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Modernist Screenwriting and the Crisis of Reason

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The Modernist Screenplay

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Screenwriting ((PSIS))

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This chapter considers how silent screenwriting responded to the modernist crisis of reason. It examines screenplays by authors such as Philippe Soupault and Pierre Albert-Birot, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Benjamin Péret, and Bertolt Brecht. Their screenplays take a stand against a purely rational understanding of the everyday, language, the body, and human relations, aiming to re-enchant the overly technical and rationalised world. To this end, the screenplays draw inspiration and borrow techniques from contemporaneous literature—from a first-person narrator to free indirect discourse. Employing unusual writing techniques, these modernist screenplays undermine the rational practices of mainstream film production and rediscover the mystery at the heart of the everyday.

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  1. 1.

    The other five Cinematographic Poems were not published until 1925, in the special number of Les Cahiers du Mois dedicated to cinema. However, according to the conclusion of Virmaux and Virmaux, the poems were composed in early 1918, soon after Indifference (see Soupault 1979, 28).

  2. 2.

    In particular, Kyrou claims that one poem was shot; in an interview in 1965, Soupault talked of two poems realised by Ruttmann; asked again by Virmaux and Virmaux in 1979, Soupault could remember two or three films made from the Cinematographic Poems (1979, 28–29). Today, the existence of these films seems impossible to (dis)prove, since not a single one of them was ever screened in France, and they were all presumably lost during the bombings of Berlin in World War II.

  3. 3.

    Many of these special effects suggested in the Cinematographic Poems reappear an entire decade later, in Soupault’s 1934 script written for Jean Vigo, The Stolen Heart (Le cœur volé).

  4. 4.

    The manifesto of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and other Italian futurists ([1916] 2014, 18) entitled “The Futurist Cinema” (“Il manifesto della cinematografia futurista”) lists fourteen descriptions of possible futurist films, and the seventh among them indeed describes rather precisely some of Albert-Birot’s Poems in Space: “7. Filmed dramas of objects. (Objects animated, humanized, baffled, dressed up, impassioned, civilized, dancing—objects removed from their normal surroundings and put into an abnormal state that, by contrast, throws into relief their amazing construction and nonhuman life).”

  5. 5.

    Mayakovsky’s biographer Bengt Jangfeldt (2014, 373–76) also points out several details in How Are You? that are reminiscent of Mayakovsky’s lyric poems “Man” (“Chelovek,” 1917) and “About This” (“Pro eto,” 1923).

  6. 6.

    The worlds of other scripts by Mayakovsky are also filled with elements of fantasy and grotesque that amplify the inconspicuous, reveal the invisible, distort the habitual, and expose truths about these worlds that are not perceptible to the rational gaze. This is why most Mayakovsky’s surviving film projects from the years 1926–1927 are satirical comedies: They all implement the strategy of exposing and ridiculing the new Soviet realities by letting fantasy intrude into the everyday.

  7. 7.

    My translation of this and further passages from How Are You? rely on the English translations by Henderson (see Mayakovsky 1971).

  8. 8.

    Duhamel’s story (1972, 278–82) goes as follows: After co-producing the film Memories of Paris (Souvenirs de Paris, a.k.a. Paris-Express), which allows dating the events to 1928, Duhamel decided to found a screenplay agency, together with his friends Max Morise, Jacques Prévert, Raymond Queneau, Robert Desnos, and Benjamin Péret. Having heard about “the lack of brains in this particular domain in Germany” (278), Duhamel took off to Berlin and submitted nine film scripts to a producer from the UFA Tempelhof Studios. From the screenplays, the producer must have chosen two—one by Prévert and one by Péret. Yet he could not agree with Duhamel on the conditions of the deal, and so the scripts remained unsold.

  9. 9.

    In this context, it is interesting that the title Allons déjeuner sur l’herbe! can be seen as an allusion to the famous painting of Édouard Manet The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862–1863), which originally produced a controversial reaction from the public precisely due to its provocative depiction of female bodies. Although the provocation Péret has in mind is undoubtedly of a different nature, the title of the script arguably situates it in the “tradition” of subverting bourgeois morality by virtue of blasphemous bodily depictions.

  10. 10.

    We do not know the headings of the fourth act, since they must have been on a page of the manuscript that has been lost.

  11. 11.

    The idea of multiple ironic titles is, incidentally, also borrowed from Drums in the Night, as Brecht specialist John Willett (1998, 125) accurately notes. In the finale of Drums in the Night, its protagonist Kragler recites possible titles for the play he is performing and that is about to be finished, some of which are strongly reminiscent of the act headings of Three in the Tower: “[The Half-Dead Suitor] or The Power of Love; Bloodbath round the Newspaper Offices, or [A Man Works His Passage; The Thorn in the Flesh or A Tiger at Dawn]” (Brecht 1985, 114).

  12. 12.

    A very similar technique is suggested in Alfred Döblin’s screenplay The Consecrated Daughters (Die Geweihten Töchter; see Chapter 6).


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Ksenofontova, A. (2020). Modernist Screenwriting and the Crisis of Reason. In: The Modernist Screenplay. Palgrave Studies in Screenwriting. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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