ShortList has taken a surreal turn this week. Not only is our latest issue dedicated to this most mind-bending and discursive of aesthetical, philosophical and political theories – including this suitably bonkers interview with Noel Fielding – but we’ve gone la-la for surrealism in the movies.
So, without further ado, herewith are eight (why eight? Why not?) surreal moments on film. Meaning is everywhere, just not necessarily where you thought it was.
True fact: look up surreal in the dictionary and it states, merely, watch the films of David Lynch. Ok, so that’s a slight embellishment, but such is the filmmaker’s masterly command of surrealist tropes that the adjective Lynchian was coined. Eraserhead was his first feature film and is a lurid trip into a disturbing and shapeless world. This chilling and imaginative scene which climaxes in the pencil factory exemplifies Lynch’s strange vision.
The idea that TV is a form of hallucinatory mind-control might seem quaint in today’s all-pervasive digital landscape, but that doesn’t dull the power of David Cronenberg’s superlative Videodrome. In fact, the film eerily anticipates much of contemporary society’s reliance upon artificial realities as opposed to the lived life. James Woods is the protagonist in the midst of this maelstrom and his reaction to the revelations flashed to him via his TV is both sexually suggestive and reflective of media manipulation.
3. Being John Malkovich
If anyone took up the surreal baton in the late Nineties and Noughties it was screenwriter and, latterly, director Charlie Kaufman. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York both play testament to Kaufman’s skewed yet utterly compelling innovative mind, but it’s his script for Being John Malkovich that is really out there. A portal into the actor John Malkovich’s head you say? Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, repeat to fade…
In many respects Head was The Monkees willingly burying their cartoon pop persona. A colourful, psychedelic romp through a number of visual non sequiturs, it was, on release, a complete flop. Now hailed as a cult classic, Head can be seen as a far-reaching, surreal commentary on celebrity and commercialism, a world where nothing means everything and everything means nothing. Now, step forward, fellas, come on, jump up and down, you’re supposed to be dandruff.
5. The City of Lost Children
If surrealism is the art of juxtaposition and surprise then children are the perfect accomplices, their untutored naivety a superb method of expressing these thoughts and techniques. And so it is with Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen and Amelie) and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children. In accordance with a plot that centres around an unhinged scientist stealing children to obtain their dreams because he’s scared of getting old, this is a vivid, woozy and off-kilter masterpiece where nothing is as it seems.
6.The Seventh Seal
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made. It is also one of the most ambitious and most surreal. Made just over 10 years after the end of World War II and at a time when Cold War tensions were increasing, the film is concerned with life, faith and meaning. Its most famous scene is also its most strange: Max von Sydow’s medieval knight plays chess with death.
7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Bunuel is hailed as the Godfather of surreal cinema. His 1929 classic short film Un Chien Andalou (the one with the slit eyeball) was made with Salvador Dali and influenced successive generations of directors. Surreal themes pervaded all his films and none more so than his late period tour de force, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A hilarious, uncomfortable and perfectly judged send up of the hypocritical mores of the upper middle class, it is an expert lesson in single-minded filmmaking.
Alfred Hitchcock hooking up with Salvador Dali for the trippy dream sequences in the former’s classic whodunit Spellbound, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing. Gregory Peck reliving his darkest moments for Ingrid Bergman is absurd surrealism in overdrive.