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Early Surrealist Expression in the Film
Toby Mussman
Film Culture, No. 41, 1966, pp.8-17.

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Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives

Although Andre Breton's First Manifesto of Surrealism was published in 1924 thus officially founding the surrealist movement, its spirit was not at all a new or unknown one. The anarchy and revolt of Dada against bourgeois values persisting through the post-War years, the haunting mystery of DeChirico's canvases, Duchamp's confrontation with chance and the object, and Apollinaire's imagery found a new fruition and transmutation in surrealism. Even though from the start the movement was fraught with intramural conflicts and experienced considerable self-purgation through the Twenties and Thirties, concrete guidelines and tenets were formed. Because most of the Surrealists came to Breton's movement via Dada, I have considered the work of Dadaists who later became Surrealists or who predated and sowed some of the seeds for the new movement. In viewing the early, tentative works as well as the mature Surrealist films, we can measure the degree to which they adhered to the main currents of the movement by considering the following tenets:

REVOLUTION — Deriving from Dada's artistic and intellectual growing-pain anarchies of anti-convention, anti-War, and anti-Art, Breton redefined the revolutionary spirit in more positive terms than Tristan Tzara's nihilism would previously permit. In Declaration du 27 Janvier 1925 the young Surrealists stated that their goal was "a total liberation of the mind."

AUTOMATISM — Using the devices of automatic writing and drawing, they found a sure tool to realize their goal of a new state of mind. Furthermore the inquiry into and the recording of dream imagery was employed to recognize and understand what Breton termed "the true functioning of thought — (that is) the dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason and excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation."1 Freud's thesis provided the key the Surrealists needed to consider the subconscious as the source spawning their artistic expression. Paul Eluard's concept of the "dreamer awake, " Doll's paranoic critical method, Max Ernst's hallucinations, everyday free association, and acceptance of the illogical chance occurence were all elements of what the Surrealists were aiming for, a new concept of conscious reality.

THE MARVELLOUS (But not merely the fantastic) — Through the researches of automatism, the tracing of dream Imagery, hallucinations, or the confrontations of chance, the quest was always for the Marvellous image. As Breton said, "Only the Mervellous is beautiful," the new imageries of which, in the words of Henri Peyre, "create the object anew for our blunted senses and . . . allow a dreamworld to glide gently into our consciousness." In painting and films the search for the Marvellous found its strongest statement in the depiction of the unanswerable mystery elicited by a disjunctive, simultaneous flow of images.

AN AWAKENING TO SURREALITY — Deriving from the Dada poetry readings and manifestations designed to shock and hopefully involve its audience, the Surrealists' intention was to arouse their viewers into an awareness of the new imagery being tapped from the subconscious. Their portrayal of the Marvellous intended to represent that part of the human mind which operates outside of everyday conscious thought.

A NEW REALIZATION OF THE OBJECT — Ordinary objects were wrested from their conventional contexts or surroundings to be reordained with new meanings and associative values. Breton demanded a "total revolt of the object," which particularly meant recognition of chance productions of mysterious and illogical roles for the ordinary object.

ABSURDITY — Dada humor and fun-poking were refocused by the Surrealists to point up ironic challenges to man in his everyday life, the absurdity of the chance, unexplainable happening, and the metaphors of the Marvellous faced by man in his passionate confrontation with mystery.

ORDINARY TIME RELATIONSHIPS ARE DENIED — The Surrealists were interested in achieving an apparently spontaneous flow of images in such a way that any concept of objective or constant time sequence may be ignored. Their sense of time was analogous to the dream flow, freed of the ballast of conventional, cause-and-effect relationships. Thus freedom and spontaneity were especially relevant for film as a medium since it employs temporal relationships aesthetically.

The literary Surrealists were only outdone by the professional critics Delluc and Canudo in extolling the potentialities and the expressive possibilities of the cinema. As early as 1914, Apollinaire, who first used the word surrealism which Breton later adapted, initiated a film critique by Maurice Raynal in his literary journal, Les Soirees de Paris. In the Dadaist, proto-Surrealist review SIC in 1916 Apollinaire wrote, "The great theater which produces total drama is the cinema." Later in the Twenties, Louis Aragon came boisterously to the defense of Charlie Chaplin during the Lita Grey divorce case in the famous article of 1927, entitled "Hands Off Love," which 32 of the Surrealists signed. Georges Sadoul has recently described how he, Jacques Prevert, Yves Tanguy, and Raymond Queneau would spend whole evenings discussing their knowledge of the various episodes of the Feuillade serials, of which they designated Fantomas (1914) as their favorite and in which they were only interested in the script writers, Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, while completely ignoring the metteur-en-scene, Louis Feuillade. Sadoul has written also of Andre Breton's regular habit of visiting local movie houses in the late afternoon in the hopes of catching some bizarre, chance happening recorded on the screen in an American western or serial; and further, an anonymous observer, whose voice may well be that of Breton, writing in the official Surrealist journal, La Revolution surrealiste of April 1925, stated that it is the cinema which is "the workshop of chance." 2 Unfortunately, the form that the literary Surrealists' enthusiasm took places intrinsic limitations on their employment of the cinema as a forum for artistic expression. They were more interested in playing the role of the spectator who brings to the motion picture theater a mind already overflowing with images and uses the events unfolding on the screen to synthesize new, extraordinary, and entirely subjective dramas and dreams.

It remained for the post-War Dada experimenting painters like Hans Richter, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Fernand Leger to bring the first surrealistic expression to the screen. These artists all had in common that the cinema provided them with a logical extension of the formal and aesthetic problems they were encountering but which they could not solve simply through the traditional medium of painting. The question I have addressed myself to in considering these artists' film work is the degree to which they contributed to the foundation and promulgation of a specific cinema style which we can designate as Surrealist.


Hans Richter has explained in several instances how his early abstract films developed out of an implication of motion in the paintings he and Viking Eggeling were working with during 1918-1920. The first important realization that Richter made was that "the aesthetic basis of the new art form was time." 3In an interview published in Film Culture, Winter, 1963-64 he has amplified this statement by saying that "the single image disappeared in a flow of images, which made sense only if it helped to articulate. . , time." In Rhythm 21 (1921) Richter concentrated solely on a temporal articulation by dividing a simple square on a "movie canvas" and contrasting and harmonizing the rapid variations in size of the halves. The film's excitement is generated by the sensation one feels of a building rhythm and its eventual climax where the squares increase and decrease with such intensity of speed that they seem to burst out of their frame.

After similar and more intricate investigations into the possibilities of visual rhythmic structuring in Rhythm 23 (1923) and Rhythm 25 (1925), Richter made Filmstudy (1926) which reflects his awareness of certain limitations in abstract cinema and a desire to work with representational images. The film intermingles, in subtle and varied relationships, "abstract forms with natural ones, circles with eyes, triangles with wedges, etc. It develops abstract forms as part of the world in which we live."4 Softly lighted spheres and amorphous, undefined shapes are seen revolving slightly out of focus and then are superimposed on a shot of eyes floating in space. A woman's face and one of her eyeballs are multiplied by a series of super-impositions. A negative shot of a group of ducks is used to blend with the proceeding black and white tones while at the same time its representational quality produces a dramatic juxtaposition. Richter's most effective accomplishment in Filmstudy was the tentative establishment of a dream motif, in the sense that he was not restricted by action or plot structure to a specific spatial setting or environment. His technique was to build a smooth flow from one sequence to the next by using images which responded to one another both pictorially and rhythmically.

Filmstudy represents a transition point, for in his later work Richter gave up the abstract image and devoted full energy to the problem of dealing with representational formats and overcoming the reproductive limitations of the camera. In the middle twenties, Richter was working in Berlin and consequently had only tangential contact with the transmutations of Dada in Paris into what Andre Breton called Surrealism. During the genesis of Dada in Zurich, 1916-1918, Richter had been an active participant in its activities, and when he discussed with Man Ray in 1926 Breton's new theoretical developments, he felt that he could work with them comfortably as long as Surrealism "accepted Dada's bi-polar world of perfect and absurd reality . . . and as long as it used dreams in art and its general program with all the chance occurences, accidents, and absurdities of improvisation." He has said further, "I refused to look for a meaning in the whole. I simply let the ideas form themselves and develop from what we can call dream's virginal state; and I abandoned myself with pleasure to the spontaneity of dream." 5

Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927-28) is a superb reflection of Richter's Dadaist affinity for the kind of spirit of freedom which results from spontaneous production and improvisation. Contrarily, his editing of the film is especially tight in order to maintain a rapid-fire discourse focusing on the revolt of everyday objects against their traditional and largely unnoticed functional roles. Using very loosely a chase after four animated bowler hats as a plot, Richter took this as an excuse to extract ordinary objects out of their conventional contexts and thrust them into illogical relationships creating entirely new associational values around them. In the film the hats fly through the air, windows open by themselves, a hose unwinds and rewinds independently, or a tie and a collar refuse to fasten around a man's neck. A thin lamp pole somehow envelops four men as they mysteriously disappear behind it; reverse motion and stop action reveal the impossibly rapid growth of leaves on a plant; or instantly four cups are filled with coffee from an immobile pot. Richter was able to draw from his earlier experiments with cinematic rhythm an attitude whereby the pacing of individual scenes would effectively complement each other. This attitude resulted in a fully and effectively integrated composition that did not depend on a narrative plot or ordinary cause-and-effect relationships for its continuity. In his own words, Richter felt, and justifiably so, that he had achieved "a liberation from the conventional story and chronology in (terms of) Dadaist and Surrealist development."6


In 1924 Francis Picabia was commissioned by Rolf de Mare's Swedish Ballet in Paris to write a libretto and furnish the decor for a Dada performance entitled Relâche (which means "theater closed"). Picabia put his biting wit and enigmatic sense of irony to further use by writing a series of Dada gags for a film, Entr'acte, which, in a play on words, was shown during the intermission. Picabia first assisted Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in making Dada statements from New York in 1917 and later published his own Dada journal entitled "391" from Barcelona, but he never became a fully devoted participant in the Surrealist exercises as did his fellow-traveler, Duchamp. Entr'acte's spirit is entirely that of anarchy and revolt, proposing a visual breakdown on the screen of time-honored conventions. Through a glass floor the camera looks up a ballet dancer's dress in lyrical slow motion. Later the dancer's face is revealed as that of the heavily bearded Jean Berlin, Duchamp and Man Ray are observed casually playing chess on a roof top, and a subsequent close-up shot of their chess-board reveals a superimposition of Place de la Concorde. In poignant absurdity small balloons with faces painted on them are inflated and deflated recalling the sort of distortions of the human form typical of Surrealist painting. Picabia seized on the perfect traditional bourgeois rite as the butt for his hilarious lampoon, a funeral procession to the cemetery. Later in 1932 he described a daydream he had had which inspired the famous funeral sequence; he dreamed he had seen two funeral processions merge at an intersection of Rue de la Paix which caused both dead men to rise up out of their caskets and simultaneously wave a greeting to each other. 7

Picabia's scenario of ridiculous gags lent itself with facility to a wide-open range of directorial techniques at the hands of Rene Clair. Clair's first film, Crazy Ray (1923), was an early-day science fiction story about a scientist whose runaway invention stopped all daily activity in Paris temporarily, but in Entr'acte the absence of any binding narrative framework gave him complete freedom to employ slow motion, fast motion, jump cuts, and parallel editing to rearrange, intensify, or diminish the temporal relationships of events. Picabia's scenario gave Clair the full advantage of a free manipulation of time passage and spatial setting. Leading up to the funeral march the various scenes have in common their Dada absurdity and are adroitly integrated by Clair's efficient intercutting, but then during the procession itself he took sure control of what he turned into something of a chase film. In building the pace to its inevitable climax, Clair was able to picture the mourners in ludicrous distortions of slow motion, divide a highway in half at an angle to itself, or parallel the final frenzy of the chase with shots from a roller coaster ride. This film is an entirely effective if only a formative advance into what Erwin Panofsky has termed the "spatialization of time," meaning that while motion pictures work with time, their expression of it does not have to be a simple linear relation. For Clair, whose only participation in the Dada activities was the making of this film, it was his loosest and least united work in terms of story line, and only in certain sections of The Italian Straw Hat, did he achieve similar elements of nonsensical and absurd farce.


Like Rene Clair, Fernand Leger was never a devotee in regard to the Dada and later Surrealist manifestations, but his discoveries in visual cinematic technique and his attitudes toward everyday objects as subject matter predate and relate to those of Man Ray, Richter, and Bunuel. While making Ballet Mecanique, Leger came to realize that motion pictures "should concentrate on bringing out the values of the object, and that the technique is to isolate fragments and objects and present them on the screen in close-up (in that) . . . enormous enlargement gives the object a personality it never had before."8 In Ghosts Before Breakfast, Man Ray's L'Etoile de Mer, Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, or Georges Hugnet's La Perle objects become a focal point of the film-maker's reevaluation and take on both literally and poetically new personalities. Leger recognized that it was not enough merely to concentrate on the latent possibilities of a foot, a hat, or a pipe, but also "light and shading are of utmost importance to get the right plastic effect . . . (it is) light which animates an object and gives it a personality, for example an aluminum sauce pan with shafts of light playing on it from different angles, penetrating and transforming it." 9

Ballet Mecanique depends to an even lesser extent on a story or situation background than Entr'acte or Ghosts Before Breakfast do for its continuity. Leger's film is much more a compilation of various studies of isolated objects in repeated action displaying "movement and rhythm calculated to form a harmony." Shots of a girl on a swing, a Christmas ball swaying back and forth, and various machine drive shafts methodically pounding up and down portray at different instances equal or related repetitive patterns. His interest in echoing the same or similar images over and over again lead him to use prismatic lens shots of cymbals, saucepans, eggbeaters, and machine gears while bathing them in a soft, etherealizing light. The most arresting sequence of the film is the repetition to the breaking point of an old woman carrying a large bundle up a flight of stairs. Leger has dramatically cut the end of the loop just as she is in the act of mounting another step so that she never finishes but is always beginning and in the process of making the climb. He has taken a filmed record of an ordinary happening in the everyday world and by the combined techniques of a dramatic cut and of repetition he has transformed it into something which is entirely at odds with daily life. In Bruce Conner's Report (1965), we see this technique used but with an even longer period of repetition, agitating and arousing the audience to an involvement in an already highly charged and not at all an ordinary sort of subject. In Ghosts Before Breakfast Richter used repeated shots of four men crawling rapidly, of legs descending stairs, and of a man climbing and descending a ladder, but these sequences were intentionally staged and controlled so that the repetition serves to reshape images in terms of rhythms and visual patterns rather than to magnify an ordinary action into a new proportion.

In several instances Leger has anticipated the animations and juxtapositions of the ordinary object and the human form which characterized much of the later Surrealist work in painting and assemblage. His various shots of machine drive shafts in motion are obvious analogies to the human sexual act and recall the machine drawings and paintings of Picabia and Duchamp (1913- 1926). Art historian, Werner Haftmann's characterization of Surrealism as an area of expression where "inanimate objects come alive, limbs move uncontrolled by the organism to which they belong, and acquire a hard reality and a magical intensity we were never aware of before"10 is as well an accurate description of Leger's animation of a row of bottles to simulate dancing or the brief, climactic sequence in which a hat and a shoe are alternately intercut in an obvious reference to sexual intercourse. In a scene which reminds us of the magnificently distorted assemblages made from female mannequins for the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, Leger enclosed a clock between two separate mannequin's legs and then edited shots of them so that they appear to be twisting back and forth creating an independent state somewhere between eroticism and anxiety.


Because Marcel Duchamp and his act of revolution against the traditional worlds of Art and Painting were so greatly respected by Breton and the other Surrealists, he is often considered to have been more involved in the Movement than was actually the case. His one film, Anemic Cinema (1924-26) has erroneously been looked at as a purely Surrealist (Ado Kyrou) statement or a Dada anti-cinema (George Amberg) exercise. In actual fact Duchamp has explained that his cinematic effort came about as a direct result of a long interest he had held in promoting illusions of three-dimensionality using kinetic devices." As early as 1920 while in New York, Duchamp aided by Man Ray, attempted to make a three-dimensional movie using two cameras to produce "a double, stereoscopic film of a globe with spirals painted on it."11 Due to a mishap in the developing process only two short strips of film came out successfully, but even so when they were viewed through an old stereopticon, an adequate effect of relief was visible. Shortly after this limited success, Duchamp experimented again whereby, employing the anaglyphac process, he filmed a revolving sphere so that when viewed with red and green glasses a three-dimensional effect was obtained.

After further research and trial-and-error, Anemic Cinema was finally shot and edited in France. The film is made up of two alternating parts — ten uniquely conceived optical discs are each separated by one of nine revolving verbal puns. Although Duchamp had never been interested in making a movie in any orthodox or representational surrealist sense, he had begun working in 1921 on the optical discs (which he later called Rotoreliefs) for the sole purpose of recording them on film. Each disc consists of a different combination of disproportioned or eccentric circles so that when revolving they give the impression either of an undulating tunnel into space or a cone-like structure extending out to the viewer. Duchamp was intrigued by the inherent ambiguity of the film in the sense that the depth illusions can be viewed as either concave or convex depending on how one's eye reacts, and therefore, no two people watching it at the same time will perceive it in exactly the same manner. When Anemic Cinema was initially shown, he constructed a special projection screen of translucent glass, like that used in bathroom windows, with a mirror-silver backing to gain an overall unstable, stroboscopic lighting effect.

Except for the alliterative puns in the film which rotate beginning with the first word at the top and continue their revelation until the last word is right-side up and the title, Anemic Cinema, which is an anagramic pun on the word cinema, there is little else to cite in Duchamp's film to make it a complete Surrealist statement. His experimentation with illusions of three-dimensionality must be looked at as an independent enterprise, and only in an abstract sense can the optical discs be said to simulate the limitless and mysterious spatial realm of dreams or analogize the ambiguous and disproportioned spaces of Ernst, Dali, Tanguy, or Matta paintings.


At the request of Tristan Tzara in 1923 Man Ray put together on a day's notice his first film, ironically entitled Return to Reason. He animated "Rayograms" of nails, thumb tacks, and small springs, interspersed with them shots of his Dada Mobiles, an eggcrate and a paper-coil "lampshade," and then added short sequences of night lights of Paris, a field of daisies, and a female nude torso lyrically twisting back and forth catching sunlight and shadow lines in front of a window. This plotless and seemingly purposeless combination coupled with a poorly spliced film which interrupted the screening every few seconds produced a near riot by the audience and corresponded adequately to the Dadaists' requirements for success.

