Surrealist Cinema’s Drive Towards Freedom
Ela Bittencourt investigates the ways in which film directors in the 1960s and ’70s used surrealism as a way of interrogating unstable political moments and reimagining the future
BY ELA BITTENCOURT IN FEATURES , THEMATIC ESSAYS | 05 JUL 22
Something out of a [Luis] Buñuel movie,’ was how American novelist Terry Southern described the violence he witnessed in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. Having chanced on Southern’s quote in a new anthology, Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (2022), I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that, while exhibitions on surrealism often foreground the fine arts, it was cinema that truly popularized surrealist sensibility. Not only did film have vast reach as a mass medium, it was also uniquely suited to expressing the ceaseless stirrings and waking hallucinations of the unconscious.
From Buñuel extolling Buster Keaton’s unpretentious comedies of the 1920s for their humanity and vitality, in his essay, ‘Buster Keaton’s College’ (in Cahier d’Art, 1927), to Salvador Dalí’s abandoned 1945 Disney collaboration on the animated short Destino (completed in 2003), film fuelled the surrealists’ love of popular culture. So much so that, in the journal L’Âge du cinéma (The Age of Cinema, No. 4–5, 1951), surrealist André Breton compared his movie-going to the way ‘others go to church’ adding that ‘quite independently of what is playing, it is [in cinemas] that the only absolutely modern mystery is celebrated’. Though few films were officially claimed by the movement – with Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) perhaps the best known – cinema’s surrealist potential was undeniable. Today, works originally excluded from this narrative, such as Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), are exhibited alongside surrealist paintings and sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, reclaiming the histories of surrealist film on one hand and women artists on the other.
With the exhibition ‘Surrealism Beyond Borders’ currently on view at London’s Tate Modern, having toured from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art last year, surrealism seems to be having a revival (certainly not its first), as an expansionist, non-linear movement that extended beyond the mid-1940s and whose many iterations frame modernity itself. Radical Dreams, edited by Elliott H. King and Abigail Susik, likewise argues for a geographically and temporally disjunctive framework in which to consider surrealist-influenced film. While the book focuses primarily on US and European works from the 1960s and ’70s, it conveys a sense of the movement as a global network, reclaiming its original radicalism in alternative political contexts.
King and Susik’s anthology situates surrealism at the heart of 1960s political unrest: the Vietnam War protests, for instance, or the surrealists’ mobilization against the War in Algeria (i.e. their adherence to the Comité de lutte contre la représsion coloniale, shortly after the war’s outbreak in 1954). The book corrals disparate groups under German philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s term ‘the great refusal’, formulated in his seminal work, ‘An Essay on Liberation’ (1969): the Afrosurrealists; the Chicago Surrealist Group, who helped organize the city’s 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition; and the French surrealists, including Breton and Simone de Beauvoir, whose rethinking of women’s eroticism paved the way for second-wave feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Marcuse’s term summed up a fierce opposition to war, colonization, totalitarianism, consumerism and patriarchy, plus an emphasis on sexual liberation. Film isn’t the book’s central theme (though it does touch on the surrealists’ increasingly cinematic imagination), but the radical surrealist strategies it outlines were also manifest in the politicized avant-garde and experimental forms of cinema; similarly to the activist-art movements described in Radical Dreams, numerous films of the period embraced surrealist revolt.
Czech director Vĕra Chytilová’s new-wave classic Daisies (1966) is one such film. Although the Czech Surrealist Group was founded in 1934, the movement was driven underground during the 1940s and ’50s under Stalinism, finally re-emerging in the 1960s ahead of the 1968 Prague Spring. Daisies follows two young women, both named Marie, who live in an alcove strewn with giant leaves of monstera deliciosa. The women’s favourite activity is duping men into treating them to meals. The two Maries are short on cash, but their appetites transcend food shortages. Their uncanny, sensuous zeal is darkly, even deliriously, amusing.
Claire Howard’s contribution to Radical Dreams, ‘Passionate Attraction: Fourier, Feminism, Free Love and L’Écart absolu’, recapitulates how De Beauvoir took Breton to task for leaning too heavily on 19th-century philosopher Charles Fourier’s ideas about female sexuality and promoting a vision of women’s emancipation rooted in what De Beauvoir, in her seminal feminist text The Second Sex (1949), termed the ‘child-woman’: an innocent, pacifying sex object, meant to redeem the world. De Beauvoir’s argument that sexual liberation and women’s emancipation aren’t necessarily the same is invaluable in considering radicality in Daisies – a film whose temporal discontinuity, collagist montage and nihilist pranks evoke surrealism with a critical edge.
Chytilová makes her protagonists infantile, no doubt to reflect society’s infantilization of women. But the girlhood she captures is protean, unfathomable and dangerous – not unlike the young women portrayed in the surrealist paintings of Dorothea Tanning or Leonora Carrington. The two Maries in Daisies seem to internalize the idea of femininity as ensconced in purity, but they also pervert the cliché, feigning to be helpless in order to embarrass, exploit and ambush men. They’re giddy saboteurs: radiant terrorists against male desire and womanhood complicit in the farce.
The pair’s last food orgy ends with the two young miscreants being crushed (we can imagine, to death) by an ornate chandelier. In this, Daisies shares its dark humour with the period’s surrealist-influenced animated films: Jan Švankmajer’s nightmarish collage-short, Historia Naturae, Suita (1967), for instance, which combines the filmmaker’s recurring trope of insects with brief shots of a human mouth consuming meat to morbidly absurdist effect; or Walerian Borowczyk’s animated short Renaissance (1964), which depicts destroyed objects that seamlessly rebuild themselves, only to be blown up again – a starkly nihilistic conclusion that Chytilová echoes in Daisies.
Ryan Standfest’s contribution to Radical Dreams, ‘A Useful Bile of Andre Breton’s Humor Noir in 1960s America’, recalls the surrealist artist’s titular Anthology of Black Humour (1940), which featured authors such as Lewis Carroll, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade, and in which Breton stressed that cinema and cartoons were black humour’s contemporary channels. Standfest uses Breton’s discussion of surrealist black humour to focus primarily on US authors whom he sees as continuing, and updating, a surrealist legacy, though he also briefly mentions films, including Dr. Strangelove (1964), co-written by Southern and Stanley Kubrick, and George Romero’s genre classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a reminder that horror often borrows from the surrealist miraculous, just as surrealism, in turn, draws on the mystical and the occult. Standfest defines surrealist black humour as being aimed at ‘undermining bourgeois cultural forms by means of displacement, interference and contradiction’.
This identification of corrosive humour as a critical surrealist tool is a useful lens through which to consider surrealist radicality in cinema. For example, in Brazil, where a number of artists, including painter Tarsila do Amaral and sculptor Maria Martins, produced surrealist works, the movement was overshadowed by a turn to realism. There’s no early Brazilian surrealist cinema, though Mário Peixoto’s Limite (Limit, 1931) takes its central image of a woman with a man’s shackled hands around her neck from a photograph by André Kertész that the filmmaker saw in a copy of Vu magazine while on holiday in Paris in 1929. The temporally discontinuous film, whose central tensions revolve around desire and a melancholic death drive, suggests that Peixoto – whose conservative family had pressured him not to come out publicly as gay – drew on surrealism as a vehicle to express his erotic subconscious.
Surrealism’s nihilist potential is more pointed in Brazil’s marginal cinema movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, in films such as Andrea Tonacci’s American western-referencing Bang Bang (1971). Filmed six years after the exhibition ‘Surrealism and the Fantastical’ showed at the eighth São Paulo Biennial, Bang Bang is highly performative, absurdly spasmodic and surreally disjunctive. Tonacci culls a story from seemingly random vignettes, in which three men – dressed in a monkey mask, a gangster outfit and a woman’s wig and clothing – rob, murder and indulge in sexual escapades. The scenes of their chase after an anonymous stranger through chaotic São Paulo are interspersed with eerie interludes of, for instance, a woman frenetically dancing flamenco atop a skyscraper, precipitously close to its edge. As in Daisies, there is no moral endgame. The film closes with the characters escaping to the country, only to suffer a spectacular car crash. ‘Can what’s destroyed be rebuilt?’ – the question that Chytilová poses at the end of Daisies – could equally apply to Bang Bang. Both films are mordant pastiches; neither asks viewers to take its posturing seriously. On the contrary, Bang Bang challenges us to accept its bilious temper as an antidote to complacency and consumerism – something Chytilová similarly attacks in Daisies – devouring and digesting American popular culture in an anthropophagic gesture.
