Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Surrealism and film

In summer 2004 Michael Richardson distributed an enquiry about surrealism and film as one of his means of research for his book Surrealism and cinema, which appeared in 2006. The following is Mattias Forshage’s reply to the enquiry. It has been edited for the present purposes, not only in minor changes to clarify intentions but also both in explicating some ”internal” surrealist allusions, adding a little piece of background information in some places, and also in an extension of the paragraphs about horror film (which was made in the course of an exchange about the book after its appearance, to emphasise my dissatisfaction of Michael’s quick dismissal of modern horror movies).

Now Michael’s book is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the subject of surrealism and cinema, or of surrealism and popular culture, or of the poetic potential of film on the whole. It seems to have been originally intended as an attempt of bringing Ado Kyrou’s classic study Le Surréalisme au cinéma up to date, but in the end it also, on top of this, offers valuable information and perspective on a lot of older stuff as well, particularly the surrealist involvement in the french film industry of the 20s and 30s (most notably the Prévert brothers but also others), the surrealist aspects of documentary films, and (again) Luis Buñuel.

"I am in the process of writing a book on surrealism and cinema. This will attempt to bring the story of surrealist cinema up to date, engaging with what has occurred since Kyrou wrote his book and critically thinking about the various ways in which the relationship between surrealism and cinema has been considered. As part of this, it would be helpful to know the views of current participants in surrealism to the following questions:"

It would have been good to write a group statement instead of an individual one, but both the scope and the specific sensibilities of each individual’s cinematographic experience seem different enough for a collective statement to have to perhaps exclude the better quantity of interesting observations. So this is an individual statement, and it is very much out of what I learned as a surrealist cinéaste in the 80s and can only partially recollect now, with some recent additions, but lots of obliterated findings in-between, so several of my best examples are probably not there.
I have included a number of swedish examples, but if you’d need further suggestions regarding swedish cinema I’d be happy to provide some more examples and some overview, for both before and after 1963. It is a pity that Kyrou did not emphasise the contradiction, included in the classic surrealist ”Voyez… ne voyez pas…” tract, of Stiller on the surrealist side and Sjöström on the antisurrealist. And it is really a mistake of him to mention ”Lattjo med Boccacio” of ”Casinogänget” from the swedish revue cinema instead of the usually much better, more delirious, absurd and sometimes radical works of Povel Ramel or Nils Poppe. Etc.

"1. Kyrou asserted that the cinema experience is fundamentally surrealist. Do you consider this still to be true, or have changes in the way the cinema is experienced (due to the development of TV, video etc., and the emergence of the multiplex for example) made this no longer the case?"

I believe the cinematographic experience has retained its surrealist characteristics and surrealist potential in its traditional form of ritual of the dark room in the theatre. Some people have individually developed creative ways of utilising movies or other animated material on TV, video, computers, virtual reality etc, but all that seems still to be on the level of purely personal methods and I´ve never heard of or experienced such phenomena of broader interest. The development of the images industry and desire-simulation industry in general have of course influenced the ways of watching, but probably primarily in terms of making other types of use of the cinema common, not in extinguishing the possibility of the ”oneiric communion” or ”experimental dreaming” of traditional watching. The quantitative impact of different ways of viewing is more of a question for sociology, and distinguishing the other specific uses of cinema in various social interactions (possibly revolt too) is more of a question for anthropology. We’ll dream on. Many do it along with us.

"2. Which film makers working today (or since 1963, when Kyrou made the last revision of his book) do you consider to express a certain surrealist sensibility? What aspects of their work do you consider ‘surrealist’?

3. Which films made over the past forty years do you particularly consider display evidence of an involuntary (or even voluntary) surrealism? In what ways?"

Actually, if we reply in the affirmative to the previous question, and generally agree with Kyrou’s and others’ notion that cinema is a field of great surrealist potential, a potential which is quite widespreadly partially fulfilled – then it becomes less important to delineate and name the relatively ”more surrealist” films. It could perhaps be more interesting to discuss phenomenology of reveries, associations, suggestions in cinema-viewing, or certain more or less widespread cinematic elements, or such yet unrealised. However questions such as these target my personal historiographic and collecting inclinations in an irresistable way and I’ll keep namedropping.
I’m not able to discuss these two questions separately, since I don´t see the distinction between ”conscious” and ”unconscious” surrealist spirit as being of great interest (except for cases of actual communications and collaborations, of course).
Out of educated sloppiness some might expect ”conscious” surrealist spirit in european-style auteur cinema, and ”unconscious” in commercial Hollywood cinema, but that’s obviously an obscuring prejudice. Let´s just say that the auteurs and the Hollywood directors alike have access to – and are actually very often inspired by – visions and fantasies out of the surrealist tradition as well as poetic visions etc out of their own minds. Then the film industry is probably too money-intensive for anyone to be able to keep up any mentally subversive aims throughout the process, the auteurs will focus more on satisfying critics, academics and bureaucrats while the hollywoods go for money – but images will survive, and new possibilities will emerge from the encounter with the spectator. (Actually I believe it might be slightly easier for people in Hollywood to stick to personal visions and subversive aims, since entertainment industry will try to enlist a lot of things it can’t understand or morally support in search for what might be or become the latest trend, while the auteur side of the business require long hard conditioning in current aesthetic values.)

