Saturday, July 11, 2015

Isidore Isou | Traité de bave et d’éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity)

the destruction of the image
by Douglas Messerli

Isidore Isou (director) Traité de bave et d’éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity) / 1951

Isidore Isou or Isidore Goldstein was as Fluxus artist Ben Vautier has described him, a man of “ego,” “megalomania,” and “pretense,” while yet admitting that Isou was very influential to him when he first theorized about art in 1958. In fact, there is no film ever made that is quite so ego-driven as Isou’s manifesto, misogynist rant, and declaration of his own genius: Treatise on Venom and Eternity—but then there has never been another movie quite like Isou’s 1952 debut.

Isou, playing a figure named Daniel throughout the film, is a firm believer in the new. While it’s clear he admires several filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Abel Gance, René Clair, Sergei Eisenstein, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Flaherty, Luis Buñuel, and others to who he dedicates the film, the young would-be filmmaker argues for a completely new way of filmmaking that does not simply imitate these greats. Influenced by his Romanian homeland’s Dadaism, Surrealism, and, although he doesn’t quite acknowledge it, Italian Futurism, Isou is a promoter of noise and nonsense more than music and coherent sense. The founder of what he describes as “Letterism” (or Lettrism), he prefers words (mostly nonsense words) over image and meaning. Accordingly, in film he seeks to replace the picture with speech, to end the cinematic dominance of photography, and tell a story primarily through the use of language without a coherent sequence of images accompanying it.
     The film, indeed, begins with an entirely black header (not so very difference from some Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s—even Funny Girl uses this device—to present what might be described as blank screen overture of voices repetitively evoking a few words of nonsense (again a reminder of the influences of both Italian and Russian
     The first part of this film, “The Principle” is primarily a recounting of Daniel’s ideas as expressed before a hostile audience of his peers, who toss back invectives, howl, and hoot has his “brilliant” new ideas. A sympathetic narrator, spoken by Robert Blin, occasionally interrupts Daniel’s declarations to comment and elucidate, but primarily it is Daniel (played by Isou) who speaks. At the same time the director displays a series of images of Daniel moving through Paris neighborhoods, mostly near St. Germain des Prés. The director-character walks through the streets, stopping several times to tie his shoes or to look directly into the face of the camera like a slightly pouting James Dean before moving off into space once more. There is little logic to the sequence of images, but the images themselves, of our “hero,” seem appropriate at least to the subject.
      At the same time, however, the language of the film argues for a separation of the two: “I want to destroy the picture by the speech.” As I write above, Daniel argues for the end of “photography,” and, in particular, the end of the cinema craftsmen. For him, art is raw, a bad or banal film more interesting that the most well-made document. Manifesto-like statements come fast and furious, as the provocateur claims he “wants to make a film that hurts your eyes,” and intends to “hack open a new road for Cinema.” Like Oscar Wilde, the young Daniel argues that art has little to do with social life: “The evolution of art has nothing to do with the revolution of society!” And, in the second section, he will explain his boredom of the French Communist Party, of which he was briefly a member.

     Many of his manifesto-like statements have little to do with the actual making of cinema, and most of his proclamations on centered upon a very romantic notion of “genius,” which, he seems to argue, never gets appreciated in its own time. The new, even more than in Pound’s early century proclamations, is always superior to the old, to craft. “There is no ‘worst’ in what is new.” Like the futurists the young Daniel argues “Everything that has existed is bad, else no one would have ‘improved upon it….’”

      The second part of the film “The Development” essentially is meant as a demonstration of his previous ideas. Here the images, generally stock clips about natives, sailing and sailor, skiers, and sportsmen seem almost to invoke the works of the Russian director Dziga Vertov, except the seemingly random images of a work such as Man with a Movie Camera do very much cohere as vibrant images of a city, while Isou’s-Daniel’s almost purposefully work against any narrative coherence. Of course, we cannot escape, in the manner of Surrealism and Freudian association in making occasional links between the spoken story and the images, but, generally, we must recognize that it is a fruitless attempt to link them up. And, as if to encourage our purposeful dissociation, many of the images are scratched, faces penned over, splotches of light whitening out parts of the images, and entire frames presented upside down and run backwards.

