Jean-Isidore Isou (1925-2007): Venom and Eternity

Posted on : by : jjmurphy

It is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when Bosley Crowther routinely used to attack any novel or daring new film release, such as Cassavetes’ Shadows, or that Hilton Kramer had the final say about what passed as art in the New York Times. So it takes a certain cultural adjustment now that the New York Times has progressive art critics such as Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter, while Manohla Dargis covers film. In a review of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth – one of the truly strange recent films out there – Dargis writes: “Beautifully photographed this elliptical, sometimes confounding, often mysterious and wholly beguiling mixture of fiction and nonfiction looks and sounds as if it were made on another planet. And, in some respects, it was.” Later on in the review she comments of the current state of affairs regarding movies: “Ambiguity is rarely valued in movies anymore, at least for those in commercial release. The recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni have been, among other things, a painful reminder of how few genuinely novel, aesthetically and intellectually challenging films reach American movie houses. Our theaters are filled with junk, our heads too. Newspapers and blogs crunch box-office numbers far more than they engage in discussions about the art.”

Following the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni on the same day early last week, the notion that famous deaths always come in “threes” caused a number of bloggers to speculate about whom might be the third. Luckily, it wasn’t Godard, and, no, it wasn’t Jeremy Blake – that’s too ridiculous even to address. But Jim Kreul (citing Pip Chodorov’s Frameworks post) later reported the news on the “filmies” listserv that the Lettrist poet Jean-Isidore Isou had passed away in Paris at age 82. This actually occurred on July 28, two days before Bergman and Antonioni, thus completing the trilogy, even though I failed to see it mentioned elsewhere. The timing of Isou’s passing is ironic, given the fact that his infamous film Traité de bave et d’éternité or Venom and Eternity (1951) has just been released on DVD by Kino International. If ever a film seemed to be made on another planet, it’s Venom and Eternity. As a college student, I first saw the film in the late 1960s as part of a “History of Film” lecture by avant-garde critic Ken Kelman in New York City. The film struck me at the time as one of the craziest films I had ever seen in my life.

The same day I heard the news of Isou’s death, the DVD arrived in the mail from Amazon. I found the time to re-watch it this weekend. For those who know nothing about the filmmaker, Jean-Isidore Isou or Isidore Isou (Isidore Goldstein) was born in Romania in 1925. He founded Lettrism (Letterism) as a one-person movement in France in the mid-1940s. Lettrism privileged the new and original in art above all else, and attacked anything perceived to be the least bit conventional with a vengeance. Lettrism soon attracted a number of followers but eventually splintered into different factions, one caused by the protest by some of the members against Charlie Chaplin – an action which Isou denounced publicly. Other well-known members included Maurice Lemaître and Guy Debord. The latter eventually split with Lettrism to form the Situationist International, which helped to ferment the May 1968 revolt in France.

Made when Isou was only twenty-six-years-old, Venom and Eternity was supposed to have caused a ruckus when it first screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Raymond Rohauer introduced Isou’s work to American audiences, but edited the film down from 120 minutes to 77 minutes. According to Chodorov, his own French DVD company Re-Voir is working on a restoration of the film in conjunction with the French national film archive and Pompidou Centre, which made me apprehensive about the version I was getting from Kino on Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954. The two-disc set contains works by Gregory Markopoulos, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Sidney Peterson, Marie Menken, and so forth (and also contains notes about each film), but I’ll restrict my comments here to Venom and Eternity, which includes 34 minutes of film never seen in this country. The quality of the DVD, which comes from a print from Rohauer’s extensive private film collection, is pretty decent, though, partially due to Isou’s habit of putting some of the images upside down, not all of the subtitles are entirely readable.

Venom and Eternity begins with a five-minute sound poem of complete jibberish over black leader. It is dedicated to Griffth, Gance, Chaplin, Clair, Eisenstein, von Stroheim, Flaherty, Buñuel, and to others “who have contributed something NEW or left their hallmark upon the Art of Cinema.” Chapter 1 is entitled: “The Principle.” The film is intended above all else to be a manifesto of cinema. Whereas Alexander Astruc’s concept of “camera stylo” wanted the camera to become as flexible for filmmakers as the pen was for writers, Isou advocates for a cinema literally based on the pen. For him, cinema should be rooted in language rather than images. He wants to sever the relationship between the two. The narrator boldly proclaims: “The break between speech and image shall form Discrepant Cinema. I am launching the manifesto of the Discrepant Cinema.” Isou seems to want to transpose the novel directly into cinema. In denouncing the position that the basis of cinema is the photographic image, Isou as narrator comments: “Whoever claimed that cinema is the art of photography?” Take photography away and Cinema becomes radio . . . It’s like reading in a chair. . . Why shouldn’t Cinema, in turn, become a species of radio?”

Isou’s notion of cinema has no regard for industrial production. He characterizes craftsmen as “those to whom cinema has never been a creative art, but an industry organized in defense of current production.” The originality of the artist – not high production values – is the only thing that matters to him. Isou intones: “It is said that the public is stupid. That is why those who hold it in contempt never dare to offer it something original. The public is reduced to the smallest common denominator. . . . You can see ordinary motion pictures any day of the week in any neighborhood movie theater. I hope you will quietly watch the screening of this film which at least has the virtue of being different.”

As the narrator of Venom and Eternity, Isou also argues against conventional continuity, positing instead “a willful accumulation of errors.” Because Isou’s intention is to destroy the image, he insists on the primacy of written scenario – “a novel recited by a reader to friends” – as the basis of cinema. The narrator explains: “On the other hand, we have been able, for the first time in the annals of the Cinema, to complete a scenario independent in itself, without being forced to intercut it with ‘visual elements.’ Therefore, an attentive spectator will be able to hear the most beautiful scenario in the history of Cinema.” Throughout Venom and Eternity, Isou addresses the viewer directly, much like the San Francisco beat poet Christopher Maclaine would do two years later in his apocalyptic film about atomic destruction, The End (1953). Like Maclaine, Isou also includes the viewer’s imagined objections and reactions as part of the film. Isou claims that everything he has ever loved has been “hissed or booed at first.” He continues: “Bunuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or created a riot when it was shown. The audience broke the theater seats.” Isou humorously asks how such behavior possibly could affect him for the simple reason that “The seats do not belong to me.”

The narrator is given to hyperbole at times, with bombastic statements such as “I want to make a film that hurts your eyes” or “I would rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.” Venom and Eternity never really comes close to that level of intensity, but it does use a number of interesting formal strategies for disrupting narrative conventions. Squiggly white lines or black scribbles appear at times over the image. Images routinely appear upside down. Titles intrude in the middle of the film like in Warhol, as well as throughout the entire film. Images don’t follow conventional rules of continuity. Heads of people are bleached out. The film emulsion is scratched. A hand-drawn arrow – first black and then white – appears over an image of motorcyclists driving through water and a parade of people; a plus sign appears over an upside down shot of legs; the Star of David appears over one image. Isou includes stock footage, such as shots of Asian laborers, which have nothing to do with the narrative. Long passages of written text and black leader punctuate the film. Isou’s voiceover narration is intense and passionate, even if it’s free-associational at times.

Venom and Eternity is not only a polemic about cinema, but a political tract, a love story, and a personal confession. Isou often shifts between and among these various elements. Some images get completely obliterated, which seems to increase as the film continues. The discrepancy between words and images becomes manifest in various juxtapositions. Daniel and Eve’s dancing, for instance, is intercut with a moving part on a ship in a shot that is eventually revealed to be upside down. There are cameos by famous people such as the poet Blaise Cendrars and Jean Cocteau, the latter with whom Daniel has coffee in a café. Much of Venom and Eternity contains images of shots of buildings of St. Germain des Prés in Paris, mixed in with shots of the handsome Daniel, who is also played by Isou himself. As Daniel walks around, the camera often returns to him standing nervously and staring directly at us like a prize fighter before an important bout. The impression is deliberate.

In Part 2, entitled “The Development,” Isou shifts from theory to practice. Venom and Eternity contains not one, but two love stories. The first involves a woman named Eve. The dialogue is not sync sound, but recited as voiceovers. In describing the attractive blond Norwegian woman, Daniel remarks that Eve aped “the haughtiness of movie stars.” While discussing Eve, the film cuts to shots of fisherman on a boat from above, the feet of a skiers going down an incline shot from behind, and the shelf of a bookstore. Later he cuts to the fishermen again, as well as a shot of water flowing from a shower. The images appear to be arbitrary. Daniel includes provocative statements throughout the film. At one point, he laments the passing of slavery, “Man will never get used to not having other men do his bidding.” Daniel wants to experience the sexual pleasures of women without having to go through the formalities. He abruptly mixes in personal revelation and political statement. Daniel tells Eve that “Any man, innocent or guilty, Communist or anti-Communist who does not expect violent death is a fool. Today no one is master of his destiny.” He admits the sadness he felt at being expelled from the Communist party, which causes him to remember his breakup with another woman named Denise.

