Ricciotto Canudo: Cinema Art Language


In 1908, by announcing the arrival of a new ‘Art’, Ricciotto Canudo introduced into early French film theory the paradigmatic problems of nineteenth century aesthetics. Together these problems form an intermeshed group of assumptions, integrating notions such as autonomy, authenticity, and alterity into an ‘aesthetic ideology of modernity’ (Cornelia Klinger). With the development of the modern system of ‘beaux arts’ or ‘Art’ (autonomisation), and regulated by this ‘aesthetic ideology’, older philosophical problems concerning the relationship of art and language, art and thought, were refashioned into what Jean-Marie Schaeffer calls the ‘speculative theory of art’. In France the possibility of cinematic thinking was first articulated within the limitations, and according to the conceptual framework, of this speculative theory of art. Because of the assumed untranslatability of aesthetic truths into the language of logos and rational account, the literary encounter of the recently invented cinématographe with established art and culture evolved a certain style of language: metaphoric, plastic, dithyrambic, metamorphic.

A methodological imperative results from this. It is a mistake to ignore the specific discursive patterns and variable vocabulary, of this body of writing (Delluc, Vuillermoz, Epstein, Moussinac, Faure etc.); each has an idiom of concepts and expression through which they encounter the cinema. Their work requires what I would call a philological approach. Turns of phrase, precise formulation, chains of interconnected metaphor, constitute a ramified ‘mythographic’[2] corpus. Attempting to flatten this discursive space into a set of propositional equivalents, in preparation for transplant into contemporary film philosophy discussion, deprives it of an intrinsic part of its conceptual dynamics; and would be a brutal, entropic gesture. I hope then to provide a useful piece of scholarship for those unfamiliar with Canudo’s untranslated writings and while I can’t be as meticulous as I’d like, I hope to reveal, in the space I have, the forceful animating insights behind the caprices of Canudo’s language.

Two foundational problems structure the appearance in France, at the end of the teens, of this new literature of film aesthetics: the problem of cinema’s becoming-art and the problem of the relationship between cinema and language. These problems are related. Cinema understood as art, must also be understood to have a certain relationship with language. If Canudo and others wished to win a place for cinema amongst the five or six higher arts of the nineteenth century, then what kind of presuppositions about cinema’s social function, its relationship to science, philosophy and rational discourse, its relationship to other higher arts, did this wish entail? Many of the fundamental problematics of film theory: aesthetic operationality (as Rancière would put it), that is, montage in its most general sense; heightened forms of consciousness (dreams, visions, collective epiphanies); political subjectivity; formal purity/impurity; the nature of the image; cinema’s cognitive power and so on, have been determined by the conceptual contours of nineteenth century philosophy of art and aesthetics, as filtered and enlarged by these early ‘amateurs’ of the cinématographe.         

Canudo was born in 1877 in Italy but spent most of his intellectual life in Paris, and published mainly in French. Giovanni Dotoli’s bibliography of his works includes over seven hundred published items, two hundred further, unpublished manuscripts, and nearly two thousand articles of secondary literature, drawn mainly from the French language press of the period.[3] Before being discovered by the cinema, he wrote poetry in Italian and studied Eastern languages in Florence and Rome and later in Paris, regularly sitting Chinese exams at the Ecole de langues orientales vivantes. He met and befriended Gabriel Tarde at the Collège de France in 1903, and from 1904 covered ‘les lettres italiennes’ for the Symbolist literary periodical ‘Mercure de France’[4] .  He was also for many years ‘linked amorously’, as Dotoli puts it, with Valentine de Saint-Point, a descendant of the poet Lamartine, and herself a writer, performance theorist and adventurer. An advocate of outdoor theatre festivals modeled on the Attic Dionysia, and the author of the now lost plays ‘Dionysos. Tragedia bakkica’ and ‘Les Délires de Clytemnestre’, Canudo’s first scholarly work published in French was a Schopenhauerian introduction to Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[5]  He later published a more extensive study of the ‘musical psychology of civilisations’, again following Schopenhauer and Wagner[6] . This line of thought culminates in 1911 with the publication of an essay entitled Musique comme religion de l’avenir.[7]  Along with his advocacy of outdoor drama festivals, and his development of a Schopenhauerian inflected metaphysics of music, from 1907 Canudo also delivered lectures on Dante at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sociale. It is from within these strains of inquiry and thought, and together with a vast output of occasional pieces of art and literary criticism, that Canudo’s first essay on the cinema was written.[8]

Aside from his literary activities, Canudo also founded a periodical ‘Montjoie!’ in 1913 whose subtitle was ‘organe de l’Impérialisme artistique français’. Anticipating his later activity of the early1920s, he also established a circle of contributors and fellow travellers, who met regularly at his apartment. Shortly afterwards the manifesto ‘L’art cérébriste’ was published in Le Figaro.[9]

Reception – Rediscovery
Until the mid seventies work on Canudo was hampered by the unavailability of some of his most important writings. Canudo’s seminal first article on the cinema Triumph of the Cinématographe [Triompho del cinematografo], was published in Italian in Florence in 1908, but was rediscovered by Giovanni Dotoli only in the late seventies. A second slightly different version was published anonymously under the title L’avvenire del cinematografo in response to a survey question issued by La rivista fono-cinematografica : “Is cinematography an art?”[10] Finally, a third, expanded version was published in French by Canudo with the title ‘La Naissance d’un sixième art : essai sur le cinématographe’ in 1911. None of these key works appeared in L’Usine aux images (the name of Canudo’s column in periodicals such as Film, L’Amour de l’Art, Comœdia, l’Intransigeant, l’Eclair), an anthology of Canudo’s cinema writings prepared by François Divoire in 1926.[11] Indeed, perhaps because of the redesignation of the cinema as the seventh and not the sixth art (dance was promoted) in the early 1920s, these writings fell into oblivion almost immediately after Canudo’s death in 1923.  In the 1930s, 1940s the existence of these articles was known only because writers such as Moussinac and Epstein had referred to them. Errors and misattributions were common.[12] As late as 1966 in the introduction to the Italian translation of L’Usine aux images Mario Verdone still refers to La Naissance d’un sixième art indirectly, via the passage in Epstein’s Le cinéma vu de l’Etna.[13] It was not until 1995 that a more critical edition of Canudo’s writings appeared with the same title, but containing more than thirty newly discovered articles.

Apart from the above-mentioned 1912 translation of one of his essays on music, Canudo’s work was first known in English via the series ‘Archaeology’ in the journal Framework, where a translation of La naissance d’un sixième Art was published. Richard Abel included Birth of the Sixth Art as well as a number of other articles (not in chronological order) in his 1988 anthology.[14] Understandably though, most work on Canudo has been done in French and Italian. In Italy of note is the work of Mario Verdone, Guido Aristarco, and later Giovanni Dotoli, who, in 1978, convened the first conference on Canudo and helped found the ‘Fondazione Ricciotto Canudo’.  In France,  after Morel’s new edition of L’usine aux images there have been a number of articles and book chapters, and since the sixties obligatory encyclopedia and dictionary entries. The Canudonian entitled collection Le septième art, although not solely concerned with Canudo, includes much discussion of his legacy and work.[15]

Institutions of Art and the Becoming-Art of Cinema
Since the 1978 Brighton conference, film historians carefully analysed the formal development of the cinema from its sources in the magic théâtre to the editing systems of the teens: the expansive and reassuring symmetry of continuity editing softens the frame, and an immanent geometry of implied perspectives constituted a cinematic idiom.[16] Emmanuel Plasseraud sagely points out that if the transition from scientific invention to spectacle must be explained through historical context (that is, as bourgeois propaganda for scientific and technical advances), then the movement from spectacle to art should not only be explained internally, that is formally, as the ‘birth of the language of cinema’ or the ‘evolution of film form’, but in terms of social function and institutional autonomy: industrialisation, film rentals, specialist viewing spaces, specialist press, exhibitions.[17] The institutionalisation of cinema as a legitimate cultural form culminates with the 1928 Herriot decree in France which designated the cinema an ‘artistic spectacle’.

