Venom and Eternity

Description: 
Devaux Frédérique – Le Cinéma lettriste (1951-1991)

1992, Frédérique Devaux

Editions Paris expérimental, Paris, 1992, 320 p.

Chapter 4

THE CAREER OF THE TREATY IN 1951-1952

I) The Cannes Film Festival.

(…) p.55

Isou has not finish Venom and Identity. However, he decided to have his work known and present it as is, that is to say as a "work in progress." For him, an unfinished work by James Joyce is, in any case, more important than a finished production by so-and-so. He will write after the screening of his film "I thought the festival could receive the smile of the unprecedented disruption. I always thought that a new manifesto is worth more than a perfect artwork because the manifesto shows how future works are created, and the perfect artworks end with themselves." (Combat, April 26, 1951). Actually, the avant-garde, according to Isou, never stops creating.

(…) p. 57: unrest in the room

Everything gets complicated as early as chapter two. Stirs shake the more and more excited and annoyed public. Is this a joke, a prank? The room is now plunged into full darkness, there are no longer any images on the screen, - Isou having only had time to finish the editing of the first part -: we only hear the voices in the speakers.

The scandal bursts. In the room just lit, a specialist of cinema for children (Sonica Bo) slaps Isou. Although strongly supported by his comrades, the author cannot explain himself because the anger of the spectators (among whom was René Clément) is too strong. Cocteau does not dare say anything, although Isou believes for a moment that the creator of Orpheus is going to support him. Crestfallen, the artist accepts temporarily this failure and waits until April 26 to answer in Combat to this public affront 1.

(…) p. 57: opinion of Cocteau

Isou pretends, if I am not mistaken, to make a clean sweep. That sweep should be strong enough to clear the premises (…) Isou calls people imbeciles because they do not see what he is not showing. He could only call them imbeciles if they were not seeing what he shows them. (Was it film that had been wrecked on purpose?) 2.

(…) p.58: The award

Awaiting for minds to cool down, Venom received the Prix des Spectateurs d'avant-garde 1951 (Award of the Avant-Garde Spectators 1951) and another Award on the fringe of the Cannes Film Festival given by Cocteau, Malaparte and their jury accomplices.

(…) p.58 : on the unrest in the room

The event nourishes cutting pens relating the facts one after the other, most often amplifying them. According to Nice-Matin who never forgets the "Pope of Lettrism": "Jean Cocteau, Malaparte and many personalities were present (on the morning of April 20, F.D.) and we immediately realized that this gang was a big joke and that its author had really been a master in "hoaxes" and by having so many people come and leading such a scandal in the last few days around this work of art that was, supposedly to revolutionize cinematographic art. After a few images of Saint-Germain-des-Prés where we can see our lettrists walk around and affirm that they are the new Gods of literature and of all the arts, the screen remains white, the camera's lamp switches off and as Isou says, the door opens, that is to say that no more images are presented to the viewers, while the ears are deafened by a concert of clamors, shouts and speeches. Incidents marked the end of these 5 200 meters of film and Miss Sonica Bo even gave, so it is said, a couple of slaps in the face of Isidore Isou. The literary personalities present seemed a bit uncomfortable and only Malaparte remained impassive, not seeming to know very well what to do." 3.

(…) p.64 : Article by Rohmer

Les Cahiers du cinéma, who are going to celebrate their first anniversary in April 1952, are interested, among other things in the n° 10 (March 1952) in research, in cinema. In a file entitled Opinions sur l'avant-garde (Opinion on Avant-Garde) 4, Maurice Schérer (alias Eric Rohmer, presenter, at the time, at the Ciné-Club of the Latin quarter of François Frœschel) devoted a long article to Isou ou les choses telles qu'elles sont (Isou, Or Things as They Are). May praise be given to the one holding the pen. It is the first time that a critic passes the stage of scratching to open to analysis – even with a small scalpel. In this text "between escape and reason," fairly abundantly illustrated, it seems obvious that Maurice Schérer-Rohmer knows quite well what and those about whom he talks to dare a few objections and thoughts: he conceives right away the lettrist group as a "literary movement" having "the pretentiousness to place itself (…) on the 'left' of surrealism;" the latter thus deserves "consideration" despite its "defeatism." Between the lines of Isou's writings and appearances, Rohmer believes he perceives in the artist the "ambition (…) to carve, in a final burst, a place, be it modest, on the last page of literature textbooks."

In Schérer then the moral character – will we dare say "moralizing" and the aesthete are opposing: the author is both attracted to and revolted by those who, a few years before, held "stormy" conferences in the Salle de Géographie and to those of the Sociétés Savantes 5 ; this group, this lettrist gang, reminds him of a "Fascist shock group" but nonetheless seduces the aesthete, the art appreciator wondering about the avant-gardists. "This idea of a probable death of Art, no matter how much modesty one may have to express it, is however, far from being foreign to a number of musicians or painters, - they only need to be forced to the wall to discover that it is used as a substrate to non-figurative or atonality theories…" (Paul Klee seems like a good example to him) ; "at the stage where our poetry is, I do not consider the reading – or hearing- of his works of art (Isou's, F.D.) as a more unpleasant chore than those of many contemporary anthologies," so he writes after having declared a few lines before that "it is not the few poems published or recited by the lettrists that provide (…) a denial" to the idea that "to dare destroy, one must know how to build in a positive manner." The "scandalous publicity" bothers him all the more so as "no one (…) shall deny that our lettrism be a pure idea of the mind born out of a perfectly arbitrary induction ." 6.

Schérer-Rohmer is grateful to Isou and his group for "soothing him out of this anarcho-moralizing tone in which our friends take much delight;" he actually perceives in Venom "a total departure from this anti-bourgeois and negating mind that was that of all our literature between the wars, from Breton to Artaud even Drieu la Rochelle or Montherlant."

Despite it all, the journalist declares the director's reflection "fairly conservative." "One feels implicitly, in this film beyond the provocative variety of the tone, the respectful desire to request things as they are, as a worry that everything having been destroyed or questioned nothing would remain in art that made its substance. Who make the resolution to knock down everything that may support others, one can conceive that there are no worries more pressing than discovering in turn what he may hold onto. And here is our revolutionary, thrown by the very authority of his intention, into a fairly conservative reflection. Maybe the author was betrayed by the strange instrument he has just carelessly chosen to polish the scaffolding of his theories."

Rohmer is, at the time, the only one who understood that Isou's process has nothing to do with that of a Fischinger, a McLaren, a Buñuel or an Anger and even less with that of the "literary cinema" for which Cocteau would be a illustration.

The journalist shows a perspicacity honoring him, all the more so as he is the first to then understand the finality of Isou's work despite some reluctance: "Isou (…) shows a certain cinematographic sensibility and (…) contrary to the avant-gardist of 1930 who were trying to turn the film into the practice field of their pictorial, musical or literary theories, the problems he intends to solve are of a specifically cinematographic nature."

Schérer-Rohmer does certainly not share Isou's "radical pessimism" when he formulates the end of the "amplic" phase and the birth of the "chiseling" period, but he agrees with the idea that the technical discoveries ( mise-en-scène techniques, he specifies) are not what will be of much help to make cinema evolve; he confesses that "there is not one gesture of the human being, one expression of the face that we could not discover in the archives of our art photographed numerous times." Furthermore, it is not "in the art (…) of photographing that some innovations, as Isou very rightly says, could be made."

Finally, the aesthetician was seduced by the fact that Isou, according to him, opposes "to the emphasis of his text indifferent images," well chosen, "awkward shots" from where springs "the feeling of a presence, presence of the actors, that no one deigns show us at any time, or evoke them, the presence of a thought behind this face of the author, no doubt complacently spread, but under its most modestly inexpressive appearance."

