interview

Dali, Surrealism and Cinema: an interview with Elliott H. King

By Antonio Pasolini

Kamera Books' second release puts the focus on the intriguing film career of one of the 20th century's most acclaimed artists, Salvador Dali. Written by Dali scholar and aficionado, Elliott H. King, Dali, Surrealism and Cinema is a complete survey of the Catalan artist's unique cinematic legacy. The release of the book coincides with a major show at the Tate Modern in London focusing on the same topic.

(08/06/05)

Reading the book you get the impression that, save a few exceptions, Dali's relationship with cinema was a great incomplete project, which makes for an interesting narrative. Do you think this is related mostly to a difficult character on his part?

In the interview included in the book, Amanda Lear told me that Dalí was a great saboteur and made all these unreasonable demands on film people just to make sure they couldn't be met! But I don't think that saying he was simply 'difficult' is the real answer. I'm sure many people found him so, but, to be fair, that's largely because he had a clear vision of what he wanted. He was uncompromising.

People of think of Dalí as solely commercially motivated, but he clearly cared about what he was doing. You think about Spellbound, for example. Dalí cared about it! It was his first Hollywood venture, and things kept keeping him from realising his ideas as he wanted. The ballroom sequence got cut, the statue sequence got cut, and then William Menzies re-shot all the episodes – I talk about this in the book, of course. Dalí must have been gutted! He passed a message to David O Selznick asking that he be allowed to review the new plans and even offering additional drawings at no extra charge, but Selznick didn't want to take the time and expense. Dalí basically lost his control of the sequence. It's sad, because Dalí wanted to make sure his first US motion picture was the way he wanted it, and in the end it absolutely wasn't. Even Selznick admitted that it wasn't Dalí's fault, so it wasn't as if Dalí was 'difficult' at all.

How did you cobble together all the information in the book? Where did you start?

I spent a great deal of time before starting the book examining the 1954-62 film, The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros, as part of my PhD research on Dalí's post-war art and writing. I've been studying various aspects of Dalí's work for nearly 10 years, so when it came to the question of cinema, I had a reasonably specialised knowledge of how these scripts might be situated in the context of his other activities. Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema is a much-needed approachable guide to Dalí and film, I think, but it also contains a good deal of extensively-researched contextual material that isn't found elsewhere.

When I started writing for the book, I actually worked back to front, beginning with Impressions of Upper Mongolia and working forwards. My own art historical specialisation is Dalí's work after the Second World War, so when I embarked on a book about Dalí and cinema, I wanted to make sure it gave ample space to the later films that haven't enjoyed the attention of Un Chien Andalou.

When you read surveys of Dalí's painting, one of the things you notice is that they often concentrate on the 1930s Surrealist pieces but sort of lump everything after about 1940 into the nondescript category, 'late Dalí'. The same thing happens with discussions of Dalí and cinema, but the 'end' comes much earlier: They all thoroughly dissect Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'Or but rarely go into the unrealised scripts he wrote subsequently – Five Minutes On the Subject of Surrealism, Against the Family or The Surrealist Mysteries of New York, for example – and they always trail off when they get to The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros and Impressions of Upper Mongolia.

It's easy to see why: There's essentially no secondary source material on many of these films. I did my best to get back to 'primary sources' – the people who actually knew Dalí. I was very fortunate to speak with Amanda Lear, Robert Descharnes, Leonardo Balada and Denise Sandell, all of whom were very generous with their time in sharing with me their memories of Dalí. In the end, the book is fairly evenly divided between the Surrealist films, the Hollywood period and the later films.

Dali seems to have been very attracted to the potential of cinema as an art form. What was his particular talent as far as cinema goes, do you think?

Dalí always presented himself as equally adept as a writer, director and star, but he never managed the three roles effectively, much less simultaneously. It was always others who brought his ideas to fruition. Dalí needed a director to keep his imagination in check, and a producer to foot the bill! Certainly his greatest talent as far as cinema goes, then, was that of an 'ideas man'. He blossomed in the conception.

I imagine that every time he was working on a film, he was already thinking about another three films he'd make later. Picasso described him as an 'outboard motor that's always running', and it was true – he was always 'on'. I think one of the greatest obstacles to his successful relationship with cinema was probably that boundless imagination that was really more adept at writing than directing. That's true from the beginning. Buñuel often had to pull in the reigns on Dalí's eclectic notions during scriptwriting for Un Chien Andalou, and in the end it was definitely Buñuel who was directing and sorting out all the practical issues. Dalí had even less to do with shooting L'Âge d'Or.

