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Corporeality and the Prosthetic Being: Christophe Wall-Romana on the Cinema of Jean Epstein

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’s Finis Terrae, 1928 Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archive

Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archive

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…”.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.

Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher, 1928 Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives

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!

Footnote

1 Qtd in Remes, Justin. Motion[less] Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis. ed. John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 81–82.

 

Filmmakers in Conversation: The Zellner Bros. on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains […]

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A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains a treasure map. When her life reaches new levels of mundane, she leaves her home in Japan and hops on a plane to America to find the buried money. The Zellner Bros. shot their fifth feature onsite in both Tokyo and Minnesota, employing two different supporting casts and crews. Kumiko premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Joined by Variety Chief Film Critic Scott Foundas, David and Nathan Zellner visited the Walker in September of 2014 for the Walker’s Filmmakers in Conversation series. They discussed the origins of their film, casting choices, and comedic inspiration. You can watch the entire dialogue on the Walker Channel. For more on the blending of reality and fiction in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, read a recent New York Times article addressing the new possibilities of the imagination in the era of the moving image.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will be released in theaters across the country this month. The film opens at Landmark Theatres in the Twin Cities on March 27.

Alive From Off Center: Video Art in the 1980s

In the mid-1980s, television became a new frontier for independent and experimental video artists. In a unique collaboration between Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA), Alive From Off Center was born. This ground-breaking series first aired on PBS in the summer of 1984 and featured an assortment of performances ranging in discipline […]

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In the mid-1980s, television became a new frontier for independent and experimental video artists. In a unique collaboration between Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA), Alive From Off Center was born. This ground-breaking series first aired on PBS in the summer of 1984 and featured an assortment of performances ranging in discipline from dance to theater to comedy. Though the series was not quite a variety show, the producers brought in different artists every week to create and execute their own episode. To tie Alive From Off Center together, Susan Stamberg—a journalist who was the first woman to anchor a nightly news program— and later renowned musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, hosted the show.

Over the last six months, the Walker has featured eleven episodes spanning the first three seasons of the series. The episodes are available for viewing on the Best Buy Video Bay through February 7, 2015. In the summer of 2013, Film/Video intern Anna Swanson sat down with two former executive producers, Melinda Ward (the first producer of Alive From Off Center) and John Schott, to discuss the series’ conception and legacy.

As Ward and Schott both noted, the 1980s were a golden age in television. Network giants like MTV and ESPN first gained their footing at the start of the decade and reached hundreds of thousands of Americans every day. According to Schott, offbeat, avant-garde shows like Alive From Off Center were also “right there at the moment that this larger cultural change was taking place, across a wide range of mediums.” For the first time, less well-known artists not only had new opportunities to work in video, but “a big new awareness of a mass audience.” Alive From Off Center offered a unique platform that tapped into PBS’s pre-existing viewers while still pushing the boundaries of network television.

The show first got its name as a riff on “Live from Lincoln Center,” the PBS series that broadcasts live music, theater, and dance performances. Alive was its alter-ego that featured experimental episodes from artists like director Jonathan Demme, storyteller Spalding Gray, photographer William Wegman, and dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown. Schott believes Alive came to fruition at an important cultural moment, when “a lot of people came forward who were kind of rooting for PBS to do something unusual.” Though Alive From Off Center never reached mainstream audiences, Schott asserts that “there was kind of a secret audience out there…for whom that show was something really amazing and important to them.”

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In the first two seasons of Alive, funding was limited so about half of the episodes were produced by KCTA-TV in the Twin Cities and the other half were preexisting segments that Ward acquired. But after three seasons and a grant from the Ford Foundation, the series was able to produce nearly 70% of the episodes at KCTA. The series was funded entirely through public organizations: National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ford Foundation made up the majority of the contributions. The structure of the show varied from episode to episode: some included multiple short pieces by a variety of artists while others featured the work of only one person.

As both producers noted, Alive From Off Center pioneered an era of video art in the 1980s. Ward suggests that artists were attracted to the series due to “love of television, as television” because “suddenly anybody could do it for not very much money, and you didn’t have to worry [about cost]…with video you just play.” The show brought integrity and excitement to the medium (the New York Times gave it rave reviews). According to Ward, Alive “validated this idea that you could work seriously in television in some way, or television as a medium, as an art form.”

Alive From Off Center will screen at the Walker through February 7, 2015. Be sure to swing by the Best Buy Video Bay to view this innovative television programming.

Dear White People : Conversation with the Director

Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion.  Going beyond their work, the creative team also […]


Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion.  Going beyond their work, the creative team also discuss filmmakers ranging from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry. The conversation was recorded in the Walker Cinema the day after an advance screening was presented in May 2014 as part of the Walker’s Next Look series. The film was also presented as a case study at IFP Minnesota’s 15th Annual Midwest Filmmaker’s Conference.

