Lynch’s “Surreal” Universe: Genre or Artists’ Movement?

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS

 

“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”       -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 Lynch’s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

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                                                       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 like Eraserhead, to a later work like Blue Velvet, or in any general summary of 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:

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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?

Lynch has come to be known for his “surrealist films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed ‘Lynchian’, 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 “exclusively surrealist productions,” created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s Un chien andalou.

Though not necessarily “better” than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien Andalou is undoubtedly “different” 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 “flaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was made…the genre ‘narrative feature film’, and the genres of the contemporary European art film…Buñuel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather ‘a desperate appeal to murder.”

http://vimeo.com/18540575

Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artists’ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis Buñuel wrote, the group sought “to explode the social order, to transform life itself,” an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.

Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ 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 artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:

whitehorse                        Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walks with Me      Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

 

Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, has called himself a “militant surrealist.”And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him “one of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,” and cites Surrealism only as “a major influence” on Švankmajer’s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Švankmajer’s participation in an actual group a notable link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqGAZgtDiBU

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 Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera’. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’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 Lynch’s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artists’ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Breton’s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Deren’s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artists’ 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.

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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 here but always elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me 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. Whether Fire Walk with Me explodes any staid order, 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 in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.