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Surrealist Film

Surrealist Film Collage

Started: 1928

Ended: 1950

Summary of Surrealist Film

Surrealism revolutionized the art of cinema with new techniques and approaches that freed it from traditional story-telling, transforming the medium into one that could explore, reveal, and possibly even replicate the inner-workings of the subconscious mind. Surrealist films often leave us with shocking images that lodge themselves into our psyche and deprive us of easily legible narratives, while at the same time prove compelling in their deep, ultimately neo-romantic expressions of desire. The movie screen becomes a portal through which the viewer can journey where the traditional common constructs can no longer be reliable guides, from a clergyman's sexual dreams to a poet's quest through a mirror, from an obsession with a starfish to a wound that emits live ants.

Key Ideas

Surrealist films created a revolution in cinema by dispensing with linear narratives and plots, thereby freeing cinema from a reliance on traditional story-telling borrowed from literature. Surrealism creates the possibility of cinema itself as an independent and unique visual art form.
Surrealist films do not merely retell dreams or stories but replicate their very processes through illogical, irrational disruptions and disturbing imagery, uncensored by normal wakeful consciousness or morality. Surrealist filmmakers found new techniques to convey the atmosphere and incongruous states of dreams. Like dreams, many Surrealist films resist interpretation. As in actual dreams, characters in Surrealist films display a lack of will, even a certain impotence. There is a forfeiting of control and a complete submission to the dream state.
Surrealist films often use shocking imagery that jolts the viewer, imagery that had not been seen in films prior to 1928. This challenges the notion of cinema as mere entertainment; the viewer can no longer be passive or complaisant. Surrealist film attempts to change cinema so that audiences experience more than the standard visuals.
Surrealist films often assault traditional institutions in society, such as religion, family, or marriage, exemplified in Luis Buñuel's attacks on the Catholic Church or David Lynch's depiction of a married couple with a deformed child, thus changing a traditional mode of mass entertainment into one full of revolutionary potential at the social and political level.
Many surrealist films are driven by strong feelings of longing, love, and sexual desire, what the founder of Surrealism, André Breton called "insane love," amour fou. This love or desire, while appearing self-destructive or illogical to the rational world, leads characters in surrealist films - and viewers in real life - to realizations they may not have otherwise had.
Unlike Surrealist poetry, which ultimately could only create abstract linguistic metaphor, Surrealist film could show even the most incongruous or absurd images as visual, concrete facts. It could show the marvelous or uncanny as real---the material strangeness of reality. And though Surrealist paintings could depict dream-like scenes, they were still single, frozen illusions, while Surrealist cinema could show actual objects in motion, as they move in dreams, the paradoxical realism of Surrealism.
Surrealist Film Image


The first expressions of Surrealism took place in the early 1920s not in painting or cinema but in the poetry of André Breton, Paul Eluard, Philip Soupault, and Louis Aragon, all of whom explored automatic writing (writing in an almost hypnotic state, without the filtering of traditional poetic forms, morality, or rational meaning).The first to use the term "surrealist" was actually the older innovative poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, as a subtitle to his scandalous 1917 play, The Breasts of Tiresias. Apollinaire, who had been a major figure in the Cubist movement and had perished in World War I, was much admired by the younger poets, and so they named their movement "Surrealism" in his honor. Interestingly, one of Apollinaire's last projects was the screenplay for a movie, which was never produced, titled The Breton Girl (1917).

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