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The Promised Land: Drift, Cinephilia and Photogénie

Jean Epstein

In Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity and Drift, Leo Charney describes a defining quality of modernity as “drift” – the experience of being unable to locate a stable sense of present (Charney, 1998). This conception of experiencing time marks a new temporality, which came into being against the emergence of cinema. Leo Charney associates the rise of drift and the empty moment with a period when the idea of photogénie was developed. I would like to elaborate this bond. Before exploring Charney’s conception of drift, I want to trace the ‘discovery’ of this empty moment against the development of the cinematic medium.

As many (new) historians have shown, cinema emerged as a product of modernizing forces like capitalism, industrialization and technological progress. On the other hand, cinema has been theorized as a mediating technology in the emergence of a new type or ‘mode’ of perception. In The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s, Malcolm Turvey notices that this new way of experiencing reality was often characterized by distraction: “the frequent, abrupt shifts in attention demanded of human beings by the overload of perceptual stimuli typical of modern environments such as cities” (Turvey, 2011, p. 164). It was Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that cinema distracted the viewer in a similar way: “No sooner has [the viewer’s] eye grasped a scene than it has already changed.” (Benjamin, 1968, p. 238) The invention of photographic reproduction became an emblem for a contingent reality. Confronted with a photograph, the beholder was blown away by details, which distracted from the actual subject of the picture. (Roland Barthes a.o. has written about the resulting dynamic between intended and unintended meaning.) This ‘modernity thesis’, Turvey concludes, became a “major explanatory paradigm in film studies in the last twenty years” (Turvey, 2011, p. 165). Tom Gunning’s notion of a “cinema of attractions” is perhaps the most famous application of the modernity thesis in cinema. I would like to connect to the modernity thesis as developed by Leo Charney, which centralizes “the empty moment”.

In Charney’s view, modern perception is characterized by an ephemeral experience of time and space, caused by the attractions and distractions of modernity. Trying to grasp the moment, the modern subject realized that the present is always already past. To Charney, the idea that presence cannot be recollected or restored is central to modernity. He calls it “a mantra of waste and futility. Of total loss. The mantra of modernity” (Charney, 1998, p. 25). Cinema was the first representational art that took this ephemeral experience of time and space – the experience of the empty moments – as its engine. Charney argues that cinema not only represented this momentary culture, it also opened up the possibility of drift:

“Drift came to re-present the experience of vacancy, the lived sensation of empty moments, the consequence and corollary of empty moments.” (pp. 7-8)

Drift, Charney explains, is an uncontrollable, discontinuous, and mercurial way of experiencing the empty moment. It is an activity that doesn’t doubt the absence of the moment, while maneuvering within and around it. As Charney’s idea of drift shows, modernity wasn’t only about a perception characterized by distraction; it also generated a different – and perhaps strategic – mode of perception: that of drift.

The Flâneur and the Cinephile

The attitude of the flâneur is yet another mode of modern perception. In his appearance, the intertwining of the emergence of cinema and the beginning of modernity is crystallized. Baudelaire’s original flâneur is a poet, driven out of his private sphere into the public area, searching for meaning. Baudelaire describes the poet’s intense relation to the public arena: he appears to be part of the crowd, but at the same time, stands apart from it as an observer. The flâneur observes the way the crowd moves, its tides and its flows of attention, while at the same time bodily participating in its dynamic. He watches the crowd, experiences its sensations and gives in to its movement. As Tom Gunning understood it, the flâneur was the observer par excellence: “[he] attempted to assert both independence from and insight into the urban scenes he witnessed” (Gunning cited in: Keathley, 2006, p. 44). This flâneur also represented a new form of perception, which Christian Keathley describes as “panoramic perception” in Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees. This again implies a tactic of distancing oneself from an environment, while at the same time being captivated by it. It is a way of focusing on the way movement evolves according to different stimuli, and this from a panoramic point of view, i.e. by taking in the whole. In the cinema, Keathley argues, the viewer’s panoramic perception translates as a cinephiliac attitude. Like the flâneur, the cinephile wants to be absorbed by the film, but correspondingly wants to increase his (visual) freedom by scanning the screen for meaning and experiences that were not intended or initiated by the maker. The cinephile is constantly on the lookout for the single contingent detail that overshadows the narrative of the movie and opens up an alternative interpretation of its meaning. This attitude is as ambivalent as the flâneur’s: “the desire, on the one hand, to be absorbed in the image and, on the other, to retain a spectatorial autonomy that allows for free scanning of the screen” (p. 45). In the midst of modernity’s distractions and sensory overload, the flâneur and the cinephile wanted to recover the loss of an autonomous sensuous experience.

Walter Benjamin saw it as the task of the individual, and the artist especially, to restore what the flâneur is trying to grasp:

“to undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium and to restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation, and to do this, not by avoiding the new technologies, but by passing through them” (p. 51, italics in original).

