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August 2, 2006

Ganeden, 2003

"I thought I would at first offer you a simple lesson - sorry, you don't like being preached to - so let's say a little advice, which of course you are not obliged to follow, well, let's say a tip ...which calls upon us to first explore the steps that were cleared by our predecessors, since it was out of the question for me to remake the new geographical landscapes of the Romantics: Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand or the Naturalist descriptions of places that were miserable or picturesque, of Eugène Sue or Victor Hugo, or Dada trips to regions without any particular interest, or also the random objective encounters of the Surrealists, and of course, the travels of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci ...I found accounts of travel that were extraordinary, imaginary, marvelous, utopian, exotic, fantastic explorations, etc."

Trying to encapsulate the texturally complex, amorphous, and indefinable essence of Maurice Lemaître's film Ganeden is a daunting task. On the surface, the film - evocatively named after the Hebrew word for the Garden of Eden - is a highly experimental, yet approachable anti-travelogue exposition on the imaginative adventure of mundane travel (or, in de-romanticized terms, the daily commute), an instinctively cohesive journey that strikes a sympathetic chord with Robert Breer's wordless, stream-of-consciousness animated work Fuji, and that appropriately opens with a similar illustrative image of a figurative point of departure - the train station - in this case, appearing in the form of a still (or more accurately, paused) image of a man frozen in mid step of boarding a train from a subway station platform. However, the film also represents the culmination of the iconic Lettrist novelist, poet, artist, and filmmaker's body of work: a creative philosophy that his groundbreaking film, Le film est déjà commencé? would prefigure in its tongue-in-cheek usurpation and cataclysmic (or at the very least, cacophonic) dismantling of the hallowed and rarefied experience of mid century cinema by upending such conventional notions of screen, projection, ambient sound, and artist performance. Intrinsic in this subversive aesthetic - and in particular, Lemaître's evocation of urban escapism - is its empirical evolution from the Lettrist concept of psychogeography, a consciousness of an environment's effects on an individual's psyche. It is within this philosophical imperative that the artistic struggle becomes a broader cultural revolution to transfigure the malleable landscape of the modern city into a more vital organism of inspiration and creation - to humanize it: the city re-imagined as an integrated artistic canvas of tangible, accessible art and uncharted wonderland of quixotic adventure (as Jacques Rivette would whimsically capture the Situationist concept of dérive - a Lettrist splinter faction - in such films as Le Pont du Nord or Celine and Julie Go Boating), moving away from the automated machinery of dehumanized production and towards a state of perpetual metamorphosis and source of creative reinvigoration.

In this respect, the Lettrist ideal of re-asserting the human element into the industrial landscape - and consequently, propelling the creative stimulus of the individual - by reinventing the familiar into novel forms - a detournement - converges with the artistic philosophy of seminal Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka, not only in his practical reconstitution of found film, but also in the discretization of sound from images in order to reconstruct new layers of meaning and signification. However, while Kubelka's aesthetic is integrally rooted in the unique properties and physical materiality of celluloid - and in particular, its projected speed - Lemaître's aesthetic is rooted in a more atemporal mixed media of traditional and contemporary visual art forms: film and video, photography and sketch drawing, digital post-production effects and hand painting, live footage and animation. In essence, while the principle of reductive, self-imprint governs both filmmakers' body of work, Lemaître's aesthetic is revealed through the multilayered juxtaposition of compositions - a creative methodology that is not propelled by the compact delivery of information dynamically presented at 24 frames per second (as is the case with Kubelka's cinema, where images are often presented liminally at the threshold of registered visibility), but rather, by the conflation of discrete layers of information revealed through the density of images, in their resulting hypergraphy.

