OF THE VISIBLE
WITH THE FILMS OF ETANT DONNÉS
BEFORE BEING REGARDED as masterpieces
of experimental film-making, the films by ETANT DONNÉS followed minute circuits, underground shortcuts,
routes as fragile as themselves (8mm original copies, at the mercy of
a defective projector or a damaged splice, and whose every projection
As I was making preparations for a programme devoted to the film-maker
and composer André Almuro, I would spend long hours discovering
his haptic films on sensual pleasure. After a few projection evenings,
Almuro wished to show me other pictures that, he said, I would be interested
in. Royaume: wonderful thing. Thanks to Nicole Brenez
and the Jeune, dure et pure ! retrospective, A history of experimental
and avant-garde film-making in France, that she was organising at the
Cinémathèque Française, and from then on the films
by ETANT DONNÉS would crackle
in avant-garde cinemas.
To describe the events spreading out in Aurore,
in Royaume and in Bleu, suitable tools
still have to be found ; up until now, nothing much has been said or
done about a cinema that quite specifically deals with picture as a
sensation. Then one can always attempt, as plainly as possible, to draw
a few lines, trying to single out a few dimensions, a few questions,
a few perspectives that run through these films and relate them to the
history of pictures and cinema.
First of all, the interest that the Hurtado brothers have shown in Brion
perception devices that fully belong in film-making and feature a few
crossing-points with their own films. By re-inventing the zootrope as
the technical and perceptive origin of cinema, Gysin
places light at the heart of the device and deals with it as with
the sentient matter of abstraction (no figurative pictures, and the
creation of a movement, like in original zootropes, but with light-and-shade
connections, and the creation of hallucination as abstract perception).
Perception only, with the work as its way, away from any kind of fetishism
of the object: to achieve their function (creating hallucination and
colour through the flickering of light), the Dreamachines(2)
have to disappear. Designed to be perceived with closed eyes, Gysin'
s machines defy a certain arder of the visible, to offer a work on pure
Light, colour, abstraction, perception, hallucination: a few concerns
closely akin to those of ETANT DONNÉS
which, however, do not amount to them. The most fruitful feature of
such closeness lies in the tension of the many differences, and mainly,
for ETANT DONNÉS, the
issue of the primacy of the visible and the real, which does not exclude
the pursuit of sensation. Gysin' s device actually differs from the
main features of their work on the visible and what it consists of:
in its figurative dimensions, the affect, matter and the processing
of ecstasy, and formally, superimposition, slow motion and the image-sound
relation, that is to say their strong and radical propositions, as regards
the powers peculiar to cinema.
THE EPIPHANY OF THE VISIBLE
IN A RELIGIOUS, MYSTICAL PERSPECTIVE,
or more generally, in a perpective related to the sacred in one way
or another, the legitimacy of a picture is never self-evident. The issue
of the visibility of the sacred algo runs through the films of ETANT DONNÉS, leading the creative gesture and pointing out
the functions and powers given to image.
One of the most fruitful debates about image thus originales in this
question and takes place in Byzantium, in the VIIth
and IXth centuries: in the Dispute over images,
which brought iconoclasts and iconophiles into conflict, a paradigm
is perpetuated, some features of which still circulate through the films
by ETANT DONNÉS.
Iconoclasm denies image any legitimacy, that is to say any ontological
value, owing to the lack of consubstantiality between the icon (the
image) and the archetype (the divine). Image
consists of a fallen form, incapable of rising to the intelligible,
and iconoclasm, arguing over the ontological transparency of image,
as opposed to the ontological plenitude of idea, takes up the platonic
arguments over image as a delusion. To stand up for image, iconophiles
resort to very concrete propositions. In The Apologetic Speech
against those who abolish holy pictures, John Damascenus takes
an inventory of the properties, both figurative and speculative, of
image, through successive questions, such as "In compliance with
what is there image ?":
"Any image detects what is hidden and makes it manifest.
Consider an example: since man has no naked knowledge of the invisible,
the soul being concealed by the body, nor of those things that will
occur after him, of things remate or distant in space and time, image
has been designed as a guide for knowledge, as the manifestation and
the revelation of hidden things, entirely devoted to the useful and
the beneficial, and dedicated to salvation, so that, among all the things
exhibited in public, we could detect what remains concealed, and wish
to strive towards good and, on the contrary, we could turn our backs
on evil with loathing. "
The ethical issue never circulates through the films
of ETANT DONNÉS. If it still
informs contemporary film-making, it is rather in Abel Ferrara's films,
such as Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction,
which revive quite classical issues related to theodicy (if
God exists, then how can evil be too ?) or ethics (evil
as the original impulse and definition of the human).
