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In 1930, Ralph Steiner made one of the best examples of pure cinema.


Mechanical Principles, a Short Film by Ralph Steiner

The films of Ralph Steiner can be categorized as pure or absolute cinema, a term coined by French director Henri Chomette. A brother of René Clair, Chomette defended cinema based on purely formal elements, such as rhythm, composition, and movement. Today films, entirely based on crystalline forms that appear, spin and disappear, would appear extravagant but, in essence, these first experiments were closer to the essence of cinema than the majority of films that flood our movie theaters these days.

Toward the end of the 1920s, after some time dedicated to commercial photography due to financial needs, Steiner met Paul Strand. Steiner was greatly impressed with Strand’s work and he freed himself from the constraints of commercial photography to dedicate himself fully to artistic production. Steiner’s ideas were to fall on fertile ground in a century flourishing with the artistic avant-garde, and the recently invented genre of cinema emerged as the ideal medium for his experiments.

In 1929 Steiner completed what would be considered one of the first art films of the US, H2O. In the film, Steiner not only created an inventory of the multiple manifestations of the liquid but rather made H2O a contemplative itinerary of the small miracles that water produces in its various sources: nervous in a river’s current, flowing through a pipe, reflecting elements foreign to its nature in its surface… an elegy to the essential liquid of life.

A year later, in 1930, and in a 180-degree shift regarding his previous work, Steiner made Mechanical Principles, a film based entirely on the movement of mechanical elements. With great delicacy, Steiner captured the sensual movement of hard and inert components built for productivity and lacking any esthetic features. Through his perspective, what appears indifferent to life becomes soft and organic, capable of imitating the voluptuous movements of animal intercourse. Cogs and pistons move with graceful fluidity, making their geometric forms become living and functioning organs. The hypnotic dance of the gears is masterfully captured by Steiner and effectively underscored by the music of Eric Beheim. Before our eyes, the camera performs the conjuring act of giving real life to artificially created movement. As if cinema itself saw itself in a mirror for self-validation.

Despite their apparent disparity, H2O and Mechanical Principles appear to obey one governing idea, perhaps inherited from the Futurists’ obsessions: in movement is the secret of life, and in the capturing, representing and reproducing of movement is the future of art and the progress of humanity.

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