“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.”
The lights dim, the projector whirs to life, light is flung upon the screen, and all rules of science and sensory experience are broken: this is part of the appeal of film, that it can give life to our nocturnal visions, abiding by a reality that, before movies, could only exist inside our heads. True, movies entice us for other reasons: storytelling, entertainment, pathos, populating seemingly real places with apparently real people in a mirror image of our own world. The dominance of narrative linearity was more or less entrenched in cinema by the mid-1910s, as movies supplanted literature and theater as the most commercially popular storytelling medium. Yet from their birth to their turbulent recent history, as Hollywood continues its cultural invasion and celluloid gives way to digital formats, movies have also pulsated with the language of dreams, drawing us irresistibly closer to their uncanny visions, fashioning a new language of hieroglyphics in motion.
The following is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my Master's thesis, Specters and Spectacles: The Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade. The entire thesis can be downloaded here.
History written by a phantom
Yes, the kingdom of apparitions is of this world, today it is this world, and the serious or mocking men who handle the creaking gates open them to new phantoms, who carry strange rays of light in their footsteps, in the folds of their mantles. Watch out for the period that’s coming! This world is already cracking, it bears within it some unknown principle of negation, it is crumbling. Follow the rising smoke, the specters’ lashings in the midst of the bourgeois universe. A bolt of lightning is lurking beneath the bowler hats. Truly, there is diabolism in the air.
– Louis Aragon, “Challenge to Painting,” 1930
These words, written by the Surrealist Louis Aragon in his preface to the first exhibition of
collage art in France, gave voice to a culture that saw itself changed from the inside out. Aragon and his fellow first-generation Surrealists came of age in Paris during the fin de siècle, as French society was undergoing turbulent upheaval in its socioeconomic structure; in its conceptions of crime, the family, religion, and education; in its modes of vision, knowledge, and science; in its political attitudes regarding its own citizenry, neighboring European nations, and international colonialist territories and protectorates; in its entrenched forms of artistic expression and nascent media industries; in its ambivalent relationship towards the modern urban space and its interconnectivity with suburban areas; and in a seemingly boundless number of related transformations. “Challenge to Painting” in particular questioned what comprised worthwhile, socially acceptable art; no longer confined to painterly compositions framed and enshrined in respected galleries, the visual media were by this time (in 1930) patchworks of a number of concordant influences, culled from newspapers and tabloids, consumer goods, typographical arrangements, still photography and the cinema, non-representational imagery (such as Cubism and Fauvism) and more classical forms of painting and sculpture. One need only think of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” the first of which—“Bicycle Wheel,” assembled in 1913—was simply an inverted bicycle wheel mounted on a common stool. The visual arts were evolving, transforming, bizarrely transmogrifying. With “Challenge to Painting,” Aragon was quite directly confronting individuals’ (and France’s) opinions about what art really was. The “creaking gates” being opened were the musty entryways to new forms of expression; the world that was cracking and crumbling was that of stolid, classical, representational painting. These new specters were “lashing out” at the bourgeois universe by toppling artistic assumptions about the rupture between high art and a rapidly-expanding mass culture. The diabolism in the air was the unsettling aura of the Surrealists, Futurists, Dadaists, Cubists, and other artists who sought to foreground the material nature of artistic form, thus revealing its evocation of inner psychological states and of the spectacles of cultural ideology put forth by the modern capitalist state. “Challenge to Painting” indeed.