These films’ collagist approach, contrarian humour and disjointed temporality already signal them as surrealist, but their radicality also stems from their political bile. In Daisies, the two women’s virulent stance against everything – an outright denial of any affirmative virtue – clearly expresses the drive of a generation that emerged from World War II only to be plunged into another prolonged period of global conflict. The hysterical behaviour of the two Maries is a paroxysm of freedom, fuelled by anxiety about the future. Likewise, Bang Bang – whose very title has a catastrophist ring to it – is a frenetic, nihilistic spectacle produced less than a decade after the 1964 military coup had installed a brutal and repressive dictatorship in Brazil. In both films, the protagonists appear, as Hal Foster wrote in his seminal book on surrealism, Compulsive Beauty (1995), ‘shocked into another reality that [is] somehow a critique of this reality’ – a duality that underscores the notion of the uncanny, but also links surrealism to trauma.
Collage, pastiche, disjunction, trauma and melancholia are also key elements in Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena, 1973) by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, which, perhaps better than any other film of the era, embodies radical Black aesthetics as defined by American poet and scholar Fred Moten who, in In the Break (2003), describes Black performance as ‘an erotics of the cut, submerged in the broken, breaking space-time of an improvisation.’ Jonathan P. Eburne evokes Moten’s idea of the cut – a term that’s also charged with a psychoanalytical understanding of trauma – in his contribution to Radical Dreams, ‘Afrosurrealism as a Counterculture of Modernity’, and then adds: ‘There is a melancholic insistence in the freedom drive of Afrosurrealism, an elegiac component that nonetheless voices the call of its political ambitions.’
Touki Bouki doesn’t end with a catastrophic event: it begins with one, when it’s intimated that the main character, Mory, might have jumped off a cliff. Yet, Mory’s fate is ultimately ambiguous, since the film’s narrative discontinuity and circularity also depict him as alive and missing a ship to France. Mory and his girlfriend, Anta, are self-styled rebel robbers. They execute an ill-fated plan to steal a suitcase full of money, only to learn that it contains nothing but a human skull, thus frustrating their dream of escaping to Paris and returning wealthy.
Mambéty situates the film’s action in a time loop: after hearing of Mory’s whereabouts from his aunt, Anta jumps on her motorcycle and heads to the shore – a location that the film revisits numerous times as both a point of departure and of melancholic return. While there, Anta falls to her knees, naked and breathing heavily, one hand on a Dogon cross. The scene is highly erotic and pointedly sacrilegious.
By contrasting glossy fantasies of the West (the film includes a dream sequence in which the lovers return home in a luxury car, dressed as fashionistas) with the more complex realities of post-independence Senegal, Mambéty framed the experience of modernity as one of disjunction. In one humorously biting scene, for instance, Josephine Baker’s ‘Paris, Paris’ (1948) plays on the soundtrack while Mory, who works as an abattoir cattledriver, chases a cow – the promise of a certain blasé elegance clashing with a markedly different reality. This is underscored further by the filmmaker repeatedly featuring scenes of animal slaughter and juxtaposing the ritual function of such slaughter to life within an industrial complex – Touki Bouki is Mambéty’s political commentary on the price of France’s colonial conquests.
The film’s action unfolds against a backdrop of political activism: Anta’s fellow students blame Mory for her absence from activist meetings and, by extension, for diverting her attention away from the revolution. Yet, like Chytilová’s Maries or Tonacci’s gangsters, Mory and Anta are closer in spirit to Bonnie and Clyde – whose illfated outcomes evoke trauma – than to revolutionaries with a clearly defined ideology. In his preface to ‘An Essay on Liberation’, Marcuse acknowledged the fundamental role of trauma to his concept of ‘the great refusal’, when he defined the young protestors of May 1968 as raising a spectre ‘which haunts […] all exploitative bureaucracies’.
In this sense, the protagonists of Daisies, Bang Bang and Touki Bouki are all spectral. But their surrealist play and improvisation – nihilistic, illogical and destructive as it may be – also embodies a hope that rupture may lead to lucidity and a new subjectivity. This is, in a sense, the uncompleted project of modernity that contemporary cinema has inherited. From the rich trove of recent feminist absurdist horror, as evidenced by Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021) and Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021), to the use of surrealist dreamscapes in Latin American cinema found in Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (2019) and the ever-expanding lineage of contemporary Afrosurrealist films seen in the aesthetics of Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’s Neptune Frost (2021), surrealism’s allure endures.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 228 with the headline ‘Freedom Drive’.
Main image: Paulo César Pereio in Andrea Tonacci’s Bang Bang (1971), production photo. Courtesy: Cristina Amaral and Extremart; photograph: Renato Marques
Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.