August 30-31, 1917 [The Little American]

It's been almost a decade since F.T. Marinetti spat out the Futurist Manifesto, a millennial curse—for him, though, a defiant Italian glory, bright around the whole world. (Just thinking about Futurism makes one fall into hyperbole.)

And it looks like they're getting their way: Their "atavistic ennui" led them to "shake at the gates of life" and roar off in their automobiles, crying aloud, “Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”

And so they did; and their Manifesto flies like blind birds shaped like exclamation points. They "intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness"; the "essential elements" of their poetry will be "courage, audacity, and revolt," and they will "exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap"—and here things grow prescient, for they assert, "Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man." And then, finally, at last in brutal honesty, they proclaim, "We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman."

There's more—ecstatic yelps about "the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals" and infatuation with factories and bridges and "deep-chested locomotives." I'll admit, the language attracts me (I too am prone to ejaculatory prose--there goes some now!); but the years have passed, and now such bellowing not only alarms but dismays. Again: The world has acquiesced, and has smeared the Futurist Manifesto across the globe with the guts of—would these rabid motor-men ever admit it?—innocent souls, from French farmyards to Moscow boulevards.

But is anyone innocent in the Futurist holocaust-orgy? I have a terrible feeling their lust knows no boundary. As Marinetti shouts, "So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are! ... Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums! ... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded! ... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!"

Is it mere words by drunken youths, justly sick of their parents' bourgeois hypocrisy and bawling their frustrations? It would be a relief to think so, but two years ago Marinetti, reveling in the War, announced, "The red holidays of genius have begun!" And indeed, the War—and now, the revolution in Russia, the Czar too much to bear, the Communists already the bloodstained inheritors of palace and pomp—feel too much like the—well, the Manifesto's manifestations. No one is innocent, and so innocence becomes a fiction—suitable, it appears, only for the cinema.

—Such as The Little American's Angela, in love with a German (ironically playing with her little brother, teaching him to "goose-step")—and loved by a Frenchman, both of whom depart when war breaks out—the German with natural reluctance, his fiancée left behind. Mary Pickford is surprisingly natural in this unnatural role, her home literally draped in flags, her kerchief a flag, the candy-stick she munches white and blue—as are the flower arrangements; even her birthday—the 4th of July, no less!—conforms to her loyalties. Her Frenchman notes that the French colors are the American's turned upside-down—and thus the chain of events is forged.

She travels to France to live with her aged aunt—and her ship, the Veritania, of course!—is sunk by a merciless U-boat—spectacularly, the night-scene lit with ghost-lights, scanning the black water, all but sneering at the small struggling figures sliding off the deck. The audience boo'd and growled and shouted at this scene of Futurist revel—we all felt powerless rage, comfortable in our seats.

But the Little America finds no such safety. Eventually she is, of course, reunited with her fiancé, "cheating death—with stubborn grit"; but first there is the inevitable "scorn of woman": rapes, boot-licking, jeering—all horrible, the "splendidly drilled beasts" as drunk as Marinetti himself, in love with their explosions, a Kultur of annihilation.

The surviving couple, the Little American and her last-moment-defiant fiancé, sleep beneath a silhouetted Christ; and their wounds are healed by dawn and a return to America—the French gift, the Statue of Liberty, is the film's final shot. And we cheered—and I had to bow my head for a moment, chastened by my own capitulation to sentimentality—as always in the cinema, hammered into us like railroad spikes. But the Futurist's war-cry, as attractive as it may be, even (perhaps especially) to Americans, encouraged as we are to remain in perpetual youth, sure of ourselves and prone to exaggeration—that cry also rose in me, and threatened to obliterate the Little American—and just as assuredly to prop her up, the last defense against "the world's only hygiene."

I may, then, disdain the simple-minded imprecations of The Little American—but I cannot participate in its "cleansing." As dangerous as the Jingo's screed may be, the Futurist Manifesto holds its own peril, one that does not bode well for the past, the present, or—how did I know we would end here?—the future.

August 31

My vacillations yesterday may have been all but incoherent, but I notice they refused to be distracted by yet another Futurist Manifesto: that of the cinema itself, my avoidance of which was a great convenience, since I find myself impassioned by their assertions; for instance:

"The Futurist cinema will sharpen, develop the sensibility, will quicken the creative imagination, will give the intelligence a prodigious sense of simultaneity and omnipresence." And more: cinema characterized as a "polyexpressive symphony"; and even more: "It will be painting, architecture, sculpture, words-in-freedom, music of colors, lines, and forms, a jumble of objects and reality thrown together at random." A new art is promised, exciting simply to read about—to copy onto this page—and as farsighted as anything Marinetti and his followers have expressed. He announces a language built on visual analogy, of simultaneity and juxtaposition. If the Futurist accuracy in predicting human wickedness, grinning in the slaughter, chills me, its cinematic vision stirs me—yes, perhaps just as would a fall from a great height; but I see this cinema approach, Wagner's gesamstkunstwerk (aha: Kultur triumphs again!), wrestled onto the flat screen, moving like a fluid machine, its engine raucous, its purpose unclear.


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