[Jean Epstein, quoted in Ian Christie, “French Avant-Garde Film in the Twenties,” in Film as Film (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979), 38]
Sequences from La Chute de la maison Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928)
In the early twentieth century scientists recognized cinematic slow motion, along with its opposite, time-lapse photography, as providing major tools for observation and demonstration. Enabling through cinema the extension and compression of the flow of time respectively, these techniques revealed aspects of the world that human vision could not otherwise see, and yet they did not distort the world into an aesthetic image. Rather they opened up a new visual dimension. Epstein’s manipulation of time in cinema revealed a different rhythm to the universe, a ballet of matter. Thus, the intuition of Roderick Usher, the protagonist of Poe’s story, that matter itself may have a sentient and animate dimension was visualized in Epstein film’s La Chute de la maison Usher through the use of slow motion. The constant vibration of the material world, whether the flowing of fabric caught in the breeze or the cascade of dust falling from a suddenly struck bell does not simply provide a visual metaphor for the haunted house of Usher. Rather, they capture a universal vibration shared by the soul of things and the structures of the psyche, invoking the senses of both vision and sound (and even touch) placed before us on the screen. In his penultimate masterpiece from 1947, Le Tempestaire, Epstein not only used slow motion to display the currents of ocean surf as he had in his earlier silent films made in Brittany, but innovatively introduced the timbre and resonance of slowed down recorded sound, enfolding us as auditors not simply in defamiliarized sonority, but allowing us to dwell within an extended soundscape filled with the uncanny echoes of nature. [Tom Gunning, ‘Preface’, to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, edited by Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012)]
As Jean Epstein went on to say, the camera is the veridical artist. But the role of this veridical artist can be understood in two ways, as can the relation between its artistic power and its veridicality. On the one hand, the camera is the artist, because it produces a kind of writing, and more precisely because it has an impersonal power in it—the light—which writes. The sensory milieu, then, is one in which light and movement constitute a new writing. Yet, on the other hand, it is a veridical artist insofar as it does not write anything, insofar as all it yields is a document, pieces of information, just as machines yields them to men who work on machines and are instrumentalized by them, to men who must learn from them a new way of being but also domesticate them for their own use. [Jacques Rancière, ‘What Medium Can Mean’, Translated by Steven Corcoran, Parrhesia, 11, 2011: 35-43]
Epstein, at the beginning of his career, claimed that cinema has nothing to do with logic or any other kind of intellectual reasoning. He relegated films to the realm of the so-called emotional reflex, fundamentally irrational in its premises. At the same time, however, he elaborated his own notion of photogénie as an almost mystical increase in the meaning of a cinematic image. A photogenic image, according to him, is not simply one transformed by the camera lens, but it is also purified and abstracted. Thus, a photogenic image belongs to the world of the intellect as well as the world of physical phenomena:
This is why the cinema is psychic. It offers us a quintessence, a product twice distilled. My eye presents me with an idea of a form; the film stock also contains an idea of a form, an idea established independently of my awareness, an idea without awareness, a latent, secret but marvelous idea; and from the screen I get an idea, my eye’s idea extracted from the camera; in other words, so flexible is this algebra, an idea that is the square root of an idea.
This abstracting of an image allows Epstein to explore the subject of cinematic logic that will come to occupy a dominant place in his later film theorizing […]. In his books starting from 1946 (L’intelligence d’une machine), Epstein claims that cinema is not beyond logic but develops its own logic, whose laws are still obscure and mysterious. Epstein calls this logic ‘la pensée méchanique’ – mechanical thought. This thought is not human, but is produced by the cinematic machine itself. […] According to Epstein, cinema produces thinking because it generates forms of time and space. [Mikhail Iampolski, ‘The Logic of an Illusion Notes on the Genealogy of Intellectual Cinema’, in Allen, Richard, Malcolm Turvey (eds), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (Amsterdam University Press, 2004), pp. 44-45]
Filmmaker and theoretician Jean Epstein profoundly influenced film practice, criticism and reception in France during the 1920s and well beyond. His work not only forms the crux of the debates of his time, but also remains key to understanding later developments in film practice and theory. Epstein’s film criticism is among the most wide-ranging, provocative and poetic writing about cinema and his often breathtaking films offer insights into cinema and the experience of modernity.
This collection – the first comprehensive study in English of Epstein’s far-reaching influence – arrives as several of the concerns most central to Epstein’s work are being reexamined, including theories of perception, realism, and the relationship between cinema and other arts. The volume also includes new translations from every major theoretical work Epstein published, presenting the widest possible historical and contextual range of Epstein’s work, from his beginnings as a biology student and literary critic to his late film projects and posthumously published writings. [Blurb for Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, edited by Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012)]
Film Studies For Free today celebrates the publication of a wonderful, and hugely important, new book on a wonderful, and hugely important, old figure in film history: Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations edited by Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul.
