The most famous literary work of the 20th century was a comic novel published in Paris in the 1920s. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) has often been acclaimed for its introduction of cinematic techniques into the novel, such as montage (1), and has in turn inspired cineastes such as Sergei Eisenstein, for whom it “remained a pervasive influence” (2). For all its forbidding reputation as an unreadable totem of high modernism, Joyce’s polyphonic text shouts with the voices of popular culture, from pulp fiction, newspaper items, advertisements and postcards to sentimental ballads, magic shows and the music hall – indeed, Luke Gibbons notes the formative influences of Dion Boucicault’s “barn-storming melodramas”, whose innovations in stagecraft (including dissolves, fades, tracking shots and “editing’” or cross-cutting between scenes) have been cited by film historians as precursors to cinematic techniques (3). Cinema itself was a popular entertainment by 1904, the year of the novel’s setting, and its traces can also be found, not just in the formal experiments of the novel, but in scenes such as the chasing of advertising canvasser Leopold Bloom by a one-eyed racist and a “mangy mongrel’” (shades of Stop Thief! [James Williamson, 1901]?), or the famous “Night-town” sequence – an attempt to portray the protagonists’ “suppressed desires…in vaudeville form” (4), in which characters and objects metamorphose in an extreme variant of Georges Méliès’ trick films (e.g. Le Roi du maquillage [1904], Sorcellerie culinaire [1904], Les Transmutations imperceptibles [1904], Le Thaumaturge chinois [1904]) (5).

On December 20th, 1909, Joyce (with Italian backing) opened Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta (6). As part of the recent centenary celebrations for Bloomsday, the Irish Film Institute mounted “James Joyce and the Volta Cinematograph”, a screening of films shown by Joyce, assembled by scholar and archivist Luke McKernan (7). This programme featured the fairly typical anthology of the time, made up of documentaries (an airshow in Rheims; a crocodile-hunting travelogue); comedies (Mr. Testardi [sic?]; Max Linder’s Une conquête [Georges Monca, 1909]; biblical epics (The Way of the Cross [J. Stuart Blackton, 1909]); and historical melodrama (Le Huguenot [attributed to Louis Feuillade, 1909]), although the reliance on French and Italian works, with intertitles untranslated, has been blamed for the cinema’s failure (8). McKernan suggested that it is in the juxtaposition of these different entertainment modes, rather than in any one individual film, that we can find anticipation of Ulysses, whose every chapter is written as a parody or pastiche of English literary and popular forms, and which clashes elaborate vignettes of excretion and public masturbation (one of the Volta films was a comedy about a man who accidentally drinks a laxative and can’t stop shitting in public) with the agonies of personal, national and cultural history. The energies of these early films gave Joyce one way out of a literary rut blocked by lingering Victorian sententiousness and modernist élitism.

One of the novel’s most important chapters, incidentally, follows the serio-comedy of a funeral procession…

* * *

Among the film-makers screened by Joyce at the Volta was the comic André Deed, whose characters Boireau and Cretinetti, with their inspired mix of slapstick and Méliès-style trickery, was the most popular pre-war comic draw in Europe (9). In a film like Come Cretinetti paga i debiti (Cretinetti Pays his Debts) (1909), the chase structure, which by 1909 had become the dominant comic mode, is upended by metamorphoses achieved through pain-staking stop-motion effects. This pull between exaggerated speed and stasis would have an influence on René Clair’s experiments with motion in Entr’acte (1924), made two years after the publication of Ulysses.

The way we watch Entr’acte today, as a unified 22-minute short with synchronised music (put together under Clair’s direction in 1967) runs counter to its authors’ original intentions. Made as an entertainment for Francis Picabia’s “interventionist” ballet Relâche, the film was shown in two parts throughout the night, as prologue and interval. The film’s theatrical provenance is important to its reception, its interest in movement and the fetishised up-skirt filming of a ballerina continuing some of the motifs of the ballet, as well as drawing attention to some of the film’s other theatrical antecedents.

