The Negation of Cinema: Some Brief Notes on Letterist Cinema 1950 - 1952

By Louis Benassi


“I’d rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.” – Jean-Isidore Isou (1925-2007)

1. Topography

As the Iron Curtain swung across Europe the West was being analysed by Rockerfeller’s economic and demographic statisticians codifying norms of behaviour, using techniques of coercion to cast dispersion on Communists and Marxists. The Marshall plan’s double standards had been implemented and psychology determined the needs of a new commodity generation. By 1950, left-field Sociologists were already speaking of consumers and the lonely crowd, car factory workers were becoming increasingly aware of the considerable power they harnessed as producers and demanded rights. A primed time bomb, things detonated just over a decade later in the symbolically powerful, yet brief revolutionary events of 1968. This was the Paris of the Lettrists where, in a bid to resuscitate the fledgling avant-garde, they would develop a ‘new’ theory of art.

2. Making the Myth

The mythology surrounding the Lettrists brings up ‘doubts’, ‘partial certainties’, ‘perplexities’, ‘disenchantments’, ‘discoveries’ and ‘assurances’: it truly was a unique moment in the radical counter-culture, somewhat overlooked in the larger context of the historical Avant-Garde. More than a gang of marginalized Neo-Dada, proto Punk drunks with an axe to grind, these individuals hot-wired a brilliant flash which has illuminated and influenced countless artists ever since. including Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard. Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage David Larcher, Jonas Mekas and Frederique Devaux, to name just a few.

Lettrism begins with Jean-Isidore Isou (Samuel Goldstein) born in Romania in 1925. A dandy with an uncanny resemblance to Elvis, arriving in Paris in 1945, aged twenty, armed with a classical education and a head full of Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Ungaretti and Dada, Isou promised to lead the way to the ‘centre of creation’ where every person is sovereign and holds the means of production. Isou believed that art had two phases: a period of amplitude, when formal experimentation was taken to the limit, followed by a period of auto-destruction. In 1946 Lettrism came to public attention when Isou vociferously announced its existence at the premiere of Tristian Tzara's play, The Flight, which had to be abandoned amid mayhem.

This intervention created a great scandal among the literary bon–ton and the press caught the drift, thus earning Isou and his crew a mention in the left wing newspaper Combat – of which Albert Camus was chief editor. For Isou this mini riot – the first of many – was the perfect moment to publish his manifesto, an Introduction to a New Poetry and Music and the meglomaniacal sounding The Making of a Name, the Making of a Messiah. This marks the beginning of Lettrism’s short career of cultural agitation.

The ranks grew with Gabriel Pomerand, Gil Wolman, Marc O, Maurice Lemaitre and Guy Debord joining the cause, drinking at every opportunity in dive bars around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, talking loudly of revolutionary art, philosophy, and politics, composing polemical tracts amid metaphorical and literal violence. The Lettrists were the youngest agitators of the Parisian avant-garde, ‘the milieu of demolition experts’, disenfranchised young radicals with plenty to say and hate, who took on Andre Breton and other respected figures. They were conducting an offensive against an obsolete, derelict state and a cultural establishment which propagated boredom and refused to relinquish power. They placed poetry over politics, and above all, they believed that art should never be separated from life.

3. Destroyed words

“His discourse is often superb, one might call him a genius except that after Isou the word seems superfluous.” – Georges Bataille

Like most Avant-Garde movements the Lettrists were born from a literary pre-occupation like their predecessors Dada and Surrealism. They venerated the likes of Lautreamont, Rimbaud and other poets of negation. Isou’s poetic experimentations originated from – as pointed out by literary scholars – Baudelaire’s reduction of narrative to anecdote, Rimbaud’s disregarding of anecdote for lines and words, Mallarme’s reducing of words to sound and spaces and finally Dada’s destroying of the word altogether. Isou’s Dada sensibilities had clear affinities with the early Cabaret Voltaire and the ‘simultaneist’ experiments of Raoul Hausman, as well as the methods of Giuseppe Ungaretti of the Italian ‘Ermetismo’ group – their central tenet being, ironically, that only Language stood between mankind and chaos.

Destroyed words would become the basis of a new experimental language. Their Lexique des Lettres Nouvelles was an alphabet of 130 symbols and sounds, a sonic paralanguage Hyperphony. Isou, along with his chief lieutenant Maurice Lemaitre, worked out a notational style that resembled sheet music – with staffs, bar lines, dynamic marks etc – often performed by choral groups at Lettrist events, incorporated into poetic compositions or used as incidental sound to their films.

