Essays · Movies

The Cinematic Legacy of Salvador Dalí

Happy birthday, you beautiful weirdo.
Screen Shot At Am
By  · Published on May 11th, 2018

On May 11, 1904, Salvador Dalí was born, and the world — or at least, the world of art — would never be the same. Best known for his paintings, which include such works as “The Persistence of Memory” and “The Burning Giraffe,” Dalí also dabbled in sculpture, writing, photography, and, of course, film. Regardless of the medium, his work is highly recognizable through his consistent style — detail-oriented, overwhelming, and inexplicable, often featuring misshapen and incomplete human forms — and his large repertoire of reoccurring images and symbols, from melting clocks and spindly-legged elephants to ant colonies.

Today he remains the most widely recognized member of the Surrealist movement, which is suitably ironic considering the official movement ultimately ousted him. Certain members, including André Breton — the Regina George of the Surrealist group, if you will — deemed Dalí a sell-out, going so far as to scornfully bestow upon him the pejorative appellation “Avida Dollars.” Of course, Dalí, who was more than happy to rent out his eccentric persona and mustache to such causes as Lanvin Chocolates and Alka Seltzer for the right price, did not mind the nickname at all. And the thing is, as J. G. Ballard pointed out in a 2007 article for The Guardian, by being “a genius and a show-off greedy for money,” Dalí actually was the one Surrealist who actually stayed faithful to one of the original commandments of Surrealism: “shock the bourgeoisie.”

While he was a generally fascinating and wonderfully weird human, this being FSR, let’s take a moment on his birthday to specifically celebrate the cinematic contributions and legacy of the one and only Salvador Dalí.

Dalí and Film

It is somewhat inaccurate to say Dalí ever made a film. The much more appropriate claim is that he contributed to a number of films over the many decades of his career, including several projects that were never completed. But before getting further into the films Dalí worked on, there’s a very important question that should be addressed: what did he actually think about movies, on the whole? And the answer to that, in typical Dalí fashion, depends on what quote you’re looking at. Because referring to different sources he either thought they were the best thing ever or the worst. In the poem “Sant Sebastià,” Dalí lists film as one of the “simple facts motivating new lyrical states” in modern popular culture (along with sports cars and gin cocktails).

Dalí showed the greatest admiration for the comedians of the silent era — Harry Langdon he called one of the “purest flowers of cinema,” Chaplin and Keaton he also admired. Oddly enough, a friend of Dalí’s as a young man claimed the artist resembled Buster Keaton, though I must admit, I really can’t see it. However, in 1932, Dalí went on to write that “contrary to current opinion, the cinema is infinitely poorer and more limited, as expression of the true functioning of thought, than writing, painting, sculpture, and architecture.” While that does seem a pretty hard criticism, Dalí must have still seen something redeeming in cinema, because he went on to pursue several other film projects in the future.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Chien Andalou Ants

This collaboration with Luis Buñuel is the big one, even though it’s only 16 minutes long. It’s easily Dalí’s most iconic film, from its infamous eye-slicing scene to its hand full of ants, and it’s one of the only films that all scholars generally agree qualifies as a bona fide Surrealist work. As Buñuel explained, talking about himself and Dalí in the third person, that the film was constructed “from a dream image[…] when an image or idea appeared the collaborators discarded it immediately if it was derived from remembrance, or from their cultural pattern or if, simply, it had a conscious association with an earlier idea. They accepted only those representations as valid which, though they moved them profoundly, had no possible explanation[…] The motivation of the images was or meant to be, purely irrational! They are as mysterious and inexplicable to the two collaborators as to the spectator. NOTHING, in this film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING.”

L’age d’or (1930)

L Age D Or

The jury is still out regarding how much Dalí actually contributed to this one. While everyone save the biggest Buñuel fanboys (whoops, sorry, I meant biographers) seems more or less in agreement that Un Chien Andalou was around a fifty-fifty split, L’age d’or is more contested territory. While Dalí’s contribution on this one was definitely less than it was on Un Chien Andalou — the two artists, who produced the earlier film at the height of their friendship, were now going through something of a falling out — some claim that Dalí’s contribution was restricted to one lone gag scene of a man walking with a stone on his head. Others vehemently disagree. Going off of the finished product alone, while there’s definitely more Buñuel than Dalí in this one, the latter’s presence still seems quite apparent when one compares L’age d’or to Un Chien Andalou versus Buñuel’s numerous independent projects.

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound Dream Seq

In this 1945 thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) seeks to unravel the mysteries surrounding her new coworker, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who’s not who he says he is. Unfortunately, Edwardes can’t remember who he actually is. Cue Freudian0style dream analysis—which, of course, requires a suitably Freudian dream sequence. Hitchcock specifically sought out Dalí “because of the architectural sharpness of his work,” the filmmaker specified years later in an interview. He didn’t want the gauzy haze of the typical movie dream sequence, but the strange sharpness of a Dalí painting. And he got it.

