s Divine Comedy as a major influence for this film. When did you first read it, and how did it impact you?
Zhao Liang: It was during my shoot at the mine that I actually started reading the Divine Comedy. The first time I saw the continuous lifeless mine crater I felt like I had arrived at hell. Every time I came to these mines I would update my WeChat moment: “Back to hell again.” My producer, Sylvie Blum, reminded me to read the Divine Comedy, so I started it. I found the description of hell—going down level by level—so similar to the mines I saw. Afterward, I picked the structure of Divine Comedy to structure my film.
Bosch: Were you able to develop relationships with the people you filmed and hear their perspective on the environmental and humanitarian concerns addressed in Behemoth?
Zhao: We do have communication. The mine workers know that they are destroying the natural environment, but they also think it’s fairly natural to do so, since those mine resources are there for utilization, otherwise it would be a waste. More importantly for them, it is to make a living that they do such dangerous, dirty, and tired work.
Bosch: After your experiences at the mine, where do you see the global economy headed?
Zhao: I’m not so good at global economic problems, but my first reaction to those scenes is that human beings are cutting their own throats to ruin themselves. If we think deeply, we have to ask: have human beings gone on a wrong path? Was there any other possibility since the invention of the steam engine? Or has the dark side of the profit chain prevented the development of solar energy? Those are all my guesses. But I’m sure that the greed of human beings brought about the situation today.
Bosch: There are a number of visual symbols in Behemoth: red/blue screens, darkness/lightness, fire, and, most notably, the mirror and the “shattered” landscape. It reminds me of Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon, in which the cloaked figure with a mirror face follows Deren, or The Blood of a Poet by Jean Cocteau, in which the mirror was a sort of porthole between reality and surreality. What about the mirror and/or reflection interested you in regards to Behemoth?
Zhao: In the film, I used several colors to represent the three realms: red and black represent the hell, gray represents purgatory, and blue, ironically, represents paradise. The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante.
The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other.
The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers. The mirrored image is also an illusory image as well as one of self-reflection.
Bosch: You developed a rich soundscape in Behemoth, between sounds of industry and the human body. Can you describe the soundscape you experienced while filming and how it influenced the work?
Zhao: Sounds are a vital part of this nondialogue film. I often became confused by some sounds while shooting, such as the huge noise of shattered ores. You start to think it’s very rhythmic electric music after hearing it for a while; you might even want to dance. The sound of iron flowing from the iron mine factory and the sound of explosions all gave me unlimited imagination. During post-production, besides designing the sound contrast of silence and noise, I also asked the composer to incorporate some of the live-recorded industry noise into the environment sound track. It sounds like music but is very obscure.
Bosch: You’ve participated in Walker Art Center’s Expanding the Frame program and seem to cross back and forth from more experimental or installation-based moving image art and cinematic features. How do you approach these different formats, and what interests you about each? Do you work in other media as well?
Zhao: Besides film, I’m more interested in video arts because I can express myself more freely. Since graduating from fine art school I have been working in contemporary art, and making film was a coincidence. In the ’90s, China was seeing dramatic changes, even daily. We were immerged in new social problems more frequently than ever than before, so I wanted to record everything while the official media was busy boasting or lying. To record reality feels like rescuing your treasure from a fire disaster. After 20 years, I feel like the documentaries and video art I made are somehow not so well connected. I want to enjoy the making of films as much as I do making video artworks. Behemoth is my first try.
Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream […]
Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream with a passive camera. The compositions in his film are more often than not distant, still, and slow. As viewers of a media abundant world this stillness is arresting—allowing us to fully perceive each shot and contemplate each interaction. Cemetery of Splendor is a meditation on the fluidity of history, memory, identity, and relationships.
Weerasethakul spoke with us about the making of the film, his use of subtlety and minimal use of flashy film techniques, Thai culture, and censorship. Cemetery of Splendor will screen at Walker cinema on October 30–November 1.
What inspired Cemetery of Splendor—Rak Ti Khon Kaen?
The film is a search for old spirits I knew as a child: the school, the hospital, the cinema. The film is a merging of these places. I haven’t lived in my home town for almost 20 years. The city has changed so much, but when I went back I only saw old memories on top of the new buildings. One of my favorite spots, the Khon Kaen lake, remains the same.
In Cemetery of Splendor, the past haunts the present: there are layers of history in a single place. What about this layering is significant for you?
That’s how we operate—with layers of history and memory. I feel, as a Thai, that my identity is still shifting from different information—historical research, propaganda machine, myths, and tales. At times it is confusing to search for “reality.”
Illness, death, and medical centers have emerged in more than one of your films. Is this a recurrent entry point into the surreal or dream world?
My parents were doctors, and we lived in one of the hospital housing units. Growing up I was always interested in sickness. Living in Thailand for the past decade has been like one continuous sickness.
The vast majority of camera shots in Cemetery of Splendor are long and still, allowing the viewer time to meditate on the composition. Can you talk a bit about your use of duration and stillness? Is this a narrative structure you use to confuse reality and surrealism, or is your aim to introduce the past into the present?
I try not to impose on the audience’s freedom to look and to listen. It feels almost rude to cut when the characters are in conversation, for example. The same can be said about the treatment of surrealism. I want this film to be a gentle assault on the senses, rather than load it with special effects.
The first camera movement we see is the pan over the escalator that fades out as the hospital ward fades in, why did you opt for this moment in particular to introduce movement?
I think this is the proper time to synchronize the audience with the character Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas). It’s an excursion to town and to the mind. For me, it is when she merges with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) and the audience.
Itt mentions to Jen his desire to quit the army then suddenly falls asleep. Is the sleeping soldier a metaphor?
In the past you’ve run into censorship issues with the Thai Censorship Board. What is the current landscape of Thai cinema and censorship? Do you see Cemetery of Splendor as provocative of censorship by the board?
It’s tricky because the censorship law is used arbitrarily. A silly comedy can be banned if some elements are not in tune with the authorities. The elements don’t even have to be in the film. For example, if you are independent, not pro-army, etc., these traits can play a role in how the board treats you.
Early on in the film we see signs of western culture: a soldier requests minced meat, bamboo shoot soup, and a Coke for dinner. Do you embrace the fluidity of culture, or are you more critical of the potential loss or diluting of eastern culture?
Minced meat and bamboo shoot are very local northeastern dishes. We tried to not have subtitles that would be too confusing for foreign audiences. Anyway, Thai culture is mainly about appropriating other cultures. I am happy with this fluidity.
What is on the horizon for you? Are you working on another film or project?
I am planning something about ancient healing, maybe in South America. But I want to approach it from a scientific angle. I hope that there will be more elements of science fiction than the previous films.
For more: In October 2012, Apichatapong Weerasethakul made Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) for the Walker’s first online commission. He was also featured in the Walker Dialogue New Language From Thailand with Chuck Stephens in 2004.
Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely […]
Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely been forgotten. During the opening scenes of the documentary Sembene! (2015), which screened at Walker October 16–18, we see co-director Samba Gadjigo enter the dilapidated Gallo Ceddo—Sembene’s house. Rust and unstable celluloid threaten the future of Sembene’s life work.
Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and co-director Jason Silverman set out to tell the story of Sembene and restore his legacy. What they achieved is a deeply intimate yet honest portrait of the man who sought to change Africa. In an interview with Gadjigo and Silverman, we asked about the making of the documentary, Sembene’s approach to filmmaking, and the current state of African cinema.
What were your goals when you set out to create Sembene!?
First of all, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the most important but unknown artists of our century; a filmmaker, novelist, and storyteller who had a deep understanding of the organic relation between culture and politics. Ousmane Sembene spent 50 years using his pen and his camera to try and rescue Africa from the colonizing elements that were drowning it. Through Sembene! we aim to inspire young artists around the world and challenge them to get involved in major issues that face their societies. And equally important, we wanted to tell a story that could entertain anyone, young and old. That was Sembene’s goal with his work.