While Return to Reason was only a tentative advance beyond his still photography, Man Ray's second film, Emak Bakia (1926) was a sophisticated and fully integrated cinematic statement. He remained true to his credo of improvised production while still working to achieve a film that was "purely optical, made to appeal only to the eyes and was the result of a way of thinking as well as of seeing."12 It is relevant to note here that both Dada and Surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought or "states of the mind" as opposed to a formalist or strictly cohesive artistic style, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation and recording accidental events resulting from improvisation. In one sequence unsettling shots taken from a fast-moving car, a flock of sheep crossing the road, the camera expressing the blurred, violent reactions of a simulated accident, and the shot of a dead pig are loosely linked to give a disjointed relation of a chance event. Man Ray's final sequence of Kiki with painted eyes on her eyelids languidly waking as though out of a dream and opening her true eyes, smiling at the viewer, then closing them and falling back to her original position achieves via trompe l'oeil a total effect of the Marvellous. Surrealism's spirit of free association is ironically captured in the opening shot of a camera with multi-positioned lenses one of which is an eye or in a later superimposition of a large eye on to the front of an automobile so that the eye is between the two headlamps. Although Man Ray has stated that it was his intention to comply strictly with the Surrealist principles of irrationality, automatism, and dream evocation, Dada elements such as the nonsense title "La Raison de Cette Extravagance" or the sequence of Jacques Rigaut tearing apart shirt collars which then become animated are adequately interspersed throughout.

L'Etoile de Mer (1928) carries the sense of free association one step further into a murky, rather impersonal, dream world of memory similar in concept to Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad. Man Ray shot the film around a series of encounters between a man and woman suggested by a Robert Desnos poem. Literally intermingling images of the characters and symbolic objects with lines from the poem, he took full advantage of Eisenstein's montage thesis to surround objects with illogical associative values and to throw words into unusual or enigmatic contexts. A starfish which serves throughout as a leitmotiv is seen first revolving on a softly lighted disc, later in a jar eliciting profound contemplation from the man and woman, and finally on an open book onto which the girl steps as she gets out of bed. With humor and irony, a line from the poem, "Women's teeth are such charming objects," is cut into a shot of the woman fixing her garter. And again a phrase, "Si Belle! Cybele?" is inserted following a bedroom scene in which the man and woman have made love for the first time.

In this film Man Ray has avoided an orthodox exposition of a dramatic plot or an analysis of character while maintaining the central focus on one thematic event. Very simply a man meets a woman while she is selling papers in the street, they become lovers briefly and then separate. Man Ray magnified this happening not in terms of character analysis or plot complexity but in those of a Surrealist dynamization of the movie space. By taking different points of view of the same spatial area, he multiplied and expanded the audience's conception of it. For example the bedroom scene is seen through the separate viewpoints of the man, the woman, the director, and an overall dream expansion. Each of the particular viewpoints is linked to one or more of the others through associative values of the image it presents. Therefore, the starfish and newspapers blowing in the street become symbolic of the man's view of the woman; a knife and a flower relate to how the woman views the event and her fantasies of it; lines from the poem or shots of a forebodingly narrow street are Man Ray's sardonic comments on the affair; the sequences seen through a distorting, translucent glass or the shattering of a mirror correspond to the dreamlike deformations produced by the memory of things past.

Man Ray's last complete film, The Mystery of the Chateau of Dice, (1929) was shot during a weekend visit to the Viconte de Noailles' modern chateau in the south of France. The rectilinear, Bauhaus design of the chateau suggested the title of the Mallarmé poem, "A Throw of the Dice Can Never Do Away with Chance," and using chance as the central theme, Man Ray attempted to create around his characters a mysterious world entirely predicated on the unknown and the unstable. The spirit of improvisation is evoked immediately in the opening shots of the film where two men in nylon stocking masked faces rest their decision about making a trip on a throw of the dice. Two guests at the chateau kick an oversized pair of dice around in the garden to decide whether or not they should stay. Man Ray shot various scenes of and from the chateau to give the effect of a barren atmosphere, isolated and out of touch with the everyday world. Using superimposition, slow motion, and reverse motion shots of masked guests playing unheard of, reasonless games with the exercising equipment in the gymnasium, he constructed the film's best images in a timeless sequence expressing the poignant absurdity of Surrealism.


Antonin Artaud's scenario and Germaine Dulac's realization in film of The Seashell and the Clergyman have caused a turmoil of controversy ever since it was first shown on February 9, 1928. At the premier screening, the Surrealist group led by Artaud and Robert Desnos fomented an uprising in protest because Artaud was dissatisfied with Miss Dulac's interpretation of the script and disappointed that she had not allowed him to assist in the shooting or play the part of the clergyman. Accruing to Miss Dulac's defense are statements by Ado Kyrou that he considers this to be historically the first Surrealist film and by George Sadoul (who was at the time a member of the Surrealist group) that he believes the work deserves a place among the Movement's classic films.

However, even though she followed Artaud's scenario more or less literally there is little evidence to indicate that she understood or was sympathetic to the Surrealist spirit. It is more probable, and her production bears this out, that she viewed it more in terms of a dream-fantasy than in those of a surreality. While fantasy is interested in a world of impossible events, surroundings, and assumptions, the Surrealists were committed to exploring and expressing what they saw as a new Reality. They felt that they were the first to have discovered the subconscious as a source for new imagery, and they took great pride in that what they were expressing represented a new-found area of human awareness. Their examination of the subconscious and the imagery it produces was a further step in the intellectual history of consciousness expansion. Miss Dulac's cinematic realization of the Surrealists' concept of a juxtaposed and absurd reality was severly encumbered by her omnipresent penchant for irrelevant technical devices, particularly slow motion and distorting lenses. When compared to the raw power unleased by Bunuel's dramatic juxtapositions taking place within the framework of an objective reality, The Seashell and the Clergyman too often meets the eye as stagey and unfulfilling.

The June 1930 issue of Transition published Artaud's scenario accompaned by an introductory statement from which I will quote at length because it indicates the kind of cinema he had hoped for and explains the dissatisfaction he held for the only one of his several scenarios which was filmed.

"You will look in vain for a film which is based on purely visual situations whose action spring from stimuli dressed to the eye only and is founded . . . on the essential qualities of eyesight, untrammeled by psychological or irrelevant complications or by a verbal story expressed in visual terms."

"The visual action should operate on the mind as an immediate Intuition."

"In the scenario which follows I have tried to realise this conception of a purely visual cinema, where action bursts out of psychology. Though my scenario no doubt falls short of the acme of what can be done on these lines, it is yet a precursor."

"The scenario is not the story of a dream . . . I shall not try to justify its incoherence by the simple device of labeling it a dream. The scenario seeks to portray the dark truth of the mind by a series of pictures, self-engendered and owing nothing to the circumstances from whence they spring, but governed by an inherent and ineluctable necessity of their own, which forces them out info the light."

"The outer skin of things, the epidermis of reality, these are the raw material of the cinema. In glorifying the material it reveals the profound spirituality of matter and its relation to the mind of the man whence it derived. The pictures come to birth, each the offspring of its predecessor. . . . They create an autonomous world of their own. And from this interplay of images, a transubstantiation of elements, there arises an inorganic language which works on our minds by an osmosis and demands no translation into words."

In addition to his desire to create a purely visual cinema, Artaud conceived of the scenario as something of an extension of his own multi-faceted character. The soldier and the clergyman may be viewed as the bifurcated halves of the same stem and dedicated to the promulgation of a sibling-like conflict. The clergyman, who is first seen in the guise of an alchemist, is introspective and withdrawn, but at the same time he is the possessor of a volatile personality steeped in unanswered passion and cloaked in dark clouds of mystery. His apparent antagonist is the massive, bemedaled soldier whose presence continually hinders the clergyman's pursuit of the beautiful woman. This hinderance can be said to present that of Society and tradition against the metaphysician, the mystic, the magician, or the artist who seeks to go beyond that which is already known and accepted. The clergyman's complicated pursuit of the woman is a quest for that which is beyond him linked to and derived from sexual desires, and this allegory parallels Breton's proposition that the creative spirit found its roots in erotic energy.

Much of commercial cinema has relied on the threat of terror or horror and suspense (which is always certain to elicit an immediate emotional response) to create its mystery, but Artaud and the other Surrealists realized that the enigmatic challenges of the unknown and the subconscious' irrational combination of images would serve the same purpose while at the same time releasing them from a narrative plot structure. The clergyman's confrontation of the soldier listening to the woman's confession, his chase following her down a path beside a lake and through locationless hallways, or their mock marriage are made up of scenes which flow out of a proceeding one into the next as smoothly as do images in a dream. These scenes vibrate with an undercurrent of unresolved tension and energy which produce the kind of individual images of dramatic and illogical juxtaposition Artaud anticipated from his exploration of the Surrealist principles and his hopes for a purely visual cinema.


Bettina Knapp, writing in the Yale French Studies on Surrealism (May 1965), has described Artaud's position toward his audience as a desire to jar them into a receptive attitude and awareness of surreality. This kind of description applies equally well to the famous opening sequence of Un Chien Andalou, the first film to be recognized officially by the Surrealist group in 1929. The shot of a man (Bunuel) slicing a woman's eye (actually a cow's) with a razor is a brilliant exclamation to an audience in order to enrage and disgust them while at the same time involving and attracting them. It parallels and corroborates two important declarations in the history of art, one by a Dadaist and the other by a Surrealist. Richard Hulsenbeck, in an article entiled "En Avant Dada" (1920-21), said that literature should be action, "should be made with a gun in hand."13 In Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) he stated that the perfect Surrealist act would consist of firing a revolver at random into a street amply crowded with people. Different from and yet an extension of the Dadaists' acts of anarchy and rage against social conventions, it was the Surrealists' intention to shock all uncommitted observers into an awareness of their new-found conception of expanded conscious reality. Both the slicing of the eye and Breton's statement are extraordinary and demanding metaphors for this intention.

