Over the course of our lives, we all experience (or at least perceive) moments that are bizarre, strange, uncanny. We’ve all experienced moments of impossible isolation, unfathomable serendipity. Dreams almost always feel real in the moment, certain moments in the waking world can feel like dreams- or nightmares.
Surrealism came to fruition in the 1920s as a genre that played with those types of experiences. Dreams, particularly, were of interest to the pioneers of surrealism. The writings of Freud were especially influential over the artistic movement because the emphasis psychoanalysis placed on dream interpretation. Additionally, psychoanalysts believed they could draw out the subconscious via free association. Just the same, Surrealists often use strange imagery to stimulate the subconscious, as they see it, via that same process of free association.
Freud actually rather disliked surrealism, he once said:
“I have been inclined to consider surrealists, who seem to have chosen me as their patron saint, as incurable nutcases.”
His exception to this rule was Salvadori Dali, Freud admired Dali immensely. Despite Freud’s condemnation, Surrealists continued to use imagery to play with the subconscious. New generations of surrealists soldier on, even today, hoping to unleash our inner worlds… or something.
Whether you believe that Surrealism can unlock the inner secrets of our mind or you believe that it’s just a bunch of weird shit, here are 4 surrealist movies from the last decade that are worth taking a peek at:
Melancholia is an incredibly depressing film. At least, I think so. In fact, it’s a film about depression. The film itself is basically a subversion of the standard “disaster” movie where the disaster that threatens all life on earth actually occurs. Sort of like a contemporary version of On The Beach. As I’ve hinted at, this disaster film is an expressionistic depiction of the film maker’s own depression. Allegedly, the idea for this film came to Lars von Trier during a therapy session.
As Nerdwriter says in his video essay on Melancholia, the film’s surrealness doesn’t really come from its visual style, but rather from its use of time. Moments in the film are expanded and compressed at inopportune times. At her own wedding, Justine leaves her reception repeatedly for what seems like extended periods of time. Only to return to find the party continuing as if she had never left. This use of temporality keeps us, the audience, from getting a hold of the situations throughout the film (just as Justine’s character struggles). The focus shifts to Justine’s sister Claire who deals with the end of the world in a panic, Justine, on the other hand -who, in a sense, has already experienced an “end to the world” via her disastrous wedding- approaches the situation with calm. Nonetheless, even though I’ve kinda spoiled the film, it’s definitely worth checking out!
Lady Blue Shanghai (2010)
These days, David Lynch is busy with the premiere of the third season of Twin Peaks. Lynch, who is probably the most famous American surrealist, dabbles in art of all kinds- painting, sculpture, film, even music. However, even amongst Lynch fans, it isn’t well known that Lynch shot a 15 minute short film for Dior, a french fashion company. This extended commercial is by and large a standard David Lynch Film.
A small blue handbag does make an appearance in the film, but they don’t mention Dior for more than a second throughout the entire film. Likewise this short film, advertisement, infomercial (?) thing is covered with the unmistakable fingerprints of David Lynch. The mood of the film is marked with this bizarre tone that can only be described as a sort of casual, awkward isolation. The way Lynch achieves this is hard to describe; but is it perhaps most easily demonstrated by looking at the way his films use dialogue. Lady Blue Shanghai, specifically, uses universally fragmented and stilted conversations to foster a sense of distance.
Lady Blue Shanghai, with its unclear narrative and awkwardness kind of feels like a deleted scene from Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. Just on those grounds, it’s 15 minutes well spent.
Tokyo Tribe (2014)
Tokyo Tribe might not actually be “surreal” in the standard sense: it’s fast paced and the plot is very cut and dry. Nevertheless, the premise is absolutely bonkers – it is a grindhouse rap musical. The actual story is equal parts crime-syndicate-turf-war and cannibalistic-apocalypse-death-cult. Narratively, the film has a linear plot and is very literal in its themes and imagery. That imagery is at times, extremely bizarre. The film is bursting with poorly endowed men with miniguns, samurai wearing kevlar vests, grandma DJs, etc.
The visuals are extremely busy, the strangeness and arcade-like powerpop feel of the movie can’t be captured via these stills. Despite that, I will use these stills just to show off a fight scene that takes place in a room that’s a clear reference to the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange. Tokyo Tribe was generally not well received, many critics deride the film for being more spectacle than substance. However, the spectacle, at least, is a welcome departure from the Michael Bay style spectacle we’ve become accustomed to in recent years.
Tokyo Tribe is a film worth watching, if only for the pure novelty of a Quentin Tarantino-esque musical.
Surviving Life (2010)
Surviving Life is the most recent piece by Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. As great as the movie is, I was slightly frustrated by the difficulty I had acquiring a copy. It seems as though the film is only available via DVD import – a bit strange to see in 2017! Surviving Life is surreal in the orthodox sense, complete with the emphasis psychoanalysis and everything. So much so, in fact, portraits of Freud and Carl Jung are active characters in the film.
Surviving Life has a decidedly happier tone than the other films listed here. The basic premise has to do with a man named Eugene who has a “dream lover” named Eugenia. In real life, he leads an otherwise normal life married to a woman named Milada. Surviving Life makes extensive use of a sort of “paper cutout” animation similar to that of Monty Python. The artistic style shoots the movie through with a whimsical sort of strangeness, the kind you might get from watching an R rated Wallace and Gromit.
It’s also heartwarming. I thoroughly recommend it, if you can *survive* the trials and tribulations it’ll take to get a copy.
These films are all wonderfully bizarre. If you ever get tired of films “making sense”, be sure to give these a try.
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