Epstein has been a very neglected figure in anglophone film scholarship. Unduly so, as Tom Gunning writes (in his preface to Keller and Paul’s collection),
To my mind Jean Epstein is not only the most original and the most poetic silent filmmaker in France, surpassing impressive figures like Abel Gance, Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier and even Louis Feuillade; I also consider him one of the finest film theorists of the silent era, worthy to be placed alongside the Soviet theorists (Eisenstein, Vertov and Kuleshov) and the equal of the extraordinary German-language cinema theorist, Béla Balázs. [Gunning, ‘Preface’; hyperlinks added by FSFF]
The book, available for purchase in print, has also been made openly accessible online thanks to its publisher Amsterdam University Press‘s laudable partnership with the online OAPEN library (Open Access Publishing in European Networks). The volume is part of the AUP series Film Theory in Media History, published in cooperation with the Permanent Seminar for the History of Film Theories (read FSFF’s post on the Permanent Seminar), and edited by Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Hediger (Frankfurt), Dr. Trond Lundemo (Stockholm), and Prof. Dr. Oliver Fahle (Bochum).
explores the epistemological and theoretical foundations of the study of film through texts by classical authors as well as anthologies and monographs on key issues and developments in film theory. Adopting a historical perspective, but with a firm eye to the further development of the field, the series provides a platform for ground-breaking new research into film theory and media history and features high-profile editorial projects that offer resources for teaching and scholarship. Combining the book form with open access online publishing the series reaches the broadest possible audience of scholars, students, and other readers with a passion for film and theory.
FSFF is very excited by the prospect of subsequent open access publications in this series. Below, it has reproduced the table of remarkable contents of the AUP volume. As it always likes to add scholarly value in its entries, below the table of contents, there are direct links to further wonderful Open Access resources on Epstein.
Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, edited by Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012)
Table of Contents
- ‘Preface’ by Tom Gunning
- ‘Introduction’ by Sarah Keller
- ‘Epstein’s Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics’ by Christophe Wall-Romana
- ‘Novelty and Poiesis in the Early Writings of Jean Epstein’ by Stuart Liebman
- ‘The Cinema of the Kaleidoscope’ by Katie Kirtland
- ‘Distance Is [Im]material: Epstein Versus Etna’ by Jennifer Wild
- ‘“The Supremacy of the Mathematical Poem”: Jean Epstein’s Conceptions of Rhythm’ by Laurent Guido
- ‘The “Microscope of Time”: Slow Motion in Jean Epstein’s Writings’ by Ludovic Cortade
- ‘A Different Nature’ by Rachel Moore
- ‘Cinema Seen from the Seas: Epstein and the Oceanic’ by James Schneider ‘A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein’s Writings on Technology and Subjectivity’ by Trond Lundemo
- ‘Ultra-Modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema “Serving the Forces of Transgression and Revolt”’ by Nicole Brenez
- ‘Thoughts on Photogénie Plastique’ by Érik Bullot
- ‘Introduction: Epstein’s Writings’
- La Poésie d’aujourd’hui, un nouvel état d’intelligence (1921); Introduction / Sarah Keller; Cinema and Modern Literature
- Bonjour Cinéma (1921) Introduction / Sarah Keller; Continuous Screenings
- La Lyrosophie (1922) Introduction / Katie Kirtland Excerpts from La Lyrosophie
- Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etna (1926) Introduction / Stuart Liebman; The Cinema Seen from Etna; On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie; Langue d’Or; The Photogenic Element; For a New Avant-Garde; Amour de Charlot; Amour de Sessue;
- L’Intelligence d’une machine (1946) Introduction / Trond Lundemo Excerpts from L’Intelligence d’une machine; Le Cinéma du diable (1947) Introduction / Ludovic Cortade Indictment To a Second Reality, a Second Reason
- Introduction to Esprit de cinéma and Alcool et Cinéma / Christophe Wall-Romana
Esprit de cinéma; The Logic of Images; Rapidity and Fatigue of the Homo spectatoris; Ciné-analysis, or Poetry in an Industrial Quantity; Dramaturgy in Space; Dramaturgy in Time; Visual Fabric; Pure Cinema and Sound Film; Seeing and Hearing Thought; The Counterpoint of Sound; The Close-up of Sound; The Delirium of a Machine
- The Slow Motion of Sound; The Fluid World of the Screen; Alcool et cinéma; Logic of Fluidity; Logic of Variable Time
- ‘Afterword: Reclaiming Jean Epstein’ by Richard Abel
Filmography; Select Bibliography; Notes on Contributors; Index of Names; Index of Films and Major Writings by Jean Epstein; Index of Films
Further Open Access Epstein Studies
- Robert Farmer, ‘Jean Epstein’, Senses of Cinema, 57, 2010
- Mikhail Iampolski, ‘The Logic of an Illusion Notes on the Genealogy of Intellectual Cinema’, in Allen, Richard, Malcolm Turvey (eds), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
- Darin D. Kerr, ‘From This Moment on: The Dialectics of Modernism’, The Projector: Film and Media Journal, 19.2, Fall 2009
- Stuart Liebman, ‘Visitings of Awful Promise The Cinema Seen from Etna’, in Allen, Richard, Malcolm Turvey (eds), Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (Amsterdam University Press, 2004)
- Jacques Rancière, ‘A Thwarted Fable’, Rouge, 8, 2006
- Jacques Rancière, ‘What Medium Can Mean’, Translated by Steven Corcoran, Parrhesia, 11, 2011: 35-43