Psychic Automatism in the Works of Luis Bunuel and Maya Deren
In 1924, the French writer Andre Breton drafted the first Surrealist manifesto (Le Manifeste du Surréalism) which was published in 1925. In the manifesto, he defines Surrealism (‘once and for all’, as he puts it) as: ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’i
Much of the document concerns itself with the nature of dreams and dreaming. It is heavily influenced by Freud whose Interpretation of Dreams (first published in 1911) was still causing shockwaves:
Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity […] has still today been so grossly neglected. (Breton)
Freud begins The Interpretation of Dreams by saying, ‘[…] there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state. ‘ii
In common with Freud, the Surrealists placed the subconscious on a pedestal and examined it from a scientific perspective. They believed the apparent irrationality of our inner minds could tell us much about the human psyche and unveil a reality which our conscious minds filter out.
Like Dada, its immediate predecessor, Surrealism was not to be confined to the art gallery. In fact it had started out as a literary movement before being siezed upon by such artists as Max Ernst and Man Ray.
Of all the media available to be used in exploring the subconscious, the relatively new medium of the cinema offered most potential, untarnished as it was by centuries of tradition. Even before the Surrealists began to experiment with film, film-makers were using it to create representations of the fantastic. Obvious examples are any number of films by George Melies (most famously A Trip To the Moon (France, 1902)), Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (UK, 1903) and Larry Semon’s Wizard of Oz (USA,1925).
The interaction between Surrealism and the cinema has been rich and varied. It involved, initially, a small group of films produced within the framework of the French Surrealist movement of the 1920s, among which Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) stands as the brief, comic, terrifying landmark.iii
What makes film uniquely suited to representing the work of the dreams and the unconscious is its editability. Time and space can be manipulated in the edit suite through any number of techniques. By splicing two unrelated shots together, the film-maker is able to create an association, a dream-like implication of cause and effect that could not exist in the real world. Time can be reversed, slowed down, manipulated. Two or more incarnations of one person can be in the same room at the same time; they can even converse. The impossible becomes possible and the Laws of Physics need not apply.
Even if there had been no Surrealist manifesto, such is the nature of film that Surrealist – or at least surrealistic – films were bound to arise. Hollywood comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, for instance, were apt to exploit the malleability of reality on celluloid for comic effect. In fact, it can be argued that Surrealism brought little if anything new to the world of cinema, at least in terms of technique.
The debt owed by Surrealism to earlier cinema was acknowledged in the 1950s when scholars began looking seriously at the history of film. According to Rudolf Kuenzli, these historians ‘also began to formulate a canon of the Surrealist and the surrealistic film at the centre of which were Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or. These two films were viewed as the crowning achievement of a pure Surrealism that could now be seen to stretch back through the more grotesque moments of Von Stroheim, the more dreamlike passages of Keaton, Chaplin and Feuillade, and finally, back to the original Surrealist essence of cinema in Melies. At the periphery of this canon were the many films with occassional moments of accidental or involuntary Surrealism.’iv
Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or are both the work of Luis Bunuel and his fellow Spaniard Salvador Dali. At that time they decided to collaborate, Bunuel was a minor (and self-published) poet, an Assistant Director to Jean Epstein and a recent recruit to the Paris Surrealist Group. Dali had yet to make any impact on the world of art.
Their first film, Un Chien Andalou is a 16 minute smorgasbord of bizarre scenarios that collectively tell a story that – on the surface at least – makes no sense. It is a negation of rationality. The title, for instance, has little if anything to do with the film. It is in fact the title of a collection of Bunuel’s poetry.
Although both Bunuel and Dali have over the years been less-than-consistent in their accounts of how the film came about, they both agreed that while staying with Dali at his house, Bunuel told him about a dream he had in which a cloud sliced the moon in half ‘like a razor blade slicing through an eye’. Dali then recounted a disturbing dream of his own (there appears to be no record of its exact nature) and the pair then agreed to create a low- budget film constructed from irrational images dredged from their subconscious minds.
