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.
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.
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.