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Avant-Garde to MTV: Appropriating Pure Cinema

The influence of the 1920s French Avant-garde film movement is clearly evident in the techniques used in the production of modern day music videos. These techniques birthed by post war French cubist, surrealist, Dadaist, and futurist artists, who according to Cook, “had [become] intensely interested in the possibilities of film to embody dream states and to express modernist conceptions of time and space,” (Cook, 2004, p. 303) had crafted a style of film making that heavily relied on a visual rhythm. The rhythmic ballet produced through the repetition of shapes and images as seen in Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) and the incoherent, dream like brutal and erotic images of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) were key influences in the development of the aesthetics of MTV style editing. However, despite sharing similar visual styles and themes, they part ways in vision, as the French Avant-garde’s purpose was to achieve a pure cinema, an art form that was strictly filmic and void of influences from other media, whereas MTV’s appropriation of the 1920s art was clearly used for commercial purposes such as the sale of musical recordings and lifestyles.

To better understand the principals of pure cinema we must clearly define that the French Avant-garde movement represented a pushing of mainstream boundaries, which were considered the norm or status quo of the time. And just as they did in their paintings, Dadaists and surrealists wished to use film in creating a pure art form of visual sensation which was completely devoid of a conventional narrative ultimately creating films with no subject. (Cook, p. 309) These films without story became proto-music videos as they were created using a montage of close ups often edited in a violent contrast of repeated human and mechanical imagery. An example of this is Léger’s Ballet Mécanique, which he described as a film, “divided into seven vertical parts. (Closeup, without depth, active surfaces) which go from slow motion to extreme speed.” (Lawder, 1975, p. 131) The film which is a visual cacophony of shots of a woman’s smile, mechanical movements of industrial machinery, and a kaleidoscopic visualization of geometric shapes has absolutely no narrative and is art made solely for visual pleasure. The precise rhythmic quality of Ballet Mécanique can be attributed to the arithmetical law of number of images, speed, and time used in the editing of the film. Léger’s visual patterns made in his film editing process resembled the mathematical structure of a song as he explained, “[a]n object [in Ballet Mécanique] is projected at the rhythm of: 6 images a second for 30 seconds, 3 images a second for 20 seconds, and 10 images a second for 15 seconds.” (Lawder, 1975, p. 131) The quick repetition of images in sequential order incidentally follows the structure of a typical song of verse, chorus, and verse as well as maintains a fast rhythmic pace for a short length film providing enough visual stimulation to keep an audience entertained despite its lack of narrative. Thus, creating an appropriate film piece for music directors to draw inspiration upon.

A modern example of the influence of Léger’s Ballet Mécanique use of geometric shapes and repetition of close ups of human activities in a music video would be that of Radiohead’s Idioteque (Pavlushin, 2000). The video is comprised of two rectangular shapes similar to the ones used in Ballet Mécanique, despite the slight use of colour, and interspersed with repetitive footage of close ups of a woman’s eye, a man’s face, and hands. Similar to Ballet Mécanique, the Radiohead music video also lacks any sort of narrative and is solely made for the purpose of visual stimulus to go along with the music. The lack of narrative in visuals works well with music as most popular songs lack any specific narrative and are meant to convey a dream like state or emotion. Furthermore, according to Doughty, “[t]he modern ‘MTV’ style of rapid editing has its origins in the work of experimental and avant-garde artists.” (Doughty, 2008, p. 213) However, despite sharing a similar aesthetical form, the Radiohead music video is still promoting the sale of the recording artists’ music and cannot be considered a pure form of filmic art seen as the vision of the French avant-garde artists of the 1920s.

Another short film from the French avant-garde era that can be heavily attributed to the creation of the non-narrative MTV style of editing is Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic Un Chien Andalou. The film that was co-created with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí is a series of seemingly incoherent images of brutality, erotica, and religious iconography. The film is presented in a stream of conscious type of sequence, which gives a dream like atmosphere. During the course of the film, we are subjected to a harsh close-up of a woman’s eyeball being slashed in two by a straight razor, a man with a stigmata that has ants crawling from it, rotting donkey carcasses draped onto two grand pianos with holy men attached to them, severed limbs, and symbolic sexual transformations. (Cook, p. 310) According to Cook these images were, “[d]esigned to create a series of violent antagonisms within the viewer through shock, titillation, and repulsion…” which quite similarly resembles the 1980s and 1990s heavy metal and industrial rock music videos.

The images that Buñuel chaotically stringed together in Un Chien Andalou are stated to be one of the direct inspirations for the recently made music video for Marylin Manson’s Born Villain. As MTV video director, Shia LaBeouf explains, “The song has all these references to ‘Macbeth’ and all this Shakespeare and heavy theology, so we tried to make Manson’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ macabre ‘Macbeth’” (Warner, Horowitz, 2011) Similar to Un Chien Andalou, the music video is a sequence of violent and sexually non sequitur shots consisting of close-ups of a ritualistic hair removal of two nude women, a woman shooting a man in the eye, a man with no legs groping an overweight stripper, a man being lit on fire, an eye ball being surgically inserted into a woman’s vagina, and bodies being suspended by meat hooks. The film contains quick flashes of the crucifix and Marylin Manson, similar to Dalí and Buñuel in Un Chien Andalou, isdressed as a priest. The Manson video even contains a shot composed very similar to Un Chien Andalou’s eyeball slash scene, with Manson gouging a woman’s cheek with a metal rod that goes all the way through into her mouth. Despite being in colour, the overall aesthetic of the film is made to mimic old film stock with the use of digitally post-produced film grain and harsh contrast lighting. The shots are edited in pace with the music with close-ups of parts of the human body intercut with the movement of surgical machinery to the similar effect as the shot sequencing in Ballet Mécanique between the smiling mouth and the industrial machine’s moving.