After a brief apprenticeship with Jean Epstein, Luis Bunuel collaborated with his countryman whom he had known previously at the University of Madrid, Salvador Dali, during a three day period in 1928 to produce the scenario for Un Chien Andalou. Bunuel prefaced the publication of the scenario in La Revolution Surrealiste (Dec. 1929) by saying that the film "would not exist if surrealism had not existed." He has stated further that it was "the result of conscious psychic automatism and to that extent it does not recount a dream although it profits from a mechanism analogous to dream." They specifically rejected as irrelevant any idea which as far as they could see might be explained rationally, esthetically, or technically; and likewise, "anything out of remembrance, cultural patterns, or conscious association with another idea was discarded."15 By consciously working in this world of the mind between dream and conscious reality, i.e. psychic automatism, and avoiding any line of ordinary logic, they could follow a flow of images liberated from a methodical exposition of a step-by-step narrative.

Un Chien Andalou is a series of tangentially connected scenes between a man and woman taking place in an atmosphere charged with eroticism and the violence of revolt. Bunuel's classically-framed individual images arrest the viewer's eye because of their uncompromising irrationality, but at the same time one dissolves into the next as fluidly as though by a matter of course. As an example, in an early sequence, a man wearing a maid's apron peddles a bicycle through the streets, and a woman who is reading, unaccountably puts the book down and walks over to a window in time to see the man below fall off his bicycle into the gutter, to which she responds with a gesture of impatient dissatisfaction. These images seem to fit together but not directly so; instead, they are connected by an accumulating irrationality which the viewer feels more than he actually recognizes and which he senses is about to explode. The air becomes so highly charged that the viewer expects anything to happen. Bunuel and Dali produced this exceptional kind of forum within which they gave themselves free license to introduce any new imagery of the Marvelous possible.

Like the starfish in Man Ray's L'Etoile de Mer or the seashell in The Seashell and The Clergyman, an ordinary and seemingly uncomplicated object was employed as a pivotal element taking on new associative values freely in order to act as a leitmotiv throughout the film. In Un Chien Andalou Bunuel and Dali used a small innocuous, and utterly functionless striped box as an unexplained focus of attention in several separate scenes. It is first seen around the waist of the man peddling the bicycle in a brief, identifying close-up. Later a young girl is seen in the street contemplating a loose human hand; when a crowd gathers, a policeman enters, admonishes the girl, then casually picks up the hand and puts it in the box sending her on her way. Near the end of the film the box is found by the woman and her lover (not the man of the earlier scenes) among rocks at the seashore; it contains remnants of the maid's apron and has been broken into several pieces by waves washing up on the beach. Because the striped box is used as an integral element in the action yet its presence is unexplained and irrational, it literally takes on a new reality typical of the Surrealist objects as they are transformed in paintings and assemblages.

While the pacing seems smooth and uniform throughout the film Bunuel established its action within a purposely ambiguous and arbitrary time scheme. The film opens with the title "Once upon a time"; after the prologue, "Eight years later" is flashed on the screen; later before a second man enters the house where the first man and the woman are "Toward three o'clock in the morning" is used, followed shortly by "Six years before." There are no corresponding filmic time changes to relate to these titles, by which Bunuel demonstrated that it is irrelevant to look at a Surrealist film in the light of ordinary cause-and-effect time sequence.

In his second film, L'Age D'Or (1930), Bunuel (working without Dali) eliminated the time-designating titles and pictorially combined past and present events without any explicit recognition of their temporal differences. He expanded the exposition of action in time beyond any linear sense, giving it an extra- or three-dimensional quality. In an early scene four archbishops are seen reading prayers on coastal rocks, a group of bandits (led by Max Ernst) prepare to attack them but inexplicably die before they are able to do so, a landing party made up of priests, soldiers, and ministers comes to shore nearby to found Imperial Rome and finds the skeletal remains of the archbishops. Using again an arbitrary time sequence as in Un Chien Andalou, such devices as slow motion or parallel editing were not needed to amplify linear time happenings, as they had been in Entr'acte, for example.

The extraordinary visual power of L'Age D'Or is a result of Bunuel's stylistic predilection for the general realistic technique and his concentration on naturalistic details. During the twenties when the exploitation of new devices was very much in vogue among the avantgarde, Bunuel was alone in voicing his disdain for any unnecessary distortion or camera trick. The photographing of actual houses tumbling down, the brutality of the natural landscape of the coastal rocks, or the newsreel of a massacre when taken in context of the film's action lend themselves effectively to the stylistic and dramatic quality of the film. The opening detail sequence of fighting scorpions with shots focusing on their stingers and poison sacks and their killing of a rat sets the scene for the conflict and poetic violence to follow. Instead of resorting to camera tricks and magic, Bunuel edited a film recording of a natural event or landscape into his film in such a way that it's natural action added to or became part of the statement made by preceding or following scenes. Thus the recording of an actual event was extracted from its original context and became an integral element in the Surrealist imagery.

