Calm down, you assholes, shut up!
First of all, I think the cinema is too rich. It’s obese.
It’s reached its limits, its maximum capacity.
A mere blockage will shatter this fat-filled pig into a thousand pieces.
I hereby announce the destruction of cinema,
the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, the rupture of this ballooning,
and pot-bellied organism known as film.
—Excerpt from Venom and Eternity, Isidore Isou
This month’s film programme pays homage to Discrepant Cinema, the bold manifesto by one of the most radical filmmakers in film’s history: Jean-Isidore Isou. According to Isou, one must divide to conquer. This applies to the two wings of cinema: sound (speech) and image, which he wanted by all means to sever: “I want to separate the ear from its movie master: the eye.” Isou advocated for a cinema in which the images, in their photographic and representative obsolescence, must rot, giving way to the breakage of the spontaneous association that made speech the correspondent of vision. “Who ever said that cinema, whose meaning is motion, has to be the motion of images and not the motion of words?” Isou proclaimed.
Isou (Rumania, 1925), founded Lettrism or Letterism in the late 1940s in France, an avant-gardist movement that covered a galaxy of practices (writing, performing and plastic arts, music, etc.), and has been associated, for its multidisciplinar vocation and antiartistic ideation to Dada, Futurism and Fluxus. We are showing Traité de Bave et d’Éternité or Venom and Eternity (1951), the first film Isou made, which constitutes the manifesto of Lettrist cinema. The film was made from footage found in labs rubbish combined with original 16mm film footage, and was presented that same year in Cannes Festival, receiving the Prix des Espectateurs d’Avant-garde award from a jury formed by Jean Cocteau among others.
Isou saw debate as the superseding of cinema: “since cinema is dead, we shall turn debate into a master piece”. Venom and Eternity begins with a five-minute sound poem over black leader. What follows is Isou’s visionary contra-cinema speech, a revolution against the decadent and dilapidated conventions of the medium. Isou wants to transpose the art of debate and sound, in its various forms, directly into cinema and in detriment to the photographic image.
It isn’t surprising that American filmmaker Stan Brakhage admired and wrote about Isou’s work. Brakhage’s films are a latent manifesto against visual representation: “I now no longer photograph, but rather paint upon clear strips of film — essentially freeing myself from the dilemmas of re-presentation. I aspire to a visual music, a music for the eyes (as my films are entirely without sound-tracks these days). Just as a composer can be said to work primarily with «musical ideas», I can be said to work with the ideas intrinsic to film, which is the only medium capable of making paradigmatic «closure» apropos Primal Sight.”
The film we are showing on this programme by Brakhage, The Dante Quartet (1987, 16mm, 7mins) has been especially recommended by Pip Chodorov (founder of distribution company Re-Voir in Paris, which has recently restored Isou’s film). The Dante Quartet is the result of Brakhage's long-standing fascination with The Divine Comedy, “a brief but spectacular filmic attempt to find a visual equivalent or rhyme for the four stages of the ascent from hell depicted by Dante”(1). Brakhage’s late films embody a sort of abstract expressionism in motion informed by his interest in hypnagogic or closed-eye vision, which he described as “what you see through your eyes closed - at first a field of grainy, shifting, multi-colored sands that gradually assume various shapes. It's optic feedback: the nervous system projects what you have previously experienced - your visual memories - into the optic nerve endings. Moving visual thinking, on the other hand, occurs deeper in the synapsing of the brain. It's a streaming of shapes that are not nameable - a vast visual 'song of the cells expressing their internal life.”(2)
The absence of images, the black screen in the first minutes of Isou’s Traité de Bave et d’Éternité (or in Howls for Sade, a film containing no images whatsoever Isou ideated with Guy Debord and was later realized by the author of The Society of Spectacle in 1952), in many of Brakhage’s films (Dog Star Man, for instance, or Reflections on Black), and in Aldo Tambellini’s Black Films (Black Is , Black Trip 1 , Black Trip 2 , Blackout ), is of a special significance. The absence of images, or the black screen, expresses disbelief for the association of images — while all associations are possible —; it is a space dedicated to imagination.
Tambellini’s Black Films (1965-7) are non-photographic too. In these films, Tambellini used clear leader, which he used as a scroll, turning a blind eye to the frames. He applied a mixture of chemicals - paint, ink and stencils (sometimes using found objects, such as computer cards)- as well as slicing and scraping the celluloid directly. The Black Films are concerned, as John Cage’s conception of silence, Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, or Takahiko Iimura’s films Ma:Intervals (1977), with notions of time as a colourless intersection, void and nothingness. (Henri Bergson: “I cannot get rid of the idea that the full is an embroidery on the canvas of the void, that being is superimposed on nothing, and that in the idea of «nothing» there is less than that of «something». Hence all the mystery.” [Creative Evolution, 1944]).
As the title of Isou’s film, this programme is drawn according to three axis: the propagandist solemnity (traité) of Venom and Eternity, the negation of a contemptible past of photographic cinema, or a cinema of sound/image associations (bave), and the ambition of reaching the excellence of celestial space (Éternité). Aldo Tambellini’s Statement on BLACK reinforces the latter:
over the void
the silence of
the infinite sky
how intensely BLACK
how deeper than BLACK
how blacker than BLACK
can space be
when the sun
the blind see
a transplanted prophetic vision
projecting darkening images
over the sun
the sun burns the eyes
of those who can see
& have no vision
the solar winds navigate the BIG THOUGHT throughout black space infinity
a message breathes from the universe consciousness
there is a language to be decoded
there is still silence in its echo
we are in a mindless voyage to destruction (3)
(1) Adrian Danks, Across the Universe: Stan Brakhage's The Dante Quartet, in Senses of Cinema, 2004.
(2) Stan Brakhage quoted in Suranjan Ganguly, “Stan Brakhage — The 60th Birthday Interview”, Film Culture no. 78, summer 1994, p. 26.
Venom, Eternity and Other Discrepancies is a film-programme curated by Esperanza Collado and Donal Foreman with the generous help of Pip Chodorov for the Experimental Film Club.