In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.
— Walter Benjamin, on Mickey Mouse
FILM HAS ALWAYS PRESUMED to be the mirror of modern life. From its now remote photographic origins to its manic digital proliferation in the present, the cinema has accompanied and transformed our history so thoroughly as to be inseparable from it. Though historians will tell us that western modernity began in the Renaissance or the 18th century, these dates never feel as convincing as they ought to. Montaigne or Adam Smith may have had more lasting impact on our present, but they will never seem as “modern” to most of us as Charlie Chaplin’s walk, or the eyes of Lillian Gish. The eloquent tactility of facial expressions, bodily movement, gesture, or fashion sense — indeed, the basic ability to be rendered and perceived as an image — is now a prerequisite for that kindred feeling of contemporaneity which is now essential to our sense of history in this thickly archived, and amnesiac, culture. The images of film have thus become the inadvertent nursery of all possible truisms that we could tell about ourselves, or about the ostensible modernity we inhabit.
Occasionally, however, the relationship between film and modernity can seem to be not simply a symptomatic analogy but a material correspondence between the accelerated rhythms of industrialized urban spaces and the kinetic delirium of cinematic editing. This idea, sometimes termed the “modernity thesis,” is the subject — and also the target — of Malcolm Turvey’s impressive new study of avant-garde cinema, The Filming of Modern Life. Turvey traces the genealogy of this idea to Walter Benjamin, who — in one of his notorious footnotes — described the unique relation of film to its audience as based on the city’s crowded grammar of shock and perceptual dislocation. Film, Benjamin wrote,
is the art form corresponding to the increased threat to life that faces people today. Humanity’s need to expose itself to shock effects represents an adaptation to the dangers threatening it. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus — changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man on the street in big-city traffic, and on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.
Benjamin’s claim, however important it has been to the study of twentieth-century culture, is perhaps vague enough to invite the abuse of unquestioning adherence. And so while it has become an academic cliché to assume that all films — in their flicker and cuts — either allegorize or express the shocks of modernity, Turvey urges critics to adopt a more qualified stance. If we take seriously the idea that to experience modernity is to experience it as distraction, he reasons, we must also frankly acknowledge that films are not distracting in the same way as are city streets.
In fact, once we begin to put pressure on the notion of distraction, we might fairly suppose, as does Turvey, that “if filmmakers truly wanted to replicate the perceptual distraction of the modern environment, they would have to distract viewers away from the film they are watching with perceptual stimuli coming from the sides and back of the exhibition space that are unrelated to the film.” True distraction cannot be scripted, or perhaps fully represented on film, since distraction, an audience’s distraction, would by its very nature exist not in the film but in the gap between a film’s stylized address and its erratic reception by the audience. We can be distracted from a film; but when, say, we are shown the disorienting visions of a character’s point of view through a quickly edited, fragmented montage, the effects we feel are really the product of our disciplined — if erratic — attention to a shifting context of images.
“It is only avant-garde filmmakers,” Turvey writes in his polemical final chapter, “who have genuinely attempted to make the viewer experience the perceptual distraction of a modern environment through their films.” This, of course, is a debatable claim — and rests heavily on the weight of the word “genuinely” — but certainly the early films of the European avant-garde exploited the emerging grammars of narrative filmmaking in the 1920s — visual continuity, close-up, shot-countershot and montage editing, etc. — in order to challenge, mystify, and arrest the viewer. The infamous cut in Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou — in which the shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon prefaces the image of a razor slicing through the gelatinous goo of an eyeball — is only the most unnerving and iconic example of how these early films sought to make the act of viewing precarious in moments of jarring, manic juxtaposition.
Of course, the rapid editing style these films employed is now so common — in action flicks, advertising, music videos — that we are apt to misconstrue the competing intellectual, aesthetic, and ideological investments at stake when they were made. Indeed, the canonical films that show up in Turvey’s study — Rhythm 21 (1921), Ballet mécanique (1924), Entr’acte (1924), Un chien andalou (1928), and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) — offer an engrossing glimpse into the remarkable diversity and formal restlessness of the cinematic avant-garde of the 1920s, which oscillated uncertainly among several overlapping commitments: to sheer geometric abstraction, to Dadaist or Surrealist absurdism, to rhythmic purity, to machinist utopianism. Avant-garde filmmakers produced works that assaulted and dismantled the ordered consolations of bourgeois culture, but, as Turvey shows, they also harbored ideas about artistic and cultural order that can seem strangely traditional, as well.
No film better demonstrates the conflicted status of avant-garde cinema than Francis Picabia and René Clair’s collaborative Dada document,Entr’acte, which opens with a note of overt defiance, if not aggression, towards its audience. In the initial shots, Picabia and Erik Satie (who composed a score for the film) descend from the air in slow motion to aim and fire a canon directly into the lens of the camera. Dressed in formal attire, the two gentlemen pause before lighting the fuse and appear to hold a reasoned discussion as to how to proceed, motioning to each other as if carefully weighing their options. Then Satie lifts the missile from off-screen, holding it out for them both to smell; only upon finding the odor repugnant does Satie load it into the canon and fire into our direct line of sight. It is a manifestly destructive gesture that bluntly taunts both the good taste and apparent safety of its spectators (whose original members were attending one of Satie’s productions at the Swedish ballet in Paris). Clair would later wax nostalgic for the shock the film had on its audience, remarking in his bookCinema Yesterday and Today (1970):
Now that Entr’acte is shown in film societies and film libraries with all the deference due to an antique, I am tempted to pay my respects to those who once hissed it. …Nothing is more distressing than a tame, disciplined audience that feels obliged to applaud in cadence even what it finds dull, even what it dislikes.
As an attempt to provoke the audience to hisses, however, Entr’acte is also unaccountably playful, mixing a delirious joy with its nihilistic malice. Indeed, from the film’s famous bearded ballerina — shot indelicately so that we are continually looking up her tutu — to the film’s climax that is part funeral, part circus, and part accelerated chase sequence, Entr’acte affirms a world of bewildering levity glimpsed in the ruins of society’s most dour rituals. In fact, Turvey argues, Dada is less a rejection of bourgeois culture than a more libidinal version of it. “In the case of Dada,” he writes, “the personal freedom of modern life is celebrated in a radical form while the instrumental rationality that has enabled it is rejected as a stultifying, deadening constraint on that freedom.”
Seen from this perspective, Entr’acte appears neither as an attack on modern life, nor as an embrace of its liberatory character, but an expression of modernity’s contradictory nature. As Marshall Berman remarked in All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982) in a line that Turvey adopts in his introduction,
To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. … It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts.
Throughout The Filming of Modern Life, Turvey contextualizes his representative films within the artistic (and anti-artistic) ambitions of their creators — a decision that highlights the theoretical tensions endemic to movements such as Dada or Surrealism, movements too often taken to be self-evidently doctrinal. Thus, Fernand Léger’s statement that “the Beautiful is everywhere; perhaps more in the arrangement of your saucepans in the white walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums” harbors a strangely classical desire for “Beauty” amid the fragmented artifacts of mundane objects. In this light, Léger and Murphy’s Ballet mécanique — which features whisks and pans heavily in its dazzling, inhuman choreography — is shown to be a somewhat less strident affirmation of the “machine age” than it might at first appear. Indeed, the great virtue of Turvey’s book is that it offers a lucid introduction to the theoretical problems that animate avant-garde films, thereby restoring a sense of their ideological flexibility and their ambivalence towards the modern world they depict.
By foregrounding these intellectual contexts, however, The Filming of Modern Life also tends to privilege the influence and authority of identifiable movements and thinkers (Le Corbusier, Tristan Tzara, etc.) at the expense of more peripheral collaborations. These films often took shape in generative, ad hoc partnerships between artists bent on interrogating the pernicious suppositions of bourgeois culture and filmmakers prone to celebrate a medium that was bourgeois culture’s newfound chief amusement. It is no accident, then, that Ballet mécanique opens with a Cubist homage to Chaplin’s jittery, mechanical gait. Here the film nods directly to the determinative role of popular comedy — not only the goofy antics of Picabia, but slapstick and cartoon gags — on the kinetic imagination of the avant-garde.
The apprenticeship of experimental cinema in the sphere of mass-culture comedy suggests that these films confronted their modernity in ways that routinely exceeded the use of shock effects. The physical comedy popularized in slapstick and enlarged impossibly in contemporary cartoons is an ever present subtext for the cinematic distortion and redistribution of the human body as machine so central to avant-garde practice. Indeed, avant-garde films often shared what comedy strove to create: a “form,” as Michael North claims inMachine-Age Comedy (2009), “in which the original promise of modern life emerges from its practical disappointment.”
It is unclear if cinema is still modernity’s reigning symptom. More likely, we now believe that computers, rather than films, buffet us with the distractions commensurate with our time. Is this a genuine shift in the conception of experience, or just the evolution of a metaphor of “modernity”? In avant-garde films, we can never be certain about what is really happening and what is merely a “metaphor” for something else. The razor through the eyeball, in Dalí’s film, is at once a real razor and the dreamlike expression of the violence hidden in the clouds. These films rely upon, and assault, the basic continuities of cinematic and real time; this is why they can be seriously called films about history, metaphors of the metaphor of modernity.
As Siegfried Kracauer notes in his epic Theory of Film (1960), cinema connects to the past only by dislodging us from the present. Old films, he writes,
bring us face to face with the inchoate, cocoon-like world whence we come-all the objects, or rather sediments of objects, that were our companions in a pupa state. The most familiar, that which continues to condition our involuntary reactions and spontaneous impulses, is thus made to appear as the most alien.
Looking back on the European avant-garde cinema of the 1920s is not especially flattering for contemporary film. Indeed, nothing could be farther from today’s typically dour cinematic climate than the irreverent experimentalism and giddy stridency of Entr-acte or Man with The Movie Camera. It is possible, too, that we have come to resemble the reverential audience bitterly described by René Clair, so full of pieties about serious cinematic art that we forget the riotous contradictions this idea contains, so dutiful in our measured contemplation that we have become afraid to hiss.