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THE FRENCH AVANT-GARDE OF THE 1920S

April 13, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The French Avant-Garde of the 1920s

Entr’acte. 1924. France. Directed by René Clair

Entr’acte. 1924. France. Directed by René Clair

These notes accompany the French Avant-Garde of the 1920s program, screening April 14, 15, and 16 in Theater 3.

Charles Sheeler comes to mind as one of the few American artists who dabbled in film in the 1920s. Whereas in Germany the mainstream Expressionist cinema was itself avant-garde, and in Italy the society became surreal following Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, France presented a unique instance of a free interplay of filmmakers with other visual artists. This program is an attempt to capture some of this interaction and to suggest how it might have benefited French culture. It also suggests that a society where the movies were totally dominated neither by commerce nor by the state provided an appealing model. It was certainly beneficial to Iris Barry, the founder of The Museum of Modern Art Film Library, to be able to cite names like Man Ray, Duchamp, Léger, and Dalí in establishing the high aspirations and legitimacy of film when appealing for funds from patrons who might look askance at Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, or Walt Disney. (It was left for us future generations to make cogent arguments for Otto Preminger, Clint Eastwood, and John Waters.)

Among the dabblers were Man Ray (1890–1976), Fernand Léger (1881–1955), and Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). Man Ray, an expatriate American photographer, actually made several films, of which we are showing only his first and briefest, Le Retour a la Raison (1923). His films are determinedly non-narrative and “poetic,” pointing the way to the later experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage and a host of others, many working on the fringes of the Hollywood behemoth. Léger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) was made with Dudley Murphy, an intriguingly enigmatic American who would wander in and out of film history, directing people like Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson along the way. Léger shared Buster Keaton’s obsession with modern machinery, although perhaps the film’s most enduring image is an homage to Chaplin. Even though Duchamp directed only the short Anemic Cinema (1926), he made frequent appearances in other films, including Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). All three of these men used film to expand their artistic concepts, but, in my view, did little or nothing to alter the course of the medium itself.

Paris played the role of hospitable host to refugees and expatriates from all over, including many uprooted by the Bolshevik Revolution. These included Dimitri Kirsanov, Ladislas Starevitch (see our Early Animation program, coming up in early June), and Eugene Deslaw (c. 1900–198?). Deslaw shared Léger’s fascination with the movement and textures of machines, and his first film, La Marche des Machines (1928), is an exercise in rhythmic choreography similar in some ways to Joris Ivens’s The Bridge (shown last month in our The Documentary Expands program) from that same year. Deslaw gradually moved toward more conventional documentaries but never became a major figure.

Germaine Dulac (1882–1942) was part of a feminist movement in French cinema that has stretched from Alice Guy-Blache to Agnès Varda. La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) was written by Antonin Artaud and explored sexuality in a manner far removed from that of Hollywood, although she was influenced by American films and was (for a short time) a pupil of D. W. Griffith. Like Griffith, Dulac was in search of the purity of image, and this inhibited her career when sound was introduced. As Guy-Blache had started her career, Dulac wound up hers four decades later—working in the offices of the Gaumont studio. Considered as the inspiration and “heart” of the French avant-garde, she occupies a similar status to that occupied by Maya Deren in America.

Three of the directors in this program emerged as major figures in the mainstream cinema: Jean Renoir (1894–1979), René Clair (1898–1981), and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983). Renoir’s Charleston (1927) appears now to be more of a diversion and home movie, made with his then-wife Catherine Hessling, who had been (Jean’s father) Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s model as a teenager. For Jean, who appeared to be able to do just about everything and who was possibly the greatest of all filmmakers, this seems to be a way of saying, “I can do avant-garde, too.” Clair had been immersed in the Dadaist art scene, and Entr’acte was initially made to be shown at intermission at a ballet conceived by Francis Picabia with music by Erik Satie. They both appear in the film, as do Man Ray and Duchamp. Clair made several absurdist, charming, and genuinely experimental films before becoming the most successful director of the early sound period in France. We will be showing his Sous Les Toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (1930) in August.

Luis Buñuel and his Spanish compadre Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) were both men of destiny, albeit on very different paths after their sojourn in Paris. Through their collaboration on Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the feature-length L’Age d’or (1930), the pair brought the shock-value of Surrealism to the screen. Actually, L’Age d’or led to a falling out between them. Although Dalí became dismissive of cinema, it didn’t prevent him from wandering back to the movies later in his career, most notably for the dream sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Buñuel, of course, followed a brief tenure at The Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s with a failed attempt to direct in Hollywood and a distinguished directorial career in Mexico, before a triumphal return to Europe in the 1960s, where, ever loyal to his roots, he made a half-dozen Surrealist masterpieces.

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