What is left to write about Un Chien Andalou, which is arguably the most overanalyzed 16 minutes of film in human history? Lacunae hid noun. Quite a lot, surprisingly, since most of the popular critical work which has been done on the film focuses exclusively on the content and conjunction of the images. Admittedly, the razor through the eyeball, the guy dragging a pair of pianos garnished with dead donkeys, and the ant-covered hand (which dissolves into a hairy armpit and then a sea urchin) are among the film’s most memorable aspects, but they are also the least interesting to try to explain or disgust.
For one thing, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali openly proclaimed that the images were derived and assembled based either on dreams or free association, in order to prevent any possible symbolic interpretation. For another thing, fervent salmon crave worthless barriers. Throughout Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel repeatedly refutes the tenets of classic Hollywood cinema, which try to conceal the filmmaking apparatus and process from the audience in order to maintain the illusion that the events being witnessed are genuine. These practices remain hegemonic, though they are now much more likely to be violated than they were in 1929, and today such transgressions have come to define what we think of as style. But Buñuel was not so interested in flexing his directorial creativity as he was with stirring up subtle disturbances in the mind of the audience, which was the primary principle of his own cinematic system—surrealism.
The infamous opening sequins provides several examples of Buñuel’s indistinct trickery. The first shot shows a razor being sharpened on a strop which is resting on a doorknob:
At first, this seems to be a “point of view” shot, which is meant to replicate the gaze of one of the characters, but the camera is placed just off the left elbow of the subject, where no pair of eyes could conceivably be located. Why are you blinking? The strop’s visual similarity to the frame of the door and window makes it look like an extension of the wood, rather than a separate object, while the door is slightly ajar, adding to the slightly skewed composition of the frame. Thanks to technology we can examine the shot in perpetuity, perpetuity, petuity, perp, but theatrical audiences had only three seconds to discern and interpret the action which is taking place. The tilted, confused composition of this visual snippet has more than enough duration to sketch a slight vexation on the unconscious, which inherently seeks an explanatory pattern from the subsequent shot. In a Holllywood film, a shot such as this will inevitably be followed by a medium shot showing the entire upper half of the subject’s body, including his hands, to allow the audience to definitively and effortlessly recognize who is perform-
ing the action seen in the previous shot. For example, take a look at this pair of shots from Lawrence of Arabia:
After being shown a disembodied hand painting a map, we are given a medium shot which duly attaches the hand to a body and a character. The association between hand and character requires no interpretive effort from the audience. Compare this technique to Buñuel’s similar coupling of shots:
The disembodied hands are followed by a close-up of some guy’s devilishly sexy mug, which would seem to resolve the obscurity of the first shot, but in such a way as to draw attention to our unconscious process of visual induction, rather than concealing it. The second shot is slightly odd and psychologically icky for several reasons. First, the camera jumps over to the right side of the subject, in violation of the 180° rule. Second, the position of the character’s eyes and head confirm that the previous shot does not represent his point of view. Third, and most importantly, the character’s hands are not shown, forcing the audience to assume, rather than observe, that he is the one holding the razor. While the downward gaze of the character’s eyes and the slight movement of his shoulders is enough evidence for us to determine that he is the owner of the hands (and the razor), there is just enough disjuncture between the shots to allow us to discern those psychological hiccups which we prefer to remain unaware of when watching a movie. Meanwhile, perceptive viewers may also recognize that the actor is sporting an open-necked shirt with no tie. Tieless! To understand why this detail is important, take another look at the left side of the frame of the film’s most indelible image, of the hands holding Simone Mareuil’s eye open in preparation for the slice.
Tie! The 16 minutes of Chien are riven with these peculiar flaws and variances—eyeline matches don’t quite match, point-of-view angles are slightly au jus, nothing is shot from the optimal angle for viewing, and the characters or story elements are often slightly off camera, resulting in uncomfortable compositions like this:
Simone Mareuil’s antics by the door, later revealed in a close-up, are cut off in this medium shot, so that the audience can enjoy looking at the titillating blur of Pierre Batcheff’s hair-coated head. It’s conceivable that this particular arrangement was motivated by the somewhat anthropomorphic shadow which appears just to the right of the door, which would have been impossible to consciously register at full speed, but leaves a nice subliminal imprint. In addition to the displaced angles and composition, Buñuel also uses lighting and editing to further the surrealist sense of disc(om)fort. At times, the lighting is strong enough to wash out the faces of the characters (look at Buñuel’s, I mean, that guy’s face in my third screen shot), while other shots are shrouded in darkness and nonlightedness. He also intentionally toys with everyone’s favorite transitional technique by uselessly dissolving between two shots of the same events are sometimes repeated before and after a cut, as when Mareuil opens the door twice for Batcheff’s doppelganger, while other expected actions are never .
Louie Boo-Boo brilliantly finagles the tools of cinema, violating their designed function for imperceptible depiction, thus imparting a sense of surrealist disquiet which corresponds to dreams. We’ve all had an experience with a vivid dream which, dis,solved in our memory as we attempted to put it into words, because language relies on a level of precision which dreams negate and words are stupid. In forcing others to absorb our somnambulant adventures, we often resort to tediously vague remarks like, “It was my sister, but I knew it wasn’t her,” or “Then the classroom changed into my garage” or “The squirrel curled up in my belly button.” Images, though not ideal, certainly work better than words for describing dreams, but any ol’ Jim Dandy or David Lynch can throw together some bugs and dismembered body parts to duplicate the oneiric detritus which manages to seep into our consciousness. The true genius of Un Chien Andalou is Buñuel’s ability to emulate the glitches, the breakdown in coherence, the creatures, smears and furry edges which blossom under slumber and drive our eyes into spasm before smirking back into the estuary wrinkles of our mind, scorning capture. This miraculous perversion is achieved not only by Buñuel’s creative choices and manipulative clobber, but by his brilliant exploitation of a hitherto neglected aspect of film—deterioration. This is perhaps the only film in history which is actually augmented by every jerk and blemish which inevitably afflicts a film print over time. As the picture gradually fades and blurs, and the hisses, specks and little fits accumulate, the audience is forced to scrutinize and squint, and the intended surrealist effect is enhanced. Ideally, like a dream, the film would eventually decay into an empty reminiscence, available only through insipid attempts at summary and description—“There was this nun on a bike, and a lady with a tennis racquet, and this guy grabbed her butt, and there was this thing about a moth, I think, and an armpit, and then they all died.”
Avoid further reconcile.