Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 7, 2017
Kaira M. Cabañas Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 192 pp.; 90 b/w ills. Paper $27.50 (9780226174594)

In Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), Isidore Isou declares “ISOU will unmake words into their letters,” completing what he identifies as modern poetry’s “phase ciselant” (chiseling or reductive phase)—the avant-gardist project of purifying language of all semantic function inaugurated by Charles Baudelaire’s elevation of form above poetic “anecdote.” Isou founded the literary movement Lettrism in 1946 shortly after fleeing his native Romania for Paris. Kaira M. Cabañas’s Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde shows how Isou’s influential film of 1951, Traité de bave et d’éternité (“Treatise on Venom and Eternity”), extends the revolutionary renewal of language enacted on the page during poetry’s “phase ciselant” into the domain of recorded speech. Cabañas’s concise, thought-provoking study sheds new light on the brief but often overlooked period of radical filmmaking that followed in Traité’s wake. It demonstrates how Lettrist cinema disrupted the signifying conventions of the film medium, and even more crucially, how it thoroughly reconceptualized the specific discursive practices embedding cinema within the socio-historical conditions of postwar France.

Isou’s Traité incorporates narration that is disconnected from and indifferent to the images that appear on screen. The film’s protagonist, Daniel, played by Isou himself, wanders the streets of Paris, his meandering interrupted by encounters with literary luminaries and anonymous scenes of French colonial life in Indo-China recovered from discarded newsreels. These seemingly random bits of footage do nothing to further the narrative, nor do they correspond to the soundtrack in which the incantations of a Lettrist poem give way to a lecture by Isou on the film’s own form. Isou’s declarations are met with jeers from an angry crowd, recorded outbursts that he imagined would mingle with those erupting spontaneously from the live cinema audience. Off-Screen Cinema demonstrates how Isou’s provocations set the course for a series of cinematic experiments that directly subverted the viewing conditions of the ciné-club in France after the Second World War. Popular since the 1920s, but banned during the German occupation, these informal film associations reintroduced postwar French audiences to the conventions of a tripartite viewing program: lecture, screening, and discussion. Cabañas persuasively illuminates how this presentational format provided the structure and social conditions against which Lettrist cinema would define its own aims, radically disassociating sound from image, as well as cinematic experience from its techno-photographic apparatus.

Off-Screen Cinema follows on the heels of Cabañas’s first book, The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme: Art and the Performative in Postwar France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), and broadens the earlier study’s focus on performativity, social ritual, and discursive convention as sites of artistic engagement in the postwar French avant-garde. Cabañas aligns Lettrist cinema with a strain of “heterodox modernism,” which she pits against the “modernist affirmations” of critics such as Clement Greenberg, who “would claim for a medium a single technical support or unique essence” (15–16). Lettrist cinema’s heterodox status, she argues, pivots on its exploitation of semiotic and material differences internal to the medium’s reproduction of sound and image (16). For Isou and his Lettrist contemporaries, cinema was neither an essentially visual nor aural medium. Since it could never be reduced to a single element of its technical substrate, Lettrist cinema was free to incorporate aspects of literature, music, poetry, and so on. To further elaborate the heterogeneous character of Lettrism’s counter-modernism, Cabañas turns to Antonin Artaud’s influential account of theater as “no thing” in itself, yet nonetheless something that “makes use of everything” (16). While Cabañas argues that Isou and his fellow Lettrists claimed film “as part of a social network in which spectators and their responses to the film are integral” (14), she sidesteps sustained consideration of what is at stake in the tension between the two competing modernisms she identifies. Her aim instead is to secure the crucial place of Lettrist cinema in an alternative genealogy of avant-garde practice, one that, Cabañas insists, is less bound up with the appearance of projected images in galleries than with the emphasis on speech in performative modes of contemporary art and activism. Given that such a genealogy encompasses both artistic and political activity, these claims open onto an essential inquiry into the relationship between aesthetics and politics in postwar France, particularly where the Lettrists’ heterodox approach to medium intersects with cinema’s fundamental heteronomy as a (mass) media.

While Cabañas does not frame her analysis in exactly these terms, her account of Isou’s engagement with cinema as a form of mass media is one of the most compelling threads that runs through the first chapter of the book. It offers a carefully observed reading of Isou’s practice of ciselure, specifically his “chiseling” of the found newsreel footage that punctuates Traité. This technique violently disrupts the news image’s capacity to sustain semantic meaning by scratching away at its otherwise invisible, self-effacing support—the celluloid film-strip. Cabañas observes that Isou’s marks of erasure are not indiscriminately applied in Traité, as some critics have suggested, but rather selectively isolate state officials involved in the military rituals of French Colonialism. Unlike many avant-garde filmmakers in the United States such as Bruce Conner, Cabañas notes, Isou rejected meaning generated by way of metaphoric juxtapositions or the building of rhythmic momentum across incommensurate shots. Instead, the selective chiseling of relatively static scenes of military pageantry throws into relief the colonial state’s performative staging of events for the camera, and by extension, cinema’s imbrication with these operations of governmentality. Cabañas here presents Isou’s operations of critique in relatively straightforward terms. However, when read alongside Hannah Feldman’s account of Isou’s project in From A Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945–1962 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), Cabañas’s conclusions risk prematurely foreclosing the possibility of a more vexed relationship to forms of mediation bound up with what Feldman terms “the imperial logic of public, national, cultural, and aesthetic institutions” (107).

