MAN RAY: RETURN TO REASON – Review by Diane Carson

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The Man Ray: Return to Reason program includes four Man Ray avant-garde films

Avant-garde films deliver experiences, not linear narratives. As with dreams, they may tease viewers for logical interpretation or for connections to events. I’d resist those urges and, instead, settle into the mesmerizing four short films Man Ray created in Paris between 1923 and 1929, that remarkably prolific period for daring experimental cinema inspired by the surrealist and Dadaist movements.

The French titles playfully suggest, but resist explaining, Man Ray’s ideas. In English, they are: Return to Reason, Leave Me Alone, The Starfish, and The Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice. In a total running time of seventy minutes, the black-and-white films slide through images rotating, swirling in kaleidoscopic fashion, in sharp focus or, with people, often blurry, though never unrecognizable as man or woman. This being the 1920s, the only nude is female, though not sensationalized. The camera remains stationary or pans, tilts, or tracks as images fill the screen: geometric, abstract patterns with light playing on surfaces.

All are complemented by what is described in press notes as SQÜRL’s drone-rock score, composed by Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan. Jarmusch explains that they attempted to create “a place that exists in a little space between consciousness and unconsciousness, between dream and wakefulness, and between reality and the surreal world.” That accurately describes the transition from the easily grasped visuals to dominance of more elusive, suggestive patterns. At some moments, titles appear on screen, and a significant one recurs: “A throw of dice never will abolish chance,” accompanied by characters enjoying a swimming pool and then playfully poking at large dice toys.

American by birth, living most of his 86 years in Paris, Man Ray is best known as a painter, pioneer photographer, and creator of photograms (objects placed directly onto photosensitive paper, what he called rayographs.) His films are less well known, but as this program proves, deserving attention. Celebrating their one hundred year anniversary, all recently restored, Man Ray: Return to Reason is in French with English subtitles as needed.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.