by Adan Falcon
“Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.”
-Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Published in 1936, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” linked a relationship between the work of art and the mediated reception an audience received it through the space it may be exhibited in. From the medieval era, according to the history he outlines, the audience had been limited to the aristocracy and the clergy to receive the work before it could be received by a smaller mass—a pattern continuing through the development of galleries exhibiting paintings and other forms of art. However, with the rise of cinema, the relationship between a broader masses and mediators such as critics had changed drastically as the cinema provided a democratic outlet in shaping its aesthetic. Surrealism’s place in this ever changing dynamic posed a problem in this with the early advent of cinema as a movement intent for meaninglessness. What kind of issues exists in bringing representation—“varstellung” in Benjaminian analysis—to the masses through a form challenging the audience with destabilized shapes and forms? Director Luis Buñuel placed this challenge early on as the most prominent—and reluctant—director through his first film with painter Salvador Dalí in Un Chien Andalou with its attack on the love story through its fragmented presentation to their viewers: the identity of each character deteriorates further into precarious modes of movement through their desires and their failure to fulfill them; the failure to reach a form of catharsis (or climax) transforms the temporal and spatial movements in a narrative with predetermined teleological movements. As the bodily experience of the characters undergoes severe transformations (decomposition, mutilation, etc.) the narrative in the story undergoes temporal and spatial rearrangement by utilizing the language of the film to shift its stability in linear narrative towards episodes of questioning of what has been and what may become. As the process develops, the aesthetics of both directors diverge in providing a schism ideologically in their pursuit of art within and away from the surrealist movement.
Buñuel pointed towards the failure of the positive responses in the initial screening of Un Chien Andalou years after its release to elicit a more negative reaction from intellectual and general audiences of his film. There had been an initial goal to attack what both Dali and Buñuel felt were the bourgeois sensibilities of the French art and avant-garde scene, and its ties to reason and logic in the high canon of art. Buñuel scathingly remarked of the evening of both his powerlessness and the adoration the film drew: “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?” (31). What was an attack on French avant-garde became an invitation from the elite themselves, such as the leader of the French Surrealists, Andre Breton, who claimed the film as meeting the criteria of the movement.
Buñuel instead sought to emulate dreams by associating seemingly unrelated visuals as symptoms of deeper or repressed psychological desires, anxieties, and impulses. The technique he used to create distance from himself away from the film itself was “a CONSCIOUS psychic automatism” (Buñuel 101). It would be free from “artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator, with its play of light and shadow, its photographic effects, its preoccupation with rhythmic montage and technical research, and at times in the direction of the display of a perfectly conventional and reasonable mood” (101). The film focused on the process of “illumination” than on the aura of the final product. The rhythm of the narrative will point towards how the temporal aspect of the film plays with its progressions towards a cohesive narrative and ending with an ambiguous characteristic to thwart expectation away from catharsis and instead with sustained interruptions and digressions to follow a different pattern in pacing.
One year before the initial screening of Un Chien Andalou, Benjamin had submitted his Habilitation to qualify him as a university lecturer: it was an extensive study on the German tragic drama which included a prologue on representation in philosophy in relation to the idea of the whole and fragmented. It attempted to bring into question what philosophy had supposedly had the task of carrying out with its incorporation of high humanistic ideals through a didactic tone, or the “didactic authority of doctrine” (Benjamin 28) The whole, or the doctrine, shapes thinking within hierarchical values in which its standing as whole must be all-encompassing. As humanistic pursuits in its progression past the enlightenment began to shift its focus on the sciences to obtain complete mastery over the human subject and the world, philosophers and artists are forced, as Benjamin contextualizes, to place the higher authority in the scientist. Representation could no longer be in the realm of philosophy as it no longer held the same empirical authority as the sciences and its forms of writing:
“There has been a tendency to place the philosopher too close to the scientist and frequently the lesser kind of scientist; as if representation had nothing to do with the task of the philosopher. The concept of the philosophical style is free of paradox. It has its postulates. These are as follows: the art of the interruption in contrast to the chain of deduction; the tenacity of the essay in contrast to the single gesture of the fragment; the repletion of themes in contrast to shallow universalism; the fullness of concentrated positivity in contrast to the negation of polemic.” (32)
Philosophy could potentially put to question the greater truths of the sciences not only in its questions but its forms. The given forms of the essay has its stylistic differences, but in emphasizing a systemic approach to representation, the language and its placement in the treatise are “obedient” to the whole form. “Method is digression”: this short sentence shifts the meaning towards an opening instead of possibilities in other forms, whereas the treatise, in this mode of thinking, has language form its meaning and interpretation according to an all-encompassing ideological whole; the fragment has no ending, allowing the written form to express thought not at a sustained length but at different pauses and continuations, to continually leave thought open for movement. In a bodily comparison of this method, Benjamin frames the ideal of the digression as a “continual pausing for breath…the mode most proper to the process of contemplation. For by pursuing different levels of meaning it is examination of one single object it receives both the incentive to begin again and the justification for its irregular rhythm” (28). This irregular rhythm goes forward, stops, but under no obligation needs to continue with a singular thought—it can go back or diverge into another stream of thought at various lengths.
When Sergei Einsenstein had theorized the possibility of creating a montage in cinema, he believed that the images overlapping and juxtaposed with each other could make an impact beyond the individual image. Instead, it could create a “tertium quid” (third thing) to form a whole greater in its sum as opposed to individual juxtapositions of images. This third thing has the ability to shorten or expand the time period of an event, interchange between different subjects to arouse an emotional and ideological consciousness for the viewer of the film. The montage as a whole could evoke a specific reaction from the audience, and with Einsenstein, it would be revolutionary. The unity visuals and their timing in Un Chien Andalou together utilized and parodied the montage effect from its intended effect. Buñuel’s own rhythm and pace to the montage would act as a negation of a “rhythmic montage,” towards a parody of the kind of poetic montage that dominated much of the filmmaking in the twenties.
Continuity editing is preserved to create a seamlessness in time and space through the span of the movie, but the juxtaposition and free association of each image in Un Chien refers towards a signified deferred from the linearity of logic. After the prologue of the film, the film shifts eight years later to a man riding a bicycle in a nun’s outfit crosscut with a woman in the domestic interior, suggesting to the viewer that they are temporally simultaneous, a hint that is confirmed when she looks down from the window and sees once more a point of view shot: a high angle of the man in the street. The high-angle shot, linking the inner domestic world with the outer world (similar to the Vermeer painting in the book the heroine is looking at directly referencing her own actions of sitting quietly and reading). This is usually motivated by some form of revelation that the filmmaker wishes to dramatize. But Buñuel uses shooting angle and cutting so that they turn against themselves, serving only to underscore the absurd revelation of a cyclist who gratuitously falls on his head. The number of dissolves and superimpositions during this sequence of events parallel the painterly Impressionist conventions for the representation of movement and the passage of time, which endows the bizarre cyclist with the aura of a cinematic epic hero as he falls from his bike to his death. Buñuel next gives us an equally traditional match on action, as he cuts from the woman exiting the front door to her reaching the man, now lying in the gutter. Further in to the movie, he exploits a well-known editing technique known as the Kuleshov effect, in which images juxtaposed with one another to derive more meaning out of the two images together as opposed to focusing on one single shot. This technique shows up in a close up of the woman staring intently at the clothes she has laid out on the bed, until, suggested,her look has somehow materialized the man into her flat.
