By using a metaphor involving saimese twins, Jean Epstein brilliantly opens his speech ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’. To quote, Epstein believes cinema is ‘sundered at the heart, or by the higher necessities of emotion’, and hence needs a surgeon to separate the business from the art of it all.
Epstein puts forth that ‘only mobile and personal aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction’.
To this end, I feel Epstein seeks to usher in a cinema of personal visions of time, place, morality and happenstance. Having delivered this speech in November of 1923 to the Salon d’Automne, one can only assume that Epstein must’ve felt the arrival of Francois Truffaut some 36 years was a long time overdue (think Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 1959).
I suppose when Epstein makes mention of a move away from the documentary, he is referencing films such as Nanook of the North (1922), so too this could be considered a history based film. However, on many accounts The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is similarly historic, yet considered in a similar artistic ilk as D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece Birth of a Nation (1915). Which begs the question, what exactly led Epstein to attribute this time as one in need of change towards artistic merit?
Perhaps he had grown tired of successful films that lacked personality, although considering his love for Griffith, Way Down East (1920) was considered one the best films of the year, and how could he have a problem with Charles Chaplin’s The Kid (1921)? However, I can understand why Epstein may have thought cinema was headed downhill having to sit through the episodic first half of Robin Hood (1922), featuring Douglas Fairbanks in all his gaiety.
Alas, I am not suggesting Epstein was perhaps a little quick to jump. What he calls for in this speech are things we take for granted now in modern cinema – a sense of time, place, morality (of course this is debatable and not all encompassing) – and as such I find these words to be supremely important for the way in which they adequately chart the change that was to come in the coming years. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), John Cromwell’s Tom Sawyer (1930), King Kong (1933) kept at their heart this sense of exploring morality and capturing time and space.
And for that Epstein, I tip my hat. But are these true photogénie?