Master Hands, much like Valley Town, forecloses upon the question of pastoralism by eliding the natural world almost entirely. Nevertheless, the echoes of pastoralism resound as the film sets up the familiar binary between man and machine.

The film's title sums up its explicit argument well: although the "twenty five million drivers" on the roads do not pause to consider their cars' geneses, they are indebted to the men whose "master hands" control the machines on the assembly line. The stated argument, then, is that man dominates, rather than being dominated by, the machine. Yet the opening scene (Clip 1) seems to eliminate a number of the telling elements of humanity: rather than being narrated by a human voice (as all of the other films considered here were), the argument is presented using mechanically produced plates, as though they were the words of the machines rather than of the men who operate them. When these men finally appear, they, too, are visually stripped of some of the markers of humanity: the film has been treated to resembled pressed metal artwork, and the men thus appear as metal illustrations rather than organic beings.

As the film proceeds through the steps on the assembly line, a second binary appears; while some machines are delicate and, at worse, tediously operated, others are clearly menacing. The musical score signals the difference between the two: while showing the molten metal and flying sparks of the foundry, the soundtrack becomes somewhat gloomy; yet as the assembly workers assemble the delicate engines by hand, the soundtrack is lilting. The contrast calls to mind the Elizabethan contrast between menacing and benevolent nature. Yet it is significant that the natural world is utterly absent here; in fact, it almost implies that nature is of no consequence. Having dominated the organic world, man has moved on to create greater challenges in the field of engineering.

The effect is to invert the argument of Valley Town: rather than claiming that man, destroying nature, has made himself (as an organic being) irrelevant, Master Hands suggests that nature--even the nature of man himself, who melds harmoniously with the machine--is no longer of any consequence. No longer concerned with the dilemmas posed by the natural world, man is left free to grapple with industry.



Master Hands (1936)


     

     

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O   r   g   a   n   i   c       M   e   c   h   a   n   i   c   s:
The Aesthetics of American Documentary Film in the 1930s