L’Etoile du Mer – Man Ray – available on t’internet (ubuweb/youtube) – based on a poem by Robert Desnos this short (17 mins approx.) film uses the imagery of the starfish to imply an exploration of the common surrealist theme: female sexuality-desire and the oscillation of the male gaze between libidinous and repulsed. The film obtains a dreamy haze through the use of gelatin smeared on the lens: rendering the image to become like that of a painting. Rather than visually realizing Desnos’ lines in a direct manner, Man Ray’s film offers an elaboration and critical involvement with the poem. The poem’s lines appear as cryptic and sometimes punning intertitles: ‘beautiful like a flower of flesh’ ; ‘beautiful like a flower of fire’; ‘one must beat the dead while they are cold’; ‘The sun, one foot in the stirrup, nestles a nightingale in a veil of crêpe’. In Paul Hammond’s sophisticated and dam insightful introduction to BFI’s The Shadow And Its Shadow (an anthology of surrealist writings on film practice and theory), he explains the surrealist method of ‘synthetic criticism’ (first mentioned by Louis Aragon in a review of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes). This was a process whereby surrealists would subject a film to something similar to Freudian psychoanalysis- intending to draw out the latent unconscious of a film and make it manifest. Hammond convincingly suggests L’Etoile du Mer internalizes this process, engaging with Desnos’ poem in a similar fashion- not illustrating the poem but accompanying it. This intriguingly imagines the film as a tangential excavation of the poem’s unconscious.
However, unlike the images of Bunuel’s two surrealist masterpieces, Man Ray’s film feels too rooted in more Dadaistic tendencies and photographic experimentation to convey the same power that un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or posses. Rather than using the form of conventional cinema to ironically invert and explode that form (as Bunuel’s films do), there is instead a tension between narrative and a more abstract experimentation which, although interesting, makes for less exciting viewing. However to map cinema’s relationship with surrealism, this film, while perhaps not as involving or exciting as Bunuel’s efforts, remains essential viewing.