Thursday, August 2, 2012

Luis Buñuel | Un chien Andalou

music for dead donkeys
by Douglas Messerli
Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel (scenario), Luis Buñuel (director) Un chien Andalou / 1929

The well-known 1929 experimental short film, Un chien Andalou, might almost be described as a purposeful shocker. Eschewing most normative narrative devices, and purposefully selecting disconnected scenes based on dreams involving “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation,” the film’s two creators, Dalí and Buñuel—so legend has it—turned up on opening night with rocks in their pockets, expecting the audience to negatively react. When the audience responded rather calmly, the artists were disappointed. In fact the film’s run, planned for only a limited period, had to be extended to eight months!

      The growing popularity of Freudian psychology as well as, what I have commented on elsewhere, the innate conservatism of Surrealism probably accounted for the film’s success. And more than anything else, what the film does show us is that there no such thing which the human brain does not instinctively attempt to link to narrative, even if the work of art does not pretend to tell a story. We think in narrative, even when we encounter something seemingly disjunctive, and particularly when it comes to dream imagery—the brain struggles against the notion of unrelated images to bring them into more coherent patterns.

     Rather that relating the sequence of this 16-minute film’s events—this is a film that demands being seen more than being talked about—I shall recount the kind of events that occur in this film to explain what I mean. One might suggest that the scenes in this picture to fall into at least six categories, some images relating to more than one: religion, social or cultural institutions, sex (both heterosexual and homosexual, including variations of gender), nature, violence, and death.

     The film begins, indeed, with what appears as a violent act, a man (Luis Buñuel) cutting a woman’s eye with a razor. Later, another man (Pierre Batchef) attempts to attack the same woman (Simone Marueil), after he has been sexually aroused by stroking her breasts, in an attempt to rape her. A woman who has found a severed hand in the middle of street is run over by an automobile. Later a third man (Robert Homent) appears to chastise and punish the second man for wearing a nun’s habit over his male clothing. The man he chastises ultimately shoots him with magically-appearing pistols. The man falls dead in the middle of a meadow. The film ends with a couple buried up to their waists in sand.

     Relating to the religious category is the man bicycling down the street with the nun’s habit over his suit. When he is later prevented from attacking the young woman, he picks up a rope to which are tied stone plates of the Ten Commandents and two grand pianos containing the corpses of dead donkeys, all hooked up to two shocked Seminarists (Dalí and Jaume Miravitilles). One might even describe the very first scene, with the influence of the full moon, as suggesting an archetypal religious/sacrificial event.

     Social and cultural forces are represented by the reading material left by the young woman when she rises to look the window: a reproduction of a Vermeer’s The Lacemaker. The grand pianos also fall nicely into the cultural forces at work in this film. The police who keep the crowds away from the young woman poking the severed arm are obvious social forces. And even the scolding man who forces his “friend” to remove the nun’s clothing appears to be representing social and cultural norms, his punishment being evidently, like some schoolboy, to stand in the corner.

      Natural imagery appears in the very first scene in the image of the moon, and reappears several times when the young male lover’s hand becomes infested with ants. A death-head’s moth prevails over some of the final scenes, as does the idyllic meadow in which a man dies and the final stroll of a seemingly happy couple by the sea. Even their embedment in sand suggests the forces of nature.

      Sexuality, with which a great many of the film’s images are concerned, seems to link up many of these seemingly random occurrences. Certainly the violent cutting of the eye in the very first scene also seems connected to sex, a stealing of the woman's proper vision. And throughout film sex is implied in a series of gender confusions: the man dressed in a nun’s habit, the woman on the street looking very much like a transvestite. The man who comes back to life attempts to feel the young women’s breasts and struggles to get nearer to her as he is transformed almost into a werewolf, blood dripping from his mouth. The young man who comes to chastise the man dressed as a nun appears to not only be correcting his ways, but in his intense stares and emotional involvement with the other man appears to have some very deep relationship with him; perhaps the two have been lovers. When another man arrives, he wipes his mouth away with his hand as the young woman applies lipstick, sticking out her tongue at the would-be suitor. Certainly the last stroll by the sea suggests they the young couple have finally found true love, even if that love ends up in Spring (the season for lovers) with their being half-buried.

     Death of course is the end of many of these events. The ants plaguing the hand of the man who has fallen from his bicycle certainly suggests the result of any burial. The woman who is struck by the automobile apparently dies. So too does the man whom the cross-dressed man shoots, his death being more thoroughly revealed in his second collapse in a meadow. The death-head’s moth clearly calls up the skull of a dead man. And the half buried couple suggests a kind of perfect Beckettian-like end’s game.

     That these various categories are interrelated are often self-evident. The attempt to rape the woman is held back by the culture and the church, representing so many stubborn taboos which must be destroyed before the man can act. Love leads, again and again, to violence. Violence, symbolized by the severed hand, leads ultimately to death. Bit by bit, accordingly, each  viewer ends up a series of inter-casual relationships between these seemingly disjunctive images that create a kind of poetic narrative, the kind of narrative without plot that American poet David Antin argues for his “talk-poems.”

     We might even go so far as to describe Un chien Andalou as being a kind of imaginary movie, a film less interested as defining the genre of cinema than it is interested in creating a large mulligan stew of the subterranean relationships between sex, culture, religion, society, nature, and death. It is no accident that Buñuel called for Wagner’s finale to Tristan and Isolde and a variation of a tango as the music to accompany this love-and-death dominated work of art.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2012

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