Surrealist art great, Man Ray, made this film in 1929. It follows a pair of indecisive travelers who base all their action on chance. They head out to a fabulous chateau in the hills and wander around inside and out. They run into four odd persons who enjoy swimming and running about as if the place is their private gym. But what is Man Ray doing here? Why all these shots of windows, lamps, sculptures? He is finding the abnormal in the normal. Wherever he happens to be with a camera he can make the surreal. He’s functioning as an artist, looking for odd angles, shadows, contrasts. He is also diving into the great current of his culture. The house is a castle filled with fine objects and great art. Man Ray is expressing his enthusiasm. This is an extremely childish film. I mean that as a compliment, though I really see nothing exceptional in works for children. But for an artist to function as a child for a certain amount of time is extraordinary and beneficial I think. But that kind of thinking must end and lead to its own destruction. In other words, I do not think any children’s author or illustrator should ever continue to work in that way for more than a few years. Then it is time to think about serious things and to make things that upset people. Perhaps that is my main criticism for most of the things I have seen by Man Ray. He seems a little bit too pleasant. I might be wrong about that. I have to look a little more.
This is a 1996 documentary by Noël Simsolo, featuring many interviews with Jean Cocteau himself, Jean-Luc Godard and actor Jean Marais. The great French director of films like ‘Blood of a Poet,’ ‘Orpheus,’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ was also an essayist, poet, artist, and playwright. When I was a kid I read the book he wrote about filming ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I understood little of it except that there was the general impression of someone working against constant hardship to attain a mysterious something. The book detailed his struggles with the subtleties of light, weather and performance in the pursuit of a mysterious quality that must be present in the fairytale. I knew that his efforts had worked because I had seen the film on television and understood that it was simply the most convincing fairytale I had ever seen. Another film with this totally mysterious quality is ‘Orpheus,’ which is Cocteau’s modern version of the Greek myth in which the great musician/poet descends into the underworld to bring his wife back to the world of the living. Cocteau’s telling of the tale is at once ancient and modern, always mysterious and always trying to get close to poetry. Whenever I see that film I feel that I am seeing an important picture of French artistic life in the late 1940s told through the prism of ancient Greek myth. The film sits in that fascinating period of artistic ferment and dawning of a new cinematic movement that was a reaction to the end of World War II. Possibilities in films of that period seem limitless. There is a calmness of the image, an almost casual approach to creating scenes. Things are becoming more fluid and less studio-bound. Films are beginning to lean toward poetry and art.
Even though I never really understood what was being said in the ‘Orpheus’ film, it is probably one of the most important influences on the little bits of work that I do in film and video. Various images and scenes from ‘Orpheus’ regularly pop into my head as I work.
One of the best things I think an artist can learn from looking at Jean Cocteau is to follow one’s own interests without worrying about being unqualified – pretending can eventually get you where you want to go if you do it absolutely.
In 1936, experimental filmmaker Len Lye made this short surreal animation to advertise the benefits of Shell oil for lubricating things. The film is a hyper-saturated stop-motion extravaganza that involves a mechanical world turning on some sort of hand crank. There’s an adventurer driving around the sands of Egypt. His car winds down and konks out leaving the man dead in the desert. The angel of oil rains drops of lubricating crude down on the Egyptian landscape bringing the parched skeleton to life as the Shell Oil robot. Fascinating. It’s got that awkward, shiny, naive beauty that could only be achieved in the 30s. Parts of this thing look like they might be influenced by Salvador Dali’s work. Something about that dead skeleton and the desert looks like it could fit right into the Surrealist master’s paintings.
Lye was from New Zealand and worked not only as an experimental filmmaker but also in newsreels and advertising. He was a kinetic sculptor, poet, painter and a writer of essays on artistic theory and philosphy. He made a 1935 short film called ‘A Colour Box’ which was the first generally exhibited film made by painting directly on the film emulsion. It’s a brilliant experimental animation posing as an advertisement for cheaper parcel post. I’m sure the great direct paint filmmaker Stan Brakhage must have been familiar with Lye’s work.