Friday, March 16, 2018

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

France, 16 minutes
Director/editor: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel
Photography: Albert Duverger, Jimmy Berliet
Cast: Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff, Jaume Miravitlles, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel

This landmark of Surrealist art, a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali on the precipice of worldwide economic collapse, is short but it stays with you. Director Buñuel and cowriter Dali famously worked to extrude anything of particular meaning that could be taken from it. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," Buñuel wrote. "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything." Quite right, and nothing adds up except, intuitively and in flashes, on certain Freudian levels. But some things can be rationally laid at its doorstep. It packs a punch because it saves its best for first—a brief scene in which, through the magic of montage (or editing, or cutting), a woman's eyeball appears to be sliced through by a razor. Among other things it prefigured a common strategy of action and horror pictures, which is to insert a spectacular set piece right up front (Saving Private Ryan, say). In psychological terms, you are thus softened. Shock and numbness soon have hold. In Un Chien Andalou, why a man (it's Buñuel, by the way) would be slicing a woman's eyeball at all is not even a question that occurs to anyone after witnessing it. For many first-time viewers, the remaining minutes of the picture pass in a kind of desperate muddled delirium. What did I just see what? In fact, the eyeball scene, just a matter of seconds, still has the power to make me want to look away and to flinch if I don't. It's the very idea, of course, so naturalistically rendered, that does the work. But the image, however brief, is also viscerally detailed. Even in the few seconds it's onscreen it's readily apparent that it's the eyeball of a dead animal, not the woman, but you do have to be looking at the screen to see it. There are more shocking images that follow, though they tend to pale by comparison: ants crawling in and out of a hole in the palm of a hand, two dead donkeys on a couple of grand pianos, a groping scene that now can seem the most disturbing element in it if you're past the initial shock (this also applies to most of the stuff with animals, for that matter, who were evidently harmed in the making of this picture). These strange images wheel in front of our numbed sensibility and unsliced eyeballs, filling our heads with what? Men dressed in nun's habits (oh that again, Luis), a severed hand making the rounds in a striped box, a butterfly with a marking that might look like a human skull, a mouth wiped right off the face of a man and turned into a woman's armpit hair. "Dream logic"—I suppose that's one way to conceive it. Within the year the world was more worried about things like fascism and a cratered economy, but Un Chien Andalou lives on fresh as ever—fresh, and exceedingly weird.

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