Surrealism & Cinema
Breaking from the Celluloid Narrative
by Katherine Enos

Once upon a time
   A balcony at night. A man is sharpening his razor near the balcony. The man looks at the sky thorough window panes and sees
   A light cloud advancing toward a full moon.
   Then a young woman's head, with eyes wide open.
Toward one of the eyes a razor blade advances.
   The light cloud passes now in front of the moon.
   The razor blade moves across the young woman's eye cutting it open.
               — Un Chien andalou
                   The script by Bunuel & Dali1
This nonchalantly brutal opening to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's would-be cinematic fairy tale made Un Chien andalou a notorious success in surrealist circles. In 1928 when "Pope of Surrealism" Andre Breton and his adherents learned that a "surrealist" film, made by two unknowns, would be shown at the Paris Studio 28, he sought out the filmmaker for a private screening. Un Chien andalou, with its violence, its bizarre occurrences, mockery and unintelligibility, was praised as inspirational and today remains possibly the most important text of the early surrealist movement.

The Declaration of January 27, 1925 circulated by the short-lived Bureau de Recherches Surrealistes at 15, Rue de Grenelle, sets out several major points of the surrealist program. With twenty-six signatures, Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Max Ernst and Breton among them, the Declaration asserts that the surrealists are "specialists in Revolt" and "determined to make a Revolution."2 However, at least at the outset of the surrealist adventure, this "Revolution" is one of the mind: "[Surrealism] is a means of total liberation of the mind and of all that resembles it."3 Curiously denying any desire to alter the "mores of mankind," the surrealists expected to demonstrate "the fragility of thought, and on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses."4 The last words in the Declaration, however, reveal the bourgeois roots of this anti-bourgeois collective, and of the contradictions which inevitably follow, residing within their theories and artworks: "[Surrealism] is a cry of the mind turning back on itself, and it is determined to break apart its fetters, even if it must be by material hammers!"5

For the Freudian-influenced surrealists this "liberation" would dissolve the schism between wakefulness and the dream state, it would release the mind from the imposition of mundane "reason" and allow pleasure through the free-floating association of disparate images. Breton describes his early relationship with the cinema as one structured, in fact, to avoid context and logic: rarely seeing whole films, he would leave a theatre whenever so moved, and then rush to another film which had already begun, only to depart in the middle of it as well.

"Psychic automatism" denoted the images conjured up from a state of half-sleep and half -wakefulness. Automatism could provide the conscious mind with a direct link to the subconscious. Surrealism would valorize the dream state and, hence, the image.

Additionally, in an attempt to close the chasm between the conscious and the subconscious, surrealism praised the taboo, the suppressed and the perverse. Said Breton in L'Amour Fou, L'Amour Unique, "Only temptation is divine."6

Artaud proposed that a visual language supplant the "worn-out [spoken] language."7 Automatic writing and poetry notwithstanding, surrealism has largely been a visual art practice. The distortions and netherworld analogies in the paintings and lithography of Rene Magrite and Salvador Dali confront the spectator with a convincing glimpse of the marvelous sought by Breton and his enclave. However, the iconic nature of still photography and the cinema makes these two visual arts more particularly suited to the surrealist task. In still photography Man Ray's Sabatier technique turned the "reality" of a photograph inside out; the photomontages of Max Ernst embodied the surrealist interest in signification and dialectical montage. Such works prompted Breton to accept Ernst and Ray as the two artists of the movement.8 In 1925 Breton asked: " …when will all the books that are worth anything stop being illustrated with drawings and appear only with photographs?" In Un Chien andalou an iconic medium cultivated from its inception and commercially developed as a representational form,9 was melded together with an unthinkable content and a structure mocking the very idea of "narrative." This proved a potent combination.

In his Salon review of 1859, Baudelaire railed against photography, calling it the "refuge" of those whose talent could not sustain endeavors in painting. Declared Baudelaire: "I am convinced that the ill-applied progress of photography has contributed much‹ to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius already so rare."10 Copious arguments were made, and still persist, regarding the nature of the camera as a machine for documentation; in no way could one who photographs be an "artist." It was not until the mid-twentieth century, in Europe, that photography came to be considered suitable for display in art museums.

Similarly, film was seized upon as an instrument for recording the "real." Technical advances such as Griffiths' parallel editing, von Sternberg's concern with "dead space," the inception of sound, deep focus, 3-D and color — all were devoted to realism. On the other hand, Eisenstein's dialectical montage, much more than an attempt to mirror "the real," utilized the iconicity and inherent signification of the photographic image to incite action. Intellectual montage eschewed the same passivity and reliance upon narrative which the surrealists felt held captive the mind. It is for this reason that some consider Potempkin a surrealist film. In fact, Antonin Artaud, like Eisenstein, applied the concept of the "collision" of elements displaced from their ordinary contexts to describe a visual poetry.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag asserts a distinction between the artifact which is the photograph and the object from which a photograph is taken. The image is distinct from the object, and is therefore devoid of context. As Donald Lowe succinctly puts it: " …photographic seeing is sight out of context."11 Hence, the iconic photographic image is innately suited for montage. According to Maya Daren:

Inasmuch as the other art forms are not constituted of reality itself, they create metaphors of reality. But photography being itself the reality or the equivalent thereof, can use its own reality as a metaphor for ideas and abstractions.12

Sontag argues that the photographic sensibility itself, with its graphic perfection and its propensity to lose context, is surreal. Lowe submits that the new visual and aural media developed since the 19th century — photography, film, television, the stereo, radio, phone, etc. — have in fact supplanted the former "reality" of typography. The meaning of this is that the old media are now perceived as surreal; whereas the new media occupy the realm of the "real." If Lowe's theories are correct, then the surrealists could be seen as seeking images reflecting changing perceptions. Indeed, the surreal image was quickly appropriated by capitalist interests. Appropriately, Lowe also points out that vision, valorized by the surrealists, is the dominant sense in 20th century western civilization.

According to Malcolm Le Grice the avant-garde film community of the 192Os included such notables as Delluc, Dulac and Dreyer, whose emphasis was in "attempting to establish an avant-garde within the terms of the commercial, narrative cinema."13 Entr'acte (1924), considered by some to be a dadaist film, by others a surrealist work, was an inspiration for non-commercial filmmakers of the 192Os. The surrealists, however, viewed themselves apart from the avant-garde: surrealism despised aestheticism and believed the avant-garde proffered an aesthetic no more than distinguishable from the dominant cinema. In the 1920s, this avant-garde aesthetic was located in abstraction such as that seen of Marcel DuChamp's Anemic Cinema or Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique. In his discussion of the divide between the surrealist and avant-garde camps, J.H. Matthews cites Andre Masson's concern over the "disparity between content and container," pointing out that in the view of a surrealist, aestheticism emerges from an "undue respect for the container."14 In the 1960s it was this sort of "undue respect" which, no doubt, yielded "structuralist" filmmaking.

It is interesting that Germaine Dulac, who according to Le Grice was allied with the avant-garde, was condemned by the surrealists after her 1927 adaptation of Artaud's scenario, Le Coquille et le Clergyman. Artaud organized and led a protest from the auditorium during the premiere of the film, because of Dulac's statement in the credits that the scenario was based on a dream. This description would "explain" away the film's incoherence and render it impotent as a surrealist object. Additionally, J.H. Matthews argues that the skillful fluidity and aestheticism of Dulac's cinematography establishes Le Coquille et le Clergyman within the tradition of the avant-garde, and not as a surrealist work.15

Before World War I, according to Susan Sontag, "scarcely anyone considered cinema anything but a vulgar art."16 Because Marinetti believed that the theatre was the consummate artistic medium and should be inclusive of all others he proposed a position for film within the theatre. Likewise, the Bauhaus utilized film in their l920s "total-theatre" works. In 1924, however, Artaud asserted that the theatre was obsolete. A surrealist, Artaud found in the cinema a rare "sort of power which probes into the mind and uncovers undreamed-of possibilities"17 However, with the coming of sound, when those allied with the theatre feared the replacement of the live performance by film, and when those in the avant-garde feared the loss of a filmic art to representation and documentary, Artaud abandoned film and returned to the theatre. Explaining the dearth of surrealist works, Annette Michelson states that sound technology alienated intellectuals: "Surrealism involves an aesthetic which is not that of sound; it is an art of silence." One could make an argument, however, that the later films of Bunuel, which utilize not only sound, but also color, are quite surreal. Or that the style of the film script and mise-en-scene of Blue Velvet (1987), which is remarkably similar to Un Chien Andalou,18 conforms quite well to the goals of the surrealist project. On the other hand, an aesthetic of silence cannot by a hearing person19 be easily confused with representation. As Sontag elaborates, "A person who becomes silent becomes opaque for the other; somebody's silence opens up an array of possibilities for interpreting that silence, for imputing speech to it."20 Muteness becomes a device through which the surrealist can thwart the spectator from certainty if not from interpretation. Silence confounds representation.

Influenced by the experimental composer John Cage, in the 1950s Brakhage espoused the use of a silent sound track21; the rhythm/music would be in the editing. Although Michelson does not believe that Brakhage can be described as a surrealist, she notes his embrace of silence and also ascribes to him the first real achievement of psychic automatism in film. According to Michelson, the films of Dali and Bunuel render surrealist dreamwork in much the same fashion as do the paintings of Max Ernst and Dali. While in writing or speaking, even in drawing and painting, experiments in automatism in the 192Os and 193Os met with some success, the unwieldiness and expense of the filmic apparatus made it quite difficult to achieve the direct transference of unmediated thought onto film. It is also not surprising that this "psychic automatism" in film is not achieved until the innovation of the portable l6mm camera. Moreover, perhaps Brakhage's own interests in the mystical, his "beyond," coupled with his working during another period when film artists sought to transgress the conscious state (again in reaction to oppressive dominant trends), influenced his development of a subversive aesthetic.

While no early surrealist film succeeded in capturing automatism, Un Chien andalou offers the spectator a stream of discordant images which cannot be recognized by the conscious mind as "reality." Although J.H. Matthews points out that some critics believe the non-narrative structure of Un Chien andalou stems from the artists' own internal conflicts, Matthews states that Dali and Bunuel deliberately discarded any idea which might be interpreted to make sense within a sequence of images. Thus, the initial slashing of the woman's eye, while it can be and often is analyzed with reference to the surrealists' opinions vis-à-vis vision, has no overt [conventionally accepted] meaning when followed by an equally bizarre scene which [the spectator is told] takes place some eight years later.

Originally silent, Un Chien andalou was later scored according to Bunuel's instructions. The effect of the musical score is to heighten the ridicule which Dali and Bunuel already direct toward the silent film through the deliberately stylized acting. There is little possibility of spectator identification with the characters in Un Chien andalou. The scoring emphasizes the surreal sense of humor which thumbs its nose at severed limbs and chuckles at the man pulling a dead donkey on a grand piano as he strains forward with great desire to ravish the woman who cringes helplessly against the wall.

Many of the images in Un Chien andalou, in accordance with Breton's admiration of Freudian theory, are reminiscent of fantasy or the dream state: the man caressing the woman's breast through her clothes, then the breasts themselves, and then again the breasts through fabric; the woman suddenly realizing that she has lost her armpit hair, and then seeing it materialize on a man's face, in place of the mouth that has disappeared.

Perhaps the surrealist code which Un Chien andalou best fulfills is the code of anti-aestheticism which, as described above, separated the surrealists most decisively from the avant-garde. From the moment when the razor appears to bisect the human eye, Bunuel and Dali make no pretense at any attempt to pleasure the common spectator. Un Chien andalou has a surfeit of images which challenge the notion of a visual "pleasure." If there could be an aesthetic advanced within this film it would be an aesthetic of the grotesque: a cupped palm with a hole in it from which ants emerge, a severed hand with painted fingernails being prodded by a stick on a street, a rivulet of blood on a man's face as he fervently caresses a woman's breasts. As well as destroying visual pleasure, images such as these also transgress social mores and taboos surrounding the body, sex and death.

In summation, early surrealism in film asserted itself as a non-narrative form which sought to eradicate the spectator's reliance upon "meaning." Inspired by Freudian theory, surrealist filmmakers attempted to unite in their works, the conscious and subconscious minds. Surrealism additionally posed itself as subversive to aestheticism and accepted social codes in its glorification of transgression, the perverse and the grotesque. Although surrealism praised automatism, there were no successful simulators of it in film until the 1950s when technological innovation led to the portable l6mm camera. In the early years surrealism was most comfortable in the silent era from which it had originated; however, through experimental techniques a filmmaker in the era of color and film can still utilize the apparatus to a surreal end.

[1] As quoted in Surrealism and Film by J.H. Matthews. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press 1971, p. 84.

[2] "Declaration of January 27, 1925," in The History of Surrealism, by Maurice Nadeau. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard University Press. 1989. p. 240.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 241.

[6] L'Amour Fou, L'Amour Unique in Nadau, p. 315.

[7] As quoted in Surrealism and Film by J.H. Matthews. p. 5.

[8] Krauss, Rosalind E., The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1986, p. 97.

[9] Ibid, p. 98.

[10] Baudelaire, Charles, "The Salon review of 1859" in Art and Photography, by Aaron Scharf. New York, New York: Viking Penguin. p. 145.

[11] Lowe, Donald M. The History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. p. 8.

[12] As quoted in The History of Bourgeois Perception by Donald M. Lowe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. p. 125.

[13] Le Grice, Malcolm, Abstract Film and beyond. London, England: The MIT Press, 1977. p. 32.

[14] Surrealism and Film, p. 15.

[15] J.H. Matthews, Surrealism and Film. p. 79.

[16] "Theatre and Film" in Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. p. 118.

[17] Ibid, p. 115.

[18] Bases for comparison between these two films include the surrealist interest in Freud, fetishism, violence, a challenge to narrative structure through the presentation of the incredible, etc. A Fall 1987 Film Quarterly review by Tracy Biga provides a (tedious for those less than avid followers of Freudian theory) review of the "oedipal" structure of the plot of Blue Velvet, and there is a good deal of the bizarre which is shared by the two films, including a fascination with ants and severed body-parts. In Un Chien andalou the eye is slashed open; in Blue Velvet, the ear is snipped off and abandoned in a field. As in the surrealist program, Blue Velvet merges the dream state with the waking state. Additionally, the use of color is hyper-realistic to the point of surreality. Dialogue opposes vision in much of Blue Velvet, and the homey, small town mise-en-scene is subverted by the cruelty of the murderous, wanna-fuck Frank. I would argue that these opposing elements set up a dialectical structure which undermines that particular complacency of the American dream, an effect which the surrealists would find laudable.

[19] And a deaf person might likely discern the lack of vibrations which are felt with sound.

[20] Sontag, Susan, "The Aesthetics of Silence" in Styles of Radical Will. p. 16.

[21] Cage has said that even in a soundproof chamber one still hears the sound of his/her own breathing; likewise, even on a silent sound track, still perceptible is the noise of the apparatus: the sound of celluloid sliding through the projector.end

Alexandrian, Susan, Surrealist Art. Translated from the French by Fordon Clough. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 1985.

Gershman, Herbert S., The Surrealist Revolution in France. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Goldberg, RoseLee, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988.

Krauss, Rosalind E., The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1986.

Le Grice, Malcolm, Abstract Film and beyond. London, England: The MIT Press, 1977.

Liebman, Stuary and David Shapiro, "Surrealism and Cinema: A Conversation with Annette Michelson," in Millenium Film Journal Vol 1, No. 1 Winter 1977-1978, p. 52.

Lowe, Donald M. The History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Matthews, J.H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press 1971.

Matthews, J.H. Toward the Poetics of Surrealism. New York: Syracuse University Press 1977.

Nadeau, Maurice, The History of Surrealism. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard University Press. 1989. p. 240.

Scharf, Aaron, Art and Photography. New York, New York: Viking Penguin. 1983.

Sontag, Susan, On Photography. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. 1977.

Sontag, Susan, Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Willett, John, Art & Politics in the Weimar Period. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.


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