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TWISTED VISIONS: THE HISTORY OF SURREALIST CINEMA

It all began with the slicing of an eyeball…

When the Surrealist movement first started, cinema itself was only just coming to terms with its own potential, and was focused initially on trying to recreate life rather than experimenting in any radical sense. Film theory as we know it hadn’t even been invented yet.

However Spanish auteurs Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel changed everything with the release of Un Chien Andalou in 1929, a twenty minute short in which a woman’s eyeball is sliced in half with a razor, a swarm of ants emerge from a hole in the palm of a man’s hand, and a young couple are transformed into two puppets after walking down a beach.

A woman’s eyeball is sliced in half with a razor, a swarm of ants emerge from a hole in the palm of a man’s hand, and a young couple are transformed into two puppets after walking down a beach.

Up until then Surrealism had only been associated with art (Dali, again, at the forefront) and literature, but with cinema the possibilities took a little longer to be realised. Of course there had been a few Surrealist attempts before Un Chien Andalou, most notably Artaud and Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928), but these were unfortunately overshadowed by the former’s success.

Many of the first horror films (Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in particular) also contained elements that could be considered surreal but it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the genre really began to take hold.

Surrealism held the power to disturb by subverting the expectations of its audience.

Surrealism held the power to disturb by subverting the expectations of its audience. The slicing of the eyeball is an appropriate metaphor: using the unusual juxtaposition of scenes, shocking imagery and a complete rejection of realistic psychology Surrealism was able to present another way of looking at the world.

Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang D’Un Poete (1930), for example, takes a series of everyday scenarios and turns them on their heads: an artist sketches the face of a woman and the mouth begins to move on the page; a group of boys play in the snow but one is killed when a snowball turns into a lump of marble. Not exactly your average blockbuster.

Le Sang D’Un Poete takes a series of everyday scenarios and turns them on their heads: an artist sketches the face of a woman and the mouth begins to move on the page; a group of boys play in the snow but one is killed when a snowball turns into a lump of marble.

A little way down the line after the revolution of sound had taken over and ‘talkies’ were in fashion, Dali began collaborating with various American directors, most famously Hitchcock, for whom he designed Gregory Peck’s dream sequence in Spellbound (1944). He also began to develop a project named Destino with the animator Walt Disney, which ended up being shelved due to financial issues, but was finally completed by the Disney Company in 2003.

In recent decades probably the chief exponent of Surrealist cinema has been the artist and director David Lynch. His films range from the unsettling Eraserhead (1977) to the completely impenetrable Mulholland Drive (2001), and all play with the fundamentals of Surrealism in such a striking manner that the term ‘Lynchian’ (meaning the placement of the mundane with the macabre) is now in common usage.

Cinema has progressed immeasurably since the golden age of Surrealism, yet the modern audience member is now less susceptible to the kind of subversive imagery that Dali and Buñuel were then creating.

Elsewhere on the spectrum directors like Darren Aronofsky, whose debut feature PI (1998) portrays a mathematician suffering from extreme hallucinations and paranoia. Terry Gilliam, the man behind Brazil (1985) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), are also both good examples of filmmakers who incorporate elements of the surreal into their work, along with Charlie Kaufman, Federico Fellini and Alexandro Jodorowsky.

Cinema has progressed immeasurably since the golden age of Surrealism, yet the modern audience member is now less susceptible to the kind of subversive imagery that Dali and Buñuel were then creating. Sadly we may never get another moment as shocking as that eye-slice, but with films like Holy Motors and Only God Forgives being released yearly, perhaps Surrealism is slowly on its way to resurrection.

Felix Taylor

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