The catalyst for this talk and screening is a seeming paradox at the heart of interwar avant-garde film. One the one hand, history bears witness to the total success of the discourse of purity in (and beyond) cinema. Leading and diverse filmmakers and theorists—including Dulac, Léger, Moholy-Nagy, Vertov, van Doesburg, Balázs, and Arnheim—championed cinema in its “pure” or “absolute” state. As art historian Meyer Schapiro prophesied in 1936: “The conception of a possible field of ‘pure art’—whatever its value—will not die so soon, though it may take on forms different from those of the last thirty years.” Forty years later, Peter Wollen would attack experimental film co-ops and the realism of Bazin as both advocating “extreme ‘purism’ or ‘essentialism.’” So the 1920s saw the irrefutable consolidation of purity as a cinematic ideal. On the other hand, the eponymous movements representing this ideal (cinéma pur in France and absoluter Film in Germany) proved total failures. Neither movement survived beyond an evanescent flourishing around 1925; they soon became the objects of near-universal scorn.
I aim to resolve this paradox through close analysis of the cinematic and extra-cinematic pursuits in the orbit of cinéma pur (Gance, Léger, Dulac, Chomette, Man Ray) and absoluter Film (Eggeling, Richter, Moholy-Nagy): seminal films like Cinq minutes de cinema pur (Chomette 1925) and Lichtspiel: schwarz-weiss-grau (Moholy-Nagy, 1932) as well as the residues of films lost to history, like À quoi rêvent les jeunes films? (Man Ray and Chomette, 1925), and images and objects rarely understood in cinematic terms, like cameraless photographs (known as “photograms” or “rayographs”) and kinetic sculptures like Moholy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930).