Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dadaism, Surrealism And The Anti-Narrative Experiment, Part Two: Additional Examples And What To Make Of All This

Un Chien Andalou was the best of the surrealist films but it wasn't the first—although what exactly was the first is hard to say. I mentioned that René Clare's Entr'acte with its runaway coffin came along in 1924 but some film historians argue that it's more Dada than surreal and who am I to disagree (especially since I wouldn't know how).

But one thing is certain. By 1928, the attempt to break away from the traditional narrative form as a way of conveying the human experience on film was in full swing.

Well, I say traditional.

The narrative structure of movies we today know and love was all of fourteen years old at this point, hardly established enough to qualify as a tradition. Let's say "trend" then, a trend toward making movies resemble the narrative structure of theater and literature. And not everyone was ready to concede that this particular trend made fullest use of film's potential to convey the human experience.

But anyway.

In addition to Entr'acte, a trio of highly-regarded films displaying surrealist influences beat Un Chien Andalou into the theaters.

La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) premiered in Paris in February 1928, sixteen months before Buñuel's classic. Directed by Germaine Dulac, a leading radical feminist and one of the first women to direct movies in the French film industry, La Coquille et le Clergyman is the story (if there is a story) of a clergyman who becomes erotically obsessed with a general's mistress. Although this struggle is shown in symbolic terms—the priest's slowly fragmenting face, for example—and British censors banned La Coquille et le Clergyman on the basis that the "film is so obscure as to have no apparent meaning. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable," which no doubt thrilled Madame Dulac, there's nothing on screen that has the power of Buñuel's razor and its reputation has justly faded over the years.

A superior exercise was Jean Epstein's La Chute de la Maison Usher, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall Of The House Of Usher. Luis Buñuel worked as Epstein's assistant director and it shows. The movie combines the abstract, exaggerated sets common to German Expressionism with images of surrealism, particularly of a portrait central to the story that is at times a painting and at times a live woman, that are pure Buñuel.

Epstein did not set out to make a surrealist movie, but instead an adaptation of the novel that was faithful to the spirit of Poe, but the use of surrealism here keeps the audience off-balance in a way that heightens the sense of horror.

Maybe the best of the surrealist experiments that doesn't have Luis Buñuel's name on it is L'Étoile de Mer, one of six movies directed by Man Ray, better known for his photographs and paintings. There's no story, just a mood, a man and woman photographed through a pane of glass, juxtaposed with the poetry of Robert Desnos. The effect is as lyrical as Un Chien Andalou is brutal.

You might also take a look at Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète (The Blood Of A Poet), a mock- doc- umentary or as Cocteau put it "a realistic documentary of unreal events." Surrealists at the time weren't sure Cocteau qualified as one of their own, and I'm not going to wade into the argument. I'll just say that Cocteau, who here included such sequences as a painted portrait that begins to speak, was clearly influenced by surrealism and probably couldn't have made his beautiful and bizarre version of Beauty and the Beast in 1946 without first making The Blood Of A Poet. For that reason alone, I thought it was worth tracking down and you might, too.

The Russian director Dziga Vertov wasn't a surrealist but his Man With The Movie Camera is definitely another example from early 1929 of a film trying to subvert traditional expectations of narrative. Urban Cinefile calls it three films in one, a documentary of Russian life, a documentary of the making of the documentary and a documentary of the audience watching the documentary. These images—of Russian factories, trolley cars, women in undergarments, etc.—are served up as a collage that is not so much an experiment in film making as an experiment in film editing.

I have read that Vertov intended this collage to be either a sly com- mentary on life in the Soviet Union, interesting and busy but a bit soulless, or an equally sly commentary on our insistence that even a random jumble of images must have meaning. The fact that he spent so much time in the editing room suggests Vertov meant something by it but if he did, the finished product resolutely keeps the secret safe from us. In the end any given image is well-made but overall most of Man With The Movie Camera is no more interesting than the random images you'd find in any tourist's camera.

