The Fall of the House of Usher film clip
“I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. And any aspect not enhanced by filmic reproduction is not photogenic, plays no part in the art of cinema […] I now specify: only mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction.” (Epstein 1923, p314)
The French original implies something closer to ‘metaphysical’ rather than ‘moral’ in the above quote.
Poe and Epstein both place weather, landscape, mood, emotion and vagueness of emotions ahead of narrative markers of plot logic, place, and temporality. Both centre their narratives on the interconnection of sight and knowledge, and its relation to power. The narrator is sceptical and frequently doubting of what he sees. Epstein adds to this a dusty eyeglass and ear horn to further emphasis a deficiency in regard to the human beings ability to perceive the ontological world. In contrast, Roderick Usher possesses unexplained qualities of sensitivity that seem to be affected by and affecting of the environment around him, both temporally and spatially. Part of Roderick’s enhanced sensitivity is his ability to imbue his artwork, the portrait of his sister Madeline, with life. It needs to be noted that it is through an obsession with looking, iterated by Epstein’s constant return to Roderick’s gaze, that this sensitivity and ability manifests itself.
Roderick’s line of sight is a motif, constantly returned to and interrogated. The object of the gaze oscillates between objects, their interactions with the environment (space and time) and Madeline’s portrait.
It can be seen that Epstein is articulating the limits of knowledge and perception by framing and presenting his characters and their points of view in fragments. People, objects, locations and the relations between are all obscured by unstable editing transitions. Spatial relationships are not clarified. This is perhaps one of Epstein’s most visible authorial signatures. Close-ups are imbued with meaning and mysticism and wide shots speak to a more mundane reality.
Not only are spatial relationships distorted, but temporal relations as well. Books fall from the shelf, the drapes are blown by the wind, and the inner workings of the grandfather clock tick and note time all in slow motion as once again the environment subsumes any ability the characters have to rationalize or apply reason to the events that take place in the house. Inanimate objects have somehow taken on an inexplicable agency within the narrative. They are imbued with meaning and significance.
How does this visual palette reflect or articulate the tenet’s of Epstein’s ideals: photogenie as a film and aesthetic system? The first thing to decipher is the experimental nature of the film. Every shot is another camera experiment; another exploration of space and time. The narrative is woven together by hundreds of fragments. There are no long takes, though there are elongated moments. Meaning is hard to pin down, yet feelings and moods are overwhelming.