How much each of the collaborators contributed to the film will remain a matter of debate for years to come. According to the notes that accompany the BFI’s box set edition of Un Chien Andalou: ‘Dali’s claim that he presented Bunuel with a complete alternative scenario, scribbled in a quarter of an hour on a shoe-box, does not match Bunuel’s memory of the scenario’s construction morning-by-morning at Figueras from shared memories of dream-residues and spontaneously invoked gags and objects, a concoction resolutely shorn of ‘conscious’ meanings and associations.v’
The film opens with a sequence based on Bunuel’s dream snippet. A man – played by Bunuel himself – is seen sharpening a cut-throat razor. He walks onto a balcony and observes a sliver of cloud racing across the sky towards the moon. We immediately cut to a close-up of a woman’s face. The woman is passive as a hand holds one of her eyes open and the razor is brought towards it. The cloud slices the moon; the razor slices the eye. (Closer examination shows that the eye being sliced is that of an animal, presumably one of the dead donkeys seen later in the film.) Straightaway, an intertitle comes up. It reads, ‘Huit ans apres’ (‘Eight years later’). There follows a scene of a man dressed as a nun on a bicycle. This dissolves to a shot of a woman in an apartment reading a book. It is the woman we saw being mutilated. As if by some miracle, her eye is intact. The events of the opening scene are never referred to, never explained.
According to Bunuel: ‘The plot is the result of a CONSCIOUS psychic aoutomatism, and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.’ He goes on to say that he and Dali ‘both took their point of view from a dream image, which, in its turn, probed others by the same process until the whole took form as a continuity.vi’
Although the influence of Un Chien Andalou on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (USA, 1943) is undeniable, the two films are worlds apart in tone.
The difference between the films is instructive. Un Chien Andalou is filled with metaphors – the eye and the moon, a drink shaker as a door-bell, the sea urchin and underarm hair – but Meshes has none. Objects in the earlier film recur, especially the box of the clown figure, but without the symbolic dimensions of the knife, key, and flower in Meshes, which accumulate their deadly charge through repeated use in slightly different circumstances.vii
Unlike Un Chien Andalou, the plot of Meshes is fairly straightforward and comprehensible. Ken Dancyger sums it up in one paragraph. He says it ‘explores the story of a young woman. She is being followed to an apartment where she is to meet a man. The key to the apartment, a knife inside the apartment, and the bed are the important artefacts. The woman, the woman who is following her, and the man are the only characters. The woman who follows her is hooded and has a mirror over her face. Whether she is a reflection or the woman’s conscience, is subject to interpretation. By the end of the story the woman is dead in the apartment. Was it a crime of passion, a suicide, or the emotional, inevitable consequence of her own passion?’viii
The main factor that distinguishes the two films is the intent of the makers. Un Chien Andalou strives to be shocking and provocative – ‘a call to murder’ as Bunuel famously put it. Dali and Bunuel do their best to obscure its meaning. In fact they go out of their way to eradicate any meaning it might have. Meshes, on the other hand, is a search for meaning, a psycho-quest wherein its protagonist reaches some kind of self-understanding. Which is not to say that Meshes is not disturbing; its just that its madness is that of the paranoid introvert rather than the raving lunatic tormented by sexual guilt and visions of corporeal corruption.
It has been hailed in retrospect as the first ‘trance’ film, a sub-genre first identified by the American film historian P. Adams Sitney and defined as a type of expressionistic film in which a character, frequently the filmmaker, experiences a personal revelation by playing out a psychological drama in dream-like surroundings.
According to James Peterson: ‘The trance film was concerned with the psyche of its protagonist, but its first- person aspects – shots from the protagonist’s point of view – were qualified and mediated by the entrance of the protagonist as a character in the film.’ix
Deren uses a number of camera tricks to illustrate the state of mind of her protagonist (played by Deren and no doubt meant to represent Deren):
Meshes in the Afternoon is rife with images that suggest identity diffusion around issues of sexuality and gender. Her inability to accept herself, her womanhood, her sexuality, leads to her destruction at her own hand or through projection, his hand.
