Sur­re­al­ist fan­tasies

Film nut Sal­vador Dali was crazy like a fox, writes Rachel Camp­bell- John­ston

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

SAL­VADOR Dali, it seems, is in hot de­mand on the screen. Only a cou­ple of weeks ago it was an­nounced at Cannes that three biopics are si­mul­ta­ne­ously in pro­duc­tion and that Johnny Depp, Al Pa­cino and Peter O’Toole are all up for the part of the Span­ish sur­re­al­ist.

The mus­ta­chioed mav­er­ick, no doubt, would have rel­ished this homage from Hol­ly­wood. Born in 1904, he was one of the first gen­er­a­tion to be nur­tured by the screen’s un­fold­ing fan­tasies. He cer­tainly had a cin­e­matic imag­i­na­tion. His paint­ings are like stills from some movie that un­spools inside the un­con­scious. The eye moves across them like a cam­era across a land­scape, pan­ning out­wards to take in the en­tire panorama, zoom­ing in­wards to fol­low some bizarre nar­ra­tive se­quence, paus­ing to fo­cus on some minia­tur­ist’s de­tail be­fore cut­ting abruptly to an­other part of the pic­ture.

Dali is an artist whose fan­tasies are con­stantly in flux. His images, for all that they have fixed them­selves in the mod­ern canon, are con­stantly mor­ph­ing. And maybe this, in part, is why it is not only Hol­ly­wood that is mes­merised by his vi­sions. Any­one who had pre­sumed that Dali could be dis­missed, rolled up and forgotten along with those teenage posters of floppy watches and stag­ger­ing ele­phants, was forced to think again in 2004, the cen­te­nary of his birth, when the man who pro­duced among the most mem­o­rable images of a cen­tury showed that he could still pull the crowds into gal­leries.

But the latest show at Lon­don’s Tate Mod­ern, Dali and Film, is more than a mere crowd- pleaser. This self- pro­mot­ing sur­re­al­ist’s achieve­ments may seem over­shad­owed by his bla­tant show­man­ship, but the schol­ar­ship that went into the pro­duc­tion of a host of cen­te­nary ex­hi­bi­tions has reawak­ened a more se­ri­ous crit­i­cal in­ter­est. Tate Mod­ern of­fers a fo­cused, in­tel­li­gent and il­lu­mi­nat­ing ap­praisal that should re­fresh the vi­sion and re­mind us that Dali was more than just a phe­nom­e­nal show- off.

This cul­tural out­law’s fas­ci­na­tion with cin­ema was pro­found and per­sis­tent. On a su­per­fi­cial level it’s hardly sur­pris­ing. By the 1920s Hol­ly­wood was set­ting the world alight. And how could the fame- hun­gry Spa­niard re­sist? The man who was later nick­named Avida Dol­lares ( an ana­gram of his name that trans­lates as ‘‘ greedy for dol­lars’’) must have been daz­zled. This af­ter all was the artist who, hav­ing at last found fame, was happy to put his im­age to com­mer­cial ends and ap­pear in ad­ver­tise­ments for Alka- Seltzer ( which he de­clared ‘‘ a work of art, truly one of a kind, like Dali’’) and pro­claim­ing him­self ‘‘ mad for’’ Lan­vin choco­late.

Un­for­tu­nately th­ese quirky snip­pets don’t ap­pear in the new Tate show that, fo­cus­ing on a rather less flip­pant at­trac­tion be­tween this artist and the cin­ema, dis­plays his can­vases along­side his com­pleted film se­quences and his notes, sketches and sto­ry­boards for the many cin­e­matic projects that he planned but which, for one rea­son or an­other, never came to fruition.

Here are Un chien an­dalou ( 1929) and L’age d’or ( 1930), those strange ef­flo­res­cences of ir­ra­tional images that arose from Dali’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Luis Bunuel, as well as a re- cre­ation of a sce­nario for a film of his novel Babaouo, a film on which he started work a cou­ple of years later, go­ing so far as to pro­duce a poster be­fore it was aban­doned, in large part be­cause Bunuel by that time had moved on.