When Kyrou revised his book in 1963 he had the opportunity to name a few directors who were then the young among auteurs, whom subsequently have added both gold and dirt to their merit lists while having become top-dog auteurs. He included for example Antonioni, Bergman, Wajda, Kubrick, Malle and Resnais, and as far as I remember not Kurosawa, Pasolini, Lindsay Anderson, Tarkovskij etc. Of course they all produced surrealist atmospheres now and then and a Kyrou would probably have made a case of trying to snatch them back from the embracing hands of the academia. This would probably also be true of the great mannerists; Greenaway, Jarman, Cronenberg. Regarding all of these we may have endless discussions about what’s empty gestures and what’s true imagination. I do regard some of their films as candidates for surrealist masterpieces, but I suspect it’s much connected to individual cinema experiences and personal associations that perhaps don’t matter much here.
Of somewhat more general surrealist interest I’d call some of Wim Wenders’ work (his unscrupulous and serious curiosity in Alice in den Städten and Falsche Bewegung (but also in Wings of Desire!) seems to represent a strong candidate of a romanticism for the present) and most of Werner Herzog’s, but I’d start speaking of undisputable surrealist values only in the cases of Peter Weir’s australian films, of much of Polanski’s work (his first movies were noticed by Kyrou, but they are quite different from the later ones, where I personally give ”The Tenant” the highest rank, the perfect surrealist thriller of paranoiac personal mythology), of the neo-bunuelian Jodorowsky, and also of the swedish low-budget director Håkan Alexandersson (both in his full-length films and in his earlier children’s TV serials, most in collaboration with Carl-Johan DeGeer, he persistently combined the traditional surrealist unexpected with burlesque absurdism, psychoanalytic humour and low materialism (dust & dirt, lumpenproletariat, incapacity), while his later shorts are usually more of individual lightnings of black humour. He collaborated with the Surrealist group in Stockholm on Stora Saltet and sadly, recently died).
A new genre that can’t pass unnoticed is the modern fairy tale of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, and occasionally others. While they now and then keep plunging into banal sentimentality or naïve effect show-off, the fundamentally surrealist character of their imagery and vision is undisputable (put perhaps traditional enough not to have much to teach us?).
Another important contemporary genre, which is more problematic, is intelligent dystopian action. Inspired by the best SF authors and often also by radical theorists, these films (Matrix, Fight Club, Total Recall, Robocop etc, also including Carpenter’s classic They live! and probably even older films) disclose successive layers of sensory and social manipulation and thus suggests real conspiracies and inspire attempts to break out from spectacle and brainwash. Of course they are part of a ”radical chic” fashion, actively recuperating radical theory, but as the situationsts pointed out recuperation has dual edges, and the radical elements widely distributed as commodities may very well backfire and turn against society again. Another important question in this connection is whether purely paranoid visions are necessarily restricted and repetitive, or represent a line of imagination capable of poetic blossoming like others. (It was indeed a revelation to find in Michael’s book the startling fact that Paul Verhoeven had been involved in the dutch surrealist group!)
These new genres do also (along with other genres and most notably super hero films like Hulk, Daredevil, Spiderman and Spawn – and also Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon!) profit from the fact that computer animation nowadays is sufficiently good to convincingly visualise most fantasies, including long-dreamt and all kinds of ”true” (in a Bachelardian sense) ones. In early cinema (and low-budget and ”artistic” cinema) such wish-fulfillments could be equally convincing when only hinted at or symbolically represented, but for a long time the overall ambition has been to show explicit visualisations, and only recently this ceased to be an obstacle and instead turned into a possible lever of new fantasies.
For similar reasons I always appreciate a good natural catastrophe on film. Though I’m dissatisfied with how little use is made of landscapes and animals, both as acting agents and as objects of wonder and oneirism. Well, a lot of stories play in rainforests and mountains (perhaps fewer in deserts, polar areas and at sea?), and some domestic animals get their share of exposure with their tricks, but it’s rather rare to see these elements in their own right unless we turn to documentaries where it’s almost always accompanied by ridiculous rationalisations and banalised versions of recent scientific theories (”popular science”). There are numbers of exceptions though, and I’ll mention a swedish example each of creative use of landscapes and animals: landscape in Troell’s Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd, an epic of Andrées obsessive quest for the north pole; animals in Kristersson’s Pica pica, a portait of the life of the magpies in a Stockholm suburb without added narrator’s voice.
The subject of love isn’t one of the big issues in contemporary western cinema. Since at least one case of heterosexual severe romantic attachment is a compulsory ingredient in most types of movies, poetically inspired/inspiring elements in this sense may be found where they are least expected, like in horror or super-hero movies. On the other hand the ”romance” genre seems to be the perhaps worst place to look, usually having less to offer than superficially sentimentally preaching conformism and family values, thus being entirely antiromantic.
