Pre-1960 pioneers and experimental movies. Many shorts are included but only the more famous, surreal or unusually strange, excluding the scores of early film-makers and later
avant-garde artists and formalists that merely experimented with cinematography, structure, time, lighting, perspective and other technical aspects of film.
See also Hans Richter, Luis Buñuel,
Jean Cocteau, Maya Deren,
Sidney Peterson, Kenneth Anger,
Stan Brakhage, James Broughton.
A classic, pioneering, plotless experimental short with a barrage of rhythmic imagery: Spinning objects, pumping machinery, clockwork, a kaleidoscope of mechanical parts,
and in the middle of all this there are people, rapidly changing faces, repetitive marching, smiling and walking, and geometrical figures. An industrial ballet
Hilarious short spoof on Surrealism about a group of amateur film-makers that want to enter a film competition and after much head-scratching, try to
make a surreal piece. Film-making humor, plus the actual short ('Afternoon of a Rubberband') containing random weirdness for its own sake and a
funny spoof on Richter and Un Chien Andalou.
Even: As You and I
Although this was made in 1967, it is based on a 1929 visual book by Dadaist Max Ernst which contains a collage of surreal paintings with a short legend or comment.
This 20 minute movie attemnpts to bring the collage to life with living paintings, giving each scene a few seconds as the subjects move or float and the painting
clicks into place, before rapidly cutting to the next scene. Think of this as a more fast-moving and dense Chien Andalou with less shock-value and more static
imagery. Of course it doesn't really have a narrative even though it is left to the viewer to assemble the images in his head, and besides this, its only flaw
is that some images require more time to sink in.
Femme 100 Têtes, La
A 1953 children's surreal musical by Dr. Seuss, not 'surreal' in the usual way of children's fantasy movies and musicals, but actually bizarre using childlike
psychological dream-logic. Bart is terrified of his strict piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who also happens to be wooing his newly single mother. But he much
prefers the cool plumber who doesn't think highly of the piano teacher. When Bart dozes off, his world becomes a huge castle with bizarre sets and rooms, ladders
that go nowhere and absurdly useless signs, all straight out of Dr Seuss's colorful-Caligari-esque imagination. Dr. T employs many minions, led by a duo on skates
and joined beards. He plans to hypnotize 500 children to play on a massive piano (in an actual huge set) so that he can have them all play his silly song with
5000 fingers. Any players of other instruments besides piano are sent to a hellish dungeon where they perform a dance number that involves more amd more bizarre
instruments. Will the plumber help Bart escape from Dr. T and foil his plans?
5000 Fingers of Dr. T
A surreal short by Joseph Vogel in 1947 involving a reclusive man with memories (or visions) of murder who constantly runs away from various things
in nightmarish dream-sequences. It's like a noir in dream-logic with a general mood of fear and paranoia, newspapers with alarming headlines flap around
him, the sets change from claustrophobic indoors, to an endless flight of stairs, to a desert, fencers dance around a blind man carrying a newspaper, a
shadow dancer torments him, a glance through binoculars brings about chaotic blurry imagery, etc.
House of Cards
Fritz Lang's masterpiece of expressionistic sci-fi visually pioneered the way for most futuristic movies like Blade Runner and Brazil. This world is separated
into thinkers, who live comfortably on the top-side megapolis which they designed, and the workers, who live in a dark underground city and run the massive
machinery under intensive labor. Both have no clue how the other world runs, the workers growing increasingly agitated, but inspired by an underground preacher,
Maria, and awaiting the coming of the Heart, a mediator between both worlds. Joh plots to replace Maria with a robot while his son visits the underworld, in
shock of what he sees. This movie doesn't just use melodramatic expressionism, it encapsulates it in its bigger, overwhelming, dark imagery of the cities, catacombs,
and masses of people, and backs it all with grand, dramatic, symphonic music. Mixed with the science-fiction are some surreal dreams involving a huge machine
turning into a man-eating Moloch, and statues of the seven sins and death coming alive cut together with an astounding sequence of an erotic dance of a robotic woman
contorting and gyrating her body to a mass of hungry, insane eyeballs. Unforgettable classic that needs to be seen once by everyone despite its 'silly' and melodramatic
approach, not only because it's a pioneer, but because it's still a unique, magical and astonishing experience today. Scenes are still missing, but the restored
version has both the grander music, and intertitles that fill in the missing plot elements.
