The Cinematic Paradox of Futurism: Why Did the Movement Leave Behind Movies?

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Futurism and Cinema: An Unexpected Disconnection.

In the context of 20th-century art movements, Futurism is notable for its emphasis on modernity and technological advancement. Born in Italy during the early 1900s under the guidance of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurism glorified modernity, advocating for a break from tradition and an embrace of technology, speed, and dynamism. Oddly enough, for a movement so tied to the idea of progress and the future, the world of film – one of the most groundbreaking innovations of the era – remained largely untouched by the futurists.

Related articles: The Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, A Meal that Prevented a Suicide

The Birth of Futurism

Futurism’s inception can be traced back to Marinetti‘s 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism”, which was published in the Italian daily newspaper, Le Figaro. In it, Marinetti outlined the movement’s principles: a desire to break away from the past, a celebration of industrialization, and an embrace of conflict and elemental forces. The manifesto made no specific mention of film but extolled other aspects of modern life, such as automobiles and the beauty of speed.

Artistic Focus

While Futurism expanded into various artistic disciplines – painting, sculpture, literature, and even theater – cinema remained conspicuously absent from the movement’s main focus. One of the primary reasons for this could be the futurists’ preference for mediums where they could disrupt established norms. Painting, for example, had a long-standing tradition which they could challenge with their unique style, characterized by depictions of movement and dynamism.

In contrast, cinema was still in its infancy, a nascent art form without entrenched conventions to rebel against. Film, being a novel medium, did not offer the same canvas of historical context against which the futurists could contrast their revolutionary ideas.

Thais 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia
Thais 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia

In 1916, the Manifesto of Futuristic Cinematography was endorsed by figures like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Giacomo Balla, Bruno Corra, Armando Ginna, and several others. They saw cinema as a perfect embodiment of art, given its novelty and flexibility for enhancement through speed, effects, and editing. Recognizing the potential of film techniques, which had been largely explored over the past ten years, the Futurists believed these weren’t just gimmicks. Instead, they saw them as tools for imaginative, symbolic, and artistic expression. For instance, the technique of superimposition wasn’t just for creating imagery like a giant next to a dwarf, but it was seen as an instrument for innovative and disruptive artistic communication. Montage techniques let artists deconstruct reality, crafting unprecedented visions. In this context, cinema also served as a conduit for exploration and imagination.

Futurism recognized cinema both as an independent language and a “language of movement”. Pioneers in experimental film were the Corradini brothers, known as Ginna and Corra. In 1911, they produced four hand-colored motion pictures (termed cinepitture), characterized by haphazard, vibrant patches of color; these works have since vanished. These ventures would later influence the “aeropittura” or second futurism wave in 1929 and resurface in the abstract German cinema through artists like Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter. The Futurists held a particular fondness for comedic films, where pure motion (like races and falls) took center stage, further intensified by editing techniques. Marinetti even penned a carnival-themed opera named Re Baldoria.

Thais 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia

While a significant portion of futurist films from that era are no longer extant, critics often laud Thaïs (1917) by Anton Giulio Bragaglia for its profound impact, inspiring German Expressionist cinema in the subsequent years.

Thaïs is the only Italian Futurist film that remains is currently housed in the Cinémathèque Française. The narrative revolves around the captivating Slavic countess Vera Preobrajenska, portrayed by Thaïs Galitzy. Known for ensnaring married men and pushing them to their limits, Vera targets Count San Remo, her best friend Countess Bianca Stagno-Bellincioni’s lover. However, after Bianca, played by Ileana Leonidoff, tragically dies from a horse-riding accident, a remorseful Vera ends her own life. The film’s sets, crafted by Enrico Prampolini, epitomize the Futurist ethos with their stark black-and-white geometric designs and symbolic imagery. As the film unfolds, its reality blurs, mirroring Vera’s growing internal turmoil. This intense, surrealistic style foreshadows the German expressionist cinema, influenced notably by Prampolini’s aesthetics.

Thais 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia
Thais 1917 by Anton Giulio Bragaglia

Technical and Financial Limitations

Making a film during the early 20th century required significant technical expertise and financial resources. The process was cumbersome, involving not just shooting, but also developing and then projecting the film. For artists primarily trained in traditional mediums, the technical intricacies of film production could be daunting.

Moreover, while a painter could produce a work with relatively modest means, filmmaking required equipment, actors, locations, and often a substantial financial outlay. These barriers could have deterred futurists from diving deeply into cinema.

The ephemeral nature of cinema

While a futurist sculpture or painting could be displayed in a gallery for years or even decades, a film from that era had a much shorter lifespan and could degrade or be easily lost (as happened to many films of the time, for example Vita Futurista, 1916 by Arnaldo Ginna). Bragaglia produced several pieces, including “Il mio cadavere” (1917), “Perfido incanto” (1918), and the short film “Dramma nell’Olimpo” (1917). Unfortunately, these works have not been preserved. Similarly, the film “Il re, le torri, gli alfieri” directed by Ivo Illuminati has also been lost. In this film, characters donned attire resembling chess pieces and moved across a checkerboard floor. This might have discouraged some futurists from exploring the medium.

Dance of Geometric Splendor, one of the surviving frames
Dance of Geometric Splendor, one of the surviving frames, source

“This is the first expressly futurist film, shot as futurists including Marinetti, Corra, Settimelli, Ginna, Balla, and Chiti were signing the Futurist Cinema Manifesto on September 11, 1916, anticipating future avant-garde cinematic works. The film was designed with a groundbreaking and irreverent approach, where a group of futurists disrupted public peace by bothering patrons in Florentine bourgeois cafes.

Preview of the film 'Vita Futurista' featured in 'L'Italia Futurista' dated October 1, 1916
Preview of the film ‘Vita Futurista’ featured in ‘L’Italia Futurista’ dated October 1, 1916, source

A description of the film is found in ‘L’Italia futurista’ from October 15, 1916, indicating that it was divided into episodes including: How a Futurist Sleeps, Morning Exercise, Futurist Breakfast, Searches for Inspiration, Futurist Declamation, Discussion Among a Foot, a Hammer, and an Umbrella, Futurist Walk, Futurist Work, and Deformed Paintings Both Ideally and Externally. Only a few frames of the film remain, including scenes of a Futurist Breakfast at La Loggia restaurant in Piazzale Michelangelo, the Dance of Geometric Splendor using superimposition, and a Futurist Scuffle in the Cascine park where Marinetti himself appears.

A New Medium in a Changing Landscape

The rapid evolution of cinema may have also contributed to the movement’s hesitancy. While the futurists were defining their principles, the world of film was transitioning from silent shorts to more complex narratives and the introduction of sound. The medium was in a state of flux, perhaps making it difficult for futurists to define their unique space within it.

Sources: Wikipedia

Topics: History of Futurist cinema, Marinetti’s contributions to film, scenes from the first Futurist film, influence of the Futurist movement on early cinema, how Futurists portrayed public peace disruptions in film

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