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Still from The Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Surrealists as Secretaries of the Subconscious

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Turvey also stresses the film’s “machine aesthetic”, another acutely modern theory in which “reality [is] fundamentally transformed using the machine as a blueprint and tool, so as to produce a utopia of order, harmony, control, and efficiency”. Ballet mecanique’s frequent “shots of machines and machine parts, mass-produced objects manufactured by machines, and an intermittent mechanical rhythm…encourage the spectator to notice abstract similarities between the mechanical and nonmechanical objects the shots depict”.


Yet Turvey warns against any strict adherence to a specific interpretation, seeing instead a “tangled stance” toward modernist progress that, on one hand, had high hopes for the “beautiful objects” of modernism but only as they were rooted in the almost classical notions of beauty and order.


While some artists argued for a cinema purified of all traditional forms including narrative, others were using those traditional techniques for more subversive ends.


Salvador Dali’s and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien andalou, that holy relic of Surrealism, is often considered more dissociative than it really is, but Turvey offers a fresh analysis stressing the film’s narrative and visual consistencies, its undoubtedly subversive use of yet conventional melodramatic techniques over its dissociations, and how the former assists the latter in contributing to the film’s (seemingly) radical, anti-bourgeois worldview.


Turvey finds that “[t]he film simultaneously lures the viewer with continuities that hint at a hidden logic… yet it ultimately keeps this logic just out of reach by way of its discontinuities”. He describes how the two filmmakers “used images from their dreams in the film, but in order to circumvent their own subjective prejudices and objectively transcribe the ‘real functioning of thought,’ they consciously rejected anything that could be motivated by rational, moral, or aesthetic concerns”.


Though clearly the film’s succession of images—from its famous eyeball slash to its “love story” between the woman with vanishing armpit hair and the man with ants in his hands—contain vague “rational, moral or aesthetic” associations, they are not necessarily meant to be viewed or interpreted coherently, with psychological cues, ideas of subjective transference, or apparent linearity; rather they depict a world adhering to the subconscious mechanism, where discontinuous, yet fundamentally familiar images are drained of any preconceptions and so retain their “marvelous” state.


In a sense, surrealists were secretaries of the subconscious, “modest recording instruments”, in Andre Breton’s words, “who make ‘no effort whatsoever to filter’ their thoughts but are instead ‘simple receptacle[s]’ for them”.


In the last film Turvey analyzes, Dziga Vertov’s proto-cinema verite “city symphony” Man With A Movie Camera, machines and their products are depicted as just as marvelous as any man. The film is a day-in-the-life tale-of-one-city, in which man and machine coexist and cooperate: happy factory workers smile through repetitious assembly work, a woman’s blinking eyes are echoed playfully by window blinds. Indeed, Vertov had ideas for “the perfect electric man…free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, [with] the light, precise movements of machines”, and Man With A Movie Camera is full of the “mechanization of humanity” and, just as importantly for Turvey’s thesis, the “humanization of machines”.


Though Turvey sees the film as expressing “the belief that the integration of human beings and technology in the name of the expansion of production would bring about the perfection and ultimate salvation of humankind” and that “socially useful objects [are] conceived of as ‘comrades’ who play a role equal to that of humans in the construction of the new Communist society”, once again he is careful to insist upon a more complex reading:


“However much enthusiasm [Vertov] might have had for the utopian vision of a new, mechanized populace and society…he tempered his vision by inserting it within a humanized aesthetic [wherein] machines, the very emblem of modernity, are made appealing to their human operators”.


Thus, the Man is literally with the Movie Camera, as equal. Greetings, comrade!


Turvey concludes his study with a chapter challenging the “modernity thesis”, a theoretical position drawn largely from Walter Benjamin: “[W]ith modernity, a new type or ‘mode’ of perception, different from the modes of previous epochs, has arisen owing to the forces of change at work in modern societies […] This new mode is characterized above all by distraction: the frequent, abrupt shifts in attention demanded of human beings by the overload of perceptual stimuli typical of modern environments”.


Film was commonly considered one of these distractions, but, rightly I think, Turvey finds this thesis exceedingly problematic, if not downright fallacious. Though he admits certain films, especially avant-garde films, may “attempt to approximate” the modern perceptual experience, he argues that generally cinema works oppositely of distraction, both by offering a single focal point, and through its innate associative capacities, accounting for “the ease with which viewers tolerate shot changes [which], like picture postcards, are representations, and the film viewer both sees and knows what they are.” Though perhaps Turvey insists a bit too strongly and repetitively on this “street vs. screen” thesis, it is a point worth insistence.


The Filming of Modern Life is stringently, sometimes brutally academic—Turvey is Professor of Film History at Sarah Lawrence College and an editor of the ultra-scholarly theoretical journal October—and at points the book is as rigorous in its readability as its research. But its major theoretical contribution, that the avant-gardes’ relationship to “bourgeois modernity” was more ambiguous and problematical than traditionally assumed, provides a nice corrective to long-misguided notions. Whether or not the artists were part of “the bourgeoisie” themselves (most were), they were all aesthetically enmeshed in and existentially dependent upon it. Without it, what was there to advance from?

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