The Enigma of Clothes

Dir Hans Richter, Georges Méliès, Kenneth Anger, Man Ray, Christine Noll Brinckmann, British Pathé.

Wednesday 24 January, 18:30 Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi

With a talk by Marketa Uhlirova Combining archival shorts from British Pathé and The Library of Congress with films by avant-garde artists and early filmmakers including Georges Méliès, Hans Richter, Man Ray, Kenneth Anger and Christine Noll Brinckmann, this programme celebrates the poetics of cinematic clothing. With an absence of – or disregard for – conventional storytelling, these films focus on animating clothes, in some cases allowing them to assume lives of their own. Presented in rituals such as flying and spinning, folding and unfolding, touching and feeling, soaking and inflating, clothes here become independent, at least to a degree, from the bodies that normally give them purpose and meaning. With their immediate function obscured, they appear as dreamlike, playful and elusive, becoming potent carriers of fascination, desire, emotion and sensual pleasure.

Total Running Time: c. 60mins    


Ghosts Before Breakfast (Vormittagsspuk), dir. Hans Richter, Germany, 1928 (with electronic music by Ales Cerny/Muteme) Hans Richter's late Dadaist film Ghosts Before Breakfast challenges the realism of filmic image with abstract and graphic forms. Clothes here are some of the everyday objects that turn against their users between the eleventh and the twelfth hour. A bow tie travels around the neck, undoes itself and despite efforts to hold it down it slips away, together with the collar. Hats fly off gentlemen's heads (Richter being one of them) and have to be chased after. Beards appear and disappear. Film positive changes into negative. The eleventh hour belongs to objects' ghosts which muck about with their users in order to disorient and baffle them.  

Going to Bed under Difficulties (Le Déshabillage impossible), dir. Georges Méliès, France 1901 (with electronic music by Ales Cerny/Muteme) Farcical situations focusing on the rebellion and subversion of clothing are championed in early film burlesques in which elements of theatrical performance are combined with cinematic editing methods. In this film, Méliès himself plays the ‘victim’, a traveller attempting to rest in his hotel room, and the ‘perpetrators’ are clothes that stubbornly refuse to leave him. Their constant reappearance on the exasperated man’s body – a repetitive cycle that nevertheless does not repeat the clothes – and their subsequent removal and placement on hooks behind him is not only an amusing travesty, but also a comprehensive showcase of a gentleman’s wardrobe around 1900.  

The reason for this extravagance/Emak Bakia (La raison de cette extravagance/Emak Bakia), dir. Man Ray, France 1927 This is a short sequence from a 20-minute ‘cinepoem’ by Man Ray titled Emak Bakia (1926) – a composite of several film fragments to which the artist referred to as ‘a whole that still remains a fragment’. The words ‘La raison de cette extravagance’ appear towards the end of the film as its only intertitle, with a promise to explain the rather chaotic melange of live footage and abstract experiments with light and motion that precede it. But in a true Dadaist spirit, no such explanation is delivered. Instead, more irrationality unfolds as a man (played by the Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaud) arrives at a flat with a suitcase filled with men’s collars.  

Warner Corset Advertisement, dir. unknown, 1910s (with electronic music by Ales Cerny/Muteme) Warner’s corset company was originally established in New York in the 1870s by brothers Lucien and Ira Warner. By the turn of the century it had relocated to Connecticut and was running a successful business catering to the mass market. In line with much of the company’s print advertising, this film focuses on the interaction of the corset with water. Two children discover a new corset, still in its box, left on their mother’s dressing table. They try it on and proceed to tussle over it before dropping it repeatedly into a bath tub. When mother enters, the children expect the worst but instead of scolding them, she turns to face the camera, smiling confidently. A title card proclaims: ‘Thank Goodness it's Warner's and it's rustproof’. The film ends with a striking stop-motion animation sequence showing a corset rising into frame, unrolling and fastening and unfastening itself.  

Tough Stockings, newsreel, Great Britain, 1960 (sound, English) A cross-breed between a process and advertising film, this newsreel item by British Pathé utilises industrial manufacture routines such as cutting, seaming, measuring and sewing as an opportunity to show off the qualities of stockings – their thinness, crispness and smoothness. This kind of close scrutiny is present throughout the entire film, including scenes in which the hosiery is carefully examined for its quality – scenes in which touching, feeling and dressing become almost ritualistic acts performed for the benefit of the camera. But far from being caressed as precious goods, the stockings here are also submitted to some quite bizarre, even drastic acts: they are pressed into walnut shells, draped over a cactus plant, brushed against a nail or taken for a walk stretched over high-heeled shoes. In order to demonstrate their resilience, they have to be put on trial.  

Puce Moment, dir. Kenneth Anger, 1949/66 (sound) Puce Moment is a fragment filmed in 1949 and later edited by Anger himself into a stand-alone piece. It was initially conceived as feature-length film Puce Women, and was to be Anger’s tribute to the mythological Hollywood of the Jazz Age and the perversely luxurious tastes and lifestyles of female sirens such as Mae Murray, Barbara La Marr, Marion Davies and Gloria Swanson (some of which are described in his exposé Hollywood Babylon). Referring to the purple-green iridescent colour of 1920s flapper gowns, Anger’s mood sketch evokes the archetypal moment of a film star dressing up. It is a dizzying parade of vintage gowns: their beading, sequins and embroidery shimmer aggressively in front of the camera, taking up entire film frames. These near-abstract images are juxtaposed with close-ups of Yvonne Marquis referencing classic Hollywood glamour.  

'Sonia Delaunay', dir. unknown, Keller-Dorian, 1926-7 (silent). This rare fashion film is an exquisite showcase of Sonia Delaunay’s ‘Simultaneous’ dresses and fabrics, quite possibly made at the artist’s Parisian studio and home at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes. Dating around 1926-7 and filmed using the tricolor additive Keller-Dorian process (later also known as ‘Kodacolor cine film’), the film presents Delaunay’s geometric designs in rich colours. Having gradually shifted focus from painting to textile and clothing design in the early 1920s, and advocating the production of unique, one-off pieces, Delaunay treated her design work – and quite clearly also this film production – as an extension of her artistic practice. The film was one vehicle with which to make her case that there should be no hierarchy between fine and decorative arts: among other things, Delaunay used the film in her lectures about the influence of painting on clothing design. (Film restored by the Archives françaises du film, CNC).

Dress Rehearsal and Karola 2, Christine Noll Brinckmann, USA 1981 (sound) These two films were shot simultaneously in 1979 by the film theorist Christine Noll Brinckmann, then a visiting scholar at the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. Both feature Karola Gramann who went on to become an acclaimed film curator, directing the Oberhausen Film Festival in the 1980s and after 2000 the Kinothek Asta Nielsen. Reminiscent of experimental underground cinema of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, Brinckmann focuses on Gramann putting on and wearing various garments and accessories. The films explore her ‘way of dealing with clothes and jewellery, her specific talent of using whatever she wears or touches as a means of self-expression’. While both films were created using the same footage, they are different in nature and pace.

Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi Wednesday 24 Jan 2018, 18:30