The conclusion obviously falls under the form of a confession: "Finally, I believe it is my duty to say that this first chapter where we are shown Isou strolling on the Boulevard Saint-Germain 'caught' me a thousand times more than the best of the non commercial films I was ever given to see."

This text sums up out loud what other think quietly: it is indeed Isou's personality that bothers, the provocative way of the young "externals" around him that bother, despite the non negligible originality of their works and their ideas. This critic, overcoming his bad mood, was the first to try to replace the Isoutian process based on the research coming from other avant-garde or contemporary research movements.

***

Apart form a review published in the n°4 of the magazine Cinéma 52 7, the text by Rohmer puts to rest the controversy that has been surrounding Venom for a year. In France, the curtain comes down, for a long time, on this piece. 8.

1 - Rectification à propos d'un film by Jean-Isidore Isou in Combat of April 26, 1951. Isou has a hard time surpassing his deception by clearly explaining his contribution in the art of film.

2 – Under the title Affaire isou (April 1951, on the fringe of the Cannes festival). This letter is reproduced in Entretiens sur le cinématographe, Jean Cocteau, Ed. Belfond, 1973, pp. 89-90.

3 - Nice-Matin, Saturday April 21, 1951.

4 - Cahiers du cinéma, n°10, March 1952.

5 - Rohmer refers to a group of lettrist events from 1946, where this group attempted at making itself known, with strength and conviction, its ideas and more specifically its poetry. The authors did not spare scandals of any kind, among which, Michel Leiris was the victim of such interventions, in the room of the Vieux Colombier in 1946.

6 – All the quotes are contained in pages 27 to 32 of the Cahiers du cinéma, op. cit.

7 - Cinéma 52 n°4, April 1952. A so-called Dr. Philm simply recalls Isou's aesthetic intentions.

8 – While in the United States a copy has been circulating for many years, in France, one will have to wait until the threshold of the 80s for the work to be regularly re-released on the screen and some lines are written about it. As early as 1952, Frank Stauffacher presents Venom at the San Francisco Museum of Art in its yearly screenings of experimental cinema. " Art in Cinema." Stan Brakhage, who remembers this screening, talks about Venom as "one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. (…) Isou tips the images over, arbitrarily scrapes them and does the best he can imagine to destroy the filmic image." Speaking about another film (The End by Christopher MacLaine) and about Isou's Venom, Brakhage writes that the two works are "like two pillars of a same gate which any cinema-artist must pass some day." (Film at Wit's End, Edimbourg, Polygon, 1989, p. 115). Thank you to Christian Lebrat for providing me with this information.
1951, Cannes Festival: Isou and the lettrists - Marc'O, Gil Wolman, Jean-Louis Brau, Maurice Lemaitre and François Dufrêne land on the Croisette with the firm intention to have the first lettrist film screened: Venom and Eternity, directed by Isou.

With this film, Isou invents two concepts; "the discrepant editing" with the principal of treating separately sounds and image so there is no longer any significant connection, and "chiseling" consisting in intervening on the image by scraping or painting directly on the film. The sound column contains improvisations by lettrist chorus, the tale of a love story and a manifest for a new cinema. The visual column consists in images of Isou walking along the boulevard Saint-Germain, fragments of military films, a Communist Party sports meeting, black and white screens.

After several strong-armed attempts, Venom is finally shown on the fringe of the festival and for free at the cinema Le Vox on April 20.

In the room, Guy Debord then a high school student, attends the screening that will be interrupted before the end because of the audience's indignation. The film has not been completed than, only the images of the first part and edited and the continuation is only acoustic. Immediately seduced by the subversive characteristic of the film and the screening, he goes meet the lettrists. Understanding is immediate and he decides to join them in Paris. Before leaving Cannes he however passes his baccalaureate.
Creator: 
Isidore Isou
Performer: 
Isidore Isou
Witness: 
MarcʼO
Gil J. Wolman
François Dufrêne
Jean-Louis Brau
Maurice Lemaître
Guy Debord
Bibliographical sources: 
DEVAUX Frédérique, Chapitre 4. La carrière du traité en 1951-1952, pp.55-67.
DEVAUX Frédérique, Chapitre 7. L'année 1952, p.127-135.
in DEVAUX Frédérique, Le cinéma lettriste (1951-1991), Paris, Editions Paris Expérimental, 1992, 320p.

