“The Honor of His House is an improbable yarn: adultery and surgery. Hayakawa, the tranced tragedian, swept the scenario aside. A few instances offer the magnificent sight of his harmony in movement. He crosses a room quite naturally, his torso held at a slight angle. He hands his glasses to a servant. Opens a door. Then, having gone out, closes it. Photogénie, pure photogénie, cadenced movement.”1
This is how Jean Epstein experienced his favourite moment in William C. De Mille’s now lost The Honor of His House (1918). The writings of the early French film critics and theorists are overflowing with these kinds of lyrical descriptions of fleeting actions or marginal details of the films they admired. Photogénie was the almost spiritual quality they attributed to these moments, which permitted the spectator to see the world anew. However, these critics held widely different opinions on the conditions for photogénie. Epstein and Émile Vuillermoz believed that cinema’s mystical quality flowed directly from the camera’s ability to record reality, while Louis Delluc championed the creative input of the filmmaker. Moreover, the choice of moments in which photogénie manifests itself appeared to be highly idiosyncratic. The fact that their lines of reasoning were so divergent, shows that these critics were not out to create an all-encompassing theory of cinema. Their very personal essays rather show evidence of their search for ways to express their untameable enthusiasm for the still-young medium. What binds their work is a direct relation to the cinema that manifests itself in their attention for, and reactions to, seemingly arbitrary images.
At the start of the twentieth century, artists and intellectuals gathered at the cinemas of modernist Paris, and praised film as the most modern of all art forms. They assembled in ciné-clubs, and founded film journals, in which they published some of the first reflections on the medium. The articles that these early critics wrote for magazines as Ciné-Journal, Le Film and Cinéa-Ciné pour tous, or on the pages of newspapers such as Le Temps and Paris-Midi, consistently displayed two characteristics: wonderment and connoisseurship. These are the essential qualities of the cinephilic gaze, which allows the viewer to be immersed in photogénie while still maintaining a critical and panoramic viewpoint. Cinephilic viewers are film-literate omnivores whose familiarity with how a story is staged allows their attention to wander from what the filmmakers have deliberately centralised.
This cinephilic gaze resurfaced frequently: in the writings of André Bazin and the young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma, in those of Anglo-American critics as Victor F. Perkins and Andrew Sarris, and so on. A present-day interpretation of cinephilia can be guided by photogénie in order to reconnect to a tradition in which the fascination with moving images leads to fresh insights. At photogenie.be, we want to combine a sense of wonderment with keen analyses. The connecting principle is the intense perception of cinema. The articles that will be published on this website – on films old and new, cinema past and present – will not try and force this perception to fit preconceived frameworks, but will endeavour to make the viewer receptive to what films can make us see, in an attempt to put the allure of cinema into words.
An initiative that calls itself Photogénie must delve into the concrete contexts and intellectual climates in which the different expressions of cinephilia have originated throughout film history. Inspired by the sense of wonderment of Epstein and co., we aspire to reconnect to cinephilic history in order to develop a proposed archaeology of cinephilia.
Photogénie (ISSN 2295-5461) is an initiative of vzw Vlaamse Dienst voor Filmcultuur (Flemish Service for Film Culture).
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Contributions: To contribute your writing to the current issue or to the blog, email your proposal to email@example.com with subject "Photogénie contribution".
Vito Adriaensens (University of Antwerp), Daniël Biltereyst (Ghent University), Anke Brouwers (University of Antwerp/School of Arts HoGent), Ruben Demasure (University of Antwerp), Stefan Franck (VDFC vzw), Steven Jacobs (Ghent University), Philippe Meers (University of Antwerp), Tom Paulus (University of Antwerp), Sam Roggen (University of Antwerp), Isolde Vanhee (LUCA School of Arts Ghent), Bart Versteirt (VDFC vzw)
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