Through the Looking-Glass:
A Journey into Surrealist Cinema’s Past

“That’s surreal!” You may have said this about a film. What did you mean exactly? It was “out there” or “trippy?” The imagery was dream-like? The plot was confusing or didn’t make sense. And you would be right. In everyday parlance “surreal” connotes the bizarre, uncanny or downright weird. Each of the films in the Perspectives Film Festival falls into this category. But in common with terms like avant-garde, Surrealism also relates to a historic movement associated with the 1920s.

You have probably seen Surrealist artwork from this period. The painter René Magritte is famed for works such as The Treachery of Images and The Son of Man – to all intents and purposes, a pipe .Poets Aragon, Apollinaire, Éluard, Artaud and Prévert embraced the term, which the writer and philosopher André Breton defined in 1924 as aiming to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” and to achieve in art “pure psychic automatism.” In Freudian terms, this meant unleashing the unconscious id and allowing it to create art that defies rational explanation.

Cinema quickly became a favoured means of expression by Surrealist artists. In 1929, two future titans, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, collaborated on one of the most iconic short films of all time. The title, An Andalusian Dog , is as good a gauge as any about its meaning. It jumps forwards eight years and backwards sixteen, but its characters do not age. It features an androgynous woman, a man dressed as a nun and two grand pianos with rotting donkeys, the Ten Commandments, pumpkins and priests inside. A woman’s armpit hair magically appears on a young man’s face and books turn into pistols. The image of an eye being sliced in two and an impaled, severed hand swarming with ants remain among the most terrifying images cinema has produced.

The film was shown in Parisian movie theatres for nine months, to the horror, fascination and bemusement of audiences. Dalí and Buñuel planned to make another film together, but parted ways after creative differences. Dalí went on to concentrate on painting – mostly of himself – and to cultivate his megalithic media persona. Buñuel became a prolific filmmaker, using Surrealism in landmark films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

Surrealism as a cohesive movement died around the time of World War II. This was for a number of reasons. André Breton’s insistence that Surrealism was a Marxist movement seemed to be at odds with its amoral stance and artistic decadence. It was unclear how one could live and breathe Surrealism. Freud appreciated the movement, but thought Surrealist films were products of the conscious, not the unconscious mind.

Despite the end of Surrealism as a movement, scores of filmmakers have been inspired by the era’s evocative works, and certainly all the directors featured in the festival programme – David Lynch, René Laloux, Alejandro Jodorowsky,Teruo Ishii to Katsuhito Ishii – owe a debt of gratitude to these early pioneers. In fact, you will find a number of winks and nods to the Surrealist films of the 1920s in these relatively contemporary movies. I would strongly encourage you prior to attending festival screenings to take a look at one or two of these fascinating films, many of which are on Youtube.

Dr. James Rowlins
Singapore University of Technology and Design