PRINT December 1972

Man Ray as Film Maker

IF MAN RAY WAS PROMPTED by one of his clients to produce Emak Bakia in 1926, it was his own idea to make a film two years later. The idea was born at a farewell dinner for his friend, Robert Desnos, as he was about to be sent to the West Indies for a reporting assignment. As usual Desnos recited a number of poems at the end of the meal, including one he had written that day entitled L’Etoile de Mer, which had a great impact on Man Ray:

My imagination may have been stimulated by the wine during our dinner, but the poem moved me very much, I saw it clearly as a film—a Surrealist film, and told Desnos that when he returned I’d have made a film with his poem. That night, in bed, I regretted my impetuous gesture—I was letting myself in for another wild goose chase, but I had given my word, and would go through with my promise.1

There were three characters in the film which were easily assigned to Man Ray’s mistress, Kiki, a young man who lived in Desnos’ house, and Desnos himself. He specifically did not want actors for his film, rather people who would follow his directions closely. The shooting took but a few weeks and yielded enough material for a half-hour’s running time. Man Ray “cut and rejected ruthlessly”2 until he was left with a film half its length. The movie was first shown in a small local cinema with the accompaniment of French popular music.

The movie is a narrative essay capturing that quality of the poem which Man Ray summed up as having “no dramatic action, yet all the elements for a possible action.”3 Because of its close ties to Desnos’ poem and its pointed lack of surface shots, L’Etoile de Mer is more purely Surrealist than any other of Man Ray’s films. As such it must above all be examined in literary terms. There are no more shots of form and light abstractions as there were in the previous two films. The only technical distortion in the film is the use of a gelatin filter over the lens to create a mottled effect in selected shots. That effect, however, is tied to the narrative intent of the film rather than to any attempt to explore surface qualities.

The film is organized into a number of segments which defy a rational explanation not only because of their placement (if that were the case, it would be merely a case of rearranging fragments as one is wont to do with flashbacks) but also by virtue of their content. The film presents not a story, but rather actions, themes, and motifs which create certain impressions in the eyes of the viewer regarding the inner motives that propel the characters. The film is not about the characters; they are the human vessels containing psychic forces. Man Ray therefore had no need of real actors, but of performers who went through certain movements and performed certain actions. Psychic forces were represented through symbols and the context of the characters’ actions rather than through personal dramatization.

Man Ray opens his film with a shot of a rotating starfish whose meaning is as significant as the opening image of the cameraman shooting Emak Bakia. The starfish of course illustrates the title of the film, but its hazy rotation already suggests its symbolic use and recalls the rotations of geometric forms in the previous two films. The narrative is placed between the hazy shot of an oval glass in a door opening and the same shot showing the closing of the door at the end. Man Ray ascribes to the entire film a quasi-imaginary quality.

The first segment is perhaps the most complete segment of the film. It shows the man and woman walking down a path, stopping, and the woman bending down to fix her stockings. The sexual significance of the gesture is underlined by her turning to him and looking behind her before bending down. His arousal is suggested by the superimposition of his concentrated face over the shot of her fixing her stockings. The caption, “Woman’s teeth are such charming objects . . . that they should only be seen in a dream or at the moment of love,” makes the sexual meaning of the gesture explicit. The caption is followed by the couple going into a house, climbing stairs, and going into a room with a bed in it. She strips right away, while he sits down and gazes at her with a blank look. She climbs into bed and wiggles around expectantly. He stands up, kisses her outstretched hand and walks out of the room, down the stairs to the door where he disappears as the door closes. Thus the progression of shots—especially the climbing of the stairs which stand as an obstacle to be surmounted—builds up a sense of expectation of sexual union which is not fulfilled. It is the man who cannot consummate the union perhaps because “We are forever lost in the desert of eternal shadows (éternèbre),” as the caption following the segment reads. What is more important than the actual union are the inner forces which lead the couple toward each other. The focus is upon those forces rather than on the actualization of the union. At the same time there is something preposterously funny about the man walking out at a moment of great anticipation for the woman. The totally anticlimactic nature of his action channels the viewer’s built-up anticipation of voyeuristic gratification into the release mechanism of laughter. It is a Dadaist boycotting of the real, that is, the inevitable, whose comical intent is emphasized by the punning caption, “Si belle! Cybèle?” at the moment of departure.