In Ganeden, this hypergraphy is manifested though the juxtaposition of iconic, if quotidian images - building and infrastructural architecture, train car views, cityscapes, harbors, identification markings, and informational signage - that define the urban landscape. But beyond the transfiguration of mundane images into works of art, Lemaître's inspired act of self-imprint - his humanization of the "dehumanized city" - is ingeniously manifested through his incorporation of an inconstant, mutable artistic style throughout the film that, when superimposed against the sequence of manipulated urban images, becomes a contextual survey of several key art movements: from Primitivism (the linear figures riding the train), to Pointillism (the speckled opening sequence), to Impressionism (the lateral shot of a modern bridge painted wispily in a color palette that evokes Claude Monet's Japanese Bridge at Giverny), to Post-Impressionism (the garishly fluorescent, Van Gogh styled re-coloration of the Eiffel Tower), to Dada (the overlaid chiseling on the iconic image of Mount Fuji), to Abstract (the compositions of saturated color blocks and instinctual geometries), and Pop Art (the alternating negative and positive photographic image of an Asian woman). Ironically, in contrast to the alienating, subversive chaos of Le film est déjà commencé?, what emerges in Lemaître's personal and cultural journey through the evolution of art history is an assimilative aesthetic that remains reverent towards its foundational roots even as it seeks, not to push the bounds of the disparate art forms, but rather, to collapse the imaginary frontiers that separate them - to return to a unitary ideal - a Garden of Eden.
This entry is part of the Avant-Garde blog-a-thon. Other participants include (updated throughout the day as entries are posted):

          » Mubarak Ali at Supposed Aura.
          » Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
          » Chris Cagle at Category D.
          » Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity.
          » Matt Clayfield at Esoteric Rabbit Blog.
          » Culture Snob.
          » Brian Darr at Hell on Frisco Bay.
          » Jim Flannery at A Placid Island of Ignorance.
          » Filmbrain.
          » Flickhead.
          » Richard Gibson.
          » Ed Gonzalez at Slant.
          » Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
          » David Hudson at Greencine Daily.
          » Tom Hall at The Back Row Manifesto.
          » Ian W. Hill at Collisionwork.
          » Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!.
          » Darren Hughes at Long Pauses.
          » Jennifer MacMillan at Invisible Cinema.
          » Peter Nellhaus at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.
          » David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.
          » Seadot at An Astronomer in Hollywood.
          » Girish Shambu.
          » Michael Sicinski at The Academic Hack.
          » Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
          » Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger.
          » Squish at The Film Vituperatum.
          » That Little Round-Headed Boy.
          » Thom at Film of the Year.
          » Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment.
          » Harry Tuttle at Screenville.
          » Walter at The Quiet Bubble.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 02, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Maurice Lemaître


While I'm unfamiliar with Lemaitre, I appreciated this post and love that last sentence -- the artistic upshot of a film is often the most interesting thing to me, and you've spelled it out nicely. The very idea of a return to an ideal can be a refreshing thing (as opposed, as you point out, to subversive chaos or dismantling for the sake of dismantling).

Posted by: Michael on Aug 02, 2006 12:24 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Michael, that's exactly what I found so interested about this one, the overt "consciousness" of artistic roots. The only other Lemaître film I had seen was his first (Le film est déjà commencé?), and it was mostly a curiosity experience than anything - a narrator saying what's going to happen, assorted distractions, weird projections...it was definitely one of those subversive "end of cinema" experiences. I like that his art is still edgy, but I also like the humility of his homage as well.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 02, 2006 1:30 PM | Permalink

Yet again you gesture to someone I've never even heard of. It's always a pleasure to be educated. Along with all this new terminology, I actually got a chuckle out of the throwaway line: "mundane travel (or, in de-romanticized terms, the daily commute)" Ain't it the truth?

Posted by: Maya on Aug 02, 2006 2:09 PM | Permalink

"humility of his homage" -- well said; that's exactly the sense that I got from reading your post.

Posted by: Michael on Aug 02, 2006 2:25 PM | Permalink

Thanks for writing about this, acquarello--I long to see Lemaître's films, that and the work of Jean Isidore Isou. Lettrist and SI art & thought (and cinema) have been on my mind a lot lately the last couple of weeks. Love your delineation of the techniques of Kubelka & Lemaître.

Posted by: Zach Campbell on Aug 02, 2006 2:40 PM | Permalink

I enjoyed this thought-provoking post, Acquarello.

The idea of pyschogeography ("the artistic struggle becomes a broader cultural revolution to transfigure the malleable landscape of the modern city into a more vital organism of inspiration and creation - to humanize it:") is fascinating.