Reflecting a decade back from Manson’s Born Villain video, we can see Buñuel’s influence in early 1990s Nine Inch Nails videos that were often played on MTV’s alternative music show, which was a programming block of subversive music videos, called 120 Minutes. One example of a Nine Inch Nails video that shows clear influence of the surrealism found in Un Chien Andalou is the 1991 video for the song Help Me I’m in Hell. The video is shot in black and white, which is homage to the 1920s style and consists of a long shot of a man sitting at a table wearing a suit, intercut with close-ups of a mound of flies on a steak. We then see close-up shots of the man eating the steak, shots of his mouth and eyes with flies slowly emerging from them similar to the ants crawling out of the stigmata hole in the man’s hand in Un Chien Andalou. Other shots of the same actor in Help Me I’m in Hell are cut in, however, instead of the man wearing business attire he is in a sadomasochistic leather suit used in sexual bondage fetishes. The non-narrative sequence of unnerving horror and sexuality is quite similar to the 1920s avant-garde as well as help supplement the abrasive nature of the music. The influence of Buñuel’s surrealist masterpiece upon MTV was solidified as an edited and colourized version by G. Brotmeyer of Un Chien Andalou aired during 120 Minutes in 1988. Unfortunately, it was a sanitized version, as it did not include the infamous eyeball slice due to the TV censors of the time but did introduce to the new generation a glimpse of where their favourite alternative music videos got their key influences.

Despite the similarities in aesthetics and even subject matter between the 1920 French avant-garde films and MTV style editing found in music videos of the late 1980s and beyond, the MTV music videos were not striving to achieve a pure visual art form rather than becoming a promotional tool to sell music recordings. In contrast, the French avant-garde film makers were creating a new type of art, which according to Porte was, “a genre in which the cinema, once it was uniquely and completely itself, would evoke in us the same transcendent feelings which poetry or music evokes, but through the harmonic and melodic play of that plastic movement of which it alone is master.” (Porte, 1926, p. 12-13) When MTV was launched in 1981 as a medium for record companies and recording artists to sell music, clothes, movies and more, they did not have the intention to create pure art but to gain profit from the appropriation of various art forms. As Kaplan states, “rock videos incorporate, rather than quote, other texts, to the point where the link between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw. MTV refuses any clear recognition of previously sacred aesthetic boundaries: images from German Expressionism, French Surrealism, and Dadism are mixed together [and] pillaged.” (Kaplan, 1987, p. 46) This pillage of a pure art form is the reason why MTV is successful in creating popular culture to sell product however, clearly defeats the point of avant-garde film as MTV is doing the opposite. According to O’Pray the avant-garde films, “tend to be made by individuals or very small groups of collaborators, financed either by the film-makers alone or in combination with private patronage and grants from arts institutions.” (O’Pray, 2003, 2) The avant-garde films were free from the bondage of business models and were not attempting to sell the viewer anything as they were created by experimental artists who used to be painters opposed to the people working for MTV, who according to Slager were, “not overly involved in visual art but rather devoted to publicity and advertising.” (Slager, 2001, p. 33)

The impact of the 1920s French avant-garde cinema upon MTV however only in aesthetics can be clearly seen in the stylization of music videos as noted by directors and reinforced by MTV’s 1981 airing of the colourized and editied version of Un Chien Andalou. Just as commercials have bred important directors such as Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, many MTV music video directors, such as David Lynch and Spike Jonze, have made the jump to the motion picture industry and implement the French avant-garde influenced MTV editing style we see in movies today. (Hanson, 2002, 21) Furthermore, we can only see the French avant-garde’s style in these pop culture appropriations and not its true intentions of creating pure art. As adequately summarized by Cassou, “[t]he cinematic avant-garde [of the 1920s] was not only defined by an intellectual attitude, the expression of our desire for singularity and artistic purity; it also represented a refusal to accept the financial schemes, sharp practices, and corruption of a mechanism which seemed about to self-destruct, as if it were rudely going to demonstrate the soundness of all those theses about the human spirit being controlled by the economy.” (Cassou, 1936, p. 1-2) MTV chose to do the exact opposite.

 Works Cited

Cook, D. A. (2004). A history of film (4th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Léger, F. (1924). Ballet mécanique [Motion picture]. France: Kielser Version.

Buñuel, L. (1929). Un chien andalou [Motion picture]. France: Buñuel.

Lawder, S. D. (1975). The cubist cinema. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Pavlushin, I. (Director). (2007) Radiohead- Idioteque [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Doughty, R. (2008). Film: The essential study guide. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, US.

LaBeouf, S. (Director). (2011) Marylin Manson – Born Villian [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Warner, K. & Horowitz, J. (2011, August 31). Shia LaBeouf calls Marilyn Manson video a cool diversion. MTV News. Retrieved from:

Goode, E. & Becker, S. (Director). (1992) Nine Inch Nails – Help Me I Am In Hell [Video file].

Retrieved from:

Buñuel, L. (Director). Brotmeyer, G. (Editor). (1988) Un chien andalou [Motion picture].

USA: MTV. Retrieved from:

Porte, P. (1926). Le cinéma pur. Cinéa-Ciné-pour-tous, 52, 12-13.

Kaplan, E. A. (1987). Rocking around the clock. New York, NY: Methuen.

O’Pray, M. (2003). Avant-garde film: Forms, themes and passions. London: Wallflower.

Slager, H. (2001). Exploding aesthetics. New York, NY: Rodopi.

Hanson, P. (2002). The cinema of generation X: A critical study of films and directors.

Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Cassou, J. (1936). De l’avant-garde à l’art populaire. Ciné-Liberté, 5, 1-2.

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