Mallarmé and the Lumiére Brothers

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La poésie et le cinéma, mais surtout le cinéma, ont perdu tout leur pouvoir. Les premiers films donnaient un meilleur aperçu de la vie quotidienne ou racontaient une histoire émotive par le montage et la musique sans paroles. Maintenant, les réalisateurs utilisent des films pour raconter des histoires trouvées dans des livres, au lieu de laisser le lecteur regarder leur propre histoire à la lecture. 

Mallarmé and the Lumiére Brothers: From Poetry to Film and Back Again—Combining the Arts

Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Babbitt- Engl 2091 3-6-12

The art of writing is underappreciated by many. Thus, poets like Stéphane Mallarmé go unnoticed by most of the population. Similarly, film is often seen as only entertainment; the majority of film watchers see no significance other than what is right in front of them. This is especially true for the early, silent films, such as the films by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiére. When poetry and film are combined, however, a whole new style is developed, and it begs study. Christophe Wall-Romana was one of the first to acknowledge this topic, and he insists that there is a tie between Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés and the Lumiére brothers’ films, and this relationship shows a connection between early film and modernism: Mallarmé took the goals that the Lumiéres’ films were trying to reach and put them in his poetry just as the modernists combined their ideas with filmmakers in order to make art that was the best of both worlds.

The Modernist era began as a response to the oppression of the Victorian age—artists were tired of the formality required by the Victorian tradition. Modernist poetry combined looking back at previous poetry style and looking forward past Victorianism. Some of the most influential later modernist poets include Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Pound, in fact, incorporated cubist and imagist beliefs into the modernist beliefs, making modernism a very new and unique kind of movement. Early modernist poets also had a lot of influence on the style, however. For example, Gerard Manley Hopkins had a theory that became widely accepted by modernists: sound should be the driving force of poetry. Therefore, the modernist poetry standards became focused on the word, and how it worked in poetry.

Mallarmé, though before the radical upswing of modernism, definitely held modernist standards and beliefs. Wall-Romana called Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés “a work without precedent—the hallmark of radical modernist experimentalism” (132). Mallarmé “wrote or planned experimental poems as cinematic sublations of the page and the book,” such as in Un coup de des, which he wrote as “one long strip of visually montaged text” (Wall-Romana 129). Mallarmé believed photographs should not be used to illustrate books because the images should come from the reader’s mind alone. He said: “if you [use] photography, why not go straight to the cinematograph, whose unreeling [unfolding] will replace, images and text, many a volume, advantageously” (Wall-Romana 132). This belief in the power of film led him to the idea of “integration as ‘déroulement’—unfolding, uncoiling, unreeling, or unscrolling: a new topology for text and images,” and he incorporated many film styles into his work.

Mallarmé often wrote so that his readers could find multiple meanings in his works (Wall-Romana 129). He devised Un coup de dés so that it would have several different story lines that could stand alone but would also make a complete poem when put together, just as the color of the woman’s dress changed throughout the film. Mallarmé did this by using different types of font effects, such as bold, italics, and capital letters, as well as the layout of the poem itself: the reader could potentially read the poem both left to right and up and down by page. If the reader takes apart the poem by separating it according to font type, he or she can find seven different poems of varying lengths and then two more from the different layouts.

Mallarmé tried to make the images in his poetry electric and revealing, like the electric lights in film. For “The Serpentine Dance,” the brothers colored the slides of the film so that the actress’s dress changes color as she dances, but it is the lighting in the film that reveals the movement. This is what Mallarmé tried to do in his poetry, especially in Un coup de dés: create a bright, clear image of flowing movement. He succeeded in this with his diction and the layout of the poem, with the lines spread out across the pages, as if the poem itself is moving down a river or path.

Although Mallarmé combined the arts of film and poetry, poetry has long been aligned with music and considered a model for the music of each specific time period. Mallarmé believed opera, which was what he considered the “music of his time,” was dependent on language and thus on poetry, so poetry could not be a new model for opera. Instead, he turned to film and dance in order to “renew poetry” (Wall-Romana 135) and thus he began to write cinepoetry. One of the questions that prompted Mallarmé to do so was whether “the visual poem’s alternating blanks and text mimic, or at least give a sense of, this mesmerizing fiction of continuity” (Wall-Romana 133). This question was further encouraged when he saw Loїe Fuller dancing in the Lumiére brothers’ film “The Serpentine Dance.” In the dance, Loїe wore “oversized robes and veils” (Wall-Romana 135) to give an illusion of profluent motion, or a “mesmerizing fiction of continuity” (133). This visual of continual, flowing movement inspired him to try to create poetry in that same style.

