Within The Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), André Breton calls for the complete trans-valuation (1) of modern values by way of an artistic, or “Surreal”, revolution. Conceiving this idealistic task while witnessing the devastation of World War I, the spawn of the scientific-technological revolution, he seeks to overturn the world view of scientific positivism, exposing the dogmatic conceptions of vision and language, the supposed guarantors of truth and being, as arbitrary, deceptive tools of modernity’s oppressive “rational” ideology. Locating the means by which to intuitively grasp reality within the powerful, uncharted drives of the unconscious, Surrealism attempts to integrate these primordial forces into our waking consciousness in hopes of transfiguring and enhancing the manner in which we perceive, communicate and respond to reality.
Surrealism is based on the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the problems of the world. (2)
This essay works to elucidate Breton’s position by way of a formal and stylistic analysis of film and the technical apparatus of cinema. Reading two officially sanctioned works of Surreal film, Man Ray’s L’Étoile de Mer (1928) and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), we attempt to explicate the philosophy of surrealism. In line with this project, the following metaphysical and epistemological questions are considered: What is the nature and structure of Breton’s superior reality, or “Surreality”? How is it that the all-powerful activity of the dream enhances our knowledge and understanding of the world? Exploring such topics will clarify the Surrealists’ position on cinema as the supreme æsthetic means by which to experience and know the world as it really is, in all of its mysterious and inexplicable sublimity, and to subsequently communicate this fragile, intuitive understanding through a “new mode of pure expression” (3).
II. Man Ray’s L’Étoile de Mer
Surrealism is based on the notion of a superior state of consciousness, an absolute reality, or Surreality, which manifests as the modes of the dream (unconscious) and reality (consciousness) are brought together momentarily within an ongoing, ever-renewed dialectic of counter-striving forces. It is the cinema, according to the Surrealists, that will lead to the “future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory” (4). The momentary synthesis, or aggregate, of these realms, calls forth a higher state of perceptual intuition, which facilitates an understanding of reality that is beyond rational, discursive logic. The Surrealists embrace Sigmund Freud’s notion that base drives and urges unconsciously form the personality. However, since Freud addresses the detrimental influence of these drives within the Id, seeking to bring this seething witches’ brew of contradictory forces under the “rational” control of the Ego, his work reads as a conservative manifesto for the ratio-scientific ideology. Rather than sublimating or repressing the primordial animal drives, the Surrealists search out æsthetic means by which to tap into the vast creative potential of these forces.
Freud locates the content of the unconscious, “the psychologically significant source of the dream”, within the material world, within “the events of the day” (5). The mysterious activity of the libido inspires the unconscious, and this repository of latent desires, tensions and unsolved problems recoils on the dreamer as she sleeps. Freud defines the instincts as having biological aims, sources and objects, which manifest through the process of psychoanalysis. According to Freud, the content of the unconscious is explainable scientifically. Unlike Freud, the Surrealists do not seek to quell or “cure” the tumultuously agitated activity of the unconscious, as such a task is impossible. Rather, they look to the unconscious in order to unlock the secrets of the material world, viewing unconscious activity as the interface between the authentic metaphysical grounds of materiality and waking existence. According to the Surrealists, when dreaming, the sublime essence of life speaks by way of the soul’s agitation, through the appearance of obsessional, instinctual feelings and desires. As the world’s lifeforce manifests, the imagination and memory form significant representations, or artful simulacra in motion. According to the Surrealists, the dream contains meaningful symbolic representations, and its analogical method of communicating truth is best approximated within the æsthetics of film. Thus, the Surrealists embrace the cinema’s potential for channelling and reproducing the omnipotent “dreamlike” mysteries of life. Within film, much like the dream, the contradictory aspects of the universe intermingle, as life is at once death, illusion is truth, night is day, and opposites coexist in a state of unified tension, and all this without facing the tribunal of “logic”.
The quest for Surreality is depicted within the 1929 film, L’Étoile de Mer, written by Robert Desnos and directed by Man Ray. The film depicts the perennial search for a loving, solicitous relationship. The concept of Love/Eros always contains the menacing presence of death/Thanatos, and thus Ray’s film reflects the tension of these two forces. The film is typically read as a study in Freudian psychology. Although accurate, such an interpretation fails to elucidate the film’s overtly mystical qualities, the very characteristics which are essential to understanding Breton’s conception of the Surreal existence. Within Inez Hedges’ fine article, “Constellated Visions”, these elements at last receive proper attention. Focusing on alchemy, the occult and signs of the tarot, she explains the meaning of the various incarnations of the starfish, the hermaphroditic creature of the deep, in terms consistent with the Surrealists’ aims and ideals. She reasons that the lovers – Un Homme (André de la Rivière) and Une Femme (Kiki of Montparnasse) – strive for an ideal union of male and female in the persona of a single archetype, or artist. Hedges writes:
The starfish is the androgynous symbol that lies at the end of the search, it is a combination of the feminine elements of earth and water (as fish) and the masculine air and water (as star). With its five points, it resembles the hermaphrodite that stands at the end of the alchemical operation. (6)
While this interpretation of the starfish as desired state of Surreality is relevant, reading the film as a modern re-enactment of the ancient alchemist’s “Great work”, a threefold process of dialectic transcendence is not without problems. For within the alchemist’s sacrament, the tension generated by the opposing elements is alleviated within a state of “reconciliation” as a new, perfected element is created, and “in this way, One is made from man and woman” (7). This process resembles Hegel’s dialectic, the movement of life in which opposites are taken up into a new unity as their negation is neutralized. According to Hegel, dialectic “supersession” is a process that raises something to a higher level of Being by annulling, suspending or destroying its existing state, while at once preserving certain positive aspects within a new form. Hedges links Surreality with the death of the woman, who is sacrificed to the cult of Surrealism. As the feminine traits are annulled, what remains of her being is taken up into the persona of the male, who extracts her good, or “gold”, as it were. (8) However, such a dialectic as outlined by Hedges appears inconsistent with Breton’s description of Surreality within The Manifesto of Surrealism, and this text is overlooked by Hedges, whose interpretation emerges from a reading of Breton’s novel, Nadja, a story about a sadistic, narcissistic poet and his ill-fated apprentice and lover.
