Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Masterpiece Test: Un chien andalou

Year of Release  1929
Nationality  French
Length  16 min.
Director  Luis Bunuel
Screenwriters  Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali
Editor  Luis Bunuel

Beauty  Un chien andalou begins with one of the most famous montages in cinema history.  A man sharpening a butcher's razor observes a thin cloud passing through the moon.  Cut to a closeup of a woman calmly sitting in a chair, presumably staring at the same image as the man.  Another edit reveals the moon being engulfed by the clouds, which leads to an extreme closeup of the woman's eye as the razor slices through it, the vitreous humor spilling out of the socket.  More than eighty years after its initial release, this image still has the power to shock and offend audiences, but what happens immediately afterward is just as jarring.  Before audiences have time to process (or recover from) what they've just seen, an intertitle announces "eight years later," leading to a series of events with no apparent connection to the opening scene, or to each other.

Strangeness  This is Un chien andalou's modus operandi:  to shock the audience with an unforgettable image and then cut to something completely different before there is time to interpret what's going on.  According to Luis Bunuel's autobiography, the only rule that he and Salvador Dali followed when writing the screenplay was that "no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted."

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  While the visuals of Un chien andalou are certainly striking, it is the way that the images are juxtaposed with one another that gives the film its meaning - or lack thereof.  Bunuel's editing continually mocks the very notion of narrative coherence, from the title cards that set up expectations of plot momentum that the film has no intention of fulfilling, to the abrupt cuts to events that have no apparent relation to what came before.

Tradition  For all its originality, Un chien andalou is undoubtedly a product of its time.  The dream associative flow of images, many of which feature normally repressed violent and sexual urges coming to the surface, are clearly influenced by the work of Freud.  Un chien andalou wouldn't have been possible without the relatively contemporaneous development of Soviet montage, although Bunuel's editing is used for the opposite purpose of Eisenstein's.  Where Soviet filmmakers would edit together a series of unrelated shots to create a symbolic meaning, Bunuel emphasizes the disaparity between his images, making the narrative inexplicable and intentionally meaningless.  Bunuel and Dali's anti-narrative seems to have been influenced by the Surrealist habit of sneaking into several different theatres, catching isolated scenes from different movies out of context.  Indeed, the Spanish ex-patriots' narrative stunts turned them into two of the most controversial members of the predominately French Surrealist party.  Every avant-garde film that came after 1929 owes a debt to Un chien andalou, making it one of the most important landmarks in cinema history.

Repeatability  Un chien andalou doesn't feel particularly dated - an unflinching shot of an eyeball being sliced open is always going to be shocking, even though it's common knowledge that Bunuel used a dead calf's eye for the effect - and it towers over most experimental shorts in sheer entertainment value.  But it is far from the most sophisticated piece of art that either Bunuel or Dali would go on to make.  (The duo's follow-up, L'age d'or, is arguably the better film, even if its influence is less pronounced).  Un chien andalou is an enjoyable film to revisit, but its relative crudeness compared to Bunuel and Dali's later solo endeavors, its dependence on shock value, and its deliberate lack of meaning add up to a film that doesn't reveal anything new after the first viewing.

Viewer Engagement  As mentioned above, Un chien andalou is a lot more engaging and engrossing than the average avant-garde film.  In its gleeful absurdity, it is perhaps less of a spiritual ancestor to Blood of a Poet, Eraserhead, and Tropical Malady than Duck Soup, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and Anchorman.  But if Bunuel and Dali were trying to tear down the stifling structure of society and replace it with the freedom of anarchy, they failed.  Viewers are more likely to laugh with the film's absurd anti-logic than to actually have their perspectives changed by it.

Morality  Many of Bunuel's later films - from 1930's L'age d'or to 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire - wed his love of absurdity to a somewhat realistic look at the world we live in.  The satirical edge of most of Bunuel's great oeuvre is lacking in his debut film.  Un chien andalou's string of absurdities are perhaps too disconnected from the everyday to transform our understanding of the world.  The people on the screen are being overcome by their unconscious desires, but there isn't a clear indication of the societal strictures that they are reacting to.  The film's message, insofar as it exists, lacks the punch of its images.

Un chien andalou fails The Masterpiece Test.  It is a good indicator of the thin line that seperates great, culturally important films from true masterpieces.

UP NEXT  Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a film that appeared on quite a few "best of the decade" lists, even though my fuzzy memories of it suggest that it is merely "pretty good."

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