Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) is as much a staple in film studies classes as Citizen Kane - Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's 1929 collaboration remains the foundation of Surrealist cinema. It's also a supremely weird flick - while most only remember the iconic image of a woman's eyeball being slit with a straight razor (and no, despite numerous claims to the contrary, it really isn't the woman's actual eye; it's the eye of a freshly slain calf), Bunuel and Dali pile woozy visuals atop one another in a disconnected 16-minute collage that all but defies logic.
It's fitting that Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein first promulgated the concept of montage around this same period; Un Chien Andalou takes the idea and pushes it to its outermost limits. Each series of images is wholly and completely independent; from the still-jolting opening sequence to the bizarre sight of a man struggling to move two priests and two grand pianos loaded down with dead donkeys, Un Chien Andalou traffics in the stuff dreams (or maybe nightmares) are made of.
Despite their insistence that the film be stripped of any discernible context or logic, Un Chien Andalou is not without at least some suggestion of symbolism. Sex and mortality are inextricably linked through Bunuel and Dali's short film; scholar Stephen Barber (author of "Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs") goes so far in his commentary track as to suggest that Un Chien Andalou represents nothing less than the death throes (Barber terms it "a convulsion") of experimental cinema and the culmination of a decade's worth of brainstorming by the clutch of Surrealists living in Paris during the Twenties. Barber also posits that the advent of sound in cinema helped to kill off experimental film, which flourished in the silent era.
Bunuel and Dali set out in making Un Chien Andalou to deliberately provoke, shock and mystify audiences. In fact, one of the great legends surrounding the film (which is borne out by the supplemental material included on this disc) is that Bunuel stood behind the screen opening night with rocks in his pockets, ready to quell the rioting masses should the experience prove too overwhelming. While the crowd responded in quite the opposite fashion, Bunuel and Dali both got the extreme reaction they sought with their next experimental work, 1930's L'Age D'or (The Golden Age) - police shut down the screening, destroyed artwork and threw the clamoring crowd out of the theater.
Even in this age of slasher films and the likes of Faces of Death, this short film still has the capacity to captivate and shock; the collision of images, Barber says, are a throwback to the very origins of moving pictures, before there were expectations for disposable entertainment and the sight of flickering images was meant to discomfit and awe.
It's a shame that Transflux Films and Facets Video couldn't spring for a digital spit and polish - this transfer of Un Chien Andalou looks horrible. In what looks like a direct port from a second-generation VHS copy, the film (presented in 1.33 fullscreen) is extremely washed out and scratches abound. Awkward jump cuts (although this may be deliberate on the filmmakers' part) suggest missing frames and flicker is also a problem. In addition, the few subtitles are burned onto the print. Especially when considering how much emphasis Surrealism places upon imagery, this is truly disappointing.
Dolby mono (and occasionally Dolby stereo) is the only option available on Un Chien Andalou - but where the video falls down, the soundtrack is surprisingly crisp and strong. The expressive orchestral score comes through loud and clear and throughout all of the supplements, music and voice remain undistorted.
As mentioned earlier, Surrealism scholar Stephen Barber conducts an efficient and extremely informative commentary in 16 minutes; he manages to squeeze in an overview of the experimental film movement up to and through Un Chien Andalou as well as offering theories as to the juxtaposition of imagery onscreen. In addition, Juan-Luis Bunuel, one of the filmmaker's sons, is on hand for the retrospective documentary "A Slice of Bunuel," which runs 16 minutes and covers Bunuel's life before, during and after Un Chien Andalou. Juan-Luis Bunuel speaks eloquently about his father's life and work, as well as offering some keen insight into the making of this Surrealist classic.
Also on board is a four minute epilogue detailing the deterioration of Bunuel and Dali's friendship in the years following the making of Un Chien Andalou. Both men took wildly divergent paths; it's interesting to see how one chose art and the other chose fame, with each having their own repercussions. An odd and superfluous addition to the extras is an artist's statement by Dave McKean, the famed comic artist who designed the package for this reissue. Also, "Mystery of Cinema," an abridged transcript from a 1953 Bunuel speech, is reprinted on the insert.
Un Chien Andalou is a film that any self-respecting cinephile should see at least once (if only to discover where the Wachowski brothers stole that cool disappearing mouth trick in The Matrix). While the extremely poor video transfer is a huge letdown, the insightful extras somewhat redeem the disc. Still, one can hope that a remastering of Un Chien Andalou is in the works. Recommended.