Breton is clear that the Surreal dialectic of dream and reality is a process of continuous tension; neither force is resolved or relaxed. The waking state is not sacrificed to the dream state, as the unconscious is not a force that precludes the rational faculties. The superior state of consciousness that the Surrealists describe is an advanced form of intuitive perceptual cognition, composed of two counter-striving modes of comprehension, which produces a living, thinking and creating unity. First, there is the dream, an unconscious link to the world’s authentic grounds and, second, there is reality, which includes the cognitive ordering mechanism that works to productively incorporate metaphysical awareness into waking reality. Surreality, according to Breton, is a state in which each force (dream and reality) works in unison to supplement and augment the other’s potential. Although these artists seek to penetrate into the metaphysical depths of the objective world, this is not to place them outside the physical world or beyond the scope of the innate human faculties with which we structure the world. The Surrealists certainly do not reject rationality outright, as if embracing a thoroughly “irrational” approach to the problems of art and life. Rather, they grant scientific-mathematical truths a rightful place within our epistemology, but insist that a deeper, more profound form of “absolute” knowledge of the world exists, a form of intuitive understanding that is essential to forming a more complete worldly picture, which precedes and grounds truth of a logical and reflective nature. (9)
With this understanding, we move beyond Hedges’ analysis of the starfish in order to explicate the manner in which the Surrealists envisage the dialectic, or counter-striving phenomenon, between waking and unconscious states. Working to this end, we will analyse the technical and stylistic elements of the film, most specifically Ray’s ingenious use of the gelatin-filtered lens. Ray defies the rational authority of the “look” with a subtle technique and powerful effect. L’Étoile de Mer portrays the Surreal phenomenon by way of analogy, depicting the reversal and subsequent resurrection of artistic vision. In order to dissolve the barriers between art and truth, a cleansing of the perceptual faculties is required. In light of this foregoing analysis, interpreting Ray’s technical use of the camera, we shall distinguish between: (1) filtered shots, which correspond to the phenomenological “haze” of conventional reality, with its obscuring intellectual preconceptions that preclude authentic understanding, and (2) unfiltered shots, which represent the idea of a transfigured view unto the universe (i.e., Surreality).
Ray is consistent when filming the starfish, for when it appears in the glass receptacle, in Un Homme’s hand, as part of a still life with wine and fruit, it remains undistorted by the optical-effect. Conversely, when Un Homme and Une Femme appear, their presence is distorted by the gelatinous lens-filter. This appears to explain the couple’s uninspired behaviour throughout much the film. For example, during the bedroom sequence, as opposed to an impassioned interlude between lover and beloved, the spectator instead witnesses a dry, prosaic encounter. She disrobes as if uninterested in making love, and he exhibits no sexual desire toward her. The scene concludes as the man leans to softly kiss the nude woman’s hand before bidding, “Adieu”. It seems as if the oppressive weight of society’s burden is internalised, and works to repress the couple’s desires and creative vitality. It is as if the couple is representative of the Surreal movement, or avant-garde art in general, with its creative iconoclastic tendencies rendered impotent, relegated to the outer reaches of culture where they are forced to work against a massively oppressive and dominant politic hegemony as a marginalized and largely ineffectual force.
There is an undeniable tension to the film, which Ray creates through the use of many ingenious, editing techniques; his cut of the film suggests the struggle between the antipodal forces of dream and reality. Rather than striving for continuity, he cuts the film with the intent to disrupt the idea of narrative fidelity and, through juxtaposing objects, locations and camera effects, he disturbs the flow of images to portray the inherent danger within the quest for Surreality. The rapid inter-cuts of images against the narrative’s flaccid depiction threaten to tear the film in two directions. For example, Ray includes a tracking shot of a fast-moving train along blurred rails and pan shots of newspapers rapidly blowing about the street. He also incorporates a multiplicity of special effects – e.g., single-frame animation, split-screen and multi-screen presentations – which reveal the starfish whirling, suspended in its glass receptacle. These pictographic disturbances all add a curious energy and disturbing portent of danger to the film.
In the climactic mise en scène, the foreboding transition of the couple into the state of Surreality is portrayed, within a three-shot sequence, as an encounter with Thanatos, for, as Breton states, “Surreality will usher you into death, which is a secret society.” (10) There is indeed a death and sacrifice occurring in the film, but it is not a biological death; rather it is a death (and sacrifice) perpetrated in metaphor: both characters die to the venerable ideals of modernity. Much like philosophers of the future, they set sail and venture out into the dangerous uncharted waters of the sea (“La Mer”), leaving behind the terra firma upon which the ideals of science and first philosophy are constructed. As the realm of venerable ideals slowly fades in the distance, both artists are taking on the vital responsibility for their existence, which often comes, as Sartre reminds, at an extremely high price.
The first scene depicts Une Femme’s trepidation as she contemplates her potential enlightenment, for there is much that remains uncertain, much that is to be feared in what is promised by way of Surreality. As she crosses over into the dangerous territory, she is confronted with the terrifying reality of the “sacrifice”: i.e., an understanding of what she must relinquish in order to become an artist par excellence. As she steps from the bed, placing her foot on what appears to be a text, her actions are cryptically shrouded from the spectator, Ray framing the shot using the filtered-lens. All at once, the screen fades to black. With no change of the angle, the lens opens to reveal a modified setting. Ray removes the filter at this point and presents a transfigured view of things, marking out the female’s receptivity to the Surreal experience, and this shot includes the starfish, which is positioned below her foot, next to an open book, which is now clearly revelled as a text of Black Magic, or alchemist’s handbook.
