Futurist Past

Ara H. Merjian on Performa’s Futurist film programs

Left: chameckilerner, Conversation with Boxing Gloves, 2009, color video in HD, 4 minutes. Production still. Right: Anton Giulio Bragaglia, Thaïs, 1917, still from a black-and-white film.

“ONE MUST FREE THE CINEMA as an expressive medium in order to make it the ideal instrument of a new art,” wrote F. T. Marinetti in 1916. “We are convinced that only in this way can one reach that polyexpressiveness toward which all the most modern artistic researches are moving. . . . Today the Futurist cinema creates precisely the polyexpressive symphony.”

Thus Marinetti—accompanied by his ever-present cohort of innovators and incendiaries—launched the Futurist incursion into yet another medium. Seeking to liberate film from those narrative set pieces still beholden to the theater, the Futurists clamored for a cinema indebted solely to its own visual and aesthetic qualities. Those qualities—violent jumps of time and space, flux and dynamic mobility, conflations of different senses in one aesthetic idiom—already reflected, even epitomized, profoundly Futurist imperatives. In theory, film constituted the “ideal” art with which the Futurists would slay the musty conventions of “passéiste” culture.

In practice, however, production failed to match prediction. For all the Futurists’ enthusiasm, very few actual films were realized. Even fewer remain extant. On the occasion of Performa’s 2009 biennial, which takes Futurism’s centenary as its basis, the Anthology Film Archive gathers those singular films that issued from, or were informed by, Futurist activity. Comprising six separate programs, “The Polyexpressive Symphony,” curated by Performa’s Lana Wilson, kicks off with a sequence of rare prints, including excerpts from Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917), the only known surviving feature-length Futurist film, as well as the important short Velocità (Speed, 1930). Other Italian, French, and German films that share common ground with Futurist experiments (either thematically or aesthetically) round out the different evenings’ offerings. Each program centers on a specific motif (performance, trains, mechanization, etc.) and stretches from before World War I through the late twentieth century.

“The Polyexpressive Symphony” culminates in the premiere of Futurist Life Redux—a series of short digital videos (and, in two instances, films) brought together by Wilson and curator Andrew Lampert and specially commissioned for Performa 09. These shorts venture contemporary versions of the eleven sequences that made up the lost Vita Futurista (Futurist Life), filmed in 1916 and first screened at Florence’s Teatro Niccolini. Using experimental techniques (like dual-screen imagery and double exposures), Vita Futurista contrasted “antiquated” forms of living with the exploits of “dynamic” Futurists. Existing only in a few remaining still images (bearing titles like The Dance of Geometric Splendor and Introspective Research into States of Mind), as well as a written account by Bruno Corra, Vita Futurista has provided the chosen artists with some elusive points of aesthetic departure. Of course, departing from past examples—rather than copying or honoring them—was a key Futurist credo, one these individuals have taken seriously, even as they honor the original film’s quirky sense of humor. IO NON SONO MARINETTI (I am not Marinetti) read the T-shirts worn by the protagonists of one sequence—Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Customized Marinetti—as they jog in place against the backdrop of an apocalyptic cityscape of video-game car chases marked by a sound track featuring a woman’s orgasmic moans.

Many of the works do not simply rehearse Futurist predilections, themes, or imagery but also critique them by pressing the movement’s own terms. Perhaps the most striking in this vein is a video by the duo chameckilerner, whose take on a scene of Futurist fisticuffs replaces the scripted male characters (Marinetti and Ungari) with two women superimposed on a spare black backdrop. The conflation of the two boxing matches revivifies a Futurist delight in “simultaneity,” as well as pure visual form. But as the aggressiveness of their fight evolves into a kind of Dionysian dance, the video undermines the brash virility of the original scene (and, subtly, that of Futurism more broadly). In keeping with the Futurist insistence on synthesis, Futurist Life Redux totals a pithy forty-five minutes, ending this well-curated program with a proverbial punch.

“The Polyexpressive Symphony: Futurism on Film,” runs November 3–12 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Futurist Life Redux screens at Anthology Film Archives on November 16.