Based on a screenplay by Picabia, and featuring cameos by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Entr’acte is often labelled a Dadaist film (and is discussed as such in Adamawicz (10)). Some critics go further, and attempt to isolate the contributions of both Picabia and Clair (11), attributing the apparently free-form flow of suggestive imagery in the film’s first half to Picabia (whose treatment comprises this half), and the slapstick narrative of the film’s conclusion, in which a funeral cortège is diverted by a chase after the careering coffin to Clair, whose later films, such as Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (1927) and À nous la liberté (1931), are full of such chase sequences. This kind of division is anachronistic and overlooks Clair’s complete overhaul of Picabia’s sketchy treatment (12).


It is true that the Dadaists sought inspiration in popular culture, especially slapstick comedy. It is true that Entr’acte‘s disorienting imagery can be plausibly “motivated” by Picabia’s biography, be it his addiction to opium, his treatment for eye infection or his obsession with fast cars. It is true that the revelation that the ballerina on whom the camera has so enticingly lingered is a bearded lady was inspired by Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), in which he literally de-faces the Mona Lisa, and, more generally, the “humorous gender-bending” of works like “Rrose Sélavy” (1920–21) (with Duchamp posing as a woman), in which there are “no longer any clear boundaries between the sexes”. It is true that the experiments with superimpositions can be loosely linked to Dadaist collages and photomontages, especially those of Hannah Höch, which interweaved “countless details, figures, portraits, mechanical elements, cityscapes and textual exhortations…populated by clownlike individuals” (13). Certain motifs – in particular the geyser (used to describe creativity), birds, rotations, funerals, man-hunting, beards, revolvers, eggs, chess – echo the imagery in Tristan Tzara’s Dada manifestos and lampisteries (14).

But Dada celebrated “the principle of chance”, recycling “existing (everyday) materials” (15). Compare Entr’acte to a truly Dadaist film like Man Ray’s Le Rétour à la Raison (1924), a three minute collage assembled in 24 hours for a soirée organised by Tzara. Though the two have features in common – the manipulation of shapes and circular movement; the parody or reworking of female sexuality; the conjunction of Paris by night with fairground attractions – Ray scattered “sand, pins and nails on the unexposed cine-film, thus returning to chance as a generative method” (16). Despite Clair’s later claim that it was improvised (17), one couldn’t accuse Entr’acte of using chance to generate its imagery, the repetition and development of which is more akin to Surrealism. The sense of an organised whole can be seen by the matching of first and final sequences: a cannon is fired, and a human cannonball bursts through the “end” title, a movement echoed by the shooting of the hunter that both divides the film in two, and “motivates” its second half. Types of imagery in Entr’acte can be classified – those defining movement (chase, dance, slow motion procession), violence (boxing, shooting, murder), unattainable objects (the ostrich egg bounding on the fountain, the errant coffin), games (authors Picabia and Erik Satie talking, Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess, the shooting gallery of the levitating egg – all suggesting a home-movie kind of in-joke, but also a liberating sense of play); women (the up-skirt ballerina, the dresses of female mourners blown up by a breeze); contrasts (between city and country, night and day, man and woman, animate and inanimate), vehicles (white paper boat, cars, hearse) (18).

In any case, the “wing” of Dada represented in Entr’acte, often called the New York school, was always far removed from the socio-political-historical traumas that fuelled their counterparts in Zurich (whose “semiotic sabotage” (19) was a response to the mechanised slaughter of World War I (20)) and Berlin (whose savage satires were part of a direct engagement with the social turmoils of post-war Germany). Picabia, Duchamp and Man Ray, all of whom would go on to make films, were an ocean away from such horrors, and used the subversions of Dada for play, provocation and formal innovation. By 1924, Dada’s “sarcastic laugh” (21) had become hoarse, compromised by the need for wealthy patrons, eclipsed by the sombre mysteries of Surrealism. Indeed, Matthew Gale suggests:

the structure of Entr’acte parallels the whole course of Dada as [Picabia] experienced it: from its fragmentary origins, through its cavalcade of followers, to their falling away in its race to self-destruction (22).

What differentiates Entr’acte from “true” Dadaist films is, of course, comedy. Dadaists and Surrealists often paid lip service to the avant-garde qualities of the American comedians, but only Clair and Luis Buñuel tried to make films in a similar comic vein. Man Ray’s films may be many things – mysterious, romantic, beautiful, haunting, suggestive – but they don’t raise many laughs. Neither does Duchamp’s Anémic cinema (1926), an abstract experiment in concentricity – a shame considering the mordant hilarity of his artworks.