DEBORD Guy, DEBORD Alice, RANÇON Jean-Louis, pp. 42-43.
in DEBORD Guy, DEBORD Alice, KAUFMANN Vincent, RANÇON Jean-Louis, Guy Debord, Œuvres, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 2006, 1904 p.
Producer: 
Isidore Isou
Theoretical background: 
Extract of the transcript of an interview between Jean Daive and Marc Guillaumin, aka. Marc'O, aired on France culture (Nuits magnétiques), in the scope of the series of shown produced by Jean Daive : "l'Internationale Situationiste," in May 1996, published in Debord Guy, éd. Centre international de poésie Marseille, March 2006, 39 pages.

J.D. : So, how did he react to the screening of the film by Isidore Isou : Venom and Eternity ?

M. : Well, he was, he was… I mean. What to say? He immediately supported. There were very few people supporting back then, but he immediately supported, but him, he immediately supported. He was, he was there. That is to say he joined the lettrist movement is a way. Like that: supported the movement there was at the time. Well, it was the movement… Me, I never belonged to the lettrist movement, except that I was with them. Well, in the way that I did not do a lot: I was preoccupied with something else. But to the ideas. It was a certain type of ideas that were there, that united a certain number of people, who are in the review [it is the review Ion, Ed.]. And so he supported the ideas of this group. How can I say it? It is not even to the ideas, because these ideas were to be made, but to the project this group had. To this vision of the society that this group…

JD.: And this project, briefly, how did he sum it up?

M.: Ah! But he wouldn't sum it up like that. He wanted to do that. You know, when you are – he was eighteen, what, nineteen years old – when you are eighteen or nineteen years old, you think, it's a life choice, right. His father was a notary I think. So he really wanted him to have a career and he, well, he had already well decided, probably had for a while, since the age of fourteen-fifteen – that he would do literature, politics. Well, in this type of world, there. He was not going to wedge into a career such as, at the time… J

D.: How did you read this text: Howls for Sade?

M.: You mean… if I liked it? Yes... I thought it was very good. I said yes yes, this, very well: we are going to publish it. We are going to be… I saw him write it I mean: he was there. We would see each other every day, then he came to join in Paris, and well, so… We would talk and talk. As for me, I wrote the last text, there. I forgot what's called – you know, you are talking about things that are almost forty-five years old – that's called Première manifestation d'un Cinéma Nucléaire (Frist Demonstration of a Nuclear Cinema). And he was writing that. And we communicated our mutual projects, like that? He was… I'm telling you: he was still, he arrived… I mean: the following year, he arrived in Paris. And thus there… There too, actually, I found a letter – it was very very funny like that, now – where he asks me, like that… He had come to see me, and he had seen Isou, and then… For a room. He had found a room.

JD.: And you have this letter at hand?

M.: Wait, I don't know… Here. But I have other documents. (He opens the letter.) It's September 23. He had passed his high school diploma, so. (he reads) "I found your letter, late, upon my return from a short trip in Paris and its near surroundings, for reasons all made of venom." Of course, he refers to Venom and Eternity. "I could not really see you on Friday morning in your hotel but I met with Isou. I see what the situation is. If you succeeded I would help you to release the film, it is actually a job I do not dislike. Those poor morons will have to end up accepting and without keeping us waiting. We saw some cinema managers be bumped off for less." (Laughs.) "In this God and in general any creator forsaken city, I did what you asked me before I left…" He talks about Cannes here (laughing): "With five colleagues, I quite bothered the screening of the young (inaudible)…" I don't know, well: it was a kid, who was making films there, and that they couldn't stand, in Cannes. "Happy consequence: for the first time in his career still short, the idiot did not receive his usual award in a festival of thick stupidity. Furthermore, I laid the bases of the cine-club you wanted; and already its first director was shown the door." (Laughs.) This, I like very much: he has not even started. So after we can see well, as we sat… These are things that… J

D.: He already got it all.

