Notes from “On Certain Characteristics of Photogenie” by Jean Epstein

February 23, 2012 — Leave a comment

Epstein starts his essay with a metaphor describing the cinema as a siamese twin; connected at the stomach and sharing the base necessities of life, but sundered at the heart or by the higher necessities of emotion. One half is the art of film, the other the film industry. The term “photogenie” refers to the art of cinema and was coined by Louis Deluc. Photogenie in short, according to Epstein, refers to any subject (things, beings, souls) whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. Epstein sees cinema in the same conceptual light that modern or impressionistic artists (symbolists etc) see art. Arts purpose is not to narrate but to bring to life colour on the canvas. To use colour and light to illuminate perception and for painting to be purely and simply painting. In this sense, cinema is not to be concerned with narrative formulas, historical, moral or immoral novelistic subjects but should seek out that which is photogenic and purely cinematic. He also goes on to point out that cinema is the first real time-based art.

Epstein quite vividly describes the language of cinema, whilst acknowledging its primitive state (especially being that he was writing in the 1920’s). For Epstein, cinematic language is the transformation of ordinary into drama and character:

“…a close up of a revolver is no longer a revolver, it is the revolver-character, in other words the impulse toward or remorse for crime, failure, suicide. It is as dark as the temptations of the night, bright as the gleam of gold lusted after, taciturn as passion, squat, brutal, heavy, cold, wary, menacing. It has a temperament, habits, memories, a will, a soul.”

The lens of the camera can be directed towards increasingly valuable discoveries. For Epstein (and I whole-heartedly agree) this is the role of the film director. Cinema, however, is vulnerable and like a light that attracts bugs in the night:

“Of course a landscape filmed by one of the forty or four hundred directors devoid of personality whom God sent to plague the cinema as He once sent the locusts into Egypt looks exactly like this same landscape filmed by any other of these locust filmmakers. But this landscape or this fragment of drama staged by someone like Gance will look nothing like what would be seen through the eyes and heart of a Griffith or a L’Herbier. And so the personality, the soul, the poetry of certain men invaded the cinema.”

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