Discuss the role of symbolism in Un Chien andalou.
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Discuss the role of symbolism in Un Chien andalou. Jean Goudal writing in 1925 expressed the view that the cinematic experience (medium, message and location) was the 'ideal means for the realization of surreality, of the marvellous' stressing its potential for the recreation of dream: 'The cinema [....] constitutes a conscious hallucination, and utilizes this fusion of dream and consciousness which Surrealism would like to see realized in the literary domain [....]. They should lose no time in imbuing their productions with the three essential characteristics of dream; the visual, the illogical, the pervasive.'1 It was another four years before Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel worked together on Un Chien andalou (1929), a short (seventeen minutes) silent film, that is considered by critics (e.g. Rudolf Kuenzli2) to be one of only two or three truly Surrealist films produced (along with L'Age d'or (1930) and possibly Man Ray's L'etoile de mer (1928) or Antonin Artaud's and Germaine Dulac's La Coquille et le clergyman (1928).) The genesis of the film can be found in Dalí's writings in the Catalan avant-garde literary review L'Amic de les Arts, specifically La fotografia, pura creació de l'esperit (September 1927) and Film-arte, fil antiartístico (December 1927), the latter dedicated to his student-friend Buñuel. Dalí emphasized that film could create visual images not available to painting, provoking a new way of seeing ('to look is to invent'3), and offering a medium for the recording and mediation (via the 'intervention' of director-producer)
The mind subconsciously tries to grasp these conflicting signals, attempting to absorb this extradiegetic element into the main narrative development of the film, and in the process creates a subtle tension between rupture and realism. This subversion or unsettling of the viewer's response is a characteristic use of visual figuration (symbolism) throughout the film and represents an inversion of the metaphor- placed-in-syntagm (see Appendix I). In traditional film rhetoric, this is where a symbol ('vehicle' in structural linguistics) comments on the 'tenor' of an event (it's diegetic characteristic), after it has taken place. Reading such a metaphor requires the 'construction of a connotative system of the referents'13, or in plain English, the viewer needs to understand what it is about the moon and the sliver of cloud that symbolizes the cutting of the woman's eye. Unfortunately the inversion of their normal filmic relationship inhibits the viewer's comprehension as they (we) are not sure which contiguous scenes are diegetic and which extradietegic. As Williams observes the most significant aspect of this visual metaphor is how 'the meticulous building of an apparently realistic diegesis culminates in an outrageous and metaphoric act of violence, which unlike most film violence subverts the very realism of its discourse.'14 This technique is integral to the development of the whole film and at the highest level is intended to be symbolic, even representative, of the oneiric experiences of the individual's unconscious mind.
As a cinematic concept Un Chien andalou, aims to replicate the mechanics and illusion of a dream. Its success is attributable to a combination of Buñuel's skills as filmmaker (notwithstanding his ability to parody viciously church, state and cultural heritage) and Dalí's poetic use of Freudian iconography. Dalí's deployment of Freudian dream symbolism throughout the film parallels the multi-layered symbolic imagery seen in his painted works from 1929 onwards. A host of individual symbols and concepts crowd in on the viewer: fetishes (the feminine frills of the cyclist and their arrangement on the bed by the woman), male/female genitalia (concave-convex, spiky-hairy round shapes in the 'ants in hand' to 'androgyne's death' sequence), dismembered and mutilated organs (eyes, hands and even bodies), the juxtaposition of sexual passion and death (the cyclist begins his sexual pursuit following the androgyne's death), frustrated sexual desire (the pulling of the grand piano), and of course the initial sexual penetration symbolism of the much discussed 'razor cutting eye' sequence. In condensing the symbolism in this way the film functions as a conscious imitation of the 'rhetorical discourse of the unconscious' and it is up to the psychoanalyst to 'unpack' the latent meaning of the interlocking symbols. Semioticians, posing as pseudo-pyschoanalysts, have offered 'dream' interpretations that they claim uncover the intended meaning of Un Chien andalou. Linda Williams argues that that the eye mutilation sequence, followed by a mixture of male and female signs of sexual genitalia, reflects an assertion and denial of the presence of the phallus19.
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