“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>.