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Epstein, Sound, and the Return to Classical Film Theory

Epstein, le sonore et le retour à la théorie classique du cinéma
Malcolm Turvey

Abstracts

The resurgence of interest in classical film theory in Anglo-American film studies is welcome, but some scholars are appropriating classical film theories uncritically without first assessing their logical and empirical strengths and weaknesses. A case in point is the film theory of Jean Epstein, which is currently being championed by Christophe Wall-Romona and others. This paper first clarifies Jean Epstein’s theory of film sound, and then argues that it suffers from many of the same flaws as Epstein’s theory of film in general. While Epstein’s theory remains historically important and valuable due to its influence on Epstein’s films and the role it played in legitimizing cinema as an art, this paper concludes that it should be rejected from a purely theoretical point-of-view.

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  • 1 By classical film theory, I mean, very broadly, film theory produced before the advent of semiotic- (...)

1There is currently a resurgence of interest in classical film theory in Anglo-American film studies.1 Since 2000, new translations and collections of theoretical writings by Münsterberg, Balázs, Bazin, Epstein, Lukács, Kracauer and others have appeared, and anthologies of essays as well as monographs devoted to the work of Arnheim and other early film theorists have been published. This return to classical film theory is welcome for historical and, perhaps, theoretical reasons. It has augmented our knowledge of the history of film theory, giving us a more complete and fine-grained understanding of earlier film theories. It is also possible that classical film theories contain insights that can help us build better theories of film and other media today. However, in order to determine whether this is the case, it is not enough to demonstrate that film theorists in the past addressed issues of concern to contemporary theorists. It must also be shown that classical film theory is superior in one or more respects to contemporary theorizing in that it offers better theoretical explanations than we currently possess, or accounts for data that our theories leave out. Much current scholarship on classical film theory, unfortunately, fails to take this step. But without it, we have no good reason to turn to classical film theory for answers to theoretical questions, and we risk repeating the theoretical errors of earlier generations.

  • 2 Annette Michelson, "The Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval," Montage an (...)

2A good example is the film theory of Jean Epstein. Like the writings of other great filmmaker-theorists such as Sergei Eisenstein, Epstein's film theory enables us to better understand his remarkable films, which instantiate a number of his theoretical claims. For this reason alone, his writings are valuable. But there is another reason. Epstein's film theory is historically important because it offers an original version of a theoretical strategy employed by several classical film theorists to legitimize the new art form of cinema in the face of its many detractors in the early 20th century. Due to its novelty, the prejudice against its photographic medium (the claim that photography is mere mechanical reproduction and therefore not art), and its quick development into a mass entertainment, film was not accepted as an art, at least initially. Many early film theorists therefore set out to prove that cinema is an art on a par with, or perhaps even superior to, the other arts by demonstrating that it possesses valuable attributes of its own that the other, pre-established arts lack. Epstein, Dziga Vertov, and others seized on its revelatory power, the fact that it can uncover features of reality inaccessible to human perception, as film's major distinguishing feature, and this allowed them to ennoble it by claiming that cinema is a "cognitive instrument" that generates knowledge about reality, much like philosophy, science, and other truth-tracking pursuits.2

  • 3 Christophe Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (Manchester: Manchester (...)

3Some have argued recently, however, that Epstein's film theory is not just historically important, but that it has something to teach film theorists today. Leading the charge is Christophe Wall-Romana, who has dismissed criticisms of Epstein's theory, and has asserted that "in displacing in his films and writings all the canonical boundaries that have since then come to be accepted between the viewer and the film, fiction and documentary, cinema and literature, art and commerce, entertainment and politics, modernity and tradition, straight and queer, scopophilia and bodies on display--among many other binaries--Epstein transmits to us a challenging invitation to question all such dichotomies within our new regime of post-digital and distributed moving images."3 This is pure hyperbole, given that the distinctions Wall-Romana lists are hardly "binaries" that have "come to be accepted." These putative "dichotomies," such as the ones between art and commerce or fiction and documentary film, have long been debated and seen as overlapping independently of Epstein's films and writings. More importantly, Wall-Romona doesn't explain why Epstein offers better accounts of these distinctions than contemporary film theorists and therefore why his theory improves upon film theorizing today.

  • 4 Turvey, Doubting Vision, chapter two.

4One reason to doubt that Epstein's film theory can be of much help to contemporary film theorists is that, as I have claimed elsewhere, there are major problems with Epstein's theory of cinema as a revelatory medium. Specifically, I contend that, in most respects, Epstein fails to convincingly demonstrate that film uncovers features of reality that are invisible to the naked human eye.4 In this essay, I will show how the same problems emerge when Epstein extends his theory of cinematic revelation to film sound. While I am skeptical that these problems can be overcome, I point to them in the spirit of dialectical theorizing. For if they can be surmounted, then perhaps Epstein's theory does have something to offer contemporary film theorizing. Either way, if we don't assess the logical and empirical strengths and weaknesses of classical film theory, as I attempt to do here with Epstein's theory of cinematic revelation and sound, we have no way of knowing whether it can help us improve upon our contemporary film theorizing.

5Epstein occupied a distinct, even unique position within debates about film sound from the late 1920s onward. Many film theorists and filmmakers of the period, especially those of a modernist or avant-garde persuasion who began their careers in the silent era, viewed the coming of synchronized sound with anxiety if not outright hostility. There were numerous economic, industrial, and technological reasons for this. But the principal aesthetic reason was that they tended to conceive of the cinema as a visual art, and they worried that synchronized sound, especially dialogue, would compromise if not destroy film's visual essence, which they defined in various ways, often by invoking the concept of "pure cinema."

  • 5 René Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, trans. Stanley Applebaum, ed. and intro. R. C. Dale (New Yo (...)
  • 6 René Clair, "Talkie versus Talkie," in French Film Theory and Criticism, A History/Anthology, 1907- (...)
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 40.

6A well-known example in the French context is René Clair. Like other French filmmakers of his generation, Clair passionately believed that film is a visual art of movement. "It can scarcely be denied that the cinema was created to record motion," he declared in 1924, and he maintained that "pure cinema" occurs "as soon as a sensation is aroused in the viewer by purely visual means."5 It is not surprising, therefore, that Clair greeted the coming of synchronized dialogue with some trepidation. "The cinema must remain visual at all costs," he famously wrote in 1929.6 "The advent of theatrical dialogue in the cinema will irreparably destroy everything I had hoped for it."7 And in his brilliant early sound films, Clair attempted to preserve, as he put it, "the achievements of the silent film" by relying on synchronized dialogue as little as possible.8

  • 9 Jean Epstein, "On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie," in French Film Theory and Criticism, A Hi (...)
  • 10 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, ed. S (...)

7Movement was also central to Epstein's definition of the cinema throughout his career. In 1924, he proclaimed that "Photogénie" is the purest expression of cinema," and he defined photogénie as the enhancement through filmic reproduction of the moral character of things, with the caveat that "only mobile and personal aspects of things, beings, and souls" may be so enhanced.9 Twenty years later, he continued to insist that there is only "one problem . . . in cinema: the expression of any thing, from the outer world as well as from the inner world, in cinematographic terms, that is, in terms of movement. Which is exactly the object of pure cinema."10

  • 11 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," in French Film Theory and Criticism, Volume 2, pp. 65-66.
  • 12 In "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," for example, Epstein complains that, "After 1930, pure cinema thus (...)
  • 13 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," pp. 65; 66.
  • 14 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 359.
  • 15 Ibid.

8Yet, in spite of the centrality of movement to his definition of film, Epstein saw synchronized sound as a technological enhancement that could, if used correctly, further develop cinema as an art of motion. Certainly, in a text from 1930 on sound film titled "The Cinema Continues," a title that encapsulates his evolutionary view, we find him, like Clair and others, criticizing early sound filmmakers for "ignoring fifteen years of progress toward the general independence of cinematography," and for forgetting the cinema's "essential function, which is the recreation of movement."11 Epstein would continue, in his later writings, to find fault with what he viewed as the almost universal misuse of sound in film.12 Yet, he contends in "The Cinema Continues," "the cinema is not yet in mortal circumstances; quite the contrary," because sound technology can be used to record what Epstein calls "movements of sound."13 Movement, in other words, is not an exclusively visual phenomenon for Epstein, as it appears to be for Clair and many other modernist and avant-garde filmmakers of the period. It is also an auditory phenomenon. Hence, in as much as the cinema's essential vocation is to "recreate movement," according to Epstein, the addition of sound is potentially a major step forward in the development of film art because it allows the filmmaker to reproduce "sound movements" as well as visual ones: "In its great role as the discoverer of mobility, the cinematographic instrument is as capable of revealing sound movements as visual movements," he writes in the 1940s.14 "The domain of pure cinema embraces both the image and the soundtrack."15

  • 16 I explore some of these sources in chapter one of my Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tr (...)
  • 17 Epstein, "On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie," p. 315.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 316 (my emphasis).
  • 19 Ibid.

9What, exactly, did Epstein mean by a "sound movement" and what might it sound like in a film? In order to answer these questions, one needs some understanding of Epstein's conception of movement, which he introduced in his writings of the 1920s. Without going into the Bergsonian and other philosophical and scientific sources of this conception,16 suffice it to say that, while Clair and others used the concept of movement in something like our ordinary language sense to mean changing position in space, Epstein's conception of movement was both more temporal and metaphysical. For him, it also meant change in time: "Mobility should be understood only in the widest sense" to include the fourth dimension of time as well as the three spatial dimensions, he argued in 1924 when defining photogénie.17 Hence, in claiming that "only mobile aspects of the world" can be photogenic, Epstein meant, as he himself was careful to note, "mobility in space and time."18 "The photogenic aspect of an object is a consequence of its variation in space-time," he asserted.19

  • 20 Epstein, "Photogénie and the Imponderable," in French Film Theory and Criticism, Volume 2, p. 189.
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Epstein, "To a Second Reality, a Second Reason," trans. Sarah Keller, in Jean Epstein, p. 321.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 322.

10Moreover, Epstein maintained that reality is constantly changing in time, that it is in a perpetual state of becoming rather than being. And he believed that while the mobility of reality is invisible to the naked human eye, the cinema had revealed it. As he put it, "Such also is the clairvoyance of cinematography which represents [the] world in its overall, continuous mobility. Faithful to the etymology of its name, it discovers movement where our eye sees nothing but stasis."20 The reason film is able to uncover the mobility of reality, Epstein argued, is because it lays bare the fourth dimension of time, which we cannot access unassisted. "But the specific quality of this new projected world is to make another perspective of matter evident, that of time," he claimed. "Time is the fourth dimension of a universe of space-time. Cinematography currently is the only instrument that records an event according to a system of four reference points. In that, it is proving superior to man, who seems constitutionally unsuited to capture a continuous event in four dimensions all by himself."21 A major theme of Epstein's film theory, both early and late, is the limitations of the human mind and senses. "That the senses deceive is the most clichéd platitude," he wrote in the 1940s, but only because "the lesson we have been taught by the cinema" is that "reason deceives us as much as the senses."22 How has film taught us this lesson, according to Epstein? By divulging the fourth dimension of time and thereby showing that, contrary to what our senses and minds tell us, "form is only one unsettled state of a fundamentally mobile condition, and that movement, being universal and variably variable, makes every form inconstant, inconsistent, fluid."23

  • 24 Turvey, Doubting Vision, p. 15.
  • 25 Lundemo, "A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein's Writings on Technology and Subjectivity," in Jean (...)
  • 26 Ibid.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 212.
  • 28 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," p. 65 (my emphasis).
  • 29 Ibid., p. 64. Of course, Epstein may well have felt that in other, non-epistemic, respects, the cin (...)
  • 30 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, trans. Christophe Wall-Romana (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2 (...)

11Trond Lundemo has objected to the view that, for Epstein, the cinema enables us to see "more and better" by revealing truths about reality, such as its mobile nature, that are otherwise beyond the reach of human sight.24 "The major contribution and the main point of Epstein's writings is the very change of perceptual categories produced by cinema," Lundemo insists.25 "This is a multi-sensorial, haptic, and extra-phenomenological dimension in Epstein's philosophy, which completely sets aside the question of seeing 'more and better'."26 According to Lundemo, film for Epstein gives rise to "a different perception of the world to the human sensory apparatus," not a better one.27 However, this is to completely overlook the reason Epstein set such store by the cinema's invention. For him, it was not just a new art form that provided a different perceptual experience of the world, although it certainly was that. Rather, this new perceptual experience was superior in the epistemic sense that it was more truthful, giving us knowledge of the temporal, mobile nature of reality, which we cannot apprehend otherwise: "Through its variable lens aperture, which is more true to life than to banal appearances, the cinema divulges the existence of this fourth dimension because it treats time in perspective."28 This is why Epstein frequently described the cinema not just as a new art form that creates novel perceptual experiences, but as a tool of knowledge-acquisition and enlightenment that overcomes human perceptual and epistemic limits. It is a "particular form of knowing," he wrote in 1930, that "represents the world in its continuous mobility, as well as a general form of knowing because, once it addresses all of the senses, each will be able to surpass its physiological limitations."29 This is also why, throughout his writings, Epstein compared the impact of film on human knowledge to that of other knowledge-producing visual technologies such as microscopes and telescopes. In the preface to The Intelligence of the Machine, having noted that "the new images produced by astronomical instruments and microscopes have profoundly transformed and immensely saturated all of human knowledge," he asks rhetorically: "will images created from this other optical system, this kind of robot-brain that is the cinematographic apparatus, have as great an influence upon the evolution of human culture and civilization?"30

  • 31 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," in Jean Epstein, p. 365.
  • 32 Ibid.

12In his later writings, Epstein extends, with qualifications, this theory of cinema as a revelatory medium to film sound. He begins his text "The Close-Up of Sound" by declaring that "The essential generosity of the cinematographic instrument . . . consists in enriching and renewing our conception of the universe, making its ways of being accessible to us, that looking and listening cannot directly perceive."31 The ear, Epstein is suggesting, has epistemic limitations just like the eye, which the cinema overcomes, allowing us to both see and hear features of reality, such as its mobile nature, that are otherwise inaccessible to us. The principal visual techniques Epstein recommended in his writings and used in his films for revealing the mobility of reality were the close-up as well as slow and fast motion: "slow and accelerated motion in particular reveal to us a world suddenly deprived of one of its most evident material qualities: solidity. It becomes a thoroughly fluid world, where the permanence of forms has vanished into a space that no longer knows any symmetry and a time that has ceased to be uniform."32 It is not surprising, therefore, to find him exploring the application of these techniques, especially deceleration, to sound for similar reasons.

  • 33 Epstein, "The Slow Motion of Sound," in Jean Epstein, p. 382.

The eye has to use deceleration, that is magnification in time, to see that the jab of a boxer, which looked like a simple, rectilinear movement, is in actuality a combination of multiple muscular movements with infinite variations. Likewise, the ear needs a magnifying glass for sound in time--that is, slowed-down sound--to find out for instance that in a finer reality the monotonous and confusing howling of a storm is made up of a host of very different sounds never heard before: an apocalypse of screams, cooing, rumble, cheeping, detonations, tones and accents, most of which do not even have a name.33

13Those who know Epstein's late film Le Tempestaire (1947) will recognize the last sentence of this quotation as a fine description of the slowed down sound in the film's climactic scene when the storm master takes control of the storm.

  • 34 Ibid.
  • 35 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," p. 369.

14Although he does not offer an explicit definition of the term, passages such as this one, and the example from Le Tempestaire, suggest that a sound movement, for Epstein, is a sound that initially appears to the naked human ear as discrete and unchanging. However, when slowed down and thereby "magnified" in time, it is revealed to consist of a number of different, constantly changing sounds, which offer further proof of the fundamentally temporal, mobile nature of reality. Epstein gives as well the "more modest example" of "the noise of a door opening or closing. Slowed down, this humble, ordinary noise reveals its complicated nature, its individual characters, its possibilities for dramatic, comic, poetic, musical signification."34 Thus, in one respect at least, the effect of deceleration is the same in the realms of both image and sound: this technique "increases the naturally limited power of separation available to the organs of vision and audition; it makes the spreading of phenomena in duration possible; it constitutes a sort of microscope of time."35

  • 36 Ibid.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 371.

15Epstein astutely acknowledges, however, that in another respect, there is a profound difference between slow motion images and sounds. The former produces a quantitative but not a qualitative change to the movement depicted in the image. The movement itself remains the same--it is simply slowed down, enabling us to see more of it. When a recording of a sound is decelerated, however, there is a qualitative, not merely quantitative, change to the recorded sound as its pitch drops, "distorting" it so that it may no longer be "recognized."36 This is even more the case, Epstein notes, with the speeding up of the soundtrack, which can distort a recorded sound to the point of "arbitrary comicality." Hence, he concludes that the "application" of acceleration to film sound "appears more limited" than is the case with deceleration.37

  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Ibid., pp. 366; 369.
  • 40 Ibid., p. 366.
  • 41 Ibid.

16Thus, while slowing down sound recordings permits us to hear some aspects of a sound that are inaccessible at normal speed, it also transforms the sound, creating "original tones" rather than making audible features of the pro-filmic sound itself.38 This is one reason Epstein felt that sound had less of a role to play than the image in the "ideological renewal" occasioned by cinema's revelatory capacity, and he remarked instead on sound's "poetic and dramatic" potential for creating "a moving atmosphere."39 Another reason is that, according to Epstein, we derive knowledge about reality primarily though our sense of sight, not hearing. "Will the new sound forms, which cinema would keenly put within range of our hearing, have the power to alter our representation of the universe, down to our most deeply rooted intuitions--as much as did the new visible aspects born on the screen?" he asked rhetorically.40 "Probably not. The intelligence of our species is more visual than auditory."41 Hearing, for Epstein, was cognitively and epistemically inferior to sight.

  • 42 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 357.
  • 43 Stuart Liebman, Jean Epstein's Early Film Theory, 1920–1922 (Ph.D. dissertation, New York Universit (...)
  • 44 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 358.

17Epstein devotes most of his writings on film sound to noises rather than dialogue because, like other modernists and avant-gardists of the period, he remained hostile to synchronized dialogue and used it sparingly in his independently produced sound films. Verbal communication, he contended, was slower and more rational than visual communication, because "it consists of a complicated symbolic system formed of abstract elements, which have to be matched to the data of perceptible reality through an analysis, grouped according to grammatical logic, and on that basis deciphered by the listener or the reader."42 As Stuart Liebman has shown in his seminal, pioneering work on Epstein's early film theory, Epstein was concerned first and foremost with communicating with the viewer through his or her subconscious. This was because Epstein believed the subconscious was less rational and more emotional than consciousness, and could "grasp . . . the essential structure of the objective world" much better.43 Viewing dialogue as rational and slow, he therefore resisted it. This was also the reason that Epstein, again like Clair and others, welcomed the use of music in film. "The music of the image, like the image itself, is addressed almost exclusively at the feeling of the listener-spectator," he argued, "and the union of these two agents of expression, which are minimally rational, constitutes a synchronous couple in action."44

  • 45 Clair, "Talkie versus Talkie," p. 39.

18Unlike Clair and other modernists of his generation, however, Epstein did not insist that the cinema "remain visual at all costs" even though, like them, he saw movement as central to film.45 As we have seen, he argued that synchronized sound had a crucial, if circumscribed, role to play in developing the cinema as an art of motion because he conceived of movement more broadly than they did. For him, mobility consisted of change in both space and time. Given that sounds change over time, he believed that sounds, in his sense, "move"--that they are "sound movements." Hence, in as much as film sound can make audible such sound movements, it has an important, albeit limited, role to play in realizing the potential of cinema as an art of motion. For Epstein, this did not simply consist, as it did for Clair and others, of depicting changes of position in space, but of revealing the fundamentally mobile nature of reality, the putative fact that it is constantly changing in time.

  • 46 Trond Lundemo rejects these Wittgenstein-inspired arguments, claiming that they are "based on a phe (...)
  • 47 Ibid., pp. 52-54.

19As has already been noted, Epstein appears to assert that we are unable to see or in some other way experience, unaided, the fourth dimension of time and that the cinema can divulge its existence to us, thereby laying bare the fundamentally mobile nature of reality. This suggests that Epstein conceives of time as something that is in principle perceptible but that our eyes are too weak to see without the aid of a visual technology, much like a spatial phenomenon that is too far away or too small for us to view without assistance. Drawing on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's remarks about time, I have argued that Epstein thereby conflates time with space, as if, were our eyes only stronger, we would be able to see more of the fourth dimension of time, just as we would be able to see further into space.46 Epstein's enlargement of our ordinary language concept of movement beyond changing position in space to include change in time also points to this conflation. But time, I maintain, is unlike a spatial phenomenon such as a distant planet or microbe, because it is not the sort of thing that can be seen, logically speaking, and it therefore makes no sense to accuse the eyes of failing to see it or to argue that film can make it visible.47 While we can, of course, see events happening in time, and measure how much time events take to occur, time itself is not the sort of thing we can see, point to and describe in the same way that we can see, point to, and describe the space in which events occur.

  • 48 Wall-Romana, "Epstein's Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethi (...)
  • 49 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, pp. 20-21.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 21 (my emphasis).
  • 51 Ibid., p. 20.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 21 (my emphasis). Elsewhere he declares that "time amounts to being only the space consum (...)

20Wall-Romana thinks this is "disingenuous" because, according to him, Epstein does not claim that time is "something that we could see or experience more of if our eyes were only stronger," but instead states only that "cinema records time better than man."48 But in fact Epstein never maintains that film records time better than human beings, because human perceptual organs don't record anything and nowhere does Epstein make the spurious suggestion that they do. Moreover, he does contend that we are incapable of apprehending time unaided; that the cinema not only records time but makes it visible to us; and that time perceived on film is therefore like space viewed through a visual technology that augments the power of the eye, such as a microscope or telescope. In The Intelligence of the Machine, a text Wall-Romana has translated, there is a section titled "Time is a Spatial Relation" in which Epstein argues that, although the "fourth dimension [of time] has been talked about for a long time," it "is ungraspable since our senses provide no data about it."49 It "would still have remained a figment of the mind," he continues, "if the cinematograph had not visualized this conception and reinforced it by experimentally producing wide variations until then unknown from a temporal perspective."50 Epstein has in mind examples such as "the life of a plant condensed into ten minutes, or thirty seconds of close-up activity of an athlete spread over two minutes."51 Due to such fast and slow motion footage, he concludes, "we can now see the lengthening and shortening of time on the screen, in the same way as we see the lengthening or shortening of a distance at either end of a pair of binoculars."52 Admittedly, Epstein is hardly the clearest or most systematic thinker. But passages like this one seem to suggest that, at least sometimes, he is conceiving of time as something perceptible, just like the lengthening and shortening of space can be seen through binoculars; that our senses cannot perceive or in some other way experience time unaided; and that the cinema can "visualize" time for us by lengthening and shortening it through slow and fast motion just as binoculars and other powerful visual technologies make visible the lengthening and shortening of space. In fact, this claim is the lynchpin of Epstein's theory of film's revelatory power given that Epstein offers no other explanation for how the medium is able to uncover the universal mobility of reality and thereby transform human knowledge.

21But let us say, for the sake of argument, that Wall-Romana is correct and that Epstein isn't conflating time with spatial phenomena that our eyes are too weak to see without the help of a visual technology. There are still other problems with Epstein's claim that film can "visualize" a temporal dimension of the universe that we are normally unable to access. Human perception does, of course, have limitations that the cinema can overcome by revealing features of reality that are invisible to us. Film was invented in part by amateur and professional scientists in order to discover and observe aspects of a diverse array of natural phenomena partially or wholly inaccessible to human sight, such as the precise wing movements of birds or the exact leg positions of galloping horses. Epstein is therefore right to argue that, by slowing down footage of phenomena that move too rapidly for our eyes to fully grasp such as the activity of an athlete, or by speeding up ones that are too slow for us to discern like the growth of a plant, the cinema can disclose properties of these phenomena that are otherwise hidden from us. Where he goes astray is in further claiming that film thereby "visualizes" time, which is otherwise beyond the reach of our senses, given that there is a fundamental difference between time and the sort of phenomena laid bare by visual technologies.

22Revelatory technologies such as the cinema uncover imperceptible features of reality by building on our pre-existing perceptual capacities. When watching a horse galloping at a racetrack, we can observe, unaided, its legs moving and their approximate positions even though we cannot discern whether all four touch the ground simultaneously because they move too quickly, which is why slow-motion footage of the galloping horse can disclose it to us. If we were not already able to detect movement or horses legs in the same way that we cannot perceive ultraviolet light, then we would not be able to see whether a horse's hooves hit the ground at the same time in a moving image no matter how slowed down it was. This is because, to state the obvious, we must use our eyes to watch films, meaning that any limitations that constrain what we can view outside the movie theater are operative inside it too. The cinema overcomes these limitations not by removing them, but by transforming the appearance of an imperceptible phenomenon so that it falls within the range of things visible to human sight. Both fast and slow motion, for instance, alter the rate of change of a recording of a phenomenon so that it appears to occur at a speed graspable by the human eye. If, however, our vision could not already detect change, then no matter how fast or slow, we would not be able to see change in a moving image.

23The same is true of microscopes and telescopes. We can view, unassisted, stars and other celestial bodies in the sky, just as we can observe small objects such as grains of salt. This is because we already possess the ability to see objects of a certain size. Telescopes and microscopes give us perceptual access to objects that are too small or far away to discern unaided, such as microbes and distant planets, by making them appear big or close enough to be seen by normal human vision. Microscopes and telescopes would be of no use, however, if we could not already perceive objects within a certain range of sizes. Slowing down the recording of a sound that is otherwise too high to hear, such as an inaudible dog whistle, lowers its frequency, thereby permitting us to hear it. But this is only because we can already hear sounds within a certain spectrum of frequencies, and slowing down the recording transforms the sound and brings it within that spectrum. Revelatory technologies, in other words, augment our already existing capacities, giving us access to more of the things we can already see and hear.

  • 53 Epstein, "Photogénie and the Imponderable," p. 189.
  • 54 Wall-Romana objects to arguments about human vision made in the absence of "a reliable scientific t (...)

24Time, however, is not something we can apprehend at all outside of the movie theater, Epstein acknowledges. "Man's physiological inability to master the notion of space-time and to escape this atemporal section of the world, which we call the present and of which we are almost exclusively conscious, is the cause of most 'accidents of matter and knowing,' most of which would be avoided if we could directly seize the world as the flow that it is," he laments.53 But if this is the case, then even if cinema could in some sense capture time, we would not be able to see it in the moving image, just as we would be unable to observe ultraviolet light rays in a film if the medium could record them. We can already view objects of a certain size or hear sounds within a particular spectrum of frequencies, which is why, once they are enlarged by a microscope, or their frequencies are lowered by slowing down a recording of them, these technologies allow us to access otherwise imperceptible microbes and dog whistles. But we possess no pre-existing capacity to see time that the cinema can build upon in order to show us more of it. Film, like any visual technology, cannot make visible something that is inherently invisible to us. It can only extend our already existing capacity to see certain things, not grant us a fundamentally new one.54

  • 55 Ibid.
  • 56 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, p. 21.

25It might be objected that film does allow us to indirectly see phenomena such as ultraviolet light that are otherwise completely invisible to us. Like X rays, ultraviolet light can change the color of photographic film. Thus, while the cinema does not enable us to see ultraviolet light directly, it does permit us to view where ultraviolet light struck the film, just as a sunburn reveals where ultraviolet light struck the human body, thereby giving us indirect access to it. In general, technologies that detect imperceptible phenomena do so by causing them to trigger an effect we can perceive, as when an alarm emits a sound we can hear on detecting the presence of carbon monoxide gas. Perhaps what Epstein means when he states that film makes "another perspective of matter evident, that of time" is that it enables us to see or in some other way experience time indirectly by way of its effects.55 Indeed, when he writes that time would have remained inaccessible to us if the "cinematograph had not visualized this conception and reinforced it by experimentally producing wide variations until then unknown from a temporal perspective," he might mean that we see time indirectly by way of its lengthening and shortening in slow and fast motion footage.56

  • 57 Ibid.

26But while slow and fast motion allow us to see that the time it took for something to occur in reality has been lengthened and shortened on screen, this does not mean that these techniques permit us to "see the lengthening and shortening of time" in the same way that we can see space lengthened or shortened when the focal length of a lens is altered.57 With the indirect visualization of ultraviolet light or X rays, we can point to and describe the trace in the image left by the reaction of the imperceptible light with the photographic film, just as we can point to where the sound emitted by a carbon monoxide alarm comes from, and describe what it sounds like. But what would we point to and describe in a sped up and slowed down moving image and soundtrack as an indirect effect of time? After all, what we see and hear in the sped up or slowed down image and soundtrack is something changing faster or slower than it does in reality. This is certainly remarkable, and it allows us to see and hear what the world might look and sound like if time went faster or slower than it does, or if our phenomenological experience of time was different than it is. But it does not reveal a temporal dimension of the universe that we are normally unable to access, for unless our perceptual organs are impaired, we are perfectly capable of seeing and hearing, unaided, phenomena change over time if the change occurs at a rate graspable by normal human vision and hearing. If we were not, we would not be able to perceive something change over time in a cinematic image and soundtrack. What fast and slow motion do is extend our already existing capacity to perceive change to phenomena that change too quickly or slowly for us to detect unaided. And if this is the case, then we are already able to indirectly perceive or experience time independently of the cinema, because we perceive things changing all the time outside of the movie theater.

  • 58 Of course, special effects can be used to create a world that appears fluid on screen, as in Christ (...)

27But even if some sense could be made of Epstein's contention that film "visualizes" or in some other way "makes evident" a temporal dimension of the universe that is otherwise invisible to us through fast and slow motion, the cinema does not thereby reveal the universe to be "continuously mobile," or deprive the world of "solidity," or render it "thoroughly fluid" and formless, as Epstein repeatedly asserts. Take the slow motion shots of the leaves blowing along the floors and the curtains billowing on the walls of the corridors of the Usher mansion in Epstein's late silent masterpiece The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). To be sure, the curtains and leaves in these shots are continuously mobile, but the walls and the floor do not move. They do not, for example, buckle, or change shape, as they would if they had been deprived of solidity by cinematic representation. Nor do any of the objects in these shots lose their forms even though some of them (the leaves and curtains) move, which is one of the reasons they remain recognizable throughout. Moreover, the objects that do move in these shots, as in the film as a whole--curtains, leaves, books falling, dust, the human body and face--are mobile entities whose movements we can, and routinely do, observe unaided. The film does not, in other words, reveal as continuously mobile or fluid anything we ordinarily perceive with the naked human eye to be immobile and solid, and I find it hard pressed to think of a single shot or scene in Epstein's films that conforms to his description of the universally "fluid" reality revealed on film.58 The things that are mobile or fluid in Epstein's films are things that we normally perceive to be mobile and fluid outside of the movie theater, such as wind-blown leaves, curtains, and the ocean in Le Tempestaire.

  • 59 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," p. 366.

28Epstein's arguments about the universal mobility of reality revealed by the cinema are even less convincing in the context of film sound, which is perhaps another reason why he was reluctant to claim for sound the same revelatory power that he did for the image. As we have seen, Epstein suggests that sounds that appear to the naked human ear as discrete and unchanging are revealed, when slowed down and thereby "magnified" in time, to be comprised of different, constantly changing sounds, thereby alerting us to the fundamentally temporal, mobile nature of reality. But as Epstein himself notes, "the ordinary data we receive from hearing are themselves confused, unstable, fleeting."59 This means it is not clear what counts as a "solid" or "immobile" sound given the degree of fluctuation we ordinarily perceive in auditory phenomena. And if this is the case, it is also unclear how film sound contributes to the uncovering of a fundamentally mobile reality given that sound is normally experienced as, to use Epstein's term, "mobile."

  • 60 Epstein, "The Slow Motion of Sound," p. 382.

29Take the slowed-down sound of the storm at the end of Le Tempestaire. Certainly, this technique creates a powerful dramatic effect at a key moment in the narrative, and it arguably allows us to hear the "apocalypse of screams, cooing, rumble, cheeping, detonations, tones and accents" that Epstein describes and that we would miss if the sound was not decelerated.60 However, we hear the sound of storms played at normal speed in much of the rest of the film, and while it is difficult to make the fine-grained distinctions we can when the sound is slowed down, it is still possible to distinguish between the crashing of individual waves, to notice the variation in the intensity and pitch of the wind, and to hear how the storms' roar waxes and wanes. The sounds of the storms played at normal speed elsewhere in the film, in other words, are already "mobile." They vary over time, just as they do when we listen to real storms, meaning that Epstein's own example fails to show that film sound can reveal a fundamentally mobile world that is beyond our senses outside of the movie theater. What slowed-down film sound does instead, I suggest, is extend our pre-existing ability to hear "mobile" sounds so that we can listen to more of them in more detail.

30It might be objected that I am interpreting Epstein's writings too literally. Of course he doesn't argue that film actually reveals time itself, or shows reality to be fundamentally mobile, someone might protest. Rather, he means these things in some metaphorical or secondary sense. He is a poet of the cinema, Epstein's defender might insist, who is using imaginative analogies to evoke the experience of film viewing. But if Epstein's claims about cinematic revelation should be construed as poetry, then this means that they do not constitute a theory. In other words, they are not a series of propositions about film's nature and functions, but rather a set of fanciful metaphors. Furthermore, while Epstein's writings can, at times, be poetic, which perhaps accounts for their powers of seduction, the evidence suggests that Epstein himself believed that he was advancing theoretical claims about the cinema. If he did not, he would not have drawn the conclusions that he does from them, and nor would he have attached so much importance to film's invention.

  • 61 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," p. 64.

No more than twenty years have been spent on tentative research, and we can already measure the significance of the change that the cinema in its expression of the external and internal movement of all beings has brought to bear on our thinking. Even now, we correct ourselves according to a reality where time never stops, where values only exist so long as they vary, where nothing exists except in becoming, where a phenomenon without velocity is inconceivable.61

31If he did not think that cinema had actually revealed the putative mobility of reality by visualizing time or enabling us to hear "sound movements," then he would not have repeatedly make euphoric claims like the one above about its transformative impact on human knowledge and life, because he would not have believed that it had effected such a transformation.

  • 62 For criticisms, see Doubting Vision, pp. 93-97.

32I have been hard on Epstein's theory of the revelatory power of cinema and its extension to film sound only because of the overblown arguments currently being made about the theoretical, as opposed to historical, relevance of Epstein's writings. Moreover, some of Epstein's claims about film's capacity to reveal time and mobility have recently been taken up, with little scrutiny, by Gilles Deleuze and his followers, and in general, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, scholars are returning to classical film theories without testing their logical coherence and empirical accuracy.62 Unless one takes Epstein as a theorist seriously, however, it hardly matters whether his film theory is true or not. What is important is that Epstein believed that the cinema uncovers a temporal dimension of the universe that is otherwise inaccessible to us, thereby showing reality to be intrinsically mobile. For it was this belief that propelled him to experiment with film, including film sound, in novel ways and make movies of enduring artistic value. For this reason alone we should appreciate his theory of cinematic revelation, even though I suspect it must, as I have argued here, be rejected as unfounded from a purely theoretical point-of-view.

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Notes

1 By classical film theory, I mean, very broadly, film theory produced before the advent of semiotic-psychoanalytical film theorizing in the late 1960s. On the recent return to classical film theory, see "A Return to Classical Film Theory?" October 148 (Spring 2014); and "What's New in Classical Film Theory?" Screen 55, no. 3 (Autumn 2014).

2 Annette Michelson, "The Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval," Montage and Modern Life, 1919-1942, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 62. In Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), I refer to this theoretical strategy as "revelationism."

3 Christophe Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 13.

4 Turvey, Doubting Vision, chapter two.

5 René Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, trans. Stanley Applebaum, ed. and intro. R. C. Dale (New York: Dover, 1972), pp. 35; 100.

6 René Clair, "Talkie versus Talkie," in French Film Theory and Criticism, A History/Anthology, 1907-1939, Volume 2: 1929-1939, ed. and intro. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 39.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 40.

9 Jean Epstein, "On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie," in French Film Theory and Criticism, A History/Anthology, 1907-1939, Volume 1: 1907-1929, ed. and intro. Richard Abel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 314; 317 (my emphasis).

10 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, ed. Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2012), p. 356.

11 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," in French Film Theory and Criticism, Volume 2, pp. 65-66.

12 In "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," for example, Epstein complains that, "After 1930, pure cinema thus seemed bound to disappear completely. Words came aplenty to spare the illustrators of film any effort of invention. As to this profound and fleeting unspeakable quality, which the image had sometimes succeeded in capturing, it was crushed by the slow, heavy, and rigid system of speech, which sent it back into limbo, a state it was well used to" (p. 358).

13 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," pp. 65; 66.

14 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 359.

15 Ibid.

16 I explore some of these sources in chapter one of my Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 21-25. Ludovic Cortade also points to "the far-reaching influence exerted by Bergson on Epstein" in his insightful essay, "The 'Microscope of Time': Slow Motion in Jean Epstein's Writings" (in Jean Epstein, p. 163). Christophe Wall-Romana complains that I, like Jacques Rancière, incorrectly claim that "Epstein is a Bergsonian," and Wall-Romana points to several putative divergences between Epstein and Bergson's theories to counter this claim (Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein, pp. 161-62; 183). However, I make no such claim, arguing only that "Epstein, like many artists and intellectuals of his generation, was influenced" by Bergson among other sources (Doubting Vision, p. 21, my emphasis), and I point to several respects in which that influence is evident, none of which Wall-Romana challenges. To state the obvious, arguing that someone's work is influenced by someone else's work is not to claim that their work is identical and that there are no differences between them. For example, Gilles Deleuze in his film theory and elsewhere is clearly and self-avowedly influenced by Bergson's philosophy, but Deleuze departs from Bergson's philosophy in several fundamental ways, most notoriously in his claim that cinema "gives us a movement-image" (Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], p. 2).

17 Epstein, "On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie," p. 315.

18 Ibid., p. 316 (my emphasis).

19 Ibid.

20 Epstein, "Photogénie and the Imponderable," in French Film Theory and Criticism, Volume 2, p. 189.

21 Ibid.

22 Epstein, "To a Second Reality, a Second Reason," trans. Sarah Keller, in Jean Epstein, p. 321.

23 Ibid., p. 322.

24 Turvey, Doubting Vision, p. 15.

25 Lundemo, "A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein's Writings on Technology and Subjectivity," in Jean Epstein, p. 215.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 212.

28 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," p. 65 (my emphasis).

29 Ibid., p. 64. Of course, Epstein may well have felt that in other, non-epistemic, respects, the cinema does not allow us to see "more and better." My claim is only that, for Epstein, it does so in the epistemic sense that, at least in respect of the fourth dimension of time, it more accurately represents the true nature of reality than do our senses unaided.

30 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, trans. Christophe Wall-Romana (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2014), p. xi. Strangely, Wall-Romana, the translator of this text, argues that, for Epstein, the "cinema is not a device of prosthetic perception" like a microscope or telescope, because such devices "merely and only expand[] the reach of human vision," whereas for Epstein, film "reveals perceptual and conceptual domains beyond out psycho-physiological range" (Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy, p. 73). Not only does this ignore Epstein's repeated comparison of the cinema to microscopes and telescopes, but it also disavows the fact that such devices do, of course, reveal "perceptual and conceptual domains beyond out psycho-physiological range." This is why they have had such a profound impact on human life, radically transforming the way we conceive of the natural world, and it is also why Epstein compares the cinema to them.

31 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," in Jean Epstein, p. 365.

32 Ibid.

33 Epstein, "The Slow Motion of Sound," in Jean Epstein, p. 382.

34 Ibid.

35 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," p. 369.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., p. 371.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid., pp. 366; 369.

40 Ibid., p. 366.

41 Ibid.

42 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 357.

43 Stuart Liebman, Jean Epstein's Early Film Theory, 1920–1922 (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1980), p. 149.

44 Epstein, "Pure Cinema and Sound Film," p. 358.

45 Clair, "Talkie versus Talkie," p. 39.

46 Trond Lundemo rejects these Wittgenstein-inspired arguments, claiming that they are "based on a phenomenological model of vision" that is overly dependent on the concept of "recognition" (Lundemo, "A Temporal Perspective," p. 213). Lundemo is doubly mistaken. Wittgenstein's discussion of the perceptual experience of "aspect-dawning" is an attempt at analyzing the concept of seeing by clarifying its use in ordinary language (see section xi of part 2 of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 2nd edition [Oxford: Blackwell, 1958]). Unless Lundemo is employing the concept of phenomenology so broadly that it is synonymous with perceptual experience, then Wittgenstein is not making any kind of phenomenological claim, and he was not, of course, a phenomenologist. Moreover, neither Wittgenstein nor I analyze the concept of recognition. Rather, I draw on Wittgenstein's discussion of aspect-dawning in order to clarify the concept of seeing (Doubting Vision, pp. 61-69).

47 Ibid., pp. 52-54.

48 Wall-Romana, "Epstein's Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics," in Jean Epstein, p. 64. Wall-Romana also thinks this is "disingenuous" because "the spatialization (quantification) of time is precisely what Bergson's qualitative duration opposes most strenuously," and one can "hardly argue," as do I, that "Epstein is thoroughly Bergsonian" and that "he misses Bergson's basic thesis" (ibid.). However, see note 16.

49 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, pp. 20-21.

50 Ibid., p. 21 (my emphasis).

51 Ibid., p. 20.

52 Ibid., p. 21 (my emphasis). Elsewhere he declares that "time amounts to being only the space consumed" by light! ("To a Second Reality, a Second Reason," in Jean Epstein, p. 323).

53 Epstein, "Photogénie and the Imponderable," p. 189.

54 Wall-Romana objects to arguments about human vision made in the absence of "a reliable scientific theory," and he cites Alva Noe's "enactive" theory of vision as an example, presumably, of just such a "reliable scientific theory" ("Epstein's Photogénie as Corporeal Vision," p. 63). But, first, how do we non-experts in film studies and elsewhere know what a "reliable scientific theory of human vision" is? And of the many conflicting ones that are on offer out there, how do we know which one to choose? Wall-Romana offers no explanation for why he picks Noe's. But according to at least one expert in vision science, Noe's theory is, at least in part, "behind the times" scientifically speaking (Shimon Edelman, "Mostly Harmless: Action in Perception by Alva Noe," Artificial Life 12, no. 1 [Winter 2006], p. 184). More importantly, there are many empirical claims about human vision that one can criticize in the absence of a scientific theory, such as the assertion that we humans only begin to see when we reach the age of fifty, or that we can see around corners, or that we can see unaided a golf ball on the surface of the Moon from the Earth's surface. Moreover, Wall-Romana seems unaware of the distinction between the philosophy of perception, in which (under one construal) one attempts to clarify the meaning of perceptual and related concepts, and the science of perception, in which one attempts to explain how it is human beings and other creatures perceive through empirical testing and theory-building. It is the former I am engaged in, namely, asking in what sense, if any, film "visualizes" time.

55 Ibid.

56 Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine, p. 21.

57 Ibid.

58 Of course, special effects can be used to create a world that appears fluid on screen, as in Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010). But this is to create an appearance, not to reveal the real world as fundamentally fluid.

59 Epstein, "The Close-Up of Sound," p. 366.

60 Epstein, "The Slow Motion of Sound," p. 382.

61 Epstein, "The Cinema Continues," p. 64.

62 For criticisms, see Doubting Vision, pp. 93-97.

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References

Electronic reference

Malcolm Turvey, « Epstein, Sound, and the Return to Classical Film Theory », Mise au point [Online], 8 | 2016, Online since 24 April 2016, connection on 23 October 2017. URL : http://map.revues.org/2039

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About the author

Malcolm Turvey

Sol Gittleman Professor in the Department of Art and Art History and Director of Film and Media Studies at Tufts University, and an editor of the journal October. He is the author of Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s (MIT Press, 2011). He is currently finishing a book titled Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism.
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« Sol Gittelman Professor » au département « Art and Art History » et directeur du programme « Film and Media Studies » à l’Université Tufts. Il est également un des rédacteurs de la revue October. Ses principaux ouvrages sont : Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2008) et The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s (MIT Press, 2011). Il termine présentement la rédaction d’un ouvrage consacré à Jacques Tati : Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Mise au point sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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