In ETANT DONNÉS' films, image
possesses functions identical with those suggested by Damascenus: the
identity of vision and knowledge (which Serge Daney used to call the
beautiful name of photology) gives image a function
which is both that of an epiphany ("Any image detects what
is hidden and makes it manifest. ") and speculative ("image
has been designed as a guide for knowledge").
Thus the iconophile apology does not place the debate on the consistency,
but on the powers of image. The pure surface of image is not denied,
and a substance stems from it, which is not separated from the world
but is integral to it. Image then líes at the very heart of creation:
according to Damascenus, God is indeed the first to produce images (the
Son is the image of the Father, and the whole creation can be looked
upon as a device of mirrors between which no ontological loss occurs).
Radically legitimised in its relation to the sacred, image is never
meant to be a simple copy but a creation: to "be mude manifest",
the visible must be dealt with in its plastic progress.
To ETANT DONNÉS as well as to
Damascenus, transparency is no inconsistency, and image as a surface
is no debasement compared to the world, but it features specific, material
and luminous assets.
THE AFFECT AS MATTER AND LIGHT
WHEN INTRODUCING Bleu
at the Cinémathèque française, Eric and Marc Hurtado
insistently placed the emphasis on the notion of love,
which is at the root of their artistic stance. In Aurore,
Royaume and Bleu, the affect is processed
as matter and light, always related to sensation. To rige to pure sensation,
image itself must be made tactile. The hand crumbling lumps of earth
or sinking into snow, the finger trying to touch the sun reduced to
a simple spot of light are part of these programmatic pictures which
point out the pure sensory relation to nature that develops in the films
through sumptuous interlace patterns. Within visual tactility, sensation
is not limited to one particular sense, but defies the usual organisation,
of senses. Tactile image, which "puts a hand inside our
eye", as Deleuze
wrote referring to Bacon, constantly invents a new sensory organisation,
striving after a "phenomenological unity of all senses".
For ETANT DONNÉS, tactility
is achieved through the description of materials (grass, earth, water,
snow...), and constantly resorts to superimposition, slow motion and
sound to invent new textures.
The visual material is inseparable from its luminous existente, which
most of the time is provided by the sun, omnipresent in Aurore,
inceasingly present in Bleu, until it becomes a double
image through superimposition in pictures of pure summer heat. The image
of the sun reflected in the water is at the root of any description
in Royaume, and its image circulates through the cutting
with constant variations. Light of the sun over the world, light that
acts on the film, light of the projector that re-creates the visibility
of the movement of the pictures: thanks to the visual powers of light,
the films by ETANT DONNÉS
tend towards a general conflagration of phenomena.
This work on liquid textures relates ETANT DONNÉS
to a long tradition of French avant-garde film-making, whose most prominent
representative is probably Jean Epstein and which also includes Renoir
(Partie de campagne), Vigo (L'Atalante et Taris
roi de l'eau), as well as Duras (Aurélia Steiner)
Grandieux today. The brightness of liquid textures always formalises
some affect: thus, in L'Or des mers by Epstein, their
opacity gives concrete form to the work on economic, social, family
and affective destitution, whereas the twinkling of Finis Terrae
makes the violent affects of love and friendship directly plastic.
ETANT DONNÉS' films are
closely related to Sombre
by Philippe Grandrieux, which revives work on light, its fundamental
opacity and its twinkling, to represent the impulse. In the sequenee
by the lake in Sombre, desire is described as a luminous
liquid material: shot against the sunlight, the figure of Jean (Marc
Barbé) stands out against the abstract image of reflections on
the water, becoming pure light-texture connections. A total transparency
and an irresistible flow, which sink deep into opacity and into nature's
resistance after the rape sequence: then the nature of the impulse can
change so that it becomes, through soft-focus fuzziness, a heat wave
representing a death's-head.
THE FUNCTIONS OF SUPERIMPOSITION
TOGETHER WITH SOUND AND SLOW MOTION,
superimposition is one of the three components of the formal device
in the films by ETANT DONNÉS.
It always calls upon a third term : the use of filters of different
colours for each printing creates original colouring patterns, which
indicates that superimposition works neither as an addition nor as a
substraction, but as the vector of a third image, that cannot be reduced
to a literal recording.