The works of Buster Keaton and the forgotten Charles Bowers frequently throw logic out the window in favor of inventive and striking sight gags. But this short
by Bowers takes this approach to an extreme of madcap and strange insanity. A strange Fuzz-Faced Phantom is haunting the Frisbie home, causing pants to dance,
objects to disappear, floating through their living room and energetically setting up one strange occurrence after another that usually involves a mixture of
practical joke, surprising inventiveness and scare. They call Scotland Yard for help (an actual yard with Scots) who sends Bowers and his weird bug-in-a-matchbox
assistant to do battle with the bearded apparition. Endless inventiveness.
There It Is
Crazy surreal comedy with unique and startling special effects and costumes about a musician who is forced to write commercial jazz to pay his bills,
and who is then married to a wealthy heiress whose father pressures him into an industrial job. With his art in danger of being sold out, he develops nightmares
that become more and more surreal, reflecting his real life in outrageous ways. Frogs play music at his wedding, bouquets become dollar bills, trains yell at him,
chairs get rubbery legs in a funny sight gag, and more.
Beggar on Horseback
2-hour experimental romp from 1923 featuring scenes of surrealism, avant-garde cinema, and fun creativity. A married couple is in trouble. The woman is spoiled,
lives in a palace full of gadgets and servants that cater to her whims, loves living in Paris, is constantly in doubt about her husband, and dreams of the
celebrity detective-Z. The husband wants to move to South America, hates Paris, constantly imagines an army of suitors seducing his wife, and follows her
around in worry, hiring detective Z to win her back. The detective gets involved in arguments over the marriage contract, some nifty psychological work,
and dangerous seductions. Features a strikingly nightmarish and flowing surreal sequence where a woman is chased and hounded in several places including
hell and a cathedral, some amusing gadgets and props, a funhouse palace with moving and revolving floors, walls, furniture, and a troupe of aggressive odd men
who help with lost wives, a wild dance marathon, and random visualizations of the couple's fantasies.
Burning Brazier, The
A classic and cult-favorite of the silent era. The plot is cheesy horror by today's standards involving a strange Dr. Caligari who keeps a somnambulist
(according to this movie this is someone who sleeps for years and can be awakened with hypnosis) as a pet and shows him off at the fair. When people
ask the somnambulist about their future, they get a doomsday prediction and they die soon after. Police investigate and there is a plot twist.
The drama is typical expressionistic over-acting but the star of this one is the bizarre set design: Strange angles, bizarre furniture, warped houses,
artistically painted sets, dark shadows, twisted walls and doors... all add to the dark nightmarish tale of the insane.
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The
Very early, symbolic and abstract short conceptually reminiscent of a Maya Deren work depicting a woman's search for a man vs. her individuality
as seen through a fortune teller, Jungian and alchemist concepts. As the woman climbs the stairs to her fortune teller, we see juxtaposed and
morphing cards, flowers, seashells, stone, water, etc and the emergence of people out of the ocean.
A very early short expression of homosexuality in surreal form, and much more subtle than Chant D'Amour which was released a year later. A young man, ordinary family life,
a carnival, a dreamy Eastern ritual on the forest opens a strange container, the young man leaves home holding up a candle and encounters another young man, the family
looks at him differently.
One of the most surreal movies of yesteryear and relatively unknown. This one boasts the backing of Cocteau and explains itself before it starts: A stream-of-consciousness
depicted using experimental cinema, exploring the thoughts and many voices in a man's subconscious as they slowly emerge from chaotic nonsense to more cohesive thoughts.