While the first sequence builds up sexual anticipation only to frustrate it at the last moment, the vignettes that follow present the reactions of man and woman toward the mysterious involvement that they share. She is shown as a newspaper vendor on the street when the man comes up to her and together they go to examine the glass jar containing the starfish. Thus the starfish, symbol of erotic force, is introduced as an object of wonder for both the man and the woman. It is chiefly the male who is puzzled by the mystery of the starfish. The close-up view of the woman in shot #26 as she is selling newspapers is really his view. The caption following it, “How beautiful she is,” likewise comes from him. That is why we see him sitting in his room examining the jar in shot #33 which follows the entire street scene.

The shot of the man in his room contemplating the starfish is repeated in shots #66 and #95 not because Man Ray is interested in the man’s attempt to understand the unexplainable but because by showing him trying to solve a mystery he posits the “problem” of the film as being an inexplicable mystery. Man Ray had already attempted to create a sense of the mysterious in Emak Bakia, most noticeably around his awakening women. In L’Etoile de Mer the evoking of a sense of mystery becomes an essential building block of the film as a whole. That sense of the unreal is created in a number of ways. The abrogation of the clear narrative line is a violation of reason which leaves the viewer with the mystery of the irrational. The use of the gelatin filter with certain shots creates a hazy effect which tends to give those scenes an air of unreality. But even the gelatin is not used in a clear, ordered manner. Straight shots appear amid gelatin sequences and vice versa so that the initial impulse to group dream sequences and real life segments on the basis of the use of the filter is hopelessly frustrated. That, of course, should come as no surprise, for the Surrealists explicitly aimed to fuse our dreaming and waking experiences into a unified reality of the imagination. The filter shots thus lend the film an air of mystery without imposing an order of their own. Man Ray evokes the mysterious in specific sequences as well. The street segment begins with the camera panning down a tall chimney until it shows a narrow, quiet, empty street. Only after such a portentous introduction do we see the woman with the papers whipped by a wind which arose out of nowhere.

The man examining the mysterious starfish in his own room opens a whole series of segments which revolve around his search of the mysterious in terms of his relationship to the woman. His imagination is triggered by the starfish so that we observe the ponderous movement of a live starfish close-up. Then we see newspapers scattered by the wind as the man runs after them. The chase is symbolic of his quest for the mystery of the woman, especially since the association of windblown newspapers with her is made explicit in the preceding street scene. Once he catches a paper and looks inside, the article on Eastern European diplomatic affairs appears as a kind of answer or at least clue to his search. Yet clearly it is not: it makes as little sense as does the insertion of traveling news lights in Emak Bakia. The news they both bring is a part of everyday reality, but once lifted out of that environment they are divested of their matter-of-fact actuality and instead take on the mystery of the written word as magic text. The quest is continued in the series of shots in which the mental search is represented by the movement of a train and the activity of a harbor. That this is still a part of his attempt to understand her is emphasized by the preceding shot of him with his head in her lap.

With shot #50 a transitional section begins the intention of which is to break up any psychological continuity which may have developed. The phrase “If flowers were made of glass” is interspersed with shots of a flower in a flowerpot. While these are still related to the man’s conception of the woman, shot #52 in which the screen is divided into 12 different sections with 12 different things going on is a break with the preceding psychic flow. So is still life #56 of newspaper, wine bottle, starfish, and banana. While they contain the imagistic leitmotifs of the starfish and newspaper (the other objects might also be seen as symbolic), the fragmentation of the screen and the unusual length of the still life break the continuity of the film. Man Ray introduces this break in order to keep his film free of the determinism of a narrative or even psychological continuum. The section is analogous to shots #37–40 of Emak Bakia that also broke the rhythmic flow preceding them and cleared the way for the film’s ending. This conscious interruption comes around the halfway mark of L’Etoile de Mer as well. It breaks the previous psychological flow because the woman’s reaction to the affair is introduced for the first time. In one shot we see her lying on the sand examining an object while in another we see her stepping out of her bed onto a book with a starfish lying next to it. Both are views of her involvement with the problem of the affair. From this point we find a close intermingling of the man’s and woman’s impressions of the relationship until the very end.

The second half of the film emphasizes the latent violence of the relationship. That violence is suggested in part by the captions comparing the woman successively to a flower “of glass,” “of flesh,” then “of fire.” The last comparison is made more poignant by its appearance right after a shot of her face through flames. Another caption, unconnected to the flow of images, tells us that “One must beat the dead while they are cold.” The increasing violence of the second half takes place largely in connection with the associative use of the starfish. In the first half the starfish remained an object of wonder, free of specific suggestive associations. Now it becomes closely linked to a violence of sexual origins. The first explicit connection between the woman and the starfish is made in the shot in which she steps out of bed and her foot lands right next to the starfish. A more disturbing symbolism is developed when a view of the starfish is followed by shots of the man’s hands with blood accentuating the main lines. When we see the woman climb the stairs brandishing a knife, the starfish appears at the foot of the stairs; it is then superimposed on the final close-up of her clutching the knife. The starfish reappears at the very end when the man is trying to understand why the women left him, but even here it remains a multivalent symbol. While it is an organic underwater creature whose ponderous movements suggested a primitive sexual force, it is also a cold attractive object like a glass flower and, in fact, follows the caption which refers to the woman as being “Beautiful, beautiful as a flower of glass.” Starfish—flower—woman sexual violence form a cycle of overlapping associations. The woman as embodiment of violent force is stressed with a certain ironic note when we see her sheathed in a tunic, and topped by a Phrygian cap as she holds a spear with a haughty facial expression.

The violent motifs appear, however, amid a flow of poetic and mystery-evoking images. Man and woman stand together as she removes the mask she is wearing, followed by the shot of the mask itself. Another sequence shows an empty street, a massive wall, then the full sky which turns into a starlit sky with a shooting star. Shots of flowing water reflecting the sun precede “And if you find a woman on this earth with a love that is sincere. . . . ” “The sun, one foot in the stirrups, nestles a nightingale in one (a stirrup) of crape” is followed by her lying on a bed nude. The introduction of motifs, statement of problem, and search triggered in the first part of the film are transformed into a concern at once more poetic and violent.

The resolution of the film is in some ways as provocative as the multiple endings of Emak Bakia. The shot of the woman stretched out nude on the bed is followed by a reminder to the man, “You are not dreaming,” then the ‘cruel reality’ of a stranger coming up to the two of them and leading the woman away. The action is performed in much the same manner as was his walking out of the room when she was stretched out on the bed: all the characters act in a matter-of-fact way without the least sign of emotion, the only stern look being incomprehension on the man’s face. The scene offers a comic release which is as powerful after the build-up of violent and poetic images as was the comic release of frustrated union in the first sequence. As before, he turns to the starfish in his search for an explanation. “How beautiful she was” turns to a realization of “How beautiful she is” still. The last scene is hard-hitting and ironic. She looks into the camera with her haughty stare. A glass with the word “beautiful” stands between her and the camera. The glass shatters, she turns away, only to turn back and look into the camera once more. The scene is the man’s final and absolute vision of the woman: she is a femme fatale whose hard-luster appeal will live on. The violence of the breaking glass is the final manifestation of the violence which has been accumulating. Its final eruption is expressive of the violence inherent in female sexuality and is also a final view of the woman, the last gesture of the theme of unmasking. Thus, we have come all the way from the gentle evocation of feminine mystery in Emak Bakia to a total revelation of the violent force inherent in the mysterious female. The breaking of the glass reveals yet other levels of meaning: it is a negation of the concept “beautiful” as applied to the woman through the symbolic breaking of the glass bearing that word, or a final psychic consummation of the affair through a symbolic violation. Man Ray ends his film at the most highly developed level of conceptual playfulness which is the hallmark of his created objects.

The film L’Etoile de Mer, like the poem, had “no dramatic action, yet all the elements for a possible action.”4 It presents acts, symbols, descriptions, and gestures which all create moods but do not make a narrative. While in a sense the movie examines aspects of a sexual and emotional love relationship it does not narrate a love story in any sense. We do not witness the moment when man and woman meet for the first time, for example, because they are archetypal figures who have always known each other. They react to certain things which characterize a love relationship in a number of expected and unusual ways. The flow of often disparate images and meaningful and meaningless captions combine to convey a simultaneity of emotions present in every moment of a love relationship. Some of the most basic human psychic forces are expressed in a convincing way, yet they are appropriated into the realm of the ironic by the use of farce, comic release, multiple allusions, and the popular French music that Man Ray assigned as accompaniment to the film and which further underlines what the film is not.5 The total artful mixing of the real and unreal, the actual and fabricated, results in a totally Surrealistic film.

