Surrealism in Cinema


“Hence the first step one must take, when dealing with the surrealist attitude to films, is to attempt to understand why surrealists look to the movies to question the fundamental conventions of realism, and why they are persuaded that films lend themselves to discrediting those conventions.” - J.H. Matthews. Explain how surrealist cinema represents the ‘real’ world in its texts? What did the surrealist hope to achieve by questioning realist filmmaking techniques?


Truth is a touchy subject. The element which surrealism relies upon is understanding that truth hides within, that you identify what you can and the rest remains a mystery. Life is one big guess, that people around you identify what you mean in your communication, understand where you are coming from and what kind of a position you are in. Can they, or can they not, relate to you? The ultimate paranoia. Truth lives as long as they are in the unknown, once they dig you up you no longer have anything to hide, and hence any claim to consciousness. Can the surrealist movement persuade bystanders that a greater reality does indeed hide behind the effect of reality? A perception where everything is given equal meaning, where everything is as equally real as reality. An infinite playground. This  fairyland is brought out usually by contrasting static objects and representations with decisions which normally are not brought to their attention in everyday life: and this way we see that what once was dull is now brimming with a mute life. It’s bringing the questions to the answer, asking them to state the possibilities, in knowledge that they were all wasted and hence validated in their truism.


Who ever claims to be realistic? That serious? Honestly in the position to dictate the experience of a subject? Who knows. Who knows anything, all one can every communicate relies desparately on the audience’s desire, whether they want to understand you or not. No one can assume that, just as one forever searches for the truth of their identity. How can I expect anyone to understand me when I don’t even understand myself and all they know is what I reveal to them and I reveal to them nothing! The difference between an inanimate object and a conscious object is that one always means what it is whereas the other doesn’t always mean what it does. The latter prescribes an idenity which is hardened as a created object with intentions and a freewill. Seriousness is rigidity. Rarely is the surrealist prepared to clone their attitudes into rules. Ideas are set into a plane that is morphable, where nothing lasts and reality is only toyed with. It is within this cave of wonders that I would like to manifest the understanding and goals of surrealist aesthetic, believe that the unbelievable carries entitlements that extend further than mere belief... look not to your eyes does the surrealist poet, but rather evaporate the moment from view, surpass the effect of reality and connect to your projection amongst the stars.


Detection of virtualities concealed from the eyes of other is possible when a surrealist refuses to allow his responsiveness to movies to be limited by surface features of the material under examination.[1]


Consciousness is made in perculiar fashion. While in one sense everything is made to heighten the physicality of the environment, just as formidable is the ability to defer from the solid and seek new orders and identify more mysterious goals. Eclipsing nature’s tried and true behaviourial response comes a new identification of perception, new boundaries and new playing fields. The vast expanse of reality is still as gaping as ever, but now it is possible to scale down that hole to make it insignificant against the greater unknown. It is here where the realisation of surrealist attitude makes it’s plea, a cry fearing abandonment, fearing the loss of all hope. Whether or not you find your dreams you know there is a path towards it, to rate that path as sheer fantasy and idealism is to turn your back on possibility and fulfill the prophecy of irreconcilable existence. Surrealism has camped inside the world of cinema to demonstrate how realism sends language to its destruction. To maintain that one speaks on a puff of thin air is what truly allows time to stand stagnant and erase the consciousness of history so that its citizens may be recycled again and again and again. If on the other hand we do as the surrealist obsesses and enter the latent world of metaphor and allegory then we have a hope at seeing our petty image against the monstrous darkness, a reality beyond physical self.


Here we rip apart time and space. Dissect reality and rearrange its doomed contents to demonstrate effect of its patterns and cycles. Michael O’Pray writes in his commentary on Jan Svankmejer’s animation that form and content become one:


Svankmejer’s films not experienced as separate or external, envelopment of the audience through overwrought and manic subject matter. Phantasy is not to be identfied solely with diegetic characters and the complexities of narratives, it is embedded in the films as a whole, and especially in its form. [2]


