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A Call To Murder? Luis Buñuel and Un Chien Andalou

Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
I am un chien andalusia!
Wanna grow up to be,
Be a debaser…”

Pixies, Debaser

Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 short film collaboration by director Luis Buñuel and painter and professional showman Salvador Dali, is one of the most daring and influential films ever made. As a work of art, it truly shows what can be achieved with the freedom of a powerful imagination. Lasting only 21 trembling minutes, every last second is infused with an irrational surrealist magic, as if we are privy to the symbols for a secret incantation being formed before our very eyes.

In this article I want to examine a famous remark made by Luis Buñuel about the film:

“What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”

Surely not? Surely this impassioned if erratic gentleman is not calling for literal human slaughter? I have been fascinated by this remark since first discovering it. What exactly does Buñuel mean by ‘murder’? The ‘murder’ of whom? Let’s take a closer look at Un Chien Andalou and see if we can discern a little more about Buñuel’s murderous intent.

A Society They Despised

Un Chien Andalou is not a polemical film. It does not have a narrative, linear or otherwise. Suitably, the initial inspiration seems to have come from a chance combing of two otherwise irreconcilable dream images:

The palm of a hand is covered with ants and pushes through a doorway

“When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali’s house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I’d had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he’d seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he’d had the previous night. “And what if we started right there and made a film?” he wondered aloud.” [1]

There appears to have been no further motivation initially than chance begetting opportunity. But the pair quickly established some ground rules regarding how to proceed. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.” [2]

“Why the irrational? For Buñuel it was a reflection of the true inner state of man: the subconscious symbols of a person’s ecstasies, mysteries and sometimes their tyrannies. Because these deep-rooted drives and desires are not often rational themselves, conventional metaphor and imagery cannot do them justice. We must allow them their own language to express themselves with, lest they remain dormant or repressed.

Buñuel felt deeply about the liberation of the self. He found himself constrained by what he saw as the limiting social, political and cultural conventions of society, a society he had nothing but contempt for. As he found himself becoming involved with the Surrealists, he realised there were other kindred spirits:

“All of us were supporters of a certain concept of revolution, and although the surrealists didn’t consider themselves terrorists, they were constantly fighting a society they despised. Their principal weapon wasn’t guns, of course; it was scandal. Scandal was a potent agent of revolution, capable of exposing such social crimes as the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny-in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed. The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.” [3]

A group of surrealist artists sit in two rows in front of a building

A Disorganisation Of The Senses

We know that Buñuel and Dali did not set out with a particular plan, meaning or polemic when they started writing Un Chien Andalou. However, the nature of the imagery being written, and the way it was being connected, was as much a mission statement than anything else.

There were no clear links from one image into another. Buñuel and Dali trusted in their instinct, that the ‘feel’ of a sequence of images was as important as the logic of a narrative path. The unexpected collisions at play, between images and often within the same image, cause explosions of shock, for both the viewer and I’m sure initially the writers. It is in the midst of these explosions that a gap opens in our thinking, allowing us to soak up new thoughts, new experiences, like a sponge. We are able to look at ourselves in new ways, and in turn, arguably changing the social order from the inside via its people.

This reminds me of a very famous assertion by the poet Arthur Rimbaud (a hero of the surrealists):

“The first task of the man who wants to be a poet is to study his own awareness of himself, in its entirety; he seeks out his soul, he inspects it, he tests it, he learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it!…A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessence’s.”

For Buñuel this derangement of the senses appealed to his artistic sensibilities as well as his essential ones. He saw cinema as a kind of poetry and a canvas for the extraordinary nonsensical imagery of his dreams. Why not, he wondered, use cinema then to derange the senses of both himself and his audience. Un Chien Andalou does this threefold:

  1. By disrupting the narrative and temporal conventions expected by the audience.
  2. By the very irrational nature of the images themselves.
  3. By the way those images tend to unconsciously attack institutions and authority figures that Buñuel does not deem worthy of respect.

Insulting A Priest

See, not only is there no story to speak of, characters jump endlessly in time in ways that seem random and arbitrary; ‘eight years later’; ‘about three in the morning’; sixteen years earlier’; ‘in Springtime’. None of these changes relative to a narrative plot point. They don’t serve as flashbacks, for instance. Characters change between times, if not in appearance per se then in aura and mood. This temporal instability, therefore, serves to disorientate the audience, making them uncertain as to whether they’re coming or going.

Amongst the sliced eyeballs, the ants escaping from human palms, the dead mules being dragged atop a grand piano, the dead bodies buried to their waists in the sand, there are priests and middle-class respectable men made ridiculous by the situations Buñuel and Dali install them in.

Buñuel’s relationship with religion is famously complex, but one thing that drew his ire was the Church as an institution. He saw the hypocrisy of an elite group claiming to have the ear of God and using this to exploit people’s own fear and vulnerability to line their own pockets.

 

Benjamin Peret insults a priest in a French street

One of the first things that drew Buñuel to Surrealism was a photo in a journal of Benjamin Pèret insulting a priest. Buñuel subconsciously replicates this photo throughout the film by making the priests who appear throughout look weak and absurd. They collapse passively off of moving bicycles and get dragged lamely by a man dragging them across the floor. They are incapable of acting for themselves, of showing any sense of agency. They are debris bobbing on the tide, going along with the word of God without the least resistance.

