The Search for Emak Bakia – Oskar Alegria and the search for the clown within. (SFF Film Review)
The Search for Emak Bakir is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival. You can get your tickets here.
“This creation is offered by one individual to another, to you, who are here.” Man Ray
“Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Man Ray
You don’t have to see Man Ray’s surrealist existential masterpiece Emak Bakia to enjoy Oskar Alegria’s devoted ode to the cinépoéme in order to enjoy it, but to appreciate it in its full glory, (and particularly if you haven’t already seen it) its worth watching if you are about to head in to a viewing of this wonderful film. In 1926 the American artist Man Ray filmed near Biarritz, on the southeast coast of France. It was a purely visual film, without a narrative thread. Man Ray broke with all the rules of cinema, even that of respecting the horizon. He turned the ocean on its head so that we watch waves and water where the sky should be, among other mind-messing images and methods. Emak Bakia is an important film to cinephiles as it involved many techniques that became widely used after the film was released. It is also an excellent example of the cross-section between existentialism and surrealism, two interests that concerned Man Ray in 1926 when the film was made.
At the start of The Search for Emak Bakia we are told – “Man Ray called his work Emak Bakia, a Basque expression which means “Leave me Alone.” This film follows his footsteps and adds one exclamation mark.”
But what does following the footsteps of one of the worlds most intense, funny and private artists mean? For Alegria it is not so much faithfully following the footsteps as they might appear in the sand before him, although he does do that. Rather it is a metaphysical following, a journey that involves more imagination than information. This manifests in Alegria’s devotion to whatever captures the imagination in his wanderings. At first he doesn’t know why Ray’s film is called Emak Bakia, even if he does know what it means. An early rumor says that Man Ray found the expression Emak Bakia on an epitaph of a tombstone in the Biarritz cemetery. He was fascinated that someone deceased might bid farewell requesting “Leave me Alone.” Seduced by this unconfirmed notion and entranced by the journey itself, the almost continually silent Alegria starts in the cemetery in his search for whatever might have inspired Man Ray. His hopes of coming up with the tombstone remain unfulfilled, but what he does find in the graveyard, is the grave of a clown.
At this point we switch to Man Ray’s own tomb which reads “unconcerned but not indifferent.”
Man Ray was called a joker and a clown in his lifetime. As soon as Alegria finds the grave of a clown, he asks the question do clowns ever really die, and then follows the path of the clown, allowing everything before him to be an invitation to a road less traveled. There are some delightful scenes out of this. Footage of an empty plastic glove floating on the air and down a street so that it regularly appears to the pointing at various houses. Alegria collecting all the names of the houses and then making poetry out of them. It’s this sort of whimsy that punctuates the first half of The Search for Emak Bakia keeping the viewer enthralled and amused as Alegria connects dots that one would never think to connect.
It is when Algeria finds Emak Bakia that the film changes tac successfully and becomes a deeper connection with the dead artist. (But does a clown ever really die?) Algeria will ask the questions, Do ghosts of actions exist? Ghosts of our past actions? The minutes we’ve lived, don’t they leave some concrete trace in the air and on the land? At this point we know we are deep in the territory of Emak Bakia and we have relinquished control to Algeria. He will use simple mirror shots to reflect Ray’s film back into our world, the questions of a reoccurring past circling our minds. With Man Ray as the ultimate guide, Algeria will blur the boundaries between reality and representation. And it’s not just in the images that borders become blurred, it is in the films rambling narrative. All of this is an ode to the capturing of immediate experience that is the powerhouse of the original film. Man Ray’s film was never about a linear narrative, it was always how we feel over what we know. Algeria will use facts to lead us away from the classic narrative representations, so that we are glued to the “now” and to the experience of perception.
And this is the key to The Search for Emak Bakia. It is not, as the surface would have us believe, the search for locations and answers to questions. It is the search within us for what Emak Bakia opens up. It is the search within the film for the cross section moment between awareness of experience and the dissolving between reality and the object of reality. The Search For Emak Bakia is the search for a clown, a clown who never dies. It is the place inside where we understand that it is not accurate knowledge that makes us human and alive, it is our feelings. It is the moment where the mind is a pure abstract, free from definitions and symbolism. It is the purest moment of surrealism, it is the ultimate accomplishment of being alive.
This is the great joy that comes from watching The Search for Emak Bakia – it is the feelings you experience as you grin broadly, clownishly into the screen. For a short time, the viewer gets to feel what Man Ray was trying to say. As I said above, you don’t have to know anything about Man Ray’s film before you go into The Search for Emak Bakia – but it is a wonderful excuse to watch it anyway.