Dada Changed My Life
review by Gregory Avery, 5 September 2003

In his biography of Luis Buñuel, John Baxter quotes another biographer, Lachlan Mackinnon, who said, "Those who survived it [the Surrealist movement] were either heroic individualists like André Breton or psychotics like Salvador Dalí." This makes it sound as if it were something like a war, which it was and wasn't -- it was certainly a concerted and organized effort in response to something. The French author and poet Breton served as  the grand poobah of  the Surrealists in the 1920s, deciding on who would, or would not, be admitted as a Surrealist member and be allowed to call themselves as such in public. The Catalonian-born Dalí, who cultivated his nuttiness for the sake of Art, knew, like Picasso and Andy Warhol, exactly how to market himself. With the Spanish Civil War and the ascension of the Franco regime in Spain, Dalí went to the U.S., designed department store window displays, and did paintings such as one which rendered the Golden Gate Bridge as if it were made from human bones. He also achieved the singular accomplishment of grossing-out no less a personage than Cecil B. De Mille with a screening of Un Chien Andalou, the film which would define Surrealism in the minds of many people for years to come.

But the Surrealists themselves were begat from the Dadaists, whose manifesto was written by poet and writer Tristan Tzara in 1918. Like the Surrealists -- who would create public disturbances and even wreck establishments they felt disinclined towards -- the Dadaists didn't confine themselves entirely to the world of the arts. Dadaism was in part a response to the conditions which were engendered in Europe by the catastrophic First World War -- among which was the effective sweeping-away of the old Europe, including two of its "central powers," the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires; the use of armored tanks and mustard gas and trench warfare in battlefields; and the disastrous tactical errors made by military commanders, sometimes resulting in the loss of several thousand soldiers per day and, in one instance, troops breaking-rank and refusing to go back into the trenches because they had lost all faith in their upper command.

Dada -- an "anti-art movement" born of "misunderstanding and confusion" -- was a means by which to challenge conventions and confront the very questions of existence. "Every page must explode," Tzara wrote in his 1918 "Dada Manifesto," continuing, "On the one hand a tottering world in flight, betrothed to the glockenspiel of hell, on the other hand: new men.... We will put an end to mourning and replace tears by sirens screeching from one continent to another...." The Dadaists created publications, photomontages, held poetry readings where two or more people read on-stage simultaneously or while accompanied by tomtoms. Exhibitions were held where patrons had to enter through a urinal. In Berlin, members of the Weimar parliament were showered with incendiary leaflets declaring that Dadaists were "rulers of the Globe."

Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists -- who included poet and impresario Hugo Ball, artist Hans Arp, and writer Richard Hulsenbeck -- regularly convened at the Cabaret Voltaire, a cafe in Zurich, Switzerland, and the new documentary Dada Changed My Life is essentially about how a group that could be called the New Dadaists reopened the Cabaret Voltaire in early 2002 as a meeting and performance space, and how they subsequently fought to keep it from being turned into a pharmacy and apartment block by developers. The documentary -- made by Olga Mazurkiewicz (who's Polish-American), Daniel Martinez (who's Spanish), and Lou Lou (who's Swiss, making this a respectably international undertaking) -- takes its title from a story related to the filmmakers by a woman -- Ursula Sterling, "Council President" for the "Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches" -- who was arrested at the Cabaret one night by a policewoman who, instead of taking her to the station, took her back to her apartment, where they had a drink and an evening that is described simply as being "wun-der-schön." The film is playful, loose, and scrappy in a way that Tzara and his group probably would've approved of. It includes portions of slam-poetry readings, a marriage ceremony at a "Ministry of Silly Weddings" in Britain (interrupted on account of a phone call for the bride), and an attempt to interview the "sole surviving Dadaist," who only manages to get out how the new kids are "mierda" before keeling over for good. The Dadaist "Foundation Kroesus" decides to liquidate their assets by throwing them out the window to people on the street below, while a hiccuping recording of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March" plays in the background.

That last, of course, also served as the theme to Monty Python's Flying Circus. So much of what comprised the original Dada movement has long since been absorbed and made commonplace by mainstream culture, from record album covers to advertising and music videos. It is often difficult, in the age of electronic communications, to discern when people are trying to do something "meaningful," nowadays, from people who are just acting-out in front of the cameras to get what immediate attention they will. (The wedding sequence mentioned above is interrupted by a beautiful young woman in pearls and a fur coat who seizes the attention of the documentary-makers and then says, "I absolutely have nothing to tell. I just would like to be filmed." After directing the cameraman to look at her legs, she tells us that her "profession" is, "I live to be rich.") Films and the moving visual arts were just getting started when the Dadaists came into being; they would be further explored by Man Ray , with his experimental black-and-white montage films, and Buñuel, who was able to make L'Age d'Or, one of the great anarchist documents in film history, because he had private financial backers who gave him complete freedom. The New Dadaists seek to exercise their God-given right to express themselves, however and in whatever way they see fit, and they certainly don't appear to be spoiling for a fight (something of a relief during this time of "preemptive" wrist-smacking). The New Dadaists may have to find some way to do so in the video or film medium that conveys the same shock of the old -- maybe some way that says, we don't care whether you gaup at us like some freaks on a "reality" show or not, but we've got something to say.  A return to the stage, with its sense of immediacy and power, may also be the thing, which is why fighting to keep places like the Cabaret Voltaire up and going as an open forum is something of genuinely vital concern. To everybody.

Directed by:
Olga Mazurkiewicz
Daniel Martinez 
Lou Lou

R - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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