"Slicing up eyeballs": Buñuel & the birth of Surrealist cinema

Joe Holloran looks back at the the life of Luis Buñuel & Un Chien Andalou (1929) the film that created a whole new genre.

Joe Holloran
8th April 2020
Surrealism is a term I'm sure you have heard of at some time, probably in reference to painters such as Salvador Dali. However, the European art movement, which began circa.1917 in France, extended beyond the canvas into the worlds of literature, sculpture, theatre & most importantly for us, film making.

In 1924, the founder & spiritual father of the movement André Breton (1896-1966) published his 'Surrealist Manifesto' which laid the ground work for all that was to come. The document was heavily influenced by the growing field of psychiatry and the study of the subconscious. To Breton, true surrealism should be "Psychic-automatism at its purist". A way to allow the inaccessible parts of the mind, those which are often revealed through dreams, to be brought forth & adapted into art as purely as possible. This could then unpicked through Freudian analysis.

Luis Buñuel (1900 - 1983). Image:IMDB

This, of course, led to some truly weird & wonderful artwork which has become renowned the world over. Something which is sadly not true of the surrealist films of this period. Among that original group of young liked-minded friends in Spain, who comprised the first-wave of surrealists, was a young man named Luis Buñuel. Born in Aragon, Spain in 1900, Buñuel was raised in a strict Jesuit (a sub-sect of the Catholic Church) family - his fundamentalist upbringing would play a key part in his work - & remained deeply religious until he attended Madrid University in 1917. There, he met & befriended two other odd young students by the names of Salvador Dali (1904 - 1989) & Federico García Lorca (1896 - 1936). In the coming years the trio would go on to be at the forefront of the Spanish avant-garde art movement & were collectively known as 'The Generation of '27'. Buñuel left Madrid in 1925 & in 1929 Dali joined his friend in Paris. It was then that the duo decided to collaborate on a surrealist film together. They wrote down their dreams each night for six days & then compiled then together into some form of loose narrative. This collection of images they felt spoke to something deeper & more profound than their denotations. The pair were intrigued by how our brains store & interoperate our often mundane sensory experiences & then reconstruct them into narratives within our dreams. So, the pair thought, why can't we reproduce our dreams on film. With a script in place & financing from Buñuel's mother, the duo set about co-directed a groundbreaking 21 minute-long short film called Un Chien Andalou (ENG: 'An Andalousian Dog') & the rest, as they say, is history.

Un Chien Andalou was co-directed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali (left) seen here with fellow surrealist artist Man Ray (1890 - 1976) (right). Buñuel was a close associate of both during the 1920s & 30s. Image:Wikimediacommons

Buñuel continued making films, both feature length & short, for the next 48 years. He left Spain in 1938 following the rise of Franco but continued to make movies in the USA, France & later Mexico. Buñuel, a left-winger felt at home in the later & became a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1949. Three of his final feature films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974) & That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) received international acclaim & made Buñuel a well known figure outside of the world of underground cinema.

Luis Buñuel died in July 1983 in Mexico. Film makers the world over have since acknowledged Buñuel's influence & importance as a revolutionary early figure head of cinema, including fellow modern surrealist masters Alejandro Jordorwsky & David Lynch. However, despite his long and illustrious career, the great master to my mind at least, never surpassed the genius of his first creation - Un Chien Andalou (1928).

Un Chien Andalou was a surprise success & ran in Paris for 8 months from 1929-1930. Image:Wikimediacommons

Un Chien Andalou was the first film from Buñuel but remains his most well known among audiences to this day. A true classic of surrealist cinema, this 21 minute-long movie is little more than a collection of mini-narratives constructed out of dreams. Buñuel & co-director Salvador Dali were both fascinated with the depths of the subconscious and what these visions & images represented. Having been raised in a strict Catholic household during the 1910s, Buñuel had a life-long interest in sexual repression, the powers behind this mindset & how these desires manifest through fantasy & dreams. For the surrealists, sex & sexuality were intrinsically linked to notions of class, religion & ego. Un Chien Andalou is full of images wherein all of these concepts come together. The taboo of pubic hair, voyeurism & the primal nature of man just beneath the surface of his "civilized" behaviours are all shown via the actions of the films two lead actors - Simone Mareuil (1903-1954) as 'The Young Girl' & Pierre Batcheff (1907-1932) as 'The Young Man'.

Buñuel's distaste for both religion & class can be seen in the decor of the flat. Where, in an average French house of the time, there would be a crucifix, is instead nailed a tennis racket. Leisure & luxury are the Gods of the new, expanding middle-class. While pursuing the young girl, the young man is held back in his efforts as he attempts to drag two priests with him (one of which was played by Salvador Dali). This is a not too subtle visual metaphor for the way in which the director sees the restraints placed on man by the dogma of the clerical class. Once again we see desire, class & religion all together in an inter-play of metaphorical, seemingly independent images. All of these themes would remain central to the work of Buñuel & to surrealist cinema for many years to come.

The film is comprised of individual moments, almost like paintings, that share a tenuous connection. It begins 'Once upon a time' before jumping to 'Eight years later' for no clear purpose. Some of the images used remain as shocking to some today as they were 92 years ago. The most infamous of which is the "Eyeball cutting scene". When Buñuel's barber character witnesses a cloud cut across the Moon at night, he imagines it to be like his straight razor slicing through a women's eyeball (which Buñuel would later state came from a cow) which he then proceeds to cut open. We often think of surrealism as being dreamlike & whimsical, but as this scene shows, it can at times resemble that which we endure in a nightmare. To the surrealists both are equally valid.

Early surrealism, because of its inherently subversive nature, also represented women in ways not often seem in nascent cinema. They are often sexually liberated & in control of their male character counterparts. While this may not seem so strange to us today, this type of representation only added to the surreal nature of the films to the audiences of the time. Surrealism & it's link to early 20th century left-wing philosophical thought is undeniable, but that is a discussion for another time. One thing surrealist cinema could achieve that surrealist painting could not was the ability to effect multiple senses all at once. In this movie for instance, the high-tempo orchestral score feels disconnected from what we are seeing. This disconnect of expectations serves to heighten the overall disorienting feel of the film, which, of course, is exactly the point.

Un Chien Andalou is non-linear, without plot, humorous & full of metaphorical & at times violent imagery dredged from the depths of the subconscious. Each of these scenes, once analysed & understood within the social-cultural context of its creation can be seen as a commentary on the very real world around us. In other words, it is the perfect example of what surrealist cinema is all about & remains the bench mark for the genre 92 years later.

Fun Fact: American Indie legends The Pixies wrote a song about the film called 'Debaser' from their 1989 album Doolittle. "Got me a movie, I want you to know. Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know. Don't know about you, but I am un chien andalusia." - 'Debaser' by The Pixies.

You can watch the full film by clicking the link below.

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