Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Al's Weekly Blog Post --Week One: Surrealism and the Fantastic

During our first week of class, we discussed how early cinema before 1910 relied less on narrative and more on the experience of cinema as spectacle, as an attraction in itself.  As Tom Gunning argues, the cinema of attractions does not entirely disappear once the hegemony of narrative takes over; instead, the cinema of attraction goes "underground" into avant-garde cinema and other genres.  As I shall attempt to demonstrate over the course of the semester, the cinema of attractions’ emphasis on spectacle directly manifests itself in the genres of science fiction and horror.

We only got to watch one of the two surrealist short films that I had scheduled--I do highly recommend that you check out Leger's Ballet mecanique (1924) on reserve in the library--but Bunuel's Un chien andalou (1929) demonstrates how surrealism reacted against the narrativization of cinema and attempted to develop non-narrative structures that more closely approximated the flux of images and stories in dreams.  Surrealism continues to exert an influence over cinema from the avant-garde short films of Kenneth Anger to the bizarro, nightmarishly surrealistic films of Alejandro Jodorowsky to the psycho-noir films of David Lynch.

Like the surrealists, Lynch has increasingly sought experimental cinema forms that mimic the anti-logic of dreams, madness, and hallucination.  Probably most famous as the creator of the television show Twin Peaks (1990-1), Lynch's films have become increasingly obscure and anti-Hollywood over the last fifteen years.  Aside from some short films and Eraserhead (1976), Lynch's earlier films tend to follow more traditional narrative structures even if they do include elements of the fantastic and the uncanny: The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), and even Wild at Heart (1990) all feature encounters with the bizarre and the horrific, but they still tend to follow a logical/traditional narrative progression in a way that Lynch's more recent films do not.  In many ways, Lost Highway (1997) can be seen as the first part of a trilogy of psychological, erotically-charged, nightmarish noir thrillers that blur the line between reality and dream.  Lynch followed up Lost Highway with Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).  Inland Empire pushes so far into abstract and insane territory that it was never picked up by a major studio, and Lynch proceeded to release it himself.  Lynch has subsequently fully embraced the spirit of not just independent filmmaking but entrepreneurship as well--he has essentially branded himself and sells everything from limited edition DVDs to his own brand of coffee through his website.  But what exactly is the point of Lynch’s steady abandonment of archetypal Hollywood plot patterns?  In essence, Lynch’s films still explore the same themes of sexual perversion and violence that lurk beneath the seemingly benign exterior of contemporary American society, but they have shifted their focus--and consequently their aesthetic—in order to explore these themes on the level of the unconscious itself.  We will talk about what we think is happening in Lost Highway, but I will say that Lynch’s recent trilogy concerns the most fundamental aspect of the human psyche--desire.  As French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues, desire can never be satiated because desire is always the desire for desire itself—it is a foundational hole in the human subject that we spend our entire lives trying to fill with work, religion, sex, drugs, hobbies, etc.  This attempted fulfillment, or sublimation, can only ever grant us partial fulfillment because our desire is for a wholeness that we can never experience.  Slavoj Zizek has argued that Lost Highway depicts the struggle between two conflicting regimes of desire: the realm of perverse sex, violence, and shady/criminal behavior and the equally dystopian world of suburban impotence.  Neither can grant true fulfillment and hence our main character(s) must continue blindly down the lost highway, seeking a satiation that will never come.  While Lynch’s film features more coherent narrative segments than Bunuel’s Un chien andalou, it still frustrates our narrative expectations and features unexplained symbols/images to which we the viewer are left to ascribe meaning.

If you appreciated surrealism and/or the films of David Lynch, then there are decades worth of films that you should check out in the future.  For starters, if you want more surrealist cinema like Un Chien Andalou, then I highly recommend that you check out the disc I have put on reserve in the library entitled Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema from the 1920s and 30s, which features such classics as Ballet mecanique.  Also, watch the second collaboration between Bunuel and Dali entitled L’age d’or (“The Golden Age”; 1930), which was considered scandalous upon its release for its blasphemy and depiction of sexual desire, including a rather brief (and extremely tame) retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.  Bunuel’s films become more traditionally narrative over the course of his career, but they still retain surrealist and absurdist elements and continue to explore existential/religious and sexual themes.  In particular, I recommend his absurdist trilogy (Viridiana [1961], The Exterminating Angel [1962] and Simon of the Desert [1969]), Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

In many ways, surrealism could be said to make a comeback in the 1960s with the Beat Generation and the hippies seeking new ways of depicting alternate states of consciousness and reacting against all forms of authority and tradition.  Indeed, psychedelic artwork could be seen as a direct descendant of surrealism.  But no visual artist so directly links the two generations together as Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky who created groundbreaking, disturbing, and brilliant examples of transgressive arthouse cinema that blended surrealistic imagery together with sexual perversion, violence, gore, and torture to create three films that remain as classic to arthouse cinephiles as they do to horror movie buffs.  These three films each represent Jodorowsky’s deconstructed, surrealistic version of an established genre.  El Topo (1970) represents his western-quest narrative, Holy Mountain (1973) is his brutal spiritual quest tale, and Sante Sangre (1989) is his serial killer film.  Jodorowsky’s films are not for the faint of heart, the weak-stomached, or the easily offended, but they are powerfully original and daring films that will reward those able to follow them on their journey.

Finally, if you are intrigued by Lynch, then you I highly recommend that you give Blue Velvet a try—it is more straightforward than Lost Highway but is still considered a cinematic classic because of its brutal and bizarre depiction of the perversion and evil that lurks just underneath the idyllic exterior of the suburbs.  If you liked Lost Highway, then definitely proceed on to Mulholland Drive, a film that in many ways perfects the aesthetic that Lynch inaugurates with Lost Highway.

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