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 our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

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  • Gilda Fine says:

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

  • exce­lente selec­ción de mae­stros.…

  • Linda The Artist says:

    Man Ray was an amaz­ing artist dur­ing trou­bled times after Ww1. Thank you for giv­ing me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see more of his work. Film mak­ing has become a new tool for me as I nor­mal­ly paint, pho­to­graph and organ­ise cre­ative work­shops to enhance abil­i­ties for those with dis­abil­i­ty. CAN here in Man­ches­ter, UK kind­ly gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to express my world: “Spir­i­tu­al Real­i­ty Too” see CAN web­site and First Per­son Dig­i­tal Por­traits com­plet­ed last month with 11 dif­fer­ent films. Man Ray inspired me in 1995 and encour­aged tonal effects which is still with me and explored in my film.

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