In the final sequence of Un chien andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel, the couple is strolling along the beach holding hands, in what would be a perfect Happy End, if it were not for the final shot, set in the following Spring, when all that is left of the couple are cardboard reproductions, ruined by nature. The film ends in novelistic imagination (melodrama, double end, false happy ending), which helps us to realize that, as noted by Robert Short, Surrealism did not abandon the narrative nor turn its back on the ‘art of the masses’ (indeed a good definition at the time for the nascent film form, whether in Hollywood or in much of Europe). Un chien andalou, it should be recalled, begins with the intertitle ‘Il était une fois’, and the film moves away from earlier Dada or surrealist avant-garde films (Man Ray, Desnos, Artaud) because it does not move away from the productivity of ‘telling a story’. This is at the heart of the problem, because by refusing the kind of pure formal experimentation that hitherto had defined the avant-garde, Buñuel is not recovering a nineteenth-century version of literature as ‘the art of storytelling to the bourgeoisie’, the version against which the modernist movement had risen. Let us recall here that disclaimer of Mallarmé – a major figure in the critique of representation that will feed modern literature – whereby verses are not made with ideas but with words (or that other saying by Valéry, unable to write sentences like ‘The marquise went out at five o’clock’ ).
What then is left of the narrative in Un chien andalou? The sabotage of the mechanism of cause and effect, and thus narrative sequence, but at the same time narrative as teleology (or drive). As well as a number of tropes from literature – above all that of metonymy, which allows us to see the work of the unconscious – and a famous signature effect produced at the very beginning by the author-filmmaker himself by means of a razor. The complexity with which Buñuel’s inaugural film addresses the relationship between writing and literature, on the one hand, and cinema, on the other, is situated far beyond the traditional framework in which literary studies conceptualize this relationship, often under the figure of ‘adaptation’, with all its notions of reference (precedence, translatability, loyalty, etc.). Conversely, one can say that film tends to mistake literature, especially the novel, for story, forgetting or minimizing ‘words’, to return to Mallarmé, and opting for ‘ideas’. However, there is no cinema, even in the historical precedent of silent film, without writing, from pre-production (the film script) to post-production (which extends from criticism of the novelization of the screen script, as in several UFA films by Fritz Lang or in films by Spielberg and George Lucas, but also in books that late Godard published based on the texts he had written for his films), or even in the body of the film as subtitles, intertitles, quotes, etc. (Consider the major cases of Godard or Greenaway). And there’s a whole typology of ‘inscriptions’ of writing in films: produced by letters, diaries or poetry at the time of writing or reading, in fictional or documentary treatment. We can mention also a genre as unique as the ‘essay film’, whose literary ancestry is immediately evident in its name, and whose formal process inherits the form of the written essay as hybrid and epistemologically unstable.
Volume 1, Issue 2 of MATLIT addresses a wide range of occurrences of materiality and reflexiveness of writing in film, trying to think about (i) the relationship between writing and film image, the opportunities for mutual description/translation and the limits of this semiotic description; (ii) writing in cinema, as both theme and inscription; (iii) cinema as writing and language, and language and writing processes as analogies for processes of signification in cinema; (iv) how the materiality of writing in film helps us to think about literature as inscription rather than as ontology. The second issue of the journal is the result of a joint effort by the Doctoral Program in Advanced Studies in the Materialities of Literature and by the FCT-funded research project «False Movement – Studies on Writing and Film» (PTDC/CLE-LLI/ 120211/2010).
Osvaldo Manuel Silvestre (CLP, University of Coimbra)
Clara Rowland (CEC, University of Lisbon)