Kristian Moen / Visual Culture

Fairylands of Modern Life

Taking his cue from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, Kristian Moen discusses how depictions of modern liveliness in 1920s cinema embedded a frenzied, unstable and complex experience of modernity.

Fairylands of Modern Life

Watching a car careen through a vibrant jazz age New York in the trailer for The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013), alongside a sequence of other extraordinary images of a glittering, frenetic and visually overwhelming world in motion, I am reminded of similar sights from films that were made in the 1920s.

Whether linked to more avant-garde tendencies, as with the funfair scenes of the French film Coeur fidèle (Epstein, 1923) or the German film Waxworks (Leni, 1924), or part of Hollywood’s aesthetic experimentation, as with similar images of the fair in It (Badger, 1927) or Sunrise (Murnau, 1927), scenes of modern sights offer some of the most striking images from cinema of the 1920s. In addition to images of the fair, places such as department stores and city streets were also shown through vibrant set design, rapid editing and dynamic camera movements. This lively perspective was even seen within films that were set in locales far from modernity; writing in the mid-1920s, for example, the poet and film theorist Vachel Lindsay described how Robin Hood (Dwan, 1922) – a film advertised prominently in a vibrant sign in The Great Gatsby’s cityscape – was itself a film on ‘the borders of department-store splendour’.[1] Within films that drew attention to the dynamism of modern life through both their subject matter and their aesthetic form, the images of modern liveliness are often used in multiple and overlapping ways. Thrilling, frightening, artificial, scenes of a frenzied modernity function as emblems of modernity’s complexity. They offer a crucial example of how cinema was, in Miriam Hansen’s words, ‘the single most inclusive cultural horizon in which the traumatic effects of modernity were reflected, rejected or disavowed, transmuted or negotiated.’[2]

In films such as Sunrise and It, the fun fair and the city are represented in similarly thrilling ways through shared aesthetic tropes; in more avant-garde treatments of similar subjects, such as Ballet mécanique (Léger and Murphy, 1924), various urban sites and even objects of everyday (modern) life are shown through a cohesive aesthetic of dynamism. Au bonheur des dames (Duvivier, 1930), adapted from Émile Zola’s novel of the same name, uses such an aesthetic to link images of the city with a department store, leisure activities and, ultimately, a character’s nervous breakdown. Not just depictions of the world, but rather invocations to see modernity as a set of interconnected sites and experiences, this aesthetics of dynamism creates new connections and new ways of perceiving. As Jacques Rancière writes, ‘by assembling words or forms, people define not only various forms of art, but certain configurations of what can be seen and what can be thought, certain forms of inhabiting the material world.’[3] Rather than isolated spectacles or thrilling detours from narrative, film’s visions of modernity enliven and guide our perceptions of modern life.

Drawing together places of urban life, leisure and consumerism by showing them in similar ways, some of the most visually enticing and aesthetically exciting images from cinema fashioned the modern world as a site of energy and play. In this respect, film helped shape the fantastic allures and dreamlike potentials that modern life might offer. In one of the trailers for the Great Gatsby, speaking over images that evoke a sense of the limitless fantasies of Gatsby and the limitless fantasies of American modernity, the narrator sets up the character of Gatsby: ‘No amount of fire could challenge the fairy tale he had stored up in his heart.’ Of course, such fairy tales are rarely shown to be easy and attainable, but perhaps by seeing them less in terms of individuals and more as part of a larger modern fairyland, we can better see the ways in which film embedded an experience of fantastic instability within its visions of the modern world. ■

Film and Fairy TalesKristian Moen is the author of Film and Fairy Tales: The Birth of Modern Fantasy, and is a Lecturer in Screen Studies in the Department of Drama: Theatre, Film, Television at the University of Bristol.

Top image shows the city in a trailer for The Great Gatsby.

[1] Vachel Lindsay, The Progress and Poetry of the Movies (1925), ed. Myron Lounsbury (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), 166.

[2] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/Modernity 6:2 (1999), 69.

[3] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009), 91.


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