Léon Moussinac (1890-1964) was one of the most prolific and influential French critics/theorists of cinema during the 1920s. A boyhood friend of Louis Delluc in Bordeaux, Moussinac did three years of military service beginning in 1910 and then was recalled into the French army during World War I. He aspired to be writer and tried his hand at novels, poems, plays, and criticism until, after the war, in Paris, he secured editorial positions at the theater monthly, Comoedia illustré, and the publisher, Editions Albert Lévy. His friendship with Delluc led Moussinac to begin writing about film, and soon he was contributing a review column to the prestigious literary monthly, Mercure de France, as well as the daily newspaper, L’humanité, and publishing articles in a range of magazines, from Le crapouillot to Cinémagazine and Cinéa (Delluc’s own journal).
Some of those pieces would form the basis for his first important book, Naissance du cinéma (1925). Moussinac was especially active in the French ciné-club movement: in late 1922, for instance, he founded the Club Français du Cinéma, which sponsored special film screenings and discussions; two years later, he merged the group with Ricciotto Canudo’s CASA (Club des Amis du Septième Art), after the latter’s death, into the Ciné-Club de France. In 1924, he also persuaded the Musée Galliera to mount an unusual, six-month-long L’exposition de l’art dans le cinéma français, which included exhibits of film production and exhibition material and weekly series of film screenings and lectures. That exhibition would become the model for most others throughout France in the last half of the decade.
The war propelled Moussinac to the left and, in 1923, he finally joined the French Communist Party, after which both his writing and organizing gradually took on a more overtly political cast. At the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs in Paris, he introduced the first essays and films by Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein (Strike) to France. As part of the regular screenings sponsored by the Ciné-Club de France, Moussinac then arranged to show other Soviet films that had been banned commercially, including Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in November 1926. The enthusiastic response to Potemkin, along with the popularity of the Bellevilloise, a workers cooperative cinema in the 20th arrondisement, prompted Moussinac and his brother-in-law, Jean Lods, to begin organizing a new kind of ciné-club in the summer of 1927, Les Amis de Spartacus. Their purpose was to create a mass cinema movement, and to that end they secured a lease to the Cinéma du Casino de Grenelle (the largest in the 15th arrondisement) and distribution rights to more Soviet films (while attending the RAPP conference in Moscow in late 1927). By March 1928, Les Amis de Spartacus finally was ready to begin a six-month series of weekly screenings–among them were Vsevelod Pudovkin’s Mother and The end of St. Petersburg, along with Potemkin. Membership grew so rapidly (perhaps in the tens of thousands) that the club planned to extend its work into the Paris suburbs and French provinces. That work was to come to a climax in the fall of 1928 with the screening of Eisenstein’s October. As political attacks against the French Communist Party mounted and commercial cinemas complained increasingly about unfair competition, however, the Paris police chief stepped in to threaten Les Amis de Spartacus with agent provocateurs that would disrupt any further screenings of Soviet films. Having no legal recourse, Moussinac and Lods were forced to halt the club’s activities and ultimately close down the organization.
Moussinac wrote “Cinéma: expression sociale” during the heady days following Potemkin’s initial screening and leading up to Les Amis de Spartacus. He first delivered it as a lecture for a series organized by the Ciné-Club de France at the College Libres des Sciences Sociales in Paris, on 28 January 1927. A longer version was published in the fourth volume of René Jeanne’s special serial collection of essays, L’art cinématographique (1927), and an excerpt appeared in Cinégraphie (September 1927). “Cinéma: expression sociale” is Moussinac’s first lengthy, explicitly political essay on cinema, and he would continue to advance its polemical ideas in Le cinéma soviétique (1928) and Panoramique du cinéma (1929). The essay is not without problems: repetitious, overly insistent, inconsistent in style, elliptical in argument. It also makes several moves that now may seem strange: taking the Minister of Fine Arts in the Second Empire as a precursor and using the intellectual pessimism of Elie Faure (the famous art historian) to more sharply outline his own optimism. Yet the essay is notable for proposing to reorient the cinema, as a new form of art with its own aesthetic, away from any dependence on a bourgeois capitalist economy and towards alignment with a new social economy and the emergence of a new social order like that of the Soviet Union. Specifically, that would entail a form of filmmaking, in which individual cinéastes worked in collaboration, within a cooperative community, a mode of production for which, Moussinac hoped, Les Amis de Spartacus would establish a solid basis of support. Moreover, that reorientation would depend on other changes in the material conditions of making cinema, and he cites two technological innovations as examples: the invention of an inexpensive, reliable film stock and the development of a system of instantly transmitting moving images across the globe, a system then already in the process of being realized as television. In other words, however roughly formulated, Moussinac’s essay brings together two 19th-century dreams of human progress: one in which new relations of production could construct more just and equitable social relations, the other in which new technologies could eliminate the differences among peoples caused by spatial distance.