Franz Kafka, David Lynch, and Mr Bungle:
Nightmarish Surrealism in Three Mediums
by Derek Godin
French writer André Breton, surrealism’s origins can be traced back to
But how does
each medium take surrealism and make it their own? Since each medium varies in
terms of both execution and presentation, artists must adapt their methods to
their field. In both film and music, form is equally as important as content in
terms of expression. Since you can arrange and juxtapose formal elements, such
as the synchronicity of audio and video in film and different layers of sound
in music, these become an important facet of the artistic experience. The key
to surrealist art is the arrangement of what we recognise as real, such as
objects or animals, in such a way that makes us dismiss it as fantasy. The
paradox of experiencing the real and the unreal simultaneously is what leads us
to associate it with the dreamlike. What follows is a comparison of three works
influenced by the surrealist movement and how their creators twist reality in a
nightmarish manner; Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, rock band Mr.
Bungle’s 1995 album Disco Volante and David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated 2001
In Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the core of the surrealist influence is presented right from the start; the narrator informs the reader that the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, has transformed into a giant cockroach. This is nightmarish in and of itself (transforming into ugly creatures has been around since the fairy-tale era), but since there is no cause given for the transformation, our ability to reason is rendered useless. This is characteristic of nightmares, and of dreams in general; all reason and logic is useless in the dreamscape. What makes this whole situation creepier is Gregor’s refusal (or, perhaps, inability) to acknowledge this transformation. He continues going about his routine. The mental image of Gregor as an oversized cockroach writhing around in vain brings together the element of surprise and the odd juxtaposition that is synonymous with surrealism, but it also melds the real (cockroaches) with the unreal (the setting and the protagonist’s actions), which gives it it’s nightmarish quality. The family’s indifference Gregor, coupled with his own inability to act due to his condition and grim ending, provide the reader with a sense of paralysis also associated with nightmares. A parallel can be drawn with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, in which people have hallucinations while simultaneously not being able to move due to a halt in the release of select neurotransmitters in the brain.
In the realm of music, very few bands are as heavily influenced by surrealism as Mr. Bungle. The band, formed in 1985, released three full-length albums during the 1990s. Over the course of said albums, the band, made up of vocalist Mike Patton, guitarist Trey Spruance, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Danny Heifetz, and saxophonists Clinton McKinnon and Theo Lengyel, combined stream-of-consciousness lyrics about sex, death and violence, musical atonality and schizophrenic performances and production tricks to create what music critic Greg Prato called “the musical equivalent of a David Lynch film.” On their second release, 1995’s Disco Volante, Mr. Bungle pushed their own stylistic envelope farther into the realm of the surreal; for example, the band shifts genres throughout the album, sometimes within the same song. For example, “Carry Stress in the Jaw” opens with a cartoony, Raymond Scott-esque jazz phrase and then shifts between thrash metal, free jazz, funk, and psychedelia over the course of nine minutes, with generous helpings of feedback, distorted vocals and tape effects added for good measure. But most notorious is “Violenza Domestica.” Sung completely in Italian by Patton, the song opens with the sound of a knife being sharpened and recounts a chilling tale of spousal abuse with the aid of sound bytes taken from all over the musical spectrum, including snippets of jew’s harp, electric guitar, grand piano, accordion and film-score strings. By refusing to use the established method of song writing, both lyrically (“Amphibious?/Paradox wearing plaid socks/Furry beetle?/A bugbear, and a palezoologist's nightmare/Symmetrical physique of disbelief,” from “Platypus”) and structurally (you won’t find a single verse-chorus-verse song here), Mr. Bungle have created an album full of sonic surprises and curious combinations set to a brooding, scary backdrop. Further cementing the album’s surrealist credentials is the cover art; it appears to be a nod to the famous eye-slashing scene from Un chien andalou.
If any modern filmmaker
carries Un chien andalou’s surrealist torch, it is David
Lynch. His films constantly challenge the viewer’s concept of reality through
ambiguous separations between the real world and the imaginary, meticulous
sound editing and a distinctive visual style that has a dream-like,
hallucinogenic quality. However, his subject matter is anything but dream-like,
preferring to expose the seedy underbelly of
So, in conclusion, surrealism as had an influence on these three mediums in different ways due to different production techniques. It’s been 87 years since the movement started, and there are still traces of it in the arts today, as exemplified by contemporary artists acknowledging the work of the original surrealists.
El Topo. Dir. Alejandro Jodoworsky. Perf.
Alejandro Jodoworsky, Brontis
Jodoworsky, Mara Lorenzio,
David Silva. 1971;
Little, Stephen. Isms:
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis.
1915. Trans. Ian Johnston.
Mr. Bungle. Disco Volante. CD. Warner Brothers, 1995.
Prato, Greg. “Review: Disco Volante.” Rev. of Disco Volante by Mr. Bungle. All Music Guide. 17 Nov 2007. <http://wc07.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=10:hpftxqehldje>
Un chien andalou. Dir. Luis Bunuel. Perf. Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareil, Luis Bunuel,