Aesthetics and Politics III
Film and Television
2003 NEMLA Meeting
Boston, MA
07 March

Ally Field
Harvard University

La Pauvreté de ces Moyens: Lettrist Film Criticism and the Portrayal of the Radical

Do not cite without permission of the author.

With this paper, I engage in the ongoing debate over cinematic efficacy in the portrayal a political idea, experience, or agenda though a discussion of the filmmaking and writing of Isidore Isou.

In 1945, Isidore Isou immigrated to Paris from Romania at the age of twenty. Shortly after arriving in Paris, he founded a group of young writers and artists called the Lettristes, a name that reflected the style of poetry that he had developed in Romania. Isou's approach to poetry was to break down language to its essence, sound and the letter. Letters, according to Isou, carry the capacity for new representation. His goal was to revolutionize art making, the art object, its exhibition, and its reception. The Lettrists saw traditional art as dead and the only possible form of expression, therefore, as détournement, the recontextualizing of elements to subvert their original intent and thereby explore possible new meanings, a practice that later came to define Situationist art making. (Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International, began his career as a member of the Lettrists and owes his work on détournement to his collaboration with Isou.)

Isou's theory of cinema developed from his criticism of poetry and painting; the letter itself is not sufficient for Lettrist painting as there are only twenty-four letters. To compensate for what he regarded as the "pauvreté de ces moyens," Isou sought to reach beyond the object to the overall context in which the object exists. For cinema, this contextualization encompasses the spectator's social comprehension, daily experience, and physical presence. Isou's approach to cinema was to undermine all standard tropes of filmmaking while assaulting the audience's expectations of spectatorship. The Lettrists quickly became known for their unconventional activities, often seen as scandalous by the French public and press. Their radical cinematic activities culminated in the controversial 1951 screening of Isou's film Traité de bave et d'éternité at the Cannes Film Festival.

Isou's ultimate aim was to create an aesthetic representation of the political that was as radical as the depicted subject, while concurrently undermining the cinematic conventions of image, sound and spectatorship. This goal later became the crusade of Jean-Luc Godard in the films of his self-proclaimed radical Dziga-Vertov period. However, Isou grappled with these questions twenty years prior to Godard yet never achieved either the public or academic recognition of the Nouvelle Vague cinéaste. Isou's critique of representation must be posited in the larger debate over art and politics in general, and the question of radical cinema specifically.