Man Ray’s final cinematic effort in the ’20s was Le Mystère du Château de Dés, a film commissioned by the Vicomte de Noailles, and until now gravely misunderstood. It has been dismissed as “a sophisticated home movie made for the amusement of the idle rich,”6 yet it has also been discussed in close connection with Philippe Soupault’s contemporary novel, Dernières Nuits de Paris.7 Some underestimate the film, while others attribute complexities which do not properly belong to it. While not a Surrealist work, it provides an example of some of Man Ray’s advanced cinematographic concerns.

The movie arose out of an invitation the Vicomte de Noailles offered to Man Ray to spend a vacation at his home in the south of France along with other guests. The Vicomte merely asked Man Ray to “shoot some sequences showing the installations and art collections in his chateau . . . as well as make some shots of his guests disporting themselves in the gymnasium and swimming pool.”8 Man Ray recalls that he was not especially enthusiastic about the prospect but the kind assurances of Noailles convinced him that he would be as much of a guest as the others and would receive a fee in addition. He accepted the offer and began to consider it as a chance for a vacation. As for the movie, it “would be purely documentary, requiring no inventiveness on my part, it would be an easy, mechanical job and not change my resolution to do no more films. The thought of not showing it in public reassured me.”9 A photograph of the chateau with its cubic forms next to the ruins of a monastery started Man Ray thinking about the potential of the movie: “In spite of myself, my mind began to work, imagining various approaches to the subject; after all, it would be best to make some sort of plan if only not to waste effort.”10 He collected accessories such as dice and stockings “to help create mystery and anonymity.”11 He drew up a general plan which he started filming while still in Paris. The movie is thus an imaginative creation which is ultimately based on Noailles’ order.

Man Ray writes that “The cubic forms of the chateau brought to mind the title of a poem by Mallarmé: ‘A Throw of the Dice Can Never Do Away with Chance.’”12 His real reason for recalling that title, rechristening the chateau with it, and using the phrase as the purported theme of the movie goes much deeper. The poem was greatly admired by Surrealists, who saw it as the culmination of Mallarmé’s work. It was the last major text in which the poet, who had attempted to create a tight poetical structure, acknowledged chance as the force which even the poet could not dominate. It was also the most freely structured of Mallarmé’s texts and the only one in which the visual impact of the words on the page (their placement as well as the type) was utilized to support the total poetic effect.13 Man Ray’s interest in the poem was no doubt sparked by his Surrealist friends. His belief in chance as a ubiquitous force in the creative process has been demonstrated again and again in his artistic efforts. He had used dice once before in Emak Bakia when they are made to dance around amid other geometric objects before being split in two and then rejoined. But the single greatest drawing force of the poem must have been the title, for it expressed the kind of paradoxical double entendre which had become a hallmark of Man Ray’s, especially in his objects.14

The action of the characters takes place in the context of the role of chance. The two passengers roll the dice in the beginning to decide whether they will leave, the man and woman at the end roll the dice to decide if they will stay, and the four figures whom we first see in the chateau are also introduced rolling dice, presumably to decide what they will do (although it is once again declared that chance will reign even when the dice are cast). The guests’ activities seem to be subordinated to the laws of chance. But that explanation is as insufficient as the section entitled “La raison de cette extravagance” in the context of Emak Bakia. For while Mallarmé’s poem treats chance as a universal force, Man Ray’s film uses chance in a seemingly meaningful, yet ultimately playful way.

