Too Much Reality
   Tracing New Wave Surrealism's Roots
   by Nicholas Rombes

I have a friend who loves to hate the films of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, and the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman. "Cold, postmodern parlor tricks," he calls them. And who can deny that films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, by layering their stories beneath multiple framing devices, risk alienating audiences by forever undercutting our basis for identifying with the characters?

And yet to claim that they are the product of our ironic, hyper-alert, postmodern moment is to overlook an important cinematic history that lies behind these films, which are fundamentally
indebted to earlier surrealist works such as Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924), Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien andalou (1929), Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944), and others. Indeed, much early cinema was fascinated not only with the story being told, but with the process of telling the story, as well, as illustrated nearly perfectly in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), especially the remarkable section where we see the images we are watching as well the process of how they have been edited.

The problem in dismissing the Jonze / Gondry / Kaufman films as symptoms of postmodern irony and excess is that it tempts us to ignore or downplay the surrealist legacy upon which these films build. Writing about the surrealist films of Buñuel and others, Scott MacDonald, in his book Avant-Garde Film, notes that these filmmakers "continually confront one of the central assumptions of conventional cinema: the idea that the individual personality and social and political relations among individuals are basically rational and understandable." The energy and absurdist humor of a film like Being John Malkovich (with its literal portals into a mind) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (with its characters' realities being erased as their memories are erased) or Mulholland Drive (with its doubles and shifts between dream and awake states) has strong roots in the reality-slippages of films like Meshes of the Afternoon, with its impossible doublings and triplings and confounding time loops.

In describing his screenplay for Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman has said that "there's something about movies that's very safe because they usually play out in a certain way, and also because they're done. They're dead. It's not like theater where anything can happen, where somebody can screw up their lines, or there can be some kind of new interaction or chemistry between people." At its most potent, surrealism is a theory that recognizes that the illusions of order, coherence, and rationality that we invest reality with are just that: illusions. The deconstruction of reality that we call today postmodernism owes its debt to surrealism, which recognized that the destruction of the real did not have to be a violent act, but that it could be invested with a menacing humor, the sort of humor evident in films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine.

The recent return of surrealism in cinema occurs at the same time that we see the emergence of reality TV and reality media. Movies with "real-life" content, like Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and The Corporation have elevated documentary cinema to a high-water mark in American culture. Rather than dying off or passing as a fad, reality TV has become the dominant logic of television itself. Cell phones have emerged as the newest confessional tools, allowing anybody to make and send a digital film of themselves. The relentless drive towards realism elevates reality to deific status, a final and total rejection of the fantastic and utopian elements that characterized the 1960s.

And yet the triumph of realism today has an unintended consequence, as the juxtaposition of so many images and texts is itself a form of surrealism. The surplus of reality—from 24-hour news shows, to the internet, to cell phones, to digital cameras—creates clashes that are as potentially radical as any film by Buñuel. The very availability and speed of images flashing across our screens—a hostage about to be beheaded, a tsunami chasing a group of people down a street, a jet crashing into a tower—these images form the ultimate dialectic montage. What was only hinted at in the technologies of remote-control channel surfing came to be fulfilled in the pastiche of ready-to-edit images available on the internet, DVDs, photoshop, desktop editing, video games, and other forms that allow users to enact William S. Burroughs's cut-up method with the click of a mouse. We know—or do we?—that reality is a text, and that like the little squares that fall from the screen in I Heart Huckabees, it can sometimes fall apart.

As art, surrealism depended upon the willful rearrangement of reality in order to release the irrational and absurd from the prison-logic of reason. In the 1920s, surrealists would rush from theater to theater, watching only a few minutes of each movie, thereby creating their own internal movie. Today, the speed of images reaching us from so many different mediums creates a sort of permanent surrealism: no wonder the more formally surrealist elements of I Heart Huckabees or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seem tame compared to the surrealism of everyday life.

In the end, it is the excess of realism itself which creates the conditions for the revelation of absurdity that surrealism makes possible. At perhaps no time before have representations of reality been brought to bear with such unremitting force upon us. And at no time before has the unintended consequence of this surplus reality been the undoing of that very reality.

-- Nicholas Rombes

To buy the films
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Nicholas Rombes is an associate professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he teaches classes in film and literature, and were he co-founded the Electronic Critique Program (

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