Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections: Ray's Band

Last week I blogged my anticipation for Cinematheque Ontario’s ‘Films By Man Ray,’ a one-night-only screening of the photographer’s surrealist silent films. I couldn’t wait to buy my free ticket. Here’s what went down.

Cinematheque Ontario screens out of Jackman Hall, which is stuck to the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. Their theatre is small, seating maybe 100-150 people, which is fine, because the films they screen are not commercial draws, but artistic successes (occasionally, they’re both). The films are almost always older; sometimes very, very old.

Friday night’s menu featured five films, to be screened consecutively, separated by brief fades-to-black:

Le Retour À La Raison (1923)—3 minutes

Emak-Bakia (1926)—18 minutes

Anémic Cinéma (1926)—7 minutes

L’étoile De Mer (1928)—21 minutes

Les Mystères Du Château De Dé (1929)—27 minutes

I don’t speak French. I’m not proud of the fact, but I’ll admit, it hasn’t really hampered me in life. It’s certainly never been a problem when watching silent films. So I wasn’t concerned when a Cinematheque rep stood on-stage before the movies began, and informed us they weren’t translated. To paraphrase him: “These films, with their focus on the visual, do not require translations to be appreciated.”

I took him at his word. I was more interested in the unmanned piano sitting to my far left. See, one of the reasons the Cinematheque guy had a stage to stand on is that many of the silent films they show are accompanied by a live pianist. He performs on the stage.

No pianist tonight. I realized I was about to embark on an hour of silent—really silent—films, all of them in French. At least they were mostly visual... first they were. The first two films were series of juxtaposed images—objects with common shapes; for example, eyeballs followed by car headlights. The director also did some interesting tricks with objects spinning or shaking quickly (creating new images from the blurs they produced). These films had very little wording and no narrative, so really, it was up to you.

Anémic Cinéma broke the pattern. In this one, Man Ray presented a series of floating, concentric circles, which he used to suggest certain objects, most notably a woman’s breast. Between each composition was an intertitle, offering its words on a turning disk.

The words were quite funny, apparently. About half the audience (we’ll call them the Literary Half) were busting their guts. Not me.

I never realized how annoying it is to not get a joke when everyone around you is laughing. It drove me crazy. The disks rotated slowly, so the laughter would build as the Literary Half reached each punchline. For me, there was no reason to linger—my eyes just skipped ahead to the few words I could make out. Like any student with nine years of mandatory Canadian French, I can pronounce words I don’t understand, so it was clear to me that Man Ray was punning like crazy. I just couldn’t laugh at what I saw. Very frustrating.

The fourth film featured a love affair from the perspective of a starfish. Less French here, and really, love is universal, so I got by. But L’étoile De Mer also gave me time to think about the unique experience of watching films in dead silence. In a theatre that small, with not even a note of music to drown you out, you are easily heard. The woman next to me breathed like the wind howled. The fat guy in front of me crinkled his shopping bag every time he adjusted in his seat. Two of the Literary Half still tittered away behind me—in French.

Whenever a film faded black, ten people would cough. Then a bunch more would laugh at how funny that was. Everyone was conscious of themselves, and no matter how engrossing Man Ray’s movies were, I don’t think anyone was transported from that theatre.

Get ready for the spookiest part. During two of the films, I heard a low drone, like a long note on a cello. I don’t think these sounds were part of a soundtrack; I think they were from machinery or goings-on somewhere in Jackman Hall. But the instant they were heard, I engaged differently with the film I was watching. The drone was an ominous sort of sound, you see; the type you’d play against a seemingly innocent moment that will prove to have terrible consequences. Watching a silent film with bizarre imagery, unreadable dialogue and only threads of a narrative makes you positively starved for help of this kind. Instantly, the scene I was watching seemed ominous. And hell, maybe it was meant to be.

So, what did I learn? Not as much as I’d hoped to about Man Ray’s films, but certainly a bit about human behaviour. To Cinematheque Ontario, let me say, thank you for screening such interesting and obscure silent material. And also: get a bloody narrator, if you can’t get a translated print. You’ve done it before (remember the Murnau retrospective a few years’ back?) Yes, it’s distracting, but I’d rather spend an hour trying to stay engrossed in a film than simply watching it from the distance of my seat.

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