Here are the goofy vi­sions of gi­raffe foot­men that he cre­ated for the Marx Brothers, whose slap­stick he adored; and dis­qui­et­ing lit­tle sketches for Moon­tide , the dis­turb­ing vi­sion that was to be di­rected by Fritz Lang. Nei­ther project was com­pleted, in the lat­ter case be­cause, barely a fort­night af­ter film­ing be­gan, the Ja­panese were bomb­ing Pearl Har­bor. But still, Moon­tide was a pre­cur­sor to the mag­i­cal dream se­quence that Dali was cre­at­ing in 1944 for Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Spell­bound. Sadly, by the time it was fin­ished it had been scis­sored as ruth­lessly as the eye­balls of its open­ing shots by a pro­ducer who was as ar­tis­ti­cally scep­ti­cal as he was fi­nan­cially stingy.

The fac­tory of dreams was ob­vi­ously a bit edgy about Dali’s night­mares. Dis­ney cer­tainly was. In 1946, ex­ploit­ing the Spa­niard’s fash­ion­able nov- elty, Dis­ney com­mis­sioned Destino . A brief an­i­ma­tion of ‘‘ a sim­ple love story’’ was ex­pected, but the end re­sult — a sur­re­al­is­tic desert trip that, though ba­si­cally lyri­cal, has a de­cid­edly sin­is­ter side — ap­palled the cre­ator of Mickey Mouse, who aborted the project ( even though 10 years later he re­turned to Dali to dis­cuss an adap­ta­tion of Don Quixote ).

Th­ese films are ex­plored along­side an im­pres­sive se­lec­tion of paint­ings and sculp­tures that have been lent by col­lec­tions the world over. Sev­eral of Dali’s most fa­mous pieces are in­cluded: the lob­ster tele­phone, for in­stance, and the huge slum­ber­ing tad­pole of The Per­sis­tence of Me­mory which, with its clocks melt­ing like the cheeses that in­spired it, is prob­a­bly Dali’s most fa­mous im­age.

Along­side th­ese are a num­ber of lesser known works, in­clud­ing such pieces as Morn­ing Os­si­fi­ca­tion of the Cy­press , which, de­spite its char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally cum­ber­some ti­tle, has a vis­ual dar­ing that cuts through the psy­che.

This show em­pha­sises what the paint­ings and the filmic works share. It points out how a mas­ter, who while still a stu­dent had run through the gamut of modernist in­no­va­tion be­fore dis­cov­er­ing a style of his own, ex­plored cin­e­matic prac­tices as a demon­stra­tion of his con­tem­po­rary cre­den­tials. It also ex­plores the debt that he owed to the stark light­ing and shad­ows of the film set, to the cam­era’s fram­ing de­vices and to spe­cial ef­fects.

But this show is not about a painter em­ploy­ing filmic tricks. It is about a mas­ter with a seething mind who would scav­enge from any­where, bor­row any medium, as a means to an end. He would do any­thing to bring his ideas to vis­ual life. The spec­ta­tor will see the same images re­cur­ring again and again in this show, adapt­ing them­selves to a variety of man­i­fes­ta­tions — the same rot­ting don­keys, dis­mem­bered bod­ies, soggy time­pieces, melt­ing rocks and milling ants. Dali is pre­pared to try any­thing in his at­tempt to ‘‘ sys­tem­a­tise con­fu­sion’’; to turn para­noia into paint­ing and Freudian the­ory into an art form; to make the dream more vivid than the ev­ery­day.

Per­haps this is why the films are less ef­fec­tive than the paint­ings. Dali’s work de­pends on a re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tion­ship with the psy­che of the viewer. The cam­era is too di­dac­tic. It guides the eye across the sur­face of the screen. But the paint­ings we are left to read by our­selves, guided only by our fears and ob­ses­sions and fan­tasies. Dali and Film is at Tate Mod­ern, Lon­don, un­til Septem­ber 9.

Hello Dali: A study for the dream se­quence in Hitch­cock’s Spell­bound , 1945

Cin­e­matic imag­i­na­tion: Sal­vador Dali

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