Again, from the optically twisted vantage point of the gelatin-filtered lens, the second episode occurs. Une Femme moves up the stairs, to re-enter the bedroom from which she had earlier departed. Clutching a large sacrificial dagger in her hand, representing the sword of the Tarot and the male sex organ, she is poised on the shadowy periphery of the circle of “Surreal” illumination. This scene of foreboding death prompts the following question: Will she perform a sacrifice as a modern incarnation of Isis, or will she instead serve as the sacrificial offering to a higher ideal? As Une Femme continues her ascent, the filter is removed and the second shot of the dual match-cut undoubtedly represents the clarity of “Surreal” vision, which strikes the spectator with force. Ray allows the viewer to see exactly what is transpiring with pristine clarity of focus. As she exits the frame, the camera tilts down and zooms to the starfish in close-up, which is now positioned on the carpeted step. Then, as the action proceeds, Ray cuts back to the woman with the dagger and cleverly engages the filter once again.
The final sequence records what Hedges reads as the synthesis of the alchemical process, the moment when the tension between opposites is resolved. As opposed to interpreting Une Femme on the bed, clutching the dagger, as the sacrificial victim, with her feminine elements broken down and reconstituted within a masculine persona, it is possible to envisage this scene as representing a double-suicide, a dual-sacrifice. This because the frame not only includes the female’s death – she lays motionless on the bed with the dagger – but as well suggests Un Homme’s demise, for the dagger in her hand certainly intimates his presence by way of absence – i.e., the loss of his manhood through castration. Filmed with the gelatin lens, Ray is perhaps representing what amounts to a double-death. At once, the field of the frame changes and the shot includes the starfish, superimposed over the woman’s hand with the dagger, and, with this cut, the filter is disengaged. Ray shows Un Homme, Une Femme and the starfish in a clearly focused shot for the first time in the entire film. This gives the impression that both male and female are taken up into the state of Surreality, and this rebirth into the hermaphroditic biology of the starfish includes a “sacrifice”, as previously noted, a death to venerable habits and mores of modernity, which is to suggest the reassessment of gender classifications, or the stereotypical roles that are routinely assigned to the sexes. Ray’s impression of the transformation of vision and spirit occurring in the moment of the Surreal consciousness resembles a moment of “rebirth” in which both male and female elements (dream and reality) remain viable and operative.
Man Ray liberates vision within L’Étoile de Mer and concludes the film in an artistic manner; vision is wiped clean, so to speak. However, in order to see, experience and understand the world through the lens of “Surrealism”, more creative work is required, and Luis Buñuel’s film of 1929, Un Chien Andalou, further attempts to incite the dissociation between culture and politics, between an artistic world-view and a world-view fuelled by scientific optimism, which fosters the misguided belief that scientific progress will eventually solve the world’s problems. What is required in order to break the tradition of “devalued” values with empty meanings is nothing less than a brutal, visceral experience of the “uncanny” (das Unheimlich). The eye, the symbolic and literal organ of the Enlightenment, must be destroyed, for since time immemorial it is allied with the authentic grounding of being, the founding of existence.
However, prior to examining this film, critical issues regarding the cinematic mechanism, along with the meaning of its unique language, must be addressed. The cinema, according to Breton, gains its “immediacy” and power from the “omnipotence of the dream”.
III. The Omnipotence of the Cinema
Aristotle’s Poetics offers the paradigmatic model for literary plot construction, which has inspired the mainstream cinema: e.g., the “story-film”, according to Jean Epstein, and “classic cinema”, in the words of Jean-Pierre Oudart; in short, what we today categorize as commercial cinema. According to the Surrealists, Aristotle’s classical model privileges the “logic” of construction and explanation over autonomous creativity, representing a vile form of “literary contamination”, which stifles the authentic artistic potential of the cinema. Within Aristotle’s model, each event within the story is explained and develops out of what precedes it. (11) According to Breton, this notion of “tragic” plot construction fosters a false belief that the world works in a similar manner: i.e., the universe unfolds in a teleological fashion and is therefore logically comprehensible. Incorporating this model, traditional cinema selects plots with explainable events, which follow in sequence along a linear timeline. The cinema also presents its stories by means of realistic depiction. Again, working from this classic model, film is defined as a mimetic spectacle: i.e., the realistic portrayal of life projected on the screen. The Surrealists find this cinematic model absolutist and oppressive because it serves as a vehicle for the subversive transmission of conformist/capitalist political values, which are insidiously conveyed by way the film’s stylised, formal structure.
The Surrealists seek to subvert this “commercialized” filmmaker’s model, as their interests lie in portraying the dream, not reality. Reworking the traditional æsthetic structures of the cinema, they strive to elicit the dreamer’s experience of the unconscious within the cinema-house. Just as Freud believed that dreams require a special understanding and approach in order to decode their cryptic hieroglyphics, so too the Surrealists pursue a form of dream divination through the agency of the cinema. As outlined, Freud believes that dreams are the impetus of the day’s residue, “not meaningless, and not absurd, dreams are psychical phenomena of complete validity – the fulfillment of wishes” (12). The Surrealists transcend this meta-psychological approach, for, as we have explained, they define the dream as the harbinger of life’s authentic primordial grounds, which sustain the material world. Dreams are never truly decoded, they are intuited perceptually, and the Surrealists hold to the view that the cinema as the most effective way to “mediate” and reproduce the dream in reality, and thus put the artist and spectator in touch with the living forces of the unconscious. Unlike Freud, Breton and the group are not interested in interpreting the dream’s content per se. Rather, they are intrigued with experiencing the pure, raw and unbridled “unconscious” powers that underlie the dream. Most particularly, the Surrealists look to the structure of the dream, the manner in which it unfolds, in hopes of adopting this pattern as a model for their inspired cinema.
