Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night
This is the first in a series of occasional posts I’m planning on the subject of surrealism and cinema.
Seriously, I could keep this blog occupied for a long while simply by playing detective and unearthing great, should-be-better-known essays by Adrian Martin. My latest discovery is a lucid, synthesizing piece written in 1993 called “Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night,” tucked away into the publication that accompanied the exhibit “Surrealism: Revolution by Night,” organized by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
The beautifully evocative phrase “artificial night” comes from Robert Desnos, who used it to refer to the movie theater. I’m frequently paraphrasing or excerpting Adrian Martin (AM) below.
“Surrealism” is a word that has passed so totally into common usage that its precise links with history, culture, art and film have been gradually obscured over time. The first thing to realize is that surrealism isn’t really an aesthetic style (an ‘ism’ like Impressionism or Cubism). It goes beyond that. Surrealism is an attitude, a way of looking at the world and experiencing it, a mode of living.
AM refers to André Breton’s collaborator Jean Schuster and his distinction between (1) historic surrealism, which comprises certain figures, careers, and the activities of those who are closely associated with the term and used it to identify themselves, and (2) eternal surrealism, which is a longer and broader history of the surrealist attitude or impulse that might include, for instance, de Sade, Alice in Wonderland, trance rituals of African tribes, Bugs Bunny, and so on. And so surrealist cinema comprises not just Luis Buñuel but also Raul Ruiz, Jan Svankmajer, etc.
But the absorption of ‘surrealism’ (the word and its multiple connotations) into common global-cultural usage should also signal some caution as we think and talk about it:
Since surrealism does have a historic dimension, some of its most familiar gestures and images have inexorably become repetitive, congealed, vulgar and empty. Long before slick TV ads and music video, the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord was already complaining in 1957, ‘that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole genre of ostentatious surrealist “weirdness” has ceased to be very surprising.’ We must separate the purely ‘decorative and stereotypical aspects’ of surrealism (as Ruiz calls them) — the banally monstrous or magical imagery that today floods TV, graphic design and films — from the deeper and more fertile surreal impulse.
Surrealism isn’t just a plunge into dreams, fantasies and the imagination but instead a search in reality for the ‘marvelous’:
The properly surreal realm is that of daily life — but daily life freed from the stranglehold of the ‘reality principle’, and invaded by the forces of love, the unconscious and what Schuster calls ‘the indestructible nature of the interior poetic voice’. Surrealism is not about escaping into ‘the imaginary’; it celebrates the sometimes fleeting triumph of the imagination in a world battened down by misery, oppression and repression.
[…] In surrealist cinema, quite simply, reality surprises us. This surprise may come with the force of revelation, but it is militantly without conventional ‘meaning’ [unlike cinema, sometimes surrealist-influenced, that leans toward a certain ‘symbolist’ mode in which imagery can said to be often accompanied by a ‘key’, e.g. Cocteau, Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Polanski, etc.].
The first, historic path of surrealism and cinema must be (according to AM) broadly defined to include not just officially acknowledged ‘classics’ by René Clair, Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, etc., but also certain films by Robert Benayoun, Ado Kyrou, Nelly Kaplan, Walerian Borowczyk, Toshio Matsumoto, Jean Rouch, etc. And then there is a second path of films, those that can be viewed in a particular, surrealist manner:
The history of the surrealist experience at the movies is a grand one indeed. It is an important history to explore because it widens our perception of what surrealism was (and is) about — not just paintings, sculptures, drawings and films, but also reviews, homages, ravings, poems, games. For surrealism proposes a theory of experience — a set of suggestions about how to perceive the world in a suitably intoxicated manner (whether one is intoxicated by love, drugs, poetry or political rage).
On the penchant for ‘artificiality’:
Surrealists have always worshipped ‘tacky’, cheaply made ‘B’ films whose tricks and bursting seams are completely evident — and they have worshipped these films not in a derisive, ‘camp’ fashion but in a quite sublime way. […] ‘B’ films — particularly in popular genres such as fantasy, horror, film noir, science fiction and the musical — can reach the heights of dreamlike abstraction precisely because they are so blatantly artificial. What’s more, they are surrealist in (usually) an involuntary, not self-conscious manner. And — best of all — they are virtually anonymous works in the eyes of official culture […] Among the more deliberate and erudite of film ‘artificialists’, Orson Welles (Mr. Arkadin, 1955) and Raul Ruiz (The Three Crowns of the Sailor, 1982) hold a supreme place.
And for intensity:
Even when surrealism is at its most light-hearted, it embodies a seriousness of purpose — a deep investment in the signs of a free imagination, whenver and wherever it breaks out. Searingly serious emotional intensity — bordering on complete paranoia and pyschosis—governs many surrealist favorites, from the astonishing Hollywood romance Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935) to the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955), which Paul Hammond has rightly called ‘a freak, an anomaly, an oasis’.
On the dialectical split in surrealist history between Breton and Georges Bataille:
Much recent discussion of surrealism has taken the form of a fervent rehabilitation of Bataille — and of a wider tradition that includes Antonin Artaud’s asylum writings; Jacques Vaché’s black ‘umour’; Hans Bellmer’s pornographic dolls; Michel Leiris’s autobiography, Manhood; Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis of the alienated human condition; and even the ‘counter-cultural’ fantasies of American novelist William Burroughs. Such work has emphasized the perverse, gothic, violent and monstrous aspects of the free imagination; in surrealism’s artificial night, this tradition is perhaps its black sun. It is seemingly under the sign of Bataille that many dark, contemporary surrealist films have appeared, from those of David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, 1992) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet, 1986) to Ruiz’s City Of Pirates (1983). Such works enact a bleak politics of surrealist transgression — a tearing open of bodies, and a voyage of no return into furiously alienated minds.
In entering the black surrealist tradition, however, we are perhaps in danger of entirely overlooking Breton’s ‘provocative openness towards poetry’ [Jean Schuster’s words] — and its particular resonance within movies and popular culture generally. The surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics, of Daffy Duck cartoons, of Mad magazine in the 1950s or of Sam Raimi’s delicious horror film Evil Dead II (1987) offers a special kind of imaginative liberation. While often blackly humorous and full of social rage, this surrealism is also light, airy and supremely comic.
Next up in the “surrealism and cinema” series: Paul Hammond’s The Shadow and its Shadow. I’m also in the middle of Franklin Rosemont's Revolution in the Service of the Marvelous and Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (ed. Rosemont). If you have any recommendations of some of your favorite surrealist reading (fiction or nonfiction), I’d love to hear about them.