Svankmejer’s editing may be described as dualist. Always is there heavy consciousness placed on the outer and the inner of the image, the generally regarded understanding of the subject and the outrageous suggestibility it might present. His use of monkeys in Historae Naturae Suita (1967) makes bananas out of this. We are placed with a outline of monkey civilisation, a state of being quite naturally evolved but now written into the history books as a fait accompli - forever at the understanding of mankind. Well look again, says Svankmejer, this monkey appears to be aware of your fascination. Yes, look, it’s right there, staring at you from the blackness of his video footage, making appearances at precise intervals, as if regulating a specific part of your brain. Does it, really know what lies beyond the camera lens? Can it actually regard its presence among the assuming and entertained eyes of its captors, stand indignant of its treatment and warn us by suggesting that perhaps not all is as you imagined it after all, at least there remain possibilies. Our fetishised hand-drawn sketches of the animal are presented in various dioramas, and looked upon very disapprovingly by the flashing embodiment of the real-life staring monkey. And, of course, to add insult to humankind’s overlooking of the sentience of the animal we not only prescribe to the monkey’s biological religion but consume it too, in an instant impossible for the flashing monkey to evaluate. How quickly the essence is assimilated into the black consciousness of the man in the kitchen is represented in the package design of the content, the efficiently prescribed dosage. Compact, minimal, fuss-free, the delivery is a formidable statement of unstoppable assimilation. Svankmejer’s animation can always be taken as a simulation, though, and it is clear that although no claim to a passageway for extended reality is given, the near-subliminal cutting creates a permanent awareness of the other side, a future looking down on our own and questioning every desire. This presentation of events must be consolidated and reappraised throughout civilisation if any worth be bestowed upon hope of becoming at one with time. There is no other way to assuage the paranoia of a past which became the dissapproving stare of our future.


This somewhat abstract test of civilisation is not so unbelievable when looked at from a direct correlation with time. Editing, the sequencing of events, is itself a formal direct link with reality, one with no room for interpretation and shown always in ‘real time’. Yet in this strictest definition is the absurdity that every moment is a fraud, considering that each of the images on screen are separate themselves, and as advertised in Svankmejer’s striking style more meanings than just the sum can be created from the combination of displaced narratives. Hence form and content is legitimately classed as one matrix of dimensions, with the ability to sprout any number of parallel meanings. Time is subjected to the rhythm of ficticious voices, and given a meaning of its own.


So formally surrealism is already at odds with the conventions of realist representation of events. Correlations are no longer linear or logarithmic, but recursive, programmable and parallel. They can no longer be assembled simply or while assuming understanding. An editor knows not what they delete.


If realist content has no problem in realising the symbolism of events, objects and desires then surrealism demonstrates that often even the imagery is lost through the purposeful stripping of status through patterns and chains in time. This is possible by minimalist depiction of the grotesque, which can be broken down to its structure, “the estranged world, our world, which has been transformed.”[3] This has very much to do with the emergence of latent structure from behind the manifest padding, as O’Pray describes Dali’s method:


Dali’s was a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.” Its effect was to pass through the manifest content of reality in order to probe the latent content that commands the surrealist’s attention.


Here we come back to a critical point in perception of real and non-real rationale, putting aim to absurdity. We do not find an attempt to decode the marvellous or reconstruct the absurd aesthetic, but rather the opposite where the roots are reaffirmed and everything is reviewed as chaotic and random. Hence the objectification lies not so much in the psychoanalytic conjecture of symbols but restructuring of the fabric of physicality, recreation of interpretation where the rules themselves evolve from the same groundwork. Pure psychic automatism is always an attempt to leave the latent content unguarded, every effort to control turned away, hopeful that all that is left is the simplest meaning to discover, unlinked to the personal conscious mind.


Surrealism is the place where all objects are given consciousness. O’Pray notes how Svankmejer’s world breathes on the projection of mental properties on to the world and its objects. Objects are sensitive and possess a material quality, he says, they demonstrate just how complex language really is when transcribing a history of tradition and attitude toward the icons of the past. Revenge is clearly achievable, the attacker has no defence against the ease of his/her own conscious rape and pillage of mute objects. They talk back in the exact language which is specifically denied to them in social conditions, resistance is futile and redemption too late. This is the reality which completes the picture, surrealists agree, one where man’s ego is placed alongside the giants it lovingly ranks against.


Another stylist of the conjunction of form content time and space is Raul Ruiz, who’s participation into baroque allegory departs from the usual surrealist bending of the rules and slices it irrevocably. Ruiz comments on the pattern of allegorical practice:


“This connecting aspect of allegory is one of the things that fascinated me ... you make an allegory and this allegory touches an element of real life and makes this element become an allegory of something else, of some distant object and when this object is touched it becomes an allegory and so on.” [4]


The ability so markedly jump from scenario to scenario without even breaking a sweat lends allegory a disconcerting travel sickness, where home is never returned to half out of manic desire and half out of forgetting. Time is shown to be a processing of images, where images are input into a scene, transformed and outputted to another scene which the chain goes on endlessly. Because no one scene never restores identity to the chain of processing it is shown that the image never really belongs to any one place or time, rather it exists as a journey, fiction of indeterminate setting. The players on stage become metaphors for unfinished lives, acknowledgement of an endless subjection to the rigour of storytelling from memory to memory. Where does the meaning come from? How do we get there? These questions are encouraged by the baroque engagement. The circle of finality in Ruiz’s films is itself a wondering passage, for allegory is a “one way street” where “this means that” and not the other way round.[5] Every process of image is unique, and the image can never be transformed into a former state. This marks the progressive nature of consciousness, surrounded in a sea of time only to exemplify its representation amongst such liquid belongings.


The only clear passage of speak is in identification of universally applied ritual, inevitable by nature and absurd by concept. One of the prime surrealist targets is the process of death, Ruiz remarks:


“In fact, if there were a general manifestation of death, let us say a kind of annihilation wherein something is wiped out, then death may have other representations such as sleep, forgetting, absence, discontinuities in cinematic montage ... Once formalised these forms of death become rhetorical tools for an audio-visual medium.”


This kind of detached, unframed discussion is what brings out larger representations of processes. Death is merely a defence mechanism, forget about what is targetted and remember why things come to an end - why things were born? They are the same question and that is the only way to deliver a singular definition. Everything can be reversed from beholder to martyr, what is important is the only real self-knowledge that can travel from portal to portal, conscious indentification. Again Ruiz explains, ‘patterns emerge within the stories, and patterns emerge around them’. The only way to cancel relativity is to create a world within a world, and compare their alignment. Fate is an instant mystery, memory is your afterlife and the story is the identification.


The concept that what we see is what we know demonstrates how this mirror of cinema operates. The definition of perception then comes down to the ability to increase perception, else consciousness would be trapped in a past that reflected its future. Every living form is given the chance to see across infinite dimensions, because experience is as real as what you perceive. How perception relies on the flow of every new second is the paradox which speculates what is the meaning of the birthplace of time. Realist conventions, true to form, can capture any moment and represent relative to the setting when and where it was shot. But any claim to represent a finite amount of time will fail to recognise the basis for perception. Perception is blind to time, it always alludes to what came before and what came next. The authenticity of surrealism lies in its willingness to skip what you know, and only see what you didn’t know. Then you have a genuine pattern for life and results of the journey begin to take place.


What doesn’t make sense will never be known, and that is as good a starting point as any to try and map the mystery of infinite existence. The preparation to face one’s own mortality is a game that is older than the promises you made to end it all. You never had the choice to die, nor did you have the choice to live, there’s no reason for one to perceive time, and no ability to see anything that hasn’t already dived into the loop of consciousness. How is it that meaning is preserved through biological imperitive and random dysfunction? Someone is there to count how many times the loop has been travelled. The differences in each passing are so minute that each son looks and acts just like his father, but evolution like beauty operates in convulsions and through forgetting comes a fascination for the unknown which was created before life itself. Or was that the other way round. Whether it is the demolition of time or the latent introspection of an object’s soul the surrealist’s muse is always to redefine knowledge and reality as they have come to know it.


The simulation of imagery on screen in time is the externalisation of the other, the opportunity to put life on stage and discover the questions it answers. Appreciation may be a measure of self-worth, or definition of time, even justification of death, but on screen it always is the salvation of the impossible made impregnable, the dream which gave birth to endlessness. In communicating one’s identification of reality it is necessary to identify one’s self, and that is a task best left to stories of time in infinite space.


[1] Matthews, J.H. , ‘Surrealism and the Commericial Cinema’, Surrealism and Film, Uni of Michigan Press, 1971

[2] O’Pray, M. ‘Surrealism, Fantasy and the grotesque: The Cinema of Jan Svankmejer,’ Donald, J. (ed) Fantasy and the Cinema, BFI, 1989

[3] Jackson, R., Fantasy: the literature of subversion, London, Metheun, 1981 p684

[4] Jayamanne, L. ‘“Life is a Dream”, Raul Ruiz was a Surrealist in Sydney: A Capillary Memory of a Cultural Event,’ Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism & Cinema for the Moment, Power Publications, Sydney 1995

[5] Ruiz, ibid p 32


luffy (at)



No comments yet.

Comments temporarily disabled.