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