How did the two of you meet and collaborate on this documentary?
We were each (and still are) working along those lines—Jason as a writer and film programmer and I as a scholar and teacher. Almost all my scholarly work has been devoted to advancing an understanding of African culture around the world and, as an American cultural worker, Jason aims at reflecting the diversity of world cultures in the films he selects for his American audience. We first met when he called me for an article on Sembene and he discovered Sembene’s work. After Sembene passed in 2007, we decided to join our passions, resources, and expertise to work together on this film.
What was the biggest challenge in realizing this documentary? How did you decide when you had successfully portrayed Sembene’s legacy?
Everything was a challenge. Only very few film experts know of Sembene in the US, and very few Americans can point to the world map and locate an African country. Thus, a film project about an obscure African film director is a hard sell. The other major challenge is our own lack of experience in filmmaking. Although Jason already had produced two films and has a deep knowledge of the film culture and film industry, he had never directed a film. I am a college professor who only wrote books and produced a 20 minute behind-the-scenes documentary about Sembene’s final film Moolaade. We were like a one-eyed man walking down the road with a blind man. But with time and persistence, water erodes the hardest rock.
Filmmaking is like any other form of storytelling; its goal should be to entertain and to educate by touching emotions. It was difficult to find the right tone to convey our message in the most artistic way. With the experience, political and artistic sensibility of our editor, Ricardo Acosta, we think we have accomplished a work we can be proud of and which does justice to Sembene and to all those who believed in us and supported us during the years that it took to make the film.
What progress has been made in communicating Africa’s stories since Sembene’s last film, Moolaade, in 2004?
A lot of progress has been made. With the availability of digital cameras and online editing, the cost of making a film has gone way down. Yes, with social media, African stories are being told by Africans, in real time. This is so important that it has altered our political and social landscape. We no longer need to rely on CNN, BBC, or TV5 Monde to show us what is happening on our continent.
Is Africa successfully working toward preserving its cultures and languages?
In light of the centuries of systemic and deliberate “silencing” Africa has gone through, we are progressing inch by inch, but the progress is irreversible. What other societies accomplished in centuries, we are accomplishing in decades. Thanks to social media and media activism, the youth of Burkina Faso, a “tiny” country in East Africa, was able to rid itself of a three-decade-long dictatorship! Cultural and political liberation go hand in hand.
With twenty years of research to pull from, how did you narrow down the most important aspects of Sembene’s story into an 86-minute documentary?
The goal was to tell a story that could resonate across cultures. Our first few cuts of the film were filled with historical and political context, along with talking heads that were conveying interesting information, but weren’t telling stories from the heart. Ultimately, we chose to include only the people who knew him best and the facts that helped contextualize Sembene as a human, rather than Sembene, the legend.
Can you speak on Sembene’s filmmaking process and how this oeuvre came to define the “birth” of African cinema?
All of Sembene’s films are based on real-life events; his films are not about escapism. Sembene made films rooted in and reflecting the actual African experience, thus ushering in an authentic African cinema that mirrors Africa’s past and its present and projects its future, from an African perspective. He made films by any means necessary, and even coined a phrase: megotage, as opposed to montage. A “megot” is the stub of a cigarette, the leftover that’s discarded. Sembene used leftover materials, or whatever he could find, to get his films made.
Samba, in your biography on Sembene, you mention Sembene’s connection to the land, how did this connection form and how does this connection manifest in his film work?
Sembene was born in Casamance, in the south of Senegal; his father was a fisherman also working the land to feed his family. Sembene was very attached to the land and to bodies of water. He was expelled from school at an early age, and became a fisherman, a mason, a soldier, and a dockworker. He worked outside and worked with his hands. Sembene was not only connected to the land; he was a man of the people. Note that in his own resume he wrote in 1993, in the section about profession, he wrote mason and dockworker. Moreover, all of Sembene’s works are reflective of his homeland, even those written in exile, between 1956 and 1960, including his untranslated 1957 novel O pay, mon beau peuple (O, my country, my Beautiful People).
Is there today an ecole du soir (night school), where Africans’ can engage in non-colonialist education?
Not nearly as much as we really need. The movie theaters have disappeared, and those that have survived are playing mostly American films. There are some bright spots: some young filmmakers in Dakar, for example, organize regular neighborhood screenings (festivals de quartier) attended by a large audience and aspiring filmmakers.
Are there differences in narrative structure between Sembene’s written and moving image work? Why did Sembene begin working with moving image?
Most of Sembene’s films are inspired by or adapted from his literary works. But literature and cinema have different aesthetic requirements. Cinema puts more constraints and limitations to the artist’s imagination. Sembene’s own preference is literature but, as he explained in many interviews, in the conditions of Africa, cinema is the best medium to reach a vast public that needs to be addressed in hundreds of different languages. With the moving image, Sembene stated, “People see with their ears and hear with their eyes.”
Several of Sembene’s film feature strong female and/or mother characters. Why did he want to tell their stories in particular?
In a nutshell: women are the most silenced element of society, but also a major potential force that needs to reckoned with.
Do the two of you plan to co-direct any future projects together?
The first plan: to make sure this first film makes it in the world! Africa can really use this story, and Sembene’s films, and that’s true of many marginalized communities throughout the world.
Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of […]
Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota, suggests that Epstein’s cinema is a corporeal cinema: one that is felt physically in the spectator’s body. “Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot,” Wall-Romana states, “a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot.”
Photogenie originates from the “prosthetic” nature of the camera: it is an “artificial eye” that can perceive what ours cannot. Epstein’s interest in the perceptual mechanics of the camera is also connected to filmic time: its ability, as Epstein describes it, to “free us of terrestrial–that is, solar–time, from whose rhythm, it seemed, nothing would ever dislodge us. We feel introduced to a new universe, to another continuum…”.1 Epstein’s cinema disrupts our understanding of the world, making us see anew, and reminds us of our corporeality.
During an interview with Wall-Romana, guest speaker at several of the screenings in our Jean Epstein: Intelligence of Cinema series and author of Jean Epstein (Manchester, 2012), we discussed Epstein’s approach to filmmaking and his relevance today.
What are Jean Epstein’s greatest contributions to filmmaking and film studies? What is his relevance today?
He was a key member of what is called the first French avant-garde from the early ’20s that came right after World War I, and it contrasts with the second avant-garde which is Dada, Surrealists, and later Cubists and geometric filmmaking. What characterizes the group that he belongs to with directors like Abel Gance, Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier, and Germaine Dulac is that they’re committed to narration, as opposed to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who love to chop any narrative expectation to shock the viewer. Since Epstein and these directors are still working within the structures of commercial filmmaking, they have to work obliquely and sort of smuggle avant-garde techniques within an overall narrative structure.
As for the relevance of Epstein and his friends to the history of cinema, it’s probably technical innovations and their main idea that cinema is about rhythm and music: seeing the unfolding of the film through the narrative as a certain form of rhythmic perception or metaphoric music. Some of the directors composed sequences by timing shots in a musical way. They used a lot of super-impressions, composite shots, close-ups, and odd angles and compositions, and Epstein was the leader of that group. They expanded the technical register of cinema. That is one of the main ways of thinking about his work.
Another way to think about Epstein’s filmmaking, and that’s more my own approach, is that it’s corporeal cinema: it’s about the body, the body of the perceiver—the spectator, but also the body of the director, and the body of the actors. It’s really about communication between bodies. A lot of cinema before that was literary cinema, adapting stories, adapting novels, being subaltern to literature. He sort of flipped that around and said, “No, the thing about cinema is that it’s about the world and about bodies and the machine in the middle.” That’s what cinema is about. So he changed the whole framework of how to think about cinema. He influenced very contemporary thinkers, like Gilles Deleuze and Jacque Rancière—one of Rancière’s main writings on cinema is an argument against Epstein in some ways, but with Epstein in other ways. Godard, even though he ignored Epstein, later recognized that Epstein had a strong influence. So he finds his way throughout the history of cinema as well. Even Hitchcock said that his idea of suspense had been developed seeing some of Epstein’s movies, even though it’s a very different version, the idea of time and temporality being sort of suspended, and you don’t know exactly why. He thought, “Hmm, I could use that as a sort of purely filmic device.”
