How to Watch Movies Like a Surrealist
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with the thought that you overlooked a good point when arguing with your friend about your favorite film? Are you depressed because your five year old neighbor says your favorite film sucks? Are you worried that your own life’s story will get a thumbs down from Roger Ebert?
Dr. Breton and the Surrealists have just the prescription for you!
The Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not the kind to care about giving a film a thumbs up or thumbs down. For the most part, they did not care if a film was good or bad. You may say, How could they not care whether a film was good or bad? Aren’t “bad films” a waste of time? While it’s not entirely true that the Surrealists did not have certain films and filmmakers that they preferred to others (such as George Méliès, Louis Feuillade, Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon, King Kong, etc.), unlike most of us today, value judgments were not their primary concern. They thought that any film had the potential to become part of a memorable experience.
How so? Here are some examples.
1. “When I was ‘at the cinema-age’ (it should be recognized that this stage exists in life – and that it passes) I never began by consulting the amusement pages to find out what film might chance to be the best, nor did I find out the time the film was to begin. I agreed wholeheartedly with Jacques Vaché in appreciating nothing so much as dropping into the cinema when whatever was playing was playing, at any point in the show, and leaving at the first hint of boredom – of surfeit – to rush off to another cinema where we behaved the same way, and so on (obviously this practice would be too much of a luxury today). I have never known anything more magnetising: it goes without saying that more often than not we left our seats without even knowing the title of the film which was of no importance to us anyway. On a Sunday several hours sufficed to exhaust all that Nantes could offer us: the important thing is that one came out ‘charged’ for a few days; as there had been nothing deliberated about our actions qualitative judgments were forbidden.” André Breton, from L’Age du cinéma, no. 4-5, August- November 1951, pp. 26-30. (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978.)
2. “Man Ray used to transform any film that bored him by blinking rapidly, making a grill with his fingers, covering his eyes with a semi-transparent bit of cloth, even wearing a pair of prism spectacles he had made himself.” (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978, p. 10.)
3. Re-writes, in the form of a question and answer game. The answer needed to be spontaneous, but the main point seems to have been to just go with the flow of your unconscious, irrational mind as much as possible, and to be creative, inventing a new film in the process.
The game is probably best explained with some examples. Here are some from a game involving Joseph Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (The French Surrealist Group, “Data Towards the Irrational Enlargement of a Film: Shanghai Gesture” (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978, pp. 74-79):
Question: Who was Omar’s mother?
Answer 1: The last of Bluebeard’s wives.
Answer 2: Obviously Matilda (from The Monk.)
Answer 3: The female shark Maldoror made love to.
Question: What should the door Omar opens at the beginning of the film reveal?
Answer 1: An aquarium at the bottom of which lie Spanish galleons and bishops’ crosses.
Answer 2: An arid desert of violet sand dotted with Greek temples dedicated to love.
Answer 3: A sealed abyss in which people move slowly like divers.
Question: How might the film be symbolised?
Answer 1: By a salamander, the one Benvenuto Cellini saw.
Answer 2: A giant nettle in flower.
Answer 3: By premature baldness.
4. Collage films (or images – see the one above) can be made from other films, whether merely in the realm of the imagination, or using actual film material as suggested by Marcel Marien: “Why not take all of the existing cinematographic productions as the primary material of such a cinema and work directly from it, taking a shot here, a scene there, a fragment of this or that, at our will? The original end (the old films) would become means (raw material for re-editing) and we would only need to disarticulate this subtle texture of images, sounds, gestures and words. … For everything is useful, everything is good: fragments of newsreels, documentaries, previews of coming attractions, amateur films, cartoons, commercials, and finally the ‘works’ themselves, in entirety. …the same images can serve in the composition of a mediocre or of an excellent film. It is only a question of assemblage, suppressions, and inversions. ” (Marcel Marien, “Another Kind of Cinema,” (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978, p. 91.)
5. A mere moment can redeem an entire movie. I have called this “the Argento Shot.” Here is a Surrealist’s take:
A film, like human life, can be surrealist by moments…. Here is a typical example of a windfall, the ‘gag’ which can sometimes be enough to save an evening’s viewing for the lover of films. It can grab us by the throat as here, or liberate the intellect from its moorings by pushing vacuity and foolishness as far as they go, to the point where they outstrip themselves. In Aladdin and His Lamp, a puerile Technicolor B feature, we suddenly come upon the following scene: the genie of the lamp, a ravishing young girl in love with her master and invisible to all but him, descends the immense palace staircase side by side with the thronging courtiers. Suddenly we see her take the steps three at a time with ease, go back to the top and begin all over again, while the cortège continues its descent with suitable solemnity.” Gérard Legrand, “Elixir of Potboiler and Unlabelled Love Potions” (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978, p. 98.)
6. Many critics today spend their time tearing apart the logic of a film’s plot. The Surrealists often embraced these absurdities because they recognized the connection between these films and dreams. In “Concerning King Kong,” (Minotaure , no. 3, 1934), Jean Ferry lists eight ” most flagrant moments of absurdity” in King Kong, such as “it’s absurd that King Kong, escaping from the theater where he is on show, so easily rediscovers the woman he seeks,” but nevertheless says, “Nothing of all this, by the way, worries me.” Why?
To sum up, through the absurdity of its treatment (an inept script with numerous incoherent details), its violent, oneiric power (the horribly realistic representation of a common dream), its monstrous eroticism (the monster’s unbridled love for the woman, cannibalism, human sacrifice), the unreality of certain sets – or, if you are incapable of letting yourself be taken in by all that, by the acute sensation of the uncanny with which the presence of automata and trickery imbues the whole film – or better still, in combining all these values the film seems to correspond to all that we mean by the adjective ‘poetic’ and in which we had the temerity to hope the cinema would be its most fertile native soil. (via The Shadow and Its Shadow, edited by Paul Hammond, BFI, 1978, pp. 105-8.)
So there you have Dr. Breton’s prescription for what keeps you awake at night. No more thumbs up or thumbs down!