They Found Much To Like

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

MIT Press, 170pp, £20.95, ISBN 9780262015189

reviewed by Jeremy Spencer

In the 1920s, the embrace of film as a medium for visual art by members of the European avant-garde led to an outpouring of creativity. Artists such as Hans Richter, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Salvidor Dalí and film-maker Dziga Vertov made the enduring and fascinating films explored in Malcolm Turvey’s The Filming of Modern Life. Turvey explores how these films resisted and embraced, sometimes simultaneously, the specific concrete transformations wrought by modernity.

To explain what emerges as an ambivalent or contradictory relationship, Turvey discusses five films made in France and the Soviet Union, which although stylistically and thematically dissimilar, are fascinated with and seek to evoke the lived experience of modernity: the abstract or Dada films, Rhythm 21 (Hans Richter, 1921) and Entr’ acte (Francis Picabia and René Clair, 1924); Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, 1924), an expression of ‘pure cinema’; the Surrealist Un chien Andalou (Salvidor Dalí and Luis Buñuel, 1929); and Man with a Movie Camera, Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), a ‘city symphony’. For Turvey, these films demonstrate a more nuanced and complex response to modernity, ‘a more tangled stance’ to the experience of modern life, than has been previously critically recognised.

Turvey believes there has been a failure to ‘recognise the complexity of the avant-garde’s relationship to modernisation’; he challenges the argument, which he associates with Theodor Adorno and Peter Bürger among others, that the avant-garde of the 1920s opposed and desired to transform not just aesthetic or cultural but ‘bourgeois modernity’, that it wanted to change not only artistic conventions but life as a whole. Turvey comments that the critique of bourgeois modernity originating with Marxism and Romanticism is ‘hypocritical and inaccurate’ but according to the ‘standard story’ it is this critique that motivated the avant-garde’s ‘desire for radical social and artistic change’. Turvey, however, is interested in the ambivalence shared by avant-garde artists to bourgeois modernity; they were equally attracted and repulsed by it.

In the chapter on Richter’s Rhythm 21, Turvey argues that Richter sought to ameliorate the ‘worst excesses’ of modern life predicated on rationality and calculation, through principles of unreason and the unconscious. He argues that Ballet mécanique does not unequivocally embrace mechanisation but ‘offers an antidote’ to modernity in the form of a classical ideal of beauty. In a similar way, Turvey challenges the view that Vertov unambiguously supported machinism and that the enthusiasm for the machine in the Soviet Union is the best way to explain Man with a Movie Camera, seeing instead the ‘complex living organism’ as a more important reference.

The critique of the bourgeoisie or bourgeois modernity originated in the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, which Turvey associates with Friedrich Schiller and, more contemporaneously, with art historian TJ Clark’s discussion of modernity. “Bourgeois” can signify a set of values, primarily the bourgeoisie’s ‘dedication to improving one’s material well-being using instrumental reason’, which although supposedly rejected by avant-garde artists, are associated with individual freedom and self-responsibility and, therefore, dignity. The freedom to pursue material wants can be seen as a unifying and civilising force. Turvey sees in industrial capitalism – one of the possible meanings of “bourgeois modernity” – the means ‘to lift ... people en masse out of degrading poverty and cushion them from the ravages of nature’; his contemporary examples are China and India.

Turvey is also critical of ‘the modernity thesis’ – ‘a major explanatory paradigm in film studies’ – a thesis on the relationship of cinema and modernity inspired by the writings of Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer. Benjamin saw a new type or mode of perception emerging within modernity, which he dates to the mid-19th century, characterised above all by distraction, by sensory and perceptual overload as a symptom of living in cities. The argument is that modernity caused a fundamental change in perception. This ‘distracted mode of perception’ is perpetuated in modern visual culture, including cinema. However, Turvey doubts that human, primarily visual perception could evolve so quickly; he questions the way Benjamin uses “distraction” to describe the experience of watching a film and the idea that films are distracting; he argues that an audience’s experience of film is not like the distracted perceptual experience of everyday life in the modern city ‘because their images and sounds are presented sequentially, not simultaneously’; although films have tried to approximate that experience ‘the modernity thesis’ does not characterise cinema more generally.

The main argument of the book is that avant-garde artists and film-makers of the 1920s ‘found much to like in modern life’; through detailed analysis of the five films and the aesthetic arguments that surrounded them, Turvey challenges the view that the avant-garde were ‘implacably opposed’ to and rejected bourgeois modernity in the name of post-capitalist or socialist society. The significance of these films is in they way they suggest, and are symptoms of, the conflict in modernity - the desire for the benefits that modernisation can bring and the disgust at ‘the inequalities it seems incapable of eradicating’.
Jeremy Spencer completed his PhD in art theory at the University of Essex and teaches at the Colchester School of Art and Design.