In order to suggest the degree of diffusion, Maya Deren uses unsettling camera angles and motion. The camera turns not horizontally but on a U-axis in order to simulate the woman’s feelings of diffusion. The extreme close-ups of the woman removing the key from her mouth suggest the clandestine implications of the key, as well as the key’s sexual subtext. Daren also highlights the violent and sexual character of the knife in the same visually powerful manner. Her use of jump cuts convey the heightened emotional state of the woman. Although the images of flowers and the seashore imply a romantic dimension of the tryst, the overwhelming number of close-ups of the woman […] heighten the sexual-violent atmosphere in the apartment and the man-woman interface. The tragic ending confirms the primacy of identity diffusion.x
Most of the above effects can be achieved in other media but only as discreet entities. It is possible, for instance, to reconstruct Meshes as a series of still photographs but that would lack the fluidity of the moving image. Dreams are not made up of frozen instances. They are profoundly cinematic. If we could capture dreams and play them back, they would resemble Un Chien Andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon rather more than any number of Man Ray photographs or Salvador Dali painted dreamscapes.
Meshes is designed to be analysed and penetrated. It offers us an insight into the mind of Maya Deren as she acts out her inner concerns and anxieties
Un Chien Andalou, by contrast, is out to shock and unsettle. It is an assemblage of vaguely related scenes with which we are invited to construct a meaningful narrative. Bunuel and Dali’s next film L’Age D’Or is closer to Meshes – and mainstream cinema -in that it sets out to tell a story, albeit one that plays fast and loose with reality.
But regardless of the question of influence, it is true that the mechanics of Un Chien Andalou and of Meshes result from a theoretical application of the principles of cinema to the experience of the dream.xi
Bunuel’s straightforward style serves to heighten haunting images that disturb received notions of religion and sexuality.xii
Bunuel’s modernism emerges as well in his experiments with narrative construction. The films are full of repetitions, digressions, and movements between reality and fantasy. (Don’t worry if the movie’s too short,” he once told a producer. “I’ll just put in a dream.”xiii
Most modernists attack narrative in order to turn the viewer’s attention to other matters, but Bunuel treats narrative frustration as itself the basis of pleasure.xiv
… Bunuel contextualizes Un Chien Andalou by means of concepts such as ‘automaticity’, ‘the unconscious’, ‘the poetic’, ‘the spectator’, and the ‘avant-garde’.xv
The ‘automaticity’ of the film’s creation, for Bunuel, cancels ‘rational’, ‘aesthetic’ and ‘ethical’ considerations, together with those of ‘customary morality’, and points to the fact that Un Chien Andalou does not recount a dream but itself ‘profits by a mechanism analogous to dreams’. The nature of this mechanism is unclear, but the aesthetic consequence is that the film is able to draw upon putatively ‘liberated’ psychic impulses, formally deployed as ‘poetic’ constructs, rather than as ‘intended’ symbols.xvi
In spite of its commitment to the work of the unconscious, the film in fact has quite deliberate intentions. With familiar Surrealist idealism, Bunuel confers upon the film a strongly conscious sense of purpose when he argues that it makes ‘systematic use of the poetic image as an arm to overthrow accepted notions’. And although its makers reject ‘intended’ symbols, the scenario itself explicitly demands the clear and symbolic placement of objects on the school-desk in the scene with the male protagonist’s double (a demand which the film itself does not fulfil with any clarity). We need a more measured commentary than the maker of the film was able to provide, and a less allusive final flourish in the direction of psychoanalysis, to account for the poetics of Un Chien Andalou.xvii
What Dali and Bunuel achieved through this method of compiling a scenario was the liberation of their material from the demands of narrative continuity. Far from being puzzling, the film achieves the clarity of a dream. The extremity of the violence and the calculated abruptness of changes of time, place, and mood intensify the viewing experience without satisfying the conventional narrative demands of cause and effect.xviii
The strength of the identification in the context of the abrupt dislocations and discontinuities provides us with a vivid metaphor for the dream experience. Had Dali and Bunuel set about to study their own dreams and clinically re-create a dream on film, they could not have surpassed Un Chien Andalou.
