Un Chien Andalou – a cut apart from the rest

On a recent trip to Madrid with my girlfriend we were doing the rounds of the city’s fantastic art museums – I was particularly keen to go to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía to see Picasso’s Guernica, his painting in protest of the Spanish civil war. Going around the museum it turned out that there was an exhibition of Salvador Dali’s work as well, including a constant showing of his 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou. Being aware of the film’s significance in the history of cinema, I thought it would be worth spending 21 minutes drinking it in and learning something about the origins of a whole bunch of different filmic conventions.

BOY WAS I WRONG.

Dali did not direct Un Chien Andalou, instead writing it and providing it with clear impetus for its surreal imagery. However given that the film has no sound (though the screening was accompanied by Wagner and Argentinian tangos, as was the premiere) and no plot, well, at all, imagery is pretty much the sum total of the film. So to call it Dali’s film is justified. And if you have ever seen one of Dali’s paintings you know what that means.

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Yeah.

Un Chien Andalou is historically significant because it has one of the most famous cuts in cinema – very literally. The opening of the film shows a man sharpening a blade and gazing up at the moon. We see a razor-thin cloud cut across the moon, and are then shown the man drawing the blade towards a young woman’s unblinking eye. Cut back to the moon. The cloud slides through the white orb. Cut back to the razor cutting open a calf’s eye, bleached to look like a human’s, spilling vitreous humour down the face. It’s an early example of effective montage with the sucker punch of the actual shot of the eye being slit open catching you by surprise. And it’s one of many visually shocking images in the film – the slit eye, the donkeys on the piano, the ants crawling out of a hand.

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The problem with Un Chien Andalou though is that it’s just that – a series of images designed to shock. To quote the wiki article on the film, quoting a biography of Dali:

Buñuel told Dalí at a restaurant one day about a dream in which a cloud sliced the moon in half “like a razor blade slicing through an eye”. Dalí responded that he’d dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. Excitedly, Buñuel declared: “There’s the film, let’s go and make it.”

I’m pretty sure this isn’t how Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction were conceived.

The film was designed to shock – in fact Buneul is quoted as saying “Historically, this film represents a violent reaction against what at that time was called ‘avantgarde cine,’ which was directed exclusively to the artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator.” And it does shock. And if it does today you can only imagine what audiences in 1929 must have thought. But it does basically nothing else.

Un Chien Andalou makes you question the meaning of the film – raising deep questions such as “what the f*ck did I just watch?” and “why did I spend 21 minutes of my life watching this?”. Historically it’s important – its editing, lack of connective logic, and daring imagery definitely advanced cinema. It pushed the limits of what could be committed to celluloid. But it’s not something that I would watch again.

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Pulp Fiction – he flipped out over losing a watch that was in a stranger’s ass for three years?

A big confession. Until this weekend I hadn’t watched any Tarantino.

Friends of mine who are proponents of an auteur theory of cinema – that the director should be regarded as the “author” of a movie, using shots in the same way that a prose author uses words – in particular seem to be dismayed that I’ve never seen any Tarantino. Him being director, writer and actor in almost all of his projects gives him a large amount of control and so make his projects more personal than arguably any other director today. Other directors with a consistent visual style such as Wes Anderson, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton are the only others who come close.

So if Pulp Fiction is a very personal, Tarantino movie, what does that mean? Profanity, ambiguous morals, violence, and razor-sharp dialogue, but also a willingness to believe that the audience is intelligent. Pulp Fiction uses a non-linear narrative, jumping around the lives of various L.A. personalities (and in time) in a fashion that makes the film much more interesting to watch. It would be very easy for a studio to believe that audiences would find this confusing and that things should be realigned to be in order. But Tarantino trusts that we can keep up with this, much like he assumes that we can keep pace with the fast-paced dialogue. And it makes the film much stronger for it.

This also translates into the visuals. I watched the film only a few days after watching this excellent video essay about creating tension through editing, and something that Pulp Fiction does very effectively is use the long take intelligently. The amazing Tony Zhou has done a fantastic video essay on how Spielberg uses the long take, and Tarantino takes a leaf out of the same book. By allowing action to play out for almost three minutes without a cut in some shots, he allows us to draw our own conclusions from the film frame, letting our eyes roam where we like without deliberately showing us where to look with short, snappy cuts. I am a big fan of this kind of editing, as it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that you are watching a movie, and again treats the audience as intelligent. You are – effectively – trusted to be intelligent enough to look where is important. And in the age of Michael Bay-esque shots lasting frames rather than tens of seconds, it’s really refreshing.

This does lead me to a criticism of the film. My only criticism really. And that’s the episodic nature of the movie. Perhaps to make the non-linear plot a bit easier to understand, Tarantino breaks the film into sections, fading to black between them and in some cases introducing them using titlecards. Now this is very much a personal opinion, but I find this detracts from the pleasure of watching the film, because it draws attention to the fact that you are watching a film. In this sense Pulp Fiction is like an anti-Birdman, a film seemingly shot in one continuous take that tries very hard to hide the fact that you are watching a pre-prepared production that would not be possible in real life. Pulp Fiction embraces the impossibility of its own construction and runs with it. It is a movie meant to be watched ‘as a movie’ rather than being an ‘experience’ like Birdman. Choosing to run production credits before the movie as a 1950s picture would, having Thurman’s character Mia draw a square in the air with her hands, and having text appear on-screen with the entrance of Keitel’s Mr Wolfe reinforces this. Pulp Fiction is aware that it is a movie, but counteracts this by allowing the viewer to explore its frames by using long takes and trusting that you are intelligent to unpick its complex structure. It says “here, take me as I am – which is f*cking awesome”. Much, it’s worth noting, like the magazines and crime novels that the film takes its name from (and its poster reinforces). To some people, like my cinephile housemate, this is to the film’s advantage. To others, like myself, it detracts from the film. But it’s a very personal opinion.

No review on this website would be complete without mentioning the work of the cinematographer, in this case Pole Andrzej Sekuła. Pulp Fiction looks gorgeous. Using a relatively saturated colour profile with relatively high contrast, the film makes the most of the range possible visually. From exterior shots with a flat colour profile such as outside Butch’s apartment

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to the deep shots with pulsing neons of Jack Rabbit Slim’s

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almost every possibility is explored, much much more than was the case in my earlier watch, Forrest Gump. What is also worth mentioning is the film’s use of the colour red – in almost all of the major locations (and most of the main characters at some point) use the colour red. To my mind this reminds the audience that violence is always just around the corner, with blood a very common sight on screen, and even when it’s not, red upholstery, red lipstick, a red necklace, even a red ball-gag (or two) is. I’m sure that other colours were used repeatedly throughout but this was the only one that jumped out at me on first viewing. I loved the cinematography of this film.

There is so much more that I would love to talk about this film. Its repeated theme of saving people. Specific shots of decisions being made. The almost ASMR-y sound design. The music. The question of what was in that case. But alas I’m stricken with freshers flu. And I should probably get back to writing my thesis.

If a movie can be smart and sexy, then Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is it. Perhaps above all else it is just cool. It takes some of the worst parts of modern society – violence, drug use, organised crime – and glamorizes it into something that is slick and stylish and obviously constructed. I loved watching it, but I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite movies of all time. Its episodic nature renders it too artificial (for lack of a better word) for me to want to truly put a ring on it. Some of its dialogue seems unnecessary to the film’s construction (the taxi ride, for example). But from its great screenplay, colourful characters, and even more colourful cinematography do I recommend that you watch it if you haven’t already?

Correctamundo.