The Cinema Edition
In an era where the film’s narrative capabilities were being explored and the focus of cinema was slowly shifting to story driven ventures and articulations of establishing shots, continuity and story telling conventions, primarily finding its epicentre in American Cinema a few line of thinking emerged in the avant-garde circles of European cinema. Of the many movements that erupted from this more formalist approach Surrealism and French Impressionism will be our areas of focus. Surrealism in cinema is unbounded by cultural and national borders but originally began France and disseminated across national boundaries. It is a movement interested in the subconscious and metaphysical, while French Impressionist Cinema is difficult to categorise having both formalist approaches to craft and use of cinematic technique but also narrative driven storytelling.
To explore Surrealism, we shall look into possibly the most well-known surrealist silent film ever made, Un Chien Andalou or an Andalusian Dog (1929), a collaboration between Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. A film with no conventional plot or standard story structure, instead using dream logic to construct a film made of ethereal and grotesque imagery, stark juxtaposition and an unconventional use of form. To understand these trail of words and adjectives more we shall take one specific scene and breakdown the stylistic and technical choices used, to better understand the surrealist aesthetic – this scene being the opening eye slitting.
In the opening of the film we see an inter-title saying “Il était une fois” or “once upon a time” in French. Then we cut to a razor being sharpened by a man smoking, he checks the razors sharpness and steps out into a balcony looking up to the moon in thought. We then cut to a medium close up of a woman and a man running the razor next to her and before he slits it, we match cut to a thin cloud moving over the moon and finally cut to the eye of a goat being slit in graphic detail. These opening movements of Un Chien Andalou perfectly showcase both stylistic and narrative choices that make a surrealist film.
The first inter-title of “Once upon a time” is age old storytelling trope primarily for children’s stories and Buñuel uses it almost sarcastically as the film to follow abandons a normal narrative and is full of disturbing, violent and sexual imagery. The following shots especially that of the moon are built of dream logic. The genesis of this very scene is from a dream Buñuel had about a cloud cutting the moon like a razor. The match edits between the preceding woman’s eye and proceeding goat eye may not make logical sense but formally follow similar ideas – movement of a line (razor or cloud) from right to left across a circular object of focus (eye and the moon). This imagery also follows the surrealist’s obsession with viscerally violent and overtly sexual imagery, the absurd, and Freudian dream symbolism and ideas of the subconscious. The scene shocks and because of the match edits the final shot of the eye of the animal being slit maybe mistaken for the women’s, adding to the dream-like quality of the film where shots meld into one another and reality is bent. What Buñuel and Dalí aimed to do was to use the techniques unique to cinema (in this case movement, image and juxtaposition through editing) to materialise the dream onto celluloid.
Moving on to French Impressionism, the film of focus is Jean Epstein’s Cœur fidèle or Faithful Heart (1923). Unlike Un Chien Andalou Cœur fidèle is narrative film with a common story of a love triangle between a woman, dockworker and thug. But what sets it apart from standard narrative films (popularized by America) is its unique use of cinematic form and technique – with its cinematography and editing focusing less on realist continuity and more of formalist approach aimed at expressing intangible emotions and creating atmosphere. The scene we will looking into is the death of the antagonist (Petit Paul), where the Paul is shot down by a crippled woman to protect our protagonists (Marie and Jean).
In this after a struggle with Jean and Marie Paul is eventually shot by the crippled woman, what’s interesting about the scene is the juxtaposition and pace. The fight before Paul’s death is cut rapidly with multiple angles changes, tension building with the faced paced editing (with most shots keeping the gun in focus heightening the tension – Chekhov’s Gun). The pace of the scene coming to a sudden halt once the cripple woman fires the gun at Paul. Paul’s death is excruciatingly slow, shown almost entirely from a single medium shot, as blood drips from his forehead. This is intercut with reaction shots of the the crippled woman (in shock after taking a man’s film), Jean and Marie (both horrified by the bloodshed). The scene finally ends with Paul collapsing onto a crib with a baby inside (a finally eerie close up of a dead and bloodied Paul and a crying baby).
This scene is unique because of its subversion of conventions in storytelling and depictions of violence. In classical American and even European Cinema death of the Antagonist was mainly at the hands of the protagonist and was quick affair (quick editing to hide violence). But Epstein doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed, instead of seeing death as a momentary event over in a flash, he portrays it as the violent and slow removal of a life from a body (minimal cutting and focus on Paul as he dies). Then to bring home the point that death is horrific even if it’s the death of an antagonist Epstein cuts to reaction shots of the other characters, all looking on in horror. The final imprinting moment if the close up two shot of the Paul bleeding from a headshot onto the crib of his cry baby – juxtaposing death with new life.
The movements of the avant-garde in cinema had a singular purpose, to explore the possibilities of film. To see if cinema could be used for more than just telling stories and if technique instead of narrative could be used to produce an experience within the viewer. Let it be the stream of consciousness dream logic, unique use of film form and provocative imagery of the surrealist or the subversive nature of the impressionist both narratively and technically, the avant-garde is aims to deconstruct and elaborate on the artifice and aesthetics of the cinema, bringing the intangible unconscious onto celluloid.
By Mrinal Rajeev
Mrinal Rajeev is a third year student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Film studies. He has been an avid film lover for years, and amateur filmmaker, working part time as an editor, screenwriter and director for various feature films, short films, advertisements, and music videos. He’s crazy for anime, Kung fu movies, Area 51 memes, Lemon Tea, Cheesecake, 60s rock and Outkast. You’ll usually see him playing Pokémon Showdown and raging about writers block and the latest Chance the Rapper Album…
Check out his short films on Instagram: @soulandsilverscreens