One of the recurring fascinations within early film theory was cinema’s unique ability to animate and enliven the normally lifeless, material objects of our everyday world, to reveal their ‘personalities’ and ‘faces,’ even to grant them a kind of mute ‘voice.’ In doing so, film was understood to transform the relationship between people and inanimate objects: to place a whole array of non-human things into different and far less marginalized positions with respect to speaking human subjects. This new status of things on the cinema screen was not only recognized by early theorists of film but became an important productive principle for various film-makers of the interwar avant-garde period and beyond––film-makers who made explicit their attempts to de-familiarize our habituated relationships with material objects and commodities, to grant them a new mysterious life through the technology of cinema, and ultimately to point towards a new visual relationship between humans and their non-human companions. The aesthetics of what I am calling the ‘cine-thing’ is admittedly rather simplistic, but it is powerful nonetheless. It rests on some of film’s most basic capabilities: to make things move, to enlarge them, to isolate things from their familiar contexts, and to encourage us to see them anew.
In his 1924 study, The Visible Human, or the Culture of Film, Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs describes this new relationship between people and things that emerged within the era of silent cinema:
In the world of the speaking human, silent things are far more lifeless and insignificant than the human. They acquire life only of a second and third degree, and this only in those rare moments of especially clairvoyant sensitivity on the part of the people who consider them. […] This difference of value disappears in film. There, things are not so neglected and degraded. In the shared silence, they become nearly homogenous with man and thereby gain in vitality and significance. Because they do not speak less than people, they therefore say just as much. This is the riddle of that particular film atmosphere, which lies beyond any literary possibility.1
In addition to this nearly equivalent living presence of people and things on the cinema screen, Balázs’s film theory understands the birth of cinema to mark the return of a long submerged symbolic language. This visual language is comprised of facial expressions, gestures, and the general outward appearances of moving forms, which allow the subject’s inner soul to ‘speak’ through its outer physiognomy and thus express inner states without the use of verbal language.2 Particularly interesting is how Balázs radically expands this notion of physiognomy to include not only humans but things as well, “for [in film,] all things make a physiognomic impression on us, whether we are conscious of it or not.”3 By stripping familiar objects of their functional properties and presenting them in pure visual form on the projection screen, cinema is capable of revealing the “living physiognomy that all things have.”4 And if things obtain lives and expressive faces on the cinema screen, then the human subjects depicted are likewise made more thing-like.
A number of other examples from early film theory help to give a sense of the widespread fascination with the living, animated thing of cinema. In a 1924 essay titled “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” French film theorist and filmmaker Jean Epstein describes how cinema,
attributes […] a semblance of life to the objects it defines. […] Through the cinema, a revolver in a drawer, a broken bottle on the ground, an eye isolated by an iris, are elevated to the status of characters in the drama. Being dramatic, they seem alive, as though involved in the evolution of an emotion. […] To things and beings in their most frigid semblance, the cinema thus grants the greatest gift unto death: life. And it confers this life in its highest guise: personality.5
Epstein’s discussion of “personality” here has quite a bit in common with Balázs’s understanding of the “living physiognomy that all things have.” One could also point to earlier theoretical articulations like those of American writer Vachel Lindsay, who writes in 1915 that: the “non-human object […] is apt to be the hero in most any sort of photoplay while the producer remains utterly unconscious of the fact. Why not face this idiosyncrasy of the camera and make the non-human object the hero indeed?”6 Another excellent example comes from a 1916 manifesto for the largely unrealized project of Futurist Cinema. F.T. Marinetti, along with other prominent Italian Futurists, declares that, “[Our films will be:] Filmed Dramas of Objects: (Objects animated, humanized, baffled, dressed up, impassioned, civilized, dancing––objects removed from their normal surroundings and put into an abnormal state that, by contrast, throws into relief their amazing construction and nonhuman life.)”7
A number of key features of the cine-thing begin to emerge from these related articulations. (1) Cinema is understood to grant an expressive and animated life to the normally inanimate thing. (2) These newly enlivened things stand to challenge the usually dominant position of humans with respect to the world of things; they become themselves “nearly homogenous with man,” “characters in the drama,” or “the hero in most any sort of photoplay.” (3) Their personalities or physiognomies suggest an unruliness and irreverence with respect to the audience and filmmaker alike. And (4) there is a sense that cinema’s ability to grant life to the thing brings with it a new visual knowledge––that by isolating objects and removing them from their familiar contexts, film allows the viewer experience the usually hidden “construction and nonhuman life” of things.