In the second chapter, Cabañas explores how Maurice Lemaître’s Le film est déjà commencé? (1951) extended, but also moved beyond, Isou’s strategies of chiseling and discrepant montage. Initially, Lemaître’s film appears to share a number of formal elements with Traité: both include marks created by scratching away at the film’s emulsion and bits of found footage that appear without any direct relationship to the shouts and criticisms incorporated into the soundtrack. Yet, while Isou calls attention to the discursive organization of events on screen, Lemaître conceptualizes the screening itself as a performative event. Cabañas argues that this performative approach to the event of the screening must be understood “against the grain of the ciné-club’s enforcement of silence and regulation of speech” (70). Debate after a typical ciné-club screening often focused on the question of film’s essence as a medium. Lemaître treats such debate itself as one of the “constitutive materials of film” (72). Cabañas concludes that while Isou exploits discrepancies between sound and image that are internal to film’s technical support, Lemaître mobilizes external elements of cinema determined by the social conditions of its reception.

The final half of Off-Screen Cinema focuses on films that abandon the projection of photographic images entirely to explore the polarity between critical coherence and semantic incoherence, both on and off screen. The subject of the third chapter, Gil J. Wolman’s L’Anticoncept (1951), dispenses with a conventional screen altogether, replacing it with a floating weather balloon illuminated by periodic flashes of light. Wolman, Cabañas argues, extends the visual field beyond the screen, placing new emphasis on modes of bodily reception that are typically repressed through psychic absorption in conventional narrative cinema. Whereas Isou repurposes military footage, Wolman appropriates an instrument of militarized “eyeless vision” (the weather balloon) as a projection surface itself. L’Anticoncept ends with an eruption of bodily sound that pushes beyond Isou’s framework in another way: refusing the mere reduction of words to their letters, Wolman’s conception of poetry, which he called mégapneumie, draws upon any and all sounds produced by the body.

L’Anticoncept was banned in France by the Commission de contrôle des films cinématographiques in 1952. By way of reference to Judith Butler’s account of “impossible speech,” Cabañas makes the case that these official efforts to regulate the body’s irruption “in the public space of cinema” call attention to norms that also go beyond Lemaître’s preoccupation with (un)disciplining the subject as film viewer; they illuminate the role of speech in securing one’s status as a recognizable subject at all (94–95). While Wolman moves toward divesting language of its conceptual meaning, Cabañas argues in chapter 4 that Guy Debord’s appropriated language on the soundtrack of Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952)—quoted passages from newspapers, legal documents, and literary sources—constitutes an early instance of détournement, a strategy of subversive re-signification that would later become central to Situationism. In lieu of the Lettrists’ insistence on disassociating image from text, Debord increasingly took up language to counter the naturalized truth of the image on screen in such a way that the “conceptual content” of the language remained intact (120). Cabañas’s project sets out to recuperate the radical potential of Lettrist cinema to “alter relations between seeing, speaking, and doing” that dissipate once Debord opts for a “top-down model of communication” (122).

Off-Screen Cinema focuses on moments of opposition and avant-gardist negation in the emergence of Lettrist cinema. At times, a reader may yearn for more detail about the world that gave rise to this particular avant-garde milieu. Instead the epilogue traces out two possible legacies left behind by Lettrist cinema: Yves Klein’s expansion of painting beyond its material supports and Marcel Broodthaers’s project of institutional critique. The study of twentieth-century art is greatly enriched by the sustained attention Cabañas grants to Lettrist cinema’s brief flourishing, particularly where she demonstrates its impact on important modes of performative and critical practice to follow. While her methods and conclusions may sometimes run the risk of assimilating the wild heterodoxy of Lettrist cinema into a familiar, progressivist account of the march toward institutional critique, Cabañas’s essential study illuminates a vital episode in the longer history of the contemporary post-medium condition. Along the way it opens onto another, more open-ended realm of inquiry: the history of art’s entanglements with (mass) media. Ultimately Off-Screen Cinema offers two strategies of engagement, sometimes in productive tension with one another: it asks what Lettrist cinema made of the formal nature of media’s social conventions (for example, the format of the ciné-club screening or the military ceremony staged for newsreel cameras), but also what was at stake in treating these social forms as historical and political contingencies.

Erica Levin
Assistant Professor, History of Art Department, Ohio State University