Jean Epstein argued that cinema was characterized by the ephemeral moment of photogénie that momentarily pierced the spectator. Epstein believed that:

“only cinema was able to generate this bodily sensation because only mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction. This mobility should be understood only in the widest sense, implying all directions perceptible to the mind. […] The mind travels in time, just as it does in space. […] Photogenic mobility is a mobility in this space-time system, a mobility in both space and time. We can therefore say that the photogenic aspect of an object is a consequence of its variations in space-time” (Abel, 1988, pp. 315-316).

Is the mobile aspect of photogénie comparable to the flâneur’s? Is it a way of recovering the corporeal sensorium from its alienation? Or does cinema do little else than distract? And how is photogenic mobility related to drift?

The Promised Land

In the 1920s Jean Epstein tried to define the specificity of his beloved medium by claiming that cinema primarily had to be cinematic. He connects ‘cinematic’ to the idea of photogénie, a term introduced by Abel Gance and Louis Delluc, which Epstein later theorized. Photogénie, Epstein said, was the purest expression of cinema: it is what color is to painting and volume to sculpture. This cinematic characteristic, Epstein believed, could lead us to the promised land, “a place of great wonders” (Abel, 1988, p. 318). Epstein and some of his contemporaries believed that cinema could reveal an unknown reality in a defamiliarizing moment of shock. Epstein’s own work in cinema originated in a period when, parallel to evolutions in early classical narrative cinema, new techniques were developed which left the classical ‘immobile’ perspective behind. With parallel editing and alternating shot-scale, time and space could be fragmented and ‘rhythmed’. This new form of duration generated a new form of spectatorship, which was connected to collage: it made experience discontinuous. Photogénie’s mobile nature not only provided a way to distinguish cinema from other, non-mobile arts, but it also connected to the corporal sensorium and modern distractions.

Epstein wanted the concept of photogénie to be linked to an irrational indefinability: his descriptions were multiple and indefinite. This semantic plurality is exactly what makes photogénie what it is. Leo Charney goes even further by saying that every description Epstein made deconstructs another. In other words, like the indefinable present, when you try to articulate it, it floats away. To Epstein photogénie is ephemeral, fleeting by definition. It is a momentary experience that is impossible to capture. You could say that Epstein’s writing is itself photogenic, that it is similar in kind to the object that it describes. Photogénie mystifies the identity of cinema and takes it away from its concrete technical basis.

Epstein calls photogénie ‘mystifying’, ‘a space-time variable’, ‘an illusion’, ‘interpretative’, ‘supernatural’, ‘psychic’, and ‘defamiliarizing’. I would like to investigate photogénie’s mobility and its connection to new modern modes of temporality in dialogue with Epstein’s La Chute de la Maison Usher (FR, 1928). This avant-garde film was based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. Its main character, Roderick, is the only heir of the Usher family. Together with his wife Madeline, he lives in an outlandish castle. Every male descendant of the Usher family seems to struggle with the obsessive urge to paint their wives. Indeed, The act of painting seems to hold a magical fascination. With every brushstroke Roderick applies to the canvas, his wife Madeline seems to be further drained of life. As Roderick is sickened by this obsession, having a nervosité tyranique, and his wife is slowly dying in the grips of catatonia (a state of immobility and stupor), he calls upon a friend.

Photogénie visualizes what Epstein calls ‘a fourth dimension of time’: namely the possibility to move and change through time and space. In other words: photogénie is a component of space and time. Therefore it is mobile and able to show a mobile realityThe spectator watching La chute de la maison Usher, notices a castle where the wind blows, curtains float, and books fall in contrast to the inertia, slow motion and static acting that typifies the characters. Roderick, for example, is not able to see the mobile reality around him, and is fixated on the portrait of his wife. The cinema, as Epstein wants to suggest in his cinematographic style and his idea of photogénie, is revelatory of a reality, which Roderick’s normal human eye is unable to see. Cinema is able to show changes and movement in time and space. Where Bergson stated that man cannot perceive mobility, Epstein states that cinema is able to show just this. Epstein represents Bergson’s statement: “to perceive is to immobilize” (Turvey, 2008, p. 25) in Roderick’s act of painting. By trying to capture Madeline’s presence, Roderick constructs her reality in a painting. With each brushstroke, he immobilizes her; each interpretation seems to be more fatal for her. But cinematic representation, Epstein argues, doesn’t have this effect because it conceives of space and time simultaneously.

Je pense, donc j’étais

The mobile character of photogénie is otherwise connected in a more literal sense to Charney’s conception of the empty moment and drift. Roderick keeps his wife secluded in his castle and obsessively tries to paint her portrait. Turvey identifies Roderick’s nervosité tyrannique as an attempt to ‘immobilize’ his wife (Turvey, 2008, p. 26). He seems to be fighting the fleeting present by trying to capture Madeline’s presence in a portrait. He literally succeeds: Madeline dies when the portrait comes to life. By a subtle superimposition of a living and blinking Madeline on the picture, the spectator can see how Roderick captures her on his canvas. This moment is probably the most photogenic, because it shows how cinema reveals the soul of things: “The click of the shutter makes a photogénie which did not exist before it” (Abel, 1988, p. 244). Only through the cinematic representation, the portrait reveals its soul. A soul that has left Madeline. Madeline in real life thereby loses her mobility and freezes. She is tied down by catatonia and eventually dies.