Whereas the Kuleshov effect would have emphasized the pairing of these images to invoke some kind of longing or despair for the emptiness of the bed, the leap from this juxtaposition with the transformation of the space from the emotional to the illogical parodies what may be a control of the director over the audience’s emotional response, or the representation of truth. Following the appearance of the man in her bed, the young woman must react to the moment in shock to convey a moment of psychological realism to set a conventional affect in the unusual event. One might also see an attempt to create another surrealist figure in the following images where a close-up of a sun-bathing woman’s armpit dissolves into a close-up of a sea-urchin. The bodily interaction between the man and woman in which the armpit hair dissolves to a sea urchin is purely associative or poetic, distanced from a logical connection to convey a specific reaction beyond shock. The scene leaps again from the domestic setting of the woman’s desire disrupted by the rotting of the apparition’s hand to the the Parisian streets, in which the contrast to the domestic shifts to an androgynous woman picking up a severed hand. The hand connects these two scenes only in its presence and its concrete symbol of death in the domestic sphere and outside of it, with the other woman momentarily mourning the hand and tragically dying in a montage sequence displacing a box in her hand and the position she stands in the streets. In the end, her body laid out in the same spot as the man in the nun outfit, the morality of death is taken away, with only the tragedy sustained through the music of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
The Specters of Surrealism
The techniques Buñuel addresses in the film to criticize an oriented comprehension of linearity disorients the experience of the story for the viewer to observe the actions in the film as exaggerated enough to illuminate the processes in which the visual narrative has been constructed. Aspects of the visual, and the impact of the camera’s gaze on the story and the audience on the film, are a few of the main themes in the Surrealist movement. In his article “Oxymoronic Games in the Blink of an Eye, the Prologue to Un Chien Andalou as Precursor to the contemporary Poetics of Antivisuality and Blindness,” film scholar, Javier Herrera, compares ideas of antivisuality from Georges Bataille’s examination of surrealism in revealing the transcendental import given to artists in obtaining their inspiration from a higher ideal inaccessible to anyone else. With Surrealism, the emphasis on seeking inspiration internally contradicts the traditional notions of classical art in which the “ascent” towards a higher transcendent entity seeks it from the outside from a divine inspiration. When Buñuel brings up the idea of the “COUNSCIOUS psychic automatism” for inspiration, here he falls in with the aesthetics of the surrealists in countering the naturalness of art towards an understanding of technique to deconstruct the intentions associated with them, to divert the narrative away from transcendent and cathartic conclusion towards an inward reflection disconnected in the subconscious. The tone of this resonates through the film beginning with the infamous opening sequence in which the eye of the passive female character is sliced open by a male character played by Buñuel himself, juxtaposed with the image of a cloud moving across a moon: the visceral action of cutting slices open the corporeality and naturalness of this setting. This moment disorients the viewer, cutting through the loss of self in the story to a consciousness of the experience of viewing a film, cutting into the authoritative gaze of the director or author.
Benjamin had been aware of the possibility surrealism had in exploring the artistic and political potentiality the movement attempted to address. In titling his essay, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” he acknowledges a conception of an artistic movement to challenge the didactic mode of language in politics or the aesthetics of art, but the limited capacity it would have before the politics would signal its own end. He cites a line from the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, which included a message in his personal copy of Saison en Enfer: “In the margin, beside the passage ‘on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers’, he later wrote, ‘There’s no such thing’” (178). Benjamin cites Rimbaud’s work and its liminality in language where it could be read as the beauty of the landscape, but Rimbaud’s comment takes away the idyllic associations of nature. Whether Benjamin actually viewed the movie, Un Chien, is uncertain, however the essay, like the film, acknowledges the precarious position in which the movement found itself at the time of its publication. Whereas Buñuel had looked to dismiss the movement altogether, Benjamin continues to explore the possibility in the extremities Surrealism explores in language and images, and what this could potentially mean politically in confronting the materiality of language against the illogical sphere of dreamscapes, the exploration internally as opposed to externally. In the philosophical realism of the Middle Ages, Benjamin cites Andre Breton from Introduction au discours sur le ‘peu de realite’, to reaffirm aspects of the thought through its ability to reevaluate what language could do:
“…always very quickly crossed from the logical realm of ideas to the magical realm of words. And it is as magical experiments with words, not as artistic dabbling, that we must understand the passionate phonetic and graphical transformational games that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde for the past fifteen years, whether it is called Futurism, Dadaism, or Surrealism” (74-75).
Words as “magical” displaces the authority of the objective notion and progressive narrative from a coercion into a specific set of meanings. Representation of language then can have the same wondering effect as explored in Benjamin’s prologue on early modern German literature to explore the myriad ways language could be used to explore a multiplicity of thoughts as opposed to a linear sequence in prosaic writing.
