Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021
James Thompson: Director, Producer, Researcher
Film: I Work for the Devil.
Length: 14.54 minutes
Photogénie: The Heuretic Method and the Sketching Process
Jean Epstein’s seminal film La Chute de la mais on Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher; 1928; France), is an adaptation that combines two of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories; The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), and The Oval Portrait (1842). This project is a reappraisal of both Jean Epstein’s cinematic method and philosophy, articulated best under the term Photogénie (Epstein 1923), the legacy of this film, and the adaptability of Poe’s literary output to the cinema more generally. The study of this intersection of Epstein and Poe has led to the production of my film I Work for the Devil. The film I have produced is not a direct remake, nor a treatment of the original source material. Instead, it is crafted from a series of sketches produced as a response to the various themes, ideas, tangents, and revelations discovered during the research process. This sketching process is reflective of what Robert B. Ray describes as a ‘heuretic’ theory of film (2001, 4)
Ray introduces the concept of heuretics as a method of enquiry to replace the more familiar hermeneutical methodology of interpretation. Heuretic in this sense is an interrogative and active research method in which ‘players’ (researchers) generate chains of associations from a given object (a moment or a detail from a film for instance). A heuretic study is one in which the researcher follows a series of intuited ideas, makes a craft of the documentation process, and reports their findings (Ray 2001, 12).
Ray is arguing that cinematic theoretical research needs to once again be about discovery rather than demystification, just as photogénie as a filmic methodology hinges upon discovery and revelation rather than dialectical rationality. This project embraces this approach and each sketch in the broader mosaic of the film represents another link in the associative chain. The film is intended to embody the ideas and the ‘spirit’ of the 1920s French avant-garde cinema, whilst simultaneously capturing my own original vision inspired by the works of Poe.
Regarding photogénie, if it was to be said (and quite rightly so) that this theory was nebulous, vague, and ever-shifting in its focus and value orientations, why might it be useful to revisit and reappraise this method of enquiry? What does photogénie have to offer a world submerged in ubiquitous digital technology, multitudes of screens and varying exhibition possibilities; and what can this methodology offer independent, creative filmmakers and moving-image-based visual artists? I Work For the Devil reflects the creative and investigative process I have taken to answer these questions.
Epstein, Jean. 1923. “On Certain Characteristics of Photogenie.” In French Film Theory and Criticism: a History/Anthology, 1907 – 1939, edited by Richard Abel, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c1988. 314 – 318.
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1839. The Fall of the House of Usher. Accessed July 2019 public domain https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Poe/Usher.pdf
Poe, Edgar Allan. 1842. “The Oval Portrait” in Tales of Mystery and Imagination, edited by Gary Kelley. Creative Editions/Harcourt Brace, 1996 San Diego.
Ray, Robert B. “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. 2001.
PEER REVIEW 1
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?
The notion Thompson appraises is a ‘rearticulation’ of Photogénie and that of Filmmaker Jean Epstein’s film La Chute de la mais on Usher, explored through Robert B. Rays’ heuretic’ theory of film rather than through the discourse, of the authors own admission, of the more familiar hermeneutical methodology of interpretation. This is by means of discovery through the filmmaker’s I Work for the Devil, which is intended to embody the spirit of the 1920s and the zeitgeist of Poe’s works (sadly neither holds true), whilst apparently simultaneously examining Photogénie through the ubiquitous lens of digital technology with the purported goal of presenting a new dimension the discussion.
Does the submission live up to its potential?
The potential of the submission is evident, but only from the abstract, as I would argue that the praxis itself is lacking in the artistic merit to which the filmmaker aspires. The argument presented in the abstract states this is not a direct remake and yet the inference to Poe’s work is not in evidence within the cited example film; I Work for the Devil compared to that of La Chute de la mais on Usher. These ‘sketches’ are responding to themes that are yet to be identified and, although Photogénie has been categorised as connecting more with the field of art history and movements such as ‘still life… primitivism, theatre studies with its interest in melodrama, literary studies with its evocation of symbolism, memoire involuntair and surrealism’ (Hackel 2003, 3). Yet the connection to these motifs mentioned here can only be found in the praxis itself and are absent from the abstract.
