When Man Ray’s short film “Emak-Bakia” debuted in Paris in 1926, critical opinion was mixed. One angry viewer shouted that it gave him a headache and hurt his eyes, to which another retorted, “Shut up!” A brawl ensued, which spread through the audience and spilled into the street. Then the police arrived to quell the riot.
The story comes from the film’s Wikipedia entry. It may be apocryphal, but it fits a long tradition of Paris art openings. Ray’s experimentation with abstract elements, surrealist motives, and stop-motion animation was avant-garde at the time. It earned his place in the French film movement known as Cinéma Pur. Today’s film critics, sated by special effects, just yawn. According to Chris Dashiell in a 2001 review in CineScene.com:
EMAK BAKIA (1926) displays the influence of both surrealism and dadaism. Once again Ray experiments with the movement of shapes – many of the effects seem tired now after decades of innovation in animated film, but they were fresh at the time. He employs bizarre imagery as well – a man’s eyes turning into the headlights of a car, a flock of sheep, the legs of a dancing woman. Odd effects are attained through camera movement – sideways, upside down, etc. – or distortion of the image, as in a convex mirror.
Emak bakia means “leave me alone” in Basque, although an alternate idiomatic meaning is “the female [gives] the peace.” The legendary Kiki of Montparnasse, Ray’s model and mistress, drives a car in the film. Doomed Dada poet Jacques Rigaut appears dressed in drag.
The film was silent in its original cut. The version shown here comes from a video produced by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (via Ubu.com, which hosts five other Man Ray shorts). The soundtrack was mixed with music from Ray’s personal record collection.