by Maurizio Roca
“Fixing a Hole” is a series whose purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. December will be “Avant-Garde Month.” Each week, three related films will be covered in one entry, with videos of the work included.
While Joel has selected the weekly theme, the films were chosen by this week’s guest writer. Today Maurizio Roca, last seen conducting the noir countdown on Wonders, investigates three of his favorite experimental films from the riches of the silent era.
In the 1920s, avant-garde filmmaking slowly emerged as more intellectuals started to take cinema seriously as an art form. The scorn and ridicule that greeted movies in earlier times gradually subsided and was replaced by a general enthusiasm for the medium’s possibilities. A few members of certain cultural movements, notably the Surrealists and Dadaists, started to realize that their philosophical and personal concerns could be administered quite effectively on celluloid. This was another area of visual art where the creator could manipulate the tools he placed in front of him to construct a result he deemed aesthetically satisfying. It’s no coincidence that many early directors in this new enterprise had already established themselves in other forms of art. Just scan some of the names that graced early avant-garde pictures—Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger—and you can see that a healthy dose of cross-pollination was occurring quite frequently. Yet this new cinematic form was also attracting young budding filmmakers that understood that the relatively cheap, independent spirit that lay at the heart of this new medium was a way to break into cinema without relying on a studio for finances. Many future narrative filmmakers that worked almost exclusively in motion pictures had gotten their start in the avant-garde films of the ’20s. In this essay, I will be focusing on three such films of that decade.
For some readers that are unfamiliar with what constitutes an avant-garde film (as it can be considered in the confines of the 1920s), one needs to look at prevailing elements that were generally found in such works. For one, the absence of a linear, chronological narrative is usually present (or at least fractured to an exorbitant level). Second, a strategic use of cinematic techniques is abundantly added to abstract and consciously alter the images for the viewer by rapid editing, out of focus imagery, animation, filtered lenses, expressive and exaggerated camera movements, optical effects and non-diegetic sound. Third, it provides a highly ambiguous or symbolic message (sometimes even being completely nonsensical) that is meant to be reflexive and/or opposite of what can be found in more mainstream fare. These pictures are basically designed to offer the audience a sort of contradictory experience to what they would generally find in most theaters back then.
Entr’acte (Rene Clair, 1924)
Entr’acte is a 24-minute short created by the French filmmaker and Dadaist adherent, Rene Clair. It was his cinematic debut and the first in a long career that would span over 40 years. In this time, Clair had tackled everything from early Parisian sound musicals to Hollywood mystery films. While Entr’acte can be described as part of the Dadaist movement, Clair would primarily stick to conventional filmmaking, which was his primary mode of artistic expression for the remainder of his career, pretty much staying away from avant-garde ones. An important and influential early French director, his output is quite varied and filled with worthy titles waiting to be rediscovered by a moviegoing mass that has largely forgotten him. Though some major film historians now regard him as a lesser artist whose reputation and standing has diminished over time, there is no doubt that a solid bulk of his work still contains moments of brilliance. Entr’acte, a personal favorite of mine, is a leading example of ’20s avant-garde cinema and incorporates multiple cameo appearances from other experimental art luminaries such as Duchamp, Erik Satie, and Man Ray.
The film begins with an image of a cannon on wheels rolling itself around a rooftop. We then witness two men jumping and conversing gleefully next to the now-stationary mounted artillery gun as they hop backwards before a missile appears to discharge slowly from the barrel of the cannon. This segment gives way to a disorienting series of striking visual spectacles which include a deflating balloon head audience and random sequences that seem to have no coherent meaning. We spy upon a chess match featuring Duchamp and Man Ray and marvel at Clair’s ability to juxtapose such illogical scenes with one another. What we have here is a great example of pure visual cinema, where gloriously entertaining fragments of imagery blend together seamlessly into a satisfying whole. We don’t need a plot or a story. Clair boils everything down to cinema’s most essential trait: the moving picture and our persistence of vision that allows us to process such effects into recorded movement. The absurd and playful disorientation slowly transitions around the quarter mark and becomes anchored by the slow-motion ballet dancer.
The balletic portion is filmed in highly idiosyncratic positions. Clair has no desire for standard or typical establishing shots or points of view that follow a normal approach. We see the dancer from below, engulfed in shadows from the side, and upside down with a slow, dreamy edited pace that feels like a forerunner to Busby Berkeley’s choreographed sequences in such films as Footlight Parade and 42nd Street. When the face of our ballerina is finally exposed to us, we chuckle at her need for a shave and the Dadaists fundamental concern in art, the absurdity and meaningless of everything modern. Nothing is to be taken at face value. Everything can and will be ridiculed. The dancer, once graceful and a vague presence of beauty, is now clumsy and Blackbeard-hairy. Back we go to a collection of arbitrary representations as Clair has punctured a hole in the first readily identifiable moment of his work. Nothing is what it seems or should even bother to be—the hunter looking to shoot a moving target that is never going to coalesce into an object of certainty; the funeral procession always eluding those that keep chase, but who can never hope to catch up to uncertainty and the unknowable.
Entr’acte premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. It played during the intermission of a production of Francis Picabia’s Relache. The music was composed by Erik Satie and both artists appear in the beginning of the short with the cannon. The movie was meant as a sort of manifesto to lay out the principles of the Dada movement. By exercising any semblance of plot, setting, and traditional characters, the Dadaists believed they could assault societal conventions that were firmly bourgeois. Here was a public opportunity to laugh at anyone who firmly toed the status quo line.
Emak Bakia (Man Ray, 1926)
Unlike Rene Clair, Man Ray was a photographer and a painter first and foremost. Filmmaking clearly did not seem like a priority and he only dabbled with it for a relatively short period from about 1923 to 1929. All his cinematic work was primarily avant-garde and never developed beyond these confines. Here was an artist who found possibilities in this ever-expanding art form and worked with it until he grew wearisome of the process (or perhaps lost interest with the advent of sound). It seemed that there was no grand design or plan to branch out into full length features. His first short Le Retour a la Raison was two and a half minutes long. He followed this up with the picture, Emak Bakia. While some lovers of experimental cinema find the later Les Mysteres Du Chateau Du De or L’etoile De Mer more satisfying, I have always considered his second effort from 1926 to be his avant-garde masterpiece. All four shorts can be found in Kino’s Experimental Cinema of the ’20s and ’30s, which also contains Ballet Mecanique, Menilmontant, and The Seashell And The Clergymen. Man Ray moved in the same social circles as Rene Clair, and one can’t help but see the similarities between the two works I am focusing on here.
Opening with a startling close-up of a man looking through a movie camera, we are quickly led to a barrage of abstract and animated images (some taken from the earlier Le Retour a la Raison) that instantly plunge us into a world of bewilderment. A similar tact was taken by Clair’s Entr’acte, when after a relatively docile opening, the filmmaker quickly pulled out the rug from under us with a swift journey into abstraction. Emak Bakia (at least in the Kino version) is greatly aided by the mournful string-heavy score that accompanies it. Early on, the visual focus, like Entr’acte, is centered primarily on slow-motion movement. We are given the various traits that make up film art and watch as they are applied in nonlinear and unconventional ways. The concentration always seems to be simply about reveling in this new medium’s impressionistic possibilities above all else. Where the dancer was the underlying image of movement that Clair returned to early in his short, Ray instead decides to devote his time with distorted depictions of artifacts we cannot make out clearly. They come and go with no established delineation other than to reveal the ability to gracefully move before our eyes.