Researcher Kristina Hackel argues in her PhD on the topic, that Photogénie is about producing a visual quality through the cinematographe and can only be revealed through the aesthetic demands of the subject matter through new techniques (2003, 2). Herein lies with the problematic aspect of the work, a lack of interrogation of these new techniques through its use of incongruent masking and poor sound quality at times (specifically the off-camera interviewer for example) and the general lack of the avant-garde where Hackel argues Photogénie is born of “mainstream cinema instead of in opposition to it” (2003, 9). When you compare, I Work for the Devil, with the designated example film, it contains little of this distinction. La Chute de la Mais on Usher is distinctly more avant-garde, with the husband Usher, and his gentle brush stroke on the portrait of his perceived to be dying wife becoming like a gaze upon her cheek which she simultaneously reaches for. This nuanced example is but one such moment that is missing from Thompson’s work.
Similarly, what makes the former avant-garde (for its time) was its use of editing and rapid cutting which is clearly absent from the latter. More recent examples of films that could be argued are modern descendants of Photogénie would clearly be filmmaker, David Lynch – specifically Blue Velvet (1986) – where the undercurrent of menace is imbued within the film aesthetic. Thompson’s use of the neon and video blocking seems innocuous and out of place, say when compare to similar film treatments, such as Chris Markers’ visual narrative video embellishments in San Soleil (1983) where this technique was current for its time, and many New Romantic Music Videos from the late 1970s and early 1980s can also fall into this category.
Finally, the use of dialogue in I Work for the Devil did little to highlight Thompson’s modern pastiche to anything that resembles Epsteins’ work and although we could argue clearly with the age of the ‘talkies’ it is only logical that we should include the diegetic and non-diegetic hemispheres of the narrative world, but unfortunately, along with corny shots of the stabbed man with the so-called devil lying beside the double-pierced victim, whispering into the dying man’s ear, it did little to elevate the status of the piece, but rather invoke a somewhat groaning awkwardness at the attempt. There are some glimpses of a more unexpected approach with the woman kneeling on the dirt track which unfortunately did not lead anywhere but rather was anticlimactic. The final result is that the praxis has little to do with the abstract, and vice versa. The ambiguity of the final creative work seems to have incongruence to Epstein’s film La Chute de la mais on Usher.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
Does the work evidence a particular question? Again yes, I think the abstract proposes an interesting notion of how the Photogénie could potentially be re-invoked but I would argue that that firstly, other filmmakers have already done this and secondly; the invoked heuretic’ theory of film does little to demonstrate Thompson’s argument.
Hackel, Kristina. 2003. “The Face of Others, the taste of things: Photogenie and sensation in silent cinema.” PhD dissertation, University of Southern California.
PEER REVIEW 2
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?/ Does the submission live up to its potential?
Viewing experimental films is rarely an ‘easy experience’, since the remit of all avant-garde practices has been to disrupt, transcend and subvert dominant viewing habits and modes of representation. This necessarily entails a cinema premised on unfamiliar and discordant values seeking to expand questions addressing, ‘what constitutes cinema?’
The short film, I Work for the Devil, is a considered response and rumination on the ideas represented by Epstein’s La Chute de la mais on Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher; 1928; France) and the themes contained in the literary oeuvre of Edgar Allen Poe. The formalism of the film is appropriately evocative of early modernist, French avant-garde cinema. By employing such discursive modes as direct address, voice-over, and techniques of visual abstraction, the form of the film nonetheless coheres under a stylized aesthetic that is also evocative of early Brakhage and Maya Deren.
The short film with its fractured narrative and stylistic visual and audio elements unfolds across an appropriate short form timeframe that demonstrates the author’s engagement of Ray and the reclaimed film theory notion of heuretics as a method of enquiry. Interpreting heuretics through the practice-based method of filmmaking clearly poses significant challenges, while also supplying the innovative potential of this approach to short film form and narratives. The filmmaker has successfully risen to the task set by resisting conventionally kinetic editing and embracing the sense of duration that delivers on the objective of producing a viewing experience operating in accordance to the ‘associative chain ’ that is stipulated in the supporting statement as opposed to a ‘dialectical rationality’.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
I work for the Devil imaginatively combines form and content premised on the logics operating under heuretics in place of a hermeneutical method. As a research artefact, the film demonstrates innovation in both form and content by combining traditions in experimental filmmaking in tandem with narrative conventions drawn from genre storytelling. Expressive elements characterise the film, notably the use of saturated colours and a confined mise-en-scene through tightly framed interiors and exteriors further compressed through setups and shots configured through shallow depth of field. Each visual strategy employed as creative practice fulfils a research criteria by employing stylistic imagery that contributes to alternative approaches to meaning-making through disruptive visual and narrative experiences.
