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The Filming of Modern Life

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

by Malcolm Turvey
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
170 pp., illus. 88 b/w. Trade, $29.95/£22.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01518-9.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

For the robustly avant-garde and definitely modernist series ("October Books") in which it is published, Malcolm Turvey's book has an astonishing argument. Through a close-reading of five major avant-garde movies of the 1920s, the author challenges indeed the standard vision of European avant-garde, while criticizing at the same time the so-called "modernity thesis" of film as borrowed from the work by Benjamin and Kracauer. The former idea claims that avant-garde can only be understood as a violent attack of bourgeois, rational, industrial modernity, avant-garde being the radical side of aesthetic modernism that is in no way compatible with the economic, technological and bureaucratic understanding of modernity as imposed by the gradual spread of global capitalism. The latter idea states that the filmic medium, no matter which kind of cinema it represents, illustrates a radical shift in human perception summarized by the notion of distraction, the viewing of a film being structurally homogeneous with the sensory overload and the subsequent impossibility to focus on one single subject that define urban life in the modern metropolis. Both views, the standard vision of avant-garde as well as the modernity thesis of cinema, belong to the survival kit of what one needs to know and to accept in order to be accepted as a participant in the ongoing debates on modernity and avant-garde, and it is therefore a welcome surprise to see this kind of (stereotyped) idea questioned in what is, for many people, a beacon of radical and critical art history. The times they are a'changin’, even in October circles.

Yet what does Turvey try to demonstrate in this very clear, even didactic book? Roughly speaking simply this: First, that none of the five films under scrutiny (Rhythm 21 (Hans Richter, 1921), Ballet mecanique (Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger, 1924), Entr'acte (Francis Picabia and René Clair, 1924), Un chien Andalou (Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, 1929), and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)) enables the critic to confirm the a priori, quasi-anarchist rejection of (bourgeois) modernity that our standard visions of avant-garde continue to highlight and emphasize. Instead, the careful reading of these works displays much more ambivalent and subtle attitudes towards modernity. In certain cases, this ambivalence goes so far that certain films can be read as much as a critique of avant-garde de(con)struction than as a defense of anti-bourgeois values. Second, that modern critical thinking has too uncritically embraced certain intuitions of Benjamin, perhaps because it has not had to courage to question one of its own masters. 

For either of the two points he proposes to make Turvey has good arguments. At a general level, he is right to state that avant-gardism was in the very first place a critique of bourgeois modernity from within, so that it is not astounding that many avant-gardists actually share the same values and strategies as their despised enemies. The unconditional praise of individual freedom and the often ruthless individualism of the creator is the most blatant example of it. At a more concrete level, Turvey can also drive home the point that most avant-garde films display several aspects and preoccupations of classic, bourgeois modernity. Each of the five great analyses that compose the book tend, thus, to disclose the hidden contradictions of the canonical avant-garde movies: Vertov insists on machinism, yet his city symphony reveals also a profound sympathy for the premodern conception of community life as organism; Picabia and Clair construct a film that seems to abolish all known features one could expect from a movie, yet their work is also an homage to the popular entertainment of the chase films à la Mack Sennett, etc. Corollarily, Turvey confronts Benjamin's radical ideas on distraction with the more down-to-earth analysis by, among others, Rudolf Arnheim, who insists instead on the nondisruptive effects of movie-going in order to make a sharp distinction between narrative and visual disruption on the one hand and perceptive disruption on the other hand. Turvey states that the standard view of film as a modern, if not essentially avant-garde medium, is wrong in inferring the latter from the former and defends a much more selective approach of perceptive distraction that he limits to certain aspects of the avant-garde films that he is reinterpreting.

Although convincing in themselves, the readings of Turvey suffer from, however, from a double flaw. They rely too overtly on author's intentions: The films are read through the lens of the filmmakers' comments (in certain cases even unpublished notes) and the use of this contextual information tends too easily to downsize the revolutionary impact of the movies themselves. It may be true that Clair did not really agree with Dada's iconoclasm, but Entr'Acte remains until today a film that comes close to what one can reasonably expect from an iconoclast film. Moreover, Turvey is, I think, mistaken when he presents the "standard view" as a monolithical and uncritically dominating approach of what avant-garde means today. Since at least a decade, scholars have been strongly criticizing the oversimplifying dichotomy of reactionary bourgeois modernism and radical avant-garde modernity. It may suffice here to mention the detailed and dramatically influential studies by William Marx (on the paradoxical relationships of avant-garde and arrière-garde) or by Antoine Compagnon (on the ubiquity of antimodern tendencies within modernism), to make clear that the enemy that Turvey is attacking is just a straw man, nothing more and nothing less. In that sense, his surprising thesis will not come as a surprise for all those who have been following these debates. Turvey is an excellent reader, but the very stakes of his analysis are partly ill-defined.

Last Updated 8 May 2011

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