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Updated on December 30, 2013



Surrealism in Dreams and Film - Capstone Paper

“Surrealism at all times emphasizes image rather than word, feeling rather than thought, instinct and desire rather than reasonable commonplace.” - Matthews

When people dream, it's often like watching a surreal movie. Sometimes, dreamers are a part of the audience, watching it, while other times, they feel like they're in the movie itself, living it as the main character. Sometimes people star in their own dreams, while other times, they seem to be on the outside looking in. People can lose track of time in dreams and surrealist films. There can seem to be no order to the events happening or no sense of how much time has passed. One can lose a sense of other characters in a dream or surreal film; these other people are either very specific, or unknown. Dreams and surrealist films are both fractured in these ways. The imagery, time, and characters play an important role, not only in the dream or movie itself and how it is revealed, but also in its theme.

Dreams and films are experienced in similar ways – “in darkened rooms in which the dreamer or spectator passive perceives, identifies with, and believes in a flow of images that appear real but have no corporeal existence” (Williams, 15). The content of films and dreams often act out the viewer or dreamer's most secret desires. “In their films the surrealists were fond of extolling the erotic virtues of silent film stars, such as Pearl White and Louise Brooks, as if the passions experienced on the screen by these stars were an appropriate enactment of their own unconscious desires” (Williams 16). However, dreams, unlike film, are a private production of meaning. One viewer or dreamer will interpret the film or dream very different than another viewer or dreamer will.

Many members of the Surrealist movement were interested in the unconscious and the mystery behind dreams, and found they could recreate dreams by playing with three key elements: fractured narrative, imagery, and the manipulation of time. Movies such as Spellbound and Un Chien Andalou were filmed to represent something from a dream, and like dreams include bizarre imagery, and they lose a sense of time, making scenes happen quickly in some areas, slowly in others, and without a sense of how much time has passed between them. They are sometimes even out of order, going back and forth between the past and the present. Surrealist films like Dali's Spellbound and Brunel's Un Chien Andalou hint at the viewers' conscious dreamlike state by disrupting their knowledge of reality to present the surreal through extreme perspectives by using close-ups and long shots of things with symbolic importance.

Surreal films developed between 1924 and 1930, and were radical in content than their predecessor Impressionist films because filmmakers were forced to rely on private patronage. Surrealist cinema was a more radical movement, produced films that perplexed and shocked most audiences, and it was less accepted in the film industry. Surrealists were naturally attracted to cinema because of cinema's attempt to re-present the world in a dark room; the individual experience; and the manipulation of time and space. They were influenced by and created their own films that presented untamed desire (Godnose).

Linda Williams, aprofessor of film studies in the departments of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California in Berkeley, says that the term “desire” does not refer to the pursuit and possession of a love object, but to the visual figures of the text that elaborate a structure of opposition, which expresses not the desire for an object, but the psychic process of desire itself. Therefore, it is the ultimate purpose to show how surrealist film figures desire; “this is the continual fascination of surrealist film” (Williams). Williams has also found that studies and analyses of surrealism have been hindered by an overabundance of love.

Williams explains that even though the dreamer understands and accepts the illogicalities of a dream, it is only the manifest content of the dream that is understood. A dreamer only understands what is actually happening, and not the deeper desires that resulted in the dream. The true desire is often latent. If a dream were to be filmed, the result would be an opaque reproduction of the manifest content of the dream; there would be no clue of its latent meaning. To an outside viewer, the film would not make sense and it would appear to be chaotic; the wish-fulfillment at its center, which belongs to the dreamer, would remain unrevealed. In order for the dream to be understood, it must be interpreted by the dreamer itself, using external knowledge. One must consider the day's events, their emotions, and all that has happened to them to reach their true desire. They must take all things into consideration in order to interpret the dream. An outside viewer would not be able to reach the same conclusion because they do not know about the dreamer and what he or she experienced during that day (Williams 16).

Robert Desnos modeled his film upon this idea of the dream's function of wish-fulfillment, as a mirror reflecting desires. For Desnos, the heroes of film would act out the spectators' own repressed desires, “daring to commit the crimes they would not commit themselves.” Desnos shows this in his film L'Étoile de mer. The film depicts a love affair between a man and two different women. This situation could reflect a viewer's own desires, and, therefore, dares to commit the crimes, or in this case the affair, that a viewer would not.

The two major films of surrealist cinema are Un Chien Andalou(1929)and L'Age D'or ( 1930) and both are excellent examples of film as a dream. Both films were collaborations between Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. Un Chien Andalou includes themes of sexual desire and violence, ecstasy, blasphemy, and bizarre humor. L'Age D'or is a full scale attack on bourgeois culture and contains themes of sex, religion, and violence. Anti-semites attacked the film because it was made by foreign, Jewish artists, and it was apparently anti-Catholic. At its screening, demonstrators caused a riot, attacking the audience and vandalizing the theater. The film was banned, the prints were seized, and the Vicount de Noailles, a nobleman who financed and produced the film as a birthday gift to his wife, was forced to resign from his elite club, the Jockey. Andre Breton, however, was thrilled about this. He wanted Bunuel and Dali to bring notoriety to the surrealists, and they succeeded in this.

