On Genre’s Surrealist Tendencies

30 Sep

I just finished re-watching Groundhog Day (1993) (the Blu-ray 15th Anniversary edition, if you must know).  One of the things that makes this film so fascinating, even upon seeing it more than once, is its remarkably bizarre narrative.  You might say it is positively surreal in form, dragging us, and the main character, Phil, into repetitious situations without any way to ground ourselves in the real (pun not intended).  There are no fancy explanations for Phil’s “curse,” and in the process of watching him struggle with his identity in this new world order, we get a glimpse into a part of the human spirit that perhaps gets lost in the day-to-day hustle of life, just as Phil does at the start.  What may seem monotonous can be changed by human action:  we can change what we do, how we act, how we view the world around us and the situations that arise therein, and so on.

Groundhog Day

It’s not exactly what a younger me would have expected from a surrealist narrative, in no small part because my first exposure to surrealism came in the form of an Introduction to Literary Theory course in college, wherein we read Andre Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism.[1]  I don’t remember much about that book, except one inaccurate conceptualization of surrealism as a literary “movement”:  to write the surreal, as Breton imagined it, is to give in to the sub- or un-conscious (like automatic writing, I suppose).  Breton, of course, defined it as “Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.”  The criticism of such a definition is fairly obvious:  it’s not exactly possible to paint anything that resembles concrete imagery (even strange, nonsensical concrete imagery) without giving in to some part of rational thought.  Otherwise, you couldn’t end up with this:

Nachtmusik -- Dorothea Tanning

Genre fiction, in the broadest sense of the term, has always had a relationship with the surreal, albeit not so much in the mainstream (in the sense that the surreal is the central conceit, and not a secondary component; there are exceptions, of course).[2]  Contemporary writers like Christopher Barzak and Lavie Tidhar (for Osama), for example, have engaged with the surreal, directly and indirectly (respectively).  In Barzak’s case, that engagement was with the artistic side of surrealism.  His collection, Birds and Birthdays, essentially attempts to tell the stories of the images and characters that appear in the paintings of several female surrealist painters.  The collection came out through Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces collection, an ongoing project to present works which engage with the “grand conversation” of feminist SF, what L. Timmel Duchamp, editor of the series, describes as follows:  “It is my constant sense of our feminist-sf present as a grand conversation that enables me to trace its existence into the past and from there see its trajectory extending into our future.”[3]  Surrealism has such a legacy within genre, too, in no small part because so much of what we call “weird” is really some variation of “surreal,” and vice versa.  The connections between the real, unreal, and surreal is quite central to the question of genre, particularly within SF/F.

127. Christopher Barzak (a.k.a. Don Surrealismo) -- Birds and Birthdays (An Interview)

If you look at surrealist film, for example, you’ll find unmistakable science fictional elements.  In Georges Melies’ Le Voyage dans la Lun (1902)(A Trip to the Moon), we’re presented with one of the most iconic images of SF film:  the bullet striking the moon in the eye.  The moon’s face doesn’t stick around in the film all that long, because the actual narrative concerns the first travelers to the moon, and the horrible things they find there (moon people!); Melies was often cited as an influence for surrealist painters and filmmakers, though that’s not that unusual when you consider how important his work was to the development of film at the turn of the century.[4]  Later surrealist films contained less definitively SF/F imagery, of course, but the legacy of SF/F film, along with hints of the noir, etc., would rise up out of the whirlwind of experimentation and wonder embodied by those first three or so decades of filmmaking.  Melies was an important part of that evolution.

Groundhog Day is, of course, just one of many post-silent-film-era movies that is, in my mind, unmistakably surrealist.  Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), for example, attempts to explore human evolution through feats of surrealistic grandeur, most notably in the bizarre space warping scenes leading up to the starchild ending (simply called the stargate sequence).  Previous to this moment, the film had provided what seemed like “answers” to the questions of human evolution, even if the monoliths themselves are never explained.  When the early primates go to war for the first time, the evolution is made almost explicit, despite the fact that the entire primate sequence contains no discernible dialogue.[5]  We know that they have taken a “leap forward” in technological terms because we can see a primate learn how to make tools before using them against a rival leader (the first piece of warfare).

The stargate sequence, however, doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretations from the start.  Rather, the only direct piece of knowledge imparted upon us in that sequence, and the moments leading up to the arrival (and return) of the starchild, is the placement of a monolith in the planetary alignment prior to Dave’s acid trip to the next phase of human evolution.  What all the lights and what not have to do with this jump forward, however, doesn’t have the same logical resonance as the first sequence in the film.  That’s perhaps the point:  this is supposed to be beyond our current phase of evolution, so whatever happens to drag us another step forward must seem entirely alien and surreal.  The surrealism, in a sense, serves a different sort of purpose than to simply jolt our senses with the strange; instead, our senses are jolted by the seemingly unknowable.

I’ve often wondered what draws creators of genre, specifically SF/F, to these sort of surrealist views of the world.  Even if most SF/F only contains traces of the surreal, the placement of such scenes within a work seems to suggest that the fantastic is, on some level, inherently unstable.  In a previous time, I might have said that this is especially true of the fantasy side of the fantastic, but I’m now convinced that even science fiction at its greatest (2001Sunshine, or Primer) cannot avoid the wider genre’s surrealist roots.

Something tells me I’m going to come back to this again.  For now, I leave this question to you readers:

What are some other examples of surrealism in SF/F (or other genres) that come to mind?


[1]:  I think the copy I read was entitled The Surrealist Manifesto.

[2]:  This is not exactly an original suggestion, either.

[3]:  You can find the full, two-paragraph description in the front pages of Barzak’s book (go to the ebook page on Amazon).

[4]:  All film is rather indebted to Georges Melies, to be honest.  His techniques, while clearly quite dated today, were groundbreaking at the time.  The limits of film were shattered by people like Melies — this despite a lot of talk about how film just wasn’t worth it.

[5]:  Presumably, the primate creatures are speaking in their version of a language, but since none of us speak it, we have to figure out what they’re saying from their body language (more or less).


8 Responses to “On Genre’s Surrealist Tendencies”

  1. Paul Weimer September 30, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    Amelie, and The Black Hole

    • shaunduke September 30, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      You mean the old school Disney movie?

      • Paul Weimer September 30, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

        Yes…the end sequence once they go in is definitely surreal.

      • shaunduke September 30, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

        Honestly, I’ve never seen it, Paul :S

      • Paul Weimer September 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

        I think we should watch it for Torture Cinema…or even UnTorture Cinema.

      • shaunduke September 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

        Isn’t it kind of a classic? Or was it legitimately bad? If I recall correctly, it bombed at the box office…

      • Paul Weimer September 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

        It’s a mixed bag. I have a soft spot for it, and rewatching it some time ago showed its flaws and plot holes.

      • shaunduke September 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

        Well, I’ll stick it on our list. If anything, it’ll be interesting to actually watch a Disney film 😛

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