M.: Well, yes. So, you see, that's the way it happened. He arrived in Paris. – No, what is quite funny, is that he had spoken to Isou and that he asks… And thus it's something very… - I like things like this. (He continues the reading) "Isou mentioned a possible room for 9000 Francs" it was thus 90 francs, at the time. "Isou mentioned a possible room for 9000 Francs. If such a room exists, can you ask him to save it for me for the month of October?" and thus, that's where he was getting. "Letter endings should be revolutionized." (Laughs) "Regards to Poucette and of course to Isou." (laughs)

JD.: This was in which year? M.: Ah this, it's 50. The 50s, the 50s.

JD.: There is mainly in life, and also in the letter you just read, a lot of violence – juvenile – but violence none the less.

M.: That's why. I was telling you this to already see this violence, that he always expressed…

JD.: And for example, under which form?

M.: Oh ! It was a verbal violence most of the time. Except that he went…

JD. : There is the verb "bump off" there though…

M.: Yes but "bump off," I mean, it was in the surrealist meaning of the term. He liked surrealists a lot. A lot, a lot. Lettrism arrived later. But he has… It was someone who was shaped, well, like that, by reading the surrealists. Actually, it was literature… Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Well, the whole channel like this, that was going all the way back to him, that yes. He actually could write, very, very, very well. He had a sharp pen, we were fearing. He liked nothing more than letters… He was in total admiration of the telling off letter Breton was sending: he liked that enormously. With excessively radical positions, decisive, he defended. And himself, actually, was quite a loner. And I was telling you, he always cleared the way around him. (Laughs) He was actually… a bit like Breton: he was sweeping clean. Exclusions went well with him. Well, I have nothing… I think it's very good.
Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces – A secret history of the twentieth century

translated from English by Guillaume Godard

1989, Marcus Greil

Editions Allia, Paris, 1998

p. 398 – THE ATTACK ON CHARLIE CHAPLIN

(…)

The imperatives of the minimum and the maximum naturally led Isou and his group from the altars of their austere Parisian meeting rooms to the fleshpots of Babylon – to the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where they disrupted one gathering after another in a crusade to get Isou's movie shown. When the attempt was first made, Isou did not show himself.

The act of creation made one god: Isou, it was announced, made his film in six days, and thus on the seventh day, purportedly the day the lettrists presented the work, he rested. Isou settled for dedicating his work to the master of classis film (D.W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim, Abel Gance, etc.), thus placing himself in their company.

Soon enough, the lettrists caused enough trouble to win Isou a screening – restricted, at the last minute, to an audition of his soundtrack. The Combat critic was aghast, though he allowed that 'between Eve and Isidore there is still a place for true cinema" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All about Eve won the Cannes Special Jury Prize). Critic Maurice Schérer (later better known as director Éric Rohmer) rallied with a rather apologetic defense in Cahiers du cinéma, which caused even a young Jean-Luc Godard to blanch. Through the graces of Cocteau, the festival actually awarder Isou the " Prix de l'avant-garde" – which was contrived on the spot.
Occurence: 
Places: 
Starting date: 
04 20 1951
2 heures
Topology: 
Background: 
en marge du IVème Festival International du film de Cannes
Producer: 
Adress: 
Cannes
Objets: 
Documents: 

Le Festival était hier en récréation

Type: 
Presse
Technique description référence: 
Le Patriote Cannes, 11 avril 1951, p. 3.
ADAM__
Fichier pdf: 
Il n'y a pas que les projections...<br />Le film Traité de bave et d'éternité d'une longueur de 5200 m, tourné par Jean Izidore Isou, sera présenté la semaine prochaine hors programme.
Résumé retranscription: 
Il n'y a pas que les projections...
Le film Traité de bave et d'éternité d'une longueur de 5200 m, tourné par Jean Izidore Isou, sera présenté la semaine prochaine hors programme.

