Friday, April 25, 2008

Man Ray (1890-1976): Films

Man Ray (1890-1976)
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The American photographer Man Ray was one of a group of avant-garde Paris filmmakers in the 20s that included Leger, Bunuel, Clair, Kirsanoff, and Cocteau. His short films have finally been released on video, compiled and restored by the Centre Georges Pompidou. The very brief LE RÉTOUR À LA RAISON (1923) consists of moving geometric designs, intercut with distorted night shots of a merry-go-round, then moving three dimensional shapes, and closing with the play of bars of light on a woman's nude torso. It was an experiment in abstract expressionism that inspired other directors. EMAK BAKIA (1926) displays the influence of both surrealism and dadaism. Once again Ray experiments with the movement of shapes - many of the effects seem tired now after decades of innovation in animated film, but they were fresh at the time. He employs bizarre imagery as well - a man's eyes turning into the headlights of a car, a flock of sheep, the legs of a dancing woman. Odd effects are attained through camera movement - sideways, upside down, etc. - or distortion of the image, as in a convex mirror. L'ÉTOILE DE MER (1928) is more adventurous, but less engaging. There are many shots of people walking in Paris - Ray blurs the image a lot, attempting to explore a subconscious nether region - intercut with images of the sea, and some remarkable ones of the underside of a starfish. One of the titles says, "The sun, one foot in the stirrup, nestles a nightingale in a veil of crepe." It is hard to know how seriously to take such surrealistic musings.

The lengthiest and most famous of Man Ray's films is LES MYSTÈRES DU CHÂTEAU DU DÉ (1929). The spacious chateau of the title, along with a rundown castle nearby, is employed to explore various spatial relationships and textures. Some of the best effects are achieved with long shots through windows into landscapes, while the camera is moving at the same time. Ray also does some very strange things involving people wearing nylon stockings over their heads (giving them an identical faceless look), throwing huge dice and practicing weird diving and swimming formations in the chateau's indoor pool.

Overall, I don't find Man Ray's films as interesting or stimulating as those of Clair or Bunuel from the same period. Their experiments were informed by a resolutely personal vision. Ray seems more the purely formal innovator. The cinema (and indeed all art forms) need eccentrics like him who are willing to try different combinations of elements and techniques so as to discover hidden potentials in the art. Ray's pictures are fascinating viewing in this historical sense, but precisely because of their character as innovation in the abstract, they have lost the novelty and excitement they once held. Film method has long since incorporated all these things, so that the works in themselves now seem "old hat." Ray seems to have decided that he wasn't suited for motion pictures, because he stopped making them after the 20s, returning to still photography as his vehicle.


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