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Buñuel's first film [Un Chien andalou] is commonly understood either to be an unadulterated bit of nonsense or a symbol-laden exercise in hermeticism that only the initiated can understand. Neither of these ideas is entirely false, but neither is adequate for a full comprehension of one of the most important films of the avant-garde. (p. 38)
Our initial postulate for understanding Un Chien andalou is that surrealist practice is a ludic activity, a form of play, that attempts systematically to subvert the rules of the game, whether it be in the realm of syntax, narration, or iconic representation. Un Chien andalou is, then, an anti-game which, by the systematic way it proposes to destroy the rules of earlier cinematic games, transforms itself into a superior form of play. By systematic negation of the rules the surrealist work develops a new set of ludic definitions at the same time it acquires an ironic self-consciousness. Which is to say that Buñuel uses his film to parody, and through parody, to destroy the filmic conventions that two generations of filmmakers had evolved…. The film's opening images, which constitute a kind of prologue to the rest of the film, are thus an attack on the passivity with which the spectator accepts the conventional logic of representation—the rules of the game—as well as the passivity that this logic inflicts on the spectator.
The film's first title, "Once upon a time," opens the assault by making an ironic appeal to the conditioned response normally elicited by this kind of narrative signpost. "Once upon a time" notifies us that a certain narrative code is at work, that a sequential narrative order is at hand in which events are subordinated to the simplest form of unfolding chronology. In short, the order to be followed is the linear chronology of epic, myth, and movies. (pp. 39-40)
In thematic terms [the] prologue to Un Chien andalou is a prologue to that part of Buñuel's work in which he frequently jeers those "who have eyes and will not see."…
The prologue also presents a parodistic sexual metaphor that prefigures the sexual motifs in the rest of the film. One might even say that the severing of the eye is a rape of the spectator's vision, an idea that Buñuel corroborates in a later film, The Young One, when he prefaces the girl's rape with the same image of clouds crossing the moon, that traditional symbol of virginity. By forcing us to view unwittingly the razor's penetration of the flesh, Buñuel commits a violent transgression against our own desire to protect our privacy. With seeming impunity Buñuel forces upon the spectator a visual rape that affirms the violent freedom of desire and play over and beyond all categories of good and evil. Like the Marquis de Sade, whom the surrealists placed in their Pantheon of revered heroes, Buñuel uses a razor that cuts in two directions, for his ironic celebration of the absolute freedom of desire also recognizes the primordial violence attached to it….
Buñuel's ironic destruction of the logic of filmic narration and his celebration of violent desire point to what is perhaps of ultimate importance in this prologue and in a good deal of Buñuel's subsequent work. This celebration of violence is a supreme example of black humor. (p. 41)
Having experienced this most direct initiation to black humor, what can the spectator who has opened his eyes now expect? Buñuel offered a key to the rules of the game he and Dali played when he, in a typically laconic fashion, made the following remarks to François...
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Truffaut on the manner in which they made the film: "Dali and I would select gags and objects that would happen to come to mind. And we rejected without mercy everything that might mean something. I have kept this taste for the irrational." The systematic avoidance of meaning—which sets up the formal rules of the game—does not mean that there is no sense to the series of irrationally associated images that follow the prologue. For the destruction of logical meaning is, indeed, a form of sense, conveying, as we have suggested, Buñuel's contempt for the traditional constructs that purport to represent reality. (p. 42)
The parodistic destruction of mimetic devices points to the first level of interpretation of Un Chien andalou. And it should be apparent … what skepticism one should grant the usual critical approach to the film, which consists in calling the film some kind of dream representation and in then searching for a latent discourse that various symbols give rise to…. [Film] can be a mimetic means for representing the world of repressed desire. In addition, the way in which one perceives a film has some features in common with the way in which one perceives a dream. Moreover, film can make use of the irrational associations and transformations that one finds in dreams. These are three distinct points, and if Buñuel chooses to abolish the principle of noncontradiction in his works, this does not mean that he is seeking to represent a dream world, the one realm of our normal experience where the principle of noncontradiction does not hold sway. It would seem more appropriate to say that he frequently borrows from the rhetoric of dream discourse in order to contest the more constrictive rhetoric of traditional narrative discourse. (pp. 46-7)
Once one decides that Un Chien andalou is an imitation of dream reality, then it nearly automatically follows that the proper critical approach is to apply the science of the irrational and to interpret the film in psychoanalytic terms. Psychoanalytic concepts offer a useful approach to the film, since they point to a level of symbolic discourse that is present in the film, though not in the latent manner that many critics would have it. For it is our contention that Buñuel and Dali have, in a completely self-conscious fashion, used the symbolism that psychoanalytic discourse utilizes in order to create another level of discourse that they have, in turn, systematically subverted.
A typical psychoanalytic interpretation of Un Chien andalou will usually start by positing a general principle of coherence in function of which the symbols are organized, such as, say the portrayal of adolescent sexual development or a symbolic portrayal of themes of sexual frustration. (p. 47)
[Interpretations of the symbols as sexual representatives] indicates the kinds of symbols that one can find in Un Chien andalou and the kinds of interpretations they can give rise to. However, the importance of these symbols is not that they express some latent psychic reality, but rather that they are posited in a self-conscious way as the elements of a filmic discourse. There is, of course, an element of parody in this as well as a ludic subversion of this kind of discourse. And it is this self-conscious dimension that marks Un Chien andalou as a privileged moment in this history of film, for it is with this surrealist incursion into cinema that filmic discourse becomes subject to the same kind of self-criticism and ironic subversion that the modernist notion of self-consciousness had already subjected literature and painting.
Self-consciousness in modern terms is a reflexive form of creation in which the work is endowed with indices that constantly point to work as an artifact. The work thus contains a perspective on itself, and this perspective, superimposed on the naive perspective of normal vision that wishes to accept the work as an authentic form of representation, creates the double perspective or vision that is the basis for modern irony. Surely, this is one of the marking features of modernism: ironic consciousness of mimesis is raised to the same level of importance as the act of mimesis itself. Surrealism, in its joyful subversion of all fixed forms of representation, goes perhaps one step further in this direction when it finally proposes that this ironic consciousness is the only worthy artistic act that the poet in quest of liberation can undertake.
Buñuel angrily declared that few had understood Un Chien andalou, for none had seen that it was a "desperate call for murder." Perhaps by this we might understand the urgency Buñuel felt in attempting to destroy our naive acceptance of film's capacity to order the world through some objective mode of mimesis. For the film is an attempted assassination of that belief. Beyond this attack on discourse, too, we must see Un Chien andalou as another manifestation of the surrealist terrorism that, they hoped, would lead to the purging of consciousness. For the surrealist apocalypse would be the eruption of pure consciousness, undivided, rid of all categories, at one with itself as a self-sufficient form of experience. (pp. 48-9)
Allen Thiher, "Surrealism's Enduring Bite: 'Un Chien andalou'," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1977 Salisbury State College), Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 38-49.