Logic is not meant to be used, but rather the impression of fleeting emotions, snippets of thoughts and moods. The imagery combines the slow panning over a surreal
painting symbolizing the many images in his mind, as well as images from a surreal beach party as the man walks on the beach. Random nonsense, lustful thoughts
about women, memories, rants, angry whims and tangential rants, several layers of his personality, etc, all presented by voice actors as a narration that start
awkwardly and over-theatrically, and soon wear out their welcome with pretentious statements and free-association literary references. In the meantime, the man is
buried several times on the beach while children play, worms turn into nails, a stunning blonde shows off her young figure, and jail interrupts. Didn't quite do it
for me, but its experimentation is interesting.
A short chaotic montage of strange images in the vein of Chien Andalou only more absurd than shocking. A dancing cannon and leaping people, a view of
a bearded ballerina from below her skirt, chess in the rain, super-impositions, a funeral led by a camel and leaping people followed by a frantic chase
after the coffin, and more. In your face Dada art.
A symbolic short by Man Ray seemingly about woman and desire. Intercut with scenes of a woman flirting, undressing and dating through distorted, dreamlike
glass is various imagery that includes the mysterious starfish and its limbs, a crevice opening and closing, flickering fire, walls, a man chasing pieces
of a newspaper in the wind, etc. all creating the effect of a difficult and obscure object of desire.
Étoile de mer, L' (AKA The Starfish)
Overshadowed by a French interpretation from the same year, this strange short opts for the expressionistic and avant-garde approach. Poe's story is
somewhat lost amidst the cinematography tricks but the horror and gothic mood is delivered. Superimpositions, Caligari sets, prisms, split screens, shadows
and more are used to disorient, darken and stage a nightmare of senses heightened and murky.
Fall of the House of Usher, The
One of the oldest cult classics about people in circus freakshows depicted using real 'freaks' (pinheads, amputees, human skeletons, bearded ladies,
hermaphrodites, midgets, etc). This in itself disturbs many people deeply and the movie was condemned as exploitative by some, but the goal of the movie
is to depict the freaks as sympathetic regular people and the 'normal' people as freaks. There are scenes that make you feel like a voyeur though
and the scary ending of the freaks' revenge seems to undo the message and turn this into mere exploitative entertainment.
Early 16-minute short by a young Curtis Harrington exploring themes of his homosexuality, death and narcissism with oneiric and pretty effective experimental film technique.
A young man wanders dreamily, sees lovers, follows a pretty woman who haunts him who turns out to be death, then he goes on searching for himself, literally. Well, no one
ever accused queer cinema of being subtle.
Fragment of Seeking
A documentary with dramatized scenes and slide-shows on witchcraft, some silly, some bizarre, some entertaining. Witches cast spells, perform rituals,
frighten people or are tortured, nudity and evil tempting is involved, and highlights include flying on broomsticks and kissing the devil's arse. Unique.
A young Orson Welles tries a surreal short with experimental cinematography. An old lady sits on top of a bell while her black servant rings it.
Death (Welles) arrives, bows, takes a few lives and plays piano. Random symbolism, grainy film, humorous experimentation.
Hearts of Age, The
Truly a one-of-a-kind bewildering comedy from 1941. Take the Marx Brothers at their zaniest and most energetic and run the amp up to 11, and then add some bizarre
surreal gags and meta-fiction where the movie characters interact with the projectionist and film-makers, and you may get this musical comedy (based on a stage play).
To be honest, it's much more silly than funny, especially in the first half, but the insane pace, the dense amount of gags per second and absurdist sense
of humor where you never know what will popup next are all definitely entertaining. The stage play is being interfered with by producers and a writer
who injects a wacky love triangle for no particular reason, and random gags. The success of the Broadway stage show somehow gets entangled with the
increasingly nonsensical love quandrangle and Ole and Chick have to sabotage the show, leading to an endless stream of gags in the climax as the dancers
have to deal with a bear on a pogo stick, a book reader who always follows the nearest bright light, sticky flypaper and fake ducks laying eggs. There are also
half-invisible men, a firework gun that shoots out men on a parachute, a musical performance in hell with devils' torture as part of the dance, a projectionist
rewinding the film or changing the scenery on demand, various camera tricks as magical acts, a real Count pretending to be a fake Count, and what seems like
thousands more slapstick gags and one-liners.