While surrealist filmmakers embraced the ideas of love and desire and fractured narritive, imagry, and manipulation of time, they rejected conventional narrative forms – such as classical realism, linear narrative with a finite ending, and clarity of plot – and looked to liberate the film and the spectator from narrative itself, in order to stay away from conventional narrative forms and to classify it as surreal. Surrealist films serve to focus attention upon narrative itself and upon the relationship between the film and its audience. According to Godnose, “narrative and continuity expectations are denied and an absence of narrative logic defies us to impose any meaning on events. Casual connections among events are dissolved while character psychology is virtually non existent.” Examples of surrealist form include the unnamed characters in Un Chien Andalou and the use of ambiguous title cards: “once upon a time” and “eight years later.” Surrealists attempted to disrupt the narrative conventions of time and space, of plot, and character and causality. They wanted to disorientate the spectator and render to the unconscious, irrational world of dreams. They did this in many ways, such as shooting the film out of focus, through a mirror, and with limited to no dialogue.

I became really inspired with surrealist works after taking a surrealism class my junior year of college. I had never been in that world before, and it was exciting and fascinating to me. I was intrigued when we began to connect surrealism to dreams. I had always been interested in dreams and used to record my dreams every night. As part of the class, we were required to keep a dream journal. My dreams inspired many poems and stories in the past and I was excited to use them in my writing again. I was drawn to my dreams and surrealism. It only made sense for me to focus my senior project around my dreams.

While the theme of my project focuses on my dreams, I use multimedia to display them in three different parts, the main part being a film. I also use an exhibit to display a specific dream that spectators can walk through, and an old book to display other dreams in a variety of forms: narrative, poems, and photography. I chose to work with multimedia because I felt it best represented surrealism and the surreal nature of dreams. I wanted my dreams to be viewed in a variety of ways, to give the viewer a sense of mystery and confusion while maintaining the surrealist theme.

The film focuses on one dream that could possibly be three separate dreams merged into one. This particular dream relies heavily on visual imagery. I do not recall any form of dialogue in the dream. Any dialogue that is added to the film is muffled. The goal of this is to keep the viewer at a distance and questioning what's being said. When someone views a movie, they look for the dialogue to make things clear. If you were to watch a movie without sound, all you have to interpret what's happening are the actions. This helps to make the movie more surreal and dream like. Dialogue is not important for the viewer to understand the dream.

Because the film has limited dialogue and blurred sections, it is open for interpretation. It enables the viewer to see themselves as one of the characters and become immersed in the dream world. It allows them to fill in the blanks in their own way, which may be different from the way someone else views it, and even more different than the actual dream itself. The film itself is very dream like, and this is key in surrealist works.

The faces of the characters in the film are blurred, and the scenes are shot out of focus. For blurring specific areas, I used Vaseline on the lens instead of outside editing. I tried to keep the shooting natural and authentic to the surrealist forefathers, like Bunuel and Dali. I used as little outside editing as possible to make the movie seem realistic. I wanted some scenes to be shaky and others to be rushed and blurred to add to the surrealist effect. I also wanted to show that a film can be just a strong and significant to the viewer without the extra editing and visual effects.

The second part of this project is an installation, focused on one particular scene in another dream. The scene involves a dark room with its walls lined with dolls. The installation is set up in a separate room. Viewers are given flashlights and walk through the room in groups, experiencing the scene as I experienced it in my dream. The goal is to create a bizarre and disorienting environment, just as it was in my dream. This gives the audience a chance to actually be in the dream. It brings the audience closer then a movie or book could.

The instillation can also be interpreted in many ways. While it is merely one scene in a much bigger dream, it is very surreal. The room is dark and the walls are lined with dolls. Viewers are given flashlights and are escorted through the room to view as they please. This could invoke many feelings in each viewer; while one person may be creeped out by the dolls, someone else may see it on a different level. And, because they aren't being given the details of how it fits in to the rest of the dream, they are able to see it exactly as it is and interpret it the way they want.

The third and final part of my project involves a transformed book. I used an already bound book to create my own version of a book out of it. I recorded every dream I've had for the last year, and turned them into narratives. While doing so, I was able to pick out recurring themes: night, water, death, and love. I then picked out specific dreams and organized them according to their similar themes. Of roughly one hundred dreams, I narrowed it down to thirty-six.

Because my project focuses on my dreams, it also focuses on surrealism. Each part of my project is unique and surreal in its own way. The book uses mixed media to display my dreams. Some are through photos and pictures while others are written narratives and poems. Some are long and descriptive while others are very short. I do this to achieve a surreal feel; to draw the reader in and put them in a whole new world where it is open to their own interpretation. For example, one page in the book simply says 3:00 in red letters created to look like the LED lights on an alarm clock. How the reader interprets that could be different from someone else. I like to keep some parts of it vague for this reason.

Each dream is displayed in the book in a unique way. Some are straight narratives, some are poems, and others are simply photographs or found words already in the book. I covered the book in a faux leather and included a snap to keep it closed. This gives it the look of an old journal. I also gave the pages an aged effect by creating coffee stains and ripped corners.

Screenwriting is also an interest of mine and something I hope to pursue in the future. In the surrealism class, we had a chance to watch surrealist films: Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'or. These films inspired me to turn one of my dreams into a film. I was also inspired by an installation created by John Schiff's installation ‘First Papers of Surrealism Showing String.' I created an installation out of a very surreal scene from another one of my dreams.

I thought an installation would be the perfect way to display dreams, giving the audience a chance to walk through it and experience it for themselves, similar to how I experienced the dream. This gives the audience a surreal experience; they are open to interpret it in their own way. Each aspect of my show is meant to invoke different reactions and feelings from the audience. While some may feel strongly towards the film, others may feel stronger towards the installation. Using many different forms of media helps with the surreal theme and helps immerse the audience in my show.


Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada & Surrealist Film. Willis Locker & Owens, 1987. Print.

"Surrealism." Godnose. Web.

Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire: A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film. Berkeley [Calif.] [etc.:
University of California, 1992. Print.

© 2013 Katrina


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