Buster Keaton and the Comedic Roots of Surrealist Cinema
In the short documentary “A Slice of Buñuel,” which accompanies the DVD release of Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel’s son Juan-Luis gives a fascinating account of how Salvadore Dali and Buñuel collaborated on the screenplay. “It had to be without any logic,” says Juan-Luis. Using illustrations, he describes how ideas were accepted or rejected on the basis of their relative disconnection to logic. For example, a man dragging an electric train with ropes—“bad idea”—a man dragging a piano and two dead donkeys with ropes—“great idea!” Symbolic interpretations, according to Juan-Luis, “are completely false because the idea was not to have any symbolic interpretation possible. It was like a dream—totally irrational.”
What, then, are we to make of the countless symbolic interpretations of Un Chien Andalou? What are we to think, for example, of statements such as “the diagonal lines defined by the crossing of the whetstone and the mullion of the window mark an angle, and angularity, hence an angst that comes with the birth of visibility itself” (Conley 208). It is tempting to dismiss such interpretations as examples of academic overreach that miss the forest for the trees. Does every bit of minutia really need to “mean” something? Does every incidental geometrical shape—does every angle, by virtue of the fact that they have pointy edges, represent danger, and therefore angst (and what on Earth has this to do with “the birth of visibility”)? Maybe they do. There is plenty of evidence in Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to suggest that angles deliberately convey angst. But even so, would Dalí and Buñuel have plotted out their film in such a manner? These men were dreamers and poets, not psychoanalysts.
Perhaps there is some truth in both positions: one, that Chien was intended to be completely illogical, a stream of consciousness that resists all interpretation; and on the other hand, that it is full of primal and unconscious meaning, which is ideally suited for Freudian analysis. Indeed, André Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” gives full credit to Freud: “On the evidence of his discoveries a current of opinion is at last developing which will enable the explorer of the human mind to extend his investigations, since he will be empowered to deal with more than merely summary realities” (Breton). Buñuel himself wrote: “In the film are amalgamated the aesthetics of surrealism with Freudian discoveries” (Buñuel 250). But can we rely even on Buñuel for clarity when he also claims that the film, “at heart, is nothing other than a desperate, impassioned call for murder” (162)? Would Freud have guessed at that?
One thing is for certain: Un Chien Andalou is a masterpiece of comic timing, “probably the most well-paced film in the history of cinema,” a distinction it could share with many silent comedies of the 1920’s (Richardson 28). Buñuel adored the comedies of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon especially, writing, “The equivalent of surrealism can be found only in those films, far more surrealist than those of Man Ray” (Buñuel 124). Viewing Chien with this in mind, while putting aside Freud and the obsession with interpretation for the time being, can give one a whole new perspective on surrealism and its kinship with comedy. Sometimes, the absurd otherworldliness of the surreal image just makes us want to laugh.
Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920) is full of such images, some which are so unrealistic that they could pass for surrealistic, i.e., above and beyond reality; others which are so artfully constructed, it seems clear that Keaton must have been well-versed in Modernist art. A young couple that has just gotten married arrive at their new property. A flatbed truck arrives and dumps a wooden box at their feet. Inside the box is a build-it-yourself house kit. The couple’s efforts to build this house are both endearing and hilarious, involving all manner of slapstick gags and risky stunts. Things really go awry, however, when the husband’s rival, the wife’s jilted suitor, changes the labels on the house kit. The next day, the husband is standing in front of a house that could have been designed by Pablo Picasso at the height of Cubism: The roof is too small, like a tiny hat on a giant head; the windows veer off at odd angles; the front porch is all askew; and the house opens and closes where there are no doors and windows. Moreover, the house resembles the face of an anguished soul (again, angst in angularity), the pickets on the front porch like teeth frozen in a grimace. The house sits in the middle of the vacant lot, an image strikingly out of place against the gently sloping roof and telephone wires in the background.
In the next scene, a man is carrying a piano over his shoulder, a surrealist image if ever there was one. He delivers the piano by dropping this presumably heavy object on top of the husband, who has just exited the house via the window, then lifts the piano up long enough for the husband to sign the invoice. The piano then become the centerpiece of a series of elaborate gags in which the husband and wife attempt to use ropes and pulleys to drag the piano into an opening in the side of the house, the massive weight of the piano pitted against the scrappy determination of the young couple with their flimsy devices, an exercise in futility that nevertheless comes to fruition through sheer will.
It’s easy to see why films like One Week appealed to a surrealist like Buñuel, who described the films of Keaton, Chaplin and others, as “The finest poems that cinema has produced” (123). But it wasn’t just the fluidity of motion or the ingenuity of the gags that appealed to surrealists. “What united all of these comedians was their taste for anarchy and insubordination, and it was this as much as their humour that attracted the surrealists” (Richardson 62). One Week ends in total anarchy, as a mighty storm blows the house around and around in circles, jettisoning all the housewarming guests and leaving the house looking less like a Cubist creation, and more like one of Dalí’s paintings, oozing off the screen. To add insult to injury, the house is ultimately demolished when it is run over by a train—to the delight, no doubt, of surrealists everywhere.
Objects, like the Cubist house in One Week, do not belong in this world. But what of Keaton himself? At times, Keaton seems like a sort of extra-terrestrial, someone with big hypnotic eyes and a strangely uncertain manner (think David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), who seems completely ignorant of how to function properly in this world. In One Week he accidentally leaves his coat underneath the carpet he has just laid, so rather than do the “normal” thing and pull up the carpet, he merely cuts through the carpet to retrieve his coat, then covers the hole with another carpet. Keaton’s whole approach to solving problems is absurd, yet it all seems to work in this topsy-turvy universe. This aspect of Keaton’s work was of course very attractive to the surrealists (Knopf 113).
Keaton’s character in Sherlock Jr. can’t do anything the “right way.” He was not cut out for this world. He dreams of being a hotshot detective, but thinks he can achieve his goal by reading a dimestore instruction manual and wearing a fake mustache. Distracted by his desire to be a detective, he’s not so good at his real job either—errand boy and projectionist in the local cinema—because he’s trying to do “two things at once.” He’s an even worse lover. Short of funds, he tries to pawn off a cheap box of candy to the Girl by altering the price tag, and the ring he has given her is so insubstantial that he is obliged to produce a magnifying glass for her to admire it. On top of that, he’s so nervous that the simple act of holding the Girl’s hand seems to take the most excruciating effort. However, the worst humiliation occurs when the Sheik, his rival, frames Sherlock Jr. for the theft of a watch that belonged to the Girl’s father, and accomplishes this by turning Sherlock Jr.’s most valued aspiration—to be a famous detective—against him. Sherlock Jr. is henceforth banished from his lover’s home. All he has now are his dreams. Back on the job, he falls asleep at the projector and enters a dream state, wherein the ultra-rich characters onscreen morph into versions of his real life lover and rival.
It is at this point that Keaton’s film takes on a truly surrealist form. Strictly speaking, Sherlock Jr. is not a “surrealist film,” at least not any more than are the trick films and féreies of Méliès. The first “Surrealist Manifesto” was written the same year that Sherlock Jr. was released, so it’s unlikely that Keaton was familiar with the concept as such, and impossible to know if he even shared the theoretical views of Breton or Freud. He certainly didn’t share the goals of the surrealists. Keaton’s goal, as a comedian with Vaudevillian roots, and as a disciple of Houdini, was to astound and delight people, which is a far cry from Buñuel’s “impassioned call for murder” or Breton’s aim to capture the “strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface… and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason” (Breton).
Nevertheless, Keaton’s films, and those of other silent comedians, showed how reality could be deftly manipulated to express the vision of the filmmaker, and influenced the choices of film techniques used by surrealist filmmakers, whose visions required new, extraordinary techniques. The sequence most often cited involves Sherlock Jr.’s dream, as he attempts to enter the film he is projecting, and at once he begins to realize that the ontology of film differs markedly from the ontology of his everyday reality, where space and time follow invariable rules and laws. He jumps onto the screen to prevent the couple from embracing and is expelled by the Sheik, who sends him tumbling out into the orchestra pit. On his second attempt he is more successful, but by now the film has cut to the next scene, and he finds himself in a completely different space, befuddled.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen in “reality.” Up until the advent of film, it could only happen in dreams; thus Keaton makes explicit the ontological kinship between these realms of dreams and film. He stresses the point further in a montage series in which Sherlock finds himself transported suddenly from one space to another, the motions of his body seemingly in “real” time, while the scene behind him changes from one far away place to another—dodging cars on a busy street, slipping on the precipice of a mountain cliff, surrounded by lions in the jungle, in the desert, a tropical beach, a snowy forest, and so on. Soon, however, Sherlock Jr. masters this filmic dream word, becomes the great detective and solves the crime in the most spectacular manner, “the awkward ineptitude of the boy as he shadows his man in part 1 is countermanded by the extraordinary physical prowess of Keaton’s vaudeville-style performance” in the dream sequence (Bean 139). For after all, the dream world is where this hapless fool has always been most at home. Luckily for him, the Sheik’s treachery is exposed and he finally gets his Girl, all of this occurring as he sleeps, without his help.