However, to go back to the title of Benjamin’s essay, emphasizing on the aspect of “the Last Snapshot,” the title nods towards a finality in the movement as well as a speed in which the artistic movement would be captured. As Breton had mentioned, the magical is displaced, to only have language to work with whether this finds itself in the text itself or in images for the artist to work with, an ambiguity these artists, or the intelligentsia, could possibly grasp as a form of critique against traditional notions of art, language, and politics. A component of the movement’s exploration with materiality includes what could be be seen or what we may be allowed to be seen. The subjectiveness of surrealism limits the sights of the viewer in visuals or texts not only in its unusual placement of materials but also having them interact with each other to constantly multiply the interpretation of the work. This notion then of what can be seen, what cannot be seen, begins to deconstruct the notion then of what could constitute the work of art when the teleological path it has been canonized with comes under scrutiny. Jacques Derrida notes this specific moment in his interviews with Bernard Stiegler, in the collection, Echographies of Television, as the form of a specter existing in the image:
A specter is both visible and invisible, both phenomenal and nonphenomenal: a trace that marks the present with its absence in advance. The spectral logic is de facto a deconstructive logic. It is in the element of haunting that deconstruction finds the place most hospitable to it, at the heart of the living present, in the quickest heartbeat of the philosophical. Like the work of mourning, in a sense, which produces spectrality, and like all work produces spectrality. (117)
When working within the material world and its displacement of meaning in everyday life, what do we have left? What becomes left behind does not necessarily imply a presence, but it does not constitute a non-presence either as we can still recognize familiarity in the image of the text. The remainder of what becomes alludes to a series of specters still haunting the space with its directed meaning. With this strange space of opening and closing, other visible and invisible forms begin to inform (or deconstruct) the representation of the visible/invisible. The “last snapshot” then offers a flash of the constructiveness of what has been a given set of meanings to quickly become overtaken by the specters of those meanings.
The otherworldly associations with surrealism and its interaction with the material world could potentially express the mechanics producing the ideals in which canonization (or the whole ideal) orients the language and thought of the work of art to function within the limits of what may be considered the “truth” of the work. This “truth” relies on its representation of a systematic or transcendental aura to distance the audience from the work of art. The aura and its relations with the rise of industrialization in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” focuses on film as a tool to question the distance of the work of art between the audience and the authority figures to shape this reception. With film, it could possibly change the hierarchy of the critic towards the reception of the work in the hands of the audience, or the masses, to give a glimpse of illumination as opposed to a further reification of the aura. The aura as nonhuman in its attachment to former transcendental ideals may confront the actuality of the reproduction of the work of art from the non-human, the otherworldly, to a crisis of renewal:
And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. (Benjamin 225)
In its traditional form, catharsis would have reaffirmed a moralistic stance in line with prevailing ideology to create the satisfaction the audience will feel in the concluding moment. What comes out of Benjamin’s analysis of catharsis reorients instead as a destructive moment instead, digressing from the pattern of the moralistic intent towards a “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (221). Reproduction in film puts forward its form constantly in its presentation for viewers anywhere to experience the work in an accessible space to formulate their own form of engagement with the work away from authoritative spaces and gazes. The gaze then in the prologue to Un Chien Andalou holds a greater significance in the viscerality of the act of cutting open the eye as it delineates from the real in its close-up of the action exposing the liminality of vision into the reproduction of the product of film and the reproduction of the bodily experience in each frame of the film. Even though Buñuel intended this attack on the sensibility of bourgeois aesthetics, he digressed from the prescriptive notions of the surrealists as well as to produce the specters haunting their work and their aesthetics they aimed to have broken off from, towards a form of art touching on more expansive thematics that could resonate with a wider audience (or masses) in contempt of “with perfectly conventional reason and humor” (Buñuel 30).
