Oliver Richards investigates the rise of Surrealism in Popular Cinema and questions what it means for the future of the film industry.
Recently, Surrealism has saturated popular modern film-making. Some of the films marvelled at by critics and adored by the public rely on elements of the movement, whether we are aware of it or not. Just cast your mind back a couple of years to Christopher Nolan’s modern masterpiece Inception, often cited as the best film of 2010. Critics hailed its complex narrative structure and surrealist content while audiences flocked to see it in the cinema. Due to the sometimes inaccessible nature of Surrealism as a cinematic practice, it is worth looking into its history and exploring why film makers are becoming increasingly fond of adopting its style and content. After all, it doesn’t look like it will disappear in the near future.
The Surrealist movement was founded in Paris in the mid-1920s by André Breton. It emerged primarily as a compromise between the recent phase of Dadaism and the highly influential psychoanalytical studies of Freud. In simple terms, early Surrealists strived to explore their own psyches through symbolic and often random images, ones that we would now consider surreal. Arguably the ultimate Surrealist film came in the form of the 1929 short Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), a collaboration between one of the most famous Surrealist directors Luis Bunuél and the equally influential artist Salvador Dalí. Bunuél and Dalí filled Un Chien Andalou with images of personal symbolism, and, in doing so, they successfully explored their own minds. This self-exploration was key to early forms of Surrealism and is still visible today in the highly surrealist films of David Lynch (Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive) and the stop-motion ventures of Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Jabberwocky).
Surrealism has developed since its early stages. While auteurs like Lynch and Bunuél arguably use a purer Surrealist style, the movement’s aesthetics and obsession with the complexities of the mind have survived in the modern world of blockbusters and CGI. There has, however, been a marked change in the way the style is used. Whereas directors would use Surrealist films as a platform for self-exploration, film makers have increasingly began using the Surrealist style and its symbolic mise-en-scene to explore the minds of their characters. It is not, for example, out of place for a fairly high budget and popular film to take place through the mental filter of its protagonist, á la Scott Pilgrim VS The World. The use of Surrealism to explore and represent a character’s inner most thoughts and feelings has also led to some of the most innovative modern films. A key example of this is the purely Surrealist narrative structure of Christopher Nolan’s Memento; Nolan employs a highly discontinuous structure in order to place the audience within the mind of his amnesiac and revenge-driven protagonist.
In the last few years, some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed films have drawn in audiences with Surreal themes and aesthetics. Black Swan made good use of Surrealist techniques to highlight the psychological horror and internal struggle of its hero, even if some of its more casual audience were confused by its complexity and darkness. The use of non-narrative sequences as reflections of character’s mental states is another Surrealist practice increasingly employed by big name film makers. Two of last year’s most revered pieces, Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia showcase this and also how elements of Surrealism can elevate an art-house feature to commercial success. The rising popularity of more obscure cinema serves to widen popular film’s horizons. Never has it been more possible for us to walk into our local Cineworld and see a relatively obscure, non-commercial film. Recently, I ventured to the Cardiff branch and watched a (admittedly one-night only) screening of Room 237, the new documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, effectively a film about a film, but still in a major cinema branch.
Looking through some recent ‘films of the year’ lists makes quite interesting reading. It could be argued that in at least half of these successes an element or technique associated with or branching off from Surrealism is present. Audiences seem to be increasingly receptive to such content, possibly because of the post-modern landscape they live in. It seems that they have become cleverer, more attuned to classic film-making methods and increasingly tired of them. It would also seem that for the sake of originality audiences are increasingly demanding of popular films, more likely to write off blockbusters as heartless and stagnant. I put forward that it is due to this demand for intelligent cinema that Surrealism has buoyed.
The aforementioned Christopher Nolan is without doubt one of the most popular modern film makers, praised consistently by both the public and the critical press (and me, in case you hadn’t noticed). One reason for this is his treatment of the audience. Many blockbusters look down on their audience and assume a lack of both the ability to understand and the need for complexity. Don’t get me wrong, everybody loves a good, simple blockbuster (as Skyfall has recently proven), but the blockbusters of 2012 seem less afraid of symbolism and deeper thinking (see The Dark Knight Rises). In an increasingly modern world, we are becoming even more obsessed with self-exploration, especially in art. Early Surrealist cinema provided one of the first platforms for such thought and its recovery is encouraging. Many share the feeling that the best films are the ones that make you think. Cinema is often under-appreciated as an art form, but like all good art it has the capability to change our lives, to shape our perceptions and to challenge us to appreciate the world we live in.
Surrealism in modern populist cinema shows no signs of fading either, and I for one see this new found freedom in commercial film-making as a wholly positive development. Audiences will still flock obsessively to the latest blockbuster, but it is becoming more likely that their involvement with cinema will not stop there. The new breed of commercially viable but artistically deep films will draw in large crowds and make them think, make them think about life, death and humanity. These films seem much more valuable in my eyes than, say, ‘Transformers 4: Mechanised Moneymaking’ (okay, I made that one up).