- "The World's Heavy Gaze":Cin-aereality in the Postwar Avant-Gardes
The cinema and aviation go arm in arm through life. They were born on the same day.—Fernand Léger, "Speaking of Cinema"1
Fernand Léger's curious throw-away line linking cinema and aviation appears in an essay he wrote in 1931 titled "Speaking of Cinema" ("A Propos du cinéma"), one of only a few short pieces that the artist, arguably the modernist painter most obsessed with the cinema, devoted entirely to film.2 It would, therefore, seem to indicate that for Léger the key to unlocking cinema's unique aesthetic potential lay in its mutually informing relationship with the origins and early evolution of aviation. At its broadest, this article asks: What can we learn from Léger's coupling of cinema and aviation that adds to our understanding of the most fraught mode of modern perception—aerial vision—both at the point of its historical emergence and its controversial regeneration a century later? In order to answer this question, I historicize and theorize the forgotten conditions of possibility for Léger's seemingly incongruous alliance of what most would today consider a mode of communication (cinema) and a mode of transportation (aviation). Beginning with an overview of the broad technological and cultural correspondences between cinema and aviation in the nineteenth century, I then move to analyzing their military convergence and divergence in the First World War, before exploring the aesthetic and conceptual impact of their affinities across a range of avant-garde writings and films from the period [End Page 207] before 1931. Of crucial importance here will be situating Léger's comment within the context of the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars's account of the painter's experience of trench warfare as a vertically mediated encounter with "the world's heavy gaze."3
At their broadest, Léger's words suggest a path for thinking about cinema and aviation as non-identical twins of modern technological progress. As such, the primary goal of this article is to uncover how the motion picture camera and the plane coevolved, albeit in imperfect alignment, as two exemplary movement, vision, and dream machines of early twentieth-century modernity. This article thus offers an intervention in how we frame the purview of film history, arguing for an expansion of the intermedial scope of cinema's impact, highlighting connections between fields usually deemed separate, such as transport and communication (thus also bringing film studies into the orbit of critical war studies, media theory and media archaeology, as well as art history). Certainly, this turn to the affinities between cinema and aviation builds upon work in early cinema studies that is highly attentive to film's participation in and reflection of the technological transformations associated with modernity. For example, the cinema's perceptual and sensorial connection to the transportation monolith of the nineteenth century, the train, has previously offered scholars (such as Lynn Kirby) illuminating technological intertexts from which to investigate film's broader cultural continuum (which others have also explored within the domains of world expositions, wax displays, fairgrounds, and department stores, as well as the more focused screen of windows).4 Léger's comment reminds us that aviation deserves to be inserted into the modern cultural continuum from which cinema emerged. The aerodromes (sometimes referred to as air circuses, given the centrality of their aerobatic attractions) that were the site for aviation's major prewar manifestations offer a forgotten but significant supplement to the fairground and theme park as contexts that Tom Gunning has argued are crucial for situating early cinema in a broader culture of attractions underpinned by the embodied shocks and sensations of an exhibitionist, rather than voyeuristic, logic.5 In addition, a shift to the plane, rather than the train, within film history promises to reveal connections that speak to cinema's specific links to the modernity of the early twentieth century, understood here, once we consider aviation and cinema's transformation by the First World War, to be defined as much by mass annihilation as mass industrialization.6
From the perspective of modernist studies, Léger's...