The Lettrist Cinema of the 1950s

The following is an extract from an essay published in Experimenta (ed Adrian Martin), 1990 (Modern Image Makers Association Inc).
Several Lettrist films were shown at Experimenta that year, presented by French filmmaker and writer Christian Lebrat.
Experimenta, these days, can be found at 

The Lettrist Cinema of the 1950s
by Christian Lebrat

(Extracts from the lecture “Lettrism: History, Theory and Cinema” given throughout Australia, November 1990.)

Historic Lettrist cinema began in 1951 and finished one year later. During these two years eight hours of film were produced. These films are, chronologically, The Treatise on Slime and Eternity by Isidore Isou and Has the Film Already Started? By Maurice Lemaitre, both 1951. Then The Anti-Concept by Gil J. Wolman, Dawn Day Drums by Francois Dufrene, The Boat of Flowing Life by Jean-Louis Brau and Screaming for Sade by Guy Debord, all 1952.

The chiselled film technique was a radical way of liberating the cinematic medium form the burden of representation (Lemaitre said, “Sound, previously enslaved, is now free of the tyranny of vision”). At first Lettrist filmmakers partially erased the image, later reaching a state of complete destruction of the film by projecting entire parts of films with only black or white celluloid. In his Treatise on Slime and Eternity, Isou abandoned the synchronism of sound and image, leaving sections with only abstract white lines or spot son the image. Lemaitre completely scratched out the image in Has the Film Already Started?, and transformed the film projection into a live performance.

Wolman, Dufrene and Debord progressively destroyed their images and emphasised a hyper-crammed soundtrack. In his The Anti-Concept Wolman projected intermittent light circles onto a spherical balloon hanging up in the movie theatre. In Dawn Day Drums Dufrene reduced the film to the voices of four reciters. And the last shot of Debord's Screaming for Sade was silent and black and white for twenty four minutes.

After this prodigious period of Lettrist cinema, only two of the group's members continued making films. Guy Debord, after his break with the group, produced five other films, all of which (plus his first) are impossible to see today, as he refuses to screen them. Maurice Lemaitre produced about fifty films and film performances from 1963 to the present.

It is obvious that all these artists were autodidacts. Lemaitre was a young anarchist when he met Isou in 1949. Two years later he began assisting Isau in making his film. He was already interested in cinema and frequently went to the Cinematheque Francaise. By being Isou's assistant he discovered and learnt cinematic technique. Through manipulating celluloid for Isou he found that he could go even further. Two months after finishing Isou's film he began Has the Film Already Started?. He used many techniques such as writing or painting directly onto the celluloid, scratching it, washing it with acid, using positives and negatives, superimpositions and mattes, and so on. For this work he used rushes from old commercial films, and filmed material with Isou walking in the quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

Has the Film Already Started? is the most complex, aggressive and humorous of the six films made at the start of the 50s by the Lettrists. I would also say it is the most beautiful because of the very impressive chiselling work performed on the images, giving the film, together with the soundtrack, an incredible rhythm. The text of the soundtrack, frames form the image-track and the text of the interventions from the auditorium were published din a book of the same title by Lemaitre in 1952.

Lemaitre remarked to me in 1985 that “this film sought to be a kind of general butchering of the cinema.” He also wanted to make the spectators participate during the screening. Originally, at the premiere in Paris on December 7, 1951, the screening was completely disturbed: drapery covered the usual screen, actor-spectators in the theatre conversed with the screen, people went onto the stage. There were diversions at the entrance, diversions on the pavement outside, and so forth. Near the end of the film the manager of the theatre announced to the public that he had to stop the film because the projectionist couldn't find the last reel. Lemaitre's screenplay even included the intervention of the police at the end of the performance – and they actually arrived.

The film was shown several times during this period in Paris and at the Belgium Cinematheque, and then disappeared for a long time until it was rediscovered in 1973. But we can say that it had certainly had an influence on both the Nouvelle Vague and on underground cinema.

The screenplay begins: “A pink moving screen will stand at the entrance to the theatre, in the night. One hour before the screening a projectionist will show Griffith's Intolerance on this screen. The start of the film will be announced at 8.30 but no one will enter before 9.30. During these 60 minutes of waiting, people on the first floor of the building will shake out very dusty carpets, and someone else will throw ice water on the heads of those spectators waiting for the screening. Some actors who have infiltrated the crowd will insult other actors on the first floor. At this moment only, and to stop the beginning of a scandal, the doors of the theatre will open…”

This was the beginning of the adventure.

During the first visual part of the film, the soundtrack begins with the author speaking about the importance of artistic creation. The voice is very expressive. Flickering black and white images with drawn letters are projected on screen. The same voice returns at the end of the film, after many other sound pieces such as Lettrist poems by Dufrene and Wolman, a messianic manifesto written and read by Isou, abstracts of press articles, and so on. Lemaitre finishes his film with the sentence addressed to you, the spectator: “Maurice Lemaitre asks himself: why has he made this film? Wasn't it a really foolish enterprise?”

Now you can judge for yourself.

[filed under: Expanded Cinema]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *