December 4, 2013 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”Â Â Â Â Â Â -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist
Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynchâ€™s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series,Â Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com
The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film likeÂ Eraserhead,Â to a later work likeÂ Blue Velvet,Â or in any general summary ofÂ Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”
As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:
Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik
But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?
LynchÂ has come to be known for his “surrealistÂ films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed â€˜Lynchianâ€™, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”
But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?
Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.
Only three films were actually ever designated â€œexclusively surrealist productions,â€ created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulacâ€™s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis BuÃ±uelâ€™s Lâ€™Ã¢ge dâ€™or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, BuÃ±uel and Salvador DalÃ¬â€™s Un chien andalou.
Though not necessarily â€œbetterâ€ than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien AndalouÂ is undoubtedly â€œdifferentâ€ than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou â€œflaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was madeâ€¦the genre â€˜narrative feature filmâ€™, and the genres of the contemporary European art filmâ€¦BuÃ±uel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather â€˜a desperate appeal to murder.â€
Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artistsâ€™ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis BuÃ±uel wrote, the group sought â€œto explode the social order, to transform life itself,â€ an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.
Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artistsâ€™ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artistsâ€™ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films â€œthe pinnacle of the Surrealist filmsâ€¦the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limitsâ€¦resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:
Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Å vankmajer, has called himself a â€œmilitant surrealist.â€And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him â€œone of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,â€ and cites Surrealism only as â€œa major influenceâ€ on Å vankmajerâ€™s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Å vankmajerâ€™s participation in an actual group a notable link.
The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Villageâ€™s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: â€˜Three Abandoned Films â€“ a showing ofÂ Meshes of the Afternoon,Â At LandÂ &Â A Study in Choreography for the Cameraâ€™. Deren took the word â€˜abandonedâ€™ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaireâ€™s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.
Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynchâ€™s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artistsâ€™ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Bretonâ€™s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Derenâ€™s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artistsâ€™ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.
It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.
Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com
Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.
Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be hereÂ but alwaysÂ elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks:Â Fire Walk with MeÂ should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. WhetherÂ Fire Walk with MeÂ explodes any staid order,Â I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found inÂ HTMLGiant, Melusine,Â andÂ Monkeybicycle.
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
Dark comic of yore, Bobcat Goldthwait came to Bloomington, Indiana, last week, to do stand-up at the Comedy Attic, plus lectures around screenings of two recently directed filmsâ€”the blistering cultural satire God Bless America, and Â Willow Creek, a Bigfoot found footage horror flick. About God Bless America, Goldthwait said to a small Halloween evening crowd at the Indiana University Cinema: â€œI wanted to indict rather than parody.
In God Bless America, a society teetering on the edge of cultural decay is declared in faux-reality series like Dumb Nutz, and a mock-up of American Idol called American Superstars, where the grotesque imagery of â€œrealityâ€ bombards sensitive, exasperated main character Frankâ€™s tiny living room. Frankâ€”played by Joel Murrayâ€”is a character, Goldthwait admitted, â€œmost of my friends say is me.â€ Frankâ€™s world is a right-wing mash-up of â€œ9-11-2001 – Never Forgetâ€ license plates, American flags, radio heads screaming in military troupesâ€™ defense, Obama in a Nazi uniform, and, most importantly for Goldthwaitâ€™s agenda, Sound Bites: meaningless perpetrators of a shallow society, where â€œNo one talks about the personal or important,â€ but only about what was on TV the night before, regurgitating. Such is the timbre of Frankâ€™s non-specific office drone environment, where he is assaulted with water cooler chat so disgorged he at last declares: â€œA shocking comment has more wit than the truth,â€ before unfolding his stapler, aiming it like a gun at his docile co-workers, and asking, â€œWhy have a civilization anymore if weâ€™re no longer interested in being civilized?â€
Frankâ€™s day only gets worse. Corporate higher-ups, citing a â€œNo Toleranceâ€ policy, after eleven years of employ, fire him for sending flowers to the receptionist. His next visit is to the doctor who, while informing Frank he has an inoperable brain tumor, takes a cell phone call, unleashing a painfully privileged litany, something about a newly souped-up car. Frank proceeds home. Against the endless wails of an infant next door, he sits couch-ridden, sipping beer, sobbing, yet again before the enormous boob tube, where teenage â€œreality goddessâ€ Chloe rails at her father for buying her the â€œwrongâ€ brand-new car, dropping the gem of a line, â€œYouâ€™re not listening to me. Youâ€™re talking to the cameras!â€ At this moment, Frankâ€™s own phone rings, his estranged eight-year-old mirroring Chloe in her lament of the horror of her own mom having bought her a Blackberry instead of an iPhone. Frank hangs up, retrieves a pistol from a shoe box, steals his sobbing baby-wielding neighborsâ€™ yellow Mustang, and drives to â€œreality goddessâ€ Chloeâ€™s high school. Unabashedly, in broad daylight, he shoots her.
Witness to the killing is sixteen-year-old Roxy, disgusted schoolmate of Chloe, played by Tara Lynne Barr, who couldnâ€™t be happier with Frankâ€™s murderous deed. The misanthropes team up, donning throwback garb Ã la Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on a nationwide killing spree aimed at obliterating the thoughtless and digitally absorbedâ€”from people who take up two parking spaces, to boobs who take calls in the movie theater, Frank and Roxy unabashedly eliminate the American unkind.
The barefaced fact of Frank, a middle-aged man, running around the country alongside sexy, sixteen-year-old Roxy comes to the fore as the duo shops for bandit garb in a thrift store. â€œFrank,â€ asks Roxy, â€œDo you think Iâ€™m pretty?â€
Frankâ€™s response: â€œI refuse to objectify a child. Fuck R. Kelly! Fuck Vladimir Nabokov! Fuck Woody Allen! No one cares if they hurt other people.â€ Roxyâ€™s response is deflated, sulking, as she attests to the absurdity of the duo carrying on as â€œplatonic spree killers.â€
I was reminded of this particular exchange during the Q&A session following the film, when Goldthwait, in response to a question as to his rationale behind casting Barr as Roxy, said, â€œWhen she came in to read, she didnâ€™t play it too vampy. Other actresses were sexy, coquettish, doing the Lolita thing. Tara was wearing overalls.â€
This all made me think of a discussion in a class Iâ€™m in, where we read â€œresearchedâ€ fiction and poetry. Recently we discussed Nabokovâ€™s Lolita as a historical work. Nabokov, in his essay, â€œOn a Book Entitled Lolita,â€ attests the novelâ€™s inspiration as a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, â€œafter months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creatureâ€™s cage.â€
This statement, coupled with the bookâ€™s stunning linguistic mastery, has always made me see Lolita as being about far more than pedophiliaâ€”far too complicated to be reduced to a dangerous text condoning child rape, or in some cryptic manner portraying Humbert Humbert as enviable. My sense has always been that Lolita, in pointing so blatantly and grotesquely to pedophilia, deflates its taboo. I have also secretly believed Nabokovâ€™s choice to set the novel in America as a bit of a nod to the States’ sexual repression. He knew American readers (and publishers) would sexualize Lolita, characterize her, to quote Goldthwait, as â€œvampy,â€ in control of her own pre-adolescent, seductive powers, a self-aware temptress in her own right:
My classâ€™s discussion digressed: a fellow student called Lolita â€œthe â€œrape-iestâ€ book heâ€™d ever read, likely responsible for subsequent generations of rape culture. Questions swarmed: what should the academy include in its required reading lists? Should a progressive, Queer revaluation of texts chuck away Lolita for good?
I am fascinated with the conflicting views America projects upon â€œLolitaâ€â€”vampy actresses too young and seductive for their own good, adolescent temptresses in need of righting by an ethically firm, middle-aged Frank. Despite this brand of righteousness, sexual tension percolates every hotel room of God Bless America, Frank stubbornly refusing to share a bed, Roxy urging him on (as in Lolita, Frank and Roxy roam amongst cheap motels of the Eastern U.S.). An uncomfortably paternalistic extended scene features Frank teaching Roxy to shoot teddy-bear laden trees, prepping for banditry:
This is not to discount that God Bless America, assaulting and unforgettable in its depiction of a screen-sutured society obsessed with reality TV (scathing, not quite like anything Iâ€™ve seen before), renders Frank and Roxyâ€™s joke that theyâ€™ll â€œmove to France and start a goat farm,â€ wildly appealing. Goldthwaitâ€™s wit is wise, his declarations pristine, his intent earnest. And thereâ€™s nothing more cringingly American than Frankâ€™s final words to Roxy, before detonating her, himself, and the entire studio audience and performers of competitive singing show, American Superstars:Â â€œI do think youâ€™re pretty.”
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.