There are many radical theorists within the cinematic firmament, but Jean Isidore-Isou (born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein) is in a class by himself. Isou’s film Traité de Bave et d’Èternité (Venom and Eternity) (1951) is truly a one of a kind project, which Isou created out of stock footage, numerous views of Isou himself walking throughout Paris looking like a disconsolate rebel, advertisements for his various book and pamphlets, and a soundtrack that resolutely has absolutely nothing to do with the film’s images — the creation of what Isou calls in the film “le cinéma discrépant” — the separation of visuals from the soundtrack.
Much of the film takes the form of a supposed lecture that Isou interrupts with his theories, much to the derision of the rest of the audience, but we only hear this on the soundtrack; the images are a separate track altogether. Isou also raises the very interesting, and very real question of “what constitutes beauty” — why we deem some images “beautiful” and some not.
As he shouts on the film’s soundtrack: “I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film.”
Towards the middle of the film, Isou ceases lecturing the viewer, and instead presents examples of the kinds of images he would like to use in film, such as scratched and bleached stock footage of upside-down dump trucks, along with a soundtrack of Lettrist poetry, which is composed for the pleasure of sheer sound alone. Indeed, Isou was the founder of the Lettrist school of poetry, whose later adherents included François Dufrène and Guy Debord, though they soon split off to form their own groups.
“I want to make a film that hurts your eyes” Isou rants on the soundtrack at one point, but it really doesn’t do that at all; what is does accomplish is waking one from the reverie of scripted narrative, from preconceived notions of pictorial composition, and from the chains of synchronous imagery, in a film that is both audacious and impossible to repeat.
When Isou screened the film at the 1951 Cannes film festival, a riot broke out, and Jean Cocteau, who appears briefly in the film and who supported Isou’s work as that of a genuine original, was asked to defend the work. He refused to take to the stage, but later commented in an article that “someday Isou’s work may be the fashion,” and saw to it that the film was awarded a special prize.
Once seen, never forgotten, Isou’s film is a call for a complete revolution in the cinema, and although he goes over the top — to put it mildly — he raises some very real and interesting questions.