Superimposition does not affect image only: within the image-sound connection,
it finds a new element. Sound is not used as a dimension independent
from or simply parallel to image: it offers a new surface that is superimposed
on the pictures, another state, a sonorous state, of transparency. Several
dimensions focus in the creation of sound: music, since first and foremost
the Hurtado brothers are musicians, the processing of nature's tones
(rustling, birds' singing, wasps' buzzing...) and poetry. Thus sound
allows the tactility and plasticity of image to be extended: for instance,
at the beginning of Bleu, the emergence of the word
"soleil", that takes shape through the alternate
reading of the repetition of "sol" and of
the redtation of its letters (s ;o
;l ; etc), indicates that sound is worth its while
at least as much through its rhythms and its plastic values as through
the meaning it bears (which is conveyed by the very high sound volume
of the films and the work on the strength of murmur, extending the work
on sound as a material and sensation). As a result, even when there
is only one picture (which is rarely the case in ETANT DONNÉS' films), the connection between image and sound
helps indicate that there is already, here, a superimposition, both
acoustic and visual.
In its various variations, superimposition holds several functions:
-Precipitating perceptions. Not congealing them, but releasing their
progress in a constant mobility. The lave affect is then conceived as
a superimposition of states of consciousness.
-Producing the harmonious reunification of opposites (for instance,
water and fire).
-Creating heteromorphic bodies, like the hand made of branches in Bleu
or the liquid reeds in Royaume.
-Then, when describing them, seizing phenomena in a single progress,
a single movement, a single flow, a single unreeling, that of the film;
searching for a unique substance, that runs through all phenomena, in
nature and consciousness.
-Conveying the whole of the visible, putting everything in the shot;
superimposition permits the possibility of an off-screen visibility,
of another side of the visible or of an invisible to be annihilated
; image is then endowed with absolute powers.
-Creating the presence. Superimposition strays here from its conventional
effect of dissolution - the 17 superimpositions in Gance's Napoléon,
for instance, embody the panic and chaos of the wrecking and allow the
figure of the hero to be dissolved in the event - and of creation of
the ghost - in Dreyer's Vampyr, any representation is doomed to an ineluctable
ghostly progress -. Superimposition as a presence, as suggested by ETANT DONNÉS, stays within the issue of the revelation of
the visible raised by Damascenus, and within a fundamental concern that
finds its poetic expression at the end of Bleu:
"Present, the daffodils, spring bells and the heavy horns that
cut the sky into tiny marbles ; Present, the trace of a thousand burns
under your shaven stubble ;
Present, the flame that disturbs your eyes ;
Present, the mud under the horseshoe so as not to fly away".
So ETANT DONNÉS
films are related to those of the "Underground français"
wave of the 70s (Ahmet Kut, Jean - Pierre Bouyxou, and chiefly Etienne
O'Leary), as well as those by Pierre Clémenti, such as Visa
de censure nºX, a cinema of political and affective utopía,
which resorts to superimposition in the same way, through the creation
of a flow that carries away all phenomena, and is also the flow of states
PSYCHIC AND HYPNOTIC POWERS OF IMAGE
IN AN ATTEMPT TO SEARCH for
the fundamental unity of things, ETANT DONNÉS'
films strive to go beyond all dualisms, human versus divine, man versus
nature, body versus mind, matter versus psyche.
Like many other masterpieces of contemporary film-making (Lost
Highway by David Lynch, Abel Ferrara' s The Blackout,
The Blade by Tsui Hark), ETANT DONNÉS' films work on the eminently concrete nature
A major occurrence of the importance of images in the functioning
of psyche can be found in Le Syndrôme de Stendhal
by Dario Argento. While visiting the Uffizi in Florence, Stendhal comes
over faint and thinks he can hear the motifs of the paintings. In the
sequence about Rembrandt' s The Night Watch, Argento
takes up this image-hypnosis pattern and describes psyche as a film-making
process. It is sound that first draws attention to image ; then the
heroine covers Rembrandt's painting with a white veil, that is a projector
screen which annihilates the perception device of the painting ; and
then, after the unveiling of the image, the appearance of movement through
still-frame/moving-picture link-shots that evoke the character's recol1ections.
A screen, sound, movement: by describing psyche as a film-making process,
Le Syndrôme de Stendhal echoes with Bergson's
intuition in L'Evolution créatrice who, even
though he sees the analogy of cinema and thought as a debasement, sets
up for the first time the connections between cinema as a device, image
In the films by ETANT DONNÉS,
the mental dimension of the pictures is also based on the revival of
the figure of Narcissus. Mythical motifs keep popping up in avant-garde
cinema, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, and also resort to slow motion.
