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Writings on film. Shock and art. There may be blood.


We say "surreal" these days as though it were just another word for "weird," but it originally described one of the first "modern" approaches to artistic creation. Surrealism began as an art movement that combined Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis concepts with the rebellious and confrontational art of the Dadaist movement. The object of surrealism in film is to explore and depict the subconscious while preserving its mystery.

Adolescence as a grotesque transformation

Surrealism journeys into the subconscious, depicted by Freud as grotesque and irrational, to release forces of fantasy and unconscious desires in an effort to transform reality and free the mind. Horror does a similar thing, and there is a natural affinity between surrealism and the horror genre. Surrealism is not so much a genre as it is an approach and a philosophy, and it is one of the few modernist art movements to have a lasting influence on motion pictures. Some argue that all cinema is surrealist.

The birth of surrealism

Surrealism grew out of the concepts of a circle of Paris artists after World War I. It is meant as an exploration of the mind and an agent of rebellion against a diseased society. Dada was a nihilistic movement that sought only to tear down existing cultural values, but surrealism saw this as a step towards building a new humanity. The idea may have been that, since the Dadaists had no intent to build a new society after tearing down the old one, the surrealists would then step in and fill that role. They thus egged on the Dadaists, taking a sort of Charles Manson approach and urging the Dadaists to start their Helter Skelter.

Images may appear for no logical narrative reason

The surrealists based their concept on the French psychiatrist Dr. Pierre Janet's ideas of automatic writing, Freud's study of the subconscious, the poetry of Rimbaud, and the monstrous, fantastical paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. World War I was a huge influence on their viewpoints: it physically tore apart their world and produced mental breakdowns in its shell-shocked soldiers.

The movement's birth roughly coincides with the emergence of cinema as a form of art, and surrealism had ties with the nascent medium. Luis Buñuel is the director most closely associated with the movement. He collaborated with Salvador Dali on Un Chien andalou and at one time was a member, along with Dali, of the Surrealist Group of Paris artists. Surrealist groups sprang up throughout Europe and were influential toward later movements such as the Czech New Wave, which included filmmaker Jan Švankmajer.

The surrealists and film

Everyday items take on fantastical qualities

Surrealists had always valued film as a medium. Their rejection of traditional artistic values gave them an appreciation of genre films and of pop culture, if only because these were alternatives to the culture the surrealists opposed. They championed films that successfully presented an idea, regardless of their level of technical competence.

Comedies, such as those of the Marx Brothers, were valued for their mockery of society. Horror films in particular were esteemed for their powerful depictions of dark, hidden fears and confrontation of mortality. The otherworldly atmosphere of early 1930s films such as White Zombie and Freaks has been attributed to the surrealist influence.

Horror directors with ties to surrealism

Some directors share the surrealists' attitude even though they may have no direct connection to the movement. These include Tod Browning and Tim Burton. Browning's films often represented rebellion against society, although they did so violently rather than comedically. David Lynch, a painter by background, is the director most commonly associated with American surrealist film.

Paul Verhoeven is a director of mainstream films who belonged to the surrealist movement in his earlier years. Jean Rollin was associated with Ado Kyrou, author of an acclaimed work on the movement. Alejandro Jodorowsky, who introduced Dennis Hopper to surrealist concepts, was a fringe figure among and later a dissenter of the Parisian Surrealist Group.

David Lynch places familiar film clichés in startling contexts

Common surrealist ideas and themes include:

  • Storytelling that relies on images instead of narrative, which is discarded along with other traditional cultural values.
  • The transformative power of love, which in turn is an example of the transformation of the mind. Surrealists, who normally hated Hollywood's approach to filmmaking, liked mainstream romance films of the 1940s for this reason.
  • "Mad love" is a related idea, a love that transforms so completely that the self is lost.
  • Familiar objects are made odd and unfamiliar by being placed into weird situations. This is meant to add a sense of magicalness to everyday life or to reveal one that was there all along but unnoticed.
  • Use of random images, which represent chance encounters and uncertainty.
  • Symbols are used that have no specific attached meaning. Cigars that are just cigars.

Transgressive film shares with surrealism an element of surprise and shock. The New French Extremity of directors like Catherine Breillat and Gasper Noë has been called "black surrealism," although surrealism itself is optimistic instead of nihilistic like much shock cinema.

The transformative power of love

Some notable horror-related films with surreal elements:

  • Un Chien andalou
  • Freaks
  • Vertigo
  • Eyes Without a Face
  • Le jetée and its remake, 12 Monkeys
  • Rape of the Vampire
  • Awakening of the Beast
  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
  • Daughters of Darkness
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  • Eraserhead
  • Santa Sangre
  • Cemetery Man
  • Fight Club
  • Audition
  • Mutant Girls Squad

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