‘Sight or sound, pure cinema is a cinema that would like to dispense with words: the cinema, as the etymology already indicates, is essentially the painter, the narrator of mobility, of all mobility, of mobility alone, because it alone is photogenic… But the word constitutes a fixed form, a stable state, a stop, a crystallization of thought, an element of immobility.” Jean Epstein – Cinema Pur? 1946
At the heart of this thought is a contradiction and contradiction is always a useful tool for the theorising of art. The friction between ideas and perceptions allow for new imaginings. Photogenie strives for a shifting image-experience. Time is an essential ingredient. But the shifting is not simply what is shifting on screen. The shifting takes place in the mind of the viewer. The image-experience is relative to the shifting and waining perceptions and imagining of the viewer. The entertainment is not in the narratives themes and subtexts but rather in what the viewer brings to the situation. Therefore narrative is a problematic ingredient for cinema and moving image work. It must be handled with reservation – a last resort to being meaning to an artwork. Bacon’s figures – see Deleuze’s analysis summarised below – reject narration in order that the physicality and flesh of the world is what is left.
Katie Kirkland provides an insightful unpacking of Coure Fidele and takes aim at Epstein’s own dismissiveness of his formal exploits. Epstein on Coure Fidele:
‘In Couer Fidele the turns of sleight of hand of the fete foraine 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.’
This notion of a ‘kaleidoscopic’ aesthetic however still has relevance in understanding the era and the thinking. The kaleidoscope relates to modernity. To resist and subvert conventional forms is to create a kaleidoscopic affect. To favour sensation over narrative logic or psychological realism is kaleidoscopic. The eruption of mobility, magnification, and plastic deformation in the fete forraine sequence is a victory for sensational affect – a conquering of the spectator as the spectator submits and is moved – and the image acts – force.
What is a kaleidoscope? A relationship of fragments – images – mosaic – objects – as created by a device which itself remains invisible. What matters here is not the properties of images/fragments themselves but combination and movement. There is also a sense that a kaleidoscope is enjoyable as it somehow connects us with the uncanny / other – worldly. It is no accident that Epstein had such interest in fair grounds, circus’ and carnivals. There is a sense of the spectacle and a sense of an adventurous interaction with modern technology – gadgets, ferris wheels, roller coasters, halls of mirrors etc etc.
“For Epstein, love and aesthetic pleasure are both general sentiments that reside in subconscious memory, periodically erupting through the threshold of consciousness in search of an object.”
Irrational, unreflective, irresistible. Frightening.
As always Epstein is looking for a path of artistic advance for the cinema.