A LONG PREFACE
The following exploration of surrealism in film and alternative films began with my desire to write about a weirdly appealing film by Alejandro Jodorowsky called Fando y Lis. That film caused a riot when it was first shown at a film festival in Mexico. Jodorwsky claims that he barely escaped the festival alive. The audience was furious. Enraged. VIOLENT!
I love the film. I feel affection for it, and have no desire to attack Jodorowsky.
I LIKE Jodorowsky, who I watched in interviews and other DVD extras. The extras accompanying one film even showed him leading a weekly human-potential seminar/encounter group that he does in Paris. He’s very appealing and charismatic.
He’s an ex-pat from Chile who has lived in Paris for many years. He loves the Tarot and psychology. He has created comic books. He loves film and drama.
In recent years he was trying to make a gangster film with Nick Nolte and Marilyn Manson but the deal fell apart. Now there’s talk of an El Topo part two.
His son is a musician who had success recently when he translated his French songs into Spanish and began spending time in South America. All that makes me like him.
And his film Fando y Lis also makes me like him.
The film is like El Topo in that it’s a kind of mythic journey, a psychodrama that lacks a traditional plot but is rich in images, themes, costumes, personas, gender roles, and quests for inner truth. It’s a favorite of mine in the «art film» and «surrealist film» categories.
I decided that an article on Fando y Lis would be enhanced if I compared it to some other art films and surrealistic films. To put Fando y Lis in context, it seemed essential to compare it to the classic of surrealism by Bunuel and Dali, Un Chien Andalou (1928). So I watched some of the classic surrealist films and read about them.
Soon I realized that to properly discuss Fando y Lis, it would be best to survey all of surrealism and film and even alternative and underground and grindhouse films. I watched films by the Kuchar brothers, a documentary about Jack Smith, and more. (Those films must be discussed in another article.)
Finally I realized that to do justice to Fando y Lis, I must write about not only the entire history of film and art and human life on Earth but also the origins and evolution of the universe too!
In short, Fando y Lis is a big film that touches on the big questions of life, and does so in a comic, joyful, and erotic way. It’s a cosmic film.
Ultimately I didn’t write about the entire universe, but I did watch and read about and write about a lot of surrealist films (many of which I had seen before in film school at the San Francisco Art Institute and other schools).
During breaks from watching many surrealist film, I began editing my own somewhat surrealist short films including the first in a web series called Doppleganger.
Surrealist films gave me permission to be wackier than I might’ve been otherwise. They’re liberating. One no longer feels the compulsion to present a story in an entirely logical or linear way. All kinds of things are possible…
BRETON’S INSPIRATION: FRAGMENTATION OF REASON AS WE SLIP INTO DREAMS – THE BORDERS OF REASON…
The «official» origin of surrealism, which was a literary/art/film/political movement, was in a reverie experienced by a French dude named Andre Breton. In an essay published in 1924 called «Entrance of the Mediums» which was expanded into the Surrealist Manifesto a few months later, he wrote «In 1919 my attention was fixed on the more or less fragmentary phrases which, when one is alone and about to fall asleep, begin to run through the mind…» He felt that by tapping into the material produced by the mind when it was not under conscious control would yield some awesome literature and art.
Breton was riding a wave others had been on for a while. The absinthe-imbibing Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), author of Ubu Roi (a play, 1896), once painted himself green and rode through Paris on a bicycle in a id-inspired bit of performance art.
Jarry’s anti-authoritarianism influenced the writer Jacques Vache, cited by Breton as the one «to whom I owe the most.»
Giorgio de Chirico was already making cool, mysterious, dream-like surreal paintings in, like, 1903.
And, if you dig weirdness, there were the films of George Melies in France and slapstick comedies by people like Mack Sennett and others in Hollywood.
In short, a sort of «surrealist» disjointed wigginess was already present in culture, but it took Breton’s writings to jelly it into a «movement.»
And of course there was Dadaism, an anti-art movement that came before surrealism and helped stimulate it.
DADAISM: SURREALISM’S DADA
Dadism (1916-1922) appeared in response to the horrors of WWI. Dadaism was, at heart, an anarchistic art movement (in the best sense of «anarchism»….meaning a moving away from authoritarian rule, top-dog management of our lives by others)….
It was a protest against the whole ball game in Europe – a «civilization» that had led to horrible wars, colonization-oppression-exploitation of people around the world, etc.
Dadaism was as close to being pure artistic protest as was possible with the tools that the Dadaists had at hand such as taking images from pop culture (newspapers) and collaging them in satirical ways, etc. It was disposable, not meant to be revered, sold, collected by the rich, or treasured.
SURREALISM, FREUD, AND THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
Surrealism was intended to mirror the wildness of the Id, the unconscious mind that was outside of the realm of the rational ordinary mind and was, well, surreal. Surrealism owes a lot to Freud. He revolutionized ideas humans have about ourselves.
Freud said that reason is not in charge in our psyches a lot of the time. Without knowing why, we do things that are irrational. Society as a whole reflects human irrationality. We have war, we have nutty fascists who goosestep in salivating worship of power.
Surrealists were drawn to unmediated culture, or, perhaps minimally processed culture is a better description: the art of the naïve untrained artist, the art of children, the art of the «insane,» the art of ‘visionaries,» the art of «primitives.» Their slips of the tongue and brush, their direct transcription of ideas, feelings, dreams, myth was what surrealists wanted to access.
SOME SURREALIST FILMS AND FILMMAKERS
RETURN TO REASON BY MAN RAY, 1924
Historians have written that surrealism in film began with Man Ray’s 1924 film, Return to Reason. It consists of a non-narrative stream of images of stuff like nails filmed in random patterns using Ray’s self-titled Rayograph «negative» technique where dark was light. Man Ray is known for his arty still photographs using this technique, one used by few photographers since. The film must have seemed pretty revolutionary and very arty at the time, but now feels like a visual salad, a stream of «cool» images that can tend to be repetitious and meandering.
ENTR’ACT BY RENE CLAIR, 1925
A far more enjoyable work of surrealism is Rene Clair’s Entr’act, 1925. It’s closer to a narrative film. We see two guys hopping around in slow motion on a rooftop playing with a canon, the camera peeks up a ballerina’s dress as she dances, and there’s an extended chase after a hearse that had been pulled by a camel but soon goes along rapidly under its own power with mourners chasing it. Finally a magician pops out and taps the mourners with a wand and they vanish, then he taps himself and he is gone too.
Clair’s silliness included sophisticated mockery of Freudian imagery such as the phallic canon. For Clair making a surrealist film was a fun experiment, but he didn’t end up as a surrealistic filmmaker like Bunuel.
Clair later made wonderfully amusing feature films. His early ones helped revive the French film industry in the 1930s. Le Million is one of his best. It’s funny, plays with sound inventively, and has various random, irrational, vaguely surrealist elements.
La Nous a Liberte is also considered a Clair classic but was shot quickly and is less coherent than Le Million. Both mocked the alienating effects of an industrialized, commercialized society.
(Thanks to my research for this article, I saw these Clair films. While his surrealist one is very cool, but feels a bit long, I have to say his film Le Million was a delight, though much more conventional.)
He went on to make many feature narrative films and even directed some films in Hollywood for a time while the humorless Nazis occupied his beloved France.
(I even watched one of his Hollywood films, a conventional though entertaining film about a guy who learns about the future from a ghost and uses it to advance his career as a journalist. The film is called It Happened Tomorrow and was released in 1944.)
DALI AND BUNUEL MAKE A COUPLE OF CLASSICS
In 1929 we had the seminal surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou. It was made by the flamboyant surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the tormented Catholic rebel, Luis Bunuel. It opens with a shocking eye-slicing image. All kinds of oddball stuff happens. A woman is seen by a couple using a stick or cane to push and probe a severed hand that is lying in the street, then she is handed the hand in a box by a friendly policeman, then she is run over by a car. Watching this stimulates the leering man and he now leers at his female companion and gropes her, but she resists his advances. In frustration he hauls dead donkeys on pianos across a room.
Frustrated sexual desire leading to sadism is a theme here. (And it is a major theme in the next Bunuel-Dali film, L’Age d’Or, 1930.) We see some Dali touches like ants climbing around in the man’s hand palm. Later the man appears as his own double and shoots himself in a room but falls in a woods. The woman who was chased sees a skull on the back of a moth. There are armpits, rapid changes of locale, odd emotional impulses. Subtitles mock the expectations viewers have about the continuity of time, announcing things like «Eight Years Later» for no reason.
The filmmakers attacked religion, mocked Freud, mocked Hollywood film conventions, and mocked the simple-minded zombified middle class who obeyed authority and clung to materialist ideas and lifestyles instead of being groovy surrealist rebels!