Immediately questions arise: If such an artistic-intuitive consciousness is possible, why is the cinema considered the superior artistic medium for inducing Surreality? If the dream and reality are opposing domains, how is it possible to unite them and, further, how is it possible to access the unconscious realm without precluding waking consciousness? And, finally, if the state of Surreality communicates truths of a pre-theoretical, pre-linguistic nature – i.e., beyond the grasp of discursive logic, beyond the range of linguistic representation – how is it that these so-called truths are communicable at all? Jean Goudal addresses several of these concerns within the 1925 essay, “Surreal Cinema”, a work not only invaluable to the understanding of Surreal filmmaking, but because it provides valuable insights into the nature and structure of the cinema in general.
Initially, Breton believed that poetry, created through a process of psychic-automatism, held the potential to awaken, within artist and participant (reader), the heightened state of intellectual awareness we have defined as “Surreality.” Reading such poetry, it was theorized, caused the rational faculties to momentarily relax, inducing a state in which the rigid barriers between conscious and unconscious existence melted away. However, as Goudal correctly points out, this idea of poetry as a bridge to Surreality is based on a flawed notion of language, for all forms of written and verbal speech, operate within, and are therefore subject to, the logical rules of grammar. According to Goudal, language structures human thought and so it is impossible to access a pre-linguistic domain by way of poetry, no matter how creative its techniques “because the complete repudiation of logic is always forbidden to language” (13). Since we must rely on an ordered system of grammar to understand written and verbal discourse, the “nonsense” poetry of Breton and Soupault reads as such – i.e., it is incomprehensible.
This is not so with the cinema. According to Goudal, filmic images hold the potential to bypass the mind’s discursive functions, the logical grounds of language and to achieve what Breton’s poetry cannot. Due to the rapidity with which the film’s images strike the viewer’s visual field, “the logical mechanism which tries to link the images on the screen, in some way or other, will not have time to be set in motion” (14), and so the logical mechanisms which structure our linguistic understanding are not activated. Cinematic meaning occurs in a manner that differs from the domain of literature, for in the cinema the mind is working automatically, or intuitively, to link the images. As opposed to conceptualising filmic images, a process grounded in language, cinematic ideas are formed through association as the spectator perceives the images on the screen. “The cinema uncannily approximates the associative processes of the mind while being able to avoid the rational structures of traditional linguistic symbolization” (15), thereby avoiding the rules upon which grammar depends. The emotive power and overwhelming immediacy of cinematic imagery thrusts the force of its communication beyond the realm of pure intellection, and the cinema shares this quality with the dream. But, how is it that the cinema represents the dream on the conscious level?
According to the Surrealists, this is due to the unique physical, technical and æsthetic properties of the cinema. First, the cinematic experience creates the dreamer’s habitat. Within the darkened cinema-house, a sense of depersonalisation occurs; the outside world is locked out and the spectator’s attention is focused on the screen. As described, cinema’s pictorial imagery works on the viewer’s physiology and psychology, on the processes of cognition, inducing a moment of perceptual insight, in which the spectator is processing imagery by way of association. Second, the cinema presents the stuff of dreams, its emotive simulacra, and the “persistence of these images on the retina, which is the physiological basis of the cinema, claims to present us movement within the actual continuity of the real” (16). The spectator believes in her reality, just as the reality of the dream is accepted. However, while the spectator is certainly swept along by these images, as if moving along the surface of a dream, there is something undoubtedly artificial about the experience that registers with the spectator.
Here we move closer to the notion of the cinema as “conscious hallucination”. The whirring of the projector, the flickering strobe-effect of the light beaming from the lens to the screen, the mechanical movements of the actors and the bare mechanism of the cinematic apparatus all contribute to the film’s status as illusory. In this way, the spectator’s complete belief in the fiction is held in abeyance, “thus leaving the spectator in a confused consciousness of personality” (17). The spectator therefore maintains a simultaneous belief in, and receptivity to, their reality, as in the dream, while at once maintaining the conscious ability to discern their status as cinematic illusion. This phenomenon produces the waking union of dream and reality – the “Surreality” of which Breton writes.
Moving beyond Goudal’s analysis, we now attempt to identify the meaningful form of revelation and communication unique to cinema, by examining the poetic mode of analogy (symbolism and allegory). For according to the Surrealists, the “poetic image in the cinema, and its epistemological extension, the analogy, serves as an alternative principle for reordering traditional cinematic discourse” (18). The Surrealists believe that dream images are analogies, they are perceptual representations of the authentic grounds of materiality, and the cinema most closely approximates these forces within representations of its dreamlike imagery. Cinematic representations are analogous to the images that the unconscious inspires in dreams (recall that for the Surrealists, the unconscious is the mediator between the authentic world-force and humanity). The cinema thus recreates what it is “like” to dream and, through analogy, what it is “like” to experience the authentic grounds of reality: “In analogy, one thing is ‘like’ another, not exactly, but in enough ways to establish a powerful relationship between the two of great significance.” (19) This is what the Surrealists mean when they speak of the “immediacy” of film’s imagery, and its vast potential for deep meanings and multiple meanings. The cinema’s mode of communication is unique among the arts, as its representations draw their energy from the source of the world’s sublime metaphysical origins. When expressed on the plane of the analogical, the film’s message is experienced by the enraptured spectator in such a way that is always beyond the syllogism, beyond the scientific proof, and beyond any form of pure rational comprehension.
IV. Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou
The logic and form of the dream, along with its potent simulacra, inspire the 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou, written and directed by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. From its prologue to final moments, the film works to induce a “subversive reality in the threshold at the marvelous world of the unconscious” (20); in short, to disrupt the traditional chain of cinematic meaning by radically structuring the film according to the “logic” of the dream. Buñuel believes he can obliterate the “literary contamination” haunting the cinema by infusing the cinematic process with the dream experience.
This film immediately works to undermine the viewer’s confident relation to the old, familiar ways of seeing and knowing, in order to pave the way for the spectator’s indoctrination into new ways of understanding the world: i.e., the ways in which the Surreal artists perceive the world and, so, Buñuel demands a new form of Surreal “vision”. Following the title-card, “Once upon a Time”, Buñuel proceeds to destroy the sense organ most closely tied with knowledge: i.e.., the “mind’s eye” of rationalism and the “physical eye” of empiricism. Perhaps the “look” of the Woman (Simone Mareuil) moments before she is assaulted by Buñuel, is “Le regard”, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “look” that turns humans to objects and demoralizes them. To think of her as Buñuel’s patient, or experiment, is to understand why he is infamously known as “the surgeon of the ‘look’”. As an object of science, she becomes a mere thing to be manipulated, a cold biological entity for experimentation. With the “look”, humans see only “things”, objects of an impersonal nature. The human encounter with the Other is reduced to a process of manipulation and each manipulates the other for selfish reasons. Yet, according to Sartre, as he philosophises within Being and Nothingness, those who do the manipulating are in turn manipulated, the glare works on them as well, and humans become objects in the eyes of the Other. (21) Beyond Sartre’s existentialism, this is the disastrous view of humanity that “scientism” establishes and enacts.
If this is true, how is it that this short, two-minute sequence works to move the spectator so profoundly at the roots of her conscience? For the moment Buñuel “cuts”, the spectator recoils in horror and the human, all too human, emotions well up from the depths of the soul to exclaim, “She is not a mere object, but another human being!” But, it is too late and the spectator realizes her implication as co-conspirator in this crime, and thus suffers intense guilt. Such is the brilliance of Buñuel as a filmmaker. He has his revenge on society and the moviegoer, who sees only through the depraved eyes of “modern” convention. With this sequence, is Buñuel calling the spectator back to the emotional feeling world, the world of creative æsthetics, which science and religion have so vehemently sought to devalue? Whatever the answer to this question, it is clear that Buñuel is preparing the spectator for an encounter with Surreality, and the violent prologue serves as a necessary prerequisite for sustaining the next sixteen-minutes of the film.
As opposed to Ray’s low-budget experimental short, L’Étoile de Mer, Buñuel presumably spares no expense in the effort to capture the slick, professional look and ambience of a large-budget, studio-funded film. In addition, he recreates the illusion of mainstream cinema’s narrative “literary” structure. However, the film’s so-called “narrative” is in fact no narrative at all, for any belief in the existence of a story-line is quickly dispelled as Buñuel interrupts the realistic, logical portrayal of events with bizarre, terrifying and, at times, humorous imagery, with the explicit purpose of establishing and then destroying outright, the spectator’s comfortable relationship with the film: e.g., the spectator’s knowledge of, and trust in, the images and events unfolding within the compressed locus of the cinematic time-space continuum. Characters abruptly jump from one location to another, from one vignette to another, in a manner that defies the forces of logical reason. To cite but one important example, the female who was blinded during the prologue miraculously regains her sight, for, as the film begins, she is reading a book, and all this after the film-text informs the spectator that eight years have passed (“Eight years Later”) since the horrible incident.
Startled by what appears to be a loud noise coming from the street, the Woman rises from the bed and moves to the window. She spots a Man (Pierre Batcheff), who has fallen off a bicycle and looks to be severely injured. He is lying in the street against the curb, and his mangled bicycle wheel spins aimlessly. Using a series of connecting shots, indicating her movement from apartment to street, the sequence concludes with her caressing the Man’s head, moaning and mourning, in an overwrought, melodramatic fashion. The man was her lover, and it appears that he is dead, as if the hand of Thanatos has struck down Eros. Buñuel then whisks the spectator abruptly back to the bedroom with the use of a single transition-shot of a mysterious stripped box superimposed on the street scene. The box appears to contain the Man’s clothes or, perhaps, it is his remains. The Woman begins arranging his belongings on the bed. She lays out a tie, a collar and the small striped box, which repeatedly makes its appearance throughout the film. Through the camera effect of single-frame animation, the Man’s tie begins to knot itself around the collar, forming a semblance of the lover in memorial, or perhaps it is a ceremony for his resurrection. All at once, the camera frames him standing in the corner of the room, where he is intently contemplating his hand, which is crawling with ants. Buñuel orchestrates this camera-shot in such a way as to give the appearance that the ants are emerging from an open wound in the Man’s palm. This entire sequence of bizarre, illogical events is filmed and edited in a traditional manner, thus giving the false impression that the events are somehow linked within a logical chain of causation. Although the spectator attempts to draw the causal thread between these incidents, they refuse to submit to any teleological notions of storytelling, thus blurring the lines between the realms of reality, fantasy and dream.
Buñuel also demonstrates his artistic flair as a filmmaker, within a masterfully edited montage sequence, which again conjures the spectator’s struggle between expectation and frustration. For this sequence, which eventually delivers a powerful impact, Buñuel utilizes lap dissolves to give the sequence an attractive æsthetic appearance. The montage begins with the Man’s hand covered with ants, this image slowly dissolves to reveal a female’s hairy underarm region, which subsequently gives way to a live sea urchin with hair-like spikes swishing gently in the water. Slowly, this shot dissolves into a long-shot (crane-shot) of the street, and the spectator is looking down on a crowd of people gathered around the Man’s severed hand, which the last shot brings into clarity. This hypnotically breathtaking sequence concludes with the gruesome, uncanny image of a curious androgynous youngster poking at the dismembered appendage with a stick as it lies in the middle of the street.
