I'm not sure when we look back on the 1920s—which gave us jazz, flappers, Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth, bathtub gin and both the most lavish spree and the costliest comeuppance in history—that we quite realize that for millions of people around the world, it was a time of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval, a decade that at times made the more celebrated '60s feel like a sleepy Sunday afternoon sipping lemonade on your Aunt Tilly's porch.
While many survivors of the bloodiest conflict in human history (at that time) wished for nothing more than a return to what President Warren G. Harding called "normalcy," just as many were determined not to accept a status quo ante that had oppressed millions and destroyed the flower of an entire generation. Women won the right to vote, workers migrated en masse from the farms to the factories, breakthroughs in aviation and communications made the world smaller than ever.
Complex problems spawned simplistic solutions. Italy embraced fascism, Russia communism, America isolationism. A dangerous, resentment-fueled nationalism was on the march everywhere. And all the while Adolf Hitler bided his time in a cell refining his bitter, twisted blueprint for a new order that gave us the Holocaust, another world war and our clearest glimpse ever into the post-apocalyptic abyss.
Artists and intellectuals struggled to make sense of the confusion, failed, threw up their hands and concluded that the only rational response was to reject rationality and embrace nonsense. Thus was born Dadaism, a philosophy based on acts of deliberate irrationality, and its offspring surrealism, which proposed to bypass the rational mind and describe the world strictly in terms of images from the subconscious.
The first attempt at translating this philosophy into film may have been René Clare's 1924 exercise in Dadaism, Entr'acte, which includes jumbled documentary footage of Paris and a coffin that runs wild on its way to a funeral. But cinema's first true masterpiece of surrealism wouldn't arrive in theaters for another five years, not until two of surrealism's greatest practitioners, director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí, met for lunch in a Paris café and began talking about their dreams—or perhaps more accurately, their nightmares.
Born in Spain at the turn of the century, Luis Buñuel was working as an assistant to director Jean Epstein when he mentioned to Dalí over lunch that he had had a dream of a cloud slicing across the moon "like a razor blade slicing through an eye."
Dali, who was already emerging as the art world's greatest surrealist painter, responded by describing a recent dream of his own where he'd had a vision of ants crawling out of a wound in the palm of his hand.
Thus was born the greatest surrealist film ever created, Un Chien Andalou, sixteen minutes of bizarre imagery that once seen is never forgotten. Buñuel and Dalí carried rocks in their pockets to defend themselves at the film's premiere and were disappointed when the audience loved what they saw. Their fellow surrealists immediately hailed the movie as a masterpiece and Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris.
There's no plot to Un Chien Andalou (which translated means "An Andalusian Dog"), nor in the opinion of Buñuel and Dalí could there be if they wanted to remain true to the ideals of surrealism. The two men dreamed up images (literally, in their sleep) and used them in their film only if they agreed between themselves that the images didn't mean anything. The point was to remind the audience that the expectation of finding meaning where there is none is a bad habit we humans get into—leads to lawyers suing deep pockets for random acts of chance or tracts with titles like "Why Bad Things Happen To Good People."
Un Chien Andalou has been cited as the inspiration for everything from music videos to independent filmmaking. Premiere magazine recently listed the opening scene as one of the top ten most shocking moments in movie history.
After the success of Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel and Dalí collaborated on one more surrealist film, L'Age d'Or, a feature-length movie I will write about in more detail when I reach the movies of 1930. Although I disagree, many critics believe it's even better than its predecessor.
After that Buñuel and Dalí went their separate ways. Dalí would paint his most famous canvas, "The Persistence of Memory," in 1931, and would go on to achieve world-wide acclaim. Buñuel on the other hand fled Spain after its civil war and wouldn't regain his footing as a director until 1950 when he directed Los Olvidados. He became one of the greatest directors in history and was twice nominated for Academy Awards. His movies never lost the dream-like quality that made Un Chien Andalou so unforgettable.