Fernand Léger’s curious throw-away line linking cinema and aviation appears in an essay he wrote in 1931 titled “Speaking of Cinema” (“A Propos du cinéma”), one of only a few short pieces that the artist, arguably the modernist painter most obsessed with the cinema, devoted entirely to film.
In the opening days of 2020 modernists may have rejoiced over two significant events. On January 1, works published in 1924 entered the public domain. On January 2, Princeton University opened to the public the recently uncrated 1,131 letters from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale.
On October 4, 1923, the American composer George Antheil made his highly anticipated Paris debut at the Champs Elysées Theatre, in front of a rioting audience. A few minutes into the recital the crowd became unsettled; members of the audience started to protest the offensive nature of the music, others jumped to the musician’s defence, and before long the house was out of control. Unbeknownst to Antheil, the riot was in fact staged by his friends Marcel L’Herbier and Georgette Leblanc, who needed to film just such a scene for their upcoming movie, The Inhuman Woman. The ruse would only be revealed to him about a year after the incident.
I was terribly disappointed that you didn’t get here last week. And I was furious with myself for mentioning the damned wedding to you because it turned out that I didn’t go. People kept coming in and then deciding not to go on to the wedding, so we were here until eight o’clock. Then we went out to dinner. It was very amusing too because the sandwiches kept getting fewer and fewer, and I kept rescuing them from hungry guests and saying firmly, “You’ll have to leave some for Nella Larsen Imes and Elmer.” Then when you didn’t appear they accused me of trying to save the food.
There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016). While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.
Always mornings. Early. And there should be coffee. Breakfast will come later, but the best hours are now—when the world is still blanketed, the mind “puddled in dream melt.” There are particular parameters for the page. The margins must be wide. The font Goudy Old Style or Garamond in a squeeze. Carriage returns between paragraphs. No indentation. I once justified my text; now I like the ragged edges. To write The Names (1982), Don DeLillo had to change his method. He began typing single, numbered paragraphs, each on its own leaf: a microclimate that allowed him to “see a given set of sentences more clearly.” This is a logic that makes sense to me. I learned to write from my mother. She taught me to revise a sentence aloud before putting it into print. To move from breath to inscription can be a mystical practice. The look of letters has long astonished, inviting cryptic explanations. The 22 paths connecting Kabbalah’s Sefirot—emanations of the divine Ein Sof—correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin “A” is an abstracted, phonetic descendant from an Ox hieroglyph. Flip it over and you can still see the creature’s horns: ∀. These ideas are important for the writers I study. They reveal a profound longing—the desire to rekindle a relationship between text and the body, at once archaic and arcane, and to locate the origins of writing in the sensual world.
In the late 1950s, well before his association with Werner Herzog had made him the most internationally recognizable German screen actor of his generation, Klaus Kinski was a phenomenon. Between 1957 and 1962, his concert-style recitations and studio recordings of work by François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gerhart Hauptmann, Bertolt Brecht, and a range of other canonical figures, held out the possibility that literature—a literature associated with sexual and political transgression, moreover—might find its place in a commercially driven culture industry.
How would a film look if Walter Benjamin had been behind the movie camera? Miriam Hansen entertains this possibility in Cinema and Experience (2012) when she speculates about an “imaginary city film” made according to Benjamin’s aesthetic principles. Such a film, Hansen writes, would include a variety of avant-garde techniques “from French Impressionism to Soviet experimental cinema, in particular montage (that is, discontinuous and rhythmic editing), nonconventional and expressive framing, and camera movement.” Yet Hansen’s version of a Benjaminian film practice is inferred almost entirely from Benjamin’s film theory, while his descriptive essays on European cities—“Naples,” “Marseilles,” and the focus of this article, “Moscow” (1927)—are missing from her authoritative survey of Benjamin’s thought.
Hamlin Garland is principally remembered today as a late-nineteenth-century Midwestern regionalist whose fiction and nonfiction—including his fine collection of short stories, Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and his memoir of sorts, A Son of the Middle Border (1917)—depict the hardships of pioneer life on the Middle Border.
Both blind and mute, often weathered by the sun, by wind and rain, by snow that drips or slides off in a kind of despair, statues on their own can tell us little except that time passes. Typically, we barely notice them, as they form the decorative backdrop to the drama of a place.