Canudo made two significant contributions to the development of the institutional framework for film aesthetics. In April 1921, Canudo founded one of the first institutions for the study of film aesthetics, a ciné-club, called the Club des Amis de la Septième Art.[18] The goals of C.A.S.A were as follows: affirm that cinema is an art; raise the ‘intellectual level’ of French film production; attract ‘creative talent’ writers, poets, painters, musicians to the cinema; establish a hierarchy of elite and general public cinemas; inform the public of the problems with French film production; lobby for state legislative support of the ‘Art de l’Ecran’; organise first ‘Festival Cinématique Français’ and Congress of ‘Latin Film’.[19] Weekly meetings were held, modeled on Canudo’s monthly Monday dinners for the group around Montjoie. These meetings usually consisted of a ‘lecture cinématique’, that is, the reading of a scenario,  followed by discussion, and sometimes the projection of a film somewhere else. This sympotic meeting of ciné-snobs self-consciously modeled itself on the literary salon “…one granted as much importance to the reading of scenarios, to discussion, to the relationship of what was called ‘l’écriture cinégraphique’ with the the other arts, often at the expense of screening a film”[20] One could argue that this is a regressive, traditionalist approach to a modern art, but only if we accept a narrow ‘autonomist’ model of how the culture of art developed around the cinema. Because of its ‘lateness’, cinema’s engagement with a more general discourse on Art often drew it in several different directions at the same time.

In 1927 Jean Epstein wrote an homage to Canudo whom he calls ‘the oracle [who comes] after our trances’, that is, the medium through which vision (the trance) and language (the oracle) are connected. It also contains a magnificent description of the language at these ‘cinématique’ symposia  inaugurated by Canudo “Almost every phrase, dense, feverish, urgent, and as though suffocated by all the numerous other phrases which hastened too many at the same time, to illuminate a new horizon”. This is an account of the performative origins (there are others) of Canudo’s and others’ engagement with the cinema, of the metamorphosis of cinema-language in which Canudo, Epstein, and numerous others participated.[21]

Also in 1921 he persuaded the curator of the Salon d’Automne, Frantz-Jourdain, “to dedicate a permanent exhibition to the cinema or ‘le nouvel Art’”. Film fragments were reedited into pieces of film according to stylistic and thematic categories and presented in various programmes, ensconced in discussion,  and preceded by lectures from such figures as Dulac, Moussinac, and others.[22] With its reflective view of film history based on aesthetic categories such as genre and style, these exhibitions were a crucial step towards confirming cinema’s self-consciousness participation in ‘high’ culture.

Aesthetic Ideology
Kant’s enlightenment ban on speculative metaphysics precedes the development of both what Schaeffer calls the ‘speculative theory of art’ and what Klinger calls the ‘aesthetic ideology of modernity’.[23] ‘Art’ is invested with a peculiar gnoseological power. It begins to be thought of as autonomous from social, political, theological determination (autonomy), as illuminated by an extraordinary kind of subjectivity, the artist-genius-prophet (authenticity), and as set apart from the day-to-day transactions of commerce and positivistic science (alterity). In a now sacralised aesthetic sphere the organic totality and unity of society can be conceived and mediated, and historical, chronological time broadened by mythical and utopian imagination. At the very moment when the inherently contradictory tendencies of this ‘ideology’ undergo a crisis driven metamorphosis, a frenzied reaffirmation and intensification, the cinema is invented, and Canudo and others baptise it the ultimate, synthetic manifestation of aesthetic experience. While avant-gardes in Europe violently insurge against established institutions of culture, the cinema’s first fragile network of institutions is being built.

One of the preconditions for the autonomisation of the aesthetic sphere is the development of the system of the arts and the modern notion of ‘Art’, with a capital A, to refer to these arts. In very broad strokes, towards the end of the 17th century, as an important effect of the querelle des anciens et des modernes, a number of arts [human activities] were separated from other kinds of human activity, and thought of together under the collective noun ‘Art’ or beaux arts. This was the culmination of the century long rise of the plastics arts (sculpture, painting, architecture) which had in ancient times and for most of the middle ages been considered less noble than poetry and music; they weren’t considered a part of the artes liberales, nor was there a muse named after them. The querelle had forced a division of human activity into those whose progress since ancient times was very easy to measure (science, accumulated knowledge, technology) and others for whom it was more difficult (art) to measure progress. The birth and death of arts, it seems, is arbitrary, based for the most part on philosophical preference and critical tradition.[24]

For Jean-Marie Schaeffer the answers to the question ‘what is art?’ in the late eighteenth century emphasise art’s cognitive status: “art…is an ecstatic knowledge, the revelation of ultimate truths inaccessible to profane cognitive activities…or : it is a transcendental experience that founds man’s being-in-the-world…or again, it is the presentation of the unrepresentable, of the event of being” and so on.[25] As knowledge of an ontological kind art is sacralised in opposition to the rest of human activity which is considered alienated, deficient, or inauthentic. Sensation and the ‘reasoning intellect’ allow access only to appearances, while art opens up another, hidden and more profound reality. The search for art’s ‘essence’ turns into an attempt to legitimise, philosophically, the ‘ontological cognitive function of art’.  It is this cognitive conception of art and its ancillary essentialisation of art that Schaeffer calls “the speculative theory of art”. Poetry, and more generally art, replaces a defective philosophical discourse. The sacralisation of art has a compensatory function. Philosophy’s discursive form (deductive, apodeictic) is incompatible with its ontological content. And so the work of art assumes philosophy’s metaphysical ‘impetus’ and realises this content itself. The divine function of the poet already existed in ancient times, but it lacked this compensatory function.

Canudo, Prophet, Génie: Abel Gance
Before I explain the important effect on language of this aesthetic ideology I’d like to present Abel Gance’s eulogy of Canudo. It first appeared in his 1930 collection Prismes[26] but was written shortly after Canudo’s death in 1923. Part hagiography and part mythography, it is exemplary of the new language of film aesthetics. The source of an oracular voice and prophetic vision, Canudo’s name is transformed into mytheme almost immediately after his death.

Canudo is a “flame amongst flames”, a hyperion figure who “had too much strength, radioactivity, too much ampage in his crucible” and whose mind was “white hot”. Addressing Canudo as a “great fighter”  and “great traveller” Gance excuses himself for his “crooked” words; he lacks the strength to write “straight”:

[Canudo] wanted to see everything, understand everything, say everything, guide everything; living Maelstrom, turbulence, comet, dynamite : his words, his acts, clashed like madmen, and if we follow him gasping for breath, caught up in the wheelings of his fever, he would open the draw-bridges. Behind the golden doors sprawled his entire mediterranean dream : Dionysos. ‘Le grand Midi’. And all the arts revolve in fusion inside the wheel of eternal return while the light-organs of the church of music answer the moving, sonic stained-glass of the cathedral of light.[27]

Canudo is a prophet, a cinematic Zarathustra, an ethereal body almost indistinguishable from the cinema’s own luminescence. This mythographic image of Canudo belongs to the process of the ‘naissance’ (and not “renaissance” as Gance emphasises following Canudo) of a culminating stage in the evolution of the relationship between language and image, the visible and the invisible, history and myth.

Just like Christ, Dionysos, and Adonis who always ‘come again’, Canudo’s death isn’t really death “it’s already a resurrection because from tomorrow our eyes and ears will begin to open themselves to his words of yesterday”. Epstein designates Canudo’s death as ‘sur-vie’ [above-life, survival] a “life superior to life itself…a life that is purer, nobler, so far above life on earth, that human language which doesn’t willingly recognise superlatives, was compelled to recognise such a life, calling it ‘sur-vie’…”[28] Canudo’s inconsistency, often remarked upon by later writers, is explained with another typically mythographic image: “his aesthetician’s genius” is a “kind of intellectual hermaphroditism” which enables the understanding and love of “the leaders of schools completely opposed to one another”. Although Gance is referring to the breadth of Canudo’s taste, the language of hermaphroditism, of double-vision suggests a mode of experiencing the world through cinema which is no longer beholden to distinct, individual terms/objects of logic, and which displaces contradiction along an axis of “luminous” polysemia. The importance of the semantic field of mixture, synthesis, and conciliation, informs much of Canudo’s aesthetics as we’ll see below. Gance finishes:

he illuminated things by means of an acute metapsychic sense, and I often thought that his antennae must sometimes stumble upon interstellar conversations…when a man has such antennae, he isn’t simply a poet, he’s a prophet, and it’s to this capacity, that one last time I want to pay tribute in the name of the cinema, in the name of all his friends and especially of all those who will one day be his friend [29]

Along with Gance’s lush imagery and enthusiastic tone the question of language is at the forefront of the passage. What name does Canudo’s life merit? What is the relationship between life and language? If we recall the the speculative theory of art’s claims for Art’s cognitive privilege, and Klinger’s designation of authenticity as the locus of a privileged conciousness of the world, then for Gance,  Canudo as theorist, not as filmmaker, embodies that genius-function for the ‘the Seventh Art’.