Playful, avant-garde, naughty and blasphemous 35 minute short from 1960 that cinematicaly juxtaposes sex and religion in playful ways. A young man reading
a sex magazine is accosted by a priest and given a bible. From then on he goes on a quest to find a large cross, with several distractions along the way.
Most the movie consists of various visual games: People pose like Jesus, there's a commercial shop of crosses in various forms with a provactive seller,
there's a philosophical, cross-wearing prostitute who finds deep meaning in her trade, a man carrying a cross meets a man carrying a ladder, Freudian, sexual
and Christian symbols intermix, the bible is juxtaposed with the kama sutra, small crosses with money, etc.
Imitation Of Cinema, The
Short, humorous and surreal short about a man who comes to Hollywood with dreams, gets the number 9413 stamped on his forehead, and suffers
in Hollywood-extra hell, then goes to heaven. Shadow puppet dream-sequences and lots of creative, avant-garde cinematography for its time.
The director Slavko Vorkapich also made some incredibly creative and striking montages for various other movies.
Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, The
The biblical story of Lot as told in avant-garde vision and a few embellishments. No dialogue, and every cinematography trick in the book
including kaleidoscopic images, super-imposition, extreme lighting, cheesy effects and melodrama, all used in a tightly edited short with
lots of nudity (mostly male) which makes for a very artsy, but indulgent experiment.
Lot in Sodom
Expressionistic melodrama short with exaggerated Caligari sets featuring furniture, windows and doors at all conceivable warped angles, huge flowers,
tiny buildings, books with scribbles, etc, also using cinematic tricks like prisms and split screens to convey the emotions. Zero falls in love with
a woman using pantomime gestures involving a plastic heart and playing her a trombone from a high chair. When she is forced to leave and he is laughed at by another
woman, his world falls apart into a nightmare. An interesting visual experiment.
Love of Zero, The
A strange, dark short about a group of peasants and an abused housemaid and some drama that occurs between them.
This combines expressionistic drama, some Caligari visuals and strange surreal hallucinations involving men in strange makeup and sets.
If you thought the 60s and 70s were the peak of z-grade weird exploitation, try this pioneer from 1934. An impersonator on the run from the law works for
a mad scientist who invents a re-animating agent. When he instructs his assistant to kill himself so that he can test it, he kills the scientist instead
and takes over his life, slowly going insane in the meantime. The plot unravels as it progresses involving some women and an inheritance, while intertitles
educate us about different mental disorders. So we get the undead, some gore as he eye-gouges a cat and eats the eyeball, gratuitous nude breasts and sleaze,
a mad scientist, some Edgar Allan Poe elements, and hallucination sequences of hell, all in 1934!
Bizzare slapstick short from 1923 with surprising black and gory humor. The hijinks take place in a barber shop with an assistant who has a crush on a professor
and a terribly lazy and incompetent barber. There is a scene involving a huge mole and a hammer & chisel, a ridiculous punkish haircut after a misunderstanding,
scared customers waiting in line while an accident causes a slight decapitation, and an absurd duel involving a detached head.
Mysteries of a Hairdresser's Shop
A short slapstick spoof on Sherlock Holmes from 1916 made into a cult item by its heavy use of drugs. Coke Ennyday is a detective
who literally sets his clock by his drugs and carries syringes with him in order to function. He also eats opium paste right out of
a can and disables assailants with drugs. He investigates the mystery of a man literally rolling in money to find out his secret and
befriends a fish-blower: a woman who blows air into inflatable fish for people on the beach.
Mystery of the Leaping Fish, The
Unique surreal animation from 1963 using something called a pin-screen. I have no idea how it works, but this is a magical and unique-looking technique,
with ethereal transitions between the pictures, and it is based on lighting and shadows on an array of pins. Based on a Gogol story about a nose that
leaves a man's face to seek a social life of its own, a barber who finds the nose in his bread, and the owner of the nose who desperately tries to get it back.
The animation adds some surreal touches of morphing scenery to this amusing satirical tale.
