Le Ballet Mécanique: The Historic Cinematic Collaboration Between Fernand Legér and George Antheil

Film is by nature a col­lab­o­ra­tive medi­um, and cer­tain­ly one of the strangest and most inter­est­ing cin­e­mat­ic col­lab­o­ra­tions of all time has to be the 1924 avant-garde film Bal­let Mécanique, which brought togeth­er the mod­ernist lumi­nar­ies Fer­nand Léger, Ezra Pound, Man Ray and George Antheil.

The glue that actu­al­ly held the whole project togeth­er was an unknown young Amer­i­can film­mak­er named Dud­ley Mur­phy, who was liv­ing in Paris and saw Man Ray’s exper­i­men­tal film Le Retour à la Rai­son when it came out in 1923. Mur­phy was so impressed that he sought Man Ray out and sug­gest­ed they work togeth­er on a project. Mur­phy was a tech­ni­cal­ly skilled and well-equipped cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er with sev­er­al films under his belt, so the offer intrigued Man Ray. He said he would do it as long as Mur­phy agreed to work by the Dadaist prin­ci­ple of spon­ta­neous, irra­tional exper­i­men­ta­tion. Mur­phy agreed, and the two men began film­ing scenes togeth­er

Mur­phy also sought help from the poet Ezra Pound. As Susan B. Del­son doc­u­ments in her book, Dud­ley Mur­phy, Hol­ly­wood Wild Card, Pound wrote a let­ter to his father in 1923, say­ing, “Dud­ley Mur­phy, whom I met in Venice in 1908, he being then eleven, turned up a few days ago. His dad is a painter, he is try­ing to make cin­e­ma into art.” Pound was famous­ly gen­er­ous when it came to help­ing oth­er artists, and he agreed to help Mur­phy and Man Ray. “I knew him as a kind­heart­ed man, always ready to help oth­ers,” Man Ray lat­er said of Pound, yet “dom­i­nat­ing­ly arro­gant where lit­er­a­ture was con­cerned.”

The extent of Pound’s direct involve­ment in the mak­ing of Bal­let Mécanique is an open ques­tion, but it’s gen­er­al­ly believed that he exert­ed some aes­thet­ic influ­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pris­mat­ic mul­ti­ple image shots that call to mind some of the ear­li­er exper­i­ments of Vor­ti­cism, a move­ment Pound was close­ly con­nect­ed with. “The vor­tex,” Pound once wrote, “is the point of max­i­mum ener­gy. It rep­re­sents, in mechan­ics, the great­est effi­cien­cy. We use the words ‘great­est effi­cien­cy’ in the pre­cise sense–as they would be used in a text book of Mechan­ics.” The title of the film was actu­al­ly tak­en from a 1917 piece by Man Ray’s friend, the Dadaist painter Fran­cis Picabia.

In the fall of 1923 Mur­phy began edit­ing the scenes he had shot with Man Ray, but by then they were run­ning out of mon­ey. Pound sug­gest­ed that his friend the cubist painter Fer­nand Léger might agree to see the project through to com­ple­tion. Man Ray knew of Léger’s dom­i­neer­ing per­son­al­i­ty and want­ed no part of it. He left the project and asked Mur­phy (with whom he was still on friend­ly terms) to make sure his name was left out of the cred­its. Pound also arranged for the wealthy Amer­i­can writer and art patron Natal­ie Bar­ney to com­mis­sion a musi­cal score to accom­pa­ny the film. Pound chose a young Amer­i­can com­pos­er he had met ear­li­er in the year named George Antheil, who lived above Sylvia Beach’s Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny book­store.

Antheil accept­ed the com­mis­sion but went his own way, show­ing no inter­est in even see­ing the film while he was work­ing on the music. “From the out­set,” writes Del­son in her biog­ra­phy of Mur­phy, “the film and the score led remark­ably sep­a­rate lives. In his let­ters to Pound dur­ing this peri­od, Antheil made lit­tle or no men­tion of the film.” Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the film and music did not match. The music was twice as long as the com­plet­ed film. In fact the film would even­tu­al­ly be released with­out the music, and the two have only rarely been exhib­it­ed togeth­er.

Although Antheil even­tu­al­ly com­posed sev­er­al vari­a­tions of his score, the ver­sion he fin­ished in 1924 calls for a bizarre group of mech­a­nis­tic or indus­tri­al-sound­ing instru­ments, includ­ing 16 play­er pianos, sev­en elec­tric bells, three air­plane pro­pellers of vary­ing sizes, and a siren. In his man­i­festo “My Bal­let Mécanique: What it Means,” Antheil describes his accom­plish­ment in words that are per­haps more bizarre than the air­plane pro­pellers and siren:

My Bal­let Mécanique is a new FOURTH DIMENSION of music. My Bal­let Mécanique is the first piece of music that has been com­posed OUT OF and FOR machines, ON EARTH. My Bal­let Mécanique is the first piece of music that has found the best forms and mate­ri­als lying inert in a medi­um that AS A MEDIUM is math­e­mat­i­cal­ly cer­tain of becom­ing the great­est mov­ing fac­tor of the music of future gen­er­a­tions.

Math­e­mat­i­cal­ly cer­tain or not, Antheil’s score did go on to exert con­sid­er­able influ­ence. “The tex­tures and effects in this work are,” accord­ing to musi­cian and schol­ar Mark Fend­er­son, “direct pre­de­ces­sors to those used in the music of John Cage, Ter­ry Riley, Philip Glass and John Adams.” Although the music for Bal­let Mécanique would always remain Antheil’s most famous accom­plish­ment, the film itself was some­thing of a foot­note to Fer­nand Léger’s career.

The film begins and ends with Léger’s play­ful image of a cubist Char­lie Chap­lin, along with shots of Mur­phy’s wife Kather­ine relax­ing in a bucol­ic set­ting.  In between it moves fran­ti­cal­ly from image to image, with indus­tri­al engines, man­nequin parts, kitchen­ware, clock pen­du­lums and shapes of pure abstrac­tion appear­ing and reap­pear­ing with machine-like reg­u­lar­i­ty. In one sequence a wash­er­woman climbs a steep stair­way only to keep reap­pear­ing again, like Sisy­phus, at the bot­tom.

The close-ups of a wom­an’s eyes and lips are of Man Ray’s lover and mod­el, Kiki of Mont­par­nasse. In the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the film, Mur­phy had report­ed­ly includ­ed some erot­ic nude images of Man Ray and Kiki embrac­ing, but Léger had them edit­ed out. As a mat­ter of fact, when the film was released the auto­crat­ic Léger arranged to have Mur­phy edit­ed out of the cred­its, despite the fact that Mur­phy was the one who basi­cal­ly made the film–much of it before Léger was even involved. All sur­viv­ing ver­sions of the film, includ­ing the one above, say sim­ply “un film de Fer­nand Léger.”

The sto­ry behind the mak­ing of Bal­let Mécanique reveals a great deal about the per­son­al­i­ties involved: about Pound’s gen­eros­i­ty, Léger’s ruth­less­ness, Man Ray’s wari­ness, Mur­phy’s naiveté, Antheil’s ego­ma­nia. The film itself, accord­ing to the Cir­cu­lat­ing Film Library Cat­a­logue at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, “remains one of the most influ­en­tial exper­i­men­tal works in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma.”

Le Bal­let Mécanique has been added to our meta col­lec­tion of 500 Free Movies Online. You can find it in the sec­tion that includes Silent films.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Anémic Ciné­ma: Mar­cel Ducham­p’s Whirling Avante-Garde Film

Man Ray and the Ciné­ma Pur: Four Sur­re­al­ist Films from the 1920s


by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Donald says:

    Hi, great arti­cle of this very curi­ous film. Indeed, it con­tains a lot of info that I was­n’t able to find any­where else! So, because of that, I was won­der­ing if you would­n’t mind to pass the ref­er­ences for this arti­cle… Could you do that? It’d be great for me!

  • di contatto says:

    Mi chi­amo Andrea Sol­dano. Ho trova­to il vostro sito attra­ver­so un motore di ricer­ca e ho ril­e­va­to alcu­ni dati inter­es­san­ti del vostro posizion­a­men­to in Google. Mi piac­erebbe con­di­videre gra­tuita­mente con voi questi dati ed even­tual­mente sug­gerirvi tre pun­ti chi­ave che potran­no agevolare la vos­tra visibilità.Sperando di fare cosa gra­di­ta, in calce ripor­to i miei recapi­ti tele­foni medi­ante i quali potrete con­tat­tar­mi per rice­vere gra­tuita­mente il report di riepilogo.Cordiali salu­ti, Andrea Sol­dano | Milano 340 2469984

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.