ART IN CINEMA part 2: Walther Ruttmann and the medium of the future…
by DR. WILLIAM MORITZ
The term “Absolute Film” was coined by analogy with the expression “Absolute Music,” referring to music like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos which had no reference to a story, poetry, dance, ceremony or any other thing besides the essential elements – harmonies, rhythms, melodies, counterpoints, etc. – of music itself. Cinema even more than music seems dominated by documentary and fiction functions, both of which relied on film recording human activities which had their primary existence and meaning outside the film theatre. Absolute Film, by contrast, would present things which could be expressed uniquely with cinematic means. Other terms for this film genre sprouted everywhere: “Pure Cinema” (which was purely cinematic), “Integral Cinema” (Germaine Dulac’s phrase, using “Integral” in the French sense of “Wholly and completely”) and finally the two socio-political terms “Avant-Garde” and “Experimental,” the first of which unfortunately implies military scouts invading enemy territory and the second of which sadly implies the filmmaker groping for some unclear result.
The most unique thing that cinema could do is present a visual spectacle comparable to auditory music, with fluid, dynamic imagery rhythmically paced by editing, dissolving, superimposition, segmented screen, contrasts of positive and negative, color ambiance and other cinematic devices. Already in the 1910s, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra made at least nine films, painting directly on the filmstrip not only non-objective pieces (the gradual takeover of the all-green screen by a red star, playing with afterimage) but also taking a divisionist painting by Segantini (a girl lying in a field of flowers) and re-painting it on frame after frame of the film to allow the colored dots to vibrate even more brilliantly than on the canvas. Unfortunately these films are all lost, as is the German Hans Stoltenberg’s film painted directly on the filmstrip about the same time. Other artists made plans for abstract films that were never realized: Leopold Survage (Parisian-based friend of Picasso and Modigliani) painted several hundred sequential images, Colored Rhythm, in full color on paper, with the hope that they could be filmed, but he was unable to find an adequate color process before World War I put an end to his project. Likewise the Polish artist Mieczyslaw Szczuka drew numerous sequential images on scrolls of paper, and published two fascinating samples in 1924, just a couple of years before his death, but was apparently not able to get them filmed.
Walther Ruttmann was the first filmmaker to finish an Absolute Film and distribute it in public cinemas. A painter and musician by training, Ruttmann renounced his abstract oil painting in 1919, declaring film to be the art-medium of the future. He mastered the techniques of filmmaking, and prepared his first film Movie Opus I with single-framed painting on glass and animated cutouts. The film was colored by three methods – toning, hand-tinting, and tinting of whole strips – so there was no single negative, and each print had to be assembled scene by scene after the complex coloring had been done. An old college buddy Max Buttingcomposed a musical score for the finished film, and Ruttmann himself played the cello in the string quintet that performed live with each screening at several German cities in the Spring of 1921. Ruttmann made three more Opus films, but used simpler tinting and did not prepare special music so that the films could be more easily and widely screened.
On May 3, 1925 the UFA Theatre on Kurfurstendamm in Berlin hosted an historic matinee screening, The Absolute Film, which included a live performance of three Color Sonatinas by Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack of the Bauhaus, using a “color-organ” instrument he had constructed called the Reflectorial ColorPlay. Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony received its public premiere (Eggeling was unfortunately in the hospital, unable to attend). Walther Ruttmann screened his Opus 3 and Opus 4. (Hans Richter‘s 30-second Film is Rhythm had been listed on the program, but when Richter realized the scope and complexity of Ruttmann and Eggeling’s films, he withdrew his little test). Rene Clair’s film Intermission had been shot as an intermission feature for the Dada ballet No Performance Today designed by painter Francis Picabia with music by Eric Satie (both also appear in the film, along with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and the lead dancers from the Swedish Ballet, who had given No Performance Today its premiere in Paris in the fall of 1924). Rene Clair used every sort of cinematic device to give Intermission a zany Surrealist improbable logic, and it certainly qualifies as absolutely a film – something that could only be done by cinematic means. Similarly the film Mechanical Ballet used imagery in non-realistic fashion as rhythmic and satirical collisions of ideas. It also passed through a number of different hands before it was finished, also in the fall of 1924.
Two Americans began it: Man Ray had produced the superb Return to Reason (a witty collage of all things “movie”) which screened at a Dada happening, “An Evening with the Bearded Heart”. Dudley Murphy, who had filmed about 10 “Visual Symphony” live-action shorts synchronized with music, as well as a comedy feature and an animation film, saw Man Ray’s film and proposed that they collaborate on a larger work. The title came from a Francis Picabia satirical artwork published in his magazine 391 while Picabia was living in New York in 1917 – in an issue which also contained artwork and a poem by his friend Man Ray. Dudley Murphy and Man Ray set out to gather footage in the streets of Paris, animated stocking-model legs to do the Charleston, made scenes of Murphy’s lovely wife Katherine posed in greeting-card banalities, and set up scenes in a studio room where they filmed Man Ray’s mistress Kiki (and various other things) through special beveled lenses that Murphy had developed, which gave an automatic “cubist” quality to the image. They also shot footage of kitchen goods and plunging machine parts which were meant for an ironic intercutting with pornographic footage. Then they ran out of money. The painter Fernand Leger offered to finance the completion, but Man Ray dropped out and asked that his name not be used on the film. It is unclear what if any of the footage Leger had a part in filming (the Charlie Chaplin puppet is a Leger sculpture, though he would not know how to animate it), but the editing was accomplished by Murphy, since Leger had no actual filmmaking skills.
The first surviving abstract film, Walther Ruttmann’s Light-Play Opus Nr. 1, was shot in 1919 and 1920, had a musical score composed for it and premiered in April 1921. It makes brilliant use of color. Ruttmann had been a painter and his last abstract canvases were characterized by many delicate nuances of painterly brushstrokes and fine gradations of unmixed colors. In moving to film, Ruttmann tried to capture some of the same variety and dynamics by using three coloring techniques: tinting, toning and hand-tinting, that is, coloring the emulsion so dark areas have a hue, dying the film strip so the light areas have another color, and adding touches of other colors to specific shapes by painting directly on each film frame. This meant that each individual scene had to be printed separately (from black-and-white negative pieces), and each projection print of the film had to be assembled from a hundred fragments. The surviving copy of Opus 1 was somewhat incomplete, but one can reconstruct the film quite accurately because Ruttmann drew color pictures in the musical score (with precise indications of repeats and changes of color) so that the musicians could synchronize exactly. Ruttmann limited the imagery to a confrontation between hard-edged geometric shapes and softer pliant forms, and allowed the colors not only to characterize certain figures, but also to establish mood, as in the long blue “nocturne” of the second movement. When Ruttmann followed this with subsequent abstract Opus films, he avoided the complex color effects of his first film. He gave general orange and green tints to scenes in Opus 2 and Opus 3, but the all hard-edged, optically-vibrating Opus 4 remained black-and-white for maximum contrast.
for more ART IN CINEMA see part 1…