While the full sequence Dalí designed was rumored to have originally been somewhere in the ballpark of twenty minutes long, it was deemed overly complicated and cut down in the editing room to around two minutes in the finished film. Unfortunately, the remaining footage has since been lost.

A Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí (1970)

This 52-minute “documentary” on Dalí, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty and narrated by the Orson Welles has a smattering of the sort of cut-and-dry biographical information one would typically expect from such a documentary, and a whole lot of the absurdity one expects from Dalí.

Destino (1946, 2003)

This 1946 collaboration with Walt Disney was abandoned only three months into production after Disney pulled the plug, only to be resurrected and redone by Disney’s nephew, Roy, and a team of French animators in 2003. You can watch the whole six-minute short above.

Babaouo (1932, 1997)

Though described by at least one Dalí biographer as “unfilmable,” this 1932 film scenario written by Dalí about a man by the name of Babaouo searching for his lover Mathilde was apparently adapted by Manuel Cussó-Ferrer into an actual film in 1997. That said, I could find very little information about the 1997 film, or how closely it sticks to Dalí’s scenario, which includes, for example, a scene taking place in an “enormous bus, five times its natural size, in whose interior, which is filled up with water, one may see a small boat occupied by three little legless Japanese, their eyes white, singing with great sensuality a rumba.”

The Unrealized Works

Giraffes on Horseback Salad

Dalí wrote this screenplay specifically for the Marx brothers in 1937 which featured, according to a 2007 Telegraph article, “a horde of burning giraffes wearing gas masks, cyclists balancing loaves on their heads and Harpo catching dwarves with a butterfly net.” Like many of Dalí’s movie ideas, it was deemed unfilmable and never attempted. Also, apparently Groucho thought it wasn’t funny.

Enigma Dalí 

This 1982 project with director Luis Revenga. It was going to be filmed in the dining room at the Castle of Púbol, a medieval building Dalí bought as a sort of shrine/sanctuary for his wife Gala (it’s a long story). it was to feature Dalí singing the popular song “La filla del marxant” before falling into “a sort of ecstatic trance.”

Unrealized Cadaqués coast documentary project

Dalí announced shortly after Un Chien andalou that he was going to put together a documentary about the coast of Cadaqués that would record everything “from the toenail of the fisherman to the crests of the rocks of Cape Creus, passing through the quivering of the grass and the different kinds of underwater algae.” The project was never realized; why it fell through is unclear.

“Dalí” in Film

Robert Pattinson in Little Ashes

Pattinson Dali

This speculative biopic, to use the latter term loosely, detailing a love affair between Dalí and poet Federico García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) received decidedly mixed reviews upon its 2008 release, both regarding whether or not it is any good and whether or not the events depicted reflect any historical truth. While it is widely acknowledged that Lorca had a thing for Dalí, whether or not it was reciprocated in any fashion remains a far greater point of contention.

Either way, we can all agree that Dalí’s mustache is rolling in its grave over the sad, waxy caterpillar on Pattinson’s face, which is a travesty to its iconic glory. Resemblance in biopics isn’t always necessary, but there are some things that just need to be done right or not attempted at all, and Dalí’s signature facial hair definitely falls into that category.

Adrien Brody in Midnight in Paris

Adrienbrody Dali

This might be the most noteworthy depiction of Dalí that exists thus far, which is tragic for two reasons. One, he’s only in one scene (and it’s in a Woody Allen movie), and two, even in that scene he’s pretty far off base. While “I see… rhinoceros” might somewhat reflect the most watered-down version of Dalí’s cultural legacy, a far more accurate Dalí-like response — going off of his paintings, writings, and other works — would be something like, “I see the corpse of a rhinoceros engorged with the wriggling white bodies of maggots and it excites me.” Dalí was not the sort of man who used three words when he could use a hundred. Much like his paintings, his literary endeavors are quite remarkable for their degree of (frequently incomprehensible) detail.

Ben Addis in Hugo

Dali Hugo

Dalí makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in a café scene. Considering he’s not even around long enough to have any lines, there’s really not much one can say about this one. Still a better mustache than Little Ashes, though.

Upcoming: Dali Land

Mary Harron’s upcoming biopic Dali Land (release date TBD) will star Ben Kingsley as the artist himself and focus on Dalí’s tumultuous relationship with his wife and muse Gala (to be played by Lesley Manville). It was also just announced today that Ezra Miller will join the cast as the young Dalí. While we will have to wait a while to see how this one turns out, fingers crossed for better mustaches.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.