The uncanny—by which I mean the type of horror story that focuses on an encounter with supernatural powers and the existential dread that comes from contemplating the Unknown—was the first style of narrative weirdness storytellers indulged in, but for most people today the term “weird” is almost synonymous with the term “surreal.” This is a shame, because “surreal” has come to be thrown about loosely and imprecisely as a term for anything that is even mildly unusual. For evidence of this, just look up movies that have been tagged with the keyword “surrealism” by IMDB users. Among legitimately Surrealist works, you will find such questionable entries as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Disney’s The Lion King (!) Until recently, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall also appeared on this constantly evolving list.
Although the word “surreal” is common today, it’s a very new word, less than a century old. “Surréalisme” was coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), but it was André Breton who redefined the term and gave it its current meaning when he wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 to describe a new artistic and political movement. The word derives from the French prefix “sur-” (above, beyond) and “realism,” and suggested that this new movement would produce works that transcended realism. Throughout most of human history, the artist’s dominant concern was realism, the quest to accurately depict or reproduce external reality (e.g., to paint a flower that is instantly recognizable as a flower to any viewer; to tell a story that “really could happen”). Deeply affected by Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, Breton was concerned that art was unfairly limiting itself to only a part of the human experience, the rational, waking world, and ignoring the separate language of dreams and myth. He also believed that with the rise of science and the attempt to apply scientific principles to all realms of life, things were only getting worse: “The absolute rationalism which remains in fashion allows for the consideration of only those facts narrowly relevant to our experience… In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention.” He defined Surrealism, his counterpoint to this limiting, overly rational view of the world as “[t]hought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations” and as “based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought.”
Originally, the adjective “surreal” properly referred to works from the Surrealist school. To achieve their aim of giving the dream its due, Surrealists tried to build a direct conduit to the unconscious mind, allowing the images and associations to flow freely without the rational mind censoring and reorganizing them. They practiced techniques such as automatic writing (improvised scribbling done quickly without time for reflection or conscious revision of the spontaneously flowing words) or used games of chance like the “exquisite corpse” (where each member of a group writes a part of a sentence without knowing exactly what the other participants have added) to produce works that consisted of a string of strange, irrational, but often mysteriously suggestive images (the “exquisite corpse” game got its name from one of the first sentences the Surrealists composed using this technique: “the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine”). It was hoped that the results of such experiments would either be mysteriously poetic, or incongruously humorous, but in any case that they would produce something which no artist would or could have consciously created, thus inspiring the imagination of the reader.
The Surrealists valued, and relied upon, incongruity and juxtaposition to create or reveal new relationships between ideas. They also hoped, naively, that the strange linkages between disparate images in Surrealist art would shock the mind of the viewer out of its preconceived notions and habits, ultimately leading to political and social change (presumably in a Leftist vector).
Although not the first, the most famous early example of pure, doctrinaire Surrealism in film is Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. It is an excellent illustration of the Surrealist technique and philosophy, containing within it all one really needs to know about the artistic movement in film. The 17 minute short features scenes (some taken from Buñuel and Dalí’s dreams) of an eyeball being slit be a straight razor, a hand with a hole in the palm from which ants crawl, and a man lugging a piano with a dead donkey on top and two priests clinging to the bottom. Buñuel insisted that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” in making the film.
Nonetheless, after viewing it, many critics tried to construct elaborate symbolic explanations of the movie: for example, one analyst believed that the man slowly pulling the piano towards a woman represented the artist who was held back from achieving his goals by his own art. Buñuel and Dalí laughed at such interpretations, not because they were “illegitimate”—in fact, part of the aim of Surrealism was to involve the viewer by forcing him to make his own connections between incongruous images—but because the critics did not understand the Surrealist project, and could not accept that anyone would put something into a work of art that had no intentional meaning. The critics did not “get” the Surrealist mindset, the idea that it possible simply to delight in the novelty of displays of the irrational. It takes practice to get out of the habit of assuming that everything mysterious and unexplainable in a work of art has some hidden symbolic meaning put into it by the artist.
To this day, people cannot accept the idea that the hallucinatory imagery of David Lynch‘s Eraserhead can’t be reduced to a simple formula, that every image isn’t a deliberately constructed piece in a web of symbols that resolve themselves into a conventional message. The human mind’s refusal to accept mystery, its desire to organize the world into something comprehensible even if it must lie to itself do so, is almost overpowering, and is the primary obstacle to simply enjoying the surreal for what it is. One must learn to relax the rational mind and lie back and enjoy the dream without fighting it, a skill that few can master. The Surrealists are still laughing at their audience, who after more than eight decades don’t grasp the concept that the irrational has its own unique power and appeal.
What I would call “pure” or “doctrinaire” Surrealism in film—which insists on complete irrationality without any semblance of an organizing plot— died out relatively quickly. Perhaps Un Chien Andalou so completely expressed the ideals of the movement that no further demonstration was necessary. A more likely explanation is that pure Surrealism quickly grows tedious. Un Chien Andalou was probably the perfect length at 17 minutes long; later experiments in producing feature length Surrealist movies proved that irrationality grew boring when the series of unconnected images was extended for too long. Possibly those disposed towards Surrealism came to realize that humans aren’t completely irrational creatures, but mixtures of the irrational and the rational, and that effective movies too should be a blend of the irrational and the rational. They also may have considered that dreams, their ideal model for film, do not arise mystically and randomly from nothing at all, but are rather built by the dreaming mind using our real life experiences and emotional concerns as raw materials.
At any rate, within ten to twenty years pure Surrealist films were rarely being made, and when they were they were usually shorts by film students trying to recapture Un Chien Andalou’s magic. Buñuel himself started adding, if not actual plots, at least plotlike organizing elements elements to his films that gave them an internal consistency that rubbed up against the Surrealist dogma of “the absence of all control exerted by reason” (The Milky Way, for example, is built around an intellectual theme of heresy and the plot device of a pilgrimage). Most of what is called Surrealism today is rather Neosurrealism: well defined by Wikipedia as “an artistic genre that illustrates the complex imagery of dream or subconscious visions… [but] does not imply the original surrealist idea of a freedom from rational control or psychic automatism…”
The dramatic lesson of the Surrealists—the power of a strange juxtaposition of images to shock, amaze and interest us—was adopted by others and came into popular culture through advertising (the juxtaposition of incongruous images, e.g., cavemen being used to sell insurance) and music videos (which are seldom anything but surreal). The Beatles even had number one hits with songs with surreal, nonsense lyrics (“He wear no shoeshine he got toe-jam football/He got monkey finger he shoot coca-cola…”) Filmmakers, too, would adopt Surrealist techniques for short stretches and dream sequences in movies that otherwise told realistic or straightforward stories: for example, Carole’s hallucinations at the end of Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion, used to illustrate her terrified subjective view of the world, are set inside a film that is otherwise a highly realistic character study of a schizophrenic woman.
Surrealism was already declining as an artistic movement by the 1930s, but with the persistence of the old Surrealist notions of the importance of dreams and the unconscious in the work of later artists, the word “surreal” stopped referring primarily to the works of a particular movement and came to have its current meaning: “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions” or “dreamlike, resembling a dream.” This definition sounds a lot like a synonym for “weird.” But, as is illustrated by the list of “surrealist” movies on IMDB, the common use of “surreal” is watered down. To many people, Vertigo is surreal—despite the fact that nothing really impossible or incongruous happens—because it’s obvious that the events of the story are exaggerated symbols for the psychology of the protagonist. Pulp Fiction seems surreal to some because it’s hyperstylized and because the viewer is surprised by seeing the events of a story told out of chronological order. We might even describe a conversation with a boss as “surreal” just because he didn’t appreciate our concerns or had unrealistic expectations, or describe a politician’s speech as “surreal” just because we think he’s lying.
On this site, a movie will be tagged and described as “surrealism” only when it is an actual Surrealist or Neosurrealist work that is thoroughly dreamlike and irrational, not merely when the director used some surrealist techniques to tell another kind of weird story. At the time of this writing, we have not covered any classical Surrealist works. Some of the most important Neosurrealist entries we have covered are The Milky Way (previously discussed), El Topo (a movie in which every scene is supposed to have a private symbolic meaning for the writer/director, but there’s almost no way for the audience to figure it out), Naked Lunch (a fairly surreal movie about a writer who was deeply influenced by surrealist techniques and theories), Eraserhead (an excellent example of how a Neosurrealist will utilize surreal, incongruous imagery inside a narrative about a man and his deformed baby that seems comprehensible on its surface), and Funky Forest (a worthy experiment in mixing short surreal segments together, creating a work in which each story is surreal by itself while its juxtaposition with the tale next creates an additional layer of surrealism). You can see all the movies tagged with “surrealism” by clicking here.