David Lynch's Inland Empire follows an actress who slowly becomes so involved in her latest film that she assumes the identity of herself and her character. The movie borrows heavily form Surrealist film, confusing the progression and overlap of time and using irrational or unexplainable events interspersed with a vague story line. In fact, Ebert writes “There is a buried connection between the surrealists and the Sex Pistols, Bunuel and David Lynch, Dali and Damien Hirst”. To further illustrate the connection, Lynch often respond to inquiries about the plot of the film by quoting the Aitareya Upanishad: "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe," echoing the film theories of Antonin Artaud.
Inland Empire is valuable in an analysis of The Seashell and the Clergyman because both David Lynch and the film illuminate the influence of Dulac's film and Artaud's theory in Surrealist works to the present day. The techniques Lynch used to create several times and spaces that seem to be mutually exclusive, but interact in strange, irrational ways were first used in The Seashell and the Clergyman: the subconscious obsessions of the “main” character lead him/her into a bizarre dream world where a series of surprising and inexplicable events force the audience to attempt divining meaning from a film that, despite its almost comprehensible content, is essentially meaningless. The influence of The Seashell and the Clergyman is present in Lynch's film as well as several earlier examples already explored (e.g. Un chien andalou.) Dulac's film fulfills the theories of Artaud, at least in part, and its influence on Surrealist filmmaking clearly marks it as the first true Surrealist film.
Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons. DVD. 2007.
Ebert's review of Un chien andalou provides both a good analysis of the film to use as a comparison to The Seashell and the Clergyman and a good example of the main arguments put forth in support of Un chien andalou as the first Surrealist film. According to Ebert, the idea for the film originated from a discussion between Dalí and Buñuel about dreams they had had, prompting them to make a film beginning with images from their dreams. “In collaborating on the scenario, their method was to toss shocking images or events at one another. Both had to agree before a shot was included in the film. 'No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted,' Bunuel remembered. 'We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why'” (Ebert). Ebert also asserts the historical primacy of the film: “It was made in the hope of administering a revolutionary shock to society. 'For the first time in the history of the cinema,' wrote the critic Ado Kyrou, 'a director tries not to please but rather to alienate nearly all potential spectators.'”
Ebert's review provides much useful information for a comparison of Un chien andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman and the theories behind them. To begin with, the technique used by Dalí and Buñuel in writing their film was quite different than those used by Dulac and those theorized by Artaud. Ebert argues that Dalí and Buñuel sought to create a film entirely devoid of meaning with no rational connection between any of events or images, essentially a film of pure nonsense. This varies considerably from Artaud's ideas of creating an experience that betrays a traditional narrative setting (requiring at least some connections between parts of the film) in order to include the spectator in the film. The goal of Dalí and Buñuel was to create a film that left the viewer with nothing and no ability to derive meaning from the experience; whereas, Artaud's goal was to force the audience to be a part of the dream world and create interpretations and conclusions on their own. Additionally, the technique of throwing illogical, surprising images at the audience used by Dalí and Buñuel was a primary technique in Dulac's film as well. Ebert and Kyrou advocate the uniqueness of Un chien andalou as film's first attempt to alienate an audience, but ignore the attempts of The Seashell and the Clergyman to alienate the audience from identification with the film and many other previous films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Impressionist films. While differences between Un chien andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman may be noted from their difference in purpose, the theory and techniques used in both originated with Dulac's film.
Ebert, Roger. "Un chien andalou (1928)." Rev. of Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Sun-Times 16 Apr. 2000.
Chapter four of Low's book History of British Film examines the issue of censorship and focuses on films such as The Seashell and the Clergyman, M, Poil de Carotte, La Maternelle, Freaks, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Der Ammenkoenig. Low explains the various reasons that films were censored in Britain including sensitive subject matter such as child suicides, child murderers, and vaguer explanations such as the film containing “revolting monstrosities” and, the most infamous of all reasons which was applied to The Seashell and the Clergyman: being “So cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning it is doubtless objectionable” (Low 70). She goes on to explain the indifference with which the censorship board examined films intended for entertainment and those intended to be art, applying the same scrutiny of acceptability to both.
This chapter may at first appear to have little to do with the thesis of this project, however it lends much to an analysis of Artaud's philosophy and film theory. The indiscretion employed by the censorship board typifies the normative view of the homogeneity in purpose behind films which Artaud vehemently opposed. Furthermore, the response of the board to The Seashell and the Clergyman begins to illustrate the involvement of the audience in art that Artaud advocated, though it falls short of the participation that he desired. This response indicates that the viewers were unable to draw logical conclusions about the content of the film (which Artaud had intended) yet their review fell short of attempting to participate in the experience. The manner of its censorship also highlights Artaud's ideal of the artistic goals to which films should aspire: as with the other films listed above, the board no doubt evaluated The Seashell and the Clergyman as a standard entertainment film, declining to consider it as Artaud and Dulac would have desired. Finally, the inability of the board to derive any meaning from the film exhibits the effects of Surrealism that Artaud intended his works to have, displacing the viewer from a normative reality and severing any identification with characters.
Low, Rachael. History of British Film. Vol. 7. New York: Routledge, 1997. 54-73.