Defining the Surrealist Act in Film
L' Age d'Or is a masterpiece of surrealist cinema. The surrealist desire to shock and scandalize society is conveyed throughout the film. However, surrealism is not just a movement based on spectacle. The psychological and social realms are also of great importance to the artistic movement. Luis Bunuel's film attempts to impose an imprint on the psyche by attacking the audience with images; some of those images are shocking and others simply contradictory. The audience the becomes a part of the surrealistic work of art; both as voyeur and object.
Andre Breton in the First Surrealistic Manifesto offers this definition of Surrealism:
Psychic automation is its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner-the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt for any aesthetic or moral concern (Breton 20). The surrealist mission intends to affect the human psyche by creating a greater understanding of the unconscious through artistic exploration. This endeavor attempts to "provoke..., an attack of conscience" (Breton 28).The conscience, the surrealists believe is not fully realized.
Dreams are identified as an element that can help guide the psyche surrealistically. Breton alludes to the importance of dreams as a key to the unconsciousness, "I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality" (Breton 15). Dreams definitely are effective in providing humanity with a vision of the unconscious. However, the most profound surrealistic state is that of the conscious hallucination. This is the true marriage of the unconscious and the conscious states.
In L' Age d' Or, Luis Bunuel has created a scene that effectively conveys this marriage of the two states of consciousness, The male character of the unsatisfied lover is separated from the object of his affections after they participate in an obscenely public display of "dry-humping" at a ceremony honoring the founding of Rome. While being escorted throughout the streets of Rome by two authoritarian figures, the man is confronted by a series of advertisements that become objects on which he projects images that refer to his unquenched sexual urges. This first of these encounters I will describe in detail.
Upon stopping in front of a store window, so that his escorts may light cigarettes, the lover spies an advertisement for hand creme. The ad depicts a woman's right hand extended diagonally across the face of a poster toward a container, with its lid slightly ajar. The design of the top of the container could be intended to be a large flower upside down with just a "knob" of stem remaining, or possibly the decapitated body of a white swan; as inferred by the brand name of the product "Leda"; a reference to the character of Greek mythology that was seduced by Zeus who had taken of the form of a swan. Either the reference to female sexuality (flower), or male impotence (decapitation of sexual idol) suffices to convey the surrealist objective of attempting to shock the viewer. However, the ambiguity of this image, by encouraging both readings more appropriately conveys the surrealist concept of the marriage of two states. Is the image one of female potency, or male impotency? The surrealist answer would be, "Yes."
As the man more intently looks at the picture, his gaze changes to convey a desirous hunger. This is the point where the surrealist fusion of fantasy and reality occurs. The man through an hallucinatory experience brought on by his unsatisfied sexual desire, sees the picture change and become animated. The two center fingers of the hand begin moving rapidly, encircling a small hole in the black fabric the hand rests on. Additionally, the box appears to change into a puff of hair. This scene is clearly one of male voyeuristic fantasy regarding female masturbation. However, the simple concept of the man imagining a woman masturbating is not surrealistic.
The surrealistic aspect comes into focus when, in a later hallucination, we see a photographic image of a woman in a reclining position, turn into the woman of his earlier public embrace. The recognizable woman is in the same reclining position, while her right hand rests on the black fabric at the crotch of her skirt. The defining surrealstic moment occurs when the woman gets up from her sofa and enters another room to begin a conversation with her mother. This is no longer simply an object of the man's sexually driven imagination. We have moved into the realm of reality. Has the man tapped into some type of telepathic connection by which he was able to "see" the woman during her masturbatory moments, or did the intensity of his desire control her actions? As Bunuel himself had occasion to experiment with the art of hypnotism, the latter is definitely a possibility (Baxter 24). In any case, the blending of the imaginary and reality if surrealism in its truest form.
While watching the film before a live audience, I heard a steady stream of constant laughter in the theater. I even heard a young woman behind me ask if the film, "was supposed to be serious?" The surrealists believed so, even though they also enjoyed the many comedic moments. Although Bunuel created his film as a serious artistic endeavor, the surrealistic objective of uniting two states of consciousness would invite the laughter of those who felt compelled to express their experience with the film that way. After all, creating a serious film that people laugh at reflects the surrealist aversion to aesthetics. Additionally, the act of making the audience watch is surrealstic. Forget, "dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly" (Breton 29). A greater act of surrealism is to get someone to sit for an hour in one place and not know whether to laugh or leave. That individual has experienced an attack on the consciousness. The reason film is an effective vehicle for surrealist art is precisely because of the audience. The film moves and the audience responds and moves; each effects the other. Therefore, there is no point by which to fix reality and no safe harbor for our conscience.
UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
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