Surrealism as a cinematic genre goes further back in time than some people may realise. Although many contemporary films are described as ‘being Surreal’ or as having ‘Surrealist qualities’, the original films go back to the early 1900s and peaked during the 1920s. This was the era when the movement was at its peak and artists including Salvador Dalí and directors like Luis Buñuel were at their most active. The films made during this time have infiltrated popular culture in a variety of ways and, although you may not have seen the originals, you will have likely seen them homaged in works by Alfred Hitchcock, episodes of The
One of the best-known examples of Surrealist cinema is Un chien andalou, the 1928 short film by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel in their campaign ‘for a revolution of the mind’. Indeed, the work’s effects linger long in the imagination after viewing. Un chien andalou was recently screened as part of a double bill with La Jetee at Hackney Attic for a Filmphonics event where they both received new musical accompaniment by Hackney based composer Antwerp.
As much as Un chien andalou is a good place to immerse yourself in a pure example of typical Surrealist cinema it equally may not be to everyone’s taste. Containing all elements of traditional Surrealism – the unconscious, dismemberment, the female body – the film is jarring from the moment a man (played by Buñuel) slices through a woman’s eye with a razor blade, mimicked outside as a cloud slices through the moon on an evening sky. It is both a threat that forebodes a sense of future (sexual) trauma – the castration complex is rife in Surrealist work – as well as offering a warning: do not be fooled by everything seen and learn to be guided by your unconscious.
This may hard to ignore when the film projects such varied and unconventional scenes of independent montages – ants emerging from hands, rotting animals in pianos, pubic hair appearing on different parts of the body – but this is what the movement intended: to provoke, shock and to let unconscious thoughts overtake logic. Although we would expect such bizarre scenes to be accompanied by equally provocative music this is not true: instead each scene plays out to a mixture of 1920’s Tango music and Liebestod’s musical score from Tristam and Isolde. It is sprightly, bouncing, jovial and, very much like the playfulness of Surrealism, does not wish to take itself too seriously.
A bleaker picture is painted in La Jetee (1962) and, most Surreally, Un chien andalou appears relatively tame alongside it. Whether this is due to Antwerp’s new musical accompaniment or the subject matter itself, the film is an altogether starker, uneasier viewing experience of a dystopian future in the aftermath of World War III seen through a montage of stock black and white images. Marker’s sci-fi film combines time travel, horror and, like Un chien andalou, eye manipulation – albeit not as graphically. The music is raw, subdued, post-apocalyptic and adds to the isolation of the narrator as he is experimented on to time-travel “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”.
Antwerp describe the sounds for Un chien andalou as being ‘dreams as sounds of objects’ while La Jetee’s are stripped back effect to heighten the fear of the narrator’s situation. Both are very effective, especially Un chien andalou’s metallic, spiky noises that emphasize the small details in every scene: the sharpening of the razor blade, the ticking of a metronome, rapid heartbeats and breaking glass. La Jetee’s new score may be stripped back but this adds to the disorientation: the sound of bombs overhead, the impending fear and the loudening synthesizes replicating air raid sirens and the sense of impending urgency.
Alhough La Jetee is more science fiction than Surrealism, its inclusion as part of an evening of Surrealism is even more Surreal than the Surrealist film itself. Antwerp’s musical score ensures that the two films work extremely well as part of a double bill and hopefully, will bring new audiences to the partnership of Dalí and Buñuel. In 1930 the duo collaborated on L’Age d’Or (1930), an erotically charged sexual tale based on The Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”, a film that caused extreme reaction upon it’s release: at its premiere ink was thrown at the screen and works by many well known Surrealist artists – including paintings by Dali – were defaced in galleries. Surrealism’s less controversial, and more widely accepted examples include the Dalí-penned dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Destino, his little known animated collaboration with Walt Disney that was only unearthed and released in 2003. Uncle Walt a friend of Dalí? How Surreal.
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