Dog is also about inner thought processes. It explores the way meaning is constructed in dreams. It’s all wild, disconnected, shocking, and weird, but at the same time it used some conventional Hollywood elements of cinematic story construction so the action has some visual coherence and logic for the viewer.
Dog has a kind of narrative but nothing makes sense in a traditional way. It’s all closer to a stream of consciousness or a strange, somewhat frightening, somewhat sadistic, somewhat erotic dream.
In an odd footnote, both leads, the male, Pierre Batcheff, and the female, Simone Mareuil, died by suicide. Bacheff died of an overdose of Veronal, a barbituate, at age 31 in 1932. More disturbingly and strangely surrealistically, Simone Mareuil died via self-immolation with gasoline in a public square in Perigueux, her hometown. She was deeply depressed after World War II and had just returned to her hometown.
Bunuel and Dali made the next biggie in the surrealist canon, L’Age d’Or, 1930, which inspired some right-wing nationalists (calling themselves the League of Patriots) to attack the theater on the second night it was exhibited. The fascistic thugs roughed up the people in the theater and wrecked a lot of surrealist art on display in the lobby. (In Nazi Germany such art would be called degenerate art and would also be destroyed and the artists sent to death camps unless they could escape to other countries.)
This film was not the popular success that Un Chien Andolou had been. It was also more Bunuel’s film than Dog. Dali was not as involved.
L’Age was more menacing, more political, more anti-religious, less of a strange intriguing dream. Three-second shorts (fast and sweet) were replaced with longer takes (five seconds or longer). There is less camera play, less pure weirdness, though once again a farm animal appears in an urban apartment—not donkeys but a cow this time, alive and resting on the bed, but shooed out by the woman of the house. The idea that humans have scorpion-like traits (will attack each other, fight over territory) is suggested in a borrowed-footage doc on scorpions that acts as a prologue.
Throughout the film a man and a woman who desire each other are frustrated and this leads to violence (kicking a dog, stepping on a beetle, kicking a blind man, neglecting official political duties so that destructive events take place on a large scale, etc.). In short, this film explores the theme that civilization has built in discontents, just as Freud had said.
Dali was distracted by romantic and financial issues and his contribution is much smaller on this film. It is more purely a Bunuelian film and one can see in this film images and themes that he would explore in the future.
Bunuel went on to make quite a few notable and excellent feature films after L’Age d’Or, but they tended to have a greater overall narrative coherence despite the fact that characters often behaved in surreal ways and lived in a somewhat dream-like and surreal world.
For Bunuel, whose primarily form of artistic expression was cinema, surrealism provided some useful tools to use in films that otherwise had many conventional elements. Later, a groovy semi-surrealist painter who wanted to see his paintings move, David Lynch, did much the same thing that Bunuel did: he used some surrealistic elements in stories that were otherwise relatively coherent in terms of conventional cinematic storytelling.
LE SANG DE POET, 1948, Jean Cocteau.
This film is close in spirit to pure surrealism. But is it primarily a work of surrealism or a work of film poetry?
Cocteau felt that he was a poet who created poetry in various mediums. Much poetry, because it is free of the constraints of creating a narrative, has a surrealistic quality, but it’s not purely surrealistic.
Cocteau was also quite interested in myth and the way myth informs our lives. This is a Jungian idea. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell explored it extensively in books like Hero with a Thousand Face. In turn George Lucas, after reading Campbell’s book on the hero myth, consciously used hero-myth elements when he wrote the Star Wars films. On a more artistically sophisticated level, James Joyce showed parallels between the Odysseus story and an ordinary man’s life in his novel Ulysses.
Cocteau was quite overt in his use of myth. He adapted the Orpheus myth to modern life, his own life, and the life of poets. The film Orpheus, 1950, is a key example. Note that he also adapted a sort of Dr. Jykll- Mr. Hyde story / Wolfman story when he adapted the children’s story of Beauty and the Beast.
MAYA DEREN’S DANCE/MYTH FILMS
In Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, Maya Deren created a personal-mythic narrative that explores unconscious and dream-like material.
Deren said it wasn’t a surrealist film. It feels and looks like one, but Deren was a dancer and was also interested in myth and magic and later wrote a book about Voudon.
The film was shot in LA and it states in the titles that it was made in Hollywood, but that was put there somewhat ironically. It’s a purely poetic, non-Hollywood film. Deren complained about the cost of filmmaking and said that for what Hollywood spent on lipstick she could make a film. She is the star of the film, thus making it all that much more personal. (Note that sometimes indie/art films are called «personal» films.)
Note — David Lynch’s Meshes of the Afternoon is Lynch’s re-cutting of Deren’s film with new music. It’s actually pretty cool. Suddenly Deren’s film becomes a Lynch film — ominous, magical, and dream-like in Lynch’s way rather than hers. It’s much shorter but quite effective.
KENNETH ANGER’S FIREWORKS
Fireworks, 1947, was the first of a number of brilliant Kenneth Anger films. This one is like Deren’s film in that the director stars in the film and the whole film has a Freudian feeling and references sleep and dreams. It was also made in Hollywood.
FANDO Y LIS, 1968, ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY
This film opens with a woman on a bed eating a rose. Soon we see elegantly dressed people having a cocktail party in the ruins of a mental hospital. Not much is left but crumbling walls. A piano is being played and the piano is on fire.
The lead characters appear – a man and a woman, Fando y Lis. She can’t use her legs. He pushes her around on a cart. They are looking for an imaginary land. They move through a strange desert-mountain landscape.
Odd people come up to them or challenge them. Strange sexual things happen. A drum is played. A bunch of transvestites make Fando wear women’s clothes and put his clothes on Lis…
Like his next film, El Topo, this film has the quality of a dream but yet also has a kind of narrative logic, the logic of the classic «hero cycle» described by Carl Jung and elaborated by Joseph Campbell, as previously mentioned. The hero cycle is about a journey, a series of psychological-mythic challenges. This is how Jodorowsky structures his films – he bases them on mythic elements and symbols.
If you see this on DVD and it has the commentary by Jodorowsky. He explains what things means, such as saying things about how the cocktail party represents how people are oblivious to the fact that the world is in ruin, that they are superficial people, asleep to the suffering and degradation. Um, this is fine, but I actually much prefer to experience the film without his explanations. It’s more interesting to just see it as a kind of irrational poem-film. Why does everything have to «mean» something?
As he moved on, making films like El Topo and then Sacred Mountain, the films became more and more like a series of static images, vignettes depicting some IDEA, not unlike his beloved Tarot cards. (Jodorowsky actually created his own Tarot deck.. and wrote a book about the Tarot.) One of my film teachers, James Broughton, fell into the same trap with some of his films – he began making films that were a series of vignettes to illustrate Jungian ideas.
The beauty of Fando y Lis is that it feels more spontaneous and less static and intellectual. There’s a freedom to it.
ALTERNATIVE CINEMA AND CLASSIC DRAMATIC FILMS
In contrast to some of the heavily surrealistic and ultra-arty European films of the 1920s and 1930s and later films influenced by surrealism, «classic» mainstream films in Hollywood and in the commercial film industries in France, etc. tended to be masterful expressions of coherent, logical, entertaining cinematic storytelling.
The classic dramatic film gave viewers the illusion of a seamless continuity of time and space. Everything in the film was there for a reason. (Chekov said that in a play if there is a gun on the mantle, someone must use it in the play. Hollywood films are like this. All dramatic elements contribute to the story.)
In the classic dramatic film, scenes and sequences helped move the story forward toward a climax and satisfying conclusion in terms of traditional drama. There were attractive, charismatic stars to identify with. One could enjoy looking at the spectacle of beautiful costumes and sets. Often they were much like plays or novels translated into the film medium. Film technique served the story rather than serving rebellious or subversive artistic goals.
It’s important to recognize that classic dramatic films are based on cultural mores and expectations. What seems logical and coherent in terms of action in one culture might seem odd in another culture. Stories tended to reinforce the values of the societies in which the films were made.
When we step out of the mainstream narrative film mode, what do we find?
We find various other kinds of films that question or subvert or satirize mainstream culture rather than reinforce it.
Films that do that to a lesser or greater extent are underground/independent/art films and exploitation/grindhouse films (drive-in, erotica, etc.). Porn can be seen as a kind of artistic expression of rebellion against mainstream values or as a reinforcement of them and a patriarchal, exploitative culture, depending on your interpretation. Some over-the-top horror and comedy films that satirize conventional values can be seen as alternatives to the conventional Hollywood film.
