Surrealism isn’t just interesting nonsense. Back when I was in high school, knee-high to a grasshopper and almost as intelligent, I cultivated an interest in Theater of the Absurd. The idea of the absurd tugged at the aspiring anarchist in me, the aspiring anti-establishmentarian. But the more I read Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, et. al., the more I discovered that those works were genuine reactions to genuine events, not the least of which were the various Civil and World wars that rocked Europe in the early-to-mid 20th century. Especially for Europeans, Dadaism, Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Absurdism – all of those –isms – were actually rational reactions, either heartfelt cries of despair at the extremes of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or, in the case of the futurists, an acknowledgement of the powerlessness of politics and socialization in the face of mechanization and technology. The easy example of the former is Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ – his abstracted rendering of the result of German Luftwaffe target practice sanctioned by Franco upon his own disgruntled Spanish subjects in 1937. But, even earlier, the twenties and thirties were equally influenced by the introduction of mechanized warfare in World War I, and the economies of scale concerning human slaughter that were introduced into their own back yards, their own countrysides. Europeans were also having second thoughts about colonialism, and social divisions in general – racial, religious, economic, classist. What constitutes an inferior society? What’s the rationale for subjugating people, any people, besides snobbery and profit?
Another big issue for the surrealists was Dream Logic. They figured, as most of us admittedly do when asked, that the disjointed weirdness of dreams and dream imagery is our brains’ way of working out all of the stuff we see completely differently, i.e. ‘normally’, in our conscious awoken state. Dreaming is essentially a mental battleground for a host of unlinked associations trying to connect themselves. They don’t make much direct rational sense to us in-and-of-themselves, but they come from somewhere, by God. So the aspiring surrealist assumes that if these ideas and images are true to me, and interesting to me, then they might have a resonant truth or evoke a resonant interest in others. This is an especially good assumption when you apply dream logic in expressing ideas about The Big Three: Sex, Death, and Religion.
Like any young artist/student, Luis Buñuel was aware of these early cultural movements. Two of his acquaintances in Madrid at the time were Federico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali. Upon moving to Paris in the late twenties, he co-wrote a short surrealist film with Dali – Un Chien Andalou (1929). They, of course, were mindful of the socio-political currents of the age. They were also fascinated with Freudian theories of dreams, sex and death, and the influence of these forces on everyday life. And, lucky for us, they were a couple of intellectual hipster goofballs in their mid-twenties.
Un Chien Andalou’s first scene is a powerful evocation of the surrealist prerogative. Based on a dream of Dali’s, a thin horizontal cloud passes in front of a full moon in the night sky. Then a straight razor, in close-up, slices through a woman’s eyeball. Huuuhhh??!! Objectively, the compositional parallels are obvious, and brilliant, but the surge of subjective emotion accompanying the scene in each viewer is what they really wanted to evoke. And it’s effective, to say the least. The woman appears soon after, unmolested, in her apartment. Time goes out the window with logic in these films – events occur that have no bearing on subsequent events. (The Polish playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz was notorious for killing characters in the middle of his plays, only to have those same characters appear in later scenes) (Hello, Aeon Flux!) (…and Kenny!). She’s waiting for a man who arrives shortly, on bicycle, in a partial nun’s habit, carrying a mysterious striped box around his neck. I won’t relate each and every thing that happens subsequently, but Bunuel’s astonishing parade of characters and events within the broad framework of a seemingly conventional drawing-room melodrama is easily the most fascinating, and mind-bending, sixteen minutes you’ve surrendered yourself to lately. And, yes, it’s only sixteen minutes long. And yet he finds the time to involve a man pulling ropes, the Ten Commandments, two priests and two grand pianos draped with dead donkeys. And books turning into guns. And a man’s mouth disappearing from his face. (Hello, Neo!)
Dali contributed to, but did not directly participate in, Bunuel’s second feature, L’Age D’Or (The Golden Age) (1930). Both features are obsessed with the idea of seduction and rejection, isolation and socialization, fetishism and conformity. He also adds a healthy dose of satiric venom towards the government and the church, which got the film banned for years. Five days after its initial French premiere, right-wing extremists rioted and public exhibitions ceased. It wasn’t screened again until 1979, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The film starts with a hungry and destitute band of eight men who turn out to be soldiers, of some kind, patrolling the coast. (Actually, the film starts with a quick documentary on scorpions, but, apparently, I digress…). One of the men, on patrol, spies a group of chanting priests on a hillside by the sea, and reports back to his squad. “The Majorcans are here!” “To arms!” cries Max Ernst. And off they dodderingly go. When they arrive, though, rather than any battle, they find boatloads of visiting government dignitaries performing some kind of civic founding ceremony. The aforementioned priests are now a heap of skeletons, dessicated. The ceremony is interrupted, however, by a couple howling, writhing and making out in a nearby mud bog. We can’t have that! The man is led away by the police, but not before he kicks a dog belonging to an elegant female dignitary. The police must also wait for him to step on a bug. Now striding down a city street, the man produces papers establishing that he, too, is a very important dignitary, and the police release him. Thank goodness – how else would he able to then accost a blind pedestrian?
Meanwhile, the woman is back in her resplendent home. The household is preparing for a grand soirée – for the woman, this, of course, means getting that live cow off her bed and out of the bedroom. Minutes later, the party’s in full swing – all of the guests are in evening wear and black tie, skillfully avoiding the horse-drawn hay wagon rolling through the foyer, and hanging on every word of a distinguished man whose face is crawling with flies.
The Man arrives, and finagles his way to a garden reunion with The Woman, a tryst which is constantly being interrupted by elements of the party. Infuriated, the man re-enters the house and starts tossing things out the window – pillow feathers, furniture, plows, priests, giraffes,…
Meanwhile…the film concludes with a brief staging of the seemingly calm aftermath of 120 days of bacchanalian debauchery involving four ‘scoundrels’, eight adolescent girls and four older, more experienced ladies-of-ill-repute. The men are, as it turns out, noblemen, one in Christ-like robes and beard, thwarting the exit from the chateau of one of the young girls. After a muffled scream, the religious man emerges alone without his beard, and the film closes with what appears to be six female scalps, affixed to a crucifix, blowing in the snowy breeze.
Recasting Jesus and three government officials as the main characters of the Marquis de Sade’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’ is not how you win friends and influence people. At least not then. Bunuel thought it was a good time, understandably, to return to Spain. His next film there, ‘Land Without Bread’, will be examined here later.
If you’ve been inclined to pursue these amazing films, and like them, you may be inclined to dig a little deeper and check out the 1920s films of the talented Germaine Dulac, who made wonderful silent films like The Smiling Madame Bendet and The Seashell And The Clergyman. She employed surrealist imagery, feminist politics and photographic special effects that predated most cinema by forty or fifty years. Great stuff, and they’re all an hour long or less. Happy hunting!