Unusual short by a Christopher Young in 1941 experimenting with objects and their meaning as they are positioned in different, often jarringly
inappropriate places. The statue of Venus de Milo (or her head) is placed in mountaintops, deserts, beaches, in front of factories, under
warplanes, etc. Other objects include a violin, a tennis racket, and as you see the near-surreal montage you experience statements and thoughts about
civilization, war, beauty, humanity and decline.
A silent film from Japan made in 1926 about an insane asylum. The plot involves a man who gets a janitorial job at the asylum to be with his insane wife,
but the details are hard to decipher due to the nature of the film and the fact that there are no intertitles or live narrators (benshi). Most of the
movie is an impressive collection of cinematography tricks such as super-impositions, camera angles, harsh contrasts and lighting, distortions, a frantic
barrage of images, and rapid cutting, even pyschedelic/surreal sequences, all to impress on the viewer the madness of the insane as they dance, run and yell
on screen. Praised by film-schools, this is avant-garde even today and technically interesting, but nothing beyond that.
Page of Madness
Harrington greatly improves his craft here for a surreal 20-minute short, perfectly reproducing dream-logic. A young man going on a picnic with his family on a windy
hillside is distracted by a running young woman on the beach. A chase leads to a fleeting embrace, a mysterious man with an umbrella, another chase through a window and
up some interminable stairs that threaten to topple his world. Sublime, but short surrealism. Harrington followed this only with a few really short single-idea artsy
experiments and documentaries, then somehow got lost in Hollywood b-movie hell.
A priest sees a couple and is haunted by hallucinations and erotic desires. A free-form stream of surrealism and symbolism ensues, with imagery including
a male military figure with a sword, breaking of vessels, synchronized maids, a priest crawling through the streets, the growing tails of the priests robe,
and more. Could be considered the first surrealistic short since it predates Chien Andalou and features symbolic imagery which is arguably surrealistic in effect,
and it is famous for being banned by a censor who said: "If this film has a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable". Germaine Dulac was a feminist film-maker
who created several early experimental or abstract shorts with dream-sequences, symbolism and abstract imagery, but this one is definitely her most surreal.
Seashell and the Clergyman, The
An earlier, experimental, morose, Feminist short from 1923 by Germaine Dulac, who later made the more famous Seashell and the Clergyman. Unfortunately, even during these times,
it seems that Feminism was about depression, neurotic behaviour and fantasizing to kill your boorish, obnoxious husband. A wife declares her independence by refusing
to go see the play of Faust with her excited husband. He reacts as he always does in bad taste, by threatening suicide with an unloaded gun. After much moody
fantasies and daydreaming sequences, including one of owning a car and driving alone on clouds, the wife loads bullets into the gun. I guess the world doesn't change much.
Despite the subject matter, this is beautifully filmed in impressionistic style, with very light proto-surreal touches and an unexpected ending. Closely related is
her later, poetic movie "L'invitation au Voyage" featuring a woman in a night club daydreaming about romantic voyages.
Smiling Madame Beudet, The
Carl Theodor Dreyer's entry into the vampire genre is a uniquely atmospheric and visual work. A man, who we are told is a student of devil worship, checks into an inn
and starts having strange feelings and experiences. The local family with a sick daughter seems to be plagued with evil and murder, he sees a figure with a scythe,
a one-legged man, disembodied shadows, skulls, and has a disturbing out-of-body experience during which he witnesses his own burial. The plot occasionally becomes
incoherent, especially at the end, but overall this classic delivers a somber, dream-like, eerie, supernatural atmosphere.
Vampyr (AKA The Strange Adventure of David Gray)
An energetic fantasy-slapstick gem using endlessly inventive cinematic special effects and stunts that even predate Buster Keaton's similar outings. Douglas Fairbanks
plays a haunted man who is experimented on by a sadistic psychologist, fired from his job, has a romance with a crazy girl, walks up walls when he encounters
a black cat, and is subjected to a crazy flood when the dam bursts. The centerpiece is the surreal nightmare during which the food he eats dances around in his
stomach then chases him through fields and up the walls and ceilings of a house, and he finds himself with loose pijamas in a high-class crowd.