Language and Aesthetics

Ein einziges analytisches Wort, auch zum Lobe, kann den vortrefflichsten witzigen Einfall, dessen Flamme nun erst wärmen sollte, nachdem sie geglänzt hat, unmittelbar löschen.
Friedrich Schlegel Kritische Fragment no. 22 [30]

…alle Kunst soll Wissenschaft, und alle Wissenschaft soll Kunst werden; Poesie und Philosophie sollen vereinigt sein.
Kritische Fragment no. 115 [31]

The speculative theory of art was in part a reaction to and recognition of the perceived inadequacy of discursive philosophical language when it comes to accessing the absolute. Another kind of language, poetic, non-verbal, sacred, must replace the language of logos and rational account, forming a kind of ‘literary absolute’.  For Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe the change occurred most emphatically amongst early German Romantic writers such as the Schlegels, Novalis and Hölderlin: “romanticism is neither mere ‘literature’ (they [the Romantics] invent the concept) nor simply a ‘theory of literature’(ancient and modern). Rather, it is theory itself as literature or, in other words, literature producing itself as it produces its own theory. The literary absolute is also, and perhaps above all, this absolute literary operation.”[32] That the speculative theory itself relies on the discursive framework of philosophy produces a paradox: “The very language which elevates art offers perpetually to undermine it”.[33] If it were to successfully attain its object, then aesthetic experience would lose its exceptional status. When Canudo and others baptise cinema an ‘Art’ they also necessarily bring with it this new conception of language. Cinema too must elude ordinary language in order to maintain its aesthetic privileges. Ordinary language can neither make manifest the absolute, nor can it adequately describe the aesthetic experience of art.

A Theoretical Language for the Cinema
In 1908 the cinema was not yet an art. The insights of Canudo’s initial essays remained dormant until about 1916 when Parisian dailies such as Le Temps (where Emile Vuillermoz’ column was published) began to devote page-space to the discussion of the cinema, and specialist publications such Le Film grew in popularity. During the war, the cinema was transformed into the preeminent guilty pleasure of war weary intellectuals and artists.[34] And at about the same time, a certain number of American films (first Chaplin, later Griffith) were enthusiastically received by a newly formed band of cinephilic intellectuals, many of whom weren’t filmmakers or film critics, but recently converted neophytes, literary and music critics, writers or artists.

The screening of DeMille’s The Cheat for the first time in 1916 was the watershed.[35] Before this, writing on the cinema had spent several years percolating, simmering, until, in about 1916 a kind of linguistic revolution took place, what Lherminier calls an “effervescence intellectuelle”. A bevy of important new words, such as cinégraphie and photogénie, entered the vocabulary of discourse on the cinema. Around these words there emerged a plethora of periphrastic and poetic locutions, prophecies, calls to arms and manifestos. In an appendix to his lexicon Jean Giraud writes that “the appearance, in 1917, of the word cinégraph(e), which Vuillermoz had launched, even if he didn’t create it, and photogénie, in its new sense which Delluc would define in 1920, marks a turning-point in linguistic creation”.[36] These words were the result of a new direction, a ‘linguistic revolution’ of sorts, by means of which the aging out-dated craft-language of the cinema’s first two decades, developed mainly in trade journals or in a more general popular context, was infused with a vocabularly of terms drawn from post-Symbolist literary theory, nineteenth century aesthetics, and other branches of criticism, such as music and art writing (Elie Faure, Émile Vuillermoz).

This new theoretical language “a relatively autonomous cultural discourse… provided with its own object, and an ensemble of at least partially defined methodologies, as well as a bewitching, contradictory mode of articulation”[37] responded to the assumption that the clear, practical language of positivistic science and world commerce was unsuited to aesthetic speculation. It began to welcome into cinema the arcane and hermetic prose-worlds of nineteenth century philosophy of art. Words such as photogénie became incantatory passwords with which the cinema’s new disciples were initiated into the mystery of Art.

Methodological Imperative: The Philological Approach
While most would agree that the nineteenth century significantly influenced Canudo’s conception of cinema as art, less have considered the effect on his language of such a conception. I’d like to propose a philological approach to these writings. I choose the term ‘philology’ because of its association with textual analysis, and particularly with the tradition, especially in German language studies of ancient Greece and Rome, of careful and all-inclusive attention to language in its immediate context and in its wider interconnective symbolic setting. For much of its history philology also meant something similar to ‘general science’, one that we might better understand under the name ‘interdisciplinary study’. So in invoking the term ‘philology’ and calling my approach ‘philological’ I want to emphasise these two different meanings of the word: firstly, close attention to the textual, to etymological and semantic patterning; and secondly, the development of a general, ‘plastic’ science, which in the case of cinema studies includes philosophy, anthropology, musicology, natural science, history of technology, sociology, and so on.[38]

I don’t want to suggest that a ‘philological approach’ is radically new to cinema studies. At least as far as interdisciplinarity goes, cinema studies has from its inception reached outside itself for ideas and methodologies; indeed, ‘media archaeology’ is exemplary in this regard. Works that pay close attention to the language of the discourse on film, particularly that part which takes place outside of teritiary institutions, film criticism, early film theory, and to the general historical character of that language are less common. Again, François Albera’s recent work with Maria Torojada is exemplary.[39]

A philological approach can produce etymological trails and conceptual patterns which might otherwise go unnoticed. A philology of early film theory would also produce a kind of scholarship with general value. Commentaries and reference works are sorely lacking when it comes to ‘classic’ film theory. If philology is a sort of ‘text curatorship’[40] [Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht], then what I hope to achieve in this article is a better ‘curated’ version of Canudo’s writings on the cinema. In order to do this I write about some of the central notions in these writings, identify some of their theses, and explain how the most important semantic fields in these articles function as networks of interconnected notions. I’d like to think that this more ‘philological’ work could prove useful both as an introduction to Canudo, but also as a more accessible (especially to non-French readers), perhaps more developed version of his writings, one where the latent effects of language make themselves manifest.

Many of the significant interpreters and students of this period: Christian Metz[41] , David Bordwell[42] , Stuart Liebman[43] , Guido Aristarco[44] , Malcolm Turvey[45] , I think, have underestimated the importance of the problem of language itself in early film theory. Sometimes it is unarticulated deemphasised, at other times, as in Metz, Bordwell or Turvey, it is an explicit distaste for ‘bogusness’. Here’s a relatively benign example taken from Gian Piero Brunetta’s book on interwar intellectuals and the cinema “If we remove from Canudo’s language its metaphorical character, which in truth betrays his strong contribution to the problem …of [his contribution to] an entire series of problems destined to be at the centre of subsequent theoretical thought… (my italics).”[46] I don’t of course want to suggest that these eminent scholars have made no contribution to our understanding of Canudo and the period, quite the contrary. Brunetta himself is a titan of film history whose toil over the years is comparable to that of Georges Sadoul. But it’s not in spite of linguistic extravagance that these writings should be considered valuable, but precisely because of it.  Perhaps the early writing on the cinema functioned as a foil for the scholastic imperatives of the relatively new and still insecure discipline of film studies. This makes sense in the case of Christian Metz. The immense influence of Deleuze’s writings in the last decade, again writing outside of ‘film studies’ the discipline, shows perhaps that image-rich speculative writing on the cinema continues to be an important line of thought. Indeed, film studies, just like art history or musicology, whose objects of study are often understood to be by nature enigmatic and elusive, must adapt itself to a wide variety of modes of conciousness. The film itself, the material history of technology, a wide range of documents from advertising, trade journalism and technical manuals, to many different forms of film criticism and especially in the early years of the cinema, experimental, allusive, literary prose styles, written for most part for a cultivated, non-specialist readership. In sum, Canudo’s  philosophical foresight has been recognised, but usually with implicit or explicit discomfort with respect to language and philosophical rigour.

