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Key avant-garde films from the roaring '20s

— September 2011

Article read level: Academic

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Still from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

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

By Malcolm Turvey

Five key films produced within a relatively short period here represent the modernist era of early European avant-garde cinema: Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921), Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mecanique (1924), Francis Picabia and René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Rather than being overly concerned with each films’ association with a particular art movement, Malcolm Turvey draws them together to establish their views on modernisation and modernity itself.  The attitudes to modernisation of each of the filmmakers involved were both complex and contradictory and Turvey argues that this has been overlooked and led to misinterpretations of their aesthetic strategies. 

Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera is a key film of European avante-garde cinema; its experimental approach to film editing and montage is an early masterpiece of film technique.  In his chapter on this film Turvey turns to Vertov’s own writing to uncover his attitudes to the industrial modernisation that he was portraying.   Vertov’s wish to humanize machines finds expression in his animation of otherwise inanimate objects – memorably a sequence involving a chair in Man with a Movie Camera – which was linked to these ideas.  This is contrasted with the earlier work by Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet mecanique – a film concerned with the mechanization of life, and of human beings.  Similarly, Turvey extracts from the films of Hans Richter, Picabia and Clair and perhaps the most well known of these films, Dali and Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou, a further set of contradictions with which to examine their simultaneous embrace and rejection of modernity. 

Virginia Woolf famously said ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’. Turvey challenges the widely accepted idea that perception itself changed along with the culture of modernity.  He argues against this ‘modernity thesis’ – one that has been argued for by philosophers of culture such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and more recently, Tom Gunning.  Instead he argues for a view of modernity that engages with its own contradictions, where its leading protagonists were as much for the benefits of its advances as critical of them.

There is an already established literature in this area in this field – on film and modernity – ranging from Walter Benjamin’s key texts, such as ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936)  to the more recent work of  American film theorist and critic, David Bordwell.  But Turvey’s book approaches these films in a different way.

The book is well illustrated throughout with a large number of black and white stills from the films discussed.  It will be of most use for graduate students and those who are already informed about this area, and who have most to gain from Turvey’s lucid, nuanced and delicate arguments.

The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s by Malcolm Turvey is published by The MIT Press. 225pp. fully illustrated in mono, £20.95. ISBN 978 0 262 01518 9


Mo White
Loughborough University
Art historian

Media credit: Image from The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s by Malcolm Turvey

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