In a work that has less of a narrative of pyschological structure than his two previous films, Man Ray has followed his own inclination to play with ideas, images, and camera tricks in a random fashion. He observes the guests playing in a playful manner. He mixes straight shots of swimming with the reverse shot of a dive or a woman seeming to juggle balls in the water. Shots of the reflection of the water on the wall intermingle with barbells rolling toward the camera apparently of their own force and with playful captions like “Piscinéma.” If any atmosphere is created it is that of a mythological reality, but even that is done only in an offhand manner. It is mainly the captions which strike the mythical note: “Do phantoms of our actions exist,” “The deities of the living waters let their hair flow,” “Helmeted Minerva.” A few scenes carry out the mythological intent, such as the four bathers who stand on stools in front of piers imitating caryatids in shot #124, or what appears to be a ritual dance in shot #133, with three bathers turning around holding up a medicine ball. The mythical ambiance is underlined by setting the activity of the guests between the first night and the second. Our expectation of the appearance of people is built up through the lengthy examination of the house in which we encounter no one. The captions stress the emptiness of the house and “When morning breaks” introduces the people who seem to have been created from the dark and the void. That the guests are portrayed as gods amusing themselves should come as no surprise. The movie was created for the Vicomte personally. His distinguished guests easily featured as gods and goddesses, even if done playfully. It was not the first time that the artist had depicted his patron in mythological terms.

The other half of the commission called for the filming of the chateau and its furnishings. Man Ray lived up to that part of the bargain by going on an exciting search through the mansion. The exploration of the house, however, follows from the introductory traveling scenes. The ride in the car imparts the sense of movement which we have witnessed in the traveling scenes of L’Etoile de Mer.15 We follow the road with its occasional traffic, we look at the trees by the side of the road,16 we pass through towns then glimpse the mountains where the castle is perched. We are shown a number of different views from the car which are often bouncy, thus giving us an actual visual sensation of the ride. We are led all the way up to the chateau and once we are there the camera continues to pan quickly so that the movement of the car is imparted to the camera. The speed of panning continues until we observe an abstract statue. We are moved into a slow rotating three-dimensional examination of the statue. After these transitional shots we are finally presented with a 360° view of the mansion and its surroundings. An examination of the outside of the house and the gardens turns into an exploration of the inside through another transitional device. The first two shots taken from inside are aimed at the paper star and a sculpture outside in the garden. Once inside, the camera discovers the house through a number of varied shots, including tracking close to the floor, down a corridor, panning rooms, and moving up and down the stairs as would a human visitor.

Man Ray transformed the energy of movement of the traveling section into a sense of expectation and wonder in the section that exhibits the mansion; the movement slows down, becoming more deliberate in the exploration of the house. Captions call attention to the emptiness. A number of unusual sculptures are shown. Some rooms are darkened, with strong sunlight filtering in through blinds. The sense of anticipation is created with the aid of superb transitional shots. They help to maintain the continuity of imagistic flow necessary for creating expectation, an emotion which is the function of time.

Despite the freshness of Le Mystère du Châtteau de Des and despite its technical brilliance, the movie does not possess the artistic integrity of Man Ray’s previous two films. Is the movie weaker because it was restricted to Noailles’ specific commission or because Man Ray increasingly began to resent being regarded as a film maker? The film’s private showing was a great success, so much so that Noailles immediately offered to finance a full length film by Man Ray with no strings attached. He refused and the Vicomte’s offer was taken up by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau who created L’Age d’Or and Le Sang d’un Poète, the two highlights of Surrealist cinema.

A number of movie-making opportunities continued for Man Ray. He was asked to take documentary footage of both Kerensky and Trotsky but, not wanting to be involved in political matters, he passed both assignments on to others. Then, he got together with Jacques Prévert to make a film about the more sordid aspects of Parisian city life. They did some shooting in a dance hall of prostitutes accosting pedestrians in Pigalle and they even had some of the locals act out a scene on a deserted lot. But, once the financial backer retreated, the project was shelved.

