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A Cinematic Artist

The Films of Man Ray


Kim Knowles

The American artist Man Ray was one of the most influential figures of the historical avant-garde, contributing significantly to the development of both Dadaism and Surrealism. Whilst his pioneering work in photography assured him international acclaim, his activity in other areas, notably film, is to this day both unknown and undervalued.
During the 1920s Man Ray made four short experimental films and collaborated on a host of other projects with people such as Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, René Clair and Hans Richter. These works, along with a series of cinematic essays and home movies made during the 1920s and 1930s, represent the most important contribution to the development of an alternative mode of filmmaking in the early twentieth century. This book explores Man Ray’s cinematic interactions from the perspective of his interdisciplinary artistic sensibility, creating links between film, photography, painting, poetry, music, architecture, dance and sculpture. By exposing his preoccupation with form, and his ambiguous relationship with the politics and aesthetics of the Dada and Surrealist movements, the author paints an intimate and complex portrait of Man Ray the filmmaker.


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Conclusion 247


Conclusion Despite Man Ray’s reticence and scepticism towards the cinema, his fascina- tion with its creative potential cannot be overlooked. Indeed, this fascina- tion is demonstrated in a number of works from his pre-cinematic period and is still evident beyond 1929 in the form of diverse collaborations, short cinematic essays and home movies, which also experiment with a range of formats, including the newly introduced 16mm and 8mm film. Like a number of his contemporaries (Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Hans Richter), he was curious to see how film could be used as an extension of emerging new ideas and techniques in painting and photography. The four films made by Man Ray during the 1920s reveal many of the hallmarks of modernism: a radical turn away from previous modes and means of expres- sion, a rejection of ‘objective’ reality, and, most importantly, an explora- tion of form, structure and medium-specificity. In terms of independent, experimental forms of cinema, they are amongst the most historically sig- nificant, representing the first sustained example of an alternative mode of filmmaking or ‘artists’ film’ as it would later become known. Le Retour à la raison, for example, is remarkable in the extent of its unconventionality, transgressing the norms of pre-planned construction, exhibition, spectator- ship, and even, crucially, the traditional mechanical requirements of film production. Emak Bakia, a showcase of various cinematic techniques and optical ef fects, pushes these explorations further by pitching abstraction against figuration, objectivity against subjectivity, live action against ani- mation and light...

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