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Jean Epstein (#110 of 6)

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

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The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Thus begins famed cultural theorist Roland Barthes’s 1957 essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” which concluded by claiming that Greta Garbo’s face, unlike that of the contemporary Audrey Hepburn, belonged to the realm of ideas, rather than events. One should take such a proclamation to mean that Garbo’s face—its projection on a large screen—transcended the bounds of nationalistic interest and attained a degree of universality: an idea. Barthes’s interests embody an Eisensteinian notion of cinematic signification, emphasizing individual frames and filmic components over narrative coherence. Such an aesthetic leaning will not be surprising, however, after reading editor Marina Dahlquist’s recently published collection of essays on silent serial queen Pearl White, who, much like Garbo in later years, was valued across the globe for her face and body—and, more to the point, what each of those stood for in relation to an articulation of the femme nouvelle blossoming at the end of the 1910s.

Of particular reference here is the serialized film The Perils of Pauline (1914), though various, subsequent films are discussed. Over the course of seven essays, White is discussed in a global context, trotting the globe from France, to Sweden, to Czechoslovakia, to India, and to China, respectively. Alone, each essay provides clear historical context. Together, they assemble an invaluable addition to the canon of what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular Modernism,” and supplements previous understandings and articulations of this concept with rigorously detailed examinations of precisely how White’s body and persona impacted various cultural and nationalistic, artistic movements. In some cases, as with the surrealists and the French, the impact was exponential. In Sweden, censorship prevented Pauline and her serial sisters from frequenting screens. Yet, regardless of the degrees of impact, these essays conduct their historicity with a sensitive, keen eye for not just culturally specific detail, but together provide a comprehensive approach to the topic in ways that few edited collections manage.

Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein
Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein is one of the great filmmakers cinephiles discover after deciding there are no more worlds left to conquer—and the effect is blinding and humbling. Like many such revelations, his work throws the map of cinema into disarray, knocking over the mile markers and headstones set up long ago by the official canon: surrealists over here, expressionism over there, social realism way over there. He was a little bit of each—none exclusively—and more. He associated with the surrealists, but the oneiric qualities of The Fall of the House of Usher (adapted by Luis Buñuel, who also served as assistant director on the film), like much of his work, are found in some unquantifiable space between special effects and elementary moods. Work that seemed to foretell the neorealist, social-realist, or magical-realist subdivisions just as often turned into daydreams, or intricate music boxes that deflated the heaviness of their own narrative concerns. A common sight—or sensation—in an Epstein film is the vast, oscillating sea, indifferent, unimpressed, a law unto itself, governing the internal physics of a given work, as well as the hearts of men and women.

Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon: Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher

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Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon: Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher
Avant-Garde Blog-a-Thon: Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher

First, a distinction—or, rather, an abstraction—by Jean Epstein: that The Fall of the House of Usher is based on the themes of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story of the same name. The gothic-printed message of the title card forecasts the film’s ether-ness (its avant-garde inquest of the real through an incantation of otherworldly atmosphere), which crests over us like the veil of the cinema’s original corpse bride. Through kaleidoscopic composition—of prismatic swamp water, soggy terrain, and branches that caress the sky like fingers—Epstein affects Rorschach-like chiaroscuro, every image a dense, sludgy viscera, a looking glass held up to the audience and characters, daring us to pass through.

The staircase outside Usher’s house is the final check point between here and there, winding down and around to the ground and shot by Epstein so that the landscape of the film is sliced into three very distinct spatial planes: foreground, middleground, and background. This profound consideration and demarcation of cinematic space gives this masterwork of the silent era a striking 3D-like complexity, and its power is such that the long shot of a dog running away from the house of Usher induces a cataclysmic sense of fear and strangulation, as if the animal weren’t running down a road but falling into a bottomless abyss.