Avant Garde Film 101: Man Ray
To begin Avant Garde Film 101, we’ll start with one of the first: Le Retour a la Rasion by Man Ray. It’s a three-minute film from 1923 exemplifying the experimental nature of the transition from visual artist to filmmaker.
Man Ray was a painter, photographer, and sculptor who took part in genres from cubism to surrealism with the occasional dash of humor . He was an artist of versatility, and while his fashion photography was commonplace in Vogue, thumbtacks glued to an iron became one of his iconic works. A master of photo manipulation and a maverick in his field, Man Ray’s involvement with the budding technology of filmmaking was inevitable.
Le Retour a la Raison is, to say simply, a collection of moving tableaus. These moving paintings and photos chaotically pulsate to an unknown, changing rhythm in an undefined sequence and space. Stare at the images too long, and you might get dizzy. Lighting, editing and animation provided Man Ray with new muscles to stretch as he explored the art of captured motion.
In this film and his more recognized surrealist short, “L’Etoile de Mer” (1928), Man Ray pushes the film camera in its capabilities. Between lens work and editing the overall effects of his film always seem to emphasize the sense of movement. As an artist, his ability to work in the many forms of visual art permitted him different opportunities to express his view in a two and three dimensional way, but film is the first medium that allows him to manipulate time, light, space, etc. with motion.
An example: the sequence of the female torso. Many of the earlier, animated sequences move at such a frenzied pace that the core images are readable solely due to their simplistic nature, the torso shot is a stark contrast. Time lingers as shadows contort to the female curves, moving with her as the light changes. It’s repeated, the same simple motion, just as slowly. Despite the decreased pace, the effect is that this appears to be the climax of the short, if there is one. By slowing the movement, creating that contrast, Man Ray directs our attention explicitly in a film without plot or dialogue.
When these films are seen among his visual art work, it’s almost as if these films were the release of a long standing tension. Man Ray’s iconic photos especially seem to beg for the motion, the release from their fixed point in time. Man Ray was an artist governed strongly by his simple, innovative ideas. Taking note of the one detail that could be manipulated, turning the work into something new, foreign and thought provoking. With the invention of the motion camera his ideas simple had more time to breathe.