Take moviegoers who have sat rapturously through the violent shootout of The Wild Bunch, the psychotic attacks of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the exploding head of Scanners and the various and sundry explosive acts of psychopathy in films from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino and ask them if they have seen Un Chien Andalou. If they say they’ve never heard of it, tell them they are going to watch one of the freakiest movies ever made. Then just sit back and wait.
The scene in which the woman’s eyeball is slit with a straight razor has the power to shock and gag even today’s jaded aficionado of movie violence every bit as much as it shocked and gagged those few who first saw it in 1928. Even thirty or forty years of accumulated desensitizing resulting from willingly being force fed a diet of movie blood is not adequate preparation for what remains, nearly a century later, perhaps most the single shocking image ever seen outside a documentary
Un Chien Andalou translates into “An Andalusian Dog” and that title is pretty much as void of meaning as the French title was before it was translated. It was not the first Surrealist movie, but it remains the most well-known and studied. A collaboration between Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and soon-to-be Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, the only thing that can adequately be said about the movie that is beyond all room for argument is that its meaning is whatever you bring to it.
The film opens with a simple title card reading “Once upon a time” before showing that razor being sharpened. Without warning he uses it to slash open a woman’s eyeball (not really, of course, but the effect is such that he might as well have) and then here is another title card reading “Eight years later….” Maybe the flood of disconnected imagery (a man poking a severed hand with a stick, donkeys inside a grand piano, ants crawling over palm, a woman’s breasts being fondled, a death’s head moth, etc) takes place eight years later or maybe it doesn’t; that’s not the point. The point is that moviegoers in 1928 were accustomed to such signposts leading their way as they navigated film narratives. Dali and Bunuel uses these cinematic conventions and audience expectations to undermine them and force the viewer into confronting a logic created not from narrative connection of the dots but to a connection made somewhere much deeper within their unconscious mind.
Any meaning that can be gleaned from that imagery and the way they are connected through editing is dependent upon the viewer’s subconscious interpretation. Which makes Un Chien Andalou an ideal experience since it is entirely independent upon any literal and intention interpretation. The only problem is that what each individual interpretation one arrives at is likely to say more about you than you really want to know and definitely more about you than you might want to share with others.