This essay examines diverse strands of surrealist influence in the cult film The Holy Mountain (1973), by Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Through a discussion of the historical context of Jodorowsky’s artistic production in the post-war period, as well as specific surrealist sources for the film, I argue that La montaña Sagrada is closely aligned with international surrealism in plot, set, and cinematography, but that it simultaneously formulates its own unique countercultural framework by building on this substrate of influence. Based largely upon the unfinished novel by French para-surrealist René Daumal, Le Mont Analogue: Roman d'aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (1952), The Holy Mountain evokes Jodorowsky’s fascination with surrealism since his involvement with theatre and poetry in Santiago, Chile during the 1950s, and his collaboration in the para-surrealist group Panique in France and Mexico starting in in 1962. Continuing his long-standing homage to Leonora Carrington and Antonin Artaud in The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky explores a saturated visual world of the occult, alchemy, the tarot, and altered states of consciousness in a barrage of experimental tactics throughout the film.
Luis Buñuel’s essay ‘The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry’ was first published in 1958, but dates back a further five years to a paper the reclusive director gave in 1953. This essay demonstrates that, first, the backdrop to the essay is the international success of Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950), which had put him back on the map, in Europe at least, following his disappearance as a film-maker after 1933’s Land without Bread (Las Hurdes). Second, since Los olvidados and Italian neorealism are contemporaneous, Buñuel, wary of the conflation of the two, to the detriment of his own movie, feels compelled to define the parameters of both neorealism and surrealism. Third, ‘The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry’ is a surrealist text through and through. Fourth, both Los olvidados and ‘The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry’ mark the return to the surrealist fold of this cinéaste maudit, at least as a far-flung fellow traveller using the ideas of the movement as his moral-poetic compass.
A few years before Lawrence Jordan’s cut-out animations, Jean Desvilles made a film in 1961 animating Max Ernst’s surrealist collage novel, Une semaine de bonté, published in 1934. The essence of animated film being movement, transferring and adapting a book to film necessarily involves a redefinition of collage. Desville’s process is indeed not just an adaptation, but a genuine transposition. For instance, while Ernst endeavoured to erase all traces of the collage process, Desvilles detached the figures from the background when animating them. Far from obliterating Ernst’s efforts and the collage process itself, Desvilles renewed Ernst’s collages with cut-out paper animation, but also with other film techniques, such as a flickering effect within the frames hung on the walls as in Ernst’s original work, a vibrating effect for the figures, and figures superimposed over figures. From collage to cut- out, several problems arise as to how Desvilles’ movie is to be understood in the context of post-1945 surrealist film. Far from being unfaithful to Ernst, this frame-by-frame cut-out animation is a way of showing Ernst’s work on screen rather than in a book, a film as an exhibition, and a kind of film on art.
The post-war surrealist Robert Benayoun acknowledged in an interview the importance of a certain strain of science fiction to his film Paris n’existe pas (1969), but also its indebtedness to the fiction of modernist author Henry James and the 1933 mainstream movie Berkeley Square, lauded by André Breton around the time of its release. In this essay, I bring together the two films for the first time, reading Paris n’existe pas initially against the background of SF, but more as an updated version of Berkeley Square. That is to say, I interpret Paris n’existe pas as a film that is immersed in a history of mediumism as that has been understood in the theoretical and anecdotal history of surrealism. In this sense, the commonalities between the ‘time travel’ on view in both Paris n’existe pas and Berkeley Square are shown to be nothing less than the second sight observed by Breton in his longer theoretical tracts, such as Nadja (1928) and Mad Love (1937). Consequently, these can then be related to the novels of James in a comparison of surrealism and high modernism made on only one previous occasion, in the writings of none other than Benayoun himself.
The early surrealist writings on film have secured their place in film history and the history of film theory, but the surrealist movement’s presence in post-war film culture remains a blind spot in film studies. The Introduction describes how surrealists turned to film criticism and film-making with renewed vigour following World War II, before discussing the methodological challenges involved in expanding the study of surrealist film to the post-World War II period. It argues that surrealist cinema and its widespread impact cannot be fully understood unless its drastically understudied post-war history is consistently acknowledged and charted. Discussing the post-war reception of surrealism, its political pursuits, and its widened interests generally, the Introduction sets out specific examples of how the history of surrealist film intersects with the movement’s broader history and outlook.
This essay deals with Joseph Cornell’s peculiarly American transformation of surrealism in both his more traditional art works, his boxes and collages, and the films he made. Although Cornell’s work frequently displays his Francophile taste, I claim his appropriation of surrealism shows a strong relation not only to European Symbolist poetry, but also American Romanticism as typified by Melville and Hawthorne, but particularly Emily Dickinson. Further, both his boxes and his cinematic work show Cornell’s grasp of the moving image as a unique means for conveying moments of sudden inspiration and revelation, corresponding to what Walter Benjamin called surrealism’s ‘profane illumination’. Cornell’s films, but also his boxes, which frequently evoke the mechanism of ‘pre-cinema’, inscribe an experience of glimpses and sudden revelations through the evanescent aspect of the moving image.
Leonora Carrington’s cinematic adventures in Mexico
This chapter explores the imaginative play of Leonora Carrington’s writings in the context of her collaboration with the Mexican film-maker Juan López Moctezuma. Carrington acted as art director and costume designer for his film The Mansion of Madness (1972), based loosely on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’ (1845). The mise-en-scène is resplendent with recognisable iconography from both her stories and paintings. Moctezuma considered the camera a magical instrument that allowed for the creation of other worlds, and The Mansion of Madness enters a marvellous asylum through the fairy-tale trope of the mysterious forest. Carrington took a playful role in the creation of this world, populating it with her signature ideas in the form of objects, and advising on innovatively staged and choreographed scenes that trouble the male gaze. The temporal, spatial, and physical aspects of this collaboration are of interest to studies in film and surrealism, as the film serves as both real and virtual archive of Carrington’s creative practice. This chapter considers how Carrington’s cinematic adventures cast a new light on the recurring fears and desires in her wider work.
On the collaboration between surrealism and Positif
In 1951, Ado Kyrou and Robert Benayoun founded the surrealist cinema journal L’Âge du cinéma. It folded after five issues, but soon afterwards Kyrou joined the editorial board of the review Positif, which thereafter became the film journal of choice for the surrealists. Benayoun became a regular contributor, while one of the Positif team, Raymond Borde, joined the surrealists, and other surrealists made occasional contributions to the journal throughout the 1950s. During the 1960s and 70s, the surrealists established a significant presence in Positif as successively Benayoun, Gérard Legrand, Petr Král, and Paolo de Paranagua were admitted to the editorial board. Positif was known for its opposition to Cahiers de Cinéma and the ideology of the New Wave, and the surrealists played a prominent part in the polemics of the time. This chapter looks at the surrealist contribution to film criticism generally and considers the nature of their collaboration with Positif in particular. A fresh perspective is offered on our understanding of film criticism in France during this crucial period of its history, which will raise questions about the habitual way in which the significance of the New Wave of that time tends to be discussed today.
L’Invention du monde is one of the most important surrealist documentary films. Produced in 1952 by Michel Zimbacca, with the help of Jean-Louis Bédouin, it presented views of the ‘savage arts’ – objects, dances, music – with a commentary by the poet Benjamin Péret; all three were active members of the Parisian Surrealist Group. For the surrealists, the magic relation to nature and the intensity of the marvellous were essential components of ‘savage’ culture and artefacts, in opposition to the oppressive capitalist and mercantile modern Western civilisation. Their interest in savage art is therefore directly linked to their anti-colonialist commitment. L’Invention du monde shows artefacts from the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, taken from the exhibits of the Musée de L'Homme (Paris), or from private collections, such as those of André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss, but also uses photos from museums around the world, as well as a few cuts from ethnographic films. The documentary is not an ethnographic film, but a poetical composition, based on a strong belief in the universality of human spirit, drawing on the infinite resources of the unconscious (in the Freudian meaning).