Aujourd'hui dernière journée du Festival

Type: 
Presse
Technique description référence: 
Le Patriote Cannes, 20 avril 1951, p. 3.
ADAM__
Fichier pdf: 
La journée d'aujourd'hui<br />Clôture du Festival.<br />Au programme en plus des projections dans la grande salle du Palais, dont on trouvera plus loin l'énoncé, ce matin à 9h30 dans la salle du cinéma Vox, rue d'Antibes, projection du film Traité de bave et d'éternité.
Résumé retranscription: 
La journée d'aujourd'hui
Clôture du Festival.
Au programme en plus des projections dans la grande salle du Palais, dont on trouvera plus loin l'énoncé, ce matin à 9h30 dans la salle du cinéma Vox, rue d'Antibes, projection du film Traité de bave et d'éternité.

Le Patriote Côte d'Azur, Juin 1993.

Type: 
Presse
Technique description référence: 
Le Patriote Côte d'Azur, Juin 1993.
PARISE
Fichier pdf: 
Isidore Isou, qui fréquentait la toute nouvelle Cinémathèque Française, adorait le cinéma et avait envie de faire un film. Il emprunta une caméra et réalisa son grand rêve qui était, au niveau des vues cinématographiques, de rendre celles-ci caduques en tant que reproduction du réel, c'est à dire de faire de celles-ci des supports à des manifestations diverses, et donc montrer que ce qui est important, comme dans la poésie, ce ne sont plus les ensembles - le poème, le mot- mais l'émiettement des particules.<br />De la même façon qu'on avait fait un sort à la lettre en poésie, au cinéma, on ne s'intéressait plus à l'ensemble, le plan, par exemple, mais à sa destructuration, à son émiettement. De façon plus générale, il faut se reporter à la théorie d'Isidore Isou, à savoir que pour lui, tout art passe par deux périodes : une première dites "amplique" de construction, donc d'amplification, et la seconde dite "ciselante", de repliement et de parcellisation, de recherche des pratiques fondamentales d'un art : la lettre dans le cas de la poésie, dans le cas du cinéma et de la photo, le grattage du support, donc des particules physico-chimiques.<br />Propos de Frédérique Devaux recueillis par Eric Paul dans <em>Le Patriote - Côte d'Azur</em>, Nice, Juin 1993
Résumé retranscription: 
Isidore Isou, qui fréquentait la toute nouvelle Cinémathèque Française, adorait le cinéma et avait envie de faire un film. Il emprunta une caméra et réalisa son grand rêve qui était, au niveau des vues cinématographiques, de rendre celles-ci caduques en tant que reproduction du réel, c'est à dire de faire de celles-ci des supports à des manifestations diverses, et donc montrer que ce qui est important, comme dans la poésie, ce ne sont plus les ensembles - le poème, le mot- mais l'émiettement des particules.
De la même façon qu'on avait fait un sort à la lettre en poésie, au cinéma, on ne s'intéressait plus à l'ensemble, le plan, par exemple, mais à sa destructuration, à son émiettement. De façon plus générale, il faut se reporter à la théorie d'Isidore Isou, à savoir que pour lui, tout art passe par deux périodes : une première dites "amplique" de construction, donc d'amplification, et la seconde dite "ciselante", de repliement et de parcellisation, de recherche des pratiques fondamentales d'un art : la lettre dans le cas de la poésie, dans le cas du cinéma et de la photo, le grattage du support, donc des particules physico-chimiques.
Propos de Frédérique Devaux recueillis par Eric Paul dans Le Patriote - Côte d'Azur, Nice, Juin 1993