The story meanwhile, is an almost inanely romantic melodrama concerning the loves past and present of the hero. Beginning with an attractive Norwegian Daniel has encountered in a bar, Eve, who, when asked to dance has rejected him, the spoken tale is a rather insipid story about what an earlier lover has described as Daniel’s “skirt-chasing” behavior. Drawn to Eve for her beauty and aloofness—a pretense, he declares, that allows her to pretend she is in a movie—
 Daniel soon becomes disenchanted with her, while Eve, who at first declares she cannot possibly love a man with whom she disagrees, is quickly swept away by her love for him. Sated by his experiences, he recalls an earlier flame, Denise, and attempts to return to her, consuming her in his often sadistic behavior: “And she bore black and blue marks, like his rubber stamp jealous ownership.” “And he broke her, he tore her, to feel himself within her."
    A dinner with one of Denise’s male business friends, however, ends their relationship, as Daniel mocks the businessman, demanding Denise leave with him, and then refusing to exit the restaurant. Denise, finally fed up, leaves alone, and the after two days silence refuses to even recognize his existence when he calls.
     So Daniel returns to Eve, who dominates the final section of this film, “The Proof.” It is, perhaps, a bit unclear what the “proof” is in this rather incoherent section. It begins with a performance of lettriste poetry with two poems by François Dufresne: “March” and “I Question and I Inveigh,” which, so the narrator declares, reveal the “barbarity of the throat” as opposed  to what he describes as the “phony primitivism” of jazz, performed with “civilized and complicated” mechanical instruments. In fact, throughout Daniel often speaks in outrageous terms, arguing, at one point, for a return to slavery: “Man will never get used to not having other men do his bidding.” But during the reading, for the first time, the images shift to purely abstract figures and scratches in accordance with the sounds.
     Evidently Daniel’s film has also been shown at the event, for the next several frames—now, once again, with the attendant random smeared and scratched stock footage—consist of various figures proclaiming the filmmaker’s genius, with even Eve perceiving how Daniel, despite the fact that others before have sought to destroy the image, her lover is the first “to understand this destruction.”
     As in several previous scenes, wherein the young director has plopped major figures such as Blaise Cedrars and others into his narrative, he soon displays himself lunching with Jean Cocteau, making an analogy between his film and Cocteau’s The Blood of the Poet.
     If Eve has seemingly come to terms with Daniel’s art, however, he now seeks to get rid of her, and demands she leave. She begs him to simply stay the night, but soon realizes that her pleas will have no effect his narcissistic belief that women are only to be enjoyed and, once the male is satiated, left behind. And the final passages of the film, proper, detail Eve’s sad decline into madness, until one day she is observed being taken away the police for deportment back to Norway.


      Ever the egoist, Daniel is surprised to meet another man with whom, evidentially, Eve has had a sexual relationship after she has left him.
      The last several frames, a kind of postlude, demands that the viewer recognize that “we are always twenty years too late” in recognizing genius, and demanding the viewer answer the simple question: “Ask yourself on the way out whether or not this film possesses at least the value of a gangster film or a love story – or any ‘realistic’ film which critics consider acceptable.” Depending upon your acceptance of Daniel’s (Isou’s) inarguable logic, you will either have to deny or admit his presumption. I’d be willing to say, yes, this is more interesting, in some ways, than The Public Enemy or Little Ceasar. But clearly most people would not agree with him, and when the film was screened at the Cannes Festival in 1951, it was met with a total riot, with fire hoses being used to control the audience. It’s hard to imagine such passion and vehemence about any art these days.
     On the other hand, the film did not become, as Isou seemed to argue it would, a kernel from might grow numerous other of his films. Although he remained an influential figure in France, influencing Guy Debord and others who later called themselves Situationists and even, on occasion directors of The New Wave, Isou’s primarily influences were on American experimental fimmakers—who created far superior visual works—such as Stan Brakage and Gregory Markopoulos. Isou himself died in poverty and ill-health in 2007.
     Looking back today, Treatise on Venom and Eternity, appears at times as an almost naive—if monstrously ego-driven—document. Most of its braggadocio and chest-thumping rhetoric today seems embarrassing, and its narrative is outrageously male-centric and patriarchal to say the least. One has to wonder, as film commentator J. J. Murphy suggests, whether such nonsense was simply a product of “male narcissism” and “youthful hubris” whether its statements were deliberately provocative, or were simply racist and sexist. Murphy concludes, and I concede, “Whatever its problems, there simply aren’t many films like it out there, never mind at the multiplexes.”

Los Angles, July 11, 2015

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