A Happy “Medium”?

To what extent is the French Avant-Garde of the 1920s Modernist? Many art historians tend to distinguish between what might be called the establishment or High Modernists, and the more disjunctive and often anti-establishment avant-garde. Yet, a consideration of the concept of medium specificity suggests that the avant-garde and modernism share a number of first principles.

Clement Greenberg defines modernism as “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” At first, Greenberg’s definition seems at odds with the avant-garde, a movement to which entrenchment would seem antithetical. Yet, in cinema’s early years, filmmakers sought to establish a discipline of their own, often apart from theater, painting, and the other arts. Greenberg continues, “the unique and proper idea of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium.” That which makes a film excellent, according to this argument, is that which is characteristic of film alone.

Many of the films of the 1920s avant-garde seem fascinated with the conditions of their own existence: that is, the materiality of the medium of film, the characteristics exclusive to film. These films often feature loops, repetition, and spirals, reminiscent if the motion of filmic precedents like the zoetrope, not to mention the spooling of celluloid film through the cinematograph. Thus the spinning tops, coils, and gears in Man Ray’s “The Return to Reason,” the hypnotic punning spiral in Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema,” and the clockwork and wheels in Leger’s “Ballet Mechanique.” Man Ray’s more continuous later film “The Starfish,” too, has its repetitions: the recurring images of the starfish in a jar and the couple on a walk.

The placement of coils, gear, and nails directly on the film strips in “The Return to  Reason” also signify the expression of that which is “unique in the nature of [film’s] medium].” To a certain extent, the unique ability of film to deal in surfaces echoes through Buñuel and Dalí’s “Un Chien Andalou,” as O’Pray suggests. The subversion of the narrative in “Un Chien Andalou” forces the viewer to experience the images from the outside in, rather than understanding the implicit interior “meanings” of the images.

Yet, as O’Pray argues, “The 1920s avant-gardes are also characterised by the cross-fertilisation of art forms – ballet, painting, poetry, music, sculpture, fashion, literature.” This is evident in such films as Eisenstein’s “Romance Sentimentale” and Clair’s “Entr’acte,” both of which are “fertilized” as it were by certain motifs in other arts, music and dance primarily. Similarly, building on McLuhan’s media theories, Kittler argues that the content of one medium is always another medium.

This condition would again seem to put modernism at odds with the avant-garde. As Greenberg argues, modernist art must “eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art.” If, as Virginia Woolf suggests, cinema was “born fully clothed,” then Greenberg’s definition of modernism would demand that cinema be stripped—of all the medium-specific cues taken from other art forms.

As we have seen, the French avant-garde of the 1920s sustained within itself a contradiction. On one hand, it welcomed the influence of other arts such as music, dance, and painting. On the other hand, it sought “to make film an art form” by “advancing the art of cinema.” This final point plays out in Henri Chomette’s “Five Minutes of Pure Cinema.” Chomette’s film purports to be composed of the elements exclusive to film: motion, visuality, rhythm. This film is an attempt to, as O’Pray says, assert film’s standing as art, an aspiration consistent with O’Pray’s definition of this period in the avant-garde. Yet, Greenberg also introduces the idea of purity: by stripping film of qualities associated with other arts, film might be “rendered ‘pure,’ and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standard of quality as well as of its independence.” Thus in Chomette’s “Pure Cinema” we find a more perfect union between the 1920s Avant-Garde and Modernism.

Films Reviewed:

Man Ray, The Return to Reason (La Retour a la Raison), 1923 (2 min)

Man Ray, The Starfish (L’Etoile de Mer), 1928 (15 min)

Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet Mecanique, 1924 (11 min)

Marcel Duchamp, Anemic Cinema, 1926 (6 min)

Sergey Eisenstein and Grigory Alexandrov, Sentimental Romance (Romance

Sentimentale), 1930, (16 min)

Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), 1929

Henri Chomette, Five Minutes of Pure Cinema (Cinque Minutes de Cinema Pur) 1926

Rene Clair, Entr’acte, 1924 (20 min)