The famous Pink Narcissus by James Bidgood, long-attributed
to Kenneth Anger, features (though in an utterly factitous way) the
material and sensory concerns of the body and its environment, and sometimes
even amazing superimpositions of gestures (in Bidgood's film as well
as in Aurore, Narcissus crumbles lumps of earth and
collects only semen in the palm of his hand). Maria Klonaris' Selva
(with Katerina Thomadaki, a pioneer of extended cinema and instigator
of the "corporal cinema" wave) echo es with
the figure of the nymph in nature, so as to revive, through witchcraft,
a magical connection with the world:
it features the narcissistic motif
of the mirror placed on a bed of leaves, a work on sensation that ends
with a superimposition sequence which engulfs Selva in the material
of the forest. Like Salomé by Téo Fernandez,
an abstract repeat of the myth through textures of fabrics and jewels
that stand out against a black background, like Raymonde Carasco' s
Gradiva, a serial study of walking, these great revivals
of the myth are related to one another by the use of slow motion. In
these films as well as in those by ETANT DONNÉS,
slow motion is never meant as resorting to the stillness of image, as
a regression of cinema towards its photographic origins. Slow motion
never plays against cinema; on the contrary: it enables an asset peculiar
to cinema, that falls within the province of hypnosis to be developed.
Thus there is no difference left between spirit and matter, between
the perceived and the seen, between psyche and body, between sensation
and thought: everything is kneaded from the same substance, which can
be considered to be either space or thought. That is why the films of
ETANT DONNÉS are closely related
to the thought of Spinoza, and may be looked upon as a Spinozan achievement
of film-making: the idea of a total immanence of the divine within phenomena,
the search for perfection within the real (no transcendency, besides,
no beyond), a single substance for all phenomena, which justifies the
most heteromorphic figurative propositions, the identity of spirit and
matter, of God and nature, focus in the very notion of nature, including
all existing phenomena, and governed by a repertoire of speeds ranging
from the impalpable to searing intensity.
THE CREATION OF ECSTASY
ECSTASY may be one the big stakes
of ETANT DONNÉS cinema.
Coming out of oneself, mystically, but affectively and physically too,
is defined in one verse in Bleu: "Straight is
the line from the heart to the star". Aurore suggests
the most explicit images about ecstasy: in the camera-eye, mystical
dread stands the fear of direct confrontation, of too heavy an emotional
burden. Above all, Aurore shows the connection of ecstasy
with light: in the last ecstasy of the film, the head is shot against
the sunlight in soft-focus, the sun behind it, then light devours the
image, which becomes totally white. So ecstasy as a devouring process
through light requires a general bedazzlement.
In films, ecstasy often constitutes a climax ; in the fims by ETANT
DONNÉS, it rather takes place within the continuity,
in a continuum of sensation which brings it closer to beatitude.
When defned as the connection of the intimate with the cosmic, it defies
natural scales (the monumentality of the human body swept away by the
smallness of the natural) to produce the surge of consciousness towards
Cinema has enabled the figures of ecstasy to be renewed: now the saint
and Narcissus rub shoulders with the dancer (the films by Jean Rouch)
, the vampire (Satan bouche un coin, by Jean-Pierre
Bouyxou, or Lacrima, by Stéphane du Mesnildot) and the drug-addict
(Philippe Garrel's L'Enfant secret, Ferrara).
Ixe by Lionel Soukaz, both an autobiographical essay
and a political leaflet, utterly violent, constitutes a radical off-screen
variation of ETANT DONNÉS'
films. And yet, in the pursuit of ecstasy though drugs, the film calls
upon the same solutions: ecstasy as the connection with the cosmic (the
cosmic as an imagery: galaxies and planets "re-filmed" on
television) , slow motion (of sound, this time, establishing two different
speeds of consciousness), ecstasy as a seriality and the camera-eye.
Here, ecstasy is no plenitude, but some substraction, that gets renewed
strength from its own pursuit as a political resistance to the horror
of the world. (In the same way, hallucination can also contribute to
a political critic. In 1970, as part of the situationist wave and under
the aegis of William Burroughs, Jean-Jacques
Lebel published a "disposable leaflet-magazine" that both
dealt with LSD and criticised market society, and whose name was in
itself a real programme: L'internationale Hallucinex).
The pursuit of ecstasy prompts film-making to produce its biggest formal
treatises. In Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable
by Ronald Nameth, a film-making achievement on dance (that of Gérard
Malanga) , all the formal resources of film-making are being harnessed:
abstraction and figuration, superimposition and flickering, black and
white versus colour, positive and negative, different speeds for different
images or within one single image, function of light and colour... Like
this summit of film-making, the films by ETANT
DONNÉS remind us that ecstasy is not a passive
state imposed on us, but an action, and that cinema does not amount
to its recording or reproduction. Film-making, its visual powers added
to its sonorous properties, are in a position to create ecstasy.