Surrealist art great, Man Ray, made this film in 1929. It follows a pair of indecisive travelers who base all their action on chance. They head out to a fabulous chateau in the hills and wander around inside and out. They run into four odd persons who enjoy swimming and running about as if the place is their private gym. But what is Man Ray doing here? Why all these shots of windows, lamps, sculptures? He is finding the abnormal in the normal. Wherever he happens to be with a camera he can make the surreal. He’s functioning as an artist, looking for odd angles, shadows, contrasts. He is also diving into the great current of his culture. The house is a castle filled with fine objects and great art. Man Ray is expressing his enthusiasm. This is an extremely childish film. I mean that as a compliment, though I really see nothing exceptional in works for children. But for an artist to function as a child for a certain amount of time is extraordinary and beneficial I think. But that kind of thinking must end and lead to its own destruction. In other words, I do not think any children’s author or illustrator should ever continue to work in that way for more than a few years. Then it is time to think about serious things and to make things that upset people. Perhaps that is my main criticism for most of the things I have seen by Man Ray. He seems a little bit too pleasant. I might be wrong about that. I have to look a little more.
In 1936, experimental filmmaker Len Lye made this short surreal animation to advertise the benefits of Shell oil for lubricating things. The film is a hyper-saturated stop-motion extravaganza that involves a mechanical world turning on some sort of hand crank. There’s an adventurer driving around the sands of Egypt. His car winds down and konks out leaving the man dead in the desert. The angel of oil rains drops of lubricating crude down on the Egyptian landscape bringing the parched skeleton to life as the Shell Oil robot. Fascinating. It’s got that awkward, shiny, naive beauty that could only be achieved in the 30s. Parts of this thing look like they might be influenced by Salvador Dali’s work. Something about that dead skeleton and the desert looks like it could fit right into the Surrealist master’s paintings.
Lye was from New Zealand and worked not only as an experimental filmmaker but also in newsreels and advertising. He was a kinetic sculptor, poet, painter and a writer of essays on artistic theory and philosphy. He made a 1935 short film called ‘A Colour Box’ which was the first generally exhibited film made by painting directly on the film emulsion. It’s a brilliant experimental animation posing as an advertisement for cheaper parcel post. I’m sure the great direct paint filmmaker Stan Brakhage must have been familiar with Lye’s work.
Luis Buñuel was the great Spanish film director who made ‘Un Chien Andalou’ and ‘L’Age d’Or,’ two of the original surrealist films. This documentary, directed by Robert Valey, was made in 1964. The director talks freely and with a certain charming guile about his influences, friends, paranoias, enjoyments and his impressions of various countries. He once smacked Salvadore Dali down on 5th Avenue in New York city!
I enjoy listening to people like him talk about their work because they talk about how they see things – how they interpret the world. Compare the way he talks in this film to what you normally see coming from people like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Those people don’t seem real. They don’t seem to have any point of view. Notice how people in the film consistently associate Buñuel’s filmmaking with the work of painters. It is the continual grinding down of art into business that destroys real culture. One should immerse one’s self in better ideas and more subtle things if one wants to avoid the dullness that permeates most film work currently going on in the United States. I have found it to be a general rule that people with real talent who are artists answer questions in a slightly confusing manner. Clarity is another word for fake. Buñuel appears to me to fit this general principal.
Buñuel wrote a short and very beautiful autobiography called ‘My Last Sigh.’ I recommend it very highly if you want to know more about the mind behind Surrealist film.
And of course, here is the great Surrealist short film, ‘Un Chien Andalou,’ made by Buñuel in 1929.
In 1924, the Oakland Tribune and American Theatre held a contest in which people submitted their dreams. The winning dreams got made into films and the dreamers won $25. This surreal piece came from a dream submitted by Mrs. L.L. Nicholson. It more closely resembles a dream than many films since then, including Hitchcock’s Spellbound. It involves a couple on a trip and a missing baby.
Richard Metzger at Dangerous Minds posted about this 1927 film by Hans Richter. Considered one of the first examples of surrealist film, it’s a daydream that uses stop-motion animation to make people and objects do totally irrational and impossible things. Richter was a part of the Dada movement in art which rebelled against ordinary life and assumptions, attempting to expose the meaninglessness behind modern life. Out of Dada came the Surrealist movement. The music for this version is from a new score by Nikolai von Sallwitz.
Thank you Mr. Metzger and Dangerous Minds!
A short film that’s mostly puppetry by one of the wild insane men of American twentieth century art, Joseph Cornell.