Here the stylistic elements of the “montage-dissolve” reflect their use in traditional cinema. The spectator is absorbed in the beautiful, dreamlike forms of the imagery within this elegant presentation. However, the subject matter of the imagery is highly problematic. For these things in the montage are in fact odd and frightening choices to include within a sequence of such apparent beauty. A feeling of repulsion insidiously overtakes the spectator. On one level, she struggles with the immediate pleasure that the “forms” of the images give to the senses; on another level, she experiences the haunting discomfort aroused by their “content”. Such sequences are common for Buñuel, for he knows that in the dream, it is quite possible to caress a woman, as does the Man, and to experience the transformation of her breasts into buttocks right before the eyes.
Buñuel also insists on including humour within his films as a tool for disrupting the conventional cinematic order and no spectator can resist chuckling at the wild seduction-chase scene. The Man, who is looking down from the window at his severed hand in the street, watches as a passing automobile runs down the androgynous figure. At one instant, the youth is poking at the hand, and the next he is given the Man’s box by a policeman, which contains the severed hand. Longingly caressing the box in an intensely melancholic manner, the youth is surprised by a speeding car crossing through the frame that abruptly mows her/him down. The Man is aroused by this horrific event, an event that he had in fact been anticipating, and begins to chase the Woman around the room. Attempting to avoid his forceful amorous advances, she fights him off with a tennis racket. With lust in his eyes and an anus for a mouth, which has appeared through the optical trickery of Buñuel’s camera, The Man is in hot pursuit of the Girl. Then, he halts his steps, and begins pulling on two ropes that are positioned at the level of his feet. These ropes are apparently straining to secure an extremely heavy weight. With this scene, the spectator learns that it is not the threat of physical harm, by way of a blow from the tennis racket, that deters the rape of the Woman, but rather it is the “dead” weight of an entire society that is crushing his ravenous libido, his creative tendencies. As he tugs on the ropes, two prone priests and two grand pianos, each with the rotting corpse of a donkey draped over the front, move through the frame. The animals’ eyes are gouged and their teeth grin in such a macabre manner as if to ridicule the white ivory of the piano’s keyboards.
Buñuel’s disregard for traditional cinema’s notion of the compressed temporal-locus is obvious throughout the film, but is most evident during scenes that are clearly marked out as transcending time. Buñuel is not attempting to melt “real-time” within “reel-time”, as his characters have no past or future, and appear to stand only within the present moment, and such understanding of time is analogous to the temporality of the dream. Interestingly enough, it is the conventional understanding of language that operates on the spectator, inducing the anticipation of not only a time change – e.g., the inter-title “Sixteen years before” produces the expectation that Buñuel is transporting the spectator back in time, to the past – but, as well, the influence that a change of time will have on the characters. But, of course, no characters age in this film; they remain unchanged, abstain from death (to a point), and their missing limbs and organs are miraculously restored. These characters demonstrate nothing in the way of reflection or reflexivity, and in this sense Buñuel most effectively models “dream-time” within the scene that features the twins, or the duel of the alter egos.
When the spectator learns that the film is moving back in time sixteen years (“Sixteen years Earlier”), the anticipation exists that the director will present two young men, perhaps as adolescents, in a flashback to the days of their youth, which will adequately explain the Man’s split-persona as a material presence in the room. Yet, after the inter-title, Buñuel presents the same two men, wearing the same clothes and the same expressions: it is as if neither man has a past and the twin of the Man has just appeared on the scene. The double picks up two writing journals from the table and hands them to the Man. The books that he holds mutate into revolvers, and it seems as if the most Surreal act is in fact not shooting randomly into a crowd, but rather occurs as we face our alter ego in a film-noir style shootout. With the Man brandishing two six-inch, police-special .38s, the mock-duel is enacted in a manner reminiscent of a John Ford Western, or a moody noir detective yarn like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). As the Man’s twin gestures surrender by raising his hands submissively, the Man mercilessly opens fire on his helpless alter-ego. The fatal shots are fired, the twin is hit and begins to fall, but never reaches the carpeted floor of the room. As subject to the laws of gravity, the spectator expects the dead man to fall to the floor. The principles of physics demand this!
A dissolve carries the twin into a tree-lined park where the Woman is waiting, as she has been mystically transported from the room. Then, just as abruptly, she is transported back into the apartment. Once there, through a series of superimposed imagery, she contemplates the death head’s moth as the cold, dark presence of Thanatos closes in. The Man once again appears in the apartment. Buñuel then puts an end to their relationship by way of a brilliantly cut faux-dialogue exchange, all photographed in strict accordance with traditional cinematic guidelines for continuity: e.g., a 30-40-degree camera angle, shot/reverse shot, adherence to the “180-degree rule,” and other stylistic techniques built upon established models for capturing seamless and realistic dialogue exchanges. There is an argument between the Man and the Girl, but he cannot speak to verbalize his discontent, and not simply because the film has no soundtrack; rather, it is due to the fact that the Man’s mouth has disappeared. Although it is quickly replaced with feminine underarm hair, his emotive communication is restricted to physical gestures. In this scene, the actors’ embodied “presence” speaks a physical language of a seemingly “sub-linguistic” nature to convey the seething intensity of the scene, as Buñuel includes no dialogue cards. (22) As the Girl mocks the Man’s apparent impotence, sticking out her tongue at him repeatedly, she is obviously telling him off for the last time, putting an end to their tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship.
As the movie draws to its climax, or anticlimax, Buñuel once more teases the spectator with the sign, “In the Spring”. There is a pervasive desire accompanied by anticipation that perhaps, at this point in the film, logic will reign supreme and love will win the day. For the Woman has now taken a new lover and, as they walk hand-in-hand along the beach, they pass the Man’s discarded belongings, which undulate to the ebb and flow of the waves. This scene has all the trappings of a stylised Hollywood ending, with the proverbial long-shot of the couple and the obligatory “fade to black” conclusion. However, Un Chien Andalou is all about disrupting and frustrating the spectator’s expectations. What Buñuel offers the audience instead is a scene in which the couple are dead, buried up their chests in the sand, with their eyes gouged out and their vacant, concave eye-sockets are crawling with insects. And here, for the first time in the film, is Buñuel’s “literalism”, and this occurs in the portrayal of death, as the ultimate culmination of desire, as the ultimate possibility of the impossibility of being, when all aspirations for a projected future come to an abrupt end. In the blindness of death, within the real world, society’s victims, the marginalized, segregated and oppressed (and this includes the Surrealists and the avant-garde culture) do not return from the other side, and no cinematic trick or slight-of-hand can alter this existential fact.
Ray and Buñuel work to cause the disjuncture between the spectator and their expectations of what cinema is “supposed” to be like, and how it is supposed to function. As argued earlier, they seek to rupture the narrative structure that traditional cinema relies on to create meaning, avoiding the so-called Aristotelian “literary route”, which appears to foster a privileged “rational” world-view in which the vast complexities of existence are reducible to explanations grounded in the principle of sufficient reason, or the belief in the truth of the logical chain of causality. The films of the Surrealists are analogical representations of the way in which the mind works when dreaming, a filmic record of the way in which the primordial forces of nature move through us. Ray and Buñuel recreate formally the illogical structural mechanism of the dream within their films, attempting to awaken the spectator’s unconscious psychical processes, exposing her to a new form of perceptual insight, or potential knowledge of the world, which is a species of truth that is neither formable nor universal in nature. The way in which the spectator’s unconscious drives manifest, the way in which the world presences for the viewer, depends greatly on personal experience, and for this reason their films avoid telling a story about what the dream is about: i.e., representing explicitly and definitively the “content” of the dream in narrative. Rather, they focus on recreating the formal and structural characteristics of the dream within their films and, in this way, the film’s meaning, or content, emerges within the context of spectatorship, as the viewer (along with his/her unconscious) becomes an active participant in the cinematic experience.
If we recall Goudal’s words about the nature of the cinematic apparatus, with its inherent function to instil belief in the imagery it produces, and include to this notion the Surrealists’ technique and effect of identification-dissociation, the possibility opens for creating new systems of meaning unique to film through the reinterpretation of the ways in which we process, order and understand our experiences within the realm of our æsthetic encounters. The artistic filmmaker holds the power to augment the cinema’s potential to influence the viewer by artistically manipulating the medium with creative and experimental techniques, which further intensify the phenomenon of “conscious hallucination”. As we have outlined, the Surrealists are working to de-structure the spectator’s conventional understanding of the film, which is rooted in the commercial ideal, by moulding the raw materials of the film, controlling stylistically “how” the film looks and structuring the manner in which it unfolds.
For example, Buñuel seeks to establish the spectator’s identification with the filmic world on the screen. Due to Buñuel’s use of classic filmmaking techniques – e.g., optical realism, editing for continuity, standard lighting, traditional camera angles and shot-framing – the spectator is lulled into the fiction, for he portrays reality on the screen in a familiar way. Then, in an attempt to break and then forge new patterns of meaning, he disrupts the viewer’s identification with the film in an unexpectedly shocking manner. Rudolf E. Kuenzli, in Dada and Surrealist Film, reasons that this technique “temporarily” arrests the mind’s “conventional” (conscious) patterns of logical organization, opening the possibility of reordering and restructuring these patterns, which occurs with the shock of the “dissociation” when the unconscious drives are liberated. Kuenzli writes:
Only through the viewer’s identification with the familiar world invoked by the film can the film’s sequential disruption of that invoked familiar world have the potential to disrupt the viewer’s logic symbolic order and open up the suppressed unconscious drives and obsessions. (23)
V. In Lieu of a Conclusion
In hopes of clarifying the seemingly nebulous, mysterious concept of Surreality, this essay worked to elucidate and interpret Breton’s thoughts about Surrealism and its connection to the cinema. In its essence, Surreality is about re-examining and re-awakening the neglected, forgotten aspects of existence, the phenomena of life that resist logical, rational explanations, and yet are undoubtedly the very things that give life its authentic meaning. Surreality, according to Breton, is a new form of understanding, a unique form of vision, which reveals the world in a new light – the world in its essence! But, what exactly is this metaphysically charged jargon really saying? What does it mean to the artist?
Breton would perhaps respond to the foregoing query by stating that Surrealism’s penetrating view of things holds the potential to reveal the social order as an edifice and artifice of human construction, with the disastrous potential of alienating us from the very things that matter most in life, those things of a creative nature that make our lives worth living and celebrating. Accordingly, such knowledge would usher in the possibility for a monumental revolutionary reform of global proportions. In other words, an artist movement, inspired by the truth of Surreality, would strike out against society in a move to solve “all the problems of the world” by overturning Europe’s socio-political hegemony.
To detail the manner in which Breton and the group sought to bring their “transcendental materialism of desire” down to earth is beyond the scope of this work. In fact, the group’s organized political activities: e.g., their brief and erratic encounter with the political philosophy of Karl Marx, took shape after 1930, during the “second wave” of Surrealism, and not at the time when Ray and Buñuel produced their first films. However, their future plans of revolution certainly included the “modern mystery” of the cinema, for they saw clearly, as early as 1924, that the film industry was an expression of bourgeois sensibilities on the cultural plane. Benjamin Peret, in the 1951 essay “Against Commercial Film”, expresses precisely Breton’s notion that commercial film is grounded in the mercantile aspirations of capitalism: i.e., “sordid market forces, producing an art that anaesthetized the public” (24). Unfortunately, as history testifies, Surrealism did not defeat the hegemonic beast of modernity, the chimera of logical positivism. Nevertheless, there is something here for the artist and her quest for meaningful and autonomous expression.
