The Seashell and the Clergyman – Antonin Artaud, cinema and abstraction. (Film review / analysis)

According to Artaud’s essay Cinema and Distraction, he thanks Germaine Dulac (director of The Seashell and the Clergyman) “… who was able to appreciate a screenplay that seeks to penetrate the very essence of the cinema and is not concerned with any allusion either to art or to life.”

Other reports claim that Artaud (who wrote The Seashell and the Clergyman) was disappointed with Dulac’s manifestation of his project, because of the popularity of Un Chien Andalou which comes out the following year. Dulac made The Seashell and the Clergyman in 1928 and Bunuel will make Un Chien Andalou in 1929, but Bunuel will be credited (along with Salvador Dali) for making the first surrealist film. This, it seems rankled Artaud, who was largely known for his acting which he did as a side project to fund his writing.

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More interesting than the gossip (maybe?) is the idea of a screenplay penetrating the very essence of the cinema, not concerned with allusions to art or life. Artaud begins this essay with a comment that “pure cinema is an error”. He is referring to a movement called Pure Cinema that wanted to (essentially) extract cinema from the cumbersome accountability to narrative and have it exist purely as a series of images, independent from literature and stage. Interesting, one of the champions of this method is Germaine Dulac, wanting to return the cinema to its elemental origins of vision and movement. (!)

Artaud argues that the cinematic image cannot be separated from its representational relationship. He sums his argument up in this beautiful sentence:

“The foundation of cinematographic thought seems to be the utilization of existing objects and forms which can be made to say everything, for the patterns of nature are profound and truly infinite.”

In the essay, Artaud then goes on to explain that The Seashell and the Clergyman manipulates created nature in the hope it will yield what he calls some of its “mystery.” He requests we do not try to find “logic” when we watch the film, but rather allow the images and their own, independent narrative to permeate our mind, and find a cohesion that moves “from the outside in” as Artaud put it. In other words, Artaud will argue that it is impossible to film an object separate from its own internal narrative (hence his disapproval of “pure cinema”) but also, he is suggesting the image will (excuse my clumsy wording) sink into you as you watch and form a kind of narrative that is separate from “logic” or “rationalization”.

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And I will contend that this is possible when you watch this film. Take a look at it – I’ve posted 10 minutes of it above for our pleasure.  The images do contain a narrative that is separate from any sort of logical sequence. You can literally “feel” your way through the story.  I wont repeat the story here (I won’t dare defy Artaud) but for those of you too uncomfortable to sit without narrative, check the wiki on the film, because it will give you a basic plot. (Don’t forget to ask yourself why you needed to do that though.)

The consequences (as was brought out in a fine paper by Gregg Flaxman on a weekend of cinematic thinking I just attended) of this rather radical idea, is this:  Your passivity when you watch a film is still processing a narrative. In other words, you are not passive at all. I’m still reading Artaud’s essays, and I only have my notes from the talk, so I won’t embellish any further (yet) out of fear of misrepresenting Artaud.  Instead I will leave you with the tantalizing idea, that you are processing while you sit in a passive state, when you watch a film.  You are processing completely separate from your logical faculties.

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