What we are used to regarding as a perfectly surrealist film is one where love is combined with imagination and revolt and at least one of these elements goes far beyond common acceptance. Most often this is done by psychologically portaying the reality-transforming potential of obsessed male desire, which gets rather tedious and probably isn’t as emancipatory as was once thought, but nevertheless have made several directors stage their most surrealist visions (including one that may not have reached international attention; the best movie by Arne Mattson, a swedish director mentioned by Kyrou, Skyltdockan about a night watchman falling in love with a mannequin). It would seem that binding the element of love closer with the element of revolt keeps yielding better results like Papatakis’ Les Abysses and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly creatures, (from Sweden Alfredson’s Tic-tac and Moodyson’s Fucking Åmål - both somewhat lacking in imagination but still quite beautiful), and finally the most beautiful cinematic eulogy of revolt ever made (which the Stockholm group in Stockholm suggested for the Leeds surrealist film festival in the 90s and keeps returning to), Claude Faraldo’s Themroc.
And while we are speaking about wish-fulfillment I should add something about pornography: if for a moment disregarding the social and moral implications of the genre it’d still seem that it’s almost exclusively devoted to simplistic wish-fulfillment in the most banal, unimaginative and degrading way.
Buñuel’s late movies show at the same time the triumph and the limits of traditional surrealist cinema. Fundamentally built upon the element of surprise, they proceed through industrious gags and absurdities (actually rather close to popular ”misconceptions” of surrealism); drawing on dreams, simplistic anti-bourgeois sentiments, more or less outdated anticlerical reflexes and murky banal eroticism. They are beautiful, marvellous, instigative, but they also represent an obvious cul-de-sac.
So, finally I get to the field where I still detect most of surrealist imagery and atmosphere, which is horror. More than anywhere else, the realisation of the imaginary, and the proximity and ambiguity of the border between everyday life and the fantastic, supernatural or just the extremely unusual and intense, is the main theme in horror movies, and several of the basic surrealist strategies and themes are also horror standard elements: obsessive imagery, objective chance, paranoiac-criticism, the search for unusual experiences, analogical thought, dreaming, and the whole aggressive side of wish-fulfillment; furthermore, the uncanny, assemblage objects, strange juxtapositions, the life of objects poutside the utilitarian sphere, new myth, old myth, inventing creatures, the return of the repressed, creative rage, automatism and medialism, etc etc. Horror movies actually seems to be the only field in contemporary cinema where the unknown is invoked, and associations without rational excuses are allowed and sometimes abundant.
If the 60’s remakes of the classic monster movies (and the whole Hammer output) were weaker than the originals, they still have surrealist qualities, and even more so have Corman’s Poe adaptations. Both these are mentioned by Kyrou I think but continued throughout the 60s. Then Romero’s zombie films and Hooper’s beautiful Texas chainsaw massacre revived the genre, and if we disregard the commercially successful but poetically weak Halloween (and its whole subsequent subgenre of ”psychopath thrillers”) and the Exorcist(which is quite boring but perhaps might be important for those who still get excited by simple blasphemy?), this soon led to what might be regarded as the surrealist masterpieces of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and Hellbound and Wes Craven’s A nightmare on Elm Street & Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and Dario Argento’s entire work (Argento himself explicitly recognising his work as surrealist).
The boundaries of the genre are delineated by "transitory" subgenres of for example splatter comedy (where Wes Craven and Peter Jackson made poor stuff, while Sam Raimi and especially Stuart Gordon made good things), horror fantasy (including Tim Burton among others), horror SF (including the Alien sequel and Tobe Hooper's Life Force), and a sort of manneristic dystopian perverse-daliesque aestheticism running wild (with which I mostly mean Cronenberg; a personal vision of the kind that may or may not be annected for surrealism depending on one's taste and criteria). Again I'm not interested in discussing the pointless psychopath thrillers. Even high-finance Hollywood horror can make atmospheres and good fantasies; like in some of the remakes of monster classics, in bagatelles like The Others (for sure poorer than its source of inspiration The Innocents but nevertheless!), and even in cheap adaptions of computer games like the recent Silent Hill (despite stupid script flaws).
The thing is that the elements in my long list above do occur widely in the genre. But of course many of the worst ones are characterised by bad directing and bad acting, standardised scripts, simple genre markers, quite cheap startle/disgust shock effects, sometimes cheap fan-complementing allusions, sometimes rampant misogyny and pointless sadism, etc. But horror movies, like it or not, must be recognised as the genre which even in its most conventional form retains the largest numbers of surrealist elements!

No comments: