The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s
US: Mar 2011
In these post-racial, post-historical, post-modern times, it may be hard to connect with all the fuss that was made in the late 19th-early 20th centuries over plain ol’ “modernity”. Though its definition covers a wide spectrum, from Charles Baudelaire’s “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” to Walter Benjamin’s “new mode of perception”, modernity, in the most general sense, refers to the complete overhauling of life brought about by the industrial, technological and scientific advancements of the age.
Modernity was recognized early on as a pretty brutal trade-off: As much as such progress benefited humanity, so, too, did it assist the propensity for misplaced cultural valuation, gross social inequality and mass destruction. But one had to take the good with bad. The matter was how one negotiated between the two.
Inarguably, cinema was one of the “goods” and, in the hands of artists after the First World War, filmmaking became a tool in making or re-making modernism for the 20th century.
Malcolm Turvey’s The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s examines how artists’ in that extremely fecund period dealt with modernism’s promises, contradictions and ultimate failures. Primarily, Turvey challenges “the standard story told about the European avant-garde” as a unified front, wholly antagonistic to “bourgeois modernity”, a term as broad and loaded as modernity itself, but which Turvey summarizes as “a dedication to improving one’s material well-being using instrumental reason—to creating wealth and acquiring property through means-ends calculations—and it is this [he goes on to say] more than anything else, that the avant-garde is thought to have opposed.”
But as Turvey makes clear, avant-gardism carried ambiguous internal conflicts of its own, as “artists disagreed, often vehemently, about what aspects of modern life needed transformation and how such a transformation should be accomplished.” While groups such as the futurists and constructivists embraced the Man and/as Machine aesthetic brought about by “industrial development, technological progress, and instrumental rationality”, others, like Dada and surrealism, rebelled “by subverting and rejecting [such forces, in hopes of] finding alternatives”.
Turvey analyzes five canonical films from the period: Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921), Fernand Leger’s Ballet mecanique (1924), Rene Clair and Francis Picabia’s Entr’acte (1924), Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien andalou (1929), and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929).
Most of these films have been studied to death, then autopsied, buried, exhumed and autopsied again, because they have so much to offer critically. But for the most part Turvey unearths some fresh perspectives.
Though Dada is often considered a largely nihilistic and self-destructive art movement, in fact it depends on which Dada you’re discussing, as Turvey’s analyses of Rhythm 21 and Entr’acte amply prove.
Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 , one of the earliest purely abstract films, is composed entirely of square and rectangular shapes moving in and out, back and forth across the surface of the screen in what Richter saw as a kind of musical counterpoint. As Turvey notes, Richter was “interested not so much in the figures he employed but the relationships between them”:
“The receding square at the center of the screen returns, but as it does so a long, thin, vertical rectangle on the right advances, thereby contrasting two different shapes as well as movement into the background with one out of it. Similarity is preserved, however, by synchronizing the movements of the figures so that one advances as the other recedes at the same speed and time. This is repeated, but now the thin vertical rectangle…”
With a film so purely graphic, descriptions of it are bound to sound static; the question of course is how these moving shapes relate to modernism. Turvey sees Rhythm 21 as expressing a “metaphysical vision of reality” in which opposites “are balanced in a harmonious whole, just as, for Richter, being authentically human consists of achieving a balance between opposites of reason and unreason, conscious and unconscious, civilizing and primitive, thought and feeling, order and chance”. (This chapter is loaded with such dialectical oppositions).
Turvey admits such an analogy may be “loose”, but he bolsters his argument with Richter’s own writings on the film, which, however esoteric, were, for me, some of the most interesting parts of the chapter: “A vertical line was made meaningful by the horizontal, a strong line grew strong by a weak one… All of these discoveries became meaningful in the light of our belief that a precise polar interrelationship of opposites was the key to an order, and once we understood this order we knew we could control this new freedom.”
Other Dadaists were suspicious of “this new freedom”. The more intransigent Francis Picabia made his views clear in his “Dada Cannibal Manifesto”:
“DADA smells like nothing, it is nothing, nothing nothing
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradises: nothing
like your idols: nothing…”
And on like that, with nothing spared.
Supposedly, Picabia wrote the basic “script” for Entr’acte on a napkin, and one imagines it was after dinner. Directed by the filmmaker Rene Clair, and “starring” Picabia, composer Erik Satie, and the artists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the film uses “visually aggressive techniques” to “assault the viewer perceptually…and disorient him [sic] cognitively”. Among its imagery is a self-animated cannon blown into the audience’s face, a slapstick funeral-chase scene, and incessant intercutting between stop-, fast-, slow- and backward motions.
Though Turvey sees in all this “an attack on the bourgeoisie itself” whose “rational, moral and artistic values Entr’acte assails”, true to his thesis of a more ambiguous avant-garde, he also believes the film “embrace[s] the bourgeois value of personal freedom [while] simultaneously oppos[ing], in the name of that value, limits placed on freedom by the bourgeoisie […] It advocates a more expansive conception of a bourgeois value than the bourgeoisie itself is prepared to countenance”.
Though Rhythm 21 was perhaps a more pure example of “pure cinema”, Fernand Leger’s Ballet mecanique, despite its use of representational imagery such as human faces and body parts, was no less modern, abstract or specifically cinematic.
Turvey notes that, as a painter, Leger considered film “a plastic art dedicated to revealing the ‘intrinsic plastic value of the object,’ which it is also able to exhibit with particular force and clarity owing to the size of the screen and techniques such as editing and the close-up”. In some ways, the screen could substitute as canvas, with moving images, including human features, viewed solely as increased or diminished spatial values on a flat surface as opposed to strictly in-depth.
Leger employed these techniques in Ballet mecanique, where numerous “plastic” elements such as a woman’s face, a man on a fairground ride, or a woman on a swing with the camera swaying in tandem, are all edited together in rapid, repetitive succession. Again, description doesn’t do justice. The effect is kaleidoscopic in the fullest sense, as all these images crash and clash against one another in rhythmic agitation against the viewer’s eyeballs.
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