Ballet mécanique. 1924. France. Directed by Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy

Film Vault Summer Camp, Week Three: Dada on Screen

Discover how avant-garde artists fused film and visual art in these hallucinatory shorts.
Ashley Swinnerton Aug 20, 2020

Welcome to week three of Virtual Views: Film Vault Summer Camp. Every Thursday in August, we’re streaming selections of historic films from the MoMA collection.

The works we’re sharing this week are quintessential examples of Dada art—or rather, Dada anti-art—and are studied by scholars across many disciplines, from architecture and animation to linguistics and painting. They are among the Department of Film’s earliest acquisitions, and form the basis of one core component of our collection: experimental avant-garde film. The artists who made these films worked primarily in other mediums (or at least got their start there), but saw the possibilities of film as an art form. Dadaists also prized collaboration, and what art form is more inherently collaborative than movie making? They valued subversion too, and no medium is better at a take-down than film, either.

In this trio of shorts, the filmmakers turn the conventions of cinema upside down (sometimes by literally turning the camera upside down), imbuing each scene with versatility, ingenuity, and revolutionary anti-ness. While these films are textbook examples of their forms, they are also highly adaptable, so it’s no wonder that all three were featured in MoMA’s 2019 reopening programming, both in the galleries (508 and 519) and in the theaters. As challenging as they are amusing, these absurdist works feel as innovative today as they did nearly a century ago.

Rhythmus 21 (1921)
Directed by Hans Richter

Hans Richter was convinced that he invented abstract cinema with Rhythmus 21. He didn’t, but he was an important early figure who quickly became one of the biggest names among the avant-garde, producing an impressive body of work that continuously pushed the boundaries of cinema for more than 40 years. Richter believed that film appealed more to the sense of sight than painting could, and he used his roots as a Cubist painter to explode the rectangle of the film frame.

The first in Richter’s series of animated “rhythm” shorts, Rhythmus 21 plays with form and depth, as squares and rectangles pulse and change size in comparison both to one another and to the film frame itself. Animated completely by hand, the work sets the stage for Richter’s subsequent explorations of the time-based medium of film—and for the burgeoning field of experimental animation and the artists who would come after him, such as Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, and John and Faith Hubley. Additionally, Richter’s creative, radical use of light, shadow, and shape were a markedly different viewing experience for 1910s and ’20s audiences accustomed to seeing newsreels, serials, and narrative films, and whose exposure to animation would likely have been limited to nickelodeons and cartoons based on comic strips, like Gertie the Dinosaur. Richter embraced the Dadaist ethos of collaboration and worked with many Dada artists—most famously with Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Man Ray in Dreams That Money Can Buy—while inspiring younger experimental filmmakers like Shirley Clarke.

Ballet mécanique (1924)
Directed by Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy

Ballet mécanique, conceived by painter Fernand Léger and photographed by filmmaker Dudley Murphy (possibly with some involvement from Man Ray), is a rhythmic interplay between human and object. Affected by his experience of fighting in World War I, and in particular by the mustard gas attack that left him hospitalized for a year, Léger became fascinated with mechanical technology, which would feature heavily in his post-1917 art. Ballet mécanique, his only film, is an example of this juxtaposition of man and machine: gears and pendulums vs. eyes and mouths, pistons pumping vs. a woman’s endless climb up the stairs, clocks vs. legs. A kaleidoscopic combination of faces and kitchen utensils, Ballet mécanique was completely unlike contemporary commercial movies, and would pave the way for other revolutionary films like Metropolis and Limite.

If you were to see Ballet mécanique installed in one of our galleries or projected in one of our theaters, it would look a little different than it does here—the frameline would be stabilized and the edges of the picture would either be cropped or camouflaged with masking around the screen. However, we are presenting this version the way a scholar visiting the Film Study Center would see it on a flatbed viewing machine, with a slight bounce to the image and the sprocket holes visible, and without live musical accompaniment. (The score, composed by George Antheil and usually performed as a separate concert piece, was finished several years after Ballet mécanique premiered and is significantly longer than the film.)

Anémic cinéma (1926)
Directed by Marcel Duchamp, with Man Ray, Marc Allégret

Artist Marcel Duchamp’s wicked sense of humor and fascination with optics are both on display in Anémic cinéma. The film is relatively simple in its construction: 19 spinning disks, some made of words and others of spiral designs. Its genius lies in the wordplay that emerges as the words and phrases change position, taking on new meaning and creating witty visual puns, and in the optical illusion of the flat, painted disks taking on depth when spun. The artist pits the three-dimensional spirals—which Duchamp called “Rotoreliefs”—against two-dimensional text, turning the film into a dynamic, kinetic poem. Even the title is part of the gag. (Spoiler: “anemic” and “cinema” are anagrams.)

There are other, unauthorized versions of this work, including one with footage taken from Sergei Eisenstein’s films of a statue of Napoleon, a girl’s face, and a tank. Duchamp was adamant that none of these were his version. Because Anémic cinéma is endlessly fascinating and possible to analyze from countless perspectives—math, ophthalmology, French language, sculpture—MoMA’s curators are continually finding ways to exhibit the film, including in Geometry of Motion, 1920s/1970s, Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, and, of course, DADA.