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The Fall Of The House Of Usher (#110 of 2)

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.