by Gordon C. Waite

Archive for April 2011

Cross-cultural Musical Meanings in Western and Hindi Film

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Most of the attention to music in Hindi films has focused on the song-dance sequence, the most defining feature of these films, especially because the Hindi film industry depends so much on the popularity of hit songs from films for its survival.  Less attention has been paid to the incidental soundtrack music within Hindi film, which serves to set the mood within a scene, but is not performed by the characters.  Incidental music seldom shows up on the soundtrack CD’s, but it is of no less importance in understand the role of music in these films.  Music has meaning.  The song-dance in Hindi film serves as a vehicle for the expression of emotions that would otherwise be socially unacceptable or awkward in a realistic setting.  Likewise, western musical styles and techniques express special meanings and emotions that are difficult to express in Indian classical and folk traditions—feelings of suspense and emotional intensity, the reality of life in the inner city, and the experience of the lonely individualist.  These meanings, as they are expressed in Western music, have historical and aesthetic origins that may not translate smoothly into parallel situations in Hindi film; likewise, Hollywood’s use of Indian music is limited in much the same way, in that its meaning is derived from 60’s era stereotypes about Indian Spirituality.

Much of the Western symphonic music used in both Hollywood and Bollywood films has its origins of the Romantic Era (c. 1790-1950), that period in European art, literature, and music characterized by heightened emotional expression.  Romanticism, as a movement, “can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism” (“Romanticism”).  In music, composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, and Wagner expanded the boundaries of classical structures.  The compositions of 17th  Classical Era composers, Mozart and Haydn, for example, is easy listening compared to the works Romantic era composers, who strove to express emotional and psychological states through their music.

Music in the Romantic mode is a perfect fit for many Hollywood films.  John Williams’ soundtracks for Star Wars (1977) typifies an effective use of romantic musical themes and effects that magnifying emotional intensity in the viewer/listener.  The main theme of Star Wars is exuberant and expansive; “Princess Leia’s Theme” is full of tender longing; the dissonant themes associated with Darth Vadar and the Death star fill one with overwhelming foreboding; and action scenes, with all their cliffhanging intensity, are matched with music that is fast-paced, suspenseful, and bombastic.  In the ending, the victory of the heroes is driven by music that is bold and triumphant, signaling for the film audience a final resolution to all the danger and anxiety—at least until the next episode.

Ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom identifies several specific elements of western music that are used in both Hollywood and Bollywood to affect emotional states in the filmgoing public: “heavy chromaticism, diminished 7ths, augmented scales, tritones, unmelodic lines writ large, awkward leaps, tremolo strings, and loud, accented playing in brass have all been typical of scoring for strongly disturbing scenes in commercial Hindi films since around 1950” (68).  All of these elements add up to music that is dissonant and unmelodic, which, even to western ears, can be uncomfortable to listen to.  Examples of this in Hollywood are too numerous to mention, but Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story (1961) is a good place to start.   Bernstein breaks some long-established rules by using the diminished 5th, or what was called the “diabolus in musica” (devil in music) in medieval times, because of it’s dissonant quality (“tritone”).  This interval is heard in the first two syllables of the song “Maria,” but, because it is a love song, is quickly resolved by moving up to the 5th with the third syllable.  The augmented 5th is heard, unresolved, throughout the rest of the score, to lend a sinister quality to the diagetic world of back alleys, gang fights, and ultimate doom.

Morcom cautiously points out that, although there is a large degree of crossover with the use of western musical techniques in Hindi film, it should not be assumed that audience response to these musical techniques is universal (69).  Romanticism and its expressions in music are the result of a centuries-old tradition of intellectual history; in part, it was a reaction against Enlightenment era rationalism and physical materialism (“Romanticism”).  Audiences of the 19th and 20th centuries were as much participants in an intellectual movement as they were lovers of music.   Conversely, Indian classical music carries forward a tradition that has developed over many centuries, quite different from western musical traditions, but no less rigorous.  Western music is built upon harmonies and counterpoint, whereas the music of India stresses melody and complex rhythms, accompanied by a drone (Schmidt 2).  Ideas about what music “should sound like” differ in each tradition, as do notions about what different modes, scales, harmonies, and rhythms should signify to the listener.

So when the director of Parinda (1989), Vidhu Vinod Chopra, or his musical director, R.D. Burman, chooses to maximize the suspense of a scene by using A Night on Bald Mountain (1867) by Modest Mussorgsky, a Romantic era composer, what does this mean for the viewer?  Likewise, what does it mean when Indian instruments—sitar, tanpura, and tabla—are used in Hollywood films like Zoolander (2001)?

To get an idea of how Night on Bald Mountain has been perceived by Western artists and audiences, consider how it is used in Disney’s animated feature, Fantasia (1940).  The scene begins with a distant scene of a tall, jagged mounted standing over a small village at night.  The mountain is a sickly green color.  A full moon floats over the mountain, behind a thin veil of shifting blue clouds.  As the mountain is brought closer and closer into view, a crescendo of strings leap and swirl precipitously.  As we are brought to the  top of the mountain, an ominous black figure unfurls his bat-like wings, revealing horns on his head and glowing yellow eyes.  As this satanic figure spreads his wings and stands with his arms crossed over the little village, a chorus of deep, heavy brass blares out a sinister theme.  The figure raises his arms up high and then downward towards the sleeping village, beckoning the dead to rise up.  The same musical motif is repeated once again, as ghostly figures of the dead begin to rise up out of their graves.  It’s hard to imagine a more frightening work of animation (especially one meant for kids), nor is there a piece of music that can raise the hair on the back of the neck like A Night on Bald Mountain.  The scene, and the music accompanying it, goes on for several minutes, but it is this initial crescendo of strings, followed by the heavy blast of horns, that gets quoted most often in Western soundtracks.

In Parinda, we hear this same theme in an urban apartment, where Karan (Amil Kapoor) holds vigil over his injured brother Kishen (Jackie Shroff) while hiding out from the Anna (Nana Paketar) and his gang.   A doorbell rings insistently and the crescendo from Bald Mountain begins.  But nothing happens.  Karan and Kishen lie in wait, whispering to each other but keeping still.  Then, after a few tense moments, the doorbell starts to ring again, and the terrible refrain from Bald Mountain is heard once more.  This time Karan gets off the floor and begins to unlock several bolts on the front door, gun in hand.  The anxiety that has been built up, with the ringing of the bell, the music, and Karan’s meticulous unlocking of the door, suddenly evaporates when the visitor on the other side of the door turns out to be a pretty nurse.  While the nurse tends to Kishen, the doorbell rings—and once again—Mussorgsky’s theme begins it’s sinister build-up.  Again, Karan goes through the ritual of unlocking the door, only to find another pretty woman—this time his girlfriend Paro (Madhuri Dixit)—on the other side.  Paro convinces Karan to testify the next day, but before he has a chance to identify the killers, he receives word that Kishen’s nurse has been given orders to kill his brother if he testifies.  Karan races back to the apartment, only to find Kishen lying peacefully on his bed, the doors to the apartment wide open.  Finding nothing amiss in the apartment, he closes the doors.  The doorbells rings again, but this time, there’s no Bald Mountain—nor any music.  When Karan opens the door, Anna and his gang are standing there, and calmly invite themselves in.  The music that accompanies them is tense and dissonant, but nowhere near as terrifying as Bald Mountain’s epic bluster.

It’s hard to imagine a more numbing anticlimax in a film.  In contrast, Fantasia use of A Night on Bald Mountain is rich in Christian iconography.  It’s a vision of Hell that might have come straight out of  “The Last Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch, followed by a redemptive scene featuring Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.  In Parinda, the theme simply comes across as shrill.  Together with the insistent doorbell and Karan’s fumbling of the doorbolts, the music seems intended to build suspense, à la Alfred Hitchcock.  But from a Western perspective, the inclusion of Bald Mountain seems completely overbearing—hysterical not only in an “emotionally overwrought sense,” but as “hilarious.”  And it makes Karan and Kishen look hysterical as well—as in “prone to panic attacks.”  Is there a cultural disconnect going on here?  Elsewhere, Western Romantic themes are used throughout Parinda, usually to great effect.  The opening theme, which is accompanied by Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), is deeply poignant.  This theme, which was intended as a paean to ordinary working people, takes on a deeper meaning as the sun sets over the slums of Bombay, which, in Parinda, is presented “as a giant home for spatial anxiety, ruin, and the uncanny” (Muzamdar 69).  Intentional or not, the implication seems to be, “the sun is setting on the ordinary people (Copeland’s ‘Common Man’) of Bombay.”

In pointing out the apparent cultural disconnect in Parinda, it seems only fair to examine how Indian music tends to be misrepresented in Western films.  The inclusion of sitars, and other Indian instruments, in Western music and movies has its origins around the mid-60’s, during the filming of the Beatles’ Help! (1965), which features a plot involving some heavily stereotyped representations of Indian and Hindus.  In the making of the soundtrack, George Harrison befriended the Indian musicians in the studio and became fascinated with their music, which eventually led to a life-long friendship with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.  Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, then began to include the sitar on some of the Beatles’ songs.   “Norwegian Wood” (Lennon-McCartney) is the first rock song to include the sitar, and many more were to follow.  Some songs, such as Harrison’s “Love to You,” and “Within You and Without You,” featured Indian instruments and musicians exclusively, sans electric guitar.  A whole new world was opening up for Harrison and many of his contemporaries, not only musically, but spiritually as well.  Harrison became known as a vocal proponent of Transcendental Meditation, and spoke openly about his new-found spirituality.  At the same time, the Beatles had also been experimenting with the mind-expanding properties of LSD.  This too influenced the music and image of the Harrison and the Beatles.  Thus, Harrison, and Indian spirituality in general, began to be associated with the psychedelic experience produced by LSD, and with it, twang of the sitar and the drone of the tanpura.

George Harrison with his mentor Ravi Shankar

In the animated feature Yellow Submarine (1968), George Harrison is introduced with the sound of a sitar.  A door opens in a massive hallway, revealing a bluish screen surrounded by purple frame.  On the screen, a wavy image of cows—a sacred image in Hinduism—appears.  A wider view reveals George sitting on a throne surrounded by winged lions in a forest of purple lotus flowers.  Like the rest of the Beatles, he’s wearing the latest mod fashions.  Slowly, our attention is drawn higher and higher, until we are brought to a storm-tossed mountain top, upon which George is now standing, arms crossed, wind blowing through his hair, his command of the surrounding universe not unlike that enjoyed by Fantasia’s satanic figure.  Back in the hallway, Ringo, who has been peering through the door, calls, “George, what are you doing up there?”  A moment later, George is seen behind Ringo, driving a red convertible with yellow tires up and down the hallway, looking somewhat bored.  “Now, what is it, Ringo?” George asks nonchalantly, “Is there a matter you’d like to take up—or down?”  Not only is George omnipotent, he’s omnipresent!  His nonsensical question to Ringo mimics the kind of enigmatic prattle one would expect from a phony Maharishi.   The perception of Harrison as a foppish dilettante with a holier-than-thou attitude is made light of in this scene; the gentle sound of the sitar indicates not only spiritual transcendence, but also a kind of existential superiority.  It’s become a common trope in Hollywood comedies like Zoolander (2001), where the worldly but clueless Hansel surrounds himself with all the paraphernalia of transcendence—spiritual gurus, Sherpa guides, psychotropic drugs, and, of course, “really really ridiculously good looking” people (Zoolander).

