On Kenneth Anger, Christopher MacLane, and Isidore Isou

The following is excerpted from a forthcoming collection of Ken Kelman’s writings and lectures on film. The volume is edited by his longtime friend, P. Adams Sitney, and will be published by Anthology Film Archives. Logos has also published Sitney’s introduction to the volume in this issue. We have selected the following lecture by Kelman because it engages the work of the late Kenneth Anger. Anger passed away this year.

Lecture 37: The EndEaux d’artifice and Venom and Eternity

[There seem to be no records of what Kelman said in Lectures 33-36. In 33 In the Street [1948] was among the documentary films he showed and discussed. He wrote about it in The Essential Cinema, but nothing remains of his observations on The Quiet One [195], On the Edge [1948], and  The Lead Shoes [1949] –all from 33 –, Le journal d’un cure de compagne [1951]—Lecture 34–, Rashomon [1950]  — lecture 35 –, and Loony Tom, The Happy Lover [1951], or Bells of Altlantis [1952 – Lecture 36, although the discussion of The End [1953], from that lecture has been reconstructed. In the reconstruction, he discusses The End as if he had already spoken on Venom and Eternity [1951]. Therefore, I have placed it at the end of this transcription.]

Eaux d’Artifice

The American avant-garde once was Griffith, then was Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson, and then Stan Brakhage; it has never been distinguished by claims of originality as such (unlike Venom and Eternity). Nor has it been defined in any way by its particular novelty or anti-traditional attitude. The posture and the stance – the whole gesture – of the Soviet film also made very little of the idea of doing things that were just new and surprising, either formally or otherwise. These things were just incidental. But the Paris avant-garde of the Twenties was … distinctive because, by definition, it was iconoclastic both in form and in content. Dada and Surrealism fell into this category. There were formal and challenges to the social taboos or traditions of the time, appearing in films as far removed as the farcical Entr’acte, on the one hand, and the neo-Freudian Seashell and the Clergyman, on the other. This was an established tradition in the Parisian – which is to say, the European – avant-garde… After a lapse from the end of silent film, well marked by An Andalusian Dog and The Blood of a Poet, (circa 1930), there was Vigo[1] and not much else until Cocteau’s commercial films and Venom and Eternity. Those films that fall between Vigo and such isolated things such as Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour [1950[2] are radically marked by their iconoclasm. They do shock the most sacred traditions and customs of the society.

From Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice

I deliberately paired Eaux d’artifice with Venom and Eternity because they were both made the same year[3], and because there is such a contrast between the qualities of the two films. I thought it would be nice to put such a beautifully composed film beside the film that is so consciously disorganized and rough-hewn. Eaux d’artifice [comes from] a peculiar period of the old New American cinema: as far as I can tell, there was a strange sort of marking time in the early 1950s; it was the period between the original explosion of the work of Deren and Peterson, an impetus that went on through the early work of Markopoulos and Anger and [that lapsed into] the rather decorative films – a particularly good example of this would be James Broughton’s Loony Tom, The Happy Lover;  Curtis Harrington too followed this direction making a film in Venice[4], when Anger made Eaux d’artifice in Tivoli – shortly before a new [direction]  was to start. If one were to pick a moment for that, it would be with Brakhage’s Desistfilm [1954]. Previously the very intense psychodrama had been the thing of the time….

Eaux d’artifice is essentially a monochromatic film. It is extraordinarily beautiful in all phases of its execution. It is “about” a woman, dressed in 19th Century fancy fashion,[5]  who turns out of a fountain at the beginning of the film, just as she turns into one at the end. Throughout the film she wanders among fountains, sometimes dissolving into one. There are a series of hints that she is one with the waters; she is a motif just like the water itself… At the end of the film she definitively turns into a fountain before our eyes, but that at the beginning, her turning out of a fountain is unclear.

The title – meaning “water works” – plays in the title of Anger’s Fireworks, his first released film. “Artifice” works two ways: the waters themselves [of the Villa Este in Tivoli] are fantastic in reality. Anger goes a step further, adding his own peculiar magic to them by including the woman turning into fountains. It is actually a kind of documentary. It is an intensely romantic film, showing the fountains with great love. The figure of the woman as the water is a statement of what is supposed to happen in the film; we are supposed to sense and understand this landscape in the most immediate and direct terms; we are really supposed to become one with it. The woman who becomes a fountain hints at the way to react to this [film].

