Sunday, 28 January 2018


59. “…”


I usually have a quote on standby to act as a title, but when you decide to choose a three-minute silent film with no sound, titles, actors, or even a camera for most of it, there is nothing to say. Mind you, “Retour a la Raison” may do that to most people.

The American Dadaist sculptor and painter Man Ray is also considered part of the “pure cinema” movement that arose in Europe during the 1920s, using the abilities of cinema for purely poetic purposes. The numerous manifestoes of documentary maker Dziga Vertov – “I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye,” and so on – point to the fervour in rejecting the traditions in fictional narrative that had already built up in only twenty-five years of cinema, and the joy of movement in Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929) bear that out.

Six years earlier, Man Ray produced “Retour a la Raison” by extending his experiments in making pictures by placing objects on photosensitive paper, creating an image after being exposed to light. Pictures produced this way are known as photograms, but Man Ray named them “Rayograms” instead. This time, using film stock instead, we are shown exposed footage of salt, pepper nails and drawing pins, interspersed with lights from a merry-go-round; one of Man Ray’s paper mobile sculptures moving against a wall, as if reacting with its shadow; and the illuminated body of a naked woman, that of Man Ray’s muse Alice Prin, otherwise known as Kiki of Montparnasse, also an artist in her own right.

The crucial word is “Dadaist.” This art movement despised the world that wrought the First World War upon itself, and the way that world worked was derided as meaningless as a result. “Retour a la Reason” is not supposed to make sense, because that is the point. To that end, the film is best viewed without any sound, because any attempt to accompany it has been unsuccessful – one version I have watched basically mashes a piano keyboard out of frustration, while another thought the spinning pin could be made to sound like a helicopter.

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