Five years later, in another world on the other side of planet, Un Chien Andalou was enjoying a successful run in Paris, according to an American journalist named Morris Gilbert. “’Le Chien Andalou’ has had a long run, perhaps only exceeded by ‘The Jazz Singer’,” he writes. But Gilbert seems puzzled by the film’s popularity, writing, “It is probably simplest to discard all formulas and to describe ‘Un Chien Andalou’ simply as a horror film, which it truly is” (Gilbert). Gilbert attempts to describe the film, declining to give any details about the famous eye slashing scene: “From that point the film unfolds its incoherent path, dealing with pathologic states and the presentation of varying degrees of putrification” (ibid.).
This is not an inaccurate description of Un Chien Andalou, but it’s not the whole story. Tom Conley subtitled his deeper analysis of the film “A Rape of the Eye,” but strangely, also described it as “a comic, poignant, and compelling love story” (197). As for its comic aspects, the film features several scenes that could be described as “sight gags,” and Buñuel, in describing some of his work in this period, put it succinctly: “I devised gags.” (Bunuel 259). Examples: a Man is riding his bicycle through the streets of Paris. For no apparent reason he wearing some very feminine looking accoutrements, which Buñuel describes as “mantelets,” over his “dark gray suit” (163). Another scene features the Man chasing the Young Girl around their apartment. Frustrated in his attempts to capture her, he looks down and sees two ropes on the ground and begins to pull them laboriously over his shoulder. Attached to the ropes are two large grand pianos, over which are lain the putrefying carcasses of two dead donkeys. To top off this mad assemblage, two surprised looking clergymen (a favorite target of irreverent comedians) are also attached to the ropes. This particular scene is probably rife with Freudian symbolism, but Buñuel and Dalí play it for laughs. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to link these donkey-laden pianos to Keaton’s unwieldy piano in One Week. In perhaps the funniest scene, the Man and Girl are seen in reverse shots facing each other defiantly across the room. Suddenly the man slaps his hand to his mouth, causing the Girl to gasp. He pulls his hand away to reveal that his mouth has disappeared. In retaliation, the Girl frantically applies lipstick to her lips, with the apparent intention to make the Man’s mouth reappear. But instead, hair forms on the man’s face—the same hair that seems to have disappeared from her armpits. The Girl then sticks her tongue out repeatedly at the man and leaves the room, only to find herself standing on a sunny seashore, not unlike the situation Sherlock Jr. found himself in when he jumped onto the screen, though Buñuel uses reverse shots rather than the trickier graphic match to achieve this effect. Other elements, such as the often dream-like gaze of the actors, could also be linked to Keaton, whose face stood out partly because of his otherworldly gaze.
It is impossible to say how much of Buster Keaton’s films influence Buñuel, a connoisseur of film in the 1920’s. Many other directors and genres left their stamp on his films as well—Fritz Lang’s Dur müd Tod was the film that made him realize that “movies could be a vehicle of expression and not merely a pastime” (Buñuel 250). In viewing Un Chien Andalou today, one is more apt to look forward in time to the surreal comedy of Monty Python, in which all the elements of Chien can be found—absurdity, sexuality, death, carnage, androgyny, disruptions of space and time, irreverence toward the church—than back to Keaton, Chaplin, Langdon, et al. And this is largely because Buñuel himself was a visionary rather than a derivative filmmaker. Buster Keaton’s great contribution to surrealism may have been to show how the real and the unreal could co-exist on film in a believable form. For surrealists, there was no great distinction between the two. Said André Breton, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states—outwardly so contradictory—which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak” (Breton). Rather than representing dreams as all flowing draperies in misty watercolored otherworldliness, both Keaton and Buñuel realized that dreams are part of the fabric of everyday life, not something outside of it.
Bean, Jennifer. “Movies and Play.” American Cinema of the 1920’s. Ed. Lucy Fischer. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2009. 120-142.
Breton, André. “First Surrealist Manifesto.” Web. 9 Dec, 2009.
Buñuel, Luis, Salvador Dalí, Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff, Albert Duverger, Jean-Louis Bunuel, and Stephen Barber. Un chien andalou. [Los Angeles]: Transflux Films, 2004.
Buñuel, Luis. An Unspeakable Betrayal. Berkely: University of California Press, 2000.
Conley, Tom. “Un Chien Andalou.” Film Analysis: a Norton Reader. Ed. Jeffrey Geiger and R.L. Rutsky. New York: Norton, 2005. 196-215.
Gilbert, Morris. “Parisian Cinema Chatter: Surrealist Painter Employs Peculiar Technique in Screen Production.” New York Times (1857-Current file); Feb 9, 1930; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2006) pg. X6
Keaton, Buster, et al. Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr. The art of Buster Keaton. New York, NY: Kino International Corp, 1999.
Keaton, Buster. The Art of Buster Keaton. New York, NY: Kino International Corp, 2001.
Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. New York: Berg, 2006.