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Surrealism and Cinema

by Michael Richardson
Berg Publishers, New York, 2006
240 pp. Trade, $89.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN 1-84520-225-2; ISBN-1-84520-226-0.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
2900 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA


Cinema becomes an art during the first decades of the previous century. Its inspirations are universal in scope, intimate in effect, with nearly mythic implications. That digital technologies are now transforming cinema by displacing access to films from the social space of a theater to the private space of the home has not as of yet given us more than that.

But what we have in film, and some of the best of what we have, still seems to surge from an encounter that surrealism has helped us to define. Call it an encounter between dream and reality, desire and repression, individual freedom and collective identity, or something similar to this -- it is there before us, implicating our struggles, our failures, and our triumphs.

So how have surrealists interpreted, and continue to interpret, the cinema from Luis Bunuel to Jan Svankmajer? And what has Richardson added to this discussion?

At the very least, Richardson begins where most other commentators leave off. As an academic close to contemporary surrealism, he shares something of the sensibility within each director he examines via these three points: that surrealist cinema animates a subversion of prevailing modes, from the popular to the "avant garde"; that anything is useable; and that a lucent clarity about relationships -- between humans, humans and animals, and humans and things -- prevails.

From Jacques Prevert, to Jean Vigo, Nelley Kaplan, Walerian Borowczyk, Fernando Arrabal, Roland Topor, and Wojceich Has, Richardson tracks their contributions. Not to foreclose on precursors and how surrealism has influenced directors who carry some of its charm in their works, Richardson also discusses Fueillade, von Sternberg, Herzog, Wenders, Ruiz, as others. In his intriguing chapter on the documentary, he notes the influence of the movement in the striking Jean Painleve´, who made films on the natural world for scientists, with a career spanning five decades.

There is something in this monograph, however, that brings with it a sense of possibilities gained, lost and just partially refigured. That it is far from complete, with too many sketches of this or that film maker, including the Brothers Quay, whose hermetic worlds are more important than Richardson will admit, is perhaps a sign of the times. In our consent to find in the cinema a work played for the price of a ticket, we have come to a verge where screens too often elude us. As a momentary hiatus in our usual complacency, where images and stories circulate endlessly, film does not so much restore our reality to us as glance off it. However honest the film, clear to its intent and production values, I can think of few that provoke an experience we must endure, that eviscerates our beliefs, and that enlivens without qualification. Why is it that we refer to L’Age d’or so much as a turning point? Is our attraction to this film simply nostalgic? I do not think so. It is not that we yearn for a cry equal to that which we recognize here, but that our current films generally leave us wanting. They are beautiful, moving, demanding, horrifying, critical, funny and altogether civilized. They are films that have slipped into a century, much like the last, with conflagration knocking on the door.

What film maker will open that door, as much to the world as to how we know the world through film, and find there a vision of life, of living, masked, unmasked, it no longer matters, save that it reveals us uniquely?

That is the promise of surrealism and the cinema. It is also a promise of the kind of critique that Richardson casts over the film makers and films he discusses, within the context of their historical moments. Fortunately, it is a promise that neither cinema nor history, nor the history of cinema, exhausts.



Updated 1st October 2006

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