Finally, while I'm writing about movies without a narrative that aren't necessarily surrealist, maybe I should mention People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak with assists from Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, and written by Billy Wilder. It's actually the opposite of surrealism, an exercise in early neo-realism—just following five young Berliners around on a lazy Sunday afternoon—but it is yet another attempt to tell a story without resorting to narrative.

In the case of all involved it was not an experiment they were much interested in repeating when their careers took off. Wilder, who wrote the script on pieces of scratch paper, dismissed it as not much more than a newsreel. "I would not see it. I don't know—I think it was just a freelance experiment of a picture. It never quite got into much depth."

That might be a pretty good epitaph for most of these movies.

In any event, the surrealist movement began to crack up within a few years, torpedoed by incessant bickering and internal strife as even its practitioners couldn't agree on what they meant as they endeavored to mean nothing. The founder of the surrealist movement, André Breton, bitterly denounced those who he felt had strayed from the party line, Buñuel and Epstein fell out during the filming of La Chute de la Maison Usher, and writer Antonin Arnaud was so incensed by how director Germaine Dulac had interpreted his screenplay La Coquille et le Clergyman, he called her a "cow" at the film's premiere.

Apparently there are a lot of very strict rules involved in doing anything you want.

In late 1928, Buster Keaton spoofed surrealism in his last great film, The Cameraman. In that one the experimental-looking collage was the result of a cameraman (Keaton) incorrectly loading film into the camera and a documentary on the Tong War in Chinatown was actually filmed by an organ grinder's monkey (don't ask). It's a very funny movie, certainly funnier than a razor blade slicing an eyeball.

As a means of artistic ex- pression, sur- realism was a smashing success and remains influential to this day, although perhaps not in the way its founders envisioned. You'll find examples of it in animation (e.g., Tex Avery cartoons, Yellow Submarine), music videos, advertizing. Personally, I think surrealism works best as comedy, Monty Python, for example, and although even the most surreal imagery in Monty Python isn't quite surrealism as its early practitioners understood it since a joke is a form of comprehensible narrative, you have to admit there is always something unexpected about, say, the Spanish Inquisition.

On the other hand, as a political movement, surrealism was a complete bust. While the actions of our world's leaders often seem surreal, it turns out that no matter what system of government you adopt, war and oppression still occur—which shouldn't come as a surprise since governments are made up of people and on a fundamental level, people never change.

So should you bother tracking down Un Chien Andalou or any of the other movies I've mentioned? Well, that depends.

I'm warning you up front, a little bit of this stuff goes a very long way. As with any new medium or technology, early users experimented for a while, eventually hit upon what worked, what didn't. The experiments were useful but definitely of more interest to a budding film student than to a middle-aged working man at the end of a hard week. Which is ironic because the surrealists hoped their films would lead the working man to reject the simplistic answers and bourgeois values that the surrealists felt had led to World War I and the excesses of the post-war bull market. Instead, they wound up preaching to a choir of fellow surrealists and after a while, not even them.

If you do choose to try some of these movies, my advice is "Don't think, you'll only hurt the ballclub." They were not meant to be understood literally, but emotionally, so don't try to figure them out; just watch them and react.


Man Ray said...

~~ VERY ~~ odd coincidence that you'd cite Monty Python and the Spanish Inquisition piece -- I sent someone an e-mail today saying only:

One on't cross beams gone owt askew on treadle.

And my intent was to avoid lapsing into a conventional narrative [responding to an e-mail].

what a great life. . . .

Biggles! Put her in the Comfy Chair!<

mister muleboy said...

I know it sounds like Man was putting you on, but I know the recipients of his "One of the cross beams has gone out askew on the treadle" e-mail.

coincidences are sometimes jarring.

I like your piece. I think I could watch some of these films before I could watch some formerly-enjoyable sporting events. . . .

Mister Parker said...

It had occurred to me that watching the Washington Nationals is a lot like having your eye slashed with a razor blade.

The difference, of course, being that Bunuel did it once and the Nationals do it 162 times a year ...