The main character of the film, if he can truly be called that, fares even worse. He is lecherous, untrustworthy. He is dressed in respectable attire, like the middle-class audience, I’m sure he is meant to represent. But he can’t control himself. He gropes the central female character of the film against her will, seeing her naked under clothes. He even steals physical attributes from her, modelling her armpit hair as a beard in one strange moment. Does Buñuel believe the middle class act like this behind closed doors, behind the cloak of their respectability? Possibly. Surely it’s what he wants – the middle class to lose their inhibitions?

But he knows the respectable middle class are more likely to be outraged by being confronted by themselves in such a manner. They will not give up their moral high ground so easily. And besides, as we shall see, Buñuel believes they are beyond saving. When he has the lusty, devious version of the middle class man meet himself in a politer, more timid form, he has the lustier man kill the gentler with a gunshot. It is with such an attack Buñuel aimed to transform the world.

A Call To Murder

Curiously, whilst Buñuel would see this derangement of his senses, via dreaming and cinema, as a positive expression of his innermost being, a shrugging off of the shackles, it was an attack pure and simple on the conventional society around him, a gob of spit in the face of the fashionable Parisian society, both ordinary and mundane, that he hoped the film would scandalise. Not for them the chance of expanding their inner worlds into the possibility of being better people, and not only because Buñuel judged them to be incapable of it.

There was a spiteful, violent side to Buñuel that sometimes manifested itself in his films, giving his works the feel occasionally of acts of revenge or pre-emptive strikes against the enemy. There is something terminally adolescent about this attitude: the inability to forgive, compromise or come to terms with the state of the world. This is not the same of course as not trying to improve the world, or sitting on the fence and achieving nothing, but at the same time Buñuel’s thinking often takes on a black and white, us-versus-them quality.

It’s this attitude that led Buñuel to make some suspect statements in his time. Take his comments on terrorism for example:

“The symbolic significance of terrorism has a certain attraction for me: the idea of destroying the whole social order, the entire human species. On the other hand, I despise those who use terrorism as a political weapon in the service of some cause or other-those who kill people in Madrid, for instance, in order to focus attention on the problems in Armenia.

“No, the terrorists I admire are those like the Bande a Bonnot; I understand people like Ascaso and Durruti who chose their victims carefully, or the French anarchists at the end of the nineteenth century – all those, in other words, who tried to blow up a world (and themselves along with it) that seemed to them unworthy of survival. Sometimes there’s a profound abyss between reality and my imagination – not exactly an unusual discrepancy, I’m sure; but I’ve never been a man of action. I’m simply incapable of imitating those people I so admire.” [4]

While an admiration for terrorism of any kind will always be troubling, I think the above quote is indicative of Buñuel’s attitude towards conventional society and sheds some light on his contention that Un Chien Andalou is a ‘call to murder.’ Whether he really did want to see people die (there is ambiguity as to why he was not a man of action—because he couldn’t bring himself to kill, or because he couldn’t reconcile the ideal and the actuality of terrorism?), it is clear that he admired the action of attack against a society that he saw as restrictive, amoral or immoral, and out not to benefit the majority but to perpetuate the mass fortune of a powerful minority.

By his own definition an inert man (i.e. not a man of action), Buñuel could not wield a gun but he was artistic and creative enough to wield a movie camera with the same intent. Un Chien Andalou is a weapon in and of itself. If it is truly a call to murder, it is not so on a polemical level but as an attack on the conventional sensibility and the senses of the conventional, ‘fashionable’ viewer as a microcosm of the conventional society Buñuel detested so much.

Buñuel wanted to murder the existence of narrow, soul-shrivelling respectability, and to do so, as an inert man, he made a cinema livid with its own irrationality, rich in images that could not be explained but could not be denied.

The blood head of a large deceased donkey lies across the keyboard of a grand piano

Conclusion

We now know that what Luis Buñuel meant by Un Chien Andalou being ‘a call to murder.’ He saw the film as symbolic of the attack needed to destroy the conventional mainstream social order he believed was obstructing our ability to be truly ourselves, to be alive to all our deepest needs and desires.

Was Buñuel successful? On a microscopic level, sure. He upset certain spectators and police authorities, no doubt. But even then the film failed in its objectives. For every person it offended, it seemed to earn the admiration of many more. Buñuel himself was offended by what he saw as the appreciation of an audience the film was attacking. They only appreciated the film, he argued, because it was a new form, and the novelty of the new always became fashionable with people who could see no further than the end of their nose. They would discard the film unceremoniously as soon as a new novelty came to replace it (it was for this perceived audience that Buñuel wrote the article where he stressed the film was a call to murder).

But as a work of art, an acknowledgment of the sweet possibility of change, it succeeds spectacularly. Even now it retains its power to incite, provoke thought and passion, and to inspire. Long may it do so.

Looking at the contemporary world, with the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries, it feels like society has now absorbed the irrational in the same way that high street fashion and pop music absorb youth subcultures and rob them of their subversive power. The world gets ever stranger but not necessarily better overall.
Otherwise, it is business as usual. We are ruled by the same old institutions, the same old fears and biases, the same old narrow perceptions and unfairness.

Murder? Let’s call it reform, change, and let’s learn from the past. But let’s keep the spirit of mischief, of play, of the power of dreams and our inner lives.

Buñuel might have lost the battle but the war has never been more needed.

 

[1] Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. © 1983

[2] Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. © 1983

[3] Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. © 1983

[4] Buñuel, Luis. My Last Breath. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. © 1983


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Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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