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.
“12 oz. Mouse” is a modern TV series (although it is not a film, the show is strongly Surrealist and congruent with the techniques and goals of many Surrealist films; additionally, Foster writes that "The surrealists, many of whom were avid film spectators, despised impressionism, but they admired lowbrow American serials and slapstick comedies") about a crudely animated green mouse called by many names including Mouse, Fitz, and Butch and his companion Skillet who do odd jobs for a shark (named Shark) in order to be able to buy more beer. As the show progresses, other bizarre characters (such as a wealthy businessman named Square, a hitman specializing in archery named Pronto, a peanut-shaped police officer more concerned with his drug habit than maintaing law and order, a character capable of morphing between a male and female representation, and several clocks that perpetually display 2:22) are introduced and what first appears to be a meaningless cartoon world is revealed to be a dream world imposed on people represented by these characters through the use of Asprind (what one is led to believe is a mind-erasing drug) and Time Gas (a drug released by the 2:22 clock in order to freeze time at a single instant in the dream world). Much of the plot is left unresolved as the show was cancelled after 20 episodes and although another episode (released solely on the internet) was made after the cancellation, the writers opted to start a new chapter of the story rather than writing a conclusion to the show.
“12 oz. Mouse” uses many methods common to Surrealist film in order to establish an ever-changing dream world through hierarchies of knowledge: upon the first viewing, it is slowly revealed that the world of Fitz is in fact a dream world imposed on him by other characters (represented by Shark and Square); on the second viewing, the viewer is able to pick up on what seemed to be simple passing comments and disconnected statements at first, but are actually clues which reveal that this dream world is actually based on the real world that the characters live in; a third viewing reveals even more of the intensely complex plot, as the viewer is now more aware of the nature of this world and able to notice clues that previously one would not have connected to this world on a higher level. The show very effectively utilizes many of the techniques used by Surrealist film makers: establishing a normative narrative forum which is then interrupted by the characters, thus breaking character identification. The show forces the viewer to not only interpret what happens in the show, but to rethink these interpretations upon subsequent viewings when the viewer is equipped with more knowledge of the situation. Furthermore, because much of the plot is unresolved, the viewer is also forced to fill in certain holes and postulate explanations for unexplained elements. The same techniques that were first used for this purpose in The Seashell and the Clergyman are utilized in “12 oz. Mouse” to create not just a simple dream world, but an experience which requires participation, consideration, and evaluation from the viewers in a manner that one hopes would garner at least the interest of Antonin Artaud.
Maiellaro, Matt. "12 oz. Mouse." Atlanta. 19 June 2005.
“In keeping with the principal tenets of surrealism, Artaud would claim that art is a real experience that goes far beyond human understanding and attempts to reach a metaphysical truth. The artist is always a man inspired who reveals a new aspect of the world” (Fowlie). Fowlie's biographical account of Artaud's life and his theories of theater reveal much about his beliefs on Surrealism. In addition to seeing the potential for a new type of theatre in the French movements of his time, Artaud also spent a number of years in a sanitorium and while Fowlie makes no connection between this and Artaud's theory of surrealism, an examination of that theory strongly implies a connection to a confusing world where the interpretations of others did not match what Artaud himself must have been experiencing at the time. Artaud's theory of Surrealism centered on dream worlds and the idea that art should be a collaboration between artist and viewer, requiring the viewer to play a role in creating the experience as much as the artist does. Artaud's theory began in theatre and focused on the use of speech and gesticulation as well as the content and scenery of the play: everything played a role in creating the experience.
Thus, it is easy to see the jump between Artaud's theory of Surrealist theatre and Surrealist film, both of which contain not only the spatial elements of other forms of art, but temporal elements and the ability to manipulate them. Film offered one potential advantage over theatre: the ability to control temporal aspects more tightly and cleanly than theatre. Artaud became devoted to his theory, obsessing over a multitude of things, including the theatre. “However one interprets the terrifying obsessions of Artaud, they allowed him to see into unusual depths of the human mind, where he claimed the eternal questions on life and death are clearly visible” (Fowlie). He rebelled against morality and rationality as constructs of humans in a material world and thus obsessed over the dream world where such things did not exist. These obsessions can be seen in The Seashell and the Clergyman: a priest erotically obsessed with a woman consistently sees her in various situations in his blurred, dimly lit, and confusing dream world. The obvious immorality of a man sworn to celibacy obsessing over a woman is combined with the irrationality of a dream wherein the man seemingly has no control over the course of events and is subjected to a number of random, inexplicable visions and experiences.
Dionysus in Paris. Wallace Fowlie. New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1960. p. 203-209.
Erin Foster's article gives a brief history of Surrealism in cinema beginning with the desire of French filmmakers in the avant-garde movement to establish itself against Hollywood, the role of Impressionism and Dada in the years before Surrealist cinema, and then focusing on a few directors (such as Dulac and Buñuel and Dalí) and a few films (such as The Seashell and the Clergyman, Un chien andalou, and later films). She writes that The Seashell and the Clergyman was the only screenplay of his scenarios that Artaud completed and he deposited it at a film institute because he lacked the money to produce it himself where it was picked up by Dulac. “The surrealists considered Dulac, who was already well established in the Parisian avant-garde film community, to be strictly impressionist—too loyal to traditions of naturalism and symbolism for their liking” however “Dulac followed Artaud's script closely in her 1928 film, only changing a few practical elements when necessary” (Foster). Foster comments as well on Artaud's rejection of Dulac's film as “a distortion of his theories on surrealism” but does not mention his subsequent acknowledgement of it as the first Surrealist film. Foster also adds later that “Though the surrealists themselves rejected the film, most critics today consider La Coquille et le Clergyman to be the first surrealist film”.
Foster's article adds another layer of complexity to an attempt to discern whether The Seashell and the Clergyman should be considered the first Surrealist film: the rejection of contemporary Surrealists despite it's characterization by modern critics. The analysis in the works by Flitterman-Lewis and Williams revealed that not only did Dulac's movie fulfill some of the basic elements of Surrealist films, namely in its characterization of a dream as well as its attempt to create a participatory experience for the viewer, it was also accepted as Artaud as the first Surrealist film regardless of his own dissatisfaction with it. The film satisfies these criteria, but how should the perception of other Surrealists who denied it's status as Surrealist play into this evaluation? Here Artaud's own reactions should be considered as he was a Surrealist. His initial rejection of the film is overshadowed by his later acceptance of it (perhaps in the vein of conflicting, surprising messages that permeated Surrealist work) as the first Surrealist film. Ultimately, the question becomes one of criteria: should the evaluation of modern critics based on theories of Surrealism in art be valued more than the seemingly arbitrary (at the time, Artaud was the only one who had written a somewhat comprehensive theory of Surrealist cinema; see Flitterman-Lewis) evaluation of contemporary Surrealists? In the end, Artaud's own evaluation based on the methods and goals of later Surrealist films and that of modern critics is more convincing than that of contemporary Surrealists who, as Artaud illustrates, have a conflicting record of what they consider to be Surrealist cinema.
Foster, Erin. "Surrealism: Surrealist Film." 2008. Film Reference. 24 Nov. 2008 <http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/romantic-comedy-yugoslavia/surrealism-surrealist-cinema.html>.