Sunday, 7 November 2010

Film's first postmodern film - 1910 - Les Débuts de Max au Cinématographe - Max Linder's Debut As a Cinematograph Artist - Max Linder & Louis J. Gasnier

Much has been made of the recent ‘discovery’ of a supposed time-traveller in the footage of the premiere of Chaplin's 1928 film the Circus. While the theory was swiftly debunked, it was undeniably exciting to see the internet abuzz with discussion about a silent film.

  It is a great shame that this temporary mainstream interest in the silent era will not extend itself for a longer period, because the silent era achieved some remarkable time-bending feats. For example, Max Linder’s Les Débuts de Max au Cinématographe can stake a claim to be the first postmodern film. Now although postmodernism is one of those slippery terms which Harold Bloom would describe as over-determined in figuration and under-determined in meaning, my understanding of postmodernism in this context is the following:


 Postmodernism is characterised by irony, appropriation and self-reference. In particular, the movement has uncovered the presence of source ideas, information and influences. It has therefore challenged the idea of ‘originality’. It has also made artworks resistant to straightforward assumptions about the place of the author and the interpreter.


Les Débuts de Max au Cinématographe is a film about the process of film-making. The film opens with a scene we might expect to see in Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation or even the television show Entourage, with Linder’s character visiting Charles Pathé.

 Charles Pathé was one of the most powerful film moguls of the early silent era, and there is little doubt that any aspiring film maker in 1910 would have had to undertake a similar approach to getting his/her film made. The acute self-referential nature of this scene bears the hallmarks of a seminal postmodern work, yet it pre-dates this school of thought by around half a century! Examples of artists pre-empting major critical movements in such a manner deserve as much attention as mistaken time-travellers.

After Linder’s character has given the incredibly busy Pathé his recommendation letter and meets a few other industry men, he begins rehearsing a scene with another actor/director. It is only later on that we learn that Linder and his friend are rehearsing a scene that will be used in Linder’s film within a film towards the end of the movie. However, Linder’s desire to constantly remind the audience that they are watching a film that is about the process of making a film ‘breaks’ the fourth wall, which is another characteristic of a typical postmodern work:


The acceptance of the transparency of the fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events. Although the critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible screen that forever separates the audience from the stage," postmodern art forms frequently either do away with it entirely, or make use of various framing devices to manipulate it in order to emphasize or de-emphasize certain aspects of the production, according to the artistic desires of the work's creator.


This self-awareness of form and subject matter is highlighted again before the ‘scene’ in the studio begins; Linder and the two female characters have a brief conversation where they appear amiable towards one another, before Linder’s character walks away from the camera and then returns ‘in character’. Linder’s constant inventiveness and playfulness illuminates this magnificent film and allows it to be both intellectually stimulating and extremely funny.

The latter point is crucial to emphasise as the film is perhaps the funniest Linder film the Film: Ab Initio list has observed to date. It manages to incorporate Linder’s earlier slapstick humour with an intellectual curiosity that deepens the humour of certain scenes. For example, when Linder is slapped by one of the female characters in the studio scene, the humour is amplified by the audience’s remembrance of Linder practising this slap with a male actor/director in an earlier scene.

The sophistication and dexterity of humour that Linder offers us in this film is worthy of any of the great comics of any era and fuels my belief  Linder’s marginal reputation is unworthy of his considerable talents.

The final irony of the film’s postmodern nature is the fact that Les Débuts de Max au Cinématographe is the first Max Linder film on the Film: Ab Initio list where he is given a direction credit...



blog comments powered by Disqus