I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein
In addition to talking about the archives we spoke at length about Marie Epstein, Jean’s sister and collaborator, whose work has preserved Epstein’s legacy. As part of The Intelligence of Cinema, The Walker has screened two films with scripts written by Marie Epstein, Faithful Heart and Double Love.
You have made films across a wide range of genres, everything from sci-fi to documentary and experimental films. What are some common themes that tie Young Oceans of Cinema into your body of work?
One thing that is consistent throughout my works is that, whether it be a documentary or fiction, any of the work I’ve done I always approach from a standpoint of what is intrinsic to the material (or the place, or the atmosphere) and try to work from the inside out of whatever it is. This is something that has always been important to me; to zero in on some essence and then bring it forth. I was particularly interested years ago in the work of Tatlin, for example, who has very simple statements on material and material possibilities. I’m really interested in this process of going through large amounts of stuff and letting it filter itself out—which is also what editing is—but I think what interests me in particular is really having each part speak on its own.
In your documentary you use several clips from an interview with Marie Epstein. She is constantly speaking for Jean Epstein and his estate, both in this documentary and in what I have seen elsewhere. This is very interesting to me because she was a filmmaker and writer herself, but she doesn’t get much credit for her own work. What do you think Jean would have said about her and her work?
Not much work has been done on Marie Epstein, unfortunately, although she wrote maybe a dozen of his movies…They’re actually fantastic Rocambolesque scripts; L’auberge rouge, L’Affiche, and Le lion des Mogols.
Jean and Marie were more than just brother and sister, they were collaborators, and they were self-sufficient in a lot of ways because neither of them had any significant other, at least that I know of, and they were also both completely dedicated completely to Epstein’s cinema.
Whenever there’s a mention of her role in his films she would not only deny it, she would say she didn’t go with him, she didn’t help him, even though there’s photos of her on the set with a notepad. She really did everything she could to elevate him and his work.
She was also involved in the founding of the Cinémathèque Française, and created most of the archives on Epstein. It’s thanks to her organization that I had materials to work with, for example. Numerous people have worked with and been inspired by these archives. Many scholarly works done by students and others. I know personally that having this archive was like having a mentor in a way. I’d never worked with any filmmaker as to any great degree under any sort of mentorship, but I then realized while making this film that Epstein had become my mentor. Because I had spent so much time at the archives, and they’re so well organized so that you can get a really thorough picture of his working process and thinking process…but not a lot about his personal life. According to some people that knew her personally, before Marie came in a lot of that material was completely trashed. I have no idea what that might have been there before.
Marie Epstein worked with a number of other filmmakers, Benoit-Lévy and others. She was prolific, intelligent, well spoken, and pretty much had memorized Epstein’s quotes. She knew Epstein’s sayings way better than he did. If you look at the draft of the biography that she was working on it very quickly degrades into a series of quotations. So she was definitely working from her brother’s knowledge to a great degree, but she on her own was an incredible force in cinema. A lot of the things named after Jean Epstein should be Jean and Mary Epstein, the theatre at the Cinémathèque and things like that. It would probably be more appropriate, but I think she would have rejected that.
How did the materials from archive tie in to your film? Were there any immaterial but still essential aspects of his filmmaking that you used in your work?
Well, I felt particularly drawn to Epstein’s work to begin with because I was interested in a lot of things that he had explored and thought about, and obviously meditated on immensely. It nourished my thinking of the film. So going into this project having read a certain amount of Epstein, but not as much as I would read in the process, I knew that in my approach I wouldn’t be making a film about my filmmaking, I would be making a film about Epstein’s filmmaking. So how would I do that? Well, first of all I had to choose a somewhat stately approach to camerawork where I’m not competing with his approach to camerawork. So I’m doing more of these tableau-type takes that I let his stuff pop out more. So it was more that I was reacting to his work than being inspired by it. I wasn’t going to make a film that was based on his theories, it was more of a film that was based on exploring his theories and trying to erase, in a way, my presence as a filmmaker. I guess that sort of parallels Marie. I wanted to let his thoughts rise to the surface, by using scans that were of the actual writing that he did, or the correspondence, or the films. Whatever the material may be. With the idea that you would feel these things coming out of the film. There’s a lot of me in there but it’s not up front or what comes to the surface.
To come back to the material presence, I literally scanned things in newspapers and wanted to use the thing itself because I think there’s a time, and a place, and a perspective, that are important that are in the actual physical materials themselves, like the shroud of Turin or whatever it might be. It’s a mysterious concept that’s not easily quantifiable, but I think that by even just believing in it already does something.
You can in a way give an object its own perspective. Each thing has its own thing that it wants to say.