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Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations

Sarah Keller
Jason N. Paul
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Jean Epstein
    Book Description:

    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. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1384-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-7)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. 8-8)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 9-10)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. 11-12)
  6. Preface
    (pp. 13-22)
    Tom Gunning
  7. Introduction Jean Epstein and the Revolt of Cinema
    (pp. 23-48)
    Sarah Keller

    As filmmaker and theorist, Jean Epstein has observed that the fundamental energies undergirding cinema are those that valorize both rapt attention (associated with stillness) and incessant flux (associated with movement), with a strong emphasis in his own work upon the latter. One of the cinema’s most conspicuous tensions, for example, lies in the balance between its still frames and the way, when they are set into motion, that they revivify whatever these individual shots depict – a tension between stasis and change. Within his assertions about cinema as the ultimate negotiator of thestate of becomingcharacterizing existence, we find a...

  8. Essays

    • Epstein’s Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics
      (pp. 51-72)
      Christophe Wall-Romana

      Let us begin with a puzzle. In the following passage, Jean Epstein is referring tosomething

      …all the planes and volumes of which have been rounded and polished by patient forces into a symphony of forms that unfold out of each other [se déroulent les unes des autres], that conjoin each other [sentrépousent] into a complex yet unbreakable unity, like that of revolving solids – these spatial matrices defined by the movement of a mathematical function.

      This language of serial and kinetic fusion will be familiar to readers of silent cinema theoreticians who found ever more ingenious ways of describing how...

    • Novelty and Poiesis in the Early Writings of Jean Epstein
      (pp. 73-92)
      Stuart Liebman

      More than half a century after his death in 1953, Jean Epstein remains too much of a prophet without honor in American annals of European film theory and filmmaking. Despite some impressive archival work and several pioneering studies over the last couple of decades, as well as a number of recent reassessments, it is nevertheless correct to say that Epstein’s films and film theory figure largely asterrae incognitaeon current maps of cinematic achievement, at least in the English-speaking world.² Many topics must still be pursued in greater depth. A fuller understanding of how Epstein’s theories informed his cinematic...

    • The Cinema of the Kaleidoscope
      (pp. 93-114)
      Katie Kirtland

      In 1926, film theorist Pierre Porte invokes Jean Epstein’sBonjour Cinéma(1921) in support of his argument for a ‘pure cinema’ whose fundamental principle is “to express itself through the harmony and melody of plastic movement,” regardless of whether such visual abstraction is embedded in a narrative structure.² Epstein’s response in the same journal two weeks later, an essay called “L’Objectif luimême,” protests this use of his work. While he acknowledges that, at the time, the purely plastic qualities of passages of Abel Gance’sLa Roue(1922), Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger’sBallet Mécanique(1923-24), and the absolute films of...

    • Distance is [Im]material: Epstein Versus Etna
      (pp. 115-142)
      Jennifer Wild

      In 1923, Jean Epstein traveled to the island of Sicily to film Mount Etna’s latest eruption. Stuart Liebman’s pioneering research on Epstein has confirmed that the resulting film produced by Pathé Consortium,La Montagne infidèle, is now lost.² Yet, the eponymous first chapter of Epstein’s book,Le Cinématographe vu de lEtna(1926), survives not only as one of the most evocative texts about an encounter with the live volcano. It also persists as one of the most powerful early texts on film aesthetics and technological mediation – the epicenter of the modern aesthetic experience according to Epstein.³

      Throughout the “Etna” chapter,...

    • “The Supremacy of the Mathematical Poem”: Jean Epstein’s Conceptions of Rhythm
      (pp. 143-160)
      Laurent Guido

      Jean Epstein’s ideas about rhythm, expressed in a series of talks, articles, and books from the early 1920s to the late 1940s, cannot be fully understood without being situated within a larger theoretical debate over the aesthetic and social potential of the cinematic medium. Already discussed at the beginning of the 20th century as a key concept in many artistic and scientific fields, the notion of rhythm occupies a central position among the early attempts by French critics and cinéastes to grasp the so-called “specific langage” of film. I would like to emphasize a historical-contextual approach, according to which “French...

    • The “Microscope of Time”: Slow Motion in Jean Epstein’s Writings
      (pp. 161-176)
      Ludovic Cortade

      Jean Epstein’s numerous writings, many of which have not been translated into English, testify to a paradoxical conceptualization of movement. Early on, Epstein was aware that the film medium entails immobility insofar as it relies upon photographic recording. In his 1923 talk, “On Some Conditions ofPhotogénie,” Epstein points out thatphotogénieis possible only with the successive mobilization of these photographic images, and that this mobilization alone allows for the revelation of movement: “[T]he mechanism of cinema constructs movement by multiplying successive stoppages of celluloid exposed to a ray of light, thus creating mobility through immobility, decisively demonstrating how...