When the Clouds Roll By
Influential anti-establishment anarchy by Jean Vigo, in a very loose and disjointed movie about a group of wild boys causing chaos and a revolution in a strict school. The
boys start with games and pranks, acts of rebellion, wild behaviour that gradually grows in aggression, until the chaotic finale where they wreck a dormitory, tie a teacher
to his bed and stand it up on its end, frolick with a half-naked man, and then revolt when the governor comes into town. The movie is as playful as it is wild, with some
adults suddenly performing acrobatics for no reason, a midget headmaster with a beard inspects himself in a magical mirror that is too high, and doodles come to life.
Zero de Conduite
Famous 7-minute short by Duchamp and Man Ray featuring various spinning spirals and spiraling phrases containing wordplays and puns. More Dada
chaotic subversion of how we think and see, but of interest to film-school students only.
Symbolic, gay, erotic short featuring prisoners who lust for each other through walls using straws, and through window bars using flowers, and a cruel
guard who abuses his power and his gun. Praised for being poetic, and quite explicit for its time, but this is just artsy gay erotica.
Chant D'Amour, Un
Man Ray's expanded short after his 3-minute Return to Reason with a similar kaleidoscope of objects, spinning items, games with light and reflections, etc.
A woman's legs while she dances the twist, a man takes off his collar from around his neck then collars are spinned, some faces and visual games with
eyes, etc. A barrage of random imagery, some moderately visually interesting but mostly Dada chaos.
Emak-Bakia (AKA Leave Me Alone)
Odd 10 minutes surreal short that doesn't serve much in the way of meaning or imagery. A painter (Llyn Foulkes) painting surreal paintings has a breakdown of sorts,
swats and kills a visitor with a newspaper, and dances a dance of death, then strangles a doll.
Harry Smith was an obscure cult artist involved in various artforms including music, paintings, paper airplanes, and cultural esoterica. He also made a series
of avant-garde short movies since the 40s, mostly involving technical or formalist experimentations with images, superimpositions, animations and sound.
This is one of two of his full-length works, and is Smith at his most bizarre and inscrutable. It is as if someone pumped full of LSD went to Gilliam's attic
full of cut-outs and spliced them together randomly for 66 minutes based on free association. Some repetitive imagery includes a human performing indescribably
strange and counter-intuitive acts with figureheads, morphing objects and confusing machinery. Repeating objects include a watermelon, mortar and pestle, an
umbrella, a hammer, and a huge squirting syringe. One example of a scene involves a female figurehead holding a watermelon while a man waves an umbrella
at flying birds as they float through archways and encounter a skeleton. This is so impenetrably random that it is about as exciting as watching television snow.
Heaven and Earth Magic
People go on a trip to a chateau literally on the roll of the dice, then we get a kind of Dadaistic travelogue with provocative intertitles while
they occupy themselves with various activities. Objects in the house are titled strangely (furniture as people), they wear stockings on their head,
a woman juggles and brushes her hair in the water of a swimming pool, games and sports start moving backwards, various reflections, lights and shadows,
choices based on dice, and all the while we get philosophical musings and snippets of poetry in intertitles. This is far from the spinning images
of Man Ray's previous work and is probably an exercise in disassociating typical thought with everyday activities, but this is for film school and Dadaists only.
Mysteries of the Chateau de De, The
An angry abortion-manifesto of a film that takes the worship of all things new and avant-garde to ridiculous extremes. This 2 hour piece of torture
consists of a 30 minute bombastic speech against conventional cinema, how an artist should give a person a migraine rather than nothing, how art should
offend and tear out of its boundaries, how photography is outdated and should be subservient to sound, etc. Then we get a movie consisting of an endlessly
rambling, dull narration and snippets of dialogue about a man's relationship to a girl spliced together with completely random footage of anything and
everything, with purposely damaged film full of violent scratches, cutout shapes, blurs, and upside-down images, all the while we get a headache-inducing
repetitive chant in the background. Finally, we get some recited Letterist poems which consist of loud noises made with letters, not words. If this is
creativity, I'll take a cheesy Hollywood cliche anyday. Useless.
Venom and Eternity