The “Putrefactos” Aesthetic
The convention of reason and humor in film does not necessarily reflect itself in the narrative but in the psychological attempting to come up with some understanding of how the mind functions, where the trigger points of memory and desires happen. In some sense, this attempt to excavate the workings of the mind had been a limitation of surrealism, relying on Cartesian notions of the mind and body functioning to convey a sense of rationality in consciousness. Even though the criticism of this line of logic appears through surrealism, it also makes it stuck in a binary between the Cartesian and the non-Cartesian, a modernist notion that a critique of representation must per force be anti-realist. In 1928, Buñuel had published in La Révolution surréaliste, a preface to Un Chien Andalou which acted as an infamous manifesto decrying surrealism but also acknowledging its importance to his work. The first paragraph states: “The publication of this screenplay in La Révolution surréaliste is the only one I have authorized. It expresses, without any reservations, my complete adherence to surrealist though and activity. Un Chien andalou would not exist if surrealism did not exist” (31). Buñuel may not have succeeded in creating a work that functions as radical, but it does put into question the implicit hierarchy in holding the movement as having answers to address the issues of modernity and the mind. Along with Buñuel, Benjamin posed this issue as well, especially with the eventual failure of the group to fall in line with more conservative politics as they grew to misinterpret many of the left-leaning politics they had grown to inhabit the movement. Buñuel writes in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (1982):
The movement was successful in its details and a failure in its essentials. Breton, Eluard, and Aragon are among the best French writers in this century; their books have prominent positions on all library shelves. The work of Ernst, Magritte, and Dali is famous, high- priced, and hangs prominently in museums. There’s no doubt that surrealism was a cultural and artistic success; but these were precisely the areas of least importance to most surrealists. Their aim was not to establish a glorious place for themselves in the annals of art and literature, but to change the world, to transform life itself. (123)
Even though Buñuel did not necessarily prevail in transforming life itself in his work, his reliance on examining desire did raise skepticism of the function of Eros in. Film traditionally based itself in presenting mimesis and representational realism, relying on character development, along the lines of the representational novel. Character development served the same function in representational films as it did in the representational novel, “to conserve and habituate” (Bayley 225).
The film Un Chien utilizes this criticism in the second half of the movie after the androgynous woman is killed by a truck as the rest of movie travels along a trajectory of the desirous chase for the other: the female character inside of the apartment is chased after by the man whose hands have ants crawling out of them; a stranger then attempts to go after the man who appears in the woman’s bed in a nun’s outfit; the stranger is shot by male nun, and displaced from the apartment to the outside world with a final deathly grasp on the fantasy of the woman’s bare back; the woman confronted by the man in the nun’s outfit escapes the apartment to the outside world where she meets a handsome man she wonders a shore endlessly until their death in spring. In each of these sequences, the desirous faces a form of interruption from their amorous subject. Several studies on the film have continued to attribute some form of psychoanalytical examination of what these interruptions and digressions may indicate, and how they parallel with the aesthetics of the surrealists. The common argument that comes from these arguments ultimately fall in the expectations of the audience, to challenge the trajectory of what may be expected in the love story as the desirous fulfills their subjectivity in obtaining the other, but ultimately this film fails to do so. Yet, one scene in particular is worth examining in its removal of the psychological and the surrealist implications to have a better understanding of the challenges Buñuel presented in this work that eventually informed his aesthetic in the course of his career that distinguishes him from the other surrealists.
