These days, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has a reputation as indie cinema's most "surreal" filmmaker for the likes of such head trips as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. Compared to the original surrealist filmmakers of Europe's early sound era, Kaufman looks more like a Hollywood pen-for-hire enslaved to conventional story structure.
Frequent Small Meals' Film Love series is a kind of two-night master class in surrealist cinema, Nov. 14-15. Culminating with Luis Buñuel's landmark collaborations with painter Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or, the Surrealist Classics program offers lessons in unlearning how to watch movies. The act of watching the surrealist short films differs so sharply from mainstream movies, it's like relinquishing your expectations for film narrative to appreciate some wondrous, strange moving images.
For the first evening, "Surrealist Science: The World of Jean Painlevé," curator Andy Ditzler draws a line connecting the early surrealists with documentary filmmakers through the work of Jean Painlevé. Painlevé traveled in similar circles as the French surrealists in the 1920s and served as the ant handler for Un Chien Andalou, in which ants crawl from a wound in a man's palm. Film Love presents five of Painlevé's scientific shorts, spanning from 1929 to 1972, which artfully capture the lives of marine life.
Like such bona fide surrealists as Spain's Dalí, Painlevé proved fascinated by sexuality's weirdness. His science films almost breathlessly reveal how male seahorses carry eggs to term, or the niceties of octopi getting funky: "The specialized arm transports cases containing male elements to the breeding orifice." The early black-and-white photography proves even more gorgeous than his subsequent color films, although 1972's Acera or the Witches' Dance presents the ballet-like movements of mollusks that look like a cross between flowers, bells and dancing angels.
Early moving picture experiments from the 1880s and Jean Comandon's fascinating time-lapse films of plants and predatory mushrooms set the stage. Influential French director Jean Vigo's À Propos de Nice from 1930 offers restless, dislocating shots of street scenes and social inequities in Nice, France. Its rhythmic editing and juxtapositions make it resemble less a travelogue than a modern music video.
Ditzler presents "The Golden Age: The Films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí," arguably the most famous and influential collaboration of surrealists in film history, on Saturday. In story terms, L'Age D'Or (or The Golden Age) possibly serves as the "easiest" film on the bill, as some of the themes play out in the efforts of an amorous couple (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) repeatedly kept from consummation by social forces. We first see them in a mad embrace, fully dressed and rolling in mud. Modot and Lys engagingly play the horny, half-crazed lovers, and Lys all but fellates the toes of a statue at a height of misdirected passion.
L'Age D'Or's sacrilegious content proves rather dated – you can see harsher treatment of Catholicism in your average "South Park" episode – but its playful sense of humor and bizarre imagery keeps firing your imagination. At one point, Lys enters a bedroom only to chase a full-grown cow off her bed. Plus, a prologue about the anatomy and habits of scorpions resembles a land-locked Painlevé film and sets up Buñuel's perspective on humanity's savage, irrational behavior.
Un Chien Andalou, or An Andalusian Dog, looks stranger with each passing year. Buñuel's and Dalí's depiction of obsessive love can alternate from deranged visual jokes – a person pushes a doorbell and we see arms move a martini shaker through holes in the door – to such ghastly sights as its infamous razor-cut eyeball. Un Chien Andalou all but demolishes rational interpretations to provoke responses on the level of emotion or dream logic. After watching it and the rest of the Surrealist Classics, you might need to view something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just to make you feel more normal.