4 September 2013
The release of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) delivered on its intent to shock, mystify, and even charm some early film audiences. Film scholars and critics throughout the twentieth century have searched relentlessly for hidden meaning among the film’s string of bizarre and violent images. In a memoir Bunuel maintained when creating the film he had no other motive than to propagate his surrealist vision. He never sided with rational interpretations of his radical ideas. The film was born from his rebellious youth, a direct insult to the “avant-garde cine” in Paris that catered more toward viewer reason (Bunuel, 101). The question remains; how does one explain countless stubborn attempts to find meaning in Bunuel’s ‘Frankenstein film’? Viewing the film through the lens of cognitive film theory helps one understand why in the case of Un Chien Andalou, various interpretations of the incoherent shots persist over time but bear no validity.
Cognitivist David Bordwell asserts a broad question; how does the human mind go beyond the information given within a shot to find meaning? By drawing from past experience, images conjure up previous “schemas” to categorize shots into the context of a scene. Schemas are subjective and invite infinite interpretations. As images appear and disappear, the mind responds by integrating the images with preconceived notions of time, setting, and narrative norms. Bordwell calls this “cognizing” (Bordwell, 136). During the opening, Bunuel uses a match on action to synthesize two loosely related shots into one disturbing image. The audience thinks they see a woman’s eye being sliced when the sliced eye belongs to a calf. This particular bias is an example of a mental phenomenon that misled viewers for decades.
Other techniques set the stage for “cognizing.” Early in the film the audience is propelled further into a disjointed narrative where a man in a nun outfit bikes down an unknown street. Then we see a man and woman gazing out a window. This transition invites the audience to think three characters are operating in the same time and place among shots. This is a classic example of how shots invite the mind to find narrative significance that does not exist. Additionally, props like the striped box exert cognitive effects when seen across settings. The striped box appears during the street scene and appears again upstairs as a woman lays clothing atop a bed. Item repetition and clever editing assist in “cognizing” by creating an association between previously unrelated shots.
Despite our ability to establish cohesion, Bunuel ruins all previous associations during the final scene. A young couple is shown dead on the beach in the springtime. The stark ending is a last insult to mainstream proponents of art during his youth. The film was a violent deviation from the “avant-garde” of the time that was intended to cultivate artistic sensibility among viewers (Bunuel, 2006). Ironically, the work was well received by the French intellectual bourgeoisie (Koller, Un Chien Andalou).
Thus, the film’s controversial nature makes it an invaluable piece of film history. Today, it still continues to rouse emotions and confuse audiences. While associations in characters and settings arise, shots never reveal a consistent narrative. Through clever editing Bunuel allows just enough consistency for the audience to piece together a semblance of narrative. Cognizing the film invites creative interpretation but a dead end leaves the audience confused. Regardless, the films graphic images mixed with clever transitions will always inspire cognitive interpretation and continue to dupe creative thinkers for eternity.
Buñuel, Luis (2006). “Notes on the Making of Un Chien Andalou”, in Art in Cinema :
documents toward a history of the ﬁlm society. Philadelphia: Temple University
Bordwell, David. “Poetics of Cinema. Taylor & Francis Group. New York, NY
Koller, Michael. “Un Chien Andalou“. Senses of Cinema. Film Victoria.
Retrieved 23 July 2012. < http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/cteq/chien/>.