This mobility, Epstein realizes, only exists in the mind of the spectator, because “the mechanism of cinema constructs movement by multiplying successive stoppages of celluloid” (p. 315). Photogénie is interpretative: it shows cinema to be a construction in the mind of the spectator, an illusion, or a phantom. It is only present in the body of the spectator, in the invisible act of looking. The photogenic moment is therefore a bodily experience. Cinema subsequently shows the present because, to Epstein, cinematic spectatorship is experiential. It is only present in the experience of the spectator, where past and future collide and therefore create a continuous present. The present is something we are never able to capture. Time only looks backward or forward and it always passes. Epstein writes: “Je pense, donc j’étais” (p. 181).

The essence of cinema for Charney, lies with the idea that it only exists in continuous experience. Through its collision of past and future, cinema can create a continuous present. Charney takes this idea of an ephemeral present a step further though. He believes that the present doesn’t exist, but only gives the impression of existing due to the discontinuity we create by halting experience to assess what results it produced. “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end” (Charney, 1998, p. 157), he argues. Against this background, we could understand that Roderick doesn’t realize that each present moment opens up an empty space, “as it is remorselessly evacuated and deferred into the future” (p. 6). Madeline loses her presence and floats in “an interval that takes the place of a stable present”, the empty space (p. 6). We could say that she makes us realize that her presence was never sensible in the first place, that sensation and cognition are always already alienated. Charney strongly believes that photogénie was just a veil for the empty present.

We could conclude that Charney identified drift to be modernity’s central experiential mode. Only, he believes modern man didn’t realize that the present was empty. He didn’t dare pull the false front away and fall into an empty present. In this context, Charney seems to suggest that cinema unveiled new temporalities. The supernatural qualities Epstein ascribes to the idea of photogénie are perhaps nothing more than the veil that disguises modernity’s temporal reality and experience. What Epstein called photogénie is perhaps better to be understood against the background of drift: cinema enables the viewer to experience movement through time and space outside temporal chronology, a road he cannot control. Maybe, then, cinema should be seen as an exercise in drifting, in letting go and giving in to ephemerality. Cinema perhaps prepares its spectators to live in the empty moment.

Photogénie and the cinephiliac moment

I will not engage here with the discussion of whether or not something like the ‘present’ exists. This would lead too far and leave the theme of this essay behind: namely the new temporalities that arose from the intertwining of modernity and cinematic reproduction. What I do take is the idea that cinematic reproduction seems to generate an experience of this new ephemeral temporality. Epstein’s photogenic theory strongly emphasized that cinema’s unique feature is its unique mobility through time and space. This mobility is not simply comparable to the experience of the modern environment, which Benjamin characterized as distracting. What is partly illustrated through my own argument, is how easy you fall into the trap of “smothering expressions”. To philosopher Gilbert Ryle, “smothering expressions” are concepts like stimulation, sensation, and shock that are so vague that they can be applied to many different things, thereby hiding the differences between them (Turvey, 2011, p. 166). In his book The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s, Malcolm Turvey has meticulously traced how these tropes managed to pollute writing on the cinema, showing that the analogy between the experience of cinema and the experience of the modern environment cannot so easily be maintained.

Epstein’s theory of photogénie envisaged a sublime, pricking moment of re-seeing for the first time. The cinematic medium, he believed, was able to generate an unexpected moment of vision. For example: a gesture you have seen many times before suddenly transcends its cognitive meaning and reveals a new ‘truth’ about reality. This moment of photogénie is by nature momentary and is focused on the fruit of the experience: an insight. This marks the point where drift became a “smothered expression”. To Charney drift transcends the momentary and is a way of letting go of the moment of insight. He states: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.” Photogénie on the other hand, marks a pricking moment of insight.

As a filmmaker, Epstein tried to use techniques that transcended the momentary, chronological and narrative shot-to-shot-sequences; he wanted to magnify the mobility of the cinematic medium, to collide different times and spaces. We can conclude that cinema took drift as its engine, but it didn’t envisage the spectator as drifting. In these modern environments, the French Impressionist filmmakers tried to develop a drifting cinematic style. Epstein imagined his audience to have a cinephiliac moment, without consciously adapting the critical tactics of the flâneur.


Abel, R. (1988). French Film Theory and Criticism. Volume I: 1907-1929. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Benjamin, W. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Arendt (Red.), Illulinations (pp. 217-252). New York: Schocken.

Charney, L. (1998). Empty Moments. Cinema, Modernity and Drift. London: Duke University Press.

Epstein, J. (1974). Écrit sur le cinema 1921-1953: tome 1.Paris: Éditions Seghers.

Keathley, C. (2006). Cinephilia and History, or, The Wind in the Trees. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Turvey, M. (2008). Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turvey, M. (2011). The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-garde Film of the 1920s. Cambridge: The MIT Press.