In one of the contemporary galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, next to the multiple images of a woman’s half-obscured face recessed in the blue depths of a Joseph Cornell box, near Giorgio De Chirico’s ghostly monochromatic “Horses” and across from the protruding buttocks of Joan Miró’s monumental abstract “Standing Woman,” there’s a small monitor set into the wall. This screen proves to be a window into the unconscious, as it provides an opportunity to view excerpts from a variety of surrealist films.
Arising out of dadaism, surrealism was more than just an artistic movement. In the words of surrealism’s foremost theorist, the poet André Breton, its aim was “to transform the world, change life, remake from scratch human understanding.” This was to be done by incorporating intuition, dreams, imagination, madness, irrational passions, erotic desire, chance encounters and situations, and other forms of devalued experience into what generally passes for “reality,” thereby creating a more expansive, all-inclusive “surreality.”
The tools available to the surrealists to gain access to or create such experiences were automatic writing (a form of trancelike, stream-of-consciousness writing in which thoughts were recorded as quickly as possible with no interference from the rational mind) or the game of “exquisite corpse,” where one person would draw part of a figure and then fold the paper so what was drawn could not be seen, before passing it on to the next person who would continue the drawing. The surrealists were also known to share their dreams with one another, experiment with hypnosis or aimlessly wander the streets of Paris, receptive to whatever random event might occur.
A technique central to surrealist art is the unusual juxtaposition of words, images or objects, as in the Comte de Lautréamont’s description of beauty as “the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table,” or Salvador Dali’s “Giraffe on Fire,” in which the faceless figure in the foreground has a series of dresser drawers emerging from its thigh, or Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup and saucer. The greater the discrepancies in content, the greater the element of surprise, resulting in a greater expansion of consciousness.
Primarily a movement of poets and painters, surrealism was not without its filmmakers. The core films in the surrealist canon include Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold, 1930), Man Ray’s L’Etoile de Mer (The Starfish, 1928) and Antonin Artaud and Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928). Excerpts from all four can be glimpsed at the DIA.
The segment of Un Chien Andalou begins with a man intently studying the palm of his hand, which is crawling with ants. Meanwhile, a severed hand lies on the street below. As the man and a woman watch from the window above, someone begins prodding the hand with a stick. A crowd soon gathers and a policeman retrieves the hand, places it in a box and presents it to the prodder, who turns out to be an androgynous woman. Next, the androgyne is run down by a car and the film suddenly shifts to farce as the man upstairs turns into a lust-crazed maniac and begins chasing the woman around the room to the strains of an Argentine tango.
The scene concludes with the man pulling mightily on a rope, attempting to drag two priests and two grand pianos topped by two dead donkeys. What is not shown in this excerpt is the film’s most infamous scene, in which a man slices a woman’s eyeball with a razor.
L’Age d’Or takes aim at Buñuel’s favorite targets — the church and the bourgeoisie — while also managing to demolish conventions of coherent narrative. Even romantic love, cherished by the surrealists for its revelatory, transformative power, gets dragged through the mud. The latter is quite literal, as the first introduction to the film’s lovers takes place as they grapple unceremoniously in a puddle of mud until forcibly separated by outraged townspeople. The rest of the film is packed with delirious non sequiturs, such as an entomological discourse on scorpions, the abrupt announcement of the founding of Rome, a woman sucking the toes of a statue and a synopsis of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.
L’Etoile de Mer was photographed through distorted glass to achieve its dreamlike effects — and intertitles, with the incantatory words of a poem by Robert Desnos, punctuate the film: “if only flowers were made of glass/beautiful, beautiful as a flower of glass/beautiful as a flower of flesh/one must beat the dead while they are cold/the prison walls/and if on this earth you find a woman of true love/beautiful as a flower of fire ...” There are images from everyday life — a harbor, a park, the view from a moving train. A beautiful woman figures prominently and the starfish repeatedly appears — on the stairs, on a book, on a table with wine and fruit, in a jar in the park.
La Coquille et le Clergyman unfolds like a dream and seems to explore the irrepressible nature of sexual desire. It begins with the clergyman wandering through a mazelike series of empty rooms until he suddenly encounters a couple in a ballroom, at which point they flee and he pursues. Some of the stranger, more evocative scenes in the film include a face that fissures and splits in two, a group of maids frenetically dusting a nearly empty room that contains a spherical vase, and the clergyman engaged in pouring liquid from the seashell into a series of flasks, then smashing them on the floor.
It was Desnos who said of the cinema, “there we were at home. Its darkness was like that of our bedrooms before we went to sleep. The screen, we thought, might be the equal of our dreams.” It was the sincere wish of the surrealists that this be so.Deborah Hochberg writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org