In these early cinema writings contradictions take place against the background of another kind of logic, one whose matrix is situated in the moving-image or in music, and which is comparable to the ‘logic’ of myth. While in the twentieth century the term myth produced an illustrious critical literature from Adorno to Barthes, I’m thinking first of all of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s writings. In what I would call a kind of experimental mythography Epstein, Gance, Canudo and others produce a complex linguistic and mythico-mimetic web. Semantic fields overlap and oscillate proportionately with the object of their enquiry, as though trying to reimagine a primordial moment of kinetic and cognitive entrainment.  Vernant writes in The Reason of Myth:

Myth is not only characterized by its polysemy and by the interlocking of its many different codes. In the unfolding of its narrative and the selection of the semantic fields it uses, it brings into play shifts, slides, tensions, and oscillations between the very terms that are distinguished or opposed in its categorical framework; it is as if, while being mutually exclusive these terms at the same time in some way imply one another. Thus myth brings into operation a form of logic that we may describe, in contrast to the logic of non-contradiction of the philosophers, as a logic of the ambiguous, the equivocal, a logic of polarity.[47]

When Vernant writes of the “déroulement” of narrative and the “découpage” of semantic fields, and when he conceives of myth not merely as inscrutable symbol or “diseased language”, but as the literal mobilisation “des passages, des glissements, des tensions, des oscillations”, which enact between themselves correspondences that are non-conformant with, and irreducible to, the axiom of the excluded third, then it’s difficult not to think of the newly animated fabrics of the early cinematographe’s image-world and the serialist writings of Canudo. Cinema’s assumed philosophical import rests in part on the assumption that its simultaneous kinship with both consciousness and with phenomena has refashioned the dynamics of human thought. It seems therefore unlikely that the media of human thought’s construction, transmission (however one understands the nature of thought’s movement), should remain unaffected by such a powerful new determinant as the cinématographe.

The Paris school (Detienne, Vernant) of studying the ancient world can also provide some conceptual co-ordinates through which to examine early film theory. Following the writings of historians, anthropologists, psychologists (Ernst Cassierer, Marcel Mauss, Ignace Meyerson) who were especially attentive to the peculiarity of human mentalities (emphatically plural), Vernant et al. carefully exhumed a remarkably vital world of mythological structures and dynamically elusive ‘mentalities’ from the linguistic shards and material remains of the archaic period of Ancient Greece.  While the period of early cinema certainly differs greatly from archaic Greece, there are some similarities, and if taken in a non-pejorative, neutral sense, the label ‘archaic’ might also be applied to it. An enormous portion of the films made during this time have disappeared, or surive only in fragments. The richness of archaic Greece in part stems from the way it straddles the world of myth, oral culture, poetry on the one hand, and the world of philosophy, writing, mathematics, on the other.[48] Between 1915-1925 cinema also seemed to bridge two quite different worlds: the forgotten, and almost impossibly remote (in terms of media history), experiences of the very first cinema-images; and the world where the history and ubiquity of these image-webs has inoculated us against, and at the same time redimensionalised, conciousness of the cinema-image. Perhaps what the study of early film theory calls for then is something akin to a philologically tinged historical anthropology.

Tourbillon Cinématique: Canudo’s Aesthetics     

Un mot, quelquefois, ce n’est rien : quelquefois aussi, c’est un ‘centre’, cela devient le cristal flottant qui donne un point d’agglomeration à nos pensées.
– Fernand Divoire[49]

Uniquement par le mouvement imprimé à ses figurations, avec un appareil d’où se dégage le souffle même de la vie, que le Drame peint avec de la lumière, devenant Art Rythmique, entraîne notre sensibilité dans son tourbillon
– Canudo[50]

In 1908 Canudo’s seminal article Trionfo del cinematografo was published in Italy.  In it, in some form or another, are nearly all of the insights that Canudo will develop, explain and grapple with in later articles. The much better known 1911 La Naissance d’un sixième art, as I noted above, translates it almost word for word. Canudo’s language combines poetic, fanciful and highly speculative modes of expression not just for overall effect, but because its object (the cinématographe) was understood to be inaccessible to the sober language of trade journals and the commercial demands of popular journalism. He performs a delicate linguistic graft and faced with the cinema’s obviously technological origins, an ars mechanica and not an ars liberalis, he mixes up his words, scrambling to find the vocabulary adequate to the cinema as art, as ‘l’art plastique en mouvement’. Richard Abel wrote of the 1911 article that it is “Rich, repetitious, deliberately provocative, and sometimes frustratingly incoherent in its concatenation of terms and discourses”. It’s this “concatenation” extending through a hundred or so other articles written on the cinema between 1920 and 1923 which I shall examine here.

Canudo’s writing is ‘repetitious’. Phrases, terms, notions, appear again and again, in slightly different contexts, worded differently, with more or less emphasis. It is fragmentary, not systematic, made up of a series of variations, fugues, unusual metres, and unexpected modulations. Most of the articles are a few pages long, none more than four. Naissance d’un sixième art was the longest piece Canudo ever wrote on the cinéma. These articles wind together several important motifs, and the mode Canudo has adopted is serialism. One unfinished idea overlaps another. In the face of a “whirlpool of cinematic dynamism” [tourbillon du dynamisme cinématique] he invokes Metis, the power of cunning, as Odysseus did, and as the fifth century Sophists did. Complex phenomena such as the cinématographe demand a protean and supple textuality, one which constantly recalibrates itself. Indeed, the root of the Greek word μῆτις includes the meaning ‘to measure exactly’. Metis is an efficacious and active intelligence which grapples with a concrete and ceaselessly moving reality. In order to grasp such a reality, it must liquify itself, and become a pure ‘means’ or ‘medium’. For some, such as Plato, this kind of intelligence is no intelligence at all, impermanent, ephemeral, changeable. Perhaps it is the operation of Metis that Abel and others find so infuriating in Canudo’s language and argumentation.

Canudo makes explicit his shared linguistic predicament when he writes that there is an “absolute confusion which rules in the cinematographic world, with respect to the subject of [the] names, which designate…and individualise the manifestations of an art [i.e. the cinematograph]”.[51]   [52] While the subject of this article is the word ‘vedette’, the most unstable and at the same time important ‘name’ is the name of the cinématographe itself. While the convenient abbreviation ‘cinéma’ is attested very early[53] , and in several different senses, the names of the ‘cinématographe’, its epithets so to speak, were many: l’Art muet, Art du XXe siècle, l’Art de l’Ecran, Cinépoésie, Cinégraphie, le Septième Art, la dixième Muse etc. Twice Canudo cites the original Greek κίνεμα and glosses ‘Cinématographe’ as ‘Ecriture du mouvement’. This is not mere curiosity: “the birth [eclosion] of the cinegraphic prodigy was so powerful and so sudden, that man, surprised, has not yet found the words with which to designate it outside of all established categories”.[54] Not only is the cinema a new technology whose social effects have not yet been properly understood, but it is an art, endowed with its own plastic and rhythmic material, and as linguistically inaccesible as music or painting.

Giraud notes that periphrasis was endemic in the early writing on the cinema in French. Such chains of synonyms, turns of phrase, acts of naming, are the result of a conscious agility. Instead of a carefully conceived system, double-checked, purged of errors and contradictions, such writing gropes (“tatonnements”) forwards, backwards, in all directions, producing an irregular analogue of its central controlling image, the art of the cinématographe.

I’ll now consider several important motifs of the Canudo’s film aesthetics as they appear and give an account of some of the terms he develops in his articles.

Plastic Language and the Image
The cinema is developing its own plastic language of light, one that differs from verbal language. Light has become a temporal medium of thought. By plasticizing light, giving ‘value’ to ‘the proportions of objects differentiated by shots [plans]’, the cinema appropriates attributes of verbal language. In other words, both as recording instrument and as projector the cinematographe can assign to light a more ‘abstract’ value; a place in a fixed sequence. This fixed sequence when projected animates a series of variable proportions, scales, each assigned a ‘value’ by their position in the sequence. So where verbal language links thoughts by means of the variable intensity and modulation of the voice,[55] this new language links proportion, light and shot-scale. For Canudo, this temporal luminescence “radiation of emotion without the assistance of words”[56] must become a vector, vehicle of thought as much as sound. Indeed the cinema should not rely on verbal language at the expense of this plastic language.[57] Of course light and sound are always temporal, but only with recording technology do they become truly plastic, that is both ‘cursive’ and ‘essential’ at the same time. And this is in part what Canudo means by ‘moving plastic art’.

Canudo also distinguishes this plastic language as ‘image’ from mere photography: “The image is the very basis of cinégraphie”.[58] But those involved with the production of films, including most ‘cinéastes’ and ‘écranistes’ have not understood the word image broadly enough, in the way poets have. Instead, they’ve confused ‘image’ with ‘photo’, or with photogramme, with a technical definition of cinema as projected photography. The word ‘image’ should not be defined by large commercial film producers. Remember that words and terminology are extremely important for Canudo. Just as in poetry, so in the cinema “the image is the connection, more or less new and striking, of thoughts and things that are the most distant from one another, the soul of lyricism and of artistic emotion”. Cinema works by means of the ‘horizontal development of events’, and this ‘simultaneity of their representation’ increases the sum of our sensations.[59]

Now, while the rhythm established by the ‘play of ‘shots’ [jeu des ‘plans’]’, that is by the relationship of ‘the dimensions of a conspicuous [singularisée] image’ with others adjacent to it, has found in the close-up and other shot-scales a sufficient and elementary ‘plastic range [gamme plastique]’, the ‘values’ of “the relationship of the expressive tonalities of simultaneous images” are underdeveloped.[60] The linear, successive rhythms of shot dimension have adequately populated vocabularies with which to think, but the tonal simultaneities, that is a much wider set of possible movements between camera, image plane, light intensity (camera movements, trajectory, as well as non-technical aspects of the film event) are lacking. Most filmmakers, says Canudo, simply rely on the ‘machine’ itself, to be a ‘deux ex machina émouvant’, expecting from the ‘photographic camera’ only the ‘illustration’ of a text.

Cinema is more than just a technology of illustration, it is also itself a radical new kind of script. And it is a ‘universal language’ not just because of its visual, immediate expression of human feeling but because “it renews writing”. The letters of the alphabet are a ‘stylisation’ or a ‘schematisation’ by means of which ‘habitual images’ are progressively simplified. ‘Images’ were engraved on the most durable medium, stone. Stripped of all superfluity, they retained only ‘the most cursive evocative essence’ [l’essentiel évocateur le plus cursif]. Cinéma multiplies the ‘human sense’ of image-expression, which only Painting and Sculpture have maintained. It will form a universal language out of ‘as yet inconceivable characters’. In other words, just as writing underwent centuries of abstraction and adaptation so the basic image-making technique of the cinema will evolve until it attains the directness and clarity of a single letter. Cinema doesn’t replace word with image, rather “the moving-image really becomes a whole [tout], new and powerful”.[61] Instead of systematising the moving image by means of words, grammar and the syntax of sound speech, it should constitute itself as a radically other kind of writing, one that precedes the abstractions of sound, and purifies movement by means of movement itself, by means of ‘life itself in itself [la vie elle-même en elle-même]’. It is as though movement is turned to stone, as though movement could finally become ‘plastic’, the subject of a plastic force. This kind of self-transformative, radically different kind of writing is what constitutes cinema’s plasmatic power.

Plasmatic Power and the Écran
In Canudo’s earliest 1908 article he explains that unlike the ‘old theatre’[62]  the cinématographe is capable of manifesting modern speed, both in the instantaneous power of its photo-chemistry and the animating power of its projection of movement, as well as in the dynamising gesture of its screen-personas. The ‘new theatre’, the cinématographe, manifests speed by instantly giving us a photo-chemical imprint of something. There’s no longer any need to wait for the marble to be carved, the painting or sketch to be complete, simply point the apparatus at the world and turn the handle. And when the image is projected, the apparatus instantaneously reanimates this photo-chemical imprint. Screen-personas are not heavy bodies of flesh and bone anymore, but rather luminescent centres [foyers] of power and relief. These are the three avatars of the cinématographe’s plasmatic power: camera, projection, persona. The first avatar is a photo-chemical sensitivity, a superficial suppleness with respect to light. It is also an other-wordly plasticity, a malleability, where silver-nitrate emulsion smeared onto synthetic celluloid film is housed in a mechanically intermittent array of lenses, beams of light, and fine-toothed gearing. The second is a reanimate dynamism, by means of which the revolutions of the film reel are pierced by a concentrated, incandescent stream of light; image-ignition takes place in the ‘theatre’ of our optical and kinaesthetic neurology. The screen itself, infused with myriad luminescent, plastic particles, bulges with the fresh, malleable, figures of a newly generated world; this diegetic potency is the third avatar of the cinématographe’s plasmatic power.

The cinema, then, possesses a marvelous, almost ‘grotesque’ power to transform images. Despite its crude misuse thus far, this power will mature into a kind of total plasticity.[63] A person, landscape, crowd, anything, can be transformed into plastic light. The screen is the locus of this redimensionalisation. Dimension doesn’t mean ‘size’, it refers to the symmetries by means of which the plastic organisation of space appears to us. In all of Canudo’s writing the mediating properties of light are important. The mode of the ‘cinematic screen’ is rapid and violent.[64] It is a ‘new power’, upon which ‘living black and white things’ extend existence beyond the limits of space and time, of distance and of death, having ‘captured movement’. Only in the cinema is an action “no more than a mortal detail [précision charnelle], a plastic consequence”.[65] Landscape or decor is also transformed by being projected onto the screen. Patterns of causality between separate phenomena are radically rearranged by the new dimensionality of the screen.[66] Finally, in recording the world we also inscribe a virtual or potential changeability, manipulability upon those images.

Theatre attracts, maintains attention through grimaces, disguises, and the unnatural transformation of a human being. Canudo calls this transformation a ‘monstrous mimeticism’ where the ‘personality’ of the role is added to the personality of the actor. This monstrousness is the cause of our contempt for the ‘histrion’. The grossness and monstrousness result from the fact that underneath the ‘faded finery’ [oripeaux] lurks a real being, whom one knows to be completely different, in short, a lie. This isn’t so in the cinema. Here, the actor, like the writer, takes on the personality of his heroes while working, but not at the moment that the actor ‘moves’ [émouvoir] the audience, that is during the projection of the film. The actor might even be part of the audience. The cinema actor and writer both function according to a logic of absence, what Canudo calls a ‘human image’. The image is ‘fixed’ as though printed by printer.[67] Charlot is a ‘new’ cinematographic character because he created a ‘dictionary of gestures’. No theatre actor, mime could do such a thing, because this structure of absence is missing; cinema is not just a language, it is also a script.

Chaplin is the ‘first new cinematographique character [personnage]’. [68] Chaplin can ‘express’ everything and ‘say’ nothing.[69] American cinema is foremost in the invention of new cinematic characters. West coast American cinema with its ‘feline bursts [sursauts] of human energy’ produces ‘human-animals’ that appear like ‘spark[s] of sveltness, of poise, and power’. This is cinematic athleticism.[70] By contrast, the French wish the cinema to be a sort of Pantomine or Theatre and so have employed speaking actors despite the cinema’s muteness. In the mise-en-scène, characters appear “as more or less balanced bodily masses” instead of putting into play “only the infinite states of light intensity, masses of black and white and their myriad gradations”[71] Light mustn’t just represent a ‘human character’, the character should appear as nothing other than ‘light humanised into dramatic symbols’ [la lumière humanisée en symboles dramatiques]. These are difficult arguments. The ‘balanced’ staging of human bodies in relationship to one another, of the kind that the proscenium’s limitations impose, that is, bodies bunched together from a single perspective, must be overcome in favour of a specifically cinematic play of luminescence. The material of the cinema ‘lumière’ must be allowed to vary infinitely in its intensity, the light itself becoming a personnage rather than ‘representing’ a person according the limitations of a theatrical stage. This is what the phrase ‘light humanised into dramatic symbols’ means.[72]

Canudo refers to these characters or ‘personnages’ as a kind of ‘cinematographic truth’. “The characters of the screen, instead of being ‘photographed actors’, must represent ‘luminous entities”.[73] All actors should be expressed through ‘luminous play’ [jeux lumineux], just as painters expressed the ‘phantoms of their dreams’ with the ‘play of colours’. The actors are not being photographed, they are transformed into light and reanimated into luminous entities. Canudo’s example of the painter who expresses dream phantoms in a play of colour indicates the radicalness of these luminous entities; they are not mere representations of bodies or phenomena, but light-transformations. And in certain films, each character is associated with a certain ‘style of light’, not unlike the leitmotifs of Wagnerian Musikdrama.[74] This effect also works in reverse. The actor Sessue Hayakawa is no longer an individual, but a “synthesis of thousands of individuals made in his image” spread throughout the world. That is the light of these “new human types” are propagated through the world, and transform the actor too. Film stars [vedettes] create “a series of masks and faces” more powerful than the sacred and profane masks of China, India, and Greece. They are “living, mobile nerve-masks” like modern life itself.[75]

The relationship between permanence and ephemerality is at the heart of Canudo’s definition of art. Since its beginnings humanity has sought to ‘perfect life’ by elevating it ‘beyond ephemeral realities’ and affirming the ‘eternity’ of those things which move us.[76] Ephemerality and fixedness are also another way of saying mobile and immobile.[77] Baudelaire also defined art in terms of the relationship between the transitory and the eternal, which Foucault explains in terms of movement and the present moment: “ … for him [Baudelaire], being modern does not lie in recognizing and accepting this perpetual movement; on the contrary, it lies in adopting a certain attitude with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it.”[78] Allowing eternity to inhabit the present, following Baudelaire’s terms, is exactly what Canudo claims the cinematograph is able to do, when he designates it a ‘moving plastic art’.

Compared with the immobile images of the plastic arts, which together with all the arts, fix the fleeting and evanescent flux of life, the cinematographe realises “the maximum of mobility of life” [il maximum di mobilità nella vita].[79] Instead of fixing a single moment, like painting, and sculpture, it can show the movement of this fashioned stillness. The cinema, while able to ‘fix’ the ever-changing flux of life [la vie], nevertheless does so by means of movement itself. That is, what is fixed, is a particular pattern of movement, a rhythmic slice of life. The counterpart of rhythm in Canudo’s writings is plasticity. The plasmatic power of the cinema transforms rhythm into a plastic structure. The recording and reanimative powers of the cinema produce a logic of absence which plasticises rhythm, fixing its structure more precisely than any metrical system could.

Fusion/synthesis/conciliation is the key operator in Canudo’s approach to cinematographic phenomena. Canudo hopes the cinema will produce “the fecund joy of large luminous syntheses”.[80] It must mix ‘story’ [fable] and ‘idea’ [idée], such that they form a ‘single body’ or ‘symbol’.[81] Action is also mixed, inseparably with its ‘animating idea’.[82] Cinema is the ‘total art of synthesis’, the ‘fabulous newborn of Machine and Feeling’.[83] The ‘spectateur’ should take from a film ‘one single image made from all the rest’. No beautiful ‘photographs’ should stand out; films should not be like ‘melodic opera’, but ‘real symphonic musical drama’. Cinéma is the ‘collective work’ par excellence, a ‘universal event’, just like war.[84] The screen is a “synthetic force”.[85] Cinema is a ‘Reality-Dream’, an astounding fusion of ‘truth’ and ‘vision’ in the crucible of ‘genius’ and ‘emotion’. Cinéma has reconciled “the rhythms of space (plastic arts) and the rhythms of time (music and poetry)”.[86] The aesthetic schema that has held throughout history has been in one blow merged into the same “whirlpool [tourbillon] of cinematic dynamism”.[87] Fusion sometimes means ‘doubling’, as is the case in Dr. Caligari:“never has reality been so closely, perceptibly, visibly mixed with dream, exterior with interior, sculpture [la plastique] with the soul”.[88] In the ‘enchanted castle of the screen’ dream (supreme magic) is represented by the most ‘corporeal reality’.[89] In a film “the thousand fragmentary visions, without apparent link, [should] combine [concourent] to produce the same emotional rhythm”.[90] The cinema will inaugurate a festive, sacralized temple of light, into which the collective need for individual transcendence and group oblivion can be made manifest.[91] In sum, cinema is “An art, so miraculously ‘abstract’ and ‘precise’, rythmic and plastic, scientific and artistic, that it is capable of reconciling [concilier] all that the human intellect has separated up until now” and by doing this it will create ‘new cerebral patterns’ [nouvelles habitudes cérébrales].

Canudo announced the potential for such a far reaching conciliatory power as early as 1911, when he added several paragraphs on ‘the promise of a great conciliation’ to his otherwise unchanged article of 1908.[92] The original article began with a paragraph describing a group of disenfranchised Florentine burghers, who no longer have a temple or rite to participate in on Sundays; they’re queuing up, and Canudo’s one of them. In that article he also uses Jules Romaine’s term ‘Unanimisme’, which informs much of Canudo’s discussion of what he calls, following Romaine, ‘l’âme collective’ or the ‘collectivité’. Romaine first noticed that the gathering together of crowds in the modern city seemed to generate a new sort of entity, with its own attendant emotion. Discussing Lubitsch’s 1922 film Das Weib des Pharao Canudo notes that the movements of a crowd [foule] are regulated according to a ‘marvelous aesthetic design’, with ‘never before seen groupings’ and ‘new powers of light and shadow’, audacious camera angles and close-ups [premiers plans]. The crowd is a “human collectivity that is compact, turbulent [houleuse], always present, regulated by individual events [péripéties] of love and death and by its own movements, by its ebbs and flows [flux et reflux”[93] Canudo conceives of the collectivity itself as a kind of ‘movement’ just like the cinema; one that is sensitive to emotion, reactive and proactive. If we think of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and remember that it is not simply the synthesis of all the other arts, but the resynthesis of society and art, then we can consider this semantic field of fusion/conciliation/synthesis as the operator by means of which Canudo,in his cinema writings links Art, Society and Technology.

There are several aspects of Canudo’s work, of the context of his writing which I haven’t been able to discuss in this article, but which I think are extremely important. One of them is the relationship between Canudo and the reception of Symbolist aesthetics in early twentieth century France. Much of the way Canudo thinks and writes is derived from Symbolist formulations. Phrases such as ‘âme collective’ or emphasis on conciliation and synthesis and antipathy toward naturalism and mere fact, all bear the marks of that tradition. Any longer study of Canudo must consider this relationship. I also concentrate mainly on those writings of Canudo which focus on film aesthetics, and ignore most of his film criticism.

The kind of writing I discuss above hasn’t entirely disappeared from French language film culture. Godard invokes it indirectly in Histoire(s) du cinéma when in an interview with Serge Daney he includes his own approach to cinema in the tradition of French writing about the plastic arts from Diderot to Baudelaire, to Faure, to Malraux.

Looked at from another perspective, Canudo’s aesthetics limit the cinema, recuperate its ‘otherness’, and assimilate it into the familiar category of art.[94] L’Herbier in La Cinématographie contre l’art already anticipates some of the limitations that come from considering the cinema as an art.[95] And Schaeffer thinks something similar when he criticises the speculative theory of art. But what might still be important is that even when the limiting normativity of cinema’s art-status is put to one side, replaced by a broader understanding of the cinematographic revolution in media, the same problems of gnoseological specificity reappear. The writings of Jean Epstein bear this out well.

Over the last few decades the institutional structure of the cinema as art has been in part dismantled. In the first place, the cinemas themselves, particularly repertoire cinemas, have evaporated into multiplexes. Film festivals, a second bastion of nineteenth century aesthetic culture, are overrun, more than ever, by the commercial force of the world’s distribution monopolists. Hidden corners of the torrent community, and other notable exceptions, continue to uphold the distinctly ‘amateur’ ideals of the ciné-club. With the boundaries of the filmic object mollified by and dispersed across various media, the moving image has become the ubiquitous substratum of countless interconnected sets of day-to-day screens. Moving images have abandoned their darkened temples and ciné-cathedrals  and run amok, infused with capital, in the form of an unblinking, algorithmic and at the same time extremely personal web of informational screens. While the problem of aesthetic discourse’s relationship to cinema at the beginning of the 21st century is not within the scope of this article, the aesthetic terrain of cinema has most certainly changed. And yet, the old aesthetic discourse survives, a kind of flickering band of base assumptions, barely visible through the flourescent omniluminescence of ‘very’ late capitalism.


[1] Unless otherwise marked all translations are my own. For reasons of space, I have included the original text only where I thought it important that the reader have access to the original wording. Canudo’s writings present a number of problems for the translator which can only be satisfactorily resolved by translating all of his cinema articles as a whole, something which I obviously haven’t been able to do here. I favour cognates if there are two equally suitable glosses.
[2] I’m departing a little from the usual sense of this word; where ‘mythography’ refers to collections of writings about myth compiled by ancient scholars, or at least by someone familiar with the principle of mythic variation, I’d like to situate the term ‘mythography’ in front of ‘historiography’,  and imbue it with  the broader sense Canudo and others give to the term cinégraphie.
[3] For an excellent, intimidatingly exhaustive account of Canudo’s intellectual activities, see the ‘Calendario Canudiano’ in Dotoli, Giovanni. Bibliografia critica di Ricciotto Canudo. Fasano: Schena, 1983 p. 25-70.
[4] Mercure de France was also a publishing house, issuing amongst other things the first French translations of the writings of Nietzsche.
[5] Ricciotto Canudo, Le Livre de la Genèse. La IXe Symphonie de Beethoven, (Paris: Ed. de La Plume, 1905).
[6] Ricciotto Canudo, Le livre de l’évolution. L’homme. Psychologie musicale des civilisations, (Paris: Sansot, 1908).
[7] Ricciotto Canudo, “Essai sur la musique comme religion de l’avenir. Lettres aux «fidèles de musique»,” La Renaissance contemporaine V-VI (1911-12). Later Trans. into English by Barnett D. Conlan Music as Religion of the Future (London : T.N. Foulis, 1913).
[8] Canudo also had an extremely wide circle of acquaintances that included almost every important figure of the French cultural elite of the 1900s, 10s and early 20s including : Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Léger, Chagall, Albert Gleizes, André Lhote, Natalia Gontcharova, Mikhail Larionov, Apollinaire, Cendrars, Raoul Dufy, Jean Giraudoux, Manuel De Falla, Léon Bakst, Gance, André Salmon, Brancusi, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Walden, L’Herbier, Delluc, Cocteau, Picasso, Delaunay, D’Annunzio.
[9] Ricciotto Canudo, “L’art cérébriste,” Le Figaro 9th February (1914).
[10] Here it seems that editors desperate for content plagarised Canudo’s essay in Il nuovo giornale.
[11] See Ricciotto Canudo, “Lettere d’arte. Trionfo del cinematografo,” Il Nuovo giornale (Florence) 25 Nov. (1908), reprinted by Dotoli in Filmcritica, no. 278. nov. 1977 p. 292-296.  For a French translation see the revised 1995 edition of L’Usine aux image which gathered together in one volume most  of the extant writings of Canudo on the cinema, Ricciotto Canudo, L’Usine aux images. (Paris-Genève: Chiron-Office central d’Edition). Rev. ed edited by Jean-Paul Morel. (Marseilles: Nouvelles Éditions Séguier, 1995). All subsequent citations refer to this edition abbreviated as UI.  An Italian translation of the incomplete 1926 edition was made in 1966.
[12] See for example Joseph-M. Lo Duca, “Il fondatore dell’estetica cinematografica,” Cinema (Roma) 133 Jan. (1942): 18-20 who erroneously attributes the term photogénie to Canudo. Of course this sort of thing was not limited to writing on Canudo, it was a feature of many early histories of the cinema.
[13] A long introductory essay, probably the first systematic study of Canudo’s work, see Mario Verdone, “Introduzione,” In L’officina delle immagini, (Roma: Bianco e nero, 1966).
[14] Ricciotto Canudo, “The Birth of a Sixth Art”, In Framework no. 13, 1980, and in French film theory and criticism: a history/anthology, edited by Richard Abel, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) p.58-65.
[15] For an exhaustive list of works on Caundo up until 1983 see Dotoli 1983 cited above. Of note in Italian Guido Aristarco, Storia delle teoriche del film, (Torino: Einaudi, 1960) and Guido Aristarco, “Théories sur le cinéma,” La Revue du cinéma Oct (1948): 32-39; the Verdone 1966 introduction to the italian translation of L’Usine aux images cited above; Giovanni Dotoli, (ed.) Canudo e Apollinaire : giornalisti et scrittori del nostro tempo, (Fasano: Schena, 1984), the proceedings of a 1983 conference with contributions in French and Italian; Giovanni Dotoli, Lo scrittore totale : Saggi su Ricciotto Canudo, (Fasano: Schena, 1986); Alberto Boschi, Teorie del cinema. Il periodo classico 1915-1945, (Roma: Carocci, 1998); in French, Giovanni Dotoli, Ricciotto Canudo ou le cinéma comme art, (Fasano: Schena, 1999); the Morel and Dotoli introduction to the 1995 L’Usine aux images; Jacques Aumont, (ed.) Le septième art : Le cinéma parmi les arts : Conférences du Collège d’Histoire de l’Art Cinématographique 2001-2002, (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2003); and Emmanuel Plasseraud, L’Art des foules : Théories de la réception filmique comme phénomène collectif en France (1908-1930), (Paris: Septentrion, 2011) of which I’ll have more to say below.
[16] See for example, Thomas Elsaesser, (ed.) Space, Frame, Narrative, (London: BFI, 1990), Noël Burch, La lucarne de l’infini : Naissance du langage cinématographique, (Paris: Hachette, 1991) , or Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, (Berkeley: UC Press, 1994) .
[17] Emmanuel Plasseraud, L’Art des foules : Théories de la réception filmique comme phénomène collectif en France (1908-1930), (Paris: Septentrion, 2011). See all of ch. 2 ‘L’artisticité du cinéma’.
[18] Members of C.A.S.A included prominent intellectuals and artists : Henri Fescourt, Gance, René Le Somptier, Dulac, Louis Nalpas, Henri Pouctal, Henry Roussell, Moussinac, Eve Francis, Emmy Lynn, Raquel Meller, Max Linder, Cocteau, Epstein, Mallet-Stevens, Tedesco. See chronology in Dotoli (1983) and Christophe Gauthier, La passion du cinéma. Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles spécialisée à Paris de 1920 à 1929, (Paris: Afrhc/École des Chartes, 1999). p. 56ff.
[19] Ricciotto Canudo, “L’Art pour le Septième Art,” Cinéa 13 Mai (1921): 16. UI. p. 68.
[20] Gauthier (1999) p. 61 {Gauthier, 1999, #23930}
[21] Epstein, Jean. “Hommage à Canudo.” Comoedia 2 septembre (1927) in Écrits T.1 p. 172-73
[22] Gauthier (1999) p. 72-74
[23] Cornelia Klinger. “Modern/Moderne/Modernismus.” In Ästhetische Grundbegriffe : Historisches Wörterbuch in Sieben Bänden, Bd. 4, edited by Karlheinz Barck et. al., (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2002), p. 121-67; Cornelia Klinger, Flust Trost Revolte: Die Moderne und ihre ästhetischen Gegenwelten, (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995). and Jean-Marie Schaeffer, L’Art de l’âge moderne, (Paris: Gallimard, 1992).  trans. by Steven Rendall Art of the Modern Age, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000). While Terry Eagleton and Paul de Man also use the term ‘aesthetic ideology’, I find Klinger’s schema of Autonomy, Authenticity, Alterity, the most effective one for presenting this material. See Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) and Paul De Man, Aesthetic Ideology, (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1996) and Paul De Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, (New York: Columbia UP, 1984).
[24] See Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics I. and II.,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12.4 (1951): 496-527 and 13.1 (1952): 17-46. One of the first, and certainly most interesting lists of the fine arts was prepared by Charles Perrault in 1690 : Eloquence, Poesie, Musique, Architecture, Peinture, Sculpture, Optique, Mechanique. I’d like to imagine that optique and mechanique were Perrault’s gloss for the cinematographe.
[25] Schaeffer (2000) p. 6(15)
[26] Gance, Abel. Prisme : Carnets d’un cinéaste. Paris: Gallimard, 1930 reprinted Samuel Tastet Editeur, Paris, 2010. pp. 300-3
