Tag Archives: surreal film

BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

 

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Bunuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.


Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. ( Charlie Chaplin, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dali, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF DAINA KRUMINS

THE DIVINE MIRACLE (1972, DAINA KRUMINS)

During one of my incognito Sacred Heart Catholic Church field trips with my Aunt Greta, visiting from the Arizona desert, I received a mild scolding—albeit not from immediate family, who would have flipped out had they known my father’s sister had smuggled me into one of those Catholic churches. Rather, it was from Greta herself, who corrected my venial sin: in being transfixed by the statues of the Infant of Prague (a toddler Jesus in drag), Our Lady of Sorrows (Mother Mary with seven knives jabbed into her chest), and Teresa of Avila (she of Lorenzo Bernini’s orgasmic ecstasy), I made the mistake of saying: “It’s cool that your church has such weird imagery, worships women, and you don’t have to worship Jesus.” Greta very quickly and sternly pointed out to me: “We do worship Jesus, and we don’t worship Mary or Teresa. We venerate them.” In hindsight, and putting aside that I was in my teens that was probably the first time I became vaguely conscious of a latent (although denied by some) connection between feminism and blue-collar Catholic Surrealism.

Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins)

The films of Daina Krumins have these qualities, and more. As with most Krumins followers, I was introduced to her via The Divine Miracle (1972). I can’t recall where I first saw it, but it was in the late seventies, and Aunt Greta’s parish icons immediately called to mind Krumins’s film. Another weird image that I had cemented at the time, mixing my mythologies, was from a TV documentary about the suicide of George “Adventures of Superman” Reeves, in which the narrator described the late actor’s devoutly Catholic mother going to the crime scene and placing holy cards of saints on all the blood stains and bullet holes in the room (the narration was accompanied by eccentric flashing images of devotional postcards). The reason I reference the latter is that there’s something of a holy cards-on-bloodstains texture to Krumins’ work.

THE DIVINE MIRACLE (1972, DAINA KRUMINS) still

Krumins was born in 1947 in a Munich refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the U.S.A. Like her mother, Krumins suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately, her father, who was an accomplished photographer, and her uncle, a Latvian painter, encouraged her early creative eccentricities, which included collecting metal shavings, wax teeth, snakes in formaldehyde, jellyfish, and crabs. Ignoring her teachers’ advice to be more social and pursue a normal life, Krumins received her BFA at the NYU Film School, followed by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and found employment as a rotoscoper with Lookout Mountain Films. Images from her art and film can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website).

Daina Krumins art

Krumins is a New Jersey resident and has been described as a “homegrown Surrealist.” That description suggests something coming from the earth, which is apt. Krumins refers to her film, photographs, woodwork, and sculpture as preoccupations with textures. To date, she has completed a total of four  films,spending anywhere from nine to seventeen years working on each.

Daina Krumins Aether (filmed performance piece)

The Divine Miracle, which runs approximately six minutes, was the film that made her reputation, winning a total of thirteen awards including first place at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Divine Miraclewas shown on PBS and frequently made the rounds of art museums.

The Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins) John Tyler as Christ

In some quarters, The Divine Miracle, with its embrace of surreal kitsch, was erroneously assessed as a parody of Christianity. Krumins, raised Lutheran, disagrees, saying that she believed in all the fantasy world miracles from Sunday school.

Daina Krumins collection Canyon Cinema

For those accustomed to youthful portrayals of Christ (i.e. Jeffrey “I was a teenage Jesus” Hunter in 1961’s King of Kings) John Tyler’s stiff, gray-bearded Christ might prove disconcerting, but the portrayal is in step with 1927’s silent King of Kings, which featured H.B. Warner in his mid-fifties, with the charisma of a cardboard-cutout messiah. It’s also in step with the late, overtly religious work of Salvador Dali, which many critics dismiss as kitsch. Actually, apart from his work in the medium of film and still photography, Dalí’s late, semi-orthodox work is his best, its kitsch quality rendering it even more authentically surreal. Krumins, being a more substantial Surrealist than Dali, takes that surreal quality further, crowning her middle-aged savior with a Gustav Klimt-like golden halo and literally outlining him with bold, thick, opaque lines, as if he just stepped out of a hole-in-the-wall Catholic shop coloring book.

The Divine Miracle (1972, Daina Krumins) John Tyler

Tyler’s Jesus has the most bizarre sycophant disciples ever committed to celluloid: mop-topped bodiless cherubs (just a head and wings, all played by Scott Martin) who encircle their master like horseflies buzzing round a field cow (which, come to think of it, is sacrificially befitting). Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross is followed by an ascension, which looks like a Georges Melies’ Trip To The Moon (1902). In roughly six minutes, Krumins says, and gets right, what other filmmakers have failed to accomplish in three-plus hours. Her film is honest about the idiosyncratic tenets of Christian mythology and, ironically enough, this most Catholic of all films was made by an American Protestant.

Daina KruminsDaina Krumins

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Our Short Film: “9” (2009)

This was made for the 2009 48 Hr film contest. It was written by myself, using the poerty of John M. Bennett. I co-directed with Robin Panet and co-acted with frequent collaborator James Mannan.

After the premiere, one of the judges took me aside and said: “I dig your film and really wanted you guys to win, but you just broke too many rules.”

We did indeed.

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL

 Ken Russell

Parts I  & 2 of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of  (1927-2011) originally posted at 366 Weird Movies. Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

Ken Russell

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

KEN RUSSELL French Dressing

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of Richaed Lester‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

KEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar BrainKEN RUSSELL Billion Dollar Brain

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love


Women In Love
(1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Kramer’s script, also nominated for an Academy Award, simplifies its literary source). Russell’s body of work, especially in television, reveals a highly erudite filmmaker who consistently approached literary themes and subjects with contextual fidelity, as opposed to surface literalism, which eventually branded him an irreverent enfant terrible.

KEN RUSSELL Women In Love

Russell had a superb cast in Bates, Reed, Glenda Jackson (who won an Academy Award for her performance), and Jenny Linden. Billy Williams’ camerawork (yet another Oscar nominee) is lyrical, stark, and very much indicative of Russell to come.

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

After the box office and critical success of Women in Love, Russell plunged quickly into his first theatrical film with a composer as its subject. The Music Lovers (1970) focuses on Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain). With expressionistic sets, psychedelic lensing, elongated fantasy sequences (clearly inspired by : Kenneth Anger and Fantasia), along with a spiritually irreverent, high-pitched tone, this is Russell as we came to know him. Forsaking the typical program bio of the Nutcracker composer, Russell is not at all interested in pedestrian ideas of a “biopic.” Frank about its subject’s banality (he ejaculates while imagining the cannons of his god awful “1812 Overture” aimed at his enemies) and homosexuality, many critics, Roger Ebert included, labeled the film libelous. Chamberlain, who years later came out of the closet, in a far more accepting period, expertly slips into the title role. As Nina, the composer’s sexually frustrated wife, Glenda Jackson again excels in her second collaboration with Russell (she also spends much of the film in full frontal nudity, which, of course, inspired a few exploding heads in the “classical music” scene).

KEN RUSSELL The Music Lovers

In all fairness to Russell, Tchaikovsky was tormented by his sexuality (in a undoubtedly hostile era). His death, publicly attributed to cholera, was probably a suicide, and he admitted a self-loathing for producing such commissioned works as the “Nutcracker” and “1812.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s best work is his lesser-known, personal compositions. Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with his usual craftsmanship. The film, like its subject, is aptly heart-on-sleeve.

Ken Russell The Devils

The Devils (1971) is considered by many cult film fans to be Russell’s masterpiece, and it is almost unfathomable that it would be denied a 366 List entry. Russell, a convert to Catholicism, was aware of that religion’s inherent surrealism. Attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to its dogma (I can relate), Russell locates the pulse of European excesses. For the traditionalist minded, The Devils is unadulterated blasphemy.

Ken Russell The Devils

Loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,”The Devils is the quintessential example of Russell excess (don’t dare look for a discernible plot)With opulent set designs by  (a frequent Russell collaborator), masturbating nuns, sadomasochistic demonic possessions, tormented priests of the Inquisition, and X-rated sexual fantasies, Russell is intentionally provocativesparing no demographic from potential offense (including Roger Ebert, an atheist and former Catholic). Oliver Reed gives the performance of his life as a sacred erection, in duet with a bewitching Vanessa Redgrave.

Ken Russell The Devils

Chicago Reader critic David Kehr found humor in The Devils and amusingly described it as a “David Lean remake of Pink Flamingos.” That’s about apt a summary as one can manage. More than forty years after its release, The Devils is no less subversive today, and has had spotty distribution in home video.

Ken Russell the Boy Friend

Russell followed The Devils with his only movie to receive a “G” rating. Starring Twiggy and adorned in an MGM color palette, The Boy Friend (1971) is an oddity in the Russell cannon. Based on Sandy Wilson’s 1954 play, Russell, with his charismatic lead, transforms it into a musical with an almost Wagnerian undercurrent (as if Busby Berkeley, clearly channeled here, isn’t demented enough). Twiggy’s charm serves as a counterbalance to Russell’s wandering camera. Christopher Gable co-stars (and will work with Russell again in 1989’s The Rainbow). Unfortunately, The Boyfriend was a box office flop, which prompted MGM to refuse Russell financial backing for his next film.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Russell financed Savage Messiah (1972) himself, which again finds the director examining artistic genius, here in the persona of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony). With Russell’s lifelong, obsessive passion for his subject, Savage Messiah is an authentic labor of love. Derek Jarman again serves as Russell’s art director, endowing Savage Messiah with Russell’s over-the top-visual sensibility (including an amorous Helen Mirren in a pop-colored cabaret). It is also an emotionally rich film focusing on the romance between Gaudier and Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), which makes it all the more disappointing that MGM failed to promote it in distribution. Savage Messiah is, paradoxically, one of Russell’s most accomplished and least known works.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler (1974) is another highly personal film for Russell, which I previously wrote about here.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Starring The Who, Ann-Margaret, Oliver Reed, Elton John (as the Pinball Wizard), Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner (as the Acid Queen), and Robert Powell, Tommy (1975) is undoubtedly Russell’s most famous film. Based on the Who’s 1969 rock opera,  many critics accused Russell of preferring spectacle to substance. Others felt Russell’s film was a too literal approach. Tommy divided both fans and critics alike, and still does. The flaws are more the Who’s than Russell’s. With his operatic tenets and sense to enough to know that good taste is often at enmity with good art, Russell makes Tommy a powerful, one-of-a-kind experience, with each act topping its predecessor, building to an aptly histrionic crescendo. Disorienting, sensual, and filled to the brim with salted pain, Tommy is that rarity of rarities: an artistically authentic opera and musical experience.

Ken Russell TOMMY

Reed, unleashed again, proves an ideal collaborator, and Ann-Margaret deservedly earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tommy’s mother. Unfortunately, Roger Daltry is no actor, and his performance undeniably hinders the film.

Tommy is already a deserving List Candidate and hopefully will be canonized sometime in the future.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Lisztomania (1975) is Russell’s idiosyncratic take on composer Franz Liszt. It is also an official List entry, found here.

Ken Russell Valentino

Under-directed by Russell and physically miscast, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev still convinces as the titular Valentino (1977). A mix of alarming self-control and unfettered hyperbole, this uneven film disappointed Russell fans who wanted something more experimental in the vein of Mahler and Lisztomania. It also disappointed cinema history buffs and Valentino fans who wanted (but should not have expected) something more orthodox.

Ken Russell ValentinoKen Russell Valentino

Despite flaws, Valentino is a beautiful film and accessible, if not constrained by historicity. Russell treats this subject no differently than others, including religion, as a mix of fantasy, facts, legend, and folklore.

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino was Russell’s biggest budgeted film to date and was a resounding flop at the American box office (it did considerably better overseas). It has since developed a cult following and recently has been released on Blu-ray, although the transfer has received mixed reviews.

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GUY MADDIN’S TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL (1988)

TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL. (1988, Guy Maddin)

Guy Maddins first feature film, Tales From The Gimli Hospital (1988), had nearly as much impact for him as Eraserhead (1977) had for David Lynch. Of course, Madden is often compared to Lynch, which is as ridiculous as comparing Paul Klee to Max Ernst, ultimately failing to give due credit to either artist.  Make no mistake, Maddin and Lynch are indeed two of the most potent artists in the medium of film from the last fifty years. Late in life Arnold Schoenberg,the boogeyman of the first half of twentieth century music, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you aware that young composers are now utilizing your twelve-tone method?” The reply was pure Schoenberg: “But are they making music with it?” Lynch and Maddin succeed where others fail because they make music.

TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL. (1988, Guy Maddin

Maddin and Lynch belong to a small (unlike painting and music, film has never had a large school of revolutionaries) school of innovative avant-garde (or Surrealist, if one prefers sub-labels) filmmakers who are astutely aware of their aesthetic tradition.  No matter how elastic, their films maintain a sense of control, never veering into a slipshod experimentation for the sake of experimentation mode. After Schoenberg died, Pierre Boulez took up that mantle. Now, with Boulez gone, we really have seen the last of the avant-garde titans that remembered to continue “making music with it.” One can only hope that we will not soon be saying the same of Lynch, Maddin, Jodorowsky, John Water, or Brain De Palma (yes, De Palma), but it is likely that we will. Innovation has beenlargely silenced in favor of the mainstream’s imitation diet. De Palma and Waters have unofficially retired. Jodorowsky, never a prolific artist, is finishing his first film in three years. Lynch has resurfaced after nearly a ten-year hibernation (although he did produce largely unseen shorts during that period). Alas, this is only to rehash “Twin Peaks” for television. After Inland Empire, this seems a step backward.

TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL. (1988, Guy Maddin

Maddin has been (and remains) the only active filmmaker of the listed lot. It is tempting to say that we cannot, or should not limit ourselves to a single work in Maddin’s oeuvre. Rather, we are rightly invited, or tempted, to absorb his entire body of work. Perhaps the best place to start is in the beginning, with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988).

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GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was F.W Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under Tod Browning‘s direction, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. Lon Chaney Jr., as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

DRACULA PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002, Guy Maddin)

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