During the silent film era, when cinema was still trying to find its identity as a medium, filmmakers routinely broke through the newly established boundaries to create unique forms of artistic expression. American artist Man Ray was among those whose contributions facilitated the evolution of the art form, inspiring other directors and creatives to this day. Man Ray’s oeuvre perfectly represents the infinite potential of cinema during its early years, when it didn’t know what it was yet.
Often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements that had a major influence on the contemporary art world, Man Ray was inspired by European avant-garde traditions even while he was working in New York. Eventually, he moved to Paris and settled down in Montparnasse, which was considered by many to be the artistic hub of Europe. It is in Paris that he made his most famous experimental films, like The Starfish and Return to Reason.
At this year’s edition of Cannes, the newly restored versions of these films are being screened in the Classics section, and they are accompanied by new soundtracks composed by Jim Jarmusch and his bandmate Carter Logan. During an interview with IndieWire, Jarmusch opened up about the psychedelic effect of Man Ray’s work and explained that he wanted to create music that would perfectly complement the dreamlike visuals.
Jarmusch said: “Surrealism was about the altering of senses, of perception, and psychedelic music and the use of psychedelic drugs, there’s a place where they intersect. We’re not on mushrooms or using psychedelics to create the music, but there’s something of it that’s important to us of where those two things connect in having an altered perception, rather than one that’s force-fed to you. Man Ray and the Dadaists were very interested in altering those perceptions.”
The filmmaker added: “We’re trying to get to you to that point without the use of them… psilocybin and certain psychoactive drugs have a vibrational thing to them… I don’t use these drugs, but I am familiar with them from previously in my life. It merges well with Man Ray’s disregard for expected narrative or expected perception.”
While The Starfish is undoubtedly Man Ray’s most iconic experimental work, Return to Reason is also a fascinating companion piece that exhibits the pioneering artist’s deep understanding of light and its unique interactions with film. By playing around with objects like pins and sprinkling salt and pepper onto the medium, he brilliantly explored the textural elements of the medium.
In addition to those strangely alluring visions, the final segment of Return to Reason is simply breathtaking. It features the play of light on the torso of Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. One of the most well-known models in the French art world during the first half of the 20th century, Kiki was immortalised by Man Ray in some of his finest works, including Return to Reason.
Watch the film below.