Man Ray’s The Return to Reason is one of the most well know Dada films. The title is ironic. Dadaism was a movement propitiated by the physchological aftermath of World War I, Freud’s theories, and other events of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Dadaist felt the loss of a world in which nothing made sense anymore, and their art reflected this.
My background is in narrative, and it has taken me a long time to appreciate art cinema. I keep waiting for things to make sense. There is reason in narrative. Order. I keep trying to subjectively edit the pictures together and come up with the movie’s theme. The first avant garde film I really loved was Maya Deren’s At Land. That film didn’t have to make sense because it expressed something I somehow understood. And that’s helped me appreciate other art cinema, but it wasn’t until I felt Dada and Surrealist-like experiences that I began to feel a kinship with their art.
Dada films are an expression birthed from chaos of mind and spirit. They visually reflect a mind distracted and unsure, but full of feeling. They express chaos. They are in a sense, the heir apparent to Descartes. We don’t know what is real, but we can think something, we can feel something.
The Return to Reason is highlighed by stark black and white images. A spinning top (I think it’s a top. It might be a tack. . . ), nails falling through the frame. Then negatives of those images, black and white but the inverse as the same. There are fragmented bits that blend into a mass of near-static. It is frantic. It is sharp. It is in contrast. The final image is a nude torso. She moves through light, black and white lines bending to her grey body. Sharp contrast meets curved grey.
I have just finished my first year of full time teaching. For the past four months, it feels like all I’ve done is analyze, problem solve, and evaluate. I’m tired. My brain is tired. My mind is chaos. The gray matter is gray. I’m not sure what’s real half of the time. There seems to be no black and white, only gray. And somehow, Dadaism makes perfect sense because it too makes no sense. There is no reason, just expression. I cannot process my thoughts anymore, I can only sense and express. I can no longer find the metaphor, I can only see the tree, the car, the sunshine and react to them. The black and white of reason is gone in a cloud of gray human frailty.
But there is another way to look at the end of Ray’s film. Perhaps the return to reason is not ironic. Perhaps in the chaos of thoughts, the black and white, the reason is the sense. To return to reason is to curve, to become gray, to no longer be a thinking thing, but just a breathing one.
Regardless, in watching a film I had appreciated in the past, I now watch it and feel engaged in the emotions that created it, and the emotions it creates. I found the chaos that it expressed for me as well, and that’s how I learned to love Dada.