Film as Multimedia and Performance: Analyzing Dada Film Music and Erik Satie’s Cinéma*

by: Samuel N. Dorf


  Dada was not an artistic movement in the accepted sense; it was a storm that broke over the world of art as [World War I] did over nations. It came without warning, out of a heavy, brooding sky, and left behind it a new day in which stored-up energies released by Dada were evidenced in new forms, new materials, new ideas, new directions, new people – and in which they addressed themselves to new people.
– Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1965)
  The life we led, our follies and our deeds of heroism, our provocations, however, “polemical” and aggressive they may have been, were all part of a tireless quest for an anti-art, a new way of thinking and knowing. New art in a new-found freedom!
– Hans Richter,
Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1965)

Dada artist and filmmaker, Hans Richter’s nostalgic musings on the Dada movement as he experienced it reveal simultaneously both the carefree frivolity of the movement as well as its serious underpinnings. At a time when Europe was recuperating after the First World War, the stage was set to attempt something new, and it was during this inter-war period in Europe that the first great achievements in avant-garde filmmaking occurred. Cinema was without doubt, the most important vehicle of expression for artists in the early twentieth century. As a virtually virgin art form, its possibilities seemed endless. Avant-garde artists like Richter transformed themselves into filmmakers, and began to experiment with the medium, creating a new art that adhered to new conventions and new codes. And, with these new art forms come new questions, new ways of looking, and new ways of listening. In the past, early avant-garde film has been the domain of film scholars and art historians. These scholars have long pored over these early art films; however, until very recently, the soundtracks of these films have been overlooked by music scholars and almost totally ignored by film scholars. The multimedia Dada works present a unique opportunity for us to interrogate the early genre of art film, the role music played, the role film played, and the role film and music played together in the larger context of the Dada event.

Defining Dada is always a problematic endeavor. The facts surrounding the invention of the name are distorted by the nonsense writings of the Dadaists themselves. All claiming different absurd events, Jean Arp, an early artist and poet, decided to set the record straight in 1921:

  I hereby declare that Tristan Tzara found the word Dada on February 8, 1916, at six o’clock in the afternoon; I was present with my twelve children when Tzara for the first time uttered this word which filled us with justified enthusiasm. This occurred at the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril.1

It is interesting to note that Arp did not have twelve children and most likely did not have a brioche in his left nostril. Statements such as this are paradigmatic examples of Dadaism as art without sense – art against sense. While Francis Picabia claimed that Dada embraced the joy of life, it still was a reactionary movement: a reaction to the formal, suffocating weight of academicism as well as a reaction to the horrors of WWI. Despite all of its contradictions, Dada was in essence a violent break from over five hundred years of artistic tradition. Sometimes combative, usually nihilistic, and almost always infused with a sense of humor, Dada was nonetheless a deadly serious effort to upset the status quo.

Thus, in true Dada fashion, I feel it is time to exhume the movement’s films, their soundtracks, and scores in order to examine their innards; by dissecting the Dada film music, I hope to uncover which functions the music served in terms of the imagetrack of these films. In this paper, I explore one of these films: Francis Picabia and René Clair’s Dada experiment, Entr’acte, with an original score by Erik Satie. I present this case study to illustrate the artists’ dynamic interaction between imagetrack and soundtrack, and to analyze the film and its music in terms of the composer and filmmaker’s application of Dadaist ideals in their use of audience provocation and the breaking of convention in a multimedia performance event.

Since cinema is part of an intertextual network of meaning where myriad and complex systems of mapping relationships exist it demands a similarly complex model of intertextual analysis. Theoretical frameworks for such an analysis are lacking; moreover, the existing models fail to account for each critical aspect of the multimedia work. In his Analysing Musical Multimedia, Nicholas Cook critically approaches some of these previous analytical theories in order to come up with his own ideas on the function of music within multimedia. In his critique of Sergei Eisenstein’s own analysis of the music in Alexander Nevsky (1938), Cook echoes other noted film music scholars Roy M. Prendergast and Royal S. Brown who all agree that Eisenstein’s inappropriate application of gestalt principles to link music and moving image do not work.2 While we can similarly apply gestalt principles to images and musics, the application of these principles to each respective media are quite different.3 Different they may be their usefulness seems to be ignored by many music scholars. Just because cognitive, psychological, and gestalt theories applied to the plastic and cinematic arts do not apply in the same way to music, that does not mean they should not be applied at all. Cook picks up on this idea and posits a better model for analyzing multimedia based on a principle of similarity rather than the principles of contrast between media espoused by Hanns Eisler and Theodor Adorno in their 1947 book on film music.4 He heralds work done by Sandra K. Marshall and Annabel J. Cohen on film music and uses their experiments to back up his theory of “The Metaphor Model” of analyzing multimedia.5 Music reacts with other media in this system to produce emergent properties within the context of the filmic experience that functions like a metaphor.

The metaphor model works due to what Cook calls an enabling similarity – the mechanism behind metaphors that award them meaning.6 Cook looks for this emergent property in musical multimedia between music and the other media in which it engages with. I am a little hesitant to accept this model exactly as presented by Cook. It is hard for me to grant music and film equal weight within the multimedia system, which film scholar Rick Altman calls the cinematic performance.7 When we go to the movies, very rarely do we go because we want to hear a film; we go to the movie theater to see a film. No matter how loud film music scholars whine about it, the vast majority of filmmakers and moviegoers will “view” music as an ancillary component to the cinematic experience. We must always remember this fact in our analytical endeavors, and understand that every single cinematic event is a multimedia event filled with a complex network of metaphors within the film, the event, and the culture.

Such models should not be dismissed due to their navigational difficulty, for as Nicholas Cook writes, “The point of theory isn’t to make analysis easier, more mechanical. It is to make analysis harder to force it to interrogate its assumptions.”8 I hope my analysis of René Clair’s Entr’acte (a silent Dada film with live Dada music that blatantly refers to other media, imbedded in a Dada ballet, premiered in a high brow performance venue for a mixture of societal and artistic elites) does just that by placing the cinematic event within a framework that allows us to compare it to other media and multimedia within other contexts.