Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The First Surrealist Films

Surrealism was an art movement based on dreams, unconscious thought and defying conventional logic. It grew out of the earlier avant-garde movement called Dada in the 1920s.
Dada was about chaos and rejecting logic and rationality, and was also referred to as anti-art. Just like Surrealism, it often featured bizarre imagery that didn't make sense.

Famous surrealist artists include Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo (although she rejected the label).

Dali's "The Persistence of Memory", one of the most famous surrealist paintings

Painting and sculpture are what gave Surrealism its fame, but it was also important in literature, music, and of course film. Some of the most well-known Surrealist artists even directed some movies.

The first film I'll mention is Rhythmus 21. It was directed by a German artist named Hans Richter, who was influenced by cubism and was part of the Dada movement.

Rhythmus 21 was completely abstract, 3 minutes long, and black and white. There are no actors or dialogue, just shapes growing in size and moving about the screen. The short is one of the earliest and most influential abstract films.

Next, there's the 1923 short Return to Reason by the prominent Dada/Surrealist artist Man Ray.

Born in 1890 in Pennsylvania, Man Ray became known for his photography and painting in the 1910s and 1920s.  He ended up being part of the first Surrealist exhibition held in Paris in 1925.

Return to Reason is an under three-minute short film that featured Man Ray's signature "rayographs" which were made without a camera by placing objects directly on photographic paper before exposing it to light.

Like Rhythmus 21, it's an abstract film with no dialogue. The only "actor" is Kiki of Montparnasse, who is just seen as a faceless nude torso. Kiki (whose real name was Alice Prin) was a model, artist, and actress who was also Man Ray's lover.

Return to Reason starts with completely abstract images that look like they may have inspired the work of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. There are some rayographs of nails and other objects and we are shown a series of seemingly random images that appear to have no connection to one another.

As far as the viewer can tell, there is no rational meaning to be gathered and this fits right in with the Surrealist way of thinking. It defies the typical expectation that a film should tell a logical story.

The following year French director  René Clair released Entr'acte. It featured appearances by Surrealist figures such as Duchamp, Man Ray, and French painter Francis Picabia. 

Also appearing was Erik Satie, the famous composer who wrote the score for the short film. Satie had written for a Dada publication and knew many famous Surrealist artists.

Entr'acte is much longer than the previous two as it clocks in at 22 minutes.

Clair would go on to be one of France's most significant directors, making more traditional films like And Then There Were None and Under the Roofs of Paris.

That same year, Ballet Mécanique, directed by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy came out. Léger was a French Cubist painter and sculptor and this was the only film he directed. Man Ray helped with the cinematography.

The short  runs for under 20 minutes and has a score by well-known American avant-garde composer George Antheil, who later composed for the dialogue-free 1955 film Dementia.  The music actually had a life of its own as it ended up being 10 minutes longer than the film. It was not combined with the movie until the 1990s, but was performed as a separate concert piece as early as 1926.

Ballet Mécanique starred Kiki of Montparnasse, who you'll remember from Return to Reason. It includes plenty of surreal, random imagery like disembodied spinning legs, kaleidoscopic shots of machines and simple geometric shapes.

Also in 1924, Man Ray released a film with Henri Chomette called What Do Young Films Dream About. Unfortunately, I can't find this online or much information about it at all, and it's possible it's a lost work.

Two years later in 1926, Marcel Duchamp made his first and only film known as Anemic Cinema. Duchamp was one of the most significant artists of any time period, but especially of the 20th century. He was a part of the Cubist and Dada movements and was one of the earliest to create what we now think of as Conceptual Art.

Anemic Cinema is a visually striking black and white film made up of hypnotic swirling circles and spirals. This is all that happens over the course of six minutes; like others in this article, there are no actors or dialogue.

Man Ray made a short in 1926 as well called Emak-Bakia. It was produced in France and included some of Pablo Picasso's sculptures. According to IMDB trivia, the experimental film caused a fight to break out in the audience of one of the showings when someone complained that it was giving him a headache.

As in his earlier work Return to Reason, there are fast-paced abstract images but there are also more intelligible shots of someone driving a car, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror, and dancing legs.

In 1928, Germaine Dulac came out with Seashell and the Clergyman. Born in France, she was a film theorist and critic and was also involved with feminism and socialism. The BFI eventually included Seashell and the Clergyman on their list of 10 great feminist films.

The script was written by Antonin Artaud, a French avant-garde playwright and theater director who reportedly influenced writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Samuel Beckett. He also acted in one my favorite movies ever, the silent The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928.

Additionally, Man Ray produced yet another Surrealist short film in 1928 titled The Sea Star. Interestingly, it was shot mostly either through glass or off of a mirror, resulting in scenes that are very blurry and hard to make out. This was a typical surrealist tactic of ignoring the audience's expectations as well as traditional cinematic conventions.

Quite possibly the most famous entry on this list is Un Chien Andalou of 1929. It was written by two people. One was Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors in history (as well as one my personal favorites), making art house classics such as The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and That Obscure Object of Desire.

The other was the previously mentioned Salvador Dalí, the painter who for many is synonymous with Surrealism.

Un Chien Andalou is infamous for the shot of an eyeball being sliced in close up. It's supposed to be a female human's eye, but it was actually a horse, though this doesn't make it much less of a disturbing image.

After this, there's an intertitle stating, "Eight years later", but time is really irrelevant in this work. Plenty of surreal images ensue, including ants magically coming out of a man's hand and him suddenly and inexplicably dragging two pianos and donkey corpses behind him.

Trying to find any meaning in the film is most likely pointless as Buñuel specifically said that "Nothing in the film symbolizes anything." and "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted."

In fact, the lack of meaning is sort of the point and indeed crucial to Dada and Surrealism in general.

Surrealism was profoundly important in filmmaking throughout the rest of the twentieth century and still is today. Its impact can be seen in the works of great directors such as David Lynch, Federico Fellini, Jan Švankmajer, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

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