LE BALLET MÉCANIQUE
Director: Fernand Léger
Production: Black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 14 minutes; length: 1260 meters. Released 1924. When shown in Berlin in 1925, part or all of Ballet mécanique was exhibited under the title Images Mobile. Filming probably began with the "Charlot Cubiste" (Cubist Charlie Chaplin) sequence in 1923; filming completed in November 1924, most likely in Paris; cost: about 5000 francs.
Producer: Fernand Léger; photography: Dudley Murphy (some sources credit Man Ray as well); sources indicate the editing was probably handled by Dudley Murphy; music: George Antheil; assistant director: Dudley Murphy.
Cast: Kiki; Dudley Murphy.
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Brenden, Richard, "Functions of Film: Léger's Cinema on Paper and on Cellulose," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Fall 1984.
Serenellini, M., "I contrastie delle forme in Ballet mécanique ," in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), December 1984.
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Contemporary film scholarship recognizes at least three major types of production. Most familiar and most popular is the fictive narrative, with roots back beyond Griffith's 1915 feature, The Birth of a Nation. Comparably familiar, though less popular, is the actuality film, with its documentary tradition at least as old as the 1920s work of artists like Flaherty and Grierson. Least familiar and least understood by popular audiences is the experimental film, which had its beginnings in the European avant-garde of the 1920s.
The European avant-garde was based largely upon the efforts of painters and other artists in Germany and France. Thus certain stylistics which mark the strategies of European painting during the 1920s often mark European avant-garde films: the stylistics of Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.
One of the best books on this period of experimental film is Standish Lawder's The Cubist Cinema. In part, Lawder's purpose was to relate classic European avant-garde films by Richter, Eggeling, Ruttman, and Léger to classic paintings of the period by Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, and Léger. Indeed, it is especially interesting to find Léger's name common to both lists in light of the fact that his film Ballet mécanique constitutes one of the most famous and most successful examples surviving this brief-lived but highly innovative, highly influential period of experimental production.
Typically, experimental films are brief, independently-financed productions which tend toward innovative techniques and non-narrative structures. Often they are a collaborative, being the sole product of but one or two artists. Ballet mécanique is no exception to these characteristics. While the camerawork is attributed to the American Dudley Murphy, the 1924 French production is otherwise the work of one man, Fernand Léger.
Before he was 20, Léger had become a Cubist painter whose subject matter eventually centered on mechanical devices and urban imagery. Ballet mécanique is his sole film (although he did some work with Hans Richter on Dreams that Money Can Buy two decades later). He recalls that the film cost him some 5,000 francs, independent financing allowing him control comparable to that which he enjoyed with his paintings. Ballet mécanique is a difficult film to describe, though countless film scholars have embraced that very task. It is a brief, non-narrative exploration of cubist form, black and white tonalities, and various vectors through its constant, rapidly cut movements and compositions. As Lawder details in his study, many of the film's forms and compositions are reflected in—or themselves reflect—forms and compositions in Léger's famous cubist paintings from this period. Clearly the film allowed Léger cinematic extension of the formal problems he continued to explore in his single canvases.
The film flashes through over 300 shots in less than 15 silent minutes. The subjects of these fleeting images are diverse and difficult to quickly catalog: bottles, hats, triangles, a woman's smile, reflections of the camera in a swinging sphere, prismatically crafted abstractions of light and line, gears, numbers, chrome machine (or kitchen) hardware, carnival rides, shop mannequin parts, hats and shoes, etc. All interweave a complex cinematic metaphor which bonds man and machine. Further, Ballet mécanique's whimsical, witty, dadaist portrait seems to center on the looped repetition of a large woman repeatedly and mechanically ascending a stair (one of the first known examples of loop-printing, a technique later to become a mainstay of international experimental film after the 1960s).
Throughout its history, Ballet mécanique has always been a film more for other film artists or film scholars than for a general public. Still, it continues to enjoy critical attention and acclaim, and continues to influence the ongoing expression of experimental filmmakers throughout the industrialized free world.
—Edward S. Small