I’ve had surrealism on the brain since Alain Resnais, arguably the last living heir to that movement, died a few weeks ago. Nowadays writers commonly use the word “surreal” when they simply mean dreamlike, disregarding the philosophical and political moorings of the original surrealist movement. How far that word has been stretched in the 90 years since André Breton published the first Surrealist manifesto, which reads practically like a call to arms:
In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention. . . . Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights. If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason. The analysts themselves can only gain by this.
It’s important to remember that Breton and several other prominent surrealists joined the Communist Party in the late 1920s. Though the Party expelled Breton in 1933, he remained affiliated with radical politics, even spending time with Leo Trotsky when he traveled to Mexico in 1938. For Breton and his peers, the imagination stood in opposition to such rigid social forces as capitalism and industrialization. This also meant that the imagination had to be carefully disordered as the opposition was carefully ordered. Breton prescribed a strict set of rules for himself when he experimented with “automatic writing.” Many of these rules were arbitrary, but he obeyed them all the same—his literary works are surprisingly consistent with regards to their themes and motifs.
Resnais’s films display a direct connection to Breton in both their controlled formalism and underlying social protest. In Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), for instance, the middle-class subjects—first presented to us as subjects of a sociological study—sometimes appear as giant, anthropomorphic rats. During the climactic dinner party of Same Old Song (1997), Resnais superimposes shots of jellyfish over the action, reframing the onscreen behavior in a totally different light.
“Buñuel’s style is superbly unobtrusive and naturalistic,” Dave Kehr wrote of Simon of the Desert (1965), “proving again how much realism is required in surrealism.” Buñuel was the most successful filmmaker associated with the original surrealist movement; and if certain aspects of his filmmaking remain influential today, his light touch isn’t one of them. Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, which opens today at the Music Box, strikes me as a noble attempt at surrealist cinema undermined by heavy-handed dream imagery on the one hand and a too-loose grasp on realism on the other. I get the feeling that José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, on which the film is based, is far more successful in conveying a surrealist counterlogic. If nothing else, Villeneuve has made me eager to read it.
On a related note, I’m almost finished with Breaking Bad, and I’ve been surprised by how much the acclaimed TV series has in common with traditional surrealism. Some of the most effective passages depict criminal activity being carried out under the veneer of respectable middle-class activity. Business practices and work relationships in conventional life are paralleled by those of the underground—and the viewer comes to regard them all as inextricable. Breaking Bad illustrates an alternative order hiding beneath our own through some wonderfully concentrated images, like the little tube of poison that Walter White hides behind an electrical outlet in his suburban living room. Incidentally, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was involved with The X-Files, which Resnais cited as a major influence in his later years. I wonder if Resnais got around to Breaking Bad before he passed away—that outlet motif seems right up his alley.