Daniel Riccuito, editor of The Chiseler, writes about the final flicker of Jean Epstein ~
THE LIGHTS THAT NEVER FAIL
French avant-garde cinema meets the United Nations in Jean Epstein’s last film, a documentary short on lighthouses, Les feux de la mer (1948). I can’t agree, on the one hand, with Abel Gance whose outrage was so intense that he declared Epstein should have died before making it. Undeniably, on the other, we’re dealing with a vexing final statement – breathtaking compositions and a Marshall Plan narrative collide. Institutional goals versus radically personal vision… a filmmaker who had once spoken of capturing angels on celluloid apparently tamed in the end.
So how does this rather straightforward documentary fit into the bigger picture?
Les feux de la mer spontaneously breaks through the U.N.’s didactic agenda. By filming waves in slow-motion, a slow-motion that’s barely perceptible as such, Epstein releases what can only be called “photogenie,” a word carrying a good deal more than aesthetic weight in his mind – no other practitioner has ever had a firmer grasp on light than this “first philosopher of the cinema”… or that equally mercurial subject, the sea. Tempests and crashing waves were his abiding obsession but so were ideas, and Epstein’s theory proclaims “photogenic” any subject whose moral character is enhanced via filmic reproduction.
Epstein expert Stuart Liebman paid for a 16mm copy to be struck from the print locked away in the U.N. vaults, gifting that copy to Anthology Film Archives here in New York City where it found me. I sat otherwise alone with a friend, having paid $50 for a private screening of Les feux de la mer. The money came pretty dear, I’ll mention; and my pal never reimbursed me his half. What I didn’t know then, fidgeting in the dark over this mash-up of art and propaganda is that all of Epstein’s work is wooly, conflicted, and even uncomfortable to watch at moments.
I’ll eschew spoilers here, but I’ve got DVDs made from the print I mentioned.
Ask, and I’ll burn you a copy!
Even better than that — we’ve got the film uploaded so you can all marvel at it’s late-career incoherence.