The Parisian surrealists of the 1920s had opinions about everything. About painting. About poetry. About politics. Their ideas came of age in the early decades of cinema so, of course, they had opinions about that too.
In surrealist fashion, their taste was often capricious, categorizing directors into who was worth watching and who had succumbed to aesthetic vanity or overt commercialization. Do watch Méliès. Don’t watch Lumière. Do watch Chaplin. Don’t watch Disney. Do watch Clouzot. Don’t watch Cocteau.
They were against sentimentality and melodrama — except when they weren’t — and they absolutely hated the French avant-garde cinema of their contemporaries. Dalí wrote a diatribe against “pure cinema,” in “Abstract of a critical history of the cinema,” writing that proponents of pure cinema were only interested in form for itself and couldn’t hold a candle to the sublime excesses of popular Italian cinema.
Although surrealists are never free of contradiction, when the early 20th-century French surrealists wrote about their film taste and their cinema-going habits, a few themes emerge — chance, disorientation, and excess.
Chance and Disorientation
Chance and disorientation are core surrealists concepts, and they go hand-in-hand. Sur-reality happens when the conscious mind and the unconscious cease to be fully distinguishable. It is a moment of freedom when the socially imposed order of the world is lifted, and one path to experience sur-reality is the cultivation of chance and disorientation (dépaysement).
The surrealists employed many strategies that invited chance and disorientation into their creative practices, from automatic writing to surrealist games like the exquisite corpse to creating assemblage art.
Similarly, the surrealists created games of cinema-going. During the First World War, André Breton and his close comrade Jacques Vaché would pop in and out of cinema theaters with no regard to what was playing, what time it started, or how long they’d stay. It seems inconceivable now, but at the time, a large city would have several cinemas within easy walking distance, and it would be several decades before a film’s start time would be respected. A person could just buy a ticket and walk into a theater half and hour into a film, stay to watch the remainder, and even stay to watch the beginning that they’d missed.
A similar practice today might be buying a ticket at a multiplex, but walking in an out of different movies on different screens every 10-15 minutes, though now you’d risk the staff kicking you out.
Breton writes of this strategy for movie watching, “I have never known anything more magnetizing…” (“As in a wood”). Breton and Vaché couldn’t judge the quality of the film; they rarely knew what they were watching. Their cinema-going was like collage, with the snippets of story abstracted from the narrative whole, so the only meanings that existed were the associations in the young men’s imaginations.
Likewise, Man Ray writes about going to movies without regard to what film he’s seeing. Instead he chose the theater by how comfortable the seats were. But that’s not all. He explains, “I invented a system of prisms which I glued on my glasses: thus I could see black-and-white films which bored me in color and as abstract images” (quoted in Rudolf E. Kuenzli’s Dada and Surrealist Film).
So for Man Ray, there was an element of chance in not knowing what he was watching, and then a further visual disorientation through his special prism glasses.
The surrealists, past and present, have long gravitated toward things that seem to bulge and burst beyond polite society. This is perhaps typified by their perennial interest in the writings of the Marquise de Sade, but emerges in other ways, their taste in cinema included.
In his book Surrealism and Film, J.H. Matthews explains: “To a man, surrealists are far more likely to be moved, therefore, when a film appears to be a vehicle for content that overspills the mold in which it has been cast.” In other words, they gravitate to moments that exceed the narrative context. Hence Man Ray writing in “Cineimage” that there are 15 good minutes in any bad film, and Breton ruminating on “the curve of a beautiful arm” existing at the “fringe” of an otherwise empty narrative.
The surrealists loved slapstick. They praised Mack Sennett and the early Charlie Chaplin films, and Luis Buñuel wrote a whole essay on Buster Keaton’s College (1927). In slapstick, after all, narrative is subordinate to a good gag or pratfall, and laughter overrides any other qualitative judgments. If a comedy is funny, it is good. If it is not, then nothing in the narrative or film technique will save it.
In an apparent contradiction, though the surrealists turned their nose up when any of their colleagues went commercial, they loved a lot of popular cinema, “the films shown in fleapits, films which seem to have no place in the history of cinema,” as Ado Kyrou wrote in “The marvelous is popular.” I think the reason they loved Fantômas serials and Italian melodramas is that there was something delightfully subversive in them. Pulpy art embraces its pulpiness. It leans into our desire for sex and violence and shock. It titillates and thrills. The surrealists probably would have approved of Linda Williams’ essay on body genres, those genres that appeal to our physicality first and foremost: porn, horror, and melodrama.
Ado Kyrou instructed us: “I ask you, learn to go and see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.”
Watching Surrealist Films
But how would the surrealists have us view their films? How should we regard Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929) and Conspirators of Pleasure (Jan Švankamjer, 1996)? Too often, we watch like academics, in reverence and with an eye to understand.
But no! The First Manifesto would have us reject a mentality where we want “so many questions resolved once and for all…” We shouldn’t watch movies as if they’re a mystery to be decoded, Czech surrealist Vratislav Effenberger instructed, as if every image has a one-to-one symbolic meaning.
Instead, if you’re watching a surrealist film, allow it to disorient you. Allow your mind to plunge into itself while you watch. Allow what Jan Švankmajer would call “analogical thinking,” where your own associations take over and you allow your reality to structure itself in an unfamiliar way.
Embrace the not knowing. Disorientation is a path to sur-reality.
While Jean Cocteau and the Parisian surrealists had a complicated relationship, you definitely SHOULD watch Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, along with the 2020 documentary Capturing Lee Miller (dir. Teresa Griffiths), screening as a double feature at the IU Cinema on September 12 at 1 pm as part of the Art and a Movie and International Arthouse series.
There will be a pre-screening gallery talk at 12 pm at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. Space is limited; please register in advance on the museum’s website.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.