Ballet mécanique, conceived by painter Fernand Léger and photographed by filmmaker Dudley Murphy (possibly with some involvement from Man Ray), is a rhythmic interplay between human and object. Affected by his experience of fighting in World War I, and in particular by the mustard gas attack that left him hospitalized for a year, Léger became fascinated with mechanical technology, which would feature heavily in his post-1917 art. Ballet mécanique, his only film, is an example of this juxtaposition of man and machine: gears and pendulums vs. eyes and mouths, pistons pumping vs. a woman’s endless climb up the stairs, clocks vs. legs. A kaleidoscopic combination of faces and kitchen utensils, Ballet mécanique was completely unlike contemporary commercial movies, and would pave the way for other revolutionary films like Metropolis and Limite.
If you were to see Ballet mécanique installed in one of our galleries or projected in one of our theaters, it would look a little different than it does here—the frameline would be stabilized and the edges of the picture would either be cropped or camouflaged with masking around the screen. However, we are presenting this version the way a scholar visiting the Film Study Center would see it on a flatbed viewing machine, with a slight bounce to the image and the sprocket holes visible, and without live musical accompaniment. (The score, composed by George Antheil and usually performed as a separate concert piece, was finished several years after Ballet mécanique premiered and is significantly longer than the film.)
Watch this week’s other films:
Rhythmus 21 (1921)
Anémic Cinéma (1926)
Learn more at Virtual Views: Film Vault Summer Camp
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The comments and opinions expressed in this video are those of the speaker alone, and do not represent the views of The Museum of Modern Art, its personnel, or any artist.