A man, a woman, a bicycle riding cleric, a grope, a chase, a conversation with one’s self and a straight razor. In extreme close-up, a woman’s eye is slit with that razor. The order of the scenes is irrelevant. This is 1929, the film is silent, and there isn’t a dog in sight.
Un Chien Andalou was a collaboration between Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. And the razor scene (actually a dead pig’s head—you can tell in the close-up) occurs at the very beginning. Nothing that follows has the shock of this first image. Imagine the dread of the audience wondering what could be worse. A technique still effective in 1960 for Hitchcock in Psycho or 1979 for Ridley Scott and Alien.
But shocking was not the intent, though one can’t imagine a similar reaction to an image in the preceding thirty five years of silent cinema unless you consider the reaction of that first film audience viewing L’Arrivée d’un Train Ã la Ciotat, in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers. An audience completely new to the viewing experience apparently believed the train was actually coming into the theatre. Why they thought colour had been drained from the object is anyone’s guess, but the shock might have surpassed that of the slashed eye. An audience not yet able to chant the mantra, ‘it’s only a movie.’
The purpose of the Bunuel-Dali film is to capture the essence of dreams, and in this I think these 29 minutes come as close as cinema gets to what dreams are like. The couple experience a series of increasingly bizarre events, each one melding into the next with little cause and no explanation. Some banal, some frightening, some ludicrous (nothing really prepares you for the sight of the man pulling two priests and a grand piano by rope in his pursuit of the woman–there is the pursuit and the inability to make any progress).
Dreams are a recurring device in film and television. Inception is one of the latest attempts to use the infinite possibilities of event and image as a means to drive the story. But while I enjoyed the film and the visuals were stunning, I never really accepted the dreams as authentic. They were set-ups for the gun battles and chases, not the ‘other’ that is the essence of dreams. Forget about Twin Peaks’ dancing dwarf or Dallas’ Bobby Ewing reappearing after death (and presumed contract negotiations) as only a part of Pam’s dream. These stories, along with the countless dream episodes in TV and film, are dreams in name only.
Neither Bunuel nor Dali would work in this mode again. Dali pursued his barren landscapes and melting clocks, Bunuel his blistering attacks on the bourgeoisie. Dali would work with Hitchcock on the feeble Spellbound, adding the tosh of his ‘designed’ dream sequence to the utter tosh of the pseudo-Freudian plot. The only authentic dream in this film was Ingrid Bergman.
A writer can do so much with dreams: explore the sub-conscious of a character; go to worlds unlike our own; create a visual metaphor for whatever idea strikes their fancy. Filmic dream is, unfortunately, too often a unimaginative plot device or unforgiveable short-cut.
But we have a short, silent, art film of 1929 to show us the possibilities, and probably the limitations of dreams in cinema.
My dreams are often disturbing but always couched in the real; a hyper-reality, which is the source of the disturbance. They could be happening. The relief on waking is palpable. There are no mystical landscapes, reverse speaking dwarves, or melting cities. But there is the occasional nightmare to rival the slashed eye, and those aliens continue to appear with alarming regularity.
And then there was my dream from a few weeks ago. My step son was found hanging out with commodities traders in the city and middle aged travelling salesmen. A nightmare as frightening as it was implausible. I had to keep telling myself…’it’s only a dream, it’s only a dream, it’s only a dream.’
And speaking of dreams, here is my own effort and completely miss-representing the nature of dreams (and is that rumbling sound Shakespeare rolling over in his grave?