It is a direct extension of Fireworks, and an anticipation of what Anger gets into later, because the objects of the physical world are extraordinarily important and emphatic to him. More and more in his works, love is conferred upon objects – certainly in Fireworks, Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome, and Scorpio Rising —  love; in fact, at the core and center of Anger’s films as fetishes. That fetishistic passion may make for a somewhat uneasy attitude toward living with those things; e.g. out of the tremendous, total love of the fountains, the woman in Eaux d’artifice becomes a fountain; but there is no humanity to her. This tendency exists in Anger’s films, perhaps least of all in Fireworks. In film after film, these wonderful scintillating objects receive the prime attention of the characters and [of] the filmmaker. On the other hand, we find the characters themselves becoming glossy, seductive, wonderful objects. That is not the whole story.

Fireworks[6], too, is a very romantic film, about the fantasies of a masochistic young man who is in the habit of picking up sailors. The images are of ecstasy. The film begins with a burning flower[7] reflected in rippling water. It builds to the famous climax that gives it its title: the sailor opens his fly to show a roman candle going off. That outrageous and flamboyant statement is outdone in the next image of a large Christmas tree, aflame, carried in in a more or less phallic way. It is really a celebration in this ecstatic film.

Eaux d’artifice is an extension of Fireworks: it is one tremendous burst of water after another; the union is complete; there is nothing but beautiful spurts and cascades and ripples. Occasionally, the little figure of humanity blends completely into this monochrome landscape. As a complete statement of ecstatic union, she is always becoming these fountains until, at the end, there is the definitive statement that she really has made it as a fountain. It is a good film on which to argue the romantic basis of Anger’s cinema.

There is a Gothic element here from the psychodramas of a character wandering through some place, a house or a landscape, in order to realize his true nature. In a way, this is a parody of psychodrama [insofar as] there is no psychological impact to this film. It doesn’t quite occur purely in the physical world because of its magical nature. At times the woman seems to be a sort of Cinderella hurrying before the coach turns into a pumpkin, but I do not know what her attitude is. Sometimes she hurries before turning into a fountain, or in time for her to turn into one; but sometimes she seems quite serene, moving in a majestic and stately way. There is no progression in her attitude. My own impression is that she moves in terms of the picture and the music, rather than out of any psychological motivation.

From Eaux d’Artifice

Her costume is supposed to be of the period of the gardens; it is deliberately calculated to resemble in its totality a fountain, with its base and topped with a feather that is the water (and finally does become that). Those are the basic reasons that she wears what she does. I tend to consider her as a decorative element, not a psychological entity.

The archetypal imagery is sexual. Water rippling softly over things and jetting up into the air becomes a sexually associative image, no matter what. It has gone beyond the orgasmic climax of Fireworks.

Jonas Mekas: She walks into the fountain in some kind of fantastic place. She lives there. She is the fairy of the place. She goes in, in in into the fountain in an aspect of a fairytale.

KK: At any rate, there is a magical proportion in this subliminal fairytale. Like all fairytales it is a little spooky.

The romantic music in Anger’s films could accompany a Hollywood film on the same subject.

Is the woman played by a dwarf?

Sitney: there are two theories. I heard, in Paris, that she is portrayed by a male. I have also heard, with absolute insistence, that she is a female dwarf. It is said that Anger was so disappointed by the size of the Tivoli fountains that he introduced himself to a dwarf he saw on a bus in Rome in order to recruit her, or him, for the film.

Do you really feel that Eaux d’artifice occurs in an artistic lull? It seems to me to exemplify what you have called “Total Tectonics,” remarkably ahead of its time, with its parallel in Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night.