“This film is concerned,” Maya Deren wrote, with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and causal incident into a critical emotional experience.xix
In Meshes of the Afternoon, the heroine undertakes an interior quest. She encounters objects and sights as if they were capable of revealing the erotic mystery of the self. The surrealistic cinema, on the other hand, depends upon the power of film to evoke a mad voyeurism and to imitate the very discontinuity, the horror, and the irrationality of the unconscious.xx
Meshes explicitly simulates the dream experience, first in the transition from waking to sleeping (the shadow covers the eye and the window at the end of the first cycle) and later in an ambiguous scene of waking. The film-makers have observed with accuracy the way in which the events and objects of the day become potent, then transfigured, in dream as well as the way in which a dreamer may realise that he dreams and may dream that he wakes. They have telescoped the experience of an obsessive, recurrent series of dreams into a single one by substituting variations on the original dream for what would conventionally be complete transitions of subject within a single dream.xxi
Bunuel and Dali did not set out to create a film dream; the dreamlike quality of their work derives from the strength of their sources, from the ferocity with which they dispelled the rational while keeping the structural components of narrative. They show us neither sleep nor waking, but simply a disjunctive, athematic chain of situations with the same characters. The startling changes of place, the violence, the eroticism, the tactility, and above all the consistent use of surrealistic imagery, suggest the dream experience.xxii
Many film-makers seem to have been unable to project the highly personal psychological drama that these films reveal into their characters’ minds. They were realising the themes of their films through making and acting them. These were true psycho-dramas.
As psycho-drama, Meshes of the Afternoon is the inward exploration of both Deren and Hammid.xxiii
Maya Deren’s beliefs about the proper relations between the photographic and film media oppose those of the advocates of phenomological cinema. Like most of those who flourished in the period of early American modernism, Deren believed that each medium has its own unique properties which artists must exploit. Deren claimed that the properties of film derived from the camera and that the impartiality and clarity of the lense – its precise fidelity to the aspect and texture of physical matter – is the first contribution of the camera.xxiv
Despite his general reference to dream “symbols,” Bunuel does not seem to limit the potential range of dream “mechanisms” to the one Freud calls “the symbolic”. In fact, he and Dali surely used several different mechanisms as models. It seems certain in any case that the two Spaniards were fascinated by the mechanism Freud himself called “the most psychologically interesting achievement of the dream-work,” namely the translation of a latent verbal thought into manifest visual images.
According to Freud, the dream work must reformulate scandalous or morally-repugnant thoughts in order to allow them to be represented in the dream. This reformulation can proceed in several ways. For example, words can be found whose concreteness or, alternatively, ambiguity, enable them to slip past the censorship and serve as the basis for both the odd and innocuous dream images. This is the primary mechanism used by “verbal disguise” dreams. The important point to note here is that the form of (if not the motive for) this kind of operation on language readily lends itself for conscious use in the making of a film.
If Dali and Bunuel were intrigued by the possibilities opened up by such an adaptation – and that is my claim – then one might expect to find instances in Un Chien Andalou in which gestures, images, or indeed entire sequences were created by finding visual forms for verbal expressions.xxv
ii Freud, Sigmund The Interpretation of Dreams. Whitefish, Montana.. Kessinger Publishing. 2004. p.4
iii Drummond, Phillip. Un Chien Andalou Box Set, Connoisseur Films/BFI p.v
iv Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada and Surrealist Film. p. 200
v Drummond. p.ix
vi Sitney, P. Adams. VISIONARY FILM. The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. p4
vii Sitney. p.15
viii Dancyger, Ken. The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory and Practice. p.220
ix Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-garde Cinema By James Peterson p.74
x Dancyger. p.74
xi Sitney. p.15
xii Bordwell & Thompson. p.2
xiii Bordwell & Thompson. p.3
xiv Bordwell & Thompson. p.4
xv Drummond. p.ix
xvi Drummond. p.x
xvii Drummond. p.xi
xxi Sitney. p.13
xxii Sitney. pp.13-14
xxiii Sitney. p.18
xxiv Elder, R. Bruce. Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. pp.341-342
xxv Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada and Surrealist Film. pp.144-145
Posted on September 22, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged afternoon, automatism, Breton, bunuel, cinema, dali, deren, dreams, experimental, film, freud, Manifesto, psychic, surrealism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.