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.
The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s
(October/MIT Press; US: Mar 2011)
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.
Surrealists as Secretaries of the Subconscious
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?