Saturday, February 25, 2017

Isidore Isou and Lettrist Cinema

A maudite figure in the French cultural sphere of the fifties, Isidore Isou and the collective around him that formed the Lettrist cinema movement desired to tear up the interior logic of the cinematographic medium to highlight the inessentials of its operations and to bring to it a new force for it to achieve a modernity. The aesthetic doctrine of Lettrism would, according to Hannah Feldman, seize the “ostensible semiotic purity of the individual letter as a vehicle of unmediated articulation.” To use Isou’s terms this would imply in terms of aesthetic practices both that of amplique, the absorption of eternal influences, and ciselé, that of purifying the form.

The films that are associated with the main group are Isou’s masterpiece Traité de bave et d'éternité (1951), Maurice Lemaître’s Le Film est déjà commencé? (1951), Gil J. Wolman’s L’anticoncept (1951), Marc’O’s Closed Vision (1952), François Dufrêne’s Tambours du jugement premier (1952), Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and some later works including O’s Les Idoles (1970) and Yolande du Luart’s Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (1970).

Four new books and essays offer compelling and varying perspective on this short lived movement: Nicole Brenez’s ‘We Support Everything Since the Dawn of Time That Has Struggled and Still Struggles’: Introduction to Lettrist Cinema (Sternberg Press, 2014), Feldman’s From A Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945-1962 (Duke, 2014), Kaira M. Cabañas’s Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde (Chicago, 2014) and Andrew V. Uroskie’s Beyond the Black Box: The Lettrist Cinema of Disjunction (2011).

The Lettrist movement reached a fruition with the premiere of the first (imageless) version of Isou’s Traité de bave et d'éternité premiering unofficially, and to much scandal, at Cannes in 1951 where Jean Cocteau’s would award it the Prix de L’Avant-Garde. It would stand out, in its final version, for its radical structure, discrepant editing and framing devices (Montage discrépant), non-synchronous sound to image, and film stock manipulations and scratches (image ciselante). It’s divided into different parts that go from Isou discussing at a ciné-club the tenets of Lettrism to a romantic encounter back to the living practice of the aesthetic project. There is a critique of the status quo and capitalism in favor for an aesthetics that subverts it and proposes a new form of existence. Traité works on a dissociative strategy that creates a fissure between its voice-over narration – the story of Daniel, who is played by Isou – and its main footage that varies from scenes on the streets of Paris and its social institutions to archive footage of the French countryside and of its global expansion. The images are distorted and broken up with the end of film reels, scratches and drawings while also being inverted and played backwards. Brenez argues that the Lettrist perspective is meant to be liberating, “it represents the fusion and emancipation of art and life by means of creativity. With regards to film, it implies the reorganization of every parameter of the apparatus, which would later be called expanded cinema and which the Lettrists called ‘syncinema’.”

Cabañas in Off-Screen Cinema focuses on the five main figures of Lettrism – Isou, Lemaître, Wolman, Dufrêne and Debord – at its height between 1951 to 1952 through an analysis and reception study of Traité, Le Film est déjà commencé?, L’anticoncept and Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade, which is situated as emerging from the Lettrist context. Lettrist cinema was disjunctive as it built off its poetry, giving primacy to sounds and words over that of the image. Isou’s project, as he claims, built off the work of the Surrealist and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is cited as an influence. There is footage of how this would look in their theater in the St. Germain des Prés episode of Around the World with Orson Welles (1955). One of Cabañas main arguments is that these expanded screenings of Lettrist films, which demanded spectator participation, was a form of protest against the rigidity of the traditional silent viewing experiences that was reinforced by state control during the French Occupation and afterwards. These Lettrist films regularly got in trouble with state film censorship and the Romanian-born Jewish Isou would be victim of anti-Semitic slurs.

Feldman offers a critical thesis on the group’s use of language. For Feldman, 
“Lettrism was unable to exceed the limitations of a colonially circumscribed France as a container for the aurally-defined community it imagined, and ultimately failed to make good on the more utopian aspects of Isou’s proposals. This failure was explicitly enmeshed in the movement’s simultaneous investment in communicating the particularities of a specific subaltern experience and in the hope that such a recuperative identitarian politics could successfully reintegrate excluded bodies into national ideals.” 
The critique is that even through their dissident voices and creation of new forms of poetry that the Lettrist project still reinforced the aesthetic dogmas of a colonial universalism. Feldman furthers the point,
“The abstractions, ideals, and disjuncture in which Isou took refuge in order to avoid such misappropriations did not prevent him or those with whom he worked from ultimately recapitulating this error in the quest for a new means of cultural belong that would accommodate the model of their and others’ cultural-linguistic difference.”
Lettrism, through Debord, would lead the way to the Situationist International, which would have come to overshadow it. The rupture between the groups is well documented – Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which argues for symmetries between Johnny Rotten and Debord, offers quite an exhaustive summary – as some members wanted to pull more radical stunts and create a deeper rift between themselves and the mainstream society. For Debord there could be a new beauty, that of the situation, as a lived counter-culture experience that privileged permanently novel experiences through dérives, a drifting through urban spaces for attractions or repulsion, and détournements, the appropriation of culture and their diversion into new contexts.
           
There has not been enough North American attention to the Lettrist group, which new scholarship since its major reappraisal in 2005 has been helping to remedy. Cabañas lays out the chronology of their American screenings and points out that the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was at one of the early screenings of Traité, which he greatly admired and would lead to a correspondence with Isou (that are included in the appendix of her book). 

Throughout these books there is a focus on the aesthetic influence of the Lettrist project: Isou’s work, through his deep knowledge of film and having contributed one of his finest essays Esthétique du cinéma to the only issue of the Lettrist journal Ion edited by Marc’O in 1952, anticipates the turn to filmmaking of the nouvelle vague critisc-turned-filmmakers (Traité, for example, is dedicated to Griffith, Chaplin and Cocteau among others). Its aesthetic practices and tactics also offer a precursor to those of experimental film and conceptual, performance, installation and institutional critical art.

This rediscovery of an overlooked part of film history, Isou’s cinema and the Lettrist project, through its creation of new aesthetic forms, in a period of high social and political stakes, offers a new way to see the medium and to experience the world. Here is hoping there will be more chances to see these works publicly in Toronto!

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