Modernists, cubists, Dadaists, the many new and radical artistic moments from the early 20th century experimented and took advantage of the new and the old. One new art form they grabbed hold of was cinema. I just watched Ballet Mécanique, a highly influential 1924 French art film by painter Fernand Léger with musical score by American composer George Antheil.
Whereas Satie’ s ballet Parade took cubist art and put it on stage in the form of a dancer (see image below), Ballet Mécanique makes objects themselves the dancers. The film is comprised of an array of juxtaposed images, many of which are daily objects such as hats and bottles. Others, such as an alarm clock and various machine parts, evoke a more mechanical feel. At one point, text flashes on the screen that translates to “we have stolen a five dollar necklace,” suggesting ideas of material culture. Leger’s experience in WWI undoubtedly influenced his views of machine and human interaction.
Picasso’s costume for Parade (image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parade_(ballet)#/media/File:Costume_design_by_Pablo_Picasso_for_Serge_Diaghilev%27s_Ballets_Russes_performance_of_Parade_at_Th%C3%A9%C3%A2tre_du_Ch%C3%A2telet_in_Paris_18_May,_1917.jpg)
I thought it was particularly interesting how Leger combines all these material and mechanical objects with some human ones. The film frequently flashes parts of the human face, possibly reminding us of the human’s place in a mechanical world. The parts of the face, however, are often isolated, and it is not until towards the end that we see the entire face and head—the eyes and mouth, for example, when isolated, seem like objects themselves, like the hat, bottles, or machine parts we see throughout the film. The film even includes a completely “material” body part—a pair of fake legs.
The musical score by Antheil is repetitive and jarring, meshing well with the varied images on the screen.
I wonder how this film fit in with the more popular cinema of the day? A little cubist man introduces and concludes the film, and this man is supposed to look like Charlie Chaplin, showing the influence of the enormously popular “Charlot”—even in avant-garde circles. I hope to explore this further as I learn more about popular films in the 20s.
 The 20s: From Illusion to Disillusion. Films On Demand. 1991. Accessed June 12, 2015. http://digital.films.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=17396&xtid=2562.