The "Ballet Mecanique" of Marianne Moore's Cinematic Modernism

By McCABE, Susan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2000 | Go to article overview

The "Ballet Mecanique" of Marianne Moore's Cinematic Modernism


McCABE, Susan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Contending that modernist poetry and avant-garde film have significant connections, this essay examines Marianne Moore's poem "Those Various Scalpels" in light of Fernand L[acute{e}]ger's Ballet M[acute{e}]canique, Through this analysis, I explore how both media simultaneously figure forth and fragment the gestural body.

Modernism often signals what Peter Nicholls refers to as the "triumph of form over 'bodily' content," while the exclusion of the feminine, as paired with the bodily through ironic distance, denotes one recognizable mode of modernism (4). The conjunction of modernist cinema and poetics, however, allows for an understanding of alternative refigurings of the bodily. My desire to establish a bodily modernism is in part a response to what Elizabeth Grosz calls the "somatophobia" of Western philosophy, the mapping of the body (particularly women s bodies) as dangerous to reason (Volatile Bodies 5). Grosz insists that since the "body functions as the repressed or disavowed condition of all knowledge," there is a "need to develop a philosophy which refuses to privilege mind at the expense of the body" (20). I contend that the exploration of the intimately involved realms of the poetic and filmic in the aesthetics of modernism reveals this "disavowed" bodily as vital to experiments in both media. Both media call for a necessary embodiment, or in Merleau-Ponty's language "the perceiving mind as an incarnated body," a body staking out its spatiality and enacting its stylized deconstitution and reconstitution through aesthetic processes of fragmentation, superimposition and juxtaposition (3).

Marianne Moore writes to Bryher in 1933: "I doubt that there is anyone living who is more enthusiastic about movies than I am" (February 1926, Collected Letters 296). If this assertion verges on hyperbole, it also usefully recommends that we re-read Moore with the filmic in mind. Indeed, Moore is not the only modernist whose link to film has been neglected and whose work is newly illuminated by its relationship to cinema; by drawing connections between the two media, we can redefine an interdisciplinary modernism that reveals avant-garde poetry and films as more closely meshed in their challenges to conventional representation. My interest here is not to establish a specific influence of film upon Moore, but to suggest that she finds confirmation of her poetic methods in film. A comparison between Moore and Fernand L[acute{e}]ger's 1924 film Ballet M[acute{e}]canique reveals how avant-garde cinematic technique productively sheds light on the poet's defamliarization of objects and embodiment. Both the spectat or as poet and reader, and the specter of the body (not caught but kept in motion), are implicated in a filmic poetics that foregrounds the fragmentary, incohesive character of human embodiment.

In the following essay, I first adumbrate the basis for connecting modern poets with film, and I suggest how cinema reconceptualizes the gestural body in time and space by both visceralizing and dissecting it. Then I examine Moore's use of Eisensteinian montage as a somatized poetic and I distinguish it from William Carlos Williams's poetic desire for visual mastery. Through a reading of L[acute{e}]ger's film Ballet M[acute{e}]canique, famous for its cubist animated constitution and deconstitution of Chaplin's figure (see Fig. 1), I link L[acute{e}]ger's with Moore's obsession with the mechanical and bodily. An analysis of Moore's "Those Various Scalpels" underscores the analogies between her poetics and the L[acute{e}]ger film. I conclude with Moore's attraction to animal documentaries as signifying a displaced embodiment and a reinscription of L[acute{e}]ger's anti-narrative aesthetics.

From 1927 to 1933, Close Up, the first journal in English exclusively devoted film arts, featured contributions from many poets including Marianne Moore, H.D. and Stein. The recent publication of selections from Close Up reinforces my sense of the significance of the interconnections between poetry and film in modernism.

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