The Advent of Surrealism

This is an academic paper on the analysis of Antonin Artaud’s essay on “Cinema and Reality.”

The concept of medium specificity of cinema has been a source of discussion among filmmakers, film theorists, and cinephiles since the very conception of cinema itself. From film theorist, Tom Gunning’s thesis about the integral role of early silent film in creating a form of cinema of attractions to filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s manifesto about developing a new language for cinema in the form of the kino-eye, the medium specificity of cinema has been continuously argued. Amongst these several radical voices who want to establish their own, correct way of looking at cinema, is Antonin Artaud, a significant figure in the twentieth-century European avant-garde movement, who, contrary to his contemporaries, suggests a nuanced way to look at cinema in his essay. Artaud attempts to find a middle ground between the new form of “pure or absolute cinema” (410) launched by the emerging abstract animation and Dadaist movements, and the existing conventional form of “hybrid art” (410) filmmaking, mastered by classical Hollywood, and Swedish filmmaking.

Before explaining his stance on cinema, however, Artaud critiques both the conventional form of filmmaking and the new radical form of pure cinema. Artaud believes that films with traditional narratives tend to rely heavily on verbal language, as opposed to the visual language of films. He further argues that the textual language so heavily informs the emotional responses from the audience that a theatrical performance or novel can replace the film itself. The autorenfilm approach to filmmaking seen in a film like Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witnessi (1912) primarily demonstrates Artaud’s problem with the conventional style of filmmaking in which the screenplay itself is based on a novel. Artaud, however, is equally unimpressed by films that place almost no importance on screenplays. The emergence of abstract animation, in particular, strikes Artaud as an empty exercise in visual style over substance that he believes fails to evoke any emotion in the viewer. While Artaud’s criticism of the art forms consisting of “geometric lines that possess no significant value” (410) is apparent, his reaction to Vertov’s manifesto and his film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) would provide a much more intriguing insight of his stance on pure cinema.

Both Vertov and Artaud clearly demonstrate their different approaches to cinema through their essays to establish their unique ideologies about film form. In his manifesto and his film, Vertov focuses heavily on the potential of the cinematic eye. Vertov especially puts great importance on the power of editing, describing it as a tool which allows “any theme to be developed, whether comic, tragic or anything else” (Vertov, 262) within a film. Artaud is likely to disagree with Vertov’s statement because he does not place as much importance on the power of the camera. He aims to create a form of “visual cinema in which even psychology is engulfed by actions.” (411)  Artaud’s emphasis throughout his essay on the lack of importance given by cinema to bringing psychology alive through the lens of dreams lays the groundwork for the surrealism movement that begins to emerge in the late 1920s. Artaud never explicitly states the word surrealism in his essay, but his constant emphasis on dream-logic, and references to his writing in the 1928 French short film The Seashell and the Clergymen demonstrate that he supports a mode of filmmaking that is not quite the same as the one Vertov envisions. These vastly different approaches to filmmaking from both the filmmakers in their essays make it seem as though the two would hardly agree on anything. Vertov, with his singular focus on the kino-eye, will likely find the camera’s mobility limited in Artaud’s work, and Artaud may as well dismiss Vertov’s work as another form of art abstraction with no significant emotional value.

Despite these stubbornly singular visions of both artists, Artaud’s reaction to Vertov’s revolutionary city symphony Man with a Movie Camera is a little hard to determine. This unclear response to Vertov’s film is because the emotional reaction that Vertov’s film achieves is highly evocative of Artaud’s search for “movement and rhythm” (411) in this form of pure filmmaking. Artaud’s praise for the visual language of the film that also stimulates an emotional response by “osmosis and without any kind of transposition of words” (412) is exactly the reaction that Vertov’s film invokes. Functioning with almost no narrative, Man with A Movie Camera documents a cameraman documenting life in four different Soviet cities. This genre of filmmaking is completely devoid of any form of surrealism that Artaud ascribes to, but Vertov’s film still manages to operate directly on the brain with the collection of images creating an idiosyncratic psychological response from the viewer. So, while Artaud might question the meta-narrative, and over-use of abstract imagery in Vertov’s film, the emotional response he gets from it feels remarkably similar to the one he seeks to achieve from his films.

It certainly feels that Artaud would be more appreciative of cinema, and its capabilities to demonstrate surrealism post-1928. The rise of Surrealist filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and David Lynch throughout the years suggests that Artaud’s ideas about cinema’s capabilities to stick with the real, but “rediscover the order of things” (412) by using complex narratives has stuck with many filmmakers. Moreover, most of these filmmakers put enormous emphasis on the “excessive sort of humor” (412) that Artaud briefly mentions in his essay. In Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929), for instance, the playful, but at the same time distressing image of a man dragging horses lying dead on two pianos, creates the “convulsions and surprises” (412) that Artaud rarely saw in the cinema. So, while Artaud may have had a lot of complaints with the history of cinema not using the medium to its full potential, the future certainly continues to hold filmmakers who view the medium specificity of cinema in the same vein as him.


  1. Artaud, Antonin. “Cinema and Reality.” French Film Theory and Criticism: 1907-1929, edited by Richard Abel, Princeton University Press, 1988, 410-412.
  2. Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and Avant-garde.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, edited by Thomas Elsaesser & Adam Barker, British Film Institute, 1990, 56-62.
  3. Vertov, Dziga. “Film Directors: A Revolution.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White & Meta Mazaj, Bedford, 2010, 257-262.

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