Thursday, March 12, 2009

Avant-Garde: The Return to Reason (1923)

Le Retour à la raison / The Return to Reason (1923)
France, 3 min
Directed by: Man Ray
Starring: Kiki of Montparnasse

I always get a headache trying to work out what avant-garde cinema is all about – allegedly, cinema brawls have been started for this very reason. So I've decided to appreciate The Return to Reason (1923) for its aesthetic qualities only, and there are plenty. The beginning of the film is a hectic collage of white specks and rotating silhouettes, some footage created without the use of a camera, similar to the later work of Stan Brakhage. Ticking clocks, nail outlines, bright lights, spinning egg crates – what it all means, I don't know, but the brisk editing pace maintains a strong momentum that easily carries through the two-minute running time. Ray's montage flows smoothly for the most part, but occasionally jars like a jump-cut as he switches from one photographic technique to another; for example, from moving to static images, or between visuals produced with and without a camera. In this sense, the film doesn't stream as pleasantly as similar avant-garde works like Richter's Ghosts after Breakfast (1928) and Vávra's The Light Pentrates the Dark (1931).

This was my first film from Man Ray, one of the leading figures in the Dadaist film movement of the 1920s. Dada (or Dadaism) is characterised by the rejection of logic and rationality in artistic expression, and so the embracing of chaos. The title The Return to Reason seems to be intentionally contradictory, at odds with a film in which very little reason is to be found. Perhaps the randomness is all for the director's own amusement – Man Ray was notorious for his wry sense of humour, and he reportedly "talked so you could never tell when he was kidding." He once stated that "To create is divine, to reproduce is human," suggesting an overlying theme of sex in his work. Indeed, the finale of this film involves the naked torso of a woman – perhaps this "return to reason" is the realisation, after two minutes of frenzied, random soul-searching, of what matters most to a man. I can sympathise.

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