Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

I’ll be curious to hear from some of you on this one, as I’m sure some of you have seen it or heard about it. For those who haven’t, it’s worth checking out. It’s a 16 minute surrealist film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, made when they were both young artists just starting out in Paris of the late 20s.

It’s a tough one to grade according to our scale, but I decided to go with 5 stars for two main reasons: 1) Its importance and legacy for film history, particular the horror genre, and 2) It still works today as a trippy mindfuck. That said, it’s not really something you’ll have fun watching in any normal sense, as there’s no plot, just a series of brief, possibly unrelated events. And the grainy, choppy quality of the image (seriously the worse for wear after 80 years) adds to what is already a pretty distanced viewing experience.

OK, I’m purposely burying the lead here, so I’ll address the famous opening scene now. I knew it was coming and it still shocked the hell out of me. Basically, a guy slices a woman’s eye open with a straight-edge shaving razor. There’s no context, and we never know who or why, but there it is in super close-up: the flap of the eyeball opening with a big gob of puss flowing out as the razor slides across the surface. But then the scene immediately switches to a guy in a nun’s habit riding a bike down a busy street, which of course explains everything.

And so it goes on like that. One thing I really like about the movie is the seeming intentional arbitrariness of many of the vignettes. It feels “symbolic” without actually being interpretable, which is nice because I’m not a fan of any sentences beginning with the phrase: “It’s symbollic of…” Ugh. Bunuel said of his and Dali’s process: "Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why."

But hold on a second. Not only do I not like symbolism, I also don’t trust artists talking about their own work. So while there’s obviously no rational story or coherently developed characters or anything, it nonetheless doesn’t play as a truly arbitrary collections of images would play. In other words, yeah it’s dreamlike and confusing and downright weird, and there’s no real narrative, but there is what I’d call an echo of a narrative. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

Well, that’s my feeling after this first viewing in any case. I’ll probably watch it again in a year or two (maybe every other Horrorthon?) and have a totally different take.

Fun facts from wiki:

- David Bowie had this movie opening for his 1976 World Tour for each concert rather than a warm up act. Bowie said that the movie was used in order to "set the tone for the evening."

- Un chien andalou is referred to in the Pixies song "Debaser", and is cited by Frank Black as being a major influence on the band's work.

- Premiere ranked the opening scene as 10th out of "The 25 Most Shocking Moments in Movie History".
- The opening scene was parodied in The Simpsons episode "Yokel Chords".


Catfreeek said...

"I decided to go with 5 stars for two main reasons: 1) Its importance and legacy for film history, particular the horror genre, and 2) It still works today as a trippy mindfuck."

I couldn't have said it any better. Tony had never seen this so I rented it for him some months ago. The bewildered look on his face and furrowed brow spoke for itself.

JPX said...

I saw this film in 1991 as part of a "history of film" class. More recently Whirlygirl and I caught it at the Dali exhibit at the MOMA. I still don't know how the eyeball effect was achieved, but, vomit.

Octopunk said...

I've actually never seen this, and I should.

Regarding your evocatively-phrased "echo of narrative," I've noticed that it's very difficult for humans to make something that is truly random. Case in point: I had to nail some pink clouds to a board to make a backdrop for a prop that would later be on the Cartoon Network show Chowder. I was told to put the clouds up randomly, but after I put them all up I realized they were pretty much laid out in a grid, albeit a sloppy grid that was tilted at a 45 degree angle.

Okay, so I'm not saying I'm soulmates with Dali or Bunuel because of that, but I'm guessing their attempts at pure randomness were still influenced by their internal mechanisms for making art, and so a ghost of a pattern emerges.

Groovy choice, Landshark. I need to see this.

Landshark said...

I just read that it was a cow's eyeball, JPX.

Octo, you're onto exactly what I was saying. In fact, one thing I had in mind was a conversation we had years ago about Natural Born Killers, and you were complaining about the arbitrariness of some of the media images or something (I still have never seen it). But I think I agree with your point as I remember it, and that this is why I liked Chien more than if, say, all the vignettes really did seem totally arbitrary.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Never seen it, never heard of it, sounds brilliant. And your review solves an age old mystery for me - THAT'S WHAT HE'S SAYING IN DEBASER! I daresay I'm about to embark on a Pixies bender.

DCD said...

Have not seen (or heard) about this either. But I love to read my intellectual brothers' take on crazy shit!

Trevor (Tami's friend) said...

Five stars! That's quite the rating for this. My favorite Dali story from art history: BMW hired him to film a 30-second car commercial. He agreed to do so if he had total control. He was given it. So, he filmed a steel beam being dropped on the car, and the resulting mess. The commercial was never used.

AC said...

sounds amazing but too disturbing for me.

jsp, you seeing pixies in oakland in november? mr. ac and i are going to see them in boston, woohoo!