To provide some actual living images8 to go along with this discussion, I would like to turn to the short avant-garde film Ballet mécanique (1924) by French painter Fernand Léger and American cameraman Dudley Murphy. Like Balázs and Epstein, Léger privileges in particular the cinematic technique of the close-up shot as that which most clearly grants the cine-thing its strange life––for the close-up has ability to isolate and defamiliarize the thing, reveal its particularity through visual detail, and endow it with its own animated personality. In Léger’s retrospective notes on the film, he explains: “I used the close-up, which is the only cinematographic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it a personality.”9 Here we can detect the possibly direct influence of Epstein on Léger’s understanding of the cinematic medium.
Ballet mécanique (1924) part 1
Ballet mécanique (1924) part 2
What do we want to say about the personality of things in Léger and Murphy’s experimental film? First, we can clearly see how Ballet mécanique radicalizes Balázs’s understanding of silent film: the lives of humans and things are not simply made nearly homogeneous; instead the flurry of fragmented objects and abstract shapes nearly wipe out the human, or at least reduce it to a thing among things. A woman’s head––that of Man Ray’s lover, Kiki de Montparnasse––is reduced to a rotating plastic object or fragmented face with mechanical movements. At the same time, the film integrates through rapid rhythmic editing the moving images of various mass manufactured commodities and machines, which are just as lively as the human figures they are juxtaposed with. With regards to the animated living things of the film, we might convincingly relate them to the modern culture of the spectacle and commodity fetishism and understand the film to revel in the strange, animated life of Marx’s commodity form.10 We could understand the film––as Bill Brown suggests in his interpretation of Léger’s writing––as operating according to an “aesthetics of the commodity.”11
Towards the end of the film, a playful intertitle appears that declares in French, “we have stolen a 5 million dollar necklace.” These words are quickly followed by a series of pulsating zeros to accentuate the necklace’s exchange value. One of the digits then materializes into a concrete object, a horse harness, which no doubt works as a critical, visual pun. But it also presents a mysteriously animated commodity that plays with its status as abstract exchange value, enjoying the same mysterious life described by Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. Here we might point to a structural parallel between the commodity fetish and the cinematic image. The cine-thing as well as the commodity as abstract exchange value are both severed from any possible use-value. And cinema, like Marx’s commodity fetish, hides the means of production, thus granting the image the animated, magical quality that it has for the viewer. The viewer cannot experience the technical means of how the image is produced (out of separate stills), only the illusion of a continuously moving, living object.12
At the same time however, cinema is not just a way in which inanimate things gain a strange new life, but an instrument for producing knowledge about these objects as well. Cinema may give things a face or personality, but following Balázs, this also includes a physiognomy through which we are supposedly able to understand the inner nature of the thing. This aspect of early film theory, that cinema is an instrument for producing knowledge about visual realities inaccessible to the human eye, is widespread and includes not only Balázs and Epstein, but the more familiar work of Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin. The Soviet avant-garde film-maker, Dziga Vertov, describes the revelatory potential of cinema this way: “A shot of a banker will only be true if we can tear the mask from him, if behind the mask we can see the thief.”13 Vertov expresses here a direct, iconoclastic application of the physiognomies of film: to destroy the illusion of outer appearances and reveal an inner “truth,” however it is understood. It is through the new technology of film and innovative editing practices that Vertov attempts to probe beneath the surface of appearances and realize a revolutionary, Marxist critique of society through film. His cine-things are thus animated to reveal their imbedded social relations, whether through the animation of a wealthy capitalist’s dining table in Vertov’s 1924 Soviet Toys commercial or reverse-projections to trace the production of meat back to the living cow in his Kinoglaz film of the same year.
