This Magic Moment: the Aesthetics of Jean Epstein and Edgar Allan Poe
Author: James Thompson
Format: Video Art
Duration: 22′ 29′
Published: March 2023
“The value of the photogenic is measured in seconds … [it] is like a spark that appears in fits and starts.” (Epstein in Abel 1988)
Considering Jean Epstein’s 1928 filmic adaptation La Chute de la Maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928, France), what relationship can be articulated between his cinematic philosophy of photogénie, a theory, that evolved during the French narrative avant-garde period of the 1920s, and the literary aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe? What can the manifesto-like imaginings of photogénie have to offer a filmmaker working in a world submerged in ubiquitous digital technology, multitudes of screens, fragmented viewing behaviours, and varying exhibition possibilities?
Essentially, photogénie offers us a reminder that the cinema image does not need to pretend to transform the world into a rational, intellectual structure of narrative coherence. It can, in fact, do the opposite; the cinema-image can reflect the disorientation of the world of lived experience in all its vagueness, momentary clarity, fragmentation and complexity. Photogénie, first coined by Louis Delluc in his article La Beaute au Cinema (1917), but most extensively articulated by Jean Epstein in his writings, and collected together in English translation as The Intelligence of a Machine (first published in French in 1946, translated by Christophe Wall Romana in 2014), refers to the ways in which a film-viewer experiences a particular shot or sequence as a holistic intervention in the limits, and potential for, perceptions of realty (Epstein, 1946). Jean Epstein uses this terminology to describe a quasi-mystical quality of the cinema-image, which imbues meaning and moral enhancement into environments and the objects within them. Photogénie can also refer to a disassociation and breaking apart of space-time into a new and tactile screen-reality (Epstein in Abel, 1988).
In 1928, Jean Epstein produced a masterpiece of Gothic cinema, seminal to the traditions of French impressionistic cinema, and the wide-ranging genre of horror and its Expressionist underpinnings. La Chute de la Maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928, France), is an adaptation of two of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (first published in 1839) and “The Oval Portrait” (first published in 1842). This intersection of Jean Epstein and Edgar Allan Poe inspired me to produce a triptych (a suite of three films): I Work for the Devil, Tonight You Belong to Me, and The Night-Side of Nature. The project approaches photogénie as a theory-in-action. It assumes an active participation in the spectator, and asks for an experiential, sensorial, openness-in-attitude. To embody and revitalise this theory, I have embraced this openness-in-attitude in my process and creative work. The triptych does not constitute a direct remake, nor a treatment of the original source material. Instead, it is crafted from a series of vignettes and filmic experiments produced as a response to the various themes, ideas, tangents, and revelations discovered during the research process.
The triptych does not seek to articulate a specific narrative, or set of characters, genre trope, or imitation of another filmmaker’s stylistic approach to film form. It instead foregrounds atmosphere, mood, the ‘impression’ of narrative, the ‘impression’ of genre, and hopefully something of the effect of photogénie. It is intended to be a dream-like image-scape. In my work I have been fascinated by the epiphanic moment; the magical effect of the cinema experience (translated in this case into the installation, gallery experience, which I deemed more appropriate for an expansive set of filmed experiments). The film experiments have taken me into studies of film genre and adaptation (slasher films, midnight movies, exploitation cinema, animation, and the French narrative avant-garde, all looking to adapt and interpret Poe), studies of historical aesthetic theories such as that of sensation, as conceived by Giles Deleuze (1981), in which narrative and meaning are bracketed to reveal hitherto unseen and unfelt expressions of Being, through some deeper thinking about the aesthetic goals of photogénie, what it meant pragmatically to filmmakers in the early era of cinema, and into a process of making, reflecting, remixing and making again. It is important also to note that this reading of Deleuze’s short book, “Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation” (1981), centered around the artist Francis Bacon and his famous triptych images, is the point from which the notion of the triptych first emerged and was reflected in my practice.
Methods, Outcomes and Impact: Photogénie & the literary aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe
The first task of the theoretical/contextual work has been to offer a working rationale for what photogénie is, according to Jean Epstein, and where we might locate it in his films. The second task has been to creatively move the concept of photogénie into new territory. Primarily, this new territory is the alignment of photogénie with the literary aesthetic of Edgar Allan Poe; inspired by Epstein’s adaptation. The study into Edgar Allan Poe uncovers a set of specific themes that address morality, malevolence, and a phenomenological view of the relations between the subjective state of the human being’s interaction with the surrounding world, and the transient nature of truth, meaning and purpose; themes which relate directly to Jean Epstein’s own philosophical musings, and filmic, narrative trends. The two artists, one author and the other filmmaker, share in common this view of the world as transient, polar, malevolent yet beautiful, and as fleeting for the artist as it is transformative and revelatory. The overall goal of the creative work has been to create filmic vignettes that speak to these ideas.
Editor Martine Beugnet’s introduction to her 2017 anthology “Indefinite Visions; Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty”, re-affirms that the goal of photogénie is not to articulate the detail of the world, but rather to express the world’s natural state of confusion (Beugnet, 2017: 4). Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe’s literature presents to the reader plots, character psychologies, and narrative voicings, that all add up to the expression of internal mental states of confusion and anxiety. One could imagine that there is an alignment between Poe’s deliberate, thematic, confusion (the dilemmas faced by his characters and the hostility of the world in which they live), and the necessarily fragmentary, mosaic, and sensorial methods that have been applied by experimental filmmakers (Poe-inspired avant-garde films which have influenced my work, for example, include James Watson and Melville Weber’s The Fall of the House of Usher [1928, USA], and Jan Švankmajer’s, Zánik domu Usherú, [1982, Poland]).
Beugnet, in her introduction, argues that, “art explores and cultivates the indefinite part of perception or experience […] Artistic intuition and vision thus stem from the incompleteness and constant variation of the perceived, the impossibility of a full and perfect knowledge of the world.” (Beugnet, 2017: 3). Beugnet invokes the early film theory championed by Jean Epstein to justify an ever-increasing and contemporary expansion of filmic stylistics that favour the vague over the precise.
Beugnet establishes an opposition between a Cartesian ideal of accuracy, represented in film by synchronised sound, clear and ‘effective’ storytelling (exemplified by the grammar of mainstream, commercial, cinema and the over-emphasis of HD, and 4K+ resolution), and what is referred to as the “clear but confused” approach (Beugnet, 2017: 3), as represented here by photogénie. What I aim to create in my stitching together of the various sketches is a finished film-triptych-display that embraces the clear but confused above the clear and distinct. With ever-increasing digital capability, everything is expected to be clear, concise, and ‘beautiful’ (Beugnet, 2017: 5-7). These terms lose their meaning over time as clarity becomes inflated and its intrinsic value diminished. This is the point at which we can identify what photogénie offers us in the 21st century; a reminder that clarity and fidelity are not in and of themselves sufficient as aesthetic values.
As regards Edgar Allan Poe, this analysis of the language of the moving image finds resonance with the author’s own personal mapping of a literary aesthetic; one that would become seminal for filmmaking cultures across the globe, across the 20th century. In his short story “The Imp of the Perverse”, Poe writes: “The intellectual or logical man, rather than the understanding or observant man, set himself to imagine designs – to dictate purposes to God” (Poe, 1845). There is a sense here that Poe wants to elude explanation. He does not want to ‘imagine designs’, but rather to pursue an understanding of the human experience of Being (to borrow the Heideggerian sense of the term) through direct, sensory observation. Observation, in this sense, is of one’s own subjective, mental experience of the world, and in turn the effect of the external forces from the world that present themselves to the self. This is a phenomenological approach to interpreting the world of idiosyncratic experience. This focus on the senses permeates Poe’s broader body of work and signifies an important, recurring, thematic trope: the phenomenon of melancholy. The ‘observant’ or ‘understanding’ man is interchangeable with the melancholic, mental states of mind implied across the author’s output, and specifically in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Such melancholic disorder, so the thematic motif goes, leads to heightened sensory experiences and more lucid observations of reality (Roche, 2009).
Edgar Allan Poe evades clarity and embraces ambiguity precisely because he is encouraged by the possibility that reality might be more complex, or perhaps more transformable and eternally in a state of flux, than any epistemological structure can account for. The disease of the House of Usher reflects the impossibility of a full and perfect knowledge of the world, and it is this theme that is captured in Epstein’s film, and which I hope to capture in mine.
As regards the creative practice itself, details of the cinematic sequences needed to be specific to the theory, and responsive to the films being studied. The fragments captured needed to be able to be reshaped and refitted as the creative process unfolded, so as to truly embrace a fluid and open progression of investigation and experimentation. Traditional concerns related to issues of continuity or spatial logic were deprioritised in favour of close-ups, details, and gestures improvised by the actors. The result of this thinking aligns the work in relation to experimental cinema practices of artists such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, or Kenneth Anger, with their more kaleidoscopic framing and editing strategies, or Pipilotti Rist and Abigail Child, who represent contemporary 21st century examples of this same aesthetic impulse. Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger are well recognized figures in American experimental cinema history and the final iteration of my work owes a lot to the various visual strategies innovated by such artists. Pipilotti Rist and Abigail Child are two prominent examples of this same train-of-aesthetic-thought who favour ambiguity, subjectivity, and a vagueness of narrative and visual quality presented in the gallery environment.
