A contemporary review of Man Ray's movie L'Étoile de Mer by N.N. Sen in the first issue of the literary journal Experiment (Cambridge, 1928). It was edited by William Empson, Hugh Sykes Davies, Humphrey Jennings and William Hare (Lord Ennismore) and Jacob Bronowski.
N.N. Sen (Nikhil N. Sen) was a friend of Mulk Raj Anand (mentioned in an earlier posting on curries) and moved in the same circles in London in the 1920s. Not much is known about Sen; however, Anand mentions him extensively in his Conversations in Bloomsbury (1981). The Open University site has this on him:
It appears that Sen was already in London when Anand arrived in 1925. Like Anand, Sen was a student at University College, London. He was also a poet and an art lover. According to Anand, Sen studied in the British Museum Reading Rooms and the two often lunched together in University College lower refectory, the Museum Tavern or at Poggiolis in Charlotte Street. Sen's girlfriend was Edna Thompson, who was a student of literature; other fellow students included Mr. Topa and Parkash Pandit. Sen apparently worked at Arthur Probsthain’s Oriental Bookshop in Russell Street, and found work for Anand in Jacob Schwartz’s Ulysses Bookshop.
Furthermore, Sen already knew several members of the 'Bloomsbury Group' when Anand arrived in Britain. Indeed, it was Sen who introduced Anand to Bonamy Dobree, Gwenda Zeidmann, Jacob Schwartz, Harold Monro, Edith Sitwell, Laurence Binyon and Leonard Woolf. Together they met T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence, and they would go to the British Museum with Laurence Binyon. Like Anand, Sen was frustrated by the orientalist views of some members of the Bloomsbury Group and would often argue with Eliot and Lawrence.
Man Ray's film is readily available at ubu.com and on YouTube with added music. It lasts 17 minutes and stars Alice Prin (Kiki of Montparnasse) and Robert Desnos (who wrote also the script.) Ray is seen below with Dali.
L'ÉTOILE DE MER
A POEM AS SEEN BY MAN RAY
Two figures move on an open road–one sees them as through a haze–a man and a woman. Seems like a distant memory–as though one was trying to receive an old scene.
This haziness continues throughout the whole piece. A similar effect was used in one of Otto Mathieson's films, where the actor sees his whole life pass before him just before he dies.
One remembers the distortion in Dr. Calighari, the whole production was distorted as seen by a madman's eyes.
This hazy effect might be used effectively to suggest distant, long-forgotten memories–where uncertain shadows loom out from an old situation. Except for a short while when the hero of the piece is shown in a contemplative mood, the whole film is hazy.
The man and the woman walk up a flight of stairs and enter a room. The woman undresses and stretches herself in a bed, the man bids farewell and leaves her.
A delightful comedy touch, effective because it is so unexpected.
I am not so acquainted with the poem that Man Ray has translated into a picture or a series of photographs interposed amongst a series of moving pictures. There is little or no narrative. The only subtitles used are a play of words–
"Sybille," says the hero, "Si belle."
Without claiming any credit a device oft used by Man Ray was also thought of by me and the well-known critic, Mr Harry A. Potamkin, that of using a blank screen for a while. It may be white or black. Besides having a restful influence on the eyes it might serve various other purposes. The one that comes first to my mind is that of suggesting a gap in the continuity of a persons thought.
This device was resorted to in this film a great deal but for purely visual effect and not with any other purpose.
A lot of the film was devoted to starfishes and the superb technique of the photographer as best shown when he projects twelve of these creatures, at the same time, as seen from various angles. They are separated from one another by a semi illuminous zone and the whole thing is so well timed that one is to grasp it all at one glance.
I do not know if this has much value beyond that of the camera technique.
A third person appears on the scene and the heroine goes out with him while the hero plays on the same words "Sybille," "Si belle."
That is the story, but from the moment the film starts one good shot follows another.
Another device is that of interposing a still life amongst a series of rapidly moving scenes. One suddenly sees a woman's bare leg resting on a magazine cover, or a sleeping nude, or the heroine posing in Grecian dress with spear and helmet and a white sheet round her.
They are photographs put in a movie. One can realise the effect of this static piece, which does not in any way slow the film, from one of Talkmadge's pictures The Lady of the Camilias.
There, about the end, she is shown in about a dozen photographic poses in rapid succession. The contrast is subtle. Image a scene as the one in La tragedie dans le Rue, where Asta Nielson dreams of having a boulangerie and a flourishing business, and in that turmoil of visions that pass introduce a still life scene of a cosy home and the effect can be doubled.
A woman's arm–the plump well-shaped arm of Kiki, with an engraved bracelet on, holding an engraved dagger. She moves it slowly and the pearls gleam.
From an aesthetic point of view it is well done, and that is what it was meant to do but it can be used otherwise too–a symbol–for the desolate hero says again–
"Sybille," "Si belle."
As a novelty it is much hailed, but it has value beyond that. Much of it can be used for purposes other than mere perfections of the photographic art.