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The Dance of Cartesian Dualism

This is a guest post for Silent London by Daniel Riccuito, David Cairns and Tom Sutpen. If you like this, you will love The Chiseler.

It is the custom of illuminated manuscripts to transform sacred words into shimmering icons which break, easily, beyond the sensory limitations of simple text, rendering ordinary letters into evocative, animate visual forms that invite the eye to idle awhile at the brink of transcendence, rather than standing at a distance, remote and unyielding, daring to be comprehended, accepted, believed. Strange and barely recognizable wildlife appears on vellum leaves, creatures that wind and unwind in ceaseless whirlpools of bejeweled abstraction. Or they are, if you prefer, the spirited exoskeletons of snakes, dragons, waterbirds — Celtic and Germanic obsessions meeting the Apostles of Christendom. Emerging in the British Isles between 500–900 C.E., The Lindisfarne Gospels provide an arena, lapidary and starlit, where paganism devours Christianity while also birthing the religion anew into what can only be described, if you’re honest, as “motion pictures”.

Put simply, movies are books made out of light, zoetic leaves and letters that move beyond their trellis, leaving us to decipher an enigma that is purely visual; all the more impossible to contain within mortal consciousness because the light of this steadfastly irrational art has swallowed up the text. There are those, however few in number, who have decoded this cryptic iconography, but mysteries remain, not unlike those mysteries — strange, delved, bewildering — contained within the gospels.

Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, 1991)

They are mysteries that urge upon us a wholly radical reconsideration of silent cinema; of the book in film, of whispering pages; pages fluttering like leaves. Of Stan Brakhage, who gave us a series of works entitled The Book of Film and otherwise seemed incapable of regarding the universe independent of its sensual properties. Of Hollis Frampton and Peter Greenaway. Certainly of Robert Beavers, who incorporates the sound and motion of turning pages — placed in relationships and analogies with other actions — and the moving of birds wings in flight. This is not the middlebrow idea of film as purely narrative-bearing text. It is Mallarme’s concept of the book, the Proustian notion of the book. It is its ultimate realization, par excellence, and by far the most apposite. The films of David Gatten, which deeply engage with the idea of the book, the history of books. These are works that require different modalities of reading/touching words and saccadic rhythms involving different velocities of hyphenation and partial retention and compound phrases through the softest of collisions.

It is largely through this phenomenon that we confront the everlasting mystery of the silent voice, the ‘little’ voice inside each one of us; an imagined external voice that reads to us quietly, that is us but seems to be another’s. But this voice is not exclusively yours nor the voice of the author nor the voice of a personified stand-in for somebody who may once have read to us the most thrilling book in the world, somewhere in our long-ago childhood. It just is.

Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1739 Digesting Duck.

Enter: the cinematograph, a contraption born of science, yet throwing human perception into reverse. If Rene Descartes imagined the world as a set of interlocked gears, springs and flywheels, in other words, as a vastly complex machine, perhaps the machine’s subsequent dismantling and rejigging was inevitable. Da Vinci composed the human body in a harmonious, and seemingly inviolate, relationship to geometry. And in so doing guaranteed that movie-magician Georges Méliès would discombobulate his Swiss-watch conception of our known universe. Or so it all seems now. Adopting this “irrational” pronunciamento, in monk-like contemplation of Reality, means that Enlightenment thinking — that is, if we don’t abandon it entirely — may appear to us in radically modified guises; a recrudescence of the veil, once drawn from nature’s mysteries to expose the “rational” and “mechanical” principles governing all. The occult returns, invading from within Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1739 automaton simulating a duck’s digestive tract, or The Mechanical Philosophy’s overarching agenda: namely, replacing occultism and magic with practical, empiricism-based Truth. 

Indeed, Méliès visual jokes wouldn’t have landed at all had they not taken on science, the whole kit and caboodle, including those supposed “laws” of Newtonian physics. 

If one had a mind to catalogue Méliès’ ingenious transformations, then a plausible title might be “The Divisible Man”: detachable head, multiplying detachable head, expanding detachable head, the head as heavenly body, the body smithereened and reassembled… But of course a modern, tech-based art form like cinema makes “originality” itself suspect. Méliès cannibalized the works of Verne, H.G. Wells and Poe, or poached from their hunting grounds, without worrying in the least about copyright, and documented the same sorts of fantastic voyages to the moon, the south pole and the ocean floor, by outsize, inhabited artillery shell, by balloon or airship, rocket-train, or whatever fantastical machine could be cobbled together in his greenhouse studio. While the literary fantasists were somewhat concerned with credibility, with the science part of science fiction, the Frenchman with the upside-down head (bald top, hairy underside) focussed purely on visual possibilities: an idea was only any good if it gave you an IMAGE.

The Four Troublesome Heads (George Méliès, 1898)

Motion pictures spasm and never resolve. Would that Descartes could have witnessed a movie projector in action, that bundle of nerves and nervous energy. His rationalism become pandemonium. 

Mind and body — Méliès delights in unlinking them.

The cinema of bodily transformation did not necessarily equate with “horror” per se. The horror film was eventually codified as genre from the cinema of bizarre attractions exemplified by Lon Chaney, master of grotesque makeups and bodily contortions, but in the early cinema it was standard procedure to have one’s detached head inflated to fill the room (The Man with the India Rubber Head) or multiplied into a row of bodiless noggins, singing or rather mouthing in harmony (The Four Troublesome Heads). Then came Nosferatu, preordained to shimmer on-screen. Vampires, immortals of the night, slain by sunlight, rose out their tombs in the movie theaters of the 1920s and never returned. They sit next to us in the dark, having ceded the power of hypnotism to the glowing screen itself. Photochemical vagaries invariably allow movie darkness to behave in uncanny ways; as if the physical properties of film followed no rules, and thus invited us to accept its essential anarchy without question. Before us, the darkness GLOWS.

By the time Jean Epstein adapted The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928, Poe had already passed through the mechanism of carbon-arc projection; his vision, once considered unharnessable, had at last become an industry. Dragooned, pressed into modern service at a pace to be measured in frames-per-second, Poe engrosses us in Romantic conceptions of death as a means to visionary truth. Jean Epstein reveals that same supposedly “elusive” end in our earthly world of telephones, sports cars, Kodak cameras for the everyman, and moderne manicures for the up-to-the-minute dandy. Unlike subsequent generations, the Romantics were not living in the fourth dimension. Cinema, as anyone knew or would know it, had not yet been invented. The antecedents did not exist. Consequently, no medium of expression predating cinema could have wrenched audiences out of linear time as thoroughly as Epstein’s La glace à trois faces (1927) — that is, Epstein’s cinema was born amidst the one-armed poets, battle-scarred dreamers, mystics and cinephiles of post-World War I France. So his aesthetic vision was etched not by the spiritual demise of nineteenth-century ideals alone, but also by vast human wreckage staring him in the face. The French called them “les gueules cassees” (“the broken mugs”). A suddenly passé mysticism fell away like cobwebs, as the shrapnel in Apollinaire’s temple became far more meaningful than Keats’ half-assed love affair with “easeful death.” And today? We can easily affirm Poe’s paranoia in our own well-earned collective jitters. The monasticism of Roderick Usher looms inevitable to us — even wise, as Jean Epstein’s high-speed camera decelerates time almost imperceptibly. Tormented trees scratch at the sky, toads fornicate on tombs, owls evaporate. The wind is incantatory language that reveals what happens when cinema gives up the ghost. 

When time “escapes the chronometer,” as Mr. Epstein himself puts it. 

“All’s revealed in this transparency of the tombs.”

The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1938)

Transcendentalism barely scratches the surface here. A more apposite term — the one he nuances in his film theory, “photogenie” (a genesis out of light) — pulls transitory moments, otherwise escaping human perception, into focus.

Jean Epstein’s film art demands that we ask: “What is Modernism?” Or: “What is the movement minus transfiguration, mutation, deformation?”

The Victorians were falling away. And with them a system of reality contained in narrow, overwrought performances. Withered technique as a means of reflecting Nature — or, to quote Balzac, the “conjugation of objects with light” — was displaced, uncrowned by Jean Delville’s Death (1890), which embodies an altogether different kind of virtuosity, one no Academy could ever comprehend. The charcoal drawing and ode to Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death yearns with a combination of verve and starkness toward a capital “G” Gloom destined to escape salons.

Coming of age in a series of shady elsewheres — the fairgrounds, nickelodeon parlors and movie palaces of an Edwardian America — nitrate and its twinkling mineral essence gave Poe’s crepuscular light its time to shine and  thereby illuminate the world. No longer held in the solitary confinement of a page of reproduced text or an image, however still, rendered in paint or ink. Poe’s singularly tormented vision was finally written alchemically, in cinematographic rays beamed through silver salts; into moving images of such aggressive vitality as to blast every rational thing from one’s mind. 

The Red Spectre (Segundo de Chomón, 1907)

All hail magic mirrors! Celestial mandalas! Giant eggs and butterfly women! Segundo de Chomón’s The Red Spectre (1907) ruthlessly invades our eyes with a wraith-magician dissolving through his coffin lid in a red, hand-tinted, flame-flickering hell. His caped, skull-masked presence was to herald the manic new thespic truth that, from this moment forward, the art of acting is in how you respond to light, and how light responds to you. The Specter of Chomon’s dark bauble is in every element Poe’s Red Death — japing and performing tricks for us, his adoring fans and welcome guests, before announcing our doom — literary metaphor slammed against a literal backdrop of amber stalactites, pellucid as an ossuary. 

Ernest Thesiger’s Doctor Pretorius might have been musing on the history of cinema in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein when he said: “Sometimes I have wondered whether life wouldn’t be much more amusing if we were all devils, no nonsense about angels and being good.” 

By Daniel Riccuito, David Cairns and Tom Sutpen

The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

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