Justin Simien’s directorial debut is a witty satire about African American students on a university campus (shot at the University of Minnesota), where a controversy over race breaks out when a contested student election sets in motion “a plot that is full of intrigue and surprise in a mood of sly, knowing satire” (New York Times). Nothing is simply black and white in this playful portrait of race and cultural identity on today’s campus.

Leola Johnson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College, St Paul, MN.

Sign Painting Cinematheque Tangier

The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in […]

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The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in a languishing structure in the city’s famed Casbah district as a way to engage with the collective memory and material history of Tangier. Cinema Rif, as the theater is named, was brought to life as both a thriving cultural center and a place to discover the films and remarkable history of filmmaking in the region. Curators Sheryl Mousley and Clara Kim commissioned local sign painter Dan Madsen (Dusty Signs) to recreate a map of Tangier on the gallery wall, which identifies the location of theaters past and present in this coastal Moroccan city. Over the course of 193 hours, Dan and fellow sign painter Forrest Wozniak tirelessly brought the 16-by-25-foot map to life, in what Dan referred to as “sign painter’s boot camp.” It was nice having sign painters in house for a couple weeks, showing us how they do what they do. Below is an interview with Dan about his history of sign painting, the techniques he uses, and the resurgence of interest in hand-lettering.

How did you originally get in to sign painting? Did you always want to be a sign painter?
I came into the sign business in 2007 working for a large sign shop. That same year my grandfather passed away and I discovered that his father (my great grandfather) was a sign painter here in Minneapolis. He worked for the largest outdoor advertising company in America called General Outdoor Advertising. I inherited old brushes, books, drawings, and photographs from him. Lettering was always something I enjoyed because of my grandfather. He was a medical illustrator and calligrapher for the local VA hospital. I remember as a young kid playing in my grandpa’s studio, writing my name with his calligraphy pens. So when I discovered that great grandfather was a sign painter, I decided to practice traditional sign painting. Now its six years later and I work for myself under the name of Dusty Signs.

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson (far right) with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the V.A. hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the VA hospital, Minneapolis

A lot of sign painters seem to be inherently suspicious of modern signage techniques, such as vinyl lettering. Do you look around and feel overwhelmed with the amount of terrible signs there are? How do you understand our contemporary visual environment in America?
Yeah, there are a lot of bad signs out there, but there are also a lot of good ones. Being a sign painter, I don’t think everything needs to be hand painted. I think there is a time and place for everything. I still get a kick out of seeing nicely made neon signs or metal fabricated signs. It is unfortunate though when you look at a sign and you can tell the designer just pressed a few buttons using bad pre-existing fonts and then had a sign shop just pop that out as fast as possible. Nowadays people rely on the computer too much. A computer is a tool and it can do great things, but sometimes you have to put the computer down, pick up a pencil and hand draft. I’ve been noticing more people want signage hand painted lately, so I’m hoping things might get better here in America, at least visually.

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Can you describe the process of creating this wall mural?
For this wall the images were pre-designed, so this is how it went:

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Step 1: First I print out the design scaled to actual size on paper in my studio.
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Step 2: Next I use a machine called an Electro Pounce to perforate the paper where the lines will be. It is basically an electrified stylus that burns a series of holes into the paper.
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Step 3: Then I tape the paper patterns onto the wall and apply charcoal to pounce through the little perforated holes, and take the paper down again. This leaves a faint outline of the design on the wall for me to work from.
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Step 4: Finally I paint over the charcoal outlines with a brush. It’s up to me how true to the charcoal outlines I need to stay, and when I can deviate based on experience. Michelangelo used the same technique.

Were you inspired by any of the Moroccan hand-painted lettering in the exhibition?
Definitely inspired. I love seeing hand-painted signs from all around the world. In some countries sign painting is popular not by choice but because it is the only option people can afford. The signs aren’t always the most refined, but I still love seeing them — they aren’t overly romanticized, in search of some kind of “Instagram fame.” Some of the movie posters in this exhibition reminded me of that. We didn’t actually emulate any particular kind of sign painting for the map, but instead used a simple blueprint lettering. The original image of the map was not very hi-res, so we were free to extrapolate a typographic style that made sense, and translate the original into something new on the wall.

What did you think of the Sign Painters movie (and the book it was based on) that came out recently?
I thought it was really great, although I wish they would’ve acknowledged the type of sign painters you see working on East Lake Street, painting all the windows in Latino shops. Those guys are the real deal. I’ve got a lot of respect for how fast and consistent they can paint. Working at the Walker was cool and we got a lot of positive feedback from folks while working. It was nice to work in the context of an art museum, because sometimes when working out on the street we’re looked at as more industrial house painters. That all depends on the viewer, I guess.

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From left to right: Adjunct Curator Clara Kim, Dan Madsen, Yto Barrada, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley

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Forrest Wozniak and Dan Madsen

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde