Friday, June 10, 2016

Short Take: Ballet mécanique

Ballet mécanique (1924) is a marvelous non-narrative short film. (The running time is eleven minutes.) It's one of the high points of 1920s experimental filmmaking. Directed by the painter Fernand Léger in collaboration with the U. S. filmmaker Dudley Murphy, it explores shape and movement in all its myriad forms. The film opens with an animated Cubist-style cartoon figure of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. It then shifts to a shot of a woman riding in a swing. A face is reduced to a lipsticked mouth breaking into a grin, and kohled eyes open and close as if keeping a beat. There are shifting patterns of two dimensional shapes, rotating spheres, and engine gears in operation. Machines have life, and living things move in mechanized patterns. Léger's paintings from the period interpret people and the trappings of life as mechanical forms; they're very much of a piece with the film's style and themes. The most remarkable aspect of the picture is its immersive quality. The movement within the frames combine with the editing in ways that evoke melody and rhythm. One cannot help but be carried along by the dancing visuals, and one may feel one is experiencing music in the form of imagery. Man Ray was reportedly a consultant on the film.

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