The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Emak-Bakia (1926/France/dir. Many Ray) appeared at #92 on my original list.
What it is • A dream, a vision, or - as the introductory title puts it - a "cine-poem" made up of various images, many distorted (as usual in photographer-turned-filmmaker Man Ray's famed oeuvre). Some of these images are immediately identifiable: a goggled driver behind the wheel of a motorcar, various women opening and closing their eyes (one with surreal painted eyelids), a man making himself up as a woman in the mirror. Others represent familiar objects, skewed - an electronic sign isolated in inky darkness, overlapping flapper legs emerging from an auto, double-exposed fish swimming across one another's images. Finally there are those inscrutable abstractions, shapes and points of light growing and shrinking, fluctuating in shape as well as size, suggesting unexplored dimensions in our known universe. Together these approaches evoke the world of a sleeper caught between dream and waking, in which recognizable objects take on strange proportions and images from the everyday are cast in bizarre and evocative lights.
Why I like it •
Like all works of modernist art, created in an era nearly a century past and yet more advanced and exploratory than much of what we experience today, Emak-Bakia seems to belong to both past and future simultaneously. There's something strangely moving about this ability to blur the meaning of time, and it's especially strong in experimental works of cinema. That is to say, because it was born at the dawn of modernism, the medium feels slightly schizophrenic: even as it was establishing its own rules of classicism (as all new mediums must), it was violating these by branching out into abstract approaches seizing other, much older arts at the time. Perhaps that is why Ray's film evokes such a beautiful sadness, a sense that we are witnessing an alternate reality which was barely explored. Or maybe this sadness is due to the historical awareness of how fragile was the world this film represents, sensitive souls in Europe caught in the confusing undertow of the interwar yeas, reeling from the bloodshed before and rushing toward an even more terrifying cataclysm to come in which outsiders would be particularly vulnerable. Then again, the emotional afterglow of Emak-Bakia could be down to something as simple and anachronistic as the DVD score by Paul Mercer (produced by Bruce Bennett), stirring and haunting on the Kino Avant-Garde collection on which I watched this. Regardless, these are intellectual bubbles rising to the surface as I struggle to gather my thoughts for an informal review. The essence of Emak-Bakia is an emotional response evoked by the cascade of images, beyond words - that's why Ray made it a movie after all.
How you can see it • Emak-Bakia is available on YouTube and in the Kino Avant-Garde collection from Netflix. While this is my first review for this site, I discussed it briefly in a comment on Wonders in the Dark. A very short clip from it is included at 1:50 in the first chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" video series, "Dance of the Silents".
What do you think? • Has the avant-garde been overlooked and underprivileged in film histories? Who is your favorite avant-garde filmmaker? Do the abstract images of Emak-Bakia and other experimental movies evoke particular associations in your mind, or do you enjoy them more as visual music? If you don't care for these types of films, what is it about them that you find lacking? Is Man Ray's film work as strong as his photography? What other artists do you feel did or didn't make the transition to film well? What are the advantages and pitfalls of switching between mediums?
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Previous week: All the President's Men (#93)
Next week: Faust (#91)