Three Essential Dadaist Films: Groundbreaking Works by Hans Richter, Man Ray & Marcel Duchamp

Icon­o­clas­tic art move­ments need manifestos—to explain them­selves, per­haps, to announce them­selves, sure­ly, but also, per­haps, to soft­en the blow of the work that is to come. In the case of Dadaism, the man­i­festo issued by Tris­tan Tzara in 1918 presents us with a curi­ous para­dox. Tzara expounds at length in sev­er­al thou­sand words on the idea that “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.” In so doing, he tells us quite a bit about what Dada is, and what it is not. It is decid­ed­ly not, he writes, uni­fied by any for­mal the­o­ry: “We have enough cubist and futur­ist acad­e­mies: lab­o­ra­to­ries of for­mal ideas.” It is no friend to the artis­tic estab­lish­ment: “Is the aim of art to make mon­ey and cajole the nice nice bour­geois?” It is cer­tain­ly not “art for art’s sake”: “A work of art should not be beau­ty in itself, for beau­ty is dead.”

So what is this anti art about then? “Spon­tane­ity,” “Active sim­plic­i­ty,” “Dis­gust,” “to lick the penum­bra and float in the big mouth filled with hon­ey and excre­ment.” And many more such provo­ca­tions and images. No man­i­festo is any sub­sti­tute for the work itself, but if any comes close to repli­cat­ing its sub­ject, it is Tzara’s. Immerse your­self in it, and you may be bet­ter pre­pared for Dada artists like Hans Richter, Man Ray, and Mar­cel Duchamp. All three rep­re­sent Dadaism—whatever it is—in at least two ways: 1. Each reject­ed “nice nice bour­geois” cul­tur­al con­ven­tions, oppos­ing them force­ful­ly, and play­ful­ly, in ways both polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic. 2. Nei­ther con­fined him­self to any one medi­um or school—experimenting freely with paint­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, per­for­mance and con­cep­tu­al art, and—for our pur­pos­es today—with film.

At the top of the post, see Hans Richter’s 1927 short film Ghosts Before Break­fast. Here, writes Lori Zim­mer of Art Nerd, “fly­ing hats, float­ing neck ties, [and] stacked guns” illus­trate the state­ment at the film’s open­ing that “even objects revolt against reg­i­men­ta­tion.” We have here a silent cut because, the title informs us, “The Nazis destroyed the sound ver­sion of this film as ‘degen­er­ate art.’” (The film’s orig­i­nal sound con­sist­ed of a sound­track by com­pos­er Paul Hin­demith.) The use of stop-motion ani­ma­tion and inge­nious edit­ing accords with the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s con­tention that “the con­flu­ence of tech­nol­o­gy and aes­thet­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion” that film offered “suit­ed the Dadaists’ pas­sion for the machine-made object.” In Richter’s short, such objects refuse to coop­er­ate and play nice with their mak­ers.

Just above, see Man Ray’s short film Le Retour à la Rai­son (“Return to Rea­son”). (The piano score, record­ed live in 2011 in St. Peters­burg, is by Dmitri Shu­bin.) The title of this film, I think, should be read iron­i­cal­ly. Man Ray’s “pure cin­e­ma” active­ly resist­ed the “rea­son” of con­ven­tion­al film pro­duc­tion, with its lin­ear nar­ra­tive log­ic and real­ist com­pla­cen­cy. One might watch his films with the words of Tzara’s man­i­festo in mind: “Log­ic is a com­pli­ca­tion. Log­ic is always wrong. It draws the threads of notions, words, in their for­mal exte­ri­or, toward illu­so­ry ends and cen­tres. Its chains kill, it is an enor­mous cen­tipede sti­fling inde­pen­dence.” In a pre­vi­ous post, Mike Springer described the film as “basi­cal­ly a kinet­ic exten­sion of Man Ray’s still pho­tog­ra­phy,” uti­liz­ing “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.”

Man Ray shared a “fra­ter­nal friend­ship” and an artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty with per­haps the most renowned, or infa­mous, of the Dadaists, Mar­cel Duchamp. In addi­tion to star­ring as him­self in a few films, and co-writ­ing the fea­ture length Dadaist film Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, Duchamp made his own direc­to­r­i­al con­tri­bu­tions, begin­ning in 1926 with Anémic Ciné­ma, above. (I sug­gest view­ing it with the added, non-orig­i­nal music mut­ed.) Cre­at­ed in Man Ray’s stu­dio, the film con­sists of a series of spin­ning disks, some con­tain­ing French phras­es which may be untrans­lat­able. The whole reel is rem­i­nis­cent of stock scenes of hyp­no­tism in sen­sa­tion­al­ist “bour­geois” movies.

Are Richter, Man Ray, and Ducham­p’s films—in Tzara’s words—“like a rag­ing wind that rips up the clothes of clouds and prayers… prepar­ing the great spec­ta­cle of dis­as­ter, con­fla­gra­tion and decom­po­si­tion”? Such hyper­bol­ic expres­sions only serve to under­line what Ducham­p’s disks set in motion: progress is an illu­sion: “after all every­one dances to his own per­son­al boom­boom, and… the writer is enti­tled to his boom­boom.” If Dadaism cham­pi­ons solip­sism, it also cham­pi­ons the right of artists to their own per­son­al “boom­boom.” In its anar­chic rejec­tion of codes of “progress, law, moral­i­ty and all oth­er fine qual­i­ties,” Dada opened the door for per­son­al free­dom of expres­sion as wide as it would swing, prepar­ing the way for all the sit­u­a­tion­ists, yip­pies, and punks to come.

You can find the films above list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

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

The ABCs of Dada Explains the Anar­chic, Irra­tional “Anti-Art” Move­ment of Dadaism

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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