KK: It is true that Eaux d’artifice is a totally subjective representation of the Real World, an interesting transfiguration of that world. It is never rendered in the psychological terms of the character [or the filmmaker]. Crucially, the contexts of the two films distinguishes the great difference between it and Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night, where the images do occur on a level of Reality; that is, other than the images taken by themselves; its framework is a man’s nightmare odyssey– his thoughts before dying. I don’t believe that there is any possible psychological interpretation of Eaux d’artifice; it manifests only an ecstatic attitude toward water—an unmitigated ecstasy unshaded [by] any psychological thing.

Ralph Steiner’s H2O is a clear precedent for Eaux d’artifice. … It isn’t nearly as beautiful a film; nor is it charged with the [same] love of water. …It has the same subject and shares the idea of making a total plastic enterprise with just shots of water; it is a much more literal thing. Anger’s film is closer to that than to Anticipation of the Night.

Venom and Eternity

As I remarked [previously] when the film did not show up and we showed the trailer instead, the gestural nature of the French avant-garde had to do with novelty. It is clearer in the film itself than in the trailer.  Perhaps the most telling of the remarks by Isou (or by Daniel [Gélin], his mouthpiece and identity), that run through the film would be that what is new is what counts in art; what is new cannot be criticized; and what is new is good and, by definition, what the artist wants to do. He establishes certain corollaries to this: what is old is uninteresting and bad; so, what is new will consist of a breaking down of the old. Here some interesting things begin to happen. For one thing, the film works: its dynamic [consists] of a constant interrelation of the filmmaker with the vision of [a] theory of film that he has, and with the very film that we are seeing. There is a continual consciousness that [its] form is a direct function of a personality. They cannot be separated. There is also an allusive quality of a biographical (or autobiographical) order throughout the film: as the film progresses, we get a sort of portrait of the filmmaker. It is not an orderly portrait, nor is it a factual portrait, but it [offers] a rather full sense of his personality.

From Venom and Eternity

In first part, we find him distinctly as a visionary. We hear his theories and understand that he is something of an agitator and avant-garde character. In the second part, we get more of his personal life, and we understand through the story – an apparently autobiographical, literary work of his – something of the drives in his own life that lead him in this artistic direction. Chiefly, we understand him as a continually dissatisfied man, possessed of a vision that denies values because of he has none; who treats women, in his personal life, more or less as he treats images in the very film that we are watching. All of this makes the film an extremely direct personal statement.

The first episode is possibly the strongest and most crucial. In it we see the filmmaker in the guise of the prophetic visionary possessed of a new way of seeing who walks the streets, alien to all around him because he sees further than they do. The film, as a whole and especially the first episode, is permeated with shots of Isou [(or his representative)] who is crucially portrayed as a totally dissatisfied and restless being. When he holds still for the camera, he rocks back and forth. Aside from that he is in continual motion, always walking, always pacing but never with any direction. His directions always contradict each other, as the things he says in the film do. His most consistent aim (aside from the general one of revolutionizing cinema) appears to be the tearing apart of the visual image from the spoken one, or the word, or the narrative and dialogue, on the one hand; and the subordination of the image to the soundtrack, on the other hand. This latter aspect of the rupture between sound and image is not consistent; he occasionally contradicts it by indicating that he really believers that the soundtrack should be a background to the image.

There is even a strange, playful contraction of his basic idea that the soundtrack and the image should be disjunctive, because at times they coordinate in strange ways. This is especially true in the first episode, when he refers to seeing only the reflection of a woman in the window of a train in the chaplain scene: his parallel image visually is of people reflected in a store window. Just before that, when he speaks of the Odessa Steps sequence and its baby carriage in Potemkin, we see a woman with a baby carriage passing in the background. Even if they were taken accidentally. these strange shots are not really adventitious,because they are edited in this order. Later, towards the end of the film, one of the stranger of these correspondences occurs, when the narrator tells us that he left Eve (and she says something to the effect of “curses on you”), we suddenly see a dagger image scratched onto the film. This seems to me to be quite consistent with the stance and gesture of Isou throughout: he will not allow even his basic theory to go unchallenged or uncancelled.