It turns out that Eve doesn’t like people whose ideas differ from hers. While the two of them dance, we get shots of a fishing boat upside down, an athlete, and a public statue. Daniel suddenly decides that she bores him. Eve asks him whether he wants to love her. The irrationality of love and desire becomes apparent when we learn that by morning, Daniel had taken a deep hold in Eve’s heart, which is visually juxtaposed a shot of a ship’s flag waving in the breeze. Daniel’s total sexism and misogyny rises to the surface, however, as Daniel brags that he was the complete master of her body. He indicates she would spend the rest of her life with him. Eve says: “My life would mean nothing. Only yours has a meaning.” We see a shot of men upside down and walking backwards. But as soon as she adapts herself to Daniel, his thoughts switch to his old girlfriend Denise, whom he had picked up on New Year’s Eve after having sex with yet another woman.

Obviously influenced by the Marquis de Sade, Daniel admits that he wants to pleasure Denise, but also break her heart. As the screen goes black, Daniel says: “He melted into her body. He cried tears of love, he, the cynic.” He gets her to repeat “I love you, Daniel.” Denise comments, “One feels as if every work opens up and crushes our soul.” She delivers a poetic rhapsody about words and love and death. She concludes (still over blackness): “And when two beings meet amid the words and the people who incarnate these words, when two beings discover each other and come together, they who since their birth and the birth of the world were divorced, the shock of their contact is cosmic.” Images reappear, as Daniel seems to vacillate in his feelings once again. He says. “And love itself has but the value of a lollipop.” Denise wants him to stop being a skirt chaser and hopes that he will grow up and become more mature. But Daniel responds over shots of boats in the harbor: “You don’t understand, Denise. There can be no solution between us. Let’s say I stay with you, as in a movie with a kiss finale.” We see shots of a couple with a young child – the most overt conjunction between image and sound in the film.

Daniel elaborates his misgivings about love. Referring to the conventional movie ending, he responds: “It says ‘The End.’ In reality, the drama has only begun. The decrepitude of getting old together: the kitchen, children, habits, wrinkles. Everything wears out in this hell. The very thought of our love will make people want to throw up.” He discusses seeing very old couples, whom he finds disgusting. He comments, “Each has been a witness to the other’s downfall.” He goes on to say, “But I hate love as much as I crave pleasure because the former commits my soul which I want free.” Daniel wonders whether he should drop Denise. She more or less removes his agony by announcing that it was merely a pleasant affair. Daniel’s friend, Pierre, suggests that a new girlfriend will no doubt make him forget the old one. But Daniel decides he wants to make up with Denise and can hardly wait until the morning to tell her the news. His conflicted desire ends up making him change his mind once again. He calls her two days later. Daniel describes his sexual desire as being so strong he leaves teeth marks on her body, “And she bore black and blue marks, like his rubber stamp of jealous ownership.” He admits to using her and wants to know whether she loves him above herself. The narrator continues his Sadean tirade: “And he broke her, he tore her, to feel himself within her. He ravaged her to make himself unforgettable. He installed herself within her.”

Daniel then has dinner with Denise and a businessman, whom he insults by saying: “Your face is like a pig’s. I don’t like it.” This is followed by shots of people on the street walking upside down and backwards. Daniel decides to leave but then changes his mind. More and more of the images are presented upside down as Daniel delights in his sadistic behavior. He calls Denise again, but she hangs up. He yells “merde” numerous times as the screen turns black, followed by images of countdown leader on the screen, and then more blackness. In a title we read: “The author of this chapter, Jean-Isidore Isou wrote this chapter during a spell of poisonous tenderness resembling that of the girls who emerge from his room with an ‘I love you’ meant for no one and bursting with desire like a fruit into which no one will ever bite . . . so monstrous does it seem at a distance. But upon reading these lines over, on a day of love-super-saturation he found this entire chapter insipid.” Isou criticizes conventional movies for serving up “a dose of tenderness,” and argues that “Only systems where form goes beyond story are of interest to him.” Daniel mentions that he and Eve managed to get together again at a Lettrist recital, which sets up the third and final chapter.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Proof,” and a title indicates that it contains a number of Lettrist sound poems that “have no meaning whatsoever.” Isou rails against imbeciles who criticize such works. He comments that when confronted by something new in art, “one must either love or keep quiet.” Isou claims that Lettrist poetry is more popular than Surrealist poetry and he presents two examples by François Dufresne: “March” and “I Question and I Inveigh.” Both Lettrist sound poems are set to abstract images created directly on the film stock, including countdown leader, fingerprints, and occasional words that pass too quickly to read. Isou argues that since Schönberg atonal music aspires towards Lettrist poetry. He claims that Lettrism will one day be more important than jazz, and criticizes jazz as “phony primitivism.” He goes on to argue that African-American jazz artists use “civilized and complicated” mechanical instruments. He then makes the dubious claim that “Jazz is white-collar primitivism.” The real primitivism is based on the human body – “the barbarity of the throat” – namely, Lettrism. After another lettrist poem, Daniel and Eve leave the recital.

