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"Delight in Dislocation": The Cinematic Modernism of Stein, Chaplin, and Man Ray

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2001
pp. 429-452 | 10.1353/mod.2001.0070

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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 429-452

[Figures]

By 1934 Gertrude Stein retrospectively claimed that her writing had been "doing what the cinema was doing," and she acknowledged film as key to her historical moment:

I cannot repeat this too often any one is of one's period and this our period was undoubtedly the period of the cinema and series production. And each of us in our own way are bound to express what the world in which we are living is doing.

Kenneth Macpherson, editor of the premiere film journal Close Up (1927-33), recognized the cinematic quality of Stein's writing and widely recruited "anything [she] might send," stressing that "the kind of thing [she] write[s] is so exactly the kind of thing that could be translated to the screen." Stein appeared in three issues of the journal, and in 1927, published her portrait, "Mrs. Emerson," which was placed next to a piece by Man Ray about his first full-length experimental film, Emak Bakia. That these texts appear side by side is no accident.

While the importance of modern painting to the development of Stein's art has been amply demonstrated, her specific connections to film have been, for the most part, unexplored. I contend that avant-garde cinema newly illuminates her strategies of representation and embodiment; the adjacency of Man Ray's article to "Mrs. Emerson" foregrounds the complicity of the apparently distinct aesthetic discourses of modern poetry and cinema. Film embodies Stein's notion of "a groping for a continuous present" and "an inevitable beginning of beginning again and again and again," what she earlier designates as "all living as repeating." Maya Deren refers to this kind of film measure as a "telescoping of time," "a continuous act of recognition," that becomes "like a strip of memory unrolling beneath the images of the film itself, to form the invisible underlayer of an implicit double exposure." With the relentlessly mechanical moving picture, memory becomes a form of erasure, and Stein, obsessed by the processes of forgetting, compared her written portraits to the cinema in which "one second was never the same as the second before or after" ("PR," 195). Stein praised the cinema's ability to render the temporal displacement of "existing" in which "the emphasis is different [with each repeated moment] just as the cinema has each time a slightly different thing to make it all be moving. And each one of us has to do that, otherwise there is no existing" ("PR," 179). With its elements of succession and variation, amnesia and movement, film seemed to solve the apparent conflict between inanimate mechanical reproduction and "existing," and formed Stein's prototypic medium for embodying the vital flux and crisis of a "continuous present."

The modernist crisis of representation became, for many artists, a crisis of embodiment; and experimental film made visible a body never visible before -- one at once whole and in pieces. Like other modernists, Stein had to negotiate the literal, posttraumatic, bodily disfigurements caused by World War I. Further, although prevailing modernist paradigms sequestered the mind from the body, the corporeal became metonymic with film's materiality and haunted the literary works of this period. Stein's confessed attraction to film, however, contrasted with the more dismissive stance taken by other "high" modernists (among them T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens) who associated film with the reviled, ephemeral body. Stein, by contrast, rejected the resources of the past, simultaneously insisting upon a willed forgetfulness -- as if the shock of the present obliterates the capacity or desire to remember -- and an expansion of bodily, sensory pleasures which Peter Nicholls has called the "bodily allure" of her words. Yet Stein's recuperations of viscerality did not assert bodily wholeness; rather, Stein's alternate modernism depended upon the incarnated, "existing," and, dismembered body materialized by avant-garde film.

Here I explore specifically how the fragmented, repetitive bodies and techniques of modernist experimental film (represented largely by Man Ray's Emak Bakia) impact upon the decentered plots and bodily disjunction of Stein's poems, and particularly of "Mrs. Emerson." Stein's cinematic modernism relies upon the mechanical, circumambulatory bodily depictions of both...



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