Musical meaning is not universal.  It is doubtful that an Indian audience would make the same associations between the sitar and a psychedelic experience produced by LSD, or even between the sitar and spiritual transcendence, since these associations were forged in a Western context, which included the Baby Boom generation, the “counter-culture,” Beatlemania, and the sudden popularity of mind-bending substances.  However, says Morcom, “there is a degree of crossover in the use of Hollywood-style music in Hindi and Hollywood films, which is particularly evident in scenes of disturbance, discomfort, trauma, fear and evil,” but which is absent in “romantic scenes (whether happy, sad, or erotic), celebratory scenes such as festival or weddings, or devotional scenes,” in which traditional Indian instruments are more likely to be used (69).  Other techniques, argues Morcom, “appear to be arbitrary, learned conventions” (75).  She cites the use of the bluesy saxophone to signify “loose” women (69).  This too is a convention that was born in a specifically Western context, in the days when jazz music was perceived by the American mainstream to be a threat to the morality of  young people.  Jazz, which originated in the urban centers of the U.S., is the music of night life in the big city, and often signifies the dangers, moral and otherwise, that come with it.  Hindi films like The Jewel Thief (1967) and An Evening in Paris (1967) include spectacular nightclub scenes featuring scantily clad women dancing to jazz-influenced music.

In the 1970’s, R.D Burman took the soundtrack music to a whole new level.  The inclusion of American jazz and folk idioms came much more fluidly to him that it did to earlier film composers, such as his father S.D. Burman.  At the same time he wasn’t as tied to the traditional rules of Indian music as earlier composers.  “I don’t say that I am a knowledgeable man when it comes to raags,” he said, “I don’t say I tried to do so and so song in Raag Darbari or attempted some difficult raag in another song. Whatever comes to my head I compose.”  His soundtracks for Sholay (1975) and Deewaar (1975) are highly imaginative and eclectic, drawing from a wide variety of world music sources.  Sholay, for instance, draws inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.  Spanish guitar and harmonica are prominent in Sholay.  In American Westerns, the harmonica has been the instrument of choice for the lonely individualist, since it’s lightweight and it can be played sans accompaniment.  So it’s natural that the stone-faced Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), whose stoic manner is reminds one of the typical Leone anti-hero, would be found sitting on a porch, blowing pensively into a harmonica, echoing Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.  But Burman produces sounds of dissonance in Sholay that seem to have no precedent in either Hollywood or Indian film.  Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), is an armless lawman who plans to take out his revenge on the man who disarmed him, villainous Gabbar (Amjad Kahn), by kicking the crap out of him.  Thakur has commissioned a pair of spiked shoes to do the job right.  As the blacksmith works the metal into the shoes, there is a combination of sounds that is difficult to analyze—metallic, atonal, dissonant—which repeats at the end of the film, when Thakur finally has his revenge.

Burman’s use of jazz idioms doesn’t conform to earlier clichés in jazz, i.e., nightclubs and the “fallen woman.”  The song “Chand Mera Dil,” from Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), for example, kicks off with rhythms that come straight out of Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack for Shaft (1971)—16th notes on the high-hat, wah-wah guitar, and repeating bass line.  This is the sound of the inner-city ghetto and urban decay, made popular in blaxploitation films like Super Fly (1972) and Shaft.  The soundtrack in Deewaar is at quite stylish and invigorating, worthy of a CD release of its own (sadly, only the song-dance hits can be found on CD).  One song sequence, “I’m Falling in Love With a Stranger,” differs from earlier nightclub scenes in many ways.  The song, a cool bossa nova, is not sung by the femme fatale in a skimpy outfit.  Rather, the singer is off-screen, while the well-dressed femme fatale sits with the Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), cooly sharing drinks and a cigarette.  As Vijay (knowing he may be a target) leaves the night club the music kicks into a higher gear, with tight Afro-Cuban rhythms and searing electric guitar, followed by a jazz-fusion style soprano saxophone.  This is music that speaks the language of the streets, and would sound at home in any 70’s era Hollywood movie about crime in the big city.  The originality of R.D. Burman’s work in the 70’s demonstrated that Western themes and musical styles could be incorporated smoothly throughout a soundtrack, in a way that wasn’t jarring or incongruent in a Hindi film.  As Indian cities became more urbanized, perhaps this type of music spoke more clearly to the “huge mass of technically and officially discarded ‘obsolete’ citizens who form the underground of a modern city [who]… provide the energy—literally the cheap labour—that propels both the engine of civic life…” (Nandy 74).

The 1960’s and ‘70’s were a period when filmmakers and musicians from the East and West were “just getting to know each other.”  “World Music” as a genre has its origins in this period.  Ravi Shankar’s tour with George Harrison drew a lot of yawns from critics and unsympathetic audiences at first, yet many others began to take notice of not only Shankar’s amazing talent, but the great beauty and complexity inherent in Indian classical music.  In film, composers like R.D. Burman were beginning to use Western style in a more naturalistic way, unencumbered with preexisting expectations of how music should sound.  Music, as a form of global communication, has become a more universal language though film, and becomes more so each year.

Works Cited

Burnam, R.D.  Pancham—Rahul Dev Burman.  Vinay P. Jain, 2009.  Web.  17 Mar, 2010.

Burman, R.D. “Chand Mera Dil.” Bollywood Legend (The Best of the EMI Years).  Times Square Records, 2007.  iTunes.

Deewaar.  Dir. Yash Chopra.  Perf. Shashi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Neetu Singh, Nirupa Roy, Parveen Babi.  Trimurti Films, 1975. DVD.

Fantasia.  Various directors; “A Night on Bald Mountain” dir. by Wilfred Jackson.  Walt Disney Productions, 1940.  YouTube.

Mazumdar, Ranjani.  “Ruin and the Uncanny City: Memory, despair and death in Parinda.  Sarai Reader: The Cities of Everyday Life.  New Delhi: Center for the Study of Developing Societies, 2002.  PDF.

Morcom, Anna. “An Understanding between Bollywood and Hollywood? The Meaning of Hollywood-Style Music in Hindi Films.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology. 10. 1 (2001): 63-84.

Nandy, Ashis.  “Introduction: Indian popular cinema as a slum’s eye view of politics.” The Bollywood Reader.  Ed. Rajinder Dudrah and Jigna Desai.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.  73-83.  Print.

Parinda.  Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra.  Perf. Amil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Nana Paketar, Madhuri Dixit.  Vinod Chopra Productions, 1989.  DVD.

“Romanticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2010

Schmidt-Jones, Catherine.  “Indian Classical Music: Tuning and Ragas.”  Connexions.  6 Jan. 2010.  Web.  16 Mar, 2010.

Sholay.  Dir. Ramesh Sippy.  Perf.  Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, and Amjad Khan.  Sippy Films, 1975.  DVD.

Star Wars.  Dir. George Lucus.  Perf.  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness.  Universal, 1977.  Film.

“tritone.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.

West Side Story.  Dir. Robert Wise and Jeremy Robbins.  Perf.  Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakaris.  United Artists, 1961.  DVD.

Yellow Submarine.  Dir. George Dunning.  Perf. Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes, Lance Percival, Peter Batten.  Apple Films, 1968.  Film.

Zoolander.  Dir. Ben Stiller.  Perf. Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell.  Paramount, 2001.  DVD.


Written by Gordon C. Waite

April 17, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Buster Keaton and the Comedic Roots of Surrealist Cinema

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The strange manor of Buster Keaton in "One Week"

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.

David Bowie exposes his otherworldly roots

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.).

A pair of priests, dead donkeys and a piano: hilarity ensues in "Un Chien Andalou"

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.

Works Cited:

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.

Written by Gordon C. Waite

April 7, 2011 at 3:54 pm