Jean Goudal writing in 1925 expressed the view that the cinematic experience (medium, message and location) was the ‘ideal means for the realization of surreality, of the marvellous’ stressing its potential for the recreation of dream: ‘The cinema […
. ] constitutes a conscious hallucination, and utilizes this fusion of dream and consciousness which Surrealism would like to see realized in the literary domain […
. ]. They should lose no time in imbuing their productions with the three essential characteristics of dream; the visual, the illogical, the pervasive. 1 It was another four years before Salvador Dali?? and Luis Bui??uel worked together on Un Chien andalou (1929), a short (seventeen minutes) silent film, that is considered by critics (e.
g. Rudolf Kuenzli2) to be one of only two or three truly Surrealist films produced (along with L’Age d’or (1930) and possibly Man Ray’s L’etoile de mer (1928) or Antonin Artaud’s and Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (1928).The genesis of the film can be found in Dali??’s writings in the Catalan avant-garde literary review L’Amic de les Arts, specifically La fotografia, pura creacii?? de l’esperit (September 1927) and Film-arte, fil antiarti??stico (December 1927), the latter dedicated to his student-friend Bui??uel. Dali?? emphasized that film could create visual images not available to painting, provoking a new way of seeing (‘to look is to invent’3), and offering a medium for the recording and mediation (via the ‘intervention’ of director-producer) of objective reality.
Bui??uel was already active in the cinematic field, working as Jean Epstein’s assistant on The Fall of the House of Usher, and sharing Dali??’s admiration for the American cinema, particularly the montage techniques of Buster Keaton. In the winter of 1928-29, at Cadaqui?? and Figueras, Dali?? and Bui??uel collaborated (the extent of their respective contribution is still debated4) on the script of Un Chien andalou, before returning to Paris and Le Havre where the film was shot in only six days.Despite Bui??uel’s claim that ‘NOTHING, in the film..
. SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING’5 modern film and media critics have developed a panoply of analytical techniques to ascertain it’s ‘hidden’ meaning. Bui??uel acknowledged that ‘The only method of investigation of the symbols would be perhaps, psycho-analysis’6 and this most obvious technique is considered in the latter part of this essay.Before this two alternative approaches are discussed; the first has its origins in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure7 and its adaptation to film imagery by Christian Metz8 as outlined by Linda Willams9 (an ironic appropriation given Un Chien andalou’s ‘contested collaboration’ and the poststructuralist view on the ‘death of the author’10), the second adopts a ‘tongue in cheek’ (literally) approach suggesting that symbolism in this silent film is contained in the ‘gestures, images or indeed entire sequences [that] were created by finding visual forms for verbal expressions’11.
The discussion concludes with some brief thoughts on the merits of structural linguistics and verbal expression as constructs for evaluating the symbolism of a ‘silent’ (in speech terms) yet ‘flowing’ (in diegetic terms) visual image. From its opening scene of a man (played by Bui??uel) using a razor to slit open the eye of a girl, to it’s grotesque denouement of eyeless corpses half buried in the sand, Un Chien andalou uses dislocations and disruptions of time and space (achieved by a rapid ‘montaging’ technique) to parody the continuous narrative, and ‘romantic’ style, of contemporary classical Hollywood cinema.Bizarre shifts in presence, perspective and location elicit no surprise from the protagonists, the conventions of montage are used to subvert traditional filmic continuity, and even the screen text is an illusory guide to the narrative’s continuity. This parody, and comic intent, extends to the deliberate use of melodramatic physiognomic expression (e.
g. rolling eyes, passionate kisses) and physical action (the ‘sexual’ pursuit around the room echoes the chases so prevalent in Hollywood movies).In parallel with this revolutionary parodying of bourgeois capitalism and its cinematic manifestation, Dali?? and Bui??uel were also intent on pursuing a more subtle attack on the passive (‘entrapped’) film audience. By disorientation, the production of marvellous effects through juxtaposition, montage and distortion, and the disruption of time and place, they hoped to destroy the symbolic order of traditional film and break open the unconscious drives and obsessions of the passive spectator.
In this context their use of symbols or ‘figures’ as Linda Williams prefers to call them assumes critical importance.The combination of literary elements (a written script, on screen ‘texts’ and overt poetic imagery) and the predetermined narrative ‘flow’, in a more or less contiguous manner, of visual images encourages the application of linguistic theory as an analytical tool. Appropriating the terminology of the deconstruction of language: figures (of speech), figuration, rhetoric, discourse, metaphor, metonymy, paradigm and syntagm, this approach constructs a theoretical discourse, albeit retrospectively and without the active participation or conscious knowledge of the ‘authors’, for Un Chien andalou.Having crossed one disciplinary divide (from visual analysis of images to the syntactics of Semiotics) it is reasonable to describe the basic principles of this approach using a technique familiar to business students, matrix analysis.
Appendix 1 breaks down William’s analysis of film ‘language’ into its four key components that can then be used to analyse the ‘figures’ or symbols that predominate in Un Chien andalou12. Using this framework the author demonstrates how the film’s technique uses figuration (literary symbolism in the form of metaphors and metonyms) to create a particular effect on the viewer.In the 12 ‘shot’ (montage) opening scene, or Prologue, which begins with the screen text ‘Once upon a time..
.. ‘ and concludes with the famous visual metaphor of the ‘moon and woman’s eye’ a sequence of events apparently takes place in a space on or near a balcony at night, bathed in bright moonlight. The process appears contiguous, and contains three ‘prefigurations’ of horizontal lines cutting round shapes (razor-thumbnail, French door-Bunuel’s head at eye level, sliver of cloud -moon), before the final cutting of the woman’s eye.
However, there are a number of (deliberate? ) continuity errors, where does the woman come from? who is she? , why is she so passive in the face of impending violence, and why has the man slitting her eye lost his watch and gained a tie?The mind subconsciously tries to grasp these conflicting signals, attempting to absorb this extradiegetic element into the main narrative development of the film, and in the process creates a subtle tension between rupture and realism. This subversion or unsettling of the viewer’s response is a characteristic use of visual figuration (symbolism) throughout the film and represents an inversion of the metaphor- placed-in-syntagm (see Appendix I).In traditional film rhetoric, this is where a symbol (‘vehicle’ in structural linguistics) comments on the ‘tenor’ of an event (it’s diegetic characteristic), after it has taken place. Reading such a metaphor requires the ‘construction of a connotative system of the referents’13, or in plain English, the viewer needs to understand what it is about the moon and the sliver of cloud that symbolizes the cutting of the woman’s eye.
Unfortunately the inversion of their normal filmic relationship inhibits the viewer’s comprehension as they (we) are not sure which contiguous scenes are diegetic and which extradietegic.As Williams observes the most significant aspect of this visual metaphor is how ‘the meticulous building of an apparently realistic diegesis culminates in an outrageous and metaphoric act of violence, which unlike most film violence subverts the very realism of its discourse. ’14 This technique is integral to the development of the whole film and at the highest level is intended to be symbolic, even representative, of the oneiric experiences of the individual’s unconscious mind.Other underlying elements of the Prologue lend themselves to this ‘macro’ symbolic approach, regardless of any psychoanalytical interpretations, by alluding to the act of film creation.
The sharpening of the razor, the cutting, and the eye as representative of vision or the camera, all suggest the mechanical process of ‘cutting’ and editing film to construct an illusory visual reality for the passive audience, an invasive process well documented by Walter Benjamin15.This construct is strengthened by the ironic symbol of the hand (a motif that reappears in multi-layered symbolic guises throughout the film) of the creative artist cutting up the continuous fabric of ‘reality’ into individual ‘shots’ or montages. In all this the viewer remains passive, almost voyeuristic, an impotent spectator to his own metaphorical blinding and the filmmaker’s desire to force him to see the world in a very different, surreal, way. Towards the end of Un Chien andalou, immediately before the beach scene that culminates in the final statement of death and decay, ‘In the spring.
, the woman who has hitherto been a passive object of the man’s desire adopts a more ‘animated’ role.In the sequence with the bizarre juxtaposition of a door opening from a Paris apartment onto a breezy beach, she repeatedly sticks her tongue out at the frustrated ‘cyclist’ she is leaving. Ignoring, for the moment, the phallocentric synbolism of this action, Stuart Liebman has proposed that it is emblematic of ‘a formal process that generates much of the film’s action, imagery and structure. ’16 He argues, despite Dali??’s and Bui??uel’s protestations to the contrary, that their approach was meticulous and methodical.
They were aware of Frued’s concept that dream could contain ‘verbal disguises’, concrete or ambiguous synonyms, that enabled scandalous or repugnant ideas to escape the censure of the ‘super-ego’ and retain their representation in dreams. Liebman believes the filmmakers integrated consciously these ideas into the visual imagery of Un Chien andalou, executing a form of symbolic role reversal where linguistic ‘play’ is represented by visual forms. He supports his thesis by focusing on the already discussed metaphor of the ‘moon and woman’s eye’ seeing the woman, in terms of cinematic syntax, as a substitute for the moon (la lune).The French language offers up a surprisingly large number of phrases that expand the meaning of this juxtaposition.
To look blank or moonstruck is to tomber de la lune (with its double meaning of falling from the moon, ‘explaining’ the sudden appearance of the woman on the balcony), the expression of Bui??uel as he glances up at the moon is dreamy, ‘i??tre dans la lune’, and ‘la lune’ as Freud identified is routinely associated with female buttocks. 17 This reading can be pursued to the extent that the whole sequence becomes somewhat perverse.If the woman’s face, coincidentally vertically split by shadow, is metaphorically seen as buttocks then the visible eye at its centre could be construed as the anus. In French slang the term for the anus (‘the eye of the ass’) is l’oeil du cul and the inversion to cul de l’oeil is phonetically very close to coup d’oeil which could imply the slitting of the eye with the razor in the final shot of the Prologue.
This literal and figurative interpretation can be pursued further, in much the same way that Freudian dream symbols can be ‘piled up’, to create a convincing argument for the meaning of certain dream imagery.A particularly skilled exponent of this approach was Marcel Duchamp whose art (e. g. L.
H. O. O. Q and Rrose Selavy) and the ‘jeux de mots’ of the early 1920s were eulogized by Andre Breton.
Breton analysed the strategies Duchamp employed, (techniques emulated by Desnos, Leiris and Vitrac ), observing that ‘ merely by displacing a letter or two from the beginning to the interior of the word or vice versa, or by exchanging syllables between word, or by exploring ambiguities between literal and figurative senses’18 they could create erotic meanings that reflected the transgressive impulses of the unconscious.Liebman provides other examples of visual images that imply an underlying linguistic nexus that establishes common threads throughout the film. These include the ants emerging from the protaganist’s palm (‘avoir fourmis dans le jambes’ – ‘to have ants in one’s pants’, to be itchy) which links back to the brief appearance of Vermeer’s Lacemaker (an early influence on Dali??), as an image of working at detailed small tasks, much like ants, and perhaps incorporating a further ironic reference to the conflict between the Marxist and Surrealist perspective on work.La Dentellii??re (the French name for this painting) may also refer to the teeth imagery that appears in several scenes, most notably with the rotting donkeys and the erased mouth.
This concept of an underlying verbal network may at times seem to ‘stretch the point’ a little too far, but given its poetic antecedents in Dada and Surrealism, it offers a credible alternative to the more traditional dream symbolism of Freudian psychoanalysis.As a cinematic concept Un Chien andalou, aims to replicate the mechanics and illusion of a dream. Its success is attributable to a combination of Bui??uel’s skills as filmmaker (notwithstanding his ability to parody viciously church, state and cultural heritage) and Dali??’s poetic use of Freudian iconography. Dali??’s deployment of Freudian dream symbolism throughout the film parallels the multi-layered symbolic imagery seen in his painted works from 1929 onwards.
A host of individual symbols and concepts crowd in on the viewer: fetishes (the feminine frills of the cyclist and their arrangement on the bed by the woman), male/female genitalia (concave-convex, spiky-hairy round shapes in the ‘ants in hand’ to ‘androgyne’s death’ sequence), dismembered and mutilated organs (eyes, hands and even bodies), the juxtaposition of sexual passion and death (the cyclist begins his sexual pursuit following the androgyne’s death), frustrated sexual desire (the pulling of the grand piano), and of course the initial sexual penetration symbolism of the much discussed ‘razor cutting eye’ sequence.In condensing the symbolism in this way the film functions as a conscious imitation of the ‘rhetorical discourse of the unconscious’ and it is up to the psychoanalyst to ‘unpack’ the latent meaning of the interlocking symbols. Semioticians, posing as pseudo-pyschoanalysts, have offered ‘dream’ interpretations that they claim uncover the intended meaning of Un Chien andalou. Linda Williams argues that that the eye mutilation sequence, followed by a mixture of male and female signs of sexual genitalia, reflects an assertion and denial of the presence of the phallus19.
The prominent eye-symbolism, the presence of mutilated organs (metaphorically and in ‘reality’), and the final ‘blinding’ of the woman and her new ‘partner’, are clear references to Freud’s association of blinding with castration (derived directly from his understanding of the Oedipus Myth). The film is therefore construed as a condensation of the unconscious which when ‘unpacked’ depicts the male fear of castration. Another interpretation, also suggesting castration anxiety, sees the various metaphors as symbolic equivalents to the genitals, an equivalence that relates to Freud’s theories of displacement and condensation.The work of displacement shifts the protagonist’s (the cyclist) interest in the genitals to the eye, whilst that of condensation places male and female symbols in a single ambivalent signifier (e.
g. the androgyne, the ‘dissolving’ between breasts and buttocks, and the pubic-haired absent mouth – woman sticking out tongue sequences. )20 As with Dali??’s ‘paranoiac critical’ painting it is inevitable that further layers of interpretation can be uncovered, but as this brief analysis of psychoanalytical symbolism highlights, Un Chien andalou is very close to the definitive cinematic representation of the Freudian unconscious.Much of the earlier discussion addressed the symbolism of Un Chien andalou in the context of film theory (metaphors and metonyms) and the visual imagery of colloquial verbal expressions.
Film theorists justify this proposing that the cinematic combination of soundtracks (with their inherent ‘literary’ narrative) and moving visual images (with their evocation of time and space) can be best analysed by deconstructing their linguistic content.The resultant new ‘iconography’, with its origins firmly outside the boundaries of the accepted canons of art history, is attractive to those groups that wish to subvert traditional art historical analysis. However, for the purposes of analysing the symbolism in Un Chien andalou (a predominantly silent film) these techniques can only offer an alternative perspective. The strongest tool remains a modern iconography, derived from Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’, a text central to the Surrealist’s exploration of the unconscious mind, and wholly relevant to any interpretation of their poetry, literature, painting and cinema.