[27] Ibid. [Il voulait tout voir, tout entendre, tout dire, tout entraîner ; vivant Maelstrom, tourbillon, comète, dynamite : ses mots, ses idées, ses actes, se heurtaient comme des fous, et si on le suivait haletant, pris dans l’engrenage de sa fièvre, il ouvrait les ponts-levis. Derrière les vantaux d’or, tout son rêve méditerranéen s’étalait : Dionysos. Le Grand Midi. Et tous les arts en fusion giroyaient dans la roue de l’Éternel Retour tandis que les orgues de lumière de l’Église de musique répondaient aux vitraux mouvants et sonores de la Cathédrale de lumière.] 302
[28] Ibid. [une vie plus pure, plus noble, tellement au-dessu de la vie terrestre, que le langage humain qui ne reconnaît pourtant pas volontiers les supériorités, a bien été obligé de reconnaître celle-là, l’appelant sur-vie…]
[29] Ibid. [Il jetait des lueurs sur les choses avec un métapsychisme suraigu, et j’ai souvent pensé que ses antennes devaient parfois surprendre des conversations d’étoile à étoile…Quand un homme a de telles antennes, il n’est pas seulement poète, il est prophète, et c’est de ce titre qu’une dernière fois je veux saluer au nom du cinéma, au nom de tous ses amis et de tous ceux surtout qui vont le devenir] p.303
[30] Kritische Fragmente n. 22 [The flame of the most brilliantly witty idea should radiate warmth only after it has given off light; it can be quenched suddenly by a single analytic word, even when it is meant as praise.] in Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. by Peter Firchow, (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1991). p. 3
[31] Ibid. […all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one.]
[32] Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Absolu littéraire, (Paris: Seuil, 1978).
[33] Eagleton 1990: “Aesthetics is thus always a contradictory, self-undoing sort of project, which in promoting the theoretical value of its object risks emptying it of exactly that specificity or ineffability which was thought to rank among its most precious features” p. 2
[34] See Gauthier (1999) p. 26  and Richard Abel, French cinema: the first wave, 1915-1929, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 241
[35] See Gauthier (1999) p. 26  and Richard Abel, French cinema: the first wave, 1915-1929, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 241
[37] Richard Abel, “Fotogenia e cinegrafia.” Cinema e Cinema (Fotogenia: La Bellezza del Cinema) 64 (1992): 15-38.  [un discorso culturale relativamente autonomo…dotato di un proprio oggetto, di un insieme di metodologie almeno parzialmente definite e di un affascinante, contraddittorio modo di articolazione]. (My italics).
[38] For a solid account of the history of the word ‘philology’ see Joachim Ritter, and Karlfried Gründer, (eds.) Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie [12 Bde.], (Basel: Schwabe, 1971). s.v. ‘Philologie’.
[39] Siegfried Zielinski, Archäologie der Medien, (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2002); François Albera, L’Avant-garde au cinéma, (Paris: Armand Colin, 2005) and François Albera, and Maria Tortajada, (eds.) Ciné-dispositifs: Spectacles, cinéma, télévision, littérature, (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 2011). This work by analysing structuring notions such as ‘instantaneity’ and  ‘mechanism’, works in a philological manner. Analysis of interconnected literatures of technology, publicity, journalism, criticism, philosophy and poetry, helps elaborate the parameters, limitations, within which the early discourse of the cinema was articulated.
[40] See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Powers of Philology: Dynamics of Textual Scholarship, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003). p. 3
[41] Christian Metz, Essais sur la signification au cinéma, t.2, (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1972).
[42] Bordwell, David. French impressionist cinema : film culture, film theory, and film style. New York: Arno, 1980.
[43] Liebman, Stuart. “Jean Epstein’s early film theory, 1920-1922 (Doctoral Thesis NYU).” NYU, 1980. Early chapters. Review.
[44] Aristarco, Guido. “Théories sur le cinéma.” La Revue du cinéma Oct (1948): 32-39.
[45] Turvey, Malcolm. Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
[46] Brunetta, Gian Piero. Intellettuali : cinema e propaganda tra le due guerre. Bologna: Pàtron, 1973.
[47] See ‘Raison du mythe’ in Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne. Paris: François Maspero, 1974. p. 765ff. in Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Œuvres: religions, rationalités, politique, t.1. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007.  trans. Janet Lloyd Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1999). p. 260.
[48] See Marcel Detienne, Les Maîtres de verité dans la grèce archaïque, (Paris: Librarie François Maspero, 1967) for an excellent account of this.
[49] Fernand Divoire, “Canudo le clairvoyant” preface to Ricciotto Canudo L’usine aux images, (Genève: Etienne Chrion, 1926). [A word is sometimes nothing; other times it is a ‘centre’, and that centre becomes the floating crystal providing a point of agglomeration for our thoughts.]
[50] Ricciotto Canudo, “L’Esthétique du Septième Art (ii): Le drame visuel,” Le Film 181 (1921): 18-24. UI p. 67 [It is uniquely through the printed movement of its figurations, with an apparatus from which the breath of life itself wafts, that the Drama painted with light, becoming Rhythmic Art, carries our sensibility into its whirlpool]
[51] Ricciotto Canudo, “Vedettes de cinéma,” Paris – Midi 17 août (1923): 1-2. UI p. 297 [La confusion absolue qui règne dans le monde cinématographique, au sujet des noms qui désignent…et individualisent les manifestations d’un art]
[53] See Giraud s.v. cinéma
[54] Ibid. UI p. 297
[55] UI p. 42
[56] Ibid.
[57] Canudo wasn’t opposed to intertitles. On the contrary inter-titles are necessary: in a ‘spectacle of contrary rhythms’ they rest the eyes while changing the brain’s mode of working; they “transport one from a definite plastic vision to a suggestive written vision.” The characters themselves are also an “important plastic element”. See UI p. 254
[58] Ricciotto Canudo, “Films sans images,” Paris – Midi 12 Oct (1923): 1-2. UI p. 322
[59] UI p. 126
[60] See in particular Ricciotto Canudo, “Du langage cinématographique (Le septième art et son esthétique),” L’Amour de l’art no. 3, July 7 (1922), p. 221-22. Reprinted UI p. 124-26.
[61] UI p. 127
[62] Just like for Wagner, the theatre houses the sacred rite of music, so by extension the cinematographe will replace the temple of the theatre and house the new rhythmic art. Canudo’s usage of theatre here resembles ‘theatre of action’. Theatre is both the building, and the metaphorical space within which the rite of music takes place. The cinématographe [in this early article] is also a theatre in this double sense; later the ‘Écran’ will become the preferred term for thinking about an abstract space which corresponds to the stage or proscenium of the theatre.
[63] See “Difendiamo il cinematografo” L’Epoca, Rome. Fev. 1920, trans. Jean-Paul Morel in UI p. 44.
[64] [42]
[65] [98]
[66] [104]
[67] UI p.65
[68] UI p.41
[69] UI p.67
[70] UI p.249
[71] UI p.128
[72] UI p.128
[73] UI p.128
[74] UI p.149
[75] UI p.298
[76] UI p.161
[77] UI p.162
[78] Foucault, Michel “Qu’est-ce que la philosophie moderne ?” Textes et entretiens 1954-1984 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994). Trans. Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32-50.
[79] Trinofo
[80] UI p.245
[81] UI p.264
[82] UI p.264
[83] UI p.161
[84] UI p.53
[85] UI p.52
[86] UI p. 26
[87] UI. p. 45
[88] UI. p. 107
[89] UI p. 122
[90] UI p. 252
[91] UI p. 23
[92] Canudo Naissance (1911). UI p.40
[93] UI p. 159
[94] See Jacques Aumont, ed., Le septième art : Le cinéma parmi les arts : Conférences du Collège d’Histoire de l’Art Cinématographique 2001-2002, (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2003).
[95] Marcel L’Herbier, “Le Cinématographie contre l’art.” Cinéa 95, no. 1 Juillet (1923): 17.


About the Author

Paul Macovaz

About the Author

Paul Macovaz

Paul Macovaz is writing a doctoral dissertation on the philology of early film theory and the writings of Jean Epstein. Wider research interests include proto- and para-cinematic concepts and myths, Erich Von Stroheim, the 'Epochenbegriff' and cinema, language and cinema.View all posts by Paul Macovaz →