One promising project was a joint venture started by Man Ray, André Breton, and Paul Eluard during the summer of 1935 while they were vacationing at Lise Dehorme’s house in the south of France. Man Ray was excited about the enterprise, especially since “Here was a chance to do something in close co-operation with the Surrealists, whom I had not consulted in my previous efforts.”17 This effort called Essai de simulation délire cinématographique had its scenario written by Breton and Eluard in one day. A number of fascinating sequences were shot: a young girl in a one-piece bathing suit riding bareback on a white horse;18 women wandering through the house and gardens in strange attire with one of them attached to the wheel of a well; a bowling game where the balls were replaced by women; and a shot of Breton reading by the window with a dragonfly perched on his forehead. Breton lost his patience in posing and flew into a rage, which Man Ray recorded and was especially intent on using since it was something real, unlike the make-believe of acting. The project was abandoned to everyone’s regret because the small hand camera Man Ray was using jammed too often. Chance, so dear to the Surrealists, had created the right circumstances for the making of an ultimate Surrealist movie only to frustrate it once the film was actually being shot.19

Steven Kovács



1. Man Ray, Self-Portrait, Boston/London, 1963, p. 276.

2. Ibid., p. 277.

3. Ibid, p. 275.

4 Ibid.

5. Frank Stauffacher, ed., Art in Cinema, San Francisco, 1947.

6. Barbara Rose, “Kinetic Solutions to Pictorial Problems,” Artforum, September, 1971, p. 71. Miss Rose manages to destroy the movie in a single paragraph of the critic’s glib vernacular, calling it “preposterous,” “pretentious,” and “full of heavy references.”

7. Carl Belz, “The Film Poetry of Man Ray,” Criticism, Spring, 1965, pp. 117–130. Mr. Belz’s attempt to find comparable works in Surrealist literature is to be applauded, however his results are not wholly satisfactory. In his attempt to find affinities between Philippe Soupault’s Dernières Nuits de Paris and Le Mystère . . . he neglects the very specific conditions of the commission to which Man Ray was tied. He overemphasizes the narrative aspect of the film to make the comparison tighter.

8. Self-Portrait, p. 279.

9. Ibid., p. 280.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. For an insightful treatment of the poem, see the chapter on “Un Coup de Dés” in Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé, London, 1953. The most ambitious work devoted entirely to the poem is Robert Greer Cohn, Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés,” New Haven, 1949.

14. In all other ways the film is independent of the poem, except maybe for shots #88–93. Here the title is split up into three parts amid shots of the four bathers rolling dice. In the poem the title is divided into four sections, printed in large type to stand out, yet placed so that each segment bears some relationship to the text around it. Man Ray has transposed only the most obvious visual impact of the divided phrase.

15. In all three of Man Ray’s mature films we find sequences of landscape shot from a quickly moving vehicle. He recalls that “For twenty-five years I drove cars, in Paris, in America. Like a madman, always. I should have been killed ten times, but I always escaped, not even an accident! No, never an accident, and yet I always had sports cars, and I loved speed, at that time!” Trans. from Pierre Bourgeade, Bonsoir Man Ray, Paris, 1972, p. 113. His love of speed extends to his working method as well: “When I was filming I was always in a hurry. I had no patience. I have never used more than double the amount of film necessary for my shots.” Trans. from “Surréalisme et cinéma,” Etudes cinematographiques, Nos. 38–39, Paris, 1965, p. 43. The combination of his love of speed and fast work resulted in the many rough shots of the trip from Paris to Hyères which succeed remarkably well in translating physical movement to a visual sensation. That is precisely what Man Ray sought to achieve, for as he notes, "I finally realized that speed was purely an optical phenomenon. . . .” Trans. from Bourgeade, p. 113.

16. Man Ray saw this shot as a way of rendering three-dimensionality on the screen. “But there is something else which can produce relief, and that is movement. Sometimes in a film, a landscape is shown and trees are shown passing, at the first plane, which are much closer than the landscape. That creates a three-dimensional effect. It’s the movement which produces that” Trans. from Bourgeade, p. 58. In this film he was especially intent upon translating a sense of the three-dimensional on to the screen. At one point he presents a 360° view of the mansion and its surroundings. At another point he examines an abstract sculpture from all sides, gradually moving the camera in a vertical and revolving motion. His exploration of the inside of the house also shows an acute awareness of the total environment that the house offers.

17. Self-Portrait, p. 286.

18. Man Ray wanted to have her ride naked bareback but since she was a local girl that was out of the question. He thus had her wear a one-piece bathing suit and hoped that at a distance she would appear to be naked.

19. Man Ray wrote a scenario for one more film segment after this effort, Ruth, Roses and Revolvers, in Hans Richter’s color film of 1944–46, Dreams that Money Can Buy.