Thursday, May 21, 2009

Avant-Garde: Mechanical Principles (1930, Ralph Steiner)

Mechanical Principles (1930)
USA, 10 min
Directed by: Ralph Steiner One might consider Mechnical Principles (1930) to be the converse of Ralph Steiner's most well-known work, H2O (1929). The latter film was a close-up examination of water, focusing intensely on the reflection and refraction of light by the liquid surface, an entirely natural substance that mesmerises through the sheer poetic randomness of its movements. There's nothing random about the mechanical movements of the former film. Cogs turn, pistons pump – repetitively and relentlessly, Mankind's constructions continue to carve perfect geometric circles. It's a bit like watching mathematics in motion. The transition between each shot is wonderfully smooth, the film constructed as a sort of mechanical waltz.

Around this time, Hollywood directors like Busby Berkeley were engineering extravagant musical numbers in which dancers were utilised as mere cogs in a machine, each movement dependent upon the ability of the individual dancers to perform their role without error. In Mechanical Principles, this perfection is assured, for Man has never been able to replicate the precision of his machines. I've always found it fascinating how two men can view the same thing through very different eyes. There's something almost affectionate about how Steiner frames the perfectly-weighted movement of the factory machinery, and yet this is the same sort of industrial monotony against which Charles Chaplin campaigned in Modern Times (1936). Maybe both artists are right. Mechanical Principles is surely a mesmerising ten minutes, but, had it gone on for much longer, I might have ended up as hopelessly deranged as Chaplin's Little Tramp.

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