Only after this introductory salvo is administered upon the viewer can we come across our first truly conventional image from Emak Bakia. A woman is now sitting behind the wheel of a car wearing goggles getting ready to drive off to further enhance our wonderment of motion. Perhaps Ray (other than abiding by Dada principles) is also contradictorily trying to convey to his audience the simple amazement that early movie viewers felt when peeking through a Eidoloscope or Vitascope. While what we begin to see on the screen becomes more and more material, the main purpose of emphasizing filmed activity is always the vital component that Ray stresses. Whether it be a pair of legs cutting a rug, water hitting the shore, or hand-carved blocks of wood circling in unison, the interest is always applied vigorously from frame to frame. If one can readily allow themselves to be put under the spell that these avant-garde pieces cast, then the hypnotic weaving of motion can certainly cast a hypnotic pall over the viewer. Perhaps for me, Emak Bakia is the Man Ray film that is best able to pull this trick off smoothly. The flow seems to be rather seamless and when we come upon the painted eyelids at the conclusion, I am undoubtedly sold.
Vormittagsspuk: Ghosts Before Breakfast (Hans Richter, 1928)
Vormittagsspuk was Hans Richter’s sixth short of his career. It is also the one most readily available for viewing from his work in the ’20s. Unlike Rene Clair, Richter never went forth with a more conventional career in directing. He basically stayed in experimental films when he wasn’t busy pursuing other artistic endeavors. Still, he did continue to work in the medium and even made a 1947 feature film in color called Dreams That Money Can Buy. Ghosts Before Breakfast (English title) is a 9-minute short that combines animation with live-action footage. As opposed to his earlier Rhythmus series, the filmmaker’s 1928 short breaks away from the completely abstract and similarly designed Symphonie Diagonale by Viking Eggeling (which Richter worked on in its early stages) and uses actual actors and real life images. The earlier projects were the first of their kind and were keen on showing a sort of cinematic rhythm that could be applied visually. They had absolutely no connection to the type of silent movies that came before them and instead seemed more interested in displaying the type of cadences that both Ray and Clair would further develop a few years later with their respective works.
The similarities and connection to Entr’acte and Emak Bakia begin to show themselves quickly with the coming to life of inanimate objects—the collar of the distinguished gentleman, the floating bowler hats, and the mischievous bow tie that appears within the first couple of minutes of the picture. Like the two previous shorts, Ghosts Before Breakfast extols the absurdity of these moving objects and takes pleasure in showing the outcome of their revitalization. These “things” then break away and begin to form intricate patterns upon the screen. This segues to the random image of a target practice sheet and a man pulling out a revolver from his coat pocket, further illustrating the completely aimless (but evocative) sequences many avant-garde movies of the ’20s dealt with. Like a surrealist dream, every law of nature becomes discontinued and irrelevant. Rationality has no place anymore. The laws and structures of modern society have been severed and replaced with anarchistic chaos. For Richter, rigid order and explainability is thrust out for good. The world of Vormittagsspuk is only inhabited with non sequiturs and formless bedlam.
At barely nine minutes long, Ghosts Before Breakfast ends much too early. The experimental short proceeds to delight in all things ridiculous until the very last second. It is more captivating than the earlier Rhythmus trilogy since it incorporates live-action sequences that show Richter’s intent of torpedoing structured organization. When actual objects get put through the surrealist ringer, we can again appreciate Richter’s attempt at disorientation for his viewers. Like Richter’s duck in the basket that decides to go back into his safe haven, perhaps some audiences may retreat into their own ordered idea of cinema, preferring not to be affected by what these early experimental filmmakers were attempting.
Thankfully these artists tossed aside the rule book, which in turn led to a brand new cinematic syntax. In the ’30s, we would get L’Age D’Or and Blood Of A Poet, in the ’40s Meshes Of The Afternoon and Fireworks and so on, and so on until this very day. These three shorts are just a small portion of the work that avant-garde filmmakers were creating in the 1920s, although there is still much more to uncover for those whose interest has been piqued.
The floating clock is always ticking…The detachable hand is always waving.
For more from this author, please visit his archive.
Last week’s entry: Bambi