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The Arts Voyager, 6-6: What is hip?
Of "hipsters," "coffee culture," and the resonant silence of Jean Epstein
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
For Jim Marron and Herb Caen, who I never knew personally, but who made my world possible, and for Jill Johnston, who made it credible.
NEW YORK -- Okay, looks like I finally found an Arts Voyager opening for the "hipster" rant that's been percolating in my blood for the last two years, ever since I returned to my home town of San Francisco, where I was weaned on hipster-ism that didn't need quotation marks, Ferlinghetti (forget Ginsburg; Ferlinghetti da man, for his much wider influence, as not only a poet who captured and articulated an age's gestalt, but a publisher and bookseller who opened up that world and its expression beyond himself), Rexroth, and others fertilizing the terrain for the hippies of my parents' generation, Enrico's and others laying down the templates for the coffee houses that became their fields of dreaming, the baseball metaphor hardly hackneyed even from a hack wannabe Beat like me because Willie Mays also hit Baghdad by the Bay in '58, when Herb Caen's nom de ville evoked not bombs over Iraq but conjured that country's 5,000-year literary heritage to corronate the one being born astride the Golden Gate, as the best minds of a generation defied vertigo and made a grand literary leap into heretofore unknown but ultimately fertile territory.
The city also had its traditions, even before the Beats, the most pungent of which were ethnic -- Italian, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Philippino, even Russian Jewish, and most of all Spanish, Mexican, and Central American. The heart of this last was once Valencia Street, one block up from Mission. I came of age one block further up on Guerrero, before the yuppies, techies, and hipsters with quotes drove the rents up. When I returned in 2010 after 10 years living in France, every other storefront on Valencia had been turned into a coffee house -- I saw the best beans of my generation stoking the Yesterdaydreams of pie-hatted and flouncy-dressed 20-somethings. The epidemic even spread to the 'heartland'; at last month's twice-yearly Arts Goggle artwalk in the picturesque Fort Worth neighborhood of Fairmount, where white families have been supplanting indigenous Latinos and African-Americans, lured by 1920s-era Craftsman houses, I met a young woman from Texas proudly showing photos taken during a foreign study visit to San Francisco; my eye if not my brain had been caught by the shot of the ornate Palace of Fine Arts, erected for the 1915 Universal Exposition, for 50 years also the home of the science-is-fun museum the Exploratorium, where in high school I'd worked as an Orange-jacketed Explainer (that's what we were called; it was the late 1970s, during the lull between the Beats and their false resurrection of the past decade, and San Francisco was tired of over-wrought labels) (I became known as the Cow's Eye Guy, for my expertise in dissecting bovine oculars). There was little art to the photo taken by the girl in the flouncy flowered dress and curly red hair, who had evidently already moved on to another art form:
"I'm very involved in the Coffee Culture," she informed me. "Every Thursday we have the Barista throw-down," which apparently involves competing for the most artistic 'rosette,' something that features at the crest of the steamed milk of cafe lattes.
Had I not been on Beer Watch -- bottomless micro-beer, "Ugly Pug" from nearby Rahr Brewery, was flowing freely from a keg at the amorphous image boutique-loft in which this conversation took place, and ever since I short-circuited one friendship and one theatrical project after having quaffed a pint, I only let myself drink after pledging not to get into any arguments while under the influence -- here's what I would have said to this budding Diane di prima of the foaming milk:
To cast coffee, in and of itself, as a culture is to grossly misapprehend what the culture which found its arena in the 1950s and '60s in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, with satellites in Paris and other cities outside the U.S., was all about. Coffee houses were merely the *venues* and enablers of a culture that was not about caffeine but about words and music, philosophy and real movements (by which I don't mean the slow -- excuse me, 'slo' -- food movement). Confusing coffee with the culture itself is like calling Westward Expansion Horse Expansion, the Lewis & Clark expedition the Boat Expedition, Space the Final Frontier Fuel the Final Frontier, or the Nobel Prize for Literature the Nobel Prize for Typewriters.
|A scene from Jean Epstein's 1929 "Finis Terrae." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
... Which brings me to two films showing imminently or shortly at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Continuing to perpetuate the myth that "hipster"ism version 2012 is actually a culture, as opposed to just a mirror facade reflection of a previous culture (by which I mean culture that actually fructifies art and not just an artistic or artful lifestyle), the feature presentation for the June 20 edition of New Filmmakers at Anthology is "El Caffinato," described as: "A
hipster musical Western set in a contemporary coffee shop, (which) tells the story of Milo Beckett, a lovesick loner who must lead the caffeine-buzzed regulars in a musical show-down with an old-time foe, Dusky Dan Digby." Never mind how even someone with the nom de hipster "Beckett" can be both lovesick and a loner at the same time, nor the Old West sub-theme which offers the bonus of a secondary cultural misapprehension, what's likely to unfold here seems more about plot than technique, further corroding of adjacent genres by the *hipster* Kool-Aid Acid tripsters. (While I haven't checked New Filmmakers in a while, previous ventures were more about story than method.) Fortunately, the meat and potatoes of Anthology's programming is still made up of truly essential cinema that is actually about cinema, and the Jean Epstein mini-retrospective which opened June 1 and runs through June 7 makes up part of the core fount of this cinema, judging by the sample I caught June 5, the 1929 silent sea epic "Finis Terrae," on view again June 6 at 7 p.m., followed by a panel discussion of Epstein's silent films.
Watching "Finis Terrae," one can understand why Epstein influenced a later generation of filmmakers, particularly Francophone ones, who, like Jean-Luc Godard, thought cinema should be cinema first, that the evidence of the form of their story should be omni-present, that they shouldn't just be filming plays. The film opens like a documentary, following four kelp fishermen on the isolated Bretagne island of Finis, an ocean passage from the village of Ouessant. Things go bad, and dramatic, quickly, as a simple errand by one of the men, Ambroise, to fetch the last bottle of wine of another, Jean-Marie, turns to catastrophe and scenario, when Ambroise, hurrying to join Jean-Marie with the bottle -- captured in both close-up and quick-time by Epstein, in a frantic joy -- bobbles it, then cuts himself on one of the shards, enraging Jean-Marie and infecting his finger at the same time. After a lengthy passage in which the four men are shown fetching the kelp from the sea, hauling it back and along the rocky beach with horse-carts, then stretching it out to dry in the Sun, Ambroise begins to slack off -- out of laziness, think his colleagues, but in reality the lassitude is prompted by the infection. He pisses them off further by using a pail of precious water from a dwindling cistern supply -- rainwater is their only source -- to attempt to cleanse his hands and the wound. After a night of infection-induced delirium in which the Ouessant light-house towers above a shifting, raging sea and shards of the shattered wine bottle hover kaleidoscopically, Ambroise realizes he must get help, which means attempting to row a small boat out to an only slightly bigger sailboat, using just his one good arm, so he can return to Ouessant and search for the doctor. He fags out less than a 100 meters off-shore, returns to the beach and collapses on his back. Not far up from him, huddled outside their below-ground ramshackle hovels, his three comrades dine rhapsodically on potato gruel cooked in a kettle over an open fire, either oblivious to Ambroise's condition or disdaining it.
|A scene from Jean Epstein's 1929 "Finis Terrae." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
After a long night and scorching day, they descend to examine him and, finally alarmed at -- or finally caring enough about -- his rapidly deteriorating state, they carry him back to their complex. As he gets worse and worse, Jean-Marie -- closer to his age than the other two, grizzled sea-men -- tells them they really need to return to Ouessant so that Ambroise can get some help. The others argue that even four men will be challenged to row because the tide is against them, so Jean-Marie valiantly decides to do it on his own, lifting his fallen colleague on his back, rowing out to the larger boat, then frantically rowing across the rough waves, stopping only when he intermittently falls asleep.
Meanwhile in Ouessant, the two young men's black-clad mothers, alerted by returning fishermen that something strange is going on in Finis, where no smoke has been seen in two days, seek out the help of the village doctor and effective leader, who cajoles three sailors into taking him to Finis, the 67-year-old medic even heartily joining in the rowing himself. After Jean-Marie is almost lost in the fog, he finally spots the cavalry, the two boats meet, the doctor performs a rapid, drastic but life-saving excision on Ambroise -- earlier when Jean-Marie felt the pulse of his lifeless friend earlier, it had seemed like it might be too late -- and the men return to shore, spotted by the village women in black and other sailors, who send a boy to alert the two mothers, who've been holding an all-night vigil on craggy rocks overlooking the tumultuous, frothy coast.
If the story sounds simple, its accomplishment is intricate. Working, remember, in 1929, Epstein seems to single-handedly marry documentary and fiction, in a shift so subtle that even when the story kicks in we still think we're in a documentary, cinema techniques applied to 'verité' which then creates verisimilitude. At one point, when Ambroise attempts to set out to sea to save himself with his quixotic one-armed rowing, I had to remind myself that if we were seeing this, the hero wasn't really alone as Epstein had to be there filming it, so suspended was my disbelief -- in fact, by beginning the work as a documentary, Epstein had suspended disbelief before it even had a chance to be activated. And he's hooked us so successfully into his truth that even film trickery doesn't make us doubt him, as he slows the film and zooms in to show a man chewing on a chunk of peasant bread, a festering wound in a thumb, another man savoring a hot spoonful of gruel as his hair is tussled about by the wind, the Sun whitening his face and making his eyes squint against it as he looks out onto the sea from a perch outside and above the make-shift hovel. Or, in the rescue boat, the camera looks up at the rowing doctor, as the sextagenerian takes a break to quaff water from an earthenware jug and pass it around to the other rowers.
There's also an anthropological story here, Ambroise's colleagues' brutal disregard for his deteriorating state, suggesting we're in for a film version of Colin Turnbull's "Mountain People," finally giving way to empathy and humanism, penultimately evoked when, back in Ambroise's mother's hearth, keeping vigil at his bedside, Jean-Marie pours a tiny glass from a bottle of liquor then, after raising it to his own lips, changes his mind and lifts Ambroise's head so he can drink, then, when his friend returns to repose, places his own arm under his friend's with the bandaged hand before returning to sleep himself.
But the naturalism is not confined to Epstein's ability to bring it out in his actors -- who were all local residents, so didn't need any coaxing to be authentic -- but is also showcased in how he miraculously portrays the rough nature of their surroundings and settings, which is not so simple as placing a camera on a cliff. Even though he's working in black and white, and without sound, the waves crash, the wind is felt through the way he reveals it jostling the bare branches of coastal shrubbery; the Sun glares so brilliantly at rising that you seem to feel it on your own cheeks, and the dusk seems truly forlorn, foreboding, and lonely.
In effect -- if I can attempt to bring this essay around to my beginning, no doubt less adroit at my art than Jean Epstein seminally was at his -- as opposed to, say, the hipsters sketching a portrait, an appearance, and confounding affectation with art, Epstein uses technical effects born from an artistic conception -- the conception of a true auteur, not just a maker of films -- to produce art in every second of his picture, an art as fine as the subject and its contours are rough, as developed in its craft as the elements it evokes are raw.
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