Mesmerizingly, hauntingly lovely, Dadaist Man Ray’s “cinépoéme” Emak-Bakia is a series—by associations among them, also a collage—of images spinning off the idea of dance. Its centrifugal image amidst constant and continuous motion shows a dazzling pair of short-skirted woman’s legs engaged in a Charleston; they move almost frenetically (almost: the definite steps impose some structure, order) while covering hardly any ground. The shot is framed, with only a tad of skirt visible, so that viewer eyes stray upwards—and more of them than you might think, because viewers are attempting (whatever else they are doing) to stabilize the image.
Most of the other images are spinning, rotating or gyrating—for example, luminous indeterminate objects in a pitch-dark expanse of space—or they involve something round, such as human eyes, a motif since the film is ultimately about our perception of things, how our rationality and imagination bring order and meaning to the stimuli that bombard our vision. (Observing the seashore, the camera itself fully rotates.) There are two notable exceptions. One is a joke: flashing pins, daring us to “pin down” what it is we are looking at at other moments. The other follows a woman as she drives a car and, in a montage, repeatedly exits it: a humdrum stepping down converted into dance steps.
Throughout, different women open their eyes in head-shots, like their descendant in Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962). The last one: we see her weird “eyes” from the start, but she also opens her eyes, revealing that the “eyes” we previously saw were painted onto her lids. In life, as in this radiant film, it is up to us to penetrate and interpret what we see, for what appears to be may be a façade, distortion or something feigned.
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