The use of close-up framing and fragmented editing strategies sat well with my understanding of Epstein’s emphasis on disrupting spatial coherence, and is similarly reflected and confirmed in the above-mentioned filmmakers and their visual stylistics. By disrupting spatial, psychological, and narrative-oriented logic, we not only disrupt the illusion that the world can somehow be understood via coherent screen stories, we break open the possibility of subjective discoveries of hitherto unseen and unfelt experiences of reality.
Photogénie is a method whereby the filmmaker searches for aesthetic innovations that appeal to the emotions and the senses in unexpected ways. For Epstein, narrative is still an important aspect of the cinematic experience, but the realisation of the subtext and the theme must be discovered through an invitation, and an appeal, to the audience’s thinking and feeling selves. Narrative structure and narrative aesthetics must not seek to dictate via design the meaning of the cinema image. The cinema image provides us an opportunity to reveal, enhance and embrace both clarity, confusion, and the subjective, sense-based, experience of lived-reality.
Abel, R. (1984). French Cinema: the first wave, 1915 – 1929 Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Beugnet, M. (2017). “Introduction.” In: Beugnet, M, Cameron, A, Fetveit, A. (eds.) Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017 pp 1 – 16.
Brook, V. (2006). “Puce Modern Moment: Camp, Postmodernism, and the Films of Kenneth Anger.” Journal of Film and Video Winter 2006, Vol. 58, No. 4 pp 3 – 15.
Child, A. (2020) https://www.abigailchild.com/films/ELSA.htm (website) [Accessed January 2021].
Epstein, J. (1923). “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie.” In: Abel, R (ed). French Film Theory and Criticism: a History/Anthology, 1907 – 1939. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c1988 pp 314 – 318.
Epstein, J. (1946). The Intelligence of a Machine (trans. Christophe Wall-Romana) Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, c2014.
Ganguly, S. (2017) “Adventures in Perception: Stan Brakhage in His Own Words.” The Criterion Collection: Features (website) Sep 26, 2017. Available from https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4956-adventures-in-perception-stan-brakhage-in-his-own-words
[Accessed July 2021].
Haslem, W. (2002) “Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema,” Senses of Cinema: Great Directors series, Issue 23, (December 2002).
Pajovic, S. P. (2012). “Elements of the Early Gothic in E. A. Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.” Lipar / Journal for Literature, Language, Art and Culture. 821.111(73)-32.09: pp 185 – 200.
Poe, E, A. (1845) The Imp of the Perverse. (1st published 1845) Available from http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/imp.pdf [Accessed July 2019].
Ray, R. B. (2001). “How a Film Theory Got Lost.” In: How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press pp 1 – 15.
Rist, P. (2010) Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/exhibitions/pipilotti-rist/ (website) [Accessed January 2021]
Roche, D. (2009). “The ‘Unhealthy’ in The Fall of the House of Usher”: Poe’s Aesthetics of Contamination.” In The Edgar Allan Poe Review. X.1 (Spring 2009): pp 20 – 35.
La Chute de la Maison Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928, France)
The Fall of the House of Usher (James Watson, Melville Weber, 1928, USA)
Zánik domu Usherú (Jan Švankmajer, 1982, Poland)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
This Magic Moment is a visually captivating project, and the tacit expression of the underlying research is well captured in the film, producing a sense of photogénie, while operating on the edge of meaningful communication – giving rise to significance without coherent signification, similar to Barthes’ notion of third meaning. As such, the practice demonstrates both novelty and originality in its approach. The work has resonances with Prokopic’s Screenworks publication entitled Mirrors and Tears (2020), and perhaps the author may wish to consider or acknowledge the alternative philosophical framework for understanding particular audio-visual significance and expression based in Deleuzian affect. The interaction of the various shots across the three screens in This Magic Moment is productive; nevertheless, because of the (intentional) absence of coherent narrative, the work feels to be quite long, with certain visuals less atmospherically compatible with the rest – having a decreased expressive force in comparison to the more powerful shots. The work seems to be atmospherically/tonally aligned with the source film I Work for the Devil, which however does not feel entirely compatible, on the “photogénic level”, with material from The Valley. Although I don’t find it essential for the author to reedit the work, I would recommend revising the edit and considering the elimination of less expressive or compatible shots, and thus making the film shorter and more impactful.