This vision is anarchic or nihilistic. In his absolute restlessness, he will not allow anything to proceed in a pure or consistent way. He does fulfill his major promises: to separate the visual from the auditory image, in terms of meaning at any rate; to create a more or less coherent and interesting narrative on the soundtrack. The soundtrack does ramble but it has fixed points: theory in the first section and story in the second. Like the story, [he proposes] a shaggy-dog theory in its progression.  The story continually returns to Eve in its overall framework; in its center, Denise is its frame of reference. We learn a little more about his personal proclivities in the process, [and] of this literary work of Isou’s. He admires the Marquis de Sade for personal rather than theoretical reasons; he seems to be fascinated by physical deformity. From what I have read, deformity does not seem a prominent feature of de Sade’s writings (although Isou claims it is); It seems much stronger in Isou than Sade, especially in the episode of the hunchback girl for whom he takes on considerable morbid interest.

The film is a strange blend; where the ostensible progression, form, and content is the presentation of a new theory of cinema and the illustration of it. This is charged, and only takes on any interest or dynamic quality at all in relationship to Isou’s own personality and drives. It is also a very defensive film; there are continual claims that it is only a first step, that it was cut down great deal from its original length; that it is only a kind of destruction in order to build anew. In the end, he says it is essentially a promise. Of course, promises are easy to make. Isou did not go on to make other films, as far as I know[8]. This stands as his cinematic statement.

Another strange aspect of the film has to do with the defense mechanism Isou sets up, continual photographing shots, or including shots, of celebrities, about half of which are of Isou talking to [Jean] Cocteau, and [Armand] Salacrou and other cultural figures. Of course, he has shots of movie stars  — Danièle Delorme, [Jean-Louis] Barrault,  – especially in the second section. Occasionally he will just cancel out the impact of such shots with his own anarchistic touch; that is to say, to scratch out or blot out himself [or the celebrity]. I think in the case of Cocteau, he is courteous enough to scratch himself, but in the case of Salacrou, he blots him out entirely; perhaps because Salacrou is distinctly a figure of the old theater. The scratching on the film [or what Isou called ‘chiseling’] is an interesting part and perhaps its most original single, purely technical touch. It is an anarchistic gesture par excellence – a very novel gesture in cinema – that occurs most often in the second section of the film. It is most creative and fancy during the black section when Lettrist poetry is heard (which rather amusingly has subtitles).

Scratching in film on purpose is extremely rare. It doesn’t really start to come in to filmmaking until 1953 or so with Brakhage’s Reflections on Black.[9] It takes quite a while longer than that for it to become a more or less recognized idiom even in Underground cinema. The only instance I can think of where it happens before Isou’s film is strangely enough in Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet when, in the poet’s second suicide (I think), the little star – one of Cocteau’s prime emblems – appears as the wound in the poet’s temple; it is scratched on the film to dance, as a scratch on film will. I’m sure Isou knew about this: perhaps it is one of the reasons he was so fond of Cocteau as an innovator. The scratching in Venom and Eternity is part of a unique and original consciousness of film. One becomes conscious of the existence of the single frames of the film, moving through the projector at a certain speed and cast on the screen by the light, because the jerky transitions from frame to frame as the image of a star, a dagger, or just a line dances; we sense that it dances because the frame themselves are changing. Its unsynchronized existence – the rough correspondence of one scratch to the next – is reflected on the screen in terms of a jagged, jerky dance of the image from side to side. This can be felt quite strongly in Venom and Eternity, as [does] the texture of film in many of the shots. As I mentioned, [there] are many clumsy camera movements or grainy shots, or washed out shots, where the imperfections with which the medium is handled calls attention to mechanical origin of the image itself. That is one of the things that Isou is calling for: a destruction of the old completion and perfection of a certain kind of film. It is one more of his anarchic probes into the nature of the medium.

There isn’t much stock footage in the film although he claims there is. The airplane on the water and the Chinese coolies look like stock footage.  Stock footage available in France in 1951 would not have been as grainy, as overexposed, as superimposed, and especially as ugly and anarchic in terms of moving camera.

