In Laura Mulvey's book Death 24x a Second there is a chapter about Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1953). She writes: "In Journey to Italy, out of a minimal plot line and two bewildered Hollywood stars, Rossellini managed to create, in the opinions of many critics, the first modern film." She is right in saying that many others have called this "the first modern film" and the reasons for this are, it seems, the film's improvisations, meandering narrative and how it pauses and gives the audience time and space to reflect on what is happening on the screen.
As readers of this blog are no doubt aware there are few things I am more allergic to than claims about something being "the first". These claims are usually about concrete things, such as a particular stylistic achievement, a narrative convention or a technical breakthrough, and since they are concrete it is easy to point at a film and say that "there it is". This claim about Journey to Italy, or any other film, being "the first modern film" is much more abstract and therefore trickier to argue about. But it is also all the more reason why it is an almost meaningless statement. Why is it that this particular form of filmmaking is "modern"? Why for example are not experimental films made in the 1920s, such as Entr'acte (1924), modern? Why should Journey to Italy be deemed modern but not Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924) or Jean Vigo's films, including L'Atalante (1934)? Sometimes these films from the 20s are called "modernistic" instead, rather than "modern", which I think is cheating, but even if we were to go along with that argument then why is for example Stromboli (1950) or Umberto D. (1952) not modern but Voyage to Italy is? Besides, many 1930s films by for example Jean Renoir and Kenji Mizoguchi have the same approach to narrative and characters as these post-war films so could be called modern according to this definition. But they are not experimental in the way as some of those films from the 1920s and should consequently not be called modernistic. And what is to be done about Howard Hawks? His often blatant disregard for story and narrative, and the way the films are based on improvisation, makes them equally modern. Just think of The Big Sleep (1946).
Hawks's films also constantly refer back to other films, and make fun of genres and actors. They are also self-referential. Yet many, including Jean-Luc Godard, have argued that the generation who emerged in the 1950s (Godard's generation) were the first filmmakers who were conscious of the medium's past and made films that were reflections of earlier films, and that this is an important aspect of "modern" cinema. I am not sure there is any truth to this claim. Many filmmakers of the earliest generations have said that they learned how to make films by watching other films, and watching filmmakers at work, They did perhaps not go to film schools or cinematheques, but they learned by way of apprenticeship and by going to the cinema. Is it not condescending to earlier filmmakers to say that they were not aware of their own history, unlike the alleged enlightenment of later generations? It would be more accurate to suggest that this awareness is as old as cinema itself. When Chic Johnson finds a sled named Rosebud in Hellzapoppin' (1941) and says "I thought they burnt that.", it is very much a sign of awareness and reflexivity. Filmmakers have always made films that are consciously built on earlier films, and are reflecting upon film history, either repeatedly like Billy Wilder, or occasionally, like Hasse Ekman. And let's not forget that Hollywood has always been fascinated by films about itself, exemplified for example by Show People (1928), Sullivan's Travels (1940) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), to name three beginning with S.
In general history modernity is often said to have appeared with the renaissance in 14th century Italy. In art history modernism is traditionally said to appear at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Picasso's cubist paintings (following Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky and others, going back to the second half of the 19th century). In literature there was T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and the others in the 1920s (also with forerunners of course such as Proust, Kafka, Lawrence, Conrad), simultaneous with popular modernist film movements. But definitions of modernity, what is "modern" and what is "modernism", are never clear, and cannot be. If we are talking of storytelling then "modern", as in something that is not linear, sometimes fragmented, and that lacks a clear closure, is almost as old as "classical" storytelling. Perhaps even older.
In many ways cinema and modernity go hand in hand, and are intimately connected, right from the start. But I do not think that there is a film which can be called "the first modern film" and nothing is gained by trying to find one. These arguments often make me think of children who argue about who's father is the tallest ("my film is more modern than yours"). And now I, too, have indulged in this.
Perhaps it can also be argued that a poem like Eliot's The Waste Land is post-modern, just as well as modern, which one might perhaps say about The Big Sleep as well.