Monday, March 14, 2016

6 Surrealist Films from Silent to Now, Some You May Not Know

by Madeleine Swann

From The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) to the modern day, Surrealist films have delighted and enraged in equal measure. To some they exist purely to make fun of those on the outside while to others they explore humanity via the subconscious. Perhaps they do both. They're strange, opaque and often have a mischievous sense of humour.

There are too many films and filmmakers to look at them all including Jean Cocteau, Christiane Cegavske, Luis Bunuel, Guy Maddin, David Lynch and many, many more, but here's a few to get your evening off to a clock melting start.

1. The Life And Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (Slavko Vorkapic & Robert Florey, 1928). 

 Slavko Vorkapić and Robert Florey - Serbian American and French American respectively - both made their marks in Hollywood, Florey directing The Marx Brothers' Cocoanuts among others and Vorkapić inventing the montage.

The story in Life and Death is quite easy to follow compared to others and seems old hat now, but at the time it must have been exciting to see a film mocking film making and exploitation. The mask imagery and forehead branding seem cliched but this is where those cliches stem from. Plus look at that actress''s gorgeous.

2.  The War of Jan-Ken Pon (Shuji Terayama, 1971)

Shuji Terayama was a Japanese poet, writer, photographer and director. In 1967 he opened an experimental cinema and gallery called Universal Gravitation.

I could go all intellectual and say I like this film because of its depiction of war as a childish game, and I do, but really it's because it looks like something I and my friend Steve might do (though not as well of course).

The men's game of rock paper scissors devolves into a physical fight, which is absurdist and daft, but there is a serious side to it. Like Sarah Kane's play Blasted a couple of people enact everything that happens on a large scale in war, but here there's more humour and less baby eating. Bomb and army sound effects play and a small crowd of onlookers - other countries who stand by without helping? - watch through the window.

3. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Alain Resnais began his career as a contemporary of the French New Wave directors, though never truly associated himself with the movement.

 This beautiful film echoes Noel Coward's Shadow Play and the yet to be made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though in it's own very unique and very French way.

A couple drift through a grand building and it's estate (literally the corridors of memory), he convinced they met last year and she uncertain, both unable to remember what happened next and unsure of how to proceed. They analyse their past, present and future while apparently existing outside of it in some peculiar dream.

4. Dreams That Money Can Buy (Various, 1947)

A portmanteu of surrealist shorts held together by a connecting narrative, Dreams contains almost everyone we associate with the early Surrealist movement. Denounced by many at the time as inconsequential and shallow, it was an attempt to make surrealism more accessible to the general public.

Now, though, I think it stands up as an enjoyable film with a clear link to Being John Malkovich (the scene where people crowd outside Joe's office to purchase a dream is too similar not to be an inspiration) and, if you don't feel it has a deep enough message, you can still appreciate it's beauty.

5. Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

Part of the Czech New Wave, Daisies led to Vera Chytilová being unofficially banned from making any more films in her home country until 1976 due to the anarchic behaviour of it's protagonists and the amount of food, "the fruit of the work of our toiling farmers," being wasted.

Two girls decide that as the world is rotten they should also become rotten, and the result is scene after scene of joyful mischief - they trick men, play up in bars, argue, make up and generally loaf around. It's done with an innocence that makes it devoid of malice, rather it's a celebration of seeing what they can get away with.

6. The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

Jodorowsky's latest film is a kind of autobiography, though one with an opera singing mother who urinates on her husband to cure his wounds. One of the things I love about his films is the recurring theme of circuses, a shorthand for outsiders and misfits, but in The Dance of Reality it's also a symbol of home and belonging.

It's probably, not to sound simplistic, his happiest film. Not to say it doesn't deal with big subjects like war and death and sadness, but it left me with a warm feeling and a sense of knowing him a little bit better, however true that is.

Well, there we have it my little slices of cherry pie served at the Twin Peaks cafe. Speaking of which, I'm going to leave you with a BBC documentary from 1987 of David Lynch discussing his favourite early surrealist films. I must warn you, the last minute has been chopped off, but you don't really miss anything. Toodle pip!

Madeleine Swann's novella, Rainbows Suck, was published as part of the 2015 New Bizarro Author Series. Keep up with her writing at her website and her twitter.

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