Monday, June 15, 2009

The Great Movies: "Un Chien Andalou" / "Swing Time"

Un Chien Andalou
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929

This short film is a work of surrealism, and is drenched with what you might consider the bracing revolutionary spirit of that movement, or perhaps just its self-importance and smart-alecky attitude. It is first and foremost an attack on the logic of continuity in film, and secondarily a playful assault on narrative in general.

In a conventional film, various shots are shown sequentially, one after another, and as viewers we do the work of weaving them together into a coherent story. In Un Chien Andalou, there is no inherent connection between scenes, and the point of the exercise – the point of the joke, perhaps – is that our brains keep up the fight, trying to create a logical narrative when there isn’t really one there to be found.

For better or worse, this experiment is steeped with Bunuel’s and Dali’s contempt for lowbrow tastes. Un Chien Andalou comes packed with visuals intended to shock and provoke – to freak out the squares, as it were. In the 17 minute stream of images you get, among other things, a severed hand, a man dressed as a nun, ants pouring out of an open wound, a sexual assault of sorts, and a man dragging two pianos across a room, each piano with a dead mule sprawled over it and a priest in a noose dragging below. Oh, and the famous razor-and-eyeball scene. Take that, squares!

The parade of images is occasionally intercut with mock-conventional title cards that say things like “Once Upon a Time,” “Seven Years Later” or “At 3 o’clock.” These are completely arbitrary, as is the very title of this wholly dog-free film. The implication is again that titles, title cards, and all of the other devices used to impose order on images are equally arbitrary in other films as well.

Plot: None.

Images: Trippy, random, and in several instances pretty memorable.

Dialog: None.

Prognosis: Like a lot of radical theoretical insights, the ideas that Bunuel and Dali are flogging in Un Chien Andalou are both true and not true. Sure, cinematic conventions are indeed artifices, and we can thank them for having pointed this out to us in a vivid and interesting way. Such conventions are not really arbitrary in any meaningful sense, however, but are more or less carefully crafted by the directors and the vast armies of actors, artisans, and technicians that work on feature films.

If this kind of theoretical dichotomy strikes you as interesting, than Un Chien Andalou is a film for you! It’s also an important stop on the History of Film Grand Tour, having served as a touchstone for later directors who wanted to use film techniques to mess with the logic of conventional narrative. Also, it’s kind of trippy and cool. Just turn away for a few seconds when the razor approaches the eyeball, and you’ll be fine.

Swing Time
George Stevens, 1936

Swing Time is an interesting film to watch as a double feature with Un Chien Andalou. It is on one hand the very kind of movie that Bunuel and Dali were implicitly criticizing, an utter artificiality concocted with light, film, and the techniques of cinematography. Yet Swing Time is so much about imagery – in this case, the imagery of dance – and so cheerfully disdainful of plot logic that the two films have more common ground than you might expect. Still, one is big-budget, upbeat, escapist family entertainment and the other is a homemade, provocative, highly theoretical experiment in form, and this makes them significantly different viewing experiences. To put it mildly.

You can be completely indifferent to dance – as indeed I happen to be – but it is hard not to be dazzled by the technical mastery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They really are terrific. The rest of the movie exists only to give them excuses to dance, and is a mess of romantic misadventures that in no way represents plausible human behavior.

In the opening sequence, for instance, the leading man’s coworkers successfully conspire to sabotage his wedding by making him insecure about his trouser cuffs. Now, this is just as absurd as anything in Un Chien Andalou. People don’t suddenly decide to sabotage their acquaintance’s marriages, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t do it by messing with their notions of trouser cuffs, and if they did, it wouldn’t work. It is beyond silly. Yet, through the magic of cinematic craft, our brains are persuaded to accept all of this for long enough to get us through to the next big dance sequence. Bunuel and Dali would be proud. Or appalled. Whatever.

Plot: A lot of stuff happens that makes no sense. Along the way, characters occasionally break into song, which is bad, or into dance, which is great. Among the many, many plot absurdities I could mention, my favorite is that the male lead is a really, really good -- wait for it! -- roulette player. He is able to make as much money as he wants from the game at will. This is of course completely ludicrous -- roulette is a pure game of chance -- but the movie takes it as an unremarkable given and lets him use the casino like a bottomless ATM. It doesn’t get any more absurd than that. Helloooo, Dali!

Images: Did I mention that the dance numbers are impeccable?

Dialog: The dialog consists entirely of comic gags and “plot” exposition, but is delivered with what seems to be good-natured skill. The characters are in on the joke, and the comic bits are funnier for not being taken too seriously.

Prognosis: Silly, but likeable. If you are allergic to dumb romantic comedy, bring a book to read between the dance numbers.


DrSchnell said...

"Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
Girl you're so groovy
I want you know
Don't know about you
But I am Un Cien Andalusia
I wanna grow, grow up to be,
be a debaser!"

You could be the first reviewer ever to explicitly find common ground between Fred Astaire and Salvador Dali.

Michael5000 said...

@DrSchnell: Well I'll be damned. Not knowing about the movie, I never had the slightest idea what that song was all about.

Here's a fun fact: that record is 20 years old!

Dan Nolan said...

Black Francis apparently watched that movie in a class at UMass. Where he got other ideas. Like capitalist. and communist. Sounds like it was educational.

boo said...

I've recently viewed a short art piece by a man named Leth called "The Perfect Human." The Dali description reminded me of it. The plot is sparse for sure, but I think it examines similar concepts in almost the reverse way by over-explaining. If you're interested I found a link on the tubes:

Fred and Ginger were a staple at my aunt's house when we visited. We would run away and play if the adults agreed to call us back when there was dancing.

Bridget said...

A movie reviewer in the Mercury made reference to Bunel and Dali while discussing the latest "Transformers" movie. It all makes a lot more sense now.

Bridget said...

Let's just say that Salvador Dali and Hasbro have a lot more in common than one might think.