There is an odd tension between his anarchistic pose and his obvious want of recognition; all of which is keyed by his early admission that there are only thirty people, at most, in the Lettrist movement; and then [there are] quotations from notable personages, including Keynes, to the effect the one can never have more than twenty-five people at the start of a great movement.  At this point, I would like to come back to the very original relation of the filmmaker to his work. It is really the most direct statement of a filmmaker’s ideas and personality made in film up to this point. Among other things, this represents the first time a filmmaker consistently addresses the audience as himself throughout a film. The combination of this directness with a very direct assault on the very medium of expression itself constitutes a brutal and powerful vision. Perhaps in the end it is a very ultimate vision, as Isou apparently did not suspect at the time, but –- apparently again—did come to believe.

[In response to several audience questions Kelman continued]: I take Isou at his claim that he is the prime Lettrist. Within the film, Lettrism is adequately defined as poetry existing purely for its sound, apart from any kind of meaning or imagery. That implies it is exists completely apart from words, as words are understood. Clearly, he is interested in doing the same kind of thing with film. He shows the books he had written because of his unquestionable desire for recognition. It is part of a defense mechanism, asserting ‘here are things that I’ve done; I’ve done other things that have received much attention, but here you can learn about them.’ As he lifts one book after the other, one has a sense of the ironic gesture of unveiling objects that are all the same – just books. Isou wanted to make [his] film as new as possible, out of no tradition, and therefore as creative as possible. This is no longer easy to make any film that even manages to be an original gesture in the history of the medium. It is the only film in this series that ostensibly means to break with tradition.

The film has its own documentation about its beginning; so we know its original impact.  As far as I can tell from what I have seen of films of the Fifties, Godard would be most clearly related to Isou. One assumes that Godard was familiar with the film, but I do not know. Obviously and nakedly, the idea of a scene constructed from the tension between the soundtrack and the image (with the image treated in a rather casual way, while the soundtrack proceeds with a very developed literary story having nothing to do with the image) recurs time and time again in Godard’s films, primarily in his early films –very markedly in Breathless [1960][10]. Such tension exists in Godard’s work more generally. It is difficult to say whether the jump cutting of Breathless or its casual camera movements can be attributed to the influence of Isou. It is related to the sensibility of Isou. Basically, Godard fragments a narrative and reconstructs it in a disjunctive way to disrupt the causal flow of images. Of course, this does not go nearly as far as Isou [takes it]. Godard does not function in this revolutionary way as directly or extremely as Isou. There is a process going on in Venom and Eternity that has nothing to do with Story. There is play with the Idea of Narrative. Godard plays with particular narratives that are denied from time to time. Isou denies it from the start. Even though a character, such as Belmondo at the beginning if Breathless, may directly address the camera, Godard immediately takes us back to the third-person convention. Without a direct confrontation with the filmmaker, we are back in a narrative framework.

The End

It is curious that The End [1953] should be made in the same years a Venom and Eternity, another, and very different kind of landmark in elliptical film. It also intentionally attempts to disassociate the soundtrack from the images on the screen. By the way, this is another way that the film relates to Venom and Eternity: it uses, for the first time as far as I know, rather long sections of pure darkness on film, where we are simply asked to listen while looking at nothing. This is one other aspect of the disruption of sound from image in Venom and Eternity.

From The End

Perhaps the opposite is happening in the contradictions and tension between the soundtrack and the visual structure in the process of The End. That method, in the visual aspect of the film, that asks us to supply what is missing in terms of the causality (or really not the causality but the meaning of events), or the psychology behind seemingly meaningless events, or the cosmology, or whatever is needed to explain things happening the way they do – whatever realization is necessary to bring back the images from nihilistic chaos. It is as if the filmmaker were not willing to go as far as possible with this method, or even as promised, because the soundtrack constantly fills in what is missing. It tends to cancel the form promised in the visual part of the film. The episode that most epitomizes this is the one where the soundtrack promises us that we will have to realize what has happened given only a few fragments and key images of a sequence of events, as we might be given a few strokes in a Zen painting. But in fact, though we are given just those few strokes in the picture part, we have all the other possibilities filled in for us insistently on the soundtrack. … It is done most fruitlessly, most jarringly, in the sections of black since here it becomes something else. I feel primarily that this black is the most direct imaging of the emptiness, that void, that nihilistic quality implicit in the imagery of the film as a whole. It is also a visual silence where there is a chance to consider what the film might be about, to come to some kind of realization in this blackness. But we are never permitted to this either, because this void is immediately filled by words that interpret for us, anticipate things for us, reflect on things or us.

