The film history class that I’m teaching at a local college is arranged, roughly, chronologically, so we started back in late August with the works of W.K.L. Dickson and the Lumière Brothers. By this point in the semester, we’ve reached the mid-1920s, quite possibly the single most exciting era in film history. The half-decade before the advent of sound saw an incredible explosion of narrative and stylistic innovation; as I teach the class, those achievements are represented by works such as F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, all of which still have the power to astonish me, and I’ve seen ‘em all a dozen times.
But it was last week’s films that separate the true cinephiles from the film enthusiasts from the not-yet-ready-for-prime-timers. We just completed “Avant Garde Week,” and I showed my students films that, despite having been made nearly 90 years ago, haven’t lost any of their power to induce strong reactions.
I use the phrase “strong reactions” because it’s the most neutral one I could come up with. The films my students have recently been watching are, indeed, designed to elicit intense responses, not always of the kind to which most moviegoers have become accustomed. Most people go to films to enjoy the stories that films tell, but the avant-garde films I’m screening tell no stories whatsoever. These films deliberately use techniques of film style to challenge the very notion that films should tell stories; they also, in many cases, use style in purposefully obscure, obtuse, even incomprehensible ways. These films can be confounding, because, in some cases, viewers are not even sure what the hell they’re looking at, much less what it might mean.
Few films are quite so obscure as Marcel Duchamp’s ever-confounding Anemic Cinema, which offers the viewer few, if any, points of entry into understanding. Duchamp intended to frustrate and baffle his viewers when he made the film in 1926, and it still has that power today. Just ask my students, many of whom found Anemic Cinema nearly unbearable despite its running time of about seven minutes. “Can we just call this one?” one of my students asked at about the four-minute mark, referring, I believe, to Anemic Cinema’s repetitive structure and impenetrability. I just chuckled and amused myself with my students’ expressions of utter bafflement. Avant-garde films are very useful for bumping complacent viewers out of their comfort zones.
As I’ve been explaining to my students, the cinematic avant-garde could hardly have existed before the mid-1920s because, by definition, an avant-garde needs something to rebel against. It was not until approximately the early 1920s that the narrative and stylistic practices pioneered in Hollywood attained global cinematic dominance. Since the American film industry was the one that expanded most successfully (and profitably) into other countries, it was the American methods of storytelling and, especially, editing that came to set the standards for film industries around the globe. By the mid-1920s, most countries that had successful film industries were making films that, by and large, told stories in the manner in which American films told stories, and used the continuity editing system, the single most enduring and important American contribution to film technique.
The cinematic avant-garde grew out of trends in fine art — mostly painting and sculpture — rather than from studio or industrial practice. The makers of the first avant-garde films are people whose names we know mostly from museums, not from movie theaters: Salvador Dalí, Hans Richter, Fernand Léger, Duchamp himself. The spirit of occasionally snotty apple-cart upsetting that these artists unleashed on an unsuspecting art world is the same spirit that imbues the films they made in the 1920s.
Anemic Cinema is one of the most “extreme” examples of the first wave of the cinematic avant garde, inasmuch as it is devoid of story, characters, coherence, “normal” logic and emotionality. Its structure is very simple — two types of alternating shots — but that simplicity of structure doesn’t make the film any more accessible.
Ten of the film’s shots are of arrangements of rotating circles that are not concentric but offset so that their rotation is unbalanced. Duchamp’s method of making these things was trèssimple: cut paper and a turntable. The artist called them “rotoreliefs.” They spin hypnotically, each arrangement slightly different from the others. If Anemic Cinema consisted solely of these shots, the film could uncontroversially be viewed in the context of a certain branch of avant-garde practice that explores “pure” form and color. Examples of this “school” include the works of Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger, one of my favorite filmmakers.
But the other nine shots in the film are the ones that make Anemic Cinema so impenetrable. In these, another kind of spinning disc rotates for the camera; each of the nine discs bears a sentence printed in a spiral; as the disc slowly rotates, the sentence renders itself readable. It’s the content of these sentences that makes the film so confounding — just ask my students.
It’s not just that the sentences are in French — which few of my students speak — that makes these shots difficult to parse. It’s that they consist of dense, elaborate puns that are difficult even for native French speakers. The structures of these sentences are guided by word play of various kinds: homophony, alliteration, consonance, even deliberate opacity.
For instance, the first of them reads Bains de gros thé pour grain de beauté sans trop de bengué — the literal translation is the nonsensical “Baths of vulgar tea for beauty marks without too much Bengué [that is, Ben-Gay ointment, or the doctor for whom it is named].” What really guides this sentence — according to scholar Katrina Martin, who has written the definitive essay on this film — is a juggling of the initial letters of several of the words (b-, gr-, t- / gr-, b-, t- / tr-, b-, g-) and a series of complex allusions and sexual jokes.
And the film just gets more complicated from there — even though Duchamp, in titling his film with an anagram that stops just short of being a palindrome, clues us in right away that Anemic Cinema will involve imperfect word play and “weak” filmmaking.
What I admire about Anemic Cinema and other such films is precisely the way that they engage emotions and mental states with which films usually have no truck. This is a film meant to confound, obfuscate, even annoy — all of which are perfectly legitimate, even necessary, modes that an artwork may adopt. The gesture is to say that art is not necessarily intended to make you feel good — about it, about yourself, about the world. Art’s purpose is to make us see the world in new ways, a task that sometimes involves the engagement of “uncomfortable” emotions.
It’s for this reason that I chuckled at my students’ discomfort with Anemic Cinema. Made nearly 90 years ago, the film still has the power to induce in modern audiences exactly the kind of effect its maker intended: discomfort, confusion, befuddlement. In my opinion, we’d all do well to experience those states a little more often. Better we should learn something by extricating ourselves from befuddlement than by simply sitting back and taking in something that’s handed to us on a cinematic plate. Indeed, Duchamp argues with this film, it’s the great mass of films — the Cinema of the title — that are anemic.