Tag Archives: Lumière Sisters

Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler


The Victorians were falling away. And with them a withered system of reality embodied in overwrought virtuoso performances. Technique as a means of reflecting Nature – or, to quote Balzac, the “conjugation of objects with light” – was displaced, uncrowned by painters pursuing a darker mirror, a diabolical truth for smashing the mendacity of a bloodless representational art.

It was finally time for Edgar Allan Poe’s crepuscular light to shine. Not solely via accepted modes but written alchemically in cinematographic rays beamed through silver salts. Filmmaking is the darkest and unholiest of arts (done right, that is), and the director was emerging now – supreme pimp to a coterie of fallen angels, nymphs and sirens.

Modernism began materialising, slowly and unevenly at first, as an answer to 19th-century illusionism. The rank trickery of which academic art’s heroes lay dead and dying – granting Poe a new, posthumous plasticity to actualise delirium, converting it from literature into an art… art worthy of the name. And here, the “Decadents” became forerunners. Consider Surrealism, its nose-dive into the gulf of interiority, as a bequest from Poe – via his greatest interpreter.

Germination (Odilon Redon, 1879)

In Odilon Redon’s Germination (1879), a wan, baleful, free-floating arabesque of heads of indeterminate gender suggests either a linear, ascending involution, or a terrifying descent from an unlit celestial void into a bottomless pit of an all-too-human, devolving identity. Redon’s disembodied heads gradually take on more human characteristics, culminating into a black haloed portrait in profile. The cosmos of Redon’s etching is governed by an unexplained, inexplicable moral sentience, which absorbs the power of conventional light. Thus black is responsible for building its essential form, while glimmers of white, hovering above and below, prove ever elusive; registering as somehow elsewhere, beyond the otherwise tenebrous unity of the picture plane; adding to the depth of its unsettling dimensions.

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Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

Continue reading Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema