Bunuel and Dali's Eye-Slicing Surrealism

                            Luis Bunuel, without question one of the outstanding film directors in the history of cinema, has always been regarded, together with talents such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte as one of the great surrealist creative artists. In the 1920s his association with Salvador Dali led to the making of "Un Chien Andalou" in 1929, immediately acclaimed by Andre Breton, leader of the Paris surrealist group, as a true surrealist film. Its combined elements of shock, horror, dream, sex, illogicality and anti-bourgeois sentiments, utterly at odds with conventional film-making and all an essential part of surrealist thinking, are as striking today as they were more than eighty years ago.  The opening sequence of the eye-ball sliced by a cut-throat razor -- filmed in close-up -- never fails to turn the stomach of an unsuspecting cinema audience.

                            These are elements, moreover, which Bunuel continued to exploit to a greater or lesser degree in a career that extended from his first film to his last, That Obscure Object of Desire, in 1977. We need only think of the dream sequences, the sexual preoccupations, and the assaults on conventional moral values in such films as 'The Forgotten Ones', 'Viridiana', 'The Exterminating Angel', 'Belle de Jour', 'The Discreet Charm of Bourgeois', in order to understand why Bunuel has been always regarded as a surrealist, even if in the later work his attitude had somewhat mellowed. Nevertheless, the picture is not simple or as straightforward as it seems. Bunuel cultural background, as well as his personality, was a complicated one, and this complexity is fully reflected both in his life and his work.

                             In 1929, Salvador Dali, the Spanish surrealist painter, was greatly interested in films; he was particularly fascinated by film's capacity for suggesting transformation and metamorphosis; in other words, for expressing those shifting, dream-like states associated with the unconscious and on account of which the surrealists soon appreciated film's potential. When, therefore, Bunuel and Dali met , it is not surprising to learn that, in Bunuel's words, they 'never had the slightest disagreement' when they worked on the screenplay for 'Un Chien Andalou.'

                          At its deepest level, Un Chien Andalou can be seen as the expression of the inner life of both Bunuel and Dali, but on another level it reveals the same intention to surprise, to upset and shock that we have already witnessed in their pronouncements on traditional art forms and in their virulent attacks on particular individuals. It was, of course, intended to confuse cinema audiences. Their film name, Un Chien andalou, was taken from the title -- Le Chien andalou -- of an unpublished collection of poems by Bunuel. The fact that people seeing the film would waste their time looking for a dog that did not exist made Bunuel and Dali laughing.

                         The intention to create a stir in relation to a broader audience and in true avant-garde fashion may be gauged by the efforts made by both Bunuel and Dali to give their film maximum pre-publicity. They invited a local newspaper reporter to a reading of the screenplay, thus ensuring that he would publish a piece about it. This described the proposed film as creating 'an impression of abnormality', and as being 'deeply disturbing', and Bunuel himself made the point that it was 'something absolutely new in the history of cinema.' 

                       By the time Bunuel had completed filming, enormous interest had been created. The outcome was that Bunuel was invited to meet the surrealist group. Shortly afterwards, on June 1929, Un Chien Andalou, opened in Paris. The surrealists, as well as, other distinguished individuals, were astounded by the seventeen-minute film. Bunuel became the official member of the group and his screenplay was published in a individual.

                      Un Chien andalou represents Bunuel and Dali at their most aggressive. Indeed, it is no coincidence in this respect that the character who wields the eye-slicing razor in the opening sequence should be Bunuel himself, the committed opponent of all things conventional, here assaulting the cosy, as well as the sensibilities of the viewer. Henry Miller's (American writer and painter) description of audience reaction when the film was shown fully reveals the effect of this initial episode:
                      "Afterwards they showed Un Chien andalou. The public shuddered, making their seats creek, when an enormous eye appeared on the screen and was cut coldly by a razor, the drops of liquid from the iris leaping onto the metal. Hysterical shouts were heard."

                      Such is the power, it is as if our own eyes were being threatened, which is, of course, the purpose of  this movement: to make us look anew, to shake us out of the complacency that might have awakened by the fairy-tale promise of the preceding title, Once upon a time, and by the appearance of a rather romantic moon in a sky that contains only one thick cloud. This initial sickening shock proves to be the first of the many. 

                     The bald account of the sequence of events that constitute 'Un Chien andalou' suggests very clearly its unusual and disconcerting character. As far as form is concerned, the film undoubtedly has a sense of progression, a certain narrative structure, but it also seems to consist of a series of disjointed episodes, which in a way parallel the jerky rhythm of the tango with which it begins. In addition, the sense of disorientation is reinforced by the use of titles -- Eight years later, Towards three in the morning -- and by sudden changes in location -- a room into a park, a room into a beach. 

                     Again, the characters are often driven by an aggression that for the viewer becomes disturbing; the young woman rushing into caress and embrace the young man; the latter lustfully fondling the girl's breasts, then pursuing her around the room; the newcomer upbraiding the young man before being shot by him; the young woman aggressively sticking out her tongue at the young man before abandoning him. These, in short, are not rounded characters but individuals driven by impulse, rejecting reason in favor of instinct, particularly in relation to sexual matters. Un Chien andalou struck out in both its themes and its form at conventional film-making.

                      Little wonder, then, that after the screening of Un Chien andalou, Bunuel was embraced by the Paris surrealists as a true brother. But was Bunuel a true surrealist in every way, a champion of all the unconventional values the movement stood for? The evidence suggests that, in matters of love and sex, he was not. 

No comments: