6 Great Surrealist Directors Who Aren't David Lynch
It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that the internet explodes with every bit of David Lynch related news on a weekly basis. After reading half a dozen articles on his imminent memoir, I was struck with the feeling that enough is enough. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t made a feature film in nearly a decade, or maybe it’s because the general population has discovered/rediscovered Twin Peaks while Netflixing and chilling, but the omnipresence of Lynch in pop culture is reaching a fever pitch.
And as cool as he is — which is in all honesty, pretty damn cool — there is a whole world of surrealist cinema waiting to be discovered. For those of you stuck in Black Lodge style limbo waiting for the 2016 return of Twin Peaks or for those of you who can’t bear to watch Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr. for the twelfth time, here’s a list of surrealist directors you need to know about.
The granddaddy of the Surrealist movement—the whole thing, not just in film—has a work that every single one of us has seen whether we’ve known it or not. Un Chien Andalou, the first of two collaborations with the equally wacky Salvador Dalí, has the indelible image of an eye being sliced in half with a razor, a staple recreated in film school, music videos, and general Internet art alike. But aside from the nightmarish silent short, Buñuel worked for six decades creating some of the weirdest shit imaginable. The Phantom of Liberty has a dinner party where everyone casually sits on flushing toilets and rushes to a private cubicle to eat food; The Exterminating Angel is about a party where all of the guests become psychologically trapped in the room and start eating the walls to prevent starvation. His films are reliably witty, still slyly controversial, and very, very fucking weird.
I don’t use the title ‘God of Indie Queer Cinema’ lightly, but I have few qualms about bestowing such a title on Gregg Araki. Using a color palette straight out of a deluxe Crayola box, Araki’s films explore the multiplicity of living in a queer world. Kaboom, an excellently delirious movie about the end of the world, tracks gay frustration shortly before the Apocalypse hits, and Mysterious Skin stars a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt dealing with emotional trauma through prostitution with overall themes of alien abduction. For something more lighthearted, try out Smiley Face, a jewel of a stoner comedy that has cameos from literally everyone, and is about Anna Faris being too high to function.
Aside from being at the forefront of American Surrealism, Maya Deren is a notable entrant on this list for being one of the most critically acclaimed female filmmakers of her era. In the early 1940’s, at a time when little to zero women were directing films, Deren created a 15-minute nightmare called Meshes of the Afternoon. Despite its short length, the film set a precedent in American movies, showing everybody how it’s done when it comes to making a piece of surrealist art that you write, direct, star in, and produce yourself. Other works like At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time continued to explore the repetition of woman in natural landscapes, but we’ll never get the image of the hooded, caped figure with a mirror for a face out of our heads. Meshes of the Afternoon is where the surrealist money is.
He’s French-Canadian, he’s hot, but most importantly, he’s a talented filmmaker. Dolan, a relatively inexperienced director compared to some of the veterans on this list, makes up for what he lacks in maturity with an uncanny talent for the surreal. The Dolan blend of avant-garde has bold flavors of Oedipal awkwardness with hints of queer heartache. Tom at the Farm turns the death of a lover into a psychological shit show, and being a mother hardly looked as horrible as it does in Mommy, thanks to some violently trippy emotional trauma.
If any of you were lucky enough to catch the colossally epic Yeezus Tour, then you may know that Kanye has said repeatedly that the elaborate nature of his arena shows used a film called The Holy Mountain as design inspiration. That film, Jodorowsky’s most infamous, is about as surreal as it gets, with existential nudity, dissertations on the meaning of art, and gratuitous anus-washing. Things got significantly more violent with Santa Sangre, a shamelessly bloody mess depicting a child growing up with a circus, and the Western got a bizarrely psychedelic update with El Topo. He also famously tried to make the si-fi epic Dune, which ended up being made by our buddy Lynch, but you can see what Jodorwosky intended to do with decidedly bizarre touches in the aptly named documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. But be warned: his films are seriously not for the faint of heart.
You expect zany things from a member of Monty Python, a surrealist bunch in their own right, but Terry Gilliam’s films made outside his comedy group are cruelly underappreciated. His plotlines are beyond insane; Time Bandits concerns a boy who’s kidnapped by a band of little people who travel through time and steal things from historical figures, and Brazil is weighty sci-fi extravaganza that’s like if the Marx Brothers had written 1984. And of course, there’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the greatest film ever made about a writer, played by Johnny Depp, taking a shit ton of psychedelics. His films may exist outside of Monty Python, but Gilliam’s surreal epics have just as much of the punch and absurdity that made the former group so great.
Stay tuned to Milk for more surrealist realness.