Archives For Jean Epstein

One of the defining characteristics of Modernism (the post industrial revolution western-world), with regard to art history, is the theory laden-ness of art – art and hermeneutics come together and are inseparable. I like to make the argument that cinema is the most defining art of the modern era for no other reason than it was born out of modernism for modernism. Cinema served to advance the spread of 20th century-defining doctrines (Marxism/Leninism in Soviet Russia – an interesting relationship between the film/propaganda industry and the railroads) and the advancement of art theory and practice itself (the French impressionists). The cinema absorbs the other arts; theatre, literature, the composed and framed image and music. The cinema is impossible without capital and technology. Even the most avant-garde and experimental cinema to stand in the hall of cinematic fame (Stan Brakhage, Jean Epstein for example) was shot on industrially produced film, using technology designed and built by the corporate private sector. This might be obvious to most, but what is not necessarily as obvious is the cinemas habit of not just absorbing and taking place along side the other arts as the new technological art, but super-ceding them. This supercession of the other arts places the cinema in a unique position with regard to that characteristic of modernism to which this article is aimed: interpretation. As the ultra-modern art, that medium through which countless generations to come will be able to assess and learn the peculiar characteristics, dreams and fantasies of those that came before them, one might like to romanticise about film theory as a kind of road map that describes the trajectory of those filmic explorations into collective and individual imagination. But what does film theory really look like?

Robert Ray’s assertion at the outset of his comprehensive-cum-complicated essay “How a Film Theory Got Lost” is that theory exists to break the spell, or perhaps the deadlock, that occurs at the cross roads of magic and positivism. This is further explicated as a dialectic; reason against revelation as represented by Eisenstein (reason) and Epstein (revelation). Alternatively, montage against photogenie; the edit against the image. Breaking the spell that exists at the crossroads surely does not consist of simply disregarding one road in favour of another; that being reason over revelation; but rather a diplomatic evolution of the conflict. The question stands: At the heart of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is one able to find an account of the revelation of the human imagination? A second and pertinent question would also be: to what extent does the Frankfurt school influence cinema studies in general? This second question is important to those who might wish to pick up the torch left behind, glowing but not extinguished, by those pre-1960’s thinkers; the likes of Epstein and Bazin.

First question; are the two roads as posited by Ray mutually exclusive? The factory style production of capital intensive cinema and seductive style and enchantment. The market demanded entertainment and enchantment and those who could best harness and mobilise all the industries and efforts required to produce large scale films that fulfilled these demands had (and have) success. Is money and enchantment such a diametric opposition as Ray suggests?

Second question; what is Bazin’s notion of ‘realism’ and why for Bazin is it so desirable? Supplimentary question: why does the Frankfurt School influence on theory and theorising so disregard it?

These questions will be the subject of further blog posts and trails of thought.


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.”

The “First Avant Garde” and “Impressionist Cinema” (French 1920’s)

Appropriate labels for this era of French filmmaking??

Key filmmakers identified in this ‘wave’:

Abel Gance
Marcel L’Herbier
Louis Delluc
Germaine Dulac
Jean Epstein
Leon Poirier

These filmmakers contributed to this wave between 1919 and 1924. These films are characterised as spontaneous thoughts in animated images. (Emile Vullermoz)This time-line is suspicious due to its short time-length. There is a need to look at the surrounding time periods. Other filmmakers who come into the picture:

Dmitri Kirsanoff
Alberto Cavalcanti
Jean Renoir
Jean Gremillon
Carl Dreyer

Impressionist Cinema is a more problematic term. It refers to the pictorial, the contemporary, and the natural harmony of characters and landscapes.

“Impressionism made us see nature and its objects as elements concurrent with the action. A shadow, a light, a flower bed, above all a meaning, as the reflection of a mental state or an emotional situation, then, little by little, became a necessary complement, having an intrinsic value of its own. We experimented with making things move through the science of optics, tried to transform figures according to the logic of a state of mind.” (Germaine Dulac)

Impressionism has become, through the work of Henri Langlois and Georges Sadoul, linked with the concept of a subjective cinema. As in Impressionist and Symbolist art, the emphasis is on ones own inner feelings and imagination, over and above the demands of an external reality. Modernism is a term that refers to the departure from a system of representation and narration, to a concentration on the means of representation; technique, surface, pure presentation and formal construction.

For this era in French film, Abel prefers the term ‘narrative avant garde’. Abel argues that this era is more complex than suggested by accepted terms. He points out experiments in developing a mixture of styles or modes, different systems of continuity, ‘plastic harmonies’, patterns of rhetorical figuring, and complex narrative structures. He explains that this era, whilst recognized for obvious historical significance and a close connection to visual art, is largely under-estimated and misunderstood.

As early as 1918 Louis Delluc had made a distinction between filmmakers who wrote scenarios for the films they directed and those who adapted other writers work for their films. An auteur, in this sense, could exercise greater control over his film and identify more closely with the Romantic concept of of the individually unique artist. This distinction separates the narrative avant garde from commercial film practice, heavily dependent on literary adaptation.

An analysis of Bordwell’s reading of French Impressionism:

Bordwell breaks the era into periods according to the development of stylistic features.

1) 1918 – 1922: pictorialism; in which recurrent pictorial techniques were used to suggest a characters perceptions and psychological status.

2) beginning 1923: proliferation of rapid cutting, a form of rhythmic montage (Gance: La Roue 1923)

3) 1926 – 1929: stylistic diffusion (handheld camera, long tracking shots, absence of intertitles, widescreen formats)

Avant Garde filmmaking began to diverge into distinct but inter-related modes: documentary, abstract, Surrealist. The filmmakers saw this as an investigation into cinematic specificity. To quote Epstein:

“…a subject thus conceived as a ‘bass clef’, permitting the construction of plastic harmonies.”