The earliest known attempt to combine poetry and screen was in 1894, when Aurélien Lugné-Poe directed a poem by Henri de Régnier. The actors were “behind a veil of gauze” acting as “ghosts mimicking the words pronounced by the actors” (Wall-Romana 131). Mallarmé wanted to do better than this. He wanted the film to be on the paper. He wanted his readers to watch a film in their heads while they read. Early film wanted the audience to watch the actors, not listen to the words, in order for the viewers to feel, to understand, to empathize with what was happening, instead of being told what was going on, the same as Mallarmé wanted readers to find their best meaning in his poems. It found inspiration in dance and daily life, as is evident in the Lumiére brothers’ works. The first films were silent and in black and white, but directors soon found ways around those. Just like in “The Serpentine Dance,” directors would hand-color each of the slides in their film to make it more life-like, and most films have music playing in the background to set the mood. They worked hard to make it easier for the audience to feel what they as directors were trying to portray. The Lumiéres very first film was a short recording of workers leaving a factory. They took a normal, mundane occurrence and recorded it, almost casually, thus ensuring it would be remembered in the years to come.

Although these films, “Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory” and “The Serpentine Dance,” may seem like simple pieces, they actually had a lot of work put in to them. Both of the films take a normal event—people leaving their jobs at the end of the day, a woman dancing—and make it memorable. They used film to “[push] back the boundary of death” (Wall-Romana 129). They immortalized it by turning this normal, trivial circumstance into a work of art. They directed Loїe Fuller to wear a robe that was too big for her in order to have more movement, more flow, more passion and life in her dance. They filmed the workers leaving the factory over and over again, trying to make it perfect. They had to deliberately arrange every detail in order for them to consider it a piece of art. Mallarmé, too, painstakingly put every word into his poem, making sure there were no extra words and no word, space, or character was out of place. The Lumiéres and Mallarmé wanted their audience to get the full effect of their work.

The same can be said for modernism: every word was consciously put on the paper. Modernists believed in the power of words. They were very conservative in their diction, and wrote only words that would help provide meaning for their work, nothing more, and they generally used words that were well-known. This idea comes straight from film. No director will use a prop or character that is not needed, nothing can be out of place for a film to be successful, and images are understood everywhere, words are not needed. In early films, which were silent, the directors often had slides that were just words, because they were trying to better explain what was happening or what a character was feeling, but they were often unnecessary, and modernists did away with that practice in their poems.

An example of a modernist poem is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” This poem represents modernist beliefs very well with its use of montage in the many images that come to have one significance. Ezra Pound was another poet whose work, “The Cantos,” specifically, was considered an influential modernist poem. This poem also used montage throughout, which gave the poem, which focused on telling history, new meaning as a way of explaining life in the twentieth century. Montage was used in many early films, because it shocked and surprised the viewer enough to provide meaning and emotions for the plot; this reaction is why modernists faithfully incorporated montage into their poems.

In his article, Wall-Romana states “cinema may have evoked for Mallarmé a potential integration of the artwork with sensorial experience and performance, across page (2-D), folio (3-D), and reading time (4-D)” (Wall-Romana 130). Mallarmé, as well as modernist poets, strived to make their poems have all of the feelings and sensations one would find in early film, as well as going further than that by letting the reader see the poem’s story unfold in their minds.

Poetry and film, but especially film, have slipped away from the great power they once had. Early film provided a better look at daily life or told an emotional story through montage and wordless music. Now, directors use films to retell stories found in books, instead of letting the reader watch their own story as the read. It was once considered a normal pastime to read poetry, today it is widely considered boring or difficult, and most people don’t enjoy it. The world’s cultures have lost a lot of great experiences with this shift. People today want everything laid out plainly before them so they don’t have to think too hard about what it is trying to say or do. Not only have they lost their imaginations by taking the easy way out, they have lost an incredible art form that needs to be reintegrated into society. Only once these styles, modernism and cinepoetry and the standards of early film, have been revived can the world truly know what the artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were trying to do when they combined poetry and film.


Works Consulted

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Un coup de dés. 124-144.

The Serpentine Dance. Dir. Auguste Lumiere and Louis Fuller. Perf. Loie Fuller. 1899.

Wall-Romana, Christophe. "Mallarme's Cinepoetics: The Poem Uncoiled by the

            Cinematographe, 1893-98." Modern Language Association 120.1 (2005): 128-47. Web.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory. Dir. Auguste Lumiere and Louis Lumiere. 1895.


FUENTE: 14/07/2019

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