Introduction to Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité
Traité de bave et d’éternité / Tract on Venom and Eternity by Isidore Isou is a landmark in film history, though the film was almost completely ignored until its reissue on DVD several years ago. Venom and Eternity came out in the year 1951 in an unfinished version at the Cannes Film Festival; later, finished, it was shown in a few selected cinemas. The press and the public didn’t like it at all, so it sank into obscurity soon afterwards,1 but then had an interesting second life in the US where, as of 1953, Raymond Rohauer distributed a subtitled version.2
Venom and Eternity is one of the first non-documentary films to use found footage. It is produced, though not entirely, from already existing materials, and that’s why we’re discussing it here. Moreover, with all its elaborate processing of the filmstrip, it’s a handmade film. For this, and for its visceral rhythm, Stan Brakhage admired it a lot.3
It’s also the first “film discrépant”, as Isidore Isou himself named it, the first “discrepant film”, meaning there is a complete disjunction between sound and video tracks. As Frédérique Devaux, the best expert in the field, has put it, sight and sound have “rien à voir”,4 they have nothing to do with each other.
Venom and Eternity even anticipates Expanded Cinema. Please recall the first scene, when Daniel, the protagonist of the novel narrated in the soundtrack, proposes his iconoclastic views after a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris. Most of the other moviegoers in the audience are disturbed and enraged by these provocative ideas. Daniel announces how he will make his movie, this movie. He thinks: “For the first time a film’s subject will be the eternity of cinema, the cinema reflecting itself.”5
In a way, the heated debate between Daniel and the others anticipates the Lettrist concept of cinema as a happening. For Lettrism, the art movement founded by Isou in 1946, cinema is not restricted to the screening of a movie. Everything that happens in the cinema hall during a certain time span belongs to cinema, too, not only the reflection and debate, as Isou suggests, but also all kinds of action. Maurice Lemaître, assistant to Isou for Venom and Eternity, fully realized this Expanded Cinema concept that same year, 1951, with Le film est déjà commencé? [ Has the Film Begun?] It’s not only a very beautiful and funny movie, but also a “séance”, as Lemaître himself called it, a session. The audience that wants to see the picture is systematically prevented from doing so by not letting them in, by complete darkness in the hall, by a staged riot, by extras who shout, by ladies with very big hats, and so on.6
In sum, Venom and Eternity uses a large amount of found footage, it’s a handmade film, it’s a discrepant film, and it even anticipates Expanded Cinema. We can put the film in many different contexts. But although it is possible to put an art work into different contexts, it’s also possible and even necessary to see its intrinsic features, its structures, the views and visions of its maker. We can look at a piece of art from the outside and from the inside.
I will try to give you an inside look. First I will acquaint you with the ideas and projects of Isidore Isou, insofar as they concern his film and the use of found footage. In a second section I will give you some information about the movie’s production. In the third and last section of my short introduction I will, very tentatively, try to position Venom and Eternity within the tradition of found footage.
1. Isidore Isou
Let me begin with the man.7 Isidore Isou was born Jean-Isidore Goldstein in 1925 in Romania. His family was Jewish. A fascist and anti-Semitic regime ruled the land. This explains the turmoil of Isou’s youth. He quit school early, was a self-educated person who read widely, with a predilection for French poetry of the nineteenth century. As soon as Romania was liberated, he went to Paris. By then he was twenty years old.
His personal life is highly significant for his artistic and political philosophy. Like Andy Warhol, Isou was an immigrant who wanted so much to succeed, even to be famous in his new country. His ambition was boundless. You have noticed this in the opening sequence of Venom and Eternity, where Isou shows us his books, his aspiration to be like the great masters. A bit embarrassing for us, but quite explainable for an outsider who claws with tooth and nail to get in. The same goes for all the interspersed amateurish clips that show famous personalities of the time side by side with Isou. The message is: “Me and Marcel Achard, me and Blaise Cendrars, me and Jean Cocteau” and so on. Isou with the elders; he himself the up-and-coming man.
In his political concepts developed at the end of the forties, Isou distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. Insiders are all those involved in the exchange of commodities and communications. Outsiders are all those who are not involved, those who don’t get paid, who are ignored – the young, the migrants, the artists, the prisoners, the lumpen intellectuals. The outsiders are potentially creative; they advocate the new because they suffer the old. Change can only come from outside. Outside is creativity, is freshness, is the new. You’ll recognize a certain similarity to the ideas of Herbert Marcuse and May ’68.
Now, who supports Daniel when he is proposing his disjunctive, discrepant cinema? You’ll find there are only three supporters: his friend Pierre, his girlfriend Ève and the Stranger; a young man and two migrants. Support of the new and the creative comes only from the outsiders. Pierre as a young man is eager for change and new art. Ève, skeptical at first, ultimately embraces Daniel’s intent. She is a Norwegian who will be expelled at the end of the story by the French authorities. The Stranger is an apparently much older person, a wise one, who fervently acclaims Daniel’s revolution as well. Funnily enough, Isidore Isou himself lends his voice to this character, the Stranger. He speaks French with a heavy Romanian accent. And for the audience in the Ciné-Club Daniel, too, is a “métèque”, a foreigner who comes out of nowhere.
So Isou portrays himself in five different ways in this movie. First, as the great forthcoming master of cinema, as announced in the opening credits. Second, in many short clips, as the social climber who is on first-name terms with the elite of Parisian artists. Third, in the soundtrack, as the wise and open-minded stranger from Romania. Fourth, also in the soundtrack novel, as Daniel, the “métèque”, the mysterious poet and cynical seducer. And fifth and most prominently, as the good-looking, strong-willed, cool young man strolling around Boulevard Saint-Germain in the first part or “chapter” of Venom and Eternity.
Eric Rohmer was much impressed by this first chapter, the stroll of a non-actor, the casual way of filming a historical place in a non-historical way – Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the breeding ground for new philosophy, new literature, new music, new cinema.8 He didn’t bother much about Isou’s claim to have invented everything, even the famous quarter. For Rohmer this was kind of neorealistic, even conservative. And that’s not quite wrong. But Rohmer’s favorable review was also a fundamental and even deliberate misunderstanding of Isou’s ideas. The title of his review establishes this: “Isou or The Things Just As They Are”. Things just as they are: the description could be accurate for the images in the first chapter. But Isou didn’t want to leave the things unchanged. He came to Paris to make things over, to transform, to renew – as will be seen in the second and third chapters of Venom and Eternity.
When Isou arrived in Paris at the age of twenty, his philosophy was nearly full-blown. In his first books you’ll find all his ideas, sometimes embryonic, but often very mature. I will outline only two concepts that are of paramount importance not only for our film here but for his whole undertaking: the activity of creation and the so-called ciselant, the chiseling.
I’ve mentioned the political importance of creativity already. Creation or, as he later termed it, “le Créatique” remains the driving force behind Isou’s thinking and working.
As the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz recently stated, creativity is today one of the key values of our culture.9 Everybody has to be creative today. That’s surprising from a historical point of view because creativity initially stood in sharp contrast to the rationalist tendencies of modernism. Creativity as a value historically derives from the Romantic, from the bohemian world. It was a counter-project to an alienating rationalist world.
Isou takes up this counter-project but mixes it with Jewish theology and a belief in progress very typical for him. His creators and creations are a revolutionary force from the margins that moves in to occupy the center of society. One of Isou’s disciples, Alain Satié, defines the creative process as “the overcoming of the acquired, the insufficient and the incomplete”.10 But why then the use of found foootage? Found footage, you might say, is the acquired, insufficient, incomplete stuff par excellence.
This contradiction can be resolved. According to Isou, nowadays all arts are deconstructing themselves. Poetry is deconstructing its verses and words, painting and sculpting are deconstructing their forms, film is deconstructing its images. The creative act for the poet and the painter no longer consists of creating verses or representations but of decomposing them. The creative act for the filmmaker consists not of finding new pictures but of overcoming the old ones.
In his view, all arts pass through two stages: “la phase amplique” and “la phase ciselante”, the amplifying stage and the chiseling stage. In the first stage, art finds new stories, new aspects of the world; it constantly enhances and enriches itself. In the second stage, art is not about the world but about itself; it is self-reflective, self-destructive. But out of this so-called chiseling, a metaphor for the deranging and rearranging and combining and destroying the given elements of a work, a new language, a new world should emerge. Hopefully.
How beautiful and powerful chiseled Lettrist poetry can be – a poetry that shatters words, combines syllables of many languages and adds gestural expressions – you’ve heard this in the third chapter of the film, when François Dufrêne performs his poems. The Lettrist Choir that returns throughout the film is also an example of this chiseled Lettrist poetry.
For Isou, the first poet of the chiseling age was Baudelaire, Cézanne was the first painter, Debussy the first composer. And Isidore Isou is the first filmmaker ciselant. The new era begins with his first film, Venom and Eternity.
2. Venom and Eternity
Now, as announced, a few words about the production and structure of this singular film. It was the first production not just for Isou but for almost all involved. Suzanne Cabon, the editor, was the only professional. She had worked with Marcel Pagnol, Marcel L’Herbier and others. Ironically, she had to be fired soon, because she was unable to infringe on all the rules of her trade. Lemaître completed the montage, although he had never done it before. They reduced the length of the movie from four hours and thirty minutes to two hours for commercial reasons, because Isou really thought he could make some money with it.11
Producer Marc Gilbert Guillaumin, better known as Marc’O, belonged to the Lettrist Group at that time, but left it a few months afterwards. You can see him several times in the first chapter; he is the young man in jeans on the boulevard, almost Isou’s double. Like Isou he laces his shoes. Maybe you remember the shot. As the producer of Venom and Eternity Marc’O didn’t have to raise much money, although he pretended to have sold some of his furniture and even his wife’s diamond ring in order to collect the budget.12 Frédérique Devaux suggests that found footage was also used for financial reasons.13 I wouldn’t overestimate that. Sure, everything had to be very low-cost. But found footage was also introduced for strong aesthetic reasons; I shall come back to this.
There is not much to make out about the camera operator, Saufer, only that the camera work was done by some pals of the director.14 So maybe the name Saufer is an alias for all of Isou’s pals who operated the 35mm camera while shooting Venom and Eternity. Clearly enough, the cinematographer is the lowest man on this set. It’s explicitly a picture against all cinematographers. Daniel says: “Those who will despise my film are the cinematographers, the experts of cinema.”15
From all I’ve said already, it is evident that the element of Venom and Eternity that Isou valued the most is the soundtrack. The literary and philosophical element here is held in highest esteem. Not only does Isou call the parts of his film “chapters”, like in a book, not only does he want to proclaim a manifesto on cinema in cinema and to present the sound poetry of the Lettrists, most of all he wants to tell a literary story, fictional to be sure, but one that elucidates the origins of this work and of his ideas in general.
The story and the vivid radio drama that tells it were completed first. And so it came to a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival, because Isou earnestly believed that it would be sufficient to present only the first part of the unfinished film and just the already produced soundtrack of the rest. He said that an unfinished book by Joyce would also be more amusing than a finished book by a stupid writer. The festival audience had to sit in the dark and listen to Isou’s radio. The experts of cinema were outraged – to Isou’s delight. But this scandal didn’t help him like the ones he had managed to create a few years earlier when he founded the Lettrist movement. In fact, by 1951 his fame was already fading.
To continue, the story structures the film; its three chapters are: “The Principle”, “The Development” and “The Proof”.
In the first chapter, “The Principle”, Daniel explains his cinematic principles in front of an enraged audience. He is absolutely in line with Isou and his beliefs in the act of creation, in the new, the chiseling, and so on. Noticeable is the emphasis on the iconoclastic aspect. Against the images! That’s something Isou arrives at in these years that marks the beginning of his conceptual thinking, the possibility of an imaginary art without images and even without any signs at all. He later called that the “supertemporel”, the supratemporal. The notion of Eternity in the title Venom and Eternity signifies exactly this – overcoming the venom, the chatter, the words, the pictures, the sensual, in order to come to a mental art beyond time.
The second chapter, “The Development”, relates the wild love story of Daniel and Ève, the runaway from Norway. In many ways Isou here continues the story line, the characters, and even the metaphors of his first printed novel, L’Agrégation d’un nom et d’un messie [Launching a Name and a Messiah] from 1947.
The third and last chapter, “The Proof”, combines the two first chapters. Now Daniel discusses his artistic and cinematic plans with Ève. After some objections she finally agrees with him. But she doesn’t benefit from this. Daniel repudiates her, just like the protagonist of Agrégation repudiates all those who are in love with him.16
At any rate, these discussions are important to our concerns. Because Daniel explains in a very poetic way why he uses found footage: “I’ll be the first to abandon myself to these leftovers just as Dostoevsky abandoned himself to his fall from grace.”17 The French word for “leftovers” or “scraps of film” is chute, meaning also falling, tumbling down.
So we can draw up a first summary. The creative act of Venom and Eternity is to separate sound and image, to prize sound over the pictures, to chisel and mistreat the pictures in order to come to an imaginative, mental art. It’s a falling down into the materials of film with the aim of losing everything that’s old in cinema and art and of gaining something new.
So the quality and content of his found footage weren’t of great importance to Isou. When he began looking for found footage he initially asked directors such as Roger Leenhardt if they could give him some stuff from their wastebaskets. They all refused.18 So he went to the Department of the Army, public relations, and made a rich find in their trash pile.
All the found material – scenes from the First Indochina War, sportsmen, fishermen and so on – is a chance discovery. It is banal material, just anonymous images. Almost any other scraps of film would have been equally appropriate.19 The use of film leader and other markers in the midst of the film serves to disarrange narrative cinema’s usual order.
3. Found Footage
If we now try to compare this application of found footage to those of other filmmakers, we’re confronted with big differences. Consider for instance three prominent positions in making found footage films: first Joseph Cornell with Rose Hobart from 1936, then Bruce Conner and A Movie from 1958, and finally Ken Jacobs’s films from the sixties until today. In every one of these positions, the use of found footage has a different function: devotion in Cornell, parody in Conner, and study in Jacobs, if you’ll forgive my simplification.
But all three filmmakers do care about their images. Isou doesn’t. He needs pictures so that he can overcome them – by putting them together in absurd ways, by combining them with a disjointed soundtrack, by playing them backwards and upside down, by painting on and scratching them, and so on.
The first person who almost prophetically understood where all this leads was Jean Cocteau. After watching Venom and Eternity, which he liked, he wrote in a letter: “Unless I am mistaken, Isou tries to purge by emptying out.”20 Cocteau compares the film with the famous scene from his own Orphée, where Orphée sees the fashionable magazine Nudisme that contains only blank pages. Isou later confirmed this interpretation when he declared he wanted to “couper du vide”.21
Venom and Eternity marks an intermediary state, the decline of the images, the state just before they’re no longer pictures. It’s the precursor of a conceptual cinema and art. What did this conceptual cinema look like? I’ll give you a few examples: In 1952, one year after Venom and Eternity, Isou and others organized a “film-débat”, a debate, in a Ciné-Club about the death of the old cinema. This “film-débat” was seen by them as a substitute for a traditional screening. To quote Isou: “After the death of cinema, the debate becomes the work. The discussion, supplement to the spectacle, now becomes the real drama.”22 That same year, 1952, François Dufrêne created Tambours du jugement premier [Drums of the First Judgment], a film without filmstrip and screen, almost a stage play.23 Also in 1952, Marc’O, the producer of Venom and Eternity, came out with the idea of his “cinéma nucléaire”, using the seating of the cinema hall, the screen, the projection booth as parts and props of a cinema-performance in order to activate the public; in his view it should have been a kind of gladiator fight.24 Thank God that was never realized. In 1960 Isidore Isou disposed film-scraps, scripts, scores and other things in the rooms of the gallery Atome in Paris. The public was invited to make its own film out of all these bits and tools.25 These are ideas very similar to those of Fluxus and Conceptual Art, clearly ahead of their time.
But if Venom and Eternity were only this, the precursor of a conceptual cinema, the disappearance of pictures, the proof of a dogma, a purgation, it never would have had such an impact, it wouldn’t still be so fascinating. In my concluding remarks, I will single out some effects that contradict the professed iconoclasm of this work.
Effect 1 results from the fact that it’s not possible to make an out-and-out discrepant film. You can separate picture and sound, okay, but viewers soon establish their own connections and associations. Some connections might even have been intended by the filmmaker. When the commentator says that Daniel was leaving the Ciné-Club, we see Isou coming out of a cinema. When the character Ève is introduced, we see the famous actress Blanchette Brunoy taking a walk with Isou in the Bois de Boulogne. When it is said that Daniel was thrown out of the Communist Party, we see a Communist rally. And so on. Even if these coincidences occur by pure chance, it’s impossible to prevent the viewer from associating the representation with something represented.26 Nelson Goodman got to the heart of it by writing: “Almost any picture may represent almost anything.”27
Contrary effect 2: If you excise even the most boring picture from its context and connections it will gain something absurd, often surreal. And that’s the case here.
Effect 3: If we’ve really had enough of the great pictures, as Daniel proclaims in the first chapter, if we really want no new cheese but only the decadent smell of the old, there could be no better material than the celluloid used here. The conventional, never really looked-at material acquires a subtle iridescence. It’s an effect similar to that emanating from the photo collections by Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann or Isa Genzken.
Effect 4: The “recovery of what has been eliminated, thrown out” is, as Michel Butor has pointed out, also a kind of recycling. Butor says in an interview that for him recycling in the arts “always ends up as human recycling. ... We move easily from the lost object ... to the lost man, thrown out in the big cities”.28 So why not comparing the recycling of found footage to Isou’s political project, the recycling of the outsiders?
Effect 5: Most of the material shown here is chiseled, meaning repainted, sometimes with scratches, sometimes with fingerprints, sometimes with pictograms like the Star of David, a heart with an arrow, a corona, a question mark and many others. Isou and the Lettrists frequently used the technique of covering a surface with new signs in their paintings and in their so-called hypergraphic novels, combining signs and small pictures. This elaboration does not weaken the images but reinforces them.
To draw the moral from all this: You can be an iconoclastic artist and try to throw out the images, but they often return.29
- 1. Not only this film, Isou’s complete œuvre is not really acknowledged until this very day. Cf. Bernard Girard: Lettrisme – l’ultime avantgarde. Les Presses du Réel: Dijon 2010, p. 196seq. et passim.
- 2. Cf. Kathy Geritz: “Two Premieres at Art in Cinema: The End and Venom and Eternity”, in: Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid, eds.: Radical Light. Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000. University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 2010, p. 64.
- 3. Stan Brakhage: Letter to Frédérique Devaux, June 21, 1993. University of Colorado, Boulder, Archives.
- 4. Frédérique Devaux: Traité de bave et d’éternité d’Isidore Isou. Yellow Now: Crisnée 1994, p. 17.
- 5. Isidore Isou: “Traité de bave et d’éternité. Film (1951)”, in: Œuvres de spectacle. Gallimard: Paris 1964, pp. 7–88: 27.
