Saturday, January 15, 2011
Isidore Isou: Venom & Eternity (1951)
A confrontational yet essential masterpiece of avant-garde film, Isidore Isou's Venom & Eternity lays out a set of aesthetic innovations and theoretical preoccupations that have been further developed in the films of Brakhage, Debord, and Godard. Deliberately constructed to provoke the audience, the film begins without images, testing the viewer's patience by playing noisy Lettrist music over a black screen for some time before cockily stating, "The film you are about to see differs radically--to put it mildly--from any film ever made any time, any place." On the soundtrack, a young man named Daniel enrages a ciné-club audience by arguing that existing film traditions must be destroyed so that the cinema might be saved. Devoted without reservation to the modernist quest of pursuing the aesthetically new, Daniel admits that the cinema he desires to create might actually be painful to watch, sadistically claiming, "I want to make a film that hurts your eyes." He proposes a new, "Discrepant Cinema," which would free the film's sound from its images. "In my pictures, I would use speech as an extra dimension, supplementing the image as if the sound came from without and did not exist as heretofore because of internal necessity within the belly of the image." This statement describes Venom & Eternity itself, which couples Daniel's vituperative proclamations on the soundtrack with seemingly autonomous images of Isou wandering the streets of Paris as well as footage borrowed from other films. These images are further attacked by often being played in reverse or projected upside down. At one point Daniel states, "One must go beyond the image and attack the film stock," and proposes to "sculpt flowers on the film stock" by scratching it. Isou subjects much of Venom & Eternity to such defacement, which, destructively acting on the material foundations of the film, produces a beautiful and playful new vision. Like the Lettrist poems recited in the film's final section, Isou's film attempts to liberate its medium from the protocols of form and meaning, "chiseling" away at existing conventions so as to uncover and free the materials for a future cinema.