In L'Age D'Or Bunuel added the dimension of sound but was cautious to employ it only in a comp1ementary capacity to the images on the screen. For example, the lovers' dialogue, during their meeting in the garden is inserted as an incidental element to the emotion on their faces. They are caught in the passion of making love, their lips do not move, and the extracurricular dialogue serves to represent them to the viewer as universal lovers. The use of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde takes an ironic twist since it performs both as a jibe at the bourgeois guests and an underlining of the lovers' passion. In an earlier sequence Bunuel combined the sounds of a cow bell, barking dogs and howling wind to correspond to the man's frustration at being separated from his mistress and to produce at a violently disturbing juxtaposition. The final shot of a cross embellished with women's hair and accompanied by some sort of a vapid, popular music predates the similarly sardonic last scene in Viridiana where a rock-and-roll song is heard as Viridiana sits down to play cards with her cousin.

What distinguishes The Seashell and the Clergyman, Un Chien Andalou, and L'Age D'Or from the earlier films discussed in this study is that at their core reside fundamental and passionate conflicts. In L'Age D'Or the struggle goes beyond that of amourous desire to encompass the battle of unrestrained, ideal love against the restrictions, conventions, and morality society has imposed upon itself. If the air was electrically charged in Un Chien Andalou, it is crackling with lightning bolts of human passion in L'Age D'Or. All the action of the film radiates out from the central, monumental theme of the lovers separated from their ideal consummation. The resulting frustration and violence is the main vehicle employed to unleash the poetic license of Surrealism. The unleashing knows no limitations, even to the extent that it afforded Bunuel the opportunity to pay a tribute he and all the Surrealists felt they owed to the Marquis de Sade (note the scene of the survivors of the Chateau de Selligny) as a historical hero of passion against social conventions.

Ordinary objects to the extent that they come into contact with the central human conflict are thrown into absurd and exceptional relationships. A toe as part of a statue becomes a vehicle to satisfy erotic frustration; a plow becomes an instrument of rage and disappointment; or feathers are torn out of a pillow and are transformed into symbols of the lover's violent frustration. Bunuel used everyday, chance happenings which when seen as impediments to the lovers would provoke their passion to metaphorical acts of outrage. When a little dog barks mockingly at the lover who is being taken from the woman he turns and vehemently kicks the dog away. Upon seeing a blind man who might impede the taxi from taking him to his mistress, the man deliberately accosts him and knocks him down. When the girl's mother accidentally spills wine on the lover, the frustration she has caused them forces him to explode with a malicious slap to her face.

As Henry Miller has said of the film, "The whole fabric of society is torn apart, layer by layer, tissue by tissue; one is given to see the nerves and blood vessels, the inner organs, the articulation of the skeletal structure."16 Bunuel did not seek to present an anihilation, but rather to reveal a new core. "Violence, destruction, vilification, blasphemy, perversion," (Miller) anything was possible as long as it served as a metaphor in the revelation of the new conscious reality the Surrealists felt they had discovered.

In L'Age D'Or Bunuel was in no way portraying what could be called a dream, the emotional intensity and acts of outrage were too closely related to situations of actual daily life. But at the same time what takes place in the film would never happen in the context of everyday events, a father would not shoot his son for interfering with lighting his pipe nor would a woman begin sensually kissing her father who has just interrupted her while she and her lover are making love. What unfolds on the screen in this the pinnacle of the Surrealist films is the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits. The result is a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness.


1. The History of Surrealism, Maurice Nadeau, 1965, New York, p. 89

2. Etudes Cinematographiques, Surrealisme et Cinema, vol. 1, 1965. No. 38-39 "Rememberances of a Witness" by Georges Sadoul, p. 10-12

3. Art in Motion, Gyorgy Kepes, Ed., 1965, New York, "My Experience in Painting and Film" by Hans Richter

4. "Film as an Original Art Form" by Hans Richter, Film Culture, 1955, Vol. 1, No. 1.

5. Etudes Cinematographiques, see note 2, Statement by Hans Richter

6. See note 4

7. Most of Picabia's writing is not translated into any kind of ordinary narrative terms, but I did come across the above-paraphrased tale in a brief article in Orbes, Spring, No. 3, 1932, Paris, where he made at least an oblique reference to this daydream in connection with Entr'acte

8. Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, Ed. New York, 1960, "A New Realism --The Object" by Fernand Leger, originally written for The Little Review, Winter, 1926.

9. See note 8

10. Painting in the Twentieth Century, Werner Haftmann, 1965, Preager, p. 191

11. Self-Portrait, Man Ray, 1963, New York, p. 99

12. See Note 11 p. 273

13. Appears in Dada Painters and Poets, Robert Motherwell, Ed., 1949, New York

14. Art in Cinema, San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947, Catalogue

15. See note 14; in an interview with Francois Truffaut for Arts, July 21, 1955, Bunuel stated, "Dali and I picked gags, whatever occurred to us, we were merciless in throwing out everything that could mean anything".

16. Luis Bunuel, Ado Kyrou, New York, 1965, p. 182

17. Interview and discussion with Marcel Duchamp conducted by Charles Mussman, December 1965.

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