- Emak-Bakia (1927) & Ménilmontant (1926) movie review: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s program “Avant-Garde Paris” rewarded viewers willing to take a chance. But what was up with that violin playing?
‘Avant-Garde Paris’ movies Emak-Bakia & Ménilmontant: Screeching violin for abstract short & a one-man band for fascinating experimental short
I knew I was taking a chance by going to see something with “avant-garde” in its title – in this case, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s program “Avant-Garde Paris.” I expected there would be little or no narrative or storyline; rather, this would be a sensory experience of sight and sound. I was right.
First on the program was Emak-Bakia (1927), directed by Man Ray. I was familiar with Man Ray through his unconventional photography, also evidenced in the visual “half” – double exposure, soft focus, etc. – of his plotless, abstract short film.
Now, although I also have great respect for the musicians who perform for such films, I have a critical note for this one.
In the program description, I noticed that there would be some string instruments included in Earplay’s score for “Avant-Garde Paris.” Unfortunately, I practically had to plug my ears to deafen the sound of the screeching violin, viola, and cello that accompanied the first half of Emak-Bakia. The cacophony was not unlike a hand file scraping against the strings of these marvelous instruments until it finally gave way to more soothing sounds as the movie progressed.
I liked the second “Avant-Garde Paris” film much better: Ménilmontant (1926), directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and featuring a wisp of a story about two sisters (Nadia Sibirskaïa, who happened to be the director’s first wife, and Yolande Beaulieu) and a thuggish boyfriend.
Named after the Parisian neighborhood just north of the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Ménilmontant had the lighting, the framing, and the beautiful close-ups of any mainstream film made at that time. The actors were probably chosen for their lack of movie-star good-looks, but they were transformed into something so transcendental that the film kept me fascinated.
In fact, even though I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing, I enjoyed the intertitle-free movie’s innovative touches.
Honorable mention, as usual, goes to musician Stephen Horne, who masterfully played at least three distinct instruments during the screening. Horne is the embodiment of the One-Man Band. Each time I hear his scores I am more impressed.
Direction & Screenplay: Man Ray.
Cast: Kiki of Montparnasse. Jacques Rigaut.
Direction & Screenplay: Dimitri Kirsanoff.
Cast: Guy Belmont. Nadia Sibirskaïa. Yolande Beaulieu. Maurice Ronsard. Jean Pasquier. M. Ardouin.
“Avant-Garde Paris” endnotes
Ménilmontant and Emak-Bakia reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).
René Guissart’s 1936 feature Ménilmontant (no connection to the 1926 short) stars Gabriel Signoret (no connection to Casque d’Or’s Simone Signoret), Pierre Larquey, and Josette Day.
Ménilmontant movie image: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“Avant-Garde Paris: Memorable Ménilmontant + Abstract Emak-Bakia” last updated in November 2021.