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The Filming of Modern Life

The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s

Malcolm Turvey
Series: October Books
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Filming of Modern Life
    Book Description:

    In the 1920s, the European avant-garde embraced the cinema, experimenting with the medium in radical ways. Painters including Hans Richter and Fernand Léger as well as filmmakers belonging to such avant-garde movements as Dada and surrealism made some of the most enduring and fascinating films in the history of cinema. In The Filming of Modern Life, Malcolm Turvey examines five films from the avant-garde canon and the complex, sometimes contradictory, attitudes toward modernity they express: Rhythm 21 (Hans Richter, 1921), Ballet mécanique (Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, 1924), Entr'acte (Francis Picabia and René Clair, 1924), Un chien Andalou (Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, 1929), and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). All exemplify major trends within European avant-garde cinema of the time, from abstract animation to "cinéma pur." All five films embrace and resist, in their own ways, different aspects of modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29530-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    In the 1920s, the cinema was embraced by the European avant-garde, and the result was an outpouring of creativity.¹ Avant-garde filmmakers and artists experimented with the medium in radical ways, often writing film theory and criticism in tandem with their filmmaking. Artists working primarily in other mediums, such as the painters Hans Richter and Fernand Léger, as well as filmmakers belonging to avant-garde movements, principally Dada, surrealism, and constructivism, made some of the most enduring and fascinating films in the history of cinema.Rhythm 21(Hans Richter, 1921),Ballet mécanique(Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, 1924),Entr’acte(Francis Picabia and...

  5. 1 Abstraction and Rhythm 21
    (pp. 17-46)

    Abstract filmmaking first emerged around 1912, when painters pursuing abstract styles became interested in film owing, as film scholar Standish Lawder puts it, to “its kinetic dynamism, the very fact that film was amovingpicture.”¹ Cubism has often been credited with introducing the impression of motion into painting by depicting subjects from multiple perspectives, and it was a cubist painter, Léopold Survage, who was one of the first to plan an abstract film, which he calledColored Rhythm. The film was never made owing to the outbreak of World War I, but a number of drawings for the film...

  6. 2 “Cinema pur” and Ballet Mécanique
    (pp. 47-76)

    While painters such as Hans Richter were making wholly abstract films using animation in the early 1920s, others were pursuing a different kind of cinematic abstraction that employed representational imagery. Their films are considered abstract in the sense that they “take away,” or extract, from reality plastic properties that a disparate range of concrete things have in common, such as shape, texture, and rhythm. In France in the 1920s, the term “cinema pur,” or pure cinema, was applied to both kinds of abstract filmmaking because there was considerable debate among critics and filmmakers about what pure cinema was or should...

  7. 3 Dada, Entr’acte, and Paris qui dort
    (pp. 77-104)

    Of all the avant-garde movements examined in this book, Dada is the one most often identified with extreme, uncompromising condemnations of bourgeois modernity, and for good reason. As is well known, the name Dada was first used by a group of painters and poets in 1916 in Zurich, where artists and intellectuals from many countries congregated to take advantage of Switzerland’s neutrality during World War I. The members of the group were disgusted by the unprecedented destruction caused by the modern weaponry used in the war. Rather than improving human life, the tremendous advances in science, technology, and industry in...

  8. 4 Surrealism and Un chien Andalou
    (pp. 105-134)

    “To encompass both [André] Breton and Le Corbusier—that would mean drawing the spirit of present-day France like a bow and shooting knowledge to the heart of the moment,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his unfinished Arcades project. Benjamin was referring to the major opposing artistic trends of his day, surrealism and machinism, using the names of their principal exponents in France.¹ Whereas Le Corbusier advocated rationalism, science, objectivity, and technological progress, surrealism, which emerged in the early 1920s shortly after purism, pursued irrationality, prescientific modes of knowledge such as the occult, the subjective, and what Benjamin called “the outmoded”: “the...

  9. 5 City Symphony and Man with a Movie Camera
    (pp. 135-162)

    Of all the avant-garde filmmakers discussed in this book, Dziga Vertov was the most influenced by machinism, the belief that reality should be transformed using the machine as both tool and blueprint. During the 1920s in the Soviet Union, he was affiliated with the Left Front of the Arts as well as constructivism. These groups consisted of avant-garde artists, many of whom had belonged to the prerevolutionary generation of futurists, who formulated a new concept of art, one that befitted the supposedly egalitarian Communist society that was being built around them. They conceived of the artist as a worker, much...

  10. 6 Film, Distraction, and Modernity
    (pp. 163-182)

    Modernity is undoubtedly a precondition for the emergence of film.¹ Without capitalism, industrialization, technological progress, and a host of other modernizing forces, the cinema would not have been invented in the late nineteenth century and then gone on to flourish in the twentieth. These forces have continued ever since to influence and constrain filmmakers’ choices about form, style, and subject matter in myriad ways, from the technologies they select to make their films to the types of stories they are inclined to tell in them. Sometimes, filmmakers consciously and deliberately address these forces in their work, as we have seen...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 183-206)
  12. Index
    (pp. 207-213)