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Surrealism in Film

Kahlo and Kahlo at the LACMA

I attended an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art today called In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Works from the likes of Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, María Izquierdo, and many others are on display and I suggest that any of you in the LA area drop in if you have an interest in the surreal.

The last exhibit I saw at LACMA consisted of the various sculptures and drawings of Tim Burton. Naturally, Burton’s aesthetics fit right in with the art currently on display, so that got me thinking of my favorite surrealist films. There was a time when I went on a real David Lynch-bender and I damn near burned myself out on the crazy, outlandish, and unexplained.

However, when properly spaced out between viewings, surrealist films can be extraordinarily thought-provoking and satisfying. Surrealist artists, including filmmakers, make use of terrifying and fetishistic imagery, frequently blending reality with the hyper-real, leaving the viewer disturbed, intrigued, or just plain confused. Watching films by the likes of Lynch or Buñuel can be challenging. Many people find their direction and subject matter inaccessible. However, even when I’m perplexed, I’m still enthralled by the energy and gorgeous images surrealist-influenced directors offer.

How do you define surrealism?

If you’re a fan of the perverse and the downright insane, I’ve thought up a few of my favorite surrealist films (viewer beware):

  • Un Chien Andalou (1928) – Perhaps the quintessential surrealist film, a young Luis Buñuel teamed up with the great Salvador Dali to make this short but potent visual feast. It’s simultaneously grotesque and breathtaking, and the notorious eye-slicing scene is as painful to watch as it sounds.
  • Viridiana (1961) – Perhaps not as obviously and consistently surreal as some of Buñuel’s other works, Viridiana still qualifies. Accused (rightfully) of blasphemy upon its release, it’s one of the most controversial and subversive films by one of the most controversial and subversive directors. The spectacular “Last Supper” shot shows Buñuel working at his strangest and funniest.
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Even though it’s silent and German, Caligari is as scary and engaging as anything you’ve ever seen. The intricate set design and ahead-of-its-time extreme camera angles make this surrealist/expressionist horror flick one of the most influential movies ever made.
  • Eraserhead (1977) – David Lynch’s first full-length feature was filmed over several years and he managed to cobble together a revolting dreamlike landscape populated with bad hair, screeching sounds, and a baby with a face not even a mother could love.  It’s methodical and hypnotic when it isn’t shocking you out of a surreal stupor with typical Lynch-like terror. Though not necessarily his greatest film, Eraserhead is a true original and it sets the tone beautifully for a brilliant career.
  • Being John Malkovich (1999) –  Spike Jonze directs this dark, surreal comedy that shows you what it would be like to enter the mind of actor John Malkovich (and what it would be like if he entered his own mind… what!?!). Full of terrific visual gags, biting dialogue, and a pile of philosophical questions, Malkovich is a true surrealist masterpiece for the modern age.

Well, there’s a little cross-section of some of my surreal favorites. All odd, but all distinct, these movies will compel you to feel something, though it may not be something you like. I’m starting to feel an urge to watch Mulholland Drive


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