One of the first literary and artistic movement to become seriously associated with cinema was French surrealism. Two of the most notable filmmakers in this field were Philippe Soupault and André Breton, who collaborated on the 1920 Les Champs Magnétiques which was considered to be the first work of this movement. The foundations of the movement were rooted in France and coincided with the birth of motion pictures. France served as the birthplace of surrealist cinema because of a fortunate combination of easy access to film equipment, film financing, and a plethora of interested artists and audiences. The Surrealists who were involved in this movement were among the first generation to have grown up with film as a part of their everyday lives.
Surrealism revolutionized the art of cinema with new techniques and approaches that freed and differentiated it from traditional storytelling, transforming the medium into one that could explore, expose, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind. Surrealist films leave viewers with shocking images that lodge themselves deep into our psyche and deprive us of clear, followable narratives, while at the same time prove compelling in their deep, expressions of desire. The movie screen becomes a portal through which the viewer can journey where the traditional common constructs are no longer applicable or reliable guides.
This movement which began in Paris in 1920 was short lived, but one I find most interesting due to this dream-like quality, juxtaposition of everyday people and objects in irrational forms, and the abstraction of real life, places. Highly influenced by Freudian psychology, surrealism sought to bring the unconscious mind to visual life. “Balanced between symbolism and realism, surrealist cinema commentated on themes of life, death, modernity, politics, religion, and art itself.” (Ezzone).
Even before the birth of the movement Breton held a fascination for film. During his service in the First World War when stationed in Nantes he would frequent theaters in his spare time with Jacques Vaché. The movement originated from these two ignoring movie titles and times, preferring to drop in at any random moment and watch films without any foreknowledge. They would hop from movie to moive, these they left and visited the next theater. The way these two viewed films supplied them with the idea of a stream of images with no constructed order about them. Breton developed this movement off the juxtaposition of images from one film with those of another, and from this experience crafted his own interpretation which led to the cultivation of the
Surrealist Cinema. Breton speaks of the aesthetic he developed through this cinema hopping with Vaché; “I think what we [valued] most in it, to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was its power to disorient.” (Mathews). Breton supports the idea of film helping abstract oneself from “real life” whenever one felt like it.
Serials, which contained plot elements such as cliffhanger effects and hints of “other worldliness,” were appealing to early Surrealists. Examples include Houdini’s daredevil deeds and the escapades of Musidora and Pearl White in detective stories. What endeared Surrealists most to the genre was its ability to evoke and sustain a sense of mystery and suspense in viewers.
Surrealist artists were interested in cinema as a medium for expression, which was different for this time. As cinema continued to develop in the 1920s, many Surrealists saw the opportunity to portray an aesthetic of weird, abstract or surreal as the “norm” through the popularity that this new, different surreal material portrayed. “Surrealist artists realized that the film camera could capture the real world in a dreamlike way that their pens and paintbrushes could not: superimpositions, overexposures, fast-motion, slow-motion, reverse-motion, stop-motion, lens flares, large depth of field, shallow depth of field, and more bizarre camera tricks could transform the original image in front of the lens into something new once exposed on the film plate. For surrealists, film gave them the ability to challenge and mold the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially with space and time. Like the dreams they wished to bring to life, film had no limits or rules.” (Ezzone). The art of film and cinema provided an infinite, more convincing illusions than its rivaling form of entertainment up until that point, theater ever did or could. Film gave Surrealists the ability to express themselves and their confidence and support for this movement allowed cinema to adapt to Surrealism’s goals and requirements. They were the first to take seriously the similarity between film’s imaginary images and those of the surreal state of dreams and the unconscious.
Surrealist films employ the use of shocking imagery that jolts the viewer, imagery that had not been seen in films prior to 1928. This challenges the notion of cinema as mere entertainment; the viewer can no longer watch in passivity or complacency. Surrealist film attempts to change cinema so that audience experiences more than just the standard visuals that were prevalent thus far in cinema.
The opening shot of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou – a man slicing open a woman’s eye as wispy clouds roll over the moon – is one of the most iconic in film history. Un Chien Andalou’s fame derives from more than mere shock value, however. Buñuel (playing the man with the razor blade) immediately announces to his audience that his film will be an attack on the eye. Buñuel and Dalí collaborated for their second film L’Age d’Or (1930) which employs the new technical innovation of sound. Other notable filmmakers of this time include Jean Cocteau and his The Blood of a Poet (1930).
The Surrealist movement was given an extended life in the United States during World War II. André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, and many other European Surrealists found refuge in New York City. Charles Henri Ford, the truest Surrealist poet in American literature, introduced American readers to Surrealism through his journal View, which ran throughout the 1940’s. Ford also acted as a link between his generation and the 1960s Pop world, inspiring Andy Warhol to experiment with filmmaking. Johnny Minotaur (1971) was Ford’s self produced surrealistic film. During the 1940s, even mainstream cinema absorbed aspects of surrealism, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which featured sets by Salvador Dalí. By this time in Europe, the official Surrealist movement had more or less began its decline and wrapped up by the 1960s, though its influence on film lives even today.