I work for the Devil is a form of experimental filmmaking that advances practice-based research which creatively interprets by specifically applying traditional and non-traditional creative practices embedded within specific social and theoretical contexts. In this instance, the practice provides the means for research to engage the history of alternative cinema and combines it with a strain of criticism on visual culture that illuminates processes affecting contemporary meaning-making. As for whether this categorically constitutes a form of evidence that supports the notion of new knowledge, such a problematic intersects with the premise of this film which, throws into question conventional understandings that privilege binary and rational comprehensions.
The considered approach of the competing elements within the film means its form manages to provide the basis for an experiential awareness that has the potential to lead to new insights. In other words, far from a haphazard approach that dispenses with all meaning, the filmmaker has managed to successfully produce a mode of filmmaking that is immersed in the traditions of the avant-garde as well as informed by ideas such as photogenie and heuretics, while also resisting the excesses of contemporary visual culture. These achievements may be somewhat unassuming, but more significantly, testify to the possibilities of creative practice when it adheres to the rigours informed by critical and historical contexts. Creative approaches in filmmaking enabled by an awareness as well as deployment of critical methods demonstrate the potential of re-purposing avant-garde strategies as we continue to grapple with the onslaught of contemporary visual culture.
I would like to thank the reviewers for their thoughts and opinions. Interestingly I have two quite divergent commentaries both of which are fair and call forth further explanation and context for the work.
As mentioned in the feedback, the term cinematograph was in common usage during Epstein’s lifetime, and he chose to take this term seriously. Cinematograph means literally to write in movement. For Epstein, this means to articulate a subjective, conscious experience, into an objective, outward and communicative reality. If cinematograph describes the apparatus, photogénie describes the affect. Photogénie emphasises images and combinations of images that articulate transformation, expression, the close-up, movement, temporality, rhythm, and the augmentation of the senses.
According to this aesthetic framework, narrative structure and plot must not seek to dictate via design the meaning of the cinema image. More importantly, the cinema image must not pretend to transform the world into a rational, intellectual structure of narrative coherence. It must in fact do the opposite; the cinema-image must reflect the disorientation of the world of lived experience in all its vagueness, momentary clarity, fragmentation and complexity.
In Epstein’s cinema, the goal is not to promote spectacle (action), nor to achieve a representation (realism), but rather to find ways, through shot structure and editing, to create an effective sense on the screen that something outside of the ordinary purview of human perception of space and time is happening, or is about to happen, or has already happened. To create narrative-driven climatic events would be in antithesis to this aesthetic premise. Epstein resisted precise definitions for what it is that the cinema achieves in correspondence with reality and the human subjective experience of being-in-the-world. Because of this resistance, the methodology is flexible; it remains relevant as an investigative tool for excursions into the meaning-making and production processes that dominate a society’s visual culture.
Regarding the adaptive process, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher contains embedded codes which give direction to the potential for its own conversion. It is a self-reflexive text which deploys formal, psychological, mechanical and creative imaginings, and anticipates the conditions for conceptual exploration. Byron states in his article The House of Usher as Phantasmagoria: “In this sense it reverses and explodes the conventional binary of original and copy, and thus diverts hermeneutic attention away from the limited and unproductive zones of adaptive fidelity, quotation, and intersection.”
This quality of the text as inviting a hermeneutic game-play through the adaptive process is reflected in the tradition established in the cinematic history of Poe-to-screen adaptation. Two avenues of stylistic visual approach can be identified when looking at this history; that of the experimental avant-garde, and that of the genre-driven, more commercially orientated spectacle characterised by exploitative measures such as an over-emphasis on violence or sex. In both of these traditions, we find films that abandon the original text entirely. In fact, one is hard pressed to find any film that attempts a close fidelity to Poe’s House of Usher.
In my work, I have sought to use these frameworks as starting off points for an original conception. It is a transmutation (to borrow Stam’s terminology) and a personal response to the provocations of both Poe and Epstein. It is here that the heuretic process as described takes place. Both Poe and Epstein provide us with a theoretical, and sensitive universe that surpasses notions of adaptation and it is because of this that the topic has found continuing relevance in scholarship. It is true that some of my shots may have been ill-conceived, but such are the risks taken when working through a process of iteration and improvisation. The anti-climactic elements of the mosaic are intentional; a deliberate narrative aesthetic.
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