    • A Different Nature
      (pp. 177-194)
      Rachel Moore

      Jean Epstein’s writing highlighted cinema as the preeminent modern form, addressing the changing nature of labor and its fatigue, the new relative conception of time and space, and the virtuosity with which the camera machine gave perceptual access to a nerve-wracking world. His films were dramatic vignettes about love, friendship, and loss that engaged in variations of speed, magnifications of objects and bodies, manifold angles, and superimpositions. The films operated in parallel pursuit with his theoretical work to meet perception’s evolving demands. These qualities situate Epstein comfortably within the historical avant-garde, and indeed his writings are a continuous point of...

    • Cinema Seen from the Seas: Epstein and the Oceanic
      (pp. 195-206)
      James Schneider

      Traveling among the islands of Brittany, filmmakers – myself included – have interrogated the crosscurrents of the cinematic and the oceanic. We have navigated these waters accompanied by the specter of Jean Epstein’s own explorations of the region from 1927 to 1948. My investigations of this fluid space have given form to latent proposals found in Epstein’s work, which he had begun to elaborate just before his disappearance, among them the theoretical and practical role he accorded to the non-human in the filmmaking process. His cinematic experiment in Brittany began by developing a profound collaboration with the real, initially via the island...

    • A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein’s Writings on Technology and Subjectivity
      (pp. 207-226)
      Trond Lundemo

      The essence of technology, Martin Heidegger explains in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1953), is nothing technological. It is a matter of theErscheinung(“coming to presence”) of Being of the work of art.¹ The later writings of Jean Epstein also identify a question of technology to be answered in the realm of aesthetics and in processes of subjectivity. Instead of serving the development of a necessarily strained and reductive analogy between Heidegger’s concepts and Jean Epstein’s writings on cinema – indeed, Heidegger’s apparent techno-skepticism and Epstein’s celebrations of film technology immediately seem irreconcilable – this relationship may prompt us to ask which...

    • Ultra-Modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema “Serving the Forces of Transgression and Revolt”
      (pp. 227-244)
      Nicole Brenez

      Jean Epstein disappeared over half a century ago, in 1953. Yet, few filmmakers are still as alive today. At the time, a radio broadcast announced the following obituary: “Jean Epstein has just died. This name may not mean much to many of those who turn to the screens to provide them with the weekly dose of emotion they need.”¹ Since then, oblivion has swallowed up the cinema of small doses, but the aura of Epstein, defender of great ecstasies, has only continued to grow. The process was not achieved without breaks and detours, as the brilliant and erudite historian Jean...

    • Thoughts on Photogénie Plastique
      (pp. 245-254)
      Érik Bullot

      It is said that in 1637, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher asked to be taken into the crater of Mount Vesuvius in order to take a closer look at the volcano about to erupt. In his book of 1665,Mundus subterraneus, Kircher presents a comprehensive inventory of the geological knowledge of his age, interweaving considerations of underground water networks, petrifaction, and insect formations, even dedicating a chapter to fireworks. A phantasmagoria enthusiast who was among the first to codify the principle of the magic lantern, Kircher saw a relationship between the sight of the erupting volcano and these proto-cinematic projections of...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. 255-262)
  9. Translations

    • Introduction: Epstein’s Writings
      (pp. 265-270)

      Epstein’s film criticism is among the most wide-ranging and poetic writing about cinema; it also constitutes an essential foundation to the history of French film criticism that mainstream Anglophone film studies customarily assigns to André Bazin. Almost as soon as Epstein’s writings about literature and then cinema were published, they were held to be among the most insightful and provocative in the new criticism – nowadays we would say ‘theory’ – of the 1920s. Contributing articles to the plethora of newly emerging literary and journalistic venues for the cinema such asCinéa-Ciné-pour-tousandPhoto-Cinéin France, Epstein also manages several successful entries...

    • La Poésie d’aujourd’hui, un nouvel état d’intelligence (1921)
      (pp. 271-276)

      Epstein wrote his first book,La Poésie d’Aujourd’hui, in the summer of 1920, and it was published just after he arrived in Paris in 1921. Focusing mainly on aesthetic and literary concerns (it was well received as a statement on modern poetry), it also sketches out several of the issues Epstein would develop over the course of his writings, including intellectual attention and fatigue; the role of reverie, affect, synesthesia and coenaesthesia in comprehending one’s relationship to the visible world; and how literature and cinema mobilize these concepts. He turns explicitly to the cinema in a late chapter, excerpted here,...

    • Bonjour Cinéma (1921)
      (pp. 277-280)

      Bonjour Cinéma, published in October 1921, features at its center a set of essays Epstein had published in film journals earlier in the same year and then revised for this collection. The first of these articles, “Grossissement,” appeared in Epstein’s own arts journalPromenoirin the February/March issue; “Le Cinéma Mystique” (renamed here “Ciné Mystique”) and “Le Sens 1 bis” appeared in Louis Delluc’s magazineCinéain the spring and summer of that year. Surrounding this core of essays is every manner of textual, poetic, and graphic play: in addition to several poems and pithy statements about the cinema, the...

