Learning the Unruly ABCs of Dada

F is for...
Film, Flashy, Fast

Some of dada's most important members -- Man Ray, Francis Picabia, even Marcel Duchamp -- tinkered with cinema. The medium, still in its early days, brought up many of the issues that dada tended to obsess over: escapist pop fantasies, commerce and global culture, speed, montage and machine technology, realism and illusion, truth and lies and propaganda. And movies came with so few rules, it was as easy to make up new ones as to break the old.

The exhibition includes a screening room where you can watch some of these first works of thoroughly experimental film. As with today's projected video, some riff on the narrative cliches of popular film: A 20-minute short called "Entr'acte,” made in Paris by Francis Picabia and Rene Clair, includes a gorgeous, Chaplinesque scene of mourners running after a camel-drawn hearse, played in super slo-mo so that the runners seem to float.

Other dada films, by artists including Man Ray and Viking Eggeling - the star of a recent Hirshhorn show - are abstract or very nearly so, compiling strange snippets of light and shape into a fractured dance.

In 1923, only a day and a half before one of dada's major Paris events, Man Ray discovered he'd been listed on the program as the director of an experimental movie - something he had yet to try his hand at. Instead of running off to shoot some scenes, he dropped various objects on his film before exposing it to light, then edited in snippets of footage he happened to have nearby. (Including scenes of a shadowcaressed female torso from which one of his most famous still photos is taken.)

The resulting two-minute silent film, titled "Return to Reason," is unreasonable, incoherent and aggressive; its first screening incited a riot. What more could any dada artist ask?

- Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer


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