Someone objects that others have previously incorporated stock footage into their films. Isou answers that, while true, others have attempted to edit such footage more coherently through “logical montage.” Isou claims that he, on the contrary, gave himself up to the footage “just as Dostoyevsky abandoned himself to his downfall.” He invokes the surrealists: “The surrealist compared the eyes to flowers to make one forget the eyes and drown in the ooze leaking out of the comparison.” There’s an abrupt shift, as Eve gets to have her say about his movie. She points out that the images of the actors and the cutting in the film bear no relation to his scenario. Eve suggests that it’s almost as if Daniel became bored by knowing the story in advance, and that this lassitude contributed to the destruction of the cinema. The images don’t matter because he can manipulate them to say anthing he wants, making all images interchangeable. Or as Eve puts it: “All images are equally indifferent. . . I know that others before you have already destroyed the image. But you are the first to understand this destruction.” A friend and a stranger then discuss Daniel’s film with him, praising it as the most intelligent film in the history of cinema because previous film was so overly concerned with issues of cinematic style, whereas language is far more important to humans than images. Comparisons are made to Picasso and Alfred Jarry. Daniel claims “It took years of thought to reach the point of using film stock at random.” He concludes, “I know that my film is above all existing films today.”

Daniel’s thoughts return to Eve, and he now wishes to get rid of her. She responds, “You will croak, be hanged and be spat at by the very populace you hold in contempt. Like Mussolini.” She begs to sleep with him because she has become trapped in her romantic film role. Recognizing his disdain for her, she finally departs. According to Daniel, Eve soon went insane and was arrested and deported to Norway. Daniel decides on a name for his film. He quotes Nietzsche: “It takes a lot of chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Isou talks about Venom and Eternity as pointing in the direction of his future films. We see images of Cocteau smoking a cigarette. Isou makes an overt comparison to Blood of the Poet. He says “My first film will be rather a kernel and a promise.” His thoughts abruptly switch to Eve. We see an image of Daniel with the name “Jean-Isidore Isou. He shouts: “Never, never shall I accept their love, their good and their evil because they offer me what exists, and what exists is bad, because it is mortal.” A title announces that the film was originally four and a half hours long. He continues, “The youths of my age laugh when they see tear-jerkers affect our elders.” He ends on a more defensive note: “Ask yourself on the way out whether or not this film possesses at least the value of a gangster film or a love story – or any ‘realistic’ film which critics consider acceptable.” The film was started on August 15, 1950 and completed on May 23, 1951.

Cocteau posed the question at the time whether “Venom represented a springboard or is it a void.” If pressed, I would have to answer that it has proven to be both. It seems to be a part of the zeitgeist embodied by Christopher Maclaine, as well as a strong influence on Stan Brakhage’s brilliant work directly on film stock, Godard, and other members of the French New Wave. In that sense it has proven to be a highly influential work. But for all of Isou’s rants about Venom and Eternity pointing to a direction for his own future films, unless I’m mistaken, this turned out to be Isou’s signature film. As a work of unbridled male narcissism, youthful hubris, and utter contempt for convention, it is unprecedented. It’s hard to judge whether the elements that appear sexist or racist or offensive today were intended to be deliberately provocative, or products of their time. Isou’s comments about slavery, for example, seem to run contrary to the anarchic current that runs throughout the film. While this new 111-minute version seems overly long on a first viewing, Venom and Eternity still strikes me as every bit as audacious, thought-provoking, and downright loony as it did when I first viewed it. Whatever its problems, there simply aren’t many films like it out there, never mind at the multiplexes.