It’s worth noting that even films that have highly transgressive elements can sometimes ultimately reinforce conventional values. For example, in the realm of the roadshow exploitation films like Reefer Madness or sex hygiene films that showed imagery Hollywood films could not (due to the restrictive, sanitizing Motion Picture code), the films were framed as a warnings against anti-productive behavior like smoking weed or having sex outside of marriage or becoming a groovy surrealist. At the very least such films offered viewers a «square-up» – a section of the film in which an authority like a doctor explains that the real purpose of the film is to help people in some way.
ACCIDENTAL SURRALIST FILMS
Along with, and even within, alternative cinematic traditions, there is also the possibility of accidental or naïve surrealistic filmmaking.
Quite a few films have surrealistic sequences in them, especially comedies, but the craziness serves a larger «reality» and story. This is seen, for example, in Chaplin’s escape from cops in The Circus when he poses as part of a mechanized carnival display or runs into a hall of mirrors. (In both cases he hides from cops by entering an alternate reality.) Chaplin creates wonderfully surreal/comic sequences, yet they mainly serve dramatic functions in the stories. Further, his intent as a filmmaker was not to deeply challenge the mainstream values of the western world, but rather to make moving entertainments that sided with the underdog.
So too Ed Wood’s films (especially one like Glen or Glenda), while intended to be commercially viable and coherent exploitation films that explored deviant/underdog lifestyles, ended up being accidentally surrealistic due to budget constraints, inept dialog and narration, inserted dream-like sequences that make no sense, and so on. Like Chaplin, he was not primarily a surrealist filmmaker, but only an accidental surrealist, a dude with a wacky sensibility who cut loose on screen but really hoped to create popular entertainment.
THE CHALLENGE OF VIEWER ATTENTION, APPRECIATION
Fact is, the problem of holding a viewer’s attention with a non-narrative film was and is problematic for both underground and surrealist filmmakers. It seems that people get bored unless the story grabs them and sucks their minds into a drama involving people they can identify with.
How could the art films compete? Surrealists, underground, transgressive, trash, and especially exploitation filmmakers tossed in a lot of sex to hold the viewer’s attention. It was also in the films because the filmmakers felt that the repression of sexuality was unhealthy and freer expression is liberating and healing. In fact, sexual expression and repression is a key theme in many alternative and underground and surrealist films. The influence of Freud’s theories during the 20th century was clearly seen in these films.
Some art filmmakers will argue that the wandering of the attention of the viewer reflects the shallowness of the viewer, their alienation from more subtle things, magical things, their need for slam-bam distraction and spectacle. Bertold Brecht complained that audiences since Greek theater have been put to sleep by spectacle in theater, given easy resolutions and emotional relief. The Frankfurt school of critics say that the culture industry tends to draw people into conventional thinking and passive acceptance of their alienated existence. But clearly there’s something about a well-told story that appeals to people whether the medium is the written word or film.
FILM SEEMED LIKE THE PERFECT ART FORM FOR SURREALISM
Originally, it seemed that film would be the perfect artistic vehicle for surrealism. Surrealism is about the unconscious, about dreams, and about subverting mainstream values. Film seemed to offer a way to reproduce dreams far more effectively than painting or fiction. It can be equally transgressive as well.
The sense that I have is that while surrealism and film are indeed compatible, most people just don’t enjoy seeing disjointed streams of images or highly irrational behavior that leads to nonsensical plots. As a result, surrealism became an inspiring subgenre of film, but has not been engaging enough to generate a large number of popular films.
Even people who had a sense of affiliation with surrealism, like Deren or Anger or Jordorwsky, felt that they had to veer away from a strictly surrealist approach and make their own kind of film. Some, like Clair, went on to make conventional yet at times innovative films.
David Lynch is perhaps the leading example of a semi-surrealist filmmaker, and some of his films have achieved mainstream success while others, like his last, Inland Empire, were not highly successful with viewers.
It seems that people long for well-told stories, not just the recounting of a dream. Even so, surrealism has had a liberating influence and allows some filmmakers to do wild, cool stuff in their films!
To see a semi-surrealist film by Matt Dukes Jordan, watch Doppleganger — here:
MDJ has just published his spanking new book ” Weirdo Noir” here:
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One thought on “Groovy Surrealism in Film, Alternative Films, and the Challenge of Viewer Attention by Matt Dukes Jordan”
Great piece. My kind of history lesson!