When I was an undergrad studying film history and production I took a class in which the students made several “personal” films (we were using video equipment). One of the film projects required each of us to randomly pick a haiku poem out of a hat and then use that poem as the basis for our film. I can’t say my film turned out well, though it had its moments, but I have to say I loved the project and its process.

Around that same time a couple of my friends and I made a video that was as loosely based on a poem as it was whimsical. It became known in local circles as the infamous garage sale video and, as you can guess, we had a lot of fun making it. For the most part it was a vehicle to explore the idea of how a garage sale might have some thematic relationship to mankind’s place in the universe. Heady stuff, I know. But we kept it rather comical. I edited it at the local community television studio, which I was managing at the time.

These two episodes come to mind because I recently watched some avant-garde films from yesteryear and I couldn’t help making the connection between those films and the avant-garde or experimental filmmaking impulse in me. I am a fan of most all cinema, but I have a special place in my heart for films having a greater kinship with the kinds of art one finds in galleries and museums than with traditional narrative cinema. This is not to say that I don’t also swoon over great narrative films. But, whereas many might shrug there shoulders or even complain at a film by Brackhage (et alia), I get a kick out it it.

The avant garde films I was watching came from Kino Video’s Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s. I believe it is a good thing to review avant-garde films from the 1920s and 1930s, or thereabouts, to see what those artists where up to and how they were approaching their culture and that new medium called cinema.

In particular I was taken by Man Ray’s film Starfish (l’Etoile de Mer). Made in 1928, Starfish is a great example of both the Surrealist impulse and Man Ray’s exploration of the “montage of attractions.” It was also based on a poem by Robert Desnos. You can find an online version of it at ubuweb, as well as other Ray films. Here a few screengrabs of some of my favorite images from the film:

One thought that goes through my head when I watch this short film is how much it is like experimental student films I saw years ago, only generally much better. His ideas are more sophisticated than most student films – his Freudian imagery is almost a precursor to Deren’s Jungian imagery from her Meshes in the Afternoon (1943). Some of his images are stunning. But there are also moments that seem a little random and disjointed, as though they were included merely because filming something that moves was interesting enough. Although I like to trust that Ray included each shot for a reason.

With Starfish one gets the impression that using a movie camera in 1928 was still a novel and exciting thing to do, which it was. Think of the excitement brought about by the invention of the portable/affordable video camera of recent decades, or of YouTube, or desktop publishing, or of portable/affordable music studio equipment. All these inventions sparked bursts of creativity in new directions as well as lasting changes to our creative horizons. So was film in the silent era, then again in the 1960’s, then again in the late 1980s, then again with hi-def video.

In 1928 Ray was still a young turk (though he was 38 years old) running with the Dada/Surrealist crowd. He was making a living as a fashion photographer, but one can tell that his passions were for the arts (non-commercial arts) and he lived shoulder to shoulder with many of the great artists of the period. He was a painter and a photographer first, with cinema tagging along a little later.

When I think of Many Ray I think of a towering artist with an impressive pedigree – someone very distant from me. But I know that I am made of the same stuff as he. When I look at this photo of Man Ray…

…I see a man who was very much like me: flesh and blood, curious, thinking, desiring, working, creating, longing.

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