Wheelbarrow of Flesh, the story of a shepherdess who develops a fetishistic infatuation with a wheelbarrow, was amongst his most sophisticated and entertaining, but he couldn't finalise the script! He was always re-writing, and by 1953, the film was going to include five swans stuffed with explosives, six rhinoceroses, and a singing scene in which Nietzsche, Freud, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Karl Marx would each sing their doctrines to music by Bizet – all manner of miscellany that had absolutely nothing to do with the story. They were all potentially great scenes in their own right, though – that was Dalí's forte, after all: the conception! But pulling them together just wasn't something he really cared about. Without the intervention of a director, Dalí would never get around to shooting, much less editing.

Dali did manage to circulate in Hollywood. How do you think the industry viewed him? Tinseltown doesn't seem to be extremely fond of artists...

Hollywood didn't really take Dalí particularly seriously, though I don't think it was adversarial at all. But certainly Hollywood wasn't interested in helping artists make artistic movies. In the 1940s, Dalí received his commissions for Moontide and Spellbound, and you can't help noticing that he was being essentially pigeonholed as a 'nightmare creator'. For most people at the time, 'Surrealism' was a by-word for 'weird', and studios were inevitably more attracted to Dalí's publicity potential than they cared about faithfully realising a true Surrealist film, which, to be true to the Surrealist movement's ideals, would've been a more counter-culture, revolutionary picture anway. Dalí thought these were compatible; he wanted to take the Hollywood 'dream factory' and use its abilities towards Surrealist ends.

I'm interested in the relationship between Dali and Disney - it just seems so weird that the two could get on. What do you think the two men might have had in common? Their political views perhaps?

Does it seem weird? Almost everyone I've met who knew Dalí remembers him being very funny and entertaining – very amicable! He and Disney were running in similar Hollywood circles in the 1940s. They met at a party hosted by Jack Warner in 1945. And Dalí worked very hard for Disney when he was employed on Destino: He arrived punctually every morning and had good relations with all the animators. Dalí was always a great admirer of Disney's animated films; in 1937, he named Disney as one of the three great American Surrealists, along with Harpo Marx and Cecil B DeMille.

I suppose it's possible that part of their friendship germinated from some shared political leanings; both Dalí and Disney were vehemently anti-communistic (Dalí had sympathised with Communism in his youth but grew disenchanted with it at the beginning of the 1930s), but, of course, that wasn't really unique in 1940s America: Rallying against Communism was de rigueur in the States. In July 1937, three months after the bombing of Guernica, Cosmopolitan, a women's magazine owned by William Randolph Hearst, even named General Franco 'Cosmopolite of the Month', praising him as "kind, brave, austere, suave and anticommunistic"! As far as any other conservative positions Disney or Dalí may have held, the stories are too inconclusive to say anything with certainty.

Do you think Dali also saw cinema as a way to achieve more fame? I'm asking this because I see Dali's persona is one of his great artworks and maybe he saw cinema as a way to magnify it?

I agree that Dalí's persona was one of his greatest artistic achievements, but I don't think his work with cinema was motivated by fame. He was passionate about cinema long before he became famous. There are various theoretical texts he wrote in the 1920s about film, published in small Catalan journals. Indeed, in the late 1920s, there was a moment when it seemed as though he might abandon painting altogether to become a filmmaker... and that's before he even made Un Chien Andalou! Talking about film as a means towards stardom, one might invoke the Hollywood films he worked on, but, as I said before, I think Dalí's intentions were actually rather honourable. I don't think he got involved just for self-promotion. As far as the later films go – the ones he was actively guiding himself –, those have a direct continuity with the aspects of film that had attracted him in the 1920s – in the case of Impressions of Upper Mongolia, the capacity of the close-up to render strange something otherwise familiar. In 1927 Dalí had observed that, through a simple change in scale, a cow's eye could be read as a landscape with a light overcast, and you see similar effects in The Prodigious Story of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros and Impressions of Upper Mongolia.

Fame magnified Dalí's persona, but he wasn't famous 'just for being famous'. If one didn't know about the upturned moustache, the giant loaves of bread, the lecture in a diving suit, the Rolls Royce filled with cauliflowers... all those eccentric, self-promoting activities, if one just read Dalí's scripts without knowing about all the spectacles, I think one would still recognise that he was a truly gifted writer possessing an extraordinarily fecund imagination. Everything he did was a manifestation of an incredible, polymorphous talent.

Dali, Surrealism and Cinema is out now on Kamera Books. Please follow one of the links provided to buy a copy.

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