Surrealism in film, like surrealism as an artform, has been lauded and belittled since its inception. Having a defining movement, an agreed naming convention and, of course, that all important manifesto may have helped nurture awareness, but surrealism appears in popular culture in a much wider context than many other art movements. Surrealism and the Cinema: Open-eyed Screening by Michael Gould looks explores both in its cinematic inceptions and the way that it has had a wider influence on films that may not normally be directly associated with the movement.
As the opening quote by André Breton states ‘Criticism can only exist as a form of love,’ and Gould is clearly enamoured by his subject, not only in a cinematic context but also from an artistic background. This is a revised edition of the book originally published in 1976 ‘written as an antidote to academic film criticism and aimed at film buffs and art students’. It aims to explore the experience of surrealism, examining cinema’s relationship with art, or in some cases perceived influences or derivations from, particularly, painting. And it’s not just surrealism; many movements prior to the school’s emergence are also considered.
Although concentrating on specific film movers, the book encompasses a wider Hollywood source, including surrealism in biblical epics and even Laurel and Hardy talkie shorts, as well as comic book and cartoon characters. Buster Keaton’s silent comedy Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one such exploration. In placing these into a well organised context, the book features a worthy selection of art pictures and a good selection of stills that show the films in detail where needed.
Cinema: Open-eyed Screening goes on to explore the works of specific directors such as Buñuel, von Sternberg (notably his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich), Hitchcock and Fuller. The Buñuel section centres not only on the renowned duet of films made in collaboration with Dalí, prior to his exile from Spain, or the later 1960’s and 1970’s work that re-established him as a critically acclaimed film-maker, but also the less often (at least contemporarily) examined films from the period in between, films not declared by Buñuel to be part of the surrealist movement (of which he was not a member anyhow). The observation that ‘While Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (1930) were collaborations between Buñuel and Dalí, ultimately they have more of Buñuel than Dalí’ is apt. Each contain elements that possess the surrealist consciousness of the disregard for accepted normality, as they provoke abstraction within normality and in Buñuel’s frequent depictions of sadistic attitudes which are often shocking and unconventional but also use dark humour amidst the savage behaviour or events. This is also linked with his depictions of sexuality, even in explicit revelations or in symbolic resolutions of desires and perversions.
Sadomasochism, an intrinsic element found in much of Buñuel’s oeuvre is given more distinct analysis in the works of von Sternberg, notably The Blue Angel (1930), specifically emphasising von Sternberg’s work with Marlene Dietrich. Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) has a clear link to the movement with its Dalí designed dream but Gould compares this dream with Hitchcock’s own sequences in the film. Hitchcock films also relate to other artists not associated with surrealism, such as Edward Hopper (a painter who had a tremendous influence on American cinema) and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. ‘Hitchcock can treat paranoia humorously as well, but then it is always as black humour.’
The addition of Samuel Fuller’s oeuvre broadens the mix of genres covered. The analysis of Fuller is a welcome one for, even if there is a sense that perhaps his films are classed as budget shockers, there is no denying the compelling nature of the auteur’s collection of work, noting many aspects beyond that of the ‘B-movie’ expectation while observing that ‘Fuller is an expert at creating atmosphere out of nothing.’ Further sections look at minimalist or experimental film-making and animation. The animation is predominantly US based cell animation and includes Disney films up to Sleeping Beauty and reference to Fleischer’s Betty Boop films.
Surrealism and the Cinema: Open-eyed Screening is a fascinating exploration of a number films and film-makers from an alternative perspective and it also helps place these into an artistic context.