Dictated Sequences and the Pursuit of Efficiency in the Physical Culture Movement 1896-1939: A filmic scrutiny of intention and achievement
D Watkin (external supervisor)
This practice-based Ph.D. thesis examines the visual strategies of the Physical Culture Movement in Europe and the USA from 1896 to1939 as expressed in instructional manuals, magazines, informational films and newsreels, many of which have not been previously considered together as a body of informational material.
Through the teaching of repetitive movement in co-ordinated groups, substantive claims were made by participants for the improvement of health, strength and fitness of the human body in an industrialised society. That the individual was invited, even expected, to surrender to the mass control of the gymnastic display became for many a statement of ideal nationhood.
Consequently generated programmes of instruction, sometimes using the possibilities of the new sound media, tried to bridge the gap between an individual’s inertia and intense governmental proselytising.
The central aim of the thesis is to scrutinise these visual strategies, their cultural derivation and the consequent discrepancy between intention and achievement. In this discrepancy lies the root of our own reactions today to the literature of instruction that range from an awareness of the seriousness of purpose to an attitude of ridicule. The best of intentions were often expressed within a paucity of means, ill-judged combinations of image and text and peculiar films, with a concealed agenda of authoritarian manipulation of the individual.
The project comprises three DVDs together with a written component. The documentary, This is the League that Jane Joined examines the founding and subsequent development of the Women's League of Health and Beauty (1930). The screen fiction,The Wilfred Blakeney Way, utilises the genre of the fake documentary to explore the inadvertent elements of comedy, political undertones, naivety and failure of communication present in the Physical Culture Movement.
Three film montages informed by the comparative study (Building the Supermale, Visualising Taylorist Ideals and Bodies in Formation) explore the inherent absurdity within the political and aesthetic infrastructures of the pursuit of the Perfect Body, mechanical efficiency and synchronisation of massed people. The fourth montage (Nightcraft) reflects the theories and visualisations by the artists and filmmakers of the Modern Movement, their attitudes to didactic manuals extolling repetitive human movements.
The written component uses text, images and diagrams to analyse the research and structure inherent in the production of the six linked films, as well as the historical and cultural context from which they are derived.
The central aim of the thesis is to scrutinise the visual strategies of the Movement and to explore, through my film making practice, the consequent discrepancy between intention and achievement. In this discrepancy lies the root of our own reactions today to the media of instruction that range from an awareness of the seriousness of purpose to an attitude of ridicule. I reflect this paradox in the written thesis by using contrasting duality by which to structure this prevailing polemic. I explore, for example, themes of movement and the still, high art and low art, the leader and the led, the body and the machine. The whole is a complex and nuanced study of the relationship between historical research, contemporary oral history and fictive filmic responses to didactic archival images and film that had been originally created for the purpose teaching human movement.
I start the thesis by presenting and analysing the visual language and nomenclature of the printed instruction manuals from the Movement by exploring two contrasting case studies. From these I derive what myths were offered to consumers by the exponents of Physical Culture and how those myths were disseminated. When considering the books, I also have other motives as a practitioner, and the conclusions reached from this study provide the parodies that will later inform my documentary The Wilfred Blakeney Way.
The documentary, This is the League that Jane Joined examines the founding and subsequent development of the Women's League of Health and Beauty (1930) and the reasons behind its popularity. By presenting oral accounts of teachers and members, contextualised by contemporary Newsreel footage, I explore the phenomenon of the League’s popular appeal, the hopes and dreams that it supplied and the manner in which it supplied them. The underlying themes of the leader and the led, the individual and the mass, and the manifestation of the spectacle of display provide hidden structure to the documentary and are analysed further in the written thesis.
For the artists of the Modern Movement, the visual material generated by the pursuit of efficiency provided a futuristic vision of hope but also a spectacle of foolishness. Informed by my theoretical study, I explore, through film montages, the inherent absurdity within the political and aesthetic infrastructures of the pursuit of the Perfect Body, (Building the Supermale), mechanical efficiency and the human body in an industrialised society (Visualising Taylorist Ideals), and synchronisation of massed people (Bodies in Formation). A fourth montage (Nightcraft) is a parody of military field craft training, and reflects the theories and visualisations by the artists and film makers of the Modern Movement and their attitudes to didactic manuals extolling repetitive human movements.
The culmination of my analysis of intention and achievement as a practitioner is a screen fiction, The Wilfred Blakeney Way. The film utilises the genre of the fake documentary to explore the inadvertent elements of comedy, unintentional eroticism, political undertones, naivety and failure of communication that I have identified as present in the Physical Culture Movement.