Also, never thought of Rivette in this context, but it makes good sense. Another reason why he admired Lang so much, I guess (Metropolis is surely an archetypal film about the soul-deadening city, and Rivette even includes a clip from it in Paris Belong To Us).

I was first taken with the work of the Lettrists through my discovery of indie comics artists (I keep a skecthbook just for "hieroglyphic" lettering-doodles). Though these indie artists are pressing typographic/hieroglyphic-like experiments into use for more-or-less narrative purposes, I find myself treasuring the abstract and non-narrative possibilities much more.

Posted by: girish on Aug 02, 2006 4:27 PM | Permalink

Thanks, everyone, lots of reading to catch up on and since it's something like 102˚F here in DC, I guess I'm staying indoors where it's nicely air conditioned and doing just that tonight. :)

Heheh, Maya, yeah I was trying to convey that these images weren't of one those leisure train trips. Since I sit in bumper to bumper traffic on the Beltway everyday, I could relate to the whole idea of escaping by reinventing your environment.

Zach, I haven't seen much Lettrist films either (none by Isou), so it was illuminating to see the philosophy applied to film. I got a lot more out of this one than Lemaître's first film, but I think this was partly because it was in line with the graphic arts that I'm more familiar with. The rhythm is not as pronounced as it is with Kubelka, I think, which surprised me a bit because poetry also has a rhythm to it, and Lettrist poetry, especially, does too.

And speaking of indie comic artists, Girish, that's also where my exposure to Lettrists came from. My sister's a graphic artist who became an early adopter of computer graphic design, but when we were teenagers, she used to churn out these fanzines on hardcore, and that was her aesthetic. I had no idea back then that it was some kind of rarefied art form, I just thought it looked...you know, tough. :)

The thing that really made me think about the Rivette analogy was the way that Le Pont du Nord has that repeating image of the Paris map, and the Lettrists (and Situationists) were known for their psychogeographic mapping of Paris. Ooh, I found one of those maps.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 02, 2006 5:40 PM | Permalink

Excellent post, and while I agree with the previous comments, I also enjoy the way in which you have laid the post out and brought me into the images of the film and then walked me through your ideas. I tend to write more personally about films like these (how did they make me feel?), so I enjoyed your thorough analysis and contextualization (I grew upon Maximum Rock n Roll and the 'zine ethos as well), but I do wonder: How does these films make you feel? What draws you to them? I know that when I watch Celine and Julie Go Boating, I am swept away. I look forward to seeing these films and thanks for the introduction.

Posted by: Tom Hall on Aug 02, 2006 11:29 PM | Permalink

Thanks Tom, I'd actually say that what draws me is the "autonomic cerebralness" of this film - watching the structural images, the urban architectures and the way that they transform into equally beautiful, but completely different notions of art. I come from a long line of architects, scientists, and engineers, so I tend to find urban architecture intrinsically beautiful, but it's rare to find something that has both elements of the form and function beauty of design and the intuitive beauty of art.

It's interesting because the process of watching it is something like being witness to a "violent" act. Basically, we see something that is already geometrically beautiful because of its man-made precision (a bridge, a building, a train interior) being "defaced" by the intrusion of these also man-made images. They struggle against each other, they compete, but eventually you stop thinking of these images in opposing terms of one covering the other, and begin to see the resulting compounded images as something completely new. Okay, so that's probably just paraphrasing the Letterist aesthetic in layman's terms, but that really is how the experience unfolded for me, and I'm fascinated by that cognitive process of transformation, when the once competing images begin to synthesize in your subconscious.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 03, 2006 11:16 AM | Permalink

Lettrism! I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard the term before. Love the post (and the map). How/where did you see this film, Acquarello?

Posted by: Brian on Aug 03, 2006 2:39 PM | Permalink

Heheh, yeah, that map is priceless. I'd say my "mentally felt" distance from my house to my workplace is about a million miles, but my house to the Walter Reade Theater is about 10 ft. :) I actually ordered the DVD from Lowave in France when I picked up the Mix-Up disc, but it turns out, Greencine has it available for rent. One side is PAL, the other is NTSC (R0) so it plays on a standard player.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 03, 2006 7:48 PM | Permalink

Really instructive post! I didn't know this aspect of Lemaîrte's work, looks much more interesting indeed. I like this psychogeographic map, I need on of those.

