Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Few Comments on Surrealism

Part of me wonders if Surrealism (probably better: surrealism), broadly defined, is not the most laid-bare pulsation of modernity in art: the thing that sits most comfortably with all of the modern era's trappings (urbanization, psychoanalysis, work and capitalism, symbolism, advertising, religion, etc.). Of course I'm being deliberately shaky as far as what I'm referring to vis-a-vis Surrealism/surrealism. I generally do speak of the two in their distinctive senses, one a distinct historical movement (with mini-movements within it), the other a thread that moves through a lot of art. But can we open up that historical Surrealism and apply it to larger and more diverse things (i.e., bridge it with small-s surrealism)? Because what I ultimately would like to find more of is an art as well as a critical approach that takes into account the material content of modernity and postmodernity, but which still gets at those moments in which one has no presence of mind, to paraphrase Breton from Nadja. Psychoanalysis, strains of academic Marxism (Marxianism?), they don't quite seem satisfactory to me as far as scholarship goes.

Now here's a question: what happens when a Surrealist/surrealist vision and what we might call a postcolonialist vision collide? Surrealism, a movement at its peak relegated to a few cultural epicenters in Europe (as far as I know ... maybe I'm way off?), what might it have to say about the colonial tradition and the postcolonial existence of young nation-states and peoples? In short, can we reconcile something Surreal/surreal with our late capitalist globalized age? Because there are some surreal filmmakers across the globe whose provincial-mystical films say a lot about capitalism and contemporary life in often very oblique ways: Alain Guiraudie, Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and others.

If none of this makes sense or sounds interesting to you, dear reader, I'm not surprised. These notes are mostly for my own process of edification.


Steve said...

How do you see surrealism as an influence in Weerasethakul's films? I can see it strongly in MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON (whose approach to narrative reminds me of Ruiz), somewhat in TROPICAL MALADY and not at all in BLISSFULLY YOURS. TROPICAL MALADY seems so stepped in Thai reference points - from shamanism to literature and films about wilderness that few Americans have had the chance to see or read - that I would hesitate to make too many Western comparisons.

Zach Campbell said...

Well, I don't think big-S Surrealism is an influence on Apichatpong. I do think that his films are surreal (occasionally and deliberately absurd, mysterious, capable of robbing oneself of much 'presence of mind' in the Breton quote). And they comment obliquely on what is happening in the greater context around them.

The exquisite corpse structure of Mysterious Object is certainly comparable to Surrealist literary exercises. But, again, it's not that I think there's an influence from France and Central Europe all the way to 'remote' corners of the globe--it's that I suspect that these corners are doing, in their own way, what some of the art of the vanguard of Western capitalist modernity was doing in its own day.

A few scattered thoughts to consider: Surrealism was something that largely emerged and flowered between the wars; Freudianism, a rationalizing 'science' to the things Surrealism exploited (namely sex and death), was biggest, at least in America, after WWII. The Fordian production models declined and we entered the era that a lot of intellectuals call 'late capitalism' (I'm not entirely sure how to define this, and suspect there's no one definition). The word 'postmodernism' was coined in the 1930s, I believe. I think there's a connection to all this. I want to say that Surrealism as a distinct historical art movement is really a manifestation of a small-s surrealism that emerges in art that begins to feel a certain rupture, a rupture having to do with our epoch and its global economic situation. If the distinct manifestation of surrealism known as Surrealism seems to have faded out of existence, maybe it's because it no longer spoke to (or appeared to speak to) the concerns of its place and age. But a certain absurdity, a certain fascination with dreams, games, sex, and death, pervades the work of filmmakers I've mentioned previously ... who are interested in working in provincial areas, to an extent, the places where globalization has still only gone so far. I'm tantalized by the idea of a deep connection here.