THE RETURN TO REASON (Man Ray, 1923)

Dada, an international movement begun in response to the horrors of the First World War, deemed itself anti-art, that is, opposed to those traditional, rigid, bourgeois forms of expression that reflected societal rigidity and, politically, had given impetus to the war. Dada persisted after the war, now opposing the social and cultural demoralization that the war had fostered, and was subsumed in other movements, for instance, Surrealism. U.S.-born Man Ray, photographer and painter, made films in France, the first of which, about two minutes long, is Le retour à la raison.
     For Dada, war meant the loss of reason, but the images that Ray’s film comprises—visual sensations of one sort or another—shift the emphasis to who has “returned to reason,” and in what state. Purely abstract configurations (at first, of specks) yield to decipherable images from the known world, for instance, lights at night on a merry-go-round; however, the deep contrast of intense light and voluminous darkness, along with the motion (and invisibility of people), transforms a familiar image into something personal and highly subjective—a dream image. Geometric designs and real objects yield to a human form: a naked woman’s torso, indoors, in bright daylight. Her round belly and breasts are the ground on which figures—shadows—generated by the natural light dance, assuming the curvature of her shape. The woman is introduced as a dancer in a title; or are the shadows thus being described? Regardless, their combination is incredibly sensual. The reality of the woman appears palpable, which stands in sharp contrast to the way the majority of female characters were portrayed in commercial films then (and still are now). This vivid sensual reality of hers may be what “returns” the one returning (for whom our eyes are surrogate) to “reason.”

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