A leap in the narrative presents a man in the woman’s apartment who is haunted by the ants crawling from a hole inside of his hand, which initially fascinates the woman, but then disturbs her as he chases after her. When he finally has her cornered, he leans down to pick up some rope lying on the floor attached to the following items: “un tapon de corcho, luego un melón, dos hermanos de las escuelas cristianas y, finalmente, dos magníficos pianos de cola” (a cork, then a melon, two brothers of the Christian schools and, finally, two magnificent grand pianos) (Dalí, Obra 1042). A dead donkey appears in the midst of this, and becomes paradigmatic of the aesthetic Buñuel will play with to address a significant moment in his childhood in Calanda, Spain, in which he makes the connection between death and sexuality. Buñuel observes in this experience: “I stood there hypnotized, sensing that beyond this rotten carcass lay some obscure metaphysical significance. My father finally took hold of my arm and dragged me away” (19). With the mixture of the personal and generational, the intimate and the social, Buñuel reenacts this action of closeness and being pulled away in utilizing the dead donkey in the grand pianos. Combined with this was the recurring image of rotting to describe, along with Dalí and Federico García Lorca, not only the imminent and desired death of decrepit values the generación del 27’s held in contempt, but also a fascination with contemplating and recording the bourgeois material decay and scatology. This debris of bourgeois value would be called, “putrefactos,” or putrid. Yet in the midst of this, another poet associated with this generation of artists, Juan Ramón Jiménez, had glorified the image of the donkey in an aestheticized southern Spain. In response to this, Buñuel and Dalí sent a letter condemning the poem for its perceived hysteria in sentimentality. A year later, the rotting donkey appears in a grand piano, being pulled along with the Jesuit school teachers. However, the appearance of the donkey marks a distinction between the direction in which not only Dalí and Buñuel would take, but the paths that would make Buñuel distinctive as an artist. During the shooting of the pulling sequence, in the set up of the scene before shooting, Dalí removed the donkey’s eye sockets and filled it with tar. The detail in in this moment immediately draws the viewers to the eyes of the corpses, but also renders the aesthetic of putrefaction developed by both Buñuel and Dalí as a final and statuesque representation, somewhat diminishing the possibly disturbing effect of the corpse’s presence in the film. As Dalí later ventured into further exploration of using the world for his interpretive delirium, Buñuel will focus more in unmasking the fetishism of the rational bourgeois world. Whereas Dalí happily explores the deeper recesses of the inward, Buñuel reaches out to the social and political to the very end of his career.
Conclusion: From Revolt to Interruption
In 2015, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the UK held a retrospective of Luis Buñuel’s films, which included an appearance from his grandson Diego Buñuel, and leading academics on his work such as Maria Delgado, Jo Evans, Peter Evans, and Rob Stone. To coincide with the event, a series of video essays were assembled by filmmaker and academic Cristina Álvarez López, who grouped together Buñuel’s filmography based on specific themes and locations in his career. Two in particular connect very closely as they delve into his initiation into film to his reemergence late in his career towards experimental films. The first video essay, titled “Buñuel and Surrealism: Revolt in Love,” groups together his first feature films made in Spain, and includes clips from Un Chien Andalou. As for the second essay, titled “International Buñuel: Interruption as Method,” it places together his final trilogy of films made in France during the 70s before his death. As linearity, representation, and artistic movements came under scrutiny from both Benjamin and Buñuel, the relevance of these movements became questionable in the growing artistic movements that either criticized the esoteric and deeply misogynistic works of these artists, or were appropriated in a siphoned version of its aesthetics. Yet in the 1970s, Buñuel won his first Oscar for Best Foreign Film for his late work The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. As explored in Benjamin’s essays, the liminality of representation had been a cornerstone of surrealism, in putting forth this issue in relation to their political environment that continued to depend on idealistic moral rhetoric, and how the linearity of logic had itself restricted the potentiality of language. Even though Benjamin had grown in his scholarship to explore more of the minutiae of societal constructs, such as his intensive study on the French arcades, the indication of this work was to evaluate the relationship between the ideology of capitalism in constructing the everyday and the spaces in which this could be seen. Buñuel expanded in the same direction as well with his views from its focus on the everyday in small locations towards a more international perspective still rooted in the everyday. This expansiveness narrowed his focus on the social and political as his films explored the limitations of resources, class disparity, and how terrorism served instead as a function of digression. This focus on terrorism, despite his morbid fascination with it became scrutinized in his film, as it almost parodies his early attempts to use this same tool of digression and interruption to confront linearity. Instead, in its misuse of interruptions through terrorism, Buñuel confronts the ideology of not only the bourgeoisie in distancing themselves from these political actions, but radical ideologies as well utilizing reactionary strategies to raise attention to their causes. It is difficult not to dissociate the echoes of terrorism as a tool then and now, which makes both his early work and later work have some resonance as interruptions in the from of Eros grows towards the misuse of it in the world. Despite the antagonism he conveyed or which was directed against him, the reception of his work left an illumination of potentiality of what could possibly be derived from it from its displacements of meaning.
Every once in a while, I come across a sentence that doesn’t seem to be saying anything — be sure to make the subjects of your sentences very clear so that the meanings of the sentences can also be very clear.
The conclusion feels a bit random. Come back to your initial argument and focus more on the film at hand than on Buñuel’s film career as a whole in this last paragraph, I think.
1. Any translations not done by the published translators were done by myself.
2. Breton had famously written the first Surrealist Manifesto (Manifeste du surréalisme) in 1924, in which he also included the term “pure psychic automatism.” However, as Breton had attempted to bring together the political and the artistic temperament of surrealism to the wider public in joining the French Communist Party in 1927, he could not accomplish this task and was eventually expelled from the party in 1933. In 1935, he was eventually expelled from the first “International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture,” as a representative of the surrealists. What resulted in this was a confrontation between himself and writer Ilya Ehrenburg after he called the group “pederasts.” Breton had already been antagonistic toward Ehrenburg and a few other surrealists from this period affiliated with the communist party for their homosexuality.
3. In My Last Sigh, Buñuel reflects on his fascination with terrorism: “(The symbolic significance of terrorism has a certain attraction for me: the idea of destroying the whole social order, the entire human species. on the other hand, I despise those who use terrorism as a political weapon in the service of some cause or other–those who kill people in Madrid, for instance, in order to focus attention on the problems in Armenia.) No, the terrorists I admire are those like Bande à Bonnot; I understand people like Ascaso and Durruti who chose their victims carefully, or the French anarchists at the end of the nineteenth century–all those, in other words, who tried to blow up the world (and themselves along with it) that seemed to them unworthy of survival. Sometimes there’s a profound abyss between reality and my imagination–not exactly an unusual discrepancy, I’m sure; but I’ve never been a man of action. I’m simply incapable of imitating those people I so admire” (126).
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Sandro, Paul. Diversions of Pleasure: Luis Buñuel and the Crises of Desire. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987. Print.
Un Chien Andalou. Dir. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Les Grands Films Classiques, 1960. DVD.
Luis Bunuel said that if he were told he had 20 years to live and was asked how he wanted to live them, his reply would be: "Give me two hours a day of activity, and I'll take the other 22 in dreams -- provided I can remember them." Dreams were the nourishment of his films, and from his earliest days as a surrealist in Paris to his triumphs in his late 70s, dream logic was always likely to interrupt the realism of his films. That freedom gave them a quality so distinctive that, like those of Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini, they could be identified almost immediately.
His first film, written in collaboration with the notorious surrealist artist Salvador Dali, was "Un Chien Andalou" (1928). Neither the title ("an Andalusian dog") nor anything else in the film was intended to make sense. It remains the most famous short film ever made, and anyone halfway interested in the cinema sees it sooner or later, usually several times.
It was made in the hope of administering a revolutionary shock to society. "For the first time in the history of the cinema," wrote the critic Ado Kyrou, "a director tries not to please but rather to alienate nearly all potential spectators." That was then, this is now. Today, its techniques have been so thoroughly absorbed even in the mainstream that its shock value is diluted--except for that famous shot of the slicing of the eyeball, or perhaps the shot of the man dragging the grand piano that has the priests and the dead donkeys on top of it. . . .
It is useful to remember that "Un Chien Andalou" was made not by the Bunuel and Dali that we see as crumbling old men in photographs, but by headstrong young men in their 20s, intoxicated by the freedom of Paris during the decade of the Lost Generation. There is a buried connection between the surrealists and the Sex Pistols, Bunuel and David Lynch, Dali and Damien Hirst (the artist who exhibited half a lamb in a cube of plastic). "Although the surrealists didn't consider themselves terrorists," Bunuel wrote in his autobiography, "they were constantly fighting a society they despised. Their principal weapon wasn't guns, of course; it was scandal."
The scandal of "Un Chien Andalou" has become one of the legends of the surrealists. At the first screening, Bunuel claimed, he stood behind the screen with his pockets filled with stones, "to throw at the audience in case of disaster." Others do not remember the stones, but Bunuel's memories were sometimes a vivid rewrite of life. When he and his friends first saw Sergei Eisenstein's revolutionary Soviet film "Battleship Potemkin," he claimed, they left the theater and immediately began tearing up the street stones to build barricades. True?