Unlike Man Ray and Duchamp, Clair came to the cinema through the cinema, as an actor, film critic and director of commercials (23). Throughout his career, Clair would turn to early cinema for inspiration, and in 1947 recreated the period in Le Silence est d’or. His recasting of Picabia’s treatment is in part defined by his borrowings from early cinema, and not just comedy. For instance, the camel that drives the hearse in Entr’acte recalls the Lumière actualité Autruches (1896), in which an ostrich pulling a cart leads a procession; as well as “exotic” processions such as Cortège arabe (1896). The lunging rollercoaster rides are an extreme elaboration of works like Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896) and Billy Bitzer’s The Georgetown Loop (Colorado) (1903), which placed a camera on railway engines or carriages to provide dynamic, panaromic views.

In the following, I am not trying to suggest direct counterparts for sources Clair may have used, recalled and reworked in Entr’acte – most of the films from that era are now lost, and Clair may not have seen, for instance, the work of English film-makers like R.W. Paul & G.A. Smith (24). What must be stressed, however, is the generic homogeneity of much early cinema, due partly to its reliance on pre-cinematic sources for material, such as magic lantern slides or music hall acts, and partly to the need to meet expanding demand (25).

The most famous “gag” in Entr’acte is the “transformation” of a stockinged ballerina into a bearded lady. This sequence, beyond its immediate nod to Duchamp, has its antecedents. The prolonged spectacle of female dancing (and the “disembodying” of women into shapes and colour) was one of the cinema’s earliest subjects, including Serpentine Dances (Thomas Edison, 1894), Fatima (1897), Loie Fuller (1900) and Fire Dance (1901). The many “burlesque” films produced by Biograph often displayed female sexuality as comic, for example Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905), where a large lady tries to squeeze into said underclothes with the help of her puny husband. Films like Let Me Dream Again (G.A. Smith, 1900) were common, contrasting an idealised femininity (in this case a beautiful woman in Pierrot’s costume) with “reality” (the dreamer’s wife is shown to be an elderly shrew). Play with gender is a feature of Mary Jane’s Mishap (G.A. Smith, 1903), in which the anti-heroine accidentally smears herself a moustache with boot polish; and Par le trou de serrure (1901), where a Peeping Tom finds an undressing woman to be an aged transvestite.

Entr’acte concludes with an elaborate chase sequence, utilising the dominant mode of comedy before Chaplin who, along with Buster Keaton, gave it a psychological or narrative dimension that “normalised” the abrupt, anarchic, almost abstract qualities of earlier chases (26). In The Miller and the Sweep (G.A. Smith, 1898), for instance, the fighting title characters are inexplicably chased off-screen by a crowd emerging from nowhere. La Course des sergents de ville (Ferdinand Zecca, 1906) features a battalion of policemen chasing a dog through Paris (and all sorts of contortions and indignities) who end being chased by the mutt in turn. Le Cheval emballé is a runaway horse (at one point running backwards) pursued by an ever-proliferating crowd. Les Chiens et ses services (1908) features the kind of legless beggar in a cart that will miraculously rise to join the chase in Entr’acte. Early chase films, such as Daring Daylight Burglary (Frank S. Mottershaw, 1901) and A Desperate Poaching Affray (Walter Haggar, 1903), were usually staged in the countryside (presumably for logistical reasons); in Entr’acte, the chase moves the action from Paris to the paysage. For Gerald Mast “Clair consistently uses the energy, exuberance and visual chaos of the chase to expose the deadness of the social form” (27). The structure of the chase in Entr’acte is like that of a clockwork toy, with the slow-motion bounding of the mourners like a winding-up released in the hyper-speed of the chase (Clair was a collector of toys, and wrote the preface to the catalogue of Jacques Carelman’s “unfindable objects” catalogue (28).

The strained ironies of À nous la liberté, in which an escaped convict becomes tycoon of an assembly-line phonograph industry, once led critics to dub Clair a political artist, and to read satire into earlier comedies such as Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (29). The slow-motion prancing of the mourners in Entr’acte, therefore, might be seen as a “mockery” of “bourgeois convention” “propriety” or “conformity”. I am inclined to agree with Picabia, who wrote “Entr’acte does not believe in very much, in the pleasure of life perhaps; it believes in the pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire to burst out laughing, for laughing, thinking and working are of equal value and are indispensable to each other” (30). After all, Entr’acte was part of an entertainment packet aimed at the fashionable rich who attended hoping for outrage. There is certainly nothing as savage as some of the scenes in Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930), such as the murder of a young child by his father. If we must seek bourgeois-baiting in Entr’acte, it is more in the spirit of a film like the Lumières’ joyful Bataille de boules de neige (1896), where a respectably dressed gentleman knocks a cyclist over in the middle of a snowfight, or the disintegration of a chess game into a brawl in A Chess Dispute (R.W. Paul, 1903).

What gives Entr’acte its particular flavour is the grounding of unlikely actions in real Parisian locations, a conjunction of the fantastic and the real Clair may have learned when acting for Feuillade. For the director of Les Vampires (1915), however, the simple act of filming sensationalist crimes in everyday locales produced mysterious frisson enough; Clair resorts to the image-manipulations of an earliest age (although the excitements of city and transport are already present in Lumière actualitiés such as New York, pont de Brooklyn [1896] and New York, Broadway et Union Square [1896]). Edwin S. Porter’s The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (Wallace McCutcheon, 1906), mimics inebriation by superimpositions and agitated camerawork to produce a distorted, nightmarish vision of the metropolis; later, the dreamer flies over the city on his bed, like the paper boat in Entr’acte. The Onésime films of Jean Durand were much admired by the Surrealists (and, later, Alain Resnais); Georges Sadoul detected their influence on Clair (31). Onésime horloger (1912) (written by Feuillade) alters the regulating clock in order to quickly inherit a will; the film displays Paris in fast motion, criss-crossing with cars and horse-carriages, achieved by undercranking the camera, and providing experiments in time, motion and cityscaping clearly present in Entr’acte.

A film that privileges manipulations and alternations of vision is surely indebted to Grandma’s Reading Glass (G.A. Smith, 1900), which takes a voluptuous pleasure in the simple act of looking: a young boy – Surrealism extolled the uncorrupted imagination of children – wonders at the ordinary objects around him (a very Surrealist collection of newspaper, watch, bird, granny’s eye, cat) through a magnifying glass.

Entr’acte‘s final coup, its cheating of death when the coffin finally comes to a halt, its magician-corpse comes back to life, making disappear his pursuers and finally himself, is a clear nod to Méliès’ sundry magic acts, but also reflects a fairly persistent theme in early cinema. The Lumières’ Démolition d’un mur was often played backwards by exhibitors, so that the demolished wall was seen to come back to life. In An Extraordinary Cab Accident (R.W. Paul, 1903), Mary Jane’s Mishap (albeit as a ghost) and An Interesting Story (James Williamson, 1904), characters are resurrected from gruesome ends. As for the magician’s final self-extinction, look at the unfortunate victim of That Fatal Sneeze (Lewis Fitzhamon, 1907), who atchoos himself to death.

* * *


That final image of a man bursting through “The End”, breaching (no matter how parodically intended) restitution of order, is a quote from Les Affiches en goguette (made in 1904! (32)). The influence of Méliès on Entr’acte is clear – the delight in metamorphoses and gender-transference, in pre-cinematic entertainment forms, in playing with the integrity of the film frame, in the figure of the magician presiding over the events of the narrative (33). Les Affiches is one of Méliès’ most provocative films – a billboard of posters, on which is scrawled “morts aux flics” comes to life and torments a group of policemen; this may be why it’s also quoted in Eisenstein’s Stachka (Strike) (1924), in the scene where the four-square photographs of the spies come to life (34).

Méliès had a kind of primal significance for Eisenstein – the first film he saw was Les Quatre cents farces du diable (Méliès, 1906), whose spectacle he would rework to horrific effect in Oktyabr (October) (1927) (35). Eisenstein would also use Méliès’ trick films to elaborate a theory of spatial perception in the cinema in “Georges Méliès’ Mistake” (1933) (36). His quote of Méliès in Strike is more in keeping with the pioneer’s spirit of comic anti-authoritarianism, although it is significant that he alters the earlier film’s value system. In Les Affiches, the posters who come to life are the “heroes” who upend the social order and blur the boundaries between illusion and reality. In Strike, the animated photographs reveal spies who will attempt to manufacture illusions (such as the provocative trashing of a liquor store) to destroy the reality opened up by socialist consciousness.

This reworking of popular Western film genres is typical of Strike, and, like Entr’acte extends beyond comedy. For instance, the famous fireman rescues of early cinema (Pompiers à Lyon [1896], Fire! [James Williamson, 1901], Life of an American Fireman [Edwin Porter, 1903]) and the Westerns of D.W. Griffith (e.g. The Massacre [1913], The Battle at Elderbush Gulch [1914], The Birth of a Nation [1915]) are invoked only to reverse their terms: the heroes of the earlier films (firemen, cowboys, US cavalry, the Ku Klux Klan) become the provocateurs and murderers of Strike; the most shocking reversal sees the baby rescued in Fire! become the sacrificial victim hurled from the tenement at the climax of Strike (37).

It might seem tasteless to discuss a film about the exploitation of workers which ends with a scene of mass slaughter as a comedy. In truth, Strike isn’t a comedy, but uses comedy as one of many genres that clash and complicate meaning (38). But although it is the Eisenstein film most enjoyed by people who don’t really like Eisenstein (39) – as well as slightly embarrassing his admirers (40) – even here Eisenstein doesn’t use comedy primarily to amuse. Comedy – specifically caricatures (41) and comic situations – are linked to a specific set of characters (the oppressors, from the lumpenproletariat and spies right up to the factory owners and chief of police) and contrasted with the sober respect accorded the worker-heroes (42). One of the chief effects of this method is that the oppressors, by virtue of being so memorably grotesque, become characters we immediately recognise, whereas the workers are generally an undifferentiated mass, only distinguishing themselves when they begin behaving like the bosses (like the starving striker who abuses his hungry child), or, as David Bordwell sardonically notes, when they are about to die (43). This is part of a wider thematic, contrasting destructive individuality with the purposeful collective.

Like Picabia (whom he admired, in spite of his anti-Semitism (44)), Eisenstein came to the cinema with practical and innovative experience in the theatre, in particular the agitki and mass pageants that sprang up after the Revolution and during the Civil War (45). He studied commedia dell’arte techniques in Moscow and developed a performance style utilised in Strike known as Eccentricism, an adaptation of his mentor Meyerhold’s biomechanics, and ultimately derived from the American comedians he loved, such as Chaplin and Arbuckle (46). His first film Dnevnik Glumova (Glumov’s Diary) (1923) – was, like Entr’acte, made as insert for a theatrical performance, and many of his productions would feature fragments from films (often comedies, (47)). Throughout his career, Eisenstein would be fascinated by the intersection of theatre and cinema – and by theatre, I include subsidiary branches such as the circus, vaudeville, Grand Guignol, music hall, sideshows and pantomimes – and his most famous theoretical work, “The Montage of Film Attractions” (1924) was based on the earlier “Montage of Attractions” (1923) describing his work in the theatre, where the “shocks” intended to rouse the audience were derived from these less respectable theatrical forms, as well as film comedy and Dadaist and Constructivist photomontage (48).

Much of Strike‘s pleasure comes from its Citizen Kane-like deployment of devices and trick effects purloined from early cinema (49). Its mining of comic tradition reaches back further, however: the famous sequence matching the spies to the animals that account for their nicknames (such as the Fox and the Owl) recall a tradition of satire that goes back at least as far as Aesop, and reaches its apogee in medieval story collections such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron, whose mélange of teeming humanity, scatology, disjunctive literary styles, sophisticated moralism and high art loosely anticipate Eisenstein’s method in Strike (Eisenstein himself also acknowledged the typage of Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, in comedies such as Volpone (50)). Entr’acte‘s sexual euphemisms (such as the levitating egg, or the classical columns as vaginas dentata) seem genteel compared to the toilet-friendly, expectorating, warts-and-all upfrontness of Strike (one scene of conspiracy in a public jacks is intertitled “Secret sittings” [!] (51)), even if Eisenstein’s Freud-inspired eroticism is largely displaced onto metaphors).


One of the early cinematic forms utilised in Strike, like Entr’acte, is the chase, although in this case the motif, as with those of the circle, animals and water (52), undergoes transformation. The first “chases” we see indicate proletarian solidarity – the flight of the workers from the factory, the dunking of foreman and manager into the mud pond. Later the chasing of strikers by the spies is reversed, and the spy is given a good slapstick drubbing (which is reversed again when the police torture the captured Bolshevik). By the climax, however, the chase has returned to its original dynamic as pursuit and flight, stripped of all comic pleasure, as the strikers flee the violence of soldiers and firemen.

Strike also shares with Entr’acte an interest in dramatising the act of vision, similarly derived from the experiments of early cinema, and here construed negatively (if humorously) as belonging to those in the pay of authority – near the beginning, the spies use the ancient theatrical device of addressing the audience, where the camera is equated with the panoptic power of the bosses. Eisenstein “associates the police agents with irises and mirrors, as if to present visual analogies of their spying” (53). Strike also mirrors Clair’s film in achieving comedy by exaggerating an inhuman similarity within groups, such as the symmetrical framing of the bosses’ meeting. Eisenstein uses visual puns, such as the “but” hidden “like a timebomb” in the intertitled Russian word for “quiet” early in the film, that becomes the revolving machinery of the factory (54). As in the ‘Night-town’ episode of Ulysses – Eisenstein would discuss an adaptation of his novel with Joyce – and the works of Dickens (whom Eisenstein named the true pioneer of narrative cinema), as well as Dadaist and Surrealist films, objects take on a life of their own, like the typewriter that goes on strike.

Using Andrew Horton’s typology of Soviet satire (as providing an alternative world view; as a psychological defence for citizens in a totalitarian state; as ironic reformulation of “normal” culture; as a sanctioned, carnivalesque attack on authority) (55), one might be tempted to view Strike as a reactionary work, using comedy to reinforce the interests of those in power – after all, the focus of its attack, Tsarist capitalism, had already been swept away. But Eisenstein’s Marxist dogmatism was always at odds with the rigorous idiosyncrasy of his film-making, and was frequently chastised for not following official cultural policy: the sponsors of Strike, the Proletkult theatre group, dismissed the film as “superfluous, self-directed formalism and gimmickry” (56). And, in any case, Eisenstein’s attacks on authority – any authority (in Strike hierarchies and bureaucracies) – had an uncomfortable way of reflecting close to home, as Stalin saw when he banned Ivan Groznyj II: Boyarsky zagovor (Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars’ Plot) (1958).

* * *

It’s all very well to list various possible correspondences to early film comedy in the works of René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein, but why did they turn to these outmoded forms in the first place? A detailed answer to that question is beyond the scope of this piece. Adamowicz suggested that the Dadaists and Surrealists found in early cinema a nostalgic mode that provided refuge from the various depreciations of modernity (including those of gender, the focus of her essay), as well as a non-narrative, “gag”- or “attraction”-centred form of expression (57). For Eisenstein, the attempt to root a new, proletarian cinema necessitated recourse to what were perceived as proletarian forms, whose vulgar energies would “shock fastidious film-goers” (58). Maybe the answer is the old, obvious one. By 1924, the codification of “classical narrative cinema” in Hollywood, exemplified by de Mille’s The Cheat (1915) and matured in Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (1924) was complete. These codes were structural (coherent characters in coherent, motivated time-space narratives) and technical (the 360-degree rule, eyeline matches etc.).

Early cinema offered the likes of Eisenstein, Clair (and, later, Buñuel) a fund of alternative approaches from when the medium was still in its experimental phase. Both the Dadaists and Eisenstein were attempting to create new modes of vision, and their attacks on society were also attacks on that society’s accepted cultural forms – by the late 1910s, even the movies were becoming respectable. Both would ultimately fail – Clair would go on to sound/image experiments with varying degrees of success, but his best work remained rooted in a more narratively acceptable form of comedy, disrupted by fantasy (Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, I Married a Witch [1942], And Then There Were None [1945]), while Eisenstein would fall increasingly out of favour in the Soviet Union, never achieving the acceptability of Pudovkin’s psychologically conventional melodramas or the broad populist strokes of Socialist Realism. Like the early films they so liberally quote, both Entr’acte and Strike remain milestones of alternative paths to a cinema rarely taken (59).


  1. Ulysses‘ “incessant collision of images simulating the disorientation and fragmentation of life in the metropolitan centre”. Luke Gibbons, “Montage, Modernism and the City” in Transformations in Irish Culture, Cork University Press, Cork, 1996, p. 165 (originally published in The Irish Review, no. 10, spring 1991).
  2. David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein, Harvard University Press, London, 1993, p. 14.
  3. Gibbons, p. 167.
  4. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982, p. 495.
  5. “Night-town” is partly indebted to Goethe’s Faust, a work filmed by Méliès at least three times (all before 1904), and whose principal villain, Mephistopheles would form the basis for his magician persona. In another coincidence, Ulysses relates the peregrinations of the Jewish Bloom over 18 hours on 16th June, 1904 – the same year as Melies made the film Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew, 1904).
  6. For an account of this venture, see Ellmann, pp. 300–311.
  7. James Joyce and the Volta Cinematograph” accessed September 2004.
  8. Luke McKernan’s introduction to “James Joyce and the Volta Cinematograph”, at the Irish Film Institute, 17th July, 2004; Ellmann, p. 311.
  9. David Robinson, “Comedy”, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996. Robinson says Deed probably worked for Méliès.
  10. And is discussed as such in Elza Adamowicz, “Bodies Cut and Dissolved: Dada and Surrealist Film’, in Alex Hughes and James S. Williams (eds) Gender and French cinema, Berg, Oxford, 2001.
  11. Richard Abel, French Film: The First Wave, 1915–1929, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984, pp. 381–2.
  12. The following is Picabia’s treatment, reprinted in René Clair, À nous la liberté; and, Entr’acte / films by René Clair (English translation and description of the action by Richard Jacques and Nicola Hayden), Lorrimer, London, 1970, p. 113.

    Curtain raiser:

    Slow-motion loading of a cannon by Satie and Picabia; the shot must make as much noise as possible. Total length: 1 minute.

    During the interval:

    1. Boxing attack by white gloves, on a black screen. Length: 15 seconds. Written explanatory titles: 10 seconds.

    2. Game of chess between Duchamp and Man Ray. Jet of water handled by Picabia sweeping away the game. Length: 30 seconds.

    3. Juggler and father Lacolique. Length: 30 seconds.

    4. Huntsman firing at an ostrich egg on a fountain; a dove comes out of the egg and lands on the huntsman’s head; a second huntsman, firing at it, kills the first huntsman: he falls, the bird flies away. Length: 1 minute. Written titles: 20 seconds.

    5. 21 people lying on their backs, showing the soles of their feet. 10 seconds. Handwritten titles: 15 seconds.

    6. Dancer on a transparent mirror, filmed from beneath. Length: 1 minute. Written titles: 5 seconds.

    7. Blowing-up of rubber balloons and screens, on which figures will be drawn, accompanied by inscriptions. Length: 35 seconds.

    8. A funeral hearse drawn by a camel, etc. Length: 6 minutes. Written titles: 1 minute.

  13. Matthew Gale, Dada & Surrealism, Phaidon, London, 1997, pp. 93, 197, 210; Dietmar Elger, Dadaism, Taschen, Cologne, 2004, pp. 44, 82, 84.
  14. Tzara, Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, trans. Barbara Wright, Calder, London, 1977. See especially “note on art” (1917); ‘francis picabia, “l’athlète des pompes funèbres”, “rateliers platoniques”’ (1919); “art and hunting” (1921); “I have seen ‘the deflatable man’ at the olympia” (1922); “inside-out photography man ray” (1922); “lecture on dada” (1922).
  15. Elger, pp. 13, 54.
  16. Gale, p. 205.
  17. Clair, p. 112.
  18. A more apt comparison might be made with Jean Painlevé’s Methusaleh (1927), also produced to accompany a theatrical performance, also a string of arch sketches, and also featuring celebrity cameos (including Antonin Artaud in the dual role of big game hunter and ecclesiastic).
  19. Gibbons, p. 166.
  20. Joyce, coincidentally, was exiled in Zurich at the same time – Tom Stoppard has written a comedy, Travesties (1974), featuring Joyce and Tzara.
  21. Elger, p. 7.
  22. Gale, p. 210.
  23. John Russell Taylor, “René Clair”, in Richard Roud (ed.) Cinema, a Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers – Volume One, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980, p. 213; Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 58; Gale, p. 210. I don’t know about Clair’s ads, but by 1928 at least – in, for example, Josephine Baker’s Le Pompier des Folies-Bergères – commercials had absorbed the tricks and disruptions of Dadaism and Surrealism.
  24. I am further hampered by what I have available, and rely heavily on Kino’s DVD set The Movies Begin – A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894–1913 (2002).
  25. Robinson, p. 79.
  26. Robinson, p. 78.
  27. Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, New English Library, London, 1974, p. 288.
  28. Jacques Carelman, Objets introuvables: A Catalogue of Unfindable Objects, trans. Michael Bayley, Muller, London, 1984. See also René Clair par Bronja Clair (Pierre Philippe, 1998).
  29. E.g. “For Clair, marriages and funerals are society’s essential (and laughable) means of trying to harness those chaotic, natural, antisocial phenomena of love and death.” Mast, pp. 224–225, 227–228.
  30. Clair, p. 112.
  31. Charles Musser’s notes to the Kino set.
  32. In the interests of accuracy, it should be stated that this is the date given by the IMDb; the Méliès le cinémagicien DVD (Gaumont, 2001) gives 1905, while Elizabeth Ezra, Georges Méliès: The birth of the auteur, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000, says 1906.
  33. See Adamowicz, pp. 21–22.
  34. Eisenstein had already referenced Méliès’ film in a stage production, The Wiseman, when he had an actor jump through a portrait. See Bordwell, p. 6.
  35. Eisenstein: Little Boy from Riga, produced by Ian Potts (1988).
  36. Sergei Eistenstein, Selected Works: Volume 1 – Writings, 1922–34, trans. Richard Taylor, BFI, London, 1988, pp. 258–260.
  37. Likewise, figures often associated with vaudeville, the circus, carnies or the Keystone Kops, such as the dwarves who dance while the Bolshevik turns traitor, or those who make up the underworld collaborating with the spies, all carry negative associations in the film’s story world, even as they give Strike an exuberance the stolid workers rarely muster.
  38. Yuri Tsivian, commentary to Strike, Eureka DVD-set, Russia in Revolt: Myths, Mystery and Manipulation, 2002.
  39. See David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p.266; Geoff Andrew, review of Strike, in John Pym, ed., Time Out Film Guide, 12th ed., Penguin, London, 2003, p. 1140.
  40. See Noël Burch, “Sergei Eisenstein”, in Roud (ed.) pp. 316–317; the director himself later accused it of “flounder[ing] about in the flotsam of a rank theatricality” (Bordwell, p.61).
  41. Eisenstein follows Chaplin in linking the fat man in comedy with self-interest and power; he was also influenced by Daumier’s prints (Bordwell, p. 11).
  42. This is typical of Soviet art of the period; Bordwell cites an opera Red Petrograd (1925) which uses a similar dichotomy, ultimately derived from political posters. Bordwell, p. 43; see also pp. 52–53.
  43. Bordwell, p. 53.
  44. Eisenstein, ‘Béla Forgets the Scissors’ (1926), in Eisenstein, p. 77; Yve-Alain Bois, “Francis Picabia: From Dada to Petain”, October, vol. 30, autumn 1984, pp. 120–127.
  45. Bordwell, pp. 1–7, 52.
  46. Eisenstein, “The Montage of Film Attractions” (1924), in Eisenstein, pp. 42, 44, 55.
  47. Eisenstein, “The Montage of Attractions’ (1923), p. 36.
  48. Funfairs and the like were among the original sites for exhibiting motion pictures, which usually formed part of a larger, “theatrical” bill; as late as 1914, one Pittsburgh nickelodeon was using “midget lad[ies]” and “armless violinist[s]” to entice customers. Michael G. Aronson, “The Wrong Kind of Nickel Madness: Pricing Problems for Pittsburgh Nickelodeons”, Cinema Journal, vol. 42, no. 1, fall 2002, p. 79.
  49. A more material influence in Strike from early cinema is the fact that “Most Soviet theatres and workers’ clubs had only a single projector, so film-makers began to construct their films in reel-length episodes”. Bordwell, p. 51.
  50. Tsivian, 2002.
  51. Tsivian, 2002.
  52. Bordwell, p. 48.
  53. Bordwell, p. 48.
  54. Tsivian, 2002.
  55. Andrew James Horton, “Carnival Versus Lashing Laughter in Soviet Cinema’, in Horton (ed.) Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 6–7.
  56. Bordwell, p. 8.
  57. Adamowicz, pp. 26, 21.
  58. Tsivian, 2002.
  59. Not counting those commercials, of course.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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