I saw a couple of his shorts, like Le Film est déjà commencé? which look like an anarchist anti-film, and as you say have this unconsctructive (or provocative) feeling of "Cinema is dead".
I don't know where you saw them, but they are meant to be played in a theatre with live performances accompanying : the audience waits outside for an hour, people (actors pretending to be in the audience) throwing water on them, insulting them, and again in the theatre desguised performers pretending to be annoying audience members, yelling at the screen, improvising... And the guy who told us how a Lemaître film was meant to be experience, introduced a flat screening of Le Film est déjà commencé? in religious silence! Even this tribute screening was disrespectful to the spirit of the oeuvre. It's like if the film lost it's live existence, turned into a mere (dead) document of the past. It would like watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show without a delirious audience...

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 04, 2006 7:31 PM | Permalink

Harry, your experience with the screening of Le Film est déjà commencé is similar to mine. It was also a flat screening with a narrator describing what was happening at any given moment in the film, with the noise/sounds pre-recorded. You're right, it doesn't exactly capture that performance aspect of the film.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 05, 2006 7:56 AM | Permalink

Was this narrator voice was added afterward, or was it part of Lemaître's original print? With DVD technology, it would be precious to be able to switch off the narrator and at least experience the original film (without the oversignificant walkthrough). I think it's sad that there aren't performers, fans of Lemaître who would play in the theatre for a tribute screening. Like silent films are accompanied by live music. It's part of the film's personality.

I like what you say about "autonomic cerebralness" and your description of the mechanism of these images, along with your acute identification of painting styles.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 05, 2006 3:05 PM | Permalink

I'm not sure if it was added or part of Lemaître's original print. It certainly sounded like his voice, and the recording was scratchy enough to have been made alongside the film. But it also had the pre-recorded distractions like the people screaming, so on the other hand, it was almost like a radio broadcast of someone "reporting" from inside the theater during the screening of the film.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 05, 2006 6:01 PM | Permalink

Well now I wonder if "Le est déjà commencé" was ever existing without the commentary track...

The video archive at La Cinémathèque was closed all august, but I see they have Ganeden and I'll view it in septembre when it opens again.

Maybe you would be interested in this short film made from Debord and his psycho-geographical divagations, that I just found in the competition of the Etrange Festival: SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE (2004/Mark Amerika, Trace Reddell & Rick Silva/USA)

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 27, 2006 3:52 PM | Permalink

Good question. Since there has to be several people from that initial screening in the 50s who are still alive, I wonder if any of them published their impressions and recollections from that screening.

Interesting about the short film, I thought that it may have been adapted from Debord's film adaptation of Society of the Spectacle, but it only mentions his text. I can't tell from the description though just exactly what they're doing with it.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 27, 2006 10:42 PM | Permalink

After the success of this Blog-A-Thon, I decided to host one of my own. Drop by and see if you like to be a part of it:


Posted by: Squish on Sep 13, 2006 10:36 PM | Permalink

It took me a while but I finally saw Ganeden on DVD (not a great way to see it). Your stills up there look better than the large pixels I got. Did you see it on film?
Thank you for this analysis because I wouldn't have entered the film without what you wrote.
I'm not very sensible to this type of video art (same for Marker's or Godard's video effects). But I like your reading of it as a summary of painting history. ;)
Your essay is more interesting than Lemaitre's experiment.
His listing of literature references with "journey" in the the title is a bit overwhelming. And I could imagine him searching the directory at the Bibliothèque Historique in Paris, where I spent some time myself.
Anyway it was very nice to be able to read your text before and after watching to film, to perceive differently each time. First as a second hand transmission, secondly as a helpful intepretation.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 01, 2006 2:25 AM | Permalink

I saw it on a DVD projection, but it sounds as though it scaled better when I saw it. Yeah, Lemaître definitely talked a lot during the piece, but his voice is fairly monotonic so after a while, it was almost as if I was watching it silent because I started tuning out the audio. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 01, 2006 10:46 AM | Permalink

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