Franz Kafka, David Lynch, and Mr Bungle:

Nightmarish Surrealism in Three Mediums

by Derek Godin

 

Spearheaded by French writer André Breton, surrealism’s origins can be traced back to Paris circa 1924. A more philosophical and less political continuation of the dada movement, surrealism’s hallmarks include extensive use of the element of surprise, quirky juxtapositions and liberal use of non-sequiturs. Although it began mainly as a visual movement, surrealism has had a wide-ranging influence. The first being in literature, where writers such as Philippe Soupault used “automatic writing,” a groundbreaking form of stream-of-consciousness prose. Film was next, providing cinema with one of its all-time greatest short films, 1928’s Un chien andalou, written by prominent Surrealists Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, and one of its all-time goriest moments, where Bunuel apparently slashes a woman’s eye with a razor. This tradition of uneasy imagery continued into the 1970s with the films of Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky (1971’s El Topo, 1973’s The Holy Mountain) and to the present day, notably with the works of David Lynch. Even music was affected, as composers André Souris and Edgar Varèse both wrote works in concordance with the movement’s methods. Late-period surrealists also found parallels between their work and that of jazz and blues improvisers.

 

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 film Mulholland Drive.

 

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 America. All of these themes show up in Lynch’s quintessential film, 2001’s Mullholand Drive. The film appears to be somewhat normal up until two-thirds of the way, where all of the established characters are gone and new characters come into play. Then, said characters start having visions and now no one is sure as to what is real, what is fake and what is going on. Again, our sense of reason is useless; we can’t process what we see, and that makes us uncomfortable. With his schizophrenic editing, unorthodox narrative structure and uneasy settings, it is no surprise to find out that both Luis Bunuel and Franz Kafka influenced Lynch.

 

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.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

El Topo. Dir. Alejandro Jodoworsky. Perf. Alejandro Jodoworsky, Brontis Jodoworsky, Mara Lorenzio, David Silva. 1971; Anchor Bay, 2007.

 

Holy Mountain, The. Dir. Alejandro Jodoworsky. Perf. Alejandro Jodoworsky, Horacio Salinas, Zamira Saunders. 1973; Anchor Bay, 2007.

 

Little, Stephen. Isms: Understanding Art. New York; Universe, 2004.

 

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 1915. Trans. Ian Johnston. Nanaimo, 1999. 17 Nov 2007. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Metamorphosis>

 

Mr. Bungle. Disco Volante. CD. Warner Brothers, 1995.

 

Mulholland Drive. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux. Universal Focus, 2001.

 

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, Salvador Dali. 1916; Transflux Films, 2004.