Decades of graphic violence in movies haven't dulled the shock of the opening frames of the 1929 short "Un Chien Andalou." A man holds a straight razor over a woman's eye, then a thin bank of clouds bisects a full moon, and then an eyeball is shown in close-up as a razor slashes it and viscous fluid oozes out. Then a title card announces, "Eight years later..." It's hard to pick the most unsettling part of that sequence: the temporary reprieve, the appalling goo, or the abrupt transition. The rest of the 17-minute short unfolds like a dream, with a little sex, a little dry humor, and a lot of non sequiturs. But it's all unsettling, because filmmakers who would slice up an eyeball are capable of anything.
Spanish surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel conceived "Un Chien Andalou" as a series of unrelated visual gags, designed to penetrate an audience's subconscious and reveal the randomness and absurdity of life after the industrial revolution and World War I. By the time the film hit the museum circuit, art lovers were more ready for it than Dali and Buñuel had anticipated, given a full decade of Jazz Age decadence and reckless modernism. So the two re-teamed the following year for L'Age D'Or, an hourlong collection of vignettes that attacked the Catholic Church and seemed to promote lasciviousness. Less overtly surreal and more puckishly humorous than "Un Chien Andalou," with a hero that kicks dogs and sees sexual imagery in billboards, L'Age D'Or shares its predecessor's disdain for direct symbolism. The film ends with a big political speech, but its Marxist sensibility is more Groucho than Karl.
Regardless, L'Age D'Or DVD commentator Robert Short delivers an entertaining and aggressively pretentious track, full of observations like "The scorpion is the zodiac sign that governs the genitals and the anus," and a repeated insistence that the movie is about "shit and gold." Whatever Short reads into the film can't outdo the outrages found by the authorities of the time, who buried the film so thoroughly that it's been hard to find outside of retrospectives. L'Age D'Or's disastrous reception may have been what Buñuel hoped for, but it derailed his career for decades, and bruised his friendship with Dali. Buñuel busied himself with documentaries, pulpy Mexican dramas, and Spanish-language dubs of Hollywood films until 1961, when the feature Viridiana touched off a concluding decade and a half of fresh scandal and international acclaim.
The old master surrealist that Buñuel became was just a more polished version of the young punk he was, which makes the DVD release of his opening salvos vital viewing. Given that UK cinephiles can buy both films in a single box (with a feature-length documentary about Buñuel), it's disappointing that the U.S. releases have been divided between two companies. British audiences also reportedly don't have to suffer through the appalling image quality on Transflux's "Andalou" disc, but they don't get Transflux's impressive extras either. Interviews with Buñuel's son Juan-Luis anchor a handful of featurettes tracing the influence that "Un Chien Andalou"'s shocks had on 20th-century art and advertising. Experimental film has a reputation as being dryly aloof, but "Un Chien Andalou" demonstrates what the avant-garde is really about: changing the way an audience reacts to a medium by showing them what they don't expect.