The Eye of the Beholder

        Perhaps for many, the most evocative scene from the film Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bu˝uel, 1929) was the slicing in half of a phlegmatic woman's eyeball with a straight razor. In fact, long before I first saw the film, I myself had even heard descriptions of the sordid eye-slicing. Still, I was not prepared for the shock. While I must admit that I have yet to personally witness a human being sliced open, the scene, nonetheless appeared rather authentic. Not until I had researched the making of the film did I learn that they had indeed sliced open an actual eye; though, it was in fact the eye of a cow. The slicing of the eye, juxtaposed with images of the moon and a thin cloud intersecting its luminous surface, becomes if at all possible, the only scene of Un Chien Andalou to explicitly arouse a direct explanation. Perhaps the scene was meant as a startling petition that we should abandon our staunchly held perceptions of reality.

        While the rest of the film perhaps may have lost its shock value, at least in our day and age, the opening scene of the eye-slicing still remains titillating, as marked by the numerous gasps issued by students during its presentation. Luis Bu˝uel and Salvador Dali were two young men, then living in France, who were deeply enamored of the surrealist movement, the lineage of which one could trace to Dadaism. Bu˝uel, the lone director of Un Chien Andalou, along with Dali both wrote the screenplay for this silent masterpiece, the first film for both men to have staged. A second film of which Bu˝uel and Dali had co-produced was titled L'Âge d'or (The Golden Age, 1930); and, like the first, it too was also surreal. Un Chien Andalou, through its seemingly absurd and incoherent montage of at times foul imagery and through its undisputed lack of plot, has always elicited much emotional response from its viewers, then as now. When the film premiered in Paris, Bu˝uel, so greatly fearing that the audience would respond vehemently to his piece and would wish to seek reprisal, that he was reported have secluded himself behind the screen only after cramming his pockets with stones.

        Yet, why should Bu˝uel have feared such retribution? The answer becomes quite clear when one is taking into account the era for popular films of the time were expected to espouse a tale through a logical sequence of events. However, as evident in Un Chien Andalou, the disturbing images most likely lacked any forethought in their message. Other than a recurrent theme of violence underscored by the character of the man played by Pierre Batcheff, who wishes to brutalize the young girl, Simone Mareuil, the film falls short of any preconceived notions of what cinematic entertainment should entail in regards to a plot--at least what the general public would have been expecting. It is interesting to note that the image of ants crawling out of a hole in the man's palm most likely refers to a common French phrase of the time "ants in the palms" which would predicate a desire to murder.

        It was exactly this series of apparent hallucinations that disturbed many viewers. While surrealist cinematography from our perspective in the present may come across as stale or even cliché, it was precisely this film that set the precedent for all surrealist productions to follow. Un Chien Andalou sets a great example of surrealism that dominated the artistic endeavors of many artists living in France at the time, especially the surrealist then turned Catholic master painter Salvador Dali. While Bu˝uel did not go on to create a film so richly textured with surrealism as his Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'or, he nonetheless implemented some rather surreal imagery when directing his latter films. One may question whether such a film as Un Chien Andalou would be as popular today if in fact it had been produced much later than 1929. There is a strong chance that the film has become a treasure simply because its showing came at the right time--at the height of the surrealist movement.

John Couris

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