What is Epstein’s concept of photogenie, and where is it at work in his films?
Photogenie is a very difficult concept. One way it was characterized in early film history, that is in the ’60s and ’70s, was that it was a kind of naïve belief in the magical power of the camera to disclose something that could not be seen otherwise. So it was a kind of animism or magical thinking, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I think for Epstein, photogenie is a certain way of communicating directly with the real, not in a magical way but in a concrete way. For example, he has shots that show a progressive close-up of a telephone. The telephone, which at the beginning is a purely narrative instrument, by the time you have the slow shots that close into and narrow around the phone, it becomes a strange object that has a personality. That’s one way that Epstein defines photogenie, as something that teases out the personality of objects and things in the world. So it’s a form of animism, yes, but it’s a way of rethinking things we take for granted, making them enigmatic again, and showing that we live in a world of affects, human and otherwise, not an inanimate world. So photogenie really means that cinema animates the world, literally.
How does photogenie affect the viewer’s experience of Epstein’s work?
Photogenie is a moment that is at a tangent from both the flow of the film and the narrative arc. Photogenie takes you out of the ease of flowing with the film, out of your expectation of what is going to happen because of the plot. Photogenie stops you and takes you to the side and says “look at this.” You don’t exactly know why, and the shots are made to suck you into a series of images that you cannot quite understand, so it’s a very disruptive device. I think what it makes the viewer do is really step out of the comfort zone of being taken on a journey, as people say, and to ask, “Why am I seeing this? What am I feeling?” Photogenie makes you feel something in your body, which is not necessarily comfortable. For example The Fall of the House of Usher is a very uncomfortable film to watch because it’s a lot of very slow movements—not just slow motion, but slow movements in addition to slow motion—of the protagonist, and you almost feel like, “Uh, why is it so slow, what is going on?” I tell my students always to feel the film in your body, as opposed to just forgetting your body, which is what Hollywood cinema makes you do, to forget who you are and suddenly the film is over and it’s like, “Oh, my God.” You never forget your body, you never forget that you’re embodied watching a film of Epstein’s, and that’s a big dimension of photogenie.
Where does Epstein fit within historical film theory? Do you see a resurgence of classical (pre-psychoanalytic/semiotic) film theory?
There’s a huge interest because we’ve gone through the movements of the film as text, the film as a conscious structure or collective unconscious, the film as revealing the way a society structures how we think. And now we’re going back to earlier filmmakers, and Epstein is one of them, but also people like Guy-Blaché, Balacs, Vertov, and Eisenstein, who are all part of this larger movement. It was a cinema that didn’t hesitate to tackle the world. It asked, “What is the world, how do we view it?” I think some of the concerns of film theory have felt very provincial, or very small, and there’s a certain thirst for cinema that can tell us, “What is the cosmos?” Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot, a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot. I think for these guys this would have been a great way of thinking. The digital and the post-digital in some way connect to earlier film theory, whereas critical movements from the ’60s to the ’00s were involved mostly in social critique. You have to be careful because some of the critiques that have been made against earlier film theory were that it was apolitical, and that precisely semiotics, feminist readings, and Marxists readings have brought in a politics that wasn’t there before. I think that is a very bad and weak reading of those films. They are fantastically political; they are political in a different way. So Eisenstein is taken to be the first one to make a deeply political film, but I think Epstein and his friends made a lot of political work, but in a very different mode. For example, Finis Terrae, I think is an amazingly political film because it’s a film made by a collective: the filmmaker, a small crew, and a village of people who are supposed to be politically very conservative. The Britons, they’re deep Catholics, they historically hated the left. But Epstein wanted to break those ideas and work directly with people on what their life experience is, and they welcomed him. What’s more political than that?
So there’s new views on seeing the politics of early film theory, which makes it more interesting and again it resonates more with our period. Being political is no longer about big pronouncements or the revolution: it’s more about going somewhere and doing something with and for people who are otherwise disconnected, poor, underrepresented, etc. Also, Epstein was gay, briefly out of the closet and back in again in the early ’20s, and I think his cinema is political in the way he critiques heterosexual melodramas. It was very hard to weave in openly queer topics in cinema at the time because of censorship, but he managed to do that, using equivocations and concealment. For example, in Finis Terrae, it’s about two boys who are passionate friends: a queer eye would read through that, but the film has one of them meet his girlfriend at the end, so appearances are saved! Same in Double Love, where gambling is a cypher for homosexuality. In The Three-Sided Mirror, the story is about a man who’s supposedly in love with three women, but in fact he loves only his automobile and kills himself with it. We can’t really say Epstein was a queer activist, but in a way I think that’s exactly what he did.
How did you become interested in Epstein’s cinematic philosophy and film work?
It was purely by chance. I was working on a dissertation on poetry and philosophy, and I was not very happy with the way it was going. Also I was working on Georges Bataille, and there was a lot of work being done on him at the time. Then I just found this book in the library at Berkeley and it hadn’t been checked out for thirty years, and I thought this book is extraordinary (Today’s Poetry: A New Mindset, from 1921). I looked around and there was nothing written, zilch, on this book! I thought this is really weird and I started to look more into—and I didn’t know he was a filmmaker at the time—so I discovered him as a writer, then discovered his film work, which was very hard to get. There were only two films of his that were available, one VHS and DVD, this was in the early 2000s. So I went to the Cinemathèque Française in Paris and looked at all of his movies and thought, “This is incredible.” Little by little I wondered why he has been bypassed by all of film history. There are a number of reasons for that, and I thought that was worth thinking about. For instance he was half Jewish and gay, two strikes in the interwar period in France! In fact, I discovered he way gay when I was working in the archive in Paris, and I stumbled upon his unpublished manuscript on male homosexuality. That was another motivation for me, even though I wasn’t working in queer studies: to get his work and thinking out, show how he circumvented censorship. And I love his films, and I love his writing! He’s such a fresh, genuine, sometimes angry—but in a good way!—kind of guy, and he’s very idiosyncratic. He just builds stuff, he’s not at all a scholar, he’s not at all a film historian, he was a just a kind of crafter and maker of ideas and of artworks.
What remains the terra incognita of Epsteinian research?
It’s nice you use terra incognita on the day when Finis Terrae will be playing, so the end of the world versus the unknown lands. I went to a conference in Rennes a couple of years ago in Brittany on Epstein, and there were four or five PhD students working on Epstein. They were working on very specific things within his work, so now it’s becoming a field of study. Someone was looking at his conferences, his published conferences, and was trying to read the same scientific texts that he read for those conferences, to understand better his background. So there are a lot of micro studies coming out on Epstein, but I think the terra incognita is still his films, which for a filmmaker is a horrible thing to say! Some of them have just recently come out but he has about forty-five films and only about eighteen are available. So I think until there is a collected film edition of Epstein that is available so people can view his films, and discover them, and be blown by how contemporary he is in some ways, I think he will remain marginalized. His writings are now coming out in French, and I translated the first book of his into English (The Intelligence of a Machine, Univocal) so critically he’s becoming more studied, but he is still not shown enough compared to other films of the silent era. Although the silent era itself is sinking fast, but that’s another issue! The silent era is becoming itself a huge terra incognita in some ways even though many contemporary filmmakers who are doing interesting things are harkening back to silent cinema. People like Guy Maddin or Soderbergh, they know their silent cinema very well and exploit it as something that nobody has contact with anymore. So I’m really glad to see that the Walker is trying to change that, and show silent films as what they were: a different kind of cinema!
1 Qtd in Remes, Justin. Motion[less] Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis. ed. John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 81–82.