"Un Chien Andalou" was one of the first handmade films--movies made by their creators on a shoestring budget, without studio financing. It is an ancestor of the works of John Cassavetes and today's independent digital movies. Bunuel (1900-1983), a Spaniard lured to Paris by vague dreams of becoming an artist, found employment in the film industry, learned on the job, was fired for insulting the great director Abel Gance and drifted into the orbit of the surrealists.
He went to spend a few days at the house of Dali, a fellow Spaniard, and told him of a dream he'd had, in which a cloud sliced the moon in half, "like a razor blade slicing through an eye." Dali countered with his own dream about a hand crawling with ants. "And what if we started right there and made a film?" he asked Bunuel, and they did. They wrote the screenplay together, and Bunuel directed, taking only a few days and borrowing the budget from his mother.
In collaborating on the scenario, their method was to toss shocking images or events at one another. Both had to agree before a shot was included in the film. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," Bunuel remembered. "We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why."
The image of the moon was followed by the image of a man with a razor (Bunuel) slicing a woman's eye (actually a calf's eye--although legend has transformed it into a pig). The hand crawling with ants was followed by a transvestite on a bicycle, a hairy armpit, a severed hand on the sidewalk, a stick poking the hand, a silent-movie style sexual assault, a woman protecting herself with a tennis racket, the would-be rapist pulling the piano with its bizarre load, two apparently living statues in sand from the torso up, and so on. To describe the movie is simply to list its shots, since there is no story line to link them.
And yet we try to link them nevertheless. Countless analysts have applied Freudian, Marxist, and Jungian formulas to the film. Bunuel laughed at them all. Still, to look at the film is to learn how thoroughly we have been taught by other films to find meaning even when it isn't there.
Bunuel told an actress to look out the window at "anything -- a military parade, perhaps." In fact, the next shot shows the transvestite falling dead off the bicycle. We naturally assume the actress is looking at the body on the sidewalk. It is alien to everything we know about the movies to conclude that the window shot and the sidewalk shot simply happen to follow one another without any connection. In the same way, we assume that the man pulls the pianos (with the priests, dead donkeys, etc) across the room because his sexual advance has been rebuffed by the woman with the tennis racket. But Bunuel might argue the events have no connection -- the man's advance is rejected, and then, in an absolutely unrelated action, he picks up the ropes and starts to pull the pianos.
While looking at "Un Chien Andalou," it is useful to look with equal attention at ourselves as we watch the movie. We assume it is the "story" of the people in the film -- these men, these women, these events. But what if the people are not protagonists but merely models -- simply actors hired to represent people performing certain actions? We know that the car at the auto show does not belong to (and was not designed or built by) the model in the bathing suit who points to it. Bunuel might argue that his actors have a similar relationship to the events surrounding them.
Luis Bunuel (1900-1983) made another surrealist film, "L'Age d'Or" (1930), which was accused of sacrilege and suppressed for many years. He was a journeyman for MGM at one point, supervising the Spanish-language versions of Hollywood movies. He made many movies in Mexico, some of them, like "The Young and the Damned" and "The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz" highly valued. At 61 he had a worldwide hit with "Viridiana." with its shocking scene modeled on the Last Supper, and for the next 17 years, a period of inspired productivity, produced one astonishing film after another, such as "The Exterminating Angel," "Diary of a Chambermaid," "Belle de Jour," "That Obscure Object of Desire," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise," "Tristana" and "The Phantom of Liberty."
"Un Chien Andalou" is a curtain-raiser: In a way, he was never unfaithful to it. A movie like this is a tonic. It assaults old and unconscious habits of moviegoing. It is disturbing, frustrating, maddening. It seems without purpose (and yet how much purpose, really, is there in seeing most of the movies we attend?). There is wry humor in it, and a cheerful willingness to offend. Most members of today's audiences are not offended, and maybe that means the surrealists won their revolution: They demonstrated that art (and life) need not follow obediently within narrow restrictions that have been decreed since time immemorial. And that in a film that is alive and not mummified by convention, you never know what you might see when you look out the window.