After reading Stein’s “Portraits and Repetitions” from Lectures in America, I found myself again thinking of the 1924 film Ballet Mécanique. (I am also reminded of Emily Lutenski’s assertion that, as scholars, we often find what we are looking for. It seems that all things have a way of drawing me back to early film…) For me, putting these two works in conversation helps to formulate a way of thinking about Stein that lets Stein remain Stein and still be pleasurable. Because, see, despite the maddening quality of Stein’s work, I actually do find her writing lovely and, well, maybe not fun per se, but definitely a kind of enjoyable.
Ballet Mécanique is French film by the Dadaist painter Fernand Léger and Futurist composer George Antheil. In true avant-garde fashion, the original score calls for such strange things as over a dozen pianos, several machines, and a pair of airplane propellers. In the film, various disparate images—including female body parts, mannequin hands, hardware, machines and hats—are cut together in montage style without verbal commentary; in its titles, this short film haughtily purports to be “le premier film sans scenario”, or the first film without a script. Like Stein’s work, this is a new form of portraiture, one that fuses the machine and object with the human. Although the filmmaker is a Dadaist—and I agree with recent scholarship that Stein shares little in common with the avant-garde poets—this is a remarkably tight and well-crafted film that echoes Stein’s controlled lack of control. Images recur but never are they viewed the same. The viewer makes her own connections, perhaps, but what is more important is the immediacy of the viewing experience. I’m tempted to call this an amnesiac way of seeing. Stein’s works—I keep thinking of Tender Buttons in particular—and Ballet Mécanique both insist on being accepted on their own terms. Both function as critical statements as well, insofar as they require, and describe in their form, a new way of viewing/reading.
All of this dovetails nicely with Bill Brown’s assertion that the thing in the object becomes visible when its functionality is removed. In many ways, Stein’s language works like this. Removed from its obvious function—narrative—we become hyper aware of the word as word. Likewise, the objects in Ballet Mécanique are divorced from their function as machines, as are the images divorced from any script. And if we are bonkers enough to give in to this madness, I’d argue that each tiny moment becomes its own unique pleasure.