Soviet Toys (1924)
It is within this same context that Bill Brown refers to the utopian project of the Soviet Constructivists of the 1920s, quoting Alexsandr Rodchenko, that “our things in our hands must be equals, comrades,” and that revolutionary art, including film, must help to overcome “the rupture between Things and people,” which characterizes bourgeois society.14
In contrast to the iconoclastic gesture underlying Vertov’s cinematic work, I want to make a far less radical and utopian claim about cinema and the relationship between people and things that it facilitates. There may be a revelatory potential in the living things of the screen, but the things themselves are hardly transparent as to what they reveal. More important is the subtle and ambiguous relationship that cinema establishes between the viewer and the animated thing, the ability to see what eludes one’s everyday visual experiences and the uneasy experience of seeing the familiar and lifeless object magically come to life. Béla Balázs sums up this relationship quite well, writing:
The cinematograph shows you what your hand does––which you neither consider nor notice––while it caresses and hits. […] It shows you the intimate face of all your living gestures, in which your soul appears, but which you do not recognize. The magnifying glass [Lupe] of the cinematic apparatus will show you your shadow on the wall, which you live with without noticing. It will show you the adventure and fate of the cigar in your unsuspecting hand and the secret––but unnoticed––life of all things, which are your companions and together make up life.15
For Balázs, cinema activates a kind of animistic relationship with the visual world that lies otherwise dormant in our everyday lives. The simple fact of seeing the moving and living pictures (lebende Bilder) of cinema is already enough to access this new experience of the visual world. What may seem foreign to our experience of film today was in fact the source of its original attraction and fascination around 1900. Between 1895 and 1906––before D.W. Griffith and the beginnings of narrative cinema––the short films of Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and others presented their viewers with various kinds of exciting spectacles, rather than the immersive narratives of later cinema. As Tom Gunning explains, these spectacles could be of documentary interest in themselves, or could be created through exciting camera and editing techniques like close-ups, slow motion, reverse projections, and multiple exposures.16 (The arrival of a train, 30 seconds of a boxing match, a close-up of a kiss, etc.) The appeal of what Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions” was in cinema’s simple power of “making images seen.”17
The ambivalent relationship to the lebende Bilder of film can be seen quite clearly in cinema’s ur-myth: that during the first screening of the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1895 the audience actually jumped up from their seats, waved their canes at the image of the approaching train, and ran to the back of the theater. While there is no historical evidence to support this reaction, it makes for a perfect example of the type of “double consciousness” described by W.J.T Mitchell in What Do Pictures Want?: the feeling that pictures are in fact alive and magically powerful, and at the same time knowing that this feeling is only illusory. The strategy that the early-nineteenth-century moviegoer develops to deal with this double consciousness is the same that Mitchell describes: to attribute the belief in living images to the naïve country bumpkin, the child, or the primitive.18 And surely enough, there are plenty of early films that dramatize this encounter––the comical folly of taking living pictures to be real living things.
If we want to take the idea of living pictures seriously, we might, like Mitchell, ask what it is that they want. And we could specifically ask what it is that the cine-things of Léger’s Ballet mécanique want––things that are caught up in a multiplicity of moving forms, abstract exchange values, and modern cultures of spectacle and commercial display. Compared with the unmasked commodities of Vertov’s films, Léger’s objects seem intent on their irreverence towards their human counterparts, both resisting the demystifying efforts of critique and mimicking the lively motions of the human body and face. Not only do the things of Ballet mécanique ‘say’ as much as the humans in the film––who are made even more thing-like through their fragmentation and mechanical motion––but they seem to silence the viewers themselves, who (at least this viewer) find it hard to speak on the meaning of the things in the film. These things would rather mock the attempts of an iconoclastic critique of the commodity such as Vertov’s. At the same time that our gaze as spectators is staged by the close-up of the eyes in the film, these same eyes are also staring right back at us with a mocking challenge. Apparently the face of things wants to laugh in our faces.
(All film stills are from Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet mécanique. 1924.)
1 Béla Balázs, Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), pp. 31–32. All translations from this text are mine.
2 For a discussion of physiognomy and the revelatory function of early film, see Tom Gunning, “In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of Early Film,” Modernism/modernity 4, no. 1 (1997), pp. 1–29.
3 Balázs, p. 70.
4 Ibid., p. 59.
5 Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” in French Film Theory and Criticism, Vol. I: 1907–1929, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988), pp. 316–317.
6 Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture  (New York: MacMillan, 1916), p. 35.
7 F. T. Marinetti, et al., “The Futurist Cinema” , in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 218.
8 Especially during the early history of film in Germany, the moving pictures of the cinema screen were often referred to as “lebende Bilder,” literally “living pictures” or “living images.”
9 Fernand Léger, “Ballet Mécanique,” in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 50. My emphasis.
10 See Marx’s analysis of “commodity fetishism” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol 1., trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163ff.
11 See Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 8–13, here p. 13.
12 See Chapter 5, “The Secret Life of the Object,” in Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2000), pp. 73–83
13 Quoted in Gunning, “In Your Face,” p. 1.
14 See Brown, p. 187, and note 33 on p. 192.
15 Balázs, p. 49.
16 Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI, 1990), p. 58.
17 Ibid., p. 56.
18 See W.J.T Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 7–8.