Where I believe revisions would be needed is the accompanying statement. While the author explains and contextualises the concept of photogénie very well, and presents a rather complex philosophical synthesis of Nietzsche, Beugnet and Baudrillard, this theoretical discussion also does very little in terms of supporting the practical element and does not relate directly to answering the research question. It would be meaningful to simplify the philosophical/conceptual aspect of the submission, so that it is less obtuse and expansive. The author should instead properly explain and explore the methods behind the practice by considering and addressing the following essential questions and issues: How specifically was the heuretic approach applied to the practice? How specifically were the original films informed by Epstein’s La Chute de la Maison Usher? In other words, how does the work respond “to the various themes, ideas, tangents, and revelations discovered during the research process”? And could specific examples be provided of how the “alignment of photogénie with the literary aesthetic of Edgar Allan Poe” is reflected in the practical outcomes? Furthermore, it seems that the three-way split screen editing approach is the only ostensive digital element that represents “the new zeitgeist of technological, digital screen environments” in the work – as it is the only aspect of the film work that offers a clear reappraisal through practice of the expressive potential of photogénie. Therefore, this aspect needs to be properly explained and justified, but also contextualised within contemporary and comparable visual practices, as the research question rests on this notion. And how does the new structure of the work relate to the three source films – what was the driving rationale and method in editing the film in this way? The Outcomes and Impact section should then address much more directly what the heading suggests. For example, it would seem meaningful to acknowledge and account for the outcomes and impact of the exhibition, which I assume was instrumental to the split-screen structure of the work.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to major revisions of written statement.
This Magic Moment takes inspiration from the work of Jean Epstein, presenting to us a split-screen film, or series of linked films, intended for/originally shown on three screens in an exhibition site (each film is split across three screens, and they play sequentially, rather than there being three films playing simultaneously on each of the three screens). Figures recur across the three films, as do motifs like neon lighting, superimpositions and more. With minimal dialogue, the work is nonetheless highly atmospheric in how it evokes a kind of creepiness, or what Mark Fisher (2016) might term an ‘eeriness’ – not just in terms of content (a figure claiming to be helping the Devil in his work in I Work for the Devil), but also in terms of form (there is not a clear narrative arc for the viewer to follow, something heightened by the sheer volume of information presented to the viewer via the split/tripartite screen).
This Magic Moment is, therefore, a beguiling and fascinating experience – along the lines of someone like Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising (USA, 1963) is especially evoked through the use of classical pop music, as well as the Satanic themes more generally. This is not to mention Epstein’s own La Chute de la Maison Usher (France, 1928), which the author references in their accompanying statement – which will be the main focus of my remaining feedback.
For, while this reviewer is generally in strong support of this work, they did find the statement to be somewhat opaque and rambling. More might in particular be made of Epstein (as well as Poe) and his (their) meaning for the author. What, for example, are the ‘various themes, ideas, tangents, and revelations discovered during the research process’? Furthermore, the discussion of photogénie is certainly interesting in terms of its claim to be ‘theory-in-action’ – but somewhat vague. The filmmaker says that the work of Terrence Malick, Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn et al (all three of these names are mis-spelt; there are various other typos and missing accents to clean up) embodies Epsteinian photogénie, while also claiming that the theory needs revitalising (the implication being that Malick et al therefore do not do this). Which is it? If Malick et al are ‘Epsteinian’, then the author either needs to explain how and why, and/or to explain how and why their own work is different and necessary. And if Malick et al are not ‘Epsteinian’, then it is unclear why they are mentioned at all.
If I were to guess, I’d say that even if Malick et al are ‘Epsteinian’ (consciously or otherwise), they don’t write about him, or indeed their own work at all – and that it is thus the written engagement with Epstein that is the key missing ingredient that might here be supplied in addition to the film that exemplifies the theory. As much is suggested by the fact that what needs ‘revitalising’ is, in the statement’s own words, Epstein’s theory of photogénie (and not his practice). However, this only confers all the more importance on to this written statement, which barely engages with Epstein and what he means by photogénie (indeed, Epstein is never actually quoted except via Richard Abel, and even then his words remain unexplained). The statement offers us a series of questions – suggestive, yes – but which involve no answers. Why is it useful to ‘re-visit and re-appraise this method enquiry’? How does this ‘theory-in-action known as photogénie,’ etc…? Perhaps getting into the meat of The Intelligence of the Machine, which, while mentioned, remains mysteriously unexplored, might help to achieve this.
Indeed, the statement might more effectively do this than to wheel us through Robert B. Ray, Martine Beugnet, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Baudrillard. All very interesting, but only Beugnet engages at all with Epstein, although the statement does not make her relevance to this particular project clear. As a result, the statement feels unstructured and somewhat ‘random’ in terms of whom it evokes when and why. This reader’s view is that various of these references are not necessary, and that the author might have the confidence to pare down their text as it stands, and then to hone in on Epstein ‘properly’ (which I place in scare quotes because space is of course limited), and thus to give us something clear about confusion and its photogenic appeal.
Fisher, Mark (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, London: Repeater Books.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to the above