- 6. See Andrew V. Uroskie: “Beyond the Black Box: The Lettrist Cinema of Disjunction”, October 135, Winter 2011, pp. 21–48: 41seq.
- 7. For more details see my essay “Mundomanie. Eine Einführung in das Denken von Isidore Isou”, Schreibheft, 78 / 2012, pp. 23–31.
- 8. Maurice Schérer (Eric Rohmer): “Isou ou Les choses telles qu’elles sont”. Cahiers du cinéma, 10 / March 1952, pp. 27–32.
- 9. Andreas Reckwitz: Die Erfindung der Kreativität. Zum Prozess gesellschaftlicher Ästhetisierung. Suhrkamp: Berlin 2012.
- 10. Alain Satié: Le lettrisme, la création ininterrompue. Rocher: Paris 2003, p. 27.
- 11. Frédérique Devaux: “Entretien avec Isidore Isou”, in: Devaux, Traité, op.cit., pp. 140–146: 140.
- 12. Frédérique Devaux: Le cinéma lettriste (1951–1991). Paris Expérimental: Paris 1992, p. 69.
- 13. Devaux, Traité, op.cit., p. 52.
- 14. Devaux, Cinéma, op.cit., p. 40.
- 15. Isou, Traité, op.cit., p. 24.
- 16. Despite the fact that the film premiered in Berlin, Marc Siegel (Frankfurt) protested fiercely against its screening. For him Venom and Eternity not only has no interest whatsoever, but is a sexist work. He referred to the scene where Daniel expresses his hatred for a group leader of the Communist Party, which had expelled him: “Elle était trop moche pour qu’on la viole en bande.” (Isou: Traité, op.cit., p. 41) Prof. Siegel’s polemic remarks reveal an astonishing lack of understanding of the text’s fictionality. The protagonist is clearly characterised as being uncontrollable, sadist, brutal (ibid., p. 60), nevertheless it is a story about his lover Ève, not about him (“il ne sera au fond que l’histoire d’Ève”; ibid., p. 82). I don’t deny the controversial quality of many of Isou’s writings and works. Only a few months before the making of Venom and Eternity the author was sentenced to imprisonment and financial penalty for publishing Isou ou la Mécanique des femmes. The book was banned for pornography. Cf. Bernard Joubert: Histoires de censure. La Musardine: Paris 2006, pp. 91–95. Obviously the lust for censorship never ends.
- 17. Isou, Traité, op. cit., p. 73.
- 18. Devaux: “Entretien avec Isidore Isou”, op.cit., p. 142.
- 19. In the discussion Christa Blümlinger (Paris) raised a fundamental critique of my (and Isou’s) positions by saying the images of this film were neither banal nor accidental but well chosen, carefully framed and even “beautiful”. I consider her critique to be aestheticist and hold on to my view, that it’s possible to make a fascinating film despite the banality or arbitrariness or pettiness or even ugliness of the “images indifférentes” (Isou). How it’s possible, I try to explain in my concluding remarks, see below.
- 20. Jean Cocteau: Entretiens sur le cinématographe, cited in Devaux, Traité, op.cit., p. 18seq.
- 21. Isidore Isou: Esthétique du cinéma, 1952, cited in Devaux, Traité, op. cit., p. 38.
- 22. Ibid., cited in Devaux, Cinéma, op. cit., p. 106.
- 23. Devaux, Cinéma, op.cit., pp. 121–124.
- 24. Ibid., pp. 108–115.
- 25. Ibid., p. 153seq.
- 26. I discuss this in “Isous Abfall”, Bildzweifel. Textem: Hamburg 2011, pp. 43–46.
- 27. Nelson Goodman: Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, New York 1968, p. 38.
- 28. Martine Reid: “Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor”, Yale French Studies, 84 / 1994, pp. 17–26: 26
- 29. I would like to thank Andrea Lerner for revising the first version of this text.