When Ferris Bueller takes a day off from school with his friends Cameron and Sloan in the popular 1986 motion picture Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, they spend part of the afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, Cameron is captivated by Georges-Pierre Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886). While Bueller and Sloan steal a kiss, Cameron stares in fascination at Seurat’s expansive painting. Switching to Cameron’s point of view, the camera takes the viewer to the center of the canvas, where a zoom-in on a little girl dressed in white creates an impression of the girl walking straight toward the viewer. As the zoom continues, it narrows to the girl’s face and, eventually, to the individual dots of paint applied by Seurat to create his masterful illusion.
Even if one knew of Seurat’s pointillistic technique before seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the film’s graphic revelation that each of Seurat’s figures consists of hundreds of tiny dabs of paint is an eye-opener. Thanks to the film’s protracted zoom shot, Seurat’s mirage, with its suggestion of an integrated and harmonious whole and its aura of an afternoon at rest, is suddenly seen as a fabrication, as a human-made construct built up from thousands and thousands of recognizably separate parts. Here, with the help of a bit of cinematic magic, one has a clear illustration of modernism’s most fundamental concept—discontinuity.
As explained by William R. Everdell in his brilliantly conceived history of modernism, The First Moderns, Cameron’s discovery of Seurat is representative of a surprisingly wide array of artists and intellectuals who, in the decades surrounding the beginning of the twentieth century, broke with the nineteenth century assumption that the objects of human knowledge can be viewed as existing in a state of continuous seamlessness. Instead, the first moderns, working from widely varied perspectives in disciplines ranging from mathematics to music, began to reconceptualize the objects of human knowledge as separate, discrete, atomistic, and discontinuous. If that seems abstract, Everdell consistently clarifies his subject through telling biographical and historical examples.
Everdell’s method in constructing his far-reaching intellectual history is indicated in his book’s aptly delineated subtitle, “Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth- Century Thought.” In tracing the evolution of the discontinuity principle, the book provides readers with a vast and vibrant mosaic whose individual vignettes can be appreciated on their own as well as in juxtaposition with their companion pieces, which, in aggregate, constitute an epic tale whose insights continue to inform and resonate throughout the world.
For most readers, Everdell’s use of cinema as an exemplar of modernism is, perhaps, the clearest and most accessible example of his thesis. In the chapter “Edwin S. Porter: Parts at Sixteen Per Second,” the motion picture, as it does in the discussion of Seurat, serves as a telling, indeed, defining example of modernism’s discontinuity principle. In fact, it was Porter’s pioneering dramatic films The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery (both released in 1903) that set the stage for transforming the embryonic film industry into a major purveyor of mass entertainment. Before Porter, virtually all films had been shorts snippets of reality, ranging from single takes of exotic locales such as Niagara Falls to prosaic views of everyday life such as feeding a baby (the latter an obvious forerunner to the home video). In contrast to such one-take novelties, Porter was among the first to realize the storytelling potential of joining together more than just one or several shots. In The Life of an American Fireman, which, at six minutes, was a long film for its day, Porter created one of the first important film narratives by editing together nine separate shots. In the first scene, the viewer sees the fireman sleeping. As he dreams, a vision of a mother and child appears in a superimposed dream balloon. He awakes with a start and paces the floor, obviously distraught from thinking of innocents in...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)