Man Ray and the Cinéma Pur: Four Surrealist Films From the 1920s

Man Ray was one of the leading artists of the avant garde of 1920s and 1930s Paris. A key figure in the Dada and Surrealist movements, his works spanned various media, including film. He was a leading exponent of the Cinéma Pur, or “Pure Cinema,” which rejected such “bourgeois” conceits as character, setting and plot. Today we present Man Ray’s four influential films of the 1920s.

Le Retour à la Raison (above) was completed in 1923. The title means “Return to Reason,” and it’s basically a kinetic extension of Man Ray’s still photography. Many of the images in Le Retour are animated photograms, a technique in which opaque, or partially opaque, objects are arranged directly on top of a sheet of photographic paper and exposed to light. The technique is as old as photography itself, but Man Ray had a gift for self-promotion, so he called them “rayographs.” For Le Retour, Man Ray sprinkled objects like salt and pepper and pins onto the photographic paper. He also filmed live-action sequences of an amusement park carousel and other subjects, including the nude torso of his model and lover, Kiki of Montparnasse.

Emak-Bakia (1926):

The 16-minute Emak-Bakia contains some of the same images and visual techniques as Le Retour à la Raison, including rayographs, double images and negative images. But the live-action sequences are more inventive, with dream-like distortions and tilted camera angles. The effect is surreal. “In reply to critics who would like to linger on the merits or defects of the film,” wrote Man Ray in the program notes, “one can reply simply by translating the title ‘Emak Bakia,’ an old Basque expression, which was chosen because it sounds prettily and means: ‘Give us a rest.’”

L’Etoile de Mer (1928):

L’Etoile de Mer (“The Sea Star”) was a collaboration between Man Ray and the surrealist poet Robert Desnos. It features Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) and André de la Rivière. The distorted, out-of focus images were made by shooting into mirrors and through rough glass. The film is more sensual than Man Ray’s earlier works. As Donald Faulkner writes:

In the modernist high tide of 1920s experimental filmmaking, L’Etoile de Mer is a perverse moment of grace, a demonstration that the cinema went farther in its great silent decade than most filmmakers today could ever imagine. Surrealist photographer Man Ray’s film collides words with images (the intertitles are from an otherwise lost work by poet Robert Desnos) to make us psychological witnesses, voyeurs of a kind, to a sexual encounter. A character picks up a woman who is selling newspapers. She undresses for him, but then he seems to leave her. Less interested in her than in the weight she uses to keep her newspapers from blowing away, the man lovingly explores the perceptions generated by her paperweight, a starfish in a glass tube. As the man looks at the starfish, we become aware through his gaze of metaphors for cinema, and for vision itself, in lyrical shots of distorted perception that imply hallucinatory, almost masturbatory sexuality.

Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929):

The longest of Man Ray’s films, Les Mystères du Château de Dé (the version above has apparenlty been shortened by seven minutes) follows a pair of travelers on a journey from Paris to the Villa Noailles in Hyères, which features a triangular Cubist garden designed by Gabriel Geuvrikain. “Made as an architectural document and inspired by the poetry of Mallarmé,” writes Kim Knowles in A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray, “Les Mystères du Château de Dé is the film in which Man Ray most clearly demonstrates his interdisciplinary attitude, particularly in its reference to Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.”

The films will be listed in Free Movies Online.



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  1. Gilda Fine says . . . | May 1, 2012 / 7:07 am

    The comments on Man Ray’s films are most helpful. I have put a link to this article into Dadart.

  2. juan imaginero says . . . | April 8, 2013 / 2:15 am

    excelente selección de maestros….

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