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Surrealism in Cinema: A Conscious World of Dreams

IMAGINE:

A group of wealthy elites is invited for a dinner get-together at a house. The servants of the house begin to leave randomly before the guests arrive. These guests are unable to leave the house later for no apparent reason!

Scene from The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel

A fine dinner is interrupted by a series of incidents that are actually part of a dream – a dream that takes place inside the mind of a person who in his dream is dreaming about another person in the group who is dreaming about having an uninterrupted dinner!

Scene from The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel

The aforementioned stories are from two films, The Exterminating Angel & The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, both made by a Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, a provocateur, and an iconoclast. He along with another Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali wrote the most famous/infamous film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The film was born out of two dreams that Bunuel and Dali had and shared with each other. Bunuel told Dali about his dream in which “a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye.” Dali responded with his dream in which there was “a hand crawling with ants.”

Un Chien Andalou/An Andalusian Dog created by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali

For the uninitiated, Surrealism was a movement that took place in the 1920s. But what is surrealism? How did it start?

Amid World War 1 (1914-18) a group of people—which comprised intellectuals, performing artists, painters, and literary figures—filled with rage and disillusioned with reason, logic, and rationality that had led to large scale devastation – a result of the war, started an avant-garde movement to be known as Dada (1916). As Tristan Tzara, a Romanian and French avant-garde artist said, “the beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”

It was this, which gave rise to irrationality and anti-bourgeoisie sentiments. If logic, reason, and rationality are at the core of any war, shouldn’t irrationality be embraced? It stood against everything that was termed as ‘aesthetic’ in modern capitalist society.

Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, a Dada artist. Five identical Marcels sit around a table, facing each other.

Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Dada artist (1917)

Inspired by Dadaism, Andre Breton, an active participant of the Dadaist movement, became instrumental, with other artists, in forming an art movement known as Surrealism. He wrote the first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 and the second Manifesto in 1930. Though most of the members were of the Dada group, the Surrealists were quintessentially Freudian; influenced by Sigmund Freud’s writing on The Unconscious.

 

A strange creature with different animal parts romps on an open field.

The Triumph of Surrealism (1973) by Max Ernst

Breton devised “pure psychic automatism”* to shock […the spectator]. The process was to write/create anything that comes to your mind, without letting any reason or logic become a hindrance, by juxtaposing two distant realities i.e. dream and everyday life/object to create a super-reality or surreality.

 ‘…psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’

 – Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) by Andre Breton.

 

In other words, they were writing as if they were exercising their unconscious (although Freud never said that the unconscious can be exercised outside clinical practice). They even used to record their dreams every day in order to create something. On one hand, where the interpretation (deriving from Freud’s idea) might not be entirely true, on the other hand, this gave birth to a fantastic (as Breton says, the fantastic thing about ‘fantastic’ is, it doesn’t exist) movement.

Surrealism spoke of a new language, a syntax that would challenge the order of the world, to be precise, the capitalist bourgeoisie moral. It spoke in a language that would provoke and attack the conscience of the bourgeoisie class. Its main objective was to attack two established institutions – the church and the middle-class (with aspirations of capitalism) – two primary foundations of regressive society.

 Portrait of Picasso (1947) by Salvador Dali. A bust of a person contains torn pieces of paper near the head, a curved nose and brain, empty eye sockets, a flower nestled amidst a drooping bosom and a long spoon protruding from the mouth with the tip holding a small stringed instrument.

 Portrait of Picasso (1947) by Salvador Dali

Bunuel’s process of writing was along this line. He said, “Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all the doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why?”

Breton writes “Surrealism does not allow those who devote themselves to it to forsake it whenever they like.” The surrealist activity is not an event but an everyday practice, an everyday revolution. This echoes what Marx believed revolution to be; a revolution in daily life.

Though at the first glance, Surrealism appears to be irrational (which it is on the face of it) but if one penetrates deep into it, one will find an infinite world of rationality and that Surrealism is not an end to the means but a beginning of possibilities.

As for the relevance of surrealism, I will leave you with a few photographs of our time but before that, I would like to share a passage from a book that was written nearly five decades later i.e. post-surrealist movement.

‘For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century. It was a time of direct gestures, shameless discourse, and open transgressions when anatomies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when bodies “made a display of themselves.” But twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie.’

The History of Sexuality (1976) by Michel Foucault

'Prayer' by Man Ray. A pair of hands cupping human buttocks with feet folded underneath.

Prayer (1930) by Man Ray

The reason for quoting the above paragraph is that Bunuel’s films or Dada and Surrealism, in general, cannot be at all read and understood outside the sexual and class conflict/politics. Indeed, they are one. Reading one without the other is like saying “I’m against caste system but not religion” (if you disagree with me on this then please refer to Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar).

Scene from The Young and the Damned by Luis Bunuel 

Surrealism is a provocation against cultural hegemony. Surrealism is anti-art; it defies aesthetics to challenge the conventional ways of looking at art. Surrealism revolts against societys’ indoctrination of all sorts; religious, political, sexual, etc. It echoes a demand to abolish the market ethos of reducing human beings to a commodity – the consumer and the consumed.

All thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own. 

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