The Surrealists, unlike the nihilistic members of DADA, with their penchant for joyful destruction and annihilation, sought to resurrect the artistic imagination – and, dare we say, raise important philosophical issues. Breton’s statement about solving the world’s problems extends beyond art, beyond the realm of the political. His words take on their meaning when life is conceived in terms of “possibility”. Perhaps, Surreality is a mind-set that opens the individual to the ever-present possibility of the world manifesting in a multiplicity of ways, in ways that cannot, and need not, be explained categorically in logical terms. Ferdinand Alquie, a writer for the former Surrealist review, Minotaure, states that beyond the material enactment of a political movement, their greatest contribution to culture, the arts and history were its “philosophical” ideas, which sprang from the non-dogmatic ground of their art.
They viewed man as interrogation, man as question. Dogmatism gives way to the quest for being. Poetry, though it delivers us from technological narrowness by revealing how an object may be invested with a multiple meanings it gives evidence for positivism’s fragility and radical poverty of the world of physics – does not for all that pretend to hand over all the keys to open all the doors for us. (25)
Within the art of Breton and the Surrealists we encounter the same characteristics that great philosophers and thinkers possess. Their involvement with the plastic arts, poetry and film grew from a desire see the world beyond social convention – and they hailed and embraced the cinema as the “miraculous” medium with the greatest potential to inspire and resurrect a lost (mythic) vision of the world. The notion of Surreality was ultimately grounded in the awakening of a new consciousness by way of the experience of the “expanded” soul of the artist-as-philosopher, brought about most powerfully and effectively through the medium of film, the seventh art.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, translated b Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1963). Coined by Nietzsche within his later work, “transvaluation of values” refers to the historical and artistic project of overcoming nihilism, which entails: (1) embracing new values, and (2) establishing an entire system of values based on the notion of “an increased power of the spirit” as will to power. Nietzsche, much like the Surrealists, embraces the “forgotten” aspects of existence: e.g., Nietzsche values the sensate realm of the body, the world as an ever-renewed source of energy and becoming, and the potential power of artist and art to bring humanity in contact with the origin of the world’s “chaotic” life-force. Against nihilism, Nietzsche proposes the “counter-movement: Art”.
- André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 26. Although his remarks are playful and ironic, it is apparent that Breton conceives surrealism in terms of a philosophical art movement. For example, the passage we have referenced functions as a “mock” encyclopædia entry in which “Surrealism” is introduced under the subject heading: “Philosophy”.
- Ibid, p. 24.
- Ibid, p. 14.
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey (New York: Avon, 1998), p. 221.
- Inez Hedges, “Constellated Visions”, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli (Ed.), Dada and Surrealist Film (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996, reprint), p. 101.
- Alexander Roub, Alchemy and Mysticism (London: Jaschen, 1996), p. 117.
- Hedges, p. 110. Referencing Breton’s fictional character, Nadja, Hedges outlines dialectic “supersession”, or synthesis, in the following manner: “Like Breton’s Nadja, the woman (Une Femme) is means to an end, a state of apprenticeship for the vampiristic artist who ends up by incorporating her narcissistically and hence has no further need for her.” This is Hedges’ analysis of the climactic moments of L’Étoile de Mer, for which this essay offers an alternative interpretation.
- Ferdinand Alquie, The Philosophy of Surrealism (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1965), p. 84.
- Breton, p. 32. Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Malcom Heath (London: Penguin, 1996), pp. 11-7.
- According to Aristotle, the plot of the drama must present a coherent whole, a determinate structure with a clearly delineated “beginning, middle and ending”. Events within this structure emerge and develop logically out of preceding events. The paradigmatic plot should, “imitate a single action (story) and one that is whole”. In Section 5.6, “On Defective Plots”, Aristotle describes story-structures that are least effective at the purgation of the pathe. Interestingly, this section aptly describes the type of disjointed plot that the Surrealists favour.
- Freud, p. 155.
- Jean Goudal, “Surrealism and Cinema”, in Paul Hammond (Ed.), The Shadow and its Shadow (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. 89.
- Ibid, p. 89.
- Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “The Image and the Spark”, in Kuenzli, p. 119.
- Goudal, p. 88.
- Ibid, p. 89.
- Robert Short, The Age of Gold (New York: Creation Books, 2003), p. 26.
- Roger Lipsey, The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art (New York: Dover, 1988), p. 23. Analysing the art of Wassily Kandinski, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, Lipsey suggests that the key to interpreting modern abstract art is not found in the dogmatic interpretations of the art work, as such theories are shaped, for the most part, by our cultural-political institutions. Rather, we understand abstract art when we unlock the analogical forces at work within art and the lives of the artists. Lipsey attempts to recover the “symbol”, with its legitimate ability to inspire metaphysical and spiritual truth by dislocating it from its association within ideology as a tool, or representation, of political oppression.
- Luis Buñuel, “Cinema as Instrument of Poetry”, in Hammond, p. 115.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Hazel Barnes, Being and Nothingness, (New York: Philosophy Library, 1956), p. 366. Sartre claims that when looking at others we fix them as objects; we are in turn fixed as objects as they look back. As he reasons, the Other represents a threat to the security of my world, for in the eyes of the Other I lose something of my freedom and personality. The apprehension of the Other thus represents a negative phenomenon. There is a tremendous sense of emotional instability associated with this notion, as social confrontation seems inevitable as a way of life.
- For a detailed and interesting account of the intersection of language and physical expression in Un Chien Andalou, see Stuart Liebman, “The Talking Cure”, in Kuenzli, pp. 143-58.
- Kuenzli, “Introduction”, in Kuenzli, p. 10.
- Benjamin Peret, “Against Commercial Cinema”, in Hammond, p. 59.
- Alquie, p. 122.