    • La Lyrosophie (1922)
      (pp. 281-286)

      Epstein’sLa Lyrosophie(1922) is a companion piece to hisLa Poésie d’aujourd’hui, un nouvel état d’intelligence(1921). AlthoughLa Lyrosophieonly skirts the question of the cinema, its philosophical speculations serve as the armature upon which he constructs his film theory. InLa Lyrosophie,Epstein claims that the general intellectual fatigue that follows from the speed and telescoping of space in modern life, and a concomitant increase in the speed of thought, contributes to a mode of subjectivity he callslyrosophie. In the lyrosophical mode, the enervation of the control of reason over the subconscious elicits the projection of...

    • Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etna (1926)
      (pp. 287-310)

      Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etnawas Jean Epstein’s fourth published book and the second he devoted exclusively to cinema. Many, but not all, of the articles and lectures on cinema he had published or delivered since 1922 are included, sometimes in augmented or revised form, but none of his other contemporary writings on literature and the visual arts. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it was composed and delivered to the printer before the end of 1925 since it fails to include two short but interesting texts, “L’Opera de l’oeil” and “L’Objectif luimême,” both published in the first weeks of January 1926....

    • L’intelligence d’une machine (1946)
      (pp. 311-316)

      L’intelligence d’une machinewas published in January 1946, after more than a tenyear hiatus due to the war, when Epstein had to go in hiding. While the topic reflected in the title of the book had been a constant preoccupation throughout Epstein’s previous writings, this text pursues in depth topics that will remain central to all his later publications. He here approaches cinema as a philosophy of time and space more consistently than before, and methodically construes arguments in the field of physics, mechanics, and thermodynamics. The concept ofphotogénieloses much of the importance it had in earlier writings,...

    • Le Cinéma du diable (1947)
      (pp. 317-328)

      Epstein discusses film in light of great technical discoveries that have been questioning political institutions, scientific and religious dogmas since the Middle Ages. Celebrating the rebellious spirit which lies at the crux of the printing press, the astronomical lens, and medical dissection, Epstein provocatively states, “Evil should be considered a benefactor to humankind.” In the wake of these breakthroughs, the cinematographer sets the base of a libertarian philosophy inspired by evil, for the optical device magnifies movement in its slightest variations and revealsphotogénie. Cinema exerts a subversion of literature, reason, and logic alike by exposing the viewer to a...

    • Later Works

      • Introduction to Esprit de cinéma and Alcool et cinéma
        (pp. 329-330)
        Christophe Wall-Romana

        These last two books of Jean Epstein were published posthumously in 1955 and 1975 respectively.Espritreprises a number of articles Epstein published in journals in the years 1946-49 (with one short text from 1935), andAlcoolmay be considered in part a variant ofEsprit, since half of it recapitulates sections of that book almost verbatim. Taken together, these works represent a last summation of Epstein’s thoughts about cinema. They echo central themes and ideas found in two of his other synoptic efforts,L’Intelligence d’une machine(1946) andLe Cinéma du diable(1947), notably the insistence that cinema as...

      • Esprit de cinéma
        (pp. 330-380)

        Every novice screenwriter knows that no film character can simply put his umbrella somewhere in the middle of a scene without such a gesture leading to consequences that need to appear in the film’s conclusion. This captious finalism flourishes with utmost wealth in the most faux, the most arbitrary genres: those of melodrama and detective stories. But, truth be told, no author who seeks a certain amount of success dares stray too far away from this rational order and dares give in to sentimental illogicality, which more closely characterizes the behavior of real beings. So, at first view, it seems...

      • Late Articles
        (pp. 381-394)

        In the fascination that comes down from a close-up and weighs on a thousand faces tense with the same rapture, on a thousand souls magnetized by the same emotion; in the wonderment that ties the look to the slow motion of a runner soaring at every stride or to the accelerated motion of a sprout swelling up into an oak tree; in images which the eye cannot form as large, as close, as lasting, or as fleeting: there the essence of the cinematographic mystery, the secret of the hypnotizing machine are revealed – a new knowledge, a new love, a new...

      • Alcool et cinéma
        (pp. 395-404)

        Spoken language, verbal thought, and their logic have been formed by and for man’s relationship with his fellow human beings and his surroundings in order to rule the outside world, and also under the rule and after the model of this world as we perceive it through our naked senses. Depending on circumstances, either immobile or changing figures could predominate among aspects of this physical world, but the human mind gave precedence, a special attention, to diversified forms that with more or less speed appear constant or rigid, as if they were signs and means of safety, markers of exploration...

  10. Afterword: Reclaiming Jean Epstein
    (pp. 405-412)
    Richard Abel

    Do we sense a “historical turn” or return to Jean Epstein as both a major theorist and filmmaker? The April 2008 symposium organized by the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago certainly awakened that expectation – first, by inviting half a dozen scholars from North America and Europe to present new research on Epstein’s theoretical writing and several of his films and, second, by screening a relatively unseen 35mm print ofFinis terrae(1929), which coincided closely with Pathé’s unexpected DVD release ofCoeur fidèle(1923). This collection of newly translated texts and critical essays should...

  11. Filmography
    (pp. 413-418)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 419-426)
  13. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 427-430)
  14. Index of Names
    (pp. 431-436)
  15. Index of Films and Major Writings by Jean Epstein
    (pp. 437-438)
  16. Index of Films
    (pp. 439-439)