I continue to find a very disturbing thing about this film, apart from disturbances that I think are conscious: this strange cancellation of the very original and striking method of the visual part of the film by what is, in effect, a conventional and even somewhat banal soundtrack. I can find no basis for sensing a really conscious purpose involved here, or anything that is genuinely ironical, or contrapuntal.

I should mention my fondness for image of the arm with the prominent pulsing veins that occurs throughout. It takes on so many different connotations in terms of the surrounding imagery — sometimes of vulnerability, sometimes of strength, sometimes of Life force, sometimes of a morbid disease. It is an interesting image in its terseness and its suggestion in one stroke, as it were. It is also really one of the ultimate statements in film of the old classical editing principle, made famous in the experiments of Kuleshov, where the same images would be shown up in different contexts, and we would have different emotional reactions to them. This has hardly been done in film.

There are many images that function as those motifs in film. I think that it is rooted in the particular conception of The End, as I described it.  This is another way the montage principle [operates]; it has to do with how the mind works with images that are related, or unrelated, in varying ways. In the history of film there was never much leeway given to the mind to deal with these images; they were always organized – if not simply in terms of the causality of realism, or in terms of a story – in terms of a specific theme or idea, in the kind of ideological montage we get in Eisenstein. The closest that we come to the dissociative imagery of The End would be in Surrealism. The point is that this is not Surrealism, which is essentially a chaotic and anarchic form; this is something else, because it asks for an understanding Surrealism does not ask for.

From The End

[The End] is really a thematic film. In ranging over the whole history of the cinema for precedents and associations, I am thinking of Dovzhenko all the time. He is also an episodic filmmaker but, notably, what he does not do is repeat episodes or bits of episodes in other episodes; he has a kind of chronological approach. … There have been films before [The End] where images have been repeated throughout (such as in Maya Deren’s work) but they have always been tied to some particular incident that may have been varied or repeated. But here they have been scrambled throughout the film. … The “end” as expressed in the [atomic] explosion is the action common to all the episodes of the film.   It begins as The Dead of Night [1945][11] ends with a montage, recapitulating all the previous episodes, that pulls the film together.

Sitney: The most complex form of this principle would be Gregory Markopoulos’s The Iliac Passion [1967].

Kelman: That was made after 1960, so I would prefer not to discuss it. It is much easier to consider in Markopoulos’ films because of his structural concerns. One can understand it so clearly there. MacLaine’s films never seem to be to be architectural in the sense of the unity that comes through. The use of the same images in totally different context (or as in this case, roughly speaking [different] stories) is an originality and an innovation, in this case, just as the elliptical process of the film sets precedents for Markopoulos and anticipates Brakhage…

[tape ends]

[1] Kelman wrote on all four of Jean Vigo’s films in The Essential Cinema.

[2] See “Imagenations”.

[3] Eaux d’artifice was made in 1953, two years after Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951).

[4] Curtis Harrington made The Assignation [1952] in Venice.

[5] Baroque costuming may be more accurate.

[6] Kelman would have offered more complete analysis of Fireworks on July 15, in the missing Lecture 31.

[7] It seems to be a torch rather than a flower.

[8] Isou’s collaborator, the Lettrist painter, Maurice Lemaître, however, did go on to have a full career as a filmmaker.

[9] Reflections on Black was made in 1955. Brakhage first scratched the titles of Desistfilm in 1954. That same year Lawrence Jordan scratched the text of a poem by Philip Lamantia onto his film Man is in Pain. Brakhage worked for the American distributor of Venom and Eternity, Raymond Rohauer. He (and Jordan) may have seen the film as early as 1953 with at Art in Cinema in San Francisco or directly through Rohauer.  Blue Moses(1962) may be a direct descendant of Venom and Eternity.

[10] Godard’s Breathless was scheduled to be sh0wn and discussed in the cancelled Lecture 47.

[11] Dead of Night (along with Meshes of the Afternoon) was a subject of Kelman’s lost (July 1, 1968) Lecture 29.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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