Although this blog will focus on the beginnings of surrealist cinema, an in-depth look at its legacy will be given at a one-time-only lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago on July 24, 2014 with Facets director Milos Stehlik. Click here for more information.
|Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945) - Still from dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali|
Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.
- Salvador DaliWhen someone mentions “surrealism”, the word conjures particular ideas in people’s minds: dreams, oddity, abstract, unconscious, subconscious, metaphor, confusion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, surrealism may be defined as “a 20th century art form in which an artist or writer combines unrelated images or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinations.”
Surrealism began in France in the 1920s and lasted through the late 1940s. Some of the most popular surrealist artists were painters Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Rene Magritte. Their work became known for their dream-like quality, juxtaposition of everyday people and objects in irrational forms, and the abstraction of real life, places, and things. Highly influenced by Freudian psychology, surrealism sought to bring the unconscious mind to visual life. Balanced between symbolism and realism, surrealist art commentated on themes of life, death, modernity, politics, religion, and art itself. For instance, Dali used images of clocks to symbolize the unfixed nature of time while he used ants to symbolize death and decay. Although surrealism gradually declined as a movement in the 1940s and 1950s, surrealism’s legacy is not limited to high-brow art. Media appropriated its most popular images and style, giving surrealism instant recognition and immortality. The melting clocks in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) and the locomotive bursting out of a fireplace in Magritte’s Time Transfixed (1938) are recognizable to nearly anyone. While pop-culture appropriates surrealist images for humor or satire, cinema uses surrealism in its mise-en-scene, cinematography, and narrative structure subtly and consistently.
|Dali's Time Transfixed & a Simpson's appropriation|
Surrealism’s role in the history of cinema dates back to the peak of the movement when surrealist artists put down their paintbrushes and picked up film cameras. Their work became popular within avant-garde film circles and left a lasting impression on the possibilities of cinema and the surreal.
Surrealist Cinema: The Beginnings
To an extent, almost any stylized film could be labeled ‘surreal.’ From the stark shadows of German Expressionism to the independent neo-noirs of David Lynch, films create visual worlds and experiences unlike reality. However, most of the aesthetics labeled surreal today owe a great deal to the work of surrealist artists during the 1920s through the late 1940s. During that time, surrealist cinema was its own unique and powerful film movement.It has never been my object to record my dreams, just the determination to realize them.- Man Ray
|Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)|
It began in France because of a fortunate combination of easy access to film equipment, film financing, and a plethora of interested artists and audiences. Surrealist artists realized that the film camera could capture the real world in a dreamlike way that their pens and paintbrushes could not: superimpositions, overexposures, fast-motion, slow-motion, reverse-motion, stop-motion, lens flares, large depth of field, shallow depth of field, and more bizarre camera tricks could transform the original image in front of the lens into something new once exposed on the film plate. For surrealists, film gave them the ability to challenge and mold the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially with space and time. Like the dreams they wished to bring to life, film had no limits or rules.
|The Blood of the Poet (Cocteau, 1930)|
Since surrealist filmmakers did not desire and often opposed commercial success, their work was screened at limited venues and considered to be avant-garde. Although surrealist elements can be seen in post-war American avant-garde films (i.e. Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger), surrealist cinema was rooted in the French avant-garde. Some of the most popular surrealist filmmakers were Man Ray, Jean Epstein, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and, perhaps most famous of all – Luis Bunuel.
|Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren, 1943)|
Luis Bunuel & Un Chien Andalou
…the only absurd thing in Un Chien Andalou is the title.- Luis Bunuel
Bunuel’s filmography spans over thirty years, ranging from the avant-garde to documentary to erotic dramas. Often controversial, his films confront issues of poverty, politics, romance, sex, and race. Bunuel’s career began when he borrowed money from his mother to make Un Chien Andalou (1929) with his close friend Salvador Dali. In the film, Bunuel aimed to create a purely visual piece of cinema that challenged conventions of narrative, plot, cinematography, and theme. The most iconic and disturbing image of the film is the opening sequence in which a man slices a woman’s eye open with a razor blade, foreshadowed by clouds slicing across the moon in the night sky. However, ants crawling out of a man’s hand, a severed hand in the middle of the street and bleeding cattle on top of pianos being dragged across the floor are equally disturbing images presented in the film.
|The women before her eye is sliced in Un Chien Andalou|
Bunuel and Dali derived the ‘story’ from a series of dreams. Like dream worlds, Un Chien Andalou does not obey physical rules of time and space. For instance, at the end of the film, the woman leaves a dark room where she teases the man and enters another room. The new room is brightly lit and windy. The scene then cuts to long shot of a man standing on a beach that turns around and faces screen right. Then it cuts back to the woman as she waves and runs towards the camera, screen right. Next is a medium long shot of the man on the beach and then a quick cut to him in a long shot as the women enters from screen right and runs into his arms. From these five shots, the real dimensions of space (separate locations of an interior room and an exterior beach) are disregarded as the real dimensions of time (the amount of time it takes to move from an interior to an exterior) are disregarded as well. While most films do break conventions of time by cutting from one scene to the next and omitting unnecessary actions, Bunuel pushes space and time further by eliminating their physical rules and allowing for a cinematic stream of consciousness from one image to the next.
|The man on the beach in Un Chien Andalou|
Considered a classic of avant-garde and surrealist cinema, Un Chien Andalou continues to shock audiences with its illogical narrative structure and graphic imagery. Although Bunuel’s first masterpiece, it certainly wasn’t his last as he went on to make L’Age D’or (1930), The Young One (1960), and Belle de Jour (1967).
For Bunuel and other surrealist filmmakers, the camera was more than just a means to capture the world and tell stories; it was the lens through which they could twist and transform depictions of the world into how they truly saw it.
For more on Surrealist Cinema, be sure to register for a lecture with Milos Stehlik at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Luis Bunuel and other avant-garde filmmakers’ films are available for rental at FACETS.
- Gina Marie Ezzone