4. The Negation of Cinema

Maurice Lemaitre’s Le Film Est Deja Commencé? (1951)

“One of the major works of Lettrist cinema had as much of a direct or hidden influence on the New Wave as it does on today’s Avant-Garde. Its first screenings in Paris in 1951 became major events. The critics despised it, but this work is and will remain a landmark in film history. Heir to the Dadaist, Surrealist and abstract filmmakers of the 1920s, Lemaitre managed equally to combine aesthetics with politics – no easy task and one that fully justifies the current recognition of his work.” – Gerard Courant, Liberation

Isidore Isou’s Traité de Bave et d'Éternité (1950)

Venom and Eternity is a portal through which every film artist is going to have to pass.” – Stan Brakhage

“Is Venom and Eternity a springboard or a void? In fifty years we will know the answer. After all, remember how Wagner was received. Today no one objects to his outbursts. The day will come when Isou styles the fashion.” – Jean Cocteau

“The history of Cinema is full of corpses with a high market value. While crowds and the intelligentsia are yet again discovering old man Chaplin or salivating with admiration for the latest of Luis Bunuel’s Surrealist remakes, the ravages of the Lettrists, who are young and good-looking proceed apace. Screens are mirrors that petrify the adventurous by returning their own images to them and halting them in their tracks. If one cannot pass through the screen of photography to something deeper, then the cinema holds no interest for me.” – Jean-Isidore Isou, April 1951

The Lettrist experiment with cinema – an extension to the criticism of poetry and painting – would encompass and consolidate much of their art and poetic theories. They approached film fearlessly with iconoclastic verve, pioneering the use of found footage and appropriation, ‘lifting’ visual passages from ‘classics’ such as D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance – as seen in Lemaitre’s Le Film Est Deja Commencé? This work epitomises the malcontent anti-art attitude of the Lettrist. At the same time, they made astute socio-political satires – hard, funny, critical and with aesthetic flair. Americanisation, and the absurdity of prescribed leisure time in short expenditure economics, is the targeted sub-text in many of the best Lettrist films. Whether consciously or not, Lettrist films anticipated – besides other textual considerations – ‘detournement’, the re-contextualisation of pre-existing material, subverting the original intent, creating the possibility of new and radical meanings, a practice acknowledged by many renowned found footage filmmakers of the future, and a method that would later become synonymous with the visual plagiarisms of Guy Debord and his Situationist International.

Lettrist engagement with film material, plastically and conceptually manipulated, is worth noting in a liberated approach to visual history. Scratching onto frames seems obvious now; however, there is a terminology for this! Isou called it ‘chiselling cinema’, a process whereby photographs and film frames are disfigured by lines or other markings using pointed instruments – pins, nails, abrasive material and the incorporation of ‘metagraphics’ onto the frame or over a ‘photogram’, a kind of montage of post-writing encompassing all means of ideographic, lexical and phonetic notation, and supplementing the means of expression based on sound by adding a specifically plastic dimension, a visual facet which is irreducible and defies verbal categorisation.

Most of their films were subjected to ‘discrepant’ editing, whereby the soundtrack bore no relationship whatsoever with the image – although there are occasional passages in Isou’s masterpiece Traité de Bave et d'Éternité where there exists a conjunction between certain image sequences and verbal phrases (not so in Le Film Est Deja Commencé? here the ‘discrepant’ is intact). Isou and Lemaitre would assist each other on cinema projects, on some occasions filming one another drifting around Paris to the hyper aggressive sound track of their own voice over, comprising manifestos, rants and polemics levelled at culture, consumerism and of course cinema and film theatres.

5. New Screens

For all their supposed brutalism the Lettrists were striving for a more politicised apprehension of the spectator’s physical presence in the house of dreams. Isou and Lemaitre were drawing attention to the interior space of the cinema auditorium, the mechanics, the projection, the projectionist, the seats, the screen, the beam, the ticket machine, the curtains and the exit sign. Maurice Lemaitre’s concept of ‘Syncinema’ around 1951 included many innovative interventions; destroying the (conventional) screen to substitute it with a new kind of screen such as the human screen of Un Soir au Cinema (1962), and the burning screen of Flame Montage (1976).

Fellow Lettrist Gil. J. Wolman’s controversial 1952 film L'Anticoncept used a weather balloon as screen, treating the screen as a new aesthetic object with augmentations and interventions, waving draperies and objects in front of it, and asking people to go up and talk in front of it, to slash or walk through it. Such strategies were intended to dislodge the medium of film and its support – the rectangular screen – fracturing the normal function of photographic reproduction, the real reel, and encouraging the spectator to become part of the work. Here the Lettrists precede the happenings and performances of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the expanded cinema experiments of some twenty years later made by certain British Structuralist filmmakers.

For Lettrists the fundamental cinematic challenge was ultimately to destroy cinema, to negate it, to push it into its terminal phase, to reveal that the contemporary art of cinema was a lie and that ‘the civilisation of the image’ which cinema represented could be taken on and beaten on its own terms, by undermining all the standard tropes of filmmaking while emphatically drawing on the audience’s expectations of spectatorship. The aim was to instil a critical tension between performance and spectacle, reflexive cinema and an expanded cinematic experience, to infuriate the audience into awareness and agitation in a Dada style. Nevertheless, the Lettrist critique of representation must be posited within the larger ongoing debate over art, radical cinema and politics, since it is as pertinent now as it was back in the 1950s.

Spool-Pool Arclite # 5, in Association with ArtsAdmin, proudly present the UK premiere (with English subtitles) ofThe World Is Rich: Found Footage Film 1939-2007 and The Cinema of Negation: the films of Jean-Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaitre, 16th and 17th November,2007 at Toynbee Hall, Commercial Street. E1 6AB. London. Aldgate East tube. Tel: 0207 650 2350.

Louis Benassi is an activist for the image.