Monday, 17 May 2010

In darkened rooms: On Salvador Dalí and cinema (in memory of David Vilaseca)

"Oh Salvador Dalí, of the olive-colored voice!
I sing your restless longing for the statue,
your fear of the feelings that await you in the street."

Excerpt from Federico García Lorca, 'Ode to Salvador Dalí'
(first published in Revista de Occidente, Madrid, April 1926)

"The cinema? Three cheers for darkened rooms."
"[Un chien andalou/] An Andalusian Dog, one of the most universally acclaimed films in cinema history, is frequently mentioned by critics as a privileged point of reference for the Surrealist rebellion. The film remains enigmatic to this day. Criticism has concentrated on the validity and effectiveness of its images to exemplify the avant-garde attack against social conventions and against the exclusive dominance of rationality in epistemology and social discourse. But this contextual approach does not take account of the script's fragmented narrative, which finds support in Freud's psychoanalytical theories and articulates a radical proposal for identity and culture. Largely neglected by critics, this narrative has been highly influential in the history of cinema. An Andalusian Dog is central to a long list of films that explore different aspects of the irrational, among them Jean Cocteau's Le sang du poète, Hunt Stromberg's The Strange Woman, Guy Debord's script Howling in Favor of the Marquis de Sade, Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, [...] David Lynch's Blue Velvet [...].
    Conventionally An Andalusian Dog has been viewed as a film about sexuality; I suggest that sexuality appears in the film as the pretext for a discussion of the threat sexual desire poses for male identity. In this respect, the film develops ideas that begin to appear in paintings completed by Dalí after his initial contact with Freud's works in the mid-1920s. These paintings display male identity as a fragile form of subsistence unfolding between two alternate forces, desire and fear: the desire for sexual realization and the opposed fear that sexual intercourse will conclude in disease and ultimately in death. Given the scarcity of Buñuel's production prior to 1929, I suggest that Dalí's monumental production of paintings during these years served as a preliminary visual point of reference for the design of some of the images in An Andalusian Dog." 
Ignacio Javier López, 'Film, Freud, and Paranoia Dalí and the Representation of Male Desire in An Andalusian Dog', Diacritics, 31.2 (2001) 35-48
"[David Vilaseca's] first book, published in 1995, was The Apocryphal Subject: Masochism, Identification and Paranoia in Salvador Dalí's Autobiographical Writings. Where previous scholars had attempted to discover the "true" Dalí behind the multiple masks, David took seriously the elusiveness of identity in a subject who wrote gnomically: "There are four Dalís and the best is the fifth." Crucially, this sense of self was built on Dalí's vehement rejection of homosexuality, and of Federico García Lorca, the gay poet who loved him. The painter could thus at one moment write jokingly to Lorca as a rent boy, offering his services for a few pesetas, and at another insist dogmatically: "Let there be no misunderstanding on this point. I am not a homosexual."
     Bizarre episodes in Dalí's autobiography suddenly made sense in David's subtle and sensitive readings. In one tragicomic scene, Dalí struggles with a razor blade to cut out a tick that he believes has attached itself to his back, only to discover that it is a mole, part of his own body. Self and other, inside and outside, thus prove perilously difficult to separate." Paul Julian Smith, 'David Vilaseca Obituary', The Guardian, March 11, 2010
Film Studies For Free chooses today -- the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia -- to bring you the second of its posts created in memory of David Vilaseca, the openly gay Professor of Hispanic Studies and Critical Theory at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Vilaseca tragically died in a road traffic accident in London on February 9, 2010, having fought against homophobia, in different ways, for much of his life. A recent obituary in the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia also brutally connected these two unassailable facts in its own powerful and poetic tribute to this remarkable scholar and hugely creative writer:
Deberíamos leer a Vilaseca, que supo esquivar la soledad y el desarraigo en un mundo homófobo hasta que este se disfrazó de camión y embistió su bicicleta.
We really should read the works of Vilaseca; he knew how to dodge loneliness and rootlessness in a homophobic world, at least until the latter disguised itself as a truck and rammed into his bicycle.

As Paul Julian Smith indicates in his obituary for his friend (cited above), Vilaseca's PhD thesis, which he turned into an outstanding first book, explored the highly complex question of the homophobia of artist, filmmaker, and fellow Catalan Salvador Dalí through the lens of queer cultural theories. 

Below is a list of direct links to numerous other resources (videos, podcasts, and further, openly-accessible, scholarly material), many of which touch on Dalí's much less well-explored cinematic work in the same contexts as those studied in Vilaseca's book; that is to say, the artist's avowed 'paranoiac-critical method' and the cultural expression of his sexuality. 

[Addendum: For two much less scholarly, but still highly (and, possibly, surprisingly) engaging, fictional examinations of the workings of paranoia and homophobia in the period of Dalí's life prior to the making of Un chien andalou, FSFF's author thoroughly recommends the films Little Ashes (Paul Morrison, 2009), starring Robert Pattinson as Dalí, and Carlos Saura's Buñuel y la mesa del rey Salomón. (If you need more convincing, please do read Pauline Bache's article on the former film).]

Dreams designed by Dalí for Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), and Un Chien andalou

No comments: