An Evening with French Surrealism, or Didn’t It Blow My Mind This Time

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It’s once again the magical time of year when Cinema St. Louis puts on the Classic French Film Festival. Over the coming weeks, I’ll have several opportunities to check out many hard-to-find French films, including two Pierre Etaix films that are virtually impossible to find. This past weekend offered me the first chance to enjoy their fine offerings. I spent my Sunday night bathing in the absurdity of French avant-garde silent shorts, a program of “five key Dadaist/surrealist shorts” from the 1920s. And didn’t it blow my mind this time?

The official list included Ballet Mécanique (Fernand Léger, 1924), The Seashell and the Clergyman (Germaine Dulac, 1926), Anémic Cinéma (Marcel Duchamp, 1926), Leave Me Alone/Emak-Bakia (Man Ray, 1926), and The Three-Sided Mirror/La glace à trois faces (Jean Epstein, 1927). Live accompaniment was provided by the HEARding Cats Collective. Here are my observations:

-It was hard not to think of the work of Jean Vigo and Jean Cocteau. That’s true both in a general way because the themes were similar, but also on a specific level. Leave Me Alone featured one sequence that was reminiscent of both Vigo and Cocteau. This sequence can be found in the following clip, at the 8:52 mark, which recalls both Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930) and Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930).

-The Seashell and the Clergyman clearly played an influence on Guy Maddin. Unlike a few of the other shorts, The Seashell and the Clergyman held onto a stronger narrative structure, but it was still very dreamlike (more on this in a minute). It was impossible not to draw the line from Dulac’s film to the work of Maddin.

From The Seashell and the Clergyman... just before the face splits down the middle.

From The Seashell and the Clergyman… just before the face splits down the middle.

-I found it amazing that these five shorts were all very different, but they all fit so clearly under the same surrealist/ impressionist umbrella. As I mentioned, The Seashell and the Clergyman, as well as The Three-Sided Mirror, were both slightly more traditional in narrative structure. The surrealism was more conceptual, and less about shocking visuals than the others. That’s not to say that they didn’t practice visual surrealism. It simply wasn’t as strong a theme as it was in the other shorts. Conversely, Leave Me Alone and especially Ballet Mécanique were drenched in visual absurdities. There was virtually no linear narrative. It was more along the lines of watching moving art. And last but certainly not least, Anémic Cinéma tackled the malleability of language. It was very much conceptual and had no linear narrative whatsoever. It also wasn’t particularly visual- the entire film consists of a series of different spinning spirals followed by companion text, also spinning. It was short and simple but I found the effort to be very effective.

-I’m honestly not sure how to classify any of this work. The shorts were introduced by film professor R. D. “Roy” Zurick, and he pointed out that some of these artists may not have liked to be called surrealists. He went on to imply that “impressionist” was a more appropriate term. And in fact, all of these works fit neatly into the description of the stylistic paradigm and theory of French Impressionist cinema. It’s a film movement I’ve dabbled in, but haven’t fully tackled. I think I’ll correct that in the near future, because I’ve immensely enjoyed everything I’ve seen to date.

-Because The Seashell and the Clergyman contained the best mix of all forms of surrealism (visual, conceptual, malleability of language and meaning), and due to its similarity to Guy Maddin, it was my favorite of the five.

-In fact, here’s my order of personal enjoyment: The Seashell and the Clergyman, Leave Me Alone, Anémic Cinéma, The Three-Sided Mirror, Ballet Mecanique

From Emak-Bakia (Leave Me Alone)

-The experimental camera work was exemplary. I previously mentioned the dreamlike nature of Seashell. This was partially created through the use of soft focus and/or lack of focus. And that same dreamlike structure was prevalent in many of these shorts (all except Anémic Cinéma). Ballet Mécanique and Leave Me Alone both used tightly cropped shots of obscure details- either human or mechanical. And it created some fascinating visual trickery, with mechanized and/or symmetrical blurring. It was fascinating. Leave Me Alone used several of its own visual tricks, most notably a blurred/obscured woman at rest with eyeballs painted on her lids, sort of a cheeky/fun wink at some of the trickery used two decades earlier by Georges Méliès. In the case of all of these shorts, there was a LOT of use of superimposition and double exposure.

-French cinema in general is great in large part because of films like these. French filmmakers are never afraid to cross lines, never afraid to experiment and do new things, never afraid to shock their audiences. In fact, some of these shorts actually caused public disturbances when they originally screened. The camera work, especially, from that era in France- Abel Gance, Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali, Jean Vigo, Georges Méliès, and all of the filmmakers who created these impressionist shorts… It’s just mind-blowing. Movies today would be a shell of what they are without these trailblazers. And even throughout French cinema history, they’ve always broken the rules. All of the major movements carry that singular thread- the French New Wave, French New Extremity, French Impressionist Cinema… French cinema is almost universally connected by a rebellious spirit and boldness of the art.

-I have no clue who exactly Man Ray is, but I believe he was involved with several of these shorts. Naturally, now I want to know everything I can about Man Ray.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “An Evening with French Surrealism, or Didn’t It Blow My Mind This Time

  1. I am glad you enjoyed it,I watched Jean Vigo’s A Props De Nice and I find it difficult to understand but I found the editing techniques wonderful. BTW you can find that film in the Jean Vigo set for Criterion or Artificial eye

  2. Man Ray was an interesting cat. According to former LAPD Homicide Detective, Steve Hodel, the work of Man Ray was influential on the murderer of the Elizabeth Short, aka, The Black Dahlia. Steve Hodel, thinks his dad, Dr George Hodel, a friend of Man Ray, was actually the killer. It’s kinda weird.

  3. Vladdy

    Have you seen Menilmontant? Highly recommended. It’s on one of Kino’s Avant-Garde sets. One of the best things I have ever seen.

  4. Pingback: The New Year’s Resolutions: Update #6 |

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